It continues to amaze me that such a basic and single-minded strategy can be so dominant. For those of us that devote ourselves to Magic, we like to believe that we'll be rewarded for vast knowledge, creativity, and new technology when we build our decks. However, such is not always the case. At times all there is to do is make the best of what we're given.
Never before have we had a single card represent an entire strategy in quite the way that Pack Rat does. In my mind even the most dominant cards in history are tools, combining together in various ways to constitute strategies. One might think of something like Sphinx's Revelation as constituting a strategy in its own right, but even in such a case your surrounding card choices still help to define your deck. On the contrary, you put Pack Rat in your deck hoping to see it in your opening hand and activate it at every opportunity after that. Every other card is essentially there as a Plan B.
Likewise, we've never before seen a mechanic as cut and dried as devotion. The game is a race to flood the board and use explosive cards like Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx; Gray Merchant of Asphodel; Master of Waves; or Fanatic or Mogis to bury the opponent.
While there is a lot of depth to this Standard format, many of the games do wind up being quite simple. The core strategies are so basic and effective that the rewards for creativity are relatively small. Such a format requires a different approach to deckbuilding.
Owen Turtenwald & Mono-Black Devotion
With wins at Grand Prix Albuquerque, the StarCityGames.com Standard Open in Indianapolis, and an additional Top 8 at StarCityGames.com Standard Open in Las Vegas, Owen Turtenwald has proven himself a master of Mono-Black Devotion. While much of his success should be attributed to his world-class gameplay, there's also a crucial lesson to be learned from his decklist.
Mr. Turtenwald's most recent list is the product of evolution—evolution of the Mono-Black Devotion archetype since its breakout at Pro Tour Theros in Dublin.
Science fiction might make us think of evolution as resulting in advanced highly-complex life forms or X-Men-like superpowers. But no, the reality is that a million years from now human beings will probably look virtually identical to how we look today—we just might not grow wisdom teeth anymore . . .
Owen's decklist really doesn't look particularly special, but that's the whole point! The eight most important cards appear in four copies each, all in the maindeck. There are no tricks, no technology, no Hail Mary cards—just simplicity, consistency, and quality.
Owen knows as well as anyone on the planet that he's piloting one of the best and most powerful (if not the single best) decks in Standard. He doesn't need anything beyond that in order to win. The basic game plan of Mono-Black Devotion is so good that all he wants is the highest possible chance of having a smooth opening hand.
With this type of deck, you can frequently predict whether you'll win or lose the game based simply on your opening hand. Thus cards that are good to see in the opening hand appear in four copies and cards that aren't don't make the cut at all. Examples are Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx; Erebos, God of the Dead; Whip of Erebos; Doom Blade; and Ultimate Price. Each of these cards has seen play in the past but have now disappeared to god knows where, waiting for our wisdom teeth and pinky toes to join them someday.
The Game Plan
As mentioned above, the Plan A of Mono-Black Devotion is simply Pack Rat. In the early days, you'd see two copies of Pack Rat in every Mono-Black Devotion maindeck. What today seems like an obvious choice—playing four copies of the card—was actually a fairly groundbreaking decision that allowed Owen Turtenwald and Paul Rietzl to dominate GP Albuquerque.
Do you want to draw the card or not? While it may not shine in every situation one could imagine, the most simple and direct answer to this question is "yes." Mono-Black Devotion wants to draw Pack Rat as early and as often as possible. The proper way to build the deck is with four Pack Rats, four Mutavaults, four Thoughtseizes, and a high land count—these are the cards that contribute to the Plan A.
In games not dominated by Pack Rat, Mono-Black's Plan B is Underworld Connections in combination with Gray Merchant of Asphodel. Connections stands as the best possible card against control, providing a steady stream of card advantage that most players will not be able to keep up with. However, even in the matchups where the card does not specifically shine, it's there to ensure that the deck runs smoothly. Given adequate time and defense, Underworld Connections will guarantee that Mono-Black wins the long game. Yes, each life point can matter against an aggro or midrange deck, but so does every removal spell and blocker that Connections can draw you into given enough time. With the presence of Gray Merchant of Asphodel, it constitutes an extremely effective plan.
