Black Devotion, in all of its forms, has been a constant fixture at the top of the Standard metagame since its prime-time debut at Pro Tour Theros. Other decks in the format have waxed and waned in popularity week-to-week, but Black Devotion has stayed relatively constant as a permanent fixture in the metagame. Going into the summer Black Devotion is sitting squarely at number one after dominating the Top 8 of GP Chicago.
Black Devotion has maintained its position at the top of the Standard metagame by being the most solid and consistent contender in the format. The core of strong mana, efficient creature removal, overpowered creatures including Pack Rat and Desecration Demon, and a disruption suite headlined by Thoughtseize all combine to make this deck the total package. Having adapted to new set releases and surviving multiple metagame shifts, Black Devotion has weathered the storm and remained floating at the top through it all.
While the Black Devotion archetype has been a paragon of consistency throughout this Standard season, the details of the Black Devotion decklist have not been so stable. With so many tournament-quality black cards available, hammering down the possible options into a final 75 card decklist perfect for the metagame is a challenging and arduous task that's never truly finished. Black Devotion also brings with it the possibility for splashes, and over the past months it has been seen in a variety of flavors. With every decision comes a trade-off, and managing these trade-offs is a large part in constructing a tuned Black Devotion list.
Today I am going to explore some of directions Black Devotion can take by looking at the Top 8 decklists from Grand Prix Chicago. This Standard tournament drew out over two-thousand competitors and is a great source of competitive decklists. Black Devotion was star of the show, putting five variations into the Top 8, and today I'll break down the decks and highlight some of the major differences:
The winner of the Grand Prix was Tyler Blum, and he did so with his own variation on Black Devotion.
His list is similar to what Jon Stern played to a Top 16 finish at GP Cincinnati over three months ago, which shared two distinct characteristics with this list:
The first is the combination of a set of Nightveil Specter with a pair of supplementary Lifebane Zombie in the maindeck. This configuration gives the main a higher threat-density, which makes it more aggressive and proactive in addition to making Gray Merchant of Asphodel a stronger card. This configuration also saves a bit of sideboard space. This does come with a tradeoff, particularly by reducing the number of maindeck removal spells.
The other distinct characteristic about this Black Devotion list is the relatively high number of black scry lands, six in Tyler's case. Scry lands epitomize the fundamental trade-off inherent to constructing a Black Devotion list: the power/consistency tradeoff. By playing with more scry lands, a Black Devotion deck has more consistent draws through the late game. It will be flooded less and therefore better suited for fighting an attrition war. This sort of list is ideal in matchups that often come down to attrition, such as in the mirror or against UWx. On the other hands, scry lands are slower, and by not making mana immediately are considerably less powerful as mana sources. They can lead to awkward early turns and potentially prevent spells from being cast, which leads to less explosive, less powerful draws.
A final note on this version, having four Nightveil Specter maindeck along with Lifebane Zombie between the maindeck and sideboard is it makes the deck much more aggressive in matchups like UWx and Monoblue Devotion, where all of copies of both cards will be in the deck after sideboard. Versions with maindeck Lifebane Zombie do not have the luxury of bringing in Nightveil Specter, which means they have considerably less threats. This is true for any list of Black Devotion without Nightveil Specter and something important worth noting.
Showcasing the other direction Black Devotion can go is the list from second place finisher Jadine Klomparens:
A similar list was showcased by Owen Turtenwald at the SCG Invitational, who after failing to find a footing in the main event took the deck to an 8-0 start and a Top 8 finish in a Standard Open the next day. The key feature of this deck is the distinct lack of scry lands. I, like everyone else, first thought scry lands were a free lunch, if not a strict necessity, after Black Devotion first made Top 8 of PT Theros with a full playset. Yuuya Watanabe told the world differently by winning a Grand Prix with just two, and now it's clear that perhaps none are necessary at all.
While scry lands smooth draws through the late game, they can create awkward stumbles early on. Black Devotion's best draws include a turn one discard spell in Thoughtseize or Duress, followed by a curve-out flurry of removal spells and Underworld Connections, or a simple uncontested Pack Rat. All of the best draws require untapped lands for the first few turns, and by eliminating scry lands, this list is optimized for early explosiveness. I have found that the most explosive draws from Black Devotion are the most difficult to deal with. Often a slight early lead can be leveraged into an insurmountable advantage that the opponent is unable to recover from. This sort of draw is more likely without scry lands, so even as a strict scry land adherent in the past I am a big fan of the Swamp-heavy version.
