So Many Insane Plays – Vintage On A Budget: Suicide Black 2K9

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Monday, December 8th – Vintage, by its very nature, is hardly budget-friendly. Excluding possible cards is somehow against the purity of the format. However, Stephen Menendian believes it’s possible to build creative budget options that aren’t necessarily suboptimal…

I have long scoffed at the notion of designing Vintage decks “on a budget.” The main reason, among many, is my vision of the purity of the format. I adore Vintage as a format for this great game. It’s long been my view that Vintage should be played at its highest level for maximum effect. Anything less than that — especially intentionally suboptimal decks – serves to dilute the Vintage experience. It is that experience which separates Vintage from every other format, and is the reason, whether people admit it or not, that Vintage is the most fun sanctioned format in Magic.

But what if it was possible to build budget decks in Vintage that weren’t clearly suboptimal, aside from the omission of just a few key cards like Black Lotus or an on-color Mox? In fact, what if it were possible to build budget decks where the value of cards like Black Lotus were actually minimized to such an extent that it wouldn’t be entirely unreasonable to omit them?

The experience of Vintage in the last couple of years has changed my view of the format in many respects. The rules of deck construction have fundamentally changed. I no longer hold onto older prejudices and can now see how things that were once unfathomable have occurred (consider Manaless Ichorid: it doesn’t have to play a single spell to the game, it has no mana much of the time, and it doesn’t want Black Lotus). There are other reasons for my changing opinion as well, but I will touch on them later.

My impression is that many of my readers play in unpowered or budget metagames. This will be my first article about designing Vintage decks on a budget, a serious effort to try and craft something viable for the format. It won’t be the last. I will not claim that these budget decks are the best decks in the format. That is not the goal. The goal is to give players a viable option for someone to compete in Vintage tournaments and enjoy Vintage while not having to sell an arm and a leg to play in the format. The goal is to give budget players a chance to compete and see what Vintage is all about, and possibly win some prizes in the process.

Robert Hahn’s great historiography of Magic in his landmark essay “Schools of Magic” documents the variety of early strategies that proliferated in the early years of Magic. My unfiltered recollection, not as deeply contemplated as Rob Hahn’s analysis with its strategic focal points, was that early Magic strategies devolved into a handful of archetypes: Control (a.k.a. Permission), Land Destruction (with 4 Strip Mine/Black Vise), Zoo (multi-color aggro decks), and weenie hordes (especially Mono Black).

Because of the strength of Hypnotic Specter and Juzam Djinn fueled by Dark Ritual, Mono Black Aggro was an early competitor in these primitive backwater days of Magic. Turn 1 Hypnotic Specter was one of the best tactics for beating “The Deck.” Ice Age swept through “Type 1” with quite a bit of fanfare and bluster. Most importantly, it brought Necropotence into the field. Necropotence was jet fuel for weenie aggro. It provided a bottomless source of reinforcements and disruption.

I remember facing this deck in a local tournament circa 1995:

1995 Type I Suicide Black (taken from memory)
Randy Wright

18 Swamp
1 Mox Jet
1 Black Lotus
4 Strip Mine
4 Dark Ritual
4 Necropotence
4 Demonic Consultation
4 Sinkhole
4 Hymn to Tourach
4 Juzam Djinn
4 Hypnotic Specter
4 Order of the Ebon Hand
4 Knight of Stromgald

Randy and I were in the same graduating high school class, and he was one of the players in my circle of Magic buddies. I can remember trying to get a Moat to resolve, his playing Dystopia, and overrunning me with dudes.

Within a few years, Vintage changed, and then changed again. After Urza’s block, 18 cards were restricted, a massive neutering of the format. Shortly after that, Necropotence was finally restricted, and sanity was restored to Type I.

In that period of Blue dominance after the printing of Fact or Fiction and in the period after its restriction, Suicide Black once more came to the fore in Type I.

