The Power of the Dark Side

Posted in Serious Fun on August 28, 2007

By The Ferrett

"Come to the Dark Side—we have cookies!"
–One of my favorite T-shirts

One of the most potent multiplayer deck archetypes in existence is Mono-Black Control. Mono-black is one of those juggernaut multiplayer decks that borders on "unfair"—it's not quite "broken combo" territory, but it shuts down whole strategies and can take down multiple opponents with ease.

But strangely, some people haven't stumbled upon the sheer power inherent in mono-black—and it's usually a reasonably cheap deck to build these days, made mostly of old commons and uncommons. So I thought today we'd go over what makes MBC so danged delicious in multiplayer.

Let's start with the good parts.

Cheap Destruction

Imagine me as a salesman, standing on a little soap box, a tray full of Ginsu Knives and Ronco Pocket Fishermen nearby.

"What if I told you, my friends, that you could destroy seven creatures at once, all for the cost of a measly single black mana? That'd be a deal, wouldn't it?

"Well, imagine, if you will, that 'protection from black' won't save your opponents from this destruction! Neither will regeneration! That's right! For one mana, you could take down an Akroma, Angel of Wrath! A Gleancrawler! A Jaya Ballard, Task Mage! And a Spirit of the Night! You could, theoretically, take down a hundred mana worth of creatures, all for the tapping of a single Swamp!

"You're interested? Of course you're interested! Well, my friends, take a look at Innocent Blood!"

Innocent Blood!

That's right—if I had to name my pick for "Best Creature Elimination Spell in Multiplayer," Innocent Blood would be near the top of the list. Oh, there's no guarantee that it'll hit what you want, since if someone has more than one creature out, they can simply sacrifice the other one.

But combine it with Barter in Blood or Damnation, and suddenly it's very hard to keep guys on the table. In fact, given four Innocent Bloods, four Barter in Bloods, and four Damnations (or, if you're old-school, Mutilates), it becomes almost impossible to win via the attack phase. Even an Akroma will get in just 6 damage before headed straight to the yard.

Innocent Blood and (depending on the build) Barter in Blood are what make MBC so juicy. They render creatures obsolete.

Lifegain with a Twist

Recently, I talked about a deck that could not win because it drew too much heat. And if you were paying attention back then, you might be asking, "Hey, why does the black-white deck fail when the black deck survives?" And the answer is due to another staple card in the deck:

Say hello to Cabal Coffers.

Yes, Cabal Coffers can pump out insane amounts of mana, particularly if you have two of them on the board at the same time. Now, it takes a while for Cabal Coffers to get online—you really need to have at least five Swamps for it to function—but with the Innocent Bloods and Barters and mass removal, you have that time.

Cabal Coffers
Once you have, say, twelve mana floating about, spells like Drain Life or Mirari-doubled Corrupts suddenly serve two purposes: Your opponent is now down 11 life, and you're up 11 life. That life makes it that much harder to kill you.

If there's one strategic consideration that goes into building multiplayer decks, it's "dealing an arbitrary amount of damage." This is to say that it's hard to build a deck that scales—most decks have an upper cap on how much damage they can inflict in the face of concerted resistance. Every point you add to your life total stretches the resources of those decks.

And you're already stretching the resources of those decks—because their creatures are hitting the graveyard thanks to all of those destruction spells! Even if they can bring them back, they usually still have to deal with summoning sickness, buying you one or two turns to draw more kill.

So what you have in MBC is a deck that can routinely deal 40 damage via spells and gain 40 life from those same spells. That makes you incredibly hard to kill; in one recent game where three players ganged up on Josh, we dealt 60 damage to him in the course of the game and he was still at 23 life when it was over.

It was an evil synergy; every Drain Life he played bought him extra turns to draw more Drain Lifes, which took us down one by one. I had Akroma, but he had the ability to remove me from the game instead.

That is the power of MBC.

But wait, the salesman says. There's more!

Pinpoint Combo Removal

Normally, combo and control would be the bane of a Mono-Black Control deck... and they usually are. But given that black has access to hand-stripping spells like Persecute, Mind Sludge, and the easier-to-get-than-you'd-think Mind Twist, they can often neuter combo decks with a single spell.

Multiple combo and control decks working in conjunction can make things difficult for MBC. But artifacts like Mirari can help make up for that.


Black is the color of "Get what you want," making it a consistent deck. Old-school players have access to Grim Tutor and Vampiric Tutor and Demonic Tutors, but even the Diabolic Tutor isn't too bad once you have access to a turn. You can make it a toolbox deck, even as there aren't as many slots open as you might think.

Sample Decks

There are, actually, three ways to go with MBC, each with its distinct flavor. There's the creatureless version, the "big finisher" version, and Pox.

Here's a sample from our table—this is Josh's build, and it's a good one:

Josh's Creatureless MBC

Download Arena Decklist

The Bosium Strip is what makes this extra-difficult to face off against, because it allows him to reuse spells at will. There are a handful of old-school cards in here (Demonic Tutor, Sol Ring, et cetera), but they have more recent replacements that serve almost as well.

I'd give you a sample of the "big finisher" deck, but I won't for two reasons:

  1. It's pretty much the same as the creatureless MBC deck—just swap out four of something for, say, Korlash, Heir to Blackblade, or Spirit of the Night, or any other ludicrously expensive guy you'd like to name. (In this deck, the Genju and the Bosium Strips might be considerations.)
  2. I don't think it's as effective in multiplayer. It's a nice backup plan—but generally if you've been destroying all of everyone's creatures, they have fistfuls of removal and the willingness to use them. Which means your big guy will hit the dust.

