Dark Devotion: Critters and Critter Removal

Posted in Building on a Budget on April 25, 2005

By Jay Moldenhauer-Salazar

Howdy! It seems folks have enjoyed the beginnings of the Dark Devotion evolution. Interestingly, people seem to think this deck has farther to go than the Ninjutsu deck and that I have a harder task ahead of me to make a playable Ogre-Demon deck.

In many ways, those people are correct. I have found myself during this experiment having a harder time with my decisions about what to add to the deck because it feels like there are lots of possible paths to take.

For that reason, I seriously considered extending this series by a week and making, shall we say, a right turn in deck design. I waffled a lot in my mind, eventually deciding that I would stick to making a fairly straightforward black/red deck with a healthy “Paths Not Taken” section next week. Whether that means a less-effective final deck remains to be seen, but hopefully you'll still enjoy both the journey and final result.

Speaking of which, here is where we left off last week...

Dark Devotion v.1.2

Download Arena Decklist

As you know from last week, I still wonder about the inclusion of four Bloodthirsty Ogres and whether Wayfarer's Bauble is enough mana acceleration. The only way to answer these questions is to play the deck and see what happens, so here goes.

Incidentally, thanks to all of you who sent me e-mail or posted on the Message Boards saying how much you like the game-log sections of these articles. The game logs are staying for the foreseeable future.

Blood Speaker
Game 11: Blue-black Ninjas

This looked to be a deck pretty similar to Nate's Ninja deck, complete with Trinket Mage and Ink-Eyes action. I attacked with Hearth Kami, then Takenuma Bleeder. His Sage Owl turned into a Ninja of the Deep Hours, but I kept having a blocker for the Ninja after its first hit. Blood Speaker found Yukora while Torrent of Stone blasted a Okiba-Gang Shinobi that tried to sneak its way to me. My opponent was forced to start chump blocking, and that's not ever going to win Ninjas the game. I won at 16 life.

Game 12: Green-red Arcbound deck

You know when Call for Blood is really useless? When you are facing a bunch of creatures with the Arcbound ability. I had two Takenuma Bleeders and a Scourge of Numai, but his Arcbound Workers blocked, beefing up his two Arcbound Stingers. The Stingers flew overhead to kill me while my Ogres and Demons attacked to vent their frustration. My opponent ended the game at 4 life, so at least it was close. I saw no other removal besides a lone Call for Blood in hand.

Game 13: Green-black Equip

His deck was weird, but not in a bad way. He had Diabolic Tutors to find Sword of Fire and Ice and Sword of Light and Shadow, along with Lightning Greaves. His creatures consisted of Sakura-Tribe Elder, Tangle Asp, Grimclaw Bats, and -- the kicker -- Seizan, Perverter of Truth. I guess he used at least one copy of Bloodscent, too. Anyway, two Hearth Kami killed both of his Tutored-for Swords while a Bloodthirsty Ogre with two devotion counters kept his creatures in check thanks to the presence of Painwracker Oni. My Oni and Seizan killed each other, but Scourge of Numai joined the table and I was eventually able to power through his defenses with two Takenuma Bleeders and the Scourge. I had Mark of the Oni in hand ready to use, but apparently he had Naturalize in hand so it wouldn't have mattered.

Heartless Hidetsugu
Game 14: Red-green Kiki-Jiki Fecundity

I thought for sure that I would die to a polished deck like his, especially when he used Time of Need to find Kumano, Master Yamabushi. But I dropped him to 9 life using Heartless Hidetsugu's ability, then stole Kumano with Mark of the Oni. I attacked with Hidetsugu and a Frost Ogre, but he had Wear Away for the Mark. Still, that just meant he blocked my Ogre with his Kumano and dropped to 5 life. My opponent recast Kumano via Eternal Witness, but I had two Bloodthirsty Ogres to rush him for the win. I ended the game at 10 life, all from the one Hidetsugu activation.

Game 15: White Weenie Equip

Now this was a thoroughly entertaining game, but probably just for me. My opponent had Leonin Elder wielding a Bonesplitter. I took one hit from the Elder before dropping Scourge of Numai. Then I stole his Elder with Mark of the Oni and started my attack. He played Loxodon Warhammer, but I killed his Leonin Skyhunter with Torrent of Stone before he could equip it. His next Skyhunter let my attack through, dropping him to 4 life. After my attack, I played Hearth Kami to kill his Warhammer and draw the concession. Thanks to Scourge damage, I ended the game at 8 life.

