Hello, gentle reader. I recently won the SCG Standard Open in Baltimore, and this is my story.
For those of you reading this article in an attempt to unravel the mysteries of becoming a better Magic: the Gathering player, I have some bad news: you’ve likely come to the wrong place. I feel semi-confident that any advice I give other people invariably damages their skill as a player and quite possibly their intellect in general. Nonetheless, I must know something worthwhile, unless my recent success was an unlikely series of serendipitous blunders that resulted in the most unlikely of victories.
Because of my recent victory, I was asked to write a short piece describing who I am, the choices I made, etc. If you’re frothing at the bit for me to “get on with it already,” feel free to skip the next section. Honest-to-God Magic: the Gathering related discussion is relegated to the bottom of this article.
Rambling and Likely Tedious Introductory Section
My name is Zach Jesse, and approximately one million years ago I was a regular columnist for Star City Games. Humbly, I confess that at the time most critics praised my work as the pinnacle of Magic: the Gathering themed literature, unmatched and unlikely to be matched. It wasn’t uncommon for internet users – even ones that didn’t play the card game in question – to fidget restlessly in the glow of their monitors, eagerly refreshing their browser whilst waiting for the latest Chump Block to appear at midnight. And while some of the lessons that I imparted through the unique and playful writing style that I painstakingly employed have withstood the test of time – many have not.
“Who is this man?” you whisper quietly to yourself. My resume in a nutshell is as follows: I currently live in Richmond, Virginia where I attend law school. Although I don’t get to play Magic all that frequently anymore, I try and play in large tournaments when I can. Over the past year, I’ve got 2nd at a Richmond Classic, won a couple PTQs, and got 50th at a Pro Tour. Back when they had ELO rankings, I qualified twice via rating. I’ve also top 8’d a GP.
After winning the recent SCG Standard Open in Balitmore, I was approached about writing a short piece detailing my trials and tribulations about the tournament, advice I had on the deck, etc.
This type of article was never my bailiwick. Back when I was writing on the subject of wizardry on a regular basis, I always enjoyed writing about unique or obscure concoctions that I fantasied would take the applicable format by storm. Unfortunately, the article that I’ve been tasked with writing for you today involves none of that, for several reasons. First, I won the Open with Mono-Black Devotion, an archetype that is only marginally complicated at best, and which has already been discussed ad naseum. Moreover, to the extent that I actually made some changes to the established deck, none of the minor alterations that I’ve made are particularly earth-shattering or mind-blowing. Finally, the article is poised to be released at the literal-least relevant point of time possible considering the impending format shift brought on by the new set. Nonetheless, I’ll do my best to provide a passable article that won’t make you feel like you’ve wasted your time.
I had partially succeeded. I had gotten the go-ahead from my wife to play Magic at the Baltimore Open; however, I had to agree to be back for brunch on Sunday. My sister and her boyfriend were coming down, and the brunch reservations had been made. In an obvious case of foreshadowing, I would have to be back Saturday night.
I knew that I wanted to be playing Mono-Black Devotion. I generally like playing ‘quirky’ decks, but unfortunately I had tasted the fruit of the forbidden tree by playing the deck online and was immediately hooked. I felt it was easily one of the best-positioned decks in the format, even if everyone also already knew that. I had tweaked the stock list to a point that I liked, adding a bit of my own personal touches, and was doing fairly well in online daily and premier events. Here is the list that I played:
Some of the choices were subtle. My friend Charley suggested we play Temple of Silence over Temple of Deceit on the off chance that people might mistakenly assume we were on a Blood Baron plan and board in Lifebane Zombie or keep in Devour Flesh. It worked to some extent; a few people did in fact believe that I was running them, although this is probably equally in part to my whispering “come on Blood Baron” whenever I drew a card. Ultimately, though, it never actually made a difference.
Nothing particularly extraordinary happened throughout the tournament that would merit a whole lot of discussion. The most interesting match I played was against a Maze’s End deck in my first round, where I narrowly won out against a deck that was far off anyone’s radar. I also kept a super-loose one against newly initiated fire-mage Shaheen Soorani and was obviously rewarded for my obstinate refusal to mulligan. The only match I lost in the swiss was the mirror, where my opponent’s last ditch effort – attacking his two Nightveil Specters into mine – proved extremely effective when he plucked a Gray Merchant of the top of my deck that a) allowed him to not die and b) prevented me from killing him.
Fast-forward several hours. I was slightly worried: I had nowhere to sleep, a car full of people that wanted to get home to Richmond, and a brunch date that I might awkwardly miss in the morning. Ultimately, my friends rallied to help me out, I slept on some Spongebob sheets, and I ended up getting the biscuits and gravy.
So, you want to learn about Mono-Black Devotion, eh?
As I mentioned above, at this point there’s very little untrodden ground when it comes to analyzing this particular deck. Tomes could be filled with the literature of why Mono Black is a good choice to play in standard. I concur.
