Zebra Logic

Posted in Serious Fun on March 28, 2006

By Anthony Alongi

I first found my "multiplayer stride" in a Black and White deck.

This was the time of Rath and Urza's block, when some absolutely ridiculous cards were making it to print. I had tried a group version of Recurring NightmareSurvival of the Fittest, and that was okay. (Well, it was better than okay – it won a lot – but it wasn't very satisfying for me since it was based on a net-deck.) I had also noodled around with a Blue/White control deck featuring Gilded Drake and Tradewind Rider.

But it wasn't until I blended Black and White, and combined two cards I would probably never play otherwise, that thunder struck.

The first card was Hatred, a tournament staple at the time and the machine behind many ridiculous turn 3 kills (or worse). It was a duelist's dream and a multiplayer enthusiast's nightmare, because it used an entire tank of gas to kill a single opponent. There would be nothing left for opponents #2, #3, and beyond.

The second card was Congregate, a widely acknowledged multiplayer abomination. Almost the exact opposite of Hatred in every way, the problem with Congregate was not that it rushed things to a close…but rather that it stalled things beyond all reason. Too many casual players were using it just to stay alive and wait for something else in their deck. It was (and is) a miserable example of passivity – the mere presence of creatures feeding life advantage, and life advantage for the sake of showing off.

But these two cards together! Oh goodness. Now you had life gain with a purpose. You were doing something with that high life total, besides just sitting on it like a fat, lazy, lame, life-gaining duck.

Even the combination on its own wasn't horribly efficient – you would blow two instants to kill a single player – but it was the idea that attracted me, and this unlikely pair formed the core of a deck based in life gain. Before long, I had baleful 22/1 Soul Wardens racing in for the kill, Gallowbraid and Morinfen lingering on the board for ten or more turns, and massive tokens shambling out of a Phyrexian Processor with virtually no ill effects on my health.

Nowadays, of course, the idea of using Black and White together to keep your own life total high while you suppress others is, well, quaint. Heck, Orzhov Guildmage will do it for you repeatedly in one card. But I'm still proud of what I built back then, and I'm glad Wizards came up with the idea of guilds, if for no other reason that Black and White deserve to be together more often.

Just think of the places in nature where black and white come together with fabulous results – the way black and white stripes can confuse predators closing in on a herd of zebras, or the stark loops on a butterfly's wings, or the way tiny bright pinpoints can give depth and character to a nighttime sky. Where black and white come together in nature, it is not about camouflage. It is about standing out and making others deal with what you are – a herd of shifting stripes, or a striking potential mate, or the vastness of space.

That's much the way black and white work together in Magic. If these two primal forces are going to come together in a deck, it's going to get noticed. Each part of the deck will stand out against the rest – perhaps Seizan, Perverter of Truth will replenish a hand for Scent of Jasmine; or a Wrath of God will set up a favorable Exhume. The trick in building and playing a Black/White deck, perhaps more so than with any color combination, is in getting the two paths to converge on a single goal: your victory.

Where The Zebras Run Free

You can find increasingly strong synergy in Black and White in at least three areas: life advantage, creature humbling, and complementary utility. We'll look at a few old and new examples of each – cards of every rarity that you should try to chase down.

Death Grasp
Life advantage. The most obvious example of this is Death Grasp. Apocalypse was the first set to really wind up Black/White and let it rip, and this X spell is a showcase for what Wizards wanted to do. A less dazzling (but still useful) example from the set was Putrid Warrior.

Many players used these cards to supplement a well-worn path for Black and White: the old Pestilence and Circle of Protection: Black combo. (This includes variants such as Thrashing Wumpus and Story Circle, among others.) The combo would keep the board relatively clear, while early Warriors would prep life totals and late Grasps would finish off the weakest players first.

Nowadays, it's interesting to see the more genteel approach of an Orzhov Guildmage or Ghost Council of Orzhova. These are cards that require a bit more effort – in terms of either mana or creativity – on the part of the owner.

But the departure is not too radical, and there are plenty of tweaks on older favorites. Subversion finds a new body in Agent of Masks; and two Stronghold walls (Wall of Souls and Wall of Essence) find "new life" in the form of Souls of the Faultless.

Creature humbling. While Blue may have gained the –X/-0 "ability" within the color pie, Black and White are the colors you go if you really want to go negative on creatures. Humility has classic status among casual veterans (as well as rules gurus). Humble, followed up by a lethal block or removal, is a nice way to get rid of otherwise difficult characters such as Darksteel Colossus. Graven Dominator retains the "1/1 echo" of these classic cards.

Meanwhile, Black effects shrink creatures to the point of death, using –X/-X effects like Infest, Nausea, and Massacre. These cards can be even more effective than a Wrath of God, since you're given the chance to break the symmetry with some clever deckbuilding (using high-toughness creatures).

There's a parallel here to the Pestilence-CoP combos: Mutilate and Glorious Anthem (and again, there are plenty of similar cards in both colors, as well as artifacts like Leonin Sun Standard). Black and White simply can't be subtle. One color (Black) announces itself with authority, demonstrating a small weakness. But before anything bad can happen as a result, the other color (White) swoops in and harmonizes perfectly.

Ironically, there's not much in the way of blended cards – that is, gold cards – that feature or reinforce the idea that both Black and White are good at creature shrinking. Orzhov Pontiff – a terrific card in multiplayer formats – is about as close as it gets.

