Monoblack Devotion in Standard and Beyond
Gray Merchant of Asphodel is making its return to Standard in Theros Beyond Death. In the past, the card put up solid results not just in Standard, but in Pioneer and Modern as well. It's a well-designed card that makes deckbuilding easy, fun, and even budget-friendly, but will it be strong enough in 2020?
Gray Merchant of Asphodel is quite an interesting card. If you manage to resolve it, you usually end up with a strong drain effect and often a powerful finisher. It doesn't care about opposing creatures, and it basically always drains, as it has two black mana symbols of its own. Also, the devotion count is easy to increase, since there are many good creatures with multiple black symbols. That's not to mention the enchantments, which are generally harder to remove.
What may look like a slow card turned out to be a powerhouse in certain formats and circumstances. With lots of small, sometimes recursive creatures, great hand disruption, and powerful removal, monoblack strategies tend to be either very aggressive or geared more toward control. However, combining the best of two worlds and just cramming all the good black cards into a single deck also makes for a surprisingly viable tactic.
Monoblack Devotion is a strong midrange deck that seeks to control both the board and the opponent's hand and often wins via Gray Merchant of Asphodel, or "Gary" for short. Even if you never get to draw it, you can win via smaller beaters or let the deck's controlling aspects carry you to victory. You don't rely on Gary; rather it offers an additional angle of attack.
Standard: Then and Now
A lot has changed since the first printing of Gray Merchant of Asphodel in Theros in 2013. The general power level of all cards/formats was lower back then, and the matchups easier. This deck used to prey on control and most other midrange decks, but stumbled against certain midrange decks, for example in green and white.
Return to Ravnica and Theros gave us Pack Rat, Thoughtseize, and Underworld Connections, making for a Standard package that was quite hard to beat. Back then, we also had Whip of Erebos, a card full of useful abilities that returned Gary and also increased the devotion along the way.
We have none of these right now, but there already are some new, different tactics for the deck to employ. My early prediction is that new Monoblack Devotion decks will want to replay Gray Merchants multiple times during a single game to win. Black doesn't lack card draw, which might also help find Gary as early as possible.
A major setback for the new Monoblack Devotion is that Standard lacks the enchantments (and artifacts) that the original version had. Instead of Underworld Connections and Whip of Erebos, we only have Underworld Dreams, which I only think is good because of the mana cost. Bolas's Citadel is also good at providing devotion, but quite expensive. If, by any chance, escape shakes up the meta, Leyline of the Void will be a good addition. In case of a grindier metagame, a single Treacherous Blessing might go a long way, or even Omen of the Dead, although that may be taking things too far.
It's a shame that some good Theros Beyond Death creatures are legendary as, for example, Tymaret, Chosen from Death is an excellent way to increase the devotion. Aphemia, the Cacophony might be a good addition for a janky Zombie build if we somehow get more of them. Creatures from previous sets will almost certainly do a fine job in devotion decklists. Yarok's Fenlurker has many roles here, offering a useful enter-the-battlefield ability, sacrifice fodder later on, and a mana cost that suits the deck.
Because nearly all of our lands will be Swamps, the future looks bright for Dread Presence. Both options are strong and it's good for enabling spectacle, making for a cheap Drill Bit or Spawn of Mayhem. Ayara, First of Locthwain, however, will surely be the trump card. Its mana cost is great for devotion, it can easily trigger spectacle whenever needed, and can act as a draw engine. Theros Beyond Death isn't even out yet, and Ayara has topped Cardmarket's charts for a while.
Unfortunately, Ayara requires a creature to sacrifice for its activated ability. This type of deck usually doesn't include small creatures, so Gutterbones doesn't really fit here. Of course, we already have Yarok's Fenlurker. Murderous Rider // Swift End, Rankle, Master of Pranks, and Cavalier of Night are all good in general and here specifically, so I expect to see them in most lists. Erebos, Bleak-Hearted has some potential as well. It can easily kill chump blockers with its activated ability, and the ability to draw a card each time your other creatures die looks tempting too.
The latest addition at the time of this writing, Nightmare Shepherd, does deliver as well and often forces opponents to have an immediate answer. It has synergy with so many other creatures in this deck. Just imagine sacrificing Gary to Ayara while having this on the battlefield!
Permanents are important for this deck because of the devotion count. So Liliana, Dreadhorde General should be a better option than other tools for card draw. Drag to the Underworld is an excellent removal spell and can be nicely complemented by sideboard options like Legion's End, Noxious Grasp, Epic Downfall, The Elderspell, and Ritual of Soot, depending on the metagame. Additional sideboard options include Revenge of Ravens and, unsurprisingly, Duress. Nyx Lotus is in a weird spot. It costs 4 and enters the battlefield tapped, but I can see it being useful. Even if it adds just two or three mana, there's a chance it turns out to be decent. Everything above that is apparently very powerful.
A Sample Decklist
With all this considered, let's see what a Standard Monoblack Devotion list may look like in 2020.
Obviously, we can't fit all of the mentioned cards into a single list, and there are still more: Here's to hoping we'll see decks that are more lifegain-focused, so maybe Bloodthirsty Aerialist can find the home it deserves. By the looks of it, Standard Monoblack Devotion will have quite a number of flex slots, as well as different approaches one could take in deckbuilding.
This deck may not do anything outrageous at all, but it's quite resistant to the most popular hate cards. Noxious Grasp and Aether Gust do nothing against it. Teferi, Time Raveler doesn't shut down the whole deck and the mana cost of Mystical Dispute will never fall down to a single blue mana. If only we could get a discard spell that's not as situational as Drill Bit …
Pioneer and Modern: A Good Starting Point
Since the first Theros set is legal in Pioneer, Monoblack Devotion was already a deck at the time of the format's inception. Unfortunately, it has faded from the spotlight rather quickly, as other monoblack strategies put up better results. Although it's not overly competitive, it's easy to pilot and doesn't have to be costly, making it a good choice for newcomers and casual FNM gameplay. Here's a list that went 5-0 on Magic Online for reference.
|Monoblack Devotion by RRozanski, 5-0 in Pioneer League, October 28|
Playing this deck in Modern is a story of its own. It used to be solid because it has some good creatures that aren't available in other formats, such as Phyrexian Obliterator. It's not as good nowadays because it can't keep up with the ever evolving Modern metagame. The format's power level has increased so much, this deck is just too fair and dies before it gets a chance to stabilize.
To end on a bright note, Monoblack Devotion is a deck that's dirt cheap by Modern standards because it gets a lot of value out of inexpensive cards like Vampire Nighthawk and Gatekeeper of Malakir. Just like in Pioneer's case, it can be a good entry point into the format, if you like playing black and don't have to win your next tournament. Alternatively, you can also splash another color. There isn't a problem that fetchlands can't solve.
|Black Devotion by KillaGerm, 8-1 at Modern Premier on June 22|
As someone who used to play Gray Merchant of Asphodel in Modern in early 2019, I have to say that people keep underestimating Monoblack Devotion decks. What looks like a messy pile of black cards is actually a decent mix of card draw, removal, and creatures. With a bit of luck, the deck can do well at tournaments. This definitely applies to the Standard list above. It might not look flashy, but it always has a fighting chance. It's both easy to build and easy on the budget. It nullifies current powerful removal and counter spells and features some of the most played cards of current Standard such as Murderous Rider // Swift End. Needless to say, its mana base is very consistent, and so is the rest of the deck.
I can't say how much play the deck will see, but even if it doesn't see much, keep all of these upsides in mind. At the very least, you can always take it to an FNM and have some fun.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.
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