State of Our Dark Union, 2012
Welcome back, necromancers! A new Core Set is upon us, and it’s time once again to look at where black lies in the landscape. Trends in the Core Set are the clearest indication of where Wizards of the Coast is taking each color in terms of its mechanics, flavor, and relative strengths and weaknesses. And while the main thing that WotC R&D cares about is the competitive balance of the decks in Standard, a lot of us in the Casual Tribe have our favorite colors, and nobody except us is going to pay attention to that. This is particularly important with the rise of Commander because it is much harder to splash colors that address the weaknesses of a particular color.
So, where does black stand? Let’s start by looking at it in terms of black’s three traditional multiplayer strengths.
More importantly, though, recent cards such as Doom Blade, Go for the Throat, and Dismember are also well above average from a historical point of view. Unless you face a lot of regenerating critters in your metagame, the last couple of years have seen black overtake white as the color of pinpoint answers to troublesome creatures.
However, black is still waaaay behind the curve in terms of creature sweepers. Yes, we’re still number two behind white, so yay. But black is so far behind in terms of general multiplayer playability that it makes black much less attractive. Let’s look at what black has seen recently:
In the same time span, white has had:
Now, I will grant you that Life's Finale is a showstopper in reanimator—or simply in any deck with Geth, Lord of the Vault in it—but white is streets ahead. White has a better chance of wiping the board for 1 mana with Terminus than black has of doing it for 6 mana with Zenith, and if white ever gets to 6 mana, it can get rid of everything.
Similarly, Killing Wave can kill a butt-load of critters, but it isn’t a sweeper in a traditional sense; its best use is in an aggro deck—you make your opponents pay life and/or lose chump-blockers before you swing with your Phyrexian Obliterator. If there’s a big, scary creature you want to get rid of, Killing Wave will almost always fail to get the job done. In that sense, it is more like Divine Reckoning than a traditional Wrath of God.
That leaves us with Mutilate. Mutilate is a great card, and I’m thrilled to see it return to my booster packs, but its weaknesses are glaringly obvious: It doesn’t beat early-game ramp, and it doesn’t beat anything if you’re playing any other color. Mono-black is a fun option, but then so is mono-anything; it should be possible but not required to play mono-colored decks, but that isn’t the message black mages have been receiving from WotC over the years. Something tells me that’s going to be a problem when Ravnica rolls around in a couple of months, shock lands or not.
White has always been the best at mass creature destruction, and I’m not suggesting that should change, but they can make black’s sweepers a lot better without unseating white from its throne. For that matter, reprinting Damnation in a Core Set wouldn’t do anything to change the fact that, overall, white is the best color at sweeping. What it would do is increase the availability of black’s best sweeper for the Casual Tribe. In terms of the color’s overall competitiveness, I honestly think that black needs Damnation to be reprinted—or for Day of Judgment to get the Planeshift treatment—right quick. If not, people will realize that paying 6 for a Life's Finale doesn’t make sense when you can just pay 7 for All is Dust and get rid of a lot of stuff that black can't touch.
In a word: suckage. Over the last couple of years, it looks as though WotC has been trying to rebalance where recursion lies in the color pie. Many—if not most of—the best reanimation spells in the last couple of years have been white, with this year’s best targeted reanimation in black having a white flashback cost. Here’s what we’ve seen in the last year:
Pretty lame for a graveyard-based set, eh?
Over the last couple of years, I would argue that the best new reanimation cards have been Emeria, the Sky Ruin and Marshal's Anthem, neither of which is in the supposed reanimation color. In fact, the black-in-name-only Grimoire of the Dead is better than most of the black reanimation spells we’ve seen the last few years. The halcyon days of Nezumi Graverobber, Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni, and Beacon of Unrest are behind us.
It seems unfair when they go to such extremes to protect white’s supremacy in the field of mass removal (arguably the strongest mechanic in the game) but allow white to eat black’s slice of the pie. This is especially true when you consider how much less important reanimation is to multiplayer success than board-sweeping and how easily it can be nerfed by cards like Tormod's Crypt, Ground Seal, and Grafdigger's Cage. In addition, I’d like to see Beacon of Unrest or something at that power level replace the rarely played Rise from the Grave as the default reanimator in Standard.
There is some consolation in the knowledge that Return to Ravnica will probably feature some cool B/G recursion effects (a la Vigor Mortis or Golgari Guildmage) or at least W/B (a la Debtors’ Knell), but in terms of how black stands alone, it’s pretty cold comfort.
