MTGO on the Cheap: Rainbow Stairwell

I’m continuing my exploration of the more unusual Magic Online formats. Last time I talked about the highly addictive Singleton format. This week I want to look at a specialized Singleton format — Rainbow Stairwell.

I’m continuing my exploration of the more unusual Magic Online formats. Last time I talked about the Highlander (Singleton) format. This week I want to look at a specialized Singleton format – Rainbow Stairwell. Rainbow Stairwell requires you to play one White card with a converted mana cost (CMC) of one, and one each with a CMC of two, three, four, five and six. It also requires you to play the same progression of six cards with CMCs of one through six in each of the other colors, as well as artifacts with those same CMCs.

Singleton is the online Highlander format – meaning that your 60-card deck can contain no more than one copy of any given card other than basic lands. Rainbow Stairwell is a Singleton variant – or maybe not. There’s some debate on this.

Rainbow Stairwell was invented on Apprentice, and originally used T1 format and a mana base using all dual lands. When it was ported to MTGO, duals were not available, so the mana base was modified. Since it is a fan-created format, with the rules developed on the bulletin boards, there is some disagreement about what mana base is appropriate.

One school of thought calls for a mana base of 3 of each basic lands, plus 2 of each 8th Edition tapland (Coastal Tower, Elfhame Palace, Salt Marsh, Shivan Oasis, Urborg Volcano, etc.) That would be 25 lands, 61 card decks, but would not be Singleton legal. A variant on that option is 3 of each basic land, one of each tapland, and another cycle of lands (e.g. each of the Onslaught fetchlands.) That is Singleton legal, but I don’t have the cards to do it. The other main school of thought plays 4 of each basic land, plus 4 other nonbasics (no duplicates), and people seem to refer to this as Rainbow Stairwell Highlander (RSH.) That version is Singleton legal, and that is what I have generally found people playing online. I will build decks to the RSH standard: 4 of each basic land, plus 4 non-basics of my choice (in other words, whatever four relevant nonbasics I happen to own.)

As I said, the format is not official, but by majority rule, with a dissenting minority. Right now the format has a number of players who argue in favor of certain rules. The vast majority seem to agree that gold cards, anything saying “non-basic land” – e.g. Molten Rain or Trench Wurm – and cards with casting costs of zero or more than six are illegal. Most agree that Wishes and anything with X in the casting cost are not allowed. Some players also argue that Pulses and Beacons, and possibly Bribery, are also illegal. I don’t think that the majority agrees that Pulses and Beacons are illegal, but I will skip them anyway, since I don’t want to anger anyone just to play a card that I can replace.

The discussion about rainbow stairwell occurs here. The third post includes a compilation of the rules, or at least the main versions.

Magic Online includes one nice feature that makes building a RSH deck a little easier. The deck construction screen allows you to display only cards of a certain color and to sort those cards by mana cost. When your collection is not very large, like mine, this makes it easy to find cards to fill each slot.

The first step in building a RSH deck is to decide what approach you want to take. Decks can go completely aggro, with lots of fast, aggressive creatures. They can go controllish, with lots of resets (Wrath of God, Akroma’s Vengeance) and some powerful win conditions that can survive those (e.g. Hammer of Bogardan, Millstone, etc.) RSH decks can also be a mix – a toolbox with a bit of everything. This last option may be best for casual play, since the games will always be interesting.

In my current deck, I have my basic lands plus a random assortment of what few nonbasic lands I own. My mana fixers are primarily Green, so I have slanted my lands to that color. I have a Pinecrest Ridge and a Tranquil Thicket, plus a Coastal Tower and a Waterveil Cavern. Sue me – it’s what I own. (With one exception: I have a Forbidden Orchard, but since I am playing beatdown, I really don’t want to provide my opponent with blockers.)

Sooner or later, though, I will upgrade, once I draft something or find a bargain somewhere. Ideally, I would look for a diverse mana base – some mix of City of Brass, Grand Coliseum, Mirrodin’s Core, Glimmervoid and Tendo Ice Bridge. With only 6 artifacts in the deck, Glimmervoid is risky. Tendo Ice Bridge is also questionable, since you may want/need the Bridge to produce colored mana more than once. If I were made of money, I would play City, Coliseum, Core and maybe a Planeshift Lair, but for now I’ll play what I have.

Next, I’m going to go through the slots card by card, with my recommendations on what you could play. I’ll note my choices for the best cards – money being no object – for aggro and for control, as well as what I’m playing. Please note that what I’m playing may change any time I draft.

