I was just about to take an extended hiatus from Magic when Magicthegathering.com editor Scott Johns e-mailed me.
Months earlier, when I left my post at Building On A Budget, Scott had asked me to brainstorm ideas for a Feature Article I could write once a set or so. I sent him half a dozen ideas, then never heard back. Scott's one of the busiest men on the planet - and I have no idea what keeps him working tirelessly in what seems to me like an important but thankless job - so his silence didn't bother me. It did demotivate me, though. Without a writing outlet, my mind started to wander towards pursuits outside of Magic.
Then, out of the blue, here came Scott's reply. He said the idea of mine he most liked was “Going Rogue.” He also said they were doing a theme week for Time Spiral and asked if I could write a House of Cards article (which you can find here).
Without Scott's e-mail, I would have drifted into City of Heroes, writing fiction, and who knows what else, with only flavor text writing as my Magic-al outlet. Instead, I got to working on my two articles, one on Tribal Standard and the other on the process of creating a pet rogue deck.
More on Tribal Standard later. For now I want to talk about my Going Rogue article and its progeny. If you haven't read it, check it out and today will make a lot more sense.
My aim with the article was to chronicle the evolution of a deck from original idea to “polished” draft, then continue my journey on the Message Boards as I played the deck in tournaments. Once I actually won a small Standard tourney with my Black Knights deck and posted the results on the Boards, I figured that the experiment had run its course.
Interestingly, though, I had created an honest to goodness pet deck. I found myself actually wanting to play the deck after that first tournament win, to keep testing it in Magic Online's Tournament Practice room, to make tweaks, and to keep entering tourneys. So I did, logging almost two hundred matches and entering nearly a dozen online tournaments.
Since I've spent so danged much time on the deck, it seemed like I should write something about it before Planar Chaos comes to render my deck irrelevant. Consider today an epilogue to my earlier article, a personal catharsis so I can move on to other pursuits. Today is interesting for me because my Magic playing has actually triggered an article, rather than the other way around.
Black Knights: A Decksploration
Way back when, recall, I had wanted to build a deck around Curse of the Cabal, with Smallpox as a redundant effect. The slow control version worked okay, but I often felt I was behind by the time Curse of the Cabal resolved. As a result, I decided to make more of an aggro-control deck to make Curse choices more difficult. Here's the original deck:
Black Knights v.1.0
What I found with this deck was that Smallpox was the real workhorse and that the deck seemed to function best as I ramped up its aggressiveness. It also, not surprisingly, seemed to work best without Curse of the Cabal. As a result, here's where I ended up many moons later:
- 4 Dark Confidant
- 4 Plagued Rusalka
- 3 Skulking Knight
- 4 Stromgald Crusader
- 4 Withered Wretch
- 3 Haakon, Stromgald Scourge
- 22 Swamp
The deck is still recognizable from its roots, which is to say that the nucleus - Smallpox, Haakon, knights - is the same, while the support card have shifted considerably.
There was a time several years ago when deck articles came with a card-by-card analysis. I love this sort of exhaustive belly-button picking, but the trend now is to consider such analysis boring and irrelevant. Feel free to skip this section if you want, but I've done enough obsessing about each card in this deck that I want to justify their existence.
Remember, folks: Catharsis.
4 Plagued Rusalka - I think a lot of people who look at my decklist wonder why Plagued Rusalka is in there, but I've never seriously considered dropping them. First, they give me a first-turn creature, which in a world of Remands, Mana Leaks, and Wildfires is nice. Second, they kill Birds of Paradise, Llanowar Elves, Dark Confidant, Savannah Lions, Soltari Priest, Icatian Javelineers, Yavimaya Dryad, Magus of the Scroll, Scryb Ranger, Thelonite Hermit, and Vinelasher Kudzu, to name a few, as well as all manner of two-toughness creatures in combat. Third, they keep opponents from gaining life from spells like Lightning Helix and Ribbons of Night, as well as saving, say, Haakon from Demonfire. Fourth, they allow me a way to get rid of Dark Confidant when I'm low on life. A theme of my card choices is that the mana curve is very light, and something that can do so much for one mana is terrific.
