Hey there reader! Welcome to Counting to 20, a column about competitive Magic as a way to have fun. I’m Gabe Carleton-Barnes, known in some parts as GCB. I love competitive Magic, and after 20 years of a waxing and waning obsession with it, I’ve developed a lot of strategies for making the most of that obsession, and a few strategies for winning Magic games.

I wanted to write for Hipsters of the Coast because this site does a fabulous job of embracing what makes Magic fun. I think competitive play is fun. I think working with friends to solve formats is fun. I think traveling to events with your buddies and cheering each other on is fun. I think winning flights to exotic places is really, really fun.

Counting to 20 is going to be a column about Magic strategy. A lot of that strategy is going to be about how to win at Magic, but I’m also going to write about how to maximize good times, how to build your competitive community, and which beer to drink near the convention center. I may even make some suggestions about who to drink it with. So if that stuff interests you … off we go!

(And thanks for reading.)

Recently, I bought a plane ticket from Portland, Oregon, to Oakland, California, because I wanted to represent my country. This might seem a little un-hipster, until you consider that representing my country would mean going to France to play in the World Magic Cup. France is fucking rad. Also, when I say I want to represent my country, I’m talking about the country that designed the tails side of the Susan B. Anthony dollar coin. Have you looked at that closely? You should.*

In the end, I very nearly made the national team in a field of about 420. I went 8-1 in the first nine rounds of swiss, drew into top 8, and got destroyed in the quarterfinals by a deck featuring 4X Foundry Street Denizen. I think if the bracket had broken differently I could very well have won the thing. This is the deck I played:

Mono-Black Aggro

Creatures (28)
Gnarled Scarhide
Tormented Hero
Rakdos Cackler
Pain Seer
Spiteful Returned
Thrill-Kill Assassin
Lifebane Zombie
Herald of Torment

Spells (10)
Bile Blight
Hero’s Downfall
Lands (22)
18 Swamp

Sideboard (15)
Erebos, God of the Dead
Gift of Orzhova
Dark Betrayal
Ultimate Price
Mogis’ Marauder

This deck is not a popular deck. Before Pro Tour M15, I tried to talk some members of Team TCGPlayer.com into playing it. Craig Wescoe said he had it listed as the seventh-best deck in the format. Conley Woods and Ari Lax tried it out but couldn’t make it work. In general, everyone I talk to seems to think it is, at best, Tier 2. I disagree. I think the deck is Tier 1. I also think the deck is really fun to play. Everyone loves attacking for two, seeing your opponent’s hand, and counting to 20, right? This deck is really good at those things, so we’re going to count 20 reasons to love Mono-Black Aggro in Standard.

1. Information—Between maindeck and sideboard, this deck has 11 ways to look at your opponent’s hand. Usually, you can take away a problematic card while you’re at it.

2. Lifebane ZombieThe white and green creatures in Standard right now are very, very good. This card makes them a liability. It’s also surprisingly good against mono-blue. Lifebane is one of the big appeals of the slow mono-black decks, but this deck takes much better advantage of the aggressive creature.

3. On-Plan Versatility—A third of the creatures have bestow, and all of the bestow effects are aggressive. Gnarled Scarhide can even bestow to remove a blocker in a pinch! Hero’s Downfall can kill big blockers or game-shifting Planeswalkers or target your own Tormented Hero for a final point. Aggro decks always offer more options than people pretend, but the spells in this deck are particularly option-rich.

4. Multi-Lands—Standard right now is a world of greedy mana, because there are a lot of great multi-lands. This deck plays none of them, but matches up well against them. How much easier is counting to 20 in a world with painlands, shocklands, and Mana Confluences? The other option is glacially slow scrylands! It’s paradise for an aggro deck!

5. Sphinx’s RevelationOne of the format’s most powerful and defining cards does nothing until turn four, and nothing exciting until turn six. It’s exactly the kind of card that the best players want to be playing, along with its buddies Supreme Verdict and Jace. Any deck playing these cards is a huge dog to Mono-Black Aggro. Jace and Verdict are weak to bestow effects, and MBA’s speed and discard make Mutavault much harder to contain. Waiting around to cast a Verdict isn’t particularly exciting against an active Pain Seer, either. If you sequence your plays carefully with MBA, Revelation matchups are hard to lose.

6. Curve—15/10/7/(7)/(3)** with six removal spells (bestow costs in parentheses). If you have looked at an opening hand that told you exactly what the first three turns of the game would look like, and it brought joy to your heart … then this is the deck for you, especially in a format where curve-outs usually involve come-into-play tapped lands.

7. Stealth—This deck is almost completely off the radar in a format with myriad high-profile decks to attract people’s attention. This deck catches people off guard: No one tests against it, no one sideboard-plans for it, and no one knows exactly what cards you might be playing.

8. Plan A—There is one plan here: attack your opponent to death before they can do anything fancy. All the cards contribute elegantly to this plan, and most are optimized for nothing else. Gnarled Scarhide might be your one-drop, your four-drop, or your removal spell, but no matter what happens, he’s helping you attack. By having exactly one plan, you can focus on doing it right.

9. Card Advantage—It sounds strange, but this deck is full of card advantage. Pain Seer is the most obvious, but look at that land count! Only 18 lands that don’t attack: That means six fewer do-nothing cards in your deck than most of the format. Lifebane Zombie is often a two-for-one, as well, and the sideboard offers a pair of Erebos to juice up the advantage even more.

10. Redundancy—Eleven two-power creatures for one mana. Seven one-mana disruption spells. Ten two-drops, 11 three-drops with evasion. Ten efficient creature-removal spells. Ten bestow effects. This sort of redundancy allows you to make your plans with confidence about what you will find in your draw step. MBA is a great deck to practice playing to your outs: The plays are there, and the outs are often there as well.

