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From the Ground Up: Black


Black is an interesting color, mainly because it is spread out so far. I feel that it’s important to have the wide variety of effects present in Black represented, and thus Black needs to be a diverse color. Of course, Black is still going to be very good at killing creatures, but I want to bring other things to the table as well. Black is also probably going to be the color that undergoes the most changes with Innistrad, given the focus on my tribe of choice—Zombies. I haven’t determined the exact changes I want to make, and will probably wait until I get some experience with the Innistrad Zombies in Limited.

All right, we’ll start again with the various tribal stuff:

Zombies – Cemetery Reaper, Coffin Queen, Crypt Champion, Festering Goblin, Fleshbag Marauder, Graveborn Muse, Gravedigger, Korlash, Heir to Blackblade, Lord of the Undead, Nantuko Husk, Noxious Ghoul, Null Champion, Rotlung Reanimator, Severed Legion, Skinrender, Skinthinner, Twisted Abomination, Undead Warchief, Withered Wretch, Wretched Anurid, Zombie Cutthroat

There are quite a few placeholders in this tribe, mainly because the options are somewhat limited (surprisingly). There are a lot of not-so-great Zombies, and a lot of the good ones are higher up on the curve, which caused some issues for me, as I definitely wanted a good concentration of Zombies at lower mana costs. Recent sets have had a number of good choices, but this tribe hasn’t changed much since Shards, and once I found out Innistrad was gothic/horror-themed, I thought that while I could make changes to this tribe, waiting for Innistrad block to finish seemed much more profitable, as I would likely be including a significant number of cards from that block.

“Lords” – Cemetery Reaper, Lord of the Undead, Graveborn Muse, Undead Warchief, Noxious Ghoul

Lords are the most important part of the tribe, and, as per my goals, I was looking for lords that (1) functioned well on their own or (2) were powerful enough to warrant drafting around.

Cemetery Reaper and Graveborn Muse are perfectly fine to play with low numbers of Zombies, and Noxious Ghoul, Undead Warchief, and Lord of the Undead are all extremely powerful and well worth going tribal for. Ghoul in particular, I feel, is underrated, as it’s often capable of keeping the board clean of little guys and giving you a substantial advantage in dude count, which is always good.

After looking through the various Zombies available, I decided that I wanted a “pull guys out of the graveyard” subtheme in Zombies (not only is it on-flavor, but mechanistically it is relatively easy to accomplish). This idea led to Coffin Queen, Gravedigger, and Crypt Champion (and will almost certainly lead to the inclusion of some Innistrad-block Zombies as well, with Ghoulraiser being a strong candidate).

Fleshbag Marauder, Skinrender, Korlash, Heir to Blackblade, Festering Goblin, Skinthinner, Twisted Abomination, Withered Wretch, and Severed Legion are the next group of Zombies.

Fleshbag Marauder, Skinrender, and Skinthinner are my “removal guys” here. I like Skinthinner because it plays well with the occasional multi-Morph deck, and I already put Vesuvan Shapeshifter in the Cube, which interacts well with Skinthinner. The card by itself is a little on the expensive side, but I feel that it’s not overly expensive for the speed and power level of the Cube, so it’s all well and good.

Korlash and Festering Goblin are there to support themes in the Cube. Festering Goblin is a Zombie Goblin, and a semi-efficient one at that, and thus makes it in while supporting two tribes. Korlash is there to support my “Swamps matter” subtheme, which will show up in other areas. Once again, I don’t want this theme to be dominant, but it needs to be both present and relevant.

The last three cards—Twisted Abomination, Withered Wretch, and Severed Legion—all come from angles that I like and are solid overall cards. Withered Wretch provides some graveyard control, Severed Legion provides an evasive man at 3 (which is definitely something I wanted in Black), and Twisted Abomination is just a very solid card overall.

The final group is far more “place-filler-y”—Nantuko Husk, Null Champion, Rotlung Reanimator, Wretched Anurid and Zombie Cutthroat. All four of these will almost certainly disappear by the end of Innistrad block. Once again, curve-slotting for these is extremely important. I wanted some aggressive support in Zombies, and frankly, Zombies tend not to have very high power-to-mana-cost ratios. I was never a fan of Blind Creeper, so Wretched Anurid and Null Champion made the cut instead. Zombie Cutthroat was chosen at 3 for similar reasons. Rotlung Reanimator and Nantuko Husk do things that I like in Black (Rotlung replaces itself, Husk works with sacrificing guys), and they were definitely aspects of Black that I wanted to represent, so I chose to do them here. I may shift these effects to the “non-Zombie” side of the coin, but I like the idea of Zombies that interact with dying profitably. Anyway, maybe Innistrad block will come up with a Zombie that will be better.

