Bring the Pain: MBC in T2

By Tom Fowler

Pop Quiz: What deck could clear the board with a unique Wrath of God effect, make you discard your hand, remove over half your library from the game, and then kill you with one hit from an arbitrarily large monster?

If you read the title, you should know that the answer is Mono-Black Control. While owing its roots to the Necro decks of old, modern MBC reached its power zenith with the printing of the Black-dominant Torment set in early 2002. The Wrath effect was Mutilate, the potent discard was Mind Sludge, the take-your-deck-away card was Haunting Echoes, and the guy who caved your head in at the end of the game was, of course, Mr. Nantuko Shade. Fueling all of this was the copious mana generated by Cabal Coffers. Along with Blue/Green Madness, MBC was one of the defining decks of Odyssey Block, and was a major player in Type 2 until the powerful Torment cards left the format.

Today, loyal readers and fellow MBC players, we have many of those same tools. Mind Sludge and Persecute are both in 8th Edition, letting us tear our unwary victims’ hands to pieces. We have . . .. well, we don’t have Mutilate anymore, do we? Haunting Echoes haunts the Standard scene no longer. Nantuko Shade has left town, leaving behind a brain-dead cousin. And Cabal Coffers . . .. well, that’s gone, too, isn’t it? So what’s left?

Um, we still have Swamps?

Clearly, we need a new set of tools to make MBC good in today’s Type 2 environment. The good news is that those tools are available.

The Central Decision: Death Cloud or No?

There's a bad storm brewin'...
Let’s establish one thing up front: Death Cloud is the best Black spell in Type 2. Despite this status, and despite the triple Black in its mana cost, Death Cloud normally turns up in Black/Green decks. With their mana acceleration and fixing, those decks can set up for a potent Death Cloud and still have the resources left to recover and thrive afterwards.

Loyal readers, I am here to say that you don’t need to pollute your Black deck with those sissy, tree-hugging Green cards. Death Cloud works perfectly well in Mono-Black. It’s true that Black can’t accelerate its mana like Green can, but there are ways to ramp up to Death Cloud, and to make sure surviving it is easy. We’ll get into all of those later.

It seems that I’ve answered the question posed in this header, doesn’t it? Truth be told, for quite a while, I ran MBC without Death Cloud. And while it played pretty well and was consistent, it was lacking something to put it over the top. Many games went by when I would just need a way to cripple my opponent – not even cripple him, really, just kick a crutch from beneath him and leave him with a skinned knee – to force through the win. A parade of cards like Echoing Decay and Rend Flesh weren’t doing it. Better firepower was needed.

I added better firepower in the form of Death Cloud, reconfiguring the deck to support it. Gone were cards I was trying out to see if they were good (like Ink-Eyes, which isn’t bad) and in their place were cards that supported a streamlined, focused Death Cloud build.

Some other questions arose, and we’ll address them in short order. For now, here is the deck I made when I fully gave in to the power of the Dark Side. This is not the final decklist, but it’s the jumping-off point I used.

DeckMagic OnlineOCTGN2ApprenticeBuy These Cards
4 Solemn Simulacrum
4 Kokusho, the Evening Star

4 Wayfarer's Bauble
4 Guardian Idol
4 Distress
3 Echoing Decay
3 Rend Flesh
3 Consume Spirit
3 Death Cloud
3 Phyrexian Arena

20 Swamp
2 Blinkmoth Nexus
3 Chrome Mox

How Much Removal?

And not just how much, but what removal to run? Black has a plethora of removal in Standard. Limiting ourselves to just the playable choices, there’s Terror, Dark Banishing, Echoing Decay, Rend Flesh, Rend Spirit, Befoul, Horobi's Whisper, and Sickening Shoal. Technically, you could add Consume Spirit to this mix, since it doubles as removal in addition to going to the dome. And, of course, Death Cloud itself is removal, though we’re not going to count it here since it does so much more. Even with that exclusion, we’re left with a lot of choices.

