Black is the New Black

Posted in Top Decks on April 4, 2014

By Luis Scott-Vargas

Luis Scott-Vargas plays, writes, and makes videos about Magic. He has played on the Pro Tour for almost a decade, and between that and producing content for ChannelFireball, often has his hands full (of cards).

This was a good week to be devoted to black, with Lars Dam winning the Magic Online Championship and a powerful magus named Yuuya Watanabe winning Grand Prix Beijing. Both took very different approaches to building their Underworld Connections-Gray Merchant deck, and both were rewarded with a trophy when all was said and done.

Underworld Connections
Gray Merchant of Asphodel

I've looked at black devotion lists many times in this column, but the deck changes from week to week, and part of my job is to keep you up to date on the latest innovations. The other part is to make great jokes involving cunning wordplay, but I obviously have that very well covered.

Let's take a look at the GP Beijing Top 8, which has the most streamlined Black Devotion deck, two copies of which made Top 8:

Both Shuhei and Yuuya came to the event fully staffed with solutions to the Burn deck, and with three Boros Burn decks in the Top 8, that seemed like a good plan. I was actually curious if Shuhei and Yuuya were inspired to play Staff of the Death Magus from Owen Turtenwald's article about Mono-Black, so I went ahead and asked Shuhei. It turns out that one of Yuuya's friends suggested the idea a couple weeks ago, although it was still a pretty good call by Owen.

Here's their Devotion deck:

Yuuya Watanabe Grand Prix Beijing 2014 – Top 8

Download Arena Decklist

(Shuhei's list was only a couple cards off, with 2 Bile Blight main deck instead of 1 Bile Blight and 1 Ultimate Price.)

Talk about back to basics. Not only did they run nineteen Swamps to maximize Staff, they have the full four of every card in the deck until you get to the last three slots. There's something to be said for playing the most-consistent version of the already most-consistent deck, and I don't think you can go wrong with this list.

They've got some nice technology in the sideboard, with a pair of Read the Bones being the most interesting non-Staff addition. By playing what is essentially a glorified Divination (a card that is already glorious in its own right), Yuuya and Shuhei mean to never miss land drops or run out of gas in the attrition-based matchups like the mirror and Esper. Staff is a metagame call, which makes it better or worse from week to week. Read the Bones is just great, and I imagine we will see it more often after its performance here.

Mono-Black's Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

As Mono as Mono-Black looks like, it turns out that you can successfully splash any color in the deck if you so desire. I'm going to take a look at the different splash options available, and see what each brings to the table.


White is the most common splash and, given the success of White-Black Midrange, is the color that most often stops being a splash and just becomes the second color in a heavy black deck. Blood Baron gives the deck a powerful threat against burn decks and other black decks; Revoke is awesome at killing Underworld Connections, Detention Spheres, and Gods; and Sin Collector is one of the better anti-control cards around (and is pretty solid against Burn as well).

The WB decks can still play Gray Merchant without incident, and usually only touch white for a couple single-white-cost spells, adding only Temples of Silence and Godless Shrines plus maybe one Plains or Orzhov Guildgate for white mana. That lets the deck play Nightveil Specter without fear, and I do love Nightveil Specter these days (although it has more competition in the black deck than Esper).

The WB Midrange deck looks something like this:

Jared Boettcher

Download Arena Decklist

Auston ditched Nightveil Specter in favor of Elspeth and Obzedat, essentially, and along with Nightveil Specter went Gray Merchant. Adding Elspeth as a big spell goes a long way in the mirror, because when you are trading one card for one card over and over again, getting the guaranteed two-for-one off Elspeth is huge. Plus, if your opponent doesn't have a Hero's Downfall handy, Elspeth can run away with the game extremely quickly.

I like the white splash right now, but what I actually don't like are Blood Barons and Obzedat. Lifebane Zombie is at its peak, and I hate giving such a popular card more value. I'd expect to play against a lot of Lifebane Zombies at any tournament you go to, and dodging them seems like good value. Playing white for Elspeth and Revoke seems good enough, and I like the look of the Blind Obediences that Jared Boettcher had in his sideboard at the Invitational last weekend.

I'd look at playing white if you want an extra edge in the Black Devotion mirror, and it gives you some nice sideboard options against both control and burn.


This is technically the winningest splash from last week, as Lars Dam's win at the Magic Online Championship netted him a cool $25,000, plus invitations to next year's Championship and the World Championship, but that was a sixteen-player multi-format event. Adding red is mainly for the anti-control options, making this the best splash if you expect a lot of Sphinx's Revelations.