Here’s the rest of the Black creatures: Augur of Skulls, Avatar of Woe, Black Knight, Blood Seeker, Bog Wraith, Cabal Patriarch, Child of Night, Dark Confidant, Dimir House Guard, Drana, Kalastria Bloodchief, Dread Warlock, Faceless Butcher, Fledgling Djinn, Gatekeeper of Malakir, Giant Scorpion, Howling Banshee, Hypnotic Specter, Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni, Kokusho, the Evening Star, Laquatus's Champion, Liliana's Specter, Massacre Wurm, Nantuko Shade, Necravolver, Okiba-Gang Shinobi, Phyrexian Rager, Pulse Tracker, Rathi Trapper, Reassembling Skeleton, Scavenger Drake, Sengir Vampire, Shadow Guildmage, Shriekmaw, Vampire Hexmage, Vampire Lacerator, Vampire Nighthawk, Viscera Seer, Wall of Bone, Warren Pilferers, Will-o'-the-Wisp

Once again, I’ll look at them by group.

The fat – Avatar of Woe, Cabal Patriarch, Drana, Kalastria Bloodchief, Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni, Kokusho, the Evening Star, Laquatus's Champion, Massacre Wurm

So, this list is a bit deceptive, as Cabal Patriarch has one foot out the door. It’s becoming Skeletal Vampire as soon as I get my copy that’s out for alteration back, but for right now, it’s Cabal Patriarch. I liked the ability of Cabal Patriarch to sacrifice creatures and use the graveyard profitably. If they print a similar creature in the future, I will likely put it in the Cube, although finding space will be difficult.

So, you might be wondering at the lack of some very powerful creatures, with Grave Titan probably topping the list. I’m not a particularly big fan of Grave Titan, mainly because it’s like a big, giant blunt object. It’s effective, no denying that, but I would rather have a threat that’s a bit easier to interact with, but also quite powerful. Thus, I chose Massacre Wurm over Grave Titan. Sure, the Wurm is a little less powerful, but it is still quite a significant threat in Limited. It will often take out two to four guys when it comes in, and the life-loss trigger is not something that can simply be ignored. The 6/5 body it provides in addition is not shabby, either.

Avatar of Woe is my selection in a line of “similar” creatures. I’ve always sort of had a soft spot for it, and I actually like that it’s higher up in the curve than Visara the Dreadful. There are a couple other creatures with this ability, but I think those are the big two that go t: Destroy target creature.

I feel that Drana, Ink-Eyes, and Kokusho I don’t really need to talk about, which leaves Laquatus's Champion. I feel that this is an underrated card. The 6 life it takes is not insignificant; combined with small, poking attacks, it can often serve as the finishing bit of damage, sort of like Lava Axe, which provides a unique tactical angle (something that, if you’ve been following this series, you know that I like). Even without that, though, the creature itself is quite good. Although it is expensive, it does come with 6 power and Regeneration, which makes it difficult to kill. If you want a threat that is both resilient and ends the game quickly, Laquatus's Champion deals 18 damage across three turns. If this sounds like a lot, it’s because it is. Grave Titan, arguably the most efficient damage-dealer Black has ever had, only deals 24. Sure, that’s a kill versus not a kill, but I’m reasonably sure pulling out 2 damage somewhere else (either before or after) is not a big deal.

The “two-for-ones” – Augur of Skulls, Faceless Butcher, Gatekeeper of Malakir, Liliana's Specter, Okiba-Gang Shinobi, Phyrexian Rager, Shriekmaw, Warren Pilferers

I feel that the effects on these creatures are fairly basic—card-draw, creature removal, discard, and a “Gravedigger.” All are relatively Black, and they are reasonable options at this power level. I want to talk about a couple of choices in particular, though.

Augur of SkullsThis is a “Drudge Skeletons”–type card. Black has consistently had a cheap creature that blocks well (represented by Drudge Skeletons in many formats, but more recently by Reassembling Skeleton); thus, I wanted two or three in my Cube. Augur of Skulls does that while providing “added value” of also taking two cards from my opponent’s hand at an opportune moment. I thought that being able to use it as a 2-mana Mind Rot with Suspend 1, combined with the ability to be a decent blocker, gave the card enough to make it in this slot.

