Black has experienced an identity crisis in Constructed Magic in the past few years. A colour whose unique selling points are discard and efficient removal struggles in a world where every threat is must-kill or leaves a lot behind when removed – or both! Black aggro has typically underperformed its counterparts in red and white and Standard in general has been hostile to that style of aggro for some time.
There are lots of well-wishers rooting for black’s success. The original Theros gave rise to Mono-Black Devotion in a Standard format fondly remembered to this day – though critics unmoved by nostalgia would point to its lack of diversity or churn. Gray Merchant of Asphodel is a beloved card whose return from the underworld in Theros Beyond Death was easy fan service; its failure to relive those glory days was a sign of how much had changed.
Those people are in luck. Black is not just back – it is the dominant colour in Dominaria United Standard. Black’s success on the first weekend was predictable – access to new cards was limited, but Liliana of the Veil has existed on Magic Online for over a decade and joins the strong black core from the sets remaining in Standard – but it carried through to this week’s results too. You can choose from a wide range of colours (or none at all!) to add to your black midrange deck, but the basic formula is the same.
The squeeze I mentioned in previewing this format is in full effect. Standard is usually – and currently – about contesting the battlefield, and almost any way to do that is weak to at least one of Liliana of the Veil and The Meathook Massacre.
Unfortunately for the Innistrad it girl, using her -2 ability effectively is more difficult than ever. The cards you want in these attrition battles in the black midrange mirrors naturally line up well against it, and the few non-black strategies in the format are even worse – Resolute Reinforcements and Wedding Announcement over here, Spirited Companion and The Restoration of Eiganjo over there. Even the few creatures that seem like appealing hits – Sheoldred, the Apocalypse comes to mind – are often shielded by meaningless material generated by these other cards.
Liliana is also much harder to use and protect on the draw – certainly not a problem unique to her, but one that you have to address in your deckbuilding to have any hope of breaking serve.
The Meathook Massacre is tough to avoid altogether, but it’s a victim of its own success to some extent. The decks that Massacre is best against don’t get to show up and play for as long as most of the good decks are black, and every black deck has Massacre. There’s still nothing better at cleaning up a Wedding Announcement or turning around a lost position in a long game, but many of the threats that have made a mark so far are naturally resistant to Massacre.
Needing seven mana to remove a popular four-drop like Sheoldred already feels impossible, and the most popular way to go over the top of black midrange is reanimating a Titan of Industry or some other giant creature (perhaps with an additional buff via Invoke Justice!) that a Massacre can never realistically remove.
If these were the only draws to black, this might be a story of evolution – other colours and strategies adapt to these predators, and the format changes and opens up. Instead, black’s reign is maintained by its deep bench of role-players.
If the maxim of ‘play the good cards’ amounts to ‘play the black cards,’ why not do just that? Mono-coloured decks enjoy inherently cleaner and less painful mana than their rivals, but there are no active advantages to staying in one lane in this Standard. The Adventures in the Forgotten Realms creature-lands that were so pivotal last Standard are gone; there’s no Hive of the Eye Tyrant to load up on in your mono-black deck, no important lands for your Field of Ruin to destroy. Staying in black alone is more of a statement that you have everything you need right here, so why branch out if you don’t have to?
It’s fitting that the black midrange mirror-breaker is the card that requires the heaviest black commitment of all. It’s a rare black answer to enchantments like Wedding Announcement that take over the game otherwise and manages to trade with a fresh Fable of the Mirror-Breaker at a profit, but more broadly, it’s sure to do something relevant in these matchups where card advantage, battlefield presence, and life totals can all matter to varying degrees.
If you want to venture out of the Swamp, you encounter your first fork in the road. Which colours do you pair your black cards with?
The Esper Option
Wedding Announcement and The Wandering Emperor continue their roles from the previous Standard as the best reasons to be in white. The Wandering Emperor remains a litmus test for any expensive creature: if it has to connect in combat to be relevant, the Emperor will end its career before it has begun.