A Look At Removal

The deck is still performing pretty well, it seems. As I said last week, though, the part I am most concerned about at this stage is the choice of creature-removal cards. Settle in, because I think this decision is going to take me awhile...

Here are, I think, the reasonable choices for creature removal in Standard today for a black-red deck. As you can see, there are a lot of choices:

That's quite a list, but I'm going to throw out a few rules from my experience so far that will narrow it considerably:

First, the deck's mana curve is high enough already that I don't want any of the five-or-more cards. The creature removal is meant to be cast early to clear the way for blockers, and anything that costs five mana isn't performing that job well enough. I do think I can afford some X-spells that can be used either early or late, but the flat-out expensive cards can sit on the bleachers for now.

Second, I'm going to say that any removal either needs to kill the creature outright (the black cards) or deal at least three damage to the creature. I say this because any two-toughness creature is likely going to get crushed beneath Ogre and Demon feet anyway. Look at some of the creatures I've needed to kill so far: Takeno, Samurai General; Nagao, Bound By Honor; Kumano, Master Yamabushi; Seizan, Perverter of Truth; 3/3 and 4/4 Arcbound Stingers...the deck would lose to these cards with a two-damage option. I'm sure some people will disagree with this assessment, which is fine. In my mind, I need at least three damage if the removal is red, if not four.

Third, I'm going to rule out cards with double mana (either double-black or double-red) in their cost. I know I'm being a bit of purist here, but I want to minimize the mana issues my two-color deck encounters as much as possible. Once the decklist becomes more stable and I know my mana base, I will reconsider this rule. For now, though, single-colored mana costs only.

Rend Spirit
That leaves:

I can drop Shrapnel Blast since the deck isn't currently using enough artifacts to support it. Rend Spirit is too specialized to use maindeck. Throat Slitter is rarely going to have an unblocked attacker from which to benefit and I don't particularly want to recast my expensive fatties. Consume Spirit might as well have double-black in its cost so it's out. Since I'm not splicing it, Torrent of Stone is strictly worse than Lightning Blast, and Blaze is a poor imitation of Fireball.

After this round of culling, I have...

These cards each kill most of the creatures I've faced so far, although only Fireball kills them all (needing six mana to kill Seizan). I'm willing to say that any of these are acceptable to use in the six slots I currently have set aside for creature removal. What I do know is this...

Call for Blood
OUT: 2 Call for Blood

Call for Blood is by far the easiest card to drop from the deck at this point. I suppose it can be useful if I happen to have five mana available, if I happen to have an extra creature around, and if that creature happens to have power greater than or equal to an opposing creature's toughness. That's a lot of “ifs,” which is why I've found Call for Blood rarely useful. Its best use is when an opponent has two creatures and one of them is blocking (and killing) one of mine because I can use Call for Blood once damage is already on the stack. That's pretty narrow, though.

OUT: 2 Torrent of Stone

I really want to badmouth Torrent of Stone. I want to say something like “you're no Fireblast,” or “for half the mana I get Volcanic Hammer.” Despite my instincts, though, Torrent of Stone has been very respectable removal up until this point. Every time I've cast Torrent of Stone, it has killed a creature, and every time I've drawn it I've cast it. My success with Torrent of Stone, in fact, had me seriously ponder Lightning Blast in my deck, which is never something I would have predicted at the outset of this experiment. Still, it remains a card I've never spliced, and without splicing, it should either be Lightning Blast or something else.

OUT: 2 Swallowing Plague

Yes, Swallowing Plague is a fine card. Yes, the life gain is often useful to counteract the early damage I take or the life-loss from Scourge of Numai and Takenuma Bleeder. And, yes, the flexibility of an X-spell is nice for a deck that can sometimes produce respectable mana. Swallowing Plague is awfully expensive, though, and can't hit opponents directly. As combomaster pointed out on the Message Boards last week, “Swallowing Plague really isn't worth anything without massive acceleration. The damage at four mana is 2, half of Torrent of Stone.” Basically, if I only want to hit creatures, I want something cheaper that is more often going to kill them. If I want an X-spell, I want Fireball.

So now, which to pick from my culled list of removal cards above?

IN: 3 Rend Flesh

My gut from many, many games in the Casual Constructed room of Magic Online is that Rend Flesh is the most reliable, splashable creature removal I can find. It's not perfect, of course, but I think it will kill almost all of the cards I want dead. The primary exceptions are the Champions of Kamigawa Dragons, Hokori, Dust Drinker, and a few smaller threats such as Zuberas, Tallowisp, etc. Ironically, too, if I face another Demon deck I'm probably sunk. Still, I'm willing to use it as my primary creature elimination to see what frustrations, if any, it creates.

