Feature Article – Sullivan Library: Beyond the Black Rack Transform

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With the Standard metagame finally taking shape in this Post-Tenth Edition era, Adrian Sullivan opens another weighty tome from the Sullivan Library. By looking back at some pre-Tenth Mono-Black shenanigans, he creates an exciting new deck that may just be the weapon of choice for 2007’s National champion! Intrigued? Then read on…

I’d like to start off this article by first thanking everyone that gave me such amazing accolades for my last article, which focused on card counts and how to properly choose the numbers of copies of cards that we should put into Constructed decks. I really do appreciate all of the praise, so thank you.

Before I begin with this article, I’d like to briefly touch on one of the things that I had intended to cover in that article, but that somehow slipped my mind in the final version. Both Billy Moreno and Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa commented in the forums about some of the mental effects that having strangely numbered card lists can have on an opponent.

Moreno notably comments, “Having strange numbers in my decks lets me give the illusion that I know something the average deckbuilder doesn’t.” This can be a strong advantage when you’re in a PTQ, from a few angles. During my PTQ win and during my real life and MTGO playtesting, for example, I know that some of the card count choices in my deck (1 Brine Elemental, 1 Draining Whelk, 1 Haunting Hymn, 1 Pact of Negation, 1 Slaughter Pact, 1 Spell Burst, 1 Sudden Death, 1 Venser, Shaper Savant, 2 Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir, 2 Tendrils of Corruption, 2 Vesuvan Shapeshifter, 3 Gaea’s Blessing, to recount the non-spell non-fours) had many opponents exclaiming “How did you fit all of that into your deck!” They had expectations about what should be in the deck, and as they saw cards play out in my deck, their expectations were suddenly dashed as they tried to imagine what it was that I had built. In some small, immeasurable way, I’m willing to bet that it put them off balance.

Paolo, on the other hand, mentions the other implication of this. “One thing you didn’t mention,” he writes, “but that’s potentially important is that YOU know how many of each you are running, but your opponent doesn’t. You know that you have a 3/2 Riders/Demolish, but your opponent might as well think you run four of each.”

This is a very important point. One of the concepts that I brought up and has been talked about in other articles is the concept of analogs. If something is functionally literally the same or near close enough, it can often be correct to run a split of the cards to confuse your opponent. During the time that Fyndhorn Elf and Llanowar Elf were both legal, I would often run a split of the cards rather than four of one if I was wanting my opponent to believe that I was running eight Elves. This might change the way that my opponent played or sideboarded. Perhaps, for example, land destruction is actually a very good weapon against the deck. They might be less prone to bring in that land destruction against a deck with eight Elves. Or, perhaps Pyroclasm is actually a terrible card against the deck, because it can only kill the four Elves. By playing a split, you might encourage the boarding in of a card like Pyroclasm, thereby watering down their deck. In a deck where you might want to discourage the sideboarding of a card like Pyroclasm because it is actually an effective weapon against you, you are likely to be better served by not fostering this belief in additional card counts.

Many times this expectation of incorrect card counts can be critical in achieving a win. When I took Eminent Domain to States a few years back, many of my opponents assumed that I had much greater amounts of counterspells than I was actually running (my 4 Remand were it, maindeck). As a result of their changes in play, I was able to steal a few game wins that I might not have deserved if they knew my deck better. Card counts can achieve this result to an even greater degree.

Take this deck, from my sole GP Top 8.

Con-Troll — by Adrian Sullivan and Brian Kowal

4 Yavimaya Elder
4 Albino Troll
2 Acridian
2 Palinchron
3 Powder Keg
3 Stroke of Genius
2 Hush
3 Rescind
1 Miscalculation
2 Power Sink
3 Rewind
3 Treachery
3 Annul
4 Treetop Village
9 Island
10 Forest
2 Faerie Conclave

2 Quash
1 Treachery
2 Rebuild
3 Arcane Lab
2 Turnabout
1 Rewind
1 Annul
1 Acridian
1 Simian Grunt
1 Powder Keg

Some of the card counts can be looked at specifically from the other analysis that I mention in my last article, but it doesn’t take into account the 2 Power Sink, 1 Miscalculation.

The rest of the countermagic (3 Rewind, 3 Annul) easily fit into the realm of cards that I wanted to see regularly but didn’t want to see in every hand (making them appropriate for a 3-count). The 2/1 Sink/Miscalc split did something else entirely.

I wanted 3 more counters, and the 3 Power Sink would have been the most absolutely appropriate card count in a world of perfect information between opponents (i.e., the world in which all of my opponents knew my deck list exactly). Miscalculation was often a slightly subpar Power Sink (though it was also occasionally better), but it was pretty functionally close to the other card. On the other hand, I also knew that people were scouting. In their head, they did not see this as my list:

3 Annul
3 Rewind
2 Power Sink
1 Miscalculation

They saw:

4 Annul
4 Rewind
4 Power Sink
4 Miscalculation

Just the appearance of a Miscalculation or the reported appearance of it put my opponents who were aware of its existence into a place where they expected 16 counters. In many situations, this kind of misread of the situation can greatly impact when a player acts or not, and can often put them into a position where the misread can lead them down very wrong paths of action.

