At The Gathering – Reflecting on Five Colors

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Monday, August 3rd – “I think I’ll just play some old school Five-Color Control this week,” Christian texted me on Wednesday, anticipating our return to Standard after getting our draft on with M10. “Yeah, pretty safe bet,” I replied, planning to shuffle up my Cruel Ultimatums as well. “Top 3 spots in U.S. Nationals… Guess it could be okay for FNM!” he sent back. Talk about an understatement.

“I think I’ll just play some old school Five-Color Control this week,” Christian texted me on Wednesday, anticipating our return to Standard after getting our draft on with M10.

“Yeah, pretty safe bet,” I replied, planning to shuffle up my Cruel Ultimatums as well.

“Top 3 spots in U.S. Nationals… Guess it could be okay for FNM!” he sent back. Talk about an understatement.

This week, we’re taking a short hiatus from the two-part convention series to take a look at Five-Color Control in Standard. Dating all the way back to Quick n’ Toast, then Justice Toast and the 10 Commandments, and then Cruel Control once Shards of Alara was released, players have been searching for the best Five-Color build to abuse Reflecting Pool plus Vivid-insert-color-here lands. Many players lamented the Wrathlessness of God in our new, M10 fueled Standard, but seem to have been happy to still give creatures a proper, sacred interment with Hallowed Burial. With Great Sable Stag and Volcanic Fallout providing enough Faeries hate to actually keep the flying rats at bay, Five-Color Control can easily be said to be perched atop the metagame.

Of course, that’s been said before, with Nassif proving to be the greatest power in Kyoto at the beginning of this year.

The team that brewed this bad boy up looked to take advantage of Wall of Reverence plus Plumeveil or Broodmate Dragon to buy lots of time, allowing them to get to the endgame, Cruel Ultimatum. Looking ahead, we see the new hotness Japanese National Champion Shuhei Nakamura. The Master Mage took down a star-studded Top 8 in Japan to lead a very strong team into Rome, one which can be said to be the favorites, and he did so with this little concoction:

Nakamura dropped the Wall of Reverence in favor of more removal, both of the pinpoint variety (Agony Warp) as well as sweepers (Hallowed Burial). His sideboard also includes Great Sable Stag, the most popular sideboard card at the moment. As many others have noted, there was the maximum allowable number of Great Sable Stags in each deck in the entire U.S. Nationals Top 8.

Speaking of the U.S Nationals, let us look at that tournament, where Pro Tour: Hollywood champion Charles Gindy wrestled his way through a solid Top 8 to claim the title of United States National Champion. He’s teaming up with second place finisher Adam Yurchick, and StarCityGames.com own Todd Anderson for Worlds. Rumor has it that Anderson, who fortunately lives geographically near Gindy, at least as far as the U.S. is concerned, will be receiving some serious tutelage at the feet of the master and National Champion himself in hopes of defending the Team World Champion trophy that 2008 National Champion Michael Jacob, Paradise-dwelling Paul Cheon, and StarCityGames.com own Sam Black hoisted in Memphis last year. All three of this year’s current team loaded up with Five-Color Control decks of their own. Let’s take a look at the champs:

Gindy opted to drop the Agony Warps for a pair of Negates, and had -1 Doom Blade and -1 Hallowed Burial in favor of adding two Ajani Vengeants.

Now, let’s look at a few options for beating Five-Color. A lot of buzz has risen around the Time-Sieve Combo deck, which basically takes as many turns in a row as it needs to until it assembles a win condition. It’s said to be a strong choice versus Five-Color, but not nearly as strong against the field. I’ve done some preliminary testing, and while I enjoy the deck from a fun standpoint, I’m not in favor of it for trying to take down a PTQ.

I’m sure there’s a good Reveillark build out there, but without Mind Stone, I don’t think the deck can accelerate fast enough without having to resort to a Bant shell. I would imagine some number of Noble Hierarchs, Birds of Paradise, Sowers, Glen Elendra Archmages, and Mulldrifters will be involved, and may even need to resort to Mistmeadow Witch as well. Cryptic Command, Broken Ambitions, and probably Bant Charm should also be somewhere in the 75. Forecasts also show a chance of Meddling Mage in the mix. I’m sure we’ll see a list pop up somewhere, and from there it’ll be tuned to death. Or at least, to Zendikar.

