Force of Will: Blue In The Twenty-First Century

Is blue too strong in Standard and Extended? Should blue be defanged? Will does a statistical analysis to see if the numbers support his gut feeling – that blue is just fine…

Recently, readers of Star City have witnessed both some of its finest feature writers and readers entering into a debate on the power and function of blue within Magic. Many ideas and opinions have been put forth, as published here on the site – and also behind the scenes, as we have also debated the issue in some lesser-seen forums.

At this time, I hope to add to the debate publicly.

First off, I know that of those leading the debate among my Star City brethren there is a fondness for all things green. In this I had to wonder if the amount of blue”hate” going around wasn’t a complex?

I mean, did not a green base deck – the infamous Fires deck – dominate the last Standard season, or was that more my own imagination than fact?

My memory also lead me to believe that prior to that, blue wasn’t that strong in the Standard metagame, either. The US Nationals of 2000 were won by Finkel playing a mono-black deck, and Hermit and Stompy decks were played by other finalists. I also remembered the whole”Trinity Green” run. Sure, there was Accelerated Blue, and Replenish was only more or less tinged with white…

I was also struck by the feeling that an argument about blue’s power level being less that omnipotent might fail. I don’t know that folks like Michael Granaas and Bennie Smith aren’t right; history is filled with some scary broken blue decks, like Academy and High Tide, and to a lesser extent a lot of Buehler Blue knockoffs.

But there are some things that I’d like to point out.

Blue, now more than ever, seem like it is going to be the color to pair with because it’s has just about the only general basis for the”aggro control” deck. This is because there are few other good aggro control mechanics. One recently lost standard card, Armageddon, was the basis of one of the more prominent aggro control strategies: The FattieGeddon archetype. Another type would be a sort of Sped Red deck, also with fast creatures and enough land destruction to keep the opposing player off balance or under control. However, despite the need for many different lands, as Invasion burgeoned the scene with many multicolor decks sporting many gold cards, that sort of red aggro control deck never really materialized – until, perhaps very recently, with the addition of Braids, Cabal Minion’s aggro destruction to the card pool.

Braids may be more than specifically relevant. My case here is actually that blue’s recent power trip may have had as much to do with black’s position of power in the game as much as with anything else. In as much as black is supposed to be allied to blue, it is as well perhaps its most potent enemy. Counter-wielding mages hate to be on the brunt end of discard when coupled with nasty fast creatures. Why do you think one of the all-time great plays versus open state counter control is to board in Phyrexian Negators?

When Leon Workman did his first metagame clock he put Hatred at the top of the clock, time :01, the ultimate beatdown deck… And its cross clock rival was open counter control.

This is to point out that we should see how well open counter control fares in the Torment era with the new black. Ichorid may just be tipping the scales a tad away from open counter control… The Psychatog decks were really the first (and only good) open control deck of the Odyssey era and folks are already talking about that deck’s demise. There may now still be 16 different counterspells but none of them are up to the level of Thwart or Foil… Which were legal when that Fires thing was seemingly ruling the roost…

So the question in my mind was not so much was blue good… But was it too good? Generally, I thought the balance of things was pretty good – but perhaps I was wrong. I set about to find out. How was I to do this? Well, I just figured that I’d take what results I could most easily find and tally up what colors of decks did what. The easiest data to find were the Pro Tour and other high-level results.

It soon struck me that this would mean a couple of things: First, you are going to get the best players’ evaluations because you have to figure they will always play the best deck, with the best colors, that they can. Second I think you have to consider how they approach the game; that is, at least several have admitted that they prefer”sitting behind a fist full of counters.” I think this stems from several things.

It should be noted that any counterspell is, first and foremost, a tempo device. That is, counterspells don’t win you the game – but they allow you to set up to win a game. What most pros understand is that tempo, card advantage, and card quality control are what finally win out in most games, and that blue is just probably the best color at doing these things. In history the very best decks have been blue combinations of cards that break a player’s ability to manipulate the numbers of cards that they could draw and play. Decks like the aforementioned Academy decks and High Tide decks would, within a few turns, overwhelm opponents by drawing up most of their deck and having a mana supply big enough to use those cards while protecting their own priority of play with counterspells. From that degeneracy, what many top-level players look for is to come as close to that ideal as possible. Open-state counter control also ultimately wins through card advantage, whereby almost invariably it has to at some point outdraw its opponent to make a game of it.

As Dave Price so succinctly and memorably put it:”There are no bad threats.”

Open control has to deal with every threat in some timely way or they lose the game. This is why these sorts of decks very often need some form of board control sweeping mechanism to augment the counterspell, because alone the counterspell just isn’t enough and hasn’t the reliability of a real threat. It also is useless against anything that happens to already be in play. This is why counters soon became allies with such sweeping spells and Wrath of God, Nevinyrral’s Disk, Powder Keg, and most recently Pernicious Deed.

The opposite of this idea is to use a sort of”negative” card advantage. This becomes the basis of modern extended Red decks that try to trade as many cards for as much damage as fast as they can. They try and break the tempo of the game in the opposite direction of open control blue. Mogg Fanatics are sacrificed fast and often, and Fireblast is cast at the cost of two”turns” of land plays and the future mana the sacrificed lands could provide. In this, the Red player either burns out his opponent or invariably stalls out.

There are variations on these basic ideas. One thing to be noted is that of the recent past, one of the top sideboard plays to be made against open control was (as previously mentioned) to sideboard in Phyrexian Negator. In this, the player hoped that the big black meanie would come down on turn one at the cost of”losing” a card in Dark Ritual that would swing the tempo in their favor by slapping down a 5/5 beatstick. This play was generally game against open blue control, as they had only a minimum of three turns to find a removal type of answer for the creature. Again, I’d like for you to note that this noteworthy anti-counter control play was made by black and that the Ritual/Negator”combo” played at least somewhat into the viability of approaching the metagame by”sitting on a fist full of counters.”

