I’m very exciting to be participating in the first ever Pauper Premier League. I’ve made no secret Pauper is my favorite constructed format, and I’m pleased to play a deck I’ve spent a lot of time learning and tuning: Mono Black Devotion.
Experience with the archetype played a role in my selection, but it was also a deck that I felt has overperformed in the metagame since the “free blue” ban. Results + Experience = Choice.
Today, I’ll walk you through the basic strategy of the deck, the rationale behind my specific card choices, and my matchup plans. From there, you’ll have the groundwork in place to build and tune your own 75 as well as a solid understanding of how to play against it from the other side.
Mono-Black is a solid strategy and the darkest dark horse in the format.
Let’s start with my current list and work outward.
Pauper Premier League
18 Swamp 4 Bojuka Bog 4 Cuombajj Witches 4 Gray Merchant of Asphodel 4 Chittering Rats 1 Crypt Rats 4 Disfigure 2 Defile 2 Duress 2 Unearth 3 Oubliette (Dark) 1 Evincar's Justice 1 Night's Whisper 4 Sign in Blood 1 Echoing Decay 4 Chainer's Edict Sideboard 4 Wrench Mind 3 Choking Sands 2 Rancid Earth 1 Faerie Macabre 1 Duress 1 Crypt Incursion 1 Echoing Decay 1 Evincar's Justice 1 Mindstab
Stock Mono Black, right? Actually, not really… I started with a stock, aggregate mono black list, I took averages from a sample of winning lists and started with that. I ended up changing about 20 cards, which is actually a lot considering a deck is only 75 cards.
The backbone and reason to play the deck.
These cards are way above replacement and feel more like great uncommons than commons (Chainer’s Edict was actually downshifted in rarity).
The strength of the deck is Gray Merchant, and it impacts every card choice I’ve made and has guided the direction I’ve taken my build. All nonland permanents in the list add BB for devotion (the singleton Crypt Rats being the exception):
“Hopelessly devoted to Asphodel.”
Gray Merchant is in a league by itself and honestly feels more like a rare. It was Constructed playable in Standard, and I even did some videos for CFB a few years ago where I was playing a playset of Gray Merchant in Modern (although this was before Modern went crazy).
Typically, the first Gary connects for about 4 life and buys you time for the second one to seal the deal, just like in Theros Standard and Theros Limited. There are few decks that have a card as all around powerful as Gray Merchant, so we simply build around our rare-level common.
The Power of Godlike Removal
Gray Merchant of Asphodel is just one card, and one card does not a deck make. The next biggest benefit of mono Swamps is the abundance of quality removal options. At each spot in the curve we are met with an embarassment of riches in terms of quality options:
CMC 3+ (WILD CARDS)
“Disfigure in deck,
Edict you twice,
Witches ping tokens, tokens all night,
Baby, you can play whatever you like.”
There are more A+ removal spells in black at common than you’d need to build a 100-card deck, so it becomes an issue of:
- Which ones?
- How many?
- For what purpose?
Let’s start with the one drop removal since it’s the trickiest because the options feel very close. Here is the type of sequence that informs my love of Disfigure.
Turn 1: Swamp, pass.
Opponent plays creature, pass. I Disfigure it.
The fact that Dead Weight is sorcery speed disqualifies it for me since it takes this possible line out of the equation. Dead Weight also doesn’t interact favorably with Spellstutter Sprite or Ninja of the Deep Hours. The -2/-2 on turn 1 is extremely important when you are on the draw trying to clear out a 2/2, and neither Tragic Slip nor Defile get the job done which can cause you to fall behind.
The decision between Tragic Slip and Defile is close. I’ve gone with double Defile, but was tempted to play a split. Each is good against something different. Tragic Slip is amazing against Carrion Feeder decks, but Defile is better at clearing out Gurmag Angler, Affinity’s 4/4s, or a Mnemonic Wall in response to Ghostly Flicker.
Despite the format warping in a way to try and make Chainer’s Edict bad, it’s still insane. I love the fact that I’m playing one of the few decks in the format that boasts a great matchup against GW Hexproof, and the card is an absolute house against any deck that doesn’t spam tokens.
We have to account for tokens somehow, which is why there are a lot of sweepers and pingers.
We never want to end up in a situation where we are trading a removal spell for a single token, and we need ways to grind out token decks. There are also plenty of matchups where these cards can trade with multiple real cards: Elves, Delver, Infect, Stompy, etc.