IN: 3 Fireball

As I said, I was sorely tempted to play Lightning Blast here. The reason I didn't is that sometimes I want to deal with multiple smaller threats, and using Lightning Blast on a Leonin Elder, for example, is like swatting a mosquito with a tree. Fireball has all of the flexibility of Swallowing Plague, and what it loses in life gain it makes up for in the ability to hit multiple targets and to deal damage directly to an opponent. This last reason is the biggie, in my mind.

Basically, I knew I wanted some red direct-damage removal because I'll often want to finish an opponent with it. I was also unwilling to have all of my removal in a single color since I don't want to automatically lose to a Sword of Fire and Ice, for example. Finally, I wanted some of my removal to be instant speed. Add all of these considerations together and the Rend Flesh/Fireball combo seems like the right choice, at least for now.

Whew. Sorry to spend so much time thinking through six cards in the deck. Honestly, though, they were six cards that gave me a lot of pause. A lot of people on the Message Boards seem to like two-damage cards like Magma Jet, Glacial Ray, Echoing Decay, and Pyrite Spellbomb, but, as I said, I feel safer dealing three or more damage. Other folks like Eradicate and Hideous Laughter, which are certainly options I can consider further down the road.

Here we are:

Dark Devotion v.1.3

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Game 16: 5-Color Artifacts

I had a Wayfarer's Bauble, allowing a third-turn Blood Speaker. The Speaker hit once while I played Heartless Hidetsugu. Etched Oracle showed up to block for my opponent, equipped with Lightning Greaves. I sacrificed my Speaker to find Yukora. He played Sakura-Tribe Elder. I used Hidetsugu's ability once, twice, and then aimed a Fireball right to my opponent's face for five damage to end the game. Yay Fireball!

Zo-Zu the Punisher
Game 17: Monored

He had Chrome Mox for a quick Zo-Zu the Punisher. Uh oh. I had Wayfarer's Bauble to get a third-turn Scourge of Numai, but no Ogre to go with it. Double uh oh. Two Lava Spikes with spliced Glacial Ray plus my own Scourge damage ate away at my life quickly. I finally found Bloodthirsty Ogre, but that pesky one-toughness came back to bite me and it died to the Glacial Ray. I died next, with my opponent at 10 life.

Game 18: Green-blue-red Snakes

Chalk another win up to Heartless Hidetsugu. His deck dropped a number of Orochi Leafcallers, Sakura-Tribe Springcallers and Sakura-Tribe Elders, then used Time of Need to find Sachi, Daughter of Seshiro. I hit once with Scourge of Numai, then played Painwracker Oni. My Oni ate my Scourge, dropped my opponent to 9 life, then I played Hidetsugu. My opponent had a crazy turn, hard-casting Myojin of Seeing Winds, drawing 14 cards, playing Myojin of Life's Web, then unloading a hoard of creatures. It all would have killed me had he attacked the next turn, but I used Hidetsugu's ability to put my opponent at 5 life, then attacked with my Oni for the win. It's worth noting that I held a Rend Flesh the whole game without seeing a prime opportunity to use it.

Game 19: Blue-white Wizards

I think my opponent had some mana issues. He found Graceful Adept and two Jushi Apprentices, even able to Test of Faith once for a 4/5 Apprentice. But I had Scourge of Numai, Bloodthirsty Ogre, and Frost Ogre. My fatties attacked while my Bloodthirsty Ogre found two devotion counters and started wreaking havoc with his potential chump-blockers. He dug into his library with Counsel of the Soratami and Concentrate, but was overrun pretty quickly. I won at 18 life.

Game 20: Monoblack Control

The game took awhile, but it wasn't close. His Distress picked off a Hearth Kami. My first Scourge of Numai died to Swallowing Plague. My second Scourge died to Consume Spirit. My next four creatures died to two Echoing Decays and two Rend Flesh. A Yukora, the Prisoner did a little damage but died to Phyrexian Plaguelord. I killed a second Plaguelord with my own Rend Flesh. My opponent's entwined Promise of Power gave him a 6/6 Demon token and refilled his hand. Two hits from the token and a Consume Spirit ended the game. Honestly, there was no way I was going to beat a deck with that much creature removal.

Again, the deck isn't performing badly. I seem to be in that middle ground where I pound less polished decks and get pounded by more polished decks. I guess that's appropriate, actually, given when I am with this deck's evolution. Time to make a few more changes.

