Serious Black—The Necromantic Hall of Fame

Posted in ARCHIVES - ARTICLES on October 15, 2014

By Daryl Bockett

Daryl has been playing casual/multiplayer since Legends, and has been writing about it since 2010. His background is in international relations, which is why his writing focuses on theoretical and strategic issues as they apply to multiplayer. He lives in Seoul, where he is preparing for the coming zombie apocalypse.

Introduction | White | Blue | Black | Red | Green
Multicolored | Colorless and Lands | Multiplayer Hall of Fame Home

Black's best cards do what black does best: in the immortal words of Eddie Izzard, "It does death!" More specifically, black wins multiplayer games with a combination of removal, recursion, and resource management, and the hall inductees exemplify this. Casting one of these usually guarantees that you're going to have a lot more stuff, or your opponents will have a lot less, when it resolves.

Due to the way the Hall of Fame ranks cards, most of the top scorers are beefy creatures with additional effects added on (because creatures rank higher on the rattlesnake, cockroach, and gorilla axes), but if a noncreature spell makes it onto the list, that spell is to be feared.

Bruce already explained how it all works on Monday, but let me give a little bit of context before we get to the cards. Firstly, having tried to rank ten years' worth of cards in just one color, let me say that Anthony Alongi is out of his mind! Creating the hall was an epic undertaking that exceeds the limits of human endurance for which we all owe him our heartfelt gratitude, and a large adult beverage should the opportunity arise.

Secondly, the Hall of Fame is not just about the numbers (because I know that folks love to quibble about the numbers). Even if every number in the hall is wrong,[1] it is still an incredibly useful tool that gives us a way of talking about a very complex topic in a clearly defined way.

Thirdly, the Hall is not an exhaustive list of cards that are good in multiplayer; they may not even be the best cards in multiplayer. Riddle me this: which is better, the massive game-winning Demon or the Swamp that allows you to cast it? The expensive sweeper or the cheap spot removal that keeps you alive long enough to cast it? Before entering the hall for the first time, you need to understand that the animal elements define what makes cards better in multiplayer than they are in a duel; for example, they may scale with more opponents, or encourage your opponents to hurt each other instead of you, or create more value over time. Duel staples like Dark Ritual or Terror are still great in multiplayer, but they don't necessarily do as much when you're facing down a half dozen vengeful wizards.

With that, let's enter the Black Hall of no attention to the wailing of tormented souls!

Death Dealers

Many of black's best creatures appear to do the same thing, but beneath the surface there are subtle differences in what, when, and how they kill. To become a true connoisseur of death, you will need to appreciate these distinctions. For example, Reiver Demon; Havoc Demon; Kagemaro, First to Suffer; and my old friend, Dread Cacodemon, all wipe the board, but Reiver and Cocoa want to wipe out your opponents' creatures immediately and leave you with the strongest force, making them gorillas, while Havoc Demon and Kagemaro stay on the board and threaten everyone, which means they are primarily rattlesnakes.

Havoc Demon also has the benefit of eliminating or weakening many of your opponents' death triggers. Have you ever wanted to sweep the board, but couldn't because your opponent controlled a couple of Wurmcoil Engines, and you didn't want to die to those tokens? Just drop Havoc Demon before you sweep, and the -5/-5 ability will trigger after your opponents have spawned their tokens, leaving the board all clean and shiny.

Of course, the way APNAP (active player—non-active player) timing rules work, this won't work if your opponent casts the sweeper on his or her turn. But it is a useful trick nonetheless, and it highlights Havoc Demon's unique capabilities.

And I haven't even mentioned Pestilence Demon, which is a pseudo-sweeper on a stick, but is really about killing players, turning your life advantage into inevitable victory...with the side-effect of keeping your opponents' creatures off the board, or at least pointed away from you. This makes it a better rattlesnake than a gorilla, but it is even better as a cockroach. And did I mention that my two favorite Swords of Wreck and Face grant protection from black, making this Demon immune to its own sickness?

And there are so many more that attack from different angles. Avatar of Whoa!; new inductee Kalitas, Bloodchief of Ghet; Kuro, Pitlord; Fell Shepherd; Eater of Hope; and Reaper from the Abyss all offer new and interesting ways to kill your opponents' favorite toys.

Let's take a look at a few other hall-worthy cards in depth.

Extractor Demon

Extractor Demon is a great card that illustrates the difference between a gorilla and a pigeon. Some cards, like Damnation, destroy everything, so they obviously destroy more stuff if you have more opponents, but that is reflected in the gorilla ranking—hitting the board hard. You don't actually benefit more from sweeping a larger board, so Damnation doesn't count as a great pigeon. However, if you have a deck designed to take advantage of your opponents' graveyards, then Extractor Demon does benefit you more for each opponent, hence the pigeon score of 6. More dead critters causing more opponents to mill more cards to fuel more of your sorcerous shenanigans makes Extractor Demon a strong pigeon (Nighthowler, Mortivore, and Drakestown Forgotten are complementary cards that score very highly on pigeon power, and of course Rise of the Dark Realms ensures that you will ultimately triumph if the game goes long enough).

Sheoldred, Whispering One

This breaks my heart. Sheoldred, aka The Other Woman in My Life, has a way of just taking over games, and I really want her to be #1 with a bullet. Maybe she's #11 with two bullets? Alas, she has raw power, but she is missing two things that you need to dominate the animal rankings: she doesn't gain in power as you gain more opponents, and she doesn't force your opponents to make the kind of hard choices that benefit you. She makes everyone else sacrifice their creatures no matter what, so nobody has an incentive to attack anyone but you, and while her reanimation effect is wonderfully abusable, she doesn't care about any graveyard but yours, so no pigeon score there. But she'll always be #1 in my heart.

