Battle for Zendikar: Playing to Your Weaknesses – Black

(NOTE: “Playing to your Weaknesses” is a series of articles I have been doing on my own blog since Avacyn Restored that cover all of the uncommons and commons in a new expansion and which ones I would choose to use as one of the 23 cards in a 40 card limited deck. For those of you uninitiated to limited, it simply means sealed and booster draft, where you open packs and then proceed to make a deck out of them. I’ve purposely left out the rare cards because it is much more likely that you’ll see multiples of uncommon and commons in your packs/pools.)

As for my rating system, I’ll be using a new format this time around. After a lot of feedback, I’ve decided to abandon my 3 tier scoring system of Low-Medium-High and I will instead be moving onto a 5 star ranking system. The system is as follows:

  • 1 star = a card that is barely playable, even as filler for your deck
  • 2 stars = this card could be a strong sideboard card, but is highly conditional and not always effective
  • 3 stars = a 3 star card is a solid role-player. These cards could be less than amazing removal effects, or a creature that is a glass cannon (high power, low defense). They could be good except for a few flaws.
  • 4 stars = Here’s where we get into the powerhouses. 4 Stars could be good finishers, or cards that can end a game if left unchecked. They also have multiple effects, and are all around good value for you. The only thing holding them back is restrictive costs or some small drawback.
  • 5 stars = you won’t see a lot of these at common and uncommon. These will usually be your rares and mythics because they are incredibly bonkers. Planeswalkers, massive creatures, etc., these are the cards you could build a deck around.

After reading Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa’s article on the problems with Battle for Zendikar and looking through the black cards for my article, I’m starting to agree with some of the points he made. More specifically I agree with the problem of Devoid cards. They really went overboard and made too many I think, which both cheapens the flavor and makes me feel like they are shoving it down my throat. Some cards like Transgress the Mind I can see. It’s black disruption used by Eldrazi, so it’s colorless. But Culling Drone? Swarm Surge? Not only do they not seem black, but they feel incredibly generic and unneeded. Not all of the black cards are bad though, and for the most part I think the cards will find some synergy with the other colors. With all this wordiness and various abilities though, the more I look at the set the less complex I think it is. Khans was an incredibly deep limited format with great mana fixing, morph cards that could be splashed for maximum effect, and lots of abilities that merged well together. It’s going to be hard for BFZ to emulate that. Well, let’s take a look at black today.


Vampiric Rites

I’m going to start off today with some cards that I think are going to define black as a color in BFZ limited. Vampires such as Vampire Nighthawk have always been a big player in the world of Zendikar, and this means deathtouch, lifelink, and usually flying. Therefore, it’s only normal that we get an enchantment that gives you life on top of other effects. Blue usually gets the best draw spells in a set, but Rites could be pretty good if you’re playing a deck with a lot of Eldrazi Scion to sacrifice. Being able to play this turn one and get value from you chump blockers the rest of the game is going to be huge. Black/Green seems like a great combination for this card since that colors has a high concentration of Scions for ramp, as well as the Enchantment From Beyond that gives you fodder to sacrifice each turn for card advantage. It’s not a card you want to play in a tempo heavy or Scion-lite deck, but if you have the creatures to sacrifice and a few extra spaces in your limited deck, consider this.

RATING: 3.5 Stars

Zulaport Cutthroat

Bear with me here. You’ll see why I’m starting with these cards first soon enough. So yes, Zulaport Cutthroat is a 1/1 for 2 mana, but what makes him important in this format, especially in black decks is his ability. On his own, gaining a life whenever your creatures die and draining your opponent of one life can lead to some long games that you can drag out and win through attrition. He’s not an aggressive card, but in a set full of easy to sacrifice Eldrazi Scion tokens, this guy can indirectly deal a lot of damage over a few turns. I think the synergy there is pretty obvious, however where his ability becomes more important is in black/x decks that rely on you gaining life in order to activate their abilities. For example, Defiant Bloodlord sucks away another point of life whenever you gain life, and Malakir Familiar gets a +1/1 bonus when you gain life. When you couple Vampiric Rites and Cutthroat together, you get two of these triggers if not more. This is where the Cutthroat can really shine. If you can build a BW Life gain deck, he will play an integral role.

RATING: 3 Stars

Kalastria Healer

Kalastria Healer lets you activate that life gain effect but I don’t think his role is going to be in BW Lifegain. Instead, Healer gives your Ally build some reach with drain and works remarkably well with March from the Tomb. I’m not too impressed with what green and blue have to offer, but black, white, and red look like they colors to use when you’re playing Allies. Another card that has good synergy with him is Unified Front. Three triggers equals triple the fun! Bottom line, good in Ally decks which means it will see play in draft but not so much in sealed.

