Alpha 40 League Championship Deck
January 2022

Guest Article
Written by: Ian Braun

MONO BLACK

Following my January 2022 Alpha 40 League victory, I was inundated by messages from other Mono Black players.  Much like myself, most of these individuals had loved Mono Black since childhood and were either actively playing it in the League, or were working on constructing an Alpha 40 League deck for the very first time.  The more questions I received, the more I realized how much I had to say on this topic, and how much I enjoyed talking about it!  After playing different variations of Mono Black in the Alpha 40 League for the past 2 years, I felt I had gathered a lot of insight on both deck construction and play strategy.  There are many different ways to construct Mono Black, and believe me, I have tried all of them, but for this article I will be focusing primarily on how I arrived at my winning deck list.

League Winning Deck - January 2022

CONSTRUCTING THE CHAMPIONSHIP DECK

Prior to discussing my league winning build, I’d first like to take a look at my original Mono Black deck and talk about why I decided to make the changes I did.  This list was inspired by Joel Mick’s June 2020 Alpha 40 League Championship Deck, with some tweaks to make it league legal, as well as some optimizations in my opinion.

These are my impressions on playing this deck as it applied to the current meta game:

  • Players, in general, were running a lot of artifact removal. I was far too often trading my 4-drops (Icy Manipulator and Juggernaut) for 2-drops (Disenchant and Shatter), and Icy Manipulators were being Disenchanted or Shattered at inopportune times that set my opponent up for a big turn.  Icy also felt a bit slow considering all the Black Vise/burn strategies I was encountering.

  • There are a lot of people running 4 or more red x-spells, which in a slower format like Alpha 40 League turned out to be a win con in most games.  I was typically one or two turns away from stabilizing the board when I would take a lethal Fireball to the face. 

 

So, these are the big changes I made:

  • I cut all artifacts that didn’t offer immediate utility.  It was not uncommon for an opponent to show me their hand at the end of a game that contained multiple unused Disenchants or Shatters.  I think leaving cards dead in my opponent’s hand was a deciding factor in many games.

  • I added in Drain Lifes to combat burn strategies.  While also an amazing finisher, a big life swing from a Drain Life wreaks havoc on a burn player’s strategy.  All of a sudden those Bolts they threw at your face are just card disadvantage, and that Copper Tablet they have in play doesn’t look so good anymore.

Joel Mick Inspired - Mono Black

CARD CHOICES
 

Sinkhole
(3 Copies, 48.82% Odds of Having at Least 1 Copy in First 8)
Sinkhole is obviously an amazing card which is why it was discontinued after Unlimited, and why it is moderated to three copies in league play.  I was one of the early adopters of the 8 Sinkhole build back in 2020 prior to the moderation of all land destruction cards.  This was, of course, an incredibly powerful deck, but not a great way to make friends.  Post moderation, I debated seriously whether or not it was worth it to run Sinkhole as a 3-of, especially in a format with primarily basic lands.  After some playtesting, the answer is unequivocally, “yes!” for a few reasons.  Firstly, we play in a format with an “all land” “no land” mulligan rule.  If I can Sinkhole the only land from your opening hand on my turn 2 followed by a threat, things aren’t looking great for you.  Secondly, the restriction of dual lands makes two- and three-color decks more fragile, especially if I can get rid of the color you need to remove my creatures.  Third, the lack of ramp.  Sinkhole can be a great tempo card to put your opponent a turn behind, or ideally, a couple turns behind if they were already struggling with their land drops.  Sinkhole works very well as a 3-of in this deck, and I ran the maximum allowed.

Drain Life
(4 Copies, 59.59% Odds of Having at Least 1 Copy in First 8)
In a format with so few “2 for 1’s”, Drain Life is just that.  It removes a creature or does direct damage to an opponent, while increasing your life total and extending the game.  Due to Mono Black’s lack of removal, a common play line for me was to use a Dark Ritual to cast a big Drain Life in the early game to remove a problematic creature I otherwise had no way of dealing with.  The key to dialing in the correct number of Drain Lifes for the deck was to find the number which would ensure that I wasn’t likely to have too many in my opening hand, but was going to draw at least 2 in the late game.  I ended up running 4, but 5 might be the correct number since all I wanted to pull late game was more Drain Lifes. 

Black Knight
(4 Copies, 59.59% Odds of Having at Least 1 Copy in First 8)
With the recent moderation of Sinkhole, Black Knight is a great card to fill the 2-drop slot.  Black Knight is great against Blue/White Control, Mono White, and any other deck that relies on Swords to Plowshares, Wrath of God, and Balance for creature removal (under Alpha rules, protection from white makes Black Knight immune to Wrath of God and Balance).  A 2/2 first striker proved to be super versatile, especially with multiples on the board forming a wall of first strike.  4 copies felt great; I was hesitant to run more than 4 for fear of Earthquake and Fireballs.  In the late game I would rather be casting Sengir Vampire, Nightmare, and Drain Life instead of more Black Knights.

