Welcome back! I hope everybody had a fun, memorable and safe holiday season and are all looking forward to some quality Magic: the Gathering in 2022. The pandemic remains a central concern dictating how, when and where non-online Magic can be played; before all else, it’s important to make sure you feel safe and comfortable with your surroundings.
The series of articles I’ve been writing for the past two months operates on the simple premise of trying to build highly playable and synergistic decks on a very non-competitive budget. I love deck building and it’s my absolute favorite part of playing Magic: the Gathering. I always say that in terms of quality gameplay the number one thing I’m looking for and value the most are quality and quantity of choices: building Commander decks (even on a modest budget) offers both in spades.
Another element of my budget Commander series that I wanted to stress is: how to build better budget decks. Sure, I post a well thought out and executed 99 in each article, but ultimately my hope is that any player looking to get enjoyment out of the social element of in-person play would be able to take the strategies I’ve utilized in the series and apply them to bringing their own fun, flavorful deckbuilding ideas to life on the battlefield.
Today’s article isn’t a deck but rather what I would consider to be a subset of cards that make up a deck, i.e. the best budget mana artifacts in the game. The cards I’ll be featuring in today’s article really are the “best possible bang for your buck” in terms of what they offer.
As it stands, if I were building a deck with an unlimited budget, these are cards that would make the cut despite the fact they have variants that run between 50 cents and a few bucks. I also focused my search on cards that have no mana identity color requirements, so regardless of whether a player is looking to build an Esper, Rakdos or even a five-color deck, all of these cards will be ready to help not only bring your ideas to life, but provide an excellent mana base foundation to build that idea upon.
A recent printing from Innistrad: Midnight Hunt, Moonsilver Key is a fantastic little tutor/mana fixer. Obviously, the card allows you to color fix in a multicolor deck by finding the appropriate color of basic land, but more importantly is the clause that allows you to search for an artifact with a mana ability.
I’m going to go ahead and spoiler my top eight by saying that Sol Ring is the format defining spell of Commander. There’s no better card in the format at any budget cost and so ensuring we can easily and consistently find Sol Ring to reap the rewards of two extra mana is fantastic. Moonsilver Key can also find other mana rocks that produce an abundance of extra mana (Thran Dynamo, Everflowing Chalice or Gilded Lotus) to create an infinite combo or really accelerate your mana production to the endgame stages. Overall, it’s a very useful tutor/mana fixer.
Hedron Archive is an incredible mana acceleration spell. We’ve seen several upgraded Explosive Vegetation variants over the past two years that are limited to green’s color identity but in most cases, it’s the case these spells pale in comparison to the options offered by Hedron Archive.
While Hedron Archive (like all mana producing artifacts) is vulnerable to board sweeping Shatterstorm effects such as Akroma’s Vengeance or Oblivion Stone and doens’t fix colors, the ability to trade the Archive in for two cards later in the game is a huge boon. Keep in mind, we can also hold up the Archive to cast instants or cash it in for extra cards if an opponent has an artifact sweeper.
Solemn Simulacrum is a card that looks incredible on paper, feels like it ought to be less of a big game, but then always overperforms in practice. It is an especially terrific card when playing against other non-competitive (cEDH) opponents.
It’s sort of a great card that will often be an easy three-for-one. It nets a land (and ramps) when it enters the battlefield, participates in combat to pressure opposing planeswalkers or life totals and can often trade in combat or chump block to prevent damage and then draws another card. I tend to think decks built around “blinking” your own creatures in and out of combat to generate additional ETB triggers tend to be great and Solemn is one of the best blink-value cogs for spamming value mana and card advantage loops.
The simplicity of Wayfarer’s Bauble is part of its charm. It goes into any deck and provides an easy and elegant play pattern that sets us right on the path of facilitating our deck. In a budget deck, there are not a ton of great one-mana plays and the Bauble sets us up with a one-two sequence that not only color fixes our mana but also accelerates us to four and in any color identity (even non-green based decks with limited options to mana fixing or acceleration).
