Time Spiral Draft – Black

Last time, I talked about White, my favorite creature color; this time, I’ll talk about my favorite spell color. The top Black commons are all removal spells, and the top Black creatures allow you to cast your spells either cheaply or at unexpected times. Beyond the top picks, you have to start playing fair, but the strength of Black lies in its effects, not its bodies.

I wound up my last article by talking about a fundamental truth in Time Spiral Draft: each color is either primarily a spell color or a creature color. I am not trying to say that you will only get good spells out of Red or that you will only get good creatures out of Green, but I do think it’s important to keep this rule in mind when you draft. You will usually want to pair a creature color (White, Blue, and Green) with a spell color (Black, Red). Yes, there will be times when you draft a mono-color deck or a two-color deck that is either two spell colors or two creature colors, but I have found that most of the successful decks choose one color from each group.

Last time, I talked about my favorite creature color; this time, I’ll talk about my favorite spell color. The top Black commons are all removal spells, and the top Black creatures allow you to cast your spells either cheaply or at unexpected times. Beyond the top picks, you have to start playing fair, but the strength of Black lies in its effects, not its bodies.

Common Pick Order:

Strangling Soot
This is the best common in the set, by quite a large distance. Outside of Green, each color has two or fewer commons that live through the Soot, and you get to play it twice. If you are drafting either Black or Red, you’ll splash the other half of this card, and when you’re in Black/Red, there are very few cards at any rarity you’d rather see.

Dark Withering
Sometimes you’ll have to cast this for full price, and it won’t be too impressive. However, if you’re drafting Black with Madness in mind (and you should be), there will be at least a handful of ways for you to pick off creatures for just one mana. Cards like the Urborg Syphon-Mage and Trespasser il-vec are so high up on the pick order specifically to abuse Black’s Madness cards.

Tendrils of Corruption
Depending on your deck, this may or may not be worse than listed. However, there are few spells that let you rebound from an opponent’s aggressive start better than Tendrils in a primarily black deck. It’s not uncommon to gain as much as four to six life when you cast this, and gaining that much life while picking off your opponent’s best attacker (at instant speed, no less) will be quite a change in momentum.

Urborg Syphon-Mage
Syphon Soul, the card, was not very good. A Gray Ogre that casts Syphon Soul every turn, however, is extremely good. Like all spellshapers, this guy will turn your late-game lands and dead cards into spells that have a direct impact on the game. However, spellshapers are especially good in Black, since all of the Madness cards are dramatically better when you can cast them at unexpected times.

Trespasser il-Vec
I go back and forth as to whether or not the Trespasser should be lower than the Syphon-Mage. Each has its own pros and cons, and the main strengths of the Trespasser are that you can cast multiple Madness spells in one turn with it and the fact that it enables Madness at no cost. In exchange for these abilities, you have to put up with a much more fragile body, a smaller life swing, and the fact that the discard is most useful at an inconvenient time (your own turn). Right now, I feel like the cons outweigh the pros, and I think the Trespasser belongs right below the Syphon-Mage.

Gorgon Recluse
A 2/4 for four mana isn’t particularly exciting, and a 2/4 for five mana is pretty mediocre. However, the high toughness goes perfectly with the Gorgon’s ability, meaning that your opponent will either lose multiple creatures in combat or lose at least one relatively large one. All of this assumes that your opponent sees the Gorgon coming – but with Madness, this isn’t always the case. Having the Gorgon show up in the middle of combat is almost always going to get you a free creature kill.

Mana Skimmer
You’d rather get your 2/2 flyers for three mana, of course, but the extra cost gets you a fairly relevant ability with Mana Skimmer. At worst, you’ve essentially Stone Rained your opponent after your attack, and at best you can stop them from casting their splashed cards (unless they’re slow-rolling a third-color land). Even when the ability doesn’t affect the game, you’re still left with a 2/2 flyer, and those are always good.

Corpulent Corpse
The Corpse is a very solid threat, with three hard-to-block power coming across the table on an ideal turn 6. It dodges Dark Withering, but unfortunately gets hit by both Strangling Soot and Rift Bolt. In addition, both of its costs feel like one too much. Suspend 5 is a long time to wait if you start on any turn other than the first or second of the game, and six mana is just a little more than you’d like for a three-power evasion creature. If every color didn’t have access to Venser’s Sliver, he’d probably be a little better…. But as things are, he’s still a very solid creature to end the game with.

This is a misleading card, by which I mean it seems like it would be a lot better than it is. After all, removal is removal, right? Unfortunately, this removal spell is only a removal spell some of the time, and in a lot of situations will sit in your hand with no targets. It is at its best in a control deck, since it is a lot better at getting rid of attackers than blockers. The best card to compare this to is Dehydration, except that you can’t just throw it onto a utility creature even if the threat is untapped.

Fugue is exactly what Fugue has always been: a sometimes backbreaking spell that also can whiff and snag just two sandbagged lands. Then there’s the fact that against another Black deck, you may be enabling their Madness spells. I have not yet been hit by a fully optimal Mindstab in this format; either I had a Madness spell to cast, a couple of dead cards, or less than three cards. Suspending it is only good to save mana, since it will arrive on the same turn that you could simply hard-cast it, and a discard spell is much less powerful when your opponent sees it coming.

