With the full set of Theros Beyond Death revealed, the brewing begins. I enjoy preview season and use it to narrow my deck choices down to a select few. Once the full set has been released, it’s time to flesh out those ideas into decks that can take on the new format. With the amount of excitement I have for a new era of Esper Hero, I must make room for the other sweet decks that the new set has created.
Azorius Control gets close to matching the power boost that Esper Hero has received with Theros Beyond Death. Although Esper Hero gains multiple cards that fill the void left by some painful rotations, Azorius Control gets one heck of a win condition that excites any lover of control.
It took a few looks to understand the beauty of this Sphinx, but I’m officially there. The first thing I noticed about Dream Trawler was the mana cost, which worried me. Luckily, every word that followed perfectly justified the expensive cost attached: flying, lifelink, respectable power and toughness, card advantage, and the ability to gain hexproof. That final ability is the most important of them all and I am ecstatic to see Prognostic Sphinx’s long-lost sibling finally arrive. Control has been missing a strong win condition that can finish games quickly and that will no longer be the case. The best part is that Dream Trawler fits into Esper Hero as well. The competition is Bolas’s Citadel and I think my legendary artifact may lose this war.
Dream Trawler isn’t more broken than Bolas’s Citadel, and it isn’t more synergistic, but there are game states where the six-drop must produce a presence on the battlefield. Very often in Esper Hero, Bolas’s Citadel does most of its damage on Turn 7. This is because of the abundance of land that prevents the flow of cards off the top of the library. When Bolas’s Citadel is used on Turn 7, it gives the wielder much more control on avoiding duds, either with a Fabled Passage off the top or a Temple. This multicolor Sphinx from the heavens will always have a giant presence on the battlefield without much variance to hold it back.
That said, I still think Bolas’s Citadel is one of the most broken cards in the current Standard. Nothing has changed that fact with Theros Beyond Death because this is bigger than the metagame. Some cards are on higher tiers than others in terms of power potential, so Bolas’s Citadel should have a home, even if it’s not with the Hero of Precinct One. What better spot to have it in than a deck that has no issue producing black mana and permanents?
- 4 Gray Merchant of Asphodel
- 3 Dread Presence
- 4 Yarok's Fenlurker
- 4 Knight of the Ebon Legion
- 4 Murderous Rider
- 3 Ayara, First of Locthwain
- 2 Tymaret, Chosen from Death
- 4 Nightmare Shepherd
Bolas’s Citadel has been an afterthought for too long in Standard and I have even seen evidence of it being snubbed by Mono-Black Devotion. Most lists I have seen have one copy floating around the maindeck and that is an insult to a card that could propel a deck like this to the top. The issues Mono-Black Aggro had last season was the lack of reach and weakness to flood. With the abundance of new additions to black from Theros Beyond Death, neither of those flaws will persist.
Castle Locthwain has been around for a bit and assisted Mono-Black Aggro players in the card advantage department valiantly. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to deal with the raw power and synergy of its competitors. Taking off a chunk of time to tap out essentially, draw a card, and hope it could impact the battlefield with the limited resources left was foolhardy. There needed to be an additional avenue for a deck like this to be successful and that is Bolas’s Citadel.
Mono-Black Aggro didn’t want a six-drop legendary artifact to muck up business. Matter of fact, the life loss alone is enough to scare anyone off such an investment. The list I provided may have some aggressive elements in it, but it is very happy to go to the late-game with anyone, even a control opponent. Cards like Gray Merchant of Asphodel will punish opponents in the late-game with extensive reach, fueled by a card like Bolas’s Citadel. Tossing cards off the top of the library is fun until the life total hits red, but the return of devotion-based lifegain is a godsend to a deck like the one you see before you. There are even a few elements of life gain left over from previous sets that join the team to make Bolas’s Citadel’s life loss negligible.
Ayara, First of Locthwain is the most obvious inclusion for any Mono-Black Devotion deck, costing triple black and producing some of that beautiful lifegain I crave. Draining with each creature that enters the battlefield, Ayara, First of Locthwain incentivizes casting cheap creatures beforehand to produce pressure and eventually get turned in for cards later. Turning each creature into a potential cantrip allows for this version of Mono-Black Devotion to hit the requisite land drops for the late-game goal centered on Bolas’s Citadel. One of the key challenges of a card like that is getting to the sixth land, which is a breeze in a deck like this.
A card that did not receive any play that is quite good in Mono-Black Devotion is Dread Presence. The amount of Swamps played in this deck makes Dread Presence an all-star and finally provides the shell that this card deserves. After using it a bit, it feels like Tireless Tracker with some upside through choice.