Obviously, Signets won’t appear on my list because they have color identity restrictions but we do know that accelerating through turns one and two will allow us to make four mana on turn three. There tends to be a big difference between what a player gets in terms of up value for playing a three-drop or a four-drop so I tend to build my decks with as much incentive to ramp to four mana on turn three.
I also love that Wayfarer’s Bauble allows us to tutor a basic directly into play, which is of course immune to artifact destruction like Akroma’s Vengeance or Austere Command. It’s basically like being able to play with Rampant Growth (a reason to select green in a Commander’s color identity) in any color. The Bauble can also be recurred and looped to ramp aggressively in decks that might otherwise have limited options to getting a lot of land in play ahead of schedule.
Like Command Tower and Sol Ring, Arcane Signet is a “super card” that’s designed to be a defining watermark of the Commander format. In terms of efficiency, it’s pound-for-pound a super fixer mana rock. The Talisman, Signet or Rampant Growth on turn two to accelerate to four the following turn is such an ingrained and important play pattern and Arcane Signet is simply the best of these options in terms of simply doing what we’d want a Signet to do. It doesn’t ping us for a damage like the Talisman or require an additional mana to invest to use, which means we can play it on turn two and still hold up a Dispel, Annul or cast a Ponder effect.
A worse variant, Fellwar Stone, is both useful and more expensive despite being an objectively worse Magic card by every observable metric. Luckily, as is the case with many of the cards on today’s list, WOTC recognizes the important role these staples play in sequencing and mana development and includes these cards (Sol Ring, Arcane Signet, Command Tower, Hedron Archive) in many of their Commander products, which helps keep the price nice and low relative to how powerful and important the cards are in the format.
An inverse of this dynamic would be a card like Jeweled Lotus:
Jeweled Lotus is a card obviously designed for Commander play but slotted as a Mythic Rare and not included in preconstructed decks. While it’s an incredibly powerful spell that’s format defining, the inaccessibility and corresponding expense of the card prices many players out. I’d love to see Jeweled Lotus reprinted in the precons like Arcane Signet, Command Tower and Sol Ring because it’s a ubiquitous card that feels like it should be budget friendly and format defining, yet isn’t.
As good as Arcane Signet is as a two-drop mana rock, I find Everflowing Chalice to be an even better and more important inclusion in a Commander deck. While it doesn’t color fix like a Signet, Chalice has the unique ability to serve double-duty as a two-drop rock (that gets us up to four mana on turn three) but also as a heavy hitter generator.
I see Everflowing Chalice as one of the most important budget Commander artifacts in the game because there are very few budget options of artifacts that truly accelerate hard by making multiple Mana. In fact, many of the cards that provide a similar effect tend to be cards that are decidedly not budget and most skew the power level in favor of expensive decks:
All of these cards also function as being “rituals” in the sense that they make more mana than they cost, but also importantly is the fact they produce more than one mana on a single tap like Everflowing Chalice.
Everflowing Chalice also does a couple of other things that are really neat. First, we can proliferate more charge counters onto it to really turn it into a mana engine. Second, it’s kind of neat that it can be tutored with Trinket Mage or Tolaria West in a blue deck or can be played for zero as a Mox with an Urza, Lord High Artificer or Galazeth Prismari in play. So, it’s particularly good in blue decks but still way ahead of the curve relative to other options in most decks.
Thran Dynamo is the most expensive card on my budget list (both in terms of price and mana value) but it’s a card that will make the cut in every Commander deck you ever build for the rest of your life! In terms of a single Magic card at this price point (~$4), Thran Dynamo is good enough and deserving of being in any deck at any budget.
In my opinion, Thran Dynamo is one of the most powerful and useful ramp spells currently legal in the Commander format. It sort of does all the things we’d want it to do especially in a non-green deck with limited access to powerful ramp options. Since I tend to use the play pattern of building my budget decks to ramp from a two-mana play into a four-mana play on turn three, I place a lot of value on four-mana spells having a big impact. You can already see based on my list that in terms of building budget decks, my mana picks play into this two-to-four mana deployment costs (Hedron Archive, Thran Dynamo and Everflowing Chalice). These cards in concert with a two-drop rock will allow a player to start dropping heavy hitters (mana value = 6+) on the fourth turn!
