by Steve ‘DDT’ Giannopoulos
The new standard format has been around for almost 2 months now and Devotion decks are pretty much where it’s at. We all pretty much know about Mono Blue Devotion since the Pro Tour, but there’s another devotion deck that made a smaller splash on that Pro Tour. It’s gained quite a bit of popularity and it’s not that expensive to assemble. I would pretty much recommend it to anyone looking to build a Standard deck since it will probably be a good archetype for pretty much most of Standard without necessarily needing any new cards (aside from a mass removal spell) to be released in the rest of Theros block.
Mono Black Devotion
1 Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx
4 Temple of Deceit
1 Dark Betrayal
1 Illness in the Ranks
3 Lifebane Zombie
2 Notion Thief
2 Pharika’s Cure
1 Pithing Needle
2 Ratchet Bomb
1 Ultimate Price
The first thing you will notice is the amount of removal this deck packs. It actually seems pretty excessive, does it not? Well there are a few reasons for it.
If 300 had minotaurs …
This spell is definitely as good as advertised. It destroys pretty much any creature as well as chipping in against pesky planeswalkers. If you are aware that your opponent is playing some powerful planeswalkers, you’ll probably want to save this removal spell for them and endure the pain of whatever creature is making you miserable. I too often see players burning through their removal spells like they had a gazillion of them in their decks. It’s hard to inform them that this is a bad thing – especially if they end up winning their game. If all that’s attacking you is a lowly Elvish Mystic you probably won’t mind taking one in order to destroy a Polukranos that your opponent is likely to cast shortly after. It’s all about the read you get on your opponent and how you can anticipate plays. This is obviously something that is acquired over some time with much experience and knowledge of the format you are playing.
Here’s an example:
You are holding a Hero’s Downfall with appropriate untapped mana and your opponent just cast Elspeth, Sun’s Champion. He declares that he will be activating Elspeth’s +1 ability in order to make 3 1/1 Soldier tokens. You choose to respond with a Hero’s Downfall. You will be destroying the much hated planeswalker but its ability will still be lingering on the stack waiting to resolve.
I know that newer players actually have an easier time understanding this than older ones, but once you remove the source of an activated or triggered ability – the ability will still resolve afterwards. I say this because I play pretty much everywhere around my area (Montreal, Canada) and see constant arguments about this. It’s usually an older grizzled veteran arguing with someone younger. I sometimes get asked for my thoughts/rulings which I provide much to the chagrin of the player who is wrong.
The above example can also be used when deciding your next course of action if it were another planeswalker. Meet Jace, Architect of Thought. He’s single, smart and knows his way around Ravnica …. uh, I mean he’s very annoying to deal with when he’s on your opponent’s end of the battlefield.
Your opponent just cast a Jace, Architect of Thought and you have a Nightveil Specter in play plus a bunch of lands and one card in hand (Hero’s Downfall). He activates the -2 ability on Jace revealing 2 lands and an Aetherling. You make two piles and he chooses the Aetherling pile. Knowing that he can only realistically cast Aetherling on turn 7 and this being his Turn 5, what is your course of action? Do you just burn the Hero’s Downfall now or simply finish Jace off with Nightveil Specter, thus forgoing the ability of Nightveil Specter (since it actually needs to damage a player)?
To many of you the answer is simple: just attack Jace with Nightveil Specter and ignore whatever possible 1 mana (Azorius-colored) solution your opponent may or may not have. In the medium to long run you probably made the right call, but newer players are more impulsive and will probably not want to take any chance on Jace staying in play. They’ll just use Hero’s Downfall because they think they have ‘no choice’. I know the example is a little oversimplified but you get the point, I hope. A big part of the game is all about choices whether game-changing or not. What land to play first, when to cast Thoughtseize,etc all involve you making an educated guess or strong technical play. On turn 1 versus an Azorius control deck you probably want to play a Mutavault to start things off, knowing that you can start attacking him as of turn 2. You probably don’t want to play a Swamp into a Thoughtseize since he won’t really be casting much up until turn 3 anyways. The opposite is probably true versus a Red/Green Devotion deck. You can’t just blindly play the same way regardless of the matchup. Of course if it’s Game 1 and you have no idea what your opponent is playing then by all means consider the turn 1 Thoughtseize play as it will give some much much needed information as well as getting rid of their best/most threatening card in hand.