The reason why it was never played before is that it belongs in a midrange deck, which Mono-Black Devotion is. Even though there are a few early-game creatures, this deck is really set up for the grind of many turns. The aggressive starts that can put an opponent on the ropes will be far and few between, mainly due to the general weakness of the creatures on Turn 1 and Turn 2. They all serve a purpose, and this list has a heavy focus on synergy over brute strength.
The removal package in Mono-Black Devotion was the most exciting piece to try out. Murderous Rider has not received the respect it deserves, and I blame Witch’s Oven for that snub. It is not economically viable to spend three mana to try to remove something that prevents the second half from being cast. In this deck, it’s likely that casting the Murderous Rider as a creature right off the bat is going to be the correct move. It has very little competition in the three-drop category and the double black cost continues to fuel that devotion for the flagship creature to arrive and drain. If the threats aren’t looming and the land drops are flowing, this deck can curve out in a punishing way.
The other two removal spells are from Theros Beyond Death and fit perfectly into this archetype. Drag to the Underworld is better than Doom Blade in Mono-Black Devotion, taking out any creature for the low cost of two mana. It will be rare for it to cost more than that and helps keep mana freed up in order to cast two spells in one turn. Aggressive and midrange decks yearn for lean removal, which defines Drag to the Underworld perfectly.
Erebos’s Intervention is my favorite removal spell in Standard, which helps it make its way into Mono-Black Devotion. I wrote about the power of it last week in much more detail, but it does have a slightly different application in Mono-Black Devotion. Due to it being a bit mana-intensive and not very good with Bolas’s Citadel, there are only two copies of the card here. It is still a requirement for any black deck moving forward because of the existence of indestructible creatures that require some way to answer it.
Eat to Extinction is another card I wrote about in that article and is a suitable replacement for those who aren’t into the mana sink as much. I think it is close, but Erebos’s Intervention has too much upside in the late-game to ignore. Taking yourself from a low life total to near-starting is not out of the realm of possibility, making the gamble worth it in my opinion. This series of events would turn on Bolas’s Citadel, causing an unwinnable game to flip immediately.
The lifegain provided by Dread Presence; Ayara, First of Locthwain; Gray Merchant of Asphodel; Murderous Rider; and Erebos’s Intervention maximizes the potential of game-breaking play with Bolas’s Citadel. There is even an off chance that Tymaret, Chosen from Death tosses you a few life points back in the bucket, but that creature joins the team solely for its mana cost. I was on the fence about this one and I’m still not convinced. There isn’t the shell available for Priest of Forgotten Gods due to the midrange build of this deck. Gutterbones, Foulmire Knight, and other early-drops must join the team to really maximize its power. There is a world where Mono-Black Devotion would need to get more aggressive to make room for it, but at this point the midrange build is more powerful.
The rest of the cards in this deck have very specific roles or are too powerful to leave out. Knight of the Ebon Legion has aggro written all over it; however, it is too good to not play. There are games where it can completely take over as a one-drop putting on pressure or as a late-game behemoth that can’t be taken down in combat. Cheap creatures synergize with Ayara, First of Locthwain as discussed earlier, but they are also a pleasant sight when Bolas’s Citadel is on the battlefield. Each bit of life one of these Vampires takes from the opponent gets Gray Merchant of Asphodel closer to landing the finishing blow.
Yarok’s Fenlurker is the perfect example of a creature included for mana cost and buying time. Forcing discard is a nice annoyance that it provides, helping disrupt the opponent’s gameplan upon arrival. Hitting a land they may need or forcing a spell out is a good way to stretch out the game. I am not very excited about either two-drop in the deck, but so far each has over-performed.
Since each creature can be recycled by Ayara, First of Locthwain later in the game, I haven’t been too picky on the raw power level of each presented option. The most powerful threat that buys time and immediately earned a spot on the team is Nightmare Shepherd.
Nightmare Shepherd is a vicious new flyer from Theros Beyond Death that turns each of your fallen comrades into a reborn Nightmare. Bring back creatures with abilities that cause headaches to the opponent, trigger them again, and continue to pressure while buying time for the late-game bombs. Not only does the ability of Nightmare Shepherd make it an absolute stud, it’s a 4/4 flyer on its own. That is a giant threat with evasion that can kill easily by itself. Since Nightmare Shepherd is not legendary, it’s an automatic four-of in Mono-Black Devotion, providing that necessary recursion without having to play subpar cards. The only assistance it receives is from Witch’s Cottage and that’s only because of the low downside of having a couple floating around.
Altogether, this Mono-Black Devotion list can pack a punch. I’m excited to continue to tune and test this, maybe even wield it over true control at my next event. If any card could force me to do that, it would be Bolas’s Citadel.