4 Dark Confidant - My absolute favorite beginning with this deck is to win the coin toss and play Plagued Rusalka and Dark Confidant on the first two turns. I'm seriously not sure I've ever lost a game in which this was true. Confidant obviously fuels and accelerates the deck while also taking chunks out of an opponent each turn, so I don't have to extol its virtues overmuch. The interesting thing about it in this deck is that it really forces me to use low-curve cards in the maindeck since I don't have a way to gain life. This made dropping Curse of the Cabal easy, and also keeps cards like Grave Pact, Plague Sliver, Final Punishment, Mindslicer, Persecute, Soul Spike, and Twisted Abomination out of the maindeck. These cards look like they fit my deck, but both the land count (plus Smallpox) and Confidant always scares me away.
4 Stromgald Crusader - Haakon looks like the best Black Knight, but it's really the Crusader. Against slow decks, it can slip through countermagic and pound an opponent. Against faster decks, it can block fliers. And, of course, against any deck using White targeted removal (Mortify, Faith's Fetters, Condemn, Lightning Helix, etc.) it's nigh unstoppable. In fact, one of Haakon's key benefits is providing the ability to play Stromgald Crusader from my graveyard. When Haakon is actually on the table, the two mana cost somehow always feels perfect. The one downside is against Desert, where I am acutely aware that all of creatures except Withered Wretch and Haakon die to a single reusable land.
4 Withered Wretch - The two cards I kept trying to make work in this slot were Nether Traitor and Dauthi Slayer. For awhile I even tried Rakdos Guildmage until I realized how rarely I had four mana to spare. Dauthi Slayer proved aggressive but not overly disruptive. Nether Traitor is disruptive and annoying--particularly with two on the table alongside Plagued Rusalka--but not aggressive enough. I decided, though, that Traitor was my best option and won my first Standard tournament with it in the deck. Then Worlds happened, and the online environment slanted heavily towards Dragonstorm and control decks, away from creature-based strategies. When an opponent has no creatures, Nether Traitor is basically just Raging Goblin.
At some point I realized that I was siding my four Wretches into the deck a lot. Against Dragonstorm it killed Rite of Flame, but mostly it was the others decks that were starting to make great use of their graveyards, from Martyr of Sands to Dralnu to Academy Ruins to Firemane Angel to Call of the Herd to Momentary Blink to Think Twice. Withered Wretch hampers a lot of these decks while also being an aggressive body. The fact that I consistently keep it in even after sideboarding is good evidence for me that maindeck is the correct spot for him.
3 Skulking Knight - Skulking Knight is the current weak link in the deck. It costs a little too much and dies a little too easily against too many decks. On the other hand, my Skulking fellow is currently the only other Black Knight besides Haakon and Stromgald Crusader, so without it I start to wonder about Haakon's usefulness. In fact, I would say that Skulking Knight is the most valid reason to argue for splashing a second color.
As a result, I'm surprised to find that not only has Skulking Knight endured several changes, but all three copies remain. Why has it happened? I like that it survives Pyroclasm (which otherwise wrecks me) and is a combat beast, able to kill Teferi and Ghost Council of Orzhova, among others. If the deck translates to a post Planar Chaos Standard, though, Skulking Knight almost certainly disappears.
3 Haakon, Stromgald Scourge - Despite appearances, the deck really isn't a Haakon deck. Instead, it's a mono-Black aggro-control deck with some tricks. Haakon makes Smallpox and Delirium Skeins less symmetrical and is the key to beating decks with lots of counterspells or mass removal. As a result, I absolutely consider Haakon to be critical to my success with the deck. That said, I wish I had one more outlet for discarding Haakon. I realized way too late that a Funeral Charm to my own face would win me a lot of games, but that still feels like the play of a flawed deck.
4 Funeral Charm - Originally Blackmail, I have fallen in love with Funeral Charm because it's never a dead card. I often cast it in response to a control deck tapping out for a spell, or in response to my own Delirium Skeins or Smallpox. I particularly like casting it during an opponent's draw step when they're in topdeck mode. Just as important, though, is its ability to kill the same things Plagued Rusalka can kill, at instant speed, and without the loss of my own creature. The result is that I use Charm as creature removal against aggressive decks and discard against control decks. Maybe that's one of the cool things about my deck in general - That it has game against both fast and slow decks, with cards like Funeral Charm able to play a variety of roles.