I won’t mention some cycles that people may play. First off, of course, is the Hondens. Since this format is automatically 5 color Singleton, they can fit. They are not great, but they are affordable. The second cycle is Battlemages. Since IPA stuff is hideously overpriced, I can’t even conceive of owning them anytime soon, but they are very good.

So, on to the first slot…

White CMC 1:

In aggro, this slot goes to the dogs – Isamaru, Hound of Konda to be specific. If you don’t have that, Savannah Lions is the next best option. Dega Disciple is useful, but IPA stuff is expen$ive. For the less affluent, Empty-Shrine Kannushi should have protection from a lot of colors, unless your opponent is playing enough removal. If you are playing good equipment, Steelshaper’s Gift might be worthwhile. Weathered Wayfarer can be a mana fixer. Nova Cleric is a Tranquility that beats, just not very hard. For more controlling builds, Reciprocate or Kirtar’s Desire fit nicely, as does a Genju in decks with a lot of Wrath effects. I’m playing Reciprocate at the moment.

I’m still finding it hard to think in terms of MTGO. My initial thoughts, for a casting cost of W, were Swords to Plowshares, Tithe and Enlightened Tutor for funky combo decks. Online cards just are not that good.

White CMC 2:

The beatdown / utility choice seems to be Kami of the Ancient Law. If money is no object, and your mana base is solid, Degavolver would be great. I have also seen Otherworldly Journey and Candles’ Glow in these slots. I could even see Sensei Golden-Tail in this slot. Eight-and-a-Half-Tails, however, would be more questionable – having double White mana, or enough mana to get multiple uses out of him, is even more questionable. More controlling builds could play Disenchant or Pacifism, or even Sunscape Familiar. Beloved Chaplain is nice if you want a perpetual blocker or something to carry a Jitte that will definitely get past blockers. I’m playing the enchantment-kill Kami myself.

White: CMC3:

The two best cards here are Dismantling Blow and Orim’s Thunder. Thankfully, these cards are both relatively cheap. Personally, I run Dismantling Blow, because I want the cards, but Orim’s Thunder is my choice in my (real life) 5color deck, since it is more aggro and clearing blockers is important. I have also seen Cage of Hands, Kitsune Blademaster and Kabuto Moth in this slot (probably piloted by newer players), but there are better options. Another viable option is Renewed Faith, which cycles.

White CMC 4:

This is an interesting slot, if you consider having no bombs or obvious picks (at least for beatdown) interesting. Cloudchaser Eagle is probably the most utilitarian option, and what I’m playing at the moment. I have also seen people play Chastise, Benalish Heralds, Breath of Life, or the Honden of Cleansing Fire. If money allows, then the best beatdown option might be Windborn Muse, which makes racing a lot harder for your opponent. For control, if you have it, Wrath of God is the only real choice.

White CMC 5:

The beatdown creature of choice here might be Serra Angel. The double White can be a problem, but having both a four-power evasion creature and blocker can win races. I have also seen people run Glory, to help get the final damage through. Decent budget choices might be Second Thoughts, Angel of Mercy (3/3 evasion) or Karona’s Zealot. Zealot has morph, meaning that it dodges mana screw, but it can also be removal if you can block and flip it. I am currently playing Soul Nova in this slot, which is marginal but it does remove threats like Kokusho painlessly. Control decks, with money, can play Rout, Purify or Blinding Angel. Rout or Serra Angel seem like the best bets.

White CMC 6:

The six mana slot is the home of the Champions Dragons in many decks, Yosei goes here. Other strong options include Exalted Angel and (maybe) Patron of the Kitsune. Control decks can play Akroma’s Vengeance, Final Judgment or even Kirtar’s Wrath. Budget decks with mana concerns can play Noble Templar (Plainscycling.) The Templar is my current choice, but I also have a Pristine Angel and she might make the deck.

Blue CMC 1:

The first Blue slot can be card drawing (Opt, Serum Visions, Sleight of Hand, etc.) I want Brainstorm! The 1CMC Blue slot can hold a counter like Annul (since all opponents play 6 artifacts, and may play enchantments.) It could also contain beaters like Fairy Squadron or Genju of the Falls. I am playing Unsummon because my deck is primarily beatdown, and because this can also help my creatures dodge removal, but I may replace it with Curiosity, because I have a lot of evasion creatures (and because I still haven’t cracked a Genju.)

