Recurring Nightmares – Level 2 Black

It’s come to my attention that I may not be capable of thinking enough steps ahead of a metagame to be prepared to beat what’s expected to happen next week. In more colloquial terms, I’m not next level enough. Last week, I discussed my excitement for the addition of a pair of removal spells that Mono-Black will be gaining from Born of the Gods, and how I expect them to impact the format. Then I read Chapin’s article on the same cards this week.

Pat’s article got me thinking.

The way he put it, if today’s Mono-Black lists are level 0, then Mono-Black with some removal shuffled around to improve the matchups against the mirror and the aggressive decks it can have difficulty with is level 1. Of course, this is going to be an obvious change that everyone who is remotely familiar with the deck will make. The question isn’t, “is this deck going to be good?” it’s more like, “how do I get one step ahead of everyone who knows the deck is good?” and I’m not usually an expert in seeing things from that perspective.

Pat reminds us that while in the pre-BNG metagame, [ccProd]Nightveil Specter[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Pack Rat[/ccProd] are the two most common paths to victory in the mirror match, largely for their inherent defense against the Mono-B removal suite, these threats become much more vulnerable in the Born of the Gods environment. Because you shift from one playset of removal spells that kills Specter dead ([ccProd]Hero’s Downfall[/ccProd]) and one that can kill it if your opponent is caught with his pants down ([ccProd]Devour Flesh[/ccProd]), alongside a few extra cards that can’t do anything to it unless they walk into it ([ccProd]Pharika’s Cure[/ccProd]); into a world where all (or nearly all) of your removal kills Specter, the value of the creature in the matchup goes down significantly. The same is true of Pack Rat—which, though incredible in the current mirror, is generally weak in aggressive and most control matchups. What we should be considering is not how these new removal spells will impact the metagame of today, but rather how the metagame where these removal spells exist will adapt to their presence.

If we’re willing to take a step to the hypothetical, we can consider this ourselves. Rather than paint a picture of the overall metagame (a long and arduous process), I’d like to focus on how we, as the Mono-Black player ourselves, would adapt to the presence of the new removal suite.

First, let’s look at the deck list at level 1. Here’s Owen Turtenwald’s list, adapted to suit the new spells:

[deck]Main Deck
4 Thoughtseize
1 Devour Flesh
1 Ultimate Price
4 Pack Rat
4 Bile Blight
4 Underworld Connections
4 Nightveil Specter
4 Heros Downfall
4 Desecration Demon
4 Gray Merchant of Asphodel
4 Temple of Deceit
4 Mutavault
18 Swamp
Sideboard
3 Lifebane Zombie
3 Duress
3 Drown in Sorrow
2 Dark Betrayal
2 Erebos, God of the Dead
1 Pharika’s Cure
1 Doom Blade[/deck]

This list is basically today’s Mono-Black list substituting 4 Bile Blight for the [ccProd]Pharika’s Cure[/ccProd]s and a pair of [ccProd]Devour Flesh[/ccProd]. The sideboard is essentially the same, with Drown in Sorrow replacing the [ccProd]Pharika’s Cure[/ccProd]s.

By considering the metagame of today, it’s easy to see that this is a strict upgrade to the existing list, and you could expect a few more checks in the win column if you were the only one playing it. However, as we stated above, this is the intuitive step 1, so others will also have this list. To get an additional step ahead of the game (to level 2), we have to go further.

Which of the puzzle pieces above are able to ignore the new toys our opponents will use against us?

[draft]Desecration Demon
Gray Merchant of Asphodel
Underworld Connections[/draft]

These three should be considered the lynchpins of the deck moving forward. While in the pre-BNG world, these represented the tertiary plan for the deck (plan A being Rats, plan B being Specter advantage), they are now the most consistent of the options, and the most difficult for the opponent to disrupt. The combination of attacks with a 4-mana flier and the Fireball effect of Gary can still close out games in a hurry.

The question becomes, is it better to try and maintain the previous level’s strategy in the face of the hate, or should we be trying to discard the parts of the deck that are vulnerable to these new spells and focus our attention elsewhere?

We have effectively 8 slots to play with, though these numbers may be more flexible than that, and we could find that abandoning our entire strategy makes more sense. A card like [ccProd]Pack Rat[/ccProd] isn’t easily replaceable with any old two-drop, because it represents a very specific and difficult-to-replicate kind of consistency. It turns the entire rest of your deck into live draws, and that’s not something that comes along every day. At the same time, very few permanents in the format offer all the things that Specter provides—a body to block with, 2 damage a turn, a draw engine, and 3 devotion for [ccProd]Gray Merchant[/ccProd].

Some considerations for these slots:

[draft]dark prophecy[/draft]

[ccProd]Dark Prophecy[/ccProd] – While not the most exciting tool in the box, given our likelihood of replacing creatures with this spell, it provides the most devotion we can get, and still represents a draw “engine.” This hits a few of the things we liked about Specter, but obviously isn’t a perfect replacement.