Legend Black, 2002

4 Nantuko Shade
4 Flesh Reaver
4 Phyrexian Negator
4 Hypnotic Specter
4 Duress
4 Hymn to Tourach
4 Sinkhole
2 Null Rod
1 Demonic Tutor
1 Yawgmoth’s Will
4 Dark Ritual
1 Black Lotus
1 Mox Jet
1 Strip Mine
4 Wasteland
17 Swamp

4 Masticore
3 Contagion
4 Powder Keg
3 Dystopia
1 Sol Ring

Edward A. Paltzik (a.k.a. “Legend”) wrote a fantastic primer, making his case for Suicide Black. His primer remains excellent reading today.

Primer Part 1
Primer Part 2

The main impetus for his list was the recent printing of Nantuko Shade. In fact, it’s worth quoting his primer on this point, for its entertainment value if nothing else:

Since Torment became legal in March, this has become the most important card in the Suicide Black archetype. Nantuko Shade is the most significant addition to Type I since Invasion’s Fact or Fiction. My Legend Black deck, which I regard as the optimal Suicide Black variant available at this moment, immediately made use of this card to devastating effect. Ultimately, this brought about the acceptance of a new Suicide creature base with Nantuko Shade at its center. Initially, this beast was misunderstood by numerous “experts” who felt that it would be too “slow” for Suicide Black. How wrong they were. In several short months, Nantuko Shade has taken its place as the second-best creature in Type I, right behind the great Morphling.

Nantuko Shade is now the defining card of the Suicide archetype. It allows you to do things you never could do before with this deck. Four Nantuko Shades are a must in any Suicide Black deck. If you refuse to use Nantuko Shade in Suicide Black, then you deserve to be horribly stung by an agitated swarm of killer bees, resulting in horrible swelling and allergic reactions that cause you to stop breathing.

As I re-read Ed’s hilarious primer, at a point in time almost as far removed as Ed was from the 1995 days of Necro’s birth, it is interesting to note how much things have changed, and more than a bit ironic.

Take his analysis of Juzam Djinn:

You may like Mark Tedin’s brilliant artwork, and you may like the historical value of Juzam, but if you have not already come to grips with what I am about to say, it is time to do so. Juzam Djinn has NO place in competitive Type I, and it has been that way for quite some time now. Think about it – he is strictly worse against control and combo than Phyrexian Negator (the card he is most often compared to), while also being worse against aggressive decks than Masticore.

In my view, none of the creatures Ed suggested, Hypnotic Specter, Shade, Negator, Shade, or Masticore are really fast enough for the mainboard for modern Suicide Black.

If we are to update this deck, it has to be done from scratch.

Consider what he wrote about Hypnotic Specter:

The oldest Black menace, Hypnotic Specter remains outstanding even today. It is still a legitimate threat against control decks, while being anywhere from good to excellent against most everything else. Four are mandatory in any Suicide Black deck.

Hypnotic Specter is far too slow for modern Vintage. I think that goes to show you what a different era we inhabit today.

Ed’s primer started with the disruption, and that, too, is where I’ll begin.


Ed divided the disruption suite into two tranches. The first was what he called “primary disruption.” This consisted of: Duress, Hymn to Tourach, Sinkhole, and Wasteland/Strip Mine. He described these five cards as “absolutely mandatory if you want to build a Suicide Black deck.” The secondary line of disruption consisted of Null Rod, Powder Keg, and Mind Twist.

Null Rod and Chalice of the Void

While his analysis of the disruption toolkit of the time is quite accurate, times have changed. The major strategies in modern Vintage are Yawgmoth’s Will and Tinker strategies. These are the two most powerful restricted cards. The best decks maximize use of these cards. In addition, there are very powerful Mishra’s Workshop strategies, Ichorid decks, and most recently, Mana Drain fueled Tezzeret decks.

All of these cards, and most importantly Yawgmoth’s Will and Tinker, are totally hosed by Chalice of the Void. This was the lesson of the Unrestricted Vintage Experiment.

Until I conducted that experiment, I didn’t quite realize how really format defining Chalice was. That wasn’t to say that I didn’t know how good it was, aside from Tezzeret, it was the only card I’ve written an article about before it was printed. That article really brought home how powerful Chalice was.