Blue CMC 2:

Generally people don’t play/allow split cards, otherwise Fire / Ice would be just fine. Beatdown decks with money could run Cetavolver; those without could run Sapphire Leech or Thought Eater. Riptide Mangler could be interesting. I am currently running Jilt, which is an affordable two-for-one card. Control decks could run Jilt, Prohibit, Jushi Apprentice, Thought Courier, a bounce spell like Consuming Vortex or Willbender (Willbender wrecked me recently.)

Blue CMC 3:

I have seen people running Echo Tracer in this slot, and using it as either a perpetual blocker or a bounce spell. Control decks might run Probe or – maybe – Repulse. Budget beatdown decks can always find cheap evasion creatures like Wind Drake. I currently am playing Wormfang Drake – I got one from a “12 cards for 1 TIX” dealer, and it is not only a 3/4 flier, it is also some protection against Wrath effects. The drawback is rarely a problem.

Blue CMC 4:

Control decks don’t have a lot of strong options here and generally use this slot for card drawing. Inspiration, Deep Analysis, Fact or Fiction or Thieving Magpie look like good options. Control decks might also consider Clone, which will match the biggest non-Legend creature or kill an annoying Legend. Budget beatdown decks have some options here. Thought Devourer (4/4) is the cheapest playable monster around. Hoverguard Observer (at 3/3) is the biggest one still in print. Ascending Aven is a 3/2, but with Morph and only one blue in the Morph cost it is less likely to sit dead in your hand. Shimmering Glasskite not as powerful, but it is hard to remove – and I am currently playing that about half the time. Once I improve my mana supply, I will also try Coastal Piracy, which should be good with the evasion creatures.

Blue CMC 5:

I own Meloku, the Clouded Mirror, so it rules this slot. I do not own an Acquire or Bribery as of yet, but they would be another serious choice – especially for control decks. Persuasion is another control option, but I have not seen anyone play that, as of yet. Budget beatdown decks could play Air Elemental – a fat monster that is really cheap to purchase online.

Blue CMC 6:

Fat Moti (Mahamoti Djinn) and Keiga are monsters that often fill this slot, but Jetting Glasskite is almost as big and harder to remove. I am still playing Shoreline Ranger to smooth my mana, but that may change. Control players play Opportunity, Confiscate or Time Stop. I could also see decks running Uyo, Arcanis or Upheaval here, if built accordingly.

Black CMC 1:

Control players have Duress or Innocent Blood. Beatdown decks could run Duskwalker, which becomes a 3/3 fear creature. I run Ghastly Demise. Other players have played Raise Dead, which seems sub-optimal but very cheap, or Nightscape Apprentice (which is broken with Battlemages and FTK.)

Black CMC 2:

The control players have Terror or, if they have money, Chainer’s Edict. This slot also has Tainted Pact, the best Highlander tutor ever printed. Budget beatdown decks have Nezumi Cutthroat and Skinthinner (which doubles as removal, and I cannot stress how good morph is if your mana is shaky.) I am playing Nezumi Graverobber, who is pretty good with all the land cyclers I run. Before I had a Graverobber, I ran Crypt Creeper, who could also deal with cards like Genesis. [Crypt KEEPER. -Knut, missing Rizzo just a little] Graverobber just does it better.

Black CMC 3:

Black has a lot of three-mana removal. I am currently running Rend Flesh in this slot, but Dark Banishing might be just as good. Buried Alive could be good with cards like Anger, Filth and Genesis. Generally though, most decks seem to run a Rend or Banishing here.

Black CMC 4:

Black has some interesting removal in this slot, lead by Agonizing Demise (if you are lucky enough to own Invasion.) Filth is an option, since you opponent will be playing Swamps. I am currently playing my budget beatdown creature of choice, Bog Wraith, which is a 3/3 swampwalker. Gravedigger is another budget option. If budget is not an issue, beatdown decks can try Phyrexian Scuta (best option for bad mana bases), Grinning Demon or Yukora – or Vampiric Spirit, because evasion is good. Control decks can play Barter in Blood, Hideous Laughter, or Diabolic Tutor. Eradicate is also available in this slot, but this is Singleton, after all.

Black CMC 5:

I was originally reduced to playing Gluttonous Zombie in this slot because I had nothing better. It does have some evasion, but it’s just bad. Now I’m playing Okiba-Gang Shinobi. For budget beatdown, the gang may be the best option. Other cheap options include Prowling Pangolin or Zombie Cutthroat (morph, again, to avoid color screw.) If budget is not a concern, Desolation Angel might be the best finisher. I’m not sure what control’s best card is for this slot. I’ve seen Sever Soul, but that seems only semi-useful. Maybe Annihilate.