Sengir Vampire
(4 Copies, 59.59% Odds of Having at Least 1 Copy in First 8)

Even in a vacuum, I feel that Sengir Vampire is one of the best creatures in the format.  With the presence of Dark Ritual, Sengir truly becomes a Tier 1 card.  A turn-3, 4/4 flier is very hard for a lot of decks in the format to contend with.  Sengir’s special ability is rarely relevant, so much so that opponents often forget about it until it’s received its +1/+1 counter and has altered the board state and their combat math.  Late game I wanted to be consistently dropping Sengirs, which is why I chose to run 4.

Demonic Tutor
(1 Copy, 19.51% Odds to Appear in First 8)
Demonic Tutor is restricted to one copy in the Alpha 40 League, so naturally, I am running one copy.  The only real thing to discuss is without Ancestral Recall or Mind Twist, what were my typical Tutor targets?  Probably most common was Sol Ring, followed by a basic land.  Those Tutors occurred in the early game, whereas in the late game I was usually grabbing Nightmare or a Drain Life if I could close out the game the next turn.  Another common card to Tutor for was Chaos Orb to remove a problematic card.

Chaos Orb
(1 Copy, 19.51% Odds to Appear in First 8)
Chaos Orb? You mean my fourth Sinkhole? Chaos Orb is an auto-include in most Alpha 40 League decks that don’t otherwise run a different card from the “Destruction Group”, and is particularly strong under League Rules since it can’t be Disenchanted or Shattered after activation.  My most common Chaos Orb target was a land after I had already cast Sinkhole once or twice in the game.  Getting several turns ahead with land destruction and dropping multiple Sengir Vampires was usually game over.  In my opinion, the absolute best use of Chaos Orb is flipping on Control Magic and denying your opponent a brutal two for one.  Mono Black players that don’t own a Chaos Orb will be happy to hear that while a great card, Chaos Orb is not a necessity.  It can easily be cut in exchange for another piece of removal.  I personally would choose to run a Pestilence.

Nightmare
(1 Copy, 19.51% Odds to Appear in First 8)
I was honestly shocked to get some “flavor points” for running a singleton Nightmare; I don’t think people realize how good this card is in a Mono Black deck! Late game, I almost always Tutored for Nightmare unless I could grab a lethal Drain Life instead.  It’s incredibly hard to remove and isn’t a Control Magic liability.  Since Control Magic was one of my biggest fears, I would bait the Control Magic with a Nightmare (which reduces it to a 0/0 and kills it) then I would drop my Sengir Vampire.  Due to its high casting cost, I believe 1 or 2 is the correct number for Nightmare.

Dark Ritual
(3 Copies, 48.82% Odds of Having at Least 1 Copy in First 8)
The correct number of Dark Rituals in a deck is perhaps the most debated topic in Mono Black deck construction under league rules.  Mind Twist is notably banned in Alpha 40 League; this removes the most broken thing you can do with a Dark Ritual, which is to fuel an early game Mind Twist for your opponent’s entire hand.  The second most broken thing you can do is cast a turn 1 Hypnotic Specter, which isn’t actually a very good play in a lot of situations, as you are setting yourself up for a 2 for 1.  With that being said, you might be wondering why I ran any at all since it always leads to card disadvantage?  I chose to run 3 copies for the following reasons:

  • Being able to quickly ramp out to get under Black Vise.

  • To fuel an early game Drain Life to remove an opponent’s Hypnotic Specter or Juggernaut.

  • Dark Ritual is never dead since it can always be used to fuel big Drain Lifes in the late game.

  • It is great for combating Power Sink and playing around Counterspell.

  • It is still great for having fast starts and ramping out a creature depending on what your opponent is playing.

3 copies of Dark Ritual sometimes felt like 1 too many.  I think in the future this deck could safely drop to 2, though I wouldn’t go below that.  If Black Vise became restricted in the future, I would likely drop to 1.

Hypnotic Specter
(3 Copies, 48.82% Odds of Having at Least 1 Copy in First 8)
Hypnotic Specter is clearly overpowered for its casting cost, which is why it is moderated to 3 in league play.  It is a clear auto-include in all Mono Black decks.  I ran the maximum of 3. 

Royal Assassin
(1 Copy, 19.51% Odds to Appear in First 8)

Running a Royal Assassin was my only regret of the month.  I think it is very strong against Mono Green, and actually fairly good in the mirror match against Mono Black, but otherwise way too easy for an opponent to remove.  Royal Assassin has obvious synergy with Icy Manipulator and Paralyze, but since I wasn’t running those cards, I should have swapped it out for another piece of creature removal.

