Welcome back to the third installment of my Best Budget Commanders series. This week, I’ll be diving into black: the color most closely associated with ambition, where almost anything is possible… for a price. I’ll also be showing you the top strategies in black that won’t cost you an arm and a leg.
This is a list of the best commanders in black for those that are on a budget. I’ll be highlighting the archetypes they best support, along with some of the most powerful spells and synergistic combos. Who knows, you might just find your new favorite deck!
Syr Konrad, the Grim – Mill
Many black-heavy strategies involve use of the graveyard to some degree. Syr Konrad, the Grim, a recent powerhouse from Throne of Eldraine, is one commander that leans into the graveyard much heavier than most. They are among the most powerful mono-black commanders, capable of taking out all other players with ease.
Syr Konrad loves nothing more than when creatures enter graveyards, so you’ll want to ensure this happens as often as possible. Dredge creatures like Stinkweed Imp are reliable for a quick burst of self-mill, and Mindwrack Harpy is a great repeatable effect to help trigger Konrad’s ability. Grindclock has a slower initial setup, but with just a few charge counters, it’ll be one of the more powerful mill pieces available to you.
Considering how quickly you’ll be filling your graveyard, you should be careful not to mill yourself out entirely. That’s where cards like Gravepurge come in: they not only prevent you from decking and help you set up your draws, but each creature that leaves your graveyard will trigger Syr Konrad again! Cadaver Imp can be used to treat your graveyard like a wishboard, grabbing you whatever tool you need for the job. Reassembling Skeleton is a fairly unassuming card on the surface, but when paired with Konrad, it’s basically a recurring burn spell.
Most decks need removal and card advantage, and Syr Konrad has access to many great, synergistic options. Plaguecrafter triggers your commander up to four times, once for each creature that dies! Funeral Rites is a great way to include a little bit of additional mill in your card draw spells, and Desecrated Tomb is a fantastic way to generate additional advantage every time a creature leaves your graveyard. Even if you don’t have your commander on board, these spells will perform admirably at any table.
You have a number of awesome ways to close out games with Syr Konrad. Mindcrank is a deadly way to compliment Konrad’s triggered ability: your opponents take damage for every creature that gets milled, which will in turn trigger Mindcrank. If any creatures are milled in this way, the loop repeats; this will continue until nobody mills a creature, which could result in your opponents losing on the spot, if you’re lucky! Morality Shift is another great choice; a one-shot way to win the game makes this an excellent topdeck in the late game, especially when you’ve worn your opponents down a bit already. Finally, Tainted Strike makes Syr Konrad’s ability lethal in just a few triggers. It’s great for when you have a few repeatable mill pieces set up, as it can easily end the game immediately.
If you’re looking for a value-oriented deck that can grind with the best of them — while also being a good topdeck away from winning — then Syr Konrad, the Grim is your knight in shining armor!
Shirei, Shizo’s Caretaker – Aristocrats
Aristocrats is an extremely popular strategy in Commander. It’s powerful, it’s resilient to most removal, and it’s truly a joy to play. Shirei, Shizo’s Caretaker is the best mono-black Aristocrats commander, as their ability allows you to return multiple creatures every single turn. A full turn cycle can be all you need to completely bury your opponents in value!
To take advantage of Shirei’s reanimation abilities, you’ll need creatures worth returning. Dusk Legion Zealot translates to an extra card per turn, and Yarok’s Fenlurker can shred your opponents’ hands to pieces in just a single turn cycle. You can use Big Game Hunter to great effect here, stopping any large creature that threatens to run over your naturally tiny creatures.
In order for Shirei to return these small creatures for value, you’ll need sacrifice outlets to put them in the graveyard. Viscera Seer is a classic of the archetype; a free, repeatable sacrifice effect with upside makes the vampire wizard one of the best options available. Soldevi Adnate may not be an infinitely repeatable sacrifice outlet, but it does ramp to help you get Shirei out a turn or two sooner. One-off sacrifice options like Village Rites are still a great inclusion in the deck, as their transience is a fair tradeoff for more immediate value.
You won’t be short of card draw in this deck, but cards like Midnight Reaper really kick the deck into overdrive: every sacrifice will translate to an additional card, and a board wipe turns into a whole new hand. Hope of Ghirapur is a neat little addition, allowing you to potentially lock one player out of noncreature spells for as long as you want. All of the deck’s pieces work well by themselves, but they really need Shirei to stick around for maximum impact. Dark Privilege is the perfect way to protect your legendary spirit, while giving you yet another sacrifice outlet!
