Lately I have been getting my Magic fix primarily through Magic Online, but this past weekend I could not pass up the opportunity to play a tournament locally and sling some actual cardboard and Dragon Shields. Great Lakes Game Emporium in Mentor, Ohio put up $4,000 in prizes this past Sunday, including a Foil set of Theros, twenty-four boxes of Theros boosters, and a heap of fat packs and other product. The event drew over ninety people to play Standard and was a great time for all.
There are plenty of viable Standard decks, but I was not going to complicate things. I had a Monoblack Devotion deck sleeved and at the ready, so it was my obvious weapon of choice. I played that deck to good success at the TCGplayer MaxPoint Championship the weekend before last, where I lost a single match in Standard, so I was confident it would perform for me again.
The Monoblack Devotion deck is a proven tier-one deck, has access to a lot of great potential cards, and is not an overly synergistic or mechanic/keyword base deck forced to play any specific cards, therefore it is liable for extensive tuning. I have paid a lot of attention to various lists over the past weeks to get an idea of what is working for other people, and as a gauge for my own ideas. There is always room for change if it will make a deck efficient. The Monoblack deck plays a lot of powerful spells and sources of card advantage, and it operates very well when it can play all of its spells. When Monoblack wins it often does so in a convincing fashion with plenty of extra fuel in the tank. When it fails, it is often because it stumbles in the early game. I approach tuning the deck with consistency and efficiency in mind. Sacrificing power for speed and/or consistency is an exchange this deck can afford to make.
One change I have made to my Monoblack deck represents the power-consistency tradeoff, cutting one copy of the 1BB Hero's Downfall for the fourth copy of the 1B Devour Flesh. Hero's Downfall offers excellent flexibility and power, while Devour Flesh is less powerful but makes the deck faster by offering creature removal for one less mana. Devour Flesh also makes the deck less aggressive by giving the opponent life. I've found that Devour Flesh often does the same job as Hero's Downfall, but doing so for one less mana makes it a much better card in the early game, where it functions to control the opposing board state.
As I gain experience I see the monoblack deck as more and more of a true control deck, a role it embraces in nearly every matchup. The deck wins once in control, making the life total mostly irrelevant, which makes Devour Flesh much like Swords to Plowshares. I've found that the Monoblack deck does not really care about the quality of the opposing threats so much as the quantity. Hero's Downfall destroys an Elspeth, Sun's Champion just as easily as a mere Rakdos' Cackler, but the one-drop dealing two a turn is just as important to remove. When the monoblack deck can maintain board parity and prevent the opponent from attacking its life total, the power cards will easily win the game. Devour Flesh does not offer any options, but it simply matches the opponent one-to-one on a threat, and it does so for two mana, making it a much better tempo play than Hero's Downfall and a more consistent way to match opposing board development.
This swap does hurt against Esper control, but I have really enjoyed the change and found Devour Flesh to be excellent against every other opponent. In one exciting situation in the top four I even used Devour Flesh on myself to win an otherwise lost game. He had Master of Waves and plenty of tokens for fodder, and the entire team was coming at me in a more than lethal alpha-strike. His plan did not account for Devour Flesh, I sacrificed my tapped 7/7 Desecration Demon to gain seven life, falling to just one life point after damage was dealt, but my Pack Rat had blocked and destroyed Master of Waves, leaving him with just a single threat. I stabilized on the following turn, my opponent did not muster any more threats, and I crawled back to win the game.
I thought about going to three Hero's Downfall a few weeks ago while playing online, and then saw Gerry Thompson had made that exact move at the SCG Invitational, where he reached Top 8. I played with three at the Championship and liked it, and continued to like how the deck performed this past weekend. Certainly in many mid/late game situations I often found myself desiring to draw a Hero's Downfall, but often Devour Flesh was just as good a topdeck. There were also plenty of situations where Devour Flesh was clinch but Hero's Downfall is simply too slow, logical given that the aggressive decks are filled with one and two-mana threats. In ideal world Ultimate Price or Doom Blade would earn more slots, but the threats in Standard are simply too diverse. In this world Devour Flesh offers utility necessary for a control deck to thrive against a variety of threats.
