This entry is part 32 of 41 in the series In General

Grandpa (Eric)


By Eric, AKA Grandpa Growth


Hello and welcome back to “In General.” Over the last few weeks I’ve been discussing particular groups of cards in each color that put pressure on the Commander metagame. I give an explanation of what effects these cards have on the format, how you can use them, how you can overcome them, as well as my opinion on what individual cards are really worth playing in Commander. If you missed the first couple of articles in this series on White and Blue, I urge you to go back and check them out.


Today we have a spicy one: Black. A color full of broken cards and classic archetypes, Black has some of my all-time favorites and brings something to the table for every type of player. Let’s dive in.


Spot Removal

Notable Card: Dismember

Spot removal is one of Black’s most attractive features. As a color, Black scores very high in this category; only White has better spot removal spells. The defining characteristic of Black’s removal is that it gives you options. Unlike other colors that are kind of a ‘one trick pony’ in the removal department, Black offers a plethora of different types of effects, including destroy, sacrifice, toughness reduction, negative counters, and some limited exiling. These spells can range from free to insanely expensive. They might have added value or drawbacks, have targeting restrictions, or be totally open.


This huge array of competing answers gives you the ability to stop just about any creature that your opponent(s) could throw at you, but it comes with a cost: preparation. You have to have the right tool for the job! Each type is suited against certain abilities that usually thwart the other types of removal. Sacrifice for Shroud, toughness reduction for indestructibility, and so forth. The net effect of this is that you are being held accountable for the performance of your removal suite. If you make good choices and include the optimal mix of removal for your metagame environment, then you will prosper. Choose poorly and you will struggle.


On the negative side, Black has a very difficult time dealing with noncreature permanents. A couple of cards can deal with artifacts and maybe a dozen or so with lands, but for the most part Black needs to lean on other colors or on colorless sweepers to answer problem enchantments like Privileged Position or Back to Basics.


When playing against Black decks in Commander, Swamps should be your earliest sign of spot removal. Expect to face a truly inconvenient amount of removal spells and wait to play your best threats with counterspell backup. Whenever and wherever possible, align your threat selection to take advantage of the opponent’s chosen removal. See “Deckspalanations: Durability” for more on how to do that.



Notable Card: Damnation

The leading cause for Black’s over-dependence on spot removal is the lack of depth in its pool of board sweepers. The options that exist are generally very effective and definitely worth a spot in any deck, but the relative lack of selection will leave you searching for different types of answer cards to fill up your decks. In a somewhat fortuitous twist of fate, Black’s sweepers don’t all congregate at a single mana cost. You can use this to keep opponents off balance. The scalability of cards like Killing Wave or Black Sun’s Zenith will let you fit in a mass removal effect at whatever spot on the curve is most convenient. Opponents who aren’t inclined to make sophisticated predictions about your likely holdings will have a tough time sussing out when and where a sweeper fits into your game plan.


Unrestricted Tutors

Notable Card: Demonic Tutor

This is where Black decks can really shine. In my opinion, this is the third most influential kind of card in the format and DT is the best of the bunch. Having the ability to search for whatever you need gives you an incredible amount of flexibility and control in your game plan. This is the kind of access that turns steaming piles of cardboard into real decks. When Gifts Ungiven goes to sleep, it dreams of waking up as Demonic Tutor.


The applications of this technology are limited only by your imagination…and what other people at the table let you get away with. Speaking of which, I consider it my primary responsibility to shut this kind of thing down. You have to be a tough metagame sheriff and keep tutor abuse in check with a healthy dose of disruption or else you will find yourself on the losing end of many games. There is a very direct causal link between searching through your deck and winning.  The positive correlation is so strong that increasing the level of access has become a central piece in my deckbuilding philosophy. I devoted an entire article to it, which encapsulates many of the thoughts that I would otherwise share here.


Big Mana

Notable Card: Cabal Coffers

Long before the days of Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx, Black was really the only show in town. Getting Green mana is pretty easy, but it’s just so fair. If you want access to oodles of mana during the early turns, Black is where it is at. The advantage of questionable design decisions like Cabal Ritual and Lake of the Dead is that Black can reach absurdly far up the mana curve quickly and consistently. Unlike Red and Blue, Black decks have a variety of ways to get mana besides generic artifacts. Multidimensional role players like Liliana of the Dark Realms can bolster your resources at different times throughout the game and generate card advantage turn after turn.


