Sullivan Library – Taste the Rainbow: The Evolution of Five-Color Blue

States is coming!
Friday, October 31st – With Faeries and Five-Color Control ruling the roost, it’s time for Adrian to spring into action! States is fast approaching, and Today’s Sullivan Library sees Adrian share the genesis and development of an intriguing Five-Color deck designed to prey on the ferocious Fae. Could this be the deck to bring you your State Championship crown? Read on to find out!

Much as I wish there was enough interest in the Five-Color Magic Format for that to be the topic of this article, as States rapidly approaches, this must instead focus on the Five-Color that is currently on fire in the Magic World. Obviously, then, I’m talking about Five-Color Control, in all of its myriad forms.

I’m not sure if there has ever been a deck that is simultaneously running as much hype and containing as much room for innovation as Five-Color Control does. Again and again and again, we see versions of the deck put forth, often without much acknowledgement of the truism I first heard from Patrick Chapin: this is a deck that has to be modified constantly to keep up with itself. If you had a good Five-Color Control deck four weeks ago, I think it is very likely that that self-same deck is only going to be the right call at the upcoming States if your environment has stayed stable. These days, though, the sheer amount of options available can make the lay of the land shift drastically. It has a lot of names, many of which say something very specific. To my mind Quick n’ Toast is similar to Guillame Wafo-Tapa’s Mannequin-centered build shown in Hollywood, decks like Cruel Control largely descend from Evan Erwin deck (below), Runed Halo/Story Circle/Oona’s Grace decks tending to be called Five-Color Control seem to be based on Gerry Thompson or Patrick Chapin work, and the infinite variety of other decks might have an infinite variety of names. One could put them all under the blanket term of Five-Color Control, but they all seem to me to be very much in the vein of the old-school Five-Color Blue decks of old, a la Mike Donais and Brian Schneider. And, from a simple convenience place, 5cU is so much easier to write forty times than Five-Color Control or FCC. That said, these 5cU decks have to be built recognizing what might happen in the moment that the tournament might happen.

Take the 5cU list published by Evan Erwin three weeks ago:

This build was clearly made to take advantage of a heavy Reflecting Pool base, attempting to go after the mana of the near-mirror to get advantage. That weekend, he and his friends all played their version of Five-Color (dubbed “Cruel Control”) at the Cruise Qualifier held in Roanoke. They got their bridesmaid finish (2nd) and a consolation prize (3rd), with top finisher Chris Woltereck losing to Faeries. The deck had slightly changed, eschewing Fulminator Mages for more direct and to the point cards like Cloudthresher, and were rewarded with some very strong finishes indeed.

While close, that game in the finals was also illuminating. As long as Evan Erwin coverage of the final match is accurate (which I imagine it is), Chris Woltereck loss to Tim Furrow’s Faeries can be read in a couple of ways. One can look at the win as a lucky break on behalf of Tim in beating Chris, where he overcame a mistake in playing his land to go on to take the match on the back of some good draws. The other reading is more sinister for 5cU: even though Tim made a mistake, the deck just took out 5cU anyway.

In isolation, this might not be that big of a deal, until we stack it up with Sean McKeown account of the Neutral Ground $1k Standard Event. According to Sean, the combined match record of Faeries versus 5cU was 10-2-1. This event might not have been small (only 32 players), but it does point out that maybe something is up with this matchup. Percentage-wise, Faerie players were about twice as likely to Top 8 in that event, as compared to 5cU. In the end, these two decks met in the finals:

In their own ways, both of these decks look like they are directly paying attention to 5cU. John’s 3 Thoughtseize, 2 Vendilion Clique, 2 Jace Beleren are arguably more antagonistic than Michael’s 3 Jace Beleren, 2 Vendilion Clique, but those cards are also of great potential use in the mirror — especially Thoughtseize.

The basic conundrum for 5cU is simple: the more that they begin to focus on beating Faeries, the more that reasonable decks of other archetypes can become deeply problematic. Take the Red deck(s), for example. While many people imply that these decks can pull a routing on Cryptic Command-based decks, even Faeries can do a lot to beat these decks with a minimal of effort. For 5cU to do so, it often involves only putting in a few deeply difficult cars for Red to deal with. That said, each step in that direction tends to make things all the harder for the deck to handle the mirror.

Classically, one of the best two-fer weapons in the 5cU arsenal has been Kitchen Finks. A reasonably solid creature to trade with the aggressive decks, it plays a particularly potent role in the Faeries matchup. Take the common scenario, with 5cU on the play: Faeries drops the turn 2 Bitterblossom, and the Five-Color deck responds with Finks. What happens from here?

