Saturday, 2 June 2012


Black has been coming under a lot of attack lately as the worst colour in cube draft. I wish to defend the colour black and explain why this is not at all the case. The description of worst is very ambiguous and rather meaningless when you try and use it for comparison. You need to define a quantifiable way in which you can demonstrate black is weakest. There are a couple of obvious statistics you could use however as always with magic and statistics they are still hard to interpret. The win ratio of black decks is probably the first quantifiable way to show it is weak that people would suggest. Others might invoke the percentage of people who play black to show peoples opinions towards the colour. These statistics can be useful and will show things about the colour but will not offer a definitive answer as to the relative power of the colour as so many different variables effect those statistics. For example people could simply be going the wrong way about building black decks and as such having them under perform.

The thing is it doesn't really matter much about the actual power of black, only peoples perceptions of the colour. If everyone is avoiding it or disregarding it as a threat it naturally balances out to increase the colours power. If you could say black was half as good as the other colours but you are the only black drafter at the table. Roughly this means each other colour will be played 3 times by the other 7 players. Although not a particularly transferable or accurate depiction of card pool to power it at least follows the correlations. As such you can say that all of 0.5power is more powerful than a third of 1.0power and by underdrafting alone black is the strongest colour. This is just to say never disregard a colour based on general perceptions of its power. I don't actually think black is the weakest colour in the cube but then this comes back to the ambiguity of the label worst or weak. I wouldn't like to call any colour the worst unless the parameters were changed to be more specific such as what is the worst mono colour or what is the colour with lowest depth or lowest average card power etc. Even these assessments are hard as there are so many ways to go about doing things in magic.

Black most certainly has some weaknesses as a colour which you need to be very aware of should you wish to draft with it and win. The biggest one by quite some distance is that it is a colour which plays least well with others. Most of blacks best cards have a huge requirement of black mana, I haven't done the maths but I would put a lot on black having the highest ratio of black mana to colourless mana on its cards, not just in my cube but in all cubes. In addition to this high dependence on black mana the black cards just seem to have less synergy with other colours. There are three sensible ways to play black in the cube almost exclusively due to this antisocial nature of the colour. You can either play mono black or you can play basically mono black but splash for a few really high powered spells or key spells you need to solve problems such as Vindicate or Pernicious Deed. The third option is the inverse of the previous where you are basically playing another or other colours and splash black for a few of the high powered cards. These decks that splash black are usually combo and control decks although Lingering Souls has frequently made WW decks dip into black and Dark Confidant has brought all the colours to black at some point. Black has the best tutor magic in the cube and offers other decent support cards for combo decks. Yawgmoth's Will and Demonic Tutor are frequently the only black, non-gold cards a deck will splash for.

Blacks second weakness is the inability to deal with artifacts or enchantments when they hit the table. This has always been an issue for the colour in all forms of magic and the solutions are generally well known as they are few in number. The first solution is to ignore these threats which is what the agro decks tend to elect for. This can be riskier in cubes packing cheese like Worship but in my cube at least there are few cards that you must deal with in order to win and no hosers and so this option is viable. Particularly as you have a good shot at dealing with threats in hand before they hit the board. It would be nice if you could kill Opposition or Vedalken Shackles however you can still beat them without having to remove them. The second solution has been touched upon with the small splash for Vindicate and potentially even Disenchant too or answers in other colours as suits your deck. I only do this if I have good reason too such as knowledge of the meta or it is especially convenient to do so, in other words I don't go out of my way to ensure I have splashable solutions.

The other way black can find answers to things in from the colourless pool in cards like Nevinyrral's Disk, Ratchet Bomb and All is Dust. Oblivion Stone has been suggested often as redundancy for these effects however I think it is too expensive and not required with black having tutors. Playing multiple clunky inefficient late game cards will harm your draws and is simply not needed due to tutors and recursion. All is Dust is the weakest of the cards you could use as it only deals with enchantments and coloured artifacts while also being very expensive. While much more reasonably costed the Bomb and Disk are still very slow cards that almost always require being in play for a time before they can help. It is only the control decks that go to these extreme lengths to ensure their safety in the late games. Whether you go for a splash, the colourless options or simply risk having nothing will depend on your card pool, what you expect to be facing and the style of your deck and just require good judgement as all are viable options.