Monoblack Devotion used to play 26 land but eventually moved down to 25 copies as the industry standard. Without any scry lands I would be uncomfortable with just 25, and going to 26 makes the deck a bit more consistent in the early game. It's worth noting that the deck can sideboard out a land when on the draw or in attrition-heavy matchups like the mirror, which often boil down to topdeck wars.
Another characteristic of this list in particular, scry lands aside, is the aggressive metagaming against Jund Monsters. No Nightveil Specter with a full set of Lifebane Zombie maindeck is a no-nonsense approach to attacking green decks. This goes further with Doom Blade in the sideboard, Owen had a full set while Jadine had three copies. It is quite strong against Jund Monsters but flexible as a premier removal spell against many other decks in the format, including Monoblue Devotion.
Read the Bones in the sideboard comes in to get an edge in attrition matchups like the mirror and UWx. It's nothing more than raw card advantage, but in matchups where there is nothing but time it's excellent. Yuuya used this technology to earn his Grand Prix win months ago, and it's still a great option for this sort of metagame.
Finishing in third place at the Grand Prix was Yuta Takahashi from Japan:
Yuta has been long known as an expert player, and is particularly known for piloting the Faeries archetype in old Standard and Extended formats. That historic menace was an aggro-control deck very similar to Black Devotion in how it defaulted towards aggression but would play the control role in some games. I was interested in seeing his take on Black Devotion, and I was not surprised by his own variation, which features a high count of maindeck discard by supplementing the Thoughtseize with a pair of Duress.
Turn-one discard is part of the puzzle for the perfect, curve-out draws that are the most powerful this deck has to offer. These draws most often convert to a win, so Yuta's list maximizes the probability of a strong early draw with maindeck Duress. This configuration is also a bit of a pre-sideboarding against much of the field, including the mirror, UW control, and even Burn. Duress has also proven strong against Jund Monsters, which leans heavily on removal and planeswalkers when competing against Black Devotion.
In terms of scry lands, Yuta is somewhere in the middle of the pack, playing just two copies, but it's certainly closer to zero than six, which makes sense given his additional one-drops in maindeck Duress.
Moving on, the GP Chicago Top 8 also featured two black variations with splashes, piloted by two players on a hot streak:
Jared Boettcher has made yet another top 8 in his amazing Rookie-of-the-year run. His weapon of choice was BR Devotion, a Monoblack Devotion deck that splashes for Mizzium Mortars, Dreadbore, and Rakdos's Return:
He's had success with this version in the recent past, and it's no surprise he did well with this version again. The move towards red makes the deck worse in aggressive match ups, but it provides a huge boost of power in long games against controlling opponents, such as the mirror or against UWx. Rakdos's Return in particularly is quite powerful against Jund Monsters, and a strong reason to move towards red. Dreadbore is another all-star against Jund Monsters and provides redundancy to the already overworked Hero's Downfall. In a metagame heavy in the mirror, UWx, and Jund Monsters, the red splash seems like an excellent option.
Steven Rubin reached the Top 8 playing BG Devotion. He might be familiar from my article interviewing him after his PTQ win.
This version has been a stand-by ever since Journey into Nyx brought the mana-mixing Temple of Malady. The splash for Abrupt Decay does a few things, none more important than providing an out to Underworld Connections in the mirror, but it also removes Detention Sphere, Domri Rade, and a slew of other important permanents. Brindle Boar in the sideboard is a cool innovation and serious shot in the arm that gives an extra edge against burn decks. Enough has already been said about this splash, but I'll say again that it gives an edge against the mirror and UWx decks, while it sacrifices some mana consistency.
Black Devotion has come a long way since its Humble beginnings last fall. Since then, the deck has been tuned and adapted in variety of ways. Color splashes are a way to increase the power inherent to the deck, but like everything else, they come with a tradeoff. Sacrificing some mana consistency for increased power is an option that has worked quite well for some, while others have gone different routes. A new innovation is to remove scry lands entirely. This leads to a consistent manabase that lacks speedbumps in the early game, but the power starts to sputter off later as the lack of deck smoothing leads to more flooding. Black Devotion is a flexible deck that is showing it has room to grow even so late into the season. It will continue to flex its muscle until rotation this fall and, until then, will weave with whatever punches Standard has left to throw.
What version of Black Devotion are you playing with now? Where do you see Black Devotion headed this summer and until rotation? All I know is that I'll be playing Black Devotion!