Howdy, y'all. Thankfully, Hurricane Rita missed us down here in San Antonio, so I've had plenty of time to devote to the StarCityGames annual Championship Deck Challenge for the upcoming States. Hopefully by now you should know that this week's challenge was to write about a mono-color deck for the new Ravnica-legal Standard. So here I am, ready to pour my not-so-precious pearls of wisdom out for all of you to enjoy; but first, a little Flores-esque historical segue that most of you will probably skip:
Those of you who have known me since the dawn of the SCG forums know that I was heavily involved in the development of a deck called BraidsGroom in preparation for the OLS/MD Regionals. Along with many fellow posters, we crafted up a solid mono-Black aggro-control build that revolved around Greater Harvester, Grave Pact, and Rotlung Reanimator. While the deck never gained any major publicity on the actual tournament level, one of the posters on the board earned 7th place at his Regionals event. Not the greatest claim to fame someone could muster, but let's just say I know a thing or two about Black decks.
Excited about the prospect to revive my pet archetype, Ravnica has seemingly provided some pretty solid tools for a Suicide Black build. Dark Confidant, a semi-suicidal weenie that draws cards, is one of the best two-drops to see print for a Black aggro deck. Ravnica also provides another two-drop that seems like the very definition of a Suicide Black deck:
Hunted Horror, BB
Creature - Horror, 7/7
When Hunted Horror comes into play, put two 3/3 green centaur tokens with protection from Black into play under target opponent's control.
Assuming the centaurs remain, there are three possible things your opponent can do with them in a vacuum. They can block Hunted Horror with both, in which case you trample over one damage; they can block with one and attack with the other, so they deal three and then you deal four; or they can swing at you full throttle, hitting for six and you striking back for a full seven. Of course, if they neutralize the Horror or equip a centaur with Umezawa's Jitte, you're screwed. Hey, that is why it's a SuiBlack monster.
When reviewing the spoiler, I rejoiced - thankfully, Ravnica also provides an out. White Weenie may have Celestial Kirin, but Black decks can opt to run this:
Creature - Ooze, 1/1
At the beginning of your upkeep, put a +1/+1 counter on Necroplasm.
At the end of your turn, destroy each creature with converted mana cost equal to the number of +1/+1 counters on Necroplasm.
Dredge 2 (If you would draw a card, instead you may put exactly 2 cards from the top of your library into your graveyard. If you do, return this card from your graveyard to your hand. Otherwise, draw a card.)
If your opponent doesn't kill Necroplasm before the end of turn 3, a turn 2 Hunted Horror can spell an early demise. Necroplasm will clear out Suntail Hawks, Lantern Kamis, and even the pro-black Hand of Honor that may find its way in. [If it's killing Hands, it's also killing your Hunted Horror. - Knut] On top of that, it can be Dredged up at later points in the game if you need it.
So, as anyone who knows me would tell you, I started putting together a Suicide Black deck for the new Standard. For testing purposes, I played it against the following playtest decks (which may very well be interesting in and of themselves):
1 Eiganjo Castle
They're far from perfect, but they were suitable to test against. All were actually quite strong for thrown-together decks. I know that there will more likely be R/W aggro decks and G/B or U/B control decks, but rather than try and figure out how to employ all the newfangled cards we've got, I just updated some old archetypes. They were more than serviceable for testing. Notably, I did try out the Red deck with Hunted Dragon in place of Kumano, and the WW deck with maindeck Hokori.
After about twenty or so pre-board games against each deck with approximately six different Suicide builds, I came to the conclusion that SuiBlack is awful. First, the one-mana slot is just abysmal, even more than my sense of wit. Whereas WW has Isamaru, Suntail Hawk and Lantern Kami; Red gets Frostling and some relatively decent goblins; Green gets Llanowar Elves and Elves of Deep Shadow - Black gets mostly garbage. Among them, only Festering Goblin is relatively strong, and that's not saying much - too often it will kill your own Confidants.