Yawgmoth’s Will is a strategy that heavily relies on use and reuse of Moxen and cards like Black Lotus. Chalice is actually more of an anti-Yawgmoth’s Will card than a direct graveyard hoser like Tormod’s Crypt. That’s because Yawgmoth’s Will, as a strategy, is more than simply playing the card and resolving it. There is a line of play that leads up to the resolution of Yawgmoth’s Will. In Meandeck Gifts that would begin with Scroll, through Gifts, and finally culminate in Will itself. Chalice, unlike Tormod’s Crypt, slows the line of play that leads to Yawgmoth’s Will, not just the play itself. Thus, a Control Slaver player or Tezzeret player can’t play turn 1 Thirst off of two Moxen and a land if you’ve played turn 1 Chalice for zero first.

Chalice, at least on the play, and to a larger extent than one might expect on the draw, is also an anti-Tinker card. If an opponent can’t get their Moxen onto the table, they will have a much more difficult time playing Tinker. It will narrow their Tinker sacrificial targets to Sol Ring and Mana Vault in most cases. This makes Tinker more conditional and contingent.

Null Rod, to a large degree, is simply here as Chalice 5-8. However, it does what Chalice does on the play when you are on the draw. Null Rod, consequently, is a fantastic anti-Yawgmoth’s Will card.

But in a format where Painter decks and Time Vault Tezzeret decks make up the core of Mana Drain decks, and thus, the core of the format, Null Rod is a savage bomb.

Consider what Ed had to say about Null Rod:

Null Rod should always be used if you are expecting to square off against a large quantity of control decks, which of course you should expect to do in most well developed Type I metagames. … A Null Rod will of course shut down all opposing Moxen, Black Lotus, Sol Ring, Powder Kegs, Masticores, Cursed Scrolls, and Zuran Orbs, to name a few of Type I’s core artifacts. Nevertheless, it is somewhat situational, as your opponent will not always draw a Mox, even Keeper, with its seven mana artifacts. (Moxen, Black Lotus, Sol Ring). Null Rod will also be excellent against certain combo decks…

History has proven him right. Null Rod first became a format staple with the advent of Fish decks just a year later, which formed their strategy around this card.

Notice how Ed says that the Control decks of that era only ran 7 artifact accelerants. Many, if not most, run 9-10 today. Mana Crypt, Mana Vault, and to a slightly lesser extent Lotus Petal are now staples in the Mana Drain control archetype. When you factor cards like Grindstone/Painter, Slaver, and Time Vault into the equation, the reliance on artifacts, across the board, is far greater today.

The article on unrestricted Vintage inspired this series on Budget Vintage decks. It made me realize that if we ran 4 Chalices and 4 Rods, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to not run full power. In fact, it would be counterproductive to do so. I will be looking at various Budget approaches in Vintage, but all will feature 4 Chalice and 4 Null Rod.

Although they are redundant in multiples, I admit, it is these two cards which I think make it possible to play budget in an optimal sense. You do not want to be playing with a full set of Moxen when you are running 4 Chalice and 4 Null Rod. If it helps you think about it more clearly (and stave off the inevitable forum suggestions that I cut back on the number of Chalices or Rods), these 8 cards are the “power 8” of my budget series.

Pithing Needle

When I initially conceived of this series on budget decks, I actually thought I would be joining 4 Chalice and 4 Rods with 4 Needles as well. Needle is not only a fairly versatile card, hitting cards like Tezzeret, Time Vault, Grindstone, Bazaar of Baghdad, Goblin Welder, and so on, the idea here was to neuter Fetchlands.

Beyond Moxen, fetchlands are the number one mana source in Vintage. Virtually every Vintage deck runs more fetchlands than any other land type. If we could use Rod and Chalice to take out artifact accelerants, Needle would be excellent at clogging up the board with useless fetchlands.

