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Building a Better Plague

Written by LegitMTG Staff on . Posted in Competitive Magic, Modern

Philosophically, black has always spoken to me. Ever since I was a kid getting into Magic back in the Hatred/Carnophage days, I’ve always been a black player at heart. The concept of sacrificing everything you have to kill the opponent, of Pyrrhic victory, feels like the end of a “Duck Dodgers” short. Throw in the flavor behind discard effects, which generally represent attacking the opponent’s mind and sanity, and you’ve got a winner in my book. Playing predominantly black decks always evokes the feeling of being a supervillain, crippling the opponent’s resources and draining their life, laughing all the way.

Variations on a Theme

One of my all time favorite monoblack decks is Pox, an archetype dating back to 1995 that focused on disrupting the opponent’s hand and resources through cards like Pox and Hymn to Tourach. Over time, these very powerful effects were toned down in the cards Smallpox and Wrench Mind, but they are nearly as strong within the Modern format. Modern also has a bevy of pinpoint discard effects and removal, as well as one of the more powerful planeswalkers, Liliana of the Veil, so it’s easy to understand why I would try to rebuild it for the Modern age.

I believe one of the biggest reasons why Pox hasn’t really infiltrated Modern is decks like Jund, which play so many value cards like Lingering Souls. It’s difficult to fight a deck where nearly every topdeck they rip has extra value. It actually took me quite a number of weeks to tune it just to make the Jund match better, eventually turning it into one of my best matchups. Since Bloodbraid Elf’s banning, people have begun reverting to creatures like Kitchen Finks and Obstinate Baloth. Traditionally these types of cards make playing Smallpox awkward, but I’ve taken these factors into account by splashing green and maindecking Ensnaring Bridges.

The closest thing to a true Pox deck I had seen in Modern was Smitty’s monoblack Smallpox deck. However, he ran cards like Dark Confidant, Thoughtseize and Funeral Charm, which I felt either did not mesh well with the rest of the deck, or just did too little to be worth running. There was far too much 1-for-1 discard effects, which are far too slow to get the Shrieking Affliction/The Rack plan going. Cards like Wrench Mind and Delirium Skeins do far more to accelerate this strategy.

*Disclaimer* The following decks will not get you many friends. In fact, it may very well make people hate you for playing it. Be prepared for this.

When I showed up to my first Modern FNM at Legends Warehouse near Toronto, I ran a purely monoblack version of Pox designed to nuke the opponent’s hand and slowly grind them out with The Rack and Shrieking Affliction. It was a torturous list that attacked on a completely different angle than what most of Modern was prepared for.

Unbeknownst to me, nearly everyone in the playgroup decided to opt for combo decks like Splinter Twin, Kiki-Pod, Storm and Tron. They dubbed it “Combo City.” It was cute, and surely would have worked against any other deck, but my Smallpox version tore through them all like a toddler opening Christmas presents. The Storm decks never had the cards in hand to think of comboing off, the Kiki-Jiki decks had their combo pieces discarded, extracted, and walled off by Ensnaring Bridge, and what my Fulminator Mages did to the Tron decks is considered a violation of the Geneva Conventions. It was so bad that the following week several of them switched to U/W Control (my formerly worst matchup) specifically so this wouldn’t happen again.

I warped an entire metagame around my creation, and inspired others to take up arms against me. I felt like the supervillain of the store, and it was glorious.

I refused to let them have the last laugh. I immediately altered the list to deal with my biggest weakness: Leyline of Sanctity. It was seeing four-of play in their sideboards and has even been played in the sideboard of slightly more common decks like Scapeshift. Because monoblack has virtually no way to remove enchantments, I decided to splash a secondary color: green. Going green offered me a few cards to handle the Leyline, as well more than a couple nifty sideboard options that would shake things up next time.

