The New Black Decks & Phenax Combo!

In today’s article, Patrick talks about Bile Blight from Born of the Gods and speculates about what Standard might look like if the new two-mana removal spell becomes popular.

Now that’s what the hell I call a chain reaction . . .

Bile Blight is going to be legal next month. The latest greatest Born of the Gods two-cost removal spell, Bile Blight is the first domino to fall in a chain reaction that will set the stage for the next era of Standard.

Bile Blight kills Nightveil Specter.

It kills a lot of things, but it really kills Nightveil Specter. This is significant because Nightveil Specter has proven to be an incredibly well-positioned creature in the old format. This is in large part because of its ability to dodge both Doom Blade and Ultimate Price, which were solid gold at the beginning of the format.

Devour Flesh hits it, which has contributed a great deal to Devour Flesh’s rise in popularity (along with Blood Barons left and right). Still, Devour Flesh is hardly the most reliable.

Dimir Charm hits it, causing the fringe Gatecrash removal spell to finally get the credit it deserves.

Azorius Charm hits it, but Thoughtseize and Thassa’s Rebuff make it a risky play.

Orzhov Charm hits it, but at what cost? It’s no problem if you’re playing aggro, but this isn’t exactly a safe option for decks like Esper.

There are half a dozen great answers in red, but there sure are a lot of nonred decks in the format.

Or there were. We’ll see what Temple of Malice means, won’t we?

While there are a lot of answers to Nightveil Specter in the format, all that matters is what people actually play. Bile Blight isn’t just a great rate; it’s also loudly what people have been searching for. For right or wrong, people will adopt it in large numbers on day 1. It’s literally the perfect level 0 card since it’s exactly what people have wanted.

What does this mean for us? Once we realize what people are going to do at level 0, we can start to look at the ramifications of that change. What gets better? What gets worse? Then we can use that information to look at even more of the future to better understand where this chain reaction leads.

Can’t we just look at the card and play with it or not depending on if it’s good enough?

That’s just it. Cards don’t exist in a vacuum. People respond to incentives, and when you add even a single new card to a format, it changes the incentives for people to play other cards that interact with it positively or negatively. This creates a cascading effect since those changes can then cause lots of other changes. Most people try to figure out what to do based on what things were like in the past, but if you don’t factor in changes in behavior, you’re often going to guess no more accurately than random.

So level 0 is using more Bile Blights and fewer Doom Blades, Ultimate Prices, and Devour Fleshes. Mono-Black (or nearly Mono-Black) Devotion was already one of the defining decks of the format. Here’s what it might look like with Bile Blight:

Bile Blight is an awesomely powerful card, but I actually only use three here because of how strong it is. It’s so strong that I’m guessing people will change their card choices to be better suited against it. And while it’s top notch, it’s also a card that has weaknesses. Devour Flesh provides a nice hedge, giving us more answers to fatties, hexproof, and protection from black.

On the other hand, one of the features of Bile Blight is that it stacks. There is no shame in using two Bile Blights to kill two Stormbreath Dragons. Combine two Bile Blights together (or a Bile Blight and a Drown in Sorrow) and you can kill Thassa dead like no number of Doom Blades has ever been able to!

It’s a totally reasonable sideboard option, particularly if tokens increase in popularity, but people are going to play around it anyway so there’s some amount of diminishing returns. Besides, black has a ton of really great sideboard options these days, and Drown in Sorrow gives us another sweeper that hits from a totally different angle than Bile Blight.

I’m not sure on the exact Temple mix, though I do like being slightly on the higher side of the Temple count for mono-black decks. I kind of wanted to start with a mix of all three black ones to give us the most options with Nightveil Specter, but I think Temple of Deceit is just the best by enough that we start with it.

The three most popular decks of the old format were Mono-Black Devotion, Mono-Blue Devotion, and U/W/x Control. When we hit black decks with Specter, we can already cast their spells. Temple of Deceit casts spells out of the other two. Even against U/W Control we’d rather have two Temple of Deceits than one and a Temple of Silence. It’s just too important to be able to cast a Jace that we flip or other such double-blue cards. If we strand a Detention Sphere, it’s usually not as big a loss.

