Feature Article – Five-Color Instant

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Tuesday, August 4th – While working for Canadian Nationals, Quentin Martin explored the Five-Color Control archetype in depth. While he opted to play Tokens to his Top 4 finish, he’s been tinkering away on his own Five-Color list ever since. If you’re looking for a fresh take on the Five-Color strategy, look no further.

A little while ago, prior to Grand Prix: Seattle, I was working on a spicy Five-Color brew for Standard. I had noticed that one of the biggest problems at the time was that it was easy to lull Five-Color Control into tapping out to deal with some mediocre threats and punish them whilst they were helpless with their counters stranded in their hand. They also ran several conditional counterspells, and if they didn’t draw them at the correct time, they were in trouble. The deck has plenty of enters-the-battlefield-tapped lands and little interaction with the early game asides from Broken Ambitions (a card I’m curious to see the Japanese cull to three copies, given how essential I’ve found it). It all seemed a recipe for disaster, so I set about trying to do something different.

This was when Cascade Swans, Tokens, and Fae were the best decks. I decided that, if I couldn’t help it, I’d play as many instants as possible. Between Plumeveil (possibly the best card in the format at the time), Path To Exile, and Volcanic Fallout, it was possible to deal with almost any creature at instant speed. I had already been toying with Cancel maindeck as a solid counter before the printing of Double Negative, so adding that with the extra gimmick of stopping Cascade spells didn’t seem too difficult a decision. I’ve since managed to counter two ‘real’ spells with it quite a lot — the trick is to set up a second stack in response to something they cast; but I digress.

One of the biggest problems was card advantage. Aside from Esper Charm, Mulldrifter and Jace Beleren are both sorcery speed. After much playtesting, it became apparent that – coupled with the natural redundancy of not playing too many creatures myself, Esper Charm, Cryptic Command, Plumeveil and Volcanic FalloutCruel Ultimatum, ‘the proverbial elbow,’ was enough. I went to three as you always want it when you hit seven mana, not to mention that it was a crucial source of life gain.

All I had left to do, apart from using Runed Halo to protect against the abundance of Seismic Assault, Anathemancers and Treetop Villages, was to figure out my win condition. Obelisk of Alara is a great one; having no creatures is very powerful, but I didn’t want to ever be tapping out in my go if I didn’t immediately win the game. Broodmate Dragon almost fulfils this as your opponent can seldom do anything better whilst you’re tapped out. I eventually wound the manabase-twisting Cloudthresher to be exactly what I wanted. It wasn’t even because it meant my matchup against Fae went through the roof (you win close to 75% of the time thanks to Fallout, ‘Thresher, and Plumeveil)… I just wanted an flash creature. The fact that it was a threat they had to deal with the turn before I cast Cruel Ultimatum was an added bonus.

By their very nature, Five-Color decks in their current incarnation have a plethora of options to hand. Every slot has multiple cards fighting for the right to be included, and it is because of metagame composition that those that make it win their place. For example, after countless hundreds games of testing, Wrath of God was dropped to the board, Jund Charm was swept away, and even the fourth Volcanic Fallout was cut.

I played it at the GP to a respectable money finish, losing only to screw and Elves. Sadly, by the time Canadian Nationals rolled around the metagame had massively shifted. People had stopped focussing on Swans and it became less dominant, Elves had reared its ugly head and proved to be a horrific matchup, and slowly incidental metagame shifts away from Tokens and Swans meant that I went from seldom-losing to seldom-winning. This lead me to happily pick up BW Tokens for Canadian Nationals instead of “Five-Color Instant,” and I can hardly complain about third; a position that, given my matchups, I might not have finished had I played Five-Color that event. Here’s the list I would’ve played pre-M10:

Five-Color Instant

4 Cryptic Command
4 Broken Ambitions
4 Plumeveil
4 Esper Charm
3 Path To Exile
3 Volcanic Fallout
3 Cloudthresher
3 Cruel Ultimatum
2 Negate
2 Double Negative
2 Runed Halo

