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Rainbow Stairwell – The Best Format You are Not Playing


- Pete Jahn


When I play MTGO, I am looking for interesting games with cool interactions, unexpected cards - and a real beginning, middle and end game. I’m not into turn two kills, nor dry, repetitive battles against the same decks. I also have a semi-limited cardpool and a budget, so I cannot compete in established formats like online extended. So what does that leave?


Well, if you like limited, drafting is an option. The decks will vary and everyone has roughly similar card pools (bombs aside.) Unfortunately, I am not that big a draft fan. It’s fine, but I don’t find it worth 13 TIX a shot. I also do some league play, but I really prefer constructed.


I could trade and buy the cards to build one solid Standard deck and play that. However, I play that enough in real life Magic, and having just one deck would make the format very stale very quickly. Extended would be even worse - I don’t have any of the online cards for Extended (basic lands aside.)


Singleton is a much more interesting format. Singleton allow just one copy of anything other than basic lands, meaning that I can build a fair number of decks from a limited card pool. For example, I opened one Veldaken Shackles, which is not enough to build a mono-blue deck for Standard, but works fine in Singleton.

The problem with Singleton is that my decks were good enough to smash the new players with limited experience, but would be crushed by the players with tuned decks and better card pools. The format was really uneven – I wanted something that could level the playing field a bit more.


Enter Rainbow Stairwell. Rainbow Stairwell is an even more restrictive form of Singleton. Each deck has to be either 60 (or 61) cards. It has to have cards from all five colors, and each color has to have six cards with converted casting costs of one through six. (Rules aside: converted mana cost – CMC – is the total casting cost of a card if all the mana were colorless. For example, Trained Armadon, with a casting cost of 1GG, has a converted mana cost of three.) You cannot play multicolored cards or split cards in Rainbow Stairwell, and certain other rules apply. The format rules are laid out in the forum discussion, here.


The people who created Rainbow Stairwell have a debate going about the appropriate land mix. One camp calls for four of each basic land (Plains, Island, Swamp, Mountain, Forest) plus one of each of the tap lands (Coastal Tower, Elfhame Palace, Salt Marsh, Shivan Oasis and Urborg Volcano.) Another camp calls for three of each basic, the five tap lands and one other 5-card cycle of non-basic lands. Personally, I have seen practically everything played. I now use three of each basic, plus the taplands and four other lands – but that’s just me. Play whatever you have – so far, no one has ever jumped on me for playing anything, not even sub-optimal lands like Waterveil Cavern. After all, it was pretty obvious I didn’t have anything better.


Getting the lands to work is important in this format. First, get the five tap lands. They are pretty cheap, and they really do help smooth out mana. After that, find some copies of five-colored lands, like City of Brass, Grand Coliseum, and Mirrodin’s Core. I bought the first two from MTGO Traders when I first started playing online and I have never regretted it. Getting the mana right is the most important thing you can do in any format, and these lands will always be playable in casual games – and many constructed formats. Lands also hold their value well.


Other options include five-colored lands like Forbidden Orchard and Glimmervoid, but both of which can hurt you. Ravnica will bring new options, in the meantime, play whatever you can find. Personally, I have been playing various green-producing non-basics: because my mana-fixers are mainly green, that’s the color I need most.


Once you have the best mana base you can get, the next step in building your deck is to decide what role you want to play. You can build an aggro deck, a control deck, or an aggro-control deck. All three are quite different. (You could also build a combo version, but that’s another article.)


A true control deck attempts to counter or remove all on an opponent’s threats, then win with whatever threat they have once control is established. Control decks love cards that can effectively deal with two or more of an opponent’s threats at once. A classic example is Wrath of God, which can destroy multiple opposing creatures for the price of one card.


A true aggro deck would use a lot of fast, evasive creatures and try to overwhelm the opponent as quickly as possible. Aggro creatures like to have powers higher than their casting cost, and preferably evasion so that they hit the opponent, not blockers. However, even in aggro decks, double duty cards are good. Nekrataal is a good example of a good double duty card – it is both a Terror and a beater – but it has a major problem in this format. Nekrataal has double black in the mana cost. With a deck that is already going to be struggling to find all five colors, your want to avoid playing second (or third) colored mana costs if at all possible. These cards are too often stuck in your hand.


Aggro-control decks combine aggressive creatures and enough control elements to clear the way for attacking creatures. Aggro-control decks never want cards like Wrath of God, but are quite happy with cards like Dark Banishing, which can remove blockers.


