Standard Sideboarding Primer: Mono-Black Devotion

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Grand Prix Cincinnati is this weekend, and Standard is the name of the game. Success in Standard tournaments boils down to understanding of a format and familiarity with a deck. If you understand everything going on in a format, and you plan for the possibility of seeing anything and everything across the table, you will probably be successful with any top-tier deck. If you play a deck you are familiar with, you are unlikely to make all of the little stumbles that tend to occur when exploring new territory. Less time spent figuring out the basics leads to more time for higher-level thought.

I've been battling with Mono-Black Devotion in Standard since the beginning. It's been over 6 months now since the deck debuted at Pro Tour Theros. My entire experience in Theros Standard has been through a black lens, and it's through that lens that I will see the competition this weekend in Cincinnati.

Nowhere is familiarity with a deck and its matchups more important than when sideboarding. Sideboards allow a deck to adjust itself to better combat a particular strategy or type of card. Being limited to just one color greatly restricts access to sideboard cards, but the quality of Standard black cards is so high that Mono-Black Devotion has no issue finding solutions to its problems. Some players opt to splash colors for sideboard cards, but I don't think they solve any problems that black cards cannot solve. In a theoretical sense, playing shocklands in the maindeck makes the deck strictly worse.

Here is my current list:

I've arrived at that list after a lot of games and discussion, and I am very confident in it for any Standard tournament this weekend.

This Monoblack deck is built to play only the most flexible and broadly-effective cards in the maindeck. The sideboard contains some of the most efficient cards available in the format, and it allows Mono-Black to shift gears as appropriate. The sideboard contains extra removal for creature decks, extra discard for spell decks, and some powerful, targeted hate cards that combat entire strategies. In my experience Mono-Black Devotion holds true to the control standard of getting better after sideboard against the average opponent, because the cards it sideboards in outperform the cards opponents sideboard in.

Sideboarding is very flexible, but here's a guide on how I usually do it against the major decks:




Desecration Demon is very vulnerable to black removal and will often be destroyed at a huge tempo loss, so it is removed. Hero's Downfall is the slowest removal spell and is terrible against Pack Rat, so it leaves and Dark Betrayal comes in. Duress is very important because fighting over Underworld Connections and protecting Pack Rat defines the matchup. On the draw I might cut a Gray Merchant of Asphodel or a land and leave in the fourth Devour Flesh.




Against Esper control, Duress is the best card and gives the deck an absurd amount of disruption when paired with Thoughtseize. Erebos, God of the Dead draws cards, stops lifegain from Sphinx's Revelation, and is a high-powered threat. Lifebane Zombie is critical for snagging Blood Baron of Vizkopa, while a couple Devour Flesh stay in for added protection. Hero's Downfall is not exceptional but a couple stay in as insurance against planeswakers that dodge discard. Gray Merchant of Asphodel is very weak against a deck with so much removal, and it is quite slow, so all of them are removed. Esper does not pressure the life total like other decks, so the lifegain is not needed to keep Underworld Connections active.




Doom Blade destroys any of their creatures, often at a tempo gain, while Lifebane Zombie is an evasive threat that can create value. Pack Rat is simply too slow and too small to fight against large Gruul creatures, and it is also vulnerable to Domri Rade and Mizzium Mortars. Bile Blight does not kill anything important and is thus removed. Nightveil Specter is useful as an evasive threat that synergies with Gray Merchant of Asphodel.




Doom Blade is incredible, and it kills everything but Thassa, God of the Sea. Lifebane Zombie is important as an aggressive, evasive threat. Desecration Demon can be effective, but I like to cut it because it is so clunky against their blue disruption and army of cheap creatures. I think Underworld Connections is important as a way to bury Monoblue with cards, as otherwise Thassa, God of the Sea or Bident of Thassa will take over the game. It is also a key source of devotion for Gray Merchant of Asphodel, one of the most important cards in the matchup. Hero's Downfall is clunky, so one is removed.




Against burn the plan is to preserve life total at all costs, so most of the life-loss cards are removed. Duress is the best sideboard card, and it gives Monoblack Devotion a way to trade off cards with the opponent as it is accustomed to doing in other matchups. Monoblack must be aggressive, so Lifebane Zombie acts as a threat that can sometimes snag a Boros Reckoner. Doom Blade is simply better than Hero's Downfall. Bile Blight has applications against Chandra's Phoenix and even Assemble the Legion. The best card is actually Devour Flesh, which can be used in combination with Desecration Demon or Gray Merchant of Asphodel to great effect.

