In the Margins — Manalith
Currently there are 1,645 decks in the EDHREC database running Manalith, and not a single one of them should have it as part of the 99.
Welcome back to In the Margins, a semi-regular column where I focus on making marginal upgrades to your Commander deck. I wrote in my first article that I would be upping the complexity in future columns, and that was my intent. Something happened in a recent game however, and the best laid plains of mice and men did their thing and went awry. The impetus for this change? A player sat down across from me and dropped a turn three Manalith and my plans to write about Beseech the Queen flew out the window as if they had grown wings. Manalith? Ladies and gentlemen and those that identify as both and/or neither; stop running Manalith.
What in the midst lay but the Tower itself?
Before we go further I'd like to address something I probably should have covered in my first article. One thing I decided when I conceived of this column is I wanted to avoid discussion of whether or not you should be running any replacement for the card in the first place. An argument can be made that that you should avoid three-mana countermagic whenever possible, and I have seen the same said for three-drop mana rocks. Regardless of whether or not I agree, those ideas aren’t something I want to delve into here. If you’re running Manalith or Cancel you’ve decided to run a three drop rock or counter. Since you have made that decision, my focus will be better alternatives in those slots.
Built of brown stone, without a counterpart in the whole world
So what’s wrong with Manalith? It’s not the worst three-mana rock available. Phyrexian Lens, Celestial Prism, and Standing Stones would all win the dubious honor. The difference is that those three cards scarcely see play. Phyrexian Lens only appears in 66 decks in the EHDREC database, some of which actually want to lose life for strategic reasons, Celestial Prism is only stinking up eight lists, and Standing Stones is in three decks. For sanity's sake I’m just going to assume those three belong to artist Sandra Everingham and her proud parents.
Manalith, on the other hand, is in 1,645 decks, and some of those are recent partner precons. This means someone intentionally “improved” their deck by digging a Manalith out of a box and adding it to their brew. Cancel, at least, has the excuse of showing up multiple times in recent sets; people looking to add countermagic to a deck were able to just grab one from a draft chaff pile and slot it into a deck. Conversely Manalith has had one lone printing, way back in M12. If you’re adding Manalith to your deck you’ve actively sought out that card.
So you dug around in the longbox in the back of the closet to find a Manalith. That happened. Done is done. No need to dwell. We aren't here to build shame. Much. No, instead we’re here to fix these little mistakes and eke out whatever narrow advantage we can within reasonable means. So, let me present to you cards that should be in your deck before you even consider finding room for Manalith.
The round squat turret, blind as the fool's heart
Astral Cornucopia: Essentially a scaling Manalith, Astral Cornucopia costs XXX to cast, and comes into play with counters on it equal to X. It then taps for a mana for each counter on it, which means it taps for one if you paid three to cast it, two if you paid six, three if you paid nine, etc. Cards that scale with the amount of mana paid to cast them are generally very useful. Now, the fact that it taps for mana based on counters makes it vulnerable to removal via something like Vampire Hexmage or a blink effect, but it also can be abused by adding extra counters with proliferate or with commanders like Atraxa, Praetors' Voice or Vorel of the Hull Clade. Those upsides almost always outweigh the downsides. If anything I would argue that if someone wants to waste a Vampire Hexmage killing your mana rock then that’s probably a worthwhile trade.
Chromatic Lantern: Lantern is the 13th most frequently played artifact in Commander behind Sol Ring, the Signet Cycle, Solemn Simulacrum and the two haste boots. It provides as perfect mana fixing as can exist, and, I would argue, it probably should be in every three-, four- or five-color deck. Full stop. I even run it in a two-color deck that is particularly demanding on blue mana. I can remember multiple games where a Chromatic Lantern was the reason I won thanks to the fixing it provided, and that’s not something I can say about any other three-drop stone. It is in 31,289 decks and still probably isn’t played enough. Despite this, 151 of the 13 five-color commanders in the EDHREC database are running Manalith and not Chromatic Lantern.
Coalition Relic: Relic has a unique design. You can tap it for a mana of any color just like Manalith, or you can tap it to add a counter that allows you to get two mana next turn. What is particularly interesting about this is that it means if you have some way to multiply those counters you can add more than two mana to your pool every other turn, say with Doubling Season or Atraxa, Praetors' Voice. Yet there are currently 20 Atraxa decks using Manalith and not using Coalition Relic.
Not hear? When noise was everywhere! It toll'd increasing like a bell.
Commander's Sphere: What is really great about Commander's Sphere is that it can be sacrificed to draw a card, even when already tapped. Unlike Mind Stone, where you have to decide if you want to tap it to sacrifice it at the cost of one mana, Sphere can be sacrificed even when you’ve already used it. It never dies unused to a Vandalblast or Shatterstorm. Late game it essentially has cycling 2 in that you cast it for three, tap it for one, and sac it to draw a card. It’s excellent, and it seems plenty of players know that as it is slotted into 23,372 decks. Yet despite being included in the Daretti, Scrap Savant 2014 precon, a deck based around recycling artifacts, there are multiple Daretti decks running Manalith and not Commander’s Sphere. This means more than one person has taken their Commander’s Sphere out of the deck literally created to abuse it and replaced it with a worse variant.
