A couple of years ago, my “Casual Fridays” series was on a web site called The Dojo. The series started with an exploration of black in multiplayer, and what aspects of it my friends and I found most compelling – the efficiency of its life transfer spells like Subversion, the brutality of its creatures like Dauthi Slayer, and so on. While The Dojo has passed on since, Casual Fridays carries on at starcitygames.com, and quite frequently I explore the strengths and weaknesses of different colors in different formats, there.
When a black-weighted expansion like Torment comes along, it is certainly time to reassess where colors stand in each environment. Casual play is no exception. Does Torment make it easier to play black in multiplayer…or harder? To answer that question, we need to consider why players use black in the first place.
Without dipping into stereotypes that will immerse me in hot water, Magic: The Gathering appeals to a distinct group of people. The vast majority of these people, unlike the mainstream, spend a good deal of time wondering what it would be like to be The Bad Guy and win. None of us seek that kind of release in the real world, of course; but that’s the point: Magic is a game based in fantasy, and the colors let us try on different personalities.
White allows us to be the pure, perfect, and unusually good-looking people that our mothers and dogs (if no one else) believe us to be. Green asks us to explore our strong and dumb side. Red invites a sort of recklessness I trust none of us practice on state highways. And blue appeals to our desire to be mysterious, unknowable, and in control of the situation.
Black opens the door to something more basic: pride and greed, the precursors to every downfall in history. When we play a color like black in a game like Magic, we are telling ourselves, briefly, that we can be proud, and greedy…and win.
There are three kinds of power in multiplayer Magic: the power you project, the power you consolidate, and the power you have over opponents. (There’s also the carbo-power you and your friends can only get from rewarmed Tacquitos and leftover salsa, but that’s a different article.) Not every color uses all three powers effectively. Black, on the other hand, maxes out on all three. You don’t have to go any further than Torment’s own card list to see examples:
Projected power is your direct show of force: swinging with creatures, cleaning off the board, locking down the situation, whatever. It is your active participation in your own victory.
In every expansion, black has at least two black cards that project enormous power – typically some variant of Pestilence, some enormous and impractical fatty, and another efficient weenie for a rapid-deploy army. Torment is certainly no different, offering up three Pestilence-style cards (Last Laugh, Mutilate, and Sickening Dreams), a clearly angry pet in Hypnox, and the ultra-quick Nantuko Shade.
Consolidated power: If projected power is the kinetic energy of Magic, consolidated power is the potential energy. Your resources – particularly cards and life – need replenishment.
Again, black has made a long career of doing both. With Drain Life, Syphon Soul, and Subversion to provide life fuel, and Necropotence as the king of card advantage vehicles, you can restock your supplies very easily in this color. Add on black’s penchant for recurring creature cards, and the resources can seem endless.
Note that the very act of playing mono-black does carry one large burden that sucks away your projected and consolidated power: your inability to deal with enchantments and artifacts. No matter how many removal cards you draw, fat creatures you recur, or life you gain, Light of Day or Nevinyrral's Disk often presents massive problems for you. Faced with these elements, you need someone to help out.
Manipulative power is your power over other opponents, to get them to do what you want them to. While many players mistake “staying quiet” for the best way to win a group game, in truth the most effective and reliable way for reaching your goals is to play actual spells and permanents that pave the road.
While it has enough scary creatures and permanents – the type seen in projected power above – to divert many sorts of attacks, black also has had more “subtle” cards, such as Plague Dogs and Mindslicer.
Torment adds to this list with Shambling Swarm and Faceless Butcher, which many opponents may find more useful alive than dead. A manipulative strategy using these cards requires your opponents to play superior creatures; but in a casual group game that should happen all the time.
CORRUPTION RUN AMOK
With those three kinds of power in mind, along with the glut of new black cards that exploit them so well, it is easy to see why black mages play the color they do. They can coerce openly, coerce discreetly, or manipulate to achieve their ends. Laid next to other colors, black feels more consistent to many of us. (Consider white, whose projected power never costs less than four and whose consolidated power hurts no one; green, whose manipulative power barely exists beyond its own fat; red, who wouldn’t know consolidated power even if it left a burn mark; and blue, who sports superior consolidated and manipulative power but almost completely forgets to project anything at all in multiplayer.)
So much power…and so much danger to go with it! You really can get carried away. I actually had a Phyrexian Negator idea for the Last Laugh article that my brain tricked me into thinking would work – the Negator takes a damage from anything, you lose a permanent, Last Laugh triggers, the Negator takes another damage, you lose another pemanent, Last Laugh triggers again, etc….I was so enchanted with this automatic loop that Wizards gave black in the form of a cheap 5/5 trampler and creative Pestilence, and so seduced by the lure of it all, that it wasn’t until my final scan-through of my own writing that I realized the Negator would never live long enough to do anything more interesting than blow up a bunch of your own permanents.
Now, honestly, can anyone see anybody getting carried away like that by white, or green, or even blue? (Maybe red.) Black sucks us into nearly suicidal schemes, promising incredible tales of glory (in best Howard Cosell voice: “Pha-rexian Nega-tor goes to the graveyard among a cas-cade of lands and ar-ti-facts…Alongi wins! Alongi wins! Simply in-cred-ib-le, folks. Who would-have thought, in-deed.”).
And so we foolish mortals play it. And others watch us do so, and laugh.
Wizards didn’t put in a ton of pro-black creatures into Odyssey and Torment just for white and green tourney mages to stick in their Block Constructed sideboards. If you are part of a multiplayer Magic group, you can reasonably expect at least one half of your friends to sport at least one mono-black deck within the next month or so. What do you think you should do about that?
I don’t need to go through a comprehensive list of “protection from black” cards right here. A simple search engine anywhere on the Internet will give you what you need. I would point out a couple of particularly efficient choices, such as Mystic Enforcer and Paladin en-Vec. And the Paladin isn’t just good because of the dominance of black…
Any grizzled multiplayer veteran worth his salt will see his group paying a great deal of attention to black, playing pro-black creatures and such… but no pro-red. And why should they? There is scant mention of that ability in Odyssey block, perhaps one or two cards at most. Many casual groups tend to play the newest and most exciting cards, letting older expansions fade out of memory here and there. How quickly we forget Ghitu Fire, Illuminate, and Prophetic Bolt. How easily our spoiler-happy eyes will slip over Violent Eruption and Devastating Dreams (well, perhaps not that easily).
And so it may seem that red, in fact, gets the largest advantage because of black’s dominance. Until you consider that red’s reckless manner in casual play plays right into blue’s patient hands…and also that Aboshan, Cephalid Emperor just got six more subjects to play with.
These are the kinds of details that will matter most in the early days of Torment. Much like a tournament pro, to succeed in your own group’s play you will need to comb through the new cards and find those most likely to surprise your opponents. Unlike a tournament pro, you can worry about things like how many cephalids there are. (More on our squid-like friends next week!)
THE COMING BLACKOUT
I’ve tried very hard this entire column to avoid naming a certain famous AC/DC song; but there’s no doubt many Magic players will come back to the color they love so dearly. All of the cephalids in the world won’t survive a large enough Mutilate. Red cannot keep your recurring creatures at bay for long. And no mere Paladin en-Vec can do a thing about a raging Hypnox swirling over his head.
So embrace black. Revel in it. Get proud, get greedy, and win. Just remember the costs that come with being so single-minded. And as a public service to the rest of us, let a few of the other colors seep back into your personality before you return to the real world!
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Anthony may be reached at email@example.com.