The Quest for Multiplayer Mono-Black Control
By Luis Almeida on May 30th, 2007 · Filed in Multiplayer · Comments not available just now
The roots for this article go back to 2004. Mirrodin and Darksteel were the latest stuff around, and brought one of my favourite cards: Barter in Blood.
I'm a controlling kind of player, so I was very excited about a poor man's Mutilate. I proceeded to build a multiplayer Mono Black Control deck. Before dismissing me as a scrub after seeing this pile, bear in mind that my collection is rather limited and was missing (and still is) a lot of staples. So if there’s a really obvious MBC card (Mutilate, for example) that’s not included, I probably didn’t have it. It went something like this:
So what’s the whole idea? Keep the table clear so my superior threats such as the Abominations and the Avatar can do their jobs.
Innocent Blood, Barter in Blood and Abyssal Gatekeeper can do massive, untargeted removal around the table. Abyssal Gatekeeperand Brood of Cockroaches give me early blockers, the latter returning to my hand after chumping. They can be quite menacing with Bonesplitters, so I’m hoping to send attackers somewhere else. Brood can also protect my important creatures from all this sacrificing, and I don’t really care if I lose the Buzzards and the Swarm since I can actually benefit from it. Unholy Grotto, Gravediggers and Disturbed Burials for some recursion, and I’m ready to go.
I played this deck against the dream matchups: my cousin Mike playing slivers and my girlfriend Inês playing Modulars. You see, Crystalline Sliver does nothing against sacrifice effects, and Modulars can’t give their counters if there are no other creatures around. So what the hell went wrong? How could I possibly lose?
Well, I managed to keep them creatureless alright. I also managed to keep myself creatureless while losing life continuously to my Cockroaches and being the general target of my foes’ wrath. You see, 4 Cockroaches aren’t nearly enough to keep pace with all the Bloods and Barters, and when I managed to have Abominations to survive the frenzy, they’d be torched by something that got around their regeneration – when you kill everybody else’s creatures, guess where their removal is going…
Also, after the first game, they knew what I was up to, and my Bonesplitter-totting Cockroaches and Gatekeepers weren’t that menacing anymore. Sure, if they attack me they’ll probably lose one or two creatures, but how different is that from letting me be until I cast Barter in Blood? Might as well get some damage through, right? The sorcery-ness of my removal also left me guessing when to use it, as I didn’t know if I was going to be attacked, and then I would be exposed to damage before I could do something about it. I learned soon enough that I would be attacked whenever damage would get through, so playing every Barter in Blood I got was the correct decision indeed.
They also figured out pretty quick that, since I wasn’t putting up any real pressure, they could just play creatures one by one (and even taking turns between them!) until I was out of answers.
Add to all that the fact that they consider me a better player than themselves, thus making me an automatic target for attacks whenever I am a valid choice, and you can imagine the shortness of my lifespan in games that evening.
So, what was my pitfall? I tried very hard to destroy everything, and not hard enough to make sure I could actually DO something. I pissed everybody off. To make matters worse, I had no spot removal, no way of getting rid of enchantments and noncreature artifacts, and whatever piddly creature my opponents managed to get beyond summoning sickness would automatically bash my already Cockroach-damaged face (that life loss is much more significant than I thought). Ouch.
Actually, I did win one game, on the back of that Nevinyrral’s Disk, that enslaved my cousin’s Sliver army (I got no sacrifice stuff early) into annihilating my girlfriend, leaving me to win the duel. Disk is good (great news, huh?). And even then, I owe that win to poor strategy on his behalf, for he should’ve just made me pop it and then join her into smashing me as usual, instead of being left alone, creatureless and at the mercy of my removal and recursion.
So, what's the lesson? If you make a deck that’s going to hurt everybody, make sure you can take the heat and you can kill them before they recover. Make sure you can actually do anything other than annoying people. If you leave them bleeding, they’ll come back at you. Leave them dead. Oh, and pack some enchantment and artifact removal (that Disk was a mid-session addition, I didn’t have any initially). Don’t expect wiping every creature out to be sufficient, and don’t expect others to do the job for you if you’re screwing them. «Please kill that Mind’s Eye? He’s going to win, you know…». Who cares? As long as you and your stupid Barters are in the kitchen making coffee, they’ll be glad.
