Before we get started today there’s an important video we need to watch that relates to some of the things we’re going to discuss. It’s only a few minutes and the payoff is worth it, let me tell you.
“Wrong Ball!” is a fantastic example of utilizing outside the box thinking in defiance of commonly held ideas of acceptability and normalcy. I know this because when I shared the play with friends at the Des Moines PTQ this weekend (notably Peter Martinez and Jordan Weber) they laughed derisively. This was also how most of them responded when I showed them the deck I intended to play.
The above list is similar in spirit to “Wrong Ball!” in that it is seeking to do something that is out of the ordinary, something different, so as to gain an edge. Like many players this Extended season, I’ve grown a bit frustrated with a format that allows so many variables to be relevant. Affinity, Dredge, Next Level Blue, Previous Level Blue, Goblins, Enduring Ideal, TEPS… the list of playable archetypes stretches on and on and on, with no deck clearly sitting above the rest of the format in regards to dominance week in and week out. With that in mind, I set out to sculpt an archetype that would focus on beating the most popular decks most of the time, and hopefully shore up the rest in the sideboard. Mono-Black Control is that deck.
Before we get to the archetypes, a few comments on individuals cards:
Spawning Pool: The Pool is easily recognizable as the oddest oddball in a deck filled with oddballs, but sometimes a Swamp should be more than a Swamp. Pool is exactly that providing you with an uncounterable blocker that soaks up Loxodon Hierarch, Tarmogoyf, Doran, and a host of other creatures should your flow of removal ever fill up. It doesn’t hurt that it provides you with the hail maryiest of hail marys should your Plan A (Consume Spirit and Corrupt) and your Plan B (Undead Gladiator) fail.
Diabolic Tutor: Liliana doesn’t get the same things done that DToots does. First, putting the card on top isn’t as efficient as simply yielding you the card directly, particularly when so often you’re tutoring for something like Boseiju, Coffers, or Tormod’s Crypt, each of which can impact the game immediately upon being searched up (or, in the case of Boseiju, impact the following turn instead of two in the future). Second, there is a world of difference between five mana and four mana, even in an Extended format that is relatively tame in regards to kill-turn, as this season has been.
Undead Gladiator: Big Glads is the lynchpin that holds the deck together, serving as a win condition, removal spell, land drop, and super tutor. We will discuss in detail how it does each of those things during the archetype breakdown, but without the Gladiator the deck just wouldn’t be the same. Other options, like a snow engine, Skeletal Scrying, and Phyrexian Arena have been tested, but time after time Undead Gladiator proved its worth to the deck.
First and foremost you are a deck seeking to punish the players who have opted to use creatures in the format. That means you never keep a hand that doesn’t do something on turn 1 or 2. Damnation is simply too slow, and even if you’re able to play it reasonably on turn 4, if the rest of your hand is Diabolic Tutors and X-spells you need to ship it back.
Second, don’t be afraid to use Damnation on as little as a single creature. Your goal is to stay alive long enough to take over the mid-game with your Tutors and X-spells so anything, even Damnationing a singleton Hierarch off the board, that gets you to that point is important.
Third, don’t let Dark Confidant stay on the board. Truthfully, against any deck with creatures don’t let any form of card advantage stay on the board; you will regain it only in the late game through Staff of Domination and Chainer’s Edict as well as the lifegain from Consume Spirit and Corrupt (which can effectively nullify previously played cards like Lightning Helix, Rift Bolt, etc.).
Finally, and most importantly, in order to play Mono-Black Control you must recognize what the deck is trying to do. When playing the Swamps, you’re looking to beat decks which are doing specific things like attacking, things you are designed to stop. You will often lose to decks which don’t do those things, but because the decks you beat make up a bigger portion of the field you’re taking a calculated risk you hope will pay off in matchups. You will not complain about facing TEPS and Ideals all day long, bemoan your fate, and promise to never play the deck ever again.