I will go through each converted mana cost one at a time and tell you what cards aggro decks might like, what control decks might play, and what I’m currently playing. I’ll also mention some budget options – but that’s really not very important, since the budget card to play is whatever you have that best fills the slot.


Here we go.


Converted Mana Cost of One:


At first, I thought these slots would be filled with fast, underpriced creatures, like Savannah Lions, or Isamaru, Hound of Kondo, or Jungle Lion. Now I’m not sure. Those creatures are great when you get them in play on turn one, but the odds of having both those cards and one of the – at best – 10 lands that produce that color of mana, both in hand on turn one, are pretty slim. Likewise, I have also revised my thoughts about the Genjus. Genjus beat, but you only have three or four of the appropriate basic land in the deck to cast them on. You can probably expect to cast them once reliably, and maybe twice, but that’s about it.


Instead, I like using the one mana slot for removal or mana fixing – and that goes for aggro, control or aggro-control. White can run Reciprocate or Weathered Wayfarer – and Enlightened Tutor once Mirage hits MTGO this winter. Blue can run Stifle, a draw spell like Serum Visions, or – if your mana base can handle it, a beater like Faerie Squadron (which you never want to play without the kicker.) Red’s best option is Firebolt (two hits!), although Shock and Frostling can work in budget decks. Black has Duress for control decks, and Ghastly Demise for aggro and aggro control, although, once again if your mana can handle it, Duskwalker can provide a nice, evasive creature when the kicker is paid. Green has Giant Growth or Nimble Mongoose for aggro, and Birds of Paradise or Lay of the Land to fix mana for everything else. Finally, artifacts can include mana fixers, like Chromatic Sphere or Wayfarer’s Bauble, aggressive equipment like Bonesplitter, card “drawing” like Sensei’s Divining Top, or utility, like Scrabbling Claws.


Personally, I run Reciprocate, Serum Visions, Ghastly Demise, Firebolt, FOIL Birds of Paradise (which I opened in my very first online tourney, an eighth edition league) and Sensei’s Divining Top. I’m only unsure about Top, since it slows the game down a lot and since I have only a couple shuffle effects.


Converted Mana Cost of Two:


I should mention now that the ‘Volvers, from Invasion block, are pretty sweet in the format, if you have pots of money. Degavolver fills the CMC 2 white slot, but turns into a 4/4 regenerating first striker if you pay both kickers. Very nice, but I won’t have one anytime soon. More affordable tricks include Disenchant, Pacifism and Kami of the Ancient Law. I like the Kami, since it beats effectively, as well as killing annoying enchantments.


Blue CMC two options include card drawing, like Merfolk Looter or Thought Courier, or utility spells like Consuming Vortex, Jilt or Fire/Ice. The best option for any deck is clearly Fire/Ice, if you can get one. I play Jilt, because it can generally remove two defenders to clear a path for my attackers. Another strong alternative, and one that can catch people really off guard, is Willbender.


Black has several decent options at the CMC 2 level. Nezumi Cutthroat has fear, but everyone in this format plays black creatures and artifacts. Nezumi Graverobber is better, since a lot of people play graveyard recursion and stealing opposing creatures is fun once Graverobber flips. Nezumi Shortfang is a decent control choice – it empties hands, then turns that into a win condition, but Chainer’s Edict is better. Finally, Terror is a decent choice for control and aggro decks – it always has targets, and it is quick, targeted removal. I run the Graverobber, but will try out the Shortfang I just drafted.


Red has several options – and will get another (Incinerate) once Mirage arrives. Right now, the best cheap options include Volcanic Hammer, Hearth Kami and Canyon Wildcats. I liked the idea of playing landwalkers for a while, especially cheap landwalkers like Wildcat and Rushwood Dryad, together with some Ninjas. Now, however, I prefer Tribal Flames (which can often be big) or Magma Jet. True control decks can play with Breath of Darigaaz, which can generally clear the board.


Green has several options, but I find the best to be a mana fixer, like Sakura Tribe Elder or Utopia Tree. A true beatdown deck could try Predator’ Strike, but mana fixers are better.


Finally, the 2cc artifact slot has several options, but two options outshine all others. The aggro card of choice is clearly Umezawa’s Jitte, which is just insane in any format involving creatures. The second option is another mana fixer, like Journeyer’s Kite. I like the mana fixer, especially when I have Sensei’s Divining Top out. The best budget option is probably Mask of Memory, since card drawing is always broken, but I would only play that with land walkers or other evasion creatures.