A round-for-round tournament report would be equally as uninteresting. Each match followed the generally sequences: “…and when I played my Pack Rat, they were bigger than his Pack Rats/ he didn’t have an answer for it/ I was able to race regardless.” I don’t mean to suggest that the games weren’t fun, or skill-intensive, or that they were non-interactive, but I’m confident that they would come across that way.
Instead, I’ve opted to talk about a couple unique aspects of the deck that I think I might have gone undiscussed. First off, I’ve been playing with almost this exact list for a while on Magic Online
Perhaps one immediately-obvious distinction between my list and others is the inclusion of Ratchet Bomb. I tried it out in the maindeck on Magic Online at one point, cutting a Pharika’s Cure for it, and have never looked back. Perhaps I’m blinded by my bias, but I really like having one in my deck because it has applications in every matchup that can substantially turn the tide of the game in your favor. Case in point: while it may seem out-of-place in the mirror, it’s one of the only (pre-Bile Blight) ways to stem the tide of an inexorable Pack Rat army. Take a look at the coverage of the last game of the finals, available here at the 4:27 mark… my opponent has to pick away at me for a single point at a time while I literally have nothing else going on simply because I could blow up all of his rats at-will. While it may admittedly be too slow if your opponent is already in the process of assembling his army, I posit that literally no other card currently available to monoblack would be able to combat that problem either.
Fun fact: you can break a stalemate with an opponent if you both have Pack Rats and you have a Ratchet Bomb on two. Simply make a rat token and, without yielding priority, blow up your Ratchet Bomb. No matter how you slice it, the dust will settle with you having a Pack Rat and your opponent not having one.
Additionally, Ratchet Bomb has the ability of dealing with problem permanents that a monoblack deck generally has real issues with. In the mirror, it can nuke Underworld Connections (to which the deck has literally no other out) should your opponent take the lead in that regard. Against any Azorius-based control deck, it can embarrass an opponent who has relied heavily on Detention Spheres. Multiple times this past weekend, it took out offending Blood Barons that I would otherwise have found irksome. The list goes on; I encourage you to adopt it.
Perhaps this choice isn’t all that unusual anymore. Indeed, a Grand Prix was won by a deck with multiple Duresses maindeck already. I mention it because it exists as one of the few ways in which my maindeck differed from “stock” lists.
I love Pithing Needle as an answer in the sideboard, although I tend to bring it in against decks one might not expect. To wit – I usually bring it in against the GR Monsters deck. Ideally, you can neutralize a whole group of planeswalkers – be it Domri, Chandra, Xenagos, or Garruk, Pithing Needle stops them cold and is particularly effective if you’re able to Thoughtseize them and preempt whichever ‘walker might be imminently cast.
On Deck Size
Of anything I’ve ever written, I predict this section is the one most likely to make people vomit with rage. Purists beware! Here I am, advocating for a particularly unorthodox suggestion.
In control or mirror matches, I rarely submit a deck with only sixty cards. Cue Armageddon. To be more specific, I generally introduce between one and two extra cards in the matchups that I feel are liable to go long. Here is my reasoning.
First, sideboard games – particularly those that involve controlling decks – tend to go quite long. This is true not only because of the inherent nature of two control decks battling, it is also true because sideboard games frequently go longer than the first game.
In these sideboard games, each player is generally bringing in answers to the other’s otherwise hard-to-answer threats. While this is obviously a generalization, I’ve found that it generally holds true. Look at the sideboard: other than (arguably) Erebos, every card is aimed at being better-prepared to stymie the opponent’s likely game-plan. This neutralization game played by both players inevitably results in longer games. In this same vein, because decks are more packed with answers, manascrew is not as likely to be wholly debilitating, especially considering that the matches where I’m doing this are the “control” matchups in general.
Because (presumably) these post-board games are going longer, there is an increased likelihood that more cards are going to be drawn. By increasing the ratio of spells to lands, the risk of mana flood is mitigated. While it may seem inconsequential, mana flooding in a control mirror is one of the most likely causes of failure. True, this same increased ratio could be achieved by, say, sideboarding out a land for an extra spell.
I also have a subtle justification for this practice in the mirror, which I’m sure someone will rebut with simply logic but which nonetheless guided my decisions. In the Mono-Black Devotion mirror, I’m not exactly convinced that having the trumps of the match – Pack Rat and Underworld Connections – in one’s opening hand is ideal. This is because each player is more likely than not to unleash one or several discard spells in an early salvo. These cards are precious in the matchup, and getting them stripped from one’s hand in the early stages of the game is extremely damaging. In truth these cards are at their best when drawn in the mid game, i.e. turn four, five or beyond. This is because, prior to that point, you can’t cast and use them in the same turn. In sum, while I agree that including extra cards in the deck will decrease the likelihood of hitting those cards early, one doesn’t need to hit Pack Rat on turn two, or even on turn five, for it to be game-breaking.
The workload of law school is unrelenting at times, and often exacerbated by spending entire days in dereliction of homework playing Magic. Nonetheless, I hope you’ve enjoyed this form of a victory lap. You can find me on Magic Online as ZoochZ where I have tons of suggestions for restaurants if you go to Grand Prix Richmond. Hopefully I’ll see you at one of them.