How to Build with Black

Posted in How to Build on December 6, 2016

By Jacob Van Lunen

Jacob Van Lunen began playing Magic in 1995. He has participated in organized play at every level of competition and was a member of the winning team at Pro Tour San Diego in 2007, thanks to an innovative draft strategy. As a writer, Van Lunen has had more than three hundred Magic strategy pieces published

Continuing the series begun last week, today we're covering one of the two colors left over from the series. If you haven't already, or if black mana isn't your thing, check out the articles on building with white, blue, red, and green!

But if you favor the wizardry of black cards and want to build a Standard deck around some of them, read on!

To learn everything about black, I'd suggest checking out this great piece by Mark Rosewater. In essence, black defines the world by how it affects black. To accomplish their goals, black-aligned mages seek power. Unlike all the other colors, the greed of black harbors no restrictions; black does whatever it wants to achieve its own selfish ends. Black believes that the other colors want to change the world into something it isn't. Black's ambitions are not for the world, but for black itself. Death and undeath are powerful magical forces that most other colors avoid because of taboos. Black doesn't care about social acceptability; it cares about results.

Other colors wouldn't dare embrace amorality, fear, torture, disease, and decay in good conscience—black feels compelled to. Black is willing to go so far as to inflict pain upon itself for the sake of some advantage. It's important for everyone to understand that black didn't make the world greedy. The world was already greedy; black has just learned how to thrive within it. Black has two big things on its side. One, it understands and accepts the system better than anyone else. And two, black doesn't place any restrictions on itself that might make its success more difficult. The philosophy of black is summed up well by the flavor text on one of the color's most iconic (although not Standard-legal) cards. "Greatness, at any cost."

Bob was always an ambitious child.
Bob was always an ambitious child.

So, how does black actionably illustrate this ethos in Standard? It does so by:

  • Killing things efficiently
  • Summoning powerful/under-costed creatures
  • Drawing extra cards
  • Using the graveyard as a resource
  • Forcing the opponent to discard key cards

Top Cards

These are some of the best black cards in today's competitive Standard. Let's discuss what makes these so powerful.

Grasp of Darkness may be pound-for-pound the best removal spell in Standard. It's good because just about every deck plays cards that it trades with favorably. In fact, there are few, if any, common threats that cost two mana or less that can't be dealt with by way of Grasp of Darkness. To make things even better, Grasp of Darkness is an instant, meaning that we can accrue big advantages by using it during combat or simply find other ways to put our mana to work when that killable threat on the other side of the table just hasn't been played yet. The card is especially strong against decks that use Archangel Avacyn. The ability to kill an opposing five-mana creature for two mana is often a big enough tempo advantage to get ahead of those types of decks and establish control over the game. It's probably correct to play four copies of Grasp of Darkness in just about any deck that can reliably cast the card on the second turn.


Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet is one of the most powerful creatures in Standard. Kalitas wins races with lifelink and makes our kill spells better by rewarding us with a horde of Zombies. Kalitas's 4 toughness is a lot against the mostly white and red decks in Standard, and that makes it easy to protect in those matchups. It usually feels like it's hard to lose once you untap with Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet in play. In fact, the card's presence on the battlefield is so profound that players often want to play cards like Blossoming Defense to protect it from opposing removal spells. Another way to get the maximum benefit from Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet is to play it in a deck with a lot of kill spells and save a kill spell to play alongside it on the sixth or seventh turn to hopefully take over a game.


Liliana, the Last Hope has back-breaking potential at just three mana. Sometimes the opponent has a 1-toughness creature in play and we get to play Liliana as a removal spell that represents a very big advantage over the course of a few turns. Liliana fills our graveyard to help us attain delirium or turn up the pressure with cards like Scrapheap Scrounger, Haunted Dead, and Prized Amalgam. Liliana gives us longevity by filling our hand with creatures so we can recklessly apply pressure without worrying about running out of resources. And, in the longest and most drawn out of games, we can use Liliana to create an endless stream of Zombies that will slowly squeeze the life out of the opponent over a few turns. We've already talked about Grasp of Darkness; it's definitely worth mentioning that Liliana, the Last Hope's +1 ability combines nicely with Grasp of Darkness to kill cards like Ishkanah, Grafwidow or Mindwrack Demon.


