Comprehending Competitive – Black in cEDH

Jake FitzSimons • January 17, 2022

Vampiric Tutor by Raymond Swanland

Competitive Color Breakdown

White | Blue | Black | Red | Green | Multicolor | Colorless | Lands


G’day, Jake FitzSimons back in black with another Comprehending Competitive.

As dangerous and dastardly as the swamps from whence its mana comes, black is likely tied for the strongest color in cEDH. With risky combos, the original rituals, the biggest draw spells in the format, and the best tutors in the history of Magic, sometimes black feels like cEDH incarnate.

If you’ve ever felt your life total wasn’t working hard enough for you, black might be your color. Read on and find out which spells you’ll need before you leave your precious swamp and venture into the meta.


Acceleration

You don’t think of black when you think of fast mana in traditional EDH. Big mana? Sure, the dastardly duo of Cabal Coffers and Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth have haunted the format since the latter was first printed, but if we go back even further, we find what black was once best at: ridiculously quick rituals. It’s been 20 years since these were first printed, a reminder of the changes the color pie has gone through. 

All five are busted with a capital B, but I’ve ordered them roughly by power. Dark Ritual is the neatest of the bunch, the best mana ritual ever printed. Once associated with turn one Hypnotic Specter’s in Magic’s earlier days, the darkest of the original boon cycle has come a long way.

It can be a turn-one Necropotence. It can be a surprise Opposition Agent. It can be yet another piece of fast mana used to race out your Ad Nauseam or Peer Into the Abyss. The same is true of the rest, the latter few mostly used for massive payoff spells rather than quick openers. Black’s additional access to rituals is one of its greatest strengths in a format defined by the speed of its mana.


Advantage

Affectionately named Bob after Bob Maher Jr., the muse for Ron Spears‘ iconic Ravnica artwork, Dark Confidant is a solid advantage engine. Commander already has a comically inflated life total that mitigates his downside, and cEDH decks usually keep their average CMC so low that it’s rare to take any noticeable damage from Ravnica’s Wormtongue. Speaking of low CMCs…

I could write an entire article about Ad Nauseam. One day I will. It’s been a staple of the cEDH metagame since the competitive community even had a name, and for good reason. If Dark Confidant is greatness at any cost, Ad Nauseam is victory at any cost. But there is a cost, and it’s more than just your life total: it’s how you build your deck. If you don’t pay close attention to your curve, Ad Nauseam is just a fancy way of killing yourself.

But with an appropriately crafted deck, Naus may well be the best card in it. It’s unusually expensive for a cEDH staple, but when that staple can draw you upwards of thirty cards at instant speed on a good day, five mana doesn’t seem so bad. Sure, you might leave yourself within bolt range, but what does it matter if you’re winning this turn? This “no pain no gain” attitude is core to black’s identity as a color, and competitive Commander takes it to the extreme.

If you’ve never gone off with Ad Nauseam, you should try it at least once; it’s exhilarating. Sometimes you’ll get it off with a full life total, in which case it’s a forgone conclusion. But what makes it exciting is when you’re already bruised and bloody. Maybe you lost too many Mana Crypt flips. Perhaps you’ve eaten a few Yuriko triggers.

Or maybe, just maybe, you’re halfway through resolving it, you’ve flipped fifteen cards already, and you’re looking pretty good even though you’re at four life, but it’s fine because all you need is just a little fast mana, even a tutor would be enough to get you there, never mind the fact there’s a Force of Will somewhere in the deck and if you flip that you’re dead, and you start wishing you’d made better blocks, and your mana base wasn’t so painful, and you hadn’t searched for that shockland because you could’ve just got a basic, because all that life would really come handy right now, you’re so close you can almost taste it, but you blink and shake yourself out of it, you can think about all that later. Right now you have to concentrate.

You can feel the sweat on your brow. The slight tremor in your fingers. You can’t help it, your hand drifts toward your library and everyone holds their breath. You just want one… more… flip…

That’s when it gets interesting. 

Peer Into the Abyss is much the same, if a little weaker. Slower, sorcery speed, target ted, and specifically a “draw” effect, PItA is easier to interact with and less explosive, but what the card lacks in speed, it makes up for in reliability. While Naus will eventually lose effectiveness, Peer is just as good on your first turn as it is on your tenth. If you can’t win with half your deck in your hand, you’re doing something wrong. An aside: red mages, you haven’t lived until you’ve Deflecting Swatted someone else’s Peer to target yourself. 

One of the things I love about cEDH is getting to play cards that don’t have a home anywhere else. Rightly banned in Legacy and restricted in Vintage, it’s remarkable Necropotence is even legal in Commander given its bigger sister Yawgmoth’s Bargain isn’t. Good necro usage requires great board assessment, as you won’t see your cards until the end of turn. Spend too little life, and you may as well have played Phyrexian Arena; spend too much and your opponents will rip you apart before you even untap. A skill-testing card with a very high ceiling that’s most iconically run in Zur the Enchanter lists, but most decks capable of paying three black pips will be interested.

Citadel hasn’t found the home in cEDH its most ardent fans hoped it would, but there’s tremendous potential here. Whether cheated into play or run out early with rituals, Bolas’s Citadel is a powerful card advantage machine and combo engine. I’m also informed it has an activated ability.


Combo Potential

The notorious forbidden tutors. Both are playable in their own right (albeit extremely dangerous in the case of Demonic Consultation), but the real key is using them to exile your entire library. Pair with Thassa’s Oracle and enjoy the strongest, easiest combo in cEDH.

Playable in their own right, but usually combined with Worldgorger Dragon to generate infinite mana and infinite ETBs. Extremely risky, and extremely funny to disrupt.

