Last weekend not only did Owen Turtenwald make history by winning back-to-back Grand Prix, but Mono-Black Devotion also took its second straight title in as many North American Standard Grand Prix. The deck had largely dropped off the map in the past month, posting only scattered results on the SCG Open Series, but came back with a vengeance in Albuquerque, making up half of the Top 8 including the eventual champion. The other big story of the tournament was Mono-Blue Devotion, which took up three of the Top 8 slots, most notably in the hands of Sam Black in his fourth straight premier event Top 8 finish.
My own performance was a disappointing one. I played the same G/B Aggro deck that I have been working on for a while now, which I had originally designed to combat the very devotion-heavy field that made up the top tables of Albuquerque. Here is the list I played:
- 4 Dreg Mangler
- 4 Elvish Mystic
- 4 Lotleth Troll
- 4 Reaper of the Wilds
- 3 Scavenging Ooze
- 4 Boon Satyr
- 2 Polukranos, World Eater
- 2 Varolz, the Scar-Striped
As you can see, I changed very little from the version that I played in the MOCS and have been writing about and making videos (here and here) for weeks. My maindeck was identical, and the only change to the sideboard was the removal of Vraska the Unseen and the third Gift of Orzhova for a third Golgari Charm and a copy of Polukranos, World Eater. This was a response to the growing popularity of W/R Aggro, against which both Charm and Polukranos are extremely powerful due to their high number of one-toughness creatures.
Despite my poor finish, I was happy with the deck. My losses felt pretty much entirely out of my control, with some absurd sequences of events leading to my final record. My first loss came against W/R Aggro after flooding out two games in a row, including losing a game where my opponent was at three life to my twenty with an inferior board when I drew nothing but lands for the rest of the game. I lost to Mono-Blue Devotion when I had a huge Lotleth Troll and a Reaper of the Wilds to his Nightveil Specter and Judge's Familiar, but a Thassa off the top followed by a double mulligan in the next game left me the loser.
I beat a R/W Devotion deck handily in game 1 and then saw things go horribly wrong for the rest of the match. The highlight was game 2 when I had Thoughtseize into a turn 3 Polukranos to stop his Ash Zealot, Burning-Tree Emissary, and Fanatic of Mogis in their tracks. My Thoughtseize saw a hand full of lands, but my opponent drew and played a Chained to the Rocks immediately. I was still in the game with a second Polukranos along with Doom Blade to try to stabilize, but a second Fanatic off the top of my opponent's deck killed me before he even had to attack.
Since the Grand Prix, I've been messing around with a handful of changes to the deck. Most notably, I've been cutting down a bit on the more expensive creatures. With the popularity of Mono-Black Devotion sure to shoot back up, I think it's important to be able to present threats that make their removal inefficient, which means fewer four-drops. While I like Reaper of the Wilds quite a bit, Polukranos is a lot more powerful in most of the matchups where your four-mana creatures are good in the first place, so I've shaved a few Gorgons from the deck.
It certainly doesn't help its case that the Mono-Black Devotion sideboard plans these days seem to include both Dark Betrayal and Lifebane Zombie, either of which matches up very well against Reaper, significantly reducing its value as a hard-to-kill threat. I still like the card better than something like Desecration Demon in this deck due to its resilience, effectiveness as a defensive tool against aggro, and easier mana requirements, but its stock has dropped a bit since I originally built the deck.
A card whose stock has since gone up in my opinion is Varolz, the Scar Striped. Varolz is the absolute best card in this deck against Mono-Black Devotion because their deck relies on one-for-one removal to pick off your most threatening creatures. Not only is Varolz able to use your weaker creatures to regenerate, but it can also get value from your dead creatures to turn itself into a huge threat.
It is true that Varolz can compete with Scavenging Ooze for fuel, and while I wouldn't want to play four of each, careful management of your graveyard can allow you to effectively use both of them. Even a single dead Boon Satyr is enough to give Varolz the boost it needs, and Ooze can usually find food in your opponent's graveyard as well. Varolz isn't great against aggressive decks like Mono-Red Aggro and Mono-Blue Devotion, but it's outstanding in any kind of attrition matchup, a category that Mono-Black Devotion certainly falls into.
Another card that I've been toying around with some recently is Bow of Nylea. Like Varolz, Bow can give you a lot of value in games that go long by turning your weaker creatures into significant threats. Not only can you add +1/+1 counters to a creature every turn, but the fact that Bow gives all your attacking creatures deathtouch means that even the lowliest Elvish Mystic can potentially trade with a Desecration Demon. This at least theoretically means that you can get away with playing a somewhat lower amount of removal in your maindeck since you have an additional tool to help your creatures punch through opposing blockers.