If you have sideboard questions or want to learn about other matchups please turn to the comments section.

You Make The Play

Imagine you are in the middle of a match this weekend, with your trusty Monoblack Devotion deck of course. Top 8 is on the line, and it's the dreaded mirror match. Your opponent gets you in the first game, but not to be discouraged, you sideboard like  I suggested and confidently shuffle up for game two. You practice solid fundamentals, and before long the match is tied 1-1. On the draw for the deciding game, your opponent keeps his 7, your mind focuses, and you look down at the following hand:

What do you do?

Share your thoughts in the comments section of the article, because next week, when I share my thoughts on the matter, I'll award a prize to the most well-explained answer!


28 thoughts on “Standard Sideboarding Primer: Mono-Black Devotion

  1. A good article. I’m a mono black player too (nearly identical list. Main differences are:


    -1 Devour Flesh

    +1 Bile Blight

    and the board is:

    -1 Duress

    -1 Erebos

    -1 Doom Blade

    +1 Dark Betrayal

    +1 Drown in Sorrow (very close to the chopping block atm)

    +1 Bile blight

    I find it interesting that you say “the dreaded mirror match”, as that’s probably my second best win rate after mono blue. My dreaded matchup is GR monsters which I’ve currently never beaten in a tourney setting.

    Though it does look like my strategy for the mirror is rather different. I tend to go almost the other way:

    -2 Demon

    +2 Dark Betrayal

    -2 Pack Rat

    +2 Erebos

    Its not 100% like that, as I tend to board based on how I’ve seen the other guy play, but right now, my win rate in the mirror is about 63% in testing and 100% in tourneys. I don’t tend to bring in the duress because the way I tend to play the mirror, I’d rather just have enough threats and answers than spend spells stripping theirs, and so far its worked out reasonably well.

    There are two choices of yours I’m curious about though – bringing in the zombies vs mono blue (is it just because they can tap demon so readily?) and taking out pack rat entirely vs RG Monsters (which is by a large margin my worst match, so I’m trying to improve it).

    1. Hi.
      I try this deck against a Burn so hot. To hot.

      This list :

      3 Mutavault
      4 Temple of Triumph
      4 Sacred Foundry
      11 Mountain
      4 Satyr Firedancer
      4 Ash Zealot
      4 Chandra’s Phoenix
      2 Chained to the Rocks
      2 Shock
      4 Boros Charm
      4 Skullcrack
      4 Lightning Strike
      4 Searing Blood
      4 Magma Jet
      2 Warleader’s Helix

      Sideboard (post 1):

      4 Young Pyromancer
      4 Mindsparker
      2 Mizzium Mortars
      1 Hammer of Purphoros
      2 Peak Eruption

      Satyr make the game.
      Instant 3 damages for me and one beast out per turn.

      The match up Is very bad.
      The burn is to fast.
      Under 10 pv on the 6nd turn.
      Démon exiled and Gray merchand to late.
      Splash blue to acceded to negate ???

      Thanks for help

      1. The Burn matchup is tough, but its completely winnable. if the draws line up correctly you will win. The link you posted in another comment shows very close games, and had the black player drawn action earlier he would have won. There are always going to be difficult matchups, and you have to accept that fact. Splashing something is certainly not the answer. if you continue to struggle to beat burn and it makes up a large portion of your local meta I suggest playing a different deck.

        1. Thanks for your comment. Effectively my local meta is so aggro and burn. I gone to try some things. Maybe Pharika’s cure.
          Thanks again for your article.

  2. Thank you for this article. Been waiting for something like this to appear.

    A few questinos… how do you side VS BW midrange?

    Also against burn: is it wise to side out thoughtseize? I know thoughtseize “typically” is bad vs the burn decks… however at worse you break even (thoughtseize hitting magma jet) which doesn’t seem aweful.

    What are your thoughts on zombie main instead of specter? Or other cards in the SB like pithing needle, drown in sorrow, etc.?

    1. You don’t want to spend 1 mana to break even on life. Even if you manage to hit a 3-damage spell, it’s still not worth it – it still turns up their clock, since they don’t actually have to spend mana on the thing you took.

      Thoughtseize is for taking away cards that you can’t effectively deal with. There aren’t any of those in Burn.