How much removal you actually run will be dependent upon your metagame. In general, Standard is ruled by Blue Control and Tooth and Nail, with a bunch of other decks assembling in the second tier. There are some aggressive decks in there (Beacon Green, Mono-Red, White Weenie), so you’ll clearly need some removal. My recommendation is to run 6-8 dedicated removal spells, not counting Consume Spirit or Death Cloud. This will give you game against the aggro decks while enabling you to deal with control decks’ few men when they do draw them.

So now we’re left with which removal spells to run. Rend Flesh used to be the standard when Affinity ruled the Standard roost. However, we don’t have to worry about killing Disciple of the Vault anymore, and the number of Myr Enforcers in competitive decks has been reduced by about a million billion percent. It comes down to this: why pay three mana if we don’t have to? Terror solves the same problems Rend Flesh does, and it does it at a 33% discount. The Black creatures we can’t point it at (Kokusho, and that stainsy Yukora guy) are also spirits, so we’re not losing anything there.

We’ll still need another removal spell here, since playing a half-dozen Terrors tends to be unpopular with the zebra-shirted folks. Let’s consider some cards that are popular in Standard right now. MUC and Blue-Green play Meloku, The Clouded Mirror, and ride his Illusion-making ability to the win. Aggressive Green decks like resolving Beacon of Creation and swinging with insects. White Weenie plays a bunch of small men, and most builds pack Raise the Alarm. Clearly, Echoing Decay is the second piece of removal we’re seeking. It’s cheap, it’s versatile, it forbids regeneration, it can target Black creatures, and it can potentially kill several men for just one card. What more can you ask for?

How Much Discard?

Discard is historically one of Black’s great strengths. For a single mana, sometimes two mana, you can relieve your opponent of a card or two you didn’t want him to have. Unfortunately, the Hymn to Tourach has fallen silent over the years, and WOTC now only makes good discard spells under Duress. OK, I’ll stop with the bad card-name puns. The point is that discard isn’t what it used to be. Blue suffers from weakened countermagic, and Black suffers from weakened discard.

What’s the best of this bad lot? Well, there’s Persecute, and that’s still good, but we’re looking for something to play earlier in the game. Playing Extended has spoiled me, with the power and cheapness of Duress and Cabal Therapy. The cheap discard we have in Standard consists of Distress, Wrench Mind, and Coercion. You might be able to add Mind Rot and Waking Nightmare to the list. I’ve been defaulting to Distress, since Wrench Mind was the pits when artifacts were all over the place. With a lot fewer artifacts out there now, the chance of hitting two cards is greater than before. I’m currently running Distress, though I’ll admit I’m not a big fan of it. If you find Wrench Mind works better, you should make the substitution.

Like I mentioned above, Persecute is still there, and it’s still saucy. If you resolve it against a control deck, it’ll hurt. It can strip Tooth and Nail’s hand apart before they can assemble their Urzatron. However, it’s slow against aggressive decks, which can dump most of their hand before you’ll get 2BB online. Because of that, Persecute is not a four-spot in this deck. It deserves two, maybe three slots, depending on how many fast decks you can expect to face. In my area, which is currently full of control and T&N, with a few aggro decks, it’s worth running a trio.

Mana Acceleration

Hearken back to Mirrodin Block. It wasn’t so long ago. You were either turning Myr Enforcers sideways and laughing at the futility of Viridian Shaman, or you were discovering the futility of Viridian Shaman the hard way. Along the way, you probably played against a Death Cloud deck. Most ran Talismans to accelerate their mana and keep mana sources in play after a Death Cloud; some added to this by running Chrome Mox.

A Talisman with feet
Death Cloud is a symmetrical card, and like any symmetrical card, you should be trying to break the symmetry. Making your opponent sacrifice four creatures to your zero is a start. If you have a Solemn Simulacrum or two and happen to draw a card or two once Death Cloud has resolved, that’s even better. And if your opponent is down to one land while you have three lands and two artifact mana sources, now we’re cooking with gas.