While technically not a removal spell, you can still view it as one and sometime even more like a counterspell since it more or less prevents your opponent’s card from resolving. It’s sort of like a proactive counterspell. On the surface, Thoughtseize is pretty basic: you cast it as soon as you can and get rid of your opponent’s best card or whatever card you would allow him to deal with your threats. Sometimes it’s a card-drawing spell, planeswalker, big creature or another Thoughtseize. It’s really always varied and the card is trickier to cast than you think.
The thing with discard spells is that they lose their effectiveness later in the game where players tend to have less cards in hand. It’s also probably a really bad top deck past a certain turn as well. This is the cast most of the time, but it’s not set in stone. As I said before, you would want to hold onto it versus a control deck so as to hit a more relevant card later on. If you are afraid of a Sphinx’s Revelation then wait to cast it on turn 4 or 5 since the chances of your opponent having it in hand is slightly increased. They would have drawn 3-5 extra cards at that point. If your opponent is playing an Esper deck, which also runs Thoughtseize, it becomes a little more difficult to figure out when you have to cast it. Do you want to prevent them from casting their Thoughtseize or do you have enough gas in hand to not care if they do. Do you think they’ll just Thoughtseize your Thoughtseize ?
If you wait too long, maybe you’re going to cast it only to see that your opponent was holding a handful of lands or even worse:
A lot of times, especially against Red decks, you will probably side out some amount of Thoughtseizes. You don’t want to be damaging yourself since it will just cut down the amount of damage your opponent has to deal you to win. It’s not entirely bad against them, but you probably don’t want to draw more than 1 early on. You can still make them discard something like a Boros Reckoner or a Fanatic of Mogis.
Enough about disruption for now, let’s see how the deck eventually wins:
This little cute is not from the Walking Dead. He usually has a big impact on most games and usually drains for about 8-10 life which is extremely significant. Of course your opponent can actually destroy him in response thus lowering the life drain by 2. The great thing is that he also allows you to stabilize by giving you a half decent blocker as well. Say you were getting beaten down by some Lotleth Trolls or Ash Zealots or even Fleecemane Lions (with your opponent stuck at 4 mana). Gray Merchant of Asphodel can come down on turn 5 and recoup some lost life and stem the bleeding. Sure, often times he will just chump block something but that’s fine because he can also gain us more life via Whip of Erebos (both by lifelinking and being reanimated). I have had situations where I needed to Hero’s Downfall my own Gray Merchant only to reanimate it with Whip of Erebos causing a massive game-winning life swing.
This playful zombie is also the main reason we want to maximize on our black permanents. Underworld Connections or Nightveil Specter is most likely than not going to be cast on turns 3-4. Both of these cards are somewhat hard to remove permanents and they stick around long enough to make our opponent miserable. Nightveil Specter is fairly immune to a lot of commonly played removal spells (Doom Blade, Ultimate Price, etc.) Of course he gets hit by Detention Sphere, Hero’s Downfall, Supreme Verdict, Lightning Strike but that pretty much gets anything out of the way. It’s a shame that it’s loss of life and not ‘deals damage’ because that would have really been wrong with the Whip of Erebos.
As seen in the Mono Blue Devotion deck, this little flyer is extremely good. It’s not for nothing that his selling price skyrocketed from 50 cents to almost 10 dollars. I like to think that my original assessment of it was more or less decent. I never dismissed it as a junk rare or said it was unplayable. I would love to say that I traded heavily for it and have infinite copies of this stocked up in a closet somewhere but that is not the case.
Nightveil Specter is just really good right now. It can exile opposing lands thus helping you hit your land drops each turn to the point where you can start casting pretty much anything from under it. I enjoy it against control decks when you start taking their counterspells from them (since you also have a smallish blue splash thanks to Temple of Deceit). It’s worded differently than Daxos, since it says ‘play’ and not ‘cast’. I mention this because the Daxos thing came up a lot in all the Theros pre-releases I played in/judged. Originally the Mono Black deck ran 4 main deck Lifebane Zombies but Nightveil Specter is clearly better at the moment. The zombies have been relegated to the sideboard. To be honest though, I have to say that sometimes you really hate having 4 Mutavaults in the deck because you will draw them early on and have problems casting early Nightveil Specters. It’s a small price to pay to run 2 of the best cards in Standard though.
This is another Nightveil Specter type of card. It was definitely not a bulk rare though, but it was like 2-3 dollars. Some fringe Golgari control decks emerged towards the end of Inninstrad/Return to Ravnica Standard which brought its value up quite a bit. I’m not sure many people would have guessed it would one day be worth 10-15$. I surely did not. Most viewed it as a borderline playable card with no home. I remember thinking Abyssal Persecutor was pretty good back in Zendikar block, but Desecration Demon is probably the best Juzam Djinn ‘reprint’.