The fact that Bow also doubles as a way to gain life gives it defensive value as well, especially in a world in which burn decks are becoming increasingly popular. Unlike a removal spell, it can't kill an opposing Master of Waves or take your opponent off of devotion for Thassa, so it's not all upside, but it certainly offers a lot of flexibility that I've enjoyed experimenting with.
I've similarly been experimenting with variations on the removal package in the deck. While Hero's Downfall offers a great deal of flexibility, it also has fairly demanding mana requirements for a two-color deck. I've lost a number of games with a Downfall in my hand that I've really needed to cast and only a single source of black mana. As a result, I've tried switching to Putrefy, which has a different set of pros and cons.
Putrefy has a much easier mana cost for the deck to support and can also kill the occasional Whip of Erebos, Spear of Heliod, or Bident of Thassa on top of being a stone-cold killer in the mirror match since it can take out Lotleth Troll and Varolz without the possibility of regeneration. The downsides are the inability to kill Elspeth, Sun's Champion and Soldier of the Pantheon, the latter of which is much more troubling to me than the former. You still have Scavenging Ooze, Boon Satyr, and Polukranos that can handle Soldier in the maindeck along with a variety of sideboard cards. It's hardly unbeatable, but it can be quite annoying to play against.
I've also changed up the removal suite in the sideboard somewhat. The resurgence of Mono-Black Devotion (especially with the full complement of Pack Rats) has made playing additional copies of Ultimate Price over Doom Blade much more attractive. Similarly, I've also started playing several copies of Dark Betrayal. The most effective way I've found to combat Mono-Black Devotion is with mana efficiency. You need to be able to outpace them on the board, which means you need cheap resilient threats as well as inexpensive removal to be able to get ahead. There's a huge difference between spending your entire turn removing their creatures and being able to fire off a Dark Betrayal and play a creature of your own, and that can be the gap between winning and losing.
I'm still debating exactly what I want my non-removal sideboard plan to be against them. You can only have so many reactive cards against a deck like Mono-Black Devotion (or Esper Control for that matter), so I want some kind of hard-to-remove proactive threat that I can also bring in. That was the original reasoning behind the Vraska I had in my old sideboard, and it's possible I revisit that plan in the future since it meshes particularly well with cheap removal for their creatures. It doesn't match up terribly well against Lifebane Zombie and Mutavault, however, which is part of the reason I moved away from it in the first place.
The other options I'm considering are Underworld Connections and Pack Rat. Underworld Connections is clearly a powerful card both against Mono-Black Devotion and Esper Control, but it doesn't mesh with the plan of trying to beat them on the board. Investing time to play Underworld Connections lets up your pressure, which gives them time to build toward their more powerful endgame of Connections plus Gray Merchant of Asphodel.
Pack Rat, on the other hand, helps fight against their endgame by turning each of your otherwise dead land draws in the mid-to-late game into a significant threat. It's a much more proactive way to accomplish a similar goal as Underworld Connections, which is to give you some additional late game power. Both of these sideboard options involve turning some of the most powerful tools Mono-Black Devotion itself has against them—I'm just not sure which option is the best.
Here's what the deck I'm testing on Magic Online is looking like right now:
- 4 Dreg Mangler
- 4 Elvish Mystic
- 4 Lotleth Troll
- 2 Reaper of the Wilds
- 4 Scavenging Ooze
- 4 Boon Satyr
- 2 Polukranos, World Eater
- 3 Varolz, the Scar-Striped
It's possible that G/B Aggro isn't the right place to be at the moment, but this deck is what I've been liking the most right now of what I've played. I have to say though that I haven't really been liking much or even enjoying the prospect of trying to build decks for a Mono-Black Devotion-heavy field. The current Mono-Black decks are pretty miserable to play against since they're just a pile of removal spells, card drawing, and Thoughtseizes. Even cards that seem like the might be good against the deck, like Assemble the Legion and Blood Baron of Vizkopa, can just end up getting Thoughtseized, so it often feels like the decisions you make to try to combat the deck don't even matter.
But it's not like someone could have predicted this. It's funny to me in a sad way that Standard right now looks just like I feared it would the moment I saw Thoughtseize spoiled, in which Lifebane Zombie and Thoughtseize just make me sad about the idea of trying to play any cool creatures whose game text I care about.
Most amusing to me is the fact that the primary win condition of the deck is now Pack Rat. Not only does the deck not care about the text on its opponent's cards thanks to Thoughtseize, but it doesn't care about its own cards much of the time either since playing an actual spell will almost never be better than creating a Rat once you've gotten things going. It's the best Thoughtseize and anti Thoughtseize deck rolled into one because it pretty much doesn't care about anything.
Nihilism, man. Sounds exhausting.