Playing G/B In A Mono-Black World

Patrick Chapin played G/B Aggro at GP Albuquerque last weekend. He tells you how he settled on the deck, the other decks he considered, and where he’s looking moving forward.

"It feels so weird being completely ready for a GP. The deck I’m playing tomorrow is the second most tuned list I’ve ever played at an event after Affinity in Portland." –Paul Rietzl, November 22, 2013

. . .

Leading into Grand Prix Albuquerque, I spent some time brewing and brainstorming, as detailed here and here. I was left wanting to play a Thoughtseize + removal deck, just like I was in Dublin. I dismissed B/W because it matches up poorly against Mono-Black Devotion and Mono-Red Aggro. This left me with Esper Control, Mono-Black itself, or a brew.

I was and still am interested in BUG, but travel delays left me arriving in New Mexico around midnight the night before the tournament. This is the BUG deck I had been brewing but did not yet have confidence in:

This approach to BUG is a fairly tap-out one and reminds me a bit of the Bant deck that Reid Duke and Ben Seck played this past weekend. In some regards, it is a bit of a cross between Mono-Black Devotion and Esper Control, though the green certainly pushes it even more towards a ramping sort of deck. While it has some strengths of both of those decks, the most exciting element is actually fairly novel, with Prophet of Kruphix and Prime Speaker Zegana going a very different route than the mainstream decks.

The big difference and in my opinion weakness of this list is how much of the card advantage of Mono-Black (Underworld Connections) and Esper (Sphinx’s Revelation) it is missing. Yes, it has the Prime Speaker, but nowhere near as many. Maybe Read the Bones (or Divination if we are chicken) would help? Scavenging Ooze does make Read the Bones less of a liability. It is only tangentially related, but I was really impressed with Gift of Orzhova this weekend and would like to incorporate some in BUG’s sideboard. It is not great with Desecration Demon, but it is pretty unbelievable with Reaper of the Wilds.

Without sufficient time to test BUG for this weekend, I was leaning towards Brian Kibler G/B deck or Luis Scott-Vargas Esper list. Kibler’s deck was certainly more beatdown oriented than my B/W list from before was, but I liked all the cards in it and the way it attacked the format from a little different angle than people were preparing for.

Luis’s Esper list wasn’t exactly revolutionary, but he had been testing and tuning it, so if I wanted to play control I thought it was my best bet.

Devour Flesh is perhaps the most novel element of Luis’s list, moving away from Doom Blade or Ultimate Price. Certainly people use Devour Flesh regularly, but I haven’t seen a lot of Esper decks using it exclusively. I kind of like it. After the results of GP Albuquerque, there are going to be a lot more Blood Baron of Vizkopas . . .

So why didn’t I play Esper?

Looking at my history of deck selection, there is no question I have been generally biased towards blue control decks. There are times where one has no time to test so playing what they know can lead them to want to play what they are best at, but this GP was low enough stakes that I would rather develop better habits and learn more. That it was such a toss-up between G/B and Esper left me feeling like Esper must just not be a great choice (or else I would be all over it).

In retrospect, I stand by that position for this past weekend. It is a reasonable deck, no question. Luis finished 66th and was the only pilot, and there was an Esper in the Top 16, so while the deck may not have been a tier 1 choice it was certainly fine.

The reasons I think Esper are not tier 1 are as follows:

  • Too many threes, not enough twos or ones. Esper has access to so many unbelievable three-cost spells that you can’t play nearly as many as you’d like. It has the opposite problem with cheap cards, and you have to play cards like Devour Flesh instead of three-cost removal that is far and away superior.
  • There aren’t enough ways to build Esper. Now that Wafo-Tapa showed the world what Esper looks like, the world is prepared for it. There is actually very little variation from week to week in Esper decks, so now people are well tuned to beat it.
  • Too much of the power is in Sphinx’s Revelation. This has been true for a while but is a far greater drawback when Thoughtseize is the dominant strategy.
  • Esper’s mana base is far from bad, but twenty lands that come into play tapped or damage you effectively puts you more than half a land behind a monocolored mana base like black, blue, or red. This means we need more out of our spells, and Esper doesn’t offer a sufficiently high power-level increase in spells over the monocolored decks.
  • Aetherling is not at its best right now. The card is awesome, no question, but Thoughtseize, racing, games being decided before it is an option, and more all point to a world where Aetherling isn’t the end all, be all it has been.

