The benefits of playing a single color

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By Niclas E.

When thinking about mono-colored decks in Highlander, one will immediately jump to your mind as the scourge of the format: RDW. No other mono-colored archetype has had as much continuous success as this one. And the reasons for that are pretty obvious: it’s easy and cheap to build, relatively straight forward and easy to play, remarkably consistent and has the added bonus of being able to generate a random win via Blood Moon. But even aside from this all-time format staple, mono-colored decks seem to gain more and more traction, with some even having success at major Highlander events. Still though, most players seem hesitant to try these decks themselves. While the benefits of RDW seem obvious, this is not really the case with other mono-colored builds. And why would you restrict yourself to a single color, when there’s no real benefit to it? Wouldn’t your deck be better if you’d add a second color? These are some of the questions that often come up. Many also think building mono-color is easier, because you don’t have to think about your manabase as much or because you don’t have as much options in general, or that decks like this are boring and can only follow a very limited subset of different gameplans in order to be successful. However, I believe that building, playing and optimizing a mono-colored deck is a valuable exercise that every Highlander player should try at least once, and that there’s untapped potential in mono-colored builds that many players overlook. In the following article, I will show five benefits of playing only a single color. Some of them might be obvious, others maybe not that much. However, I believe all of them are valid and should be taken into account when figuring out, what deck to build next. So without further ado, let’s get into it:

1. It’s cheap

Let’s start with the most obvious one: building with a single color is usually cheaper, as you don’t need expensive duals to make your deck function. That’s why mono-colored decks are both often recommended as budget options by older players and disliked by newer players because of their seeming lack of excitement. Classic mono-colored archetypes like RDW and White Weenie are often seen as dumb mindless aggro decks without much wiggle room for anything more than their narrow game plan. However, when taking all colors into account, you can build quite a lot of different archetypes: aggro, tempo, midrange, control and even some combo decks are all equally possible with just a single color. So no matter what kind of player you are, you can easily build a cheap deck that fits your playstyle with only a single color. I distinctly remember running into a mono-black Storm deck a few years back on Cockatrice, and although that deck might have been more of a fun experiment than a serious attempt at building something legitimately competitive, it still stands as a testament to the many possibilities of deckbuilding, even when you only have one color to work with. If you’d like something more conventional but still innovative, you should maybe have a look at some of the Big Red lists that had some moderate success at tournaments in Berlin lately. Going for the lategame and ramping into big threats might not be the things you usually would expect from a mono-red deck, but these builds prove that it’s still not a bad strategy. Color restrictions are only a surface level restriction on playstyle and archetype. The deeper you delve into the intricacies of the color of your choice, the more you will realize in how many different directions you can build with it.

2. Restriction builds creativity

Mark Rosewater himself once said this in regards to Magic design. In my experience, this is certainly also true for deckbuilding. Every time I tried to build a multicolor deck, I found the many available options to be as much liberating as they were overwhelming. I like playing with strange cards, cards that no one else plays, yet are deceptively powerful. However, the more colors I added to my deck, the more I was drawn towards random goodstuff, towards staples everyone and their grandmother has already seen a thousand times, and the result was as disappointing as I expected: it felt stale and played out. What’s the point of having a million different options, when in the end you’re just playing an amalgam of the same staples as everyone else anyway? The experience of building with only a single color is completely different and forces you to a much greater extend to focus on the internal consistency of your strategy, as there’s much less goodstuff to distract you from your intended goal. To optimize a mono-colored deck, you have to get creative, as there won’t be that many options available to you. Sounds a bit contradictory, doesn’t it? But I guarantee you it’s true. I can’t even count all the times I’ve been scouring lists of old sets to find some hidden gems, some fringe cards forgotten by the community at large, in order to solve some problem I ran into with one of my mono-colored decks. Every color has its weaknesses, weaknesses you will not be able to compensate as easily as in multicolor decks. That’s why it is even more important to focus on the strengths of your color and on your gameplan. Consistency is your biggest asset, and bad card choices hurt you more than usual. Sometimes it’s incredibly easy to find the right cards for your deck, as they are format staples anyway, but more often you’ll have to think outside the box. This can be a good way to cure your staple blindness, as you won’t be able to take the most obvious solution to every given problem. You will be forced to play with cards that seem bad at first glance, cards that you might have never played with before or that you would not have considered otherwise. And more often than not, you will find that these cards are way more powerful than you initially thought. On the other hand, the color restriction leads to some other interesting deckbuilding lessons you might not run into when building multicolor. For example, it often seems tempting to include all the best cards of the chosen color in your deck to make up for a seeming lack in card quality. This is even the case in some RDW lists that include versions of Chandra, which in my opinion is almost certainly wrong. A planeswalker might be tempting to include, but if it doesn’t really support your gameplan or even hinders it, you’re probably better off without it. The most aggregious offender in this regard is probably Necropotence though. It’s notorious as one of the most busted cards in the game ever, so it’s tempting to put it in every black deck ever, but in practice, the upside it provides is dubious at best. It’s an atrocious topdeck if you’re already low on life, and even early in the game it often tends to become a liability if you don’t have lifegain to offset paying life for every card you draw. So in conclusion, even when you limit yourself to just one color, card choices aren’t as obvious as they might seem at first and you will have to get pretty creative a lot of the time to find good solutions for your deckbuilding problems.

