Graveborn Musings – Back on Black

Last week I talked about what I consider to be the three key strengths of Black: removal, recursion and resource management. Today, I’m going to make things a little more concrete by showing you three different decks, each of which offers a different take on these three elements. As a special treat, I’m also going to show you how you can take the stereotypical “bad casual” deck – an unfocused mess of cards that you love – and turn it into a consistent winner.

Mono-Black Control (MBC)

My attempt to build an MBC deck was inspired a couple of years ago by one of The Ferrett’s articles. At the time it was actually the closest thing to a Netdeck that I’d ever built, but I’ve evolved it into something more effective and more ‘me’. For the record, I would be flattered if someone copied one of my decks, but I also don’t like to copy other people’s decks. That might be a little contradictory, but many people consider this to be part of a casual ‘ethos’, and I feel that one of the core elements of Magic is personalizing your decks. All of my FNM losses, and my handful of wins, have come using semi-budget decks of my own design. That being said, this is my take (with a nod to The Ferrett’s friend Josh) on one of the most powerful multiplayer deck archetypes:

On the Bright Side, at least there aren’t any Taxes

Did someone say removal? MBC decks take advantage of Black’s ability to flat-out kill stuff, combined with its lifegain, to stay alive even when the whole table inevitably turns against you. There are different ways to actually kill people, but the most efficient answer, and the reason MBC is more of a consistent archetype than a mono-white version with better removal options, is simply to Drain them. When I said last week that Black doesn’t need to take out win conditions in order to put in lifegain, this is what I was talking about.

Like every casual deck, it evolves as new cards come available.[一] I had a set of Damnations, but picked up a couple of Decrees in a big trade and figured that in the late game, Decree is a better draw. I may replace one of the Mutilates with a Black Sun’s Zenith soon, and obviously the Exsanguinates are new – I had three Subversion in here for quite a while, but Exsanguinate lets me gain life immediately and reduces my vulnerability to permanent removal (including my own Disks) and redirection effects.[二]

Bosium Strip is an unusual form of recursion: it lets you recur your spells! Between that and Mirari, you are getting incredible card advantage from every sorcery – each Innocent Blood can potentially kill four creatures for each opponent, a single Corrupt can do damage equal to four times the number of swamps you control, and that single Tutor will often end up winning the game for you.

MBC decks are usually creatureless, but I’m a bit of a chicken, so I like to have some feet on the ground. Genju is Josh’s idea, as far as I know, and it is brilliant. Beacon of Unrest gives me a chance to use other people’s toys, as well as get my own artifacts back,[三] and the Promise gives me the option of adding an air force. In the late game, the mana from Cabal Coffers gives you the option of sweeping the board, then using Promise of Power to draw a full grip of cards and pass the turn with a 7/7 or larger Demon token. Finally, Phyrexian Processor is one of those cards that just screams: “deal with me now or die!” Even if you ‘only’ make 10/10 tokens, you’re still threatening lethal damage very quickly, and if they use removal to kill your creature token, you still have the ability to churn out more.

The only caveat I offer is this: losing to this kind of deck is often a disheartening experience. Control decks win by denying your opponents the ability to interact with you, and if you do it successfully then the game might not be so much fun for anyone else. As a result, I don’t play this deck too often.

Resource Denial

I’ve got to be a bit careful here, because I really am a very fun guy to play with and I don’t want you to think that I’m some sadistic bastard who likes nothing more than crippling my opponents and watching them squirm under my heel until they concede in frustration. I promise you I’m not that guy – at least, not usually. However, I do want to explore with you the dark side of black’s resource management: the ability to deny your opponents the resources they need to win.

This particular deck is very unusual, in that it isn’t actually designed to win. You see, I got a bit concerned by a growing combo trend in my playgroup and thought I might need to come up with a remedy – it was right around the time someone decided that Dragonstorm for four Hellkite Overlord on turn three qualified as a casual multiplayer deck. That’s when I built this little number. It’s designed to maximize Black’s resource denial tools to emasculate almost any combo deck, so that everyone else can play the game at their own pace.


Phage is virtually my only wincon, but winning the whole table isn’t the point; the point is to discourage degenerate combos from taking over games and warping the meta. I’m happy to take one for the team and lose a couple of games if that’s what’s needed. Fortunately, the Dragonstorm deck marked the high tide of combo in my group, and I didn’t need to bring this deck out, but I’ve held it in reserve ever since. As my dear old granny used to say: “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, screw you combo boy, suck on this!!”

You don’t want to play many decks like this in multiplayer, although some of these individual cards may help you to deal different decks, but I consider a focused resource denial strategy to be valid in some casual situations. You might also find something like this effective in Emperor games, although whether as an Emperor or a General you owe it to your team to add a little bit more of a board presence (consider the awesome Nyxathid) and removal (Tendrils of Corruption would be perfect).

The Pet Deck

Now, before I show you the next list, I should warn you that it is what is technically known as “a Pile”. Ask any tournament player if they’d rather play a 60-card Standard deck or an 81-card Vintage deck that has a ton of one-ofs and only one tutor, and I’m sure they’d pick the Standard deck. But there are two things you need to know about this deck:

  1. I love this deck so much! It is a classic example of a Pet Deck, a place where I will normally just put any cool new card that I think will be fun to play with. This deck is the type of thing that we are normally warned never to play – too big, not consistent enough, horrible mana curve – but none of that dampens my enthusiasm for it;
  2. It wins! It does a lot of things wrong, but it still wins – in fact it has won the last three games I’ve played it in (including the game I wrote about in my SCG article on the three levels of multiplayer).