4 Cruel Edict - The nice thing about Standard these days is that with the exception of Dragonstorm, Cruel Edict is almost never a dead card. For Mono-Black in general it kills cards like Silhana Ledgewalker, Paladin En-Vec, and Simic Sky Swallower. For my deck specifically, it either cleans up after a barrage of Funeral Charms and Smallpox or paves the way for a devastating Smallpox. Most decks that rely heavily on creatures have a really difficult time keeping anything alive amidst my sea of creature removal. The notable exception is any deck that uses token producers like Selesnya Guildmage, Empty the Warrens, or Thelonite Hermit. Against these decks, my Edicts taunt me mercilessly and I tap my foot waiting for Damnation.
4 Smallpox - I've said it earlier, but if this deck has a keystone card it's Smallpox. Why is Smallpox so danged good when by all appearances it's a symmetrical effect? I think Mike Flores said it best when he said “Smallpox - being an Edict, Sinkhole, and Specter's Wail - that sets up your own gas is so good it's scary.” I have a low mana curve, madness effects, redundant discard and removal, and of course Haakon. You could say - quite rightly - that my entire deck is sitting around praying for a resolved Smallpox.
2 Call to the Netherworld - Anyone who's decided to make their own version of my deck seems to have dropped Call to the Netherworld. The versions I've seen use Macabre Waltz or Dimir Machinations instead. While I admit that it's a cheap trick to get a free Raise Dead from Smallpox or Skeins, for me it's an awfully cool trick. The reason is twofold; First, my early creatures are usually highly expendable, either because of Rusalka, countermagic, or opposing removal. Second, usually at least one of my creatures seriously hampers my opponent, most likely Stromgald Crusader, Withered Wretch, or the always-good Confidant. Put these two together and my best creatures are often dead in the midgame and in need of revival. A Raise Dead effect is often that last “oomph” I need to finish an opponent. I should really at least try Macabre Waltz because of its synergy with Haakon, but I can't help but think, “I can get Raise Dead for free, man.”
2 Delirium Skeins - Recently I've been toying with the idea of Mindslicer in this spot because of its aggressiveness. The reason I don't is because of the unreliability of my deck reaching four mana - which is the same reason that Rakdos Guildmage didn't work out in this spot - and fear of Dark Confidant. Whatever I use, though, it needs to be an additional way to discard Haakon, because obviously Smallpox alone isn't enough. Delirium Skeins sometimes hurts a little too much, but it almost always takes out the last three cards in an opponent's hand if it resolves. Against aggressive decks, it's often too little too late and gets sided out. As I said, though, since Worlds the online Standard environment has slanted enough towards control that these make sense to me maindeck.
22 Swamp - It's possible that I could get away with twenty one land in the deck, but I mulligan enough that I prefer twenty-two. Besides, Rusalka, Wretch, and particularly Crusader balance out the rare instances when I'm mana-flooded.
What I have consistently resisted doing is adding any colorless sources of mana. It looks so tempting - Who uses just basic land anymore? - but I think anything like Desert, Quicksand, Scrying Sheets, Ghost Quarter, Mouth of Ronom would be a Very Bad Idea. Too many cards need Black mana in their cost or activation cost, and too many of these cards need to be cast in the first two turns to be effective. Add the fact that I want my Smallpox to be more crippling for my opponent than me, and it has been easy to resist the temptation of nonbasics. After all, one of the primary reasons to play a mono-colored deck is consistency, so why sacrifice that for a trick my deck can survive without? If Tomb of Urami were still legal it would find a place in my deck, but those kinds of thoughts are never productive.
4 Shadow of Doubt - This was originally to combat Dragonstorm - which it does very well, along with Funeral Charm - but I've found myself siding at least a couple of copies against Blue / Black decks using Mystical Teachings as well. I hate, hate, hate holding two mana back and playing a reactive role with this deck, but against Dragonstorm it's sadly necessary, even if as a bluff.
3 Deathmark - Deathmark fits my mana requirements perfectly, and against either Boros or and Green-based creature deck it turns my removal suite from crazy to friggin' insane. In fact, the trick when sideboarding is to not drop too much offense for the onslaught of removal my deck can muster against Green or White decks.
2 Darkblast - Speaking of my onslaught of removal against Green and White decks, say a big hello to Darkblast. There are enough decks that struggle mightily against a recurring Darkblast - mine included - that I find myself siding in these two copies more and more (indeed, the last change to my deck was to drop a single Deathmark for a second Darkblast). Even better, dredging can sometimes help me plop a Haakon or extra Knights into the graveyard. With the rise of popularity of The Rack (see below), I could even see a third copy making its way into the sideboard at some point.
