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A Tree Grows in the Swamp


There is something to be said for swimming upstream. Going against one’s natural inclinations can lead to new ways of thinking and open up myriad experiences. It can be among the more challenging and rewarding endeavors in the course of personal development.

Other times, running counter to intuition can result in a mess. This was absolutely the case with my Marrow-Gnawer deck. Told in two parts, this tale recounts the litany of issues with the sorta-tribal, sorta-tokens, sorta-small-creatures, sorta-devotion deck. Sadly, none of those items meshed well into a cohesive idea. The core issue boiled down to fighting natural urges. When I play Commander, I tend to do so firmly from my throne mired in the bogs.

I like playing black in Commander. The color that is willing to do anything to win fits my style. Marrow-Gnawer ran against the things I love most in the color. Rather than using the sacrifice ability of the Rat Rogue to its greatest efficacy, I tried to rein in this bloodlust. What I got instead was a crime scene.

Instead of trying to fix the problem in house, I opened the doors to the masses. I asked you, the reader, to help me decide the next leader of my mono-black army. Marrow-Gnawer won, and to be honest, my heart sank. I went through the motions and solicited feedback on a potential theme. I wrote down a short list of cards and then let it gather dust.

I did nothing, and it was because I couldn’t go against my nature—my dark, twisted, swampy nature. I knew in my heart I wanted a different card to win the vote. I thought that asking the community for ideas would kick-start something that had been dormant, but instead, it sent me further into hibernation—until, it seems, I began taking apart the deck.

When I started putting together my Grenzo, Dungeon Warden deck, I was able to find a home for Shirei, Shizo's Caretaker and that Spirit’s legion of tiny soldiers. I was able to comb over the carcass of Marrow-Gnawer and scavenge what remained. Excising the tribal component left me with a fairly clear signal: mono-black devotion. The key players here were the ubiquitous Cabal Coffers, the resplendent Erebos, God of the Dead, and the workhorses Abhorrent Overlord and Gray Merchant of Asphodel. The black heart started thumping in my chest, and I looked through my collection of potential commanders for one to lead this army. I came across something completely unexpected.

Sapling of Colfenor
My copy of Sapling of Colfenor was a holdover from my days of snapping up every remotely interesting Golgari legend for a potential deck. At some point, I had deigned to build as many Bayou-powered decks as possible (sans Bayou), but that desire fell away as I continued to prune Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord. So Sapling put down roots in my stack of legendary creatures. When I thumbed through that stack in search of a new commander for a potential mono-black army, that opposable digit stopped on Sapling. Something turned over in my brain. I heard Mark Rosewater, in his characteristic voice, tell me, “Gold cards are and multicolored. Hybrid cards are or.”

The more those words rattled around in my skull case, the more I realized how much I would enjoy this particular challenge. I already had a sketch in mind for a heavy black deck, and putting Sapling at the helm led me toward cards like Dread Cacodemon and Pestilence Demon—creatures that could keep the board clear and allow Sapling of Colfenor to crunch through for victory while keeping the cards flowing. I wanted to leverage the indestructible aspect of Sapling as well, which meant loading the deck with quite a few true board wipes.

I had a jump-off point and decided once more to step out of my comfort zone. At the urging of The Stybs (all hail the Stybs), I ventured to the public for its take on the concept of a monochromatic take on Sapling. I started a thread on the EDH subreddit and took to Twitter, imploring my followers:

Let’s see where it led.

Glissa, the Traitor
Redditor almon0k suggested I look toward Glissa, the Traitor Stax lists. These decks seek to lock all opponents out of the game with a combination of Glissa’s recursion ability and cards that repeatedly kill (like Braids, Cabal Minion). Serving as an extension of Sapling’s plan of continuous sweepers, this path was intriguing.

Glissa acted as the first hurdle. While legal thanks to color identity, I was hesitant about having a key card in the deck cost 2 green mana. Splashing for a single symbol seemed fine, but I did not want to be too greedy with a critical cog. Moving past that, however, I thought about the options Glissa enabled.

Running Glissa would allow the deck to run a surplus of Equipment. In turn, this would make it easier to win with a rather large Sapling of Colfenor through commander damage. Using the Zombie Elf also would make artifact-based ramp a recurring source of potential advantage. Minimizing green would cut off access to early-game cards that could go and grab extra lands, forcing the deck to lean more on Wayfarer's Bauble and Burnished Hart. With a Glissa, the Traitor on the table, these cards could come back.

Adding extra green would also make it easier for the deck to handle artifacts and enchantments, glaring holes in black’s suite of point-and-click removal. Maelstrom Pulse is a gold standard, but Beast Within works almost as well, as redditor thsq pointed out. Glissa would also allow this new deck to reuse cards like Unstable Obelisk, meaning that adding a second color would give this project the added flexibility to handle a wider array of permanents. Glissa would also mean that artifacts like Nevinyrral's Disk and Plague Boiler could pull double-duty.

