I have a confession to make. Despite the fact that I write for this site (which is a huge proponent of the social contract and ‘not being a jerk’ at tables) and despite the fact that I agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment, I am a huge, huge fan of oppressive, mono-black builds. My favourite deck ever was run under Sheoldred, Whispering One, and it was MEAN.
Like, Stalinist purges mean.
The deck was ridiculous, and most games I played with it, if I wasn’t dead by turn seven, I was winning the game. It was cut-throat, and oppressive, and I absolutely loved it. But nobody else did, and it eventually became my punishment deck, to be brought out when somebody was getting a little too big for their britches and needed to be reminded how to lose.
And eventually it was taken apart, because there were pieces I needed in other decks. It was then forgotten about, saved only as a list – just in case. But even after that, the spectre of that deck has tainted all mono-black lists for me since. I can’t build mono-black without striving for that razor-sharp list, and most black generals lend themselves to it at least a little bit.
I’ve built a few that are outside this mold, but they are few and far between. My favourite of these is under Horobi, Death’s Wail, because nobody sees Cauldron of Souls coming – or really intuitively understands how that works. (Pro tip: basically, you don’t get to keep non-hexproof or non-shroud creatures anymore, so they better have some good ETB effects, because the Horobi trigger happens before the Cauldron effect gives them persist.)
Anyway – today, I want to talk about a different black general. One that is actually pretty awful, but is also kind of amazing because of that. It’s a deck that I built, and played a few times, but have never seen elsewhere. It’s a deck that really has to be stretched out to even come close to winning, but can absolutely get there if everything falls into just the right place at just the right time. It’s an incredibly fragile deck and relies on far too many pieces, which makes it mind-melting when it actually happens.
Let’s look at Shauku, Endbringer.
Yes, it’s bad. Black is really good at killing creatures, but making sure your commander is the only one on the board consistently in a four-player game is difficult at best. Her restriction is HUGE, and it means you’re probably never attacking with Shauku. Her second restriction, the three life, is small enough to make you think you’re okay with it, but big enough that you’ll realise very quickly that it is NOT okay, and it will kill you pretty quickly.
Her one positive ability is pretty sweet, though. Tap to exile (!!!) another creature and put a +1/+1 counter on Shauku. She exiles a threat and gets bigger. I can see how this was a decent card in Standard at the time (called Tier 2 way back then, kids), but in a modern Commander game, this is weak.
Let’s see what we can do to break it.
THE OBVIOUS PATH
Really, the easiest thing to do here is to minimize the restrictions on Shauku. That means killing a lot of creatures without sweepers. It means a ton of spot removal, like Hero’s Downfall, Murder, and even Corrupt. It means running things like Avatar of Woe and Karn Liberated. Fleshbag Marauder and cards like that are all-stars in this path. You want a lot of deathtouch without first strike. You want symmetrical removal and sacrifices, like Barter in Blood or Innocent Blood. You’re in a fight to prevent creatures from sticking, while still keeping your general out of combat. Wave of Terror is an actual thing, and can do a lot of good work here.
Listen – black’s ability to make life difficult for creatures is pretty well known. You don’t need a lesson here. The point is, you need a LOT of spot removal for this to work.
Losing three life on your upkeep is easy enough to get around. The best way to do it is only cast Shauku when it’s advantageous to do so – this is how Magic works, though, and I shouldn’t have to tell you that. Another thing to do is just get rid of the upkeep step. Eon Hub will do that, with the massive upside of hosing a lot of things that other players take for granted. Verdant Force? No Saprolings for you, good sir! Phyrexian Arena? Oh no, miss – you may not have any extra cards today. Knowing it’s coming, you can build around it. But removing the upkeep step is something that is so niche, and so rarely seen, that absolutely nobody is ready for it. A lot of people just break down when it happens, because they don’t know how to function without it. Yeah, it’s easy to kill, being an artifact, but you may get a few rounds of the table with it before that happens.
