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 Downfal. 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!