Join the Dark Side

Posted in Reconstructed on July 3, 2012

By Gavin Verhey

When Gavin Verhey was eleven, he dreamt of a job making Magic cards—and now as a Magic designer, he's living his dream! Gavin has been writing about Magic since 2005.

There is one particular deck that players try to make work time and time again. Each Standard season, a contingent of players around the globe spin their deck building wheels against fresh pavement trying to find the open road and recapture the glory of the old Odyssey archetype.

Usually, they fall short. The deck usually just isn't able to come together like it once did. But with Magic 2013, this might finally be the archetype's chance to return into the spotlight.

A reprint from the original era of this deck's success coupled with a new powerhouse Planeswalker positions this deck better than it has ever been in the last several years. Could it be...? Could Mono-Black Control be back!?

Liliana of the Dark Realms | Art by D. Alexander Gregory

A lot of people must have fallen ill with the curse of the black spot, because I received a ton of mono-black decklists this week! It was hard to choose between all of them—it turns out the dark side's cookies are as delicious as advertised—but eventually I settled on this particular entry.

Let's take a look at the deck sent to me by Jan Beetz:

Jan Beetz's Mono-Black Control

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    The Battle Plan

Mono-Black Control has always been a tricky balancing act. To quote a famous Dagobah philosopher, "When you look at the dark side, careful you must be."

On one hand, you have access to all of the removal in the world. Creatures fall before you and you can pluck away some of your opponent's cards with discard.

On the other, you can't just expect to one-for-one your opponent and win that way. That plan especially falters in the face of control decks that will draw cards and then overwhelm you on the axis of threats. Matters are made even more difficult by the fact that Planeswalkers are something black can't really deal with effectively, and the prevalence of them in control decks can be tricky to fight indeed.

Additionally, you need a compelling reason to not play another color. Why play mono-black when you can play blue-black instead? If you're trying to be competitive, you're just hurting yourself by doing so.

Magic 2013's additions help solve some of these gaps.

Mutilate | Art by Tyler Jacobson

Mutilate will usually wipe your opponent's entire board in a card-advantage bloodbath. While there are a few cards (like Wolfir Silverheart) that it usually won't get rid of, for the most part it will clear the board—and much more effectively than something like Black Sun's Zenith. Liliana of the Dark Realms provides a string of cards, ensuring you hit your land drops while also having the option to remove creatures.

To top it off, both of them demand lots of Swamps, making the idea of playing another color much less palatable. While these cards don't fix everything, they go a long way toward helping the deck. Fortunately, there are some other Magic 2013 cards that help out too...

    Deck Breakdown

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's go through what's in the deck, first!

Solemn Simulacrum

Everyone's favorite sad robot definitely fills a huge role for this deck. He finds you an additional land, both accelerating your mana and cranking up your Mutilates, and he puts you up a card when he's sent to the scrapheap. The only concern is sitting in the four-mana slot. Liliana's going to be there for sure, and there are some other cards I want to put in the four-mana position as well. (More on those later.)

Vampire Nighthawk

Nighthawk is a fine creature, best for dealing with other creatures and recouping some life. It's more on the control axis that I want to be playing than something like, say, Geralf's Messenger. However, in a deck packed as tight as this one, we can probably fill this slot with something which fits the bill a little better.


I'm all for the sweet one-of finisher in general. However, I'd probably stick to something like Grave Titan over the eight-mana Griselbrand. Curving Solemn into Titan is nice, and Griselbrand comes online a little late for my liking. Karn Liberated also accomplishes a similar job, ("It's good against permanents" —Luis Scott-Vargas) and a second one of those might work even better

Sign in Blood

Sign is a tricky card to evaluate. The card advantage is certainly welcome in mono-black and excellent for this archetype. The problem is that, against any form of beatdown deck, the 2 life is quite relevant. The first one is usually alright, but if you draw too many then you risk dropping low on life or having dead cards.

What I've found is that two or three Signs is the right number to play in a control deck. At four copies, you risk seeing too many—especially early on and via casting other Sign in Bloods! They smooth out your draws nicely, but I'm definitely going to stay away from the full four.