Thanks to Billy and Paulo for noting those slight oversights in my article.

One of the things that I think that everyone does when they start to approach a “new” format is they revisit the past. We look at the decks that we’ve made before and try to find something, anything, that we’ve enjoyed or had success with, looking to find some way to port it into the new format.

I’ve done this many, many times over the years, and had some of my best successes with the strategy. In half of the events that I’ve had really noteworthy success, it has been a reworking of an old idea, and in half it has been in a brand spanking new idea, such as the Con-Troll deck, above.

The problem with the brand spanking new idea is that there really is no guarantee that whatever it may be that you’re working on is going to be any good. This isn’t to say that the idea itself is necessarily bad. It is to say that maybe this isn’t the right time for that idea. Take, by way of example, Mirrodin Block Constructed, or Standard around the time of Invasion Block.

In both of these environments, there were clear warping influences on the metagame. I’m sure, for example, that in any other format, Panoptic Mirror might have had a chance to become an amazing Constructed card. Brian David-Marshall, notably, talked about the power of the theoretical Mirror deck, locking an opponent out permanents with Plow Under in Standard. In Block, you had less options, but you could still put some incredibly impressive spells under the Mirror and go to town with it. The problem, of course, was that Affinity was so deeply in the radar of every player and their brother that you couldn’t really afford to dedicate the space in a deck to a lightning rod that could so overwhelmingly be destroyed. In the Invasion Block era, it simply became unthinkable to play any reasonable expensive creature that might die to a Flametongue Kavu. The Flametongue Kavu was everywhere, and choosing to play a creature that would take up any degree of time to cast and then would simply get blown up by the Kavu was a kind of suicide. Poor Tahngarth, such a great creature, never had a chance.

New decks, in formats that have any degree of being established, have to butt up against all of the already known strong discoveries. If these strong discoveries bring the incidental hate (like might carry over from Affinity) that happens to hit your new idea, or if your new idea simply is the victim of a commonly played card (like Flametongue), you have a deck that is simply weaker than the established decks.

Reworking decks to fit a new format have some similar problems, but one thing that established decks already have is the proof of their value. Whether or not everyone knows it, if you have a deck that you believe to have proven itself in the past, (assuming you are correct) you can fall back on the sheer power of a deck.

Slightly shifted formats like we have in Standard right now allow for the porting of decks in a pretty great way. The Clear Best New Thing in Standard is usually not discovered yet, so you’ll find a lot of people porting over their decks too. This means that you don’t necessarily have to figure out countermeasures to brand new things, and you’ll have a rough idea of what you can mostly expect from an opponent. You might have to do some changing of the deck, to be certain, but it isn’t just completely impossible.

As I’ve been working on Standard, I’ve slowly been porting over a Black Rack deck into the new format. Along the way, though, it’s shifted in a pretty dramatic way.

For Regionals, I played this deck, designed primarily by deckbuilder extraordinaire, Ben Dempsey, though I did help a little.

4 Blackmail
3 Cry of Contrition
4 Funeral Charm
4 Augur of Skulls
4 Ravenous Rats
4 Dark Confidant
3 Phyrexian Arena
3 Garza’s Assassin
4 Tendrils of Corruption
4 The Rack
22 Snow-Covered Swamp
1 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth

2 Consume Spirit
2 Damnation
4 Extirpate
3 Korlash, Heir to Blackblade
4 Last Gasp

I loved this deck. It was great to play. I think that if I were to play Regionals again, while I might alter the sideboard slightly, I’d essentially play the exact same list. There was this curious thing that I would do, again and again, in numerous matchups.

I’d board in all 15 cards. I boarded out slightly different packages of cards each time, but, for example, versus Bridge from Below decks, it would be minus 4 The Rack, minus 4 Ravenous Rats, minus 3 Cry of Contrition, and minus 4 Augur of Skulls — in different matchups it would be some other combination of cards that didn’t make as much sense in the matchup. Essentially, I became an unusual Black Control deck in many, many matchups.

And it seemed good. Very good.

Granted, it lost a lot of power of the sheer overwhelming water-torture discard that it had had, but so much of the deck continued to shine in really noticeable ways. It was rare, for example, to lose to a deck like Dragonstorm in either configuration of the deck. After all of the dust of Regionals cleared, there was a little more to look at for food for thought. Stephen Wong’s win in LA with this deck furthered my thoughts that perhaps the transform version of the deck might be the one worth pursuing.

