Outmaneuvering Mono Black

Mike breaks down the results of the StarCityGames.com Invitational weekend in Indianapolis, looking at the top decks of both the Standard and Legacy format and the developing metagame.

Huge weekend for big tournaments, this weekend past.

Invitational weekends always give us 3-4 tournaments’ worth of Top Eight decklists; this particular one gave us some predictable finishes from home team superstars as well as some glorious reads of the metagame. Let’s check out how Indianapolis’s successful mages navigated the threats and answers of the incumbent Deck to Beat… Plus a look in on Legacy!

Invitational Top 8 (Standard)

Naya Control *
Esper Control 11
Mono-Black Devotion 11
Mono-Blue Devotion 11
U/W Control 1

Indianapolis Standard Open Top 8

Esper Control *1
B/G Devotion 1
G/R Devotion 1
G/R Monsters 1
G/W Aggro 1
Mono-Black Devotion 1
Mono-Blue Devotion 1

Mono-Black Devotion

Coming into Invitational weekend, Mono Black Devotion was, if not the format boogeyman, squarely situated as Standard’s Deck to Beat. A breakout performance at Pro Tour Theros and a subsequent Grand Prix win for Brian Braun-Duin with two additional copies in the Top Eight at Grand Prix Louisville both built the strategy’s reputation and put a target squarely on its back.

To the surprise of no one, former StarCityGames ace Gerry Thompson was able to put together his umpteenth Invitational Top 8. Despite a number of home-team heroes all vying for the gold cup, I would be lying if I didn’t admit to a mite of cheering for the master deck tuner’s [perhaps?] final sanctioned tournament. At the very least I secretly hoped he would be playing the card Swan Song (turns out he would, in Legacy).

For this tournament Gerry did what Gerry has done time and again; though embracing the Deck to Beat himself, he put a number of subtle spins on the strategy to make it his own, and – knowing black’s popularity – perhaps gain an edge in the mirror.

A few weeks ago when Kentarou Yamamoto put this strategy on the map in Dublin, he did so with four copies of Doom Blade in the maindeck; as you can see from GerryT’s deck, there is not a Doom Blade to be seen in the main… and only three total after sideboarding. Instead, Gerry played Ultimate Price.

Ultimate Price is, of course, the Doom Blade that can make Pack Rat, you know, just die to Doom Blade err… “Ultimate Price.” Simply, Ultimate Price is substantially better in the mirror match than Doom Blade; and generally speaking it does much the same thing when you are up against G/W, straight red, and so on.

While one or two other, small-ish, decisions might stick out… a third Pack Rat or some toying with the mana base… the really oddball card in this seventy-five is that one Prophetic Prism.

Did GerryT just want to play a two mana cycling card?

Mightn’t he rather just run a Read the Bones?

Here’s the thing about Prophetic Prism: Nightveil Specter

As in, you can hit the opponent, start flipping up opposing spells, and maybe hit the appropriate land to run any such spells as Nightveil freebies – then again, maybe you won’t. Prophetic Prism is a low-cost way to get a little more utility out of this other threat while simultaneously smoothing out your mana draws and giving you something proactive to do on turn two.

Conspicuous by its absence? Whip of Erebos.

BBD and his Mono Black Devotion deck put up another great weekend.

The deck he used to make Top 8 at the Invitational was nearly identical to his Grand Prix-winning deck, just moving around Doom Blade for presumably the same mirror-anticipating reasons.

BBD [still] played Whip of Erebos, which has various upsides in this strategy. The prospect of getting back a dead Gray Merchant of Asphodel should really put the fear of Stoneforge Mystic into anyone thinking about killing your Gray Merchant of Asphodel. Pack Rat can be difficult to deal with, and its self-replicating ability in a sense undoes the typical expiration date associated with Whip of Erebos’s charges.

The interesting quasi-mirror interplay comes into Whip of Erebos versus Erebos, God of the Dead himself (GerryT played two copies with no Whips). As Erebos stops the opponent from being able to gain life, a bit of Whip’s edge is taken off when these two Legendary four-drops butt heads.

With two copies of Mono Black Devotion in the Invitational Top 8 plus another in the Saturday Open, this Deck to Beat certainly continued to perform; however, some of the most impressive decks of the weekend seemed built specifically to take care of it… including the Standard weapons of choice of both the Invitational’s finalists.

Esper Control

Resurgent mage William “Baby Huey” Jensen has certainly been backing up his recent Hall of Fame induction with rapid-fire finishes. Open after Open after Grand Prix… and now an Invitational finals as well!

Huey went much the same direction as our Mono Black Devotion players with his Doom Blades; a few weeks ago Guillaume Wafo-Tapa Pro Tour Top 8 version packed four Hero’s Downfalls, four Supreme Verdicts, and four Doom Blades in the main. As you can see, Huey cut some Hero’s Downfalls and all the Doom Blades from the main… there had just been too much success out of Mono Black Devotion (and fellow Esper Control decks).

