/ Standard

Be Wise, Not Smart: "Modifying" Mono-Black Control on MTG Arena

I grew up in a home with an alcoholic parent. My father (God rest his soul) was a mess... most of my childhood was marked by my dad either being absent, around but drunk (luckily he was a friendly drunk), or around, sober and angry. When I left for college I got involved in AlaTeen, a support group for the teenage children of alcoholics, and while I didn't stay with them long, I got to hear exactly what I needed to accept the situation and move forward with my life.

One of the trappings of attending AlaTeen was a set of cassette tapes given to me by the group leader that were essentially testimonials by recovering alcoholics telling their stories. One in particular by a man named Lew Fenimore that I played over and over again until technology outgrew cassette tapes. He was very profound. One anecdote involved him looking at the cables for an aerial tram up Grouce Mountain near Vancouver, and how he declared that he'd never ride in one. When asked why, he said, "I believe those cables are very strong, but I don't have enough faith to get into the bloody thing."

Faith and belief are not the same thing. Similarly, intelligence and wisdom are not the same thing. Intelligence involves knowing a set of facts about a given subject or situation. Wisdom is the ability to appropriately use and apply your intelligence to a given situation. You've probably known people in your life who were incredibly book-smart but couldn't find their rear end with both hands if that information wasn't found in a book that they'd read.

And the same thing can happen in your deck-building, and ESPECIALLY when working with the limitations of Arena.

I started thinking about this difference when messing with a new deck suggested by Reid Duke in a great article on Channel Fireball about the possibility of a mono-black control list in Standard. I'm not much of an Evil Control Wizard™ but being familiar with the rise and fall of MBC in Pauper, I found the idea of playing the same sort of deck on Arena intriguing. So I checked my collection, the number of wildcards I had, and saw that I wasn't far away from building it at all.

Reid's List

25 Swamp (339)
1 Cabal Stronghold
4 Yarok’s Fenlurker
2 Dusk Legion Zealot
4 Dread Presence
3 Cavalier of Night
2 Arguel’s Blood Fast
2 Treasure Map/Treasure Cove
2 Moment of Craving
1 Cast Down
1 The Elderspell
1 Liliana, Dreadhorde General
1 Ugin, the Ineffable
1 Legion's End
3 Duress
1 Murder
2 Bolas's Citadel
4 Vraska's Contempt

I then ran into my downfall: I'm cheap.

I've been hyper-aware of Arena's economic issues -- like everyone else, I want to play the decks that interest me for as little money as possible. Rare wildcards are more precious than gold (or Mythic wildcards it seems,) and so I scanned the list to see if there was anything that I could cut to make it easier to play. I especially despised using rare wildcards on stuff that would be rotating in the next few month, but I'm a smart guy (I thought) so I began to make changes. I had never owned a copy of Arguel's Blood Fast before, and I couldn't imagine that it had much of a use. It was easily replaceable. I also only owned two copies of Vraska's Contempt, but that was just a kill spell that could be replaced with something cheaper or more plentiful. So I got to work, added a few cards, subtracted a few other cards, and came up with this:

My First List

1 Cabal Stronghold
25 Swamp
4 Yarok's Fenlurker
2 Dusk Legion Zealot
4 Dread Presence
4 Cavalier of Night
2 Treasure Map
2 Moment of Craving
1 Cast Down
1 Mastermind's Acquisition
1 Liliana, Dreadhorde General
1 Ugin, the Ineffable
1 Legion's End
3 Duress
1 Murder
2 Bolas's Citadel
2 Vraska's Contempt
1 Doom Whisperer
1 Dead Weight
1 Divest

1 Duress 
1 Font of Agonies 
2 Price of Betrayal
1 Skulduggery
1 Aid the Fallen
1 Cast Down
1 Knight of Malice
1 Cry of the Carnarium
1 Walk the Plank
1 The Elderspell
1 Vicious Offering
1 Ravenous Chupacabra
1 Massacre Girl
1 Liliana, Dreadhorde General

