The entirety of M15 has been spoiled, so it's time for my usual set analysis from the perspective of Black Devotion. I have been playing Black Devotion in Standard since last September, and I am always eager to figure out how a new set will impact both Black Devotion and Standard as a whole. M15 looks particularly powerful compared to the average core set, and it will surely impact the landscape of Standard. (For a snapshot of Black Devotion before M15, check out this article I wrote a couple weeks back.)
Let's dig in:
M15 will mark the fourth Standard printing for the planeswalker Liliana Vess, and it's a potential standout in Black Devotion. Liliana Vess has never been a true star in Standard, but there is no better time than the present. Black Devotion is the top Standard deck, and it looks like a comfy home for Liliana Vess. The deck can put all of the planeswalker's abilities to good use, and it even benefits from two devotion to black it provides. Black Devotion is also filled with the disruption necessary to support the planeswalker, including discard and creature removal. Without a way to protect itself, Liliana Vess is not great against every opponent, but it would shine in matchups that tend to go long, like the mirror match and against Sphinx's Revelation decks. I'm looking towards Liliana Vess as a sideboard card, probably a one-of, as a powerful threat and card-advantage engine in matchups where attrition is a large part of the battle. I value the ability to attack opponents from an additional angle, and Liliana Vess does just that. It's also a great on-curve follow-up to Erebos, God of the Dead, which I turn to in the same matchups I'd be using Liliana Vess.
As far as the in-game impact of Liliana Vess, the primary mode is the +1 ability, which makes the opponent discard a card and therefore generates some form of card advantage. Over time, this will grind the opponent down to nothing while generating enough loyalty to keep the planeswalker alive through aggression. This ultimately culminates in a -8 ability that combines particularly well with Gray Merchant of Asphodel. The last mode of Liliana Vess is the -2 ability, which provides the Vampiric Tutor-effect of searching for a card and putting it on top of the deck. As a Rock-style deck that's a mixture of threats and specific answers, any tutoring is powerful. Monoblack decks have historically always played quality tutors when available, ranging from the powerful Demonic Tutor to the Diabolic Tutor employed in Torment-era Mutilate-powered Monoblack Control decks. Liliana Vess provides two tutor-effects with its starting five loyalty, so in this sense it's a great way to quickly lock up a game because it can provide two miracle topdecks in a row against an opponent with no pressure.
Llanowar Wastes / Caves of Koilos
Perhaps the most important addition to Black Devotion from M15 is the black painlands, Llanowar Wastes and Caves of Koilos. While they do not share the utility of the scry lands, painlands provide easy access to colored mana without the huge cost of coming into play tapped. In terms of Black Devotion, in most cases the painlands will be supplementing the scrylands Temple of Malady and Temple of Silence, and combined with the shocklands Overgrown Tomb and Godless Shrine they provide these decks an impressive 12 colored sources from dual lands. Compared to the pre-M15 builds, the painlands go a long way in making a splash consistent. For example, I'd be comfortable with 13 green sources if I wanted to consistently cast a splashed Abrupt Decay on turn two. Before this would have required lots of guildgates and basic Forests, or even Mana Confluence, but with the new painlands splashing green or white is nearly free in terms of stretching the manabase. The mana base will still come with significant costs in terms of life total, but the manabase will be able to consistently cast any splash spells.
At the very least, the painlands are an easy replacement to any Mana Confluence currently being played. I'd also argue that they are a big upgrade over the guildgates, so it's probably time to retire any of those.
Sign in Blood
Sign in Blood is something like a fixed Underworld Connections, providing two activations without the upside of a long-term investment or devotion, but at a low cost. Perhaps a more reasonable comparison is to Read the Bones, which comparatively has better digging power with scry, but is a mana more expensive. Sign in Blood is a bargain at two mana, and the BB requirement is made easy in a mono or nearly monocolored deck.
Sign in Blood was last seen in M13, and it was played at the end of last Standard season in the Golgari Control deck as source of card advantage and early game smoothing, usually as a two-of. I could see Sign in Blood filling that same role in Black Devotion, where it serves as a reasonable turn-two play when not casting Pack Rat or a removal spell, while being a great late-game draw.
I'd imagine this stays on the sidelines in Black Devotion, especially considering that Underworld Connections is considered by many to be the weakest part of the deck and is too slow against aggro, a problem shared by Sign in Blood. Still, Sign in Blood is efficient card drawing and likely too good not to see any play in Standard. A surer bet than Black Devotion for Sign in Blood is a deck without any ties to Devotion and Underworld Connections, perhaps one of the splash versions that gives up Gray Merchant of Asphodel for other power cards, like white versions with Blood Baron of Vizkopa.
The most efficient cards are the cards most likely to see play in Black Devotion. Ulcerate provides creature removal at the low price of one black mana. Ulcerate reminds me a bit of Dismember in that it provides a sizable removal spell at a low mana cost, but with a high life cost. Ulcerate comes without the cost-versatility of Dismember, most importantly the ability to just pay three and save the life, but it's still a reasonable removal spell against the early drops of the format. Ulcerate is too narrow for the maindeck of Black Devotion, but it's a reasonable sideboard card against rush decks and would be best against something like Brave Naya, which leans on specific creatures. My biggest issue with Ulcerate is the loss of life, which is a big price to pay in aggressive matchups. For this reason Ulcerate is best in an aggressive Black Deck that seeks to end the game quickly.
