The results of Grand Prix Chicago last weekend came as a great surprise to me. It came as a surprise that there were, quite literally, no surprises at all! Everyone by now knows that Black Devotion, Blue Devotion, and Sphinx’s Revelation Control are three pillars of Standard. However, I watch coverage of Standard events with the expectation—or at least hope—that someone will make the Top 8 with a strategy a little off the beaten path.
The Top 8 of Grand Prix Chicago was all Black, Blue, and control. It’s become clear where we stand, and what the Standard format is all about. But there’s nothing to be gained by crying about it, we just need to do the best with what we’re given.
Along those lines, I’d like to explore one of the defining matchups of the format: Black Devotion vs. control. I’ll discuss the pros and cons, in regard to the matchup, of some of the more popular builds of each deck. I’ll make suggestions on how to improve your chances on every battlefield, from deck construction to sideboarding to game play. My hope is that this article will be helpful, at least in some small way, to control players and Black Devotion players alike, as well as to those simply looking for a deeper understanding of the format.
How the Matchup Plays Out
The most challenging aspect of the matchup, from either side, is that the games can play out in wildly different ways.
From the Devotion perspective, if you leave in cards like Hero’s Downfall, you water down your deck, and risk not having enough pressure to close out a game. However, if you cut all of your removal, you allow your opponent to stick planeswalkers with impunity, and leave yourself vulnerable to a surprise creature out of their sideboard.
Similarly, from the control perspective, you want to prepare for long, grindy games involving Underworld Connections. But if you overprepare for games like that, you may just die to a turn 2 Pack Rat.
In the interest of simplifying a complicated issue, we can think about the games as playing out in one of two ways: contained or uncontained.
The games which are contained are most often the ones that involve a lot of Thoughtseize effects. In these games, resources trade one for one early and often, and cards like Jace, Architect of Thought, Underworld Connections, and Erebos, God of the Dead do not stick on the board—at least not right away.
When games are uncontained, both decks are allowed to “do their thing,” so to speak. The number of cards drawn outpaces the amount of disruption, and both decks begin to function in the way they’re designed to. These games lead to players trading haymakers, and the heavy-hitter cards like Sphinx’s Revelation and Gray Merchant of Asphodel become the key players.
Either player can win either type of game, and must therefore be prepared for both.
Contained games are about small edges. Resources are pared down, so cards like Sphinx’s Revelation cannot run away with the game. Both players fight for early game 2-for-1s.
The most important tools for the Devotion player in contained games are Underworld Connections and Nightveil Specter—these are the cards that can provide irreversible card advantage. Use your Thoughtseizes to protect these cards. Squeeze every bit of value from them as quickly as possible.
For example, imagine you Thoughtseize and see a Syncopate and a Deicide as answers to your Underworld Connections. Using the “small edge” mindset of a contained game, you might choose to take the Syncopate, then wait until turn 4 when you can cast Underworld Connections and use it in the same turn. It will get Deicided, but you’ll have earned a 2-for-1 advantage, which can go a long way toward deciding a contained game.
Use your Underworld Connections every single turn, even if it means playing off-curve. In other words, it’s better to wait a turn on casting your Desecration Demon rather than tap your Connections land to do so.
Play lands and cast spells off Nightveil Specter right away, because you never know when your opponent might topdeck a way to remove it from the table.
Pack Rat is a dangerous card in a contained game, as making reasonable use of it means leaving yourself vulnerable to Supreme Verdict. Err on the side of making tokens at the end of the opponent’s turn, even if it means missing a damage here and there. In general, do not play too many threats into a possible Supreme Verdict in a contained game.
From the control side, your absolute best card is Divination—it’s castable on few lands and gives a guaranteed 2-for-1.
Jace, Architect of Thought can be good, but you should usually take what you can get from him. It’s usually better to -2 right away, because allowing your opponent to 1-for-1 with Hero’s Downfall is a minor disaster. If you get two cards off your Jace and force your opponent to spend mana activating a Mutavault, it’s a small victory, which is exactly what you’re looking for in a contained game.
Remember, as the control player, the longer the game goes with little action, the more it favors you. Don’t get greedy with your permission spells, just use them to slow things down and keep things under control as long as possible.
It’s easier for the Devotion player to pull ahead in a contained game, due to the possibility of sticking a Connections or Specter. However, if those things do not happen in a timely manner, contained games favor the control player because of how powerful their deck becomes once it hits six or seven lands.
Uncontained games are not about small edges, they’re about setting up a winning board state. These are games that remain undecided into the mid- and late game, where planeswalkers, Underworld Connections, and Sphinx’s Revelations become major players.
Generally speaking, in uncontained games, the Devotion player has the advantage in the midgame (say, turns 5-8), but if things reach the very late game on an even playing field, the control player begins to have an advantage.
If the Sphinx’s Revelations become too big to manage, the Devotion player has two options. The first is simply to go for a win. This will be easy if you can stick Erebos, God of the Dead, since the passive “opponents cannot gain life” ability will keep them in constant danger. Well-timed Gray Merchants of Asphodel can also take games.