Immediately on the next 5cU turn, the attack opens up to branches of possibility. Either the Faerie player treats Bitterblossom as a Force Field, they begin to save up dorks to take out a Finks, or they race. None of these is of particular excitement. Finks, if eliminated by simple tokens, will place a ten-life swing on the matchup (14 to 24 life, afterwards, with no other plays). But even a single small surprise can wreck this — a Cloudthresher successfully evoked at the right time can change that Faerie plan into a disastrous position (4 to 22 life, if nothing else happens). In most cases, something else will happen, of course, but the issue is, the threat is there. There is a lot that Faeries can do to decisively turn this around. Add in an Agony Warp, and the life differential moves from ten life to a mere five (18 to 23, with a Faerie ready to charge). All of this generally means that we should expect that Kitchen Finks should be a part of nearly any arsenal we might craft.

Cryptic Command is a similar card that seems to be a necessary truism. Of all of the many lists I’ve looked at, currently, all of them run four copies of The Blue Wrath, if only because it is simply that good. As I said to Evan Erwin in Kansas City, one of the first things you have to do in this format is justify not playing four copies of Cryptic. Add in Vivid Creek and Reflecting Pool, and you have the universal basis for 5cU variants as of right now:

4 Kitchen Finks
4 Cryptic Command
+26 Spells
4 Reflecting Pool
4 Vivid Creek
+18 Land
With wiggle room for +/-1 land…

Pretty much every other card that you might want to include other than these are as follows:

Common Choices:
Archon of Justice

Bant Charm
Cruel Ultimatum
Esper Charm
Jund Charm
Makeshift Mannequin
Mind Shatter
Oona’s Grace
Remove Soul
Story Circle
Wrath of God

More Unusual Choices:
Chameleon Colossus
Doran, the Siege Tower
Fulminator Mage
Oversoul of Dusk
Resounding Thunder
Resounding Silence
Runed Halo

The “Big” Singletons:
Call the Skybreaker
Hoofprints of the Stag (Chapin-style!)
Oona, Queen of the Fae
River Kelpie
… and pretty much any card that you think makes the cut.

This is a lot of space to try to cover. The appealing thing about playing 5cU is that you can tailor it to whatever you want the deck to do. So, with the ability to cast anything, how do you select the appropriate 75 for the day at hand?

1 — Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood?

Who do you want to beat? Your metagame could be a lot different than mine, or someone else’s. Maybe you’ll be playing against the Myers Twinkies, Joshie Trash-talker, and Alan, but I sure as hell won’t, and most other people won’t as well. Simply taking the decklist of even a respectable player for 5cU might be fraught with problems. Who are the best players around you locally? While you want to be solid against anybody, you also want to have particularly good game against the people who are going to show up.

Locally, I think I can expect the best players to probably, like most of the good members of the field, be playing Faeries or 5cU. There aren’t too many players in this area who are so hard-core about Red that I can expect excessive Demigods, but a couple of the better players have a real love of Flame Javelin. If I were just a typical player playing in Wisconsin States, I know that I’d expect it likely that “Adrian Sullivan” would come with Red (currently, though, I’m not actually planning on it), Mike Hron (if I didn’t know he moved away) would play something 5cU-like, Sam Black would play something with Goblins or Elves, and be uncertain about most other players. Many of these predictions may simply be guesses, or even bad guesses, but they are useful. If you’re in Missouri, I bet that Feldman will show up with Merfolk, and for an event like States, it can be far more reasonable to try to point your shotgun nudged in one direction or another by the choices of the players you think of as the best in your state.

2 — Keep the National Metagame in Mind

Your best guesses are still just guesses. The national metagame is still something that we can reasonably predict. By most estimates, the consensus seems to be that the field is mostly 5cU and Faeries, with a little bit of Demigod Red, Kithkin, and Reveillark, and the tiniest dash of everything else.

Articles matter too. If you’ve been seeing a lot of articles on a particular topic, it is likely to produce a small upswell in those archetypes that are mentioned. A glance at this week just re-emphasizes the expectations that we have of the above archetypes.

With (1) and (2), above, in mind, I feel pretty comfortable in settling in on an 5cU deck that maximizes card draw in whatever sensible ways are available. This boils down to three common options: Mulldrifter, Tidings, Oona’s Grace, and Esper Charm. Each of these has their upsides, certainly. Mulldrifter, with good reason, is one of the most common four-ofs in 5cU. The card can give you an Ancestrals worth of card advantage, interacts well with Makeshift Mannequin, provides a speed-bump and a potential evasive kill condition, even if it isn’t a huge man. Esper Charm seems to directly target the aggravation of Faeries, able to potentially take out a Bitterblossom, or simply supplying card advantage with its other modes.

