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Top 8 Mono-Black Decks


Happy Halloween, boys and ghouls! I have a special treat for you all today, a topic that’s near and dear to my heart. With the recent success of mono-black decks in Standard and with today being All Hallow's Eve, it seemed appropriate to run down some of the best mono-black decks in Magic’s history. I have a personal interest in this partly because I didn’t get to do anything fun for Halloween this year (grad school midterms are cramping my style) but also because of how I became involved in competitive Magic in the first place.

The Rack
I played Magic casually with my friends in school way back in 1994, and when I moved away for college, I sold most of my collection. The only cards I held on to were in my mono-black discard deck that won with The Rack. I picked the game up again in 2003, and they only cards I had that were any good happened to be black. I got into Vintage in a big way because my old deck was actually somewhat viable with some tweaks—and because it was the only deck I had, I became known as the “Mono-Black Guy.” Every Halloween, my local gaming store ran a special mono-black-only tournament that I was always super-stoked to play in (main-deck Bog Wraith, what’s up).

Obviously, I’ve branched out since then, and I can’t think of the last time I played mono-black, although that’s likely to change if I have a chance to play any Standard in the near future. But it is fun to look into the way-back machine and see that mono-black used to be a real thing and there’s a reason people always try to make it work every time a new set comes out. So, without further ado, let’s pull off the last scream counter.

Of course, I can’t talk about mono-black decks without mentioning the first and scariest one: Necro.

This wasn’t the first Necro deck, just the earliest one I could find a list for. Turns out that decklists from the 1990s are fairly hard to find. It actually took a while for the card Necropotence to catch on. I remember opening one in a pack of Ice Age and thinking, “Wow, what a bad card! Skip your draw step? Pass!” How wrong I was, as it eventually proved to be among the most broken cards of all time, especially if you play it on the first turn off a Dark Ritual. This deck even was able to play four copies of Yawgmoth's Will, another contender for Most Broken Card of All Time. This deck is easily able to avoid the drawback of Necropotence with life-gain from Drain Life and Corrupt, or it can just press the nuke button with Nevinyrral's Disk. You can keep wiping the board and refilling your hand until your opponent is out of threats. Skittering Skirge slowly but surely pecks away at the opponent’s life total, and you will inevitably have enough Swamps to burn your opponent out. Later versions of this deck incorporated the combo with Illusions of Grandeur and Donate. For those of you who haven’t seen it, you play Illusions of Grandeur to gain 20 life, which, combined with Necropotence, almost assuredly lets you find a Donate. You give the enchantment to your opponent, who is now on the hook to pay the cumulative upkeep cost, losing 20 life when he or she can no longer pay.

Necropotence was eventually banned, but that didn’t stop mono-black from being a force. Jon Finkel proved that at US Nationals in 2000:

I can’t believe the development team on Urza’s Saga thought Yawgmoth's Will was a fair card. Compared to Necro, Finkel’s deck doesn’t do anything insanely broken, but don’t be fooled—this was still an amazingly powerful deck for its time. “Toolbox” decks were still somewhat novel, and this list makes efficient use of Vampiric Tutor with its collection of silver bullets. And making sure you draw Yawgmoth's Will when you want it is pretty good, too, I hear. As with the Necro deck, Dark Ritual is the rocket fuel here. Unless your opponent is playing mono-red, a turn-one Phyrexian Negator was almost impossible to beat back then, especially if it was backed up with free discard like Unmask.

Mono-black didn’t see much development until Odyssey block, in particular Torment, that brought with it a ton of sweet cards.

Moskovich’s deck was typical of the mono-black control lists of the time. Cabal Coffers was the most powerful land since Tolarian Academy, and it produced absurd amounts of mana. Nantuko Shade became a staple finisher and even saw play in Vintage. Add to the mix Mind Sludge and Mutilate, and you have some pretty good reasons for maximizing your Swamps for as long as Odyssey was legal. Oddly enough, both of these cards have been since reprinted, and only Mutilate saw any serious play. Even then, it was quite late in its Standard run. The missing piece was and always will be Cabal Coffers, and unless they reprint it (spoiler alert: They won’t), this deck will stay buried, much to my dismay.

This deck was immensely popular, and you can trace the MBC craze to this period. Ever since, mono-black enthusiasts have been trying to bring this deck back with whatever cards happen to be available. This deck’s popularity was so enduring that Osyp Lebedowicz and Kenji Tsumura played a nearly identical list at the “Block Party” portion of the 2006 Invitational, four years later. The fact that I’m talking about a Block deck speaks volumes about how influential Odyssey block was. So, it isn’t surprising that it almost immediately made the transition to Standard.