The third and probably final weakness in black is that it is quite a shallow colour in terms of having much in the way of redundancy or powerful support cards for many of the things it wants to do. A better way to put this is that black probably has the sharpest fall off in average power level of cards after you remove all those with 3.5 rating or higher. Good examples of this are Dark Ritual and Yawgmoth's Will, both of which are outstanding cards however Cabal Ritual and Yawmoth's Agenda are pretty awful as options for redundancy in those areas. On the flip side of this black, especially after the power is removed, has one of the highest, if not the highest (competing with blue) numbers of cards at the top level of power. If you took groups of five people, gave them each a colour and let them draft the artifacts or something and looked at the decks people built it would generally look as if the black decks had the best cards in them. I also wager the black decks would come out as one of the consistently best performing colours but this is also because it is happiest as a mono coloured deck, not just because it would have high card power. As we all know card synergy trumps card power. It being a shallow colour simply means you should avoid it if you have others dipping into it much more than for a splash, particularly if they are close to you on a draft table. It does not mean you should avoid it from the outset.

So we have covered the weaknesses of black and how to tackle them a little but I have given little reason beyond black being under drafted and underestimated as to why you should play black and that it is a competitive powerful colour. My first observation on this front is that black is somewhat the jack of all trades colour after you get past the enchantment and artifact removal troubles. Black has the most abundant and diverse creature removal, it has solid card advantage and can attack mana bases and cards anywhere in the game other than actually in play. Black has control creatures, utility creatures and highly aggressive creatures. Black has the cheapest planeswalker removal card in the game in Vampire Hexmage which is huge for any decks that don't rely on having a superior creature force. Black has ramp and recursion although not rivalling greens it is still more than most colours get. This all means (assuming you have gone for some non-black artifact and enchantment removal) that black is able to deal with everything that the cube has to throw at you. With the ease of tutoring as well it is able to avoid dipping into the low powered cards for redundancy as it can rely on getting what it needs when it needs it.

Black also does some things that other colours don't really do, namely attacking their hands. These work a little like proactive counterspells. In some ways they are better but in just as many others they are worse. It is simply about using this tool appropriately. The best generalisation is that discard is better early while counter magic is better later in the game. Discard does nothing to prevent people top decking what they need and can become dead late one when peoples hands are empty. It is however cheaper and allows you to spends your mana and curve out rather than holding back in case they do something. This makes it best disruption for agro and combo decks but still useful in control rather like Force Spike is for blue in control decks. A bit will help get you there but too much will mean when you are there you die anyway. Decks like Pox greatly benefit from the synergy with discard as your denial of their land means the late game top decks are no longer a problem so you have both angles covered.

The way I draft and build decks is all based around mimicking archetypes. The more limited the format the more loosely you will be able to mimic something however this will be the case for all players so makes little odds. It is a way of pre knowing how you will be trying to win and what cards you most need. A huge advantage black has over other colours in this regard is that all of blacks archetypes use a lot of the same spells, far far more than any other colour. Reds two main archetypes, Big Red and Red Deck Wins for example are unlikely to share more than four or five cards, of which all will be pretty unimportant for at least one of the decks. There is not a black deck out there to which I would be unhappy adding a Vampire Nighthawk or Hexmage, a Death Cloud, a Dark Ritual, a Necropotence, a Sinkhole, a Liliana of the Veil, a Hymn to Tourach, an Inquisition of Kozilek or even a Tragic Slip. That list is a lot more exclusive for other colours and reserved for the really big names like Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Lightening Bolt, Swords to Plowshares etc.

