Swamp Thing

Posted in Serious Fun on February 3, 2004

By Anthony Alongi

Before moving on to this week's business, let's close a technical loop from last week's take on sanctioned team play – here's an official spot on the message boards where you can talk about it: [“Type Two, Times Two?” forum thread]

There have been some good thoughts shared by readers so far via email, and I think there's a lot of “common sense support” for a sanctioned team play format. Bear in mind a few of you are mistaking the already-sanctioned team sealed for a team play format. Since the actual play is in individual duels, I'm actually looking for something deeper here. (I still love team sealed to death.)

On to the theme.

Joining The Jet Set

Next to green, black feels to me like the most popular color among casual players. Whether this is strictly true (and I'm just going by reader emails, so we're hardly scientific here), black certainly appeals to the perverse nature inside of us. Most people like to indulge a dark streak of their personality, when it's safe and people will know you're not really evil.

When I was a kid, my older brother and I were into those war strategy board games with the hexagonal spaces and tiny squares of cardboard you could shuffle across marked terrain. I always played what most Americans would consider the “bad guys” – the Germans in the European theater of World War II, the Japanese in the Pacific theater, and even Sauron's armies in Middle-Earth. (Oh, how I wish they would reprint that board game. The newer ones are nice, but just don't have those lovely hexagons.) It just felt right for me to carry their cause, for a short while on the family room carpet during a winter afternoon, and then wash my hands of them and return to my freedom-loving self when the game was over.

If you don't understand the appeal of black, then there wasn't a single moment during The Return of the King where you were rooting, just a tiny bit, for the Lord of the Nazgul to crush Minas Tirith into dust. I mean, he had all of the cool stuff, right? Trolls, and Grond the battering ram, and flying beasts that ate “fell meats”! (Shadowfax never ate fell meats. He was a meat snob.)

Mark Rosewater can say over and over again that black isn't the color of evil and white isn't the color of good – and I believe that R&D does honestly try to go deeper than good and evil in Magic – but when it all boils down to our true perceptions, we'd rather see a 4/4 flying angel when we die than a 5/4 trampling demon. And that has nothing to do with blockability.

Here on earth, though, we'll toy with the demon. Just as long as everyone knows we don't really mean it.

No MercyConsider this fair warning…

In multiplayer formats, black takes on an even more special meaning. Very few colors punish as well as black can. From Festering Goblin to No Mercy, black is full of cards that say “stay away”.

It's also full of spot creature kill, which along with discard and land destruction has always been a staple in black. More recent has been the evolution of good, efficient, one-stop mass kill. Granted, The Abyss is classier than Mutilate; but the latter card is generally more to the point.

Black also contains one of the most revered creatures of the game: Hypnotic Specter. While not necessarily a powerhouse in multiplayer, the card has a great deal of classic appeal, and is certainly quite suitable in any deck that can support the black-heavy cost. (Magic has seen many reprints of classic creatures over recent years, from Serra Angel to Clone to Atog. Might we see the mighty Specter someday? Recent “fixed” reprints like Hollow Specter would suggest not. I have nothing to do with this policy, so don't plead. I remain as hopeful as you are.) More group-friendly early creatures for black include the Fog of Gnats, Wall of Souls, Withered Wretch, and Bone Shredder.

And, of course, black also contains massive finishers that impress the whole group before smashing their faces in. From the MorinfenGallowbraid duo to Ihsan's Shade to Visara the Dreadful, black can wreak havoc on the battlefield. Finally, if the fray gets too difficult, black's ability to go over the top and drain life with Consume Spirit (and its forefathers Drain Life and Corrupt) makes it a seemingly unstoppable force in group.

Creature kill, discard, land kill, creature dominance, direct kill spells – is there anything black can't do?

Of course there is.

Where Multiplayer Black Steps Back

While I mentioned land destruction and discard above, I did so pretty quickly – because in group settings, these strategies are more difficult to pull off. Group discard has become a lot better in the last few years – decks running Megrim and Unnerve but suboptimal creatures got a lot of creature help from Chilling Apparition, Mindslicer, and Silent Specter. The group discard deck still isn't terrific, though – just a lot more possible than it used to be.

Another glaring weakness of mono-black is basic utility – getting rid of enchantments and artifacts. (No, don't tell me about Phyrexian Tribute, or your special five-card combo that maybe, if the wind is blowing right, forces an opponent to sacrifice a non-creature, non-land permanent.) A swell artifact block like Mirrodin gives black options to fill that gap (think Oblivion Stone); but in general, you need to splash another color if your group indulges in lots of creatureless and/or combo decks.

Finally, black tends to use a lot of resources to get you gains. Sometimes you pay life to get rid of permanents (e.g., Reckless Spite). Sometimes you pay cards to get acceleration (e.g., Dark Ritual, though this sort of thing has lately slid over to red). Sometimes you pay permanents to get some other advantage (e.g., Reprocess or Lord of the Pit). But however it happens, sometimes black just finds itself out of gas, and out of answers.

So while black is my favorite color, I don't believe it's the best color in Magic. (Still blue, which just got a lovely multiplayer boost in Memnarch. Yes, Memnarch. As in Memnarch, the Blue Creature that's “Not” Blue. Memnarch, the Soft Drink: Tap 7, Up Yours. Memnarch, the Delivery Service: when you wish you could have every freaking permanent on the board. More on this ridiculous card when I have another free week, but in the meantime, here's a big surprise: it's good with Seedborn Muse!)

