Peebles Primers – Five-Color Control in Block: The Matchups

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Wednesday, June 25th – Following on from last week’s look at Five-Color Control for Lorwyn / Shadowmoor Block Constructed, Benjamin Peebles-Mundy brings us an in-depth view of the deck, the matchups, and the sideboarding strategies. If you’re looking to shun the Fae and the Kithkin for your coming PTQ season, this is the article for you!

Since last week, I’ve been playing a lot of Magic Online. While I’m not a stranger to Magic Online in general, this is the first that I’ve really seen of Magic Online Version 3, and I can’t say that I’m very impressed. I have found that things aren’t exactly awful, but plenty of things are worse than they seemed in the old version. I spent many a Standard Queue wondering what modes my opponent had chosen on his Primal Command while it sat on the stack simply saying “Opponent plays Primal Command targeting Opponent and Pumbles Mumbles.” It wasn’t until I started complaining about this that I learned you could click both mouse buttons, at the same time, on the spell on the stack to see what modes were chosen. Very intuitive.

It seems as though the Magic Online world agrees with me, as there seem to simply be fewer people online at any given time. When you’ve got the die-hard players shelling out for release events and fewer of the casual players, you find that rares come cheaply in the Classifieds room. I was able to pick up playsets of the Shadowmoor lands for tiny sums of tickets; the whole reason I set up V3 in the first place was that a teammate had mentioned three-ticket Mystic Gates and I knew I had to jump on the opportunity.

The nice thing about being able to pick these rares up so cheaply is that I’ve been able to think a lot about Block Constructed, both in terms of the expected and the unexpected. I may be playing primarily Standard (Reveillark, obviously) to finance my habit, but that doesn’t mean that I’ve forgotten about the format that might win me a trip to Germany. Today I’m going to talk about the Five-Color deck I wrote about last week. I’d like to cover the various matchups you can expect to see at a PTQ, and possible changes you could make to the deck to help you against those opponents.

I still believe that Five-Color Control is a great choice for upcoming PTQs. I have seen the numbers that have been floating around recently (the ones that tell you that Faeries is the best deck), and I’m willing to concede that Faeries is one of the best choices you can make, possibly the best, but I don’t think that it’s necessarily right for every single person to play Faeries. Five-Color Control happens to reward a skillset that I have been cultivating for quite some time now, and I think that I get more mileage out of the deck that I would be completely switching gears and playing Faeries.

It’s going to be a little bit difficult for me to explain this skillset I just referred to, but here goes. The simplified version is that it is how you play when your back is against the wall. With a deck like Five-Color Control, you come out of the gates pretty slowly, and there’s every chance you’ll be staring down four power in the first two turns. If you’re packing Kitchen Finks and Plumeveils, then you might not be in as much trouble as you would otherwise assume, but the fact of the matter is that you are walking a very thin line, and there is not a whole ton of room to let your opponent outplay you. The upshot, though, is that if you can manage to successfully walk that line, you will bring to bear an enormous amount of power that can easily overwhelm any opponent. In addition, you might find yourself playing against a deck that doesn’t actually start off with a 2/2 for one mana, and suddenly you’re playing the power spells and you have room to breathe.

I do not mean to imply that the deck is bad. I also do not mean to imply that you cannot win unless you play a perfect game of Magic. I am just trying to explain that things might go dramatically up- or down-hill based on a single decision. The other side of that coin, though, is the fact that sometimes you’ll be casting Makeshift Mannequin targeting Twilight Shepherd on the fourth turn and following it up with a Primal Command for Oona, Queen of the Fae. Sometimes it all just comes together.

If your back is against the wall, then the most important thing to have is an intimate understanding of your deck and your plan. It is easy to say that your plan against Kithkin is to hide behind your three-drops while you build up to a Twilight Shepherd that you can defend from Mirrorweave, but that doesn’t mean that every game you play will wind up ending that way. I would say that about half of my wins against Kithkin play out according to this script, but the other half come from an Evoked and then Mannequin’d Shriekmaw that manages to race because he’s brought friends, or something similar to that. Your plan can also change dramatically based on a difference of just one or two card choices a specific decklist has made, either your own or your opponent’s. Your Oona plan might be no good if there’s a Prison Term sitting on one of your Kitchen Finks. Therefore, I’d like to share my plans on the big matchups.

