Graveborn Musings – Why Black Wins in Multiplayer

Well, I’ve had four articles at Star City and this is my fourth article at Muse Vessel, and I haven’t said a word about who I am. Part of this is the honest realization that most of you probably don’t care as long as I bring the casual ‘tech’, and fair enough. On the other hand, what I write comes from who I am, and so I guess a little bit of background information might help you to decide exactly how much salt you need to take my articles with. Don’t worry, I won’t get carried away – it probably doesn’t matter much to you whether I’m listening to Thin Lizzy, Great Big Sea or Albert Collins as I type this (all of them are options, though), or whether I’m drinking Perrier, Guinness or the blood of virgins. But as a Magic player, my favorite color, cards and decks are an important part of who I am. So let’s start with my color: Black.

I love Black; have done ever since I saw my first Nightmare. In fact, I fell so hard that I traded a Birds of Paradise for it on the spot (because I already had basic lands of every color).[일] Now, I’ve met guys who love playing Black in a black-jeans-heavy-metal-oh-dark-masters-we-summon-thee kind of way, but back then I was a good Christian boy. In fact, my dislike of white didn’t get started until The Dark came out, and mainly because every white card in the set was basically a fantasy version of the worst intolerance religion is capable of, and that has never sat well with me at all. No, very simply I love Black for the same reason that we all pretended to be Darth Maul when Star Wars: Episode One came out. It’s not that we want the Empire to oppress the galaxy for a generation, and we in no way support the destruction of Alderaan; it’s just that the idea of a double-bladed lightsaber is so damn cool! Black may not be the strongest color, and it’s certainly not the most versatile, but it does have some of the coolest toys.

I’m not claiming to be a Magic genius or anything (enthusiastically trading Nightmare-for-Birds pretty much puts that claim to rest), but I have been known to shake up a kitchen table™ once in a while, especially with a Black deck. Black can go aggressive, control or combo, or anything in between, but to get the most out of the color you should understand the strategic advantages that Black enjoys over other colors. When a black deck wins, it’s usually because of its three greatest strengths: removal, recursion and resource management.

1: Removal

Let’s start with killing things, Black’s number one specialty. Swords to Plowshares (STP) is probably the best spot removal of all time, but one of the underrated gems in Alpha was a little Black instant called Terror. Back in the day, it would effortlessly take out Shivan Dragon, Serra Angel, Mahamoti Djinn and Force of Nature. Sure there were a few things it couldn’t deal with (damn you, White Knight!), but four Terror as the foundation of any decklist gave you a lot of peace of mind, and that hasn’t really changed.

Playing with serious spot removal requires a little bit of conditioning if you’re lucky enough to have a regular playgroup. Kill precisely, ruthlessly and above all consistently, until you’ve convinced your group that any significant attack on your person will result in a dead critter. You can tell you’re doing it right by the sweat that beads the forehead of the player who’s thinking of swinging in your direction, or by the quavering in their voice before they announce an attack. Just as they may look to the blue mage for permission when trying to cast a major spell, they should be looking to you for permission to keep any major critter on the board.

The cards: Terror, Doom Blade and Seal of Doom are ubiquitous commons that are hard to beat. At Uncommon, cards like Go for the Throat and Sudden Death are solid kill cards that every Black mage needs a set of. Sudden Death has the disadvantage of not killing fatties outright (as do other cards that say “-x/-x” instead of “destroy”), but the advantages of targeting anything, killing regenerators and being virtually uncounterable. For main phase action, you can’t go past Eradicate, for when you absolutely, positively don’t want to see it again, and Hex, for those times when killing five just isn’t enough.

I have a soft spot for the Edict effects myself: forcing your opponent to sacrifice a critter gets around every form of protection, regeneration and even indestructibility this side of Ivory Mask. It’s less targeted, and for best results it does require that your opponent doesn’t have too many other critters, but this is not difficult for us to achieve. Other cards in the Edict family include Innocent Blood, Barter in Blood and Consuming Vapors. If you have the dosh, Consuming Vapors does so many different things so well that it’s totally worth the four mana.

Board sweepers are great also. It pains me to say that White has by far the best sweepers, but Damnation, Mutilate and the new Black Sun’s Zenith are powerful removal if you can get them. Killing five or ten critters with one spell is strong card advantage, and the knowledge that everything is going to go die soon let’s you play a little fast and loose with your creatures, chump-blocking to prevent damage or making otherwise unwise attacks to squeeze out some extra damage before you reset the board.

