Mono-Blue Devotion

Options Analysis

 

 

 

November 2013

Principal Contributor:
Adam Barnello

ChannelFireball.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Table of Contents

1. Conclusions
2. Background
3. Study Assumptions
4. Analysis
5. Study Results
6. Discussion of Results
7. Appendix A - Decklists

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1) Conclusions

Given the recent metagame shift toward a large presence of Mono-Black Devotion and Esper Control, Mono-Blue Devotion cannot be its most successful as a mono-colored deck. Adaptation must occur. Of the four possible color splashes, the most promising alternative to maintaining mono-colored is blue/black.

2) Background

On October 13, 2013, three copies of Mono-Blue Devotion made the Top 8 of Pro Tour Theros in Dublin, Ireland. While the lists varied between the teams who chose the deck, the overall strategy and shell were the same. The deck carried two pilots, with nearly identical builds, to the finals, where they met in a mirror match, with Jeremy Dezani ultimately claiming the victory.

The basic structure of the deck revolves around a low curve, including eight 1-drop creatures, along with a heavy blue commitment to enable [card]Thassa, God of the Sea[/card] and to maximize the potential of [card]Master of Waves[/card]. The deck often includes copies of [card]Jace, Architect of Thought[/card] and [card]Bident of Thassa[/card] to recoup card advantage and capitalize on the small, evasive creatures from the early game.

Just a week after the Pro Tour, another devotion deck rose to dominance. In the hands of the StarCityGames (SCG) team from Roanoke, Virginia, Mono-Black Devotion took three slots in the Top 8 of Grand Prix Louisville on October 20, 2013. This time, the mirror match was in the quarterfinals, as Brian Braun-Duin defeated Brad Nelson, and then two additional opponents before claiming the trophy. Brian ran back the deck the following week in the Standard portion of the SCG Invitational, and again made the Top 8, this time losing in the penultimate elimination round.

Mono-Black Devotion, unlike its blue cousin, is a control deck, or possibly a midrange deck. It combines the card advantage from [card]Underworld Connections[/card] and [card]Erebos, God of the Dead[/card] with the format’s best removal suite of [card]Doom Blade[/card], [card]Ultimate Price[/card], [card]Devour Flesh[/card], and [card]Hero’s Downfall[/card]. It is said to be the “best [card]Thoughtseize[/card] deck in the format.” The threat base is made up of [card]Nightveil Specter[/card], [card]Gray Merchant of Asphodel[/card], and [card]Desecration Demon[/card]—a formidable threat that decks like Mono-Blue Devotion have a difficult time dealing with.

Meanwhile, in the SCG Open series running alongside the Invitational, Harry Corvese and Jonathan Cheng were battling another mirror match in the finals—this time, with Esper Control. As the only control deck that made the elimination rounds of Pro Tour Theros (in the hands of noted control master Guillaume Wafo-Tapa), it was predictable that other players interested in playing control would adopt variants of Guillaume’s list.

Esper Control is one of the few remaining [card]Sphinx's Revelation[/card] decks in Standard. It uses cheap and efficient removal spells to slow the game down to a point where its superior card quality (cards like [card]Jace, Architect of Thought[/card], [card]Elspeth, Sun's Champion[/card], [card]Aetherling[/card], and the aforementioned [card]Sphinx's Revelation[/card]) can take over the game. It gleans a massive advantage by running the full suite of Theros Temples to smooth out its draws and ensure it has the right answers at the right time.

3) Study Assumptions

For the purposes of the study, we will assume the following:

a) Mono-Blue Devotion has an unfavorable matchup with both Mono-Black Devotion and Esper Control. This is supported by various discussions of all three decks by the proponents of said lists, and by empirical data collection. While it is possible for any deck to have a poor draw and lose against a good matchup, overall percentages favor both of the opposing decks.
b) As this study’s intent is to determine the optimal configuration of Mono-Blue Devotion, the specific builds of each of the opposing decks are highly irrelevant. The intent is not to tune the builds of the opposition, but rather to take a broad approach to the matchup in general. As such, the winning lists from the Grand Prix and SCG Open will be used for Mono-Black and Esper, respectively.
c) An additional shift in the metagame has occurred over the course of the last week or so, as a result of the success of Mono-Black and Esper. Aggressive red-based strategies gained a foothold in Standard, since both Mono-Black and Esper have a difficult time dealing with hyper-aggressive decks when they are tuned to defeat each other and the mirror. Because Mono-Blue Devotion has a positive matchup with red-based aggro, it will not be included in the study, as it has a minimal impact on the results. However, a sensitivity will be studied to ensure the final results do not appreciably detract from the red-based aggro matchup.