The original list ran 4 Desecration Demons , but with cards like Elspeth, Sun’s Champion it becomes slightly less good. This is why it’s fine to just run 3 at the moment. It, like Nightveil Specter is somewhat harder to get rid of than your average creature. It gets hit by Ultimate Price but not Abrupt Decay (which hits Nightveil Specter). Desecration Demon is also way out of range of pretty much all played burn spells. If your opponent is willing to trade two Lightning Strikes to kill it then that’s fine by us. That’s six less damage we have to worry about from an aggro deck. He also contributes 2 black mana to our all-important ‘devotion to black’ count.
Looks just like the Pack Rat token !
Wait! this isn’t Return to Ravnica limited, is it? Nope, it’s just that Pack Rat has now become constructed playable. One of the main reasons being that the tokens it creates are actual copies. This means that they have a mana cost and everything, which contributes to our devotion count. Also, since we usually draw an extra card each turn with Underworld Connections the Rat is just that much better. It’s great to pitch extra lands to it but there’s even more. You can discard a Gray Merchant of Asphodel to Pack Rat if you fear something like a Syncopate counter (since it would exile the Pack Rat). If you happen to have a Whip of Erebos in play then you can discard it at the end of your opponent’s turn and return it to the battlefield with the Whip on your turn. This basically makes for an ‘uncounterable’ Gray Merchant. You even get to haste attack with it in order to really rub it into your opponent’s face.
Against decks like Selesnya Aggro and company, the Pack Rat is at its finest. Their removal suite is almost non-existent. You don’t even care if your Pack Rat gets within Selesnya Charm range because you will probably have 4 other Pack Rats in play. That’s a good thing. Another small detail is what happens when we have this card in play:
1: +1/+1 to all Pack Rats in play.
Of course if you have to cast Pack Rat and are worried about removal you can always wait until turn 5 so that you can activate it and get another copy of itself. In that same vein, you can always bring it back with Whip of Erebos if it got destroyed by something like a Supreme Verdict or whatnot. Eventhough the original card will be exiled at end of turn you will get an opportunity to discard a card to make a Pack Rat token and keep the party going. Detention Sphere might sometimes ruin your day though, but if you think it’s worth it … you can always destroy your Pack Rat in response if there is another copy in play (and most importantly, if it’s worth it to do so). The target of Detention Sphere won’t be there when its ability to exile resolves and your other Pack Rats will be safe.
Let’s go with the simple definition for this: drawing more cards than our opponent. +1’ing ourselves. One particular card in this deck does it (well, two actually).
Somewhat of a Phyrexian Arena
I recall suggesting that many people jump on this card before Theros was released and I for one am glad I did. From a monetary standpoint it didn’t really jump much in value but they are super easy to trade. My reasoning for its value jump was not exactly what it ended up being. I thought it would be bolstered by some Theros ‘enchantment matters’ sub-theme but that was not the case. Nope, it’s just because of good old Mono Black. For once the people that ‘foretold’ of the resurgence of mono black decks were correct (after about oh, fifteen or so times of being wrong?)
“Mono Black is back in Standard!” – Some Guy at the release of some recent set
You are basically drawing an extra card a turn at the cost of 1 life and one mana. Technically it doesn’t cost mana but in reality it does, since you have to tap your enchanted land to activate Underworld Connections. Casting this on turn 3 will not immediately net us one card and thus make it worthless if our opponent manages to Detention Sphere, Golgari Charm or Abrupt Decay it on their following turn. It’s sort of important that if we are going to waste a card like this early on we at least get to cycle it in case it gets dealt with. On turn 3 you probably want to be casting a Nightveil Specter instead anyhow. Of course there are times when that is not feasible as we discussed above due to the triple black mana requirement. Most of the time you should be fine though.
Dropping one of these early on against another control deck will grant us a ridiculous advantage. If you draw multiple Hero’s Downfalls at this point – feel free to burn them on whatever you see fit (just kidding!). A lot of the time we will just be making extra Pack Rats or using Underworld Connections to draw our Gray Merchants in order to end the game. This card is almost always sided out against the mono red decks though, since we basically waste a turn doing not much against them AND we lose life. That is not a good combination of things to be doing against that particular archetype.
