The best way to understand how to play the white/black aggro deck is by analyzing specific matchups. The cards were chosen to solve particular problems, and by looking at the major matchups it becomes easier to see what their roles are, and how to adopt when you’re facing something unexpected and need to choose which tools to use out of your kit. First, a few words in general about sideboarding.
You almost always keep, in addition to the 25 lands:
Those sixteen creatures are Good Men™ and there’s little reason to mess with them. You’d only cut Desecration Demon against a deck that generates its own tokens. You are trimming Soldier of the Pantheon when you anticipate sweepers and his abilities don’t matter, and you’re sometimes trimming a Brimaz, King of Oreskos when you bring in Lifebane Zombie and are flooded for both cards to keep in and for three drops.
The most vulnerable five cards are the reach and protection: Herald of Torment, Ajani, Caller of the Pride and Ephemeral Shields. If the matchup doesn’t require reach, the three reach cards come out. If the free protection spell doesn’t work or isn’t relevant, that goes, especially when they know about it.
The removal is treated logically. You keep and bring in what is good, take out what is not. Against most creature decks you’re going to play all of it including the Banisher Priests.
These in-out plans are current defaults, but the exact cards you see matter a lot, and you shouldn’t be afraid to make different choices.
Reasonable additional cards to have available are a little more reach (either a second Herald of Torment or a third Ajani, Caller of the Pride) which would be maindeck, more removal spells (Ultimate Price or Doom Blade, presumably, for curve reasons) out of the sideboard, a second Deicide, a fourth Duress and a third Blood Baron of Vizkopa. You can see from the matchup discussions what cards are least important in the current sideboard.
Going forward, there are a number of plausible changes to the list. Ephemeral Shields is the obvious card to target for a cut, but it is actually quite good at catching you up on tempo and protecting key creatures, especially Brimaz, King of Oreskos, against aggressive decks. If you do cut it, it likely is because you’re willing to play a mass removal spell such as Drown in Sorrow in the sideboard instead; the problem is that Drown in Sorrow is exactly the wrong casting cost; you’d also need to be packing Doom Blades, so a lot of cards would need to get changed, likely also cutting a Banisher Priest or two. If red becomes a key deck in the format, chances are you suck it up and play the best card against them regardless of how silly it looks in general.
Additions to the deck that make sense would include:
You could pack the fourth Duress against control, after which it’s hard to pick up percentage there. Since you don’t naturally offer targets for Deicide, a single Erebos, God of the Dead might be where you go next, even though he’s very difficult to turn on.
You could have access to a third Blood Baron of Vizkopa, if you think it’s worth the sideboard space.
You could add a third and perhaps even a fourth copy of Desecration Demon since it’s very strong against Jund Planeswalkers which is suddenly more popular and the weakest of the major matchups. The issue is that he’s not a good partner for Ajani, Caller of the Pride or Herald of Torment, so if you went this route you’d likely give up Herald of Torment, although Ajani, Caller of the Pride is worth keeping anyway, you’d just sideboard him out more often.
More black removal would be welcome, as noted: Both Doom Blade and Drown in Sorrow are attractive if there are juicy targets for them. If you’re really in a hurry you can also consider a third Devouring Light.
If you’re feeling extra frisky, there’s something to be said for a single Dictate of Heliod. Surprise!
Despite the fact that it missed the Top 8 of the Pro Tour, Black Devotion was still the most played deck in standard and is probably going to keep that title, so we’ll start the matchups there.
Black has three ways to beat opponents. They can win a Pack Rat game, they can win off Desecration Demon and they can win off of the card advantage of Underworld Connections. The rest of their cards assist them in making one of these three plans work. In order to win, we need to solve whichever of these problems are being presented to us in a particular game. I’m going to assume you’re already familiar with the Black Devotion mirror, and note where things differ from that.