2 Delirium Skeins - Here sit the other two copies of Delirium Skeins, ready to pounce on a control-oriented opponent. The reality is that the first Skeins almost never resolves, but the second usually does. Even later in games when an opponent is out of cards, most decks have a way to refuel so that a late-game Skeins makes sense. Worse comes to worse, it's fodder to pitch to a late Smallpox.
2 Necroplasm - There was a time that I took Necroplasm out of the sideboard, at which point I almost immediately walked into a series of decks playing Glare of Subdual, Thelonite Druid, or Empty the Warrens. Back went Necroplasm, which I've also tried siding in against the discard-based decks like Rack and morph-based decks. Anyway, this is one of those sideboard slots that is rarely relevant but that becomes critical in a few narrow matchups that are otherwise unwinnable.
2 Soul Spike – Once - but only once - have I drawn Soul Spike with Dark Confidant, which may mean I should lessen my fear of using those Delirium Skeins spots for Mindslicer. Anyway, Soul Spike is important against hyper-aggressive beatdown decks. I've also experimented siding it in against Dragonstorm, but that only seems to delay my death by a turn. I hate that Soul Spike removes the cards from the game, obviously, but I've won a lot of concessions with a well-timed Soul Spike so I guess I can't complain.
Cards I've tested that didn't make it into either the maindeck or sideboard: Avatar of Discord, Bad Moon, Blackmail, Brain Pry, Cremate, Cry of Contrition, Curse of the Cabal, Dauthi Slayer, Execute, Garza's Assassin, Last Gasp, Nether Traitor, Nightmare Void, Nightshade Assassin, Persecute, Phyrexian Arena, Rakdos Guildmage, Ravenous Rats, Slay, Stinkweed Imp, and Stupor. If it's not on that list, I never tried it, either because I didn't think it fit my deck or because I didn't think it fit any deck. I feel like I at least contemplated every Black and colorless card in Standard, though... So much so that I might be able to recite the list by memory to you right now.
Black Knights: Mutterings of a Dunderhead
You may wonder one of three things now that I've talked about why the deck looks the way it does. All three are very legitimate questions:
Question 1: Why stay Mono-Black?
Believe it or not, Black/White is only the third most tempting color combination for me when thinking about adding a second color. Sure, White brings Flagstones of Trokair, Mortify, Knight of the Holy Nimbus, Paladin En-Vec, Leonin Skyhunter, and a slew of sideboard options. To me, though, the mana requirements for a deck trying to reach both BB and WW early in the game are both untenable and unattractive. I'm sacrificing way too much consistency for what feels like only incrementally more power. It helps that I've beaten most Orzhov decks I've faced, so I'm really not attracted to Black/White no matter how good it looks on paper.
No, for me the more interesting colors to splash are either Red or Blue. Red makes the deck hyper-aggressive; it adds very good and splashable Knights in Suq'Ata Lancer and Blazing Blade Askari, burn in the form of Seal of Fire, etc., as well as both Hit and Fall. It would take a lot of trial and error, but I think a very good Black/Red Smallpox-Haakon exists for those who want to try it. Blue, on the other hand, provides the reliability engine of Compulsive Research, Looter il-Kor, and the like, which not only helps populate my graveyard with Haakon and Knights but also helps find Smallpox. Court Hussar may even be appropriate here with or without White mana. Whatever the case, the Black/Blue deck probably slows down a step or two in order to more thoroughly make use of Haakon.
As for Green, I don't see anything there that calls to me. If I'm making a Black/Green Smallpox-Haakon deck, I'm doing it to be different, not because there's a strategically good reason for it.
All of that said, I have won too many games to give up on Mono-Black. With my current deck, I only have to spend time worrying about how many lands I have instead of what type. The deck slips into action before most countermagic can compensate, and it handles multicolor “good stuff” decks in part because I can so easily and reliably cast my own spells after Smallpox. The only cards that are iffy in terms of raw power are Skulking Knight and Delirium Skeins, and even those are passable. Surprisingly, Mono-Black doesn't feel like a dead end strategy.
Perhaps a better question is:
Question 2: Why is this deck better than The Rack?
When I started playing this deck in the Tournament Practice room of Magic Online and entering Standard tournies, I was the only - and I do mean only – Mono-Black deck. After a couple of weeks, some decks started showing up with Bad Moon and aggression, but not built around the Smallpox-Haakon interactions.