In other words, I thought I found another awesome way to attack modern Vintage mana bases. The problem I encountered with Needle in this particular deck was that the demands on turn 1 mana were too great. While Needle was really good, it was often better to be playing something else. And if you wanted maximum impact, you really wanted turn 1 Needle. The second problem is that although Needle is really good against fetchlands, most people run a mix of Fetchlands, so there is a chance that you’ll hit the wrong one.

I strongly urge you to test 4 Needles for yourself, but until further testing suggests otherwise, I need that space.

Wasteland/Strip Mine

These cards are as good as they were in 2002.

“They are an essential part of the disruption package that allows you to completely suffocate your opponent.”


In contrast to Ed’s views in 2002, I think that Sinkhole is a red herring. At that time, Onslaught had yet to see print, and fetchlands did not exist. It is much more difficult, nowadays, to color hose someone by destroying a single land. They are much more likely to topdeck the fetchland to find the needed color. Also, I don’t think that Sinkhole matters that much. Taking out one land, on a one-for-one basis, isn’t really that important or that good. Strip Mine and Wasteland are different because they are free and produce mana.

Duress and Thoughtseize

Duress is just as good, if not better than it was in 2002. I think that any Suicide Black deck would want to run 4 and also run 4 Thoughtseize. Both cards will help the resolution of key disruption cards like Null Rod while also slowing the opponent down.

Cabal Therapy

In my initial design for this deck, I was running 4 Cabal Therapy. Consider its effect. First of all, with 4 Thoughtseize and 4 Duress, you are almost always going to know some portion of your opponent’s hand. Second, in many instances, even when you have not seen your opponent’s hand, you will know what to name — i.e. Force of Will or whatever it is you need to stop to resolve your Null Rod. Third, with the creatures I’ve included in the deck — primarily Bitterblossom and Dark Confidant, this card can be easily flashed back.

The reason I ultimately cut it was that it was just too redundant. With 8 Duress effects, I didn’t feel that more were needed.

Hymn to Tourach

Inferior to Thoughtseize and Cabal Therapy. I would run Cabal Therapy before this card.

Mind Twist

Ed’s analysis of Mind Twist is spot on:

“In order to gain card advantage with Mind Twist, you will need three mana.”

And that’s the problem. Mind Twist is inferior to the one-mana Duress effects and you will not be likely to have 3 mana available to fuel this card. It’s an option, but I don’t think it’s optimal, even now that you can run four of them. Hymn to Tourach might even be superior, as it was in 2002. Which makes it also inferior to Cabal Therapy.

Powder Keg

Ed mentions Powder Keg as another source of disruption. Obviously, unless you are playing it as a sideboard card, it probably doesn’t belong here. It doesn’t work with Null Rod, and most of our creatures are going to be tokens, which means that as a source of Moxen kill, it’s not very good.


This card deserves a lot more consideration. With 8 Duress effects, this card is very often going to have a target. The problem with Extirpate is that it probably isn’t better than Cabal Therapy, and it doesn’t directly affect the game state quite enough. It’s great I particular matchups, and it’s a card you should consider, but I don’t think it’s quite good enough.

Crucible of Worlds

Another option I considered, but I just don’t think it’s quite valuable enough for its price.


Again, annoying disruption. However, not synergistic enough in this list.

Raven’s Crime

Fascinating possibility. It would help make use of redundant, late-game land. I just don’t think its initial usage is quite valuable enough. Probably inferior to Cabal Therapy.


Great card. The price is probably just a little too steep. I would play Cabal Therapy before it.

Creature Base/ Paths to Victory

Unfortunately, all of the creatures that were run in 2002 are too slow. I don’t even think Nantuko Shade, Negator, or Hippie make the first cut. In the first place, if you wanted to run a pure beater, splashing Green for Tarmogoyf would be the best way to go.

In any case, the best Black creature, arguably the best ever printed, is Dark Confidant. It’s an automatic four-of. It’s a beater, but it’s also an incredible source of card advantage. Second, I have settled on Bitterblossom as the second “creature,” a fitting addition to the “Suicide” concept.

