I received an overwhelming response to my last article on the current state of the Classic format. One of the predominant themes was that the cost of entry into Classic deters people from participating (the other theme being the prize support, or lack thereof). While we can’t control what Wizards will offer by way of prize support, we have significant control over the cost of the decks we choose to play. Decks with Force of Will are prohibitive for anyone interested in exploring the format for the first time, but that truly doesn’t mean someone can’t compete without those cards. I believe there is a viable deck that can win a fair share of matches, and is comprised mostly of cards from the last few Standard seasons with some functional Classic “upgrades”: That deck is Dark Times.
Dark Times is as close as one can get to Mono-Black Control in Eternal formats, and who doesn’t like playing MBC?!? The idea of the deck is to strip your opponent of resources with land destruction and discard spells. The endgame is to win through attrition, or the deck’s “broken” combo: Dark Depths plus Vampire Hexmage. Dark Times is also capable of winning though another game-winning combo in Leyline of the Void plus Helm of Obedience, often referred to as “Helm-Line”. (For those unaware, when Leyline is in play and you activate Helm, you mill your opponent’s entire library due to the fact that Helm keeps checking for a creature to hit the graveyard, thus triggering its effect until the entire library is expended).
As I mentioned earlier, most of the cards that are found in Dark Times are cards printed (or reprinted) after 8th Edition, and are therefore Modern-legal. The most common pre-8th Edition cards that can typically be found in Dark Times are:
Of those cards, obviously Wasteland and Vampric Tutor are not cheap, often fetching from 30 to 40 tickets each. While the deck would perform better with those cards, there are cheaper alternatives, such as Ghost Quarter for Wasteland and Imperial Seal and/or Demonic Consultation for Vampiric Tutor, which can fill in adequately (especially against other Classic decks that run little to no basic lands). The rest of those cards are below $10 each, and all of them have applications well beyond just this deck, or even Classic. Yawg Will, Demonic Tutor and Strip Mine are all found in numerous Classic decks and are even staples in Commander decks.
As for the rest of the deck, just about anyone who has a collection of Modern cards is likely to already have them on their account! Dark Confidant is the most expensive of these cards, but again, his investment is worthwhile beyond Classic, as he’s playable in Legacy, Modern, and presumably Commander. Some Dark Times lists have adopted Liliana of the Veil, which is Standard-legal right now. Everything else is a couple of tix or less… much less. Vampire Hexmage and Duress? You’ll find them on most bots for a few cents each. Dark Ritual is as little as $0.15 on most bots. Dark Depths, Bloodghast and Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth are all between 1-4 tickets each. Ideally, you only need 3 Dark Depths and possibly a single Urborg, which will shave a few tickets off buying play sets of each.
Okay, Okay, enough about the cost of the deck. How does this deck compete with the likes of Dredge, Storm, Workshop, Oath, and blue-based control decks? To the surprise of some people: better that one might imagine. It turns out that without the Power 9, Classic decks are just slow enough to allow for a deck like Dark Times to gain an advantage, even when losing the coin flip. Sure, some decks like Dredge and Storm could go over the top before you have a chance to respond, but that happens only with the most busted of hands… hands that just about any deck would be unable to deal with (Force of Will decks included).
In reality, though, Dark Times is well-equipped to battle Dredge, especially those versions that run Helm-Line maindeck and can scout their opponent’s matches to gain a leg up in Game 1. Dark Times decks that eschew the Helm-Line combo maindeck will still have access to the most powerful graveyard-busting cards printed… and can hardcast them to boot! Many other decks will sideboard Leyline since it’s the best graveyard hate ever printed, but will probably never cast it if it’s drawn later in the game or bounced to hand by a Chain of Vapor or Echoing Truth. Other cards are natural fits for black as well; Yixlid Jailer doubles as a win condition, Ravenous Trap could be hardcast if your opponent is trying to play around it, and Surgical Extraction also has splash damage against non-graveyard decks since Dark Times plays with so many discard effects. Add in other versatile options like Grafdiggers Cage, and Dredge should be little problem for Dark Times to dispatch fairly easily.
