Graveborn Musings—The State of Our Dark Union

So I was at the Magic World Championships last year and I had a chance to talk to Mark Rosewater…

Sorry, I know that’s shameless name-dropping, but I don’t have many stories like this, so I want to make the most of them. It was actually during the trivia game he runs, called Question Mark; if you answer a question correctly, he gives you a stack of boosters and you also get a chance to question Mark (in true MaRo style, there are three ways to take it—a triple entendre?). I’m the Magic version of a crack whore, so I was just in it for the boosters, but when I realized I had to ask a question, I blurted out something along the lines of, “Isn’t it true that Black needs a kickass new planeswalker?”[1] He told me that he agreed, but that Design isn’t actually responsible for making planeswalkers; apparently, the Creative Department decides when new planeswalkers are warranted, because they don’t want to dilute the value of the planeswalker ‘brand.’[2]

Which brings us to M12, in which black fails to snag a tasty new ‘walker, while green and blue get upgrades of what were arguably the two most powerful planeswalkers in Lorwyn and red gets the best Chandra yet. I think it’s time for me as the self-proclaimed greenest blackest man alive to take a look at where black stands in relation to the other colors; I think it’s worth seeing if black is getting its fair share of the (color) pie, especially in terms of its relative power in multiplayer. Bennie Smith did something similar with his The State of Green articles, but my biases are different from his, and I have been concerned about black losing power (especially to white!) ever since they printed stinkers like Infernal Denizen and Minion of Tevesh Szat in Ice Age. First, we’ll look at black’s main advantages, then we’ll look at some areas where other colors are moving in on black’s turf, then we’ll finish with an uncharacteristically sunny assessment of some of my favorite new toys. I realize that the next fall set, Innistrad, could make me eat my words, but honestly nothing would make me happier, so rather than idle speculation, I’ll look at what we have seen so far.

Strong Suit

As I’ve already said, I believe that black’s three greatest strengths in multiplayer are removal, recursion and resource management. In terms of removal, we’ve done incredibly well in the last couple of sets, getting two new twists on the classic Terror (Doom Blade and Go For the Throat), new sweepers in Black Sun’s Zenith, Life’s Finale and Dread Cacodemon, some very powerful versions of the classic Edict mechanic (Gatekeeper of Malakir and Consuming Vapors, as well as the newly-reprinted Smallpox). Even Massacre Wurm is some pretty fearsome anti-weenie technology, although I haven’t got any of my own yet,[3] and while Call to the Grave tends to force you to go the zombie route, it is a very powerful card, and I’ve used it in my zombie tribal deck to totally lock down the table. And that was before we had Cemetery Reaper!

Plus, I’m very happy to see deathtouch becoming much more of a black mechanic than it ever has been, possibly at the expense of fear. I’m OK with that, because while fear (now known as intimidate) is potentially powerful, it is non-interactive and is, in terms of sheer flavor, probably the dumbest mechanic ever. On someone’s blog, they put Bladetusk Boar and Kozilek side by side and it really makes it clear: any form of “I’m too scary to block” must be mystical in nature; otherwise it’s just stupid. We routinely throw 1/1 soldier tokens in front of 20/20 Demon Horrors without any sort of morale check, and so any rule that tells me that the same soldier can’t block a wild animal because of its fierce glare and unhygienic aroma is a silly rule, period.

But I digress. In terms of recursion we’re doing OK, but I’d definitely like to see more. Geth, Lord of the Vault is awesome and Sheoldred is rapidly becoming my favorite black legend of all time, handling the removal and recursion functions single-handedly. However, we’re getting a lot more ways to fill up the graveyard (the awesome Xathrid Demon exemplifies multiplayer sac outlets, and Zombie Infestation is a necromancy classic) but I’d like to see something along the lines of a monoblack Debtor’s Knell or a Dawn of the Dead soon. Vengeful Pharaoh is cute, and gravedigger effects add value (Entomber Exarch is perhaps best of breed because of his value in controlling your opponents when you’re happy with your board position), but even Rise from the Grave consistently fails to make the cut in my decks.

