Psychobabble's picture
By: Psychobabble, PB
Dec 06 2013 11:29am
5
Login or register to post comments
2978 views


Now is a good time to be a black mage. The printing of Gray Merchant of Asphodel, along with a couple of fortuitously timed bans, has led to mono black being a top tier deck in three formats simultaneously - standard, pauper and block. I'm not exactly sure how this absurdly powerful guy slipped through the cracks and got printed at common rarity, but he's certainly made his mark and is the centerpiece of today's deck spotlight - THS block mono black.

Mono black

In my set review and follow up devoted article, I made the not-exactly-bold prediction that mono black would be the strongest mono-colour deck in the format and that has certainly proved to be the case. There's something about black's colour pie identity that leads WoTC to design black cards that give you the incentive to go monocolour.

Anyway, enough rambling, onto the decklists already. Here's an example of a very standard mono black list:

Mono Black
_XuXa_ (2nd Place) THS Block Constructed Premier on 11/08/2013
Creatures
2 Abhorrent Overlord
3 Agent of the Fates
3 Baleful Eidolon
2 Disciple of Phenax
2 Erebos, God of the Dead
4 Gray Merchant of Asphodel
1 Hythonia the Cruel
3 Nighthowler
20 cards

Other Spells
4 Hero's Downfall
2 Pharika's Cure
3 Read the Bones
4 Thoughtseize
2 Whip of Erebos
15 cards
Lands
19 Swamp
2 Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx
3 Temple of Deceit
1 Temple of Silence
25 cards

Sideboard
4 Dark Betrayal
2 Disciple of Phenax
3 Keepsake Gorgon
1 Nighthowler
2 Pharika's Cure
3 Viper's Kiss
1 cards
Erebos, God of the Dead

When you start to get into these lists, you realise that there's not that much reasonable variation you can make to them, which probably isn't surprising considering this is a one-set monocoloured deck. These slots are basically locked in:

  • 4x Hero's Downfall - Obviously the best removal spell in the format, the ability to hit planeswalkers is incredibly important even if your opponent still does get some lasting value off a single Xenagos or Elspeth activation. Don't leave home without them.
  • 4x Thoughtseize - For everything that Hero's Downfall can't hit, there's Thoughtseize. There's lot of particularly relevant targets for this. Prognostic Sphinx, Whip of Erebos, (Erebos, God of the Dead), Bident of Thassa. Some of these will completely take over the game if they land, and you really need your discard for them. It's also never dead, unlike other discard spells like Duress, and it's particularly good at disrupting some of the awkward "all ramp and no action" (or vice versa) draws in the GR deck or the "all heroic enablers and few creatures" draws in the aggro decks.
  • 3-4x Baleful Eidolon and (Agent of Fates) - You only have four removal spells, and you need to deal with things like Polukranos and Arbor Colossus, so you need to resort to deathtouch creatures. The problem, of course, is that all of these guys die to the red burn spells that the GR decks pack 6-8 copies of, so you frequently play these out, have them killed end-step then your opponent untaps and plays out their threat. That's super awkward, but there's no help for it given that you simply don't have enough removal to take out many large ground threats.
  • 3-4 Read the Bones - Card advantage and filtering is crucial, even though between this and Thoughtseize you can end up doing 6+ damage to yourself in the early turns. It's often too slow against the GR deck, so you probably don't want four in your maindeck, but it's got a huge amount of value in the slower matchups and smooths your midgame draws beautifully.
  • 2x Whip of Erebos - After playing this deck fairly extensively, I'm pretty sure it doesn't work without this card. It does so much for you, in stabilising your life to offset early damage from your opponent or yourself, in adding difficult to remove devotion count for Gary, in giving you huge late game inevitability through recursion of creatures with ETB, and in giving said ETB creatures pseudo-protection against both removal and discard. An absolutely key card to the deck, the only reason not to play more is of course that it's dead in multiples.
  • 2x Erebos, God of the Dead - Obviously a very good payoff for going mono-black, you need to have some life-gain going to really be able to use his draw ability, but when you can it's great. Shutting off your opponent's life gain is HUGELY relevant in the mirror, as it allows your Gary's to get the job done much more easily.
  • 4x Gray Merchant of Asphodel - I've already mentioned how amazing this card is, but it really does shine in the deck. It's a stabiliser and a wincon in one awesome package. I've seen it compared to a five-mana Sorin's Thirst and while it doesn't usually cause a 20 point life swing, draining for 5 is not at all uncommon and when you take whip recursion into account it can get downright silly. There are decks and times where you don't want to be spending five mana to drain for two and put a 2/4 into play (eg. against aggro where it can be tough to maintain a board presence because you have to trade off your early creatures, or at least try to) but generally you want the full four copies in the deck and are never unhappy to see it.