The demise of Affinity in Standard has opened up the options for mana acceleration. Most decks don’t begin with 4 Oxidize and 4 Viridian Shaman these days. I’m not convinced Talismans are the way to go, though. They’re nice for mana and all, but the extra damage here and there is something you really don’t need. An excellent substitution is Guardian Idol. Yes, it comes into play tapped, but that’s not a concern at all. It lets you hit four available mana on your third turn, and that’s what you want to see. Four mana lets you play a variety of things, including Solemn Simulacrum to put yourself even more ahead in mana, or Persecute to tear to use your mana advantage to your opponent’s hand apart earlier than normal.

I’ve soured on Chrome Mox since including it in my original build. The acceleration is nice, but losing a card in the process is the pits. You want to keep your hand as full as possible, both to have a variety of answers to what your opponent does, and to minimize the harm Death Cloud does. Keeping even one card in your hand after a Death Cloud is better than having to pitch the whole thing. In place of Chrome Mox, I just run lands. Wayfarer's Bauble remains in the deck, since it’s another way to get four mana by the third turn, and we’ve already seen how good that can be. It also lets you run a Forest and a few copies of Naturalize in your sideboard, if you're so inclined to have hate for Vedalken Shackles and Karma. I can't say I recommend this plan, but it's an option.

The Creature Base

Solemn Simulacrum is very good in this deck, especially if you get him out on the third turn. You’ll need disposable lands to break the symmetry of your Death Clouds, and the Sad Robot finds those for you. He’s also a respectable blocker who gets you a card when he dies. Note also that if you Death Cloud with a Simulacrum in play, you’ll draw the card after the Death Cloud has resolved, which helps you break that symmetry a little more. Multiple Jens = more good times.

Kokusho needs no introduction. We all know how saucy Black’s legendary Dragon Spirit is by now. The deck only runs 3 because you don’t want to see one early, though a second one later in the game is obviously not a bad thing.

The Decklist

Without further ado, here is the current decklist assembled from all of this:

DeckMagic OnlineOCTGN2ApprenticeBuy These Cards
4 Wayfarer's Bauble
4 Guardian Idol
3 Distress
3 Terror
3 Echoing Decay
2 Consume Spirit
3 Phyrexian Arena
3 Death Cloud
2 Barter in Blood
2 Persecute

4 Solemn Simulacrum
3 Kokusho, the Evening Star

2 Blinkmoth Nexus
1 Shizo, Death's Storehouse
21 Swamp

We’ve gone over the maindeck, so let’s cover the sideboard.

Damping Matrix stops the abilities of two of the most troublesome creatures in the format: Troll Ascetic and Meloku. Troll is still hard to deal with since you can’t target him, but taking the regeneration away makes him a lot easier to manage. It also stops equipments, which you’ll see from White Weenie, and the plethora of decks running Sword of Fire and Ice (and some running Sword of Light and Shadow out of the sideboard). It also stops Vedalken Shackles, which is quite important in the current metagame.

Cranial Extraction needs no introduction. It is supported by an expanded discard suite in the form of another pair of persecutes and a trio of Wrench Minds. “Wrench Mind?” you may be thinking. “Surely Dr. Tom is daft!” Fear not, loyal readers, for everything has its raison d’tre. The increased amount of discard is designed to help against Mono Blue Control. Discard is your best bet to get rid of their counterspells, or make them use them before your real business spells come out. Discard has historically beaten countermagic, but we have some weak discard to choose from right now.

Night of Souls' Betrayal is obviously for creature decks. The ones you’re likely to see are Beacon Green/Mono-Green Aggro, White Weenie, and the occasional Mono Black Aggro and Sped Red. Night of Souls’ Betrayal will help against all of these. It will also help against MUC should you feel you need it – Meloku tokens die immediately, and a 0-power Thieving Magpie doesn’t draw a card when it hits you.

The Matchups

I’m not going to bore you with percentages, since we all know they really don’t tell the whole story. Besides, did you know that 72% of all statistics are made up on the spot?

