This entry is part 1 of 11 in the series The Power of the Dark Side

By Phil, AKA BeltFed Weapon


My favorite flavor text in all of magic is actually on a little known red card called Aggression and is a rip off from an epic quote from Blade Runner:


The star that burns twice as bright, burns half as long.


I have always thought this quote was misapplied to a red card since it basically sums up Black as a color.  Much like Roy from Blade Runner, Black is the color where you can do just about anything… at a cost.  It is the color that asks the most devotion (literally) for it to gain full effect of some its best spells and characteristics at the cost of eschewing other colors; it is the color that cares least about working with others.  Mono-Black is a surprisingly diverse and powerful archetype in commander and it is because Black asks so much as a color that you get a return in power for fully embracing the concept.


Even as a single color, mono-Black can be more than the control shell that most suits it.  It’s still a surprisingly diverse color identity in commander that by just keeping a core set of cards in the mono-Black shell and then swapping out the commander, you can have a whole new deck.  This is part of the reason why on, mono-Black is the most color type of deck.  While there are some constraints, the advent of Eldrazi and the ever-expanding collection of artifacts has filled in those holes nicely in the past few years.  There is essentially nothing Black cannot do – often just as well as core abilities of other colors.     


This first article is part one of a four part series that showcases Black as a color.  The first three are on the strengths and the fourth is weakness and how to overcome them.  My aim in this first series is to highlight what Black does well and give my top ten cards in each category with some commentary.  These first few articles should serve as the basis to show new players how to play Black and what cards are best at doing the effect you want.  I would like to think I can impart some of my understanding of the color and show its appeal; I have been a Black player at heart for the past 24 years.  Ever since I cast a Hypnotic Specter on turn one with a Dark Ritual, followed by Hymn to Tourach or Sinkhole on turn two, and then cast Necropotence on turn three, I have willingly given Black most of my focus in magic, exploring its various facets.   


The Best of Black


I) Tutoring


Black is the undisputed best color at finding the exact card you need at the moment and putting it either in hand or on top of your library.  This “tutor” ability, derives its namesake from Demonic Tutor in the original Alpha print run.  It was the first card to use the mechanic where you searched your library and put a card directly into your hand.  All for 1B!  They don’t make sorceries like that anymore and it is still the premiere ‘tutor’ card in the format.  The ability in Black often speaks of some kind of faustian pact that requires life (Vampiric Tutor, Imperial Seal, Grim Tutor), a sacrificial creature (Diabolic Intent, Sidisi, Undead Vizier), or just in the art (Diabolic Tutor, Demonic Collusion, Beseech the Queen) for power.  This mechanic of unconditional searching that often puts the card directly into hand is the hallmark of Black more than any other mechanic.  When playgroups ban or restrict tutoring, that is the equivalent of Blue not being able to cast counterspells or Green not being allowed to ramp.  The 10 best tutors to play in mono Black in a rough ranking order are:


  1. Demonic Tutor


As I said above, the original in this case is still the best.  Unqualified selection that goes right to the hand for 1B with no other payment is unparalleled.  A lot of people run Diabolic Tutor without blinking an eye and it’s because that is still a fair price for the effect at twice the cost.  Most of the time, I use my tutors as silver bullets to address a specific problem or to put a game away.  If I draw a cheap one early however, I generally use it to get my Sol Ring.


  1. Vampiric Tutor
  2. Imperial Seal (yes, I know it’s pricey)
  3. Grim Tutor
  4. Beseech the Queen
  5. Dark Petition
  6. Diabolic Intent *
  7. Sidisi, Undead Vizier *
  8. Increasing Ambition
  9. Rune-Scarred Demon *


Honorable Mentions: Liliana Vess, Praetor’s Grasp *


The * denotes extra value (i.e. mass removal, sac outlet, card draw, effects on a creature, etc)


Let me also address expensive cards.  Many of these cards are pricey – some prohibitively so.  Part of my goal is for readers to know about all the tools available and not exclude the high end stuff that they may not know exists.  While there will always be an option that is 75 – 90% as good for a fraction of the price, the premium stuff never gets mentioned and I wanted this series to point out the $500 option as well.


II) Ramp


Earlier, when I mentioned that Black is the color that asks for more exclusivity to harness its full power; Black-based ramp is a large part of that aspect of the color. The remainder comes from powerful cards like Phyrexian Obliterator needing a ridiculous BBBB. The more important part though for a proper mono-Black deck comes from the fact that Black’s primary ramp best comes in the form of having basic swamps in play that make BB or more.  There are multiple cards that make your swamps produce this extra mana, but this necessarily limits non-basics and other colors.  I see people running two-color decks that pair any other color outside of Green  still use these swamp-doubling effects; I personally do not.


Short of Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth, you are likely generating half the mana with the same amount of card slots.  Relying on Urborg also becomes an easy way for a Strip Mine to essentially single-handedly turn off a Cabal Coffers, Crypt Ghast, and Caged Sun in your multicolor deck.  I know, because I do it regularly against other players.  Artifact ramp has a lot of options that also provide color-fixing and ramp more suitable for two colors.


Like Green, the upside is that is Black-based ramp is land-based.  Unlike Green, it’s less about the sheer volume of land and rather the extra mana that comes from Crypt Ghast or Gauntlet of Power being in play.  What this means, unfortunately, is that Black’s boosts are far more socially acceptable to remove than the typically frowned upon mass land destruction that could counter Green’s ramp package.