The banning of Dark Ritual in Extended, in fact, warped that environment in more ways than simply hurting black. It also helped blue. The weaning of standard from Dark Ritual has had a similar effect, and it’s taken the”black set” that is Torment to even begin to set things right… And even Torment’s pro-black onslaught might not change what the stripping of Ritual has done to Extended: A format where the majority of black cards were designed with Ritual well in mind because the problem is that as any format slows down, Counterspell gains in value.

At this point, I can’t think of any more to say to set this up so I’ll move now to presenting the data I collected. As I go along with this endeavor, I’ll interject some comments.

One thing to think about here will be to try and figure out where things get overboard for a color and why. I will present several totals for the amounts of colors in decks, and also percentages of the colors played in decks to the total amount of decks. Where we should see a”problem” is probably a matter of opinion… But in looking at the raw data, I’m going to say that if you see a color played almost twice as much as the next most popular, or half as much as the next most popular one, I think you may have a problem in the color balance in the game.


99-00 MBC

2 tourneys

W 8 50%

G 3 19%

R 1 6%

B 2 13%

U 6 38%

We understand that Masques Block Constructed opened as kind of a mess with Port and Linn Sivvi. The white legend was just too strong – and Rishadan Port, wherever it appeared, made opposing it with multicolored decks a tougher proposition.



4 tourneys

W 9 28%

G 7 22%

R 6 19%

B 13 41%

U 20 63%

As I said, one thing with Extended is that with the larger card pool, one gets to have a bigger pool of counters to stuff in their deck. This was, of course, the beginning of the Trix era, and much of the black here was piggybacked with the Donate/Illusions combo. I’ll again have more to say about this later…

99-00 Standard

10 tourneys + 16 decks

W 24 25%

G 32 33%

R 19 20%

B 14 15%

U 39 41%

99-00 totals

W 41 28%

G 42 29%

R 26 18%

B 29 20%

U 65 45%


00-01 IBC totals

3 tourneys

W 7 29%

G 9 37%

R 12 50%

B 12 50%

U 13 54%

One of the more interesting pools. Mowshowitz won PT: Tokyo with a white-based deck with blue in it, yet white becomes the least-played color. Red, black, and blue really share the top spot, and we can see by the high numbers that many, many, many decks sported multiple colors.

00-01 Standard totals

13 tourneys

W 31 30%

G 31 30%

R 43 41%

B 26 25%

U 61 58%

00-01 Extended totals

6 tourneys + 4 decks

W 13 25%

G 22 42%

R 11 21%

B 16 31%

U 40 77%

00-01 totals

W 51 28%

G 62 34%

R 66 37%

B 44 24%

U 114 63%


01-02 IBC totals

8 tourneys

W 32 50%

G 23 35%

R 41 64%

B 26 40%

U 53 82%

01-02 Standard

1 tourney + 16 decks

W 5 21%

G 14 58%

R 10 41%

B 10 41%

U 17 71%

01-02 Extended totals

6 tourneys

W 16 33%

G 30 63%

R 5 10%

B 16 33%

U 25 52%

This is a tad surprising in that green leads the way. Red, caught between the crunch of Trix lifegain and countering ability and the wave of green men, gets lost. I believe this is one of the lowest numbers that I saw – and I dare say it needs to be looked at.

Overall totals:


16 tourneys + 4 decks

W 38 29%

G 62 47%

R 22 17%

B 45 34%

U 85 64%

Again, we see that blue is almost dominant and that red is overwhelmed. And again again, I’d like to point out that black got a lot of piggyback play with decks like Necro-Trix and as a component of Sliver and Junk decks. Very rarely was it the basis of a deck. Hatred was around at the beginning of the century, but dies with the Ritual ban among other things.

I believe that these problems and the solutions to these problems have been brought forth many times by many folks. The Illusions/Donate combo works too well, with or without Necropotence, and the longer this goes on the longer the roundabout bannings to make the Trix deck playable but not broken look silly. That deck is snuffing out red and black could stand to have Necro (and Dark Ritual, perhaps) back without the broken combo. However the real fix to this blue bent would be as many have mentioned: Drop the ALICE block, stripping out both Illusions of Grandeur and Force of Will. I’d add that dropping the dual lands would help, as well in reducing a move of multiple-colored decks to some of the other alternate casting cost counters like Thwart and Foil and the latter’s use with Gush.


14 tourneys and 32 decks

W 60 24%

G 77 31%

R 72 29%

B 50 20%

U 117 47%

Wow. Almost half of all the top 8 played Standard decks over the course of the new century have used blue in them.

When I got back into the game a couple of years ago, I was at first looking forward to playing black-based decks… But I quickly realized that there basically weren’t any. So I moved over to blue. Maybe I was just smart enough to realize that it was the best color; perhaps my move was lucky. I’m not really sure what I was thinking. I do know that this was during the Masques era, and I was intrigued with Ankh Tide. No matter; as a fan of both colors, I’m intrigued as to what Torment will mean to the balance of things as I reiterate how much I feel that the two are enemies as much as allies. Blue-based decks don’t like to face a lot of discard and creatures like Ichorid, whereby the last three or four men that the blue mage countered now only fuel a 3/1 man with haste…

That balance is delicate in this game, and tipping things too much in any direction isn’t good. Leaving them unbalanced for too long could be worse…