I actually love playing Five-Color Control, and will probably be shuffling it up right until Zendikar makes me switch to something else by gently shoving Lorwyn/Shadowmoor Block out of the House of Standard, forcing it to fend for itself on Extended Street. Considering Five-Color will be a very popular archetype in that time period, let’s look at what we can do to give ourselves a few percentage points in the mirror match.

The first thing I chose to do was look at card draw. Most people are running 4 Esper Charm and 3 Mulldrifter. While I still like Mulldrifter, he’s not as efficient as days gone by. Without Makeshift Mannequin in the deck, he’s not quite as advantageous as I’d like. He’s still good, of course, but I want something that gives me more advantage, and so I turned to Jace Beleren. Jace has the advantage of being recurring advantage. With Maelstrom Pulse being used less often now, Jace manages to be fairly resilient, and is often able to provide 4-6 total card advantage over the course of his life. He doubles as a potential win-condition in particularly nasty long-term games, capable of milling away 20 cards. When you play him, you should almost always tick him up +2 to have both players draw a card. This gets him out of Bolt and Fallout range immediately, and gives you plenty of options for the next turn. If you expect you’ll need his mill ability, you then go to 7 the next turn, and so on. If you draw another one, you keep -1ing him until he dies, and then throw down the next one. Overall Card advantage: 4 cards (5 single draws, 1 shared draw, and -1 for Jace himself.) Not bad for 3 mana. If your opponent decides that Jace is too dangerous to be left alive, then he’ll take at least 5 damage that you didn’t, allowing you to get that much closer to Cruel Ultimatum. The other reason I like the Planeswalker is that most players still don’t know how to play against them. Do I kill it immediately? Should I ignore it and focus on the players spells, ignoring the abilities as best I can? Do I split my attention? To be honest, I would bet almost every player on the planet plays wrong against Planeswalkers at least some of the time. It’s a new Axis of Magic, and we’ve been using it for less than 2 years. Think back to when Magic was 2 years old. Look at some of the decklists back then. Random 1-ofs, horrible choices, untuned design. We were all learning, and it took a lot of players testing, thinking, writing, and repeating all of these over and over again to get the theories we use today. Planeswalkers aren’t quite that level, but the analogy holds. It’ll take a lot of time, practice, and sharing to master them. Plus, Mulldrifter dies to Fallout, which frustrates me.

Cutting Mulldrifter meant I needed more creatures, both for defense and attack. I’m expecting to face down Broodmate Dragons galore, and while Double Dragon is crazy good, I need a trump card. I needed the Bruce Lee to their Chuck Norris. I decided on Baneslayer Angel, for a few reasons. One, Lifelink is better. Yes, I know it doesn’t stack, but it also doesn’t use the stack, meaning I don’t go to -1 while I have a trigger to gain 5 life on the stack. Second, between first strike and the Pro-Dragon ability, she’s a great defender. Knowing I can take down their threats, without much worry, and gain life on it is great. The third reason is that I like Angels. I have a signed, Limited Edition Serra Angel Art Print in my Bathroom, and a signed, canvas Empyrial Archangel in my hallway. Yes, I like Angels, and now that they have an amazing one, I want to play with it. Call me a little kid, but that’s a legitimate reason for me. Finally, sometimes a few 10-point life swings just puts the game away. Yes, it dies to spot removal, but so do a lot of creatures, and that’s not enough of a reason. If they Path it, it’s one less removal spell for my Double Dragon later. 5-Color doesn’t run a lot of spot removal now, so I call it a good choice. I decided to split Double Dragon and Super Angel 2 and 2 in the deck, giving me 4 aggressive creatures to win with. Toss in 3 Plumeveil, and we have 7 solid, beefy critters, all of which survive Fallout, Infest, and Firespout, as well as Nameless Inversion and Agony Warp.

One card I’m keeping in my Sideboard right now is Anathemancer, a.k.a. Ana “The MAN” cer. The man is amazing in the mirror, as an uncounterable endgame. Beware of Runed Halo, as if they can’t be targeted, then it must be you who is hit with some painful damage. However, I have seen games end after one side Cruel Ultimatums with Cryptic Command backup, only to watch the supposedly wrecked opponent discard The MAN, untap and unearth him for lethal, or dang near it. For this reason, as well as the fact that R/B will be packing him as well, you may want to put 2-3 Runed Halo in your sideboard. If the opponent doesn’t have The MAN, you can always name Cruel Ultimatum, or Broodmate Dragon, or even Ajani Vengeant to avoid being Ultimated. It has utility against a lot of decks, if you know what to name.