At $4, it’s a card that eats up a lot of budget when I write $40 budget articles, but it’s an Urza’s Saga block card that feels and plays like an Urza’s Saga block card, and has a price point that doesn’t feel like comparable cards. It’s a card that always makes the cut in my decks regardless of budget and a card that is well worth the investment in terms of output.
Sol Ring is so powerful and beyond the pale of what other cards offer that it’s kind of mindboggling why it’s even legal in the format! It’s a relic from the days of the power nine Moxen and Black Lotus which were banned from the format because they’re too powerful. With that said, given the option to play an on-color Mox (which is banned and costs thousands of dollars to acquire), I wouldn’t think twice about selecting a Sol Ring. It’s a better card!
Sol Ring and Mana Crypt are the de facto most powerful cards in Commander because they go into every single deck, function as rituals and provide outrageous mana production. The good thing about Sol Ring being the best card in the format (unlike Jeweled Lotus) is that WOTC makes Sol Ring readily available and inexpensive via redundant reprints and inclusions in preconstructed decks. So, players should have zero trouble finding an inexpensive version of the best card in the format to power up one’s deck.
I’ve also mentioned the two-to-four deployment progression as a way of building consistency and synergy into a budget Commander deck, but bear in mind that Sol Ring is so powerful that it breaks all those formulas in half. Sol Ring will ramp us straight to four mana on turn two or allow us to immediately tap for mana to cast one of our two-drop Signets to ramp straight to five on the second turn. No other cards provide as much explosiveness as Sol Ring and it’s partners-in-crime Mana Crypt and Mana Vault.
I wanted to talk about Gilded Lotus for a moment. I left it off my list because at about $5 a pop it’s really not a budget card but it does fall into the same category as Thran Dynamo where it’s likely one of the most powerful and useful deck building cards at its price point.
When I’m not building on a set budget, I would include Gilded Lotus in basically any non-green deck and it’s always one of the most impactful spells in my 99. I prefer Thran Dynamo because of the two-to-four synergy, but Gilded Lotus’s ability to produce mana of any color (as opposed to colorless) is unique and impactful.
If we look at the other available options that ramp multiple mana…
We will immediately notice they all make colorless mana as opposed to colored mana. I tend to find that blue decks have the most powerful endgame options and among the weakest color ramp options when not paired with green, which makes Gilded Lotus particularly unique and useful. For instance, I love tapping out for a Gilded Lotus when I have five mana and since the Lotus enters untapped, I can immediately be holding up UUU to cast a counterspell to defend myself in the upcoming turn cycle.
As a testament to Gilded Lotus, the existence of the card tends to impact my deck building in very real ways. I’m much more likely to play an Acquire than a Bribery in my 99 because I’d rather steal a Gilded Lotus than any creature. I love playing cards like Thieving Skydiver or Steal Artifact to snatch away one of these high production rocks.
One of the interesting things about building on a budget is that it limits our available card pool dramatically. If our budget is $40 to $50 for an entire deck, certain cards are not only off the table but not even in our universe as potential options even if they are the best cards:
Instead, it makes a lot of sense to identify what are the power cards in our price range, which is exactly what I’ve done here today. These eight cards (nine with Gilded Lotus) are in my opinion the absolute best value in terms of format defining power cards. Not only are they the most powerful cards available to budget builders, but I’ve taken it a step further and selected cards that can go into any and every deck you’d ever want to build.
I view these cards as a sort of budget skeleton that adds consistently and structure to whatever we build around them. Sort of a skeleton of mana sequencing upon which we attach the meat and muscle that will become our strategy.
I’d like to wish all the readers, players, and MTG fans (particular budget deck builders) the absolute best of luck both in life and bringing their ideas to life on the battlefield in 2022!