Grand Prix Toronto was this past weekend and if you followed the metagame from the Regional PTQs just a week prior, you probably noticed a big shift...at least among the successful decks. The Regional PTQs were essentially dominated by Esper Dragons as it was well prepared against a more open field. The Top 4 of my Regional PTQ was all Esper Dragons, for example.
If you take a look at the Top 8 of GP Toronto, you actually won't find a single copy of Esper Dragons anywhere. Instead, a Top 8 full of Den Collectors and then a Mardu Dragons list are what you will find. In theory, these decks, despite being Bant, Mardu, and Abzan, are all designed to beat Esper Dragons. They do this through engines that recover card advantage, hand disruption, and having few dead cards against Esper Dragons.
Having played with Esper Dragons last weekend, I am confident that the deck can be built in such a way as to have game against these decks, but the pilot must have identified that these were the threats to Esper Dragons and then they also needed to avoid any other landmines in the field, such as Five Color Blue Dragons.
Looking at the Day 2 Metagame breakdown, we see that 14.6% of the field was playing Esper Dragons. That is not too alarming, but what is alarming are the decks around it. Of the remaining six decks in the top seven most represented on Day 2, basically all of them are intended to beat Esper. They are all aggressive decks with either some reach or disruption intended to punish slower control decks. These six decks made up 49.2% of the Day 2 field. That means that if you are Esper in day two of the GP, every other round you are playing against a deck designed to beat you.
As I said, Esper can be designed to beat any of these decks in a vacuum. Realistically though, fighting against Abzan, Bant, and red decks all at once is pretty tough to do. You want Drown in Sorrow, Foul-Tongue Invocation, and Omen Speaker holding off the red decks while those cards are not going to be great against an Elvish Mystic into Fleecemane Lion start.
Until the metagame settles down a bit, control is in a tough spot where it needs to Thwart off a ton of different threats. Instead, I am looking to be a little more proactive right now. This is a deck that has been on my radar for a while, but now is actually testing quite well. I give you the new Monoblack Aggro:
On the surface, Monoblack Aggro is relatively straightforward to play. You cast cheap creatures, turn them sideways, and try to protect them from any catastrophic event by clearing the way with Thoughtseize and Duress first. However, because of the versatility of the creatures available to black right now, the deck actually has a lot more flexibility than that and maximizing value in each matchup becomes an extremely rewarding experience.
For example, without knowing anything else, if I presented you with the following hand, tell me how your first two turns would go, assuming your opponent and draw step have no influence on the situation:
Gnarled ScarhideMardu ShadowspearThoughtseizePain SeerSilumgar AssassinBloodstained MireSwamp
I'll give you a second...
If you said you would lead off by playing a Swamp and Thoughtseize, you are not maximizing your value.
If you said Swamp into Gnarled Scarhide, you are warmer, but still not there.
You see, there are dozens of ways the first couple of turns can go for you here and while it is impossible to know just what the best line is without having context, we can still rule out some less than stellar lines which will at least narrow us into a reasonable spot.
For example, the first thing to recognize is that you want to usually play your fetchlands before your basics in this deck. This not only thins your deck of some mana sources, making it less likely that you flood out, but it also provides fodder for a Tasigur, should you draw it. Imagine we were on the draw with this hand and drew Tasigur immediately. If we continued to draw two more fetchlands, we could cast a turn three Tasigur without further assistance. If we played Swamp first, we could only have two fetches in the yard by turn three, making Tasigur not an option.
This small bit of planning can mean all the difference when you are piloting a deck that wants to deal 20 as quickly as possible.
We didn't even get to turn two, which has combinations of various one-drops, or a choice in two-drops to choose from, but we will get to that a little later. This is a straightforward aggro deck if you want to play it at a minimum level, but assuming you want to actually compete at a higher level, it is important to understand some of the tricks and interactions that individual cards can make. With a simple overall game plan, these small tricks can often be the key to performing well with the list.
-Remember that a BS Champ can validate its own condition. If you attack with just BS Champ and it is killed, you can still return it.
-Best turn one play due to no in-hand versatility later and a recursion clause.
-Able to Deal Damage even when blocked or chumped, making this your best one-drop against Sylvan Caryatid, for example.
-Dash is extremely effective against sweepers as it provides damage out of nowhere and can even return your Bloodsoaked Champions the very turn after they were swept away.
-Usually a fine one-drop to play just like Bloodsoaked Champion, but its versatility later means you aren't sad keeping one in hand.
-Pumping up one of your creatures is nice, but the "can't block" clause can also be quite effective in many match ups, so keep in mind you can bestow on to opposing creatures.
-Generally your lead-off two-drop, but also the one you want protected the most, so sometimes it might come down on turn three just so you can cast a Thoughtseize or two.