Soul of Innistrad
Grave Titan would be a shoe-in for Black Devotion, but Soul of Innistrad and its cycle must not be evaluated in comparison to the overpowered Titans. Soul of Innistrad would appear to be perfect for Black Devotion, which as an attrition-focused deck could find a lot of use for creature recursion. The ability is in fact quite powerful, but it is extremely mana intensive. Black Devotion, like Faeries and Caw-Blade before it, defaults to an aggressive game plan and often finds itself in racing situations. I'm not convinced that Soul of Innistrad will necessarily take over games in time.
I'm most interested in the ability to use Soul of Innistrad from beyond the grave as a way to generate inevitability in the most grindy of matchups. The place I could see Soul of Innistrad shining would be the mirror, where it would serve as a huge late-game topdeck. Still, this is too narrow a case. I think Soul of Innistrad is just too inflexible to be a real staple in Black Devotion. It's worth exploring as a one-of to gauge potential, as it's too powerful to simply count out, but it must prove its worth and certainly has a high threshold to surpass.
Caustic Tar is fun to think about in the mirror, where life totals are often whittled away quickly. Life points are a very important resource in the matchup, and many games will come down to who can eek in the most points of damage. The lifegain from Gray Merchant of Asphodel means the Zombie is often the most important card, but Erebos, God of the Dead sometimes stops that too. Caustic Tar would be a sort of trump that evades all forms of removal but puts the opponent on a quick clock. It even provides two devotion to black. I'm not holding my breath on this one, but it's worth nothing.
Liliana of the Dark Realms, Squelching Leeches, Corrupt, and M15's Nightmare all scale up based on number of Swamps in play. Typically these cards aren't played in Black Devotion, in part due to the power of Mutavault and scry lands, and the fact that the spells aren't necessarily efficient for their costs. While situationally powerful, they offer little flexibility, and overall they aren't in line with the goals of Black Devotion. They could all be used together to form a coherent control deck, but it wouldn't be as consistently good as Black Devotion.
Necromancer's Stockpile doesn't fit into conventional Black Devotion but is too powerful to write off. It's an engine-on-a-stick that, given enough Zombie creatures as fodder, will create an endless supply of tokens and card draw. Each creature is converted to a new card plus a 2/2 token in play, so it will get out of hand quickly. This card is going to be best in a deck filled with Zombies to ensure the never engine cools, but it might be possible to effectively work the engine into a Standard deck, and here's what I have come up with:
I built this off of a Monoblack Devotion base, including the disruptive Thoughtseize and a versatile removal spell in Hero's Downfall. I included a set of Pack Rat with the logic that it's too good not to play. Note the synergy between Pack Rat and Gutter Skulk, which pulls double duty as a zombie rat! Gray Merchant of Asphodel is very conveniently a zombie, so this deck has a powerful top-end and a payoff worth digging for with Necromancer's Stockpile, which additionally provides one devotion to Black. Lifebane Zombie is also a zombie, so this deck doesn't have to dig very far to find quality playables. Gnawing Zombie has a nice body on defense for a low cost, and it provides a combo-style kill to close out the game combined with the tokens from Necromancer's Stockpile. Another angle to take this deck would be to splash green for zombies Lotleth Troll and Dreg Mangler, which would amp-up the power level. It could even potentially incorporate zombie Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord as a finisher.
Garruk, Apex Predator
Finally, Garruk, Apex Predator would be a fine fit into the green splash version of Black Devotion, but as a seven-drop it won't fill more than one or two slots total between main and side. For a lot more analysis on that card, including how it applies to Black Devotion, check out my article from last week.
The rest of the possible black cards are just too clunky for Black Devotion, ineffective, or just off the mark. Some examples include:
- In Garruk's Wake, which is far too expensive.
- Indulgent Tormentor is expensive and vulnerable, and even worse gives the opponent an option.
- Cruel Sadist is too expensive in terms of mana and life, and it's quite slow and a very poor topdeck.
- Rotfeaster Maggot would be excellent as dedicated hate against burn, but it's far too inconsistent, especially because their primary removal spell, Chained to the Rocks, removes the target from the game rather than sending it to the graveyard.
- The convoke black cards are powerful, but Black Devotion doesn't have a creature count high enough to make these practical.
- A far-out option is Nightfire Giant, which in the red splash version could serve as a poor-man's Olivia Voldaren.
M15 is the most exciting core set in years. It's filled with quality cards that look fun to play with, and it will set the stage for a fun and interesting Standard format over the coming year. Still, this current Standard format is very much alive and well, and now with M15 it's truly completed and exists as a full-cardpool Standard format. Things have come a long way since Theros, and Black Devotion has survived and thrived through the release of Born of the Gods and Journey Into Nyx. Now M15 will alter the landscape a final time. The last months of a Standard format are not necessarily stable, and the format will continue to spasm into its final throes of life, expiring upon the release of Khans of Tarkir. Will Black Devotion finally cave in the face of superior forces, or will it reframe its newest challenge as an opportunity? Chime in on the comments.
Check back to magic.tcgplayer.com for all the latest info on M15!