Sphere of the Suns

While I am occasionally leery of Sphere in control decks that plan to go long and use up all of the counters, this deck is looking to really need the Sphere. Accelerating into one of the deck's many four-drops a turn early is well worth it, and Liliana even helps wean the deck off of its Spheres in the long game.


A discard spell that hits Planeswalkers is crucial. The question comes down to Despise or Duress?

In a deck like this, I prefer Duress. Mono-black is advantaged over many creature-laden decks because of all its removal, and often it's the control decks full of instants and sorceries that it struggles with. To help out where the deck is weakest, Duress gets the nod.

Diabolic Tutor

Diabolic Tutor is a card I pretty strongly dislike in this deck. I'd rather just have a live card to help survive the early game or trump the longer game, and while Diabolic Tutor finds me either, it doesn't do so in a timely manner. Cards like this are best on an empty or even board, and at that point I would rather go larger or even use Diabolic Revelation.

I thought about playing a singleton Diabolic Revelation to go over the top with in long, drawn-out games, but I think I would just want to find Karn every time—making Karn the more appropriate choice to start with.

The Removal

This deck packs plenty of removal spells. What mix is right?

Although not on this list, Mutilate jumps up pretty quickly to lead the pack over something like Barter in Blood or Black Sun's Zenith. I think four of that kind of effect is plenty. But after that, where do you look?

I usually like a mix of removal. That way, if you draw two pieces, you have options that hopefully benefit you. For example, if you play Dismember and Doom Blade and draw both, then you have outs to either Inferno Titan or Geralf's Messenger.

Dismember ranks highly for me here thanks to its high flexibility. I can play it for one mana and some life, or at a perfectly reasonable three mana. Dead Weight is a nice option for the cost, but playing more Dismembers will give me access to one-mana removal when I need it as well.

Although not in the deck originally, Go for the Throat is one card I would want to split with Dismember in some fashion or another. Because of the popularity of the Zombie deck, Go for the Throat is significantly better positioned than Doom Blade right now. The other card I definitely want to play is Geth's Verdict. Some Verdicts is crucial for beating Geist of Saint Traft or creatures equipped with Sword of Feast and Famine.

Consume Spirit is cute with Liliana's ultimate, but if I reach that point in the game I feel in pretty good shape. It compares unfavorably to most other options because of its high mana cost.


This deck features Liliana at its core, with a hint of Karn and Sorin.

Liliana is just awesome. She can be a removal spell or she can draw you a land every turn. She can even be a potent threat as the game goes long. She's one of the compelling reasons to play this archetype.

Karn helps a ton with some of black's weaknesses. Yes, he costs seven mana. However, he can deal with artifacts, enchantments, and Planeswalkers. He can win the game on his own and is a powerful, proactive Planeswalker. I'm definitely adding more copies of him to my control arsenal.

Sorin is the last one on the list, and unfortunately for the vampiric Planeswalker he's the weak link here. While Sorin is a way to gain life and also creates some advantage over time, he doesn't fill many gaps in the deck and his other abilities are fairly unexciting. I'd rather have another Karn most of the time.

Obliterating Opponents

I already mentioned a lot of the changes above. Mutilate, Duress, Go for the Throat, Geth's Verdict—several new cards have entered the fray here. There's only one I haven't mentioned so far: Phyrexian Obliterator.

When you think of control, a 5/5 for four might not be the first thing to pop into your head. However, Obliterator is just so far above the curve and good on both offense and defense that it fits here. Yes, it's poor against Vapor Snag. However, if it isn't Snagged it will tend to end the game in short order. The full four Duress helps reduce that problem by getting rid of anything that might be an issue.

Obliterator can beat your opponent down or play defense and buy you time. It fulfills several roles: it's a short-term weapon, defense, and long-game win condition all rolled into one.

Ready to see the decklist? My build looks like this:

The Cookies Are a Nice Perk

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The one thing I dislike is how heavy the deck ended up on four-drops. Even ignoring the Mutilates, this deck has ten four-drop permanents it wants to play on curve.

The good part of this plan is that you will almost always have a powerhouse spell to cast. The way the games play out, you're just going to want to kill their early creatures and then unleash powerhouse after powerhouse. If you end up looking to replace some of these, I would look at Despise or more removal spells just so you have more early-game action.


