Monomania - All Things Considered: Black
(Cabal Stronghold | Art by Dimitar Marinski)
The Reigning Champion
Greetings, everyone, and welcome back to Monomania. In this article series we examine and analyze all things mono-colored in Commander, placing a heightened focus on ramp and draw packages. For about a year we’ve been challenging staples and misconceptions about the color pie. Today, we plow onward with our holistic examination of each color on its own.
This most likely comes as no surprise, but black is an extremely powerful color on its own. It has everything you could possibly need in EDH—it makes big mana, it draws cards with bewildering efficiency, and it has more than a handful of cards that can win the game almost on their own. It even has the best tutors, great board wipes, and efficient creature removal. If I were to have written this article series a few years ago, there would be no question that black is the best mono-color in EDH. Recently, however, I believe that black may have been surpassed by another color that can also do everything all on its own. Even so, second place isn’t bad when it looks this good. Let’s try to summarize some of the powerful tools that black has to offer.
Black is good at ramp. That's not a joke. While black can't ramp on lands from the library like green, it has a suite of powerful effects that do ramp in the color. Instead of ramping one or two mana at a time, black has a penchant for producing big mana all in one go. Nothing epitomizes this aspect of the color's identity than our first group of cards.
Five cards truly form the base of black's power, and only one of them is actually black in identity. This is the infamous big-mana black package, which revolves around the extremely potent Cabal Coffers. To support this card, the big-mana package also includes Vesuva and Thespian's Stage to double up on your coffers. Although not entirely necessary in mono-black decks, Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth combines with the Coffers to produce extra mana. And even though Expedition Map isn't the most efficient tutor, it is very powerful when it can fetch one of these best cards in your deck.
Outside of this core of five cards, there are a couple other lands that can fit into a big-mana black package. While Cabal Stronghold isn't abusable with Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth because it specifies basic Swamp, in mono-black it is still a star. Additionally, Crypt of Agadeem is actually fairly underrated. In creature-based black decks with a focus on the graveyard, this Crypt can be better than Cabal Coffers. I have tapped Crypt of Agadeem for seventeen black mana before when I only had nine lands in play.
Whichever you prefer, these lands are a great boon for mono-black. Because the package is almost exlusively lands, there is almost no opportunity cost to include them, and mono-black can easily outpace ramp packages that do take up nonland spots. The importance of this combo cannot be understated. Yes, green has Gaea's Cradle and blue has Tolarian Academy, but they require specific card types, specific decks. If you're running mono-black, there's no reason not to include Cabal Coffers and its friends.
Because black already already spouts mana like a garden hose, why not lean into that strength? Black has several other explosive cards that can help you cheat on mana. K'rrik, Son of Yawgmoth released last year to widespread acclaim and disgust, and it hasn't disappointed in its capacity to break a game wide open. When you cast K'rrik, you'll either win or lose almost immediately, and you'll most likely spew your hand and a good part of your deck onto the battlefield.
Not every color gets a mana-doubler. Really, it is almost exclusively considered a green ability, excepting symmetrical effects like Mana Flare. Black has Crypt Ghast, and it is a workhorse for the color. Finally, Black Market will produce ludicrous amounts of mana if left alone for a couple turn rotations. Personally, I prefer Revel in Riches, but both are great ramp effects in black. The flexibility of Treasure tokens compensates for the lower ceiling of mana production. Plus, it includes one of the prettiest alternate win conditions I've ever seen.
There are several other miscellaneous ramp effects in black. Check the list below for all of them, but I've included three of my favorites above. Last month, in my blue article, I discussed how High Tide should probably be in every blue deck. Bubbling Muck is worse because it's a sorcery, black has fewer ways to abuse instants and sorceries, and because the color just needs less support to produce big mana. But, it is still a great big-mana effect. Soldevi Adnate is a criminally underrated tool for aristocrat decks. Sacrificing a Solemn Simulacrum to draw a card and produce four mana feels incredible and is a good compliment to the bevy of draw effects attached to sacrifice costs. Finally, Magus of the Coffers is still decent even though it's just Cabal Coffers for five mana on a body with summoning sickness. It just goes to show how broken Cabal Coffers is as a free land inclusion.
Like blue, black has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to its options for card advantage, and, like blue, it has enough card advantage support to create several different card advantage packages. We all already know about Phyrexian Arena, so let's look at some other options.
We spent the previous section discussing black's potential for big mana. What would big mana be without a sink like Dregs of Sorrow? I love this spell; it functions as both card advantage and mass removal. In this same category of X-spell card advantage, we also have Diabolic Revelation, a card that can get you everything you need when you have enough mana. Black also has ways of dregging the graveyard for value, and Phyrexian Reclamation is perhaps the best card in this category, although Oversold Cemetery is a pet card of mine. Black also has several cards that allow you to pay life and mana for a single card. These effects include Greed, Erebos, God of the Dead, and another sleeper, Arguel's Blood Fast.