3. The manabase is great (obviously)

This is again one of the more obvious assets of mono-colored builds. No colorscrew, a resistance to nonbasic hate and the ability to play it yourself is one of the pay-offs that often draw people towards playing fewer colors. Red and Blue stand out as the colors with the best nonbasic hate with Back to Basics and Blood Moon, but the other colors each have their fair share of cards that punish greedy decks themselves: Primal Order and the slightly more awkward Hall of Gemstone in Green, Contamination and Infernal Darkness in Black. Only White is a bit lacking in this department, but it can profit from another benefit of a mono-colored manabase aswell: Since you will probably not get colorscrewed, you’re free to play more utility lands than usual. What’s better than lands that provide some sweet effect in addition to just mana? The problem with these lands though is that they often only produce colorless mana, which can make them a liability in decks that need to hit 3-4 colors to reliably cast their spells. With only one color needed, you won’t get screwed by your colorless lands as often. So feel free to include some more sweet utility lands than you would in your multicolor builds!

4. There’s more support than ever

When it comes to Magic in general, there’s little that is actually new. There’s a big chance that every new and innovative deck has at some point already been tried by someone else, at least if it’s not based on some new mechanic. Highlander is no different in that regard. The archetypes that succeed in the long run are those that put up the best results or that are championed by the most players. Archetypes that fail to do so often fall out of favor, get branded as „unplayable“ and never get tried again, unless maybe some really busted card gets released/unbanned that manages to resurrect them. Many mono-colored decks sadly fall into the latter category. What most people tend to overlook is that these archetypes they consigned to the dustbin of the format are not excluded from power creep and might be worth revisiting a few years after they have been deemed unplayable by the community. When I started playing my Mono-Black Suicide deck back in late 2012, the archetype was pretty much dead and had been for years. The only lists I could find at the time were at least 4 years old and had to have been pretty awful even back then. What spurred me on to build the deck anyway were good recent cards. Phyrexian Obliterator, Gravecrawler and Geralf’s Messenger had only just been released a few sets earlier and were among the main reasons for me to try the deck in the first place. Since then, nearly every new set has added at least one card as a potential option for the deck, and by now it’s leagues above the old lists I read back six years ago. Other mono-colored decks are no different. Out of the recent mechanics, Devotion especially was very helpful to give them a bit of an edge and with Theros probably primed for a return (not officially confirmed yet, but the signs are there all over the place in the last few sets), we will most likely see more sweet monocolor support in the future. So it might be worth it to give them another shot.

5. Trolling your opponents

The most often overlooked upside of playing rather unconventional decks (and let’s face it, most non-red mono-colored decks fit the bill here), is the amount of times your opponents either underestimate you or just flat-out don’t know how to correctly interact with your cards. And who could blame them? The Highlander meta, as diverse as it might be, mostly revolves around a relatively narrow set of staples in each color that everyone is familiar with. If your opponent is playing White and playing an average creature midrange deck for example, you can be relatively certain that they have Swords to Plowshares and Path to Exile, as well as probably a Stoneforge Mystic and 2-3 equipment spells. Given that information, you can try to sculpt your gameplan a bit to adjust to what your opponent might have. The more colors they play, the easier it often is to guess which cards of each color they have in their deck. And while variance makes it still hard to guess in advance what your opponent might have available to them at any given moment, chances are you will be familiar with their cards once they hit the battlefield and know how to react to them. What many people don’t take into account when constructing their decks is a certain surprise factor that comes with playing some fringe cards. There’s of course a reason why these cards are considered „fringe“, but too many people associate that word with „bad“, which is absolutely wrong in most cases. The power of these cards doesn’t only come from the cards themselves, but also from your opponent not knowing them. In a mono-colored deck that is not RDW, card choices might not be as immediately obvious and harder to predict than in many multicolor builds, as weird as that might sound. Every mono-colored deck will on average play more cards that don’t see play in multicolor decks of the same color, either because their casting cost is too restrictive or they are just slightly below some better option in the same slot. Or in other words, these decks play a higher amount of fringe cards. This means when piloting such a deck, you’re going to play a lot of cards your opponents will probably not be familiar with, and that’s a perfect way to cause them to make mistakes. I can’t tell how many games I won by my opponents just forgetting a certain fact about one of my cards and making a fatal mistake because of that. I had numerous games where they overextended like crazy, just to get their board wiped by Marsh Casualties; where they countered my Malicious Affliction without realizing that the copy I got from the Morbid trigger would kill their creature anyway; where they blocked my 4/3 Geralf’s Messenger with a 2/3 creature because they thought it would shrink like Kitchen Finks when coming back from the graveyard; or where they simply forgot that one of my creatures either had evasion or couldn’t block and didn’t attack when they should have. Usually, this happens more often at larger tournaments where you play against people you don’t know. At your local FNM, this effect will naturally wear off after a while, but even then you will be able to troll your opponent like this every time a new set comes out and adds some new spicy card to your arsenal.

So in conclusion, I can again only recommend trying to build a mono-colored deck at least once to anyone trying to get a deeper understanding of the Highlander format. Limiting yourself in this way will be an exercise in focused and deliberate deckbuilding, far away from most of the format’s staples, and will broaden your horizon to include more unconventional cards other people might have never thought about, all while probably costing you a lot less money than your average multicolor deck. Single-color decks are not a boring and linear bastion of newbies without a big enough card pool to support intricate multicolor builds, but a vast uncharted realm of deck diversity no less intricate than their colorful cousins. It’s up to you to explore this realm and uncover its many valuable secrets!