Monday, June 18, 2012

Black Sack for the New Standard


Black Sack is Back

Magic: The Gathering has enjoyed the longevity it has for a plethora of reasons.  People like collecting, the game has improved from its roots, it’s highly customizable, it’s competitive, it’s random…all of these are true.  However, one of the driving forces for veterans of Magic and trading card games in general is the nostalgic factor built in.  I don’t know how many times I’ve been playing casual/Commander/Standard and I’ve heard myself or my opponent(s) say, “man, I remember when that card was so awesome/expensive/overpowered!”

Some still are.
A lot of people keep old decks put together for the sake of nostalgia (or because the cards in it don’t belong anywhere else), or they’ll refuse to trade an old card for its sentimental value.  I know that’s true for me.

Some people, including Wizards themselves, want to reignite an old archetype.  We even idealize our current archetypes with names of long past but eternally recognizable names: Naya Pod, Grixis Control, Zoo, Boros Aggro (though what other kind of Boros is there?)  Huntmaster of the Fells has nothing to do with Naya save sharing its colors, nor does Zoo use any of the same creatures.  These standbys in archetype naming reflect something important; we like patterns, and we like identifying with times past.

One of those old standards has gone under the radar for a while though, and I want to look at it here.

Mono.
Black.
Control.

MBC, to which it’s often affectionately referred, was a classic strategy of concentrated hatred intermingled with a couple dozen Swamps and a Cabal Coffers.  Kill spells, discard, efficient and powerful creatures all helped this evergreen deck stay strong and relevant.

Is that thing a face?
A good friend of mine from college played a very effective and cost-friendly Legacy MBC deck.  Smothers, Diabolic Edicts, Organ Grinder, Faceless Butcher, each cast with appropriate sound effects, slayed my most carefully tailored decks.  They were consistent and au courant for a long time.  The world of Standard hasn’t seen a true MBC deck in a long time, though.  Sure, core black decks have existed; Vampires was a very real deck in ALA/ZEN/M10 days, and (mostly) black Zombies does fine in Standard nowadays, but most have a dash of another color, usually red or blue.  In recent years, mono-black has gotten some targeted love from Wizards, though often without making a splash in the Standard world.

Poor Tormented Insect.
Even this guy, as sick as he is, doesn’t see a ton of play.

Behold blessed sideboard fodder
So what gives?  Where’s the “control” in our mono-black? 

With Avacyn Restored coming out, several new beauties have lent themselves to that deck.  One such card soared under a lot of people’s radar, starting on Prerelease day.  This fellow can kill a player dead in their tracks, stop a beating aggro or control heart and undo turns and turns of work.  Yet he can’t even trade with an Eager Cadet.  He is…

Blood is thicker than watercolor.
I’ve heard some positive chatter about this fellow and I think it’s all well-deserved.  Although very similar to Falkenrath Noble, its cheaper price tag makes all the difference.  You can start getting value out of him much sooner.  So, how do we make this deck effective?  What other pieces does it need?  We need stuff to die…a lot of stuff, both mine and yours, so we need things that like to die.  Plenty of Undying stuff…maybe a Zombie subtheme?  Card advantage is important, if I’m going to be killing everything.  I need a way to destroy stuff on demand.

Alright, let’s take a look at a preliminary list.

4 Blood Artist
4 Gravecrawler
3 Butcher Ghoul
4 Geralf’s Messenger
4 Devouring Swarm
3 Treacherous Pit-Dweller

3 Liliana of the Veil
4 Victim of Night
4 Tragic Slip
3 Altar’s Reap
3 Killing Wave

21 Swamp

SB

4 Appetite for Brains
4 Geth’s Verdict
3 Essence Harvest
2 Sever the Bloodline
2 Black Sun’s Zenith

Creatures

Gravecrawler

"To terrorize y'all's neighborhood!"
Cheap, efficient and recurring, this is exactly the one-drop this deck needs.  Recur after combat, after a board sweep, or as much as possible with a sacrifice outlet with Blood Artist.  He’s tough to deal with on turn one, with just one real answer (Pillar of Flame).  With 10 other Zombies, 8 of which resist conventional removal, it shouldn’t be a problem to shamble this guy back from the graveyard. 