Finally, Black creatures often double as removal. Fleshbag Marauder is an absolutely indispensable tool in the necromancer’s arsenal, and even my most tuned EDH decks have room for cheap cards like Bone Shredder or Nekrataal. If you don’t mind delayed gratification, those gorgeous femmes fatale Visara the Dreadful and Avatar of Whoa! can really control the board. Sure, everyone and their dog will target them immediately, but for the Black mage, death is never the end of the journey.

Let me suggest a basic budget decklist that takes advantage of Black’s spot removal in a potentially powerful way. This list may not be able to remove the Black spots if your opponents run a lot of swamps, and pretty much rolls over to any deck with four Asceticism, but you will also find that there are some decks that just can’t deal with a constant stream of efficient spot removal like this.

Fear the Reaper
20 Creatures:
4 Gatekeeper of Malakir
4 Big Game Hunter
4 Bone Shredder
4 Nekrataal
4 Skinrender

16 Spells:
4 Nim Deathmantle
4 Strata Scythe
4 Beacon of Unrest
4 Corrupt 

24 Lands:
20 Swamps
4 Bojuka Bog

As always, season for taste and card availability. The rare equipment could be replaced with almost anything – the point is merely to make your little creatures a bit more of a threat. I’ve only used rares that I’ve acquired myself for $1 or less, and if I’d been doing set reviews when Scars of Mirrodin came out, Nim Deathmantle would have been my sleeper hit for multiplayer, so you really owe it to yourself to pick up a playset or two. Beacon of Unrest could be replaced with Gruesome Encore, Puppeteer Clique, etc, but the main point is that you want to play with your opponents’ toys once you’ve killed them.

2: Recursion

Black has been the king of the graveyard since Animate Dead, and it just keeps getting better. Every block seems to offer some variant of Zombify, and Reaping the Graves is one example of getting multiple critters back with just one spell. However, it’s the repeatable effects (what Alongi called cockroaches) that will win you the most games. Back in the day, Volrath’s Stronghold and Coffin Queen were our best graveyard-affecting cockroaches, but today we have the mighty Debtor’s Knell, the amazing Nezumi Graverobber and the damn-I-wish-I-could-get-her-to-stick Liliana Vess.

Using graveyards efficiently lets you keep your hand nice and full while your opponents deplete their own resources trying to deal with the strongest threats available, again and again. For example, if the Graverobber flips, your opponents will have their hands full dealing with Nighteyes and his new friends, while you keep your hand full of cards for when (if) they finally do. I love zombie movies (no, I don’t root for the zombies), and the thing that makes them so terrifying is exactly what makes recursion such an overwhelming strategy.

On a slightly different note, Beacon of Unrest isn’t a true cockroach, but you do get the chance to draw it again, and it is one of the few ways that you can steal artifacts as well as creatures FROM ANY GRAVEYARD. In fact, Beacon of Unrest might possibly be my favorite sorcery in the game; it just offers so much power, versatility and variance.

3: Resource Management

OK, you’re too smart for me: I’m a sucker for alliteration and I don’t have a short snappy definition of resource management, given that the graveyard is a resource, and the card advantage offered by some removal spells is a way of depleting your opponents’ resources. I just wanted to do the 3 ‘R’s, sorry.

However, the main ‘resources’ in Magic are cards, mana and life, and no color is better able to make the most of all three elements than black. Blue is great at drawing cards, Green can build up surplus mana with ease, and White can gain so much life it makes you sick. However, Black combines card draw, mana boosting and lifegain with the almost unparalleled ability to deny resources to your opponents (which will have to be a subject for another day).

A lot of cockroach cards require a fair bit of mana to keep them going, but Black can generate mana better than any color except green. Lake of the Dead is good, Cabal Coffers is amazing, and Magus of the Coffers is, I suspect, not too bad if you can’t get the original land. Not a lot needs to be said here, as the variety of mana-generating cards in Black is much more limited than Green’s, but the value of these cards in multiplayer should not be underestimated. Make sure that when you cast that Black fatty, you still have mana open for spot removal and cockroach activations.