Another thing to consider about Mono Black is that it uses its life total as a resource in a profound way. We trade life points for value, mana efficiency, and outright power all over the place, which makes preserving our life total important. Gary can score us more HP to play with (have I mentioned everything comes back to Gray Merchant yet?), but obviously things can get tight when you don’t have him on five in a favorable position. Keeping the board clear and avoiding repeated chip damage goes a long way in the kind of war we are trying to fight.
I would describe our strategy as attrition-based; we run the opponent out of resources by dispatching their threats. Without Gush, even Delver decks are vulnerable to being 2-for-1’d to death. And after sideboard, we have a ton of discard to run the opponent out of cards.
Last, but certainly far from least:
I’m up to three and teetering toward four. It imprisons all monsters, big and small, and is extremely effective against threats with undying and persist. Oubliette also locks up Auras, such as Rancor and Dragon Breath, which is another nice way to earn a 2-for-1.
In addition to being a fantastic spell removal spell, it importantly contributes to our devotion count for Gary. Witches and Rats are easy to pick off with removal, but Oubliette is much stickier and helps ensure our Gray Merchants are high impact. The difference between an 8 point and 4 point life swing is huge.
The reason I don’t play four is that I wanted the deck to be leaner, which is also the thought process behind taking Phyrexian Rager out. As the aggro decks got leaner, I found Rager to be low impact and upwards of 12 three drops was too clunky. I’ve significantly streamlined my curve and the impact of the each card at any given casting cost. I want to double spell more quickly, casting Sign in Blood and potentially finding something I can cast that same turn.
Threat Level: Midnight
It looks threat light, but it doesn’t feel threat light…
“You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villany.”
Mono Black is not a beatdown deck, at least not this version. Our goal is to grind the opponent out of resources and overpower them. The build leans toward beating creature decks game 1 and transforming to match up better against controlling decks post board.
“I really ‘dig’ this card.”
I didn’t want to play “bad creatures” and wanted more of the good creatures like Rats and Witches. Unearth gives me access to more of these threats at a discounted rate. It also cycles to mitigate situations where I don’t have a creature in the graveyard.
A lot of the decks that are vulnerable to Witches play some removal and are thrilled to throw it at a Witch. Unearth lets us buy it back for a single mana, and hopefully it sticks the second time.
Unearth is also excellent with Crypt Rats. It represents access to more sweepers as well as a bunch of potential burn damage in the late game. Keep in mind, Crypt Rat’s ability doesn’t require you to sacrifice the Rats (they die upon resolution of the damage) which means that you can respond to Prismatic Strands by activating the Rats again.
I don’t have a second Crypt Rat in the 75, instead I have a second Evincar’s Justice. Unsurprisingly, I made that choice because turn 4 Justice is (you guessed it!) better at bridging the gap to Gary.
How to Defeat Swamps
The reason I like Mono Black as a deck choice right now boils down to numbers.
I believe the deck is favored against aggro decks (Elves, Delver, Stompy, Affinity, etc), which are approximately 50% of the metagame; evenly matched against midrange decks (Boros, the mirror, Orzhov, etc) which have an approximate 25% metagame share; and unfavored against Blue Control/Tron, which makes up the remaining 25%.
There’s a margin of error at play with regard to the meta, but in a general sense I believe the deck is well positioned. I’m not saying Mono Black is some unstoppable juggernaut (it’s clearly not), but I do think it is one of the strongest choices in Pauper right now. I’ve spent a lot of words describing what I’m good against and why, so let’s talk about what the deck is fundamentally vulnerable to.
We have too much cheap removal game 1 to match up well against a big mana control deck. It’s certainly not unwinnable, but the game ends up being about drawing “the good half of the deck” more than anything else.
In post board games, we dramatically transform into a deck capable of fighting over the resources that matter. We’re fundamentally unfavored, but we have lots of cards that matter and interact along the axis that matters. We have five Stone Rains to put them off a fast Tron draw and a ton of discard to go after their hand.
The four Bojuka Bogs in the main do a lot of work postsideboard by eliminating Tron’s ability to use their graveyard as an extension of their hand in the battle of resources (Moment’s Peace, Forbidden Alchemy, Mystical Teachings, Pulse of Murasa). Exiling key spells to break up loops with Mnemonic Wall (Capsize, Ghostly Flicker) actually forces them into being fairly one-dimensional and beatable.