Finally, resource management is the category where the bar has been raised the highest. We will probably never see Cabal Coffers, Demonic Tutor or Necropotence again in a regular set (although my fingers are firmly crossed), and the black’s share of the mana acceleration and card drawing portions of the color pie are strictly limited, but we’ve had some successes of late. Nirkana Revenant reminds us what mana acceleration means, and while Caged Sun is available to all colors, we can make the most of it by tutoring it up and ritualing it out. And did I say tutor? Rune-Scarred Demon is a home run—I can’t wait to hit it in my Sheoldred deck, tutor for a strong sac outlet and then recur it each upkeep until I assemble the doomsday machine.

We’re doing very well with lifegain—once again, we have a brief window where both Corrupt and Consume Spirit are playable in Standard, along with the still-can’t-believe-it’s-real Exsanguinate, and we have two vampires with lifelink, which is fun. I really miss Sanguine Bond, but seeing how the casual tribe isn’t limited to Standard, we can run a whole set of them.

However, while Sign in Blood is a strong card that is very evocative, they took it out of M12 and haven’t replaced it, leaving us weak in terms of card draw (while encouraging us to empty our hands—no fair!), which brings us to…

Keeping up with the Neighbors

I don’t want to get too negative here, but if you aren’t a black mage at heart it might sound like sour grapes—as if all the power creep hasn’t been enough for me—and if it feels that way, just skip a bit, brother. The thing is, I honestly don’t think WotC thinks about the balance between the cards in each color as such; their top priorities are (rightly) the color pie itself and the viability of various constructed and limited formats. That means it’s up to us—the casual players and the fans of each color—to let them know when there’s a problem of some kind, and I think there are problems for black’s balance, especially relative to its opponent colors and some of the areas where it has traditionally been strong.

Card drawing is one of those areas where black is falling behind, to an extent that I consider to be unbalanced. Of course, we know that blue is the King of Card Draw, but black used to be a distant second, and now we have, I believe, fallen behind green. I’ve always loved Greater Good, Soul’s Might is an underrated card, and Momentous Fall is pure casual gold, but suddenly, green gets two of the best card-drawing spells in Standard in Garruk, Primal Hunter and Hunter’s Insight, and totally eclipses us. Seriously? Necromancers consort with the darkest powers in the universe, and would sell their souls (or at least, someone else’s soul) for knowledge, and we get to draw a measly two cards; the dirt mage says, “Oh, I wonder what insights that big drooling hairbag has to share with me” and draws six cards. Six!! WotC, it’s time to reprint Promise of Power…and just to be on the safe side you should bring back Nature’s Ruin too!

Similarly, I think black did get the shaft on Phyrexian mana. Our Sign in Blood now belongs to the whole world, like Linux, where even white can splash it—and card draw has traditionally been white’s only real weakness! To be fair to WotC, they were between a rock and a hard place when it came to color balance in NPH, trying to squeeze black’s core value of “whatever it takes to win” into all five colors, but it would have been nice to see us get a little something special to make up for it, such as the coolest Phybrid mana card of the set, a reprinted/revamped Gate to Phyrexia or, stay with me here, an efficient black answer to enchantments.

I know that might seem a little bit out there, but when every other color gets to drink black’s milkshake, with Tezzeret’s Gambit in particular and Phybrid mana generally, I think it is time to reconsider some of those old constraints. In particular, when green gets to destroy any critter at instant speed, possibly at a time when the black mage is wishing they had a different Terror variant in hand to deal with the same creature, then the argument that black mustn’t ever get enchantment removal because of the sanctity of the color pie rings more than a little hollow. Seriously, if Beast Within cost BBB, was a sorcery, and read, “If an enchantment is destroyed in this way, you lose life equal to that permanent’s CMC,” it would still be the greatest thing ever.

Let’s contrast this with white, which has always seemed to me, from my admittedly biased point of view, to be able to do anything it wants, and now increasingly seems to be able to stop us from doing anything we want. Am I the only one concerned that white is becoming the new blue in terms of its ability to unilaterally say “No”? As some who sees the color pie largely in terms of the struggle between black and white, it has almost never seemed balanced to me, with the exception of a handful of foolishly powerful black cards that tip the scales (and which become overly expensive on the secondary market, because they’re so unusual). Admittedly, white doesn’t get targeted land destruction (except when it does) or discard, but as these two mechanics have been explicitly and consistently nerfed, that doesn’t seem like a big deal. I mean, they reprinted Brink of Disaster in M12; I can only assume Befoul was too powerful?!