11. The Junkyard—Between the discard effects and the quick, aggressive creatures, your opponent is often going to abandon their plan and use their cards in whatever way they can to impact the game. The result is a lot of games with empty hands or awkward mana on both sides. These games are surprisingly fun, and this deck thrives in them. Awkward mana? You don’t need much! Playing off the top? It’s all action! Winning grungy games is satisfying.

12. Thoughtseize—That this is the best card in Standard is no surprise, as it has long been a staple in eternal formats. There may be no better deck in the format to utilize it, as Thoughtseize’s greatest weakness is the late game, a place an aggro deck doesn’t plan to go anyway. MBA is also one of the best decks in the format against Thoughtseize: Targeted discard can’t disrupt a deck with so much redundancy, and you’re already well-positioned to take advantage of the two-life cost. Getting turn-one Thoughtseized with this deck is usually a good thing! It gets us closer to that junkyard, and you didn’t need that card anyway.

13. Mulligans—Mono-Black Aggro mulligans plenty: Its clean manabase and redundant curve help, but the light land-count means a lot of one-land mulligans, and the gameplan means you can very rarely keep a four-land hand. That said, the deck mulligans extremely well, too: Just think of how many two-land, three-spell hands will look quite good! The deck can make up for mulligans with card advantage or speed, and it punishes opponents’ greedy keeps or awkward mulligans very efficiently. I’ve won from five cards more with this deck than anything I’ve played since Blue/Green Madness in Odyssey Block, including my round nine, game three at the WMCQ, where I went to five on the play against Black Devotion.

14. Shifting Gears—You can slow the game down by sideboarding in extra removal and bigger spells, or speed it up by cutting Downfalls or Heralds for Mogis’s Marauders. Marauder itself really changes the speed of the deck: Against Naya strategies, you side out removal and just race more aggressively, with Marauder as a devastating trump whether your opponent plans to race or to block.

15. Power—For a deck full of cheap spells, you have some pretty powerful effects: Lifebane Zombie, Thoughtseize, Pain Seer, Herald of Torment, Erebos, and Mogis’s Marauder are all cards that make the right opponent very nervous.

16. Foundry Street DenizenRed decks are the worst matchups for the deck, and the only ones I think that are truly “bad.” Burn is tough but winnable, but Rabble Red is daunting: It’s hard to play the beatdown role against them, and MBA doesn’t have the cards to play defense. So why is Foundry Street Denizen a reason to play Black Aggro? Because your worst matchup has to play truly terrible Magic cards like Foundry Street Denizen! Rabble Red’s bad draws are just embarrassingly bad. That means that not only do you have some hope in the matchup, but that it’s very unlikely Rabble Red will become too popular, especially amongst the players that are the hardest to beat.

17. Achievements—There are some truly stylish ways to win with Mono Black Aggro. Bestow your Gnarled Scarhide on their key blocker to attack for the win! Target your own Tormented Hero with Ulcerate for the final point! Deck your opponent by Thoughtseizing their Elixir of Immortality and killing all their win conditions with discard and Downfalls! (I actually did that in the Top 8 of a PTQ.)

18. Skill-building—A lot of Constructed decks don’t utilize good combat skills: MBA often just turns everything sideways each turn, but choosing when to send in Mutavaults, when to bestow vs. flooding the board, what card to take with Thoughtseize, or when not to attack can all make a big difference with this deck—and you usually find out quickly if you made the correct choice. Sequencing your plays correctly can create huge advantages, and seeing your opponent’s hand regularly can help you discover these sequences. That short feedback loop is a great way to learn.

19. Round Clocks—I did get one draw with this deck, the first round I ever played with it. I don’t expect that to ever happen again. (I was pretty hungover.)

20. Winning—I really like winning at Magic. MBA has allowed me to carry a lot of result slips up to the judge’s station. It can do the same for you.

Before the WMCQ, my friend Conrad Kolos had helped me test a lot of Standard. Since I had played MBA at exactly three tournaments, and had very good results each time, I was pretty set on it. He barely considered the deck, instead bouncing between boring old U/W Control and Black Devotion. As I was working my way to the Top 8 in Oakland, he shook his head ruefully and said, “That deck is Excalibur in your hands.” That’s flattering, but I think the deck is more like salting your dessert. The salt has always been sitting there on the table, and for some dumb reason no one was using it. So if you want to get rich at your next Standard tournament, open up an ice cream shop, and serve salty caramel MBA. You might just get compared to King Arthur—or at least be crowned for the day.

*If you don’t have a Susan B. Anthony dollar coin sitting around, get with it! Dollar coins are fun, stylish, and good for the economy. Also, the back of the Susan B. Anthony dollar coin has an eagle carrying a branch on the goddamn moon.

**If you’re not used to this notation, it means the total number of proactive spells in your deck that cost each amount of mana: one-drops/two-drops/three-drops/etc. We choose “proactive” because you can always play proactive spells, whereas reactive spells need something to react to.

Gabe Carleton-Barnes has been playing Magic for over 20 years, mostly as a PTQ grinder and intermittently as a Pro Tour competitor. Currently based in Portland, Oregon, where he is an Open Source web developer by day, Gabe lived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for three years. While there, he failed to make a documentary about competitive Magic but succeeded in deepening his obsession with the game. Gabe is now a ringleader and community-builder for the competitive Magic scene in Portland, wielding old-timey slang and tired cliches to motivate kids half his age to drive with him to tournaments.

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