Glissa the Traitor was so enticing that I actually put a version of the deck together that ended up focusing on artifacts. Between Equipment and the weapons green provided, I felt that Sapling was going to be a blast to pilot. I started to goldfish games. I always do this with a new deck to understand the pace of the deck and see if there are lines of play or interactions I initially overlooked.

The deck sputtered. It was suffering from the Marrow-Gnawer problem.

Squandered Resources
Rather than having a Sapling deck that worked with the best elements of a Glissa deck, I had two decks in one, and neither was very good. It is entirely possible that if I was willing to parse back the devotion- and creature-based board-wipe elements of my intent, I could have crafted a decent to good Glissa, the Traitor deck. Instead, I turned back to the Treefolk.

Redditor dendr1te made some great suggestions that were not for me. Nighthowler, one of my favorite cards from Theros, would be a fine follow up to a Damnation-style effect. However, I enjoy that experience in multiple other decks I have in my arsenal, so I decided against its inclusion this time, if only for the sake of variety.

Sanguine Bond presented an interesting way to attack life totals directly thanks to Sapling’s trigger. I had pulled a copy of the enchantment into the lab for potential inclusion, but it ended up outside the sleeves.

Dendr1te’s final suggestion was Squandered Resources, a personal preference. While I did not see the connection, this one card certainly filled me with ideas. In addition to the initial suggestion of Herald of Leshrac, I also thought about running the Visions enchantment alongside Titania, Protector of Argoth. Alongside Strands of Night (one of my favorite offbeat cards), Life from the Loam, and Crucible of Worlds, this version of Sapling of Colfenor could play the prison game well. Potential additions include Contamination, Braids, Cabal Minion, and Smokestack. This seems oppressive.

Twitter yielded less fruit. I had few replies, and the best one came from someone I had played games with multiple times with his very own true Golgari Sapling of Colfenor decks. Joseph is someone who was always at the table when I returned to the New York City Commander scene, and his Sapling deck brought large creatures and big beats. Joseph’s suggestions rang true.

Now maybe I was looking for something like this all along. Back in my first attempt to fix Marrow-Gnawer, I mentioned building a potential devotion/reanimator hybrid around Volrath, the Fallen. Looking back over the suite of green cards at my disposal, I hit upon one of my favorites in Deadbridge Chant. A copy of Volrath's Stronghold and Haunted Crossroads fell into place, and slowly, mono-black Sapling came together. I shuffled it up a few times and enjoyed the flow. I felt good about the nudges, and I think the result shows the influence of the masses.

(Nearly) Mono-Black Sapling ? Commander | Alex Ullman

  • Commander (0)

Thrashing Wumpus, Crystal Ball, Plague Boiler, and Hythonia the Cruel are all on their way into this build as well. Sensei's Divining Top and Scroll Rack seem to want spots as well, and if I can acquire those, I may break my no-Top rule.

Vigor Mortis
There are a couple of different pockets in here beyond simple devotion and reanimation. Grim Harvest is a personal favorite, and Vigor Mortis is a card I have always wanted to run and just never found the right deck for.

Korozda Guildmage might seem out of place, but it serves some important roles. First, it is insurance against removal and fodder for Zombify effects. It also makes Sapling slightly more difficult to block, which plays into the Commander plan. Along with Smogsteed Rider, these cards allow saboteurs like Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni, Ashling, the Extinguisher, Bone Dancer, and Demon of Wailing Agonies to do their things.

Drana, Kalastria Bloodchief and Lashwrithe both convert mana into damage. Drana has the added bonus of filling opposing graveyards for Reanimate and Beacon of Unrest. Nightmare Lash may also make sense as a supplement to Lashwrithe.

A small artifact-recursion engine centered around Trading Post remained from the Glissa build. While the only way to remove offending artifacts and enchantments in a pinpoint manner is Unstable Obelisk, the tandem of Nevinyrral's Disk and Plague Boiler could go a long way to protecting against those pesky permanents.

Finally, there’s Worldslayer because, sometimes, you want to blow up everything and leave yourself with a 2/5.

How would you build mono-black Sapling of Colfenor? What about mono-green? What is your favorite Commander deck in which you bias toward one half of the legend in charge?

I pushed fairly hard toward mono-black for Sapling of Colfenor. I wanted a deck in which my love of Swamps would be rewarded while letting me play a different game from my other decks. No other deck I run leverages board wipes quite like this one. I, for one, am looking forward to being the last tree standing at quite a few tables in the future.

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