Bitterblossom has a host of advantages. First of all, it’s a lot better in Vintage than people realize. It has a cumulative effect, so that every turn you get more and more men on the board. These Faeries fly, which means that they can dive in and take out a Tezzeret pretty quickly. Second, they can block key cards like Tarmogoyf or Sundering Titan indefinitely. Third, they are very difficult to deal with. Once you get two Bitterblossoms on the table, you can start dealing damage quickly, and with develop a critical mass of men within a few turns. It’s not perfect, but it’s a lot better than anything else that currently exists.

Surprisingly, a turn 1 or turn 2 Bitterblossom spells the doom of many Vintage decks. Even the Tezzeret decks will struggle against it.

I ended up re-including 3 Phyrexian Negators. There presence deserves explanation. They are not here as really strong maindeck cards, but rather as pre-sideboard for the Mana Drain matchup. Chalice + Negator on turn 1 is a major tempo play that most Drain decks can’t easily beat. Also, Negators have several other critical functions. First, they can deal early bursts of damage that allow Bitterblossom to finish the opponent off. Second, the sacrifice drawback is not that bad if you are bleeding to Dark Confidant or Bitterblossom. With all of the Chalices and Rods, you should also have plenty of cards to sacrifice. You could even sacrifice Necropotence.

But I’ve also included one Tendrils of Agony, and its presence is not random. This is Vintage, and Yawgmoth’s Will is one of the most powerful strategies. I’ve taken a cue from Vinnie Forino and his Vintage Worlds Top 8 decklist from last year, and included the Yawgmoth’s Will / Tendrils suite.

Take a look at his report and his decklist here.

FSB (Forino Sui Black)
3rd Place, 2007 Vintage Championship

3 Bloodstained Mire
3 Polluted Delta
4 Swamp
2 Underground Sea
1 Strip Mine
1 Wasteland
1 Cabal Pit
4 Dark Ritual
1 Mox Sapphire
1 Lotus Petal
1 Black Lotus
4 Cabal Ritual
1 Mox Jet
2 Bazaar of Baghdad
1 Library of Alexandria
4 Dark Confidant
3 Night’s Whisper
2 Extirpate
1 Echoing Truth
1 Yawgmoth’s Will
4 Cabal Therapy
4 Duress
3 Tendrils of Agony
1 Demonic Consultation
1 Necropotence
3 Grim Tutor
1 Demonic Tutor
1 Ancestral Recall
1 Vampiric Tutor

4 Leyline of the Void
1 Wasteland
1 Hurkyl’s Recall
1 Chain of Vapor
3 Null Rod
2 Massacre
1 Darkblast
2 Ill-Gotten Gains

The idea here is that once you have found a tutor, by which point you’ll have seen at least a couple of Rituals, you’ll be able to tutor up Yawgmoth’s Will, replay the Rituals, then tutor up Tendrils for the win. Your Bitterblossom and Bobs should have dealt some damage by then. The Tendrils will also be a tutor target in here in case you get too low with Bitterblossom or Dark Confidant.

Although we are not running Grim Tutors, the Yawgmoth’s Will plan has proven very potent in testing, even with only 4 Dark Rituals. I’ve Yawg Willed just to replay a few cards in some instances, but in others, it’s all about winning with Tendrils. The presence of the trifecta Yawgmoth’s Will, Tendrils, and DT is actually a big reason why I’ve still included Necro, although far form the only one. Necro is much more dangerous in this list with both Bitterblossom and Dark Confidant. Nonetheless, it’s too powerful not to run. Use it to draw a few cards a turn and keep the pressure on.

Thus, I am proud to present:

The sideboard is highly tentative, but designed to address a number of threats. First of all, Spinning Darkness will help remove threats when facing an aggro deck and gain you life at the same time, thus fueling Bitterblossom. Leyline and Jailer/Extirpate are here for Ichorid. Extirpate is also useful in other matchups. Gate to Phyrexia is an experimental card that I think could go quite well with Bitterblossom. Do with it what you may.

There are a host of other sideboard possibilities, and they all deserve a look. However, we are out of time!

Until next time…

Stephen Menendian