As I said, Esper is still playable, but I think there is more profit in exploring ways to hit the format from a different angle than the existing Esper decks do. I wonder what Wafo would play . . .

I also considered U/W/R Control, Luis’ other choice. The primary tradeoff is that U/W/R is bad against Esper but better against Mono-Red. I just want to know what’s good against Mono-Black! Why can’t we play four Divinations / Read the Bones? Yes, we are super crowded at the three spot, but that is such a great way to fight black decks that I think maybe we should try harder.

Would something like this be crazy?

Maybe this list doesn’t go far enough. What if we cut Dissolve from the main?

Anyway, I decided not to Esper, but I did have one other option. The night before the tournament, I asked Rietzl what he was playing. He had been doing a lot of testing with Owen Turtenwald and was very happy with his list. He proceeded to ship me a perfectly tuned Mono-Black Devotion list. I considered it partly because I wanted to play Thoughtseize + removal and partly just because those are two of the guys I respect the most. In the end, however, G/B won the tiebreaker because I liked it being more of a surprise. Brian Kibler, Josh Utter-Leyton, and David Ochoa all ran it as well, so it was not without some pedigree of its own.

Here is the list we played:

As you can see, Kibler had not changed his maindeck since his article and video posted to SCG, with only minor tweaks to the sideboard. This is a classic Kibler deck: aggressive with high card quality, a good curve of midrange creatures that give you added utility later, and a modest interactive element.

My result? After three byes, I faced a Thassa deck, where the most interesting game point was my facing 40 power of creatures with just a single Lotleth Troll. My opponent was at seven, and I had just four cards in hand, so he decided to block with his Thassa. To his surprise, one of my cards was a Boon Satyr, letting me steal a freebie. Game 2 was far easier, as G/B generally crushes Thassa post-board.

Rounds 5 and 6 I made quick work of U/W and Esper Control. Neither match was particularly interesting, with Thoughtseize taking Sphinx’s Revelation and me winning due to them not topdecking another.

Round 7 I had a feature match against reigning Player of the Year Josh Utter-Leyton in the mirror. It was a fun match and a good one. But in the closest of the three games, Wrapter had out-sideboarded me, and I got stuck drawing some mediocre cards (a Doom Blade and an Ultimate Price) while he had Gift of Orzhova that could combine with Reaper of Lotleth Troll to completely take over the game.

It was after this match that in the course of discussing sideboard plans with Wrapter and Kibler that I said and I quote, "The Mono-Blue matchup is unlosable after boarding, right?"

Fortunately, there is justice in this world, and I was rewarded with a Mono-Blue opponent the very next round. Sure enough, we’re post sideboard, and I keep Elvish Mystic, Abrupt Decay, Abrupt Decay, and the perfect four lands. By game’s end, I had drawn five spells and eleven mana sources.


Amusingly, I still would have been a big favorite if I had drawn Mistcutter Hydra on most of the last several turns.

In my final match of the weekend, playing for day 2, I was matched against Mono-Black Devotion. I won the first easily, just beating down with a good curve. Our second game was a nail biter, but he did exactly enough the turn before I could kill him. In the third and deciding game, I mulliganed and kept a Golgari Guildgate + Elvish Mystic hand (just one land) and was hit with a Thoughtseize before I could untap. I missed my second land and fell hopelessly behind.

While I did get "mana screwed" twice, I do think that is at least somewhat a component of this deck. Drawing too few or too many is nothing unique to this list, but it does have a suspect mana base compared to other decks in the format. There are no scry lands to smooth out draws. There is fewer of each color than appear in other two-color decks. We don’t have cards like Mutavault to take advantage of being somewhat flooded or cards like Underworld Connections or Sphinx’s Revelation to keep our foot on the gas.