If I may continue my general anti-white tirade for a moment longer, white’s spot removal is a has always been unbalanced. The limitation on attacking creatures, or critters with a power greater than four is fine for me, and certainly black mages have struggled against targeting restrictions since the dawn of time, but it rubs me the wrong way when WotC says that one of white’s restrictions is that it can’t actually kill a creature. I hear this in relation to effects like Oblivion Ring, tuck effects like Condemn and the occasional variants on Swords to Plowshares. In theory that sounds like a real limitation, until you realize that these effects tend to be stronger than just killing them. Anyone who has had their Commander tucked with no way to tutor for it knows what I mean, and there are only a handful of ways for black or red mages to get rid of an O-Ring.[4] This so-called limitation only serves to strengthen white relative to black, whereas most of our limitations tend to be much harsher.

I also think that there are a couple of cards released since Zendikar that seem to take away from black’s distinctive slice of the color pie, or otherwise step on our undead toes. The newest is Martyr’s Bond, a card that may call to mind Justice, Karmic Justice, and other similar effects that are distinctly white (“Don’t touch my cards, you meanie! You can’t!! Noooooooo!!! Mommy, he’s trying to interact with me!!” You know, typical white mage stuff), but is mechanically much closer to Grave Pact (and Butcher of Malakir). Now, if white has one way of saying “hurt you when my stuff dies” and black has a different way, that’s fine; the white one is a better rattlesnake in multiplayer but the black one is more Johnnyable, and order is restored to the universe But when the white effect is strictly more powerful, and the card may even be easier to cast in a three-color deck, then that’s just a slap in the face. Plus, Martyr’s Bond, Mycosynth Lattice and some way to generate and sac critters is a total lockdown, potentially making the Bond much more broken than Grave Pact ever was.

Phyrexian Rebirth also bothers me, but slightly less so, and only for flavor reasons. Very simply, it says “Phyrexian”, it’s a board sweeper and it produces a black Horror creature. In what way is that not a black card? Life’s Finale and BSZ made me feel a little bit better about this, but it still seems like they just put it in white reflexively because having Day of Judgment in Standard apparently forever isn’t enough to cement white’s dominance.

Finally, the most serious incursion on black’s domain is in the area of recursion. Remember when I said I’d love to see a permanent that brings back creatures from the graveyard every turn? Well they printed it in Zendikar, and it’s awesome beyond description. It even plays into the “swamps matter” theme that black has had since Alpha. The only problem, of course, is that it’s Emeria, the Sky Ruins. Still the best reanimator in Standard, if not ever—even better than my beloved Beacon of Unrest and more resilient than Sheoldred—and white gets it without a word about the pie. The way I see it, white can either be the best at putting critters into the bin or at taking them out, but not both. Simply saying that white only gets its own stuff back while black can get anyone’s isn’t going to create balance between the colors if white’s reanimators are this much better.

New Toys

Hey, it’s not all doom and gloom—or maybe it is, if you’re the type of black mage who finds doom and gloom invigorating. We did get the lion’s share of poison (Blightsteel Colossus notwithstanding), largely because it fits so perfectly into black’s flavor, and Innistrad looks to be a graveyard-based block (according to Evan Erwin) with a new Liliana Vess card (according to a bunch of dumbasses who don’t know what we’re talking about), all of which is awesome! Plus, the black mage has seen some real triumphs in the last few sets—since Alara block if you prefer multicolor or Zendikar if you prefer mono.

Let’s start with the most fundamental shift in black’s fortunes. Not too long ago, MaRo was talking about “downside mechanics,” meaning both set-wide mechanics (like Suspend or Fading) and individual cards (like Phyrexian Negator) that balance some advantage with a significant limitation. One of the things he said is that R&D is deliberately moving away from cards that are essentially defined by their downside, due to poor customer feedback. Why is that good news for us? Because black has been defined more by it downsides than any other color.