Contrary to Thassa, God of the Sea we don’t want to be drawing this guy all the time. He’s either really good or just terrible. The great thing about him is that his static ability half-nullifies Sphinx’s Revelation and the drawback of Devour Flesh. He’s obviously really good in the mirror match. The older deck list even ran one copy of Erebos in their sideboard because of that. He randomly has a really high toughness thus making him the ‘toughest’ of the five gods. This is sometimes really good since it minimizes trample damage, though there is not much trample to be had these days.
The life payment on the card draw ability is the same as Greed but with an extra colorless mana tacked onto it. It’s sometimes necessary to use when you’re really digging for that hard to find Gray Merchant to finish your opponent off. When you’re attacking with him you’re probably winning or you might just be doing it to gain enough life to survive (with Erebos’s Whip out). Just like all the other gods, he is very vulnerable to Selesnya Charm (though you probably won’t encounter much of those).
On a side note, I have seen many people play this guy as their Commander and he seems to be pretty insane since creature removal won’t work on him early on. Since you start games at 40 life, his card-drawing ability is rather great. I actually run one in my totally random Teysa Commander deck as well as a Heliod, God of the Sun just for laughs. I try to get devotion with some black and white enchantments but the overall deck is very underpowered. Most of the time making them into creatures is worse.
Side In, Side Out
Finally we have what seems to be a very strange sideboard. I must admit that the Notion Thieves are my touch, so you might just want to add an extra Duress and Doom Blade or Pharika’s Cure instead of those. I wanted to make the opponent second guess the blue mana from Temple of Deceit. Most people will just assume it might as well be a Temple of Silence and that it’s purely for Scrying purposes. That’s pretty much correct, but I like the ‘spiciness’ of having Notion Thief in the sideboard versus Blue/White and Esper decks. Sometimes you get to that point where no matter how many Duress or Thoughtseizes you resolve against them they get that one topdecked Sphinx’s Revelation that just puts them back in the game. Notion Thief somewhat takes care of that. With four Temple of Deceit and some card draw, you get to eventually be able to cast a Notion Thief. It’s fine if it’s late game because their game-breaking Sphinx’s Revelation will also be late game.
Give Notion Thief a try, you might end up liking it. It’ also not too bad in the mirror match since it nullifies their Underworld Connections (though it dies to their Dark Betrayal and Hero’s Downfall). I would pretty much obviously take out a couple of Doom Blades for it.
Lifebane Zombie is there for the odd Boros Reckoner, Loxodon Smiter, Polukranos and such. I used to prefer running it over Nightveil Specter maindeck since it was easier on the mana and could Intimidate its way past would-be blockers to kill planeswalkers like Elspeth (since it also doesn’t die to the -3 ability on Elspeth). It can even 2 for 1 Green or White decks if it trades with one of their in play creatures as well. I usually take out a couple of Nightveils to fit in the Lifebanes.
Pharika’s Cure is mostly for mono red decks which usually demolish mono black. I would run four if your local metagame is infested with Red aggro decks. It deals with early threats like Ash Zealot, Rakdos Cackler and the like. You can also use it on one of your own creatures in desperate times to gain some life if your opponent has no creatures to speak of. A lot of mono black decks just don’t run this card at all and ignore the mono red matchup since it’s already so bad for this deck.
Illness in the Ranks is there to shore up our weakness against tokens, namely 1/1 soldier tokens created by Elspeth, Sun’s Champion. It also contributes to the ‘Mono Black Devotion Fund’ which can make a small difference (every black mana counts). Other tokens might come from Voice of Resurgence, Hammer of Purphoros, Assemble the Legion, Heliod, Master of Waves, Precinct Captain or even opposing Pack Rats. That’s the more likely sources but there are quite a few more (Trading Post, Vraska, Xenagos). It’s not terrible but we don’t want to waste our sideboard slots on more than one.
Duress is obviously there against the Blue/X control decks since it basically one for one’s their best noncreature card in hand (of which there are usually many). You might be kicking yourself if you used up a Thoughtseize earlier on and Duress them with an Aetherling in their hand.
Finally, the Ratchet Bombs are somewhat of a catch all solution to things like tokens, Detention Spheres and other bothersome permanents. This deck has a lot of trouble killing stuff when there are too many opposing permanents on the battlefield at once. It would of course greatly benefit from a Damnation or Mutilate kind of spell in the future, but for now other options include:
A) Splashing White for Merciless Eviction. Costs too much but can get rid of other permanents that mono black has problems dealing with (artifacts and enchantments).
C) Not Splashing, not caring and just play good old Mono Black Devotion.
I’m pretty sure you’ve figured out that I just like option C for the moment since the other ones are just plain inefficient or awkward.