My Limited Card Pool: Black Non-Creature Spells

This is the sixth entry in a series where I comment on and explain my choices for my limited card pool in detail. Here are my previous entries:

Lands & Artifact Creatures

Non-Creature Artifacts

White Lands & Creatures

White Non-Creature Spells

Black Lands & Creatures

In this entry I listed a number of guidelines I follow when deciding which cards I want in my cubes.

Here’s a PDF you can open in a new window to look at the part of my list I’m taking about while reading:

Black Non-Creature Spells (Phyrexian Boon should no longer be on that list.)

And here’s a link to an explanation of the shortcuts I use in that list, if you need it.

One annoying thing which I cannot get out of my pool, although I wish I could, is that needless „non-black“ rider on black removal spells. It’s fine to have a couple of those specifically for a color themed cube, but that restriction pops up on way too many cards which otherwise are (and should be) generic choices, like Executioner’s Capsule, Seal of Doom or Befoul. I would actually prefer to dispense with all „color (spare)“ tagged cards completely, since that card aspect does not provide much play value in Zweidritteldraft even if I use a color theme, but I simply need them for their main function (Saltblast and Befoul, for example, provide hard-to-come-by maindeckable land destruction; and the aforementioned Capsule and the Seal are members of essential cycles).

WotC has stopped to use that rider on black removal spells lately, providing a couple of truly generic choices, but I will probably never be able to completely get rid of it. Note that removal cards which spare artifact creatures, on the other hand, make perfect sense in an artifact cube, since artifacts will be plentiful enough there that these cards aren’t just randomly weaker against one player. That makes an additional non-black rider, like on Ritual of the Machine – which is a wonderful design otherwise – especially annoying, though.

Black, to a slightly lesser extent Green, and to an even larger extent Red are the colors where a certain uniformity of non-creatures spells is an issue. Both White and Blue have so many noticeably different designs to choose from that cutting that variety down to a manageable level is hard. The other colors, however, provide too much of a few good things, and too little variety overall – at least if we only look at usable limited cards.

For Green, one mostly has to make sure there’s some creature removal present, and a little card draw (which Green should have), then cut down the plethora of pump spells and mana providers to a reasonable level. Green is a fine color to sport an above-average creature ratio, and there’s no dearth of choices in that area, so you do not need to go scavenging for fillers. In Red, however, almost every spell seems to deal damage or destroy something, which is severely limiting that color’s scope in limited, and making it necessary too look pretty hard which versions of these basic effects play noticeable different due to varying numbers in their costs and effects.

With Black it isn’t quite as bad, but you still have to wade through a sea of creature removal. Discard is the second most pronounced theme, but many basic discard spells, like Duress, Ostracize or Coercion don’t really work that well in limited due to being too situational or inefficient. (Discard tacked on creatures, however, plays well and is powerful, which is why I had to make a lot of cuts there and maybe will do even more). Returning creatures from your graveyard to your hand or directly to the battlefield is number three. Overall, Black has less of an issue with variety itself, but with power level: Creature removal is powerful (and it needs to be, to keep the game interactive), so it needs to be supplemented with less powerful (but still playable) stuff. There’s a bit of a gap between „strong“ and „weak“ in Black non-creature, non-removal spells, though, which I haven’t been able to satisfactorily close in all areas.

Unholy Strength is back in my pool over Predator’s Gambit. I wanted the additional rider to raise the power of that aura a little, but I should have realized that wasn’t achieving much, while sacrificing elegance.

I’m happy Scavenged Weaponry exists, since it fits better into that cycle between Chosen by Heliod and Dragon Mantle than Scourgemark; the latter isn’t too exciting unless you have a very pronounced heroic theme (which I won’t); and I wanted this cycle’s mana costs to be less uniform.

Feast of the Unicorn being common and Mark of the Vampire being uncommon has only indirectly to do with power level. The Mark is more generically useful due to its higher power level, and because succesfully attacking just once with it already almost justifies playing it (which, of course, is part of the reason why its power level is rather high). The Feast, on the other hand, is meant to help create the very environment where putting it on a creature is something players want to do, and thus needs to show up at common there.

Auras like Caustic Tar obviously can enhance an enchantment theme by representing an independent, non-creature actor on the board, but they’re actually more important supporting a land theme in the same way, making maindeck land destruction more viable.

About land destruction: A focussed LD strategy obviously has no place in a Next Level Cube. Being able to punish players with too greedy mana bases or running too many high-end cards by destroying a land as a tempo play has some merit, but is a sideboard strategy, and cards which cannot be maindecked have no place in Zweidritteldraft. This is why I got rid of all dedicated LD (Sinkhole, Ice Storm, Molten Rain, Ark of Blight…) other than Tectonic Edge, which is maindeckable since it sits in a land slot.

If I want a „lands-which-do-things“ theme, however, I need both a crucial mass of maindeckable cards which interact with lands and of cards which makes running those interactive cards desirable. If I just want a few utility lands (or land auras) for a cube, I still have to make sure players can interact with those. Multiple-purpose cards like Befoul or Pillage are excellent choices here, and they also can serve as tempo plays or to punish shaky mana bases.

Is it a good idea to punish those? Yes, it is! I always make sure that my cubes contain enough mana fixing so that players can assemble a working mana base for the type of decks supported by that cube (which means between one-and-a-half and three colors, unless it is a monocolored cube, obviously) – this is why I use fetchlands, spotlands AND signets at common. In concert with the house rule of starting the game with 8 cards this means players can usually avoid color screw, even if confronted with a stray LD spell. However, sometimes a player decides to go beyond the number of colors which is the norm for decks in a cube. That is fine, and the tools are there to do this, but there needs to be a substantial cost involved, and that cost is the requirement to invest extra picks into mana fixing, but also opening up the opportunity for their opponents to attack a vulnerable mana base. The latter is also just fair towards the other players, since it is frustrating to lose to a multicolor best-of deck which gets lucky with its mana.

Thoughtseize is, at the moment, a much maligned card in standard, since it can deal with any (non-land) card. That it is situational, costs you 2 life, and requires you to spend a mana to remove a spell which your opponent had not to invest any mana in before, is usually left out of consideration. With Counterspell nowadays only a faint memory for many players, and even a blast from the past they never encountered in a competitive setting for many others, that discard spell seems to have inherited the mantle of the bogeyman for those who hate interaction in Magic. The complaints are so similar, as is the reasoning donwplaying or ignoring the card’s inherent disadvantages, and the lack of willingless to simply build more robust decks which do not fall apart if they are forced to trade one or two crucial cards.

Just like countermagic is for blue, discard is essential for Black’s color identity and its ability to interact. In limited, one-for one discard is weaker than in constructed, because decks do not rely on specific key cards to function, and because games tend do go longer on average, and there are fewer reactive cards, so players are in topdeck mode more often, rendering a discard spell a blank. (Discarding multiple cards, on the other hand, is stronger in limited, because there is fewer card draw.) For Black to have a useful, generic discard spell of that kind at all, Thoughtseize needs to be a common.

Unhinge is a candidate for the weakest card in my pool (way weaker than Mind Rot, just as draining a point of damage is weaker than dealing two), and I’m always looking out for a replacement cantrip, but so far there’s nothing better.

Between Doomed Necromancer, Ashen Powder and Phyrexian Delver, but also all those Raise Dead variants, giving Breath of Life to White and leaving out Zombify seems only logical.

Whew, that was long – a lot of general things sprang into my mind this time!

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