This was originally going to be a report for GP Dallas, where I finished in 63rd place. I got about halfway through ranting about airline incompetence before realizing that what people really want to hear about is what they should play in their next PTQ.

Before my travel plans were derailed, I had been hoping to try out a Black Devotion Splash White deck that Andreas Ganz played to a top-16 finish in Vienna. I was a little worried that the inconsistent mana and vulnerability of Blood Baron of Vizkopa to Rapid Hybridization and Cyclonic Rift would prove costly in an already close matchup against Mono-Blue. When I checked in at 4 a.m. Saturday, I decided to just stick with what I had been testing and submitted a list very similar to Owen’s GP-winning Mono-Black deck. While the Orzhov deck did manage to win the tournament, I don’t really regret my decision. I played against Mono-Blue Devotion four times over the course of the tournament and was thankful to be playing the more stable version.

My result may not have been spectacular, but I did learn a lot about the deck. After months of stability, we finally have some new players in the metagame. The control decks have adjusted, and an aggro deck has emerged without an inherent weakness to main deck Tidebinder Mages. We now have established lists of four or five tuned decks with a very real chance of winning any given tournament. As usual, PTQs will reward those players who are able to stay one step ahead of the local metagame and who master their particular weapon of choice. Based on my experience with the deck, I still believe that Mono-Black Devotion is a fundamentally sound option. Considering the diversification of the format, however, I do feel that some changes are warranted.

The first change I want to make is to the mana base. The scry lands are great, and I think three is the correct number, but I want to play Temple of Silence instead of Temple of Deceit. The original reason to play blue lands was for the occasional benefit of being able to play blue cards stolen by Nightveil Specter. Unfortunately, most of these cards have multiple blue mana symbols or aren’t especially relevant to our game plan. Still, with no white decks being played, a small benefit was better than none. After Dallas, however, being able to cast stolen white cards suddenly becomes a lot more relevant. Attacking with your 2/3 flier against white weenie is a lot safer when you know that, roughly half the time, you’ll be able to cast a cheap blocker in your second main phase. And playing a free Blood Baron against an Orzhov Control deck is almost certainly backbreaking.

I think the core creature suite is pretty much untouchable. Pack Rat, Nightveil Specter, Desecration Demon, and Gray Merchant of Asphodel are all great at what they do and fit perfectly on the curve. Thoughtseize is my pick for best card in the format, so that stays as well. As tempting as it is to move Underworld Connections to the sideboard because of how frequently it gets boarded out, I think it’s too essential to your game plan in the Black Devotion mirrors and against control. Hopefully, you can just discard them to Pack Rat in the more aggressive matchups.

As far as removal is concerned, Hero’s Downfall is a great catch-all that I definitely want four of. I tend to view the remaining six slots as sort of an extended virtual sideboard. Spot removal is a priority, and you want the most versatile cards that still manage to solve the important problems you expect to face.

The first problem is the advent of Blood Baron of Vizkopa. Generally speaking, you want some extra removal, but Blood Baron naturally evades all of the targeting spells like Doom Blade, Ultimate Price, and Pharika’s Cure. The only two-mana kill spell that even has a shot is Devour Flesh, but with all the Mutavaults flying around, that’s unreliable at best. Lifebane Zombie and Erebos, God of the Dead can also fight the good fight, but are more expensive and worse in other situations.

Another limiting factor is the threat of Master of Waves. While not traditionally a great card against black decks, a big reason for that is the plethora of spot removal we have at our disposal. It does, however, require an immediate answer, and if we fill our ranks with Devour Flesh, we risk allowing this to become a real problem.

Finally, the emergence of an aggro deck as a real player in the metagame pushes us towards Pharika’s Cure to mitigate some of that early life loss. It can get outclassed by larger creatures but does an admirable job of killing white weenies, Cloudfin Raptors, Tidebinder Mages, Mutavaults, and early Pack Rats.

After careful consideration, I settled on the following six cards:

2 Pharika’s Cure 1 Ultimate Price 1 Devour Flesh 1 Lifebane Zombie 1 Whip of Erebos Ultimate Price is a bit of a hedge in case anyone decides to show up with Polukranos, World Eater, Stormbreath Dragon, or Arbor Colossus. The choice of Lifebane Zombie over another removal spell is a nod to the creatureless Azorius Control decks. While you can’t completely avoid some number of dead draws in game one against them, you would prefer to minimize them. Lifebane Zombie mimics a removal spell against white and green decks, while pressuring Jace, Architect of Thought and forcing the control decks to expend a removal spell. I don’t think there’s space for a full playset because you still need to worry about the aforementioned Master of Waves, but its stock is definitely on the rise.

