Prey on MTG Pioneer Rakdos Midrange with Budget Black Devotion!

Pioneer has always had a best deck. From its inception, several decks have stood ahead of the rest of the pack as the clear winner given the current card pool. While most of these decks end up eating bans over time, some remain persistent for what some players believe is longer than they should. One such deck at the time of writing is Rakdos Midrange, your traditional “goodstuff” pile that takes over and dominates a game thanks to sheer individual card quality. While many decks boast the capacity to take a stab at the red-black menace, few are capable of reliably getting the job done. Today, we’re going to take a look at the tool that I’ve been using to prey on the strategy – a deck that takes “if you can’t beat em, join em” to a new level – Mono Black Devotion.


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Budget Pioneer Mono-Black Devotion by Darren Magnotti


The Deck

Mono-Black Devotion has taken two forms over the course of Pioneer’s history. Some choose to experiment with a big mana plan, incorporating Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx and large spells such as Peer into the Abyss to overwhelm opposition while trading with and disrupting their initial resource accumulation. The alternative option is the style of deck shown here, that looks to play a more traditional midrange game – trading resources throughout the game and closing out with efficiently costed creature threats.

Those classic midrange decks are ones that can pivot well depending on the style of matchup, adopting either a controlling or a beatdown role as necessary. Mono-Black Devotion, unlike some other flavors of classic midrange, tends to lean more toward the control role whenever it can. This makes it a fair contender against the likes of Rakdos at the moment because it has the capacity to play a sort of “anything you can do, I can do better” arrangement with some of its key card selections. While nothing in the deck is individually flashy, the combination of all of its elements makes for a powerful strategy that has game in practically any matchup it finds itself in.

One thing that I try to stay away from when assembling budget decks is the methodology of taking an existing shell and playing cheaper versions of the expensive cards. I’ve spent a lot of time playing suboptimal versions of suboptimal strategies over the years to little avail, so one thing that I try to promote in this series is the notion that power in deckbuilding can be found outside of conventional places. Synergies and rogue strategies are the backbone of budget deck building in this day and age, though on occasion you can still get away with that old way of thinking too. This deck certainly falls into that second camp, and while many of the card choices don’t seem stellar on the surface, for one reason or another, the deck just seems to work.

The Threats

Midrange decks are supposed to be built in such a way that they can pivot between an aggressive role and a controlling role whenever the need calls for it. To make the aggressive plan possible, they will often find themselves packing some powerful two-mana creatures. Misery’s Shadow is the latest addition in the list, and has broken into the Pioneer scene like a bull with its ability to shut down decks like Rakdos Sacrifice and the back halves of Devotion’s pip-generators in Old-Growth Troll and Cavalier of Thorns. Powerful in the early and later game as a mana sink, the Shadow is a lot more than meets the eye when it comes to making an impact on the game. Gifted Aetherborn is a strong two-drop that can clog up a board on its own against the likes of aggressive decks, and can slowly claw you back into a game via its lifelink ability. This card provides some huge benefits over the course of a game and shouldn’t be left out of contention.

Graveyard Trespasser, similarly, is a highly efficient beater that most black decks in the format are taking advantage of right now. It’s not so much that the body comes at a good rate as much as it is that it’s difficult to interact with from the opposing side, has a relevant interactive ability that compounds the longer it sits in play and can never be traded for one-for-one thanks to ward. Murderous Rider is one of those cards that has slowly seen less and less play over the course of Pioneer’s time as a format, but it fills a similar role to the Trespasser actually. With a distinctly medium stat line, the Rider really benefits from its utility offered in being a flatout removal option that comes with a creature attached more than having either half of the card be singularly potent.

One highly underutilized card in the format at the moment is Liliana, the Last Hope. A cheap planeswalker at three mana that can pick off early game threats while staving damage, rebuying deceased creatures and eventually creating a tremendous inevitability engine is very worthwhile, and arguably better in this archetype than her more expensive cousin, Liliana of the Veil. 

Typically the four-drop slot is where black midrange decks slot in a few copies of Sheoldred. Bearing in mind what I mentioned above about trying to shy away from “strictly worse versions of cards,” this is where I found my first real hurdle in deck building as well. However, after much searching and testing, I finally landed on New Capenna’s Body Launderer for the four slot. It does a reasonable Sheoldred impression on its own, being a large-ish blocker with deathtouch, but the similarities end there. The real strength of the Launderer is with its ability to rebuy creatures late in the game. Each creature in the deck can be brought back, which at the point in the game where the Launderer would be dying, can create a huge swing in momentum.

Lastly is Gray Merchant of Asphodel, which creates similarly astounding momentum swings upon entering. Most of the permanents in the deck provide two devotion, which means that ol’ Gary is coming down to hit them for around six to eight damage on average, stabilizing with added life gain at the same time. While the rest of the deck is geared slightly more toward grinding, Gray Merchant just tells you when the game is over. 