On to archetypes…
Doran and Other Non-Death Cloud Rock Variants
Originally MBC was built to beat Doran after its massive early season presence on the East coast and through the Midwest. The Cranial Extraction and Staff of Domination you see in the maindeck were originally the Slays currently in the sideboard; we wanted Green creatures dead, and we wanted them dead NOW! Inevitably the wide openness of the format led to the more flexible changes (not everyone, contrary to what you’ve heard, is playing Tarmogoyf), but the Cranial Extraction was actually a nod to this very matchup. Doran presented three cards which were problematic: Vindicate, Treetop Village, and Profane Command. The Extraction takes care of two of them.
Treetop Village represents the least disconcerting threat of the three ,as you have Smother to deal with it on the removal front (conserve them when possible using your other removal on Doran, Tarmogoyf, and the like) and returning the Undead Gladiator which netted you your early land drop to block it in perpetuity. Vindicate and Profane Command, however, were different stories. The first proved problematic because it could blow up your Cabal Coffers and Staff of Domination, the tools you relied on to pull far ahead in the match. Profane Command gave the Doran deck the reach it needed to sometimes pull wins out of nowhere simply because you took some early hits before destroying their board with Damnation. Cranial Extraction gives the deck a means of responding to those threats proactively. If you’re at a sufficiently high life total it’s correct to go after their Vindicate to protect your Staff, which you then ride to victory. If Command represents a risk to your life total, remove that and slowroll the Staff until a point in the game in which you can guarantee multiple card draw activations out of it in the event they’ve been slowrolling Vindicate.
Of course, some of that plan changes now that the metagame has switched to players playing Putrefy over Smother to deal with threats like Ravenous Baloth. In that circumstance it’s almost always correct to name Profane Command, as hitting Vindicate doesn’t stop their ability to answer your Staff. Of course, outliers do come up and during the PTQ in Des Moines I used Extraction to get my opponent’s Loxodon Hiearchs after a large Haunting Echoes, leaving him with only Treetop Villages as win conditions. In any case, the matchup as it was designed is in your favor. Your spot removal deals with their threats, which are not many, and you have inevitability as the game goes long and your Consume Spirits grow increasingly powerful provided, of course, your life isn’t ended by an untimely Profane Command. Sideboard both Slays to increase your removal total for Treetop Village and get card advantage for free.
The days of the Affinity of old are long gone, as Minnesotan Mike Abrahams found out the hard way this weekend. He’s a member of the old guard of Minnesotans that included Gerry Thompson, Jon Pelcak, Tim Bulger, and a few others, and you can usually find Mike at PTQs with a four hour driving distance from home now that he’s resurgent in the game. His complaint about the deck all weekend long was that it was an intense amount of math (“Should I pump my Atog now while they’re tapped out to force through the extra damage before they can Smother/Putrefy/Mortify?…”) against excessively hateful hate cards (Hurkyl’s Recall, Shatterstorm, Shattering Spree, Ancient Grudge, Kataki…) without the brokenness of past versions of the deck and with almost no way to interact with what your opponent was doing. The biggest thing Affinity seems to have going for it is that it can easily be assembled for around $100, a bargain basement price in today’s Extended.
Naturally, all those factors add up to making the matchup good for MBC as the deck plays creatures, though it’s a bit more challenging than something more traditional like Domain Zoo. Affinity’s biggest weapons against Mono-Black are the “I vomited everything in my hand on the board and it’s only the second turn!” draw and Blinkmoth Nexus + Cranial Plating. As a creature-land it dodges most of your removal and, unlike something like Treetop Village, it can’t be blocked by Undead Gladiator, leaving you with a potential problem should you wind up with no Smother and at a low life total when they find one with a Plating. Your maindeck answer is to get Staff active, in order to tap it each turn or find that Smother.