This modification can of course be seen as a reaction to Mono Black Devotion… but so can his choice in finishers. Rather than playing just one Aetherling as had been the recent consensus across recent events, Jensen also played two copies of Blood Baron of Vizkopa main… with the other two copies in the sideboard. Long story short? Tons and tons of value against Mono Black! Sure, they have Devour Flesh, but cards like Thoughtseize, Dissolve, and setting up first with Soldier tokens can easily shift the delicate balance between threat and answer… and an unchecked Blood Baron of Vizkopa makes even racing with Gray Merchant of Asphodel nigh-impossible.

Now what Jensen didn’t do was cut Supreme Verdict.

Remember: Supreme Verdict has two pieces of text. It kills all the creatures, no matter how many… and can’t be countered.

From a metagame perspective, having access to four Supreme Verdicts gives Esper Control a powerhouse answer to Pack Rat – after all, the thing that makes Pack Rat attractive is the ability to withstand removal and exploit cards-in-hand advantage. Unlike interactions reliant on one-for-one trading (like Mono-Black Devotion itself), Supreme Verdict doesn’t care about how many Pack Rats you have. But moreover, the continued success of Mono Blue Devotion (which had roughly the same level of success over the two big Standard events) provides additional opportunity for Supreme Verdict decks.

Remember – Mono-Blue Devotion is at its heart a White Weenie deck, not a Faeries deck. The ability to Wrath of God Mono Blue Devotion is big game, even though it has access to cards like Judge’s Familiar and Negate. Even with Bident of Thassa, Mono Blue Devotion is largely just drawing more and more guys, not a combo-kill, not tools to angle its way around a matchup. Supreme Verdict has two pieces of text.

Naya Control

The whiz-bang breakout of Invitational weekend was of course Brad Nelson Naya Control.

This deck is in some senses the triumphant realization of a long list of Naya design principles: awesome, perhaps even inexorable, threats. Perfect metagame positioning. The artful dodger of undesirable opposition.

From a forward-construction perspective, this deck is a weirdo. It only has seven creatures… four out of seven of those creatures are Loxodon Smiters, which just seem odd for a control deck at least at first blush.

The deck is full of reactive, and sometimes clunky or expensive, threats… but the only acceleration in the deck is Selesnya Keyrune. It’s not like Naya has the liberty of Farseek just now, but Selesnya Keyrune is a legitimate head-scratcher alongside Anger of the Gods and Stormbreath Dragon at RR and Mizzium Mortars at RRR.

Now what the deck does undeniably well is position its threats and answers almost perfectly against the expected metagame.

Assemble the Legion (2 + 2)

To me, this is the big standout. Last week, we talked a bit about the limitations of a “Necropotence”-based control strategy versus a “Weissman” one. Even though Mono Black Devotion has Underworld Connections to draw multiple cards per turn, it lacks a true sweeper; it is also restricted by its upper limit of actual removal cards in deck (ergo, capping the maximum number of creature removal cards it can draw). What is Mono Black Devotion to do about Assemble the Legion? Either it has to pluck the card preemptively with Thoughtseize, or it has to race with Gray Merchant of Asphodel. It simply can’t keep pace with an ever-increasing number of offensive tokens.

Yes, some versions have Ratchet Bomb in the sideboard, but even if you have Ratchet Bomb, answering Assemble the Legion is tricky. Do you have it ticked up to four or five the turn the opponent runs out his enchantment? Once it comes online, you have to choose between zero and five. If you take out the enchantment you have tokens to deal with, and if you fight the tokens (which might be a pressing threat) that doesn’t stop next turn’s tokens.

While Mono Black Devotion might not have a legitimate sweeper, Naya Control has multiple; both Anger of the Gods and Mizzium Mortars can potentially shut down Pack Rat (as long as Pack Rat hasn’t gotten too out of hand). But in addition they can fight Master of Waves pretty well as well.

While neither card can actually kill Master of Waves, they can both kill all the tokens Master of Waves produces, reducing that threat into a lone four-mana 2/1. That 2/1 could actually still be problematic, but it’s a heck of a lot better than fighting an army.

Loxodon Smiter

Back when I was playing Bant Hexproof in Standard last summer, my favorite card in the deck was Loxodon Smiter. It was okay against basically everything and felt semi-unfair off of a turn-one Avacyn’s Pilgrim. What I liked most about it was that Loxodon Smiter was awesome against beatdown decks. You could lay one or two Smiters and feel invincible, holding the ground against however many 2/2’s or 3/3’s.

Loxodon Smiter remains mighty against straight beatdown, even if beatdown has become less common in Standard. At the very least, non-evasive beatdown offenses will have to lay multiple creatures (perhaps suiciding one) in order to get damage in. But you know what else is cool?

