Mono-black decks and I have a long history together. Since I started playing tournament Magic during the Onslaught and Torment days, I was spoiled with showstoppers like Nantuko Shade, Cabal Coffers, Mutilate, Smother, and Grinning Demon. Those were the days I was just starting to get a feel for tournament Magic, and I was deeply fascinated by Ben Stepka's Mono-Black Control deck that earned him an X-4 record and 25 booster packs at States with the following list.
4 Cabal Coffers
4 Nantuko Shade
4 Chainer's Edict
4 Diabolic Tutor
2 Haunting Echoes
4 Innocent Blood
3 Mind Sludge
2 Skeletal Scrying
2 Faceless Butcher
2 Grotesque Hybrid
3 Mesmeric Fiend
4 Rancid Earth
1 Shambling Swarm
The way the above deck won was either through a massive Nantuko Shade (obv!), Miraried Corrupt, or Haunting Echoes. Sometimes even straight up hand disruption via turn 4 Persecute versus mono-colored decks or a turn five Mind Sludge sealed the deal. This was the season of Psychatog, and Haunting Echoes was the nut against it, especially when you had enough mana via Cabal Coffers to copy it with Mirari. Usually games went long and the longer the game, the more this deck shined. There was always the possibility of a turn 4-5 kill by turning Nantuko Shade sideways and protecting it, but most of the time you swung for upwards of fifteen in one turn or destroyed their deck with Haunting Echoes.
Ben and I were just starting to get a feel for this tournament thing, and we didn't care what the metagame was or what people were playing. As a matter of fact, we probably didn't even understand the concept of metagame or match percentages. All we knew was if we had Swamps and you had creatures, we liked our odds. It was a different time back in those days. Juzam Djinn was a primetime creature and Wretched Anurid was seeing Legacy play. The concept of a 3/2 flying creature for one mana was unheard of at the time. Creature quality was not near as ridiculous as it is today, so closing out games with Nantuko Shade was the absolute nut. I wish for the day I see Cabal Coffers reprinted again, but that doesn't seem to be happening anytime soon.
I really could just sit here and ramble about the good old days, but the only thing that's going to do is make me feel old.
Fast forward to today:
Today we live in an era of creatures that are beyond anything we have ever seen before. In today's era we get three- and four-mana creatures that are just as much if not more efficient than six-mana creatures from days of old. I frequently tell people all the time that four mana is the new six mana. Today's six-mana creature quality is obscene! Look at how the Titans have had an effect on the Standard metagame. For a period of time we were playing battlecruiser, or haymaker, Magic. Fortunately, that time seems to have passed partly because of the aggressive quality of today's creatures. Creatures like Huntmaster of the Fells have immediate effect on the game state as soon as they come into play and only cost four mana!
If you look at times when mages playing black were on top, it was when they had the privilege to be in a field were players were trying to close them out in the combat zone. Creature quality is at an all time high so I feel now is a good time to showcase what mono-black can do, especially when M13 comes to town. Usually when a format has a major change like a new set coming out, people tend to venture towards aggressive strategies. The format is unexplored and people are not tuned for a particular matchup; instead, ending the game quickly and aggressively is the initial flavor. With the new format fast approaching and the return of fan favorites like Rancor, green aggressive strategies in the form of Infect, and other green beatdown plans, mono-black can prey on them.
Slow, grindy blue decks can make a midrange black strategy difficult to play. Could you imagine a field of U/B control decks grinding you out with Nephalia Drownyard? That meta would not be a very good time to play mono-black. Luckily that most likely will not be the case immediately after M13 arrives, which makes me excited to experiment.
I want to take a minute to look at some of the black cards making a return and new cards in M13 that give me some cause to get excited:
I remember the first time this card was printed; it just blew my mind! It's been a long time coming to see this card return to the Standard field. I think in mono-black decks in particular it should see plenty of play. It's the Swamp players' Day of Judgment, and what's not to love about that?