When I first started playing, before the internet gave us perfect information about a set well ahead of the release date, nobody knew what all of the cards did, or even what cards there were. In my town, Lord of the Pit and Demonic Hordes were the two rarest cards, spoken of only in hushed whispers and rumored to be more powerful and valuable than Black Lotus—to the best of my knowledge, nobody in town even owned a Demonic Hordes, and everyone was in total awe of Pete, the guy who ran the game store in the next town over, because he had two of them! When I finally got one and played it, I felt like I’d arrived…but in the first two games I played it, someone stitched up my mana and my own Hordes killed me. The thing is, though, the Lord and the Hordes were, for a very long time, the gold standard of black’s downside mechanics; every set since then seemed to produce something weaker and/or more dangerous, and it wasn’t until Prophecy gave us Avatar of Woe that I really thought we’d put the worst of that over-costed, under-powered, frequently-suicidal crap behind us (and I’ve got two Sanguine Praetors in my deck box to remind me that we haven’t).

As evidence that downside mechanics are going to offer much more reward for their risk, I give you Abyssal Persecutor and Phyrexian Obliterator. Those cards would have been unthinkable even a couple of years ago, but here they are: unequivocally ranked in the top 10 black four-drops of all time, and perhaps even amongst the best black creatures of all time, bar none.

Carrying on the trend of fantastic black fatties, Grave Titan has at one time or another been ranked at or near the top of the Titan cycle, and Sheoldred and Rune-Scarred Demon join GT as some of the best fatties we’ve ever had access to. And as someone who prefers their zombies in small doses or on the big screen, I love the way that we get to fill out the early part of our curves with a range of vampires that neither cost five mana nor suck ass (many of the early bloodsuckers did both). Zendikar revolutionized black weenie, and while I doubt that Vampire Aggro will succeed as an archetype once the best one-drops have rotated out of Standard, I love the fact that casual decks the world over will be rockin’ the fangs for years to come; we are actually at the point where the noble Sengir Vampire struggles to make the cut even in a monoblack vampire tribal Commander deck, and that’s a very good place to be.

Conclusion

I don’t think anyone can doubt that this is a fantastic time to be playing Magic: the cards and the sets are fresh and exciting, even as they come out faster than ever before, and everything from the mechanics to the creative (and especially the art) seems to be better than I’ve seen in all the years I’ve been playing the game. Whatever gripes I’ve put forward here are miniscule relative to my continued love of the game, but I’d hate to see a time where I couldn’t argue that my favorite color is the best color. Maybe that’s the essence of color balance: a world where a strong case can be made for every color being the best (and not having to add “after blue” when you say it). Black is in a strong position, but I think there’s a real danger to the color balance if it doesn’t either reassert or more clearly compensate for its declining relative position in the areas of recursion and card draw. Of course, I’ll be loyal to my dark mistress no matter what happens, but I hope you folks will be enticed to join me here on the dark side by M12 and the Innistrad block!


[1] I apologize to anyone who was also in the audience and had a serious, intelligent question to ask him. All I can say is that you should have known that Arrest was reprinted from Mercadian Masques; then you would have got the goodies and the chance to ask a question that wasn’t completely inane.

[2] They also apparently have a vision of a small number of planeswalkers, each with multiple versions (like the three versions of Jace and Chandra that we’ve seen). Who wants a multiverse littered with planeswalkers?

[3] Don’t feel bad for me; it’s probably karma. You see, I have three copies of Living Plane that I’ve never used, and I would almost certainly put those in a deck with the Wurms and some New Frontiers and proceed to violate the human rights of my playgroup.

[4] Unfortunately, due to the way the rules are structured, killing the owner of the Ring won’t work. When a player dies, they take everything with them, including any triggered abilities they may have controlled. Bottom line: if you can’t get rid of the enchantment before you kill them, you aren’t getting it back.

