This week I was itching to talk about Standard, as the format continues to evolve. I will be talking about a strategy many are already quite familiar with: Black Devotion. Black Devotion decks have been defining Standard for quite a while now, and throughout Theros Block the archetype has been seeing small changes. Originally the archetype started out purely as Monoblack Devotion, and then started splashing colors. With all of the scry lands now in print, I want to talk about the advantages and disadvantages of the different builds of Black Devotion, and which I think is best in the current metagame.
Here is a list of Monoblack Devotion played by Shimazu Yoshimato at the God of Standard tournament in Japan:
The split between Nightveil Specter and Lifebane Zombie has become a popular trend. I do think it is better to draw one of each than two of either in general. In my experience I always want to have exactly one Lifebane Zombie. I think I would prefer the split the other way, as there are a bunch of midrange green decks floating around.
Devour Flesh has become the two mana removal spell of choice for most Black Devotion pilots. Ultimate Price has dropped off in popularity, while Doom Blade and Pharika's Cure have been relegated to the sideboard. Most lists do run about ten removal spells, so of course almost every list will have the playset of Hero's Downfall while Bile Blight is usually a two-of.
The Verdict: Neither Born of the Gods nor Journey into Nyx made this version of Black Devotion significantly better. Sure the addition of Bile Blight is nice, though that card is replaceable. That being said the monocolored devotion decks are still very good despite gaining too much, as the same is true for Monoblue Devotion. Speaking of Monoblue Devotion I have been seeing that archetype rise in popularity.
The traditional Monoblack Devotion deck is the best choice in a metagame full of aggressive decks, and I think it has a better Monoblue Devotion matchup than the other versions. The reason is of course that adding an additional color and land that comes into play tapped, or shocks you, makes the deck a bit slower and less consistent. While this version may give up a little bit of power compared to the versions of Black Devotion that are splashing a color, I expect it to remain the most popular version of Black Devotion.
The first and most obvious color splashed in Black Devotion is white. The attraction to Blood Baron of Vizkopa makes the draw to white too much for many players to overlook. Here is a list played by Ryan Forberg at the StarCity Open this past weekend:
Dubbed "Orzhov Control," this version of Black Devotion replaces the Gray Merchant of Asphodel for other five drops that are more powerful as individual threats. Gray Merchant of Asphodel is a card that is extremely powerful with other black permanents in play already, but it is usually underwhelming playing a Gray Merchant of Asphodel on an empty board.
Besides Blood Baron of Vizkopa, there has been a trend towards maindecking Obzedat, Ghost Council. Obzedat, Ghost Council is a very powerful threat, especially against the control decks. That being said running spells that cost double white, means there is a greater need for white sources. I personally don't want to be playing guildgates but it is necessary. I have seen versions running Elspeth, Sun's Champion or even Brimaz, King of Oreskos, though Forberg opted to forego those options.
There are some things about this list that I am not a big fan of. I understand that Whip of Erebos works well with Obzedat, Ghost Council but at the same time there are no Gray Merchant of Asphodel, which also work very well with Whip of Erebos. Running a one of Whip of Erebos has been going out of favor, and I don't really like it here. There are also less three drops than most lists, and I would change the numbers a bit. Running three of each Underworld Connections, Hero's Downfall, and Lifebane Zombie, in addition to a singleton Sin Collector is a bit unusual. I understand that sometimes when adding cards of an additional color there is an urge to shave some of the core Black Devotion cards, but be careful when doing so.
The Verdict: Splashing white in Black Devotion was the best splash option before the release of Born of the Gods. In my opinion splashing white was one of the better ways of making the control matchup better for Black Devotion. Having additional discard with Sin Collector, along with an additional threat that is almost impossible to answer in Obzedat, Ghost Council, makes it tough for control players. However, right now control decks seem to be on the decline. Having access to Deicide is also a nice way of dealing with Thassa, God of the Sea, which Black Devotion didn't previously have access to.
This is the slowest version of Black Devotion that is out there. Playing cards that are double white really does stretch the mana, and makes the deck clunky. Sometimes you will draw multiple guildgates without drawing a white card, and other times that Obzedat, Ghost Council will be stranded in hand the whole game. This is a version of Black Devotion that I wouldn't recommend running at the moment.