Ok, so we have our default deck, our starting point. What about the rest of the format?

First of all, Bile Blight encourages people to play fewer Nightveil Specters than they otherwise would. This doesn’t mean the card won’t be popular, just that some number of people somewhere will have a close decision and break away when they would have broken toward before. Additionally, even when people still use the Specter, they will lose some number more games by having their Specter die (compared to a dead Doom Blade), meaning slightly less of them at the top.

This means cards that specifically kill Nightveil Specter get a bit worse (Dimir Charm and interestingly Bile Blight). And of course, cards that have a weakness to Nightveil Specter get better (Doom Blade and Ultimate Price).

In addition to killing Nightveil Specter, Bile Blight has a number of other features, all of which contribute to the reshaping of the format it’s at the heart of. For instance, it sweeps tokens. This gives black a powerful tool against Elspeth, Sun’s Champion to clean up the mess left when you Hero’s Downfall her. That’s some amount of power taken away from Elspeth (and some amount of pressure taken off of Hero’s Downfall).

Bile Blight absolutely devastates G/W Tokens, so if you’re considering populate as a strategy the perfect counter is going to be very popular on opening day. This is yet another reason to play G/W good stuff instead of populate (or, I don’t know, not G/W at all), but there is another possible course of action.

Are your tokens 3/3s? A single anthem effect giving +1/+1 can beat Bile Blight. Hell, just giving your tokens +1/+1 until end of turn could do the trick. Selesnya Charm isn’t the fanciest way to beat the system, but it will do the job sometimes (though saving just one creature).

Are your tokens 1/1 fliers? Brave the Elements can be just what you need, but Gods Willing works too (and even hits nonwhite creatures). Remember, you only have to give the target protection to save the entire herd. It’s not clear how practical it is, but if you have some way to sacrifice your own creatures, you can fizzle the Blight, losing only the original target.

Bile Blight even does serious damage to a lot of exotic tokens, not the least of which is Pack Rat. Pack Rat has had a tremendous surge in popularity over the past few months in large part because of how strong it is in the mirror. It isn’t really so good against U/W, with both Supreme Verdict and Detention Sphere, and while fine against Mono-Blue Devotion, it’s still easily trumped by Thassa making things unblockable, Master of Waves making an army, or Cyclonic Rift for the full-on scoop ’em ups.

Black however can have a real hard time with Pack Rat. You can Thoughtseize it if you’re lucky, but after the Rat hits Thoughtseize is a terrible draw against a Pack Rat player. You might get lucky and kill it with a Devour Flesh, but it’s usually not too hard for a black mage to wait until they have five mana and make it awkward for you.

Having no sweeper meant this part of black’s game could be exploited. Even Ratchet Bomb doesn’t work right since you would need to get to two counters (Rats being those rare tokens with real costs). Besides, it isn’t the best time for Ratchet Bomb anyway. The card is a little slow for how aggressive the format is, the format doesn’t feature that many of the one-drops it specializes in beating, and many of the enchantments are indestructible (which is supposed to be one of the things it beats for us).

Bile Blight radically changes the face of the black mirror match, as now what used to be our best card, our best threat is trivially dealt with using slots that used to be dead in the matchup. This is absolutely monumental! Why are we even still using Pack Rats? No question, Bile Blight will be good against us anyway since we have Specters and Mutavaults, but it’s just so hard to get anything going Pack Rat wise against Bile Blight that we might as well find something else to do.

Sweeping tokens is great and all, but Bile Blight also sweeps nontokens whenever our opponent gets unlucky and draws a pair. What are the odds of such a pair?

An opponent with four Soldier of the Pantheons and 60 cards has a 10.3% chance of drawing two or more by turn 3. That doesn’t sound like that much, but remember that they also have 10.3% chance of drawing two or more Boros Elites. How many playsets are they playing? Dryad Militant? Precinct Captain? Spirit of the Labyrinth? Maybe Daring Skyjek or Banisher Priest? Even Mutavault can be awkward, since they don’t want to attack with two at the same time.