Recently, a lot of people have been testing and competing with a deck that uses Smallpox, Rusalka, Confidant, Charm, and hordes of discard in conjunction with The Rack. The two decklists look remarkably similar, in fact, and I always think I'm playing a mirror match (puffing my chest with pride) until my opponent played Cry of Contrition or The Rack.
In about ten matches against The Rack, I've gone somewhere in the neighborhood of 5-5. It's almost literally a coinflip between the decks, with the person going first having a huge advantage. If they can't find The Rack, I usually win easily because a) I've played threats before discard can wipe out my hand, and b) Call to the Netherworld and Haakon actually like discard decks. If they can find The Rack, it's a race and can go either way. If they find more than one copy of The Rack, I lose badly, unable to race with my weenies.
After Planar Chaos and Damnation, I begrudgingly think that The Rack strategy might actually be more effective because it seems to me that deck's key weakness is the lack of a reset button. Until then, I have no idea which deck to recommend, since I don't know how The Rack matches up against other strategies than mine. Of course I'm sticking with my pet deck, but I can't honestly see an airtight argument one way or the other.
Speaking of matchups, you may be wondering...
Question 3: How does this deck match up against the field?
Here is where I show that I haven't really stayed close to competitive Magic. I've played against every viable archetype in Standard dozens of times over the past couple months and have played in at least one tournament every week, but I couldn't tell you which deck falls under what category or give you a good sense of the metagame. As a result, I'm not going to spend an inordinate amount of time obsessing about each matchup's ins and outs and give true win percentages. I'm just going to draw upon my experience playing Black Knights and tell you my impressions from one side of the table.
Actually, I don't even have a good grasp of what “the field” looks like on my own. I'm relying on Frank Karsten's analysis to guide my way, which will probably even be out of date by the time this article airs. Here are the top decks online according to Frank (he has links to decklists in his article) and my experience playing them. Feel free to tell me I'm wrong or to suggest improvements to how I play/sideboard these.
Versus Boros Deck Wins
According to Frank this is the top deck online right now, which is good news because it is by far Black Knight's easiest matchup. I have too much removal for them, I can keep them from gaining life via Rusalka (who can also kill most of their creatures), and Stromgald Crusader can give them fits. Flagstones is annoying but ultimately irrelevant. The only way a Boros deck has a chance, to be honest, is if they aim their burn right at my face and draw a Giant Solifuge or two. After sideboarding, I drop my maindeck Skeins and abandon Haakon (the games are never long enough for him to matter) and two Skulking Knights for Deathmark, Darkblast, and Soul Spike. They side in Paladin En-Vec and Worship, which sounds bad but are both easy to handle given my avalanche of removal.
This isn't empty boasting; I have beaten far better players than me in this matchup, consistently and repeatedly. If Boros is rampant in your neck of the woods, consider playing Black Knights.
Here's a dumb comment: If the games goes long, TriscuitTron is much more likely to win. This means that the way to play this deck is aggressively, which sometimes means I overextend into a Wrath of God. If they can stay on their heels and tap out for things like Teferi, Tidings, or Triskelavus, though, that's a sign that things are going well. Smallpox is the most critical card here, since it helps keep them from getting Urzatron going and/or the Blue mana necessary for Teferi, while heavy discard is the other important ingredient.
Even with a ‘Pox or two, Game 1 is less than a 50-50 proposition, though. Things get slightly worse after sideboarding, since they bring in extra copies of Wrath, Fetters, and Spell Snare, whilst all I have is two Skeins and a Shadow of Doubt for three Edicts. The best advantage I've had on my side is surprise, since most opponents can't figure out my deck real-time. Still, if Boros is the best matchup, TriscuitTron is one of the worst (but not the worst... see below).
Versus U/G Scryb & Force
This matchup feels like it should be easier than it is, even though right now it feels like I'm winning two-thirds of my matches against this deck. The logic from Boros should extend here, right? After all, I have just as much relevant removal versus U/G as I do versus W/R, pre- and post-sideboarding. The differences, though, are twofold. First, they have mana acceleration critters, which means I really rely on a Turn 1 Rusalka going first or a Turn 2 Charm going second. If those little critters survive, not only do I fall behind quickly but they also have disposable creatures for Smallpox and Edict. A surprise Scryb Sprite blocks and kills almost all of my creatures, and Spectral Force is almost never fun.