Whip of Erebos shouldn’t be a complete surprise as it featured in Paul Rietzl’s original list from GP Albuquerque. While I agreed with Owen’s decision not to run it at the time, I’ve been less and less impressed with Erebos, God of the Dead in the maindeck. It’s definitely a great card, but I want something more versatile. Whip of Erebos is a resilient threat against Azorius Control and Black Devotion while still providing functionality in the inevitable race against Mono-Blue. It’s a bit slow for the aggro matchups, but certainly more useful than the god itself.

I think it’s helpful to see why I decided to play certain cards in the maindeck, but I won’t bore you with my analysis of each sideboard slot. Building a tuned sideboard is a bit of an art form, but there is some science behind it. While that’s probably a topic for another article, I generally start by figuring out how many cards I want to board out in each matchup and then finding enough overlap in the cards to bring in to make the numbers work. There’s also a lot of value, however, in selecting narrow, high-impact cards over slight upgrades. The tension between these two goals is what really makes the process a challenging one.

In the end, I came up with the following fifteen:

3 Duress 1 Dark Betrayal 2 Devour Flesh 2 Pharika’s Cure 1 Doom Blade 2 Erebos, God of the Dead 2 Lifebane Zombie 2 Shrivel Duress is an example of a narrow card that really only comes in against the control decks. That’s an important enough matchup that I think you went the best tool for the job. Shrivel performs a similar function against White Weenie. On the opposite side of the spectrum, Dark Betrayal, while great, is not enough of an upgrade over some of the other removal spells to justify the four copies I played in Dallas. The mirror is still important, but it’s no longer one of only two good decks.

The other cards should more or less be self-explanatory. The specific mix of removal is mostly a question of making the numbers work in different matchups where only some of it is useful, though I do think having access to four Pharika’s Cures is important. Lifebane Zombie is obviously good against white and green creatures, and it acts as an additional threat against control, as well as something to bring in when you cut Pack Rats on the draw. Although I cut it from the main deck, Erebos, God of the Dead is actually better now since it presents an actual solution to Blood Baron of Vizkopa, negating the lifegain while hitting harder on the backswing.

Here’s the full list before we get into discussion of specific matchups:

Versus Mono-Blue Devotion

As I mentioned, I played against this deck four times in Dallas. I started off with Owen’s plan of boarding out two Pack Rat on the draw and two Desecration Demons on the play. As the tournament progressed, however, I became more and more convinced that Pack Rat is just terrible on the draw. It’s either a 1/1 for two mana that’s too small to attack or block, or, worse, something that commits you heavily to a race you’re almost certain to lose. After scrying one to the bottom on turn 1 with no turn 2 play in hand, I decided to just board them all out. I also think Desecration Demon is great in the matchup and want to keep all four in the deck, especially on the play.

With my updated version, I would board as follows:

On the Play:
-4 Underworld Connections -1 Lifebane Zombie +1 Doom Blade +2 Pharika’s Cure +2 Devour Flesh

On the Draw:
-4 Underworld Connections -4 Pack Rat +1 Doom Blade +2 Pharika’s Cure +2 Devour Flesh +2 Lifebane Zombie +1 Dark Betrayal

As you can see, Lifebane Zombie fills the role of placeholder when Pack Rat gets boarded out. It’s not great, but it does lend itself to racing, something Thassa often forces you to do. I was actually boarding in two Dark Betrayal in Dallas because of how important it is to kill Nightveil Specter, and because, after deciding to board out all four rats, I didn’t really have anything else. I think boarding one copy is acceptable since, not only are they likely to scry into Specter at some point, but killing your own Domesticated Specter is quite a bit better than the alternative of letting it run unchecked. Duress has a few good targets, but I think the likelihood of missing makes it worse than the other options.

Versus Mono-Black Devotion

The mirror is, first and foremost, about Pack Rat, which is why you want to keep most of your two-mana removal. In the non-Pack Rat games, it turns into a card advantage war fought with Nightveil Specter, Underworld Connections, and Erebos, God of the Dead. While I was boarding out all four Desecration Demons in Dallas, the shift away from Ultimate Price as the removal spell of choice makes it a little more plausible.

-2 Pharika’s Cure -1 Lifebane Zombie -2 Desecration Demon +1 Dark Betrayal +2 Devour Flesh +2 Erebos, God of the Dead

Versus Black Devotion Splash White

While this plays out in much the same way as the mirror, the presence of Blood Baron of Vizkopa increases the value of Lifebane Zombie. It’s not a great threat once it’s in play, but it does add to your devotion and attack through Mutavaults.

