With Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx coming to Arena via Explorer Anthology 2, most people immediately turned to Mono Green Devotion, and so did I! But I knew I wanted to delve deeper into the card. It turns out that there are all the tools to make a viable devotion deck that’s not Green.
I took Black as my colour of choice and ended up with a midrange deck with a quasi-combo finish. Despite sharing the namesake, the gameplan is completely different from the one of green devotion. This deck is very much an interactive shell that aims to stay alive, play a few creatures here and there, and win in the long game. Compared to other midrange decks though, it really snowballs. You play your permanents out, and if they stick around, they fuel Nykthos, which in turn provides a huge mana spike. This deck also has got a ton of powerful top decks thanks to Nykthos. To the deck’s credit, it can easily win games of Magic when the legendary land is not involved simply by playing a reactive controlling game.
Let’s look at the namesake.
This legendary land is arguably the most influential card from Anthology II. It has allowed the Pioneer menace, Green Devotion, to be almost fully ported into Explorer. However, it does not have to be limited to the green colour. In this deck, there are many cards that provide devotion and allow multispelling early, the most important of which is Underworld Dreams. It’s a four-of so you won’t always have it, however, the deck functions reliably well without it. I look at the draws that include Nykthos as those really good positive variance draws rather than mulligan for Nykthos as an essential piece of the puzzle.
Everybody’s favourite devotion payoff. Gary (the card’s affable nickname) has been played in Standard, Pauper, and here and there in Pioneer. With the metagame shifting towards aggressive decks, its life gain is going to pull you through a lot of tough spots. On top of that, it’s going to shine in board stalls when nobody can make progress combat-wise, but you have this win condition that does not care about opposing blockers. Don’t play Gary as soon as you can – sometimes it’s better to wait until you’ve built up the devotion a bit more to, for instance, one-shot the opponent who has been liberal with their life total.
Most people will look at it and think it’s just a devotion-pumping spell. While partly right, it does a lot more. It can KO some decks that rely on card draw such as Phoenix. On top of that, it provides that additional lock-piece-y feel against decks that *could* draw more cards, but are highly disincentivized to. When dropped on turn three, it becomes a ticking time bomb that most opponents won’t have a way of removing. It works well with our interactive plan of prolonging the game, all while the opponent is slowly bleeding out. Multiple instances of the card stack up and the opponent is killed that much faster. The real blow out comes with the aforementioned Gray Merchant of Asphodel when the opponent is drained for 5-10 life thanks to all the devotion Dreams provide.
There is one more neat win condition and it’s Peer into the Abyss.
You may have seen it in Lotus Field decks in Pioneer where it’s used as a way to draw half your library. In this deck, you have got high devotion count and Nykthos so you could ramp up to Peer and draw a ton of cards. However, there is a line that kills the opponent on the spot.
If you have Underworld Dreams on the battlefield, you should cast Peer targeting the opponent so that they draw, say, 30 cards and take 30 damage – which in most cases will result in a win. I can tell you that nobody expects you to have a combo kill in a midrange black deck.
- Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx
- Peer into the Abyss
- Underworld Dreams to set up Peer
- Gray Merchant of Asphodel
What’s particularly sneaky about tutoring a combo piece is that most opponents won’t have a way to interact with it anyways so you just have to run through a mental list of stuff they could find and as long as they are not killing you immediately, you know you will have your combo kill next turn.
Most midrange decks have some sort of four-mana threat to top their curve. For this deck, I have been debating Sorin, the Mirthless and Sheoldred, the Apocalypse. For now, I have chosen Sorin purely because it is a planeswalker and hence provide an additional angle of attack. However, Sheoldred combos with Peer and nicely compounds the effects of Underworld Dreams. I think both are good choices for this slot in the curve.
Sorin’s main duty is being a card draw engine that can sometimes make a blocker. I try to do my best to keep it alive though as it contributes to devotion. I am yet to ultimate it as the games have been over by the time it’d be able to ultimate.
Don’t get misled by its size – Gifted Aetherborn is a great card in the deck. Being a 2/3 means it blocks basically all the one-drops and most two-drops. Deathtouch allows it to attack into anything or block-kill any thing. Lifelink stabilises games, especially as it’s a Thoughtseize deck that loses life. As a cherry on top, it provides two devotion. Against aggro decks, an early Aetherborn into Gary later causes a real headache.
As you cannot play more than four Gifted Aetherborn (I would), I decided to add a few more creatures that are two-drops and provide devotion. As it turned out, Tymaret, Chosen from Death is just a great card. It usually has a ton of toughness and just does not let any creature through. On top of that, its exile ability has come in handy numerous times, especially against Arclight Phoenix, Greasefang, and even Green Devotion decks. Against creature decks, it just provides a steady stream of life when creatures trade in combat.
Warlock Class has multiple uses in the deck. It’s a turn-one play which is always appreciated as we never have tapped lands early. It provides some card selection to smooth out the draw. It provides a single pip of devotion. Sometimes, the passive may become relevant when creatures are traded and killed every turn. The last chapter won’t come online frequently but it is a soft combo with Gray Merchant of Asphodel as it basically means they will get the damage twice.
