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My Mono-Colored Backbone

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Calais Pier by J.M.W. Turner (1803). Waterspout Weavers by Eric Fortune.

I've been working on a lot of mono-colored decks over the past few months and it's gotten me thinking about the many cards that wind up being staples in these decks.

Before I begin, I should note that I dislike the usage of "staple" cards. I find they stifle creativity and reduce the level of personality and personal investment that goes into deck-building.

The problem with eschewing "staples" is that you often wind up building weaker decks as a result.

If you're running Sisay's Ring instead of Sol Ring because you're a clever hipster who refuses to play what everyone else is playing, that's great. I genuinely admire your approach to the game. I also have to assume that if your deck is running suboptimal versions of cards whenever possible, it's simply not going to be as efficient or as powerful as decks that run better cards.

I lose enough games as it is, so I don’t often want to hand my opponents an extra advantage by playing suboptimal cards. As a result, I play plenty of staples, but I do miss having a meta where our decks were all so slow that you could play janky cards and get away with it.

Today's column is going to be a look at the cards I run that form the backbone of my mono-colored decks. I can see myself running all of these or at least two out of every three of the cards in today’s article and I’ll have a pretty good start to my deck.

I should note that I’m writing this from something of a budget perspective. A few of the cards on this list that are on the pricey side are included because of how well they work in a mono-colored deck. Many of the cards in today’s column aren’t uniquely good in mono-colored decks, but they’re still part of my mono-colored backbone.

Making More Mana

You might wonder what cards you would run to ramp you in a deck, regardless of what color your commander is in. If you’re not familiar with these next three cards you’ll want to get to know them.

Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx
Extraplanar Lens
Caged Sun

Our first card is a land that taps for one colorless mana. While that’s not very helpful in the early game, for the cost of two mana you can tap Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx, choose a color and add mana equal to your devotion to the chosen color. Devotion is the total number of symbols of that color in the casting costs of permanents you control. An artifact-heavy deck might not benefit from Nykthos but the vast majority of mono-colored commander decks have an easy time getting enough devotion to let Nykthos generate some serious mana. If you can find ways to untap it so you can tap it again, things can really get crazy. It’s not uncommon for Nykthos to tap for eight to 10 mana if you’re in the mid-to-late game and should probably be run in every mono-colored deck you ever build - it’s just that good.

If you’ve run into players with mono-colored decks all tricked out with snow-covered basic lands and wondered what that was all about - it was all about Extraplanar Lens. This 3 CMC artifact will force you to exile one of your lands when it enters play. Whenever a land with the same name as the exiled land is tapped for mana, its controller adds one mana of any type that land produced. Normally if you exile a basic land, anyone else with the same type of basic land will also benefit from your Extraplanar Lens. You might enjoy playing politics and making friends, but if you want to keep the advantage all to yourself, running snow-covered basic lands should solve that problem. Exile a snow-covered swamp and only snow-covered swamps will be able to tap for extra mana. Ideally you’ve replaced all your basic lands with snow-covered lands if you’re going to go this route.

Caged Sun costs a hefty six mana and requires you to choose a color when it enters the battlefield. Creatures you control of the chosen color will get +1/+1 and when a land’s ability adds one or more mana of that color to your mana pool, you get to add one additional mana. It will only help you, and it doesn’t require you to exile a land, but it does cost twice as much to cast as Extraplanar Lens.

Utility Lands

I’ve already included one land in my list of mono-colored Commander staples, but these next three lands serve a greater purpose than just making mana. They aren’t all perfect for every deck, but chances are very good I’ll want to run at least two of these, if not all three. These lands may not work with mono-colored decks any better than with multicolored decks, but their abilities makes them staples and their lack of a color identity makes them able to be run in decks of any color.