Converted Mana Cost of Three:


The three mana slot could be used for an evasive beater, like Pegasus Charger, or maybe Kabuto Moth, but my preference is one of the common Disenchant variants from Invasion Block. The are pretty cheap to buy, and really effective. Dismantling Blow kills what you need, and almost always draws cards. It is the control choice. Orim’s Thunder, on the other hand, usually goes two for one and helps clear the path for beaters.


I don’t have great ideas for 3cc blue cards. The budget option is Wind Drake, a cheap, evasive beater. Control decks probably want Probe, which is card advantage on both sides of the table. I have played around with Wormfang Drake (protection against Wrath of God and mass removal.) I have also seen Repulse and Exclude, or even Echo Tracer. Kira, Great Glass Spinner sounds good, except for the double blue in the casting cost.


I just got a Rakavolver (from this site, of course), and that is my flying, spirit-linked 5/5 win condition of choice, primarily because of the cool factor. Before that, I ran Honden of Infinite Rage, and before that I ran Yamabushi’s Flame and Ronin Houndmaster. If you have one, Thunderscape Battlemage is also a solid option for control decks – being enchantment kill and discard as well as a 2/2.


Black 3cc slot is almost always going to contain creature removal: Dark Banishing or Rend Flesh are probably the most versatile options. On the other hand, if you have Anger, Wonder, Genesis and so forth, Buried Alive would be an excellent option.


The green 3cc slot has a lot of options. Kodama’s Reach is the best color fixer around, and the choice of control decks. Call of the Herd brings great beats – twice, and edges out Troll Ascetic. Eternal Witness is amazing – although the double green casting cost is tough. The green Battlemage (Thornscape) is also fine, and very versatile. Less typical options might be Fierce Empath (if you have a favorite 6cc card you want to play.) I’m playing Anavolver, just for laughs.


The 3cc artifact slot almost always holds Sword of Fire and Ice, even in control. The other control option is probably Oblivion Stone, although I have seen a few people play Crystal Shard if they can bounce cards like Eternal Witness or the battlemages. A true budget choice might be Goblin Replica – it avoids mana screw, beats for two, and can kill an opponent’s Sword, as well.


Converted Mana Cost of Four:


The control option for white is Wrath of God – despite the double white. If mana – or price – is a concern, then Chastise can work. The beatdown option is probably Nagao, Bound by Honor, a 4/4 beater for four mana. Personally, I am playing Cloudchaser Eagle, for the enchantment kill, but that is probably sub-optimal.


The blue options in this slot are somewhat limited. Card drawing is probably best – starting with Deep Analysis, or going up to Fact or Fiction if you can afford it. The budget choice is Shimmering Glasskite, which is hard to remove, but Ascending Aven is better beats. It is a 3/2, with only one blue in the unMorph cost.


Black four mana cost cards have a couple good options. Beatdown has Bog Wraith – a nice evasion creature for budget decks, or Filth. Filth, if you can get it into the graveyard, should give all your creatures evasion. If you prefer removal, Agonizing Demise will fill the bill, and if you have no cards and no budget, Gravedigger works. My preference is more controllish – I run Bane of the Living.


Red four mana slot have one clear favorite, for beatdown or control, and that is Flametongue Kavu. I don’t have one. As a fallback, I play Grab the Reins, which doubles as both creature steal for final strikes and as removal. Anger might be an alternative, but I haven’t tried that, yet. The budget options might be Mire Kavu, which will probably always be a 4/3, or Shaleskin Plower, which does not beat as hard but has Morph, and it can mana screw opponents on occasion.


Green has more interesting four mana options. Personally, I play Nantuko Vigilante, because I like Morph and I like the ability to kill artifacts and enchantments without losing the creature. If you like beatdown but are on a budget, Anaconda, Bull Hippo or River Bear have great evasion. If you want mana fixing, Explosive Vegetation is your choice. Forgotten Ancient will grow into a problem for your opponent if he or she does not deal with it. Finally, if you like quirky beatdown, go with Krosan Beast – nothing beats like a squirrel.


The best four casting cost artifact has to be Etched Oracle. It is almost always going to be a 4/4 that can draw you cards. For control decks, Solemn Simulacrum might be slightly better, but I’m not sure about that – the best (paper) 5color control decks I know of run four Etched Oracles, alongside a full set of Power and the restricted list, and no Solemn Sims. Even for beatdown, I think the Oracle is better than options like Juggernaut.


Converted Mana Cost of Five:


I seem to see a lot of players running Second Thoughts in the white five mana slot. It is a solid option for control, and even for budget decks. I have tried other options, like Serra Angel, but the double white casting cost is occasionally a problem. I have even run Angel of Mercy, but only because I got a foil in league once and I’m dazzled by shiny cards. Shiny, solid evasion cards, that is.