Oona’s Grace and Tidings are more narrowly useful. Tidings supplies the clearest bang-per-buck ratio, but is problematic against anything more aggressive unless you are way ahead. Oona’s Grace doesn’t actively supply card advantage without help (Hello, River Kelpie), but the card selection can be incredibly valuable. That said, I don’t think that I want to go so crazy with draw that I’ve gone bonkers. Maxing out the Mulls and the Espers is a good place to start. I’ll revisit the rest, if I have room. Eighteen spells to go.

3 — Let History Be Your Guide

If we look at all of the 5cU deck lists out there, we can save ourselves from reinventing the wheel again and again. What do they agree on? How much creature control is necessary? What kinds of configurations are there?

Again and again, we see five sweep spells. In some cases, we see a whopping seven. Regardless, it appears that the absolute minimum is going to have to be five. What will we select for these?

In Faerie/5cU world, I think I want to select some combination that will have the power necessary to truly clear the table, but not be so difficult to cast/narrow that they don’t do what I want. Jund Charm seems ideal in some ways, but it does have a difficult casting cost to deal with — a fact that can be fatal if you are caught by the right aggressive draw. Four Wrath of God seems definitely correct, but where to go from there?

Firespout doesn’t add much to what it can kill, but it does add a little (Boggart Ram-Gang and WW if it runs the Giant). Pyroclasm, on the other hand, isn’t discriminating in the death it doles out. At least with Firespout, you can clear the air, and still have Finks around. This last bit does it for me — 1 Firespout to join the 4 Wrath of God it is, though I’m willing to revisit the question for a few more spells. Thirteen spells to go.

Bant Charm has become a near universal, though question marks remain on the exact number. Two to four seems to be the consensus, with seven Charms usually seeming to be the max. That makes, to my mind two or three Bants for inclusion. I’m up for heading to the “full amount” of three. Ten spells to go.

4 — Realize When You Have to Choose the Fork in the Road

As you make certain choices, you are necessarily cutting off other choices. In some cases, these things are not necessarily so obvious, but you need to recognize that “Five-Color Control” is not the equivalent of being able to cast any spell you want in the same deck. If you are trying to cast Cloudthresher and Cryptic Command on turn 4 in the same deck, it is quite likely that you will not also be able to cast Demigod of Revenge consistently on turn 5.

A good example of this is balancing the desire to cast a turn 3 Doran, the Siege Tower in a deck with ‘Thresher and Command. Every single one of those Flooded Groves is going to interfere with the ability to cast a turn 3 Doran. If you’re going to be playing Doran in the first place, you probably are going to want it on the table as a turn 3 play.

Something’s gotta give.

To my mind, I do want to have the ability to potentially go very aggressive on an opposing control deck, but I don’t want to be pushing so deeply into it that I end up giving up consistent Cryptic Command/Bant Charm/Esper Charm plays. Further, I’m interested in punishing Faeries — this matchup is one that strikes me as in deep need of edges. One of the best ways to go about doing that is Chameleon Colossus, a card that can absolutely rip away games from Faeries, and without Damnation, essentially only answerable by Sower of Temptation and bounce.

To continue pressing into this space, Cloudthresher could be a distinct possibility. If I go down this Green-heavy path, I am certainly going to want to make sure that I have a fair number of Flooded Groves. This also takes me further away from cards like Cruel Ultimatum, in some ways… I think I’m fine with that, but I always like playing that singleton that can deeply recover a game that seems to be lost. Of all of the cards I’ve played in Magic in some time, that card has got to be Oona. With the typical two Cloudthreshers, and an Oona, three to four Colossus, you’ve got three to four cards left to play with…

5 — Reflect on Your Holes

At this point, you have the skeleton of a deck in some ways, but you still need to figure out where your holes are. Taking a glance at the list I’ve made, we’re at this:

4 Kitchen Finks
4 Chameleon Colossus
4 Mulldrifter
2 Cloudthresher
1 Oona, Queen of the Fae

4 Wrath of God
1 Firespout
4 Esper Charm
3 Bant Charm
4 Cryptic Command
+3 Spells

4 Reflecting Pool
4 Vivid Creek
+18 Land

One thing that seems to stick out like a sore thumb is the lack of early drops. Everything in this deck cost three or more. That is a problem. It’s possible that maybe this is a good argument to convert that Firespout into two Pyroclasms. Maybe the answer is Condemn. It could be Negate/Remove Soul or some combination.

In a deck that is concerned about the ability to establish a board presence, defending those creatures is more of a concern. Negate, in that situation, would be a potential good call, helping to keep the creature on the table. Remove Soul, on the other hand, can help keep the board less potentially full. In that world, you’ll perhaps want something to help keep your creatures more alive. Negate, seems like the better call.

At the same time, it almost seems like there is an over commitment to the board. Cutting a Colossus for a more pure-control war winning card could be a really good idea. Mind Shatter is an ideal card to win a control war.