RATING: 2.5 Stars

Malakir Familiar

So we’ve estabilished that draining and gaining life can be good, so lets take a look at some more of that synergy. As I stated in my example, Malakir Familiar can be really good in the right set up. Gaining a life before or during battle can easily pump him up to hand any flyer on your opponent’s end, and if you’re playing a card like Tandem Tactics they are in for a world of hurt. Its playable outside of BW lifegain as a 2/1 flying deathtouch creature for 3, but if you have cards like Drana’s Emissary in your pool this card becomes stellar as a 3/2 flyer on your turns. I’ve never been this excited about life-gain before. The amount of combat tricks you can do with life gain in this set is impressive. I would probably even consider playing Stone Haven Medic as a one or two of if I could get my hands on a few of these in draft. I could see this being a high pick in draft. It has the potential to be an all-star in some decks.

RATING: 4 stars

Kalastria Nightwatch

You don’t get triggers you can stack, but having a 4/5 flyer for 5 mana when you gain life is also pretty good. It’s a good card to top out your curve with in a BW lifegain deck. Even without flying you’re getting a strong blocker and attacker that’s not overpriced or under powered.  I think this is one of those cards that will show up in a lot of black decks regardless of the secondary ability, but it’s not something you need to pick up early in draft.

RATING: 3.5 Stars.

Bloodbond Vampire

One of the last cards at common/uncommon that work with the life gain mechanic is Bloodbond Vampire. She can actually function both in a BW life gain deck (which I think she belongs in first and foremost) and an Ally deck. Her double black casting cost makes her harder to cast in an Ally deck without the Ally land, but she does have really good synergy with Kalastria Healer and Drana’s Emissary (which are both Allies and work well in a BW life gain deck). It’s quite possible that you can run a BW lifegain/Ally deck using cards from both archetypes in sealed/draft, and maybe this is even preferred since it gives you a much better curve. I think you can realistically consider this a 4/4 or 5/5 in normal black decks, but in a BW deck with devoted life gain cards it can get much bigger. This is another card that’s probably better in draft but not horrible in sealed.

RATING: 3.5 Stars

Retreat to Hagra

The black “Retreat” enchantment is pretty darn aggressive. Ok, so you don’t get the +1/+1 that the white one does, but giving a creature deathtouch when a land comes into play with a power bonus is a much more surefire way to push damage through. If you’re playing the white one and they have a bunch of Eldrazi or other big creatures out, your opponent will just block and smile all day. No, Retreat to Hagra makes your opponent damned if they do and damned if they don’t. The second ability goes great with the previously mentioned vampiric synergies as well. I’d consider this a pretty high pick in draft if I was going for an aggressive black deck, but not a first pick.

RATING: 4 Stars

Geyserfield Stalker

If you’re going to be aggressive you might as well be sure to take down as many creatures as you can with as little as possible. Geyserfield Stalker puts the other player in pretty much the same situation as the Retreat does. If they block it they could possibly lose 2 creatures, but it they don’t block it then you could easily hit them for 5 damage a turn and put them on a very quick clock. Just as with the other Landfall creatures, on your turn you can count on this being a 5/4 Menace about 70% of the time. Having this and the Nightwatch at 5 mana on my curve would not be bad at all. Good choice for any black deck you make regardless of the archetype. Only draw back is that it’s susceptible to removal on your opponent’s turn with 2 toughness.

RATING: 3.5 Stars

Carrier Thrall

This card will definitely see some play in black decks filling in the rather meager 2 drop spots. I’d expect you’d want to have something like this to put pressure on early but also to get that Scion out early to ramp into something big on turn 4 or 5. I like this card because it basically gives you 2 creatures for 2 mana with one card. Might not be good in an Ally deck, but in the BW lifelink or BG ramp it fits right in. Solid card.

RATING: 3 stars

Demon's Grasp

Bone Splinters

Black’s removal this time around is pretty weak I think. The only two playable spells at common/uncommon that aren’t Devoid cards are Demon’s Grasp and Bone Splinters. Bone Splinters is definitely the better or the two since it costs one mana and kills anything, but if you’re not playing a creature/token heavy deck it might not operate when you need it to. Demon’s Grasp on the other hand kills just about any non-Eldrazi creature you might run into. In draft I’d take Bone Splinters first but you also shouldn’t pass up Demon’s Grasp either. Both are going to be important in limited, especially with so few ways to get rid of cards like Eldrazi. Removal is going to be invaluable, so use it wisely. It’s just too bad these cards aren’t instant speed.

Demon’s Grasp: RATING – 3.5 stars

Bone Splinters: RATING – 4 stars

Rising Miasma

Opponent playing a ton of pesky Scion or Ally creatures? Dip them in this miasma and wait a few seconds. Look, now their board is clean! So -2/-2 for 4 mana isn’t going to be as good as a card like Drown in Sorrow in Theros limited, but this could end up being a pretty good card against both ramp and Ally strategies. The Awaken ability is nice of course and would fit well in a BWU Awaken deck, but I’m not yet convinced this is main deck playable. Depending on the deck, it could be in the sideboard or in the mainboard.