Oh, and why did they have to make him a 2/1? He dies to everything. A toughness of one in this format is a real hindrance - as they say, "Welcome to Jitteland!" Which, by the way, really sucks - every other friggin' color has a way to deal with Umezawa's Jitte other than Black. In order for Black to get rid of it, it has to run both Jitte and Manriki-Gusari; but Holy-Strength-on-a-Stick is useless once your opponent gets their own chain-whip active. The Confidant was pretty good against the Mono-Blue Control deck, but even then, it was chumped by Jushi Apprentice on enough occasions.
Let me tell you this: I was so excited to play Hunted Horror, and it was really disappointing. Hunted Horror, without a doubt, is the hardest of the hunted creatures to utilize in Standard. Unlike the Troll, the Phantasm, and the Dragon, the tokens you give your opponent can't be killed by Pyroclasm or Hideous Laughter. Lamassu's horror token doesn't have anything special about it and can be solved via Boomerang, Threads of Disloyalty, Pacifism, Otherworldly Journey, etc. The centaurs, though, are 3/3 with protection - fairly difficult to remove unless you go outside of Black. Only Grave Pact, Necroplasm and Kagemaro address both tokens in the color, and the latter two are not suited for an aggressive Black deck. So while Hunted Lamassu could be very powerful in WW - where it can use Otherworldly Journey to kill the token or Hand of Honor to block it - the tools needed to leverage Hunted Horror really belong to a control deck. (In Extended, though, you'll have Engineered Explosives and other answers, so it will be worth consideration there.)
Without hashing through all of the problems that my favorite pet deck had after 120 games in testing, I wasn't about to declare total defeat. If I couldn't play Suicide, I would stick to my guns and stay in the color: MBC it would be. After all, who can go wrong with Fact or Fiction:
Moonlight Bargain, 3BBInstant
Look at the top five cards of your library. For each card, put that card into your graveyard unless you pay 2 life. Then put the rest into your hand.
When I first saw this thing was an instant, I was floored. Considerably more painful than Fact or Fiction and one mana more, it wouldn't matter - it screamed for the days of MBC. So here was what I put together, and with only a little bit of tuning I was pleasantly surprised:
Keep in mind that at the time of writing, I have not seen any proposals for decks in the new Standard other than Richard Feldman's preliminary build of G/B. As things shake out, tweaks may be required here and there. In particular, if control becomes more popular, stronger maindeck discard will be necessary. (The most likely outcome would be the Cranial Extractions moving maindeck for the Kiku's Shadows.) After playing about eighty-five games with this build, I'm pretty comfortable with it for now.
First, let's pre-empt all of your questions. "Why are the so many three-ofs and only a couple of playsets?" The answer has to do with redundancy - don't think of it as three of this and three of that, think of it as six draw spells, twelve spot removal spells, and six beatsticks. The fact that it came out to mostly sets of three is actually a product of tuning, something I did quite a lot of with this deck.
"Why no Kagemaro?" Because Kagemaro sucks, that's why. Credit has to go to Rich Feldman again, who hit the nail on the head with this one. Yes, he can be a beatstick, but only when your hand is full. Unlike CBS block, where you can use Hana Kami recursion at your leisure, you can easily maintain a full hand as you invest most of your turns into working the loop. As turns go by, you don't cast many spells so your hand size naturally increases.
In Standard, though, there are a million reasons why you don't want to go that route. Standard will be much faster than Kamigawa block, as Ravnica has quite a lot of solid threats for hire. On top of that, you maindeck Night of Soul's Betrayal, so Hana Kami is useless and it also means Kagemaro won't be a significant threat at five mana.