4) Analysis

There are five possible configurations for Mono-Blue Devotion, each of which will be assessed with regard to its impact on the Mono-Black and Esper matchups. These five configurations are:

1) Mono-blue (no splash)
2) Blue/white
3) Blue/black
4) Blue/red
5) Blue/green

For each of the options above (exception: 1), we’ll investigate three aspects.
a) Viability of mana base
b) Potential inclusions of note against Mono-B
c) Potential inclusions of note against Esper

5) Study Results

5.1) Mono-blue

The mono-blue version of the deck is the baseline version, and represents the “control” in the experiment. As the most established version, it has the most data to refer to and has established matchups (which are outlined in the study assumptions). There are variations available to the deck, such as additional copies of [card]Rapid Hybridization[/card] or Jace, the inclusion of [card]Disperse[/card], or the number of counterspells one could run in the sideboard. Slanting the deck in a more controlling direction can give you more interaction with the creatures from Mono-B, but comes at the cost of dead cards versus control, and vise-versa. The intent of this study is to determine if there are answers to both decks in a broader spectrum of the color wheel, and as such, it cannot be expected we will find a solution within the parameters of mono-blue.

The major aspect mono-blue has in its favor, when compared to the other possible configurations, is mana consistency. Because there are such stringent mana requirements on the deck (which often wants UUU on turn 3 in a deck running multiple colorless sources), it can be a lot to ask to run a mana base that does not consistently play an untapped colored mana source each turn. Running basic Island over a Temple or Ravnica dual can be a boon, especially when facing an aggressive deck. One of the ways the mono-blue deck can win against black in the current configuration is by curving out and being aggressive when the black deck stumbles, so removing this consistency does come at a cost.

5.2) Blue/white

A) All splash options have access to [card]Shimmering Grotto[/card], [card]Unknown Shores[/card], [card]Transguild Promenade[/card], and [card]Thespian's Stage[/card] as potential mana fixers. These lands are considered less than optimal for a variety of reasons tangential to this study. Additionally, producers of non-blue mana allow you the added benefit of being more capable of casting spells from your opponent’s deck that are exiled with [card]Nightveil Specter[/card]’s ability.

Blue/white has access to [card]Azorious Guildgate[/card] and [card]Hallowed Fountain[/card] for dual lands that fix mana. Of note, while the ability to play [card]Nightveil Specter[/card] or [card]Frostburn Weird[/card] on time is hampered by choosing to run Basic Plains, the nature of the hybrid cost of Judge’s Familiar allows it to be cast on turn one via Plains or Island alike.

B) The Mono-Black deck attacks the Mono-Blue deck through two distinct avenues—removal and creatures that are difficult to remove. As such, the blue deck should be focusing on those spells that are best capable of countering those efforts.

White allows for the following removal options:
• [card]Detention Sphere[/card]
• [card]Azorious Charm[/card]
• [card]Supreme Verdict[/card]
• [card]Celestial Flare[/card]
• [card]Last Breath[/card]
• [card]Banisher Priest[/card]
• [card]Renounce the Guilds[/card]
• [card]Pacifism[/card]

Of these options, [card]Detention Sphere[/card] is the most attractive, as it answers the broadest variety of threats available to the mono-black deck. Whether it comes in the form of a [card]Desecration Demon[/card], an Erebos, an [card]Underworld Connections[/card] or a horde of [card]Pack Rat[/card]s, Detention Sphere answers all. Behind Detention Sphere is [card]Pacifism[/card] and [card]Last Breath[/card], with the temporary solutions and the double-colored mana spells being of less interest.

As protection for your creatures, White gives access to:
• [card]Gods Willing[/card]
• [card]Rootborn Defenses[/card]

Gods Willing is an interesting option to account for spot removal protection, though it does require you to move your creatures up the curve to protect them. [card]Rootborn Defenses[/card] plays similarly in this matchup, though it does protect more than one creature at a time. It also has the potential to populate an Elemental token generated by [card]Master of Waves[/card], though it is considered a minimal benefit for the purposes of the study and does not appreciably factor into the decision process.

C) Like the mono-black deck, the Esper control deck has a plethora of removal spells to attack the Mono-Blue threat base. It also has access to [card]Supreme Verdict[/card] to punish over-commitment to the board, and capitalizes on a slower game with [card]Sphinx's Revelation[/card].