Next on my tech list is Negate, which I’ve always preferred over Remove Soul Essence Scatter.

*Warning, side rant incoming*

For the most part, I’m okay with most of the renaming. I liked Grizzly Bears instead of Runclaw Bears, but it’s no big deal. I’m even fine with renaming Remove Soul to Essence Scatter. But why on earth would you send out textless Remove Souls that people can’t use? I have a playset of textless Remove Souls, signed by Mike Dringenburg at Grand Prix Seattle, that are now pretty much useless. I mean, sure, they’re cool, and they definitely go in the brag binder, but still, I don’t even have the option of using them. Grr.

*End Rant*

Okay, back to Negate. I like Negate a lot better as a counter than Essence Scatter because it gets more use. Most Five-Color Control has 9 creatures (3x Mulldrifter, 3x Plumeveil, 3x Double Dragon), and 26 other spells. Time Sieve combo, depending on the version, runs as little as 2 creatures. Faeries runs about 20-ish, but the most important spell is Bitterblossom, a non-creature spell. Even Kithkin, the previous de-facto aggro deck, runs 16 non-creature spells, including the important ones, Honor of the Pure and Spectral Procession. I only have one Negate in the main deck, but I have the other three in the sideboard, and it comes in plenty often, especially for the mirror. It’s better than Broken Ambitions in that matchup, easily, giving you a guaranteed hard counter for 2. I may be moving more into the main, depending on the meta.

The last card I’m going to mention this week is Lightning Bolt. I’ve been using two in the main deck, with two more in the sideboard, and it’s been pretty darn good for me. It functions as removal against a lot of decks, including taking out Great Sable Stag. In the late game, it doubles as burn to be able to take down opponents, almost requiring an answer. For one mana, making them counter it is definitely good for you. This allows you to draw out a discard spell and rob them of at least two mana, probably more, clearing the way for you to do far more degenerate things. I’ve used double Lightning Bolt at the end of an opponent’s turn to either A)vastly change the race, or B) draw out a counter, thus allowing me to throw down Cruel Ultimatum, Double Dragon or some other bomb on my turn. LSV called it his #1 card of M10, and the whole point of playing Five-Color Control is to play the best spells, right? A full set of Bolts is 60% of your opponent’s starting life total, meaning you only need one swing from a Broodmate Dragon duo to make up the final 8 for lethal. You will need an opponent playing Stags to get maximum use out of the bolts as removal, though, as in the expected mirror, they only hit Mulldrifter for lethal. If you feel that they’ll board Stag in, as many Five-Color players are doing for the mirror, to get an uncounterable threat that can get past Plumeveil, then Bolt should be very good for you.

My final bit of advice to Five-Color players is an obvious one, but one I feel bears repeating. Practice. Play the deck, and play it a lot. Play the mirror, play other decks, heck, goldfish it. Play it some more after that. Many players picking up Five-Color decks for the first time find an interesting learning curve, namely playing the deck fast enough. I watched a player with past experience with the deck, but had left off for a six weeks or so, pick it back up and get a draw against a player he should have beat. I myself have come close to the time barrier when I first pick it back up as well. Playing this deck to three full games in 50 minutes is doable, but it will require a decent pace to accomplish. Not only will you need to play at a decent clip, you’ll need to make sure your opponent does as well. Many opponents take a long time against the deck too, because there are so any interaction options. Make sure both of you are playing at a rat which will allow you to finish. Plus, practice is always good. The more you play the deck, the more you’ll know you’re outs, what cards to play, when to run out spells, and basically just get more comfortable with the deck.

For reference, here’s the 75 I’m playing right now, with sideboard still subject to change.

To note, there should be 4 Stags in there, but no one locally plays Faeries competitively, so I took them out for a Broken and three Bant Charms. If you expect any significant amount of Faeries players at all, put 4 “Staple” Stags in the deck.

Until next week, this is Jeff Phillips, reminding you: Don’t make the Loser Choice