One theme with plentiful support is the aristocrats package. These cards require that you sacrifice your own creatures for card advantage. Is there anything more black than that? Good examples of cards that fit well in this package include the three listed above as well as Altar's Reap, God-Eternal Bontu, Infernal Tribute, Priest of Forgotten Gods, Grim Haruspex, Midnight Reaper, Dark Prophecy, Disciple of Bolas, and Harvester of Souls. This group of cards can form an incredible card advantage package for decks that are already packing recursive creatures like Gravecrawler or Bloodghast and/or an abundance of death triggers as seen on Blood Artist and the new Bastion of Remembrance.
Finally, the best of the rest. There are several incredible instants and sorceries in black that allow you to draw cards. The best for multiplayer may just be Syphon Mind. In most circumstances, this is a draw three for four mana that also hits your opponents' hands. It is a ludicrous rate with zero downside. Other good instants or sorceries that produce card advantage with no strings attached are Night's Whisper, Sign in Blood, Read the Bones, Promise of Power, Moonlight Bargain, Ancient Craving, and Ambition's Cost.
Demons, the poster children of black, are also known to churn out card advantage. Vilis, Kothophed, Soul Hoarder, and Razaketh, the Foulblooded are examples of bomb Demons that can also refill your hand in a pinch.
Part of black's color identity is drawing value from the graveyard and the vampiric draining of blood—taking the life force of another for yourself. These concepts translate to powerful gameplay mechanics for our format that make winning fairly simple in mono-black.
Big-mana black loves X-spells. Torment of Hailfire and Exsanguinate are the two best win conditions within this category. Torment is a miserable spell. In true Bolas fashion, your opponents may think they can survive it. They may even have a shred of hope, counting up their nonland permanents and doing mental math for a couple minutes But they're almost always dead.
Exsanguinate is one of my favorite spells in the color. Why is this an instant? Even when you don't have the mana to house the table, it can be a half measure to buffer your life total while knocking down your opponents a little bit.
Kokusho, the Evening Star is another perennial staple of black. This card swings life totals by a significant amount, and if you can find a way to loop it in and out of the graveyard, you can take out the table in one go.
The color has a few options that drain your opponents when creatures die. Blood Artist is the most famous of these, but he has company from cards like Zulaport Cutthroat, Falkenrath Noble and Vindictive Vampire. When you're only playing black, Gray Merchant of Asphodel can serve as a second copy of Kokusho. I've seen it even be better, draining each opponent for more than ten life and gaining you over thirty. That level of life total swing is near insurmountable.
Rise of the Dark Realms is a fragile win condition--one board wipe and it is effectively countered. But if you can play this at instant speed, it's an easy way to close out a long game. Another card I love in terms of mass resurrection is Twilight's Call, which has an instant-speed mode baked into its card text.
Finally, black has a few potent two-card combos that are easy to assemble and leave little room for meddling. The most famous of these combos is Sanguine Bond and Exquisite Blood. With these two enchantments on the battlefield, you just need one opponent to lose one point of life and you instantly win.
From my perspective, the power of each color has shifted dramatically in EDH in the past few years. I remember when mono-red was the punching bag of the EDH community, and now it’s white. Ever since I started playing EDH, mono-black was far and away considered the most powerful of the colors when built on its own, but now I believe that title is in contention. It’s a testament to the evolution of the format and the recent work of Wizards that the power levels of the colors has been in such rapid flux, especially when we already have the entire history of the game to build with. It takes big shifts to move the needle. Anyways, as always, I want to use this space to highlight a few underloved cards that more people should be playing.
There are a lot of sleeper cards in black to highlight here. Speaking on two card combos, Bloodchief Ascension forms a two-card combo with Mindcrank. I like this combo a lot because both cards are cheap to cast and because Bloodchief Ascension can be a group slug win condition on its own. If you can't find Mindcrank, Ascension can easily take over a game on its own. Minions' Murmurs is one of the more powerful draw spells in black and it only sees play in 211 decks listed on EDHREC. This card deserves more spots than that. Just don't cast it when your minion count is higher than your life total--just like other black draw spells, you can kill yourself with it. Spoils of Evil is one of my favorite big-mana spells in any color. While it is dependent on the graveyard of an opponent, it counts both creatures and artifacts, it gains you life, and it is an instant. Black lives and dies by incremental changes in life total, and Spoils of Evil gives you a bit of padding while facilitating big-mana plays. There are plenty of other underplayed cards in this color, so check the list below for more of my picks.
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What became clear to me while writing this article is why mono-black is so much stronger than almost every other color. While mono-blue has efficient combos and draw, it struggles in other areas. Black does everything—it wipes the board like white, draws cards like blue, gets aggressive like red, and generates big mana like green. There are some weak spots, but a ton of power to help make up for it.
What do you all think? Do you think black was, has been, or is the best mono-color in EDH? What are your favorite mono-black commanders and strategies? Let me know in the comments! Remember to EDHREC responsibly: always dig a little beyond the statistics. I’ll see you all on down the road.