Sullivan Library – The Last Temptation of Five-Color Control

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Friday, August 29th – With one weekend of Block Constructed PTQ action left to run, it seems that the smart money is on Five-Color Control. Patrick Chapin and Gerry Thompson all hail the deck as the best in the format, and Adrian agrees. Today he shares his views on the archetype, and brings us his Hall of Fame ballot nominees.

There are only so many Block Constructed decklists out there for us to be thinking about at this point in the game. Kithkin, Faeries, and Five-Color Control are definitely at the top of that list. This perspective is definitely borne up by the most recently available week of PTQ results: three Faeries wins (and fourteen Top 8s!), two Five-Color Control wins, and one Kithkin win.

I’m here in Detroit, and I just took some time to sit down with Magic mind extraordinaire, Patrick Chapin. As usual, we didn’t see eye to eye on a lot, but that’s just fine. One thing we did see eye to eye on was what deck is the top dog. In both of our minds, the answer is clearly Five-Color Control. Whatever you want to call it, whether it is some kind of Toast (perhaps buttered-side down?), VividPool.dec, or Five-Color, or any other variant that is out there that I haven’t yet heard, the fact remains that it is the deck to gun for.

How is the deck is supposed to be built? Patrick’s advice was clear: make the deck adapt, week to week. This is evident if you look through each week of iterations that have come out of him or GerryT. Subtle decisions and changes to the deck can completely alter the character of how the deck plays out. With Oona’s Grace, Mulldrifter, Makeshift Mannequin, Cryptic Command, and perhaps even more, it can become exceedingly easy to have the deck play out such that you’ll usually draw anything in your deck, in most games, even if not in every game.

By way of example, let’s look at three lists of the deck taken from very recent memory: Gerry Thompson list, from this week, August 26th; Patrick Chapin list, as it stood on August 18th, with help from Gerry Thompson and Luis Scott-Vargas; and Hall of Fame contender Neil Reeves’s list, winning a Texas PTQ on August 16th.

Gerry Thompson Patrick Chapin Neil Reeves AMALGAM.
Archon of Justice 2 1 2 2
Cloudthresher 2 2 2 2
Kitchen Finks 4 4 3 4
Mulldrifter 4 4 4 4
Shriekmaw 2 2 2 2
Oona, Queen of the Fae 1 1 1 1
Cryptic Command 4 4 4 4
Broken Ambitions 3 3 3 3
Negate 2
Runed Halo 2 2 2 2
Hallowed Burial 2 2 2 2
Firespout 4 4 3 4
Oona’s Grace 1 2 2 2
Makeshift Mannequin 2 2 2 2
Vivid Meadow 4 4 4 4
Vivid Grove 4 3 3 3
Vivid Creek 4 4 4 4
Reflecting Pool 4 4 4 4
Mystic Gate 4 4 4 4
Flooded Grove 3 3 4 3
Sunken Ruins 1
Cascade Bluffs 1 1 1 1
Island 3 3 3 3

The thing to note, quickly about the amalgamated list, is that it is probably not the list to play. For one thing, it only plays 26 land. Each of these players chose quite specifically to run with 27. In order to make that fit, they had to make a certain degree of sacrifice. Little cuts were made by each of them to fit what it was that they wanted. Using the amalgamation as a base-line, you can see how they each vary.

-1 Kitchen Finks
-1 Firespout
-1 Oona, Queen of the Fae
+2 Negate
+1 Flooded Grove

Reeves clearly was less interested in/worried about aggressive decks like Kithkin. Two Negate out to give him a strong edge in near-mirror situations. Even though he didn’t run the full four count of Finks and Spout, he did make sure that he had access to the fourth of each after board, as well as the full four of Shriekmaw, and even some Plumeveils. He is clearly ready to fight against a beatdown deck. Heck, he even has 4 Wispmare to fight the good fight against Bitterblossom.

He doesn’t go the Oona route, but I’m willing to bet that he somewhat makes up for that with access to Negate. Negate is an excellent way to fight not only other Five-Color decks, but also Faeries. I think that I generally prefer the one-of Oona, personally, but I wasn’t at all surprised to see the Negates take Reeves to a PTQ win. (As an aside, as I was writing this, Mike Hron, who works at the Dharma Initiative (har har) with Neil Reeves, messaged me. It was a happy little coincidence that I just thought I’d share…)

-1 Archon of Justice
+1 Sunken Ruins

Clearly, the closest list to the amalgamation, this version of Patrick’s list is noteworthy in that it only runs two Archon of Justice. Personally, I’m not really all that down with this, but c’est la vie. When it comes to numbers, I often go about them in a holistic approach. There are reasons for singletons. Archon of Justice does not strike me as such a card. Archon seems to me to be a zero, two, or three-of, and (rarely) a four.