Black has also done quite well in the key areas of life-gain and card-draw. Life-gain is incredibly useful in multiplayer, and whether you’re swinging with a Vault Skirge on turn two or a Chancellor of the Dross on turn two (or later), it’s a huge advantage to be able to gain back some of the life that you’ve lost. And Exquisite Blood is a card that makes me want to see how far I can push it without breaking it. With Exquisite Blood, Bloodchief Ascension, Sanguine Bond, and others, it’s hard to believe that I once tried to make El-Hajjâj and Syphon Soul into a viable deck.
In card-draw, Bloodgift Demon continues the Phyrexian Arena/Dark Confidant kind of mechanic, and Harvester of Souls can be in-friggin-sane in multiplayer. The icing on the top, though, was Griselbrand—thank you for the lovely present, WotC, even if the Commander Rules Committee won’t let me play with it.1 With epic legends Sheoldred last year and Griselbrand this, I’m really hoping that good things come in threes with next year’s new cards.
Finally, you can't talk about resource management without mentioning planeswalkers, and we’ve been really spoiled with two Lilianas that are potentially even better than the first. In multiplayer, Liliana of the Veil is probably the weakest of the three, although she’s an undeniably saucy third-turn play, and the discard is something you can easily take advantage of.
Our spicy new goodness resource-management toys were on display in a game with my Sheoldred deck this week. I loaned it to a friend, and she dropped a turn-two Liliana of the Dark Realms, allowing her to build up her mana base enough to defend Liliana and eventually go ultimate. Then, she top-decked The X-5, tapped three Swamps to tutor for seven cards, tapped another four Swamps (!!!) to drop Harvester of Souls and Plague Wind—one of the most epic turns ever and a testament to the power of black’s resource management.2
More Pie, Please
The thing is, in the time I’ve been playing, I have seen exceptions to every one of these limitations. For example, Chaos Warp allows red to get rid of enchantments; Saltblast lets white destroy lands or anything else; Beast Within allows green to kill anything (for less than a Murder); and Jace, the Mind Sculptor more than makes up for any deficiencies blue has, but if that isn’t enough for you, they have Pongify, too.
In fact, I haven't heard anyone else point his out, but in Magic 2013, green has two creature-kill cards. Two! And they have Naturalize, too! Meanwhile, the black mage has to get to 7 mana and cast an artifact or colorless planeswalker in order to get rid of a Story Circle, Akroma's Memorial, or Oblivion Ring.
The obvious objection is that black has unique access to discard as a weapon, but discard has never been more than a stopgap. Discard is weak in duels—by design, not by accident—and either weak or antisocial in multiplayer. Even if you strip your opponent’s hand, you can't prevent the top-deck, and if you're playing against multiple opponents, you usually can't even strip their hands reliably. No, discard isn’t enough to make up for black’s complete inability to deal with enchantments, especially in multiplayer, and probably the only way to make it strong enough is to make it too strong.
Unfortunately, black is still suffering in a big way in terms of board sweepers and noncreature removal. WotC needs to realize that they can print a card on the order of Damnation once in a while (at least in November’s Commander’s Arsenal product release) without changing white’s overall preeminence or disrupting Standard.
Regarding enchantments, we’ve already seen red and green receive 3-mana, instant-speed spot removal spells that deal with their historical weaknesses, and sooner or later, it’ll have to be black’s turn—if only because I’m sick of scrounging together the same half-dozen colorless answers every time I want to build a mono-black deck. As with Beast Within and Chaos Warp, I’d expect some kind of drawback to a card like that, although I agree with Brandon that a casting cost that can only be paid in a mono-black deck is a bad way of handling it.
On top of that, WotC keeps making 4-mana discard spells that, other than Syphon Mind and Unnerve, never see any play whatsoever. It should at least be possible to make these strong enough to be useful in multiplayer by adding “each opponent,” “up to two opponents,” or some such.
Magic keeps growing better each year, and as someone who enjoys playing all colors and all combinations and styles (yes, even mono-white occasionally!), I’m loving the ride. Still, it’s important that the balance between the colors is maintained so that each color is strong enough to stand alone and win in its own ways—in duels and also in multiplayer. Blacks strengths are great, but there is a danger that its weaknesses can be overwhelming if we don’t do something to address them.
2 It’s worth noticing that red and green have also greatly improved their resource management recently. Red is gaining its own version of filtering, which gives its aggro decks a little more game in longer matches, and combined with Reforge the Soul (the latest incarnation of Wheel of Fortune), it gives red a lot more resources than it is used to have. Green may actually be the number two card-draw color—behind blue but ahead of black. Greater Good was the original green draw engine, but Momentous Fall, Snake Umbra, Garruk's Packleader, and Hunter's Insight are all examples of recent draw spells in green that can be effective, and Garruk, Primal Hunter is among the best draw spells in Standard. Soul of the Harvest contrasts nicely with Harvester of Souls to show how black and green can both draw cards using their respective mechanical strengths.