Protecting your creatures is important against this deck as well, as the removal package from Mono-Black is present. Additionally, [card]Supreme Verdict[/card] means you must play your threats more conservatively.
• [card]Gods Willing[/card]
• [card]Rootborn Defenses[/card]
• [card]Glare of Heresy[/card]
• [card]Indestructibility[/card]
• [card]Heliod, God of the Sun[/card]

Here, [card]Rootborn Defenses[/card] is the most powerful choice, capable of protecting your threats from Supreme Verdict. While Gods Willing still has the capability of protecting from 1-for-1 removal, including Detention Sphere, the ability to blank one of Esper’s best cards against you pulls Rootborn ahead. [card]Glare of Heresy[/card] is a worthwhile consideration as it allows you to remove a Detention Sphere, potentially one exiling a Thassa or Master of Waves, or alternatively can dispatch an [card elspeth, sun's champion]Elspeth[/card] for two mana. The remaining options are less enticing.

Defeating the Esper deck’s card advantage is a more difficult prospect, though it can be possible. White does not bring a considerable package to bear on that front, though it does allow you to run Sphinx’s Revelations of your own.

5.3) Blue/black

A) Splashing black gives you access to three “dual lands”—[card]Temple of Deceit[/card], [card]Watery Grave[/card], and [card]Dimir Guildgate[/card]. While two of the three dual lands do enter the battlefield tapped, the Temple has a significant upside in comparison to the Guildgate, and as such this color combination should be considered more desirable due to the more consistent mana and benefit of access to the scry land. Of note, basic Swamp allows you to stay on-target for a turn 3 [card]Nightveil Specter[/card], though it does hinder your ability to cast a [card]Frostburn Weird[/card] or [card]Judge's Familiar[/card] on-curve.

B) Removal spells relevant to the Mono-Black deck include:
• [card]Ultimate Price[/card]
• [card]Devour Flesh[/card]
• [card]Hero's Downfall[/card]
• [card]Far // Away[/card]
• [card]Dimir Charm[/card]
• [card]Dark Betrayal[/card]
• [card]Warped Physique[/card]
• [card]Thoughtseize[/card]
• [card]Deathgaze Cockatrice[/card]
• [card]Death's Approach[/card]
• [card]Grisly Spectacle[/card]
• [card]Killing Glare[/card]
• [card]Lash of the Whip[/card]
• [card]Launch Party[/card]
• [card]Shipwreck Singer[/card]
• [card]Slum Reaper[/card]

While many of these options are a stretch, there are a few that show promise. In particular, [card]Ultimate Price[/card], [card]Devour Flesh[/card], and [card]Thoughtseize[/card] all present reasonable ways to deal with specific threats from the black deck, though [card]Devour Flesh[/card] has a particularly difficult time in dealing with the threat you want dead—especially against a deck that runs [card]Pack Rat[/card] and [card]Mutavault[/card]. Far // Away falls into the same issue as [card]Devour Flesh[/card], and has a prohibitively expensive cost. Many of the other options are either too expensive, too narrow, or require too high a dedication to black mana.

Protection from removal:

• [card]Thoughtseize[/card]
• [card]Duress[/card]
• [card]Boon of Erebos[/card]

Being proactive seems to be the more reasonable option here, rather than reacting to removal. By stripping the spells out of the opponent’s hand, you make it more difficult for them to trade 1-for-1 with your creatures, and eventually you may be able to stick a threat.

C) Like against the mono-black deck, [card]Thoughtseize[/card] and [card]Duress[/card] are your best black options for protecting your threats from removal. Additionally, these cards double as avenues to contain the Esper deck’s ability to create card advantage. As the deck is largely comprised of non-creatures, Thoughtseize and Duress are at their absolute best against the Esper control opponent, and are in fact some of the best possible cards to have access to in the matchup. These spells represent a significant pull in favor of the black splash, because of their effectiveness in this matchup.

In addition, black gives you access to [card]Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver[/card]. While not at its most effective in a deck that largely attempts to win via the attack step, access to a divergent path to victory such as a powerful planeswalker can help to divert resources of the control player at critical moments. Because Ashiok is a permanent that does not die to [card]Supreme Verdict[/card] (much like Thassa), and because control has a difficult time dealing with planeswalkers outside of the attack step, this can be a powerful alternate win condition out of the sideboard.

5.4) Blue/red

A) Like white, red has two dual lands for mana fixing—[card]Izzet Guildgate[/card] and [card]Steam Vents[/card]. Were you to choose to run a basic Mountain, it would allow you to cast [card]Frostburn Weird[/card] on-curve, but would inhibit the ability to do the same with [card]Judge's Familiar[/card] or [card]Nightveil Specter[/card].