The blue five mana slot could be Future Sight, except for the impossible casting cost. I have been quite happy with Meloku in that slot, while control decks can play Allied Strategies. If you prefer to play with other people’s creatures, then try Bribery. A budget option might be Air Elemental – just a few cents more than Aven Windreader, but the extra power and toughness is great – or Vigilant Drake, which does not have double blue in the casting cost.


The best black five mana spell of choice, at least for control decks, is probably Exile into Darkness. This card just wrecked my aggro builds, which relied on small landwalkers and so forth for win conditions. Seeing Exile in control decks has made me rethink that approach, and I have replaced some of the small beaters with utility at the bottom end of the mana curve, and moved my win conditions into the higher casting costs. Other solid options for the 5cc black slot include Beacon of Unrest, while a budget aggro option might be Gluttonous Zombie (evasion) or Woebearer (recursion.) Neither are great, but they are cheap.


Once I get one, my red 5cc of choice will probably be Shard Phoenix, which seems nice for controlling builds. In the meantime, I am running Arc Slogger, although the double red in the mana cost can be a pain at times. I have also seen people running Beacon of Destruction, Savage Firecat and Tephraderm. The budget creature of choice might be Solkenzan Bruiser, which at least has Mountainwalk, and only one red in the casting cost. (Yes, I know I keep harping on that, but a lot of this format is about mana screw – and avoiding it is important.)


Green has some great options, and some reasonable budget choices. The best card is probably All Sun’s Dawn, which will usually recur at least four cards, and often five. Control decks can often win the game with Rude Awakening. Other solid choices include Genesis (beats and recursion) and even Hystrodon, since card drawing is always good. The budget option is Barkhide Mauler, which has only a single green in the casting cost and cycles. I run Rude Awakening – but remember that I run Journeyer’s Kite over Jitte.


Converted Mana Cost of Six:


White has some bombs in the six casting cost slot, but budget decks also have some important creatures. First, all budget players should consider investing thier fifty cents or so in a complete set of the land cyclers from Scourge. These creatures cycle for a specific land type, but also can beat. If you are mana screwed, they fix that – if not, they are worth playing. In white, the cycler is Noble Templar, and I play him. For the players fortunate enough to own them, you can also play Exalted Angel, Pristine Angel or Akroma’s Vengeance in this slot. I have played Pristine Angel on occasion, but I still prefer the land cycler.


The blue land cycler is Shoreline Ranger, which is a 3/4 flier once you have your islands. The other strong option is Kiega, the Tide Star, with just a single blue mana in the casting cost. The other card worth considering, once Ravnica comes out, might be Tunnel Vision. Tunnel Vision is okay in a singleton deck, especially if you can combine it with other milling cards.


The black land cycler, Twisted Abomination, is best of the landcyclers. He is a solid beatstick and regenerates for just one black mana. He costs a bit more – a dime instead of pennies, but he is worth it. If you aren’t worried about the mana base, then you could play Betrayal of Flesh (removal and resurrection) or Ink Eyes, Servant of Oni. Ink Eyes isn’t cheap, but it is good.


Red has a ton of interesting options, although Chartooth Cougar, the mountaincycler, is so good I have rarely played anything else. I have considered all of the following: Godo, Bandit Warlord (if you play enough good equipment), Bloodshot Cyclops, Ryusei, the Falling Star, Oni of the Wild Places, Slice and Dice and Thundermare, Mind Blaze seems interesting – you will certainly know the number of cards in a singleton deck. Ravnica will also bring us Hammerfist Giant, which might be good in a control deck against creature swarms.


Green’s land cycler is Elvish Aberration, which is a fine option. Budget decks can play Moss Kami. Other options might be Rhox, Ancient Silverback, or One Dozen Eyes. The biggest beater – without an unaffordable number of colored mana symbols - might be Sulam Djinn.


The final slot is six casting cost artifacts. Duplicant is a solid option for control decks. Mind Slaver has seen some play, and I have seen Tatsuma, the Dragon’s Fang. I play Triskelion at the moment. Budget options might include Razor Golem, although I once played Goblin Dirigible, because it was the only six casting cost artifact I owned – and it worked pretty well.


Rainbow Stairwell is a fun format. There are a few killer decks out there – but I have had good games playing an almost all commons stairwell against them.


Rainbow Stairwell theme decks can do quite well, and be built for quite reasonable costs.. I have worked on a Hondens / Genju / enchantment version, and have seen very good ones built around Samurai and Spirits.


It’s a good format. Give it a shot.




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