So, I'd hit a jackpot of stink - a deck that annoys everyone into wanting you out of the game, but is incapable of seizing it. With the cards I had at the time, however, I didn't really see a satisfactory solution, so I gave up on the deck.
Flash forward to 2007. Our hero now has a nice, steady income and his collection is rapidly growing. I’ve been buying 3 boxes of each large expansion and 2 of each smaller one since Champions of Kamigawa (with the exception of Saviors, from which I’ve only got the cards from the Pre-Release – the fear of opening One with Nothing, of which I would most certainly open no less than 10, was too much to bear), winning a few packs here and there on drafts and Pre-Releases, and ordering stuff on eBay.
Again, the latest expansions have brought some MBC love with them… Garza’s Assassin. Imp’s Mischief. Kor Dirge. Tendrils of Corruption. Hex. Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni. Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth. Kagemaro, First to Suffer.
The dark side called out to me again, and I answered.
Now this was more like it. I retained the ability to pretty much kill everything on the table, while bigger threats plus a more robust recursion element made sure I’d actually have something to win the game. I did not follow my own advice and included no way of getting rid of artifacts or enchantments. This was a conscious choice this time, however. I don’t seem to be facing problems with those in my playgroup lately, and I’m tired of having Oblivion Stone and Nevinyrral’s Disk in most of my decks (plus, they bust my Talismans, and the Grave Pacts which are scarce and really important – and if there are more problem enchantments around, it also helps keep some heat off my Pacts), so I decided to throw caution to the wind in that regard.
The deck did pretty well on its debut. I won two out of four 6-player games. Garza’s Assassin and Shambling Swarm are great early defence, especially combined with Grave Pact. Avatar of Woe always comes out at a discount, and though it tends not to lose summoning sickness until the 5th or 6th casting, by that time there’s often nothing left to whack and it’s just attacking for the win.
However, I was still not completely satisfied. I think I owe much of that success to the fact that one of the folks was playing an 8-Post deck that could do some very sick things if left unchecked, including Oblivion Stone recursion via Academy Ruins, which pretty much annoyed everyone into ganging up on him (despite the fact that I could do roughly the same with Bane of the Living + Volrath’s Stronghold - but then again I couldn’t Triskelion and Mindslaver people into oblivion, which I guess is quite scarier). When the dust settled, everyone would be in topdeck mode, except that I had Twisted Abominations (they live through an Oblivion Stone), and could topdeck whatever I wanted. Add to that the fact that I was facing a Soldier deck (packing Armageddon – and I was the only guy using artifact mana), two Sliver decks and a Cleric deck (which was the biggest threat with its Oversold Cemetery – conveniently nuked by Oblivion Stone - and Starlit Sancta), with absolutely no graveyard hate, and you can see that I was pretty well positioned to win those anyway.
Not so good in multiplayer So, on to the problems I identified in this version. First, I may have gone overboard with removal. The recursive Wraths-on-a-stick do a fine job of keeping the table clear, with Bane really shining since it even kills stuff like Darksteel Colossus. Hence, spot removal is useful mainly for two things: getting rid of stuff that survives mass destruction or is played after; and staving off attacks early in the game. Corrupt fulfills the first but sucks at the second. When making the deck, I imagined Tendrils of Corruption would be a bad Corrupt. Now I see Corrupt as a bad Tendrils. It costs a ton, meaning you can forget about playing early, and later it takes most of your turn. Its death knell, though, is the sorcery speed. This deck is very mana hungry. Even with the artifact mana, keeping enough open for regeneration, recursion, land-searching and morph-flipping is tough. It’s bad enough to have to play creatures on your main phase. The fact that it goes to the face, while sometimes relevant, is not that important. Even if you get 10 damage in, which is not common until very late in the game (I forgot I had Urborg *blushes*), it’s rarely worth it unless you’re actually killing someone or you really need the life – it’s much better to keep on recycling your stuff and thinning your deck and keeping your creatures alive.