The first difference is that you can beat an active Pack Rat without a Bile Blight much more often than a normal Black Devotion deck, and they can beat yours less often. You have the ability to supplement your Pack Rat plan with one and two drop creatures, or even protect them with Ephemeral Shields (which often can put you a turn ahead and turn a losing fight into a winning one), and can play a much better ‘pre-Rat’ opening than they can into a turn 5 Pack Rat. They’re trying to set up Underworld Connections, but it’s too slow to matter in such games other than as a dig for Bile Blight. If they try to beat the Rats with a Desecration Demon or two, that plan is essentially doomed, whereas you have a realistic shot at making that or similar plans work. Your creatures can mix it up quickly and force the Rats to expose themselves to a cascading disaster if you have removal; playing around a Bile Blight is basically impossible for them. The downside is that they have more removal than you, but the need to kill Precinct Captain and Brimaz, King of Oreskos will often force them to burn that extra removal early.
The second difference (and the one that hurts) is that Lifebane Zombie is live against you, so getting all the white creatures out of your hand quickly is important. If you don’t have an Obzedat, Ghost Council, it’s often right to play Brimaz, King of Oreskos over Hero’s Downfall on turn three even if it risks them starting to make Pack Rats, because they are unlikely to choose making a Pack Rat over Lifebane Zombie, putting them far behind to the Brimaz, King of Oreskos and thus forcing them to wait even longer to start making Pack Rats, and they’ll also be (correctly) terrified of Bile Blight if they haven’t seen your hand. If they have seen your hand, bite the bullet and kill the Pack Rat.
The third and biggest difference is that Underworld Connections changes from the most important card to protect and take out to a card that is often very bad, and their Desecration Demons are often largely dead as well. If the game goes sufficiently long, Black Devotion will get down an Underworld Connections and beat you, but that takes a long time. When starting it up, it costs them time and life without doing much. Meanwhile, their big creature they use to stabilize the board is Desecration Demon and that doesn’t work on you because of your token generators; you can sacrifice a token to clear a path to attack, and use that attack to make more tokens. With so many of its cards not playing relevant defense, it’s very hard for Black to avoid losing on tempo; it has remarkably few good ways to defend itself.
You end up winning more Pack Rat games than they do, and winning many games on tempo, largely by making many of their cards bad. In exchange you give up inevitability, but that’s a trade you’re happy to make.
Sideboarding doesn’t do much for them. They can optimize their removal package, likely including a few Drown in Sorrow since it’s better than the alternatives, and make sure they have a full set of Lifebane Zombies if they don’t start all of them, but that’s about it; they can take out some Desecration Demons and/or Underworld Connections but this risks giving up what makes their deck fundamentally work. You get to add Blood Baron of Vizkopa but the sideboard doesn’t feel the need to devote other cards to the matchup. If you wanted more, you’d add a fourth Bile Blight or more copies of Blood Baron of Vizkopa, perhaps an Ultimate Price. All of that is defensible but not necessary. Dark Betrayal is great if you can afford it, but is a very narrow use of sideboard space.
This would be my default:
The easy move is to simply swap Obzedat, Ghost Council for Blood Baron of Vizkopa. You can then choose to trim a Soldier of the Pantheon and/or one or both Ephemeral Shields instead of an Obzedat, Ghost Council, although this strengthens Lifebane Zombie, or to bring in 1-2 Duress. If you had two more good cards you’d trim both Shields and the fourth Soldier. I like Soldier of the Pantheon but there is the danger of drawing two into a Bile Blight, or it and Precinct Captain into Drown in Sorrow. Ephemeral Shields can be great, but it can also be bad as it neither attacks nor deals with Pack Rat, and they now have both Drown in Sorrow and Bile Blight and often Devour Flesh, although some will side those out even if they have them, since tokens make them so bad. Since you’re advantaged quite a bit, it’s a fair argument that there’s no reason to risk it. Duress is insurance against bad things happening, and you keep the game short and them bringing in spells, so there’s less danger of it going dead.
Ephemeral Shields in particular goes way up and down depending on their configuration. If you see multiple Devour Flesh, or see a copy of it after board, take all the Ephemeral Shields out. If you are confident you’re not facing any ways to blank it other than Bile Blight, keep them in.
On the play, Duress is stronger since you can cast it first and hit Thoughtseize, then follow up with Thoughtseize on Pack Rat or something else as appropriate, whereas on the draw you need to Thoughtsieze right away and they can take Duress out of your hand. Depending on the opponent, I’d be inclined to have two or sometimes even three Duress on the play, but at most one on the draw.