Sol Ring
(1 Copy, 19.51% Odds to Appear in First 8)

Sol Ring is a fantastic piece of ramp in the format; unfortunately, given the fact that almost every card I have in this deck requires BB to cast, a Mox Jet would have been better!

Swamp
(15 Copies, 88.04% Odds of Having at Least 2 Copies in First 8)

At a minimum I wanted to see 2 black mana sources in my first 8, and ideally, I wanted to see 3.  The percentages worked out at 15, and as a ratio of my overall deck it worked out to run 41 cards.  Running 15 black sources plus a Sol Ring at 40 cards seemed like too much and running 14 black sources plus a Sol Ring at 40 cards seemed like too little.  The inclusion of a Mox Jet would fix this problem, and I could drop to 14 Swamps plus a Mox Jet for 15 black sources in a 40 card deck.

NOTABLE OMISSIONS
 

Paralyze
A lot of Mono Black players will run a singleton Paralyze because they are concerned about an opponent’s turn 1 Hypnotic Specter or turn 2 Juggernaut.  In my opinion, the perfect answer to an opponent’s fast start is your own fast start.  Turn 1 Chaos Orb off Dark Ritual, turn 1 Hypnotic Specter, or Drain Life fueled by Dark Ritual are all great answers.  Paralyze is too often dead in the late game, and to be totally honest, it just annoys me to keep track of.  A lot of my opponents will draw for turn prior to remembering to pay the 4 for Paralyze, getting a big advantage off of that added information.  If I point out that they missed a trigger, I just sound like a competitive Legacy player, and no one wants that.

Animate Dead
In almost all situations I would rather run one more copy of the creature I would be animating, with the notable exception of Hypnotic Specter.  Animating the T1 Specter that got bolted is a great T2 play, and for that reason it could be a 1-of, but late game I’d rather just have more creatures.

Icy Manipulator
This is a great control card: a versatile answer, and works with the Sinkhole mana denial strategy.  However, it is just too slow for this deck that would rather be casting big creatures and Drain Lifes.  That being said, running Icy Manipulator is just a different deck, and I didn’t want to run just a few artifacts because I would have to cut Sengirs for Juggernauts, as well. 

Terror
Unless you get lucky with matchups, Terror is just way too often a dead card.  If sideboards were allowed, it certainly belongs there, but it does not belong in the main deck in my opinion.

Pestilence
Pestilence is the obvious, glaring omission from my deck.  It is so good against Elves and Goblins that even if it is mostly dead in some matchups, it is worth it to run 1 or 2.  Pestilence is never truly a dead card as it can be used to chip in damage late game once your have your Nightmare in play.

Bad Moon
A great card, but a huge liability in the mirror match!  I could definitely see the value in running 1 to 2 mainly because of how much harder it makes it to remove a Sengir Vampire or deal with it in combat, but I chose to omit them because they are expensive, I don’t own them, and they don’t seem necessary.

Mox Jet
With the number of BB 2-drops in this deck, Mox Jet would almost certainly be better than Sol Ring.  A lot of people asked why I ran Sol Ring over Mox Jet, and whether it was actually better with the number of Sengir Vampires I ran.  The answer? No.  I don’t own a Mox Jet!

Nettling Imp
When I was a little kid, the absolute tier 1 combo in existence in the play group was Nettling Imp and Sengir Vampire! While so fun, Nettling Imp is a little too cute for this deck.  It’s too easy to remove, and only good in very niche situations.

Throne of Bone
The way the deck curves out I don’t see a lot of utility from Throne of Bone in the early game, and in the late game, I’d rather be tapping out for big Drain Lifes!

Howl from Beyond
Really fun when paired with Black Knight, but once again, I’d rather tap out for a Drain Life.  I think Howl from Beyond belongs as a finisher in a 2-color deck, like Dead Guy Ale.

Nevinyrral’s Disk
Nevinyrral’s Disk would hypothetically replace Chaos Orb in this deck.  I took note during the League of how often I wished Chaos Orb was a Nev Disk, and it was about 50% of the time.  Nev Disk could be a really great “budget” alternative to Chaos Orb, and would still serve the purpose of equalizing board states you otherwise have no removal for.

PLAYING MONO BLACK

To give some insight on how I strategized game play, I recreated six memorable opening hands from matches during the January 2022 League.  If you are not familiar with Alpha 40 League Rules it’s important to note that the league has an “all land or no land” mulligan rule; otherwise, I would certainly have mulliganed some of these.  Under Alpha 40 League Rules you draw a card on both the play and the draw; openers show 8 cards since you will get to see an 8th card before you make your first play.

At its heart, the deck is a mid-range, tempo Mono Black deck and the ideal play strategy is pretty simple:

  1. Cast early Sinkholes to disrupt your opponent’s mana base or put them a turn behind.

  2. Put early threats out like Black Knight and Hypnotic Specter to chip in damage and hopefully disrupt your opponent’s hand.

