Owen’s a Win – Black Devotion: Still the Best Deck

This past weekend I attended the SCG Invitational in Columbus, Ohio and did quite poorly. I played Mono-Black Devotion in Standard and UWR Delver in Legacy, and I had a really good feeling about the event going in. I was playing the two decks I won back-to-back Grand Prix with, so I felt like I would be both experienced and advantaged in both events. Additionally I have played multiple Invitational events in the past and not chosen this combination and always regretted not playing the other of these two decks. In the end it wasn’t meant to be, as I finished with a 4-3-1 record after my two byes in the Standard portion—1-1 in Standard and 1-2-1 in Legacy. I think I’m just going to quit playing UWR Delver for good, as it’s just an underpowered, inconsistent deck. I had basically all bad experiences with the deck leading up to GP DC and stuck to my guns to try and prove something to myself, that my testing process wasn’t bad. It worked out, but since then I have done poorly in every event I have played the deck. Either the deck was bad all along or people have adjusted and it’s weaker now, either way I won’t be playing it again any time soon.

Standard, on the other hand, continues to be my jam. My preparation for this event was basically only playing Standard on Magic Online. So little changes in Legacy that it wasn’t worth spending much time on, and for me it is very difficult to play games of Legacy on Magic Online with how infrequently the queues fire, my own access to cards, and the level of competition there. I basically played Standard every day for 4-5 hours for roughly three weeks. That is a lot of grinding. I was happy with my final deck list, and even after I did poorly in the Invitational I took my 75 cards right to the Standard Open the next day. Here is what I ran:

I started 8-0 in the tournament, which I admit felt pretty nice. I finished the Swiss rounds 9-1 and eventually lost in Top 4 to the Mono-Red Aggro player. Overall I am happy with the result and it was good to see the fruit of my labors. As you can see, I really went to the extremes to beat Jund Monsters. Four Lifebane Zombies in the main deck and four Doom Blade in the sideboard is just not messing around.

Doom Blade was great for me and it was useful in many different matchups. I liked having it against Jund Monsters of course, Mono-Red Devotion, Mono-Blue Devotion, White Weenie, and even Burn. I have found that traditionally Burn players will sideboard in more creatures than they start with, usually Firedrinker Satyr and Satyr Firedancer, but regardless, when I can trade my Underworld Connections for Doom Blade and you’re sideboarding in creatures that’s a huge upgrade for me. I find it silly that Burn is a deck built to be advantaged against Mono-Black Devotion and they make their deck worse for the matchup after sideboarding.

I think the biggest change is in the mana base. 22 Swamps and four Mutavaults is bare-bones, pure Magic. I have tried varying numbers of Temples in the deck and even had success with them—I won a GP with 3 and an Open with 4, but the more I played the less I liked them. This was partly due to the fact that I had tried many different splashes with the deck and also disliked those. I never liked the white for Blood Baron of Vizkopa because it makes you too vulnerable to Lifebane Zombie. Splashing red for Rakdos’s Return isn’t worth it because it makes your mana worse and Return is only a mediocre or good card until you spend five or six mana on it, and I didn’t feel like having more expensive spells in the deck would make it better. I tried the green splash for Abrupt Decay and also didn’t think it added enough, in the mirror you can just lose to a Desecration Demon while holding Decay and that made me feel like my deck was Constructed incorrectly. I also hated using Abrupt Decay as an answer to Underworld Connections—it’s nice of course and you’d rather have an out to Connections rather than just lose to it, but there were a large combination of outcomes that seemed poor. If you have Decay but no green mana you still lose to Connections, if you don’t draw Decay when they have Connections you still lose, if they have Duress or Thoughtseize and take Decay it’s far less reliable.

I understand that this is not a useful argument most of the time because why would you ever put any card in your deck if you were then going to argue that it’s very bad against Thoughtseize, because that’s essentially every card. The difference is that Abrupt Decay is a purely reactive card that sits in your hand until you have a chance to deploy it, so it’s unlike a Pack Rat or a Rakdos Cackler that can be cast before the opponent can Thoughtseize them. After sideboard, players often overload their decks with Thoughtseizes and Duresses for the mirror, which means holding on to a reactive card is worse and hoping to topdeck a good card is better. Lastly, I had noticed a stark shift in UW control decks that have started to cut Detention Sphere so that they could sidestep the Abrupt Decay problem. This ended up working out very well for me as I got to play against control players and not worry about Detention Sphere while also not crippling my mana base in the other matchups. Traditionally Detention Sphere is UW control’s best card against my deck and it isn’t particularly close.

In my experimenting with B/x Devotion lists I didn’t really like any of them but I did learn that I didn’t like their lands, and this lead me to the list I played at the Open, which was all Swamps all day. I felt like Mono-Blue Devotion would be popular as well as Jund Monsters. Both of these matchups are purely a race and if either player stumbles in the early turns then the other deck is fully capable of running away with the game. I want to play all my spells every turn and never be handicapped by drawing too many comes-into-play-tapped lands and the more matches of Magic I played the more I saw that my opponents were randomly hurt by these lands. Of course it’s very, very hard to see whose chances of winning the game go up based on all the scry 1s they were getting, but it didn’t seem like a big enough deal for me to be concerned. With Burn in the format as well, I loved that anytime I needed to draw a land for my Gray Merchant of Asphodel it was always a clean, crisp Swamp that didn’t cost me a single point of life to put into play. Pack Rat demands a second and third land come into play untapped and even all three if you want to start with a Thoughtseize, why not maximize your ability to get great hands?

I will admit that I was occasionally getting land flooded and I didn’t know exactly how to measure how much of that was variance and if any of it was me constructing my deck poorly. How big of a difference is playing 26 lands vs. 25? Was it that every time I was getting mana flooded I was always drawing that 22nd Swamp at an inopportune time? I really truly have no idea and that was part of the problem in preparing alone. I was very liberal in my willingness to sideboard out a land. In my semifinal matchup in game three, I had two Swamps in my sideboard.

I was happy to play with 26 because I had played with 26 before and been satisfied, and felt like I had a deck advantage in game one. Mono-Black Devotion was so far and away the best deck, that I would win game one a large enough percentage of the time as long as I didn’t get mana-screwed. Thus, I was happy to take on the risk of possible mana flood in those long games. I also felt that it was fine to play “extra” lands in my deck because Pack Rat can make fine use of dead draws, Underworld Connections is always a mana-hungry card, and with four Mutavaults that can act as spells I only had 22 real bricks. Additionally, after sideboard, all the matchups become longer and grindier based on my and my opponents’ willingness to just put more creature removal in their decks. All of that combined with the fact that I felt I would be on the draw in game 2, it made perfect sense for me to have 26 in all game 1s and 25 in almost all game 2s. I chose to go down to 24 in my semifinal match because I had even more removal than in other matchups and I saw that my opponent had multiple Duress in his deck, if both players have a ton of hand disruption in their decks then the single most likely outcome is that both players melt their hands down to nothing throwing discard at each other, and it becomes a topdeck war and you win more topdeck wars than you lose the less lands you have to draw in your deck.

Moving forward with Mono-Black: I love the deck and I think it’s a great choice for the format but I don’t know exactly how I want to configure the deck. Mono-Red aggressive strategies won both the Open and the Invitational, beating me on the way. If I want to change my deck to be better against Mono-Red that might mean a shift back to Nightveil Specter and possibly adding Drown in Sorrow to the sideboard. I am not against these changes but there is always a cost to adding a ton of new cards. This past weekend my deck was heavily metagamed against Jund Monsters but if I want to change my deck it would stand to reason that those are the slots I will need to skimp on.

Owen Turtenwald
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