Kithkin — I’m starting here both because I just mentioned it, and because I think that it’s the matchup that is most likely to knock you out if you aren’t prepared to play against it. It also happens to be a matchup that has made me completely reconsider how I might build my Five-Color deck, even if I’m still sporting something eerily similar to Manuel Bucher Grand Prix list.

This is the deck against which you sideboard the most cards in and out against, which implies that it’s the matchup that changes the most between games 1 and 2. There would be no reason for you to sideboard so many cards if the first game was a slam-dunk, and yet I still feel like many people underestimate exactly how powerful Kithkin is against you in the first game. If you look at Bucher’s deck, you might decide that there’s simply too much removal for them to handle. After all, we’re talking about Shriekmaw, Firespout, Makeshift Mannequin, and Austere Command, with Kitchen Finks and Plumeveil backing them up. And yeah, I don’t think that many Kithkin decks will be beating you when you Shriekmaw their Forge-Tender on the second turn, wipe the board on the third, and then regrow the Shriekmaw on the fourth, but I do think that any Kithkin deck can beat you when you find yourself casting Broken Ambitions on the draw and following it up with a Mulldrifter evoke.

The simple fact is that you only have five cards that outright kill more than one guy, and those five cards aren’t going to go uncontested. Firespout has to get around Forge-Tender and Austere Command costs six mana, so you’ll be relying on a lot of one-for-one trades, and those don’t tend to go well for you. This is why I mentioned last week that you’d much rather play against a one-drop, two-drop curve than a one-drop, two one-drops curve. Heaven help you if you’re facing down three one-drops and a Spectral Procession. What if you play your Finks and they just convert their team into six 3/2s?

On the other hand, games two and three are much better for you because you get to get rid of the junk like Broken Ambitions and play with more Plumeveils, which are absolutely amazing. Yes, they can be dealt with by any number of three-cost White spells, but if they aren’t they’re going to kill one guy every turn, and that’s exactly what you need to supplement the other one-for-one trades you’re making. In fact, if you had reason to believe that you were going to play against an inordinately large number of Kithkin decks, I would say that Plumeveil should get the maindeck nod over Kitchen Finks. (I think that you wind up leaving the Finks in the maindeck because of cards like Doran and Chameleon Colossus, but I’ll get to them later). In these sideboard games, you’ve got eight defensive three-drops, an extra Shriekmaw, and an extra Firespout, and you also have extra ways to actually end the game.

Speaking of ending the game, I think that the Kithkin matchup is the one where you are going to have to change your win-condition plan on the fly most often. In my game 1s, I’ve got four Kitchen Finks, four Mulldrifters, three Shriekmaws, three Cloudthreshers, and one Oona to end the game. I would say that it’s rare you will find your Finks attacking, so it’s really up to the Elementals and Oona to get the job done. Not only that, but Cloudthresher’s bulky GGGG cost and the Hurricane ability are both disadvantages when you’re under extreme pressure, so you’re going to need to squeak out wins. It’s not hard to kill someone with Mulldrifters on an empty board, which you might manage, but it’s much harder to find the turns where you can afford a fearful swing for three damage with Shriekmaw. You may be on a Mulldrifter race plan when a Cloudgoat Ranger kills that idea, meaning you’re going to need to find a way to break through. Often the answer is Cryptic Command, which is why I choose to leave that card in after sideboarding instead of the arguably-sleeker Broken Ambitions which I board out with no remorse. Sideboard games again come with better win conditions, since you get to cut the clunkers (Ambitions, Mind Spring, and Cloudthresher) for Twilight Shepherds and Primal Commands to locate them. This makes actually winning a game much easier, though you do always need to make sure you aren’t handing your opponent the win by playing a Shepherd into their Mirrorweave.

If you wanted to dramatically change your Five-Color deck to beat Kithkin, I would recommend maindeck Plumeveils and better win conditions. I know that they have fallen out of favor, but cards like Wydwen and Nath are cheaper than Oona and pretty good at protecting you from weenie hordes. I would also recommend more ways to kill multiple creatures out of the sideboard, whether we’re talking about Festercreep or Incremental Blight.