The second option is to begin attacking the control player’s win conditions. Use Thoughtseizes to take out Elixir of Immortality, Aetherling, and the like; and use Hero’s Downfall and creatures to kill planeswalkers as quickly as possible. It’s not necessarily that you’re trying to deck your opponent or run them out of win conditions, it’s simply that control decks have a high density of mana and card drawing, and a low density of cards that actually impact the game. You can make it very difficult for the control player to kill you, and buying more time means anything can happen.
In uncontained games, a small number of ways to kill Detention Sphere can offer a tremendous long term advantage.
From the control perspective, reaching the late game means things are going according to plan. Your exact route to winning the game will depend on the configuration of your deck (more on this will follow). In general, though, this is where you begin to focus on a winning board state. Remember that your opponent has a limited amount of mana to work with, no matter how many cards they’re drawing per turn.
Ticking up your planeswalkers means forcing the opponent to deal with them right away, which is not always what they want to be doing with their mana.
In uncontained games, save your permission for the cards that you cannot answer through other means. Supreme Verdict can kill Desecration Demon and Pack Rat, but only Dissolve can really stop a Gray Merchant of Asphodel.
Those, in short, are the generalities of the matchup. Now let’s get into the specifics.
Varieties of Black Devotion
The content of this article need not apply only to decks featuring Gray Merchant of Asphodel. They hold true for any black midrange deck featuring Thoughtseize and Underworld Connections. This includes B/W, B/G, Junk, Jund, or anything else in that vein that someone might brew up in the future. In this article, the term “Devotion” simply refers to the black deck’s side of the matchup.
In a slow matchup like Devotion vs. control, the negative effects of splashing a color are negligible. Therefore, Mono-Black is not inherently the best build against control. One strength is its easy ability to play with Nightveil Specter. Lifebane Zombie is fine in the matchup, but Nightveil Specter is excellent. Mono-Black is also the best equipped to use Erebos, God of the Dead, which is one of the best sideboard cards (in small numbers). The weaknesses of Mono-Black are that it has no planeswalkers and cannot destroy Detention Sphere.
B/W Midrange has a lot of excellent tools against control. If you’re absolutely dedicated to winning the matchup, this is a good color combination to be in. Obzedat, Ghost Council is extremely hard for many builds of control to beat. Banishing Light is a good answer to both Detention Sphere and planeswalkers (although it makes you more vulnerable to Deicide). You can supplement Thoughtseize and Duress with Sin Collector. Finally, Elspeth, Sun’s Champion and Blood Baron of Vizkopa are useful tools.
As a control player, I’ve always been most afraid of the green splash in Black Devotion. It has by far the best ability to blow up Detention Spheres, which are so important in the matchup. Not only does it have the ability to blow up Spheres, but it has far fewer dead cards since Abrupt Decay replaces cards like Bile Blight and Devour Flesh in the main deck. Golgari Charm is one of the best and most versatile cards against control, since it can regenerate from Supreme Verdict or wipe out a bunch of Elspeth tokens. Vraska the Unseen is also scary in certain situations.
The red splash has some good things going for it, but is not my personal favorite. It’s the best against Planar Cleansing builds of control, since Rakdos’s Return is the perfect way to punish someone who taps out for a big sorcery. However, its inability to destroy Detention Spheres otherwise puts it at a distinct disadvantage compared to B/W and B/G. Keep in mind Sire of Insanity and Slaughter Games as additional sideboard options.
Below is a B/W Midrange deck list that would be a good choice if beating control was a top priority. It’s modeled closely after SCG Invitational runner-up Ben Friedman’s deck list:
Varieties of Control
The more Detention Spheres and Banishing Lights you have, the better you will be against Devotion. Even against B/G, where they can be a liability, the best plan is simply to hope you draw more Spheres than they draw Abrupt Decays. The Planar Cleansing builds of control are much weaker against Devotion. In general, the card is expensive and unreliable against them. In particular, you need Detention Sphere as insurance against Pack Rat.
My first reaction when Black Devotion became popular, way back in October, was to play Esper with Blood Baron of Vizkopa. This card is admittedly very good against Black Devotion, but, believe it or not, I’ve had better results with plain U/W Control.
I believe that control inherently has a small edge in the matchup, so I prefer to just stick to the primary game plan. As I mentioned, Divination is often the best card you can have, and just jamming as much card draw and permission as possible into your deck will make you pretty good in the matchup.
Along those lines, Elixir of Immortality is the best win condition for the matchup, particularly in game one. As I alluded to above, sometimes games play out in a way that Black Devotion can attack the control player’s small number of win conditions, and Elixir of Immortality is a good way to ensure that you never run out in the long run. Planeswalkers can be killed by creatures or Hero’s Downfall. Aetherling sometimes struggles to race Whip of Erebos or Gray Merchant of Asphodel.
Below is a U/W Control deck list that would be a good choice if beating Black Devotion was a top priority:
Some Interesting Cards
Many cards are either clearly excellent or clearly awful in the matchup. Some, though, are a bit of a mixed bag and require further discussion.
