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Owen’s a Win – Orzhov Is Better Than Mono-Black Devotion

I have had many people ask me why I chose to play Bw midrange/Orzhov control over Mono-Black Devotion at the Pro Tour. It was a very difficult decision because for almost a full year of premier-level tournaments I played Mono-Black Devotion and never thought twice about it. My preparation after winning Grand Prix Albuquerque was just to play 20 matches on MTGO before a big event and then change five or so cards based on the decks I expected to face.

But the Pro Tour is an entirely different animal. The tournament offers much higher stakes, so you care more about proper preparation, as opposed to a Grand Prix where if I just try a moderate amount that’s often very good. On top of that, I knew I would be playing against people who also tested a ton and I would have much less of an edge than I would normally.

I couldn’t quite peg down whether Nightveil Specter was worth it in the metagame I expected. In the end I dismissed it as too weak against control. It may not be intuitive, but Lifebane Zombie is actually a better card against Sphinx’s Revelation control decks than Nightveil Specter. It deals more damage against a Jace, Architect of Thought’s +1 ability, it’s a faster clock in general, the cards you exile off Nightveil Specter rarely matter, and Nightveil Specter is susceptible to Last Breath where Lifebane Zombie is not.

Nightveil Specter really shines in the mirror match where it can run away with games quickly or against fast aggro, like Rabblemaster Red where it can block all their creatures and survive. Another important aspect to note is that against Mono-Black Devotion, Nightveil Specter is much better than Lifebane Zombie, but against Orzhov Midrange the two cards have a remarkably similar power level.

Ultimately, I went with Lifebane Zombie for two reasons. I knew I would play Lifebane Zombies somewhere in my 75—they were way too good against white weenie creature decks and Mono-Green Devotion or Jund Monsters, and if I chose Nightveil Specter with some Lifebanes in my sideboard, then I lose all those sideboard slots. The second reason is that I have always struggled to beat Domestication out of Mono-Blue Devotion—if my opponent lands Domestication on my Nightveil Specter it’s a complete nightmare. But if they Domestication my Lifebane Zombie it’s very bad but I could at least still salvage a victory in some games.

The other card I struggled with most was Gray Merchant of Asphodel. I used to swear by Gray Merchant like gospel and would get angry whenever anyone would only play 3 in their decks, or sideboard it out in certain matchups. I truly felt like it was one of the best cards in the deck and almost a broken card. The reality is that it’s extremely high variance, as is any devotion card. It all depends on the cards you draw, the order in which you draw them, and the amount of removal your opponent has in hand. One of the largest reasons I chose not to play with Gray Merchant is that it’s just a very underwhelming card in the mirror—it still has its moments when both players have Underworld Connections and it gets topdecked to swing a game, but when both players are casting Thoughtseize or Bile Blight on Pack Rat in the early turns, then each players’ resources melt down to nothing and you’re left with one or zero cards. In these games Gray Merchant is a glorified Highway Robber. In my experience Blood Baron of Vizkopa can be an excellent late-game topdeck just like Gray Merchant but it also doubles as a card that you want to be your final and only spell that matters.

Before the Pro Tour I desperately wanted to play Mono-Black Devotion, and I wouldn’t do that if I felt like I would be disadvantaged against Orzhov Control, which I expected to be both popular and successful. Matt Costa built an Orzhov Midrange deck to his liking and I built a Mono-Black Devotion deck that I felt would be best suited to beat the Blood Baron build. We played 10 game sets over and over, and the Orzhov deck just always won 6-4 or at worst split the set 5-5. We must have played hundreds of games and Blood Barons were always great, even against my deck that had 4 Devour Flesh, 4 Lifebane Zombies, and 4 Thoughtseizes to contain them. There were other factors at play here—Banishing Light having the ability to exile Underworld Connections didn’t come up often, but when it did it almost always resulted in a game win for the Orzhov deck. Additionally Elspeth, Sun’s Champion is an awesome card in the matchup. Mono-Black Devotion has almost no cards that can match the power of Elspeth and its options against it were either Hero’s Downfall plus Bile Blight to get fully 2-for-1’d or just die. Most of the time they just died.

