So Gray Merchant of Asphodel is a good card.
The only virtual downsides that I can identify are the converted mana cost (a hefty 3BB), and the fact that its devotion ability considerably narrows our deckbuilding options. Otherwise, we’ve got just about everything we could want in a Pauper creature. It does something immediately when it hits play, it’s bigger than most other guys on the ground, it gets better in multiples and it can win the game just by resolving!
Not quite Giant Spider, not quite Corrupt, Merchant falls somewhere in between the two. The zombie creature type is not wholly irrelevant, as zombie theme decks have seen some fringe Pauper play every once in a while. But the most powerful aspect of the Theros behemoth is, of course, the Drain Life effect it produces. In one fell swoop, the dynamic of entire attrition battles, race situations, and board states can change drastically.
And it’s not like we couldn’t use the life boost. Black has always been a color that handles its own life total irresponsibly, which makes the incidental gain offered up by Corrupt, Tendrils of Corruption and Merchant so sought after.
After a while, this stuff starts to hurt!
What I’m trying to say to you is that Gray Merchant can be very powerful in a Pauper deck. What other Pillarfield Oxen do you know that can facilitate somewhere around 12- to 16-point life swings? That is a huge impact on the game, at a cheaper cost than Corrupt can provide, sometimes to greater effect, with a big butt attached for good measure!
I told you all that to tell you this: the scintillating utility possessed by Gray Merchant of Asphodel is a testament to the renewed popularity of, you guessed it…
Mono-Black Control (Dun dun dunnn!!!)
Which is of course the topic of today’s article. But the macabre Merchant isn’t the only one to credit for MBC’s rise in success. Let’s not forget that two pivotal Mono-Black nemeses were banned in September of this year:
This unholy alliance was arguably one of the factors (Bojuka?) bogging MBC down. Let’s refer back to an illuminating strategic concept presented last year by the champion of Pro Tour San Diego, MTGO Academy’s own Simon Goertzen. This concept is known as the “Axis of Aggression,” and can be further understood in Simon’s piece.
To paraphrase, each deck occupies some kind of spot along the aforementioned axis. The further a deck exists on the control end of things, the more of an advantage it will have in a long game. This could also be called late game “inevitability” for all intents and purposes.
If your deck happens to be slightly more controlling than your opponent’s (but not to such an extent that you’re too slow to respond to their curve or proactive elements), you will likely be favored to win. This is probably a major reason that Mono-Black Control is doing so well at the moment in relation to the decks it’s facing.
The Cloudpost (and even more trying Fissurepost) variants tended to be slightly more controlling than MBC, and therefore “superior” in a head to head. This is another way of saying that Post could “go bigger” and outperform most of Mono-Black’s best plays or board states. Additionally, FissurePost had far more unfair elements at play, and a devastating late game that was more or less unrivaled in the format.
And so FissurePost has died and Gray Merchant of Asphodel has been born, which means MBC is a considerably popular choice in Pauper again. It’s also got the results to back it up.
Case in point, a 1st-Place list from this here MTGO Constructed Queue:
Mono-Black Control By Lincao
Before we break down the specifics of this list, I’d like to take a second to do something that we all too rarely do as Pauper contributors: congratulate the winners! This is by no means in jest. Lincao, great job buddy. Keep it up!
I really like the fact that this deck has a handful of things it can be doing on Turn 1. Believe it or not, this isn’t typical for MBC (since the 2- and 3-mana portions of the curve tend to receive the most saturation). Turn 1 “Swamp, go” just feels like such a waste when opponents are getting their game plans rolling with things like Delver of Secrets, Expedition Map, Nettle Sentinel, Rift Bolt and Slippery Bogle.
Dead Weight is my favorite 1-mana removal spell in black, because it’s more versatile than Disfigure and does things Ghastly Demise and Vendetta cannot. There’s no need to address Weight’s base-level application of wrecking early small guys, because it also kills a lot of “big” creatures (like Atog and Kiln Fiend) in spite of temporary pump effects. The “too big” creatures it doesn’t kill at least get minimized, allowing us to add to our devotion count or block the Weighted creature with some sort of Rat.
I’ve pretty much always liked some number of Duress main deck, even though we sadly don’t have access to something with the flexibility of Inquisition of Kozilek. Since MBC naturally kills the crap out of creatures, attacking the hand is our best means of dealing with all other potential problems.
Fume Spitter isn’t extremely necessary as an effect, but adds to our devotion count and buys a bit of time (usually by blocking one guy and withering another one before damage). Rounding out the Turn 1s is Barren Moor, though I don’t see us cycling away lands that early when we usually want enough mana to cast Gray Merchant and Corrupt. Playing Moor does require a bit of sacrifice, as the Corrupt and Tendrils of Corruption effects will not always be at their best. It’s unclear to me whether or not this downside is an acceptable one.
