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Mono-Black Control: It’s Spreading Like Wildfire

Before we plunge into today’s piece, I’d like to share two things with you:

First, please help us out by checking out the Magic Effectiveness Project questionnaire. Take it yourself, pass it on to your friends. Thanks!

Second, I will be at the San Diego Comic Con this weekend. I’m planning on going to the Magic panel on Thursday night at 6:30pm in Room 26AB. If you’re going to be at the Con, come by and say hello. If you’re not going to be there and you have a question you’ve been dying to ask Mark Rosewater or Aaron Forsythe, let me know and I’ll see what they have to say.

New Core

One of the clear goals of the recent revisiting of “what it means to be a Core set” has been to ping on the nostalgia for the very first Magic Core set. In trying to elicit this sensation of “old school awesome” in M10 and M11, a big part of the heavy lifting is down to just plain old making good cards. In M11 in particular, however, Wizards has gone directly for our nostalgia jugular by printing cards that are nigh-explicit callbacks to earlier cards. This time around, we have cards like Roc Egg, Time Reversal, Dark Tutelage, Destructive Force, Cultivate, Fauna Shaman, and Mystifying Maze to fire off those nostalgia receptors.

And, naturally, to trick us into playing poor remakes of favorite decks.

One recurring comment in the last two weeks or so prior to the release of M11 was, “This will be good in Mono-Black Control, if that comes back.” This same hopeful refrain has appeared ahead of many other set releases since I got back into the game, which lead me to track down exactly when MBC was ever good.

That, in turn, leads into today’s topic – evaluating our nostalgia in context.

Nostalgia tends to live out of context

We often have favorite decks from days gone by. We may just recall them fondly, or we may try to get them to work again when the new Standard (or whichever) environment makes it seems like they might – might – be viable again. Of course, nostalgia is all about remembering the great parts of things. Like, say, how I had nearly ancient memories of Raise the Titanic being an awesome movie, and then watched it again in college and realized it is not simply bad but also commits the far greater sin of being incredibly boring.

So, when I hear people hopefully talking about the return of MBC, or any other deck, my prima facie suspicion is that it’s nostalgia talking, and if we had to bet money, it would be best to bet on the archetype not being a good fit for the current environment.

Of course, if you’re a newer player, or, like me, returned after a significant hiatus, you may not have a lot of nostalgia. But you may still do what I do and look to the past for guidance on how to build your decks right now. As a consequence, I think the setup I’m going to provide next is probably helpful for everyone, regardless of how long you’ve been playing or how many decks you have tagged in your mental “favorites” file.

Comparing the old and next contexts – can Mono-Black Control work today?

Decks exist in specific contexts.

This is a truism, but we forget it a lot.

Even when we see new cards roll into the format that look like elements of a deck that used to work well, we can’t assume that this means the deck will work well now. For example, consider Osamu Fujita’s MBC build that took him to second place in 2003 Japanese Nationals .

Mono-Black Control (Osamu Fujita, Japanese Nationals 2003)

 

This is a reasonably representative MBC build from the Odyssey – Onslaught Standard era, which is about the only time when MBC was a notable player (in Standard). Taken in isolation, it really does look like we could construct a reasonable facsimile of this deck in the current Standard. Heck, slightly more than half the non-land cards are in Standard right now.

If one wanted to do as much of a 1-to-1 replacement of missing cards with modern-day analogs as possible, the resulting take on MBC might look like this:

Nominal Modern MBC (not recommended)

So, should you play this deck?

Let me reiterate how much this is not a suggested deck. It’s just an off-the-cuff translation of Fujita’s MBC into modern cards to give newer players a point of reference.

So, there are two ways we can try to figure out if an archetype such as MBC is “back” and can work in our current format. I think they’re most effective when used together, so I’ll go through them both, using MBC as an example.

First, we want to evaluate the environment the deck was actually successful in. To do this, I’m going to partially rely on a tool I introduced last month – abstraction.