The good news is that I usually can kill their mana dudes, which puts them at a speed I can handle. My creatures easily slip through their countermagic, and they can rarely muster the mana to make Mystic Snake or Spectral Force matter. They have Serrated Arrows to sideboard in, while I have Deathmark, Darkblast, Soul Spike, and Necroplasm, making Games 2 and 3 a lot more lopsided in my favor. All in all, I find playing this deck consistently more stressful than I think it deserves, but still slanted in my direction.
Versus U/B Pickles
The good news here is that their deck is slow and incredibly mana intensive. They have to tap out for morph creatures, and it takes a good long while for Brine Elemental to matter. When they unmorph Fathom Seer they've made Smallpox even more crippling, and once again it's fairly easy to slip threats through their countermagic. Repeal is a bummer, as is Teferi, but the match really comes down to how well they can find and use Desert. This is the one match where my sideboarding probably isn't very defined. I usually lose some combination of Wretch and Knights for Skeins, Necroplasm, and Soul Spike. I'd sort of like siding Shadow of Doubt as well, but using them feels like pulling too much of the deck's core for them.
After Worlds, Dragonstorm decks were everywhere and I had no sideboard to combat them except Delirium Skeins (which they countered with Ignorant Bliss). It was by far my worst matchup and I seriously began thinking of my deck as obsolete with Dragonstorm's rise in popularity. Once someone on the Message Boards suggested Shadow of Doubt, suddenly things turned in my favor. Now I feel very confident that I can beat Dragonstorm consistently.
Playing against Dragonstorm in Game 1 doesn't look any different from other games. Put pressure on an opponent, Smallpox, attack, attack, attack. This only results in a win about a third of the time and is wholly dependent upon who went first and whether they had a good draw or bad. For Games 2 and 3, I lose Edict and two Rusalkas for extra Skeins and Shadow of Doubt. Here the games look very different. Because they have Pyroclasm, I drop a threat or two and attack until they deal with it. All the while I'm keeping two mana back, because a dumb opponent will either never see Shadow of Doubt coming or will walk into Funeral Charm with nine mana in their pool. I'm also looking for them to tap out so I can play Skeins without fear of Ignorant Bliss. Withered Wretch ends up being really important for disrupting Rite of Flame. The end result is that I never, ever tap out against Dragonstorm, and I often mulligan until I have some combination of Shadow, Charm, and Wretch.
Versus Dralnu du Louvre
I've either been lucky against this deck or have played inferior opponents. My creatures consistently slip through countermagic and removal, my Smallpoxes hurt them badly, my Wretches severely hamper them, and my own removal handles Teferi and Dralnu easily. The times I've lost have been to Skeletal Vampire, which is clearly tough for an Edict-based deck to handle. The good news is that Rusalka and Charm can pick off Bats, leaving my opponent open to Edict or Smallpox. In fact, this matchup more than any feels like a war of attrition, where we're both in topdeck mode at some point. The difference is that I usually have a creature on the board and/or Haakon in the graveyard. Anyway, I've never lost to the creature Dralnu even when I've lost the game.
When I sideboard here, it's usually to drop Skulking Knight, one Haakon, and two Edicts for Skeins and Shadow of Doubt. The danger is that they're bringing in Persecute, so I often Smallpox or Skeins when they get close to four mana regardless of my board position. Playing against this deck means playing thoughtfully, but I haven't found it to be as difficult as it looks on paper (it's sort of the inverse of U/G in this regard).
Okay, two more quick ones:
Versus Panda Connection
Mostly this matchup is easy because of the number of one-toughness creatures they use thanks to Funeral Charm and Plagued Rusalka. Where things get difficult is if they hit a big Martyr or get Ghost Council going with creatures to spare. Their discard matters a little thanks to Castigate, and Fetters can be no fun if I haven't kept a mana back with Rusalka. Mostly, though, Stromgald Crusader, loads of creature removal on my part, and discard help keep these games very winnable. I usually side out my two Skeins and a Skulking Knight for Darkblast and two Deathmarks if the first game was close. If I won in a landslide, then I side in my two additional Skeins and two Deathmark because they're likely going transformative on me and adding Wraths, Angels, etc.
