Core Set 2020 Set Review - Black
(Vilis, Broker of Blood | Art by Tyler Jacobson)
Black as Midnight, Black as Pitch
Welcome to the review of the black slice of the color pie for Core Set 2020, the first set we've had to review in about 72 hours. With that kind of a drought between releases, our patience here at EDHREC has worn thin. Can this Core Set sate our craving for MOAR CARDBOARD? Let's find out!
Cavalier of Night
Cavalier of Night is our first black mythic, part of a cycle of Elemental Knights filling the role occupied in the past by the Soul, Titan, and Gearhulk cycles. It does three fairly useful things as well: it has lifelink on a 4/5 body, the ability to be Bone Splinters on a stick, and a Reveillark-lite upon death.
It feels like the kind of creature a graveyard recursion deck wants to repeatedly rotate in and out of the graveyard, such as the infamous Meren of Clan Nel Toth deck, although five-color Knight or Elemental decks (like Horde of Notions) certainly wouldn't object to the general value even outside abusing ETB mechanics. It would also be a star in a black blink deck, such as Aminatou, the Fateshifter, though the three colored pips in the cost might make that tricky in some combinations.
Cavalier is maybe not as exciting as Grave Titan, but I think it's more interesting than Soul of Innistrad was, and that is probably a good middle ground for a Core Set to tread.
Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord
Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord isn't the first time Emo Markov has had a card that makes Vampires, but this is the first time all three of his abilities have interacted with the tribe so thoroughly. Three mana for four loyalty is aggressively costed, and the fact that he protects himself with his -3 to drop a big beater Vampire straight into play is nothing to sneer at. Plus he looks pretty good for a guy who has been doing a rebar impression for the last year.
In Commander this card is probably going to show up almost exclusively in non-Edgar Markov Vampire tribal decks. Edgar himself is often optimized by running extremely low-cost Vampires, which won't really make the best use of new Sorin's cheating of mana costs. Edgar decks that do run new Sorin will likely be very dedicated to theme. That's okay, of course; not every tool needs to fit every situation. The reality is that the amount of existing planeswalkers have reached a point where they're less of a generic thing you just run and more of a thing you run for a specific purpose, and Sorin has a very clear and specific purpose.
Dread Presence becomes an instant staple in any mono-black deck, and will probably show up in plenty of two-color lists besides, especially those running Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth. Drawing a card at the cost of one life is a fantastic deal, and because it's stapled to a Landfall trigger, you can potentially fire off multiple triggers on some turns, such as with Wayfarer's Bauble or Burnished Hart.
Additionally, the ability to use those triggers to dome player or a planeswalker or even to just take out a utility creature is amazing. That's not even mentioning the benefit of being able to stave off death if your life total is perilously close to zero; most black draw spells threaten to kill you if you draw too many cards, but this Nightmare offers a way out of that trap, offering a whole lot of versatility on a very efficient package. It's just flat out one of the best cards in the set, and if you're in mono-black, there's no reason not to run it.
Embodiment of Agonies
Embodiment of Agonies is a Time Spiral-ish card that seemed to have sneaked into Core Set 2020 from Modern Horizons. It's interesting; using counters means it doesn't shrink if someone removes your yard, but it also means it can't be cast effectively unless there's at least one card already in the grave. Is the Serra Avenger-esque restriction on casting it on the first couple of turns a problem? Possibly, but deathtouch and evasion on a creature that could look an awful lot like a black Baneslayer Angel on turn five might be worth the risk.
In terms of placement, Rakdos, the Showstopper is probably happy with a new member of his tribe, and some Reyhan, Last of the Abzan-inclusive Partner decks might like the extra counters they'll get from a likely-to-be-full graveyard, especially since that type of deck will have lots of colors, and therefore lots of different mana costs to fuel it.
Knight of the Ebon Legion
Knight of the Ebon Legion, along with low-drop set mates Blood Burglar and Vampire of the Dire Moon, are most interesting in an aggressive, low-to-the-ground Edgar Markov deck. Edgar builds frequently stack cheap Vampires to race ahead and take advantage of the Eminence ability, even abusing effects like Cloudstone Curio and Erratic Portal to repeatedly recast cheap creatures and therefore amass more tokens. None of these three Vampires are particularly amazing, but they will find homes in various Edgar lists.