MBC of the Odyssey-Onslaught era began as MBC from Odyssey Block Constructed, where it was a very successful archetype, putting three players into the top eight of Pro Tour Osaka. Afterward it continued with some success in Odyssey-Onslaught Standard, which I think has permanently embedded a bunch of warm fuzzies in many players’ minds about the power of the archetype generally.

But what defined the Standard environment in the period where MBC was viable?

If you were to turn up to a Standard tournament roughly through the midst of 2003, you might have expected to play against:

Wake
Psychatog
UG Madness
RG Beatdown or Beasts
Astral Slide

How do we evaluate MBC from the Odyssey-Onslaught era in light of this environment?

First, we want to figure out each archetype’s high concept. Briefly, this is the idea of coming up with a one-sentence summary of how the deck wants to win the game, much in the way a screenwriter develops a one-sentence summary of their screenplay. We might write the high concepts for Odyssey-Onslaught MBC’s Standard companions like so:

[Graphs all lost]

Wake – Stall the opponent’s early game with countermagic, fogs, and mass removal and then drop Mirari’s Wake and win with a single, broken play.

 

Psychatog – Use massive card advantage and moderate countermagic to limit the opponent’s early game, then drop [card]Psychatog[/card] and Upheaval and kill the opponent in one turn.

 

UG Madness – Leverage the Madness mechanic to drop giant threats far ahead of the curve of other decks, then ride them to victory with a backing of mild disruption.

 

RG Beatdown / Beasts – Attack with a steady stream of giant dudes (and then, for RG, optionally finish with burn).

 

Astral Slide – Use cycling-fueled effects to control the board and then finish the game with a giant beater.

 

So what are those bar graphs following each archetype?

Last month, I wrote about using abstractions in deck design. I know that article ended up being a little confusing, so here’s the brief recap. In “abstracting” a deck design, I look at each card and give it an abstract role. For example, Doom Blade is “removal.” I then note where that card appears on the curve by adding its role there – so one Doom Blade in a deck puts one “Removal” in the two-mana position.

In an effort to make this idea as clear as possible, I’m presenting this same type of abstraction today in this bar graph visualization. Let’s take a look at the Wake graph again:

 

This time around, I chose to use a very simple set of abstractions. We have Acceleration (A), Card Advantage (CA), Threats (T), Removal (R), and Disruption (D). On the chart, the mana curve is the bottom axis, increasing as we go to the right. The number of cards is indicated on the vertical axis, with colors as shown in the legend. This way, we can quickly visualize the “layout” of an archetype across the mana curve.

For example, our representative Wake deck has no actual threats before the 5-mana mark, and spends all of its early cards on disruption, removal, and card advantage.

My hope is that this visualization converts the abstraction idea into an easy visual “snapshot” of the deck’s flow.

So, how does MBC plug into all this?

 

Check out that (appropriately) black dominance at all stages of the game – this mono-black is about removal, removal, removal, garnished with an early dose of disruption and a handful of finishers. Although that alone is interesting, consider how it interacts with all those other snapshots and high concepts we ran through above.

Although Wake seems like an especially poor matchup, given its emphasis on disruption and card advantage, the Beatdown and Madness archetypes skew heavily toward threats with little backup, and Psychatog is utterly threat light with perhaps too much emphasis on card advantage and disruption. Hitting any one of those decks with a solid wave of removal and disruption seems like a pretty good setup.

Now imagine transplanting that MBC approach into our nascent post-M11 Standard, where you have decks like this:

 

That’s Jund. Don’t be fooled by how compressed it is – that vertical axis goes to some very large numbers! Specifically, this is the mild M11 Jund update I suggested last week.

Check out how very, very different the Jund snapshot is from basically every archetype from the Odyssey-Onslaught era. Pretty much nothing proactive happens until turn three, and from then on the deck is a powerhouse of combined card advantage, threats, and removal.

Now ask yourself this”¦how useful is it to have very early disruption and a massive emphasis on removal when you’re facing that?

Okay, so maybe Jund is pretty different from the major players in the Odyssey-Onslaught era. What about another current contender from Standard, maybe something like Mythic?