With Blood Baron of Vizkopa in your deck, you have a much better chance of winning a long game, since getting him down trumps Underworld Connections. You don’t bring in Deicide because you have no fear of Erebos, God of the Dead, which they shouldn’t bring in.
This is the same matchup as black except that everything is worse for you. Instead of Gray Merchant of Asphodel, which is mostly harmless, they have Blood Baron of Vizkopa and Elspeth, Sun’s Champion, and they are relying less on Desecration Demon and Underworld Connections. You need to go faster than you would against black and take more risks. With Banishing Light involved, Ephemeral Shields now clearly comes out, making your decisions easier:
Their key cards are Thassa, God of the Sea and Master of Waves. If those don’t show up, your cards will beat theirs even without Pack Rat. It’s good policy to save removal for Master of Waves whenever you can keep yourself busy otherwise, assuming you’re high enough on life to afford any possible hits from a Thassa, God of the Sea. You can’t remove Thassa, God of the Sea directly in game one, but you can and should do your best to keep their devotion down and contain her that way.
If you get a chance to go for Pack Rat, it’s almost always right to do so as they lack good answers. Resist the temptation to play a normal game when you have an easy win in your pocket, especially on the play; if they don’t start with Cloudfin Raptor into Frostburn Weird something has to go very wrong for the Rats to lose on the play. On the draw, you’re forced to play more of a real game of Magic against good draws. Often it’s best to start out playing a real game, since your real game is much faster and more efficient than in most Pack Rat decks, then switch to the Pack Rat game once you run out of other action. Game one you are greatly advantaged with Pack Rat, but somewhat disadvantaged without it, the same way they are somewhat disadvantaged without Thassa, God of the Sea.
Game two is a different animal, because your removal goes right after their key cards:
You’d like to keep Ephemeral Shields as it’s devastating against Rapid Hybridization, and the Banisher Priests make it even more likely to be a free action, but you’re so far ahead and your other options are so good that there’s no need to risk an awkward draw or lining up badly. The reach package leaves because you don’t need it and they have flyers to block with anyway. In exchange, you get answers to your problems.
Deicide is the ultimate answer to Thassa, God of the Sea, and has Domestication and Bident of Thassa as alternate targets, while both Banisher Priest and Devouring Light are also strong answers to Thassa, God of the Sea; often you don’t bother removing her because you can just kill other creatures and turn her off, and have more answers in case she turns back on. Master of Waves then becomes your biggest worry, since he can come back from under a Banisher Priest and doesn’t have to attack or block himself, so he isn’t exposed to Devouring Light. The game plan is to clear out the key cards and then use your creatures to cut through the remaining chaff, which is very difficult to beat. Pack Rat often gets involved, but it doesn’t have to especially on the draw.
If you want more help, which you do not need, a second Deicide would be nice, making it even less likely things go wrong, although a third copy would not be helpful.
White/Blue Control (Including Esper and Bant)
Your deck is quite good at presenting threats that must be answered individually, which leads to the instinct to try and hold back. Some of that is necessary, but for the most part holding back is a mistake. You need to press your advantage quickly, before their cards can take over the game, especially if you have seen their hand and know they didn’t have Supreme Verdict. Otherwise, they can buy time with other cards and put you away just like they put away everyone else. If you know they’re forced to Verdict next turn, that’s the exception, but for example it’s usually right to attack with Obzedat, Ghost Council into a possible Azorius Charm and hope they don’t have it, or don’t have the counter for when you try to replay it.
Game one is tough, since you have the subpar Bile Blight and not enough discard, but sideboarding gives them nothing important while letting you improve. The main thing they do with their board is to bring in creatures if they think you’ll be vulnerable, so I’ve come around to leaving in some copies of Hero’s Downfall. You’re already brining in Lifebane Zombie as good beats and to see their hand, so creatures are not something you fear. After sideboarding you should have the advantage.