  3. Black Knights transition from an offensive position to a “wall of first strike” in the defensive position, capable of killing attacking Juggernauts and small creatures without trading, while you begin to resolve aerial threats.

  4. Drain Life to the face to swing life total to extend the game, or to remove problematic blockers.

  5. Get Nightmare in play, or resolve multiple Drain Lifes in sequence.


Here are some hands I encountered during the league that lead to some memorable play lines, tough decisions, or just demonstrate the brutal power of the deck.

SAMPLE HAND #1

Here’s an easy one, right? Turn 1, Dark Ritual, Hypnotic Specter, it’s such an obvious play line. No! Don’t be greedy; you have only 1 Swamp and you need to be able to tap for a consistent BB each turn to win the game.  The Turn 1 play here is easy: play Swamp and pass the turn.  Turn 2, if you draw a Swamp, Sinkhole your opponent to put them a turn behind.  If you don’t draw a Swamp, cast Dark Ritual followed by Demonic Tutor for a Swamp.  Play the Swamp and Sinkhole your opponent.  Next turn cast Black Knight or Hypnotic Specter, depending on whether or not you made a land drop.  If you keep making land drops, you are safe to save Tutor and Ritual for late game plays.

SAMPLE HAND #2

Another easy one, right? In this instance, especially if my opponent was playing red, I wouldn’t Dark Ritual into a Hypnotic Specter on turn 1.  Instead, I would hard cast Black Knight on turn 2 to bait a Bolt, and then hard cast Hypnotic Specter on turn 3.  Turn 4 I would likely Dark Ritual into a Sengir Vampire.

SAMPLE HAND #3

Finally, I get to cast turn 1 Hypnotic Specter! I don’t have much going for this hand, so the risk is worth the reward, and my only chance of winning is turn 1 Dark Ritual, Hypnotic Specter.  Turn 2 I will cast Sinkhole to put my opponent a turn behind and hope I draw into something good.  Of course, if the Hypnotic Specter sticks around for multiple turns that is likely game over anyway.

SAMPLE HAND #4

Rough opener, right? I actually don’t think so due to Drain Life’s ability to stretch the game out.  With consistent land drops plus Drain Lifes, I’ll be able to remove all early creatures.  I can utilize Dark Ritual as a quick way to ramp into a big Drain Life to get rid of Juggernaut or Hypnotic Specter.  By Turn 6 I’m dropping Nightmare and hopefully drawing into more big creatures or a Demonic Tutor.  Even if I get flooded, I can quickly swing the game by casting a big Drain Life.

SAMPLE HAND #5

This is a brutal hand, especially if your opponent has a greedy mana base.  If I’m on the draw the plan is to play Swamp Turn 1, then Swamp Ritual, double Sinkhole on Turn 2, followed by Chaos Orb targeting another land, and then I’m concentrating on dropping fatties.  

SAMPLE HAND #6

Ah, the power of Sol Ring! Turn 1 Swamp, Sol Ring. Turn 2 Hypnotic Specter, take 1 mana burn. Turn 3 Sengir Vampire, Turn 4 Sengir Vampire, late game Nightmare.  Hard to contend with that many early threats.

REFINED MONO BLACK
 

This is how I would build it today:

  • Cut Sol Ring for Mox Jet (yes, I traded for one after my league victory because I deserve to have nice things).

  • Cut one Swamp bringing me down to a tight, 40 card list.

  • Cut Royal Assassin for Pestilence

OTHER NOTABLE MONO BLACK DECKS

If you’re anything like me, you love looking at deck pictures! My favorite Alpha 40 League Mono Black decks, other than my own of course, are below.  Each one of these decks has put up impressive results in the league

Ash Anabtawi’s Mono Black

Behold, the deck that gave me my only loss in January! Ash has made Top 4 and Top 8 with various versions of this Mono Black Control Deck.

Nicholas Aiello’s Mono Black

Nick notably made the finals with this super aggressive Mono Black Deck!

Charles Lawrences Mono Black

Charles made Top 4 with this Mono Black Deck.  I absolutely love the inclusion of 2 Nightmare!

Brian Bogdon’s Mono Black

Brian’s deck has made an appearance in the playoffs multiple times, going top 4 with this Black/Brown Aggro/Prison Deck.

Michael Angelo Russo’s Mono Black

An absolute classic Mono Black Deck that has made the playoffs multiple times, including making the top 4.

Luiz Verdasca’s Mono Black

Plague Rats, a classic archetype that is only possible under Alpha 40 Rules! Luiz has become known for his Plague Rats deck that notably made the top 4 after I lost to him in the top 8 in a previous month.

Published
March - 2022