On Lower Tiers: Standard MBC
- Gianluca Aicardi
Despite the clear dominance of a few lists, Standard is a surprisingly diverse format right now and features a handful unsung heroes. One of these is Monoblack Torment, the most straightforward ramp archetype in the meta. Let's see where it's at now, and where it will go after the October rotation.
Monoblack Control is one of the oldest, most enduring archetypes. Like Red Burn or Green Aggro, it will probably always exist in any Magic format, for as long as this game will last. Indeed, all three of these super-archetypes have graced the current Standard iteration, although MBC is not as high in the rankings as the other two. But while not too consistent, it's a very fun version of such classic monoblack setup, thanks to old-fashioned land ramp culminating into an out-of-the-blue, Bolas-flavored win with Torment of Hailfire.
Good news: the Cabal Stronghold ramp will survive rotation. Bad news: the deck will need to find a different endgame, because Torment of Hailfire is going away with all of Amonkhet block, when, come October 5, the current meta will go down from a 1904-card pool (the largest Standard since Summer 2008's Coldsnap/Time Spiral/Lorwyn/Shadowmoor) to just 1273.
Let's do some analysis. Here's a "typical" list the way it's played these days (the archetype has actually ample room for customization, so this is mostly the list I myself run on Magic: The Gathering Arena).
|25Lands||17Other Permanents||18Instants and Sorceries|
|3Cabal Stronghold||2Josu Vess, Lich Knight||4Doomfall|
|2Field of Ruin||4Thaumatic Compass / Spires of Orazca||2Razaketh's Rite|
|20Swamp||4Treasure Map / Treasure Cove||2Torment of Hailfire|
|1Cruel Reality||2Yahenni's Expertise|
|2Torment of Scarabs||4Fatal Push|
|4Karn, Scion of Urza||4Vraska's Contempt|
|4Duress||3Essence Extraction||1Gonti, Lord of Luxury|
|3Lost Legacy||3Scarab Feast||1Tetzimoc, Primal Death|
Of course, for Cabal Stronghold's sake, the list maximizes basic Swamps (Field of Ruin turns into a Swamp when you're ready for it to). You don't need four Strongholds, risking too many colorless sources in the early game, as one of them on the battlefield is often enough to cast Torment for values of X equal to or higher than seven, which, when paired with all the removed cards and incidental damage accumulated along the way, pretty much guarantees a win.
Treasure Map / Treasure Cove is also a crucial element here. The Map will regulate three of your draws, then will ramp you up for three additional mana, which is frequently the boost your Torment needs to seal the deal with a lower land count; and if your Torment is not online yet, you get to draw one extra card for the next three turns. Not to mention the fact that, in a pinch, the treasures make Karn's tokens larger. And Treasure Cove is ultimately a supplementary land you dropped for two. This card is really the gift that keeps on giving.
Thaumatic Compass / Spires of Orazca is close to that power level. It's both a strong line of defense, since it transforms into a powerful Maze of Ith and ramp enabler, ensuring the land drops will stay steady. You don't actually want to be activating the Compass too early on, because that would mean you're neither disrupting nor answering the threats your opponent is unloading on the board, and that's a good recipe for a quick demise. It's the whole thing with this deck, you're able to punish the opponent if they durdle even slightly, but if they come out strong, and you falter a bit, you're likely done. On the other hand, topdecking a Compass in late game, when you already have seven lands on the battlefield, will cause it to transform into Spires of Orazca right away, so it basically becomes sort of removal. Once again, we're running a card with multiple sides to it.
After October 5: This entire ramp package is rotation-proof, so that's a very solid base upon which to build future iterations.