Buried Ruin
Rogue's Passage
Homeward Path

A lot of my decks really get cranking when they have just the right artifact on the field. My Purphoros, God of the Forge deck wants Panharmonicon while my Marwyn, the Nurturer deck wants Staff of Domination, Umbral Mantle or Sword of the Paruns on the field. My new The Haunt of Hightower deck seems to want Geth's Grimoire out so I can turn my opponents’ discards into card draw for myself. Buried Ruin taps for a colorless mana, but for two mana it can tap, sacrifice itself and return an artifact to your hand. In a lot of decks, that can be incredibly helpful.

If your deck has big creatures and you like to see those big creatures deal damage without having to worry about blockers, Rogue's Passage is the land you’re looking for. You might have to tap it and pay four mana to use its ability, but if it will get your biggest threat through an opponent’s defenses, it’s well worth the cost.

Having your creatures stolen is one of the more frustrating things that can happen in a game of Magic. Your opponents always steal the best you’ve got on the field and short of a counterspell or a sacrifice outlet, there often isn’t much you can do about it. With Homeward Path on the field, you can just tap it to send all creatures back to their owners.

You could easily make an argument that Reliquary Tower, Myriad Landscape, or Maze of Ith would be better in your list than some of these cards. You might be right. Does your deck draw a lot of cards? Do you not mind having a land enter tapped? Can you afford to play a land that doesn’t even tap for mana? You know your budget and your meta better than I ever will, and if some of these lands will serve you better than the ones I’m suggesting, by all means use what works for you.

Mana Rocks

Not all mana rocks are created equal, but all of these have found places in my mono-colored decks at one time or another.

Sol Ring
Ruby Medallion
Chronatog Totem

Sol Ring needs no introduction, nor does it require an explanation. The Ruby Medallion and the Chronatog Totem shown above are each representing a five card cycle, where there is a version for each color. The Medallions come in Pearl, Sapphire, Jet, Ruby and Emerald. Medallions will drop the cost of spells of their color by one mana. This can represent a huge benefit, especially if you cast a lot of low CMC spells. There are also five totems - Thunder Totem (White), Chronatog Totem (Blue), Phyrexian Totem (Black), Foriysian Totem (Red) and Weatherseed Totem (Green). They’re not all good, but they can all turn into a creature, much like the two-colored Keyrune cycle. If you’re in need of a mono-colored mana rock that can occasionally double as a creature for some reason (blocker, forced sacrifice, post-boardwipe attack) they’re worth looking at.

Fellwar Stone
Mind Stone
Thought Vessel

It might seem tempting to run mana rocks like Thran Dynamo and Gilded Lotus, and while those are great in certain decks, nothing helps you get off to a quick start like a 2 CMC mana rock. Fellwar Stone might tap for your deck’s color if you have an opponent who is also in your color. Mind Stone can tap for mana or draw you a card. Thought Vessel taps for mana and can keep you from having do discard, which may or may not ever come up depending upon how well your deck draws cards.

I should note that I left out the Diamond cycle entirely because while they only cost two mana, they also enter tapped. That’s not an unforgivable offense, but it is a big enough deal that I usually don’t seriously consider running them.

Some decks might not want to run this many mana rocks, especially if they’re in a color that can already ramp fairly well. A Green elves deck have so many mana dorks that this many rocks just wouldn’t make sense. Any Green deck will probably want to focus more on tutoring out lands than playing artifacts, but if you’re working on the backbone of a mono-colored deck it’s worth looking at all six of these and possibly running some of them.

Artifact Creatures

Mana rocks might be great ways to ramp, but sometimes putting bodies on the floor is what you need.

Iron Myr
Solemn Simulacrum
Burnished Hart

My affection for the Myr tribe is a poorly hidden secret, and I tend to include a Myr mana dork in way more decks than I probably should, especially if they are in colors that don’t normally ramp well. I’m looking at you, every-color-but-Green.

If I can’t sell you on the lowly Myr, I know I can sell you on the other two artifact creatures shown above. Solemn Simulacrum, better known as “sad robot” will get you a land (tapped) when it enters the battlefield and it will draw you a card when it dies. Burnished Hart costs less, but if you can pay three mana and sacrifice it you get to tutor for two basic lands. They’ll enter the battlefield tapped, but that’s still a pretty good bit of ramp.