-The average casting cost in the deck is 1.33 but you do have a few Tasigurs you can hit, so keep that in mind.
-Cast face up probably half of the time and its "can't block" clause does end up mattering quite often.
-Cast facedown to gain advantages in attrition match ups. Can kill Courser of Kruphix all the way up to Dragonlord Silumgar.
-Provides further reach along with Shadowspear and works when blocked once again, giving you some nice direct damage.
-Bestowing this is the goal but it can be fine when as a 3/1 effectively. Remember that bestow is another tool against sweepers.
-The reason to play the deck as providing huge bursts of damage out of nowhere in a field that is not running many black creatures is awesome.
-Haste matters. Playing this and a one-drop or possibly even delving out Tasigur in the same turn completely throws any combat math your opponent had out of the window.
-Another haste threat to return Bloodsoaked Champion.
Tasigur, the Golden Fang
-Effectively just a "Tarmogoyf" in this deck, aka an undercosted vanilla fatty. You are generally never paying more than three for this unless you opt in.
-Your most powerful four mana play is Tasigur plus Mogis's Marauder, when available.
With that out of the way, let's talk general strategy. Aside from our creatures, we have a few removal spells and a handful of disruption that is key to our plan. Because our deck is relatively weak to sweepers, for example, Thoughtseize and Duress allow us to play around them. We can either just pluck them away, or simply gain knowledge that allows us to end the game in some other way.
Drawing too much hand disruption can be an issue, which is why there are only five copies present in the main. Unlike your creatures, drawing a Duress or Thoughtseize can just be drawing a dead card some amount of the time and we want to limit that, which is also why there are not many removal spells in our maindeck either.
But while flooding out on disruption and not having too many threats can be an issue, the payoff is generally worth it as a piece of hand disruption can completely make our early game. One of the most common lines with the deck is to play a one-drop and then follow that up on turn two with another one-drop and then a Thoughtseize (or vice versa usually). This line puts a bunch of pressure on the table as you'll have four power already, but it also gives you information about your opponent's draw and lets you throw a wrench into it sometimes.
Usually you are going to want to balance your pressure and disruption early. Playing Thoughtseize on turn one over a one-drop creature is going to be wrong most of the time because you are not sneaking in damage through the process. By setting yourself back a turn, you could just be giving them the turn they would have hoped for their removal spell to gain them. And the key spells you are looking to take tend to be three or more mana anyway, giving you some time to establish an offense first.
There is the lineup turn one Thoughtseize into turn two Pain Seer, but that is generally only going to be something you set up in game two or three situations or with weaker hands that you mulliganed into. All of your best hands are going to have a one-drop creature in it though, so hopefully this doesn't come up often.
The format is very much in a state of Flux right now, with new lists and concepts being adapted by the day. We continue to see new engines rise up and then they jump around from deck to deck looking for the best home. As a result, planning against specific decks might leave you vulnerable should something else show up. Looking at things from a more general sense might be better for the time being.
Against aggro, you want to engage in a typical race in game one situations. Hopefully a Thoughtseize can disrupt something key from the opponent, but in general, game one is an all-out race. Silumgar Assassin flipping over could mean the difference here.
Postboard, however, you pick up a ton of tools. You get life gain in your kit, a ton of removal, and some key sweepers. Resolving a Festergloom against Monored is a completely blowout, for example. It is almost just casting Plague Wind for three mana and the fact that both Festergloom and Virulent Plague don't touch your own cards is just backbreaking here.
This tends to be a race where you are leveraging small advantages overtime and trying to set up some sort of finish. Generally Mogis's Marauder will be involved, but it's possible that a series of Spiteful Returned being bestowed is all of the damage you need to close out a game.
You are looking to execute on this game plan in all of your games, even if a few of your cards might change.
Our main deck is already well suited against control, so we are effectively looking to do the same thing here in all of our games. Disruption early allows us to sculpt a game plan with better information and then leveraging advantages from there is the name of the game.
Bestow things on Bloodsoaked Champion, for example. This makes the opponent use a removal spell on a creature they never wanted to interact with if they had a choice. You still get the bestow card to beat down with and BS Champ is coming back soon anyway! Also, keep a Shadowspear in hand as the dash repetition can be really annoying for control to deal with.
Thus far in testing, monoblack has proven to be quite strong against most of the format. Temur midrange has proven a little tough and I likely need some more sideboard attention there, but the deck is fundamentally sound. Even better, the deck is fairly inexpensive to build once you have your playset of Thoughtseizes. You can even get to further of a budget if you cut the fetchlands, but that is going to weaken the deck a noticeable amount.
Standard is actually a lot of fun right now though, so I encourage you to get out and experience it! Until next week, thanks for reading!