Honestly, I don't think I can beat any deck that has Wildfire in it. Any time Wildfire resolves, it completely wipes out my side of the table, and climbing back with Haakon is next to impossible. Add Demonfire, Pyroclasm, and Serrated Arrows coming in from the sideboard and things get even more hopeless. I've only beaten Izzetron because of luck or very bad play from my opponents. The same goes for almost any U/R Wildfire deck, including one with Magnivore. Let me repeat so this is very clear: I. Cannot. Win. Here. Thankfully Wildfire decks are relative rarities in Standard right now.
So, after all of that analysis, do I think Black Knights is a Tier 1 deck? Pff. No. I think it's a pet deck that can smack Boros silly and can compete with other popular decks without shame. This makes it a Tier 2 or probably more like Tier 3 deck, which is fine with me. I've now split in the finals in four Standard 8-man tournaments out of eleven tries, being eliminated in the first round twice. Given my own play skill, those feel like pretty good results for a home-brewed rogue deck.
Black Knights: What Chaos Brings
Carrying a pet deck over after the release of a new set is tricky business. Often it takes just as much work as getting to the final version of the original deck for two big reasons. First, new cards usually shake up the synergies in the deck enough that a lot of trial and error is necessary to figure out what fits, what takes the deck in new directions, and what simply doesn't make sense. Second, every other deck in the environment is changing, including the spawning of new decks, so what was once a good maindeck or sideboard card now needs rethinking, etc. The result is that whatever decklist I come up with after Planar Chaos becomes a good, solid draft to begin this process all over again rather than just iteration on what I've already done.
Below are the cards from Planar Chaos that I think are worth testing in Black Knights. The caveats here are a) I'm assuming the deck stays Mono-Black, so I'm only looking at the Black cards and Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth (which isn't on the list, even with Funeral Charm in my deck), b) The initial month following Planar Chaos will tell us all a lot about which cards are better than we think and which worse, c) I'm saying “worth testing,” so I'm casting a pretty wide net here, and d) as I said, because of Damnation, I'm not sure The Rack isn't the better way to go with a Mono-Black Smallpox-based deck.
Big Game Hunter - This is the card I wanted Nightshade Assassin to be when I tried it in place of Nether Traitor. Could it replace Cruel Edict? Withered Wretch? Some combination of both? Part of the answer will be how much decks in Standard rely on their graveyards and how many targetable creatures of cost four or less exist. I am tremendously comforted knowing that this card exists, though, and I'm sure it can find a place in my deck in the right Standard environment. The only downside is that it adds yet another one-toughness creature to a deck that tries not to fold to Desert. If there is one thing that will keep Big Game Hunter on the sidelines, it is its combat stats.
Dash Hopes - My deck is still proactive instead of reactive, and I still don't like holding two mana back in any matchup besides Dragonstorm. What's worse, I think Dash Hopes is either a maindeck card or bust, because sideboard cards need to do their job with certainty rather than condition. That said, I could imagine this having a place in my sideboard somewhere if I squint. See my comments below for why.
Dunerider Outlaw - Does this replace Deathmark in the sideboard? Does it replace Withered Wretch or Skulking Knight in the maindeck? These are questions best answered after testing, but on the whole I'm wary since the Outlaw doesn't kill Spectral Force and Wretch feels like it causes more disruption. Maybe I finally drop Skulking Knight for these, but of course this begs the question of why there couldn't be a single Black Knight in Planar Chaos. I'm completely convinced that someone in Development harbors a secret hatred of Haakon. If Dunerider Outlaw had been a Knight I would be doing backflips right now.
Extirpate - Wonky cardname aside, certainly if Standard begins to slant towards the graveyard as a resource, Extirpate becomes a sideboard card for my deck. This is also a great option against control decks with very few win conditions. I guess I should also fear that it exists, since I can see many a ‘Pate targeting Haakon in the future.
Midnight Charm - Yay for a new cycle of Charms! This is a tempo card, and my deck is a tempo deck. I can see using the damage option both as creature removal and to lessen the sting of Confidant, and both the first strike and tapping options to ensure my creatures are winning the red zone. The real question is: Can this coexist with Funeral Charm? I'm pretty sure that it doesn't replace Funeral Charm because of my deck's appreciation for instant-speed discard. Is this better than Call to the Netherworld? It's worth thinking through.