Searching For The Recluse

Can you feel it? Can you feel the pull to make the deck monoblack? A lot of people on the Message Boards have suggested it, and it's worth wondering aloud whether red adds anything to the deck. Now is the time I would start drifting monoblack if I was going to drift that way, but even when eyeballing the Dark Devotion decklist, before playing a single game, I felt like one card -- a red card -- was a foregone conclusion...

Ogre Recluse
IN: 4 Ogre Recluse

Perhaps my perception is tainted by the many Sealed Deck and Draft games decided by an Ogre Recluse, but I have to believe that a deck built around Ogres and Demons has to love a splashable, four-mana creature with 5/4 stats. There are some decks -- Dampen Thought or burn decks come to mind -- that will be able to reliably tap him turn after turn, but most decks are going to look on helplessly as the Recluse smashes face. Even when he's tapped, he will force my opponent to play cards before I attack instead of either during combat or at the end of my turn. People have badmouthed the Recluse, but it seems to me that if Takenuma Bleeder is Standard's best three-mana Ogre, Ogre Recluse is the best at four mana.

It's ironic when reading Ogre Recluse's flavor text that an Ogre who has shunned blood magic would find a home in a Demon deck. It just goes to show you can't escape corruption in a black-red deck.

Now, what do I drop to make room for the mighty Recluse?

OUT: 1 Initiate of Blood

I like Initiate of Blood because I like flip cards. In fact, I've spent a good amount of time tapping my lip and pondering decks built around Initiate of Blood. In a deck trying to be aggressive and flex its muscles, though, Initiate of Blood is just an ineffective beater. I think the best comparison is to say that it costs the same as Ogre Recluse. Compare the stats between the two, think about how often the Initiate's ability helps decide the outcome of a game (or even how often he flips into Goka the Unjust), and this is an easy decision.

OUT: 1 Shinka Gatekeeper

Again, nothing bad about Shinka Gatekeeper per se, except that there are better options either at three mana or in red. If the deck were monored, then Shinka Gatekeeper would be more attractive. Takenuma Bleeder, Bloodthirsty Ogre, and Ogre Marauder are all better for the same cost, though. And, of course, the Gatekeeper is stepping aside for Ogre Recluse, which seems like a significant step up for my one colorless mana. Besides, in a deck with Scourge of Numai, Takenuma Bleeder, and Heartless Hidetsugu I have to draw the line somewhere about how much pain I'm willing to inflict upon myself.

OUT: 2 Frost Ogre

Frost Ogre is...big. I like that about him. Let's do the comparison with Ogre Recluse again. For one more red mana, I get one less toughness but no conditions on its ability to attack. That's not a fair trade for me, especially since my meager mana acceleration is meant to power out a four-mana creature. If I'm wrong about Ogre Recluse and its drawback becomes prohibitive, I might switch back to Frost Ogre. I'm not expecting it's a change I'll regret, though.

Those changes are fairly straightforward, but there is another tweak I want to make to the deck...

OUT: 2 Painwracker Oni

Painwracker Oni is the last “self-sacrifice” card left in the deck. As I've said, I find myself hating self-sacrifice cards without a clear way to abuse them in my deck. I didn't mention it, but in Game 20 my opponent got an easy 2-for-1 by killing my Bloodthirsty Ogre and waiting for Painwracker Oni to kill itself. I don't doubt Painwracker's ability to win games if he has an Ogre accomplice, but I think if I had to choose between him and Gutwrencher Oni that I would choose Gutwrencher. My deck doesn't mind the discard overly much, and trample isn't a terrible step down from fear. Instead of Gutwrencher Oni, however, I would rather have another copy of Yukora, the Prisoner.

Yukora, the Prisoner
IN: 1 Yukora, the Prisoner

Let's not kid ourselves: Yukora, the Prisoner is the single most powerful card in this deck and is also the most expensive to obtain. For some reason a minority of people have disliked him because they see his drawback as unnecessarily harsh. Look at my deck, though. I'm only running Scourge of Numai and Hearth Kami as the non-Ogre creatures in my deck. In 20 games, I've never lost another creature when Yukora died. That means he's a 5/5 for four mana, which is excellent. Perhaps if cost weren't an issue, I would start with a Demon deck that used four copies of Yukora and was monoblack. Starting with Dark Devotion and thinking about deckbuilding on a budget, though, has me comfortable with red in the deck and two copies of Yukora. I really want that second copy in here, though.