Liliana's SpecterObviously I also wanted Black to have a “discard man” or two. Ravenous Rats is frequently the default choice here, but I like Liliana's Specter because the body is much better. A 1/1 for 2 is much worse than a 2/1 flyer for 3. Thus, Liliana's Specter instead of Ravenous Rats.

Okiba-Gang ShinobiI like Ninjas, and this almost always takes two cards for 4 mana. The fact that you can use this to rebuy a different ETB ability, and that it threatens to take more cards when attacking (or trade with another guy), make it a very solid value card. This is, I think, an underused card that is frequently good for a three-for-one, sometimes even more.

Warren PilferersThis is a Gravedigger that supports my tribal theme, so I thought it was a pretty easy inclusion. The off-color tribal support is definitely important to gaining some consistency in multicolored tribal decks.

Nothing to see here, move on – Black Knight, Dark Confidant, Hypnotic Specter, Reassembling Skeleton, Vampire Hexmage, Vampire Lacerator, Vampire Nighthawk

There are two cards I want to touch on here—Reassembling Skeleton and Vampire Lacerator. Reassembling Skeleton also has one foot out the door, mainly because it is a relic from a time when Black was more into sacrificing its own creatures. There are still some interactions with it, but it really isn’t interacting as much with the rest of the Cube as I would like. The likely replacement is Vampire Interloper, to help push R/b aggro a bit more.

I will keep the card on the short list, though, because I do think Black should sacrifice its own creatures for benefit. If more cards that I like are printed with “sacrifice-dudes-for-benefit” abilities, I will likely throw the Skeleton back in. He stayed in the Cube because I was considering putting Recurring Nightmare in the Cube, but have ultimately decided against that.

Recurring Nightmare is a card that introduces a number of space concerns. The biggest thing that it requires is consistent graveyard control, which is something that I don’t feel I have the space to include. Remember that my priority is to allow players to interact with one another; if I simply put in Recurring Nightmare without dropping in some yard control, players simply wouldn’t be able to interact with the Nightmare player, which is something I don’t want.

Vampire Lacerator was chosen over Carnophage (I think they’re too similar). I didn’t want both around, and Lacerator is simply the better card. It eventually turned out that I need another 2-power Black dude for 1, and I was about to put Carnophage in again, but Diregraf Ghoul to the rescue. I considered Sarcomancy, but I feel that that card is unnecessarily complicated and just bad design. I was content to simply have Pulse Tracker and Lacerator, while waiting for a third 1-drop if necessary. Now I have it, and there is no reason to go with either of those two cards, except for if I want another 1-mana 2/2, which only time will tell.

Aggressive support – Blood Seeker, Fledgling Djinn, Howling Banshee, Pulse Tracker, Shadow Guildmage

Obviously, I needed some more creatures to help more aggressive strategies (both truly aggressive and aggressive midrange decks), so this group of creatures made it in. Fledgling Djinn, in particular, I feel is a very underrated card. Having a 2/2 flyer for 1b is very strong, especially when Black is the “off” color. Foul Imp might be a tad better, but the bb in the cost is actually rather restrictive.

Blood Seeker was included over other options because I thought that it gave midrange decks an opportunity to use the card as well. The crossover there was what pushed it over the edge. If you are attacking for a lot early, Blood Seeker can help you out, but if you are just looking for some early dudes that will do something, Blood Seeker can also help you out. I felt that this dual functionality made the card good for strategic flexibility, which is a big thing with my Cube, if you haven’t noticed already.

Shadow Guildmage is the final card I want to look at. This card definitely doesn’t see enough play. It does so many things, it’s unbelievable. In R/B, it is actually a really solid pinger—and a 1-drop, at that. The ping ability on a 1-drop is actually very strong, especially when it can hit players. People are playing Goblin Fireslinger in Limited, and that card doesn’t even double as removal, only triggers Bloodthirst.