[draft]dead reveler
thrill-kill assassin
tormented hero
rakdos cackler[/draft]

[ccProd]Dead Reveler[/ccProd]/ [ccProd]Thrill-Kill Assassin[/ccProd]/[ccProd]Tormented Hero[/ccProd]/[ccProd]Rakdos Cackler[/ccProd] – Certainly, the Assassin and company still die to Bile Blight. However, this adaptation makes the deck significantly more aggressive, and can potentially put much more pressure on the removal spells the opponent does draw. This way, by the time they get to the point where they have the ability to answer all your threats, you have them within striking distance with [ccProd]Gray Merchant[/ccProd]. To fully utilize this package, you’d have to consider cutting the [ccProd]Underworld Connections[/ccProd] and possibly some of the other spells, as well.

[ccProd]Torment’s Herald[/ccProd] – Or as I prefer to call him, Junun Efreet. I think this guy has some serious potential despite his inability to survive a Bile Blight. His stats are slightly better than those of [ccProd]Nightveil Specter[/ccProd], and he beats the tar out of Nightveil in a straight up fight. That he can also be cast on turn three when you happen to draw a Mutavault in the first three turns is a side benefit, but what you’re really paying for here is the ability to be on the offense, much the same way you expect to be when you put [ccProd]Lifebane Zombie[/ccProd] in against non-black decks. Coincidentally, Torment’s Herald survives a Drown in Sorrow, which [ccProd]Lifebane Zombie[/ccProd] does no.

[ccProd]Pain Seer[/ccProd] – I want to mention Seer because I think people would complain if I didn’t. Mono-Black Devotion would have to significantly adapt to allow for this creature to be a worthwhile inclusion. While it does perform to some extent as a draw engine, you need to load up heavily on removal to capitalize, because it dies to a stiff breeze.

[ccProd]Nighthowler[/ccProd] – I’ve been thinking a lot about this thing, because our deck is essentially 20-ish guys, 10-14 removal spells, and some lands. [ccProd]Nighthowler[/ccProd] is a hell of a clock to add onto an evasive creature like [ccProd]Lifebane Zombie[/ccProd] or [ccProd]Desecration Demon[/ccProd], and provides some extra utility against decks that are trying to trade 1-for-1 with your creatures. To some extent, it fulfills the role of beating spot removal like Pack Rat can do, though it can’t do so on turn 3 the way the Rat does. However, it does turn one of your creatures into two copies of The Abyss, and that movie is awesome.

[ccProd]Nightmare[/ccProd] – Could it finally be time? (It’s not.)

Another option to consider is to adapt to the changing metagame by adopting another color. In particular, white still seems appealing as a splash, as it offered much before the meta switch and offers even more now.

When your opponent is shifting away from edict-style effects and focusing more on targeted removal, [ccProd]Blood Baron of Vizkopa[/ccProd] becomes all the more appealing. When your removal suite is focused on spells that kill X/3s, a giant monster like [ccProd]Alms Beast[/ccProd] comes in handy—and we’re already in the market for 4 mana 6/6s, right? [ccProd]Sin Collector[/ccProd] is still a quality [ccProd]Duress[/ccProd]+, and with the recent spoiling of [ccProd]Revoke Existence[/ccProd] in the set, white gives you a sure-fire answer to Thassa that’s always going to work.

Alternatively, many have already been experimenting with a blue splash, as the mana base already lends itself to playing blue spells off the Temples, and it doesn’t impact our ability to play Specter. [ccProd]Duskmantle Seer[/ccProd] seems to qualify itself more in the new paradigm, as a creature that survives all the same removal as [ccProd]Nightveil Specter[/ccProd], but also can’t be hit with Last Breath or Bile Blight.

Let’s take a look at a few lists.

[ccDeck]2 Pack Rat
3 Nightveil Specter
3 Herald of Torment
1 Nighthowler
4 Desecration Demon
4 Gray Merchant of Asphodel
4 Bile Blight
4 Hero’s Downfall
1 Devour Flesh
4 Thoughtseize
4 Underworld Connections
4 Temple of Deceit
4 Mutavault
18 Swamp[/ccDeck]

Keeping with the Mono-Black theme, this list basically reduces the redundancy of the creatures that die to Bile Blight, in an effort to decrease the impact of the spell. While you can certainly still get blown out by it on occasion, overall it will be similar to a cheaper [ccProd]Hero’s Downfall[/ccProd] than a [ccProd]Maelstrom Pulse[/ccProd]. Unfortunately, this also means you fail to capitalize on one of the major strengths of Mono-Black, which is exactly that redundancy you’re sacrificing.