Here is my pride and joy:

Black and Proud

This deck has 15 cards that I only have one of. As an example, the deck currently has both Recurring Nightmare and Kokusho. That can be a very brutal combo, but I just put them in on the basis of “this looks cool.” I opened the dragon in a pack and put it into my main black deck immediately (foil Kokusho in a birthday booster – thanks Mum!), and added my first Recurring Nightmare much later, without even thinking about the interaction between them. To me, and probably most casual players, good cards belong in decks, not in boxes or binders.

The most important point about this deck is that it still has a lot of consistency, despite only having one of each of the best cards. The key to consistency in a multiplayer deck is the early plays. Yes, you have to have something to do in the early turns, and yes, it has to be a meaningful play. Notice that this deck is very likely to either play a Nezumi Graverobber or cycle a Twisted Abomination on the second turn, and then drop a Nighthawk on the third. At four mana, Graveborn Muse is a fantastic play that will make it much easier for you to climb the ladder to the fifth turn, where there is a set of Demigod of Revenge (the fifth turn is still fairly early for multiplayer, and haste is an important force multiplier). What happens after that will vary greatly from game to game, but the key to consistency is making early plays that keep you alive, and accelerate you into your mid- to late-game.

This is the closest thing I have to a Golden Rule for multiplayer deckbuilding: start with playsets of strong early plays. You should think especially of cards that punch outside their weight class, like Nezumi Graverobber and Vampire Nighthawk. Cards that are relevant early and late, whether because they affect combat with much larger creatures (Deathtouch is really a fantastic ability here, as is Regeneration), or affect the game in different ways, are going to be the bedrock of a successful deck. The landcycling creatures from Scourge (Twisted Abomination is part of a cycle) are a great way to fill slots in your deck, because they can be cycled away early and give you board presence late. For my money, the A-bom and Chartooth Cougar are the best of the cycle, but they are all worth a second look.

As an added bonus for the casual deckbuilder, there are some great budget options available instead of the higher profile tournament cards. For every Tarmogoyf, there is a Thornweald Archer or a Leatherback Baloth; for every Figure of Destiny there is an Ember Hauler or a Knight of Meadowgrain. Black in particular did very well from Zendikar block, with a bunch of very respectable Common and Uncommon critters at one, two and three mana. Guul Draz Vampire, Blood Seeker, Pulse Tracker, Vampire Hexmage, Gatekeeper of Malakir and many more give you the necessary combination of power and predictability that you need to turn your pet deck into a reliable winner.


For Black, these are some of the cards and interactions that have worked well for me. Notice how the first and last decks both combine strong elements of removal, recursion and resource management, even in the early game.

For all types of decks, remember that even multiplayer decks need to be making relevant plays throughout the game – you can’t just wait until the sixth turn before interacting with the board. However, as multiplayer games go longer than duels, you need to maximize the relevance of your early plays in the late game.

Also, I’d love to put together a comprehensive list of the best early plays for the casual deckbuilder. Let me know what cards you’ve found to be the most effective budget cards in the one, two and three mana slots for each color. It is also worth thinking about what abilities, especially the evergreen keywords that appear in every set, are worth the most in a multiplayer context.

[一] I traded for the Damnations and used them to replace the four Barter in Blood that I used originally. For everything else, I either opened them in packs, traded for them or bought them for $2 or less (I’m a budget-bin junkie, but that’s an article for another time), and my advice to you is the same: put together the best version of a deck that you can with what you have, then take your time adding stuff as it becomes available. Don’t splurge on cards that you’re not sure of.

[二] The worst enemy of Drain Life is Wild Ricochet – beware the red mage with four open mana and a knowing smile!

[三] One of the big dangers of relying on Bosium Strip is getting your graveyard cluttered up with permanents. It might be worth using Beacon of Unrest to get back an otherwise irrelevant card from the top of your graveyard, like a late-game Journeyer’s Kite, just to give you access to all of the sorceries underneath it. Remember: graveyard order matters!

[四] Yes, I know Bloodstained Mire is Black/Red, but it still fetches the islands I need to cast Recoil, and Recoil is one of the best ways for a discard deck to get rid of a troublesome permanent.

[五] You’ll notice that I sometimes put the original dual lands like Scrubland in my decklists; that’s just because I started playing back in the days when nobody knew how good were and you could easily trade away your Shivan Dragon or Lord of the Pit for one or more Underground Sea. That doesn’t mean that casual players should spend hundreds of dollars to get a playset of these lands now, but it does show how making the effort to trade for good lands will give you a lot of options for future deckbuilding. The excellent M10/M11 lands are almost exactly as good the original duals in a two-color deck for a fraction of the price, and you can often find great deals on the Ravnica “shock lands” like Overgrown Tomb, which are a great alternative, especially in enemy colors. If you play a lot of black, then the Tainted lands from Torment can really smooth out your mana base.


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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3 Responses to Graveborn Musings – Back on Black

  1. Pingback: Chromatic Dragon Scales | Muse Vessel

  2. Pingback: Graveborn Musings – Politics, Complexity and Multiplayer Strategy (Part II) | Muse Vessel

  3. Vrag says:

    There’s all sorts, but I’ve found certain cards that I tend to put into my slower decks to set them up better in the early game. Rhystic Study, Browbeat, Wayfarer’s Bauble, Soul Warden, Gemhide Sliver, the two-color landcyclers from Alara Reborn, and about half my decks have a set of Terramorphic Expanses.

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