Mono-Black was already a "thing" in Standard. It might not have been THE thing, or "the best" thing... But it was a thing.
Now, with Theros: Beyond Death entering the battlefield (or let's be honest, the graveyard), Mono-Black looks poised to take over as the dominant force in the most popular format. Some of the following combos and play patterns utilize existing cards, but the deck - and its new identity - seem largely predicated on three important new additions:
Gray Merchant of Asphodel - The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, Gray Merchant of Asphodel almost single-handedly transforms the strategy of a Mono-Black creature deck. While Mono-Black always had some good creatures that could do some interesting things, at some point a 2/1 Skeleton Warrior is no longer scaring anyone (no matter how durable). If you get the opponent low enough, Gray Merchant of Asphodel can put them away, head-shot style. It also pays you back for color discipline, in particular ridiculously intensive threats like Ayara, First of Locthwain, Cavalier of Night, or sudden breakout Bolas's Citadel.
Nightmare Shepherd - A 4/4 flyer for four? At one point in the game that would be resume enough. But in a deck of nearly half creatures (and some key methods of controlling when one of them might hit the graveyard) Nightmare Shepherd becomes a full-blown card advantage engine. A common play pattern will be to get in early with the, you know, early stuff... Slow down the opponent's forward movement with Nightmare Shepherd (especially while making removal or combat tricks look horrendous); buying time for Gray Merchant or Gray Merchant combos. It's also a 4/4 flyer with no downside. So rock on, Red Zone.
Woe Strider - Early builds of Mono-Black-with-Theros: Beyond Death are not yet leaning hard on this card. I suspect that will change. Not only does this card provide multiple bodies for three mana; not only does it go long against removal or other control elements; its ability to sacrifice creatures - sometimes multiple creatures in a single turn - for zero mana makes Woe Strider potent if not unique.
I am confident Mono-Black is going to be one of the most important decks to know (and capital letters here, Decks to Beat). Following are eight combinations, open-ended combinations, and play patterns you'll need to know to do just that.
Mono-Black Devotion | THB Standard | jbtwist, 11th Place MTGO Standard Challenge
- Creatures (28)
- 2 Cavalier of Night
- 2 Woe Strider
- 4 Ayara, First of Locthwain
- 4 Gray Merchant of Asphodel
- 4 Gutterbones
- 4 Murderous Rider
- 4 Nightmare Shepherd
- 4 Yarok's Fenlurker
- Instants (2)
- 2 Disfigure
- Enchantments (2)
- 2 Dreadhorde Invasion
- Artifacts (2)
- 2 Bolas's Citadel
1. Ayara, First of Locthwain plus... Almost Anything?
Beating Mono-Black, in part, means knowing Mono-Black. This is a creature deck that can come out with a 2/1 Jackal Pup-like offense from turn one... But also plays twenty-six lands and a slew of cards that are only good going long.
While it has multiple potential plans of offense, Mono-Black is largely a progressive card advantage creature deck with scads of cards that, while unremarkable in isolation, will generate a meaningful advantage in aggregate.
Imagine the simplest of these: Yarok's Fenlurker. An upgraded Ravenous Rats, Yarok's Fenlurker grabs a card when it enters the battlefield. Great combo with Ayara, no? Yarok's Fenlurker already got its money. So when you sacrifice it to Ayara you're already on the bonus.
This deck is highly redundant, despite several of its cards having unique capabilities, so variations of this principle might be "Gray Merchant + anything" or "Nightmare Shepherd + anything".
2. Ayara, First of Locthwain plus Dreadhorde Invasion
This one is cute and subtle.
Dreadhorde Invasion will only put a new Black permanent into play if there isn't already an Army. Enter Ayara, First of Locthwain. Ayara can eat your only Army, so that the next time you Amass you can trigger Ayara's Drain-ping again.
The Drain-ping is sweet because it gains a life to make up for the one Dreadhorde Invasion would otherwise cost you.
What you do with the little Army in the meantime is up to you. Chump block maybe?
3. Nightmare Shepherd plus Woe Strider (plus Gray Merchant of Asphodel)
Mono-Black is basically always getting an edge as long as it's casting cards. It gets a thing that can go one on one with your thing... But it'll Drain you for one, or cost you a card, or, like make a Goat.