Another key way to increase early game consistency in the monoblack deck is to play additional mana sources. The typical list of the archetype plays twenty-five lands, but I've been playing with twenty-six. It is extremely important that this deck hits its early land drops in order to match opposing threats and eventually scale up to the game-winning cards. Missing early land drops is extremely detrimental, and I find that I lose many more games to Mana Screw than mana flood. This deck has plenty of ways to generate card advantage through the late game, so risk of flood is minimized. Access to Mutavault, plus the fact that Underworld Connections is essentially Phyrexian Arena that sacrifices a land, means that lands are at a premium and are ideally played each and every turn of the game. The scry lands offer further value from lands, serving the dual-use of either digging for lands or getting them out of the way. Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx, while potentially very powerful, is also potentially very terrible. I've cut the card from my deck for more black sources, another tradeoff of power for consistency.
When I speak of making the deck more consistent, what I mean is I want to make the deck more likely to execute its gameplan. The basic gameplan of any deck is to play lands each turn that cast spells, so increasing the colored land count is a basic way to improve consistency. Going further, executing the gameplan means casting spells early in the game in order to keep tempo with the opponent, or even get ahead of the opponent. This is the classic gameplan of any Magic deck, control decks in particular, and especially ones without mass-removal that are therefore especially vulnerable to falling behind. This is the reason I play a higher number of Devour Flesh than the more expensive Hero's Downfall, because as the cheaper spell, it is more effective for keeping tempo with the opponent.
Going further into the gameplan, this deck is a devotion deck, and it seeks to develop the board state with black permanents to fuel Gray Merchant of Asphodel. More consistent access to black permanents creates a more consistently powerful Gray Merchant of Asphodel, an example of synergy, which makes the deck more powerful overall. When synergy is concerned, more consistency actually leads to greater power, a win-win, and something to look for in any deck.
I like three Pack Rat in my monoblack deck. Decks often play two maindeck and two sideboard, so I've simply pre-sideboard my deck against the metagame while giving my deck more consistent black devotion. Pack Rat offers a powerful threat that can win the game by itself, effectively as early as turn three, or it can function as a quick win condition in the late game. In a pinch, Pack Rat is not a terrible blocker, and it may also offer a way to exchange cards in hands for a stream of blockers against rush aggro decks. Against monoblack Pack Rat is the best threat to be playing, and it is one of the few ways to overcome an opposing Underworld Connections. Against monoblue Pack Rat is quite difficult to remove profitably, and it offers an excellent plan that can usually race an overloaded Cyclonic Rift. Against decks like Monogreen Devotion or any other sort of deck light on creature removal, Pack Rat holds the potential to win the game by itself. On the play, Pack Rat is arguably the most threatening card in the format, while on the draw it is more fair but still quite potent. Playing three, not two Pack Rat, offers more opportunity for free wins. I am also a huge fan of how Pack Rat is excellent when the deck is light on lands or cards, giving the deck an out to win otherwise difficult games.
In the Top 4 of the tournament, in game three against Monoblue Devotion, I was forced to mulligan to five cards after seeing a seven-land hand and one-land hand, but my deck rewarded me with about the best five-card hand possible: Pack Rat, Mutavault, Temple of Deceit, Swamp, Swamp, and I was on the play. I only cast one spell that entire game, but it was enough to easily overwhelm my opponent. This game would have been incredibly difficult to win through the usual attrition-control strategy, but Pack Rat offered me a Plan B that was impossible for my opponent to beat.
I absolutely love the Pack Rat aspect of the deck because it seems to make the deck both more consistent and more powerful. Any hand with Pack Rat and lands has the potential to win the game against any opponent, so it can turn even the most garbage of draws into a winner. Pack Rat functions to essentially blank the rest of the cards in a hand, so any situationally useless card can be upgraded into something useful and aggressive, which is particularly useful for a control deck filled with reactive cards.