RATING: 3 Stars

Complete Disregard

Yep. The Eldrazi get all the cool toys. Three mana for a black exile effect at instant speed. Sure it will only take out those pesky Ally cards or small flyers at 3 power or less, but I’d probably play this over Demon’s Grasp in my main deck if I didn’t have room for both. It has good synergy with blue cards like Tightening Coils, but having to play those type of cards together will probably only make your deck worse. It’s not a Ruinous Path, but it will definitely take out a good number of creatures. Your pick of removal isn’t that great in BFZ, so take it rather early in draft if you can.

RATING: 3.5 stars

Grip of Desolation

Now here we go. Raw power in instant form. Sure it’s 6 mana, but the format can support a 6 mana removal spell easily enough. When your opponent is playing a 10/10 Eldrazi and hope seems to be lost, grab the creature hard and squeeze until there is nothing. I mean, we paid 6 mana for cards like Sip of Hemlock which was a sorcery, but I feel like this card is distinctly better because it kills a creature AND a land. If your opponent is playing with Awaken cards, this is basically a 2 for 1. Otherwise, it can help you slow down their ramp and kill their best creature. Pretty good tempo card for black. That 6 mana makes it hard to take as a first pick in draft, but I would grab this pretty early if I could. It’s one of the best pieces of non-rare removal. The slower your opponents deck is, the better it gets.

RATING: 4 Stars

Transgress the Mind

It’s no Inquisition of Kozilek, in fact it’s the opposite of Inquisition, but it’s going to be incredibly strong in this slower limited format. You might want to side it out against a devoted Ally deck in draft, but against everything else you’re going to break some hearts when you exile your opponent’s win condition on turn 2. It also sets up your turn 3 and 4 Eldrazi processors to get a bonus. I really like this in a UB Tempo/Process deck, but don’t let that stop you from playing this in any other black deck. I’d much rather have this than a counterspell your opponent can play around.

RATING: 3.5 Stars

Sludge Crawler

Sludge Crawler is one of the only 1 mana Ingest drones that I like. The other ones seem like they will be almost worthless as anything other than chump blockers after the first few turns but Crawler is good at any point of the game. It can attack early and often if your opponents fear you pumping it up and killing their best creature, and later on it can be an absolute monster. I like him as both a late game mana sink and aggressive attacker. He’s going to be a Ingest all-star in limited I think.

RATING: 3 Stars

Dominator Drone

Another aggressive drone. Fits well on your curve, has ingest to fuel your processors, and also does 2 damage to an opponent when it enters the battlefield. It’s well costed for a common and feels pretty pushed. I’d love to play a few of these in a UB processor deck early on, but it might fit well in a BW Vampiric deck as well alongside any number of other drain effects like on Retreat to Hagra.  I think it’s a good pick in draft early on as well and wouldn’t let it pass me by. Another Eldrazi deck roleplayer that will see a bit of play.

RATING: 3.5 Stars

Mind Raker

Mind Raker isn’t anything special, but it’s basically a Mind Rot with a 3/3 body attached if you’re playing this in a UB Processor deck. Four mana for a 3/3 body isn’t bad, and neither is the conditional ability. Can’t really go wrong with this card in any black/X deck I think.

RATING: 3 Stars

Other Cards that Might See Play

  • Culling Drone – it’s an Eldrazi bear with Ingest. If you need more enablers for Processing you’ll probably play this and any others like it. Nothing special though and easily blocked.
  • Grave Birthing – a 1/1 creature, draw a card, and ramp at instant speed? Not bad I guess, but not great.
  • Nirkana Assassin – great in that BW Vampiric deck I talked about earlier. Without triggers he’s not that good though.
  • Silent Skimmer – don’t really like that it’s a 0/4 flyer, but I do like that it does 2 damage regardless if it’s blocked or not. Good in defensive decks, but keep it out of aggressive ones.
  • Skitterskin – this is the opposite of the Skimmer. It’s only aggressive and worthless on defense. I don’t feel that safe if I can’t block their haymakers/Eldrazi. But hey, it has regenerate so if you want to throw a beat stick at your opponents and not worry about losing him be my guest.

Coming Up Next

Well, I would have been on schedule if my wife’s iPhone hadn’t bricked with the iOS9 upgrade and I didn’t have help her fix it for 2 hours the other day *sigh* – oh well. I should still be able to get red out tomorrow before the pre-release and if I work hard I might get green out before the midnight event. Thoughts so far? Esper Awaken seems to be coming together, but BW/BRW Allies is looking strong too. Black/White Vampire decks will also be a thing, and I really like their access to removal, card advantage, and evasion. I still believe white is the best overall support color so far, but black is pretty good too. If I could build a BW deck with my pool I certainly wouldn’t be unhappy.