Another problem was Volrath’s Stronghold. Well, not exactly a “problem” since that thing plus the right creature tend to win games on their own, but rather a limitation of the card. While it can give you a huge advantage by allowing you to replay the creature that most screws your opponents, it does not produce card advantage itself. Worse, it tends to lock up your game, creating situations where you just draw the same backbreaker over and over again until your foes roll over and die. This is not all that bad when it works, but it’s boring and dangerous.
Boring, because there were games where I didn’t see more than 15 cards except for Thawed swamps. I drew what I needed and just worked with that, never really progressing the game. Over the course of four games, I never saw Vile Requiem, Wall of Souls or Imp’s Mischief – which was really unfortunate since I felt these were the most marginal cards in the deck, yet I didn’t get to test them.
Dangerous because the whole “you play the creature, they kill it, you play it again they kill it etc” can sometimes backfire. They can find a permanent answer to it, or worse, they can lay down a threat you can’t deal with, and your hand is empty since you’ve been drawing the same cards repeatedly. Maybe your deck has an answer to that, or at least a way to stall and play around it – but now it’s too late, because you locked yourself up and now you’re in topdeck mode!
This brings us to the next problem – card drawing, or lack thereof. This deck, while full of thinning and sources of card advantage, does not have any card drawing. Sometimes you just need to reload, and the inability to do that really bites.
With this in mind, I tweaked the deck into this next version (still 61 cards):
I was quite happy with the manabase on my first attempt, so I didn’t really change it much. While 22 lands (I don’t count Thawing Glaciers) may seem a bit low for an admittedly mana-hungry deck, 6 mana stones and the Glaciers (which actually produce black mana once Urborg is out) give me nine 2-mana accelerators – more than enough. This also made me comfortable with taking the Abominations out - they are clunky, their small butts take a lot of effort to protect, and I don’t really need the swampcycling.
Death Denied, while a very good card, wasn’t really carrying its weight (mainly due to the Stronghold Problem), so I dropped it. I also dropped one Stronghold (the Legendary status and colorless mana hurts sometimes, plus there’s hardly any LD among my friends). Corrupt, as explained above, also gets cut. This opened space for:
2 Disturbed Burial – lacking Oversold Cemetery in my collection, I turned to what I feel is the next best recursion available to black – there’s a lot of good enchantments out there, among which Debtor’s Knell springs to mind, but Burial’s not vulnerable to Disenchant effects. Besides, I wouldn’t want to taint (if that’s applicable here) my deck with White mana, even if it’s hybrid.
3 Syphon Mind – wow, this card is SO good in multiplayer. I can think of no other black card drawing spell that even comes close. The only drawback is the discard. Yes, that’s what I said. This card would actually be much better if it just drew you cards. It makes other players really angry. I strongly advise against playing this without some solid defence in place. I’ve had a red mage empty his hand by sending three burn spells to my face just so he wouldn’t discard. You have been warned.
1 Silent Specter – this goes in for the same reason the Aphetto Exterminators went in and still remain. While not stellar, I like to diversify my morphs. It’s bad news when your opponents see a morph and immediately know it’s Bane of the Living. This keeps the guessing, and the Specter is a solid creature and can rip some decks apart.
I took the deck for a spin in another 6-player game, this time with different opponents and obviously different decks. Although I didn’t win any (I only played twice with it, having switched mid-session), I was quite happy with how the deck played. I was also facing much stiffer opposition – among others, my RWU masterpiece piloted by Inês (this deck is a real multiplayer monster, often being able to completely dominate 5 players at once even when they know what it’s up to and start gunning at it from the beginning of the game – I’ll write about it some day) and a Zombie deck packing one of my worst nightmares, Withered Wretch. I put up a good fight but was eventually taken out of both games, once again for being too disruptive. Still, I never felt helpless and had a big impact on the games – things that I enjoy and always look for.
