Black Propaganda: How I Qualified for Nationals by Thomas Rickarby

Black Propaganda: How I Qualified for Nationals by Thomas Rickarby

Metagame information is the single most important aspect of competitive magic. So why do players insist on playing the next big thing when there is so much of an advantage to be gained in doing something unexpected?

Of course, innovative deckbuilding is hard to do well. Yet this is the second time I’ve qualified for nationals by playing a deck that few to no-one could have expected. Last year I made it with a “Grixis Jund” deck designed by my friend Adam Murkin. The mana in this deck was so absurd we were able to run Sedraxis Specter, Sprouting Thrinax and Gatekeeper of Malakir in the same deck (check this **** out if you don’t believe me). This year I squeezed black into the equation a second time, when I switched from RUG to BUG. So, without further ado, here’s the list I piloted on the day:


Spells (34):

2 Inquisition of Kozilek

2 Duress

4 Preordain

4 Explore

4 Lotus Cobra

3 Mana Leak

1 Doom Blade

1 Go for the Throat

2 Tumble Magnet

4 Jace the Mind Sculptor

2 Garruk Wildspeaker

2 Precursor Golem

3 Grave Titan

Lands (27):

2 Halimar Depths

4 Creeping Tar Pit

4 Darkslick Shores

4 Verdant Catacombs

4 Misty Rainforest

5 Forest

2 Island

2 Swamp


2 Acidic Slime

2 Consecrated Sphinx

3 Disfigure

1 Duress

1 Spell Pierce

3 Memoricide

3 Obstinate Baloth

The Engine.

The core of this deck is identical to that of RUG. It uses Lotus Cobra and Explore in conjunction with some filtering (e.g. Preordain, Halimar Depths) to accelerate into its late game (see: Grave Titan), sometimes as soon as turn three. Beyond this “A-plan” it has a reasonable “B-plan” involving minor disruption and planeswalkers to stall until the Gravefather or his three sons (aka Precursor Golem) finally decide to crash the party. Yes, that’s right, Jace, the Mind Sculptor is a contingency plan in this case (and what a contingency plan he is!). However, to put it in these terms is to overlook the specific card interactions and metagame choices which lend the deck its strength and power.

Red or Black.

As you’d expect, the basic difference between RUG and BUG is the cards available. Red has Lightning Bolt, Inferno Titan and Pyroclasm effects from the sideboard. Black, alternatively, has [Card]Duress[/card] effects, [Card]Grave Titan[/card], [Card]Terror[/card]s and [Card]Memoricide[/card] from the sideboard. Whilst black gives you more options, the flexibility of Lightning Bolt gives RUG a few extra slots to play around with in the main deck, since it can be used fight [Card]Goblin Guide[/card], [Card]Stoneforge Mystic[/card] and [Card]Jace, the Mind Sculptor[/card] with the devotion of a mere 4 slots. Inferno Titan is acknowledged to be very good in the current metagame, since it can block sworded guys and kill a bunch of hawks and is a reasonable plan against the aggressive decks. I have to say that I am also enchanted with the big red monster.

However, access to black offers its own distinct advantages.Creeping Tar Pit is a vast improvement on Raging Ravine. It is easier to activate, slays planeswalkers and pays no attention to wussy chumps like Squadron Hawk. Hand disruption is also noted to be a “good thing” to be doing in the current metagame and playing Faeries to a top  8 at a PTQ recently reminded me just how good it is to know exactly what your opponent is up to. Its actually getting to the point that I experience a notable level of anxiety when I can’t legally peek at my opponents’ hands! It is also worth noting, for the record, that there is some minor synergy between the duress effects and Jace’s fateseal ability which has been quite sweet on the odd occasion.

Though its probably close, I think that Grave Titan is better than Inferno Titan, especially against red-based aggro decks or Vengevine decks. You can’t usually race him and you can’t effectively cast Mark of Mutiny on him, since he convinently supplies his own zombie fodder. Day of Judgment, the best way to answer Grave Titan, is on the decline in today’s standard metagame with most Caw-Blade decks packing limited numbers, especially in the main deck. Of course the greatest advantage is the unexpected factor. When people don’t know what you’re up to they don’t know what matters in the match up and they don’t know how to sideboard against you effectively. People do all sorts of crazy things, like bring in Flashfreeze or Manic Vandal postboard. If there’s one lesson I want to convey in this article its this: do something unexpected!

Maindeck Choices.

Having made the switch, I was faced with the task of smoothing the numbers and creating a sideboard. In order to achieve this I ran the deck through several FNMs and a couple of tournaments. There is still some untested ground with this deck (e.g. Valakut and UB control), so the current plan against these decks might have to be reworked at some point if it turns out the match ups are worse than expected. In theory, the hand disruption and Memoricide should improve the match up against Valakut beyond that which RUG can expect.