It comes as no surprise, then, to remember that Chapin himself is a big fan of week-to-week changes of decks like this and Next Level Blue. Essentially, these decks have an opportunity to see a lot of their list over the course of a game or a match, and small shifts do make a big difference. Perhaps you could pull a Neil and cut a Firespout or Finks to make room for two Negate, or that second Archon. Perhaps you could find an appropriately powerful singleton. There are plenty out there to consider: Dread, Guile, Nucklavee, Overbeing of Myth, Ghastlord of Fugue, Nath of the Gilt-Leaf, Puppeteer Clique, Glen Elendra Archmage, Garruk Wildspeaker, and Call the Skybreaker are all interesting possibilities for a singleton. That list is by no means exhaustive, nor by any means necessarily the very best options out there.

The point is that there are options. Plugging away and making that little change is something that the Innovator and crew are definitely doing. This is a deck that you can be doing it with as well.

-1 Oona’s Grace
+1 Vivid Grove

Thompson’s is also remarkably close to the amalgamated list, much like Chapin’s. Where Chapin cuts Archon of Justice, Thompson prefers to stay with the very reasonable two-count of Archon. The card on his chopping block is Oona’s Grace.

He says something very telling in describing why he cut the card. As he says, the cards is leagues ahead of Mind Spring, but that he was hasty in telling everyone to add a second copy of the Grace. Why? “Drawing multiples early can really hinder your development.” It’s a simple statement, but it goes to the heart of a lot of things that I’ve been thinking about in the format.

Namely, the question of Kithkin (and to a lesser extent, Merfolk).

If you’re like me, you’ve been looking at every PTQ Top 8 list that comes out. I want to know what it is that people are playing, and what it is that I can expect them to do against me. If there are two decks that I see being probably misbuilt more than any other, they are Kithkin and Merfolk.

Kithkin has Figure of Destiny, and in many cases, it also runs Unmake. Combine that with Spectral Procession, Knight of Meadowgrain, and Wizened Cenn, and I see a list that really, really wants to have WW(W). And yet, I keep seeing all of these Mutavaults.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe they’re actually really good. But I just have this inkling that whatever the case may be, the Kithkin decks are something that can be a threat. Chapin swears up and down that they aren’t, and that they only beat you if you massively stumble. Cutting the one Oona’s Grace is, I think, Thompson’s means of making sure that the stumble doesn’t happen.

I think that this approach is really relevant. Let’s look at his board for more food for thought:

After board versus the aggressive decks, he has three Shriekmaw, four Hallowed Burial, and two Plumeveil. This is probably very reasonable when fighting Kithkin, but I still think I’d be worrying about Merfolk (for which he has the same board plan). Access to a fourth Shriekmaw might be a really good idea, if you ask me, like Reeves chose to run.

I think it’s very likely the Thompson’s extra respect for Kithkin is a great path to take. Chapin definitely sounded like he disagreed, but I feel like Kithkin are very worth paying attention to. One, in the hands of the inimitable Cedric Phillips, easily cruised to the top of the standings of a PTQ in Indianapolis this last weekend, only falling to one player all weekend, where Champion Rashad Miller (of Spirit Stompy and Cabal Rogue fame) beat him in the finals with an Elemental/Reveillark deck.

Cedric very much echoed my feelings on the deck, saying that people underestimated Kithkin largely because they were used to playing against decks that hadn’t been updated to keep in mind how Eventide really changed the list. The fact of the matter is that even if Kithkin is something that could be updated and honed to a razor-sharp, Five-Color killing edge, it doesn’t mean that you will play against it. Even so, I am a worrier, and I prefer to side on the side of caution.

I would, usually, like to give you a decklist of the preferred Five-Color list that I’d play here. As it is, though, I think that I’d probably recommend that you play exactly what Gerry Thompson played. From my perspective, there are few people that grind out lists as hard-core as Gerry does. If you give him a list to work with, he’ll keep working and working and working, and at a certain point, it will be something that is exactly positioned where it should be in the metagame (or at least incredibly close).

It’s worth noting that Patrick and Gerry disagree about their fears of Merfolk. Patrick seems to feel it should be a pushover, whereas Gerry acknowledges it as something to worry about — all it took was two Merfolk deck played by relative unknowns, he notes, to knock Paul Cheon out of the running for Grand Prix: Denver. When it comes to creativity, I’d lean heavily to Patrick. But when it comes to grinding out results, I definitely would expect that Gerry would have a keener grasp on the situation.