Storm decks do provide a tough matchup for Dark Times. Luckily, few Storm decks are being played these days. The best way for Dark Times to interact with Storm decks that might go over the top on Turn 1 is actually with a card that isn’t even black at all: Mental Misstep! Yup, Misstep is your best protection against opposing Rituals as well as discard effects or Gitaxian Probe which allows the Storm pilot see if it is safe to go off or not. Naturally, the element of surprise could be lost later in a tournament if they can peg you on Dark Times and feel safe going off on Turn 1 on the play. But, like I said before, that will rarely happen since it would require them both to win the flip and to draw the requisite combo pieces to combo out. Post-board, your graveyard hate should be able to control their ability to combo out since they won’t be able to abuse Yawg Will.
Assuming you can survive until your own turn, you have discard outlets to remove their important threats (Lions Eye Diamonds, Tutors, Brainstorm, Tinker, Yawg Will, etc.). If you choose to play Liliana and can get her on the battlefield quickly, she safely negates Tinkering for a robot such as Blightsteel Colossus, leaving only Time Vault-Voltaic Key as a win condition besides Storm. You can even splash green with a couple of fetch lands (the more affordable Zendicar fetches are fine, Marsh Flats and Verdant Catacombs, work great here) and a single Bayou to play Natures Claim to fight off pesky artifacts such as Vault-Key.
How about Workshop? Surprisingly, or perhaps unsurprisingly to some, Workshops are likely the most difficult matchup. I advocate devoting a few sideboard slots to make the matchup a little more reasonable. Natures Claim, as mentioned above, is a great sideboard choice due to its mana efficiency, as is Oxidize. Pre-board, however, perhaps your only bet is to focus on getting your game-winning combo online as fast as possible, either Helm-Line or Hexmage-Dark Depths. Be careful not to expose Dark Depths before you can get a Hexmage on the board as Wasteland can easily dispatch your win condition. Also, do not trigger Hexmage while your opponent has an untapped Wasteland, as they will simply respond by killing your Dark Depths… Wait until they are tapped out, or until they make the first move by trying to destroy your land first.
Once you can get your 20/20 flying indestructible fatty on the board, it should only take one swing to win the game since Workshop has only one decent flying creature in Steel Hellkite, and many Workshop decks are not playing it these days. With Delver running around everywhere, though, Hellkite could make a resurgence, but that is a topic for another day. Similarly, Helm-Line is a decent win condition, but casting it can be a problem since Rituals are dead cards against Workshop’s Spheres. Hardcasting Helm of Obedience against Spheres and Wastelands can be difficult to say the least. Null Rod completely shuts off Helm, but luckily Rod is not a fantastic metagame choice for Workshop decks these days.
On the other hand, Affinity Workshop decks are very difficult to beat. Affinity is fast enough to race even a Turn 3 20/20 fatty. Hexmage is good protection against Arcbound Ravager, but if you are saving the Hexmage for Ravager, you aren’t using it for Dark Depths.
Oath decks bring entirely different challenges against Dark Times. Discard is still useful in this matchup, but your creature-based strategy can play right into the Oath player’s plan. Oath is a great example of how Liliana is positioned very nicely in the current metagame. Aside from GG Oath variants using Dragon Breath, Liliana can stop all Oathed-up creatures before they have the chance to take over the game. Well, all creatures except for Griselbrand, who will likely draw either 7 or 14 cards before he has to face Liliana’s edict. The best part is that other than countermagic, Beast Within is the only card that Oath typically has at their disposal to get rid of a Liliana that has managed to hit the board. If GG Oath makes a comeback, instant-speed answers like Diabolic Edict and/or Geths Verdict would be suitable maindeck in place of Lilianas or out of the sideboard to complement her.
Finally, against Blue decks, Dark Times is hit or miss. Their countermagic wall can make getting Helm-Line and Hexmage on the board very difficult, but again, that’s what the discard spells are for. Also, depending on whether they are built to win with creatures (either Tinker-bots or Dark Confidant/Snapcaster Mage, etc.) can be the difference in the matchup. As noted on several occasions above, Liliana is great defense against Tinker-bots. In the midgame, Liliana can start stripping your opponent’s hand of countermagic. Best of all, Hexmage is great protection against Jace, the Mindsculptor and Tezzeret the Seeker! Of course, if their counter wall is too strong, you can find yourself being outclassed rather quickly as Jace can take over a game with the help of Brainstorm and fetch lands.