-2 Pharika’s Cure -4 Desecration Demon -1 Ultimate Price on the play OR -1 Hero’s Downfall on the draw
+1 Dark Betrayal +2 Devour Flesh +2 Erebos, God of the Dead +2 Lifebane Zombie

Versus Azorius Control

All of the two-mana removal is terrible and pretty much has to be boarded out. Pack Rat is also underwhelming but can still be a reasonable threat as long as you’re careful not to overextend into Supreme Verdict or Detention Sphere. Mutavault obviously helps in that respect, and discard can pave the way. Also, their Detention Spheres are overtaxed in the matchup, so allowing them to 2-for-1 your rat tokens is actually not that bad if it allows you to stick an Underworld Connections, Erebos, or Whip.

-2 Pharika’s Cure -1 Ultimate Price -1 Devour Flesh -2 Hero’s Downfall -1 Pack Rat +3 Duress +2 Erebos, God of the Dead +2 Lifebane Zombie

Versus White Weenie Splash Black

The strategy here is pretty simple. All of your removal is great, and anything that forces you to lose life is not. Whip of Erebos is reasonable, but probably worse than anything else you could board out. The removal and Lifebane Zombies are too good not to bring in. I made a choice to include the second Shrivel in the sideboard even though I didn’t really need an extra card for the matchup because of how much of an upgrade it is over other options. It basically took the place of a second Dark Betrayal. The other removal spells are needed for other matchups and can’t really be shaved.

-4 Thoughtseize -4 Underworld Connections -1 Whip of Erebos +1 Doom Blade +2 Pharika’s Cure +2 Devour Flesh +2 Lifebane Zombie +2 Shrivel

While those are what I’d consider the important matchups right now, here’s a basic guide for a few other matchups you might face:

Versus Boros Burn (Young Pyromancer version)

-1 Thoughtseize -1 Devour Flesh -4 Hero’s Downfall -4 Underworld Connections +3 Duress +2 Pharika’s Cure +1 Doom Blade +2 Lifebane Zombie +2 Shrivel

As you can see, the sideboard was not built with this matchup in mind. Lifebane Zombie is not really doing what you want to be doing, but it does add to your devotion, and they will probably need to kill it at some point, especially if you have Whip of Erebos.

Shrivel does some work against Young Pyromancer but is really included as an answer to the four copies of Assemble the Legion they’re likely to board in. While it might seem counterintuitive to board in a card that only gives you a one-turn reprieve, I theorized that games will eventually result in a stall of rat tokens and demons vs soldiers; a stall they will eventually win either through overwhelming forces or from drawing enough burn. Shrivel gives you something else to build towards rather than just hoping against hope to get there with Lifebane Zombies and Gray Merchants.

Versus Green Devotion Splash Red (Mihara version)

This deck sort of disappeared from the metagame before I picked up Mono-Black. As a result, I’ve only played against it a handful of times. That said, I would start with something like this:

-4 Underworld Connections -1 Whip of Erebos +2 Devour Flesh +1 Doom Blade +2 Lifebane Zombie

I’m advocating a hedge by leaving in two copies of Pharika’s Cure to kill mana dorks and Burning-Tree Emissary. Minimizing Nykthos by keeping devotion in check seems important, though it’s possible that Duress is just better. If both Duress and Pharika’s Cure turn out to be good, I’d consider boarding out Gray Merchant of Asphodel.

Versus Red Devotion Splash Green (Channel Fireball deck from PT Dublin)

If I don’t have a lot of experience playing against Mihara’s list, I have virtually none here. I’m including plans for these matchups anyway since that’s what I would do if I was preparing this deck for a tournament. For the fringe decks, I like to come up with a base plan to use as a starting point. If I end up playing against it, I’ll look at my notes but also consider how the games seem to be playing out. You can’t always be fully prepared for everything, but I try to cover as many bases as possible while figuring the rest out on the fly.

On the Play:
-4 Underworld Connections -3 Thoughtseize +1 Doom Blade +2 Devour Flesh +2 Pharika’s Cure +2 Lifebane Zombie

On the Draw:
-4 Underworld Connections -1 Lifebane Zombie +1 Doom Blade +2 Devour Flesh +2 Pharika’s Cure

I’m not really sure about Lifebane Zombie and Thoughtseize. Both seem pretty bad, but at least Lifebane can snag a Boros Reckoner on the play.

Well, there you have it. People always ask me what they should play in PTQs and I usually don’t have a good answer, especially if there isn’t a relevant tournament for me coming up. I’m booked for GP Vancouver, however, and feel like I have a pretty good handle on the Standard format right now. While there are certainly other valid choices, this is the list I would play tomorrow and, therefore, feel pretty good about recommending.

Good luck!