Now let’s talk removal. Oubliette is just ridiculous (as long as it remains bugged: last time I checked you actually can’t get your creature back by removing the Oubliette—it’s possible the bug’s been fixed by now, though). This means we’ve got a strictly better and more cast-able Unmake that also drains for 2 whenever we resolve a Merchant. Definitely sweet.
Lincao is running six Edict effects, which may be necessary considering the hexproof and otherwise protected creatures in the format. Nevertheless, I think Devour Flesh should be replaced with Diabolic Edict, since the only “upside” Devour has is the ability to target ourselves and gain life (and I think there‘s better life gain around if we truly need more).
Aside from that, the removal looks pretty good (and sufficiently diversified). I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing some mass removal in the main, though perhaps the format has moved away from that being needed? Something makes me skeptical about that notion.
It’s fairly clear that some of the creature choices have been made with devotion in mind, as Liliana’s Specter and Okiba-Gang Shinobi don’t always make it into Pauper MBC lists. Ravenous Rats is not my favorite 2-drop around (especially when Augur of Skulls and Cuombajj Witches are available), but if we’re going to play Shinobis I can see the appeal. Perhaps strangely missing is Chittering Rats, but between the existing 3-mana creatures and Oubliette, we simply can’t hope to fit them in without screwing up our curve.
Lincao’s sideboard is a somewhat strange assortment of 1-offs, most of which are intended to eliminate creatures. I honestly can’t determine a rationale behind the mix, but it seems to be working out just fine.
Bearing a number of similarities to Lincao’s MBC is this Constructed Queue 4th-place configuration:
Mono-Black Control By eclipse01
The mana base here is extremely similar, though the creature suite contains more Specters and Ravenous Rats in addition to a single copy of Faceless Butcher. I like how everything here (outside of Rats) has BB in its mana cost and therefore optimizes the power of Gray Merchant of Asphodel.
The other differences in eclipse01’s list are markedly peculiar. Stab Wound seems expensive for what it does, though could ostensibly put our opponent on a clock. Read the Bones is probably fine as a virtual fifth Sign in Blood copy. But the strangest card choice by far is Warren Weirding. Sorcery speed makes it inherently worse than the other edicts around, and some opponents will have goblins in play to reap Weirding’s benefits (while we on the other hand have no real chance of doing so).
As far as the sideboard is concerned, there is a lot of card space dedicated to hosing little creatures, and I think that could probably be consolidated to some degree. I’m a little puzzled by the singleton Stinkweed Imp, though I imagine it has some specific applications (I’m guessing primarily it acts as an eternal stonewall?).
I’ve got one last outside list to talk about, and it takes quite a departure from the previous two. Here’s sheastrausman’s 2nd-place deck (congratulations!) from this Constructed Queue:
Mono-Black Control By sheastrausman
I really like this deck’s configuration, with two or three exceptions. I’ll start with my gripes. In my opinion there is not enough early removal, and there’s a bit too much going on at 4 mana. As mentioned earlier, I also feel that Disfigure is on the whole inferior to Dead Weight, and it’s possible that some extra lands are needed. Aside from that, this list has a lot going for it that I can get behind.
Cuombajj Witches are not only heavily devoted, they also gun down x/1s and blockable x/2s. The singleton Twisted Abomination makes for a quick clock, or gets that critical Swamp for us. I could easily see playing three or four of him for this very reason.
Lastly, Serrated Arrows is a pretty awesome choice if you’re worried about protection from black creatures entering the metagame to quell MBC’s success. There is some redundancy between Arrows and Pestilence as a means of killing multiple dudes, so shaving numbers on either end is probably correct.
I’m sure it goes without saying that four Corrupt, four Gray Merchant and four Tendrils of Corruption is a ton of life gain. There’s a good chance that some of this can be trimmed, and since Corrupt is the most expensive it might be the first to have a couple of copies on the chopping block.
If I were to sleeve up Mono-Black Control tomorrow, I think it might look something like this:
Mono-Black Control By Jason Moore
I must admit, it’s very hard to fit in all the cards I’d like to be playing. I took what I liked from the above lists, and made some room for Crypt Rats. I think they’re still very good, as they can deal with hexproof creatures, swarm strategies, and life totals. I could of course be wrong, however.
My sideboard features Choking Sands (as I believe it’s the best LD option), a split between Dead Weight and Pharika’s Cure to halt early rushes, Shinobi and Raven’s Crime for repeatable hand wreckage, and Serrated Arrows to stop the occasional hate bear.
That’s going to conclude today’s look at Mono-Black Control. Hope you’ve enjoyed it! Please let me know if you have any suggestions for this list, as I may end up piloting it a bit in 2014.
On that note, I’d like to wish you all a happy new year! Thank you for your much-needed support. As always, thanks for reading, and please comment!