Plan C then is simply to play as a midrange creature deck. Nightveil Specter and Desecration Demon backed up by a healthy mix of hand disruption and removal spells can go a long way. Plan C is where cards like Erebos or his Whip might be valuable, but they're by no means key players. They don't contribute to Plan A or Plan B. They may viable options for Plan C, but they aren't even the bread and butter of the strategy.
I asked Owen himself why he omitted these cards from his maindeck when so many others before him had chosen to play with them.
"The deck used to run one maindeck Erebos and one or two Whips. These cards can sometimes be good in the late game but sometimes mess you up also. Erebos in particular makes no sense to me. It's good in the mirror and against U/W Control but horrible otherwise—a textbook example of something that should be a sideboard card. You win a huge number of games with Pack Rat, and Underworld Connections and Gray Merchant are a late-game plan all on their own. I like just boiling it down to Connections, Specter, Pack Rat, and Demon."
Ultimate Price, Doom Blade, Pharika's Cure, Shrivel—none of them are quite perfect for Standard right now. With Mono-Black being the most popular deck, Doom Blade will frequently be a liability. Cure and Shrivel are only good against weenie creatures, and Ultimate Price fails to get the job done just a little too often for comfort. Besides, Nightveil Specter is probably the single most important creature to kill in Standard, and none of these cards do it.
Like the others, Devour Flesh is less than perfect, and once in a while you'll need to topdeck an answer to that Stormbreath Dragon but all you can do is Devour a Sylvan Caryatid. The difference however is that Devour Flesh is a removal spell that you're thrilled to see in your opening hand.
As I've mentioned time and again, a strong draw from Mono-Black Devotion simply has a very high chance of winning a game any way you slice it. If you're on the play and are able to cast a removal spell on turn 2 and follow it up with a three-drop (Specter or Connections), you're doing great! You can always cast Devour Flesh on turn 2. The last thing you want is to have a Doom Blade against a Pack Rat or an Ultimate Price against a Frostburn Weird. Being unable to cast your situational removal when you need to is a great way to lose an otherwise winnable game. Why would you open yourself up to such potential problems?
Just as his maindeck is as streamlined as possible, so too is Owen's sideboard. He's identified the best cards for each situation—Duress and Erebos against control, Dark Betrayal for the mirror match, Pharika's Cure against aggro, and Lifebane Zombie as a general color hoser against white and green. These are the cards that Owen looks to after sideboard, and they all appear in three or four copies.
There are no mysteries and few judgment calls in sideboarding with this decklist. It's very clear where each card should come in. If it wasn't, why would they even be there in the first place?
The Mana Base
I have to confess that as a Standard player (and most often a control player) the deck that I most fear getting paired against is probably B/G Devotion featuring Abrupt Decay and Golgari Charm. These removal spells are general upgrades over Devour Flesh, and they provide the deck with extra angles of attack in destroying Detention Spheres and countering Supreme Verdicts.
However, I also acknowledge that my fear is largely irrational. I can say with a high level of confidence that Mono-Black is a better deck than B/G and will win a higher percentage of the time. B/G is a spinoff of an excellent deck that simply gives itself one extra way of getting an awkward draw because of its mana base. Yes, it's impressive when it has smooth mana and gets to play with a higher proportion of premium cards, but it's not a risk worth taking.
Keep your deck streamlined and don't look to solve problems that don't exist. Ruining the monocolored mana base is a good way to wind up inconvenienced and frustrated. Owen doesn't even play a singleton Nykthos!
When a deck's primary game plan is powerful enough, you don't need anything extra to win games. Streamline your deck, give yourself the highest possible chance of getting a smooth draw, and marvel at how easy it becomes to coast through Magic tournaments.
Ben Lundquist & W/R Aggro
Ben Lundquist is a master deckbuilder from whom I've learned a lot over the years. I solicited his help with this article because of his experience playing decks on both extremes of the spectrum. In the past he's been famous for his success with control decks like Tron and Esper Control as well as a slew of Snapcaster Mage decks like U/W Delver of Secrets. More recently, though, he distinguished himself by winning the StarCityGames.com Standard Open in Los Angeles with W/R Aggro.