Now, what about Faeries? Bitterblossom all by itself can be a real threat, if it is backed by any degree of controlling features. Note Gerry’s four Wispmares to fit this threat. What is the real issue with Bitterblossom? It can supply a consistent stream of threats.

The general plan of a Five-Color deck is to press into the Faeries list with enough Finks and Cloudthreshers to simply overwhelm the life total of a Faerie player. On the play, dropping a Finks against a Bitterblossom can go a long way into giving you the win. They drop to 19, you swing, and generally they’ll either chump or wait a turn. Either way, it can be problematic for them. A chump block will make a second threat sufficient to keep dripping you down. Waiting to kill of a single Finks means no block (go to 16), lose another life to Blossom (15), double block with both of your Faeries and get another token (14), and then lose it to the returning Finks, putting you at 13 versus their 24. Once you start factoring in Mulldrifters, extra Finks, Firespout to clear the air, and Cloudthresher, backed by counters, and the possibility of a Cryptic Command to tap out all Faeries for a killing blow, it can become very hard for a Faerie player to keep up. But they can do it.

Check out Mike Bernat’s ridiculously risky version of the deck. I’m not sure what it was that he was explicitly targeting with this twenty-three land Faeries list.

I’m not exactly sure how he justifies only twenty-three land. It seems to me that four Peppersmoke are not sufficient to be able to allow so few lands, but I could easily be wrong. This kind of list strikes me as attempting to get incredibly lucky, but I could be wrong.

What I do know is that there were several very talented players who went into the Gen-Con PTQ with Five-Color Control, and instead, four Faeries players made Top 8, and no Five-Color Control decks did. Three of them had access to four Thoughtseize, four Cryptic Command, and at least three other control cards, if not more, to combat Five-Color. Bernat, if he wanted to, had access to four Thoughtseize, four Broken Ambitions, four Cryptic Command, and three Jace Beleren. I think that his plan in these matchups is simply to out-control Five-Color. If he wants it, he could also potentially bring in Consign to Dream to mess up any potential Chameleon Colossus plans from the hapless opponent, though I’m not sure that that is the way he’d want to go.

Mark Conkle won the other GenCon qualifier with Kithkin. Here is his list:

I’m not 100% sure what Conkle’s plan is versus Five-Color control other than to be a superior beatdown deck. Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender might be a dedicated answer to Ashenmoor Gouger Red decks, or it might also be intended to fight Firespout. Personally, I’ve always found that fighting against Firespout in that way struck me as a wee bit ineffectual. Further, Reveillark, while it is completely solid against Firespout, it is less effective when fighting against Cryptic Command.

Overall, I think that you should definitely spend some effort fighting against both of these PTQ winning decklists before you sit down and make your final list of Five-Color for this weekend. It could be that Patrick is right and you don’t need to worry about Kithkin as much as Gerry seems willing to. It could be that you might find that you don’t need as much work to be expended in fighting against Bitterblossom.

Whatever the case may be, there is a lot of room available in the archetype to tweak things around such that you are more able to fight all of the fights you want to.

Good luck this weekend! I’ll be fighting it out one last time in Detroit! Wish me well…

Adrian Sullivan

Bonus Section: My Hall of Fame Ballot

This process has been a long and arduous one. The Magic Hall of Fame is a big deal to me. Someday, I’d love to pull my game up to a place where I could be eligible for it, and even if I know that that is not a likely result, it is still a great goal to keep in mind for the long, long haul.

I think what is most important to me is that the people on the Hall of Fame have a kind of legendary status. These are the people that live on in Magic memory. These are the people that have helped build the game into what it is.

Yes, it is about resume. Resume is one of those things that has been a hurdle that I needed everyone to leap. But more so, to me, it is about the stories. Who are these people? Why are they legends? What is it about them that makes them unique, and thus, someone for whom we should honor in our memories?

There are other considerations, obviously. In many ways, I am in the same camp as Ted Knutson. I would view the inclusion of players along the lines of Mike Long or Casey McCarrel to be an embarrassment. I know that personally, McCarrel has probably cost me thousands of dollars. I am not confident that McCarrel’s Pro Tour win is free of some kind of stain. And while I know that Mike Long is also a fantastic player in its purest sense, and an incredibly charismatic personality, it simply isn’t enough for me. If the game needs villains, let’s have it be people that are villains because of personality, rather than because of character. For some, “Tight” Tommy Guevin will always be a villain. For others, it could be Tomi Hovi. Much of it depends on perspective, of course, but it remains that I’d rather have a John McEnroe as a villain than a Tonya Harding.