Add them all together and you are talking about almost half of games starting with the white aggro player having to try to play around Blight. Brave the Elements is awesome, but we have Thoughtseize and they don’t always have the extra mana.

Facing red? Now they don’t even have Brimaz or Brave the Elements!

Having two creatures killed by a Bile Blight is so bad that we’re likely to see some amount of people playing more twos and threes than they otherwise would. For instance, maybe four Precinct Captains, four Spirit of the Labyrinths, two Daring Skyjeks is what we’d play at first glance, but Spirit and Skyjek are close enough to each other that we decide to play three of each, reducing our chances of getting Blighted. Maybe we even play two Imposing Sovereigns instead of two of the others.

Amusingly, if small legends like Thalia, Guardian of Thraben get printed, they naturally fight Bile Blight by not letting you overcommit . . .

For reference, here’s a starting point for Mono-White Aggro:

On Monday we discussed Brimaz at length, leaving with the hope of a good two-drop to help fill out our curve. Sure enough, that very day David Bowie himself came to our rescue in the form of Spirit of the Labyrinth.

Spirit of the Labyrinth is hardly the end-all be-all two-drop, but it does hit for three and the bar isn’t high. That it can hose Divination and Sphinx’s Revelation is generally probably better than Daring Skyjek’s flying, but mostly they’re just three-power threats.

It’s important to remember that Jace, Architect of Thought gets around it, plus Underworld Connections can be used on your opponent’s turn to still get ahead.

While this may make a fine shell, the default white aggro strategy is to trim a bunch of the two-drops and maybe one three (or one of the one-drops) to make room for three or four Charms (either Orzhov or Boros).

It’s also possible that the printing of Temple of Plenty will open up some W/G variants that just splash Selesnya Charm and maybe some awesome dudes like Voice of Resurgence, Fleecemane Lion, and Loxodon Smiter. You could even sideboard Mistcutter Hydra. This suggests more Forests than the barely Boros or barely Orzhov decks play, but Precinct Captain is the only big loss there.

Yeah, okay, I guess we’re also losing Mutavault, which is a giant kick in the teeth. Hrmm. If we just add them and play a bigger curve, we start moving more and more toward Elvish Mystic, Boon Satyr, Polukranos, and more. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s just a different deck. That’s a direction that sounds pretty good against Bile Blight however.

As for the white aggro variants, there may be some card choices that are close enough that it’s worth shaving some fours to threes and decreasing our exposure to Detention Sphere and Bile Blight. For what it’s worth, here are the odds of drawing two copies by turn 3 (on the play) of a specific card:

Play four copies: 10.3%
Play three copies: 5.6%
Play two copies: 2.0%

As you can see, this doesn’t mean we need to abandon four-ofs, by any means. I mean, as we said, Detention Sphere already existed and didn’t completely blank us. However, Bile Blight now means we have to face the Detention Sphere game in twice as many matchups, but it’s actually much worse for us.

Bile Blight costs two, making it harder to set something like Brave the Elements up. It’s even an instant, making it more difficult to play around. When Bile Blight kills a creature, it’s dead. Detention Sphere can sometimes be destroyed by enchantment removal like Abrupt Decay, Golgari Charm, and the like.

Perhaps most importantly Detention Sphere came out of opponents with Supreme Verdict. We wanted to slow play our hand anyway, not overextending. Black decks are the complete opposite. They don’t have a sweeper to make us want to hold back. Instead they have Thoughtseize, making us want to play our hand out entirely.

Of course, it’s not even just the sweeping multiple creatures that will cause Bile Blight to have an impact on the format. The ability to sweep is why it’s so powerful, but its weakness is that it’s just -3/-3, not "destroy." There are a lot of good creatures it kills, but all of the creatures it doesn’t are suddenly much better.

For reference, here are some of the creatures that Devour Flesh and sometimes Doom Blade can kill but dodge Bile Blight:

Brimaz is just a crazy card to begin with, but stuff like this Bile Blight nonsense makes it clear that Brimaz was made for greatness. It’s literally his destiny, like Brian Kibler; the world is literally designed to make Brimaz look good.