It may be an artifact, but it's one of the biggest reasons to play black mana in Standard right now. Scrapheap Scrounger gives aggressive decks a great way to apply a long-term stream of pressure on controlling opponents that are trying to win the game by killing everything. As an artifact, Scrapheap Scrounger is a great card to power up the likes of Inventor's Apprentice, Toolcraft Exemplar, and Unlicensed Disintegration. Scrapheap Scrounger is at its best in decks that can discard it for some type of immediate advantage. Some decks also use cards like Prized Amalgam alongside Scrapheap Scrounger to flood the board with an undead army while rebuilding robots.

Cards to Try

There are plenty of powerful black cards in Standard that haven't found an established home just yet. Let's take a look at some cards that have a lot of potential if you're willing to follow them down the rabbit hole.

Collective Brutality does a lot of things for a black Standard deck. First, it protects cards like Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet from the more narrow removal spells by acting as a discard spell. Second, it kills opposing first- and second-turn plays for an efficient cost. Third, the escalate cost of discarding a card can actually be used to our advantage with cards like Scrapheap Scrounger or Prized Amalgam.


A lot of people expected Voldaren Pariah to be getting a lot of playtime in competitive Standard. The card does a lot for its cost and has the ability to completely take over a game from out of nowhere when it transforms. We want to play Voldaren Pariah with efficient discard outlets and a lot of creatures to make it most effective.


Cryptbreaker is a great thing to cast in the early turns when black is forced to be more reactive. The card lets us leave open mana to use cards like Grasp of Darkness before committing to Zombie summoning and graveyard sculpting. The card is at its best in more aggressive strategies that seek to use their graveyard to some advantage.

Deck Concepts

Let's talk about some deck concepts for Standard. We'll start by discussing a concept with room for innovation and then take a look at one of the most well-established concepts in the Standard format.

Zombies

There's definitely the potential for a powerful Zombies strategy in the current Standard. After filling the graveyard with cards like Prized Amalgam, we can gain huge on-board advantages by simply activating the ability on a card like Haunted Dead or Scrapheap Scrounger. We could force through aggression with cards like Key to the City or even Smuggler's Copter while simultaneously filling up the graveyard. The strategy seems very strong against midrange opponents that will have trouble finding the right defensive plan for every line of offense this deck can put forth. If the opponent ever dares to try a racing plan of attack, they might find themselves with no board against Abolisher of Bloodlines.

Here's an innovative take on Zombies that Fnoop used to go undefeated in a Competitive Standard League on Magic Online!

Fnoop's Magic Online Zombies

Download Arena Decklist

Delirium

Black-Green Delirium has been one of the top decks in Standard since the Pro Tour. The deck combines good removal with the format's best ways to establish control before finding the perfect nail for any coffin with Traverse the Ulvenwald. Black-Green Delirium players often take a beating in the early turns while they try to establish a graveyard, then they tighten their grip on the game around turn five. One of the most important strategic plans for the current Standard is staying ahead on the board. A lot of the decks in Standard right now are much better at playing from ahead than they are from behind. The nice thing about Black-Green Delirium is that cards like Ishkanah, Grafwidow and Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet are often powerful enough to take seemingly unwinnable games and make them lopsided in the other direction.

Here's the version of Black-Green Delirium that 2015 World Champion Seth Manfield used to make it to the finals of Grand Prix Providence!

Seth Manfield's Black-Green Delirium

Download Arena Decklist

If you're looking to play complex games of Magic where even your graveyard offers up a number of options and decisions, then black may be the color for you in Standard. Get down to your local game store and start battling at the Standard Showdown!


Standard Showdown is four-week event celebrating all that is Standard, with local tournaments, cool prizes, and opportunities for bragging rights and brewing.

Looking for a Standard Showdown tournament near you? Use this locator to find your nearest store hosting one of these fun events.




 

Already been to an event and crushed it? Submit your name, decklist, record, store where you played, and any fun photos you have at standardshowdown@wizards.com or by filling out the form below.

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