4 Reflecting Pool
4 Vivid Creek
3 Vivid Meadow
3 Sunken Ruins
2 Exotic Orchard
2 Vivid Marsh
2 Cascade Bluffs
2 Island
1 Flooded Grove
1 Mystic Gate
1 Seaside Citadel
1 Savage Lands

4 Kitchen Finks
2 Wrath of God
2 Runed Halo
1 Path To Exile
1 Double Negative
1 Pithing Needle
1 Wydwen, the Biting Gale
1 Identity Crisis
1 Negate
1 Infest

Before we look at the massive changes that M10 has wrought on the format, I want to take a look at a few card choices. The Runed Halos are needed to deal with Anathemancer decks. Kitchen Finks was the best card against GB Elves. Plumeveil is just the nuts versus Kithkin, Fae, GB Elves, Blood, then-Swans, solid against Tokens, and even good against Reveillark.

By now, everyone is familiar with the changes M10 has brought, but that doesn’t mean that people are yet used to them, or that the metagame has come close to settling down yet. The top surviving decks are Combo Elves, Faeries, Kithkin, Blood, and Five-Color Control. I think it’s also worth mentioning that Reveillark is still around too. Most people have yet to reassess each card choice, and the huge metagame shift (the absence of manlands, of painlands, of Glorious Anthem, of Wrath of God, etc.) means that decks should be built from scratch rather than by tinkering with existing lists. Still, that doesn’t mean we have to throw the past completely out of the window, just that we need to start again from the beginning.

First off, the absence of Treetop Village has massively impacted GB Elves’s presence in the format, and the loss of Caves of Koilos and Glorious Anthem have effectively neutered BW Tokens too. Both holes in the metagame seem to have been filled by Elves! and Kithkin respectively. Losing Tokens decks is a little sad, as they were good matchups, but Five-Color Control has much rejoicing to do about the disappearance of GB Elves. Fae doesn’t seem to have been impacted at all by any of the loses, but Great Sable Stag is a huge wrench in their works, meaning that they might have to adapt like Sergio García’s UBr Fae deck.

This is all a lot of information to process to see how it impacts how we build our deck. Firstly, we definitely gain Great Sable Stags in our sideboard to improve the Fae matchup even further. The virtual absence of GB Elves means we can lose the Finks in the board (for now, at least). The first point of reference I have includes the winning Japanese and Spanish decks:

Shuhei’s deck is somewhat of the more traditional Five-Color Control build, featuring Broodmates and Mulldrifters. However, he is running a sleuth of removal spells. Not only does he have seven sweeper effects maindeck, he also plays four generic removal spells. He makes up for this having significantly more sideboard cards for control than for creatures.

Marti’s deck looks like it hasn’t been tested too much. Firstly, Banefire is an awful sideboard card for the mirror, and I’m pretty positive that Terminate is inferior to the many alternatives, not to mention the absence of Plumeveil. It is the Bogardan Hellkites that intrigue me the most about his list, though — they have flash, which is a very attractive quality.

The metagame seems somewhat simple right now. Kithkin and Elves are vulnerable to similar things — spot and mass removal. A lot of these things overlap by being good against Faeries too. Counterspells are good against Fae, Elves, and the mirror. I’ve found that Blood falls dead into the middle of all this, meaning your deck is incidentally good against them. The absence of Swans means there’s no deck out there that demands specific cards for answers, so our main and sideboard can be a collection of multi-purpose spells.

I’m curious as to where Lightning Bolt fits into all of this. Path To Exile seems just be better as it kills Mistbind Clique, Chameleon Colossus, and other such nasties, and few decks really utilise the extra mana. However, it might be a metagame call, especially as I think the deck will be very good against Fae with the addition of four Stags, meaning that as Lightning Bolt is better against both Elves and Kithkin, it might deserve a place…

Runed Halo no longer needs a maindeck slot. Anathemancer is only played main in one of the tier 1 decks, and Red decks seem to be on the decline even though fans have been clamoring for them ever since Ball Lightning and Lightning Bolt were reprinted — I just can’t see them winning in a metagame comprising of Elves, Kithkin, and Fae. They are still good in the board for Blood and Red, and possibly a couple in the mirror for Cruel Ultimatums and Great Sable Stags.