The thing is, the other ability on Shadow Guildmage is not irrelevant. It interacts very well with creatures that have an ETB ability that is beneficial. Evoke in particular is an excellent mechanic for this. Starting on turn three, you can Evoke your Shriekmaw and respond to the Evoke trigger by using Guildmage to put it on top of your library, allowing you to do it again next turn. The card also interacts well with Faceless Butcher and, by extension, Fiend Hunter. This is not even getting into the ability to block with a guy and redraw it, allowing you to recast a creature like Flametongue Kavu or Eternal Witness. This can also allow you to deny combat-related things like Lifelink or combat triggers. All in all, Shadow Guildmage is horribly underrated and should be in consideration for most Cubes, even “Powered” ones. I feel that people who try this out and use the card to its full potential will realize how good it is.

The rest – Bog Wraith, Child of Night, Dimir House Guard, Dread Warlock, Giant Scorpion, Nantuko Shade, Necravolver, Rathi Trapper, Scavenger Drake, Sengir Vampire, Viscera Seer, Wall of Bone, Will-o'-the-Wisp

Let’s go over this section in detail, sans Necravolver, whose choice I have explained before.

Bog WraithSwampwalk has always been a thing among Black dudes, and I wanted to represent that. Bog Wraith was the choice to do so.

Nantuko ShadeSwamps matter, and this creature supports that theme, as it is only really good in very Black-heavy decks—which, given my selection of nonbasics, means a lot of Swamps.

Dimir House Guard, Viscera SeerBoth of these library-manipulation effects are things most commonly seen in Blue. However, I wanted Black to have access to them. Giving Black access to a Transmute card was definitely conscious, and if I had liked the Blue Transmute spells over other options, I would have included one of them as well. Even so, library manipulation was definitely needed in Black, and this puts it on the map.

Rathi TrapperPut in to support my rebels theme. Also gave Black access to a tapper, a fundamentally “White” mechanic.

Dread WarlockThis is another evasive Black dude. Blue gets Phantom Warrior–style cards, whereas Black gets this. I went with more flyers for Blue, but this felt like a better form of evasion. This, alongside Severed Legion, showcases the fact that Black gets evasion, just less than Blue.

Scavenger Drake, Sengir VampireI like both of these cards from a mechanistic standpoint. They both feel like reasonably executed “Black” creatures that interact profitably with killing things. Sengir gets brownie points for having a lot of sentimental value attached to it (yes, I have been playing since Sengir Vampires and Serra Angels dominated the skies).

Giant Scorpion, Wall of Bone, Will-o'-the-WispHere we have more awesome blockers. I thought that Black needed a Horned Turtle, which is my basic defensive creature profile, so I chose Wall of Bone. Will-o'-the-Wisp made it on being pretty much the peskiest blocker ever printed, and Giant Scorpion played out in a way I liked a lot in Zendikar Limited. The ability to attack into much larger men and hold off opposing ground forces was an aspect of the card I really liked. If it had 4-butt, I would’ve not bothered with Wall of Bone, but as is, I felt the need to have both.

Spells – Aphetto Dredging, Bitterblossom, Chainer's Edict, Corrupt, Cruel Revival, Death Cloud, Death Pit Offering, Diabolic Intent, Dirge of Dread, Doom Blade, Drain Life, Dread Return, Duress, Enslave, Entomb, Eyeblight's Ending, Go for the Throat, Ill-Gotten Gains, Liliana Vess, Makeshift Mannequin, Mind Rot, Mind Sludge, Mutilate, Nameless Inversion, Night's Whisper, Oversold Cemetery, Pestilence, Phyrexian Arena, Profane Command, Promise of Power, Quag Sickness, Rise from the Grave, Sign in Blood, Smother, Sorin Markov, Strangling Soot, Tendrils of Corruption, Thoughtseize, Vampiric Tutor, Voices from the Void, Withering Boon

Nothing to see here, move on – Bitterblossom, Chainer's Edict, Doom Blade, Dread Return, Duress, Enslave, Go for the Throat, Nameless Inversion, Night's Whisper, Phyrexian Arena, Profane Command, Sign in Blood, Smother, Thoughtseize, Vampiric Tutor

Swamps matter – Corrupt, Drain Life, Mind Sludge, Mutilate, Quag Sickness, Tendrils of Corruption

These cards are all here to support my “Swamps matter” theme and to encourage people to draft around that idea. I think this is pretty much the bare minimum of what I needed in Black. This is all removal (except for Mind Sludge) which makes them all cards worth playing and worth stretching a bit for. Drain Life should be Consume Spirit, but the card goes to the face so frequently that there really isn’t a huge difference between the two. The change will happen when I find a foil copy of Consume Spirit. If you happen to not be playing a Cube with shinies, feel free to have whichever one you can get your hands on. The difference is very small.