What follows is a break down of the reasoning behind which cards did and didn’t make the cut:

Precursor Golem – Initially played in the majority of RUG decks, I opted for Acidic Slime in the beginning as my five drop of choice. Whilst not a finisher, in the abstract Acidic Slime seems like it could be a reasonable metagame choice: it blows up swords, manlands and any Kuldotha Forgemasters that erringly saunter onto the battlefield. However, in testing I found that Gideon Jura posed a serious problem for the deck and that the deck suffered from a lack of game-ending cards.  The addition of Precursor Golem assisted in both these respects, so I cut the curve down and that meant Acidic Slime had to go: I just wasn’t prepared to spend more than four mana on anything but a one-card army. Fringe benefits to the Golem is the fact that it is weak to mostly different removal than Grave Titan (see:Lightning Bolt, Journey to Nowhere, Go for the Throat, Doom Blade). Day of Judgment does answer both, but the card sees more limited play in this format at the moment. I also play 5 “must wrath” threats and have a back up plan of Garruk Wildspeaker and Creeping Tar Pit.

Tumble Magnet – With the absence of Acidic Slime I needed to find another way to deal with sworded guys and protect my planeswalkers. Tumble magnet has seen some high profile tournament coverage, despite it’s mediocre status in limited as a psuedo-removal spell (…that’s magic!). I quickly came to the conclusion that Tumble Magnet is better in this deck, since it costs less mana, answers the same cards and it’s downside isn’t a bad when your finishers end the game in such short order. Furthermore, it proves more useful against aggressive strategies and even taps opposing Tumble Magnets when you want/need to adopt  a beatdown role. In these respects the Tumble Magnet is just better than the big green ooze.

Duress/Inquisition of Kozilek – When the pros talk about hand disruption in this format, they are really just talking about Inquisition of Kozilek, since the card is better against aggressive decks and has a generally wider utility. However, Duress is an about as good an answer to Stoneforge Mystic, since you can just nab the sword after they’ve searched it up. Duress also helps you to win the Jace War and rips Day of Judgment, Gideon Jura and Koth of the Hammer from the opposing players grip, which are some of the best weapons against the deck. It was suprisingly effective against the Kudoltha Rebirth deck I faced at the qualifier, since it is able to take Kuldotha Rebirth and Devastating Summons: to the point where I sideboarded the third one in! It is also, I think, better than Spell Pierce in the majority of situations: it becomes useless less often, can beat Stoneforge Mystic and gives you valuable information. I don’t like playing too many hand disruption effects in a “fair” metagame like standard, since they can be pretty bad in the late-game, especially against aggressive decks. All in all, I have been satisfied with the current split, but I wouldn’t fault anyone for going to four Inquisition of Kozilek or 3/2 split with Duress depending, as always, on the expected metagame.

Doom Blade/Go for the Throat  If I was to find an additional slot for hand disruption I might be tempted to lower the number of terrors in the deck, but probably not for long.  They are just that good, killing everything from Goblin Guide to Baneslayer Angel to Celestial Colonnades or Gideon Juras on the warpath. They are even relatively effective against Valakut since they take down accelerating creatures like Overgrown Battlement or Lotus Cobra. They are also amongst the reasons I prefer this deck to RUG: in the “mirror” I have better spot removal. If this type of deck ever becomes popular, Wurmcoil Engine would probably be a good option in the RUG sideboard, since alongside Acidic Slime and Lightning Bolt/Inferno Titan, the card trumps my threats and prevents me from effectively answering it with Jace, the Mind Sculptor or Tumble Magnet.

Mana Leak – Whilst it was painful for me to go to three (I love countermagic), I think it’s right to do so. The 2 Duress and full complement of Creeping Tar Pits provide alternative  answers to planeswalkers. The deck’s acceleration also helps it to win the Jace war. On top of this, Mana leak is generally weaker against decks that just want to drop a bunch of dudes onto the table. Decks are also starting to pack more and more [Card]Summoning Trap[/Card]s. Sometimes I do keep a pair in against Koth decks, especially on the play, depending on whether I side out Lotus Cobra or not.

Garruk Wildspeaker – Props to The Bainbridge and Gaz Hirst for this one. The card outshines other potential choices in this deck (such as Oracle of Mul Daya) for a few reasons. It increases the threat density, provides another way of beating Day of Judgment, accelerates your mana and in the final analysis has awesome synergy with Grave Titan, Precursor Golem and even Creeping Tar Pit. There are turns when you can play Garruk for effectively 2 mana, since you also cast a Mana Leak, Doom Blade or Tumble Magnet. Not noticing this fact is probably one of the reasons people underrate this card. He can also be used to bait counterspells before playing a Jace, the Mind Sculptor or Grave Titan.

61 Cards?

You may have noticed this one. Some magic players think its a total no-no, but in my mind its fine in this case because the 61st card is… (drum roll please)… the second Halimar Depths! I really wanted a second Halimar depths in this deck to smooth out draws and improve the mana base. It also has some nice synergy with Explore and the fetchlands. Since its a pseudo-Preordain (especially with a Misty Rainforest/Verdant Catacombs), it makes your other cards and your sideboard options more effective (since you get to see more cards) and also is a preventative measure against mana flood and mana screw. In addition, having the extra land makes your real Preordains more effective, since they can be to dig for gas more often, which is the main reason they are in the deck. If you really wanted to cut a card from this deck and bring it back down to 60 it would have to be a Halimar Depths, but I really would advise against it.