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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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7 Responses to Graveborn Musings—The State of Our Dark Union

  1. sarroth says:

    Great article, with lots of great points. I like Green as being good at drawing cards, but Green should be third to Blue and Black. I like White being able to recur creatures, but yes it should be limited to their own creatures, and you’re right that even then, with Emeria it’s kind of ridiculous. I also agree with White’s removal being a little too powerful. Sticking to creatures with Power 4 or Greater is nice (I do like Intrepid Hero), and the recent Soul Snare is perfect. Personally, I think Oblivion Ring is perfect too, although I do know the frustration of playing a Black/Red deck and not being able to do anything about it.

    • Seedborn Muse says:

      Not that I care nearly as much about these issues as Graveb. (because, let’s face it, who could?), the biggest issue with white creature removal is how cheap it is. Oblivion Ring is very good but it is a tinge on the clunky side; it’s solid removal but often is bad tempo. Condemn/Path/Swords on the other hand allow you to just have a spare mana open at all times. At W, there are these options. At B, there’s…Vendetta? Disfigure? Ghastly Demise? Each card has uses, but not USES the way Path and Swords do. In theory, it would seem that black’s removal is better but slightly slower. In practice, black’s removal is worse AND slightly slower. And that’s where most of the white advantage seems to come in. If good white removal were more like Oblivion Ring/Journey to Nowhere and less like the single-white troika, there might not be this issue. I guess we’ll see how that goes with Innistrad, as Scars-M12-Innistrad stands to be the first environment since 9th-Time Spiral-Lorwyn not to have either Condemn or Path available.

  2. NumaPompilius says:

    In all fairness to Phyrexian Rebirth, it actually produces a *colorless* Horror creature token. However, I will agree that New Phyrexia was something of a shock to the system to those accustomed to black-only Phyrexian cards.

  3. Vrag says:

    “Anyone who has had their Commander tucked with no way to tutor for it knows what I mean, and there are only a handful of ways for black or red mages to get rid of an O-Ring.”

    Maybe I’m misreading this but if they O-ring your commander you can just put it in the command zone.

    On another note. I think that your analysis is mostly fair. The only part I disagree with is white recursion. They’ve had Resurrection, Breath of Life, and Karmic Guide.

    I have to say though, I know Green cant destroy creature, Black can’t get rid of Artifacts or enchantments, Red can’t get rid of Enchantments, Blue doesn’t destroy stuff so much as counter or unsummon them. What is white’s weakness? Any time I build a mono-colored deck I need to use artifacts or half-solutions like Dash Hopes to fill slots.

    When I make white decks I don’t really have that challenge. They have counterspells, land search, card draw, removal, mass tokens or big creatures. Granted some of these have restrictions but there’s a huge difference between being able to do something sometimes and not at all even with artifacts. Maybe that’s why I only have one mono-white deck. I like to build my decks with a theme that usually involves some kind of weakness.

  4. Seedborn Muse says:

    @Vrag

    The tuck comment is part of the same sentence as the O-Ring comment and part of the same thought in that they’re both annoyances to black, but they’re not meant to be taken together for rules purposes, I don’t think. I’m construing it as “this tuck business is annoying, and O-Ring is also annoying” more than “this tuck business is annoying, including the annoying O-Ring.”

    The basic problem we’re looking at is that white is the ultimate flexibility color these days (by Decktagon meaning anyway). That plays out fantastically in multiplayer but isn’t as concerning in duels. But what does the Future Future League make sure to balance? Constructed environments, the overwhelming majority of which are duels. Meanwhile, several black concepts, particularly suicide black and generally low creature toughness, don’t translate well to multiplayer. I think they might be aware of the problem now that they make increasing amounts of cards for real multiplayer environments, but that leaves years of white skew.

    A surprising amount of this problem might involve black getting the short end of the Planar Chaos stick, come to think of it. It’s Damnation and…

    • kyzneg says:

      a quick check of the spoiler shows Enslave and Imp’s Mischief as the only other cards I’d really consider “good” in multiplayer, at least in commander. Dash Hopes and Big Game Hunter can have their uses, but the former will be countered by it’s own triggered ability too often to be really useful (either by the controller of the spell being targetted, or by someone else playing the Bitter), and BGH is just outclassed by so much black has to offer, let alone white.

  5. Pingback: Muse Vessel – Innistrad: A Review of all things Mythical | Muse Vessel

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