Did you see the results of the Standard SCG open from last week? Or were you too busy watching the Pro Tour? (I wouldn’t fault you.) Basically, the big boogeyman fell off the map, with only one Mono Black deck in the top 16. Did Team ChannelFireball buy up every copy of Pack Rat, planning to break it in Modern? Was every Thoughtseize in the world sleeved up in Melira Pod sideboards? Or is Mono Black not as good as people think it is?
Let’s try to make some sense of what happened in St. Louis, where the top 16 looked like this:
6 GR Monsters
3 UW Control
2 Esper Midrange
1 Jund Monsters
1 GR Devotion
1 Mono U Devotion
1 Mono Black
1 BW Midrange
If we lump Jund Monsters and GR Devotion together with the other GR decks, that’s half of the top 16 playing big green and red creatures. How did that happen? For the last few weeks, people were saying Mono Black was still the king of Standard, gaining the best two cards out of Born of the Gods: Bile Blight and Drown in Sorrow. Drown in Sorrow is the more important of the two; previously, one of the best strategies against Mono Black was to try and run them over quickly. Mono Red Aggro was great at this, and so were the White Weenie strategies. Mono Blue’s non-Thassa draws also leaned on a quick start to get ahead, and Drown in Sorrow is the perfect foil to this strategy.Bile Blight was lauded mostly for its use in the mirror match. Finally we get a card that we can use to pick off Nightveil Specter! People were playing the full four Devour Flesh to get rid of it before, because neither Ultimate Price nor Doom Blade could get rid of the flier, but Devour Flesh had one big disadvantage: it was not always reliable. Mutavault would often take one for the team, and sometimes the life even mattered. It was still mostly good enough to play some copies, and with access to Drown in Sorrow out of the sideboard, the collective magic community kicked Pharika’s Cure to the curb and shaved some Devour Fleshes to play all four Bile Blight. You could even kill three Pack Rats with it!
That all sounded reasonable, so what went wrong? Well, for Mono Black, one of the few remaining tough matchups that is not an aggro deck is GR Monsters. This might sound odd, because you’d expect that to be a strategy that a deck full of removal should be good against. However, when you look at the decklists, GR Monsters plays up to eight planeswalkers, while you, as the Mono Black player, have only four Hero’s Downfall. You have Thoughtseize but might need to use those on creatures as well, since GR Monsters plays full sets of Polukranos and Stormbreath Dragon alongside Ghor-Clan Rampagers and some number of Boon Satyrs, Courser of Kruphixes and Scavenging Oozes. You only have six removal spells aside from your already-overworked Hero’s Downfalls to deal with these threats. Of course, you have creatures to block with too, but it’s basically only Desecration Demon that can survive these creatures, unless you go wild with a turn-two Pack Rat on the play.
Now take an actual look at those six removal spells. You have four Bile Blights and two Devour Flesh. Those Devour Fleshes are not at their best, as they are most likely to eat a mana dork or Satyr token instead of a real threat, and those Bile Blights only do something when you get to block. Of the threats I mentioned above, it can only kill a Boon Satyr or a freshly cast Scavenging Ooze on its own. That is terrible. Your removal is already overworked; you can’t expect to win games if most of it is also super contextual and misses the important targets!
Hopefully we improve in games two and three though. Let’s take a look at a fairly standard sideboard for Mono Black:
Really? We have NINE cards for the mirror? I mean, I suppose has been the best deck, and the Duresses are very good against control too, but what can we board in against GR Monsters?
3 Lifebane Zombie, that’s good.
4 Duress I suppose? Those let you take planeswalkers, letting your Thoughtseizes and Hero’s Downfalls focus more on creatures, but evidently (look at those top-16 results again) that’s not cutting it.
Now, the one Mono Black deck that did make the top 16 already split his maindeck removal 3/3 between Devour Flesh and Bile Blight, and he did have a Doom Blade to board in instead of a third Dark Betrayal, so those are steps in the right direction. I’m going to advocate a more rigorous approach, though.
Getting Black Back on Top
My main gripe with the current Mono Black lists is still with Bile Blight. When the card was spoiled, it looked like it solved a major problem in the mirror match, which was very prominent. Instead, it creates more problems than it solves. On top of that, there was already a card that solved the Bile Blight problem, if you were willing to splash for it: Abrupt Decay.
I wrote about Abrupt Decay before, but I’ll try to quickly recap why it’s better than Bile Blight, while being similar. Abrupt Decay, other than Bile Blight, does not care about Frostburn Weird or a Courser’s four toughness. It does not care about Underworld Connections or Detention Spheres being enchantments. Bile Blight might be able to kill the creature Domri draws, Abrupt Decay kills Domri himself. Where Bile Blight is dead against UW Control, Abrupt Decay shines there, killing Detention Spheres and letting your Underworld Connections run away with the game. With the popularity of GR Monsters probably increasing, you’re likely to see more UW decks built to combat that deck at the top tables, and your Abrupt Decays will give you a huge edge there.
Polukranos and Stormbreath Dragon are not in the business of suddenly decaying though, so we probably need more answers there. While Abrupt Decay helps a little by being able to hit Domri, relieving some pressure from Hero’s Downfall, there are still too many big threats to deal with. I’d play some Ultimate Prices and a Devour Flesh, because even though I like Abrupt Decay a lot, I’m not crazy enough to lean too heavily on something that doesn’t deal with the larger-sized threats.