Deathspore Thallid
On his own, this guy is not very impressive; a 1/1 for two mana that will have its first real impact on the game on turn 5 isn’t too hot. However, the impact that it does have is a very relevant one, and as such many decks will either have to remove this man or lose two to four cards to it over the course of the game. And when you pair him with other Thallids, he becomes that much stronger. This ability is one of the best available, so a steady stream of Saprolings will turn into a steady stream of dead creatures on the other side of the board.

Psychotic Episode
If you cast this as a sorcery, it’s essentially Coercion. In exchange for a harder mana cost, you’ll get to look a turn ahead, since you’ll see their next draw as well. This means that not only do you get perfect information for your own turn, you get perfect information for their turn and your own after that. Like all Madness cards, casting this one at the right time can get you quite a bit of advantage. If you can use the Trespasser or Syphon-Mage to discard this during your opponent’s draw step, you push yourself yet another turn ahead in terms of information, and you get to see even more extra cards to try to deny them the bomb you can’t beat.

There are quite a few x/1 creatures in this format, so this card is a fairly consistent removal spell. Top targets for it include nearly the entire Rebel chain, Icatian Crier, Crookclaw Transmuter, Trespasser il-Vec, and Looter il-Kor. Against Green and Red, however, you’ll find yourself mostly turning 2/2s into 0/1s and using this as a combat trick. Still, getting all that for two mana is a decent little package, and this card will make the maindeck nearly every time you draft it.

Viscid Lemures
This guy might not deserve to be so low on the list when you simply look at his stats and abilities. A creature that is 4/3 on defense and a 3/3 landwalker on offense would usually be fairly good, but you have to evaluate it in terms of the rest of the cards in Black. It is certainly worse than all of the removal spells, and it doesn’t have Madness or enable it. It is a solid creature, and a great threat against another Black deck – but it will only do what it says it does, instead of making the rest of your deck better or answering a threat that your opponent has.

Skulking Knight
A 3/3 flanker is nigh-unstoppable on the attack. The best that a non-Green opponent can do is trade with it (outside of blue’s token Serpent), and most of the time it will be hard to assemble this trade. The question, therefore, is whether this creature is likely to live long enough to actually do his job.

Unfortunately, every color has quite a few answers that you should expect to see, all at common. White has the Zealot and sometimes the Healer, Blue has bounce spells and Transmuter, Red has Grapeshot and Flowstone Channeler, Green has a handful of pump spells, and Black has Feebleness. This means he’s not long for the world – but if he sticks, he’ll be quite a beating.

Basal Sliver
The ability on this sliver is rarely relevant, outside of the strange corner case of a blocking Knight of the Holy Nimbus. This means that you will be able to piggyback your opponents’ Sliver abilities at little risk, and at worst have a Gray Ogre in your deck. You usually won’t be too happy about including him in your deck, but if you have a bunch of Bonesplitter Slivers or the like, you could do a lot worse.

Drudge Reavers
To use this guy as a removal spell, you’re going to need four mana, and preferably five mana open on the critical attack. Even then, you’ll only be able to pick off the smaller creatures. As such, the Reavers aren’t something I ever look to have in my Black decks, but when pressed for cards they will sometimes make the cut.

Call to the Netherworld
In exchange for Madness, this Raise Dead can only get back your black creatures. This essentially means that you only want to include this card when you have a bunch of Black creatures that double as removal. Gorgon Recluse and Nightshade Assassin are the two most frequent targets for this, but if you have a ton of spellshapers, there are certainly worse cards to discard than Call.

Pit Keeper
It is rare that the Pit Keeper’s ability will ever trigger. Sometimes the game will go long against a removal-heavy Red/Black deck (or similar), and you’ll be able to Regrow a threat and put a 2/1 on the board at the same time. Unfortunately, he’s usually just a Krovikan Scoundrel, and a tricky one at that. When you draw it with three creatures in the graveyard, you’ll be tempted to sandbag it until the fourth man hits the bin, but usually you’re better off just putting him into play.

If your deck is aggressive enough to want a two-power attacker for turn 2, then you could do much worse than Pit Keeper. But if your deck is a controlling Black deck (which is far more common), then you could do much better.

Speaking of cards that are only good in super-aggressive decks, Sangrophage will rarely make the cut. However, every now and again you’ll find yourself with an aggro deck backed up by removal, and in that case the Sangrophage is just the man for the job. When that doesn’t happen, the only times you’ll want to include this man is when you have some combo with it. The only one that has come up for me is Magus of the Mirror, where you actively want to lose life to set up the combo kill.

Cyclopean Giant
Unless you have a bunch of Viscid Lemures or some other reason to want to give your opponent a swamp, the Giant is almost always worse than Giant Cockroach, simply because he removes himself from the game. I don’t know about you, but Giant Cockroach was never something that I actively wanted for my deck, and I feel the same way about this Giant. When I go looking for Black creatures for my deck, I want guys that can actually do something other than attack.