Looking back, I think the Golgari deck was and is a fine choice, but it is unclear to me if it brings enough to the table to justify the slightly substandard mana base. The real issue, however, is that it might just be a worse Mono-Black deck. They are quite different in execution, but the Rietzl/Turtenwald black deck is just monstrous and so hard to hate out.

How dominant was their list?

Well, five people played it. Here were their results:

While that is a significantly above-average-ability group of pilots, those kind of stats in a two-month-old format is pretty outrageous. There is zero question what the deck of the weekend was, and it will be the deck to beat going forward. This isn’t some brand new strategy or anything, but it is a well-tuned list and right for the field.

For reference, here is their list:

It’s interesting just how on fire Rietzl and Owen are right now. Rietzl is on an absolute tear, Top 8ing Pro Tour Theros and now GP Albuquerque. This leaves him with:

  • Four Pro Tour Top 8s, including winning PT Amsterdam
  • Nine Grand Prix Top 8s, including two wins

Between impressive stats, undisputable play ability, impeccable integrity and sportsmanship, and community contributions, Rietzl has shot to the forefront of Hall of Fame discussion along with Makihito Mihara and Guillaume Wafo-Tapa.

As for Owen, well Owen is the first American to ever win back-to-back GPs. The only other players in Magic history to accomplish this feat are:

That is pretty impressive company.

If I can be forgiven a little indulgence, I am just blown away by some of the unreal performances a few people are putting up right now. For instance, there’s no one in the game hotter than Sam Black, who also made Top 8 of GP Albuquerque. Of course, he Top 8s everything these days, so it’s whatever.

Since making Top 8 of Pro Tour Theros, Sam has played in three GPs. He has made Top 8 of all of them. During this stretch, he is 26-3 in the Swiss with Thassa not counting his byes. One of those three losses was to United Airlines. See, Sam took a round 4 loss on day 1 due to his flight being extremely delayed. It would have been real easy to get mad and frustrated, to just give up. Instead, Sam just didn’t lose any more matches in the Swiss.

On balance, however, I can see why it seems to get to Sam a bit that he hasn’t won any of these. In the last four events, Sam is 36-4 in Swiss matches played, with a Top 8 record of just 2-4.

Anyway, Rietzl, Owen, and Sam make it clear this is a very skill-testing format. It is worth noting that all three of these guys have been practicing a ton and attribute much of their success to how well prepared they have been. It would certainly seem that this is a format that rewards playtesting and practicing.

What can we do going forward?

Well, it’s important to remember what happened the last time we went through this cycle. Last week, we saw devotion decks take over, just like they did at the Pro Tour. Just like the week after the Pro Tour, Mono-Black was the next to rise. If the cycle continues on the same track, it would seem that Esper or control of some sort may be next in line.

It is possible that this build of black is just too strong against control and that it may keep a stranglehold on the format, but my guess is that we see a return of the success of control, albeit a brief one. Control has done so poorly recently that a number of players have been talking about playing decks that lose to control, like G/W. It is not that they "want" to lose; it is that they want their bad matchup to be against control since so few people are winning with it lately.

I don’t know that G/W beats Mono-Black, but some kind of an anti-black deck that happens to have control as its worst matchup would be great. Of course, it might be that enough people slant this direction, even if just by a few cards, that control really is the deck to play next weekend.

I know my starting point is this Mono-Black deck. It hit the format with an uppercut and is downright fierce. That said, I think the most likely place I end up on is control. Thanksgiving means less Magical evolution this weekend, so there is a good chance that control could get into a sweet spot by Grand Prix Fort Worth and SCG Open Series: Oakland.

My plan is to scour the lists that succeeded the week after Mono-Black took over last time and see what can be learned. I am also going to compare the black decks of today with the black decks from that era so that we can understand what differences may cause us to need to make other decisions.

While many will be at GP Toronto this weekend, Kibler said not to go to Limited GPs, so instead I will get some playtesting in. Maybe BUG will work out, but it is definitely more likely to fail. Maybe Esper will want a bunch of a draw 2s. Maybe there is a different color combination that can use Sphinx’s Revelation better. I’ll be back Monday to share what I learn this weekend.

See you then!

Patrick Chapin
"The Innovator"

Next Level Deckbuilding