From experience, I can tell you that even this change probably isn’t large enough. You see, as Jamie Wakefield used to say, “it’s the last fatty that kills you.” They play more threats than you have answers, and your threats mostly match up poorly against theirs in combat. While you can improve the quality of the threats you have and cut threats for more answers, you’ll often just run out of answers at some point, unless you have an Underworld Connection out to let you draw extra cards. However, I’m not a big fan of Connections against GR Monsters, as it is very slow and doesn’t impact the board. It helps you pull away when you already had enough answers to get the time to start drawing extra cards, but at that point you are already winning.
I think you need to start pressuring GR while using removal to take out key threats. If you have them on the back foot, their planeswalkers become worse too, and if you can kill their planeswalkers with creatures, you free up your Downfalls and Decays to kill more creatures. The best creature to do this, in my opinion, is a card that should be moved to the main from the sideboard more often: Lifebane Zombie.
Lifebane is great against GR Monsters, it’s also good against Mono Blue Devotion and UW Control, and I even like it against BW midrange to take Blood Barons and to have something to pressure them (intimidate is mostly useless there, but it does get through Mutavaults). It is admittedly bad in the mirror, but it can attack for three, and Abrupt Decay gains you some percentage points there already. Also, I’ll ask you the same question I asked in the article I linked to above (but I expect a different answer this time): what do you think you’ll see more often in a PTQ these days: Polukranos or Nightveil Specter? If the results from St. Louis aren’t just an anomaly, then Mono Black might become a lot less popular than it used to be.
If Mono Black does become less popular, you can also get away with sideboarding fewer cards for that specific matchup. Dark Betrayals are basically only good there, so you can cut down on those. (I know you sometimes board one in against Mono Blue to deal with Nightveil Specter, but that’s no longer necessary; you have Abrupt Decay or Bile Blight now.) Here’s the deck I’m playing right now, for reference:
“Mono” Black Decay by Jay Lansdaal
As for odd choices: I don’t mind moving an Underworld Connections to the sideboard, because Abrupt Decay and Golgari Charm mean your Connections is unlikely to be gone for long if UW puts it in Detention, and the same cards help prevent your Mono Black opponent from using theirs to pull ahead. I also don’t mind cutting a Nightveil Specter in a world of Last Breath, Stormbreath Dragons and Bile Blight. These make space for two Lifebane Zombies. Bile Blight and a rise in UW and GR Monsters also make it easy to shave a Pack Rat for a Gaze of Granite, a powerful but expensive reset button that happens to be good against Pack Rat itself too. I’m also playing one fewer land to have a little more action in a threat-heavy world, but I wouldn’t fault you for playing a fourth Mutavault over a Golgari Charm.
Games Two and Three
Now, I know my sideboard is a little different from the usual Mono Black sideboard, so I’ll go through how I’ve been sideboarding against the top decks. Keep in mind that you can take this as a baseline, but always pay attention to what your opponent is playing as well!
On the draw, I don’t think Pack Rat does a whole lot other than chump block a fatty. Extra removal is great, and so is Vraska, who can repeatedly kill planeswalkers as well as big creatures.
Basically, you board in more threats that you don’t have to invest cards in and take out some bad removal. I leave all Hero’s Downfalls in because I like to cast a second one in the same turn the first one I cast on Elspeth gets countered. It can also come in handy when people board in Archangel of Thune against you.
On the play, you can usually put down a threat and use removal to keep Mono Blue off devotion and prevent them from drawing cards off Bident of Thassa. On the draw, this is a tad more difficult, and Pack Rats feel worse on the draw, so I like keeping in Thoughtseizes there to get rid of Thassas and Bidents.
I know most people will jump straight to the comment section to tell me I’m crazy for boarding out Thoughtseizes in the mirror (as people were previously boarding in Duress on top of Thoughtseize) and keeping Desecration Demons in. However, what happens if both people board in a ton of discard? You rip each other’s hands to shreds and then the game becomes a topdeck-war. The person who topdecks an Underworld Connection first will probably run away with the game. Honestly, I always have mixed feeling when I see a Connections in my opener, as chances of it staying there are slim in the mirror, and it’s one of the better cards you have in the mirror.
When you are in a topdeck war, Thoughtseize isn’t a great draw. Desecration Demon is awesome though, and even more so with Bile Blight taking up a lot of removal slots. So are other threats that are hard to remove, like Erebos, his Whip (which I like better than a third Erebos, as it’s also good against random aggro decks and Burn), and Vraska. Pithing Needle is like a Duress but is a far better topdeck. The Abrupt Decays and the Golgari Charm you have main help prevent a topdecked Connections on the opponent’s side from running away with the game.
If You Don’t Go Black…
… I’d suggest looking into playing a version of UW Control tweaked to beat GR Monsters (play more counters and Elspeths, and if you do splash for black sideboard cards, please let them be Doom Blade, not Dark Betrayal). UW Control would also be good against Mono Blue, which should also become more popular with GR Monsters keeping the deck from being drowned in sorrow as often as a week or two ago. If you don’t mind playing the matchup against UW Control, I could also see playing Mono Blue Devotion, as I like playing a bunch of Tidebinder Mages against four- and five-mana green creatures.
Have fun and crush some people at gameday!
iLansdaal on Twitter and MTGO