Complementary Utility. This is bread-and-butter stuff. If you're experienced, this part of the analysis will come most easily to you. If you're a new player, you may scoff at how intuitive this seems – until you try to find room for boring utility cards in your deck and decide you can "do without" one or the other.

It boils down to this: Black kills creatures. White kills enchantments and artifacts. (Yes, it still kills artifacts. Yes, I know you want to go to the boards and argue the point. *Sigh.* And yes, you should still do it. Very well, off you go, then!) Put the two colors together, and you get…well, you get Vindicate, a playset of which has a Magic Online value of something comparable to the gross national product of Ireland.

You also get very flexible stuff like Mortify, and Angel of Despair, and so on. The point here is that if you're running Black and White, you're being silly if you're not using what Black/White has to offer – some players are even stubborn enough to ignore cheap old-school staples like Disenchant and Terror. Don't – these are five-star cards, even in multiplayer where one-for-one trades aren't always optimal.

I tend to like White and Black's spot-removal utility more than Blue and Red's spot-removal utility. This may simply be personal bias; but I think it's more than that. I think it's the fact that Blue and Red don't have lots of flexible solutions (like Suffocating Blast) that cross the two colors. I think it's the fact that Blue and Red can't easily cope with certain permanents (particularly enchantments). And I think it's the fact that Blue and Red rely too often on the X burn spell, whereas Black and White can get it done more ways, more reliably – which means it can spare its spot utility for the smaller set of permanents that really get in its way.

A Fourth Zebra For The Future?

Debtors' Knell
There's a tantalizing fourth area where we may see more cooperation between Black and White (and again, a reminder to my newer readers that this is just speculation, since I'm not a Wizards employee): graveyard recursion.

The signature card here is Debtor's Knell. The Knell certainly builds off an obvious history of Black cards – everything from Zombify to Animate Dead to Nezumi Graverobber to Endless Whispers. But the more observant Magic veterans out there will also recall a few White forays into the world of creature recycling – stuff like Resurrection and Breath of Life and Karmic Guide and Reya Dawnbringer.

I'm a big fan of graveyard recursion, and I wonder if we'll see White dip more deeply into the practice in the future. Was Debtor's Knell, perfectly playable in a mono-White deck, a sign of things to come? Or was it just a quick exploration of the mechanic, allowable in the context of a brief visit to Orzhova?

Challenges And Countermeasures

As good as Black/White can be – and I think this color combination did the best out of the three in Guildpact, when it comes to multiplayer formats – it is not invincible. Here is where it can falter:

  1. It can be a little slow. With most of the impressive stuff coming turn 4 or later, and much of the life drain taking huge amounts of mana, you're not going to get off to a rip-roaring start. And in the late game, even with six or seven or more lands, you may still feel mana-crowded because the stuff you want to do costs so much. Include defense in your decks to avoid early cripplings, and choose your plays carefully in the late game.
  2. Its creatures can be quite fragile. It's hard to overstate how unusual the Ghost Council of Orzhova is. Honestly – a 4/4 for four that dodges bullets! That's something you expect to see in new-school Green, or maybe some old-school Blue throwback akin to the Morphling. But Black/White often spends as much time hauling its army out of the graveyard as it does getting them in the field. It's just one more use for your mana in the mid- to late-game, and it can put you behind in tempo.
  3. Some of the cool stuff doesn't work in multiplayer. Conjurer's Ban and Gerrard's Verdict are a bit like countermagic and burn in multiplayer – they don’t get enough done for the money. They're fine cards in duel, but you can't count on them with multiple opponents. Keep your head on straight and focus your decks on a clear path to victory.
  4. Because of this, it can be susceptible to combos in multiplayer. You may be the lucky sort of person who always has the Mortify ready as an opponent's combo engine just begins to fall together. But if you're an average kind of guy, you'll often find yourself with no way to stop the madness, because you didn't put discard in your deck and you don't have a Black/White counterspell handy. Whether you decide to splash a tiny bit of Blue for Syncopate, or get really nasty with something like Cranial Extraction, is up to you.

Really, it's not easy coming up with a list of challenges for this combination. The pairing of Black and White offers a lot to admire. Beyond the cards I've mentioned, it's possible to do things that players have dreamed of (and occasionally done) over the years:

There are lots of possibilities out there, and I hope you enjoy them!

Anthony Alongi has been playing various Magic formats for over seven years, and has been writing for much longer than that. His latest book, JENNIFER SCALES AND THE MESSENGER OF LIGHT, releases June 2006.

Latest Serious Fun Articles


Hedron Alignment by, Bruce Richard

When I first looked at my preview card, I couldn't really wrap my brain around it. The card does so much that I wasn't really understanding its value. Kind of a "forest for the trees" thi...

Learn More


Eternal Pilgrim by, Bruce Richard

When religious belief turns into religious fervor, things get problematic—particularly on Zendikar. When the Eldrazi were originally imprisoned, stories were told to ensure no one would t...

Learn More



Serious Fun Archive

Consult the archives for more articles!

See All

We use cookies on this site to enhance your user experience. By clicking any link on this page or by clicking Yes, you are giving your consent for us to set cookies. (Learn more about cookies)

No, I want to find out more