On top of all the evidence which I didn’t want to face, I had a wealth of experience playing my Mono-Black Devotion lists against Bw midrange decks, and deep down in my heart of hearts I just knew the Bw deck was advantaged. I have played the matchup so many times in Grand Prix and Invitational tournaments and I usually lose, even to weaker players. No matter how badly I wanted to be right in having played the 1-color version of Black-Devotion for so long, I just wasn’t—Bw is simply a better deck in more matchups.

So far I’ve concluded that if I play Bw over Mono-Black I have a better matchup in the mirror, this is huge and not even really up for debate. The edge is small but it is real and that made me feel worlds better than having no advantage at all. I hated the idea of playing in a Pro Tour and just hoping to not get paired against Mono-Black or just flip a coin to see who wins when I do.

On top of that, thanks to Caves of Koilos, the mana in the deck was so much better that you could even play the deck as equal parts black and white and feel fine. Previously the deck had to run multiple Orzhov Guildgate and Plains and hope to win the mana base lottery, drawing the correct mix of colored lands and spells. Now I was happy to just put more white cards in my deck at very little cost. Two cards that were huge problems for Mono-Black Devotion were Voice of Resurgence and Chandra’s Phoenix, and to the surprise of nobody the Top 8 of the Pro Tour had a Voice of Resurgence deck and a Chandra’s Phoenix deck. If you have 4 Desecration Demon and 4 Devour Flesh, these cards run you over while making all your cards look inefficient. The quick fix would be to add a couple Last Breath, which performed very well for me in the tournament. I also had Banishing Light which was less efficient but still a reliable answer to these cards—they all had 4 Voice or 4 Chandra’s Phoenix in their lists and I had 2 Last Breath and 2 Banishing Light as outs, it finally felt like we were on equal footing.

Two other cards that gave my Black Devotion lists fits were Domestication and Thassa, God of the Sea. With white, I could take a similar approach and add 2 Banishing Light and 2 Deicide, which were good solid answers that meant I wouldn’t just let my opponent run wild, and I could at least stop them some of the time. In the past cards like Voice of Resurgence and Chandra’s Phoenix, though problematic, were largely unpopular and Domestication and Thassa were beatable, but you weren’t really advantaged against it. I felt good because I knew with cards like Pack Rat and Gray Merchant of Asphodel you didn’t have to beat your opponent’s cards you could just win without interacting, which is a fine plan B. The Black Devotion deck was very good at having hands that just ignored the opponent and put on pressure. It also felt good knowing that I could still do that some of the time with the Bw version of the deck, some games I would answer their threats and play a controlling game and some of the time I just had a Thoughtseize into Pack Rat hand and it didn’t matter what they were doing.

Players often remark that Pack Rat is an overpowered card, or that Thoughtseize is oppressive. It’s insane that so many people know it’s great or even unfair to have one or both of these cards, yet they choose not to play them. Even at the Pro Tour, I would get quick Pack Rat hands on the play with a couple Mutavaults, and my opponent would just look at me and say, “well that Pack Rat is a great card…” It’s a very real skill to identify the best cards in the format and then actually put them in your deck, as opposed to admitting your deck is weak to them. What did you think was going to happen? You were just going to play 10 rounds of Magic and none of your opponents would run Pack Rat? You were hoping they weren’t going to draw it? In the end, anyone who played a deck that was weak to Pack Rat simply didn’t succeed in the event and that’s probably the way it should be—adapt to the format or else.

I think the biggest mistake I made was not playing with more Sin Collectors in my list. I acknowledged that it was was of the single best threats that exist against control, but I still opted to play some Duress over more Sin Collector as a hedge against the Jund Planeswalker decks. I suppose there’s a small chance that this was a good decision, but I was punished for it since I didn’t play against any Jund Planeswalker decks but I did end up losing to UW Control in the Top 4. I beat three different Sphinx’s Revelation decks in the Swiss rounds, so I feel I was likely favored in the matchup anyway.

I also spent a ton of time testing builds of my deck that had zero Devour Flesh, and I knew I didn’t like the card but out of fear of other Blood Barons I played two. In the end, my suspicions were confirmed and nobody played Blood Baron and Devour Flesh was very bad for me. I kind of liked having them against Sylvan Caryatid decks, but I was never paired against one of those.

In the end, if you decide to play black midrange, choose black/white over mono-black like I did. You won’t be disappointed.

Owen Turtenwald
qazwsxedcrfvtgbyhnuj on Magic Online
OwenTweetenwald on twitter

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