Power, Self-interest, Sacrifice.
Ever since the days of the Hollywood serials, the men in the black hats were evil. The bad guys. With years of cultural stereotyping, black has been given a bad rap, and this stigma remains, even in Magic. The reality of the game is quite different. No single segment of the color pie is "evil". "Good" and "bad" are not two sides of a coin. It is instead a spectrum - and all colors are well represented at both extremes.
Black has a different outlook on life that sets it apart from most of the multiverse. It believes that self-interest and obtainment of power is an individual's primary responsibility and that if all beings made their choices based on self-interest, society would be stronger as a whole. It does not limit itself to societal rules or moral codes when obtaining its goals, and will embrace methods that may be "off-limits" to others. Simply put, Black's mantra is "power at any price". This is a very different outlook on life to be sure, but it does not make those aligned with black inherently evil. So how do we represent this ethos in Cube? Let's take a look.
Mechanically, Black achieves many of its goals through reanimation abilities which are fueled by sacrifice as a cost. This payment can come in the form of the reduction of the player's own life, or by sacrificing the life of a creature. Recurring Nightmare is one of the purest examples of this, sacrificing a creature to reanimate another. Braids, Cabal Minion is Black Control, requiring each player to sacrifice a creature at their upkeep. Pair these two spells with Gravecrawler, and Black can showcase its sacrifice abilities. Consuming Vapors is a perennial favorite in cube, and a flavor win as the player consumes the life from an opponent's creature to strengthen their own. Finally, Bitterblossom requires payment of a life each turn, but its token engine can serve as fuel for any of the sacrifice cards you choose to run. I consider all four of these cards "must includes" in black. They are powerful, efficient and are "build-around-me" cards that, when drafted early, can be the cornerstone of a player's deck.
Like our sacrifice engines, paying life is a common theme in black, and one that is often tied to card draw. This is the mechanical manifestation of "power at any price" - trading knowledge for a player's own life force. Of these spells, Dark Confidant is considered the "gold star" example; and for quite a while was lauded as the "greatest two-drop of all time". Nicknamed "Bob" as a nod to pro player Bob Maher, Jr., who designed the card, his likeness graced the original printing as his prize for winning the 2004 Magic Invitational. I don't run "Bob" in my cube, simply based on the monetary cost of the card. I like my cube to remain a "travel cube" and that means you have to be prepared for a card to be lost or stolen. As a replacement I run Blood Scrivener, which while inferior, is still a great card draw spell, providing extra cards at the time a player most needs it - when their hand is empty. My final choice for card draw in black goes to Phyrexian Arena - a classic enchantment from Apocalypse. It's simply, in my opinion, the best of Black's card draw spells. Recently reprinted in Commander 2016, the card is affordable and readily available. I wouldn't build a cube without it.
Black needs a limitless resource to effectively use all its sacrifice effects. It finds this resource in its second key archetype, reanimation. Reanimation is also a huge flavor win for the the color and as Black's iconic race, you will find zombies right in the center of this mechanic.
While not strictly a mechanical example of reanimator, Grave Titan brings this "feel" to the color. As a 6/6 with deathtouch, the titan is a strong presence on the battlefield and produces a continuous supply of zombies. Gravecrawler, which was mentioned earlier, is a more traditional example of the mechanic, and is also great for players building aggro or control. As a 2/1 for one mana, he is a fantastic attacker in the early game and his reanimation ability provides a repeatable sacrifice target. Gravecrawler is everything Black could possibly want in a one mana creature. Consider Bloodghast if you are going more towards aggro in your black list. The card still helps out with the sacrifice strategy, and its his haste ability makes him strong from mid-game on. As you look toward adding spell-based reanimation, both Animate Dead and Reanimate are two solid picks; efficient spells that double as nostalgia wins.
Finally, Liliana Vess is the planeswalker I've chosen for our cube skeleton. At five mana she is more expensive than Liliana of the Veil, but she's also a more affordable include that you won't cry over if she goes "missing". She also has a great ultimate that is splashy and game ending.
Black's entries in its "Iconics" category are especially powerful, since they tend to bleed across colors of the modern day game. Now in Red's section of the pie, Dark Ritual has provided fast mana to Black since Limited Edition Alpha. Back in the day, it provided many fast starts, including the famous "turn one" Hypnotic Specter, establishing an early 2/2 flyer and making the opponent discard a card by turn two. This combo is still just as potent in the modern cube as it was twenty-three years ago. Nekrataal is also an important cube include, doing double duty as a creature and targeted creature destruction. The card is the original "187" creature, a nickname for this type of card which is derived from the California Penal Code for murder. Dismember is a second creature destruction spell you should be including. It is a popular cube include since it can be run in any color deck. Even at the cost of four life it can still swing the momentum of an entire game. Damnation and Sinkhole are quirky out of the color pie includes, bringing a board sweeper and land destruction to Black. Damnation is ridiculously expensive though, so I'd recommend Languish if you are looking for a travel friendly replacement.
Black is a powerful slice of the color pie, but its cards tend to be more of the synergistic spells than hard combos you can build decks around - especially in a smaller cube. This color tends to need more thorough play testing for most cube builders before it gels into a solid list, but these selections should give you a firm foundation.
Join me next week as we watch the world burn and embrace the chaos of..... Red.
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Travel Cubed (Introduction),
As always, if you want to skip ahead and start building, my entire list is up on Cube Tutor.