Black CMC 6:

The cheapest budget card is probably Pull Under, which I am sorry to say I still run. Both Betrayal of Flesh and Twisted Abomination would be better, and not much more expensive. Silent Specter could be useful here – morph, evasion, useful ability, but for BB and some more Kokusho, the Evening Star seems like the best choice. Once I get one, I will also test Ink-Eyes in my deck, since evasion creatures and ninjutsu is a combo.

Red CMC 1:

I’m sorry to say that I play Shock in this slot, but I will change to Firebolt as soon as I can get one. That is probably the removal spell of choice for control as well, although some people advocate Strafe. The money-no-object card is probably Grim Lavamancer.

Red CMC 2:

The money-no-object card for control decks seems to be Breath of Darigaaz. Beatdown decks like Tribal Flames, for obvious reasons. Budget deckbuilders can stick in a Hearth Kami, since there are lots of artifacts in the format, or a burn spell like Magma Jet or Volcanic Hammer. I am playing Canyon Wildcat, because land walkers seem pretty nice, especially with Ninjas.

Red CMC 3:

Those with old cards will likely play Thunderscape Battlemage in this slot, but Rakavolver would be more fun. Barbed Lightning might be the best budget option. I have seen control decks playing Honden of Infinite Rage, although I could also see playing Hammer of Bogardan – the format is almost slow enough. I was playing Yamabushi’s Flame, but now have a Honden.

Red CMC 4:

If you have one, play your Flametongue Kavu. That’s true for control or beatdown decks. If you can’t afford to pay $15 or so for one uncommon, then consider Blistering Firecat (morph!) or Grab the Reins. If you don’t have those, then play Anaba Shaman, Hill Giant or Lightning Blast. I am playing Lightning Blast, but that will change once I draft something better.

Red CMC 5:

I am playing Sokenzan Bruiser, and I am having a lot of luck with landwalkers with equipment. Other solid creatures in this slot include Kumano and Arc-Slogger, and both beatdown and control like to play these creatures. I have seen people playing Tahngarth, Talruum Hero, and would consider Savage Firecat, but those are less useful than Kumano. The other card I would consider for budget decks is Pyrotechnics, which is flexible removal.

Red CMC 6:

Control decks seem to play Slice and Dice in this slot, which makes sense. Beatdown decks can play Bloodshot Cyclops or Halam Djinn. If you know your opponent, Mindblaze might be nice, but chancy. I had been playing Ryusei, the Falling Star in this slot, but he is not really that good – the Wrath effect almost invariably hurt me more than my opponent. Right now I am playing Chartooth Cougar, but I may try Two-Headed Dragon. Other options, which would require a lot of experimenting with cards I don’t yet own, might be Soulblast (triple Red?) or Worldgorger (“all in”) Dragon.

Green CMC 1:

I own a foil Birds of Paradise. I will be playing that. Other options include Lay of the Land, Llanowar Elves or Orochi Leafcaller. Beatdown decks can play Blurred Mongoose or Genju of the Cedars, and control decks might play Reclaim.

Green CMC 2:

Playable mana fixers might include Utopia Tree, or Sakura-Tribe Elder. Beatdown decks might play Werebear, or Predator’s Strike – or Kavu Titan if you have old cards. Control decks have fewer options – maybe Moment’s Peace or Naturalize. I am playing Rushwood Dryad, the budget option, because I still like landwalkers.

Green CMC 3:

Control decks will probably play Eternal Witness here because it is just a great card. Dedicated beatdown might play Call of the Herd. I play my Troll Ascetic, partly because I have some decent equipment and partly because I don’t own a Witness. The budget approach might be Kodama’s Reach, since budget decks generally have mana problems. If you are really building just to have fun, consider Anavolver, or Fierce Empath if you have a couple favorite bombs in the six-mana slots.

Green CMC 4:

Beatdown decks can play Phantom Centaur, or something like Iwamori of the Open Fist. Budget decks can play Karstoderm, or my personal choice, Nantuko Vigilante. The Vigilante has morph and doubles as a Disenchant, and I am playing it over landwalkers like Bull Hippo and Anaconda. I’m not quite sure what control decks should play here – possibly Creeping Mold or Explosive Vegetation, or maybe Krosan Beast as a finisher.