Yet it left me with a lot of questions – is this an inevitable characteristic of all MBC decks? Are they doomed to incur the wrath of the table, because of the power plays they make? Could a subtler approach be more adequate? Then again, without the ability to run artefact and enchantment removal, don’t you need that overwhelming power to win? Is there such a thing as a subtle MBC deck? What are the alternatives to Nevinyrral’s Disk and Oblivion Stone? Do I just have to give in and play those?
I’ll try to answer those questions over my next playing sessions. Suggestions in the forums would also be welcome. Meanwhile, I'll probably make some changes to the deck. Here are the most likely candidates to retirement, based on the last experience:
Wall of Souls – it sure is cheap, but I haven’t had any problems with holding the fort early so I feel comfortable dropping it. If it had flying, it’d be a different matter entirely. As it is, it’s nice but unnecessary early, and a real dud late.
Aphetto Exterminator – this is really sub-par because the cost is too high, but the bluffing value that kept two of them in so far still justifies one copy.
Imp’s Mischief – didn’t really do anything useful in the games I drew it, and there were few situations where I wished I had it. It looks useful; maybe there just aren’t really backbreaking targeted spells in my group to warrant its inclusion.
Hex – Although I don’t see better options without resorting to Mutilate or Damnation (which I don’t have), I think there’s so much removal in this deck that this is dead too much of the time. Still, I like the card (I love using my Pointy Finger of Doom and saying “this, this, this, this, this… oh, and that, DIE!!!”) so I’ll probably keep one.
Likely candidates for the free spots:
Skeletal Vampire (a.k.a. Murray) and Sengir Nosferatu – these guys have some tremendous synergy with Grave Pact, and are quite resilient (even though they die to Wrath of God). Murray seems better overall, although its body is a little anemic – the army of bats he can create while offing creatures thanks to Gravepact could be priceless.
Duplicant – I have no way of removing problematic creatures from the game, which is the main reason why Withered Wretch hurts me so much. This is a possible solution, can be a nice beatstick on occasion, and it’s reusable.
Withered Wretch – the bad man himself been on the verge of making the deck in every version, but I don’t really like it since it’s just too single-minded – and the bargain price of the ability is not all that hot because I don’t want empty graveyards, I want cheap Avatars of Woe.
Nezumi Graverobber – Another graveyard hating option, this actually has other uses. I’m leaning heavily towards including a couple.
Diabolic Tutor – sometimes all that’s separating me from the win is drawing the right card, and this would help. On the other hand, it’s really slow, and I don’t think I’ll need it at all once I have 4 Grave Pacts, the card I would most likely search.
Magus of the Coffers – obviously I don’t have the original Coffers. Is this an acceptable substitute? Including it would imply adding some Consume Spirits, and maybe some other mana sinks – while the deck is mana hungry, it doesn’t currently have an optimal way to use 20+ mana at once, and that would imply some profound changes. My guess is that these guys aren’t worth it, but maybe I’ll give it a shot. Or maybe just buy the real stuff!
Korlash, Heir to Blackblade - sponsored by Captain Obvious! (I'll have to get three more, though...)
Wow, I never thought it’d be this long when I started. I guess there’s a lot to be said about MBC in multiplayer. As all things that pack a lot of power, it is difficult to handle, but very exciting, even if you burn out. I have learned a lot by making the analysis necessary to write about it, although I still have many questions (maybe I’ll have answers and a follow-up sometime). Thanks for reading; I hope it was useful and/or entertaining.
By Luis Almeida on May 30th, 2007 · Filed in Multiplayer · Comments not available just now
About Luis Almeida
Portuguese, 26 years old, playing since Tempest, casual man (though I do some limited, having won a couple of Pre Releases), deeply in love with multiplayer. I feel there’s a shortage of multiplayer articles around (with only The Ferret at MTG.com really writing about that regularly), so I decided to share some of my (short, since only recently have I managed to get group games regularly) experience.