    2. Against BW, Bile Blight is arguably better than Dark Betrayal because the only target for either is Pack Rat, besides stray Obzedat. They do not play Nightveil and they will cut Demon.

      I think the best plan is to bring in 3 Lifebane, 2 Erebos, and 3 Duress, for 4 Downfall and 4 Demon.

    3. Lifebane Zombie maindeck is fine, but not over Nightveil Specter. Nightveil is better against a much larger portion of the metagame, and its better in this deck in vacuum because it provides more devotion.

      Drown in Sorrow is a great card, but the standard metagame has no real weenie decks. if it did, i would be playing drown in sorrow. its great for a niche local metagame that might exist.

      pithing needle is excellent, its best against planeswalkers. I lost to RUG walkers at the GP and would have loved to have had pithing needle. its strong vs esper too. owen suggested some in the sb of his most recent list.

  3. I’d keep, you get to draw then you thought seize. You can play the duress on turn two if you didn’t draw a land on turn 1. Not ideal, but totally playable.

    1. It’s funny because at my last FNM I got the same hand has this one except for erebos. I decide to keep. It took 10 turn to get my second land! Sometime Mtg is all about luck… because my opponant had a hand full of land and discard spell like Mind rot and Ragdos return. I don’t know how but hé didn’t kill me with that advantage and I finally won that game. Like I said, sometime Mtg is all about luck.

  4. I’d keep it. The hand is pretty close to perfect as far as 1 landers go, although I’d rather have a 3rd discard spell to improve my chances in the likely event I stumble on lands.

  5. This is a dangerous keep, but one I’d still do. You have 25 lands somewhere in the deck, so a 25/53 then 25/52 chance of drawing one isn’t awful. You basically have two turns to find a land, possibly a third if their hand isn’t great. Your first turn will basically be Thoughtseize 100% unless it gets seized away, with the next either being Pack Rat or Duress depending on the draw.

    If you draw a temple, perfect, scry away anything that isn’t Dark Betrayal or a land, and roll it. This is pretty solid, as far as 1-land hands are concerned. In my experience, this is a matchup where stumbling a small amount is acceptable.

  6. Personally… as much as I like the one hander land… its trap. I’d have to disagree with everyone above me.

    In the MBD matchup you usually keep if you have at any combination of hand disruption, packrat, and connections. Assuming your opponent did not keep a questionable hand … its pretty much a sure bet that he has at least one of these cards.

    Although your hand has strong threats (making keeping the one lander seem viable)… you have no removal spells. And you’re on the play. With one land. There are three scenarios that could play out in this situation.

    Scenario A) They have thoughtseize/Duress and packrat. If that’s the case… they turn 1 thoughtseize your thoughtseize and cast packrat turn 2. In this scenario only two things will save you. Top decking a dark betrayal turn 2 OR top decking another swamp + bile blight within 3 turns. That’s assuming he doesn’t have mutavault.

    Scenario B) Your opponent has a solid, average hand. Filled with 1-2 removal, 1-2 guys, 1 connection/hand-disruption. In this scenario you’re one land hand is better. But its still going to be an uphill battle. If you don’t hit all of your land drops… you will most likely fall behind in this scenario unless your opponents draws nothing but lands… which can happen. But I’d personally would rather not risk it (especially if this is a game going into top 8).

    Scenario C) Your opponent has a mediocer hand. Only 1-2 (maybe 3) playable cards. In this scenario… you’re fine to keep.

    Personally… I feel like scenario A and B are more likely than C, so its an unfortunate mull. Is the 1 land hander acceptable? Sure. But given the potential cards your opponent has access to… the only time it would be a favorable keep is if your opponent also took a questionable hand.

    Also: it depends completly on your opponent. In alot of mirror matches I have faced, people like turn 1 thoughtseizing. A turn one thoughtseize could potentially spell disaster for the above mentioned 1 land hand. If you know your opponent will not turn 1 thoughtseize you… then the hand becomes marginally better.

    In order for the 1 hand lander to be playable.. you must be able to play bought hand disruption spells.

  7. Actually… that 1 land hand maybe more acceptable on the play than on the draw… now that I think about it. Call me crazy… but a hand like that wants to turn 1 thoughtseize.