Legion's End is... interesting. I ran Sever the Bloodline for several years as a way to deal with token swarms, and as a flexible single-target removal spell if the need arose. Legion's End is cheaper and easier to cast, but it lacks Flashback and flexibility to hit a larger single target. It does clean up things like Rat Colony and Shadowborn Apostle a little better, however. It's probably mostly a card you'd run in a small, predictable meta if you saw tokens or things like Persistent Petitioners with any frequency. Overall, though, you're better off with removal spells that can hit big things, since the high-cost cards are usually the most problematic permanents on the table.
Leyline of the Void
Leyline of the Void is the only reprint I'm going to talk about, mostly because it was such an expensive card. It's a house in Modern, but less so in Commander where your chances to cast it for free are 1/99 instead of 4/60. It is one-sided, which is nice, but it also doesn't do anything to existing graveyards when it comes into play with the game in progress. It's a good card, don't get me wrong, but if I crack one this weekend I'm way more likely to trade it for something I want than I am to replace my Nihil Spellbomb or Relic of Progenitus. Bojuka Bog and Scavenger Grounds are always good inclusions, too. TL;DR, play graveyard hate, folks.
Rotting Regisaur is going straight into the Modern Fling joke deck I keep threatening to brew but never do, replete with Death's Shadow, Traxos, Scourge of Kroog, and Yargle, Glutton of Urborg. Beyond that, it's a huge body with a discard downside that a lot of decks can turn into an upside, but it also lacks any way to really push that damage through. If it lived in Naya colors it would most assuredly have a home, but competing with all the bomby Zombies in a Zombie deck is going to be tricky for a vanilla beater.
Scheming Symmetry costs you Imperial Seal mana for a Skullwinder-esque tutor effect. The plan here is to either use the card politically, force your opponent to shuffle away what they tutored with something like Field of Ruin, make them hurt for searching a la Ob Nixilis, Unshackled, be unable to search at all with something like Stranglehold, or just kill them with what you tutored up before their card matters.
None of those things are particularly rare in Commander, but do they happen enough to justify running another sweet piece of Seb McKinnon art? We'll see. Personally I think it's more cute than effective, but never underestimate the power of cheap tutors. Political decks like Queen Marchesa and Mathas, Fiend Seeker may use it, though be careful of this card's drawback when the game has been whittled down to just two players.
Vilis, Broker of Blood
Vilis, Broker of Blood is the answer to the question, "What if we made a thing that just accidentally made Necropotence better?" Vilis is going to go into a lot of places, and will probably lead more than a few decks. Eight mana is a good amount, especially when three of it is triple black, but for a beefy, evasive, three-turn-clock-commander-damage-dealing, removal-spouting, draw-engine-on-a-stick that also packs removal and a draw engine on-board this mini-Griselbrand seems worth the cost.
I suspect Kaalia of the Vast will make the best use of this Demon, but don't be surprised if the new Kaalia, Zenith Seeker shows up as a more popular home for Vilis. Players who build the New Kaalia have easy access to this new Demon just by virtue of them being in the same set, which may bias the numbers a bit. Oh, and if you're running Vilis as your commander, I recommend Bolas's Citadel. Thank me later.
The Best of the Rest
Audacious Thief is a surprising strong draft or constructed common in that it draws you a card on attack and not on combat damage. What maybe makes this a card that will see some EDH play is that it's a member of the under-served Rogue tribe. With only 170 options as of Core Set 2020 scattered between blue and black, a Rogue that offers repeated card draw is serviceable in Sygg, River Cutthroat decks, a commander already running creatures like Glint-Sleeve Siphoner and Stealer of Secrets in its notable creatures list.
Blightbeetle feels a bit like a meta choice. Protection from green is useful, as is locking down the ability of your opponents to put +1/+1 counters on creatures, but neither of those are probably strong enough to run compared to the potential risk of Blightbeetle being a dead card in hand against a table without green or +1/+1 counter synergies.
The beauty of Hex Parasite and Vampire Hexmage are that they can also do different things other than just eat counters. Vampire Hexmage, for instance, can kill any planeswalker, and can knock all the counters off your own Dark Depths, and I routinely use Hex Parasite to reset my own Sagas like The Antiquities War or to keep the cost on my Mystic Remora in check. As long as both of those exist I'm not sure a third, less versatile option is needed outside a specific meta where you see Ghave, Guru of Spores or Skullbriar, the Walking Grave in every game. That said, the pickings are slim for Xira Arien Insect tribal decks, so maybe it makes an appearance there.