The big advantage of Sad Robot and the Plucky Buck (no - I don’t really expect that nickname to catch on) is that they don’t just tap for mana - they tutor for lands. Putting lands onto the battlefield will almost always be a better than creatures that tap for mana. Land destruction is not that common in most metas and mana dorks don’t usually survive a boardwipe.

Artifacts

It’s not surprising that this list has a lot of artifacts in it. What other type of card could find its way into decks of any color?

Glaring Spotlight
Mirage Mirror
Expedition Map

The first artifact on my list is one that might not initially seem that amazing. Glaring Spotlight essentially removes hexproof from your opponents’ creatures. Most great decks protect their threats. Running a way to allow you or your tablemates to target an out-of-control Narset, Enlightened Master or a Hermit Druid that has been suited up with Swiftfoot Boots or Lightning Greaves can not only save the table from imminent death, it can make you the hero even if you’re not the one with the kill spell or targeted removal in hand. When you’ve built up your board to the point where you’re ready to swing for lethal on an opponent or on the whole table, you can pay three mana and sacrifice it to make your creatures gain hexproof and make them unblockable until end of turn. In a deck that can easily recur artifacts Glaring Spotlight could work well as a key part of a combat-oriented wincon if you’re into that kind of thing.

My second artifact, Mirage Mirror, may be the most deceptively powerful card in this list. For two mana it can become any targetable artifact, creature, enchantment or land on the battlefield until end of turn. That means it can be a Glaring Spotlight, a Caged Sun, a Gaea's Cradle, a Purphoros, God of the Forge, a Doubling Season, or any other permanent that’s already out. If your opponent is swinging in with a Blightsteel Colossus after a boardwipe and you’ve got a Mirage Mirror and two mana available, they’d better swing at someone other than you. Its greatest advantage is its flexibility and while I don’t run it in every deck I always feel like I probably should.

Expedition Map is an easy addition to any deck, as it lets you tutor for any land, even a non-basic. Most decks will have at least a small assortment of utility lands and having the ability to go get just the right one can be really helpful. If you’re running a Maze of Ith, a Maze's End or even a Gaea's Cradle, you’ll especially appreciate being able to get those bad boys when you need them.

There are lots of other artifacts that could have made this list. Vedalken Orrery is amazing, allowing you to cast spells at instant speed. You’ll live on the end step of the player to your right and you can always look like you could have an answer to whatever threat a opponent might be thinking about casting. Many decks will really get cranking with Panharmonicon, Paradox Engine, Strionic Resonator, Ashnod's Altar or some other special little trinket on the field, but those are generally too specialized or too expensive for me to put into this list.

Equipment

While a piece of equipment is technically an artifact, I generally put equipment into its own category.

Strata Scythe
Sword of the Animist
Avarice Amulet

Mono-colored decks are where a piece of equipment like Strata Scythe really shines. When it enters the battlefield you exile a land from your library and imprint it on the card. The equipped creature gets +1/+1 for each land on the battlefield that has the same name as the exiled card. If you’re at the right table, this can help your commander pack a serious punch.

Sword of the Animist and Avarice Amulet don’t pack quite the punch as Strata scythe but each of them brings something pretty good to the party. Sword of the Animist will let you tutor a land onto the battlefield when a creature equipped with it attacks. Avarice Amulet lets you draw a card at the beginning of your upkeep but has the drawback that when the equipped creature dies, an opponent gains control of the Amulet. If you equip it to your commander and simply send him or her to the command zone instead of the graveyard upon death you get to keep it.

Skullclamp
Swiftfoot Boots
Hero's Blade

Skullclamp will draw you two cards when equipped creature dies. If you’ve got an ample supply of 1/1 token creatures or you have creatures like Burnished Hart that want to be sacrificed, Skullclamp will fit right in. It’s perfect for many decks and very good in most, but remember that if your commander goes to the command zone it doesn’t die, so you probably don’t want to bother attaching it to your General.