I also think that it is a valid choice to decide to completely scrap game 1 against Kithkin in favor of beating other decks that happen to be out there. I wouldn’t get rid of the removal spells, but Kitchen Finks is not the best of cards against Faeries and other Five-Color decks, so I could easily see replacing him with something like Puppeteer Clique or Reveillark if you were willing to accept that game 1 was going to be completely uphill. Many builds have chosen to go with Fulminator Mage in that slot since it might be able to trade with a dork and then take out a Mutavault, but I don’t think it’s so much better against the other big two that it’s worth hurting your Kithkin matchup for. Perhaps if you had a dedicated land destruction plan to back him up it would be a different story, but at the moment it seems like a Stone Rain is just a Stone Rain.

(That was actually much more than I intended to write about Kithkin. The other matchup sections are going to be smaller.)

Faeries — The other big contender, and likely the biggest of contenders given the early results, Faeries also happens to be a difficult matchup. However, this difficulty is much more easy to identify: Bitterblossom.

I’m completely serious when I say that the games are entirely different depending on whether or not they manage to land a Bitterblossom. This shouldn’t be too surprising at this point, given that people have been saying just that for a while now, but it continues to be true. Without Bitterblossom, Faeries is going to have to kill you with manlands, Scions, and Cliques. Sure, those cards are all good cards, and relatively difficult to deal with, but they’re not the constantly-ticking clock that Bitterblossom is.

This is the matchup where I think the non-countering Broken Ambitions is extremely powerful. By this I mean something like the following: You were on the draw, and your opponent plays Bitterblossom on turn 5. You can only Ambitions them for three, but you do it anyways just to tap them out or draw a counterspell. The value of this play changes depending on what’s in your hand, but the idea is that it will let you do whatever you want, unopposed, on your own turn. Sometimes it will be something as innocuous as Mulldrifter, but even then you’ve given yourself more cards and a relevant creature. Other times you might buy yourself the chance to put something as big as Oona or as little as Wispmare into play.

In general, this Broken Ambitions play tends to not make much sense. You are the “control” deck, and you’re throwing away a card so that you can tap out on your own turn. However, I don’t think that you can actually assume a fully controlling role in this matchup, because your opponent’s entire deck operates at instant-speed, and they have just as many counterspells as you do (more, counting Spellstutter Sprite). If their spells are all faster and cheaper than your own, you need to look to simply come over the top to kill them. By this I mean that you are looking to do so much that they eventually run out of the resources they need to stop you from killing them. After all, you’re packing Firespouts and Cloudthreshers, Mulldrifters and Mind Springs. It shouldn’t be too hard to just come up with more cards than your opponent.

Unless, of course, they have Bitterblossom. This is the problem that I’ve found myself having with Faeries. My whole gameplan is to just throw my deck at them until they’re overwhelmed, but a Bitterblossom means that they don’t actually need to spend cards to deal with my own. They can come up with chumpblockers or lethal gang-blocks to deal with my creatures. They have unending food for Spellstutter Sprite and Mistbind Clique. They have a one-card army ready to kill me with Scion of Oona. Unfortunately, Blossom is cheap enough that I don’t know what you could do to stop it other than try to kill it once it’s in play.

The cards that I’ve thought about as ways to deal with Bitterblossom are few and far between. Negate is something that I’m interested in, though it’s only going to stop the fast Blossoms if you’re on the play, because it has applications outside of the Faeries matchup. My Standard holdover is Wispmare, who does double-duty killing Bitterblossom and blocking dorks. The trouble with a reactive answer like Wispmare is that they can defend their Enchantment when I try to kill it. Green/White aggro can run something like Elvish Hexhunter to slip under the defenses (though it’s still not safe from Peppersmoke), but I’m stuck with three-mana answers to the single most frightening card I’ve played against in recent memory. I have also thought about Thoughtseize, but there are literally no ways to cast it on the first turn, and casting it on the second is going to require manaburn or a Vivid land.

If I were going to change my deck to beat Faeries I would come up with a way to push my edge in terms of high-power cards to go over the top with, and I would come up with a way to consistently handle Bitterblossom. Of course, that’s easier said than done, as the world has been trying to do these things to Faeries since the beginning of the calendar year. Either way, I don’t think you’ll be pulling anything as drastic as the suggestions I made during the Kithkin section; you’ll probably just be cutting Jace for Wispmare.