A relative newcomer to cEDH, not even a year old. Risky, as executing it will leave you empty-handed. Best paired with a Silence or preemptive Veil of Summer for protection.

Not a combo in and of itself, but the enabler to end all enablers. Doomsday piles are works of art, and successfully pulling one off on the fly is a sign of a practiced player. Look to Yuriko, Grenzo, or Prosper lists for examples of viable piles. 

Like Doomsday, Razaketh isn’t a combo piece so much as an assembly piece. Turning all of your other creatures into instant-speed Demonic Tutors is as strong as it sounds. Often paired with Life // Death to reanimate the big fella and create sac fodder for multiple tutors.


Interaction/Protection

A noticeable weak point for black in cEDH. Usually black must rely on blue counters, white silences, green uncounterable clauses, or dig to the bottom of the barrel and try:

Single card hand disruption is usually weak in multiplayer formats, but sometimes you just need to deal with problems before they become problems. You’ll usually see these two in Golgari and Rakdos decks, although they’ve fallen out of fashion recently. You’ll also run into Imp’s Mischief in decks desperate for protection. Hey, a crappy Deflecting Swat is still a Deflecting Swat.

As for removal, black has fine tools for removing creatures and handling creature-centric combos. Deadly Rollick, Snuff Out, and Dismember are great but rare, as bounce spells are valued higher than kill spells.


Stax

It pains me to write about Opposition Agent. Not because it’s an immensely frustrating card to play around, but because this thing is the wrong damn color. Aven Mindcensor but much superior is not something black needed, but here we are. Simultaneously stopping and stealing tutors in cEDH is incredible when the majority of decks run a critical mass of them. Consider any black deck with three mana open to be armed and dangerous. 

Yet another asymmetrical stax piece with card advantage to boot. Some of the strongest combos in cEDH rely on their yards, which makes Dauthi perfect for attacking the meta. Moreover, the void pile will become more versatile with every passing turn. Nobody wants to get in a counter war with the void. Have you ever cast an Eldrazi titan for free? I have, and I have Dauthi to thank.

For such a clunky textbox, this notorious card is surprisingly simple. Basically, nobody can get more cards in their hand than they began with when you first played Chains. If you want a simple breakdown, follow this link. Chains sees play as a combo piece in the The Gitrog Monster list or as a generic stax effect.


Tutors

Despite my efforts to convince people otherwise, tutoring remains one of the most polarizing things you can do in Commander, but here in cEDH, where we try to vanquish variance, tutors thrive. They roam free, abundant and unshackled as they search for combos, counters, and card draw. 

While every color has playable tutors specializing in specific card types, black can search unconditionally. You can fetch for whatever you like without revealing your target, adding flexibility and reducing the information your opponents receive. 

Each of these tutors have their place, with only minor differences in execution. The two-mana tutors pull directly to hand, but are less useful on turn one as a result. Opening hands can go from garbage to godly based on the presence of a single Vampiric Tutor or Imperial Seal.

Wishclaw Talisman is the odd one out here, more expensive than its colleagues and with a noticeable drawback, but much like the downside of Pact of Negation, who cares about next turn? You’re not going to activate Wishclaw unless you plan on winning right now or you have an Agent in play. Deceptively strong. 

Black is also great at tutoring directly to the graveyard. This is crucial for reanimation shenanigans. Entomb – also known as the black Gamble among the terribly unlucky – is the most commonly used, particularly in conjunction with the reanimation enchantments.


Miscellaneous Goodies

I almost filed Praetor’s Grasp under tutors before I moved it to combo potential, which was a moment before I brought it down here. It’s hard to classify. Despite its wildly varying targets, Grasp provides a lot of utility. It’s often used to find a missing combo piece, tutor an answer out of someone else’s deck, or in particularly shameful cases, to steal someone’s only win condition. Grasping a Gitrog player’s Dakmor Salvage is about as cruel a play as you can make in cEDH. It conveniently dodges Opposition Agent which is nifty. 

Here it is, the only board wipe regularly seen in cEDH. It gets around indestructible, it only costs three, and you can pay a specific amount of life in order to save your beefy creatures. A seriously powerful catchall answer that this writer feels is underplayed right now. 

 

Ah, Yawgmoth’s Will. Once the only “Will” that anyone cared about, no longer. Once the best way to recast spells from your bin, no longer. In the era of Underworld Breach, Yawgmoth’s Will is still a powerful tool, but a shadow of its former self. 

Doesn’t combo the way Animate Dead et al. do, but half price to make up for it. This is the namesake for the effect and most efficient reanimation spell ever printed. The sheer utility is incredible, often making it the most flexible card in your hand. 


Welcome to the Black Parade

A parade indeed. I’m open to dissenters, but I’m increasingly certain black is the strongest color in cEDH. The sheer redundancy of tutors, the power of the win conditions, the quality of fast mana and the incredible finality of cards like Naus, Peer, and Doomsday is just incredible. Even if all it brought to the table was tutors, the consistency alone would be enough to warrant its inclusion in any color pairing.

This article has looked at black at large, but if you’re so devoted to black you consider yourself a human equivalent of Gray Merchant of Asphodel, you’ll probably enjoy the established K’rrik or Yawgmoth lists. The mono-black discord is also a great resource if you want to know more. Next week we’ll be looking at the winner of cEDH’s most improved color award for three year’s running, red!

Now get out of my swamp.



Jake FitzSimons is a writer from Sydney and a Magic fiend. He's either the johnniest spike or the spikiest johnny, nobody is sure which. When he isn’t brewing or playing cEDH, he can be found writing, playing piano, and doting on his little cat.