Creature decks aren’t too much of an issue for Dark Times. Liliana can provide some solid removal and generally black is known for its quality creature removal. Dismember is a great option to have in Dark Times as you can cast it off a single Wasteland or cast it the “normal” way by paying 2 black and a colorless. It will hit most creatures in the format aside from a 5/6 Tarmogoyf. Other options include Diabolic Edict, and even old, reliable Doom Blade can be used in a pinch. Doom Blade avoids Misstep, which is certainly relevant. Some may think this is crazy, but Contagion, from the same cycle of cards that produced Force of Will, can be a great choice as free removal on up to two creatures.
Also, Thoughtseize can be used to pick off creatures that will cause you the biggest headaches before they hit the battlefield (‘Goyf, Knight of the Reliquary, Lodestone Golem, etc.). Duress, and even to an extent Inquisition of Kozilek, can’t offer that much flexibility. The 2-life loss is relevant though, so loading up on 4 isn’t advisable outside of the most creature-infested metagames.
Now that I’ve showcased the deck’s merits in the Classic Metagame, let’s take a look at some possible directions to take the deck:
Dark Times with Liliana by enderfall
This is the version of Dark Times that I’ve been running with as of late. Liliana does a lot of work for this deck, but the main focus is, as always, to get Hexmage and Dark Depths online. Bloodghast works well with Cabal Therapy and Liliana. The sideboard is perhaps slanted too far toward Dredge and Oath, but I will admit Dredge is a near auto-win as a result. The two Jailers in the board could probably be used as flex spots to adjust with the metagame. The Perishes are there as fallbacks for ‘Goyf since Dismember might not be enough in the mid to late game. These also could be flex spots.
Perhaps the most interesting card in the decklist is Mental Misstep. Misstep is a very important card in this deck. The biggest reason to run Misstep is as protection against Swords to Plowshares (though Path to Exile is probably more devastating for this deck… gaining 20 life isn’t the end of the world in most circumstances). Misstep is also protection against an opposing Misstep on your Turn 1 Dark Ritual or Duress/Thoughtseize/Cabal Therapy. Being able to play a discard spell on Turn 1 is rather important for this deck, as you won’t be able to win on the stack… ever. You need to be proactive, and Misstep helps prevent your opponent from stopping your game plan.
Dark Times with Helm-Line Combo by enderfall
This version of Dark Times eschews the Bloodghast recursion for the Helm-Line combo. With 3 Tutors, finding Helm shouldn’t be too difficult, and the Rituals will help you to be able to cast and activate the Helm on Turn 2 with 2 other lands (and presumably a Turn 0 Leyline).
As mentioned earlier, the maindeck Helm-Line plan helps your percentages against decks that want to abuse the graveyard. It also helps free up sideboard slots to attack the metagame from other angles.
Other cards to consider in Dark Times decks include:
…just to name a few.
Liliana has been better than I originally anticipated. “Swamp, Ritual, Liliana, Discard, go” is far more powerful than I thought. Don’t get me wrong: If there is just one planeswalker that I want to cast, it’ll always be Jace, the Mind Sculptor, but Liliana is certainly up there with Tezzeret the Seeker as Classic viability goes. The fact that she can be cast on Turn 1 gives Liliana some bonus points.
On the whole, Dark Times has a lot going for it. It can interact with your opponent’s hand (though not at instant-speed), is somewhat cheap if you already own some of the more expensive cards such as Liliana, Bob, and Thoughtseize, and can do some broken things. Better yet, each of those cards have functionally equivalent replacements that are far cheaper (Bob is a little more difficult to replace 1 for 1, but Skullclamp is an amazing draw engine).
If one were to build this deck from scratch, it would cost roughly 350 tickets. Understandably, this is no small amount, but if you substitute some of the more expensive cards for functionally similar versions, the price of the deck drops to as low as 60 tickets or so. If you already have some of those cards, all the better!
If you are interested in participating in one of the free Leagues that Classic offers but don’t have the ability to obtain the expensive blue cards and dual lands, Dark Times would be a great alternative.
Clan Magic Eternal
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