I replaced the two copies of Vraska's Contempt with a couple of cheaper options, namely Dead Weight and Mastermind's Acquisition. I had been struggling with the new Risen Reef Elemental decks (that card FeelsBadMan to play against), and the Acquisition would go get me whatever particular spell I needed from my Pu Pu Platter of a sideboard. I was less-careful about replacing Arguel's Blood Fast. I had never played the card, I didn't think it was all that good, and I was sure that I'd be okay without it. Besides, more room for Doom Whisperer now, amirite?

mbc1

But as I played it, I realized...it wasn't quite working. I was playing competitive games (punting sometimes like everyone learning a new deck), but there were... issues. I would be mana-screwed way more often than I thought I should be in a 26-land control deck. I would often end up with the wrong removal card in my hand for the wrong situation; The Elderspell doesn't do much against dinosaurs and Dead Weight doesn't help when the opponent is flashing in Frilled Mystic. There were some games when I would just dominate, but many more where it just wasn't quite right. So I thought for a while. I tried to use my wisdom to figure out why I wasn't understanding what the deck was trying to do. And I came to a realization that some cards just aren't that replaceable.

Now this isn't a deep-thought sort of statement. Go build Esper Control without 3Feri or 5Feri. I'll wait. But other cards aren't so easily categorized. In MBC's case, we have one card that's easy to discuss, and another that takes some work.

The easy one's Vraska's Contempt. It's the most efficient, most flexible removal spell in Standard right now. It's an instant-speed kill spell for any creature or planeswalker (within reason), and the ability to wreck a gigantic Hydroid Krasis or an annoying Liliana, Dreadhorde General for the same four mana isn't easily replaceable. But that's not the clue that tipped me off to the other card's value.

It's the lifegain. That measly two life in this deck is REALLY important. And that's why Arguel's Blood Fast is so important.

mbc2

Unlike any deck I've played in Standard recently, this deck's resource is your life total. You give up life points with allowing attacks and using the Blood Fast to draw you into the material you need in the early game. You stabilize your life total with Dread Presence and Cavalier of Night to tick back up and kill creatures. And then you use that life total to cast stuff off of the top of your deck with Bolas's Citadel and close out the game. Arguel's Blood Fast does this perfectly. In the early game it turns life into cards. During the endgame it turns cards into life via Temple of Aclazotz if you need it.

The cards aren't really replaceable. And when I broke down and got them, I quickly found the deck ran a lot better.

So what did I learn via this application of wisdom? First, Reid Duke is a better deckbuilder than I am. But that isn't a surprise. More importantly, it's the primary value of using decklists written by other good players in your LGS or your favorite online source (like this one) but NOT JUST PLAYING IT UNTHINKINGLY. Gain some wisdom. Figure out what a deck's overall theme is and how it wants a game to play out. Change a few cards here and there and test it and see how it works. I would have never gained this wisdom if I hadn't messed with a suboptimal list.

This is DOUBLY important in the world of Arena where many players want to modify decks to fit their collection. Should you give it a try? Absolutely. But if it doesn't work at first, don't declare the deck to be a failure and give up. Build some wisdom. Think about those cards that you replaced and see if you can figure out why they're better or worse than other cards. I'm now happy that I crafted those rares. No, my decklist isn't identical to Reid's.

I still play an extra Cavalier of Night since I love my creatures, and I kept a copy of Doom Whisperer in there because Ol' Doomie don't need no reason (plus the scry ability is often great at the time I get it into play). But I now understand the deck better and I've gained wisdom. I not only see the cables, but I have faith that they're strong enough to hold me. Go forth and brew, my friends. And as always...please drive friendly!

My Current List

1 Cabal Stronghold
25 Swamp
4 Yarok's Fenlurker
2 Dusk Legion Zealot
4 Dread Presence
4 Cavalier of Night
2 Treasure Map
2 Moment of Craving
1 Cast Down
1 Liliana, Dreadhorde General
1 Ugin, the Ineffable
3 Duress
1 Murder
2 Bolas's Citadel
4 Vraska's Contempt
1 Doom Whisperer
2 Arguel's Blood Fast
Darin Keener

Darin Keener

Darin has been a Magic: The Gathering streamer (https://Twitch.tv/FDTerritory) for 18 months and has participated in multiple Streamer Showdowns through WotC. He specializes in Tier V jank and fun.

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