This card in particular is one of my favorite targets to hook up with a Lashwrithe. The 2/3 lifelink deathtouch vampire is definitely core set worthy. There is still plenty of equipment and cards that make this guy a living nightmare for decks that rely on creatures. On top of that, he is a Wall that trades with 99% of creatures and gains you life! I hope he gets the love he deserves.
I was so disappointed when I saw this card rotate out. Duress has always been one of my favorite cards in Magic. There is nothing like looking at someone's greedy keep and taking their best spell to top it all off. I know when I play a mono-black deck I have a lot easier time dealing with my opponent's creatures than I do their spells. This is why having access to Duress has always been an important tool for anyone playing black to have.
Giving mages who play black card advantage is a scary concept. The versatility of this card also allows for players to just flat-out kill their opponents when a Shock is needed to get the job done. Sign in Blood has been deeply missed and deserves all the attention that's coming to it.
Lords have a long history of showing up in core sets. Lord of Atlantis, Goblin King, and even Elvish Champion had their time to shine in core sets, so it only makes sense that Vampire Nocturnus joins the party (again).
I have been waiting to see what Wizards would come up with for a four-mana black planeswalker, and I definitely see potential here. She seems a lot like Koth in certain ways since she needs to be played in decks with a lot of basic Swamps and Koth needs to be played with a lot of basic Mountains. Her +1 makes you never want for mana after turn 4 and guarantees your Mutilate will be Wrath of God. All of her abilities are very powerful, and unfortunately for the greedy man in me they didn't reprint a Drain Life-type of card in M13.
With the return of some classic cards and new tools, it's made testing and brewing different styles of black decks very easy and enjoyable! Now is the perfect time to try new things when the format is not well defined (especially when the past repeats itself and a majority of the initial decks will be aggressive).
Zombies will continue to be the premier black strategy to start things off. I personally am a huge fan of B/R strategies just because Bonfire of the Damned fits in so well in the deck's game plan and is a finisher in its own right.
This version is something I am planning on playing initially
For the most part it's a very stock list; however, I am opting for Sword of Feast and Famine initially because of all the big, fat, green dinosaurs people will be playing. Especially with the return of Rancor, I expect Sword of Feast and Famine to put in some work. Sign in Blood gives the deck exactly what it needs, and with the equipment I want to live the dream swinging away with Vampire Nighthawk gaining precious life along the way.
For a more traditional mono-black deck, this list came to mind.
This version is a lot of fun to play, and I am curious to see if Phyrexian Obliterator gets better because of people moving towards fat green dudes and Bonfire of the Damned and away from Vapor Snag. There is nothing more frustrating than committing so much mana to a creature only to Time Walk yourself. However, if your opponent is staring at Phyrexian Obliterator and has no way to deal with it, he can be a game changer.
Both decks thrive off of having multiple ways of dealing with opponents' turn 1 plays, whether it's killing a mana guy or Delver of Secrets. This is a key part in keeping ahead of your opponents so you can reach your end game. Both deck's goals are to keep initial pressure off while working towards ending the game with a number of your different win conditions: Grave Titan or connecting for full value with Lashwrithe equipped to Vampire Nighthawk, and the other deck just purely overpowers with Zombies.
Love of it or hate it, one thing you have to admit is that Wizards has done a fantastic job giving players the opportunity to play Magic the way they want to, even in a tournament setting. I know players are going to stress that a particular deck is much better than the others, but fortunately card quality for a number of different strategies has greatly improved over the years. This gives guys like me who want to sleeve up 24 Swamps, battle at their local tournaments, and be successful at the same time artillery to work with. Like the Legacy format, Standard has become more and more diverse and is continuing to be more about knowing your deck than just sleeving up the best deck and expecting to overpower the field. You're better off knowing your deck and its strategies inside and out than just picking up Random Deck B because it's the "best deck" in the format.
With release events fast approaching, hopefully players mess around with different mono-black strategies. If you have some success slinging black spells, feel free to email me or share below some brews you have been working with.
Thanks for reading!