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Breaking Through – Black by Popular Demand *14th*

Delver did not work out. That was the first list I arrived at during playtesting, and it seemed like it would be good. [card]Orzhov Charm[/card] gave the deck a new dimension and heavy-removal, heavy-tempo decks just seemed like they would be strong. A few games of actual testing with the deck, and I quickly realized that the necessary pieces just weren’t there.

[card]Temporal Mastery[/card] ramp did not work out. Early removal backed by a crushing late game full of common mana sinks seemed like it would be a good place to go. Ultimately though, the inconsistent draws of too much ramp versus not enough ramp made the deck stumble too often against aggressive red decks.

Esper Control sort of worked out. Somewhere in testing I had been fond of an Esper control deck that featured [card sorin, lord of innistrad]Sorin[/card] and [card]Lingering Souls[/card] among standard Esper fare. While that list did not survive testing, Esper was one of the decks we ended up playing in the tournament.

A lot of ideas had came and went with little sustained success. This is always a tough place for a deckbuilder, because all of these ideas that you have cultivated just continue to fail. Your best ideas have all failed to live up to expectations. This can be discouraging, but as a deckbuilder, it is important to knuckle down and keep at it. Dozens of bad ideas can come before you ever hit one you are happy with.

Most of our testing took place in Las Vegas, where EFro, Huey, and Brock Parker lived. We planned to move to Montreal on Monday before the Pro Tour. A few days before we were going to head to Canada, I stayed home sick during EFro’s birthday dinner. During that time, I brewed up what I thought was a pretty sweet Mono-Black deck. As the guys got back, I showed them the list, but outside of a handful of games with a rough initial version of the deck, not much became of it.

We had a solid deck that was likely to be the team deck already in UWR (basically what Gerry Top 8’d with), and investing our time into that deck seemed like the smartest move. So, I put Mono-Black on the back burner, and focused my efforts on the team deck.

As we transitioned to Montreal, we were still all on UWR and making innovations to it. We added [card]Harvest Pyre[/card] to improve the Esper and midrange matchups, and everything felt good. But, as versions of the deck hit the online results and the metagame shifted to a more midrange one, we worried about the deck’s position. Within a day or so, a lot of confidence in the list evaporated, so we looked to alternatives.

Some people went to work on Esper, which would become the most played deck by the team, while others stayed on UWR and tuned it further. EFro and Kibler continued to work on various versions of Naya, some aggressive and some midrange. Meanwhile, I could not shake the idea of Mono-Black, so on Tuesday before the event, I logged on to Magic Online and began trading for the cards I would need for the deck.

I was playing on my own account to start with, so I made sure to keep my footprint as small as possible and only play in two-mans. This allowed me to get some games in, but the variety of decks I played against was not as wide as I would have liked. Slowly, I learned what was working and what wasn’t. Cards like [card]Diabolic Revelation[/card] were fine, but every time I cast it, all I wanted to do was grab [card]Griselbrand[/card]. Seeing as how I was only running a pair of the big Demon, that seemed like something I could improve on. My list had a lot of problems with it. Here was the original idea:

[deck]3 Gloom Surgeon
3 Vampire Nighthawk
4 Crypt Ghast
2 Griselbrand
2 Diabolic Revelation
2 Duress
4 Sign in Blood
2 Victim of Night
1 Ultimate Price
1 Devour Flesh
1 Dreadbore
1 Sever the Bloodline
2 Liliana of the Veil
1 Liliana of the Dark Realms
4 Mutilate
1 Staff of Nin
1 Rakdos’s Return
4 Blood Crypt
4 Dragonskull Summit
2 Ghost Quarter
14 Swamp
1 Mountain[/deck]

At first, I had a much more diverse main deck. My goal, like most Rock decks, was to have answers against everything and just hope to draw the right ones at the right time. But, as I began to play more, I realized I had the chance to be dramatically favored against certain archetypes if I was willing to sacrifice game 1s against other archetypes.

For example, originally, instead of some of the removal and endgame cards, I had a pair of [card]Duress[/card] in the main deck. I think we can all agree that [card]Duress[/card] is a good card against control, but without something to force through with your newly acquired protection after a [card]Duress[/card], a lone pair of them is not going to win a match for you. Did I pick up a few percentage points? Sure. But going from a 20 to a 25% win rate in game 1 is not going to matter that much, especially when my red matchup drops from 80 to 70 or whatever.

Now, of course all of those numbers are made up, but the point remains. I was not turning unfavorable matchups favorable, but I was hurting my best matchups significantly. I ultimately decided that being stellar against one side of the spectrum and then being able to sideboard into a solid matchup for the other side was a better direction to take.

Choose Your Own Adventure

This is where the meta of our testing really came into play. You see, even if, up to this point, I had not been able to test the specific cards in the deck or anything like that, I had tested the format and I did know what was working and what wasn’t. So, when it came time to figure out what matchups I was more comfortable having a strong main deck against, I had to make an educated guess about the metagame.

I could very easily end up with a deck that was skewed to beat control decks. That might have looked something like this:

[deck]4 Duress
4 Deathrite Shaman
4 Crypt Ghast
4 Griselbrand
4 Sign in Blood
1 Underworld Connections
1 Victim of Night
4 Dreadbore
3 Liliana of the Veil
1 Liliana of the Dark Realms
2 Mutilate
1 Staff of Nin
2 Rakdos’s Return
4 Blood Crypt
4 Overgrown Tomb
1 Dragonskull Summit
4 Evolving Wilds
1 Mountain
11 Swamp[/deck]

You can see how such a list might be pretty bad against aggro, but the interaction potential it has with control is so much higher than my starting list and the list I ultimately ended up playing.