The deck takes advantage of the best spot removal suite in the current meta. Fatal Push is (literally) lightning-fast; Doomfall is an edict effect that doubles as hand disruption, and in both cases it exiles; and Vraska's Contempt is just final, getting rid forever of any threat with legs, including gods and planeswalkers, while setting the opponent's clock back a notch. The latter two are more versatile, while Fatal Push is not very useful against control decks, so a case can be made to include Duress maindeck in its stead. Duress is a great control antagonist, makes sure you don't crash your finisher directly into a countermagic wall, and hits important cards against aggro as well, like Heart of Kiran and Chandra, Torch of Defiance.
Yahenni's Expertise is there as the resident sweeper, a department that unfortunately leaves much to be desired. Expertise is serviceable, but sometimes it won't do you any good, and the bonus free spell is a nice premium, but not a critical factor (casting Expertise into Doomfall to get rid of the one creature with toughness higher than three is sort of a dream scenario; most of the times, you'll be getting just a Map or a Compass).
The alternatives are many but all lacking for a reason or the other – nothing really compares to a good old Damnation equivalent. Expertise's faster, smaller version, Golden Demise, has the same issues, and more, feeling increasingly useless in a meta filled with beaters like Steel Leaf Champion and Goblin Chainwhirler. Bontu's Last Reckoning is kind of a trap, like all the cards in the "gods' last action" cycle; unlike the others, it's playable in a pinch, being our current best way to deal with hexproof creatures and/or with several large creatures at once. But it essentially gives your opponent an extra turn to set up again, which is not what you want to be doing.
Tetzimoc, Primal Death is a nice one, in that it leaves a huge body behind with which to block what comes next; but by the time we're ready to cast him, it might already be too late.
After October 5: We lose both Fatal Push and, more regrettably, Doomfall, but we get to keep Vraska's Contempt, which is a relief. Hour of Glory, Never // Return and Noxious Gearhulk will also be gone.
Fatal Push can be replaced with stuff like Walk the Plank or Cast Down (even Murder is okay-ish). Doomfall leaves a bigger hole. The best candidates to take its place are maindeck Duress or Divest, as our deck absolutely needs to know what's in the opponent's hand and to be proactive in thwarting their plans. Alternatively, we have slower but multi-purpose options like Ravenous Chupacabra and The Eldest Reborn, both of which ends up putting a body on our side of the battlefield.
But here's hoping Guilds of Ravnica will gift us with some new, terrific black removal/disruptor. Or just reprint Doomfall, you know. Doomfall is really great.
Torment of Hailfire is the lynchpin of the deck, though it's not the only wincon. I learned it's important not to go overboard with the number of copies, because an early Torment in hand is a dead card, as you don't want to waste turns casting it for low values, you want it to go out in a final blaze of inescapable, biblical doom. That's why Razaketh's Rite is there in place of Torments number three and four; when your ramp is ready, the Rite will get you a Torment, and if you draw it in first hand, you just cycle it away immediately, whereas an actual Torment would just wait around, depriving you of a card in the meantime.
Torment of Scarabs is Hailfire's little brother; it's the least bomby card in this section, but it has a significant role nonetheless, as it starts chipping away at the opponent's life total or hand resources, making the required size of the eventual Hailfire smaller. It also annoys and distracts the opponent, placing them in front of a painful choice every single turn; and what's that if not the very definition of torment? The timing of Torment of Scarabs can be essential, since it shares a casting cost with Vraska's Contempt, but the sooner you can safely drop it onto the battlefield, the more impact it'll have.
Cruel Reality is both a way to control the board and a wincon in its own right. It also hits the sweet spot of seven mana, which you can reach by turn six with one Stronghold, or ever by turn five with a turn-two Map, provided you didn't miss any land drop nor any Map activation.
All this said, Josu Vess, Lich Knight is the true secondary wincon. Kicking him, you'll be putting down 20 points of menacing damage; you'll still need to escape a Fumigate and successfully attack the next turn through any Settle the Wreckage, which is why it's the inferior choice compared to Hailfire. Plus, your seventh land drop won't be enough to amount to the required ten mana, as both five Swamps and two Strongholds or six Swamps and one Stronghold generate nine mana, one short for a full Josu team. Still, Josu himself is an excellent body for his cost, he can block most threats and is naturally resistant to Cast Down.