Assuming they are playing Detention Sphere, you play it more or less like this:
The second Blood Baron of Vizkopa can also come in, if you feel it’s better than your alternatives. If you are confident they have no men, you can pull Hero’s Downfall, although Jace, Architect of Thought is worth killing so having 1-2 Hero’s Downfall in only to kill him and Elspeth, Sun’s Champion is at most a small mistake. If they’re going to bring in men for sure, leave all three Hero’s Downfall and if they are known to be bringing in four Nyx-Fleece Ram then Bile Blight is interesting. If you want more help here, which is reasonable, you would start with a fourth copy of Duress, but then it’s hard to improve too much. Sin Collector costs too much mana, especially since the card you most want to take is often Jace, Architect of Thought. You’d put it in if you had it, but it’s not worth spending sideboard slots.
After sideboarding, once you rip their hand apart, you’ll want to flood the board to kill them as quickly as possible. With the cards they are capable of bringing in, holding back is even worse than it was in game one. Force them to have it, and if they have it, force them to have it a second time.
If they’re running a version like Ivan Flock’s, there’s something worth noticing: They can’t exile or bounce anything, so Ephemeral Shields is a hard protection spell except for Azorius Charm. Now instead of being mediocre, Ephemeral Shields is worth its weight in gold and isn’t going anywhere.
The cards that cost life without providing mana are the cards that have to go: Thoughtseize and Herald of Torment. You’d like some reach, but Ajani also goes since he’s too likely to be stranded and you’re better off becoming more solid. Devouring Light is strong against Chandra’s Phoenix but bad against Young Pyromancer, so not having tested it’s hard to know if it is worth it, but my guess is that it is, as Mutavault makes it unlikely you’ll end up with removal stuck in your hand, they might try bringing in other men, and if they can’t keep anyone on the table that bodes quite well. Duress is clearly great and a good substitute for Thoughtsieze, and Ephemeral Shields is wonderful since it counters a spell for no mana.
You don’t care much if it’s Goblin based or not, since you want all the same cards and play in the same way against all versions. You take out everything that costs life or is offensive, and hope to survive long enough to take over. If you believe they’ve made Duress good, play it over more expensive cards, if not you can use turn one to play a tapped land when you don’t draw a Soldier of the Pantheon.
They’re trying to go big with powerful creatures and/or planeswalkers and going for devotion, so your removal that works outside of combat is good but Devouring Light is bad because they’re not going to risk combat often enough. Lifebane Zombie is great, but your creatures don’t need protection so Ephemeral Shields can leave. You have an abundance of cards you like, so some cuts have to be made. Versions vary a lot and exactly what comes out depends on which cards you think match up better against their exact cards. The default is likely to take out Ajani, Caller of the Pride but keep Herald of Torment based on mana curve considerations and not having Obzedat in to jump.
The Red/Green version of the deck doesn’t have much removal in it, so it doesn’t play any differently than straight Green Devotion. In both cases, Ajani will depend on how many 0/3 and 2/4s you think you’re up against.
This matchup is tough, and hard to pin down since the deck is still rapidly evolving. Note that while Yuuki Ichikawa did well, overall such decks did poorly. The default assumption is that we’re up against Yuuki Ichikawa’s list, which has a lot to like about it. Clearly we’re the beatdown and he’s the control. Mizzium Mortars will be the potential answer to Pack Rat that you’ll have to worry about, which is very strong against you in general. With good hands, I’d look to play a non-Rat game first and then only use Pack Rat later on, so you can prevent him from being in a position to stick a planeswalker. The counter-argument is to try and get the Pack Rats big enough to get in under Mizzium Mortars and so they quickly don’t fear Xenagos, the Reveler or Courser of Kruphix, and that’s key to determining what is and isn’t a good hand. If you don’t have good reach to push through Courser of Kruphix, Sylvan Caryatid and Xenagos, The Reveler quickly, then you’re better off going directly to Pack Rat if you’re allowed to. Ajani, Caller of the Pride is at his best in this type of situation.
Sideboarding means you’re facing even more removal. Here you’ll want to differentiate the play and the draw. On the play, you have a good chance to catch a creature with Lifebane Zombie, whereas on the draw you will probably miss or hit something that isn’t relevant. Duress is great either way, since you need to know what is coming and it can take all their planeswalkers. I’m very unsure what the right additional outs are to make room for Lifebane Zombie and this is clearly me hedging my bets.