In general, Affinity isn’t too big a problem because, like other creature decks, you simply one-for-one them while building up your manabase, at which point in time you nullify significant portions of their deck with huge X-spells, get ahead on cards with Chainer’s Edict and Staff, or blow everything up at once with Damnation. Cranial Extraction should hit Shrapnel Blast unless they’re playing the Fatal Frenzy version, at which point it should hit whatever is most pressing at the time (Fatal Frenzy if it could be lethal because you haven’t killed all their creatures for some reason, Cranial Plating if they haven’t found one yet or finding a second one is relevant, etc.). Don’t forget what it’s like to sit in the Affinity player’s chair either; there is no more stressful situation than trying to figure out whether one should go lethal into 1B and risk Smother on a Ravager or Atog, so sit up tall and confident and always project that you have “it” whether you do or not.
R, Rg, Rb, and RgbDW
As a creature deck with some reach, the Red decks are favorable though there are certain draws that can put you out of business. Generally they include some amount of excessive land destruction (two or more such spells) while you have a “funny” mana situation, or the Red player hitting multiple Blistering Firecats before you’ve stabilized. If the version you’re playing against cut Firecats for Countryside Crushers or some other creature, you’re in luck, as your win percentage goes up significantly. As for landkill, with 26 lands maindeck (and a Boseiju for tutoring), as well as a full set of Undead Gladiators, it’s usually not a huge problem though if they try to get funny and Molten Rain a Spawning Pool remember you can activate it and use a regen shield to keep it around.
By the time you get to the sideboard and the adding in of three Bottle Gnomes the matchup is downright easy, or as easy as any Red matchup is going to get. Considering the huge percentage of the field Red decks made up at Grand Prix: Vancouver and at local PTQs like Madison, Wisconsin (local for me, anyway) that’s a big feather in the cap for Mono-Black Control. Here’s how to sideboard:
Previous and Next Level Blue
The three decks in mind for beating when this project began were RDW variants, Doran Rock variants, and Next Level Blue variants. We’ve discussed the first two, but the way the deck shifts to beat the Blue decks is fairly interesting. The key cards in the matchup are Undead Gladiator, Boseiju, and Diabolic Tutor, which they MUST counter for fear it will find either of the first two. Because both versions of NLB run so few actual threats, banking on Vedalken Shackles to get them there at the cost of their opponent’s resources, your plethora of removal is actually very difficult for them to deal with.
Versions with Counterbalance have no choice but to find a one, two, three, and four casting cost spell to keep Innocent Blood, Edict, Smother, and Damnation from resolving once a Tarmogoyf is on the board. Versions with actual countermagic over the Counterbalance have to get tricky with Repeal protecting the Goyfs in an uphill battle they’re unlikely to be able to win. And when you manage to find your Boseiju? It’s all a moot point as you resolve whatever spells you want whenever you want.
Of course, you find that card by abusing Undead Gladiator, returning and cycling it over and over during your upkeep until you hit the relevant cards you’re looking for (the super tutor we talked about earlier). If you’re playing a version of Blue with Trinket Mage maindeck they have two answers to those shenanigans in the form of a tutorable Pithing Needle and Tormod’s Crypt. In such a situation it’s best to save up for a big turn in which you can dig multiple cards deep before they shut off your cycling 3/1 forever. If your opponent is playing a Trinketless version of the deck then you’re good to go.
The card Previous Level Blue provides to challenge MBC is the singleton Rude Awakening and you have two paths of prevention against it. The first is to hit it with Cranial Extraction, much like Profane Command from Doran. The second is to simply elevate your life total to a point that renders moot the sorcery by way of Consume Spirit, Corrupt, or if all else fails Staff of Domination. Neither is that difficult to pull off and the deck’s exceptional matchup on this front is one of the things that makes it such an attractive choice for PTQs.
Like Affinity, Domain Zoo has the possibility of drawing four spells costed at 1R that simply deal 20 damage all on their own, albeit at sorcery speed. Of course, just as you would defend against Shrapnel Blast you protect yourself from Tribal Flames by minimizing the damage dealt by Zoo’s creatures and regaining whatever life you did lose by way of your primary win conditions. Fortunately for MBC, modern Zoo dilutes its burn base by running cards like Terminate, Vindicate, and Gaea’s Might instead of spells that go directly to the head. That makes our job a little easier.
