Is Mono-Black Back?

Why play multiple colors when one could do the job? Patrick Chapin tries to keep the new Standard simple with some mono-black brews!

Guilds of Ravnica may be a gold set, but this doesn’t mean we’ve got to play two or more colors. After all, you wouldn’t think twice about Goblin Chainwhirler being a part of a mono-red deck, or Steel Leaf Paladin in mono-green, or Tempest Djinn in mono-blue.

Enough’s different that it might be time to revisit an old classic with some powerful tools unlike anything it’s ever had access to before.

Dread Shade and Cabal Stronghold saw a little play in the previous format, but in the end, there just wasn’t enough reason to not play The Scarab God, Abrade, Winding Constrictor, or whatever. With those cards rotating out, there may be a lot more freedom in what sorts of incentives we could explore.

It’s not that Dread Shade and Cabal Stronghold are the biggest payoffs in the world, and I’m not really committed to mono-black at all. Splashing blue or green is pretty trivial if we’re willing to give them up, and both red and white are very doable. It’s just, when there’s incentive to play mono-color, I like to take the Wafo-Tapa approach and see if I can “make it work with as few colors as possible.” Once I rule out mono-color, I examine each of the two-color combinations, and so on.

So, why black?

Geeze, Luis.

Bryan Gottlieb dove into why Doom Whisperer is so good here, and Todd Anderson got pretty deep into abusing Doom Whisperer’s Surveil mechanic here. Today, I’d like to look at using Doom Whisperer as a “fair” card, or at least fair-adjacent.

Why use Doom Whisperer fairly?

Well, to really “exploit” the Surveil or Undergrowth mechanics, you’ve got to sacrifice card quality for synergy. That could easily end up being the best avenue, but it also might not be. You see, Doom Whisperer isn’t just a synergy card. Just playing it straight-up is text book “good stuff.” I mean, a 6/6 flier for five is already above rate, and this “Pay 2 life to Surveil 2” ability is bananas. Besides, trample on a 6/6 isn’t nothing.

So what does a “fair” Doom Whisperer deck look like?

For starters, I’d like to put a spotlight on two of the absolute best cards in the format. They’re nothing new at this point, but I think it’s worth calling out just how big of a role they’re likely to play in the new format.

Vraska’s Contempt was already one of the best cards in the format, and even though some of the most crucial cards to exile (Hazoret the Fervent, The Scarab God) are gone, so are most of the other options for hitting creatures and planeswalkers alike.

What’s more, Teferi, Hero of Dominaria has been joined by Ral, Izzet Viceroy, meaning there are now two powerful five-drop planeswalkers that can be played in lieu of any creatures at all. Overloading on creature removal is a dangerous proposition, but Vraska’s Contempt holds its value.

The Eldest Reborn benefits from this increased valuing of creature removal that hits planeswalkers, but it’s also just an incredibly powerful engine with a lot less competition for “ways to take over the game.” Its ability to grind out games has few rivals, and the value it generates is spread out across so many zones, it really plays into any sort of attrition-based strategy.

I’m not saying Ravenous Rats 2.0 is crazy strong or anything, but it is a respectable two-drop that is actually good against control instead of being weak. It can help keep one-drops and tokens under control, which helps a lot when we’re not playing one-cost cards ourselves, and a lot of our removal trades one-for-one.

Even when it’s just a speed bump, the card it hit on the way in contributes to the attrition game we’re trying to play. It also gives us some much needed defense against opposing copies of The Eldest Reborn, letting us sacrifice it instead of a high-impact permanent like Dread Shade, Doom Whisperer, or Karn, Scion of Urza.

Besides, I’m not even sure nine two-cost cards that impact the battlefield is enough for how good of early plays are out there. When facing creatures, it’s great to play something like Walk the Plank or Cast Down, but if we play too much of that stuff, we’re going to get beaten by control or anyone playing tons of two-for-ones.

In fact, I could imagine going even further and playing Dusk Legion Zealots, but the one life really does matter (especially when we’re Doom Whispering). Besides, I think we want to reduce our opponent’s options more than just getting ourselves more incrementally. With cards like Karn, Scion of Urza; The Eldest Reborn, and Doom Whisperer, we’ve got some serious power for when both players are running low on options.

So, why Treasure Map?

Well, for starters, it’s just a better card than Dusk Legion Zealot. There’s a lot less artifact destruction floating around, and what’s more, Treasure Map plays well as a two-drop or a three-drop, which helps reduce the number of times we’re going to waste a mana as a result of so few threes.

I considered stuff like Orazca Relic and Dimir Locket since we’ve got so many fives anyway. However, Doom Whisperer and The Eldest Reborn aren’t actually necessarily trying to be first to the party. Besides, we’re actually extremely long on fours, so playing a five on four just means we’re going to be stranded with even more fours for longer.

Without the flexibility of stuff like Doomfall or Never // Return, I’m just not seeing enough value from “stronger” removal spells like Murder. It might be okay to play one or whatever, but Walk the Plank and Cast Down generally seem more appealing to me.

Dead Weight’s a good card and will see plenty of play, but it’s got a lot more value to two-color decks trying to weigh the risks of tapped lands. In mono-black, I’m not sure we’re getting enough in exchange for saving one mana over the aforementioned options, though I do still want to sideboard it (and Fungal Infection is also a fine option).