Largely inspired by the combination of the two decks, I produced this, pre-Tenth Standard Black Control deck:

4 Blackmail
3 Extirpate
3 Funeral Charm
4 Augur of Skulls
4 Dark Confidant
4 Phyrexian Arena
3 Garza’s Assassin
4 Tendrils of Corruption
4 Korlash, Heir to Blackblade
3 Consume Spirit
23 Snow-Covered Swamp
1 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth

1 Consume Spirit
3 Damnation
1 Extirpate
1 Funeral Charm
4 Hypnotic Specter
4 Last Gasp
1 Phyrexian Totem

The deck performed beautifully. It wasn’t the most fantastic deck of all time, but it felt very, very solid versus many of the most common decks, and clearly had the upper hand in other matchups. Many of the more uncommon matchups were a real beast.

The basic heart of the deck, though, was intact. There was enough discard to really frustrate the control decks and force through the threats and card draw, while versus the beatdown decks, the only really clear “dead” card was the Extirpate, with Blackmail doing such a good job of fighting their best threats, and the Charm and Augur having non-discard roles to play. All-in-all, it was a pretty satisfying deck to play, though it wasn’t a perfectly honed piece yet.

Tenth Edition, though, was on the horizon, and it became clear that a lot of the deck was going to have to change. No longer could you expect to have the card draw that was available to you with the 4 Bob plus 4 Arena. Instead, something else would have to come in to take its place, or, if not, the deck would have to alter radically

Obviously, the first stop was Graveborn Muse.

The Muse was quite underwhelming. So slow that it could easily be picked off by counters, smashed by Wrath effects, and just completely unexciting. Matters became worse when I realized that Blackmail was no longer legal. Suddenly, the hunt for a replacement was in order, but nothing really stood out as worthwhile. Distress? Thrull Surgeon? Both of these cards had some useful points to them, but they just added to the slowness of the deck, and spoke to the greater need of rebuilding.

After many, many drafts (including a disastrous attempt to include Tombstalker — great with Dark Confidant!), I arrived at this as one potential version:

The only elements of discard that remain in the deck are those cards that have extra utility in those matchups where you might not otherwise want to play discard. Funeral Charm also has the added bonus of sometimes turning Korlash into an unblockable Huge/Huge monster.

The deck did up itself to 4 Consume Spirit, and also added in Mind Stone. Mind Stone is weak “card draw,” but the deck doesn’t really have that much card draw in it to balance out the loss of Arena. Still, though, the Stones have been fantastic — just as good as Patrick Chapin proclaims them to be. I’m guessing that any non-aggressive deck that isn’t overwhelmed at the two-drop are going to be playing a full set in no time flat.

Korlash/Tendrils or Consume is just a complete beating against any of the aggressive decks. Consume even makes a fantastic threat against any of the decks that are more slow and controlling, making a Korlash often into a Phage of sorts, where if it hits you once, you’re dead. The Shrouded Lore in many ways function as an extra set of copies for the Korlashes, Tendrils, Consumes, and Bobs, generally. I was quite impressed by them, but I do find myself thinking that they may be out of place if they don’t receive the help of a Withered Wretch.

The one Beacon of Unrest is kind of a fun insertion into the deck, and it might be completely out of place, but it does seem to serve the very interesting function of being a potentially recursive threat. That might not be good enough, but it does seem good, at least, as a placeholder, and as an alternate kill method should the Korlash/Consume/Factory route dry up.

While there aren’t any Damnations in the main, it just so rarely feels like you need it. A Korlash on the table is just such a world-dominating figure that it is usually that he will hold things together all by his lonesome. The massive amount of lifegain, assisted by Shrouded Lore, also tends to make all but the most overwhelmingly aggressive draw seem to fall short.

On the other hand, there isn’t particularly the kind of card draw that I feel like the deck might need. One of the solutions to this has been cropping up all over MTGO: Dimir House Guard. While the House Guard isn’t exactly true card draw, he does provide the ability to increase the threat density of your deck, and if you need to, you could find yourself including some card advantage engine as a one-of in the deck.

Phyrexian Ironfoot is another good example of a card that might be deserving of inclusion into the deck. 3/4 is not something to sneeze at, whether you’re an aggressive deck or a control deck.

Clearly the deck still has a number of special challenges that it needs to pay attention to. A deck like Project X does require something like Extirpate (which I highly recommend in any sideboard of a deck like this) to take care of the unusual nature of the threats that they can represent. Clearly the metagame of the new Standard for U.S. Nationals is not something that is exactly as it was previous to Tenth Edition. Dragonstorm clearly takes a huge hit, and new decks are going to be out there. How a deck like this Black Control deck might need to be adapted to fit the new metagame is kind of an open question.

But the base of the deck is solid, and well-worth building a house on.

Until next time,