[ccDeck]4 Desecration Demon
4 Gray Merchant of Asphodel
4 Liliana of the Dark Realms
2 Abhorrent Overlord
2 Corrupt
4 Bile Blight
4 Hero’s Downfall
4 Devour Flesh
4 Thoughtseize
4 Underworld Connections
2 Drown in Sorrow
4 Mutavault
18 Swamp[/ccDeck]

This list goes in a very different direction, maximizing on the removal to protect your Lilianas. It runs a much lower land count as you have repeatable search in Lili, and runs two more [ccProd]Fireball[/ccProd]-esque finishers in [ccProd]Corrupt[/ccProd]. [ccProd]Abhorrent Overlord[/ccProd] is another Bile Blight-proof creature that both capitalizes on the extra lands you may end up with via Lilana, and provides you with a number of evasive threats for her minus ability.

[ccDeck]4 Blood Baron of Viskopa
2 Sin Collector
2 Alms Beast
4 Desecration Demon
4 Gray Merchant of Asphodel
4 Bile Blight
4 Hero’s Downfall
2 Devour Flesh
4 Thoughtseize
4 Underworld Connections
4 Temple of Silence
4 Godless Shrine
4 Mutavault
1 Plains
13 Swamp[/ccDeck]

Almost a direct port from Marlon Gutierrez’s winning list from GP DFW, this decklist fully commits to cutting the [ccProd]Pack Rat[/ccProd] plan from the deck. As [ccProd]Pack Rat[/ccProd] is specifically at its best in the Mono-Black mirror, which this build excels at due to the presence of [ccProd]Blood Baron[/ccProd], [ccProd]Pack Rat[/ccProd] is much less important to winning that match.

[ccDeck]4 Duskmantle Seer
4 Nightveil Specter
4 Desecration Demon
3 Phenax, God of Deception
3 Ashiok Nightmare Weaver
4 Bile Blight
4 Hero’s Downfall
2 Devour Flesh
4 Thoughtseize
2 Whip of Erebos
4 Temple of Deceit
4 Watery Grave
4 Mutavault
14 Swamp[/ccDeck]

We may be going off the deep end here, but this is an interesting idea I’ve been brewing with. Phenax doesn’t say “opponent,” it says “player”—and so theoretically you can mill yourself to fuel Whip (and use Whipped creatures to mill, as well). The basic strategy is similar to any other black deck, but this one has some added utility through the use of blue cards. You have some threats that are more difficult to deal with through traditional removal spells, and [ccProd]Ashiok[/ccProd] and Phenax represent threats that control players will have a reasonably difficult time dealing with—especially combined with hand disruption. While it isn’t exactly ideal to give your opponent extra resources through [ccProd]Duskmantle Seer[/ccProd], your deck is capable of being aggressive enough to limit the impact of those cards, and your backup plan of turbo-milling them in the situation where you find a stalled board can be helped along by the draw of Seer and Specter. Whip is incredibly important in this build not only to re-buy creatures that have bit the dust, but also to gain back some of the life lost through [ccProd]Duskmantle Seer[/ccProd], [ccProd]Thoughtseize[/ccProd], and [ccProd]Watery Graves[/ccProd].

As I said at the start of this exercise, next-leveling a format is not a skillset I’ve much practice with. Plotting out the directions the format could take, and thinking through all the possibilities you could implement to react to those directions is a good way to improve. It forces you to focus on the things that matter, like what removal spells apply to which creatures, and how to dodge those spells, and it requires you to reevaluate cards that may have been bad in previous formats.

Take [ccProd]Nightveil Specter[/ccProd], for example. Prior to the release of Theros, where the 3 devotion provided made it part of two major players in the format, the spell was considered a junk rare, and was barely even considered for limited play. The lack of a real removal spell for it along with its unique mana cost allowed it to rise to the top of the pack nearly overnight. Now, with the introduction of a spell that is capable of handling it for less mana that it costs itself, we need to evaluate once again. Could a card like [ccProd]Duskmantle Seer[/ccProd]—a similar card to [ccProd]Nightveil Specter[/ccProd], with many of its benefits and some advantages in the new context—be the next one to rise from obscurity? Seer already hovers on the fringes of playability, how much push does it need to make the big show? I don’t know for sure. But that’s why we think through these scenarios.

For every tuned, refined deck list like Owen’s Mono-Black list, there are hundreds of beginning points and false starts. Fitting the pieces together at these early stages is never a simple task, but skill at it pays dividends. It’s a skill I hope to refine within my own game, and I encourage you to do the same. Is Mono-Black not where you want to be in the next metagame? Why do you feel that way? What changes are you predicting that make you feel like another deck is better positioned? What do you expect the shape of the future metagame to look like? How will the existing (or new) decks react to that shape? Feel free to let me know what you think of all of these questions in the comments, and best of luck thinking at level 2 and beyond.

Adam
@AdamNightmare

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