Obviously, if there end up just being a ton of legendary creatures all over the place, Price of Fame’s stock rises. As it stands, however, it’s awkwardly two mana some of the time and four mana some of the time, instead of three and “worth it,” as would be convenient. The Surveil mechanic is strong, but so is the Ravenous Chupacabra mechanic and the Vraska’s Contempt mechanic. If we were actually looking to take advantage of Surveil, that’s a totally different story and Price of Fame instantly deserves some action.

I could see it. At the very least, I’d want to sideboard some, and it actually seems like it would be well-positioned early on. We’d probably be less inclined to rely on other sweepers, but that could also open up lines involving Kitesail Freebooter.

We’d have to really be into turning the drawback into upside. Yeah, Plaguecrafter can hit creatures or planeswalkers, but this is nowhere near as reliable as Never // Return, nor as flexible as Doomfall. We can’t even just discard a graveyard card, since we’re generally going to have the Plaguecrafter on the battlefield to sacrifice. Instead, we’d probably want to be packing death triggers or steal effects.

I guess we’ve got Treasure Map, Azor’s Gateway, and maybe Fountain of Renewal or Pillar of Origins? It’s not a nonstarter, but we’d need to be up to something.

This card looks fantastic to me and I wouldn’t mind playing it at all, main or side. It would kind of push me towards playing more cheap creatures, but that’s okay. I’m not sure what that deck looks like, though, because my first sketches seem kind of “meh” without a clear path forward.

The key is likely just not to change so much. Either mean it and Diregraf Ghoul like you belong there, or pull back and don’t try so hard.

Way too slow to maindeck. Quite possibly too mediocre to sideboard.

You laugh, but I’m not sure it’d be totally crazy to play an Arcane Encyclopedia (main or side). That said, on the surface, Treasure Map’s speed seems more likely to be what we need, given how powerful our late-game is already.

We don’t necessarily need to go all-out to incorporate a little Mastermind’s Acquisition action. One way to clear up the room at four is to move away from Karn, Scion of Urza. In doing so, we can even play a maindeck The Immortal Sun and really wipe some smiles off faces.

Not all our tutors need to cost the same amount, and if we played less removal and more quality bodies, maybe we can get there on Mausoleum Secrets without needing to play the explicitly synergy-based enablers. That said, if we did play Stitcher’s Supplier and the like (likely splashing green or blue), Mausoleum Secrets looks excellent to me. It’s sort of a sideways Traverse the Ulvenwald, if you squint.

With both Doom Whisperer and The Eldest Reborn at five, we’d probably have to be interested in fulfilling the contract. That said, Doom Whisperer is one, and I guess can help find the rest…

Wait, that’s it? That’s really the rest? I’m off it.

There are a lot less easy ways to kill artifacts and I’ve got a feeling The Immortal Sun could lead to a surprising number of “free wins” during the first couple of weeks of the format. Teferi who? We’ve even got stuff like the Rats to turn the +1/+1 portion of the card into a big game.

Ritual of Soot looks pretty good to me, particularly as a lead-in to The Eldest Reborn. It helps clean up tokens, and if people try to slowplay their hand against us, playing around it, they are more likely to be stuck with cards in hand to discard to our various attrition cards.

Speaking of attrition, now here is a three-cost card I’m into.

Playing a fairly clean two-for-one on Turn 3 has a lot of appeal, and if we pick up Dusk Legion Zealot, we’re actually going to be able to Raid the Heartless Pillage sometimes. We may not want to take Turn 3 off for artifact mana, but if we’re getting a two-for-one at the same time, that’s a different story.

Once we’re moving in on this whole discard plan, I don’t think it’s necessarily out of the question to consider a card like Vicious Rumors.

While not in the same ZIP code as The Eldest Reborn in terms of power level, Vicious Rumors does produce enough total value that we might be inclined, if we don’t mind how spread out it is. While the lifegain and life loss are obvious, the mill for one is actually kind of useful against opponents that Surveil (letting you mill the card they chose to keep).

Speaking of the attrition game, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention His Highness, Nicol Bolas, the Ravager. Obviously, going Grixis takes you down a very different road, but here’s a possible take on the same concept, making room for the Elder-Father:

With so many lands that are tapped on Turn 1, Vicious Rumors is right out. Also, without Dusk Legion Apostle or Zhalfirin Void, we’ve got to play more lands.

Heartless Pillage isn’t the only Mind Rot in the format.

There’s also Mind Rot.

Okay, yeah, there’s also Arterial Flow.

Dusk Legion Apostle is obviously a Vampire, Oathsworn Vampire is an option if we’ve got enough lifegain, and Blood Operative is kind of sweet with Doom Whisperer. Beyond that, however, we’re kind of drawing slim on mono-black Vampires.

The problem with embracing the white Vampires is that without Godless Shrine, our mana is just not going to be good. Unclaimed Territory doesn’t really help either, since it can’t cast Arterial Flow or Legion’s Landing. I mean, what would that even look like?

Eck, no thank you.

I guess we could try blue Vampires, but once we’re paying four, there are some really good alternatives out there.

Lich’s Mastery is really interesting with Doom Whisperer on two fronts. First of all, Lich’s Mastery means you can pay all the way down to two, one, or even zero without being at death’s door. Second, if you just mill twenty cards or whatever, that’s a ton of extra cards your opponent is going to have to exile in order to kill you.

We’ve got a lot to figure out, but when we do…