Living Death

Living Death is the strongest black sorcery, scoring the coveted 8 for both gorilla and plankton.[2] It was Abe Sargent who first pointed out to me exactly what makes Living Death so uniquely powerful: it isn't a Damnation, it isn't a Patriarch's Bidding, it is a comprehensive transformation of the battlefield. Sweepers stop you from losing, but they aren't a wincon as such. On the other hand, reanimation spells are a path to victory but they don't necessarily deal with the threats that your opponents have built up (this is the only reason why Rise of the Dark Realms didn't get the top gorilla score). Living Death turns a losing board state into a dominant one, and that's why it is king of the sorceries. It is technically symmetrical, but black excels at graveyard control, so you can usually work around this without even dedicating card slots to it—you should already have the most powerful creatures in your graveyard before you cast Living Death. Plus, I have to say that the new foil art makes it the prettiest thing in From the Vault: Annihilation!

Endless Whispers

Confession time: I'm too chicken to play Endless Whispers. Alongi was right that this is a powerful card that scales insanely well and triggers multiple times each round for free...but the results are basically out of your control. Still, if you play creatureless anyway, if you love politics ("Give me your Mulldrifter, or I'll give you my Phage the Untouchable!"), or if you just want to want to add some chaos to your black decks, then Endless Whispers is the card for you.

In fact, let's see what we can do to make Endless Whispers a little less symmetrical. We want to get double use out of our creatures, deny creatures to everyone else, and if they do get big dudes out we want to punish them for it.

Careful Whispers

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How it works: the party starts early with Rotting Rats to fill up graveyards and Exhume, Nezumi Graverobber, and Puppeteer Clique to take advantage of whatever gets discarded. Fleshbag Marauders are your main control element, but the amount of recursion in the deck means that a single Marauder can be enough to keep the board under control for as long as you need (Corpse Dance is incredible here...but then, it's incredible everywhere).

All of these elements work just fine without Endless Whispers, but once Whispers is in play you have a bunch of ways to make it work exclusively for you. Graverobbers keep graveyards empty, and if you can flip them then they can steal any tasty critters before the Whispers trigger; the crucial thing to remember here is that the Whispers returns the creatures at the end of turn, giving you plenty of time to dig up the juiciest corpses for yourself. Grim Return is one of my favorite cards printed in the last two years, and it works with Puppeteer Clique to keep the best creatures on your side of the board.

Persist on Puppeteer Clique and undying from Mikaeus, the Unhallowed both serve to short-circuit Whispers, so that you get your own creatures back before they are given to your opponents, and of course giving undying to your Clique means it is essentially immortal.

Finally, Reign of the Pit, Clique, and the solitaire Kalitas punish your opponents for having huge dudes, although Phthisis would work just fine instead.

Second-to-Last Laugh

Ten years ago, Last Laugh was Alongi's number one black card. Multiplayer Magic technology has come a long way since then, but this still belongs in the Top 3. Look at those numbers: 7 for rattlesnake, 6 for gorilla, and 7 for cockroach. Now, as with all numbers, you could argue with any one of them, but I can promise you that Last Laugh will give you at least one of those effects whenever you play it:

  • Drop it and immediately sac a couple of permanents (or suicide your dudes into blockers), and Last Laugh will trigger a devastating chain reaction, usually killing all creatures and often knocking out a couple of players (even in Commander!);
  • Leave it on the board, and your opponents will become veeeery nervous about attacking you and potentially triggering armageddon;
  • If it stays in play over a couple of turns (say, with an indestructible Erebos, or better yet a Stuffy Doll!), you will be milking that cockroach for value over and over again (sorry for that mental image).

Mass Butchery

Grave Pact has always been one of the strongest effects in multiplayer, and the addition of flash just makes Dictate of Erebos the best of breed. Even Butcher of Malakir, a similar effect that scored an 8 for rattlesnake, couldn't compensate for the Dictate's massive spider advantage. But both of these cards represent persistent card advantage and board control over the course of the game, and scale perfectly as you add more opponents. Ironically, the only deck I have that might want the original Grave Pact over the Dictate of Erebos is my Erebos deck, because the original helps more with devotion.

Back in Black

So there you have it, the coolest cards in the coolest color! I hope that the Hall has given you some ideas for new cards, either in the Top 50 or the list of similar cards. I urge you to use the vocabulary of the animal elements to make your Magic conversations more productive. Start discussing the differences between cards in terms of their rattlesnake and gorilla scores and you'll find that your understanding of the game improves.

In the future, Bruce is going to make sure the hall stays up-to-date, which is important because as I write this (shortly before Khans of Tarkir drops) three of the Top 10 are playable in Standard, and four cards in the hall were released in specialty multiplayer products in the last couple of years. Yessir, it's a great time to be alive, and an even better time to be dead...or at least, to be a necromancer!

Introduction | White | Blue | Black | Red | Green
Multicolored | Colorless and Lands | Multiplayer Hall of Fame Home

1: Hint: They're not! Going through Alongi's scores in detail, I only found a small percentage that I would even think of changing, and the vast majority of those changes were just 1 or 2 points, usually reflecting my different experience with the card. (Return)

2: Black doesn't like to share, so it has very few cards with a plankton rating over 2. As I try to explain to my opponents, I'm helping them by screwing over the whole table, including their other opponents, but so far they aren't going for it. (Return)