On the play:
On the draw:
Jund Monsters should lose out to other superior decks occupying similar spaces, but for now it’s still a possible opponent. From our perspective, monsters and Planeswalkers aren’t that different as opponents, except that now our removal got a lot better. Bile Blight is still questionable, since the creatures you most want dead are too big to kill, so we can likely use it to get better other men, and Lifebane Zombie stays live for longer so you’ll want it on the draw as well as the play. In exchange for this, Duress is no longer a good card, which gives you the room you need. With Devouring Light in the deck, you’re not taking out a Brimaz, King of Oreskos, so you pull both copies of Obzedat, Ghost Council instead.
Naya Big Cards
I won’t pretend to understand the logic behind Michael Majors and Dan Jordan’s choices (I’m assuming I’m facing one of those lists) but fundamentally you’re facing a deck with little removal and a lot of creatures that fight, but that aren’t so obviously powerful that the long game is inevitably lost, especially given the power of Pack Rat. Unconditional removal seems strong, but the creatures seem designed to survive Bile Blight, so that will come out for now. There’s some danger they can stall the ground, but without Courser of Kruphix it seems fine to aim primarily for control of the game rather than reach. What does come out here that’s unusual, I think, is Desecration Demon, because they have enough tokens to render it bad too often to be worth it. In addition to these changes, it would be reasonable to look to add copies of Blood Baron of Vizkopa.
That’s one scary deck, it comes out fast and doesn’t stop. Many of your cards are well positioned against it, but you do a lot of damage to yourself so it’s very easy to die. As usual with such aggressive decks, you’re mostly lowering the curve, adding removal and hoping for the best, with the twist that your anti-white cards are also strong. If he beats you, he beats you. Instinct here says go with only 2 Banisher Priest not because it’s not good but because you have too many strong three drops.
Soldier of the Pantheon is your best card because a huge percentage of his creatures are multicolored, some even dying to a 2/1. His creatures fight well, but you have the discard, the removal and the Pack Rats, so you get to choose how the game plays out based on the texture of both hands. You can go on the offensive if you get the opportunity but your default is to play for the long game.
Sideboarding introduces Setessan Tactics as a scary card to face, which is the best reason not make sure to keep your discard available. You’ll get Lifebane Zombie, then the question is whether going with a full set of Banisher Priests sets you up too much for Setessan Tactics. I think it’s fine, since they won’t have too big a window to draw it and it’s unlikely they can get that many creatures with it while you’re using so much removal and discard. Fleecemane Lion is a pain, but not enough of a pain to justify keeping your reach cards. The biggest issue when sideboarding is that you don’t have bad cards. Not putting in the fourth Banisher Priest for curve reasons and fear of Setessan Tactics is likely wrong, but a small mistake.
Red wins its matches by powering out powerful creatures, so you’ll want removal for them, and there are lots of good early targets for Bile Blight as well. They don’t focus too much on blocking, so your reach cards can go, and their removal is remarkably exile-heavy so you likely don’t want Ephemeral Shields either, but you only want to bring in three cards since I’d be reluctant to use Banisher Priest into Mizzium Mortars and all the other removal, plus it lines up wrong against Stormbreath Dragon. Then again, Scuttling Doom Engine must (not) die. If I was up against Taisuke Ishii’s list and knew it, I’d likely do this:
Your removal can’t kill the things it needs to kill, so we cut it, and they’re not looking to kill your creatures, so Ephemeral Shields can go as well. Duress, Deicide and Lifebane Zombie are obviously strong cards, so they come in. That leaves one card you’re not going to be thrilled with, so you can either leave an Ephemeral Shields in or put in a Blood Baron of Vizkopa. Based on how it plays out, I’d go with the free spell to keep up velocity, and it might be right to leave both and take out an Obzedat, Ghost Council for that reason instead.
Hit fast, hit hard, and do your best to break up their hand. Matchup played out very straightforwardly at the Pro Tour. If they have it, you’ll probably die, but they often don’t have it.