Filling out the final slot for the deck becomes a question of deciding what it is that this deck is doing. In general, it looks as though this deck is interested in attacking. If we’re going to be getting the life total low, a card like Resounding Thunder begins to be more and more appealing. In fact, Resounding Thunder has the added bonus of being a card capable of pulling control-duty. Perhaps it is a better call than even Mind Shatter, for how this deck behaves.

This leaves us:

4 Kitchen Finks
3 Chameleon Colossus
4 Mulldrifter
2 Cloudthresher
1 Oona, Queen of the Fae

4 Wrath of God
1 Firespout
2 Resounding Thunder
4 Esper Charm
3 Bant Charm
4 Cryptic Command
2 Negate

4 Reflecting Pool
4 Vivid Creek
+18 Land

I like the look of that card selection. It is aggressively anti-Faerie in many ways. It has ten cards that are interested in board control, and a decent selection of counter-control. It is chock-full of card draw, and has some reach cards that can put it over the edge in tight situations (Oona and the two Thunder). All that is left is the hard part…

6 — The Mana

Whole articles could be written about the mana selection that goes into 5cU decks. It’s a grueling process. For me, the way I tend to work on mana is the Brute Force method. I guess on a manabase (or have someone brilliant at it, like Ben Dempsey, make the initial mana), and then I gun games again and again and again. Eventually, you figure it out. But it takes a damn long time to Brute Force it.

Other people often go about a more analytical approach. You know you need to have X sources of Y by turn Z. Then go about crafting the mana to do that.

For 5cU, I think that one needs to remember some basic constraints. We don’t want to be so overwhelmed by Vivid and tri-lands that we are constantly giving the opponent the advantage of a “free turn” — at least not if we can help it. Gerry Thompson most recent list employs a whopping thirteen comes-into-played tapped land. That is a lot, but it’s also fairly in line with other lists, which typically employ ten to twelve such lands.

We’re also constrained by the amount of filter-lands that we want to run. I recall one illustrative game of Magic that makes this clear. My friend’s Faerie deck had a hand of 4 Sunken Ruins and three good spells. He kept the hand, explaining later, “All I need is one land and my hand is gold!”

The problem is that this is not the case. One land meant that he could, at most, cast one spell a turn. In order for his hand to really end up being much of anything, he’d need to draw two land. Until then, he was going to go from impotent to weak, before he was at all doing anything useful. Running too many filter lands can be very rough.

Counting your colors is particularly useful. This deck’s color requirements are:

GG: x4
U: x6
{GW}{GW}: x4
GGGG: x2
UUU: x4
{UB}{UB}UB}: x1
R (realistically): x3
WW: x4
WUB: x4
WUG: x4

Using a super-secret formula (har-har), I’d say that this implies a minimal requirement from Black, minor access to Red, moderate access to White, and heavy access to Green and Blue.

4 Vivid Creek
4 Vivid Grove
3 Vivid Meadow
4 Reflecting Pool
3 Flooded Grove
2 Mystic Gate
1 Sunken Ruins
1 Shivan Reef
1 Yavimaya Coast
3 Island

Initially, the mana does shuffle out a twitch clunky. This, in many ways, deters me from my desire to find room for Treetop Village, but it could very well be that there is a wee bit of room in the deck to make that happen. Despite that, the deck seems clearly to be the deck I want it to be: aggressively antagonistic to Faeries, while maintaining a reasonable game versus other 5cU, and various aggressive decks.

Here is the list:

Clearly, a deck like this is wildly different than the heavily control-oriented build posited by GerryT, or the end-game building Cruel Control suggested by Evan Erwin. Further, it seems clear to me that this build would be a poor choice in a field more full of Kithkin and Demigod-style decks. It might be okay against them, but being “okay” against something is not what you want to be if that is going to be a high portion of your expected opponents.

The key to building these decks is to recognize that the same build is not going to serve anyone, anywhere. What you need to do is have your deck not only built on a solid base, but also built for the specifics of your local metagame. In a tournament like States, you will only be playing your local metagame. I don’t have to worry about a bunch of people playing Feldman’s Merfolk (or, rather, I didn’t until he wrote about it). I don’t have to worry about people showing up with McKeown’s build of Bant. Some of those people might be around, certainly, but I have to worry about the people I expect to play.

Around here, I have a good idea of what that will be.

For you, keep your deck on solid ground, but build for the people you’ll actually play. States gives you that luxury. The new prize support for States makes this a prize well worth having. In Wisconsin, Steve Port (of Magic Cruise fame) has been giving out the same prize that everyone else is learning about now for about ten years. I’ve won it a few times, and if applied, it can easily add up to almost a thousand dollars. This new prize can make it add up to even more.

Thanks to everyone who congratulated me on hitting half-a-million words in my last article. Best of luck prepping for States, everyone. I know I’m keeping my Cryptic Commands and Reflecting Pools handy…

Adrian Sullivan