I basically chose to do the opposite of the above list. I wanted a first game against aggressive decks and I was able to stretch that to include quite a few other archetypes. My deck ended up with a strong game 1 against the following:

Red Aggro (Mono Red, R/G, Boros, etc)
Aggro Humans
Jund Aggro
Naya Aggro
Naya Midrange
UWR Flash Control

In exchange, I had to accept some bad matchups. These matchups were technically winnable, but it would always be tough, at least in game 1 situations. Post-board I would look to shore up:

Esper Control
Jund Midrange/Control

Against a deck like Esper, I could resolve a Liliana on turn 3 and then let it go to town. So long as it stayed in play, I could actually win. Outside of that or some unlikely [card]Rakdos’s Return[/card] though, game 1 was almost always a loss. Against Jund, [card]Griselbrand[/card] had a similar effect on the game. If I could drag the game out to a topdecked [card]Griselbrand[/card] or a lucky turn 5 [card]Griselbrand[/card], I could win, but outside of that, I did not like my chances.

There were a few other matchups that looked poor, but did not have the amount of testing needed to know for sure. This was the case for both of the popular reanimator decks in the format. Ultimately, I hoped to just resolve a [card]Slaughter Games[/card] and clean up from there, but I was not positive that would be viable.

Here’s the list I ended up playing:

[deck]Main Deck:
4 Gloom Surgeon
4 Vampire Nighthawk
4 Crypt Ghast
4 Griselbrand
4 Sign in Blood
4 Victim of Night
2 Dreadbore
3 Liliana of the Veil
4 Mutilate
1 Staff of Nin
1 Rakdos’s Return
4 Blood Crypt
4 Dragonskull Summit
17 Swamp
Sideboard:
1 Rakdos’s Return
3 Slaughter Games
3 Duress
2 Devour Flesh
1 Liliana of the Veil
1 Rakdos Charm
1 Pithing Needle
2 Underworld Connections
1 Olivia Voldaren[/deck]

As I mentioned before, with just 20 to 25 games of Magic Online 2-mans under my belt, I knew I would not have a completely tuned list going into the tournament. That said, I felt confident enough in my predictions as well as the general concept of the deck and the power level of individual cards that I was willing to give take a bit of a risk. And it was a real risk. On camera, I played against Esper and Jund, my two worst matchups. If you were able to watch only those two matches, my list looked very bad. If I had continued to play against similar matchups, I could have easily ended up outside of the money altogether.

Instead, I played against mostly aggro and other decks on my first list and in my one other Jund encounter I was able to win. A [card]Griselbrand[/card] in game one and a strong sideboard plan came together, giving me 1 win out of 3 bad matchups, which is about what I would expect.

The key to getting this whole process to work was having a sideboard that I was comfortable with against control and Jund variants. It turns out, with my sideboard, I did in fact move to a place where I felt favored, but because I had to give away game 1 much of the time, the overall match was still in my opponent’s favor.

Vs. Mono Red/Red Aggro

-1 [card]Rakdos’s Return[/card] -1 [card]Staff of Nin[/card] -1 [card]Griselbrand[/card] On the play, -1 [card]Sign in Blood[/card] On the draw, -1 [card]Swamp[/card]

+2 [card]Devour Flesh[/card] +1 [card]Olivia Voldaren[/card] +1 [card]Liliana of the Veil[/card]

Vs. Naya Midrange

-1 [card]Rakdos’s Return[/card] -1 [card]Staff of Nin[/card] -1 [card]Mutilate[/card]

+2 [card]Devour Flesh[/card] +1 [card]Olivia Voldaren[/card]

Potentially bring in [card]Pithing Needle[/card] for [card]Domri Rade[/card] and [card]Kessig Wolf Run[/card]

Vs. Esper

-4 [card]Gloom Surgeon[/card] -4 [card]Mutilate[/card] -2 [card]Victim of Night[/card]

+1 [card]Rakdos’s Return[/card] +2 [card]Underworld Connections[/card] +3 [card]Duress[/card] +3 [card]Slaughter Games[/card] + 1 [card]Pithing Needle[/card]

Additionally, you can shave more [card]Victim of Night[/card] to add cards like [card]Rakdos Charm[/card] or [card olivia voldaren]Olivia[/card] as the matchup requires.

Vs. Jund

-4 [card]Victim of Night[/card] -4 [card]Gloom Surgeon[/card] -2 [card]Mutilate[/card]

+3 [card]Duress[/card] +1 [card]Rakdos’s Return[/card] +2 [card]Underworld Connections[/card] +1 [card]Olivia Voldaren[/card] +2 [card]Devour Flesh[/card] +1 [card]Liliana of the Veil[/card]

Vs. UWR Flash

-4 [card]Gloom Surgeon[/card] -4 [card]Mutilate[/card]

+2 [card]Devour Flesh[/card] +1 [card]Rakdos’s Return[/card] +3 [card]Duress[/card] +1 [card]Liliana of the Veil[/card] +1 [card]Underworld Connections[/card]

This matchup was one of the most flexible in terms of boarding. You can easily end up bringing in the second [card]Underworld Connections[/card], [card]Slaughter Games[/card], and [card olivia voldaren]Olivia[/card] depending on their specific deck.

Going Forward

Of course, since the Pro Tour, I have been asked what changes I would make to the deck. Like I alluded to before, the list is very much like a Rock deck. It can be tuned to basically beat anything, but not to beat everything. To properly have the deck where you want it, you need to have a good grasp on the metagame and then pick your spot correctly. The pieces to sustain Mono-Black, in terms of card advantage, mana advantage, and a robust end game are all there, you just need to fill in the nuts and bolts correctly and the deck is very strong.

As always, happy brewing and thanks for reading!

Conley Woods

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