 

There’s a lot to appreciate in the clarity of purpose intrinsic in this snapshot. Acceleration and threats, with a mild decoration of disruption with the inclusion of planeswalkers at the four-mana mark, and no main deck removal. The emphasis on threats, which we know to be largely creature-based from our understanding of the archetype, suggests that the removal theme of MBC would be pretty good here. That said, the threats just keep coming in Mythic, and with the abundance of acceleration, they’re likely to come sooner, meaning that a large portion of MBC’s removal will be terminally late to the party.

Finally, we might want to check in with contemporary UW control:

 

The first thing we notice here is just how powerful planeswalkers are. We also notice, however, that traditional MBC has the same problems here as it did against Wake – a dire scarcity of targets for its removal, and not enough disruption to make a difference.

So what does this tell us?

When MBC was good in the Odyssey-Onslaught era, it succeeded by using a full curve of removal backed by disruption to take down decks that relied on unsupported threats or a just a few threats backed by disruption.

Jund trades speed for a rich mixture of removal, disruption, threats, and card advantage. This partially nullifies the value of MBC having removal along the entire curve, and means that by the mid-game, traditional MBC is likely to be overwhelmed by Jund. After all, it doesn’t matter if you have lots of early removal if the opponent has no early targets. UW is iffy for the same reasons Wake was iffy, and Mythic might be a good match up, unless it can pack in more threats than MBC can draw and cast removal (in time).

Or, quite briefly:

Old school MBC won’t work in our current Standard, so shed those nostalgic ideas.

This doesn’t mean MBC won’t work at all, but it does mean that if you do have fond MBC memories, you’re going to want to think very critically and honestly about any new take on MBC you come up with, as your tendency will be to stick to the old ideas you knew before, and that simply won’t fly right now.

Wow, that was long. Is there a faster version?

Okay, so I have a sort of holistic love for context and prior experiences that means that I think it’s just plain old awesome to do the heavy-duty analysis described above.

On the other hand, you may not care about the prior context, and just want to know if a concept can plug into the modern day. Conveniently, we can do it this way, too.

Let’s consider Destructive Force.

It’s quite obviously Wildfire +1. One more mana, one more damage, one more land sacrificed by each player. These differences must naturally inform how we use it, but first, let’s take a quick, context-free glance at a fairly typical Wildfire deck of days past:

Tron Carter (by Tim Aten as PT Honolulu 2006)

That gives us the following snapshot:

 

Now, that is a single-minded deck. Hit six mana, win. In fact, the high concept is pretty much that – disrupt the opponent’s early game via countermagic, accelerate to six mana, win.

It’s important to keep in mind that this deck, like most Wildfire decks, was a Tron deck. As a consequence, one way that it capitalized on the power of Wildfire was in the potentially to maintain the Tron after a resolved Wildfire, especially inasmuch as it was going to have one or more Signets out as well. I don’t think we have an equivalent play in Standard, so we have to look to the other win condition of having a giant, scary threat on the battlefield that can and will survive our Wildfire.

Let’s turn around and plug this back into our contemporary Standard. To do so, I’d like to break that high concept down into a few parts.

“Accelerate to six mana” – This becomes “accelerate to seven mana,” which remains doable, even if we won’t be doing it via artifacts and Tron lands. We’re far more likely to do so with green-based acceleration, perhaps using the Lotus Cobra and Oracle of Mul Daya shell that powers Turboland.

“Disrupt the opponent’s early game via countermagic” – Despite the reappearance of Mana Leak in Standard, I just don’t think this is happening. Aten’s deck, like many Tron decks, relied on generally effective tempo disruption courtesy of Mana Leak and Remand. We have the Leaks, but no [card]Remand[/card]s”¦and Jund decks still have cascading Bloodbraid Elves. I think this component has to go.

“Win” – Well, if we do hit that seven-mana mark for Destructive Force, can we win? Although Cruel Ultimatum has fallen out of favor because you may well end up forcing the opponent to sacrifice a Noble Hierarch shortly before an Eldrazi-Conscripted Birds of Paradise kills you, Force has the advantage of killing almost every relevant creature in the format and dealing a crippling blow to decks that have nothing but creature-based acceleration to work with.