- 4 Azorius Arrester
- 4 Boros Elite
- 4 Daring Skyjek
- 4 Dryad Militant
- 2 Frontline Medic
- 4 Precinct Captain
- 4 Soldier of the Pantheon
Much like Owen's Mono-Black Devotion, Ben's latest list of W/R Aggro is all four-ofs. He explained his logic to me:
"W/R Aggro should aim to be as consistent as possible and gain its advantage through what it does best. It doesn't get a ton of options, so the cards need to be the most powerful they can be at all times. It can't afford to draw a situational card; it's not playing the long game and can't miss a beat in the early turns."
Indeed, Ben's list does not contain a single card that's purely reactive. Brave the Elements and Boros Charm offer a little bit of play and flexibility, but Ben knows that in the worst-case scenario he can always use them to push through more damage.
What stands out most about Ben's maindeck is his choice of three-drops. While most players have a confused split among Spear of Heliod; Banisher Priest; Ajani, Caller of the Pride; and half a dozen others, Ben maxes out on Ajani despite its legendary quality.
"With Ajani in particular I started with three copies because I didn't want to get overloaded with them. As I played more, I figured out that it was actually one of the best cards and sometimes I didn't even mind drawing multiples, so I went to four copies. It does something every time and gets a response from the opponent. That could mean a removal spell or forcing them into an inconvenient attack."
Ben recognized that the most direct route to winning games was to play two creatures and follow up with Ajani, so he built his deck to maximize the chances of such a thing happening.
In decks that aim to win the game quickly, your opening hand constitutes a very high proportion of all the tools you'll have to work with for the whole game. For this reason and because of the importance of pressing an early advantage, you should streamline your aggro decks as much as possible. They should have few reactive cards, and you should play four copies of the cards you really want to see in your opening hand.
The Other Side Of The Coin
There's a time and a place for streamlining your deck. I believe that current Standard lends itself well to this form of deckbuilding because the games are fast and explosive and very often determined in the early turns. However, there are other times when you can be rewarded for creativity and flexibility and it may be more appropriate to diversify your options.
Ben Lundquist understands this difference well. In the past he and I worked together on a number of slower blue decks, many of which featured Snapcaster Mage. I remember one instance where I asked Ben's advice on my decklist and he told me "your sideboard should have more one-ofs."
It took me many years to understand why master deckbuilders often include a lot of one- and two-ofs in their more controlling decks. However, I've come to firmly agree with what Ben's instincts were telling him on the day we had that conversation. As he explained:
"The more cards a deck goes through in a game, the more valuable it is to include more options for yourself. Snapcaster Mage in particular makes it important to fill your graveyard with a wide variety of spells."
With Mono-Black Devotion and W/R Aggro, games are frequently decided quickly, and you should not risk anything that can make you stumble in the early turns. However, not every deck plays this way.
Envision a U/B Control deck that plays for the long game, draws a lot of cards, and even has a couple copies of Snapcaster Mage. Here it would be a big mistake to make all of your spot removal Devour Fleshes. What if your opponent plays an Elspeth, Sun's Champion? What if you need to remove a single troublesome creature? It's much more valuable to have one or two copies each of a number of situational but effective removal spells. When things are going according to plan, you can draw into more than one, and you can use the right tool for the right job.
In slower matchups you also benefit more from creative technology, such as a singleton card for a control mirror. As games go long, you have a higher chance of seeing the card (making a powerful singleton worth a sideboard slot) and more flexibility in using it at the perfect moment.
Tying It All Together
Sometimes it's appropriate to streamline your deck and cut away the fat. Other times it's to your advantage to diversify your cards and give yourself more options. One of the bigger challenges is to identify which method will better serve the deck in question.
Ask yourself how quickly your games are usually decided. Is one player conceding to a quick Pack Rat or to an Ajani or a Burning-Tree Emissary draw? How important is your opening hand, and how many cards will you draw into as the game progresses? Will you have a chance to slow the game down and dig towards your situational threats and answers?
These are tough questions, but the concept behind everything is discipline. Don't include cards just because they're fun or exciting if they aren't really contributing to what you're trying to do. Identify the game plan of your deck and build with that in mind. Once you begin to fine tune your decks with a sharpened razor and a careful eye, you'll notice yourself winning more than you ever have before.