Butcher Ghoul

Well...yeah, there he is.
Boy, this doesn’t look great, right?  Strictly worse then Young Wolf in just about every way?  What I like about it is it’s a creature you can sack twice, it’s a Zombie, and he blocks and attacks just as well as a Young Wolf, a strong card in its own right.  There are probably better choices than this inefficient creature, but synergetically, I think he’s a hit. 

Geralf’s Messenger

It keeps going and going and going and going and...
This mono-black dream is also incredibly complementary.  A three-life hit with a single Blood Artist out really takes the cake here.  This deck is all about life swing, and he is efficient on the offense and his defensive downside is mitigated by the fact this deck keeps your opponent’s board creature-free. 

Devouring Swarm

Gnat again!
A blatant sacrifice engine, it was in competition for Bloodflow Connoisseur.  Eventually, I chose Devouring Swarm for one main reason: evasion.  If your opponents resolves a troublesome ground creature (Grave Titan, Huntmaster of the Fells), this creature soars right by.  It’s a fine finisher, and it can protect itself a little bit.  I also figured that whatever removal would kill a Devouring Swarm would also kill a Bloodflow Connoisseur, so there wasn’t much advantage.  If Devouring Swarm was a 1/1, I’d pick the Connoisseur, but it’s a little stronger creature all by itself, which is important after a board sweep or on the back pedal.  A 1/1 for 3 is a lot worse than a 2/1 flyer for 3.

Treacherous Pit-Dweller
[Treacherous Pit-Dweller – n. A twenty-something adult child who commits treason in his parent’s basement.]
This guy may be the best or the worst card in the deck.  I honestly can’t be sure yet.  I’m not the first person to try and maximize the value of one in a long line of major-drawback, major-profit creatures.  Sure, he’s a monster on Turn 2, but there are two other reasons I feel comfortable playing him.  First of all, I have plenty of sacrifice outlets at instant speed to deal with a treacherous demon that hops the fence before or after the sacrifice.  You can sack it before its undying trigger resolves.  Liliana’s -1 ability, Victim (if you have to), and it gets better against non-standard removal, like Terminus, Fiend Hunter, O-Ring, bounce (because it’s so cheap), and Sever the Bloodline.  These kinds of removal are getting more and more common, so Treacherous Pit-Dweller starts to gain more value.  Besides, if they don’t have one of these answers...

Spells

Liliana of the Veil

She's pretty imbalanced, isn't she?
Oh, Liliana.  She’s gotten sleeved and unsleeved a lot of times since her release last September.  Solar Flare, Reanimator, and now, MBC.  I believe it’s her true home, as all of her abilities are, well, very black.  In this deck, you can toss your Gravecrawler and reanimate him, or some of the many lands you’ll end up drawing (this whole deck is three CMC and lower.)  Her sacrifice ability will help keep your opponents’ board clear for Gravecrawlers, Pit-Dwellers and Messengers.  Most of the time, I feel she honestly shouldn’t be a third turn play.  I think, however, she’ll most often be a revolving-door kind of planeswalker.  Cast, spin down, spin down, cast another, spin down again.  I think she’ll be very useful in this deck.  She just needs to be cheaper to buy…

Victim of Night

Fatality!
I chose this simply because it was the best targeted kill spell for BB.  There are a couple cards this won’t hit, but it’ll hit the big ones.  Titans, Sphinxes, Humans…Anything it doesn’t kill your sacrificing will kill.  It’s possible that Go for the Throat is better, but I wanted to try this just because I don’t think it gets enough love.  Besides, GftT is rotating out in three months.

Altar’s Reap

Just sack him.
An invaluable card in this deck both for its card advantage, but its ability to sacrifice at instant speed, preventing an irritating Pillar of Flame from zapping your Gravecrawler or Geralf’s Messenger into oblivion.  Use it in response to the Pit-Dweller’s undying ability for super value.  Altar’s Reap should be a welcome card in any hand, and it’s a great reason to keep two mana open.  Also, on a niche note, the sacrifice is a cost, so the creature still dies even if the spell is countered.