The Answers

This deck packs a fairly standardized suite of interaction to keep pace with the aggressive decks in the format. Bloodchief’s Thirst and Fatal Push are meant to clear out any first or second turn creatures and prevent a snowballing of mana Elves, Spirits or sacrifice fodder. Power Word Kill has picked up a lot more recently for its ability to hit every major threat in the format aside from the Selesnya Angels deck with no immediate downside. This tight core of interaction is typically enough to carry you to the midgame, where the creatures can then come down and begin to establish board dominance.

Go Blank is included due to a lack of Thoughtseize initially, though has proven to hold its own as a disruptive measure as well. It’s still an excellent tool against graveyard-focused decks like Phoenix and Greasefang, and two-for-one’ing a Rakdos opponent is always welcome. Other options are available, such as Duress and Dread Fugue, but the options for targeted hand disruption in the format are severely lacking at the moment so this slot is sort of one where the deck needs to make a concession.

Invoke Despair is the real calling card to the Black Devotion strategy at the moment, providing consistent three-for-one trading along with some reasonable damage should the board be relatively clear. Essentially all modes of this card are worth the investment, be it a draw three/deal six, a kill-their-planeswalker-and-Temporary-Lockdown and draw one or a total board wipe, five mana is a small price to pay for such a flexible method of card advantage generation.

Speaking of, Sign in Blood is criminally underrated in black midrange decks at the moment as a means to keep a hand full. On top of its additional utility to act as a burn spell in dire straits, Sign in Blood has swung me more games than I care to count. Black Devotion actually has a staggering amount of card advantage available, between all of the two-for-one creatures, the draw spells and the set of Castle Locthwain, there shouldn’t be a moment where you find yourself hellbent and desperate. 

How Does It Play?

Black Devotion has been a favorite of mine since the printing of Gray Merchant, and I would never pass up the chance to play it and Sign in Blood in the same deck. Midrange is extremely well suited in the Pioneer format at large right now, and Devotion benefits greatly from some of the same pieces that make the other variants excellent. The real draw though is the deck’s ability to outpace and overwhelm the Rakdos decks via Gray Merchant and Invoke Despair. Each card creates such wild swings that it can be difficult to come back from, and in the case of the Invoke, specifically a one-sided board wipe can be backbreaking. While the deck does sacrifice some style points against some of Rakdos’s more favorable matches like the aggro decks, being able to go over the top of the Rakdos players makes the tradeoff worth it in my opinion.

With the budgeted version specifically, the only real difference that I found was the lack of Thoughtseize. Some decks like Phoenix and Lotus are only winnable off the back of a turn one disruption spell, and without a reasonable way to emulate that, the deck just loses out on some opportunity. With a majority of the cards being shared with the upgraded version however, the deck is still quite strong as is and certainly capable of stealing games at the local FNM level as presented.


Pioneer Mono-Black Devotion by Darren Magnotti


Obviously the big additions to the deck are Thoughtseize and Sheoldred. As mentioned above, Thoughtseize currently holds no parallel and is an essential tool in a midrange player’s belt. Sheoldred, on the other hand, is just the best black creature available right now, capable of taking over a game with ease when left unchecked, turning the tide against the likes of control or board stall situations while avoiding the combat step, and stabilizing against aggression with her persistent life gain. Both of these cards are basically essential to the long term success of the deck, and should be focused on immediately when moving up into the full version.

Liliana of the Veil is a bit of a contention point, as she isn’t nearly as impactful as she used to be. Most cards these days are looking to accrue some form of card advantage, and players are generally more likely to be playing with enters-the-battlefield triggers or graveyard synergies, which makes both of Lili’s first modes rather impractical. I’m choosing to play her in the build that I pilot at my locals because she’s quite strong in the midrange mirrors, though The Last Hope would be equally powerful in those slots. It’s certainly a matter of preference though.

Lastly, The Meathook Massacre is just a fun tool that is by no means required. On occasion, it acts as a board wipe, and exactly once I’ve been able to remove an indestructible creature with it’s -X/-X effect. This should certainly be the last addition to the deck if it comes in at all though, as the cost to acquire doesn’t get anywhere close to matching the usefulness of the card. (I just had one in my trade binder, honestly).

That’s all for this one! Black midrange decks are a strategy that I’ve enjoyed for years, specifically jamming Gray Merchant in the Pauper format. While he’s been legal the entire time, there hasn’t really been much of an established Gray Merchant deck though, and I’m hoping to change that at some point because I’m quite attached to the card. Hopefully you’re able to find that same love for a strategy, as that’s the sort of commitment that it takes to play an off-meta build like this on the regular. Whether it’s the Swamps or something else, I’m looking forward to discovering more things to love in the weeks to come. Stay safe, play smart and thanks for reading. 

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