MTG: Why is Grim Monolith broken?

Most Magic players are aware of the power of fast mana. Being able to play more, better spells earlier than you normally would be able to is a huge advantage, to the point that cards such as Mana Vault, Lotus Petal and the Moxen have ended up being banned for it.

But there’s one card in this group that has never gotten as much respect as the others and that’s Grim Monolith. Is it truly that powerful? And if so, what makes it fly under the radar so much compared to other similar cards?

Grim Monolith was meant to be a “fixed” version of Mana Vault. Like it, it’s an artifact that can be tapped for three colorless mana but that doesn’t untap naturally. The big difference between them, is that Grim Monolith costs one more mana.

At first glance, this seems like an important difference. After all, at a cost of one for a gain of three mana, Mana Vault is pretty much a colorless Dark Ritual, while the additional cost of Grim Monolith makes it comparable to the fairer rituals found in the game today.

But it’s important to realize that Grim Monolith does not really work like a ritual. It’s an artifact, not an instant. That is, it does not force you to spend its colourless mana the turn it comes it to play, you can store it until you need it. The fact that it can give you one extra mana the very turn you play it is strong, but not the real source of its power.

Its real power lies in breaking the progression curve that is at the core of Magic. The way the game works is that there’s a trade-off between power and time, with more powerful spells not becoming available until some time has passed. Sure, a five-mana spell is often better than one that costs just two but you can’t play the former until turn 5, perhaps later.

Grim Monolith ignores all that. It allows you to play your first six mana spell as early as turn three. That’s massive. You normally wouldn’t be able to cast these big spells in a game unless it goes long, and Grim Monolith allows you to play them two or three turns earlier. You can play a turn three Wildfire and that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

Since Grim Monolith is an artifact it can go into all sort of decks. It can power up an old-school bomb like Wildfire, sure, but it can also power up a Wurmcoil Engine or a planeswalker. It has a very dangerous level of versatility. It’s something a control deck might want, because it helps them get faster to the end-game but also something you can slot in combo and even aggressive, big creature decks.

Grim Monolith is an enabler. It’s not a card that wins the game on its own, like Necropotence or Channel. Rather, it’s a card that makes other cards better and that’s a very dangerous thing. There will always be something, somewhere that shouldn’t become better and breaks the game if it does.

Grim Monolith also has a lot of small benefits that aren’t a cause of concern but that make it very easy for it to excel in a deck. For example, there’s a lot to be said about the fact that it stays on the table after use and hence can be interacted with. You can sacrifice it to Smokestack, return it to your hand when you cast Upheaval or even untap it with Voltaic Key. It has possibilities that can be exploited and have often been during Magic’s long history.

Like most cards of its kind Grim Monolith is also one of those cards that become significantly more powerful if other enablers exist in the format. A turn two Grim Monolith is powerful, but it’s nothing compared to playing it turn one with the help of Chrome Mox, Sol Ring or Ancient Tomb. Similarly, a fast dragon is great but it’s nothing compared to a fast Jace or being part of a Krark-Clan Ironworks combo.

And I believe this is the reason why Grim Monolith’s power is so unrecognized. It’s not a card that defines a deck or strategy. It’s not the big spell that wins the game or blows up all your lands but the little mana artifact that makes it all possible.


  • Grim Monolith has no connection to Mana Vault. It was meant to be a “fixed version” of Basalt Monolith from more than 10 different sets.

    It’s one lower cost with one higher untap cost. Otherwise, it was the same thing. There’s no reason for Grim Monolith’s price other than it was only printed in one set.

    • If I recall correctly, Mark Rosewater is on record saying that Grim Monolith was designed as a fixed Mana Vault. The two cards are almost identical, just with the almost-pointless “deal 1 damage” clause removed and a slight nerf. Not that Basalt Monolith is far off, they are all variations of the same concept. In the end, I don’t think it matters much. The article is about its power.

      I’m confused about the price thing, since I never mention it in the article. But never being reprinted alongside its power and Reserve List status does seem like the reason it’s so expensive.

  • Thank you for this content! I’ve played Magic for a couple of years but still i see some cards and have no idea why they are talked about as being broken and this really helps!

    • Thank you Johnathan! I think it’s not obvious why cards like Grim Monolith are so powerful, even if you play with them! So I’m glad to help others to understand them a little better.

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