2003 was the heyday for mono-black. Justin Gary made the US National team playing mono-black control. Brian Kibler and Jon Finkel also played mono-black at this tournament, and both made Top 8, although with a more aggressive, Zombie version. Gary’s list is just a work of art, and it’s probably my favorite Standard deck of all time that I never was able to play. (Sadly, I started playing right when Odyssey block was rotating out.) I had to read Riptide Replicator just now. Oh, nice painless Phyrexian Processor. Do you know the minimum number of lands you need in order to cast Riptide Replicator with 10 charge counters on it? Nine. Eight Swamps plus one Cabal Coffers. That’s not remotely difficult to do in a twenty-five-land control deck, as anyone who has cast a giant Sphinx's Revelation can attest to. And oh, look, this deck also has access to Corrupt. I still tell the story of how I once burned someone out with Corrupt despite him playing three Obstinate Baloths that game. That was to win a Grand Prix trial, it was Magic 2011 Draft, and it was freaking awesome. I can only imagine that being able to do that in Constructed and multiple times per tournament would be the best thing ever. Cast Corrupt; I have twelve Swamps in play. Copy it with Mirari. Excuse me; I need to change my pants.

And now for something completely different. The mono-black Rats deck made a big impact early in the Pro Tour Qualifier scene before being overshadowed by the more dominant Gifts Ungiven decks. However, before those decks were refined, the brutal efficiency of Briem’s deck preyed on anyone who stumbled even a little bit. It’s somewhat ironic that Umezawa's Jitte wasn’t even good by the end of this season, but at the start it, was the defining card of the format. Every deck played four of them, even if the deck wasn’t playing that many creatures—almost strictly to remove the opponent’s Jittes. Manriki-Gusari was among the best answers available (desperate times and all that). The other aggressive deck of the time was a white weenie strategy that mono-black Rats matched up well against. It had access to actual removal spells and generally had better creatures. On the play, Distress was yet another way to maintain Jitte advantage, which was crucial in aggro mirrors. However, it wasn’t enough to fight the growing dominance of Gifts Ungiven, and mono-black Rats quickly faded away.

You didn’t think we were done with Dark Ritual and Hymn to Tourach, did you? Bill Stark won third place at Grand Prix Columbus, a format infested with Flash Hulk, one of the most broken combo decks Legacy has ever seen. As a side note, I was a single win away from making Top 8 at this tournament with my own take on anti-Flash technology (actually, all of the credit goes to David Caplan). My only loss on Day 2 was to a then-unknown Max Tietze, and I ended up missing qualifying for the Pro Tour on tiebreakers. But that’s neither here nor there.

Stark’s (no relation to Ben Stark . . . or the Starks of Winterfell) deck was a throwback to the original Necro decks, although obviously without actual Necropotence. The old formula of Dark Ritual with discard spells and pumpable creatures was a good call in a field full of combo decks. The only modern card Stark played in his main deck was Umezawa's Jitte. Hey, if it was good enough for Kamigawa Block Constructed, it was good enough for Legacy, right? It’s a pretty safe bet that the Equipment was instrumental in defeating any Goblin players on his way to the Top 8. Having eight 1-mana creatures that profitably block Goblin Lackey helps, too, I suppose.

In a format dominated by artifacts and Tempered Steel, it’s pretty amazing to see a mono-black deck make Top 8. Vidugiris finished an impressive 8–1–1 with this deck, and Phyrexian Crusader was no doubt an important component to his success. It’s very hard for most decks to profitably block it, especially with Piston Sledge and/or Mutagenic Growth making it bigger. You can check out an official deck tech here. The infect mechanic proved to be extremely powerful outside of Scars of Mirrodin Block Constructed, showing up in Standard and Modern, although the black infect cards are seldom seen these days.

And, of course, it’s only fitting I wrap up with arguably the current best deck in Standard. There’s not much I can say that hasn’t already been said, but you can always check out last week’s article for my thoughts on it. It’s still very much a force, and it’s all over Magic Online. Mono-black is back, baby, and we can hope it sticks around this time.

I hope you guys enjoyed this little trip down memory lane. What are your favorite mono-black decks? Feel free to leave me a comment below.

Until next time,

Nassim Ketita

arcticninja on Magic Online


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