While you can absolutely grind your opponents to dust, it’s still a good idea to include some dedicated win conditions to show mercy (or to start another game). Cards like Blood Artist and Zulaport Cutthroat are your go-to wincons, turning your sacrifices into constant sources of damage. Open the Graves is a somewhat slower way to close the game, but it forces opponents to use sweepers more often. It also generates tokens from every nontoken creature you lose to these sweepers, further insulating you from them. Finally, Bolas’s Citadel is a great “I win” card for this deck: Shirei decks tend to have a fairly low curve, so you should be able to throw a number of cards onto the board with ease. On top of that, the activated ability could easily annihilate your opponents, particularly if you have a Blood Artist effect on board at the time.
Shirei is a potent commander at any power level. If you decide to play with the Kamigawan spirit, you’ll find that you won’t sacrifice synergies or strength, even at lower budgets!
Gonti, Lord of Luxury – Play Your Deck/Theft
It’s great to see one of your friends drop a sweet new deck at the table. What’s even better is if you get to play with it! Gonti, Lord of Luxury is a unique black commander that allows you to steal cards from your opponents’ libraries. If you lean into their ability, you can build a fantastic and powerful deck: one that lies somewhere between theft and chaos strategies, and never feels unbalanced at any table.
Gonti, a self-proclaimed Lord of Luxury, surely wouldn’t dignify most acquisitions by stealing the merchandise themselves. Thankfully, you have several ways to take what’s needed. Dead Man’s Chest sets you up for a nice stash when the enchanted creature dies. You can use Praetor’s Grasp to search for the perfect answer to any problem — from grabbing a removal spell to stealing a game-winning combo. And Chaos Wand adds an exciting level of randomness to your games. Will you hope for a counterspell from the blue player, or try to snag a threat from the ramp deck?
Why stop at stealing from your opponents’ libraries? Does your opponent have a lovely-looking Elesh Norn in their graveyard? Rakshasa Debaser is the right cat for the job. Puppeteer Clique can pull up anything temporarily, but then exile it completely, making it the perfect card to deal with Reanimator decks. Thrilling Encore is an aptly-named card, as reanimating every creature that died, milled, or discarded is often enough to put you in a commanding position.
When Gonti does come out to do the dirty work, you’ll really want to maximize their time (and enter the battlefield ability). Conjurer’s Closet gives you an additional trigger every turn, and Strionic Resonator copies it when you play them. These cards work great together, too, giving you two additional triggers per turn! Skull Collector is a little slower, as you have to recast Gonti from your hand, but it does let you circumvent the commander tax, which is something I’m sure Gonti loathes to pay.
The aetherborn rogue isn’t the only member of this operation, either. There are plenty of henchmen whose enter the battlefield triggers are worth copying or reusing. Massacre Girl is first on the list, with a strong “slice first, ask questions later” attitude. Duplicant is your master of disguise, capable of sneaking in undetected and sabotaging your opponent’s plans. Entomber Exarch is the logistics member of your entourage, adept at sourcing the right tool for the job, or disabling your opponents’ security by making them discard that Wrath of God.
Gonti has friends in all the right places, and can adapt to any situation they see themselves in. If you like the idea of playing a quirky yet powerful deck that matches the power of the decks it faces, Gonti can hook you up.
Yargle, Glutton of Urborg – Equipment Voltron
Yargle may have achieved meme status, but the cursed frog from Dominaria is much more impressive than their abilities first suggest. Their phenomenally high power makes them an incredibly dangerous Voltron commander; all they need is a few pieces of equipment to swing for lethal.
Nine power is already impressive, but Yargle is happiest when they’re even bigger. Hero’s Blade gives our frog buddy a healthy boost of power and toughness, and it doesn’t even require an equip cost. Lashwrithe is an incredible payoff for running a predominantly basic mana base, and it scales well into the late game, too.
With all of these artifacts lying around, Cranial Plating is an amazing inclusion. With just a few mana rocks and equipment on board, it can potentially double our beastly commander’s damage output. As you can equip it at instant speed, you can even take an opponent by surprise!
If you decide to go all-in on Yargle as your primary threat, it’s important to have ways to keep them around. Undying Evil returns them to the battlefield if they die, and with an extra +1/+1 counter to boot. Unlikely Aid is one of the best options: giving Yargle indestructible means they don’t leave the battlefield, so you don’t need to re-equip anything. Rush of Vitality is very similar, but it also grants lifelink; this can be critical to winning damage races with other aggressive decks.