Finally, you can deal with the life loss by simply gaining life. You don’t need a lot, just enough to counter the three you lose every turn, so a few cards with Extort should be all you need. Maybe a life-linker or two. Vampire Nighthawk should solve this problem – and should be in your black decks anyway.
So…you can go this route, and everybody at the table will be perfectly okay with this. This seems like a reasonable way to work with a difficult general, and have some laughs at the same time. You should be able to stay in the game and maybe win a few pods, but you should be having fun every time, no matter what.
So my advice is to ignore that, and do this instead.
THE FUN WAY
Let’s take Shauku, warts and all, and make her work for us. We’ll end up just ignoring the drawbacks, because they just won’t matter. And we’ll still get to use her ability to exile creatures and get huge, and we’ll do it in a way that none of our opponents will see coming.
Our whole plan relies on Shauku not surviving. With the new rules, when your general leaves any zone, you have a choice about where to put it. Most people just assume that means it goes to the Command Zone, but it doesn’t specifically state that. If your general gets exiled, you can CHOOSE to actually exile it. If it gets tucked, you can choose to tuck it. The same thing applies when your general dies, or gets discarded, or gets bounced to your hand. Moving it to the Command Zone is a choice. It’s the default choice in most cases (as it should be), but it’s a choice nonetheless.
We want our general to die. Specifically, we want her in the graveyard. There are multiple ways to do this, so I’ll just mention a few – we can cast her and then sacrifice her for effect to something else, or we can use Command Beacon (best card in Commander 2015, and you’re wrong if you disagree) to put her in our hand, and then discard her to another effect.
Regardless, we want her in the graveyard.
Next, we want my favourite black card ever – Necrotic Ooze. Now, any opponent worth their salt will kill the Ooze with extreme prejudice. Myself, I will leave Jace, the Mind Sculptor alone to cast Hero’s Downfall on a Necrotic Ooze. This card is up to no good, and anybody running it is doing so for VERY specific reasons. If you leave this card alone you have nobody but yourself to blame for your loss. So we need our standard protection suite for the Ooze, in the form of Lightning Greaves and Swiftfoot Boots, et al.
Now, the connection here is obvious. Shauku in the graveyard and Ooze in play means you get her tap ability without any of her static effects. This is great, but there is so much more you can do with this.
Let’s look at one thing we can add to this, to make it SO much better.
This little guy in your graveyard alongside Shauku has much the same end result as Horobi and Cauldron of Souls, mentioned above – if your guy isn’t hexproofed, shrouded, or pro-black, he’s going to be exiled. And your little Ooze keeps the stats it starts with. See, you tap the Ooze for Shauku’s ability (because she’s in the graveyard) to exile a creature and put a +1/+1 counter on the Ooze (any ability that references the card name it is printed on is assumed to mean the card that is using the ability – fun fact). Then you use the Wretch’s ability – with is an activated ability thanks to that colon – to put a -1/-1 counter on the Ooze (negating the +1/+1), and untapping it.
Another thing to do here, to just add to the fun, is Umbral Mantle. Late-game, with enough mana, you can easily alpha-strike someone with the Ooze.
Now, keeping things in your graveyard is a risky proposition, I know. There is a lot of yard hate out there, and you need to be aware of it. Gone are the days where Buried Alive almost guaranteed that the creatures you tossed were safe from your opponents. But if you do it right, if you have no actual recursion in play, and show none from your hand, people will hold off. You’ll be seen as a non-threat in that regard, especially if you’re focusing on something else. This second, ‘fun’ way allows lots of room in your deck for control cards, so you can easily camouflage yourself as a mono-black control player. Or as a mono-black disruption player. Or anything other than a fragile combo deck.
This is a build that you need to underplay. Nothing flashy happens here, and you kind of need to settle under the radar. Take some early hits, and pose no threat. Be the player at the table that everybody sort of feels sorry for, and ignores. But be ready with some teeth when someone comes at you. You’re building a complex combo that relies on specific pieces being in a fragile, high-target area of play. You need to be a little bit James Bond and a little bit Michael Scott, at the same time, to pull it off.
It doesn’t happen often, but when it does it is glorious.