The big pickle that this presents when playing against Black is that we will often be competing on an uneven playing field in terms of mana. Only Green has a chance to keep up in this department, which leaves every other color in the unenviable position of constantly playing off the back foot. I’m a big believer in Mana Sum Theory and the fact that Black decks can consistently produce and consume a ton of mana is a big part of the reason why they’re a favorite among Commander players. The best way I’ve found to stop them is to fight fire with fire. Counterspells and land destruction can go a long way, but playing Black for access to your own big mana effects will give you the ability to turn the corner in a game and steal some wins. Also, the ability to pick apart their gameplan with discard doesn’t hurt either. Speaking of…



Notable Cards: Mind Twist, Thoughtseize

It is the old catch twenty-two. If you keep a loose seven, you might get wrecked by a Duress and not be able to string enough plays together to win. On the other hand, if you mulligan aggressively you will find yourself getting punished by the old black licorice Twist’ler. Nothing tastes worse than that.


As I promised to explain last week, Black is home to my number three and number four cards in the format; number four of course being Thoughtseize. For one mana you can have a proactive answer to any card in the format. If that’s not powerful, I don’t know what is. Disruption is your umbrella against the rain of absurd and unfair nonsense that a typical game of Commander can throw at you.


Now, I know that most Commander players have strong feelings about playing large amounts of disruption. Whether it be discard, counterspells, land destruction, or hate cards, most players tend to feel that this kind of stuff isn’t in “the spirit of the format.” I’m not saying they’re wrong. It doesn’t always feel fun to have your hand picked apart or all of your stuff stolen, but that’s how it goes sometimes. It can hamper your enjoyment if you’re squished under an oppressive strategy of any kind, not just disruption. But, the way I see it, if you lose a game to something you don’t like, you only have yourself to blame. Stand up and take control of your metagame, people! Don’t put a ban on a strategy just because you can’t get into it. Instead, pick up the tools that the game gives you and stop your opponents from doing broken things by making your opponents put their stuff down… like in the graveyard.


Black can do other things besides making me discard cards, too! Exiling graveyards has become an important part of protecting yourself. So many decks in the format revolve around graveyard synergies. As we will see in a bit, that pile of used sweaters sitting beside your library can be a veritable treasure trove of metagame advantage. I particularly like Suffer the Past, because it can do a pretty good job of going to the face if you need it to.


The main consideration that we have to keep in mind when playing against Black isn’t about deckbuilding, but rather the game itself. If I know that I’m squaring off against a Black deck, I’m much less likely to keep sketchy hands. If I fail to get off to a quick start, I could find myself in an early hole grave.



Notable Card: Diabolic Servitude

This type of effect is most commonly associated with Black, but Black doesn’t have a complete monopoly on digging stuff out of the bin. White and Green each have their own ways of recycling cards from the graveyard back to the battlefield. Black definitely has a dominate position in terms of the depth of options you can choose from, but where the real competitive advantage for Black lies in in being able to take things out of other people’s graveyards. Decks that plan to overwhelm you with their superior amount or quality of creatures will often fold if you’re able to turn their best threat against them. Sometimes the surprise alone is enough to shift the momentum in a game. For this reason, when I go rummaging through the dumpster, I prefer Beacon of Unrest. Creatures or artifacts, your yard or theirs. That’s flexibility folks.


Card Draw

Notable Card: Phyrexian Arena

I shuttered a bit when I saw Erebos, God of the Dead pop up in the Theros spoiler. You see, the great thing about having a bunch of extra mana is that you can spend it on stuff! Why not extra cards!




This is something I touched briefly on in “Decksplanations: Value”: Resource liquidity. Liquidity is the ability to exchange one resource for another without suffering a big loss in total value. One less life for one extra card is an extremely efficient exchange. As it is in Commander, though, cards are an incredibly important resource, so paying two life AND two mana is still acceptable in many cases. A major problem with resources, particularly early on in a game, is that they’re limited. But we see something magical happen when you start to accrue a bunch of resources: it starts to get easier and easier to exchange one for another. Often you can do this in a way that actively advances your game plan or gives you an immediate advantage in the current board state. You may have discovered this for yourself organically by playing some sort of infinite mana engine: once you have an arbitrary amount of one thing, it’s pretty easy to get an arbitrary amount of another thing. Having the big-mana advantage can easily translate into a big Exsanguinate or Dregs of Sorrow.


To bring it all back home, Black is excellent at drawing cards, due in part to its ability to expand its overall resource base and make fairly liquid exchanges. I shouldn’t have to tell you how important drawing cards can be when you are trying to close out a close game. You always want to be the person drawing more cards. Start early by playing something like the new BFZ card Painful Truths. A little can go a long way. If you see your opponent trying to do the same, you need to stop them. Talk about painful truths. Maybe try some of that sweet, sweet Thoughtseize action.


That’s all for this week. Join me next time as we look at Red…exciting.



“In General” is the place where I share my ideas on unconventional topics that are often only tangentially related to Magic. This column is a mixed bag where I collect and present ideas that don’t have a home anywhere else. If you want a column about strategy, psychology, design, economics, philosophy, internet culture, and referential humor, you have come to the right place.



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