The rest of the list is essentially filler. Abhorrent Overlord and Hythonia the Cruel compete for the "huge finisher" slot, generally I'd suggest overlord is better because it synergises much better with Whip of Erebos. Discarding your own overlord with a Disciple of Phenax or Thoughtseize to recur with your whip is, surprisingly, not such an uncommon play and can be quite powerful. Nighthowler is amazing when you bestow it onto an Agent of the Fates, and that play can frequently lock up games, but in general it's an underwhelming creature that you play for lack of anything better. One surprising knock against it is the number of things which remove creatures from graveyards in long games. Both Whip of Erebos and Bow of Nylea do it directly, and also Curse of the Swine stops removed creatures from going there in the first place. All of this limits the late game upside you might naturally think comes from a creature such as Nighthowler. Pharika's Cure is surprisingly maindeckable, obviously good against heroic aggro and also quite useful against opposing Agents, Voyaging Satyrs and early-game Nighthowlers.

You have only slightly more flexibility in the sideboard, again given that you are playing a mono- coloured single set deck. Dark Betrayal seems an obvious inclusion for the mirror, but as you play it more you realise that what kills you in the mirror isn't their creatures (many of which should be sided out), it's Whip of Erebos and Erebos, God of the Dead. In fact, betrayal can be downright counterproductive - you're better off blocking a Gary with your own Disciple or Gary than killing it if they can recur it with Whip. You really want all of the discard you can possibly get for the mirror, which means running the full set of Disciple's in your 75.

Against the GR deck, you need more ways to kill Stormbreath Dragon and Polis Crusher, which unfortunately means turning to a five drop that require seven mana to be good, Keepsake Gorgon. Viper's Kiss can keep some of the monstrous creatures from being too troubling, but Stormbreath will still kill you fairly quickly and Polis Crusher bypassing your Baleful Eidolons and Nighthowlers is pretty annoying.

After playing the deck a fair bit, here's the final version I would suggest. There's only minor changes to the list above. I'm only running two finishers main deck because you can't afford to have too many ridiculously expensive drops in your deck I found, and Gary itself was often enough to win the sorts of games you want to win with your huge finishers. I also cut a Nykthos in favour of an island, Nykthos being generally underwhelming unless you were already in a really good position, and the island helps me to cast the sideboard annuls which are CRUCIAL in the mirror and the UG matchup as your only way to stop a top-decked Whip or Bident.

Joshua Claytor was kind enough to record some videos to go along with this article.  He filmed three matches with each list I presented, so I thank him for the help, and for the chance to show you all the deck in action! 

Match One

Match Two

Match Three

 

Mono Black
_XuXa_ (2nd Place) THS Block Constructed Premier on 11/08/2013
Creatures
1 Abhorrent Overlord
1 Hythonia the Cruel
4 Agent of the Fates
3 Baleful Eidolon
2 Disciple of Phenax
2 Erebos, God of the Dead
4 Gray Merchant of Asphodel
3 Nighthowler
20 cards

Other Spells
4 Hero's Downfall
2 Pharika's Cure
3 Read the Bones
4 Thoughtseize
2 Whip of Erebos
15 cards
Lands
16 Swamp
2 Island
1 Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx
4 Temple of Deceit
2 Temple of Silence
25 cards

Sideboard
2 Annul
3 Dark Betrayal
2 Disciple of Phenax
3 Keepsake Gorgon
2 Pharika's Cure
2 Viper's Kiss
1 Abhorrent Overlord
15 cards
Abhorrent Overlord

A final card worth mentioning is Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver which some versions splash for. After trying it out, I don't think the card is worth it. It can be really nice in some spots, but it's too slow and easily beaten against the GR deck, and against other black decks where it would otherwise be perfect, it gets too easily removed for ZERO value with Hero's Downfall. It's also interesting to note that as all of the slower/controlling decks in the format are essentially tap-out control, as opposed to draw/go decks with Sphinx's Revelation as a finisher in standard, the ultimate usually has very little value. Of the times I've been in a position to use it, it would basically only take out a land from my opponent's hand and some potential whip fodder, which wasn't exactly exciting.

How to play it

This deck presents more interesting turn 1 decisions than any other deck in the meta, which isn't saying that much but it is something. The question is usually whether to play a scry-land or thoughtseize. If you are on the play, the decision is pretty clear imo - if you have the choice, play thoughtseize turn 1. Not only does the scryland have much less value if you don't know what your opponent is playing, but you open yourself up to an opposing thoughtseize if your opponent is playing a black deck. If you're on the draw, I would generally say to play the scryland turn 1 unless your opponent has shown you a black land.

As for what to thoughtseize, that's obviously a highly matchup and skill-intensive decision. If your opponent kept the old "2 land, read the bones, 5+ drops" hand or "2 land, mana dork, 4+ drops" then it's usually best to take their enabler/draw spell than their action and hope to put them on the back foot before they draw land. That's obviously contingent on your hand having something that can punish them early though, which usually involves agent of the fates or additional discard. Apart from relatively obvious decisions like that, you need to work out which threat is likely to cause you the most problems once resolved, or whether you have a threat in your hand that can only be answered by one card in your opponent's hand. It's a highly situational decision, and not one you should make lightly. One thing to remember with later game thoughtseizes against blue decks is that they're often best held in hand until you want to cast one of your own threats, as protection against counterspells, rather than just hitting the lands your opponent is sandbagging.