Probably the most important resource is cards. Spells like Dregs of Sorrow, Decree of Pain and Overwhelming Forces may require Coffer-mana to cast, but are pure card advantage. For the early game, tournament players have decided that Dark Confidant is better than Phyrexian Arena, although that isn’t necessarily the right play in MPM. What is the right play is sacrificing a little bit of life in the early-to-mid game in order to get the cards that will win you the late game. Necropotence is the original and still the best, but a range of cards such as Night’s Whisper and Sign in Blood let you pay life for cards. Moonlight Bargain, a pretty budget rare, provides a huge boost at a huge price, but with sufficient flexibility to make it worth five mana at instant speed. For staying power, don’t forget critters that give you a hand boost such as Graveborn Muse, and even Phyrexian Gargantua and the newly-reprinted Rager, depending on your cardpool.

Black mages should not be afraid to trade life for cards, even at a cutthroat table, because of Black’s stellar lifegain. It is surprising how often the importance of lifegain is overlooked in multiplayer. Sure, you can build up an army that can kill anyone, and you might even be able to protect it long enough to kill one player a turn. But can you do all of that without taking damage from each person you kill? Usually, players keep accumulating damage, so by the time they’re halfway around the table, they’ve taken a lot of beats from a lot of players, and it probably won’t take much to finish them. In other words, 20 is a very small number. However, a lot of players will make the opposite mistake and put in cards that only gain them life at the expense of win conditions, which is a no-no. Black mages, fortunately, don’t need to worry about this.

Start small if you like; spot removal including Vicious Hunger, Douse in Gloom and the insanely powerful Tendrils of Corruption will ensure that you survive through the early game. The new Blood Tithe is a nice Pigeon card in the tradition of the original Subversion and Syphon Soul – these might signal to the rest of the table that you’re a serious threat, but depending on the board state it might just be considered a minor annoyance. Corrupt and the original Drain Life (with numerous variants[이]) are the heavy hitters, and are very flexible spot removal in the late game, in the sense that they allow you to remove opponents as well as their critters.

Putting it All Together

So when in doubt for a Black deck, start with something like a full set of Terror-variants and Tendrils, four Nezumi Graverobbers and two to four Drain Lifes, add a few cards (preferably cockroaches) for all three key functions, and then do your thing. The options are virtually limitless, but the fundamentals of removal, recursion and resource management are always essential ingredients in the Black mage’s success.

Next week, I’ll let you take a look under the hood at some of my favorite Black decks.

[일] This was way back in 1994, before anyone knew anything about how to win games or even build decks, and before WotC had set down any tournament rules. So you can hardly blame me for falling head-over-Timmygasm in love with that big bad Nightmare.

[이] A word on the new Drain Life offering from Scars of Mirrodin, Exsanguinate, and that word is: ThankyousomuchWizardsforansweringmyprayersIloveyouIloveyou! Sometimes you really need to Drain a creature rather than going for lethal damage to a player, so you do lose some flexibility here, but the ability to take out multiple opponents for one little tap of a Coffers is so good that it is totally worth it. Not a “strictly better” drain, even in multiplayer, but if you aren’t playing it, you probably should be!


About Graveborn Muse

Daryl Bockett has been an avid Magic addict since Legends/Revised. He lives and breathes deckbuilding and casual play. "The more the merrier" is his creed! In those brief moments when he isn't playing, reading or thinking about Magic, he teaches at Rikkyo University in Tokyo. He has a Ph.D. in International Relations, which is basically only useful for helping him to understand the strategic interactions at a multiplayer table.
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4 Responses to Graveborn Musings – Why Black Wins in Multiplayer

  1. Do Hunted Wumpus, Pestilence Demon or Massacre Wurm fit under removal, or does the fact their effects are attached to large creatures change how you view these cards?

  2. Jesse says:

    Avatar of Woah made me spill my soda from laughing. Well played sir.

    • Graveborn Muse says:

      Thanks Jesse! Hope your keyboard is safe.
      Bruce, they do count, although I was really focused on spot removal. Wumpus and Demon in particular are classic cockroaches, and worthy additions to any Black deck (although I’ve only just acquired my first Wumpi, and nobody wants to play against the Speed Demon deck that i put my Pestilence Demons into, so they weren’t on my mind when i wrote this).
      Parenthetically, these two might also be worth mentioning under the importance of lifegain – without some way to offset the damage you do to yourself, Pyrohemia is almost a strictly worse Pestilence.

  3. Pingback: Seedborn Musings – Why I Win in Multiplayer | Muse Vessel

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