If you have key creatures that you really don’t want your opponents to be able to target, Swiftfoot Boots and Lightning Greaves are essential, though it’s worth noting that Greaves (not shown) give shroud, not hexproof. That means that once Lightning Greaves are attached to a creature, that creature can’t be targeted by you, not even to equip a Strata Scythe or Skullclamp. You’ll want to have another creature around if you think you’re going to need to move your Greaves back and forth.

My last suggestion is Hero's Blade. This 2 CMC sword gives the equipped creature +3/+2, but the big deal is that you can equip it for free to a legendary creature when the creature enters the battlefield. That might not seem like a big deal, but saving on equip costs can really help your deck run more efficiently. If you won’t ever attack with your commander this might not fit into your list, but I always at least think about running Hero's Blade when I build a commander deck.

It’s Easy Being Green

I wanted to note that my mono-colored backbone is most apt to break down when you are building a Green deck. Many of the auto-includes I’m putting forward are included to help a deck ramp, but Green doesn’t need that help. You can ignore mana dorks, drop out a bunch of the mana rocks, run Rampant Growth, Kodama's Reach, Cultivate and Harrow and probably have a better core for your Green deck.

If that means this column is of little use to anyone building a Green deck, let me take a moment to share a very special card with you.

Hall of Gemstone

This enchantment will force each player to choose a color during their upkeep. During that player’s turn, each mana-producing land will only create that color. If you’re in Mono-Green there is no good reason not to run this card. It will shut out Blue players from messing with you unless they have mana rocks they can tap to play their Blue instants. Hall of Gemstone is a nightmare for many decks with three, four or five colors, as they often rely on multicolored spells or at least spells in a variety of colors to execute their game plans.

While my mono-colored backbone might be usable or a Green deck, it’s clear that you’re going to swap out more cards than for any other color. Swap in a Hall of Gemstone while you’re making those changes and you won’t have come away from today’s column with nothing.

The Decklist

I try to put out a decklist almost every week and this week’s offering might seem to put the lie to some of the advice I’ve given you. If you run through this list and try to spot every single card from my mono-colored backbone, you’ll find more misses than hits.

The bottom line is that I build in paper and simply don’t own enough copies of all of these staples to run them in every deck I’d like to run them in. I should do something about that but until I do you’re going to find that I don’t run Expedition Map in every single deck I own, even if I’m telling you that it’s good enough to run in every mono-colored deck.


This Mono-Blue deck wants to take advantage of Kira, Great Glass-Spinner’s party trick - her ability to counter the first spell or ability targeting a creature we control each turn. We’re running counterspells to deal with boardwipes, but we’re going to rely on our commander as a first line of protection for our bigger threats like Blightsteel Colossus and Darksteel Colossus. We’re also running Deadeye Navigator combos, Laboratory Maniac and a number of infinite mana outlets that will let us draw into a win. Most opponents want to rely on a well-timed Swords to Plowshares or some other kill spell to either stop the Deadeye combo or kill Lab Man, but with Kira on the field they’ll have to dig a little deeper.

I don’t think this deck is going to blow the doors off of any tables but I’m hoping with a good pilot it can hang in there, deal with threats and compete for the win. It’s a first draft, so with some play I expect to identify where it falls short and what I need to add in to really make it work well.

Final Thoughts

My hope is that you can take this column, run through the list picking two or three cards from each set shown and wind up with a pretty good starting point for a mono-colored deck.

If you’re a longtime reader or an experienced deck-builder I’d love to hear if there are cards I missed that you would always run in your mono-colored decks. Am I missing key vertebrae? Does my backbone have scoliosis?

Keep in mind that I’m building in paper and don’t proxy, so while Mana Crypt might belong in nearly any deck I would never consider it part of a mono-colored deck’s backbone. For me, those high-priced, high-impact cards are what I add to the decks I love the most and want to perform the best, but they don’t just go in every deck.

The bottom line is that I don’t have all the answers, and that’s where you come in. What do you think is essential for any mono-colored deck? Tell me in the comments below.

That’s all I’ve got for you today. Thanks for reading and I’ll see you next week!