We can reach these conclusions by talking through them, or by looking at that graph above. Win by swinging with a crippling, high-mana spell? Sure. Get there with a lot of disruption clustered around low mana costs? Probably not so much, both by dint of a dearth of good cards to do so with and because the Mythic and Jund snapshots suggest you will be outpaced and overwhelmed, respectively.

That suggests the following punch line:

If we can find a good frame in which to place “hit seven mana, win,” then our modern-day Wildfire deck can work.

As I said above, I suspect you could manage the acceleration with a Turboland-like package of Lotus Cobra and Oracle of Mul Daya, and we can easily imagine using Knight of the Reliquary as a Magnivore-style finisher (even better, since it’s powered by the Destructive Force’s land destruction effect). Of course, the similarity between that shell, and well, Turboland, leads directly into the next question.

So we can make a Destructive Force deck. Should we?

Consider the snapshot for Turboland:

 

That’s the snapshot of a deck that is superlatively effective at the “make it to seven mana” part of the equation. In fact, the UG frame of Turboland is so good at this job, it suggests that we don’t want to try and dilute it Turboland to accommodate Destructive Force, because we’ll just end up with a worse deck that stumbles more often and that has a less effective end game.

Am I saying that Destructive Force is just out as a deck? No, I’m not that guy. Instead, this suggests that we should return to the punch line above and the lesson from our review of MBC, and try to shed our specific notions about how this deck has to work, instead focusing on the fundamental goal and how it has to interact with the current environment. If we weren’t going to try to accelerate to Destructive Force, is there a way to get there naturally?

 

This snapshot is from the Grixis deck that supakitchar used to take down a recent MTGO PTQ. That’s the snapshot of a deck that can successfully make it to seven mana naturally, and that can then cast a seven-mana spell to win from time to time – at least in M10 Standard. Here’s the list:

Grixis (by supakitchar)

How would we update this deck into a Destructive Force deck? Here’s one possibility:

Destructive Force Grixis (tentative build)

 

This is obviously a fairly modest adaptation of supakitchar’s build, and the jury is still out on whether maindecking Blightning is now suicidal in post-Baloth Standard. Nonetheless, I think a frame like this one could well use Destructive Force effectively. You have Jace to shuffle that sucker away in the early game and to be your post-Force win condition (as you fateseal away all of their lands and refuse to let them recover). Grave Titan replaces Siege-Gang Commander as another “many creatures in one card” option that also survives Force. This is a notional, untested build, but I think it’s an avenue worth pursuing.

Of course, accelerating to the Force isn’t out, either – you just need to be willing to shed the specific card choices of any given deck, as I said above. Here’s Kamiya Shogo’s take on “hit seven mana, win” from a post-M11 PTQ in Kanazawa.

Titan Force (by Kamiya Shogo)

 

 

 

I’m definitely curious about whether this specific build will work once people are on the lookout for it, but I think it’s a nice example of shedding preconceived notions (e.g. that you’d want Lotus Cobra and Oracle for a deck that’s trying to run up to seven mana) in making an effective deck.

Bringing the work flow together

Although I think it’s important (and really fun!) to evaluate our nostalgia both by understanding where it came from and how it relates to the current idea, I think the fundamental point is that before we burn a lot of time trying to make an idea work in Standard now, we want to take a moment to use whatever tools work for us to figure out how the concept used to work, and whether that approach can work now.

I like things like high concepts and abstractions, but you may have a completely different method of thinking about these things, as suits your strengths.

While we may learn that an old archetype just won’t fly, we may also find that it fits perfectly into a well-developed frame that’s sitting right there in front of us. As a consequence, we get to shortcut a whole bunch of playtesting scut work and go toward enjoying and optimizing our shiny new idea.

And that’s really the point, right?

So how is M11 pinging your nostalgia? Have you tried any old school ideas in the new Standard? If so, how did that go?

Discussion

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