Hana Kami recursion at States would probably be a bad idea, too. With the popularity of the Golgari guild, you will see Dredge decks everywhere. That means that smart players will be packing plenty of graveyard removal. Normally, I would pack four Graverobbers in my sideboard, but I found that the instant-speed Shred Memory was quite good - it can transmute into almost anything in the deck. At two mana, Shred Memory can fetch Sickening Shoal, Last Gasp, Cruel Edict, Consume Spirit, and Kiku's Shadow in the maindeck; as well as either member of the Rat Pack from the board. I would even consider maindecking a single Shred Memory in place of one Kiku's Shadow if G/B gets out of control over the next few weeks.
As a result of the assumed assault on the graveyard, recursion a-la Gifts seems like a risky maneuver. Without the advantages of the infrastructure that made Kagemaro a good card, he's actually quite bad. I tested him for about fifteen games in place of Yokura, and he just wasn't nearly as effective. The Juzam Demon Spirit is just a brutal beatstick all of the time. His drawback is nonexistent in the maindeck, and even when you've boarded in most of your men, he's still quite effective. More importantly, he's reliably large; something that comes in quite handy. When you have Night of Soul's Betrayal, he's still a 4/4 for four, and he tangos with Iwamori.
"Why no mana acceleration?" Good question, but what acceleration would you actually use? The only decent tools available to mono-Black in the new Standard are Fellwar Stone and Journeyer's Kite. After testing both, they proved to be horribly lacking. Fellwar Stone doesn't reliably provide Black mana, and the deck wants a lot of it - I would prefer to run Quicksand as my non-Black mana sources (more on that later). Its best benefit is to reach four mana by turn 3, which gains you very little in this deck. A regular land is simply better, since most often you want to invest your second turn with some sort of two-mana removal spell anyway.
As for the Kite, I tried using it with Sensei's Divining Top a la Kai Budde's Kite Control deck, but it proved to be terrible. It takes too much mana investment for too little reward. Most decks in Standard have quite a lot of action by the time turn 3 comes around, and at turn 3, you've done nothing but use your mana to play the Top and activate the Kite; and done nothing to address the fact that your opponent may be hitting you in the face for five a turn. Phyrexian Arena is simply sufficient, as the extra cards you draw will allow you to make your land drops on schedule.
"What do you do about Jitte?" The answer: nothing. No creatures should live long enough to power a Jitte. In my opinion, one of the biggest secrets about the format is that people forget how much tempo is lost trying to play and attach equipment. If my opponent spends his or her fourth turn playing and equipping a Jitte to a creature, only to find the critter get hit by Sickening Shoal in response, it's like getting a Time Walk. That's one turn that they won't play another creature and won't do anything else. You can beat Jitte by leveraging the tempo loss that it demands. In countless games, I left WW on the table with a Jitte and a couple of Manriki-Gusaris, and not a creature in sight. I would just drop a Yokura or a Kokusho and smash them - towards the end of the game, they should be living off the top of their deck. You should be drawing at least two cards a turn, so it's not hard to just overrun them at that point while they pray that their Jitte can become active somehow. Think about it this way - what is the real threat, the Jitte itself, or the creature it enhances?
Testing showed that MBC made quick work out of both the Red and White decks. Night of Soul's Betrayal proved to be very strong, and it's not a surprise in a format where so many good creatures have low toughness: Elves, Birds, STElders, Frostlings, Confidants, Shambling Shell, Hearth Kamis, Lanterns, Suntails - the list goes on and on. It also makes Hideous Laughter exponentially stronger. Another big plus is that it gives you a lot more time against a threat like Hand of Honor, which is much less troublesome as a 1/1 than it is as a 2/2. Even better, NoSB turns Meloku into a deficient Thieving Magpie and solves opposing Genju of the Spires.