Beyond that, the main skill in the deck is sequencing your cards to take best advantage of your devotion. You want to set up as many black symbols as you can for Gary and Disciple, obviously, but not spend so long durdling that you die in the meantime, or have your hand ripped apart by discard. Against aggro you also need to make crucial decisions about when and how to use your removal. Don't forget that it's virtually impossible against aggro to stabilise without at least a couple of creatures out, there's no point killing off every 1/2 and 2/2 that's hitting you straight away - you have less removal spells than they have creatures, so hold off until something's really hurting you or when you can back it up with a strong blocker.

Sideboarding seems relatively simple, but I see so many people completely mess it up when I play them that it obviously isn't. The biggest culprit is Baleful Eidolon. You need to remember that this is essentially a maindeck-ed sideboard card against aggro and GR monstrous, not a crucial part of your strategy. IT NEEDS TO COME OUT IN THE MIRROR. I can't even begin to fathom why people leave in a do-nothing 1/1 for 2 in the mirror, but they do it all the time and it's gotta stop. In the list I suggest above, you cut Eidolons, Cure's and three Agent of Fates for Dark Betrayal, Disciple, Annul and the second Overlord in the mirror. Another consideration would be to cut a couple of Hero's Downfall and leave in more Agents, if you suspect your opponent is sideboarding out most of their relevant targets. Nighthowler is still an issue, though, so you probably need to leave in your removal.

Sideboarding against GR is slightly trickier, mostly because there's not many really good options. Viper's Kiss is sort of ok, so that comes in for cure. You want your sideboard Gorgons here, though, and it's not all that clear what to cut for them imo. Even though your early deathtouchers are relatively weak to burn, I think you don't have much choice but to run them given that you don't have other good options. The cards I'd look at are Nighthowler, which is generally too slow (but VERY good on Agent if you don't have it burned straight away), Disciple of Phenax (though the discard is really good against threat-heavy draws) and Whip of Erebos (horribad against the Destructive Revelry's they bring in).

How to beat it

There's so many things in this format which just beat the mono black deck, I honestly don't know why it's so popular. GR on paper might not look like a great matchup against Thoughtseize and Hero's Downfall, but the mono black deck has trouble backing that disruption up with meaningful pressure so the threat-heavy top end of the deck can often get it there. Just remember that the more burn you cut from your maindeck, the weaker you become to the black deck's two and three mana deathtouch creatures. The UG deck can also put up some near-unbeatable threats in the form of Prognostic Sphinx or Bident backed up with anything. Various slower strategies like Purphoros and token generators (Elspeth, Heliod, Akroan Horse), or just a bunch of countermagic can also be troublesome. One mistake I've seen a few people make, which you should avoid, is to fall into despair after a couple of early thoughtseizes rip apart an already marginal hand. Yes, that can be a really strong opening from the mono black player, but they frequently don't have anything to follow up to put on pressure and you have plenty of turns to draw your way out of the hole. There's no turn 2 Tarmogoyf here to put the screws on, you do have time to recover.

Conclusion

This is a deck which is only going to get better as the block format gains more sets. Right now, I feel it's got some gaping holes - most notably a lack of hard removal and too-few cheapish threats - but between Hero's Downfall, Thoughtseize and Gary, it's got an extremely powerful base to build on. If you enjoy playing mono black, you can happily play it right now, but it's not my favourite deck in the format just because it feels like a lot needs to go right for it to win a lot of games. Join me next week for the conclusion of my tour around the competitive block metagame when I delve into decks featuring Reaper of the Wilds.

The final videos presented are representations of the second list.  Thanks again to Joshua Claytor for offering to add videos to the article.  We both hope that they have been helpful in showing you the power of the Mono Black deck! 

Match Four

Match Five

Match Six

 

3 Comments

I think the reason it's so by MarcosPMA at Fri, 12/06/2013 - 23:00
MarcosPMA's picture

I think the reason it's so popular is because some of the cards you can play in Standard, so if you're playing Mono Black in Standard then you can build this deck easy. It's also cheaper than RG/UG and can compete with them (albeit the matchup is not great). It's definitely missing a Ultimate Price/Doom Blade effect. RG has too many threats (Polukranos, Stormbreath, Xenagos, Arbor Colossus, Polis Crusher) and removal for the deathtouch creatures that the Hero's Downfall are spread way too thin. It can still win, and it's not a bad deck to play, but I'd much rather be on the RG side of the match.

As always, I think your by Psychobabble at Sun, 12/08/2013 - 18:18
Psychobabble's picture

As always, I think your comment is spot on particularly on the reason why it's so popular (ie. more related to card availability/ease of build than fundamental strength).

I played as best as I could, by JXClaytor at Mon, 12/09/2013 - 00:55
JXClaytor's picture
5

I played as best as I could, but it looks like I set fire to tickets. :(