Like the other creature matchups you’ll face, your goal against Zoo is simply to trade your preliminary removal to keep their Lions and Tigers and Bears oh my! off the board. Don’t be afraid to one-for-one early on and Damnation as little as a single creature off the board; your goal is to maintain a high life total so you can get to the point in which you start slinging large X-spells. Smother is particularly handy because it occasionally provides you a two-for-one thanks to Gaea’s Might (just don’t forget to always declare no blockers when they attack). While their Terminates will almost always be a dead card, Vindicate is relevant in that it will kill Staff of Domination and Cabal Coffers, so remember you can slowroll either to force at least one significant use out of it.
Goblins is a matchup that approaches a 50/50 type win percentage. They don’t have reach barring a lucky Sharpshooter build up and a set of Mogg Fanatics, but they do have a resiliency to one-for-one removal most creature decks don’t thanks to Goblin Ringleader and Patriarch’s Bidding. Both those cards are the two you most seek to neutralize.
An early aggressive start by the Goblins player backed up by a Patriarch’s Bidding before you can react will generally not be something you can do much about. Save Smother for Goblin Warchief when possible, or Goblin Piledriver after a Bidding, but if the Bidding resolves then things aren’t going well. You typically pull off the games in which you buy yourself enough time to Cranial Extraction the Biddings, which allows you to Corrupt and Consume for the win.
After sideboarding, things improve nominally as you add two additional means of combating Bidding. Tsabo’s Decree gives you a Wrath that not only deals with the Bidding on their turn, but also counteracts Goblin Ringleader. The Tormod’s Crypt gives you a four-mana counter to the Bidding giving you an out to it whether you’re on the play or draw thanks to Diabolic Tutor. That allows you to force them to play the game you want, which is trading your removal for their tiny creatures and not-burn spells until you can Extraction Ringleader (or Bidding, whichever is most relevant). Though things improve in the sideboarded games, it’s definitely a close matchup.
Death Cloud is a challenging matchup because, unlike other Rock builds, they interact with you on levels you’re not always prepared to interact on. Their planeswalkers are things you’re not readily able to kill, though Corrupt and Consume Spirit will allow you to do so. Still, spending your marquee kill cards on their threats isn’t something you should be happy to do, particularly as they likely have more planeswalkers than you have X-spells. At some point, after all, you need to be able to kill them.
Death Cloud is also a problem, though they can’t usually resolve one early as they won’t have a lead on the board. Because they have to wait until they have a mana edge, Divining Top, or planeswalker you can buy yourself the time you need to Cranial Extraction the XBBB sorcery. At that point the game is a bit more fair and you’re playing against a more traditional Rock type deck where you have the advantage (or more of an advantage, at least).
All that said, the lack of popularity and success Death Cloud has seen so far has left me unconcerned about it or improving the matchup significantly. Going 50% against a deck you’re likely to see once or twice throughout the rest of the season is a margin one should be more than comfortable with, and is the reason there is no current sideboard plan for the matchup.
Curse Mike Flores for getting frustrated with this format. Burn does what RDW does only without using creatures, which means you’re horribly unprepared to deal with the deck. You play far too many dead spells in the form of your creature removal, though Smother lets you kill Blinkmoth Nexus and Spark Elemental should they be playing them. Instead you want to survive long enough to start Consuming/Corrupting though you have to be wary of Flames of the Blood Hand, which can completely nullify the relevant part of that path. After that resolve Staff and start crawling back into the game, but recognize that the first game is a nightmare.
While you get to add Bottle Gnomes from your sideboard, your opponent is likely bringing in Sulfuric Vortex, which just makes a bad matchup considerably worse. If they don’t have Vortex, or don’t draw it, you have a fighting chance… but if they do and they do, you’re up some kind of creek with no means of transportation whatsoever. Your hope is to maintain a high life total with Gnomes and your X-spells, get Staff running, and attack their graveyard to remove relevant burn spells as well as keep them off of threshold. There are so many irrelevant cards to board out you can kind of board in whatever you want. Regardless, the matchup is, unfortunately, an uphill battle.