  8. I’m skeptical that that’s an optimal plan for Mono Blue. Desecration Demon MUST be answered either with a cheap instant or by investing a bunch of creatures into keeping it tapped, and Underworld Connections and Thoughtseize cost life and tempo against an aggro/tempo deck. I’m thrilled if you pay 4 mana and 1 life to Cantrip, and I’m also thrilled if you pay 1 mana, a card, and 2 life to trade with my 0 mana card. I can see how Underworld Connections could have upside, but I think Desecration Demon has that upside a much larger percentage of the time. The only card I can be playing that interacts with Desecration Demon as a proper trade is Claustrophobia, because Rapid Hybridization still leaves a Frog Lizard, and Cyclonic Rift only buys me tempo. The card really makes me use my resources in strange ways to beat it with tempo, and if you can keep my creatures until control my tempo plays are worth less and less damage.

    1. Thank you for the comment David! Your insight was valuable for me at the GP. How to board against Monoblue has always been contested, and the way I suggested differs from what a lot of people have written about.

      Tempo is a huge element of the match in the early turns, and then it often devolves into normal control vs creature game where attrition wins out.

      I think the best approached is a balanced one. At the GP I beat both Uw and MonoU, and in boarding I opted to to cut 2 Demon, 2 Underworld, and 2 Downfall, to fit in the 6 sb cards, and that’s how I’ll do it going forward.

      The matches vs those decks were intense, I won two games at 1 life.

      In one match I cut another Downfall for a Dark Betrayal, the big tempo blowout might be worth the risk.

  9. You definitely mulligan in this situation. Sure, Thoughtseize into a Pack Rat — IF you get the second AND third land — is a really solid play against a monoblack deck, ASSUMING they don’t two pieces of removal. And, you’re playing the mirror! They could have their own Thoughtseize, Pack Rat combo coming your way, AND they are on the play. If they Thoughtseize away your Thoughtseize and play a Pack Rat on their turn two, you essentially need to top deck a Dark Betrayal or just loose.

    Not to mention, the best thing you could be doing is curving out and getting those Nightveil Specters and Underworld Connections online. Don’t forget you need two lands in a row to even begin the Pack Rat insanity.

    This hand is completely unkeepable. Ditch it, you’re on the draw and can afford losing a card for a chance of a better hand.

    Different topic, I disagree with the way you sideboard in many situations. I think taking out Gray Merchant against Esper and leaving in Pack Rat is wrong. Esper is typically running four Detention Spheres and four Supreme Verdicts. In fact, if I was on Esper, I would hope they keep Pack Rat in.

    Also, I think Lifebane Zombie against a burn deck is wrong. If you do manage to get a Boros Reckoner, awesome. But most likely you’ll see a hand full of burn and a Chandra Pyromaster, which is coming down next turn to +1 your Lifebane Zombie away.

    I also side out Nightveil Specter against G/R Monsters. Sure, it has some extra synergy but it’s only one more devotion than Lifebane. It still dies to Mizzium Mortars. Still dies to Domri’s Pit Fight. And a late game Pack Rat can easily win the game.

    I’ve got a couple of other ideas but I don’t play the exact same monoblack deck. I’m only running 3 Underworld Connections mainboard and 1 Whip of Erebos due to the amount of Green/Red Monsters at my local meta and the amazing Lifebane/Whip Synergy going there.

  10. Question: I noticed you don’t sideboard out any pack rats against detention sphere/supreme verdict decks. How aggressive/conservative do you play pack rat post board in those match ups. Thanks

    1. Pack Rat is critical against the control decks. It is the cheapest aggression in the deck, and are capable of beating down control decks. Turn two pack rat, end of turn make a rat turn 3, turn 4 activate mutavault attack for 8 is a very strong play. often the presence of rat in itself is a threat, and it will draw a supreme verdict.

      Monoblack beats sphinx decks by playing more threats than they have answwers, and pack rat is critical in maintaining that high threat density. it can almost be thought of as something like a Spellskite or flagbearer that protects the better plays up the curve, Nightveil and Demon.

  11. would deff mull that hand. to much dependency on hitting 2 lands in the next 2 draw steps. that’s all the reasoning you need :3. you just lose if you don’t hit those lands.

  12. I would mull this. Having Thoughtseize and Duress are great available plays (optimal really) however if you miss land on your first draw you are putting yourself behind the game on Rat strategy which is where I believe you want to be with this hand. Thinking about how your opponent can hurt this keep would be my main concern as it is likely they will have a similar capacity to strip which just leaves this as a really rough ride.

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