Five-Color with counterspells — There are many different variations on Five-Color, but this section applies to those that are liable to cast Cryptic Command on you, and not the ones that are packing Incandescent Soulstoke.

Here you find yourself with a strange sort of breathing room. You don’t really have to worry about dying before you can do anything, but you do have to worry about being the person who makes the first false step. In general, you are both doing very big things, so the key is to make sure that you can either get the most value out of whatever you happen to resolve or simply resolve a greater number of cards than your opponent. The usual way to eke out an edge in terms of value is to try to get the 2/2 to go with your two cards or to avoid drawing extra cards when you’re just going to have to discard at the end of your turn. The usual way to resolve more spells is to have more mana than your opponent.

This is where the allure of Fulminator Mage seems to catch people. You think about what it does when you play it on turn 3 and set them back to just one land while you push forward towards the 5/5s and 7/7s, but you don’t really think about what it does when you’re both digging for a foothold on turn 9. This is not to say that land destruction can’t win you the mirror; I just believe that you’re going to need to do more than kill a land or two with Fulminators.

Talking to a friend about a way to crush other Five-Color decks, we came up with a list of land destruction options. There’s Fulminator Mage and Makeshift Mannequin, which are relatively painless to include, but there are also things like Consign to Dream which you can use to Boomerang a land or Repel a Chameleon Colossus (I keep bringing him up). You’ve got Cryptic Command in the maindeck, though I think it is going to have to be a special draw for you to aggressively go after lands with it. You could also cast Primal Command to bounce a land and find another Fulminator. At this point you are saying that you’re just going to slam your opponent’s manabase until it doesn’t matter what spell you cast, it’s going to go the distance because they’ve only got two lands.

The other side of this is that you could run some sort of mana acceleration, which could help in the aggressive matchups, but you’d really rather not run your Fertile Ground into their Cryptic Command. If a less fragile accelerant makes itself known, it might be worth consideration.

When you’re both playing the same cards, there’s not much else you can do. However, if you have cheaper cards than your opponent, you might be in great shape. Negate is the card I’m specifically referring to, as it happens to stop some of the most powerful spells in the matchup for just two mana, which is extremely powerful when the other options cost four mana or try to Power Sink you. Being able to back up something like Oona for just two mana can also let you get your huge bomb into play much more easily. Many people also like Thoughtseize in this matchup as a proactive counterspell/removal spell, as its low cost gives it many of the same benefits as Negate.

The win conditions in this matchup tend to be extremely difficult to deal with. Austere Command and Crib Swap can deal with pretty much anything, but it’s hard to actually resolve an Austere Command against an opponent with Oona out who isn’t throwing games away left and right. In general, the criteria for a good threat is a Black, Elf, x/4 creature. The most common ways to deal with something are Shriekmaw, Eyeblight’s Ending, Nameless Inversion, and Firespout, so if your man happens to live through all that, he’s probably going to stick around. This is why Nath was so popular in earlier iterations of the format, and if you’re going to play five rounds against 5cc, you might easily want to bring him back.

Five-Color Elementals — This one is rumored to be a sleeper hit, growing ever more popular. I haven’t seen that trend myself, but the deck is a blast to play, so I don’t think it’s going anywhere soon.

I tend to think of Elementals as a more broken version of Five-Color Control. Incandescent Soulstoke, Horde of Notions, and Reveillark are all completely unfair cards when they’re being used together, and it can be really hard to stop them if they get off the ground. For you, this means that Soulstoke is the scariest possible card they can play against you, because it’s hard to remove (permanently) and it dodges your counterspells. In my experiences against this deck, I’ve seen more “1R: Deal five damage, draw four cards, and put two 2/2 flying creatures into play” than I’d like, and this is why I describe them as broken compared to you.

On the other hand, they don’t have Cryptic Command, which is absolutely amazing here. If you can contain the Soulstokes, whether or not you have to use multiple cards to get rid of them, they have to worry about your counterspells while you have completely free reign over your future. This means, though, that planning ahead is extremely important, because you’ll need to be able to correctly evaluate whether a given spell is worthy of your counter or if it doesn’t actually change your clock.