I’ve had more success against Tron than I expected, but it’s largely due to having a solid grasp of what is important. I don’t anticipate I’ll be able to outplay people in the Premier League, which puts me on one of two plans:
Plan A: Dodge matchup.
Plan B: Draw well.
Another angle that can be difficult to beat are decks that draw a bunch of cards and play a bunch of Counterspells. We are fundamentally bad against decks that have tons of redundant draw and permission, and there isn’t much that can be done to change that. We board in what we can and hope to gain the upper hand.
Fortunately, the decks that Mono Black is good against (fast aggro) tend to be challenging match ups for the decks we are weak against. It’s a game of rock–paper–scissors where we’re anticipating our opponent is twice as likely to throw paper than either rock or scissors, and with that in mind I’m letting the scissors fly.
I would say that Mono Black crushes Boros, except when they become the monarch.
The monarch changes the whole dynamic. In games where Boros isn’t the Monarch, the matchup is on easy mode. In games where they play Palace Sentinels, it gets tricky. They are still very beatable after they’ve drawn multiple extra cards, but there is a point of no return. I’ve won games where they’ve drawn five extra cards because nothing they could do with those cards mattered and Black’s endgame is so powerful.
The reason becoming the monarch is so good against Mono Black is that our creatures are not particularly good in combat. They are not evasive and you don’t have a swarm of them, so it’s not only hard to take the crown away from an opponent, it’s difficult to keep the crown once you have it.
I stopped playing this card altogether because I found it to be a liability in my black decks. Even against control decks (which is specifically where I’d want it), the opponent could flash in a Spellstutter Sprite, steal the monarch from me, and kill my creature. GG. In these devotion decks it has felt “win more,” and I don’t like high-risk, low-reward tactics.
Everything they do is a 2-for-1 that we must accept, because if we don’t the cards scale to become 3-, 4-, and 5-for-1s.
White Hate Cards
In the unlikely event our opponent plays white sideboard silver bullets in Pauper, we’re dead meat.
Circle of Protection: Black puts us on Gray Merchant + Sign in Blood or bust since both cause loss of life rather than damage. In case I haven’t mentioned it, Gary is your get out of jail free card as it’s almost always a key player in winning games that you had no business winning.
I don’t want to sideboard for cards I’m unlikely to face, but I do recognize this is a realistic way for decks to pummel me if they want to or if Mono Black becomes a significantly more popular choice in the meta.
These five things (Tron, Blue Control, Monarch, Zuberas, and white hate cards) are what I hope most to avoid when playing Mono Black.
I’m very excited to see Pauper being elevated to a legitimate tournament format, and I think Mono Black is currently a well positioned deck.
The 10 most played spells in Pauper:
- Expedition Map (15% of decks)
- Augur of Bolas (15%)
- Ponder (16%)
- Kor Skyfisher (21%)
- Preordain (23%)
- Counterspell (25%)
- Arcum’s Astrolabe (30%)
- Mulldrifter (31%)
- Lightning Bolt (31%)
- Prophetic Prism (36%)
These are sort of the Power 10 of the format, and I don’t see any black cards on there (a bunch of blue ones though). It makes me wonder if unbanning Sinkhole or Hymn to Tourach could be an option down the line. I don’t think either card is objectively better than Counterspell, Lightning Bolt, Mulldrifter, or Preordain. It could be an interesting twist on the format to unban Sinkhole if Tron decks were to become a problem down the road.
In fact, I thought it was weird to ban both outright when it’s unclear to me that either card is better than other highly played staples of the format. I’m not advocating for one thing or another, the format is great as is, but I do question whether the ban was dictated by necessity or by not wanting to rock the boat. Feel free to discuss that in the comments, and I totally understand these two are not the most fun cards in the world, but then again how much fun is Urza’s Tower? I felt like it was worth making a footnote of Hymn and Sinkhole in a Mono Black article.
Whatever! Don’t need them. Don’t care!
I don’t want to give the impression the deck steamrolls the rest of the format, because that simply isn’t true. You should expect to play a bunch of close matches. I wouldn’t describe it as a deck that gets a ton of free wins, but it also doesn’t typically give the opponent many free wins either. It’s a fun, solid, and well positioned option.
With that being said, Gray Merchant into Gray Merchant can certainly lead to some free wins… Have I mentioned that card is pretty good?