Gray Merchant of Asphodel: Awful in contained games—since it’s not a potent threat on its own—but excellent in uncontained games—since it’s your most powerful late game card. I believe it’s a card that’s nice to have access to, but do not necessarily want to draw early or in multiples. You should have 0-2 copies after sideboarding.
Pack Rat: One of the best cards against the Planar Cleansing builds of control, since Cleansing is usually too slow to save them from a fast Pack Rat draw. Against Detention Sphere builds, it’s a lot worse, and keeping it in after sideboarding is optional.
In practice, the mere threat of Detention Sphere and Supreme Verdict is typically enough to protect the control player from Pack Rat. Devotion players try to hedge their bets, refusing to go all-in on Rats. However, Pack Rat is not a “hedge your bets” type of card. If you’re only willing to put two Rats into play at a time, the card simply isn’t effective.
This has important consequences for both sides of the matchup. As a control player, you may not have to live in fear of Pack Rat like the pilots of other decks do, because your opponents will frequently play conservatively with it. As a Devotion player, you should be willing to take risks with your Pack Rat or, if you’re not, you should sideboard them out.
As with most things, these Pack Rat questions depend on the exact circumstances of the game, and on the particular pilots of each deck.
Blood Baron of Vizkopa (on either side of the matchup): In B/W Midrange, Blood Baron represents a threat that cannot be answered with Azorius Charm. It also cannot be blocked by Elspeth tokens, but does die to Elspeth’s -3 ability. The life gain does matter in the matchup. In general, it’s a card that I would keep in my deck after sideboarding, but it’s probably not as good as it seems at first, and isn’t going to swing the matchup in your favor.
In Esper against Devotion, Blood Baron is a good card, but not the be-all and end-all. They can strip it away with Thoughtseize, or Lifebane Zombie, which is a particular beating. They can race with Whip of Erebos or Gray Merchant of Asphodel. It makes your future Supreme Verdicts inconvenient once you cast it. Another huge problem comes up when Erebos, God of the Dead shuts off your life gain.
Aetherling: Similarly, Devotion can sometimes construct a game state where they can race Aetherling. Therefore, it’s excellent in contained games, but sometimes fails to get the job done in uncontained games. I would never sideboard it out (along those lines, I usually have all of my win conditions in after sideboarding), but I much prefer Elixir of Immortality in this matchup.
I used to play Esper Control with Blood Barons and Aetherling. I remember losing a lot of games when my opponent could set up the combination of Erebos, God of the Dead and Whip of Erebos, which is virtually impossible to race. It felt awful to lose long games with a Sphinx’s Revelation deck, and the problem was that Devotion could simply trump my win condition. I’d rather just stick to the primary game plan of drawing cards and reshuffling with Elixir. Winning the game can be an afterthought once I’m in firm control.
Elixir of Immortality: Is the opposite of Aetherling—bad in contained games but good in uncontained games. The presence of Elixir in your deck means you don’t have to go out of your way to protect your win conditions, and this ability is well worth the slot in your deck. Against opponents who can destroy your Detention Spheres, reshuffling and recasting them can be crucial. It’s excellent in game one (game ones are more likely to be uncontained since the Devotion player hasn’t yet brought in Duress out of the sideboard). It’s worse after sideboarding, but still worth leaving in.
Sideboarding and Mulligans
For B/W Midrange:
You improve the matchup drastically after sideboarding by cutting your otherwise dead removal spells, and reducing your vulnerability to Supreme Verdict. More spot discard and a wider variety of potent threats means a lot more things that can go wrong for the control player.
For U/W Control:
Your opponent will certainly be less vulnerable to Supreme Verdict after sideboard, so trimming them is a good strategy. Jace, Architect of Thought is a passable card, but fairly unimpressive. For one thing, it forces you to tap out at an awkward point in the game, and for another, you rarely have a convenient choice with it. If you +1, you risk getting no value if your opponent has a Hero’s Downfall. If you -2, you’ll probably lose it to a Mutavault.
As always, remember that sideboarding is flexible, and you should aim to have the right answers for your opponent’s threats. (Also, these are general sideboard plans, not sideboard plans specifically for these two deck lists facing off against one another).
Finally, we come to the interesting question of mulligans. For control, taking a mulligan against Devotion is an absolute disaster. They aggressively attack your resources, and you really need to make all your land drops; you simply cannot be down a card. Furthermore, why mulligan to a particular card or combination of cards when they’re simply going to take it away with Thoughtseize anyway? I recommend keeping virtually any hand with two or more lands.
Quite the opposite, Devotion should mulligan aggressively, especially in game one. You can recover from a mulligan by sticking a potent threat, but if you cannot pressure the control player early, you’re simply playing into their hands.
Typically, I expect control to be a moderate favorite in game one, when the Devotion player has a lot of dead removal spells. After sideboarding, the matchup is close or slightly in the favor of the Devotion player. Overall, I tend to think of control as a very small favorite to win a best-of-3 match. However, if a Devotion player wants to beat control at all costs, they can do so. I’d expect the B/W Midrange deck list featured in this article to have a very comfortable control matchup.
This matchup is likely to remain one of the most important in Standard until Return to Ravnica block rotates out. Whichever side you’re playing, mastering it will be critical to your success as a tournament player.