As I’ve mentioned, this is not a linear deck. It very much relies on interaction to stay alive.
Arguably the strongest black removal in the format is present in the deck. This deck cannot really turn on revolt, so it’s mostly used as an instant speed way to kill a one- or two-drop. Still, we want a way to deal with those early creatures, especially if it’s Monastery Swiftspear or Elvish Mystic.
As far as I’m concerned, Thoughtseize is a reason to play Black. This is super versatile and punishes opponents’ mulligans, and as you are an interactive deck, you will know what to play around. It also gives you info on whether it makes sense to try to assemble the combo, go for Gary, or try to win the game on a value axis.
Menace in Standard and a powerful Damnation impersonation in Explorer. I love it against Spirits, Elves, Elf-focused draws of Mono Green, and many more. Its passive is not irrelevant either as it is another way to ping the opponent. Between The Meathook Massacre, Underworld Dreams, passive of Warlock Class, and Gray Merchant of Asphodel, the deck has a ton of reach and incidental damage. Importantly, it stays on the battlefield so it contributes to devotion. You can also play Massacre post-combat to kill off the creatures that blocked this turn.
Hero's Downfall that can be a creature providing devotion. It’s a good catch-all to get rid of Karn, the Great Creator, Nissa, Who Shakes the World, or a curiously obsessed Rattlechains. There may be spots that it’s better to just play it as a 2/3 lifelinker rather than a removal spell.
Matchups and Sideboard Guide
Post-board you will often play as a Jund deck of sorts which kills everything that moves and finishes off with Gary.
Mono White Humans
Removal in, discard out. Our two-drops shine here as they block very effectively. Don’t keep clunky hands or hands that fold hard to Thalia, Guardian of Thraben. Thankfully, Brave the Elements does not save creatures from Cry of the Carnarium or The Meathook Massacre, but it does for all the other removal spells. Every turn, take Brave into account as it makes all the creatures unblockable against this deck if they name black.
|+2 Invoke Despair||-4 Gifted Aetherborn|
|+4 Leyline of the Void||-2 Tymaret, Chosen from Death|
|+3 Noxious Grasp||-4 Warlock Class|
Some players may find it curious that I side in Leyline of the Void, but it does surprisingly plenty – turns off Cavalier of Thorns and Old-Growth Troll die triggers, exiles Storm the Festival so they cannot flash it back and hence stop the loop, exiles everything that Cavalier flips off its enter-the-battlefield-trigger, Leyline also adds devotion! Other than that, we want to make them not fully go off and finish them with a well-timed Gary or Peer into the Abyss. You won’t win games via normal damage.
This matchup has an interesting dynamic. Them trying to win off Cat/Oven won’t pay off as we have got a ton of lifegain to stabilise. However, they also gain life so we won’t be able to Gary them out that easily. Peer into the Abyss combo is something I like to play towards. Bear in mind that if you give them Wishclaw Talisman, they can use it and sac it to Deadly Dispute so you won’t get it back!
With Leyline in play, the Gary plan is very much on the table. The most important removal target is Mayhem Devil.
|+4 Leyline of the Void||-3 Fatal Push|
|+3 Noxious Grasp||-1 Peer into the Abyss|
|+2 Go Blank||-2 Underworld Dreams|
|-3 The Meathook Massacre|
This is a great matchup. Somewhat counter-intuitively I cut removal, but in this deck, you won’t be able to Fatal Push Greasefang with revolt. Between graveyard hate and removal, they will have to default to Esika's Chariot. You may then bring The Meathook Massacre back in if that’s what they are doing. Tymaret, Chosen from Death is another heavy inconvenience for them.
Mono Blue Spirits
Not much to side in. The matchup will be tough as our creatures don’t block in this particular matchup, despite being great against aggro decks overall. You have to keep removal heavy draws. Sorin, the Mirthless is particularly good as it makes 2/3 flying Vampire tokens. If you see an uptick of Mono Blue, you do need to tweak the numbers a little bit in the board.
Tips and Tricks
- Before activating Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx, play your other black cards so that devotion is higher. However, make sure to count out how much mana you need/can produce.
- With only Tymaret, Chosen from Death on the battlefield, if you play The Meathook Massacre with x=2, Tymaret won’t die as it will immediately see Massacre and increase devotion, and hence toughness.
- If you play Swift End and the target isn’t legal upon the resolution, Murderous Rider won’t go on adventure.
- On Arena’s interface, when you have a card caring about devotion in hand, it will show you the amount as is true, not taking into account that card. As an example, Gray Merchant of Asphodel in hand will show you, say, 5 devotion, but in practice you will have to add 2 that Gary itself will add to devotion.
- Leyline of the Void adds to devotion, so if you have multiple in hand, reveal them all.
- When you want to activate Wishclaw Talisman on a Nykthos turn, add mana with Nykthos first as you will have to give the Talisman to the opp, losing one point of devotion in the process.
- You can intentionally bin creatures with Warlock Class‘s first level up to later eat them with Tymaret, Chosen from Death to gain life.
- You may want to play The Meathook Massacre for x=0 on turn two, just to add devotion and have access to the card’s passive.