As a side note, if I'm really serious about evolving a preconstructed deck I usually buy two copies of it. That way I automatically have many of the commons and uncommons I need to flesh out the deck and I have a second copy of whatever rare I particularly like. In this case, it's nice to have two copies of both Yukora and Heartless Hidetsugu since both are fun, powerful rares. With two Dark Devotion decks, I think you can have a ready-made 60-card deck that's pretty decent, but maybe that's a topic for a future column.

IN: 1 Blood Speaker

There are pros and cons to Blood Speaker in the deck. On the pros, he is effectively another copy of Yukora because he can search out one of my two copies. His recursive ability is also nice and helps ensure that even late in the game I might not run out of steam. On the cons, he is by far the slowest card in a deck trying its very best to win quickly. In other words, it's a card with utility in a deck too aggressive to care about utility. Since there is already one in the deck and I've liked drawing it so far, I'm willing to give Blood Speaker the benefit of the doubt and try a second copy. In the end, I'll decide where he stays or whether the two Blood Speakers become something else.

Dark Devotion v.1.4

Download Arena Decklist

Let's see what happens...

Game 21: Green-red Aggro

Unfortunately for my opponent, the only reason I know he had red in his deck is because he showed me his hand afterwards. All he played was Forests, Vine Trellis, and Horned Troll. A Lure dropped onto the Troll, and my opponent had three Predator's Strikes in hand. Still, I had a Bloodthirsty Ogre with devotion counters, a Scourge of Numai and Ogre Recluse smashing face, and eventually a Blood Speaker to search out Yukora, the Prisoner. That was too much beef even for a regenerating Troll (who eventually succumbed to Bloodthirsty Ogre, anyway). His hand showed Blaze and Spikeshot Goblin.

Takenuma Bleeder
Game 22: White Weenie

This was a close game, albeit fairly boring. My opponent played two Lantern Kami, three Diving Griffin, a Slith Ascendant and Hokori, Dust Drinker. I played a Bloodthirsty Ogre, two Takenuma Bleeders, and two Ogre Recluses. We bashed on each other, my Bloodthirsty Ogre gaining four devotion counters and praying for a Demon. I used Rend Flesh on his Ascendant and he eventually chump-blocked with most of his creatures, but on the turn before I would have run him over, his lone remaining creature -- a Diving Griffin -- soared overhead for the win. My opponent ended the game at 2 life.

Game 23: Monogreen Snakes

He had a gaggle of Snakes, including Orochi Sustainer, Sakura-Tribe Elder, Sakura-Tribe Springcaller, Seshiro the Anointed, and Sakiko, Mother of Summer, the last two via Time of Need. I killed Seshiro with Rend Flesh, and otherwise a Takenuma Bleeder, a Bloodthirsty Ogre with two devotion counters, and a Scourge of Numai were too much for my opponent. He conceded with me at 17 life.

Game 24: Green-black Spawning Pit

I'm not entirely sure what was going on with my opponent's deck except that he used Sakura-Tribe Elders, Spawning Pit, Grafted Wargear, Kodama's Reach, and two Honden. Whatever the case, he double-Wargeared two different Elders, but I had Rend Flesh for both which allowed my Yukora, the Prisoner (summoned via Blood Speaker) to attack unhindered. I had about a hundred different ways to win the game in hand (Mark of the Oni, Fireball, Scourge of Numai, my third Rend Flesh), but Yukora and an attacking Bloodthirsty Ogre was all I needed. I had a slow start mana-wise this game, stuck on two Mountains for a turn until a Wayfarer's Bauble saved me.

Kuro, Pitlord
Game 25: Black-green Demons

My opponent's deck is worth crowing about. treybug_53 played me, sporting a Demon deck with Bottle Gnomes, Hana Kami, arcane spells such as Wear Away, Kodama's Reach, Soulless Revival, and Rend Flesh, and lots of mana acceleration. The deck had a full four Blood Speakers to find Kuro, Pitlord. Once Kuro was on the table, treybug_53 figured, he pretty much couldn't lose. His deck worked like a dream, too. I put on a little pressure, but when Kuro hit the table everything grounded to a halt. He had plenty of life (plus a Bottle Gnomes) to kill all of my creatures and it only took two hits from Kuro to finish me. I prayed for Mark of the Oni to give me a dramatic comeback but it was not to be.

That's 10-5 today, facing some good decks and experiencing some close losses. So, does the deck need a lot of work? That's for you to discuss on the Message Boards. Speak up, and if you've been playing along at home and want to post your own polished decklist, feel free. Next week I'll wrap up Dark Devotion and look at the many, many ways in which the deck could have evolved.

Have fun!


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