Do be aware, though, that NoSB makes Hunted Troll and Hunted Phantasm drawback-free, and weakens the drawback of Hunted Dragon and Hunted Horror. (Hunted Lamassu only provides one token, so NoSB affects both sides equally.) Nonetheless, you shouldn't have too much difficulty coping with the Troll, since Edict, Shoal, and even Last Gasp will kill it despite the regeneration. (With NoSB, Hunted Troll is only 7/3; for which a reverse Giant Growth is lethal.) As for the other Hunted creatures, they will be troublesome. I don't expect Hunted Horror to see play, but Hunted Phantasm's high toughness might make it difficult to kill. Hunted Dragon will be the most difficult of all of them to deal with, and can pack quite a punch with haste and evasion; so be prepared - look to see if the opponent may be telegraphing him. If possible, save a Hideous Laughter and a Sickening Shoal in hand. When the Dragon comes down, you can play the Shoal with X = 4, splice the Laughter, and then use it to pay for the Shoal's cost; similar to the Horobi's Whisper trick. That will remove it for only four mana, even without an NoSB; which means you can save yourself even if they drop it on turn 5 and you're on the draw. If you're lucky, they will have some small critter on the table, so you'll make an even two-for-two trade.
Cruel Edict became a necessity, as well as Quicksand. There were games where the WW opponent would have three Manriki-Gusaris and a Jitte equipped to a critter and would come charging across, without fear of K's Shadow or Laughter. Cruel Edict helped deal with those situations. Quicksand was a necessary evil to deal with early Hands of Honor, but in the late game they can hold back larger creatures when you have a Yokura to block. Consider an opponent who plays Iwamori, and you dump Yokura on the table. With a Quicksand in play, they will be disinclined to attack you since you would emerge the victor. I settled on three, since I have pretty heavy Black mana requirements but want it often enough that I can have it early if need be.
Let me take a moment to explain the removal suite. Consume Spirit is more of a finisher in this deck than removal, and Hideous Laughter is obvious. There are another twelve maindeck removal spells, split four ways in sets of three. While it may seem odd to do that, testing showed that was the best configuration. Half of those spells are instants (Last Gasp and Sickening Shoal), and the other half are better at dealing with larger creatures (Cruel Edict and Kiku's Shadow). Edict can remove problem creatures like Hand of Honor, and deal with creatures that have a greater toughness than power, or are equipped with a Manriki-Gusari. Shadow also has double black in the cost, which is not always achievable on turn 2 since the deck has a few Quicksand in it. Note that I did not include Horobi's Whisper, because although the splice cost is free, it is basically just a Dark Banishing. Hardly anything to write home about - it's not going to stop a Moroii across the table.
Phyrexian Arena provides a strong influx of land and spells, and mid/late game Moonlight Bargains help you dig for the right answers. There were times when I would look at five cards, pay four life for a Consume Spirit and another Bargain, and then untap! Moonlight Bargain is an instant! (Can you tell I'm excited?) The Bargain is just an absurd form of card advantage - in some test games, I would be sitting comfortably at twenty-five or more life after a dead Kokusho and/or Consume Spirit, and I would gladly pay the ten life for a new hand. It is utterly ridiculous - especially when it digs up a Consume Spirit and you can just gain all of the life back (presuming you don't win on the spot).
Moonlight Bargain also has ridiculous synergy with dredge cards. You can dump all five cards in the 'yard and dredge them up. While I ultimately didn't use any dredge cards, I did experiment with them, so keep it in mind if the expected metagame becomes a bit more defined and you know you will be using cards like Necroplasm or Nightmare Void.
Against aggro, which is your strongest matchup, you shouldn't have too many issues. The sideboard is primarily geared at beating control. Golgari decks will be extremely popular at States - cards like Grave-Shell Scarab and especially Putrefy practically demand for people to play them. Graveyard hate will be more important than usual, so the sideboard has multiple ways to clean it out. Graverobbers double as a threat against opposing control decks, and Shred Memory can transmute into almost anything. At two mana, Shred Memory can fetch Sickening Shoal, Cruel Edict, Consume Spirit, and Kiku's Shadow in the maindeck; as well as the Nezumi Rat Pair from the board. I should note that I don't think it will be enough to only have Graverobbers in the board - smart G/B opponents will play Pithing Needle in an effort to stop him, and therefore I think it's wise to diversify your graveyard removal.