What about planeswalkers? After all, you can’t Bile Blight a planeswalker . . .

The thing is that you weren’t devouring its flesh either. Maybe some number of people cut Hero’s Downfall for Bile Blight, particularly if they have an aggressive deck. However, generally Bile Blight makes Hero’s Downfall better. It’s a good two-mana removal spell to buy you time. It powers up black decks in general. It even encourages people to play more fatties, letting Hero’s Downfall work even better.

While most fatties improve from the printing of Bile Blight, the ones that really stand out to me are:

Brimaz and Smiter are so cheap and hit so hard that it can be absolutely devastating to a black deck to be on the wrong side of a Bile Blight versus Brimaz/Smiter draw.

Ghor-Clan Rampager is an oft-overlooked powerhouse due to being in the two weakest colors in Standard (or at least the two weakest of the old format). However, it’s another threat that lives through Blight, and man oh man if you ever bloodrush someone foolish enough to Blight during your attack step . . .

Polukranos benefits from fewer Doom Blades, no two ways about it. Likewise, Desecration Demon benefits from fewer Dark Betrayals. Dark Betrayal is going to be hit even harder than Doom Blade since it’s been popular for basically three reasons:

Bile Blight does a whole lot of work for those first two, meaning fewer Dark Betrayals needed overall. Following the chain reaction, we see Desecration Demon as the big winner, which is to say nothing of how well Bile Blight cleans up tokens that might otherwise frustrate a Desecration Demon that just wants to get in there!

Stormbreath Dragon is obviously a heavy hitter that lives through Bile Blight, but it’s also the type of card that can stack with lots of other non-Blightable threats (Polukranos, Domri Rade, either Xenagos, Sylvan Caryatid, Ghor-Clan Rampager, and more). That’s a whole lot of danger that loves a world with fewer Doom Blades.

Finally, Obzedat and Blood Baron are great against most non-edict removal spells, but that applies here. Besides, they are just great against black decks in general (particularly Blood Baron) and Bile Blight initially props black up a little.

Looking one step further, it seems like Far // Away tangentially benefits from the printing of Blight. Blight makes fatties and edicts better plus is a good two-mana spell to set up your three. It even sweeps tokens, a weakness of Far // Away.

While the way to fight Bile Blight is generally to play creatures it doesn’t kill, a diverse mix of threats, and one-mana tricks (or anthems), Bile Blight also has a little bit of a restriction in its cost. There are plenty of dual lands, all of which start tapped (or want to). People also generally have to play some number of basics. This means a BB casting cost can be harder to cast than a BR (or BG or BU or BW) one outside of a mostly monocolored deck.

Mono-black decks aside from devotion may enjoy it:

After all, it’s only barely harder to cast than Doom Blade or Devour Flesh. However, if you try to build a two- or three-color deck, you start feeling a lot of pressure to play fewer Mountains or fewer Hallowed Fountains. Being able to play your removal on turn 2 is important, so you don’t want to be stuck with a Temple of Deceit, a Dimir Guildgate, and an Island if you can help it. And not playing gold cards means giving up a lot of power.

Temple of Malice will no doubt increase the popularity of Rakdos; however, this is not a great home for Bile Blight. To begin with, Anger of the Gods and Mizzium Mortars really want us to make room for more Mountains, and Chandra, Pyromaster and Stormbreath Dragon suggest skimping on Mountains to be unwise. This doesn’t even factor in Mutavault, which would be excellent here.

Additionally, Anger of the Gods means we already have sweepers that do three and that four toughness is a weakness for us. And if this wasn’t bad enough, Rakdos is one of the few color combinations that has an abundance of good two-drop spells (Dreadbore, Mizzium Mortars, Devour Flesh, Doom Blade, Lightning Strike) and less of a need for them due to Anger of the Gods and Hero’s Downfall.

If we cut those two Bile Blights, suddenly our mana base can be:

4 Mutavault
4 Temple of Malice
4 Rakdos Guildgate
4 Blood Crypt
6 Mountain
4 Swamp

That’s a big upgrade.