Josh's Genju plan is an excellent mid-range choice. They're kinda creatures. Kinda. And they're recyclable if the Swamp goes bye-bye.

The third variant is Pox. Pox is a little more difficult to design for multiplayer, because Pox has been a consistent second-tier deck in Legacy and Vintage for years. Unfortunately, what works wonderfully in a duel is not always conducive to multiplayer, and transporting a classic Pox deck straight into multiplayer won't be as effective as tuning a multiplayer version.

For example, this is something approaching a "classic" Pox deck for Legacy.

Legacy Pox

Download Arena Decklist
Creature (4)
4 Nether Spirit
Instant (4)
4 Dark Ritual
Artifact (4)
2 Chimeric Idol 2 Phyrexian Totem
Land (24)
20 Swamp 4 Wasteland
60 Cards

This is potent in duels, but not terribly tuned for multiplayer. The Pox and Smallpox are awesome, of course, but Duress and Hymn to Tourach will be diffused among many players. When you're stripping one opponent's hand with "Turn-one Duress, turn-two Hymn, turn-three Pox," that's fatal. But when you do that to one opponent, everyone else still has many cards in hand. Hence, targeted discard isn't that good in multiplayer.

Then there's the problem of Wasteland and Sinkhole. Again, it's great when you destroy 50% of the lands on the board, but in multiplayer a one-for-one tradeoff is not that good. Finally, we have Chimeric Idol, which at 3 damage a turn isn't terribly efficient (even as repeated Poxening can put people at 5 life fairly easily).

(Plus, unlike classic MBC, this is packed with expensive, hard-to-find rares. I'm not thrilled about that, either.)

As such, you need to work a little harder at the Poxing. A stronger build might be something like this deck, given to me by Terry T.:

Terry T.'s Pox MBC

Download Arena Decklist

Terry's deck looks a little prone to the "It's cool, so I threw it in here" syndrome, with the comparatively expensive one-of Gibbering Descents and Unnerves. (Admittedly, he has the tutors to get them.) Personally, I'd go with something that had four Poxes, use four Mind Stones instead of two to ensure that I had post-Pox mana, and maybe skip the Urborg Syphon-Mages, which in my experience are a little fragile in multiplayer.

But note how Terry correctly eschews Dark Ritual in favor of a slower game with bigger plays. This deck may seem strange to you Legacy players used to tightly tuned decks... but Terry's multiplayer group has gotten to the point where if Terry lays a Swamp, they kill him, because they don't want to see this darned deck again.

Such is the power of Pox.

How Do You Defeat the Dark Side?

There was a time when it was comparatively easy to defeat the mono-black deck—because all of its biggest spells took place at sorcery speed. If you could get out a bunch of haste creatures, usually you had a good shot at reducing the MBC player to a low enough life total that someone could clean up.

Unfortunately, Tendrils of Corruption changed all that. If I was conspiratorially minded, I might think that the Powers What Be at Wizards said, "Hey, we'd like to single-handedly strengthen the archetype! What can we print that would be an instant and really annoying?"

Still, there are a couple of ways of beating mono-black.


Ivory Mask
You know what MBC decks hate? Enchantments. They can barely do a thing about 'em. And spells like Ivory Mask or Imperial Mask shut down classic Mono-Black in its tracks—they can't hit you with Corrupt, Drain Life, Mind Sludge, or Mind Twist, making it really hard to kill you.

Unfortunately, Josh has dealt with this with Oblivion Stone—a fine answer—and Pox decks either don't care, or they can make you discard and/or sacrifice the lands needed to play your enchantment before you can get it off. It's not a perfect solution.

That said, there are other enchantments designed to hose black—Karma's always funny, but a risky strategy. (If your opponents aren't playing black, it's a dead card, and it will draw the heat from anyone with Swamps.) If you really hate MBC, try old-school cards like Lifeforce or Harsh Judgment, though the Judgment doesn't help much against Pox.

Land Kill

Generally, targeted land destruction is a terrible strategy in multiplayer. But taking out those Cabal Coffers really slows the MBC player down, and removing a few Swamps can really harm them. They need tons of mana to operate, and if you can snip that off then they're not nearly as large a threat.

If you can build a deck around global land destruction like Armageddon or Boom, you can often cut a MBC deck off at the knees—but that may not lead to victory for you, since their strategy of "killing guys and stripping hands" may play havoc with your goal of setting yourself up for a perfect post-Armageddon environment.


I don't mean to say that a single card can shut down a whole deck, but Misdirection—a card that people seem to have forgotten about these days—can play havoc with MBC if used right. It doesn't cost you any mana, and it ensures that those gigantamous Drain Lifes and Corrupts will be headed at someone else (or, more likely, just rebounding harmlessly off of the MBC player's skull).

The big problem with control vs. MBC is that control frequently has to tap out to stop the current threats (like countering a Mirari and such), and then walk straight into a hand-stripping spell. Misdirection allows you to tap out and not get chumped by a Mind Twist. That helps. It helps more that their Mind Twist is now hurting them.

(NOTE: The current Oracle wording on Mind Twist says "Target player," not "Target opponent." Take that, wording!)

Failing that, control is a valid answer to MBC. You just have to play it politically—if you can convince the other players (and correctly!) that you are opening the gates so that they can take down this behemoth together, then you'll win. If not, then the usual control strategy of relying on a single big finisher or two will most likely fall (and fall hard) to MBC's cheap creature-kill spells.

False Cure

Oh, it's a terribly narrow card. But it's funny. Corrupt for hwwwhaaaaa?

It's the dark side, baby. Sign up. What do you have to lose but your immortal soul?

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