Loxodon Smiter has four toughness.

So the opponent is laying multiple, presumably smaller, creatures… and then you Anger of the Gods them! This 4/4 actually makes your anti-weenie sweep that much better by forcing the opponent to commit even more resources, setting you up for more card advantage when you pull the trigger and keeping your Elephant in play when you do.

Decks like this, expensive offensive decks with little to no traditional card advantage, tend to fare poorly against control strategies. Sticking an Assemble the Legion against Mono Black Devotion is one thing, but U/R/W, U/W, and Esper Control decks are another matter entirely… Sphinx’s Revelation into Dissolve can be a disaster for a midrange board control deck!

One thing Brad did to combat this piece of tradition was to sideboard very aggressively against control.

This deck can not only start early with Sunhome Guildmage (turn two), and Sunhome Guildmage is not only itself a one-mage army… but much of the sideboard can all come in to try to overwhelm opposing threat suppression. Mistcutter Hydra alone can dodge much of an opposing control deck’s interaction. Even though Assemble the Legion and Ruric Thar, the Unbowed are expensive, at some point you might have more big threats than the opponent has answers and they just run out.

And when you’re Brad? You can push and push and increase the chances of their running out… you know, at least long enough for you to kill them with one of your giant threats.

Invitational Top 8 (Legacy)

Sneak and Show *111
Shardless BUG 11
Esper StoneBlade 1
U/R/W Delver 1

Indianapolis Legacy Open Top 8

Bant Maverick *
Elves 11
Sneak and Show 11
U/R/W Delver 1
Reanimator 1
RUG Delver 1

Sneak and Show was like nothing else during the Indianapolis Legacy rounds. It was the weapon of choice for 50% of the Top Eight, plus it put two more copies into the Legacy Open Top 8!

Big winner Brad Nelson was one of the Sneak and Show adherents, and like many of them, he ran Swan Song in the sideboard over Defense Grid.

Swan Song is just a ludicrous flex-defense card in Legacy. It counters (if not “everything”) a ton of key cards. It counters both Show and Tell and Sneak Attack. Though not a Defense Grid, it can act like a counterspell when you need a sequence-breaker. Against this deck, against Emrakul, the token probably isn’t going to kill you outright.

Structurally, the deck is fast, resilient, and redundant. It has multiple two-card combos, and it can either win the game outright quickly or put the opponent into an increasingly untenable position from as soon as the first turn.

Both Sneak Attack and Show and Tell can put one of the deck’s eight legendary creatures into play without having to pay their exorbitant retail costs, but focusing on a particular kind of win condition might prove a vulnerability given the tool availability of a format like Legacy. To wit:

A few months ago I was preparing for a Legacy Open and consulted Reid Duke (seemed like a good idea). I showed him some decks I was considering, including RUG Cascade-removal, some various Delver decks, and his own onetime weapon of choice, Jund. Playing Jund in Legacy seemed a little weird to me, to be honest.

“RUG is okay,” Reid said. “But I prefer to play Brainstorm and Jace, the Mind Sculptor if I can.”

I couldn’t help but remember that conversation and chuckle a bit when I saw Reid’s Open-winning decklist from last weekend.

Is it going to be Elves again?

Nope: Literally Maverick… plus Brainstorm and Jace, the Mind Sculptor!

The only thing that makes Brainstorm – and the “Brainstorm” [0]-loyalty ability on Jace, the Mind Sculptor – better is the ability to shuffle your deck. Lots of decks in Legacy exploit this with cards like Windswept Heath. But Reid went to the next level with cards like Green Sun’s Zenith, Stoneforge Mystic, and Knight of the Reliquary.

All of these cards are powerful; Green Sun’s Zenith gives the deck some redundancy and Stoneforge Mystic can take a game over, especially against fair decks, but Knight of the Reliquary is something special… especially given the success of Sneak and Show.

Do you know why?

Knight of the Reliquary can find Karakas.

If you have Karakas in play, it can be awfully hard to lose to any kind of a legendary creature. Draw all the cards you want, Griselbrand! You still need to attack me to win! Emrakul, the Aeons Torn is quite powerful, generally assuming it is allowed to attack.

Otherwise, this deck has many of the same tools as your G/W Maverick.

Reid made some room for Stoneforge Mystic, but he still had most of the Maverick bullet creatures for fair fights… and when the opponent chose to go unfair? There were Force of Will and more tools available in the sideboard.

A very thoughtful deck, this Legacy Open winner. A careful mage (and Reid undoubtedly is) would have the tools to face all different kinds of opponents and tune his gameplan accordingly.

Threats and answers, great threats and specific answers. Rise and fall, big flood of one thing, met artfully by its opposite number. The Standard and Legacy results of this past weekend were perfect illustrations of these classic Magic oppositions.

The really interesting question, of course is, what’s next now?