After October 5: This is the sad part, because all of the above is going away post-rotation, as is Cut // Ribbons, in case one wanted to engineer a Drain Life win through a minimal red splash (or some specialized tutor like Final Parting). All except Josu, that is. So, worst case scenario, we can rely more heavily on Liliana's lich brother. But I'm confident that something else to dump a lot of black mana into for the win is going to come out of Guilds of Ravnica.
Karn, Scion of Urza is our draw engine. The big golem digs for two cards every turn, and while the good draws will stay exiled, he'll fish out the good stuff with his second ability when needed; provided he remains among the living, of course, but Vraska's Contempt permitting, he has a big loyalty butt. And in any case, attacking Karn will result in an extended lifespan for us (that is just so Karn). Plus, he's a tertiary win condition via his Constructs, which are occasionally made larger by our artifacts and treasures.
A budget replacement for Karn is Dusk Legion Zealot, a little nice cantrip creature in the mold of Elvish Visionary. He's a great early blocker, and while this deck is trying really hard to nullify all of the opponent's creature removals, and especially Unlicensed Disintegration, they won't be hard-pressed to direct them against a puny Zealot; and by the time they'll realize he is basically our only creature, he will probably have already chump-blocked his way into the graveyard.
The absence of creatures and the necessity to preserve our life total is also the reason why Arguel's Blood Fast is not a good option here. Sword-Point Diplomacy is interesting, as it could lead to an useful decrease of the opponent's total, in preparation for the endgame; it could also offer the opponent a chance to exile one of our finishers, though.
After October 5: Karn is here to stay – and so are all the other mentioned support options.
Lifegaining: We need life to stay in the game enough to ramp into our finishers. Against more aggressive decks, Essence Extraction does even a better job of buying us time than Vraska's Contempt. Battle at the Bridge is along the same lines, but it costs one mana more than Extraction for the same result. They're all going to rotate, so we'll be left with just Moment of Craving, which is Essence Extraction junior; I'm not sure it'll be useful enough. Sovereign's Bite is fine, but it lacks the double edge of the others, since it's not removal, it's more of a card for faster builds, where it's used the way Burn decks use Lightning Helix most of the times. Gonti's Machinations does the same thing in 1v1, but at least it costs just one mana.
Gifted Aetherborn is a strong card, but it's not a good fit for our deck, since it would just bear the brunt of all of the opponent's unused removals.
Anti-graveyard: Scarab Feast is ideal because it's a cycler, and it can catch by surprise any attempt at embalm or eternalize, Scraphead Scrounger's recursion, God Pharaoh's Gift's trigger, and Liliana, Death's Majesty or The Scarab God's activation (man, this sure was a meta with a ton of graveyard abuse). Sentinel Totem is a fine replacement that will remain in the format. Crook of Condemnation and Scavenger Grounds won't. That land wasn't Stronghold-friendly, anyway.
Anti-combo: Lost Legacy is not Slaughter Games, but it's okay. Gonti, Lord of Luxury is mostly there to try and mess with Approach of the Second Sun (he rarely succeeds at that). They're both going to be shuffled away in the rotation. There might be some good capping spell in the next meta, considering Slaughter Games was a fruit of the last time we visited Ravnica.
Board sweepers: We really need to get something good here. White had all the best sweepers this time around, and red had Hour of Devastation (and still has the high-profile Star of Extinction); it's time for black to reclaim a spotlight in this area.
Miscellaneous: Infernal Reckoning from Core Set 2019 is a first-rate sideboard answer against Scraphead Scrounger and the vehicles; these are all going to rotate, but it's something to keep in mind.
After October 5: To recap, MBC needs some kind of X-costed or other high-end black spell to spend Stronghold mana on. Plus, some new, good removal, but that's probably a given in this color. What will we get? We'll find out in less than two months – or sooner with a leak!
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