As with every other deck, synergistic pieces will serve to improve your deck’s overall feel and performance. Prowler’s Helm makes Yargle virtually unblockable, allowing you to break through big board stalls. Mask of Memory keeps the cards flowing, helping you to find the right cards for the occasion. Brass Squire is almost essential in any equipment-heavy deck, allowing you to circumvent often crippling equip costs.
Unlike white, black doesn’t have massive payoff cards like All That Glitters for Voltron decks. However, there are alternate versions that work beautifully with Yargle. Phyresis means a single extra point of power makes Yargle into a one-shot threat, thanks to infect. Fireshrieker is similar; double strike means a two-point increase is a one-shot kill, so one piece of equipment will usually be enough to eliminate a player. If Yargle keeps getting removed, however, it’s good to have an affordable backup threat. Squelching Leeches is excellent for closing the gap in games that have dragged on just a little too much, benefitting from the extra land drops you should have made by then.
Mono-Black Voltron isn’t exactly a well-worn archetype in Commander, but Yargle makes it a powerful choice!
K’rrik, Son of Yawgmoth – Life Gain
It’s well documented that Phyrexian mana is incredibly powerful, due to its ability to blur the lines between different resources. K’rrik, Son of Yawgmoth takes this mechanic to the extreme, turning every black mana symbol into Phyrexian mana and allowing you to pay copious amounts of life to get what you want. This can make for a terrifying commander that instills fear in many playgroups.
In order to maximize K’rrik’s ability, you’ll need as much life as you can get your hands on. Demon’s Horn will lessen the blow to your life total, letting you churn through your lower-costed spells. Cards like Blood Tithe are perfect to give you a quick burst of life; you can even pay two life for the black mana in its casting cost and still end up with seven life from the spell. The most effective way to maintain a solid life total, however, is through the use of the extort mechanic. Pontiff of Blight is the ultimate extort creature, applying the ability to every spell you cast. Instead of paying one black mana, you’ll be paying two life to gain one life from each opponent. At a full table, that translates to a net gain of one life from every spell you cast if you pay life, and three life if you pay a single black mana!
No matter how much life gain you have, there will be times where it just isn’t enough. If you find yourself running low, you can cast Profane Transfusion to swap life totals with an opponent for a boost; it often makes a decently-sized threat that can capitalize on that opponent’s sudden life loss. Magus of the Mirror has a similar effect, but it can only be used during your upkeep. Vito, Thorn of the Dusk Rose can easily recoup huge chunks of life by giving your creatures lifelink, and his Sanguine Bond-esque ability is deadly when paired with your extort creatures or life-swap spells.
You’re spoiled for choice when it comes to synergistic additions to this deck. Dread Presence is phenomenal here: you can turn land drops into card draw when you’re at a healthy life total, and gain life when you’re running low. Font of Agonies will be constantly stocked with blood counters, giving you repeatable removal at a great price. One of your most ruthlessly efficient card draw options is Greed. With K’rrik on board, you can simply pay four life per card; removing the mana requirements entirely turns this into a must-answer problem for your opponents, as you can easily run away with the game if this sticks around.
One of the most effective ways to win the game is to play Gray Merchant of Asphodel. When you’re maxing out on black mana symbols, your devotion count will naturally be high, so Gary can steal quite a few wins. With the amount of mana that you’re saving with every spell, it’s not strange to cast up to a dozen spells per turn; as a result, you can cast Tendrils of Agony as a way to bring a swift end to your opponents. Both Tendrils and Gary can gain you a glut of life when you need it, too, so they’re not just dead draws in the early-to-mid-game. If you want to go for the full flex win, you can always play a Dread Shade and knock out your opponents one by one (paying for the ability with life, of course).
K’rrik has my vote as the most quintessentially black commander. Their ambition is terrifying, and they can do anything if you’re desperate enough. Life gain decks tend to get some flak for being more casual, but anyone of that opinion has clearly never played against K’rrik, Son of Yawgmoth.
I hope this has shown the depth of black’s slice of the color pie, and how viable it is to terrorize your opponents on a budget!
What do you think of these commanders? What’s your favorite mono-black deck? Let me know over on Twitter! If you want to read the first two installments of Best Budget Commanders, you can find my articles on white here, and blue here.
Scott is an Irish content creator and the Head of Budget Magic for the Izzet League. He focuses on affordable decks in Pioneer, Modern, and Pauper, particularly ones that stray from the mainstream. When he’s not writing about his favorite decks, he can be found talking incessantly about them on Twitter and on The Budget Magic Cast.