Another nightmare matchup game 1, Dredge gets significantly better once you reach the board thanks to the Extended trademarked 8 Card Dredge Sideboard Special. The eight cards this time around are a special mixture so as to force the Dredge player to second-guess themselves on how to defend their deck. Leyline is the threat that seems immediately presented as a result of the fact you’re playing a Mono-Black deck. Their Chains will be blanks. Tormod’s Crypt is a one-of because it’s simply the best tutor target available for dealing with Golgari Grave-Troll and company; hit four mana and their work gets increasingly difficult unless they sideboarded in Pithing Needle to deal with your one-of, diluting their deck. Extirpate is simply the most powerful anti-graveyard strategy and forces them to utilize Cabal Therapy before going off, slowing them down, or play Chalice of the Void on one which shuts off a significant portion of THEIR cards. Finally we have Offalsnout, the piggy itself. As an Iowa boy I’m happy to see swine getting some due from the fine folks at R & D, and you really can’t ask for a better option against Dredge. Evoked it nails the most relevant card in their graveyard and every Bridge from Below that happens to be present when Piggy hits the yard. Their answer is, again, Cabal Therapy slowing themselves down and not hitting Extirpate or boarding in the otherwise irrelevant Leyline of the Void which still doesn’t stop Piggy from snarffling the most important card in their graveyard and further dilutes their deck.
This matchup, like any that concedes the first game, is a risk but it is a calculated one. The second and third game get much better when you mulligan to at least one of your hate cards and you can actually board in other cards like Bottle Gnomes and Tsabo’s Decree if you’re truly concerned (just remember that most of your removal deals with things like reanimated Akromas pretty well already so don’t board out EVERYTHING). It would be nice if the format didn’t ask us to respect Dredge as much as we are forced to but because it does we must be willing to commit to beating the deck one way or another.
Enduring Ideals and TEPS (and any deck with Invasion sac lands)
These are the nightmare matchups, the ones which make MBC a calculated risk. If PTQs are truly double elimination tournaments, and for the most part they are, you cannot afford to see these types of decks multiple times throughout the course of a day and hope to have a shot at winning. Your game plan against either is to resolve Cranial Extraction somehow before they’ve gone off and name the most relevant spell. Against Ideals it’s generally right to hit Solitary Confinement; if they’re not able to prevent you from targeting them you can force your spells through Dovescape with Boseiju and Consume Spirit them from five after Form of the Dragon. Against TEPS it’s probably right to hit Mind’s Desire and hope that buys you enough time to build a huge life advantage before they manage to find a Burning Wish and go off. How you manage to resolve the Extraction before they’ve gone off is a combination of good fortune for you and bad fortune for them, but that’s your game plan.
For the second and third games you’re able to cut a lot of your worthless cards for cards that are slightly less worthless, but things are not good no matter how you slice it. This is a result of intentional design; play MBC if you expect to see a great deal of the decks it beats and NOT if you expect a lot of the decks it DOESN’T beat.
I hesitated to write this article because I recognize it is a difficult challenge for many to understand the nuances of deck building. Mono-Black Control is not seeking to be an Extended powerhouse in the way that Next Level Blue or Dredge is; instead it seeks to gain a specific edge to accomplish the specific goal of qualifying, and it does that by beating a large percentage of the field frequently. Such is the nature of a tier two format in that no deck can beat all the relevant archetypes all the time, forcing us to play decks that can beat a high percentage of the relevant archetypes most of the time.
Can MBC do that? I was willing to risk that it could in Des Moines bef
ore being paired against Death Cloud, Burn, and Ideals twice, knocking me out of the event. I continue to maintain that the deck is capable of winning a PTQ but, like most others, it needs a few things to fall its way in order to do so.
Mono-Black Control is like watching the “Wrong Ball!” video. We’ve seen the innovation and how it can be successful, but we don’t know whether it was good enough to win them the game, or qualify us for Hollywood, in the end.
I’ll see you in Chicago.