B) Red offers little in the way of relevant removal for black’s creatures, or for the ability to protect your own. The removal spells red does have available:
• [card]Mizzium Mortars[/card]
• [card]Anger of the Gods[/card]
• [card]Lightning Strike[/card]
• [card]Izzet Charm[/card]
• [card]Turn // Burn[/card]
• [card]Volcanic Geyser[/card]
• [card]Chandra, Pyromaster[/card]

Interestingly, Chandra, Pyromaster is likely the most effective of this group, enabling the U/R deck to “remove” blockers from combat and push past a Gray Merchant or [card]Desecration Demon[/card]. The ability to force through a [card]Nightveil Specter[/card] is effective, as it represents one of the more significant sources of card advantage in the deck. Combining the Specter with Nykthos often allows you to use the removal spells of the mono-black deck against them, which can be a devastating swing.

C) As there are few (if any) creatures to remove against Esper, the removal that red does present is largely irrelevant. What red does provide to the U/R deck is reach. Access to burn allows the U/R deck to overload the board without fear, as even after a Supreme Verdict hits you can unload a stream of direct damage to close out the game. This also has applications against [card]Sphinx's Revelation[/card], as you can often race the Esper player’s ability to pull away when they hit 6+ mana. Sources of reach in red:

• [card]Lightning Strike[/card]
• [card]Annihilating Fire[/card]
• [card]Blast of Genius[/card]
• [card]Burning Earth[/card]
• [card]Mindsparker[/card]
• [card]Purphoros, God of the Forge[/card]
• [card]Ral Zarek[/card]
• [card]Skullcrack[/card]
• [card]Volcanic Geyser[/card]

The most promising of this group are [card]Lightning Strike[/card], based solely on efficiency; [card]Burning Earth[/card], though it does damage you, the life loss is negligible against a control deck that can’t capitalize on the damage; and [card]Skullcrack[/card], for its applications against Sphinx's Revelation. Interestingly, Purphoros is the best non-blue God in the deck, as its static ability works incredibly well in a deck full of creatures. Should you resolve a Master of Waves, a Purphoros in play can potentially win the game on the spot.

For the same reasons that Ashiok is excellent against Esper in the black splash, [card]Ral Zarek[/card] presents some interesting applications against the control player. Untapping a Nykthos is incredibly powerful, and having a source of damage that isn’t creature based can be strong as well. The “ultimate” ability of Ral Zarek is likely to win the game, given at least one won coin flip.

Though the burn spells outlined above are in part a way of combating the card advantage of the Esper deck, there are a few other cards of note:
• [card]Izzet Charm[/card]
• [card]Counterflux[/card]
• [card]Catch // Release[/card]
• [card]Steam Augury[/card]
• [card]Thoughtflare[/card]

Each of these spells is either an efficient counterspell that access to red allows you to play, a draw spell that recoups some card advantage from the Esper deck, or (in the case of Catch // Release) allows you to catch the control player off guard and capitalize on one of their permanents.

5.5) Blue/green

A) Like the black splash, green gives you access to a third dual land in [card]Temple of Mystery[/card]. All of the benefits described by the U/B Temple apply equally to the U/G land. Of note, basic Forest provides no additional benefit in the deck, and is effectively a colorless land for the purposes of all blue spells in the deck.

B) Green, a color not known for its removal, actually does have a few spells of note when facing the mono-black deck:
• [card]Plummet[/card]
• [card]Aerial Predation[/card]
• [card]Deadly Recluse[/card]
• [card]Simic Charm[/card]

• [card]Sylvan Primordial[/card]
• [card]Artisan's Sorrow[/card]
• [card]Naturalize[/card]
• [card]Bramblecrush[/card]
• [card]Fade into Antiquity[/card]

The second set of spells is much narrower than the first, though they do have applications against cards like [card]Underworld Connections[/card] or [card]Whip of Erebos[/card].

As for protection from removal, green offers a wide array of potential options:
• [card]Trollhide[/card]
• [card]Mending Touch[/card]
• [card]Alpha Authority[/card]
• [card]Ranger's Guile[/card]
• [card]Simic Charm[/card]
• [card]Witchstalker[/card]

Simic Charm, represented in both lists, seems to have the flexibility needed to be adaptable in each situation. Ranger’s Guile is an excellent option for saving a threat from spot removal, while boosting its base stats simultaneously.

C) When comparing the removal package of Esper to that of Mono-Black, three cards stand out from the list outlined above:

[draft]Simic Charm
Mending Touch
Ranger's Guile[/draft]

Simic Charm makes this list due to the flexibility of being a combat trick when you need one. In some sense, it works as a similar card to Lightning Strike, though it also allows you to re-buy a Master of Waves that’s about to meet an untimely end. [card]Mending Touch[/card] allows a creature (possibly a [card]Nightveil Specter[/card] that allows your Thassa to be devoted) from a [card]Supreme Verdict[/card] for a single mana. [card]Ranger's Guile[/card] allows the same flexibility of acting as a weak combat trick, but saves a creature from spot removal including Detention Sphere for a turn.