Sideboard Options.

Hello again Acidic Slime! Yes, I secretly do love this card. I was tempted to cut it from the deck altogether since I think its a bit overrated, but it just offers enough flexibility and utility to hold its place over competing cards such as Nature’s Claim[/Card]. The reason for this is that I think a sideboard is more than just a secondary deck to tune your deck against established archetypes in postboard games: it is also an on-the-fly toolkit for dealing with the unexpected. Yes, having a plan against known decks is useful, but I think its wrong to stick to a rigid set of numbers (e.g. “take out 3 “x” and 1 “y” for 4 “z” against deck blah-blah-blah…“). For one thing, there is a lot of variation amongst expected archetypes and the good players usually  have at least some slightly different angle on the deck they are playing (for instance, playing 1 [card]Inkmoth Nexus in UW-Blade). On the other hand, people play with the same cards very differently. Some players will play around mana leak and others will just walk straight into it, for example. As such, sometimes I bring in Acidic Slime against Caw-Blade and sometimes I don’t – it all depends on the effectiveness of my opponents mana base and whether they are running Tumble Magnets, who’s on the play etc.

Consecrated Sphinx, as suggested by Jonno Randle, is just a house against both RUG and Caw-Blade which are apparently the best decks at the moment. They have no instant speed removal that can straight up kill it and so you are basically always going to draw 2 cards against them – and more if they fail to find an answer. The dude additionally blocks sworded hawks, Raging Ravine, Celestial Colonnade and even Baneslayer Angel AND he effectively shuts down opposing Jaces (Draw 6? Don’t mind if I do…). Let me tell you now, this card is some spicy technology. I am even seriously thinking about putting him into a vintage deck for the 10 proxy vintage tournament at Manaleak on Sunday.

Disfigure and Obstinate Baloth make your unfavorable game 1s against aggressive decks much better post board. I usually take out Lotus Cobra and Precursor Golem to become a more removal heavy, mid-range control deck with Loxodon Hierarchs. Obstinate Baloth is a total MVP against burn-heavy aggro decks and proved especially useful in the three red match ups I played at Bristol. His effectiveness against Boros and Naya (especially) is more limited, though I would probably still bring him in against Boros just as a big man that buys time before the grave father steals all the fun.

The Duress has wide-ranging applications (see above), but I also wanted to improve the effectiveness of Memoricide against Valakut. Not much else to say really apart from the fact that the singleton Spell Pierce sucked and I would probably cut it for a Mana leak or Inquisition of Kozilek. My theory is that if I was taking out Mana Leak then I’d want an extra counterspell on the board and that spell pierce is just better in the matches where you want to bring it in. I could see a reasoning for another Acidic Slime, Tumble Magnet or Doom Blade/Go For the Throat as well.

Overall, I don’t think this list is necessarilly optimal. (I actually don’t think you can have an “optimal” list in Magic unless you are some degenerate, 100% uninteractive combo deck or you have a perfect read of the metagame), but I like it a lot and would probably play it again, since I’m very comfortable with the current deck. If you like RUG and you want to play something a bit different. I recommend BUG – it’s done me alright.

On the Day.

The metagame at Bristol was a heavily aggressive one, or at least I got the aggressive end of it. I played Mono-White Quest in my first match, which totally crushed me game 1 thanks to his double quest draw, but I don’t think his choice to side in [Card]Jinxed Idol[/card] against me in games 2/3 was necessarily the best plan. Against the red decks the combination Obstinate Baloth and Disfgure was crucial and the extra Go for the Throat in the main deck was certainly helpful as well. I actually won both of my first games against Red Deck Wins, which is not usually how it goes, but I think my opponents may have been able to use their spells more effectively than they did.

If I’m honest I probably got lucky against Kuldotha Red which is a terrible match up on paper since I have no cheap sweepers. In game 1 plonked a turn 3 Grave Titan onto the table, which I felt a bit guilty about, but then again not too guilty! In game 2 I think my opponent kept a weakish hand which a duress made slightly worse for him. Having an Inquisition Game 1 and a Duress game 2 was certainly important in the way things played out.

Against Naya I got crushed pretty handily. I’m not sure I used my Jace and Titan to their best, but I think the match up is pretty hard and I haven’t played it as much as I would like. I really liked the Gideon Jura in Jake’s deck since it is nearly impossible to keep Duress/Mana Leak in against Naya and that makes the Gideon quite tough to deal with – especially when Naya can command such a board presence. Overall I went 4-1 and qualified by 2/3rds of a percent on tie-breakers, narrowly beating another red deck into the second place qualifying spot. Guess that’s just how I roll.


Manaleak peoples and all the cool kids that play there.

Gaz Hirst, Simon “The Bainbridge” and Joe Fletcher for kindly lending me cards and Simon again for taking us to the venue.

Obstinate Baloth for being the biggest, meanest speed bump in standard.

The top of my deck, for being so amiable on the day (thanks pal!).


Landstar, for trading with the world and his wife and her puppy when we were ready to go home.

Spell Pierce, for slumbering in my sideboard like a total waster.

Vengevine, for making my Jaces cry.


Thanks for reading and good luck,


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