Let me run down the sideboard real fast, explaining what's going on.

Despise is to bring in extra discard against the control and Primeval Titan decks. If you can just trade a ton of cards early on and exhaust their resources, you have gigantic midgame threats like Obliterator and Liliana that threaten to crush them once you've brought their shields down.

Nihil Spellbomb and Grafdigger's Cage fight graveyard decks. The Cage also does double duty against Birthing Pod decks, while Spellbomb comes in against control to cycle into lands and action while occasionally hitting their flashback cards.

The various extra removal cards like Sorin's Thirst, Ratchet Bomb, and the fourth Geth's Verdict are for aggressive decks. The fourth Verdict comes against more controlling decks with Geist of Saint Traft as well.

Wurmcoil Engine comes in against beatdown, presenting additional large threats your opponent will have to fight off.

The Karn is to have an extra threat going long in the game that also fights off any of their resolved Planeswalkers or other difficult-to-deal-with permanents.

Finally, the last Sign in Blood comes in for slower matchups where the life loss isn't a huge deal, further smoothing out your draws.


-2 Karn Liberated, -2 Sign in Blood, -4 Duress
+1 Geth's Verdict, +1 Ratchet Bomb, +1 Sorin's Thirst, +2 Wurmcoil Engine, +3 Despise

The formula is simple against almost all beatdown decks: exhaust their resources by attacking their hand and creatures, then use Planeswalkers and your creatures to take over the game. Generally, beatdown matchups should be favorable.

If your opponent is playing a more tempo game (like, say, Delver) you might want to leave in your Duresses and not bring in Wurmcoil Engines.


-1 Geth's Verdict, -2 Dismember, -4 Mutilate
+1 Sign in Blood, +3 Despise, +3 Nihil Spellbomb

These games will go long, and it's going to be entirely about resource advantage. How many discard spells did you hit them with? Who landed the first Planeswalker? What are their sources of card drawing? Build Liliana up to continually draw cards and then try to find a Karn or Obliterator to close out the game.

Ramp and Combo

-1 Phyrexian Obliterator, -3 Geth's Verdict
+1 Sign in Blood, +3 Despise

As usual, how you should sideboard here really depends on what you're playing against.

Up against Primeval Titan ramp? Take out all of your Mutilates with an Obliterator and add the above—plus bring in a Karn Liberated as well.

Fighting reanimator? All of your graveyard hate is what you're looking for! In these matchups, you're going to want your removal and can safely cut some of your more expensive cards.

Need an answer to Birthing Pod? Bring in Grafdigger's Cage over Karn to shut them down.

    Honorable Mentions

I'm always sent plenty of great decks, and I'm not able to feature all of them. Especially with Magic 2013 added into the mix, there's some cool new decks out there. Take a look at some of the other top picks for this week!

Chaz's Blue-Red-Green Infect

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Michael Hartsfield's Goblins!

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Eli Kloswick's Death Doll

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Kyle D's Exalted Tokens

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Anonymous's Stuffy Doll Fight Club

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Mezzo's Slumbering Dragon Beatdown

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Satchel Fisher's Nicol Bolas Control

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Luis Carlos Tenorio's Blasphemous Doll

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Rudy Briksza's Merfolk

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Aaron Golas's Black-Red Control

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    From Magic 2013 to Modern

After this recent focus on Standard, we're going to take a break in two weeks time to return to Modern! Last time was a lot of fun and created a really neat deck, so let's see if we can recapture this success!

Format: Post-Magic 2013 Modern
Restrictions: None!
Deadline: Monday, July 9, at 6pm Pacific Time
Send all decklists via email by clicking the "Respond via Email" link at the bottom of this article

If you find a place for a new Magic 2013 card in Modern, that definitely scores bonus points, but all Modern-legal decks are welcome for this challenge! I can't wait to see what you guys come up with this time! Last time it was Tallowisp... who knows what's next?

If you have any questions or comments for me, feel free to ask away on Twitter (@GavinVerhey)! I try to reply to as many tweets as I can. I also read through the forums as well, so you can also let me know in there or via email. Have fun at your Prerelease!

Until next week, may your Swamps be plentiful and your Cabal Coffers full.


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