In terms of card advantage, green does not inhibit the opponent from gaining advantage, but it can provide some assistance by creating its own.

[card]Fathom Mage[/card]
[card]Give // Take[/card]
[card]Urban Evolution[/card]
[card]Prime Speaker Zegana[/card]

Though Prime Speaker is ambitious, and each of the spells above have drawbacks, they can all represent a significant source of card advantage in the mid-game against control. Give // Take in particular represents an interesting option when combined with the four [card]Cloudfin Raptor[/card]s in the blue deck.

6) Discussion of Results

Each of the color splashes present a range of cards that can be useful and impactful to the matchups in question. Of the four options, two have more robust mana bases than the other. Basing upon the analysis from part (5), we can reach the following conclusions:

1) Mono-Blue cannot achieve the same level of previous success without adaptation. Two of the most prominent and successful decks in the current format have become so by preying on the blue deck. Therefore, the version of the deck without a splash is not optimal.
2) Of the four remaining alternatives, green presents the least interesting selection of cards to contribute to the problem matchups. While it does have one of the better options for mana, it does not contribute to that advantage in an appreciable way with positive cards against Mono-Black and Esper, in comparison to other options. Additionally, running any basic Forests are a direct detraction from your ability to cast spells.
3) Red does not provide a good base of spells against Mono-Black, though it does have options against Esper. Red is also one of the weaker colors in terms of mana selection.
4) Of the two remaining color combinations, white and black, they are of comparable stature in terms of removal, and white gains the edge in protection from removal. However, white has little to contribute to the Esper matchup, while the spells you want to bring to bear in the Mono-Black matchup are equally useful against Esper, and are in fact some of the best possible cards for that matchup across the board. Additionally, in the head-to-head matchup, the black splash has a more robust contribution to mana fixing, and allows you to capitalize on the spells from Mono-Black when connecting with a Nightveil Specter.

For these reasons, it is concluded that of the five possible combinations of colors in the Mono-Blue Devotion deck, blue-splashing-black is the best choice for the current Standard Metagame.

6) Appendix A – Deck Lists

7.1) Mono-Blue Devotion (Jeremy Dezani, PT Theros)

[deck]Main Deck
4 Cloudfin Raptor
4 Frostburn Weird
4 Judge's Familiar
4 Master of Waves
4 Nightveil Specter
2 Omenspeaker
4 Thassa, God of the Sea
4 Tidebinder Mage
2 Jace, Architect of Thought
1 Bident of Thassa
2 Cyclonic Rift
1 Disperse
21 Island
3 Mutavault
Sideboard
2 AEtherling
2 Jace, Architect of Thought
1 Mutavault
3 Negate
1 Pithing Needle
2 Ratchet Bomb
1 Triton Tactics
3 Wall of Frost[/deck]

7.2) Mono-Black Devotion (Brian Braun-Duin, GP Louisville)

[deck]Main Deck
4 Mutavault
19 Swamp
2 Temple of Deceit
4 Desecration Demon
1 Erebos, God of the Dead
4 Gray Merchant of Asphodel
4 Nightveil Specter
2 Pack Rat
2 Devour Flesh
2 Doom Blade
4 Hero's Downfall
4 Thoughtseize
2 Ultimate Price
4 Underworld Connections
2 Whip of Erebos
Sideboard
1 Dark Betrayal
2 Devour Flesh
2 Doom Blade
3 Duress
1 Erebos, God of the Dead
3 Lifebane Zombie
2 Pack Rat
1 Pithing Needle[/deck]

7.3) Esper Control (Harry Corvese, SCG Open Indy)

[deck]1 Aetherling
2 Elspeth, Sun's Champion
4 Jace, Architect of Thought
4 Island
3 Plains
4 Godless Shrine
4 Hallowed Fountain
4 Temple of Deceit
4 Temple of Silence
4 Watery Grave
4 Detention Sphere
4 Azorius Charm
3 Dissolve
3 Hero's Downfall
4 Sphinx's Revelation
1 Syncopate
1 Merciless Eviction
4 Supreme Verdict
2 Thoughtseize
Sideboard
3 Pithing Needle
1 Trading Post
1 Aetherling
2 Blood Baron of Vizkopa
4 Doom Blade
1 Gainsay
2 Negate
1 Thoughtseize[/deck]