Black Devotion has had the option to splash blue since Theros, but the archetype never really became popular. Tomas Glied did manage to go 4-0 in the Standard portion of the Magic Online Championships with the deck. Here is his list:
The main draw to blue is the potential to splash Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver. While Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver hasn't been seeing a ton of play in Standard, I expect this to change. The card is very powerful, which was apparent at Pro Tour Journey into Nyx. The issue is that while Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver may be a small upgrade to Nightveil Specter, there isn't a ton else that is a draw to play blue. Glied ran a full set of Notion Thief's in the board, but right now control is losing popularity.
The Verdict: There just hasn't been a good enough reason to add blue to Black Devotion. Sure it may take a couple of opponents by surprise, but the power level isn't high enough, to justify the loss in consistency, when adding the second color. It is unfortunate because I do want to see Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver find a home in a top tier archetype.
Over the past few months there has been a surge in popularity in Black/Red Devotion. Many of the world's best players have been seen playing the deck at Standard Grand Prix's. Here is Efro's list from the top eight of Grand Prix Phoe Nix:
While this version does have the traditional set of Pack Rats, there are also other versions of Black/Red Devotion that actually opt not to run Pack Rat. I advise against cutting Pack Rat, even in a format full of Bile Blights. Interestingly enough there is an Erebos, God of the Dead maindeck. The card is very good against the mirror and control. When looking at the deck though the first question I want to know the answer to is why do you need red? Are the three copies of Rakdos's Return in the board enough of a reason to add another color to the deck? You can argue that all you are adding that hurts the manabase are the Blood Crypt's.
There are other versions of Black/Red Devotion that opt to play more red cards, some of them maindeck. Slaughter Games is a nice way to supplement other discard spells, as the card gets better when you know what is already in your opponent's hand, and you can strip one of their main threats. Sire of Insanity is another cute way of forcing your opponent to play of the top of their deck.
The Verdict: Red offers additional forms of discard, which can be played alongside Duress and Thoughtseize. Is there such a thing as having too much discard? This deck is very vulnerable to topdecks, and in a format full of scry lands, it can be easier for your opponent to find that topdeck they need, later in the game. It does seem that one of the primary reasons for splashing is to improve the control matchup. That said the control matchup for regular Monoblack Devotion is perfectly winnable. Adding cards like Slaughter Games, Sire of Insanity, and Rakdos's Return don't have applications in that many matchups. In the current metagame I'm not convinced on the red splash.
The last and newest version of Black Devotion opts to splash green. While the deck was around before Temple of Malady was printed, having access to the temple, makes the deck significantly better. Here is a list played by Jerad Karasek at a TCGplayer MaxPoint Platinum Event:
It can be argued that Abrupt Decay is the best and most versatile removal spell in Standard. Hey, the card sees play in just about every competitive format, so it is definitely important not to overlook its power. Personally I don't like running a full set of Devour Flesh. There will be times when your opponent starts on some crappy creature, or a Voice of Resurgence, and Devour Flesh loses a lot of value. Abrupt Decay also takes out Underworld Connections, which is huge. This is the only version of black devotion that is splashing for a higher quality removal spell.
Other green cards in the deck include Golgari Charm in the board, and Vraska the Unseen can sometimes be played of a one-of in the main, though it isn't in this list. The green version offers a ton of versatility as a card like Golgari Charm can be very good in a variety of matchups. Perhaps the best reason to play this deck is that it can play removal spells that can destroy creatures or enchantments. Having cards that can destroy Detention Sphere against control means that those removal spells will be much more useful in those matchups.
The Verdict: Black/Green Devotion was seeing play even before Temple of Malady was printed, which is an indicator that with Temple of Malady in the format it can be argued that green is now the best color to splash for in Black Devotion. Having the ability to destroy your opponents Underworld Connections is a big advantage in the mirror. In my opinion Abrupt Decay is a perfect fit in Black Devotion.
I like the lists I have seen that run a Vraska the Unseen, as the card is great at coming down on an empty board, and when playing Black Devotion the board will surprisingly be empty a lot of the time. Before you would sometimes have your opponent sitting pretty with an enchantment or planeswalker doing a lot of work, but this version has answers to most of the cards the deck is worried about. I also like that there are no green creatures in the deck, which means no targets for Lifebane Zombie, unlike the version splashing white. If I were going to play in a Standard tournament right now I would play Black/Green Devotion.
Thanks for reading,