Black's Best

We'll do the top ten black cards for multiplayer in a moment; but first let's scan the top choices from Darksteel:

Pulse of the Dross,

Pulse of the Dross, like all the pulse spells, gets a sugar kick from having extra players around. (If you know your teammate is playing a madness deck, you can even play it on her!)

Greater Harvester is just plain crazy talk, isn't it? You're sacking a permanent every turn, and that's bad in group play. But hold a moment: black can offset that loss fairly easily (just think of all the cards we used to abuse Braids, Cabal Minion). In return, you get a 5/6 on turn four, which is going to outgun virtually every other permanent on the table. Choose your opponents carefully – the red and green mages are probably the safest to attack early (not enough damage or pump by then) – though you can certainly be less careful if you have Lightning Greaves on the table. Someone's always open on turn four, and if someone isn't, they're sacrificing a permanent anyway when they chump block. No, it probably won't make the Multiplayer Card Hall of Fame. But just don't dismiss this as a tournament-only card.

Shriveling Rot has great potential, but I wonder if it's just boutique potential. I'll give it the benefit of the doubt for a while. Bear in mind this will sometimes be no better in your hand than a Shower of Sparks. Other times, it will be a monstrosity – but generally in reaction to something someone else does, since casting your own Wrath of God (or even Tremor) and then entwining this is a tall order. I really like the flavor, and it makes my top ten multiplayer cards for Darksteel – but it will be a mid-range card in the Hall of Fame, at best.

Death Cloud is too early to call exactly right now, but we all know it will be at least very, very good. I like that it mirrors Balance, but is harder to cast and adjustable as well. That means you don't always have to annoy the entire table to get the massive effect you want. Every group has a player who loads up on stuff like Akroma, Angel of Wrath and Multani, Maro-Sorcerer – this is the antidote. Beyond all that, it includes loss of life, which means unlike Balance it's a multiplayer finisher on its own. It's at least in the top 20, rubbing noses with cards like The Abyss, Havoc Demon, and Bottomless Pit. With time and exposure, it might slip into the top ten.

Speaking of which. Here are the current top choices. If you haven't tried one of these in multiplayer yet, you're really missing out on something. They're all rares, but none of them should go for more than a few bucks at a local or on-line card shop, and eBay may even have them for less. (Possible exceptions are Patriarch's Bidding, which is still somewhat popular in Standard tournaments; and Living Death, which is a classic combo-finisher from Tempest.)

10. Patriarch's Bidding. Exhume is a very good card. Even more glamorous is a card that brings back multitudes of creatures at a time. With Onslaught block fading in some players' memories, tribal decks should be less common, which should help you break this card's symmetry. Quite good in zombie decks, when you have a Noxious Ghoul handy.

9. Decree of Pain. Black's ultimate one-hit card-advantage machine. I've had a couple of these in a red-black cycling deck for some time. Problem is, events always seem to conspire against me, and there are either too many creatures (and thus too much self-milling potential) or not enough lands. This feels more like my fault than the card's. So anyway, I just cycle it for the Massacre and I'm still happy.

8. Living Death. Really annoying old-school veterans will tell you all about their fabulous exploits with this card, generally involving Anarchist and some stupid number of sackable creatures. Ignore all that; it's good on its own. The symmetry may sound like a problem, but it normally isn't. If it is, indulge in a couple of Withered Wretches.

7. Spreading Plague. Evidence of the EGG-IS-RAW rule – that is, Excellent Group Gamers Integrate Sucky Rares And Win. A while ago, I spent way too many articles talking about how this card made Illusion/Reality amazing. There is, unfortunately, no EGG-IS-UAW rule (unless the United Auto Workers are up to a mysterious multiplayer strategy).

6. Mortivore. Green fanatics insist that Lhurgoyf always made sense in green. This is fiddle-faddle. (Apologies for the harsh language; but those green mages really connoidle my bliggity-blag.) This card has always been black, even when it was green. Giving this evasion usually wins the game. (Sword of Fire and Ice protects it from Terminate, Repulse, and about half the blockers on the board.)

5. Avatar of Woe. Who doesn't love the Avatar of Woe? Even when Visara the Dreadful came out, many group enthusiasts stuck with the original BBad grrrl.

Death Match

4. Death Match. Pandemonium always runs the risk of damage to your head. That's so red, isn't it? Death Match cleverly focuses on creature kill, which (let's not kid ourselves) is why you're playing black in the first place, right?

3. Thrashing Wumpus. Probably the most satisfying multiplayer creature you'll find. Even without enhancements such as Sword of Light and Shadow or Spirit Link, a wumpus almost immediately rules a given multiplayer board, because it pricks life totals as well as creature defenses. Threatening massive damage at instant speed is always good.

2. Last Laugh. Like Wumpus, a Pestilence variant. The cascade effect is what makes it pretty fun – and incredibly obnoxious. Combos run from Zuran Orb to Goblin Bombardment to Naturalize.

1. Grave Pact. Still my favorite black card, after all these years. Blends the threat of retaliation with the efficiency of multiple creature kill with the creativity of just about any sacrifice effect you can imagine.

No emails on “how could you miss…”. I didn't miss. It's my list. (I guessed ten out of ten of my favorites! Perfect score! Woo-hoo!) You missed. Therefore, emails that start “how could I get your top ten wrong?” would be acceptable.

Don't forget to go to the message boards, if you want to talk about sanctioning team play formats! And this article will have its own message board too, of course. I'll be haunting both.

You may email Anthony at seriousfun@wizards.com. Unfortunately, he has sacrificed too many permanents to be able to render any deck help.

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