Specters and Shortfangs provide standard discard. I'm honestly not sure about the Shortfangs, but they are cheap repetitive discard and worked well in testing against control. I considered Dimir Guildmage, since he's at least 2/2s for two mana; but ultimately the cheaper discard cost seemed more important for the matches that I will want to side him in. It's quite possible that Nightmare Void is the better answer, but in testing I did not find that it was as effective as I would have hoped. Against control decks that draw tons of cards, Nightmare Void is too slow to be anything other than a nuisance. Shortfangs at least came down much earlier and cost less over the long run, with the possibility that they could flip into Stabwhisker for some extra damage and a decent attacker.
The ultimate problem with discard is that it feels so unimpressive in this format. Dredge decks will not mind pitching a Grave-Shell Scarab into the yard. Late game opponents will often have fistfuls of spells and won't care if you have them discard one of the four counters in their hand. Most decks offer enough redundancy that discard is ineffective unless it stunts a deck's early development, and in most cases, today's discard just doesn't cut it.
Cranial Extractions are sort of a generic sideboard answer, and can probably be switched for something else if need be. Pithing Needles can be considered for this spot, but using the slots for the fourth Graverobber, the fourth Shortfang, and a third Shred Memory is a solid plan as well. I've also considered a fourth Kokusho in the board as well. In the end, I chose Cranial Extraction because it can be a particularly important card against decks that revolve around Circu, Dimir Lobotomist and because it serves as additional discard; but it turned out to be an effective way to rid yourself of Grave-Shell Scarabs or another annoying cards in people's graveyards. Since it doubles as both a discard spell and graveyard removal, it seemed like it was the most versatile choice. (Or perhaps, the omnisignificant one. You gotta love the shameless self promotion, huh?)
Sideboarding is pretty straightforward. Whenever I bring in creatures, I usually side out the NoSBs. If I need more room or am simply bringing in Extractions, I usually "skim the top" of the removal suite and take out an Edict, a Gasp, and a Shadow; leaving the trio of Shoals. If I am siding in all ten creatures (as I generally do against control), I take out the Hideous Laughters make room for the rest. Siding out a few removal spells is preferred whenever I side in Shred Memory, since it can easily be transmuted into removal if the need arises.
Why should you play this deck at States? There are a couple of good reasons. One, States is usually littered with aggro decks. Control decks are hard to tune and usually require a knowledge about the format, so most people show up with aggro decks that require less tuning and less metagame preparation. With a control deck tuned to crush aggro, you should be in good shape.
Second, it's very consistent. The deck is highly redundant, so it plays out its game plan in a very straightforward manner. Other control decks - especially those that are permission based - rely on responding to an opponent and carefully evaluating what they will do next. MBC, however, has pretty much the same plan against all creature decks - removal, draw, removal, draw, fattie, win. Against control decks, it's the opposite - drop a threat and hammer away. Because of that, the deck is relatively easy to play.
For those of you who don't want to be confined to mono-Black, you could benefit by splashing green with Overgrown Tomb and playing Putrefy in place of Kiku's Shadow. Keep in mind that you will lose a small measure of consistency, but I feel pretty confident that the gains are worth it. I refrained from doing so here because of the constraints of the challenge, but if you were to make any sort of splash, that would be the one I would make.
Keep in mind that while I've tested this deck pretty extensively, it's still very early in the season; and as my fellow writers show their goods, this deck's viability may fluctuate if it retains its current form. Nonetheless, there are tons of tools available and I'm sure MBC can be appropriately tuned for States in the event that the metagame shifts dramatically.
Props: To Sean McKeown and Mike Flores, for jumping in and writing about Legacy. I'm always glad to see people writing about the format. Keep it up, guys.
Slops: Hurricanes. Duh.
This article brought to you by StarCityGames' 2005 States Deck Challenge, with the help from a lot of caffeine, FullMetal Alchemist reruns, and Hershey's Caramel Kisses. Because you can never get enough caramel.