Speaking of your clock, Cloudthresher is the best way for you to win games, because you can often just use it as a nine-point burn spell if they try to race you. It’s not usually long for the world, what with the massive number of Shriekmaws running around, and sometimes it happens to disappear completely when they Sower it to their side, but it doesn’t need to hit more than twice to end a game. The reason that you don’t just die to their Cloudthreshers is your counterspells. Again, you can stop them from doing what they want while they have to just accept whatever you throw at them.

During sideboarding you’re just looking for more raw power. Twilight Shepherds and Oonas etcetera all come in because they’re capable of killing someone. You could bring in Primal Commands to hose their graveyard and find win conditions, or Mind Shatters to strip away their cards before they can start to really get something going. You’re just looking for big effects, because, again, they don’t have counterspells. As long as you don’t accidentally turn your deck into the all-six-drop special, you should be able to just batter them to death with bomb after bomb.

The bombiest card of all is probably Puppeteer Clique. If there are Cloudthreshers in the opposing graveyard you might be able to kill your opponent for 3BB, but even if “all” you get is a Reveillark or a Mulldrifter, I’m pretty sure that you’ll be glad it happened.

Midrange Green — Finally, the home of Chameleon Colossus. This category of decks could include any number of different archetypes, but the general idea is that your opponent is trying to kill you with big three- and four-drops (think Doran).

There are two pieces to these matchups. The first is that you tend to completely crush them, as they don’t put you under fast pressure and you have bigger bombs than they do. This is the same thing that we’ve been seeing in Standard with Mana Ramp against Reveillark, it just happens to look slightly different. However, there is a problem here that wasn’t necessarily present in the old Standard matchup.

That problem is that it’s actually pretty hard to remove a Doran or a Colossus once it’s in play. Austere Command tends to be amazing against these decks overall, so there’s no doubt in my mind that I’ll have a third somewhere come time for my next PTQ, but I think that I’ll be looking for another answer while I’m at it. Consign to Dream, which I mentioned before, happens to be very good against both of these guys, as well as various fringe players like Wilt-Leaf Liege and Gaddock Teeg. It may be that it’s not worth spending deck or sideboard space on something like Consign when ninety percent of the room is playing one of the big three decks, but if the field starts to open up more, this is exactly the kind of card that is great where you want it and good in places you didn’t expect.

In general, I tend to play these matchups in much the same way as I play the Elementals matchup. You do need to make sure that you don’t die, which make Kitchen Finks nice to have in the first game, but mostly you just conserve counterspells and then use them to punish your opponent and swing races in your favor. They will likely have access to some big spell of their own, whether it’s Mind Shatter or Squall Line, so you need to be on the lookout, but overall you should be able to stroll towards the finish line.

As a finishing thought, here is the deck that I’m playing on Magic Online. It hasn’t changed much, but I think that the changes are pretty significant.

My board plans are as follows.

-3 Broken Ambitions, -2 Mind Spring, -3 Cloudthresher
+2 Plumeveil, +1 Firespout, +1 Shriekmaw, +1 Austere Command, +1 Primal Command, +2 Twilight Shepherd

-3 Kitchen Finks, -3 Firespout
+3 Wispmare, +1 Cloudthresher, +1 Austere Command, +1 Shriekmaw

Five-Color Control
-3 Firespout, -2 Plumeveil, -3 Kitchen Finks
+1 Cloudthresher, +1 Shriekmaw, +2 Mind Shatter, +2 Twilight Shepherd, +2 Primal Command
(I could also see leaving in Finks, and not boarding in Primal Command or Shriekmaw.)

-2 Plumeveil, -3 Kitchen Finks
+2 Twilight Shepherd, +1 Cloudthresher, +2 Primal Command

Midrange Green
-2 Plumeveil, -3 Firespout
+1 Austere Command, +2 Primal Command, +2 Twilight Shepherd

I hope that these thoughts help you decide on your own decklist for Five-Color Control in the upcoming season.

As always, if you have any questions, feel free to contact me in the forums, via email, or on AIM.

Benjamin Peebles-Mundy
ben at mundy dot net
SlickPeebles on AIM