I am also going to include some artifacts in the top 10 as these are more durable and often critical to a good ramp package in Black.  I have purposefully left off obvious cards like Sol Ring, Solemn Simulacrum, and Mana Crypt.  Lands are also excluded as Cabal Coffers and his brethren have their own section in the next article.  Also note that many of these are creatures that have a beefy body and can swing if needed or have another relevant effect the card provides outside of ramp.


1)   Crypt Ghast *


No real mono-Black deck is without a copy of this card.  NONE.  The card is cheap, ubiquitous, recurable, and even has extort on it.  What’s not to love?  This card is never a dead draw, as mana is your life in mono-Black decks.


2)  Candelabra of Tawnos.  Remember that ‘expensive card’ disclaimer six paragraphs up?  Case in point.  Currently at a TCG-Mid of $470, it too can be yours!  In all seriousness though, one needs to know what a mono artifact is (you only use its ability once and you tap to do so – apparently before the tap symbol was created) and to acknowledge that you don’t trot this out until you have reason.  It only costs 1, so by sandbagging and holding onto it until you can use it, you explode and effectively triple your mana once you get a doubler out.


3)  Nirkana Revenant *

4)  Extraplanar Lens (I use snow-covered swamps for maximum effect and bling.  This card is a juicy target for removal however.   Live by the sword, die by the sword…)

5)  Caged Sun *

6)  Magus of the Coffers *

7)  Liliana of the Dark Realms *  All 3 modes are relevant and the unwary will only overlook her ultimate once!

8)  Gauntlet of Power *

9)  Black Market

10) Sword of the Animist *


Honorable Mention:  Thran Dynamo, Worn Powerstone, Paradox Engine, Unwinding Clock, Clock of Omens



III) Card Draw


Black is the second best card-drawing color; only Blue surpasses it.  What Blue gets in sheer value and options, Black gets in a reduced mana cost, generally the expense of some life.  However, in a format where you start out with 40 life – and with life gain relatively easy to come by – that’s not much of a cost.  Black does have fewer great options compared to Blue, but as EDH is an eternal format there are still plenty of tools at your disposal.  The only constraint is that the card you draw is generally at sorcery speed and it can get worrisome when you need the gas and are low on life.  Remember, a true Black player doesn’t worry too much if you go from three to one life with a Sign in Blood; you’re still in the game and likely just as much of a perilous position as you were before.  If you were going to die at 1 life, you’d probably die at 3 as well. In the case where you cast Sign in Blood,  at least you have two more cards in hand for only BB and hopefully something to get you out of your predicament.


  1. Necropotence


The unquestionable king of Black Card draw.  I am not normally so forceful, but you are missing out if you are in Black or Bx and are not running this card.  BBB is not that hard to cast in a two color deck.  Even in the Dimir colors of Blue-Black, Necropotence easily deserves a spot alongside Rhystic Study and Consecrated Sphinx.  Again, newer players may not see the value in the tradeoff of life for cards, but think about the tutors and other relevant cards that you should have in the deck that you will eventually find as you necro up the deck.  the massive card advantage you are cultivating using Necropotence.  Tutors can get you whatever you want, so you should include lifegain cards in your deck to fuel your draw power.  


Wurmcoil Engine is trouble for your opponents and gives you your life back via attacking and begins preserving it as a nasty blocker – fulfilling two roles at once.  Whip of Erebos is much the same, especially if paired with creatures that have ETBs and Conjurer’s Closet !  Crypt Incursion falls into this category as well.  These are all cards that do something else with the life gain as an upside.  A lesser, and too often quoted, example is Venser’s Journal – a card that I firmly believe is overhyped.  At five mana, the ability to keep a seven+ hand  isn’t strong enough to bother with, especially considering that you don’t get the life gain effect until your next upkeep.  That‘s a long time around the table when your opponents see you have your combo on the board and you just Necro’d for 20.  This is a perfect way to paint a target on yourself.  


If someone or a combinations of someones can hurt you, they will as it is easier to take you out now before you can regain that 20+ life and bring all those cards to bear against them.  If you want to run the journal, my advice is keep your hand size to 10 or less in the beginning.   It’s less obvious and as you begin to suppress the board with your card and mana advantage over the course of a few turns, you can then start to draw obscene amounts of cards.

2)  Phyrexian Arena

3)  Sign in Blood

4)  Night’s Whisper

5)  Graveborn Muse

6)  Wretched Confluence

7)  Bloodgift Demon

8)  Ob Nixilis Reignited

9)  Disciple of Bolas (rare life gain with your card draw)

10) Promise of Power


Honorable Mentions: Damnable Pact, Dusk Urchins, Baleful Force, Read the Bones


This list also purposefully leaves out some very good artifact-based card draw.  We will talk about that later as well.


That’s about it for today.  Next time: “The Power of the Dark Side – Part Two.”  There, I’m going to go over the next set of effects that Black does well, but maybe not as useful in commander, something like library hate.  I will, however, start off with a discussion on land-based ramp and an unapologetic endorsement of [card]Cabal Coffers[/cards].

Series NavigationThe Power of the Dark Side – Part II >>