Rakdos's Return is by far the best answer to a Planeswalker, and one of the ways Esper fights Mono-Black is to slam Elspeth and force the Black deck to get two-for-oned. That works significantly less well when the response is to cast a Mind Twist that also deals enough damage to wipe out Elspeth, and just having Rakdos's Return (and Sire of Insanity) in the deck forces control decks to play completely differently. In fact, a game from the Magic Online Championship demonstrates that perfectly—a game I happened to cover along with Randy Buehler and Marshall Sutcliffe:

In Game 3, Dmitriy Butakov, playing Esper, plays the game the way he does because of a constant fear of Sire of Insanity, and that gave Lars a huge edge. It was an interesting game, and I'd recommend taking a look to see what kind of edge you can get by having Sire or Return in your deck, even if you don't happen to draw one.

Slaughter Games is also a nice way to force Revelation decks to play fair, as stripping away all their Sphinx's Revelation makes long games very winnable. I'd almost always name Rev with the first games, assuming it's early enough, and move on to win conditions from there. Eric Froehlich, who played this deck to a Top 16 in Cincinnati, said he really wanted the second Slaughter Games in his sideboard, and if you do play this deck, I'd recommend it as well.

Besides anti-control options, the red splash gives you access to Mizzium Mortars if you so desire it. Mortars isn't all that likely to get overloaded, but it does kill Blood Baron dead, and is a two-drop removal spell that doesn't miss much.

Splashing red is by far the best choice if you expect a lot of Esper and Blue-White, with most of the rest of the matchups not changing by a ton. Rakdos's Return can be awesome in the mirror, but it's less exciting than something like Elspeth when it comes down to a topdeck battle (although it is always nice having the ability to Fireball someone for 10 when it gets really late in the game).


Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver
Notion Thief

The first time I saw Ashiok splashed in this deck was in Tamas Glied's deck, also from the Magic Online Championship. Ashiok seems like a sweet way to get value in attrition-based matchups, and actually looks very good against Mono-Blue as a bonus. Blue doesn't usually have a ton of power on the board until Thassa or Master of Waves hits, and Ashiok can nab a good blocker or two without much trouble. Against other black decks, Ashiok comes out early enough that Ashiok should survive most attacks, forcing either a Hero's Downfall or giving you some free cards, both of which are good outcomes for only three mana invested.

Where Ashiok isn't great is against Monsters and Burn decks, and honestly isn't insane against Esper. Ashiok is playable against Esper, but unless you get lucky and hit Ætherling or Elixir, Ashiok doesn't actually do anything, and gives the Esper player a bunch of turns before he or she has to deal with Ashiok. I do like that Ashiok stresses Esper's Detention Spheres, but Ashiok is less Planeswalker-y than most Planeswalkers against a control deck (compare Ashiok vs. Domri Rade, for example).

Besides Ashiok, splashing blue gives you the Notion Thiefs that are apparently Nam Sung-Wook's lucky charm. Not only did he win Grand Prix Melbourne last month, he just made Top 8 at GP Beijing, and both times he had one Notion Thief in his sideboard.

Nam Sung-Wook Grand Prix Beijing 2014 – Top 8

Download Arena Decklist

There are no Ashioks to be found here, but they could easily be added, along with more Watery Graves. Both Nam and Tamas stuck with the devotion theme, making blue a very light splash, although I'd recommend against playing the full 4(!) Notion Thief that Tamas brought to the Magic Online Championship. I like value as much (or more) than most people, but once you have 4 Notion Thief in your deck, your opponent is going to play around them as much as possible. With one, your opponent still plays around it, because it's so brutal if it works, but you at least aren't stuck drawing a bunch of 3/1s for four. It's like Force Spike, which was a sick one-of in years past (see Paul Rietzl's one Mana Tithe from his PT Amsterdam-winning decklist). Having the one Force Spike puts the fear into your opponents, and what you don't want to draw when they are playing around Force Spike is Force Spike. You'd rather just get the value from them messing up their game plans out of respect for a card you probably don't even have in hand.

It is somewhat less clear to me exactly how good Ashiok is, but I imagine the blue splash is at its best in a field with a good amount of mirror, Mono-Blue, and Esper. Ashiok is less impactful than Elspeth against the mirror or red cards against Esper, but is much better against both and also good against blue, making Ashiok a much more versatile choice.

What's The (Supreme) Verdict?

If I were playing in a tournament this weekend, such as Grand Prix Phoenix (where I'll be doing commentary alongside Matt Sperling and William Jensen), I have to admit that I'd still just bring my trusty Esper deck to the battle. I enjoyed playing it in Cincinnati, and was especially happy with the Nightveil Specters and Archangel of Thunes, which I mentioned last week. I've always liked playing Esper against Black Devotion decks, think it's still quite good against Blue Devotion, and was happy with how Blind Obedience and Fiendslayer Paladin performed against red. Red-Green Monsters is still a tough matchup, but given how much black is running around, I'd expect fewer monsters and a few more Desecration Demons this weekend. Still, Standard has plenty of good decks to choose from, and I don't think you can really go wrong with any of the big ones (and this could be a good weekend for a niche deck like Hexproof or White Weenie, if you think you have a good read on the metagame).


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