Mindlash Sliver
About the only reason to ever include Mindlash Sliver is when you have a billion Madness cards and no other way to play them on the cheap. Even then, you’re still going one-for-one with your opponent, essentially turning the Sliver into a Funeral Charm.

Traitor’s Clutch
If there were something in this block that had an amazing effect when it connected (like, say a Nephilim), then the Clutch might sometimes make the cut. However, all it really does is break through a stalled board for a ton of mana. Black already has Trespasser, Syphon-Mage, and sometimes the Lemures to win on a stalled board, so there’s rarely a need for this card.

Notable Uncommons:

Faceless Devourer
There aren’t too many creatures with Shadow running around, so it’s fair to evaluate this as a 2/1 unblockable for three mana. Every so often, you’ll be able to snag another man on your way in, from marginally playable cards like Drifter il-Dal to absolute bombs like Stronghold Overseer. Pick it just below Urborg Syphon-Mage, or perhaps below Gorgon Recluse if you have a ton of Madness enablers.

Fallen Ideal
In an aggressive deck, this card can kill your opponent out of nowhere, much like Devouring Rage and Devouring Greed used to. At worst, this card will give your biggest threat flying, until they deal with it and your next best man gets flying. While not great in a control deck, in an aggro deck this card should be picked around the same level as Mana Skimmer.

Nightshade Assassin
This card might trick you into thinking it’s as good (or even better!) than Nekrataal. It’s true that he can hit any creature, unlike his predecessor, but having more than two cards in your hand when you cast him is going to be difficult. Still, there will be turns where you Madness it into play, kill one creature with the ability, kill another with the first-striking body, and then swing back for two points. If you can consistently Madness it, pick it right below Syphon-Mage; if not, pick it below Mana Skimmer.

Sudden Death
Problem creature? It’s dead. Nearly every common other than a scared Castle Raptors and a few Green guys will be dead, no questions asked. Even most rares get taken care of. At instant speed. With no chance for your opponent to object. It’s certainly better than Dark Withering, but if you can cast Strangling Soot twice, it’s an extremely close call. I would take the Soot, but I can see the other side of things.

Sample Decklists:
1 Deathspore Thallid
1 Sangrophage
1 Nether Traitor
1 Amrou Scout
1 Amrou Seekers
3 Urborg Syphon-Mage
1 Skulking Knight
1 Faceless Devourer
1 Flickering Spirit
1 Castle Raptors
2 Gorgon Recluse
1 Magus of the Mirror
1 Lim-Dul the Necromancer

1 Assassinate
1 Fortify
1 Negator Totem
2 Tendrils of Corruption
2 Dark Withering

10 Swamp
7 Plains

This deck was the exception to the rule (black spells, non-black creatures). The Syphon-Mages, Sangrophages, and Tendrils all allowed me to set up a perfect Magus turn, and in other cases a fast draw of Sangrophage -> Skulking Knight backed up by removal had my opponent dead nearly immediately. I wasn’t too enthused with the deck when I was drafting and building it, since it defied my own rule of thumb, but it did its job and went 2-1 in a team draft. The loss was to a Blue-White deck that bounced my Magus three turns in a row, and finally killed me with Sacred Mesa.

2 Greenseeker
1 Ashcoat Bear
1 Spinneret Sliver
2 Trespasser il-Vec
2 Thallid Germinator
2 Penumbra Spider
1 Nightshade Assassin
1 Savage Thallid
1 Gorgon Recluse
1 Durkwood Baloth

1 Lightning Axe
1 Premature Burial
2 Strangling Soot
1 Foriysian Totem
1 Search for Tomorrows
3 Dark Withering

2 Mountain
8 Forest
6 Swamp
1 Pendelhaven

This shows the other end of the spectrum, with more than twice as many Green creatures as Black creatures. This is, at the core, a Madness deck. I had four continuous outlets to discard to, and the maximum cost for this was one mana. In addition, Lightning Axe is a one-shot Madness outlet, and turns that included killing two creatures for two mana (or killing a creature and depositing another on the board for three mana) were usually blowouts. There is also a fairly large mana-fixing theme, with Greenseeker and Search for Tomorrows allowing me to consistently cast my Red spells off of two Mountains and my double-Black spells off of only six Swamps.

Next up for me is going to be Red, my second-favorite spell color. Before I end, though, I want to tell you guys about an amusing deck that my roommate Kevin drafted this week at the O. I have no idea how it all got started, but at the end of the draft, Kevin’s deck included two Wheel of Fate, Ancestral Visions, Magus of the Jar, various Suspend creatures including a Keldon Halberdier, a Viscerid Deepwalker, an Errant Ephemeron, two Coal Stoker

…And a pair of Jhoira’s Timebugs.

As I was busy tanking the draft with a combo deck of my own (Stuffy Doll + Lightning Axe), I watched Kevin deck someone with three Draw-7s, storm up an Empty the Warrens for eight to ten tokens, then fire off multiple Suspend creatures into play at high-speed thanks to his Timebugs.

Thanks again, and I look forward to discussion on AIM and the forums.

Benjamin Peebles-Mundy
ben at mundy dot net
SlickPeebles on AIM