If we were really just a black deck that splashed red, maybe getting Dreadbore and Rakdos’s Return, then Bile Blight is back to a hit. Without double-red requirements and without Anger of the Gods to compete with, our evaluations can change dramatically.

What about the one from the prophecy? What about B/R/W, the Block deck that was supposed to rise up and conquer if not for its hideous mana base? They are gaining Temple of Malice, which they needed so badly that people actually used Rakdos Guildgate in their three-color decks . . .

I don’t know if Temple of Malice does enough since it doesn’t address the "all my lands come into play tapped" problem that plagues three-color decks without Supreme Verdict or acceleration. However, it does make our colors more reliable, meaning Boros Reckoner will work better.

This is another deck that might just be too dubious of a spot for Bile Blight. Four Temple of Triumphs, two Sacred Foundrys, and two Mountains means eight lands that don’t cast it, not to mention there being only ten lands that give us the chance to (usually) pay life to cast it on turn 2.

What about Grixis?

When in doubt . . .

I couldn’t even bring myself to write out a version with Bile Blight. We have Anger of the Gods and Mizzium Mortars so all the Rakdos problems arise, but we also have Divination and Jace pushing us to play actual Islands.

Not that Grixis is where you want to be, at least like this. This is yet another "Bad Esper" build of Grixis, with Opportunity replacing Sphinx’s Revelation, Anger of the Gods replacing Supreme Verdict, and match losses replacing Detention Sphere. If one were going to Grixis, one would need a reason why it’s better than U/W, and a pretty damn good one at that.

Well, the more we look at it, the more it looks like that BB casting cost really does keep Bile Blight out of an awful lot of decks that would otherwise want it. However, it’s exactly what the black mages have been looking for, so keeping our eyes open for creatures and tricks and strategies that match up well against it is a pretty good idea. The midsize bodies sure do look appealing if the format goes this way. And the $64,000 question is:

"What is going to happen to Pack Rat?"

Answer this question and I think you’re already two weeks ahead of the field.

I’m just about out for this week, but I’ll be back on Monday with more Born of the Gods spoiler action. Before I go, here’s a bonus decklist featuring Phenax, God of Deception:

Don’t let the color combination deceive you. This is very much a board control/combo deck. Is it just a bad take on Mono-Blue Devotion?

Maybe. But maybe not. It does go in a different direction. If this format is friendly to a bunch of zero-power walls, you can tie up the game and then drop Phenax and mill someone out in two or three turns. Besides, we still have Thassa and Master of Waves for when we want to go that way. Thassa doesn’t just mill for five; she also helps find Phenax. Master of Waves has a tendency to die a lot, but Phenax means he will often get to mill for sixteen cards first.

Depending on how hardcore you are, you can even push the combo element further using cards like Triton Tactics and Hidden Strings to untap your walls. I doubt that’s realistic since you need as many permanents as possible to turn your Gods on, but Triton Tactics is a one-card mill for sixteen to twenty when you have Phenax. If Phenax is active, you might be talking 47 cards of milling in one turn, which might be enough to end the game as soon as you pass.

Is Phenax the next big thing? Theros block has proven strange enough that you can’t really know until you work with it. After all, very few people would’ve guessed that Mono-Blue and Mono-Black Devotion would take over the format if you’d asked them four months ago.

My suspicion is that building a deck like this involves too many "cutting Nightveil Specters for Hover Barriers and Wall of Frosts." Besides, that sure is a lot of three- and five-cost creatures, instead of the one-drops that make Mono-Blue Devotion such a tempo-based threat. Still, when thinking outside the box, we can’t be afraid to make decks that look embarrassing. It isn’t even about whether this deck is the exact list we dominate the tournament with. It’s about what this list teaches us, where it takes us.

Magic is a deep and rich world full of surprises and wonder. Who knows what the next Thassa, God of the Sea is? The next Gray Merchant of Asphodel? The next Pack Rat?

Okay, let me know what you want to see Monday. See you then!

Patrick Chapin
"The Innovator"

Next Level Deckbuilding