Imagine you've just got a Woe Strider in play; then follow up with Nightmare Shepherd... And smash five mana for a Gray Merchant of Asphodel on the five. Your Gray Merchant will have [at least] five devotion to Black. You can - potentially immediately - sacrifice the Gray Merchant to hit for another five. Ten life isn't a super high bar for the finishing kill, especially if you had a 4/4 flyer to swing with already.
Besides setting up an endgame ten-point hammer blow, there are numerous tactical applications to pairing Nightmare Shepherd and Woe Strider. For instance if the opponent has to glue multiple burn spells together to take down a high toughness creature (perhaps including a Bonecrusher Giant) you can not only 1) punish the 1-for-2 investment, you can 2) fizzle an Adventure to steal a future card from the opponent.
If the opponent has no cards in hand, you can wait until the opponent's next turn, gobble a Yarok's Fenlurker, and execute the rare instant speed discard sequence.
4. Cavalier of Night plus Woe Strider
There are tons of open ended combos on the front end of Cavalier of Night. Woe Strider makes a sacrificial Goat for a creature killing setup. Or you can sacrifice the Woe Strider itself. While that might not seem that exciting, remember that Woe Strider has Escape to buy itself back. Not for nothing, but Woe Strider is also only 3 mana, meaning its eligible for Cavalier of Night buyback as well.
On that note, it's not unreasonable to want an instant speed way to kill your own Cavalier. A 1/1 Horror for a 4/5 lifelinker might seem like a downgrade on its face, but if you feel likely to win, sacrificing Cavalier of Night at instant speed (and no mana!) to get back Yarok's Fenlurker on the opponent's draw might be just what the First of Locthwain ordered.
Speaking of which, Ayara can largely stand in for Woe Strider on either of the above two examples.
5. Bolas's Citadel plus Gray Merchant of Asphodel
Bolas's Citadel has a ton of Black pips in the top-right, which is exactly what Gray Merchant of Asphodel is looking for. Perhaps more importantly, Gray Merchant of Asphodel is a potent source of life gain, paying you back for what Bolas's Citadel is costing you.
Outside of Bolas's Citadel itself at six, Gray Merchant of Asphodel is [about] the most expensive card in the deck. Bolas's Citadel would charge you five life for a Gray Merchant, but the minimal Gray Merchant played from your library would pay you five back (three from the Citadel, two from the famous Zombie), keeping you even. Every Gray Merchant with more devotion to Black than the minimum would actually net you life.
6. Bolas's Citadel plus Witch's Cottage
Probably the reason I chose JBTWIST's version... The one Witch's Cottage!
If you can get whatever creature in the graveyard - but most importantly Gray Merchant of Asphodel - Witch's Cottage can put it back on top of your library... Where Bolas's Citadel can immediately play it back.
Numerous setups with Ayara, Woe Strider, etc. to put this one together.
7. Deathless Knight plus Ayara, First of Locthwain (or Cavalier of Night, or Gray Merchant of Asphodel, or Murderous Rider...)
Deathless Knight out of the sideboard is one of the unsung workhorses of the Mono-Black deck. In much the same way that Gray Merchant of Asphodel can burn an opponent out, Deathless Knight can give this deck a kind of Ball Lightning-esque feel of the Red Deck.
With a whopping four Black pips, Deathless Knight is one of the best setup cards for Gray Merchant of Asphodel... But also benefits going the other way. So slam with your Deathless Knight, heedless of its future health! There are any number of ways (some cheap) that can buy it back for you.
8. All the Combos Not Actually in This Build
Tymaret, Chosen from Death is going to be an insane anti-beatdown tool. While 2 toughness is the bottom of the heap, most Tymarets will be bigger. And going long? Free Deathless Knights are one thing, but actually gaining life can be pretty backbreaking, too.
Drag to the Underworld is going to exploit all the Black pips on the battlefield the same way as Gray Merchant and others.
Maybe my favorite new tool is Omen of the Dead. Not only does it give you meaningful recursion for Gray Merchant of Asphodel... Your next one - the one that you are in fact setting up with the Omen of the Dead - will be at least one pip bigger!
Just imagine how much stuff will be new and different when considering other decks and colors :)