You can see these lists trying to out-think each other in this midrange arms race. The Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty Spirit Dragons are perfect curve-toppers in a format where all the best removal will give them their ‘when this dies’ triggers on the way out. Ao, the Dawn Sky even dodges the biggest exception in The Wandering Emperor, thanks to vigilance! This in turn suggests a move to Soul Transfer as the best response to all the threats trying to exploit that weakness, as well as a way to use your own trump card one more time.
Raffine, Scheming Seer is the flashiest reason to go full Esper, but there are other draws to blue if you can commit to a bigger splash. Dennick, Pious Apprentice stands out as a fine two-drop that’s maindeckable graveyard hate against the Reanimator decks trying to overwhelm the midrange menace, while Make Disappear and Disdainful Stroke check anyone hoping to go over the top in other ways.
Grixis and Rakdos
- 4 Bloodtithe Harvester
- 4 Tenacious Underdog
- 3 The Raven Man
- 2 Sheoldred, the Apocalypse
- 2 Knight of Dusk's Shadow
Perhaps you put a safe bet on Fable of the Mirror-Breaker instead. Bloodtithe Harvester comes along for the ride, but Fable is the main draw to an otherwise light red commitment in most of these Rakdos and Grixis Midrange lists.
Rakdos Reanimator adds a new superweapon to win this war, but also adds a new element to these cards – Harvester and Fable become discard outlets for your payoff creature that also dig for your reanimation effect.
The beauty of this reanimation twist is that The Cruelty of Gix and Junji, the Midnight Sky are strong midrange cards in their own right, even in the face of the graveyard hate everyone is forced to bring now. You may still get stuck with a useless Titan of Industry, but you have enough red rummaging effects woven into the deck that this is a minor concern.
Reanimator rarely appears as a competitive strategy in Standard. Here, we have two very different Reanimator decks trying to fill the same space.
White isn’t usually associated with reanimation, but it ticks every box in this deck: a flexible discard outlet (that also does five other things, like most cards these days) in The Restoration of Eiganjo, an impressive and castable creature in Sanctuary Warden, and a unique reanimation spell in Invoke Justice that brings back one threat and creates more via its +1/+1 counter distribution.
Conveniently, every deck has access to one of the best graveyard hosers of all time in Unlicensed Hearse. Both Hearse and the strategies it targets are multidimensional; you aren’t disabling their entire deck with Leyline of the Void before the first game action is taken here.
If you’re addicted to attacking, there’s exactly one deck in this entire batch of results that may pique your interest:
- 3 Reckless Stormseeker
- 3 Halana and Alena, Partners
- 2 Ascendant Packleader
- 3 Kodama of the West Tree
- 4 Thundering Raiju
- 3 Rabbit Battery
- 4 Gala Greeters
- 3 Shivan Devastator
- 4 Quirion Beastcaller
I’ve lost a lot to Hamuda, and lost very quickly. There are few better places to look for inspiration for aggro decks. Gruul Modified is a highly synergistic deck that can build a formidable battlefield, but it exists in a format that’s hostile to creature decks without even trying. If the midrange decks are preoccupied with going bigger than each other, you can theoretically exploit that by going under them, but you still have to fight through the Sheoldreds and Meathook Massacres that most of the format is playing.
Galvanic Iteration plus Big Score (and Unexpected Windfall previously) went from the scourge of Standard for months to an underdog hoping to shake things up. Without Goldspan Dragon and some of the glue cards that just rotated out, it’s not clear what you’re meant to do with this abundance of cards and mana anymore, but these lists show off some ideas. It would be oddly appropriate if the best payoff was just copying Invoke Despair a bunch of times.
If you like these midrange slugfests, current Standard is the perfect format for you – otherwise, this oddly compressed release schedule has Brothers’ War promising possible salvation in just a few months.