Temporal Extortion - Remember everything I said about not wanting to use four-cost cards in my deck because of mana requirements and Dark Confidant? Planar Chaos seriously challenges this logic. Temporal Extortion looks positively juicy for a deck like mine. Sure, giving an opponent a choice is usually something you want to avoid in competitive Magic, but it's hard to imagine either choice not working out massively in my favor. My deck relies on every point of damage and plays on the edge every turn. Temporal Extortion gives some breathing room on both counts. Unlike other decks, all of those Black mana symbols don't intimidate me at all. I have no idea what this would replace in the current deck, only that it seems like it should replace something.
Hey there... What's that other four-cost gorilla sitting over there in the corner?
Damnation - This was the first card previewed from Planar Chaos and remains the one people most want to discuss. Clearly Damnation fits a deck with Haakon perfectly, even if it does cost four mana. I can absolutely see dropping all four Cruel Edicts for a Swamp and three Damnations, with the fourth Damnation sitting around in the sideboard. If the deck makes no other improvements beyond this, it's probably a huge upgrade (I say “probably” because Edict can often slip through countermagic, something that Damnation won't do). Certainly this would be the first change I would test to the deck, and the one that would have the biggest potential payoff.
The question provoked by Damnation is whether or not Black Knights is now inferior to The Rack and whether a Haakon-Smallpox strategy isn't best by taking my foot off the acceleration pedal and focusing on a more controlish strategy. This would be a huge shift in the deck, obviously, but it might be the most successful way to make Black Knights viable post-Planar Chaos. Haakon and Crusader may very well be the only creatures in such a deck, along with a finisher like Plague Sliver. Smallpox, Damnation, Arena, and discard could round it out. I dunno... I'm seeing it a little too clearly for it to work out the way I think it should. Another option (circling back to my Dash Hopes foreshadowing above) is to use a transformative sideboard with aggressive Haakon the maindeck and control Haakon in the sideboard. Whatever the case, I get the feeling that pure aggro-Knights might have had its day.
In summary, the absence of a good Black Knight in Planar Chaos really hurts this deck, and the best cards seem to be out of the current deck's mana-curve. The result is that I can see tinkering with the deck's support cards with things like Big Game Hunter, Midnight Charm, and Dunerider Outlaw, but in order to a) be viable in comparison with The Rack, and b) accommodate the big guns - Damnation and Temporal Extortion - the deck will need to change its core.
Whew. I'm spent. Catharsis accomplished. Hopefully you enjoyed a relatively exhaustive look at my pet deck. I may still be playing the deck once in awhile, but it's probably time for me to move onto a new deck or otherwise do something else for awhile.
Speaking of which...
A Note On Tribal Standard
Some of you may have scratched your heads with my introduction because I made no mention of my ten Tribal Standard articles for StarCityGames.com (you can find them in my archives). It's true that for awhile I took the sting out of not writing a weekly column by playing and writing about the wonderful format of Tribal Standard. In fact, Tribal Standard remains one of my favorite ways to play Magic when I'm just playing “for fun.”
The problem was that I put a huge amount of effort into those articles with very little return (and I'm not talking financial... I write these StarCityGames articles pro bono). They were buried on the bottom of the page, few people read them, and fewer commented in the Forums. Worse: I didn't see a significant increase in the number of casual games available online, which meant that I was often waiting around for minutes to play a single game. At some point I realized that I could spend this time on non-Magic pursuits and accomplish more from a life satisfaction standpoint. This led me to think about non-Magic stuff, which was where I was when Scott e-mailed me.
Will I write more Tribal Standard articles now that Going Rogue is behind me? The answer is... Probably not.
As much as I hate to admit it, a lot of my Magic playing these days is driven by writing deadlines, either editor- or self-imposed (this is partly why my love affair with Black Knights has been so extraordinary). Without a big audience out there wanting Tribal Standard articles, it's hard to imagine me writing many more of them. To make matters worse, it's going to be hard to get airtime on StarCityGames.com at all thanks to their new format (a format that I think will pay huge dividends to you, the reader, by the way). If Tribal Standard somehow takes center stage as a format, I'll be there gleefully playing and writing about it. At least for now, though, I don't see me leading the charge.
For now, it's time for me to dive back into “Peanut” names and flavor text, to play some long-overdue City of Heroes with Talen Lee, maybe outline a short story, and then gear up for Going Rogue 2. Look for another catharsis article some day after that, assuming you liked this one.
Think hard and have fun,
(currently GoingRogue on Magic Online)