So what are the black archetypes of which I speak? I will entirely ignore combo decks in this section as it is pretty hard to generalise about them (no irony intended) and don't play a significant part in the meta of most cubes (with the exception of reanimator I guess) .The Rock is the only true tier one archetype that is commonly played and has black paired with other colours. The Rock is however really several archetypes that range from mono green splashing black to mono black splashing a tiny bit of green. UB junky agro decks exist as to UB control decks but these are tier 1.5 really. The UB decks perform better than the lack of synergy in the colours might suggest simply because they have such a large volume of really powerful cards to throw in. There are only four decks I would aim to build if I were going black in cube and they are all mono black or mono black with a splash for Vindicate or something. The Rock would be my backup if I found that there were more black drafters than I would like or perhaps UB if green was getting gobbled up too.

The mono black archetypes are agro black (which really isn't a suicide deck any more, even with Hatred!), mono black control, Necro and Pox. The differences between the decks are quite subtle due to having lots of card overlap and similar synergies however the way they each play and their game plan are all quite different, as is the value of certain cards in each deck. Other than agro black they are really all control decks although only mono black control tends to play any cards that cost more than 4 mana. I have done articles on Pox and Necro, the pox one showing how a splash ends up looking quite well too. I am sure I will get round to doing articles for agro black (probably the best of the mono black decks) and mono black control (generally the weakest of the 4 archetypes) and so won't spend any time discussing them specifically. All of them are tier one with the possible exception of mono black control which I cannot vouch for as I have not done in a while. Each has some strengths and weaknesses of their own and have different match ups with the rest of the meta as you might expect.

Black has always had good spells however until about Zendikar block time it really lacked powerful creatures and planeswalkers to supplement the good spells. Over the last three years the black ranks have swelled with loads of outstanding little critters that actually enable it to win either with tempo or with control. Dark Ritual can now ramp out early things that are hard to deal with and a serious threat, the monsters black makes are able to afford enough tempo that you have life to spend on cards. Abyssal Persecutor and Vampire Nighthawk are both greatly to thank for black ability to compete, particularly against red decks which historically is blacks worst matchup. Geralf's Messenger and Phyrexian Obliterator were two cards I was indecisive with due to the all black costs but have secured slots now due to blacks propensity towards being mono. If just looked at as three drops or four drops rather than triple and quad black spells and compare them to other creatures of the same cost they are there with the very best cards in the game.

Lots of blacks utility and synergy is in house and so it has no need to use other colours when wanting to abuse its engine cards. Primarily the synergic effects are discard or sacrifice ones that are abusing things like Bloodghast. It is a combination of the cheap and powerful monsters at its disposal backed up with solid and versatile support spells (removal,card advantage and disruption) that make black so dangerous. It can either cripple you from the start with some hand or land removal or come out of nowhere with an Obliterator often before turn four and end the game on the back of it alone. Black can look all out of options and then refill its hand to seven without the decency to do that for all opposition as well! I must also pay homage to Death Cloud which is the ultimate split card /command out there being a game ender and a bail out spell. Most decks want cards like this and use Overrun, Wildfire, Armageddon, Upheaval and the like to get the job done but Cloud is the most versatile and easiest to use of the lot.

To end this piece I am going to attempt a list of the black cards that are in the highest bracket of power in roughly the order by which I think they are responsible for black being a great colour in the cube. Notice, with the exception of Inquisition that all the creatures are post Zendikar and all the spells are pre Zendkiar, most of which are really quite old cards. Anyway, starting with the best I give you:

Death Cloud
Vampire Nighthawk
Abyssal Persecutor
Inquisition of Kozilek
Liliana of the Veil
Vampire Hexmage
Dark Ritual
Hymn to Tourach
Dark Confidant
Demonic Tutor
Yawgmoth's Will
Recurring Nightmare (outstanding card but often most sought after by other colours)
Phyrexian Obliterator

Doomblade, Disfigure, Tragic Slip and all the one mana two power dorks have also been pulling huge weight for the deck however they are not really top bracket power cards, just the best options black has for those frequently desirable tasks. They are generally all fine although some of blacks one drops can bit a bit painful for the return they offer. I don't know how convincing I have been in terms of persuading the reader that black is a very powerful cube colour and so I suggest that you all head out and try to make some mono black decks and see for yourself first hand the qualities of the colour.

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