More removal – Eyeblight's Ending, Strangling Soot, Cruel Revival, Pestilence

Once again, most of this removal is “conditional,” but in different ways. The big thing I wanted to avoid was the “non-Black-creature” and the “non-artifact-creature” clauses on Black removal. I wanted my Black removal to be more universal, so I picked things like Smother and Strangling Soot. Cruel Revival is obviously there to help support Zombies a bit, and I just really like Eyeblight's Ending as a removal spell. Pestilence is obviously a classic as well and combines well with cards like Lashknife Barrier and things with Protection from Black.

Graveyard – Oversold Cemetery, Entomb, Makeshift Mannequin, Rise from the Grave, Aphetto Dredging

I thought that Black obviously needed to interact with the graveyard some more, so I selected a few cards that interact with that zone based on the various angles of interaction.

Rise from the GraveAllows you to reanimate your opponent’s men.

Makeshift MannequinInstant speed.

Aphetto DredgingTribal.

Oversold CemeteryRecursive (almost was Recurring Nightmare).

EntombPut something into the graveyard. I thought about Buried Alive, but the ability of this card to get instants and sorceries is relevant. At the moment, there isn’t much with Flashback, but I expect that to change over time, since Flashback is one of my favorite mechanics.

The rest – Death Cloud, Death Pit Offering, Diabolic Intent, Dirge of Dread, Ill-Gotten Gains, Liliana Vess, Mind Rot, Promise of Power, Sorin Markov, Voices from the Void, Withering Boon

Sorin Markov, Liliana VessAt the time, these were the only options for Black planeswalkers. Of course, now I have a third option with Liliana of the Veil, but I’m not a huge fan of new Liliana over these two. The +1 is not really that useful in my Cube to build around, so in many respects she’s a glorified Edict, which while not bad is underwhelming.

Voices from the VoidI wanted another mass discard spell. There were some other options (headlined mainly by Persecute), but I liked the symmetry of having both this and Mind Sludge to help push Black in opposite directions.

Dirge of DreadWhen I saw this card, I knew I couldn’t leave it out. It cycles for value, and the “mass Fear” card makes a lot of sense in Black.

Death CloudI wanted a “Pox-like” effect in Black as well. The main options outside of this were Pox and Smallpox. I looked at all three and said “go big or go home.”

Death Pit OfferingThis is a unique card that is extremely Black, in my eyes. Sacrifice your own creatures for a giant gain. Positioning it is challenging, but the reward is well worth it. The tension inherent in this card is something I really like, so I included it.

Ill-Gotten GainsThis card is really a giant experiment. All in all, I was not pleased with the way it turned out. This is almost certainly going to become the 4-mana thing with Flashback that makes two 2/2 Zombies from Innistrad.

Diabolic IntentDemonic Tutor with the correct downside, at least mechanistically speaking. This is the proper way to do that card.

Mind RotCan’t really go wrong with the classic. I went with this over Stupor because I am not a fan of random discard in general. I feel that you too often are hosed by chance and not beaten through superior play/skill/drafting. This is not something I want to support. I made an exception for Hypnotic Specter, partially because it is such an iconic Black creature. I wasn’t willing to extend that exception to Stupor or Hymn to Tourach.

Promise of PowerNow this is a big Black sorcery I can get behind. Life for cards and a giant Demon? Sign me up, please. Also, the 2bbb casting cost helps support the “Black decks want lots of Swamps” theme because it is hard to cast on 5 in a not-heavy Black deck.

Withering BoonI saved the best for last. This is the primary example of my giving Black “out-of-color” effects. Obviously, this is a Blue card, but Black gets it because it is Black. This is, in fact, arguably one of the most powerful cards in the Cube because it influences games simply through its presence in the Cube. It doesn’t have to show up in the draft. I feel that more Cubes should run this card because it is incredibly powerful to have this effect off-color, especially in aggressive decks. This is definitely on the list of “Five Cards in My Cube That Have Won Me the Most Games” because I can only think of two cards that I know have won me more games than Withering BoonMeloku the Clouded Mirror and Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni. Withering Boon is that good. It is never the card that puts the final nail in the coffin, but it is frequently the card that builds the coffin, and for 2 mana, that is more than you get from almost any other card.

Chingsung Chang

Conelead most everywhere and on MTGO

Khan32k5 at gmail dot com

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