Cultivator's Caravan: This is the newest addition to the “you shouldn’t be running Manalith” stable, which probably explains why it is only in 1,361 decks. Cultivator’s Caravan is a three-drop like all the rocks on this list, and it taps for one mana of any color, but it also can be crewed by tapping creatures with a total power of three or more to make it a 5/5 creature until then end of turn. That is pure upside in almost any deck, particularly if your commander doesn't have haste or has nothing else do to but turn on the Caravan.
Darksteel Ingot: Who wouldn’t want their Manalith to be indestructible? People, apparently. Of the ten most recently updated decks containing Manalith, half of them decided to not run Darksteel Ingot. Bear in mind Darksteel Ingot has six more printings than Manalith, and five of those are more recent than the lone M12 Manalith printing. A commander who destroys all non-land permanents when it dies like Child of Alara would seem to be a perfect home for an indestructible mana rock, yet nine Child decks on EDHREC are running Manalith instead.
How such a one was strong and such was bold
Spectral Searchlight: How many times have you been sitting in your pod with no answers in hand watching something gross about to do down, only to have the guy across the table say “If I had one more mana I could deal with that Blightsteel Colossus about to go John Cena on your butt.” It sure would be nice if you could lend that player a mana, but such a thing isn’t possible. Except it is! Spectral Searchlight is Manalith that lets you target a player. Is this really relevant very often? Of course not. But it happens. I’ve absolutely sat in games where the ability to loan a temporary ally a single mana could have stopped a win. There’s pretty much zero realistic downside to running Spectral Searchlight over Manalith, yet despite being recently reprinted in Conspiracy it has a home in almost 500 fewer decks.
Vessel of Endless Rest: It's Manalith that says that when it enters the battlefield put target card from a graveyard on the bottom of its owner's library. Vessel makes plays. It gets rid of that Bloodghast due to pop back next landfall by hiding it in Grenzo's dungeon. It puts that Sun Titan back in the owner's library where you can Bribery it next turn. It slides Gaddock Teeg where you can fetch it again with Captain Sisay. It's not always that flashy, but when it works it can be dazzling. Scion of the Ur-Dragon, a commander who searches your library for a dragon to copy and puts it into the graveyard is an ideal commander to abuse this ability since it lets you re-use a dragon by returning it back to the library. Still, 3% of the Scion decks on EDHREC are running Manalith over Vessel.
Those are the obvious “perfect” matches to Manalith in that they all produce any color mana at the exact same CMC. They’re essentially Manalith with a bonus stapled on. If Manalith were a steak dinner those would be a steak dinner with free desert.
Things get a little less perfect from here on out, because the next four cycles I’m going to discuss aren’t exact matches in that they produce specific colors of mana vs. any color. In a four and five color deck that may be relevant, but in two and three color decks 99.99% of the time there is rarely a functional difference between making the colors in your commander’s color identity, and making any color.
And such was fortunate yet each of old
Banner Cycle: Listen; these aren’t good. They’re not. They provided ramp and mana fixing for drafts during the multicolor-heavy Khans block, and they didn't do that particularly well. However if you’re running a wedge commander in the appropriate colors these provide you the same exact mana as a Manalith while also having the ability to be sacrificed to draw a card. At one mana in each of your respective colors that isn’t terribly efficient, but it’s also upside that Manalith does not provide. Yet, in looking at commanders from the very block where these were released, there are multiple decks that have chosen Manalith instead.
Cluestone Cycle: This is a cycle of ten mana rocks from Dragon's Maze that tap for the colors of their respective guild, and can be sacrificed to draw card. They are simple, clean, easy to use, and better than Manalith in a two-color deck.
Keyrune Cycle: similar to the cluestones, the keyrunes are a cycle of ten man rocks that tap for the color of the guild from which they draw their name. However, instead of being able to be sacrificed to the fickle gods of artifice in order to draw a card they instead can become a creature with a type and abilities whose flavor loosely matches their specific guild. The Boros Keyrune for example becomes a soldier with double strike, the Gruul Keyrune a beast with trample, etc. That's all upside over a Manalith. Still in the EDHREC database there are 23 Oloro, Ageless Ascetic decks with a lifegain theme running Manalith over the lifelinked Orzhov Keyrune.
Monument Cycle: The monument cycle of rocks are three-drop mana stones that become an 4/4 flying dragon artifact creature until the end of the turn for six mana. Mana rocks that can become a body when not used can be useful, though six mana is quite a sink. My bafflement here mostly comes from the flavor fails. There are actual decks on EDHREC led by the Tarkir Dragonlords where their owner has chosen to run a Manalith in the deck over the monument named after their general. You're killing Timmy, people. Killing him.
And yet dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set, and blew
Now, there's obviously some two-drop rocks that are even better than those three-drops, but I'm trying to illustrate the options at the same CMC so we get an apples-to-apples idea of what marginal improvements exist in this particular slot. Next time I'll dig deeper, this I swear to thee! Unless someone plays Eightfold Maze against me in which case I'll be back here rambling about white removal and trying to tie it into lines from Le Labyrinthe de Fortune.