Theros has finally hit the streets and next week will be put to the test at the Pro Tour in Dublin. I am not playing in this tournament, although I will be playing in the next one in Valencia.
I still want to make an impact though. In the past, I’ve found that working on a deck that shows up and succeeds at the Pro Tour is just as satisfying to see in the hands of another player. At the same time, seeing something I worked on fail in another’s hands is even more painful than seeing it fail in my own. So I am very careful about what I endorse for the Pro Tour.
I would love to say that I have a deck I would confidently play at the Pro Tour, but that’s not the case. Maybe before the end of the week. I do have a deck that I had high hopes for, but it hasn’t really panned out that way.
Today I am going to write about that deck anyway. While I can’t recommend it for the Pro Tour, I can strongly recommend it for Friday Night Magic. It’s an affordable deck that looks unlike and plays unlike anything out there. It is grindy and combo-y and sweet. It is slow, but inherently powerful.
That enough has me excited. Nothing else out there has really caught my eye. I’ve seen good decks, sure, but cards like Rakdos Cackler and Loxodon Smiter are so powerful and aggressively costed that the format is a bit oppressive to constructing janky decks. I look for decks that give me the “what the hell does this deck do?” moment, and there isn’t a lot of that out there in Standard right now. I am trying to fill that void.
Breaking Gray Merchant
Around 4 a.m. Thursday night, I got a message from my friend Charles Wong. He wanted to get Gray Merchant of Asphodel banned. "Good luck with that," I said. I mean, the card is just not very powerful. It’s a small-bodied common. But I was intrigued.
He wanted to recur it. Okay, we’re going to have to sacrifice it somehow. Well, Cartel Aristocrat is good.
All right, so we’re sacrificing things and we care about black devotion. Dark Prophecy seems awesome here. It could let us churn through our deck, and Gray Merchant can fuel our life conversion.
So we’re sacrificing creatures with Cartel Aristocrat. Xathrid Necromancer is awesome here. It can give us a lot of bodies to convert into cards and Zombies.
We could use an early game. We could play removal, but removal doesn’t complement our own synergies very well. What if we played early Human creatures that trade off? If they trade off they could turn into cards and Zombies. They could move us towards our end game while keeping us alive.
So we’ve got a lot of Humans, card draw, sacrifice, and drain, but we have no way to return our guys. We’ve got options. Whip of Erebos is an attractive one—the lifelink ability can keep us alive, the devotion bonus is nice, and the recursion ability is killer with Gray Merchant.
I do notice we have 12 2-drop Humans at this point. What if we played Immortal Servitude? It can be used to get back a bunch of dinky Humans to turn into more cards and Zombies. Or, if we get enough mana it can return Gray Merchants… returning two of those guys should be curtains.
Right now we only have one sacrifice outlet and we could use another. What about Undercity Informer? It’s a Human, and it also has a milling effect. It can help us turn our Humans into Zombies and cards while filling our graveyard up. Any creature we turn over can potentially be returned with Immortal Servitude and Whip of Erebos.
We have a deck!
Black Magic Weaknesses
I am a big fan of this deck, but it does have weaknesses, and I am going to address those first. That way if you play this deck you won’t be surprised when you lose in a certain way. That should save a bit of stress, as some of the losses look like bad luck, but are really just a bi-product of how this deck is built.
The deck can flood or screw. It wants to hit its fifth land drop. It needs to. If it never casts Gray Merchant of Asphodel it can be hard to win. It can also be hard to win if we never get to cast Immortal Servitude. That makes for 8 cards that we want to cast on curve at 5+ mana. We need to play a lot of lands. I’ve been playing 26. With 26 we still miss our fifth land a lot and sometimes we flood out. When we flood out, our cards are individually weak and it’s pretty hard to win.
Most decks in Standard have very little control over how many lands they can draw—they simply play the number of lands they need and hope for the best. This deck is no different. This deck is different in that it wants to draw 5 or 6 lands, and sometimes more, but not too many. That’s pretty specific. A red deck might function on 2-5 lands, but this deck functions on 5-7 mostly. That’s a narrow window, and there will be games stuck on 2, 3, 4, or games with 10 lands. It’s not bad luck when it happens. Other decks can avoid it to an extent. However, flood and screw are a part of Magic, and none of the decks right now have too much control.
This deck is slow. We have 7 enters-the-battlefield-tapped lands (and we could go to 8). We have nothing that costs 1 mana. So if the opponent goes turn 1 Rakdos Cackler into Burning Tree-Emissary into Firefist Striker we might just be dead on the spot. Now, this doesn’t mean our mono-red matchup is automatically bad, but it will also sometimes result in a loss.