Fitting in extra land and Pack Rat into the typical stock Monoblack Devotion deck required some sacrifices. In order to fit the third Pack Rat, I've cut the third Ultimate Price. Ultimate Price, while sometimes a powerful and efficient removal spell, is also often inflexible. Monoblue Devotion plays plenty of gold threats like Frostburn Weird, while the red decks have Rakdos Cackler and often Boros Reckoner. Burning-Tree Emissary is another omnipresent gold threat, and the list goes on. I play four Devour Flesh and two Ultimate Price for this reason. Cutting Ultimate Price for Pack Rat makes a lot of sense to me. Rather than an inflexible, reactive card, I've spent my slot on a flexible, proactive card. They both function in the early game, and often Pack Rat generates as much as or even more of a positive board position than the removal spell would have.
What to cut for an additional land is not clear, but through reasoning I've reached a logical configuration. Whip of Erebos, while potentially extremely powerful, is the least consistent card in the deck. The first mark against the card is the expensive cost, 2BB, meaning it is a dead card on the first three turns of the game, and without other creatures it does nothing to interact with the opponent. When Whip of Erebos does hit play, it only has an impact in conjunction with other cards. It is best as a lifegain engine, but this requires the deck to be aggressive and have a significant creature presence, which it does not always have. The early turns are often spent on removal and drawing cards, and playing Whip of Erebos onto an empty board is not exciting. Whip of Erebos is also useful for graveyard recursion, but this is late-game strategy that is most useful when the deck is otherwise out of cards and things to do with mana. Cutting a Whip of Erebos does reduce the black devotion count, but the increase in black mana to consistently cast spells like Nightveil Specter makes up for this.
Whip of Erebos is also a legend, and extra copies are all but dead in most situations, so playing more than one copy is inherently an inconsistent and risky proposition. Having two in hand feels awful and any opening draw with doubles is essentially already mulliganed. Playing just one copy of Whip of Erebos is fundamentally sound and removes any potential drawbacks associated with legendary permanents, which makes the deck more consistent. An extra copy in the sideboard is for matchups where Whip of Erebos may be particularly useful but liable to be discarded or removed, such as in the mirror match. A second copy in the sideboard also makes sense because it is only after sideboard that the average opponent will have dedicated enchantment removal, such as Destructive Revelry.
My current list:
As far as the tournament, I lost the first round but won five straight before intentionally drawing into the Top 8 in round seven. From there I won the next two matches before reaching a prize split in the finals that left me the proud owner of a complete foil set of Theros in a lovely pink Ultra-Pro Pro-Binder. The tournament was a competitive success and an excellent learning experience with the black devotion deck.
I look forward to continuing to battle with and tune the deck over the coming months. As far as how to move going forward, any changes will be made with increasing consistency as the prime objective. Desecration Demon is quite powerful in many situations, but it can be clunky in other situations, such as against black removal, creature rushes from decks like Green devotion, and against Master of Waves. It is also the card I most often sideboard out, so perhaps playing less is correct. I am going to cut a Desecration Demon to make room for the fourth Hero's Downfall. Looked at as a direct swap, it functions as a reduction in mana cost that will make the deck fundamentally faster and more consistent. It also brings the total Hero's Downfall count back to four, as playing less does often feel a little criminal given how good the card is. This brings the total removal count to ten, which brings my list in line with the average list while still fitting in three Pack Rat and a Whip of Erebos, the best of both worlds. This swap does makes the deck less aggressive and more controlling, a switch that pushes the deck closer towards the primary plan of winning through attrition and tempo by means of creature removal.
Another possible change would be moving the fourth Pack Rat to the maindeck. Desecration Demon would be the probable cut, but I recommend testing just one change at a time. As often as Desecration Demon can be underwhelming, alternatively it will dominate a game and win by itself through sheer size alone, so I am reluctant to play less than three. It is also possible the twenty-seventh land could be correct, perhaps even in conjunction with the fourth Pack Rat as an outlet for flood, but I believe twenty-six is ample.