Tragic Slip

I accidentally your creature.
Tragic Slip is a great, yet conditional, kill spell.  On one hand, it can be “Destroy target creature” with Morbid active, or it can be “Destroy target unflipped Delver” without.  Either way, with this deck’s proclivity to morbidity, this felt like the right card.  It deals with Delvers and Titans alike, all for one mana.

Killing Wave

Liliana sure is ex-y in this picture.
Meant to be a powerful finisher, it is a card that your opponent will have trouble interacting with.  Sure, it can be countered, but against an even mildly aggressive deck, this card will break over them like…a wave.  C’mon now.  Even if you’re the only one with creatures, if you have a Blood Artist or any of your undying creatures, you’ll be just fine as this resolves. 

What I like most about Killing Wave is what I like about all “opponent’s choice” cards like this.  They can pay a cost to prevent something from happening.  Only in some circumstances will the choice be favorable, however.  I’ve noticed people not even thinking about paying life to prevent something happening.  Vexing Devil is a great example.  I will just about always let it resolve if I would have less than 10 life from forcing it to be sacrificed.  If your deck is even remotely successful, this decision will be too hard for them.  It can be either a very effective Blaze or a one-sided Wrath of God.  If they’re against the ropes, it is a literal game-winner; they can’t pay the life OR sacrifice their creatures – either leaves them on the losing end of the table.  Although pros often speak against this kind of card, when both choices are synergetic in your deck, why wouldn’t you play it?

Regarding the land, I honestly wanted all Swamps for consistency.  I could see playing some non-basics, like Ghost Quarter, Haunted Fengraf and Cavern of Souls, but I just honestly don’t want the risk of NOT casting my Messenger on Turn 3.  The color demands of this deck are so heavy that a Swamp is almost always going to be better.

The sideboard is a real crapshoot.  I have no idea what this deck needs out of the sideboard, and I think it will be highly variable based on the metagame (when isn’t that the case?) 

I proxied the deck and drytested it against my own decks (in this case, a mono-green Dungrove Elder/Undying Deck, a mono-white humans deck and my blue-red MiRUcle™ deck.)  It did worst against the white deck (where I thought it would do the best) and best against MiRUcle and mono-green. 

The deck does have some glaring weaknesses which only further playtesting will determine, but I see a problem with several cards; Terminus, for one, other undying creatures, RDW specifically Pillar of Flame.  However, I think this deck would just eat Delver Decks, most aggro decks and a large portion of control decks and blink decks.  More than that, though, I think the deck has trouble clutching the win.  A surprising star of the deck was Treacherous Pit-Dweller.  It wasn’t a huge problem for it to change hands, as I could either kill it or would sacrifice it in response to the undying trigger.  On the other hand, Gravecrawler and Geralf’s Messenger being unable to block was a serious problem; I needed ways to more effectively protect Liliana.  Butcher Ghoul played well, but in general, I found I’d either not have enough kill spells or I would not have enough win conditions.  I had a lot of empty-boarded “land-go” turns.  

This paragraph, written two weeks after this original article, is here to inform you that, despite a well-intentioned effort, this deck couldn't get there. Perhaps it's back to drawing board with it.  A version of this has been floating around, ironically; a B/R Zombie pod deck.  It combines a better sack engine (Falkenrath Aristocrat) with more creature choice and just a smoother play.  It uses the same muscles.  I took it apart last week.  It's a learning experience that everyone needs to have as they play Magic at ANY point they play Magic.  Never be afraid to brew!

I still feel like there is something here, and I really want to keep it mono-black.  However, it needs a lot of work and perhaps a clearer vision.  I don’t want to invest heavily until I’m surer, so for now, it might be back to the drawing board.  Is there something in the list you found particularly weak?  If so, what do you think it needs instead?  I’d really like to make this work.  Let me know in the comments.  Thanks again for visiting, and don’t forget to untap!

- Matt


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