Green CMC 5:

Beatdown decks have a reasonably strong set of fatties here, but Genesis may be the best choice. Control decks (possibly all other decks) prefer All Sun’s Dawn, with Rude Awakening being a weaker second choice. Personally, I am playing Strength of Cedars, which works with my land walkers. Other budget choices might include some truly cheap commons, like Spined Wurm or Barkhide Mauler, or Llanowar Behemoth. The first two, at least, are often available in the “64 cards for 1 TIX” lots.

Green CMC 6:

The upper end Green slot is generally going to be the home of legendary monsters such as Jugan, Silvos, Kamahl or Rhox. Even control decks have few options to a big beater. The semi-bargain options include One Dozen Eyes or Elvish Aberration. The true bargain option – and the card I am running – is Moss Kami. The other option I might consider is Collective Unconscious, which I picked up in a 888 draft over the weekend.

Artifact CMC 1:

The cheap mana fixers include Wayfarer’s Bauble and Chromatic Sphere. Beatdown decks might try Aether Vial, but it does not work as well in RSH decks, because of the varied mana costs. At the moment, beatdown decks can also run Skullclamp, but that will be banned shortly in Singleton, then Bonesplitter will become the best equipment in this slot. Currently, I am running Wayfarer’s Bauble, but I will shift to Chromatic Sphere (for the card drawing) once my mana base gets a bit better. Other decks might consider Sensei’s Divining Top, especially if they have some land searchers to shuffle the deck.

Artifact CMC 2:

The obvious broken card for this slot is Umezawa’s Jitte. Control decks, which want a lot of mana, might also consider Journeyer’s Kite, or Sun Droplet. I’m playing the Kite, obviously because I have not yet cracked a Jitte. The budget options might include Mask of Memory (card drawing is good), Lightning Greaves or No-Dachi – or a Myr if you have no bucks at all.

Artifact CMC 3:

The budget option here is Darksteel Ingot, the cheap mana fixer, or something fun like Loxodon Warhammer. Control decks can play Oblivion Stone, while beatdown decks play Sword of Fire and Ice. Some decks -especially those abusing FTK and Battlemages – play Crystal Shard. Personally, I’m playing my Sword of Fire and Ice.

Artifact CMC 4:

The two choices here appear to be Solemn Simulacrum, to fix mana and draw cards, or Etched Oracle. Etched Oracle should always have four counters, plus mana to draw cards, and I think EO belongs in all beatdown or control decks. I have seen decks running Icy Manipulator in the four slot, but Etched Oracle is the right answer.

Artifact CMC 5:

This slot is usually occupied by card drawing, such as Moonring Mirror (or, one step down, Mind’s Eye.) The beatdown option for this slot is probably Razormane Masticore. More amusing possibilities could include Clearwater Goblet or Door to Nothingness, but these are more fun than competitive. The bargain option is probably Skyreach Manta, which is what I’m playing.

Artifact CMC 6:

I have to admit to playing Goblin Dirigible in this slot, because I just don’t own better options. Real decks run Duplicant or Tatsumasa, the Dragon’s Fang. Triskelion is also an option, but only if you have some method of bouncing or repeatedly reanimating it. Budget decks can run Mirror Golem or Razor Golem, or, I guess the Dirigible.

The best part about Rainbow Stairwell is that you can build interesting decks from recent sets, and do it for very little money. For example, here’s a Samurai build. The cards are generally pretty cheap – for the few exceptions, I have included cheaper alternatives in parenthesis.

White: Devoted Retainer; Sensei, Golden Tail; Kitsune Blademaster; Nagao, Bound by Honor; Glory (Soul Nova); Takeno, Samurai General (Silverstorm Samurai.)

Blue: Unsummon; Phantom Wings/Jilt; Repulse; Ninja of the Deep Hours; Higure, the Still Wind (or Honden or Air Elemental); Opportunity.

Black: Ghastly Demise; Graverobber; Nezumi Ronin; Agonizing Demise; Patriarch’s Bidding (Okiba-Gang Shinobi), Kokusho.

Red: Firebolt; Battlemade Ronin; Ronin Houndmaster; Fumiko, the Lowblood; Cliffrider Ronin; Godo, Bandit Warlord.

Green: Birds of Paradise (Orochi Leafcaller), Predator’s Strike; Isao, Enlightened Bushi; Karstoderm; Fangren Hunter; Moss Kami.

Artifact: Shuriken; Jitte (No-Dachi); Ronin Warclub; Etched Oracle; Coat of Arms; Duplicant.

Spiritcraft decks are even easier, but I’ll let you build that yourself. Just remember to include Lifespinner.


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