Mono-Blue Control: Bad before sideboard, OK afterwards. Before sideboarding, MBC just doesn’t have enough spells that MUC will need to counter. Maindeck Bribery is also the pits when they steal one of your Kokushos. After boarding, the increased discard will help you resolve important spells. Death Cloud is obviously a wrecking ball if you can get it to hit. Try to keep the Magpies from going crazy on you, and play as many discard spells as you can after sideboarding. The absolute key card in this matchup, though, is Vedalken Shackles. If it resolves, you have problems. Your hope is to hit it with discard, and this becomes easier in the second game. It’s also the reason that a creature which could be powerful against a control deck, like Wicked Akuba, is not in the sideboard: when the MUC player can steal your answer, it’s not much of an answer. Bring in Damping Matrix to put an end to Shackles shenanigans, and to keep Meloku in check.

This makes the baby Jesus cry
Beacon Green: OK before sideboard, good afterwards. A Troll Ascetic on the second turn will make you frown. A lot. You can hope to chump with Jens a couple times, but that’s about it. Death Cloud sucks if they’ve hit the Beacon of Creation first. A Plow Under or two will also slow down your plans significantly. After sideboarding, you have Night of Soul’s Betrayal, which kills Beacon tokens dead, makes Sakura-Tribe Elder useless, and makes Eternal Witness a slightly more expensive Regrowth. Damping Matrix also keeps Troll Ascetic from regenerating. Remember that you can play a second Night of Souls’ Betrayal, and it will give all creatures an additional -1/-1 before both of them go away.

White Weenie: Good before and after sideboarding. I mention this deck not because I think it’s especially good, but because there are always some poor souls who will happily drink WOTC’s Kool-Aid and think this is still a good archetype. If they get off to a really fast start, you could be back on your heels for a while, but you have enough removal to pull out of it. Echoing Decay will take out all the tokens made by Raise the Alarm. Cards to watch out for are Hokori, Dust Drinker, Otherwordly Journey, and multiple Glorious Anthems. It’s because of Anthem, in fact, that you might consider Hideous Laughter over Night of Souls’ Betrayal in your sideboard. One Anthem cancels out a Night of Souls’ Betrayal, but Hideous Laughter has a more potent effect at the same cost. If your area is full of WW, it’s a change that’s certainly worth considering.

Red Deck Sometimes Wins: Decent to good before and after sideboarding. These decks will try to play out an early Slith Firewalker, then destroy some of your lands so you can’t effectively respond to saucy men like Arc-Slogger or Kumano. Land destruction is always the worst best deck out there, since it’s very hit-or-miss as a strategy. If you can’t get Baubles or Guardian Idols, the Red player will be able to disrupt your mana enough to cause problems. Their threats are few, and if your mana isn’t an issue, one Death Cloud will swing the game. Beware a first-turn Slith Firewalker, though. Damping Matrix out of the sideboard will make Arc-Slogger and Kumano a lot less appealing for the Red player. It’s important in this matchup, if you get a mana advantage, to maintain it with Death Cloud.

Black/Green Cloud: Somewhat unfavorable before sideboarding, slightly favorable afterwards. They have a lot of the same cards and strategies you do, except they get to search for land more, get to use their spells more than once, and get to disrupt your mana with Plow Under. This matchup is a race to accelerate mana, play legendary Dragon Spirits, and lock things down with Death Cloud. The race is in their favor game one, but the extra discard you can bring in turns things back to your favor after sideboarding. If you manage to run them out of cards early, don’t hesitate to keep them from coming back with a potent Death Cloud.

In Conclusion

Ever since Odyssey Block, I’ve been a whore for Swamps, and I’ve tried to make a viable Mono-Black Control deck in every format. Is MBC tier one in the current Standard? I don’t think it is. I think it’s a solid tier two deck that can do well for you depending on your metagame. Your needs in building the deck may differ from mine, but one of the advantages MBC has is that there are a lot of cards which could go into it, so it’s very customizable. Try it out, making whatever changes you need for your metagame or play style. Behold the power of Swamps.

-Tom Fowler


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