This deck has trouble removing flying creatures. Instead of conventional removal we are running High Priest of Penance and Thrill-Kill Assassin, which fuel the engine of the deck. However, if the opponent flies over, our only hope is to race and gain life with the Whip or Merchant. This sometimes works, but sometimes doesn’t. Chandra's Phoenix, Stormbreath Dragon, and Archangel of Thune can all close a game if they catch us in the wrong position.
This deck is semi-vulnerable to enchantment removal and counterspells. Without Dark Prophecy, our deck often isn’t that impressive. Without resolving key spells our deck often isn’t that impressive. Now, we don’t lose on the spot to cards like Detention Sphere and Dissolve, but when used in combination with other cards that slow the game down, things can get tough. Our ability to beat control is all in our ability to grind. No Dark Prophecy makes the grind that much harder.
Black Magic Card Choices
By this point I know a lot of readers have already skipped ahead to the comments asking why I’m not playing X card without suggesting a cut, Y. See, I understand that a card like Mogis’s Marauders or Rescue from the Underworld would be sweet, but we can’t even imagine those cards in context without removing another card from the equation.
So, if you want to suggest a card to improve this deck, you will have to identify cards to cut. As is, despite the deck’s weaknesses, no card really stands out. We are an engine, after all, and every card plays its role. However, the deck can definitely be improved. Just something to think about.
You can see that I am playing 3 Whip of Erebos. I know the card is legendary. It is also sometimes too slow and clunky. Othertimes it is our best card. The lifelink ability can be extremely relevant when it increases the length of the game. That comes up often. The recursion ability is also important as a finisher with the Gray Merchant.
Sin Collector seems like it should be in the main. It could be. If we fit it in we’d be looking at cutting maybe the 3rd Whip, the 4th Immortal Servitude, or a combination of Undercity Informer and Thrill-Kill Assassin. Thrill-Kill is important in keeping our curve down, and Undercity Informer is important as a sacrifice outlet. For those reasons I am keeping Sin Collector in the board for now. It’s too often a brick.
I am running 26 lands. You could try to run less if you want, but I bet you’ll find yourself missing land drops more often than you can afford. I know it’s a lot, especially for a deck with 12 2-drops, but I would run 27 before 25.
I am also running both Mutavault and Nykthos. I’d like to run more of each, but we want to be able to cast Dark Prophecy, so I am only running 3 total right now. Nykthos has won games purely off the extra mana. There are also games that it has done nothing. There have been games where Mutavault has done tremendous work as an extra Human. I’ve found myself leaning more toward Mutavault.
Black Magic Sideboarding
Sideboarding with a deck like this is always difficult, as we want tools to answer our opponent’s threats and disruption but we also don’t want to dilute our actual strategy. Over-sideboarding has killed many a mage, and this is a deck with which less is usually more.
My first thought is that I would like 1-mana plays versus the aggressive red and white decks. The best 1-mana stopper to early threats I’ve found is Festering Newt. It also has the benefit of being a creature, which at times means a card from Dark Prophecy.
3 Festering Newt
2 Pharika’s Cure
2 Doom Blade
It would be nice to have a removal spell that kills big black creatures, and specifically Blood Baron of Vizkopa. While that card has protection from most of our cards, it’s very beatable as just a 4/4 lifelinker. Still, it would be nice to have at least 1 way to kill it.
1 Devour Flesh
We need a spell to kill blue planeswalkers. We’re not very good at attacking and a card like Jace can stymie us for a while. Hero’s Downfall is a nice one.
1 Hero’s Downfall
So far we have 9 removal spells. That’s a lot. However, each of these is for a different situation. We might only bring in 2 at a time, as we determine which specific threats we want to answer.
3 Sin Collector
Finally we have one card left. I decided I wanted another big threat. Against control decks we have time for more powerful plays, and against aggro decks we might dilute our own strategy to the point where an Obzedat would be a nice finisher.
1 Obzedat, Ghost Council
There are a lot of options in the sideboard. Lifebane Zombie can be great as well, although it is not a Human.
Black Magic Strengths
Honestly, the main strength of this deck is how differently it plays. I for one think being different for the sake of being different is productive, as it stretches my thinking and shows me the world from new perspectives. This deck is a nice alternative. It is a slow churning engine that turns Humans to Zombies, life to cards, cards and Zombies to life. It is the strange epitome of Black Magic.
The deck is also well positioned against middling midrange creatures and kill-everything decks. Dark Prophecy can be unbeatable for strategies like that—if they can’t remove it from the board or kill us quickly we can gum up the board and get our engine going.
Overall, I love the deck. It’s flavorful and powerful. It’s a little weak for something like the Pro Tour, but that’s okay. I recommend it for Friday Night Magic for sure. If you play it, and have a lot of fun, let me know! I bet you will!
Questions! Comments! Think there’s something I forgot?!