Shuhei only played three Broken Ambitions, whilst Marti played a ball-breaking zero! It just hit me in the shower as to why. Broken Ambitions is a little slow against Kithkin when you’re behind, does little against Elves when they have all their mana going, and is pretty weak in the mirror. When you factor that all in, it seems obvious to drop one, maybe even two! In their stead, and in place of Negate, Essence Scatter jumps to the fore of this metagame. It’s not dead in a single matchup. It excels against Elves, is fantastic for stopping Faerie’s main threat — Mistbind Clique – and pretty handy against Kithkin to boot.

The fact that we’ve lost 50% of our ways of dealing with a turn 2 Bitterblossom on the play is somewhat irrelevant, as I’ve added the fourth Volcanic Fallout and fourth Path to Exile, which should easily compensate for the loss in the Fae match, where we now have more ways of stopping the dreaded Clique. You often want Fae to resolve a Bitterblossom against you as they seldom win once they do if you can stick a Plumeveil or draw two Fallout, especially as you still have Cloudthresher to fall back on.

I’ve kept the two Double Negative. Having lost the Negates and two Ambitions, I still want a hard counter for non-creature spells before you get Cryptic online. There are fewer Cascade spells around, but it will still be handy against Blood and those lovely situations you engineer two stacks. It could easily be Cancel.

The manabase has always been tricky, given the nature of the deck. With the removal of the Runed Halos to the board, and the addition of Hellkite and the fourth Fallout, I’m tempted to cut the Mystic Gate for another Cascade Bluffs. However, you need the Halos early after boarding against Blood and Red decks, so I’m not sure if this is something you can realistically do.

I’ve added two somewhat experimental Bogardan Hellkite and still kept two of the Cloudthreshers. At this point, I’m not positive this is correct as it means having added an additional card that has little impact on the early game. However, having cut the Negates and two Broken Ambitions, there are now fewer ways to stop a Spectral Procession, so I feel that having two Wraths for it can’t be too bad; not to mention how badly this deck crushes Fae.

As it stands, I think Kithkin is going to be your worst matchup. You hope to have a Plumeveil and make it stick. The loss of Negate makes this a little more difficult to do. I’m still pretty deep in the tank as to what specific things we can bring in that will help us battle the wee White men. Elves should be easy with the addition of the extra removal and Essence Scatter, as is Fae. Five-Color Control is in your favour, as you never have to tap out in your mainphase to force through a Broodmate Dragon, and you have additional counterspells too. Blood was always in your favor, though the removal of Runed Halo has made it slightly worse. I still can’t see it being too difficult after sideboarding.

I’ve made a few jigs to the sideboard to accommodate new cards and to compensate for the little changes I’ve made. Pithing Needle has gone because manlands and Seismic Assault have disappeared, and Negate deals with Planeswalkers just as easily. Wydwen, the Biting Gale has gone too, as you now have Stags for Fae, and the additional win condition is already in the main for the mirror and any ropey Thought Haemorrhage action. Which leaves me to do nothing more than, with great pleasure, present Five-Color Instant:

It’s now a week or so since this article was started, and a few more noticeable Nationals results are in. Five-Color Control has dominated even more, and the Mannequin Blood deck from the U.S. Nationals has proven good. Oli and the French showed us that Time Sieve and Red-X beatdown are viable. So what does this mean for this list?

Practically nothing. Our counter-heavy version still does fantastically well against these lists, and the four Runed Halos, that I was beginning to think were too many, are in fact perfect, as they destroy Blood so long as you can protect multiples from a unfortunate Maelstrom Pulse. I might cut a Bogardan Hellkite in favor of something, maybe even a land, but that’s it.

So, fair thee well. Good luck to all of my friends in the UK Nationals this weekend. I wish I could play!

Do your best…