Blood For Bones
Blood For Bones does a pretty good Victimize impression, bringing the first creature in untapped but at the cost of the second going to your hand instead of into play. Victimize is currently in 12,279 decks, and while I can't think of many situations where I'd want Blood for Bones instead of Victimize, it's not hard to imagine decks where you'd want to run both. It's not all about Meren of Clan Nel Toth with these graveyard cards, remember; Whisper, Blood Liturgist and Sedris, the Traitor King like recurring creatures a lot too.
Bloodsoaked Altar probably isn't good enough for the vast majority of decks. Six mana is a lot, it costs you a card in hand, two life, and a creature, it can only be used at sorcery speed, and only once a turn without any untap shenanigans, which black doesn't have many of. That's just too many caveats for most players. Still, there are decks that don't mind both sacrificing creatures and putting cards in the yard, and if you get to make a 5/5 evasive Demon doing the thing you want to do maybe it's worth six mana to have the chance. It's not a splashy entry to the format, though.
Bloodthirsty Aerialist is a Vampire Rogue with evasion, a useful addition to tribes some decks care about. The ability to put a counter on said evasive body when you gain life isn't nothing. Look for this alongside Ajani's Pridemate in decks that specialize in trickling lifegain, like Karlov of the Ghost Council.
Epicure of Blood
Epicure of Blood is yet another Extort-like ability on a relevant tribal body. At some point though, even a deck built around this sort of effect can have enough, and at five mana, maybe Epicure of Blood is enough. It will see some play in decks that run stuff like Drana's Emissary, but five mana is a lot in an already crowded field, especially since it doesn't pack any evasion or other abilities.
Fathom Fleet Cuththroat
Fathom Fleet Cutthroat is mostly notable because it's a non-vanilla Pirate, and the pickings are slim for those building Admiral Beckett Brass or Ramirez DiPietro Pirate decks. It beats running Dinosaur Hunter or Fathom Fleet Boarder, both of which are in a non-zero amount of decks. Plus the ability to kill a thing that took damage this turn isn't entirely irrelevent in colors with access to things like Pestilence or Pyroclasm. But yeah, it goes in Pirate decks and that's about it.
Gruesome Scourger will wind up as a backup win condition in some token decks. Despite the Scourger being a Warrior, Najeela the Blade Blossom probably doesn't need a five drop, but there are other decks that can abuse this effect like it's a go-wide Gray Merchant of Asphodel (just, you know, without the lifegain or the hitting-every-player part). People will probably forget this card exists and laugh at your token deck behind their Sphere of Safety and Propaganda, then get blown out by this random card that turns your tokens into death regardless of whether they can attack.
Noxious Grasp is kind of decent, more so than you'd expect of these color-hosing draft and sideboard uncommons. Let's compare it to Doom Blade, a spell in over 7,000 decks on EDHREC:
|Noxious Grasp||Doom Blade|
|Most popular commanders last week||13/20||8/20|
|Most popular commanders last month||12/20||8/20|
|Most popular commanders last 2 years||15/20||6/20|
|Most popular creatures last week||65/100||69/100|
|Most popular creatures last month||55/100||64/100|
|Most popular creatures last 2 years||69/100||64/100|
|Most popular planeswalkers last 2 years||55/100||0/100|
Noxious Grasp kills about 40% more commanders, 5% fewer creatures, and 100% fewer planeswalkers. I don't know if that's enough to be worth a slot in a black deck for me, but I think it's really interesting.
Yarok's Fenlurker provides some hand hate for a blink or recursion deck. It doesn't look like much, and it's not, really, but hey, Burglar Rat is in nearly 600 decks. The card getting exiled instead of discard is a double-edged sword; it prevents recursion from your opponent looking to do such things, but it also prevents discard triggers like from Nath of the Gilt-Leaf or The Haunt of High Tower. A small thing, but if one of your opponent runs it, it might disrupt you more than you expected.
Back in Black
That's gonna wrap it up for this review of the black cards from Core 2020. Fear not, however; the next set should be dropping right after lunch this afternoon. Until then, thanks for reading, and good brewing!
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