There are two glaring changes with this list which make it better suited to fighting U/W Control. First and foremost is the switch from Bloodghasts to Liliana’s Caresses. The biggest issue I had with Bloodghast is that while it was a great source of recurrable damage, U/W’s creatures can wall them off with relative ease. Liliana’s Caress, on the other hand, domes them for two life every time they discard a card, turning Liliana of the Veil and Raven’s Crime into repeatable sources of life loss, and Delirium Skeins into a King Ghidorah–sized force act of destruction.

Liliana’s Caress also creates a conundrum for the opponent. The easiest way for them to beat it is by playing every card they draw so you don’t have the opportunity to make them discard it. The easiest way to beat The Rack and Shrieking Affliction is to sandbag cards in their hand so they won’t trigger. By running both effects, it becomes impossible for the opponent to avoid getting burned.

The biggest reason I wasn’t running Raven’s Crime before was that running it in the same deck with Bloodghast made it very awkward to use my lands. I could either drop them to recur Bloodghast or pitch them to recur Raven’s Crime. Now that I have Liliana’s Caress as the recurring damage source, I can go all-in on Raven’s Crime.

Maelstrom Pulse is something of a necessity in the maindeck. Being able to kill any nonland permanent (and all others with the same name) for only 1BG gives me a superb amount of utility that monoblack doesn’t have, from killing enchantments to assassinating opposing planeswalkers.

A Touch of Green

Green wasn’t the first color I tried, initially experimenting with a B/R version with Blightning and Anathemancers. These were great in more “fair” metas that weren’t prepared for the deck, but it failed even more against Leyline of Sanctity. I also tested a U/B build with Snapcaster Mages and some light countermagic. It was OK, but lacked a lot of the same oomph of the previous decks and couldn’t really stop Leyline. Then I tried splashing white for Lingering Souls, Blind Obedience and Disenchant. It played very similarly to the B/G build, but it felt very clunky. It ran into the same problem with the Bloodghast build, in that it required too much of my lands for my taste.

In keeping with the U/W and Esper hatred, I added three Golgari Charms in the sideboard. Having an instant means of killing Leyline that can also kill Lingering Souls tokens is difficult to pass up, regardless whether the third ability has any use. Abrupt Decay is basically Maelstrom Pulse, trading the “kills anything and everything sharing its name” clause with instant speed and uncounterability, which is totally a real word that I didn’t just make up. It’s great for picking off anything from Detention Sphere to Rest in Peace, and it can even take out Tarmogoyf and Dark Confidant in a pinch.

It’s important to understand my paranoia over fighting U/W-based decks isn’t unfounded. In light of the recent bannings, decks like U/W, Twin, Tron and Pod only get stronger, and it’s paramount that I be prepared. Without Jund’s shadow looming over the format, it’s safe to bet those four decks will surge in popularity.

On my first outing with this version, I cleaned up with relative ease. Many of my opponents ended up mulling pretty aggressively to get to their Leylines, only to have them blown up by Golgari Charms and Maelstrom Pulses. Suffice it to say, it made my job a hell of a lot easier. Every mulligan effectively saved me a spell, kind of like what fetching a shockland is for Red Deck Wins. Unsurprisingly, the Liliana’s Caresses were ridiculous, especially in multiples.

Now that I’m prepared for Leyline of Sanctity, the only thing I’ve had real trouble facing is Doran-based decks. Because Doran has zero power, it’s able to attack through Ensnaring Bridge and smack me for five damage; they also can drop enough creatures that my sacrifice effects are suboptimal. They also run several creatures like Loxodon Smiter and Wilt-Leaf Liege that can be cheated into play when they’re discarded, making my core gameplan a little awkward. The match isn’t unwinnable because I still have Maelstrom Pulses and Abrupt Decays, but it can be a major headache to play against.

This version is possibly the most fun black deck I’ve ever played, despite the fact that there’s a tinge of green. You establish control as early as Turn 3 and proceed to steadily lock the opponent out of the game. It’s a cruel deck to play, and it takes a very specific mindset to pilot it properly. You are the bad guy here. You’re going to take everything from them and give them nothing but pain every upkeep. Once you accept that you’re the Dark Side in this game, the deck becomes an absolute blast.

Twitter and Cockatrice: @tylerthefro

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