The other question mark that comes in is a big one. Wizards of the Coast employment. Yikes. Is it fair to have that be a mark against selection? I’m not sure. In a way, I view it almost as a corollary to another criteria: will they actually use their Hall of Fame membership, and play in events, however infrequently. I do dislike the thought of filling up the Hall of Fame with people that just won’t ever show up. As much as I’m a friend to Bob Maher, it sucks to think that he’ll probably only very occasionally show up to play the game. At the same time, I’m sure that from time-to-time, he will. Will any of the Wizards employees do that? Ugh, conundrums, conundrums. I know that I don’t plan on making that be a full strike against someone, but I also know that I have to include it at least a little bit.

One of the things that I’ve done to help me make this decision is the input of a lot of friends of mine. I’m fortunate to live in a community with a lot of people who have played many different roles in the game – tournament organizers, dealers, judges, casual players, serious tournament players, writers, and everywhere in between. In my previous few columns, I’ve asked for input from people, and I’ve gotten all manner of e-mails with people sending me their opinions. I’ve read every single article I’ve seen by other writers about what would make up their Hall of Fame ballot, and who was close.

Unfortunately, I only have five votes. Even really worthy people have to get cut. Here are my five.

#1 — Dirk Baberowski

To my mind, there was no one on the ballot more obvious and easy to include than Dirk. When I was discussing ballots with many people, the first person that they mentioned was Dirk Baberowski. The reason is simple: he doesn’t just have the best resume of this class, he’s also an incredible player. In his first Pro Tour, he not only managed to win the entire event, but beat out Casey McCarrel, Benedikt Klauser, John Finkel, and Ryan Fuller. It seems only appropriate that one year after then-Rookie, now-Hall of Famer Randy Buehler would win in Chicago, then-Rookie, now-Hall of Fame nominee Baberowski would also win in Chicago.

Dirk isn’t just a fabulous player, either. He’s also an amazing ambassador for the game. I still remember when I first met Dirk, and how I walked away just impressed with him as a person. A vote for Dirk isn’t simply a vote for a resume, it’s also a vote for one of the truly great people on the ballot.

#2 — Mike Turian

Voting for Mike Turian was a vote made out of conflict. I see Mike as someone who is liable to be with Wizards of the Coast (thankfully) forever. But while he’s not likely to use his status as a Hall of Famer to play any time before he retires, the fact remains that he is a legend in the game. One of the many people out of CMU that have left their unending mark on the game, he is widely considered one of the strongest Limited players of all time. He didn’t just play Limited, but he became adept at playing Limited beatdown, a real feat in many ways. He, along with my next two votes, got more unsolicited ‘votes’ from players I talked to than any other…

#3 — Mark Justice

In a game where there are superstars, this man was the first one. It is not a surprise to me that Mark Justice is a name on the ballot that keeps getting votes, year after year, now. I’ve looked at a lot of old ballots, and his name is a fixture because he resonates so strongly in so many of our memories. He wasn’t just the first U.S. National Champion. He was an author who wrote one of the very first books on the game of Magic. He was a player whose command of the mind game was so strong that he was nicknamed “Darth Vader” (which in turn prompted Mike Long’s nickname, “The Emperor,” when he out-mindgamed the master). In my mind, Mark Justice (and Bertrand Lestree) were the two people solely responsible for building up the Pro Tour as a thing to aspire to. They were the greats. We who wanted to be greats had these shining figures on the hill to show us how it could be done.

Mark Justice’s resume is short, but inspired. The only two people who beat him out, historically, on the median, are Jon Finkel and Olle Rade (who also had a short career). Before there was Budde and Finkel, there was Justice. I remember a story about his play that still amazes me. In a Limited match, attacking with a Dragon Whelp unopposed in the air, he pumped it for full twice. Then, inexplicably, he stopped pumping it at all, and instead devoted his mana to developing his board. His opponent had drawn a Swords to Plowshares, and Justice just knew. Bob Maher, watching the match, said that he couldn’t get a read on the guy, but Justice had it cold. Perhaps I’m further biased by having played with him at the Team Pro Tour in Washington D.C., but Justice definitely gets my vote.

#4 — Dave Price

And here we have the other legend of old. Price and Justice were the most commonly voiced names of every Magic player on the street that I spoke to. In the case of Dave Price, I think a lot of this has to do with his position as the everyman of the game, as well as being the caretaker of a piece of Magic history, when he was editor of the Dojo. One of the original Good Men, Good Man of the Week author Ken Krouner saw fit to write a short article about Dave, celebrating him during ballot voting in previous years.

I spent a stint as the Managing Editor of the Dojo, under Editor-in-Chief Mr. Michael J. Flores, and even though I think we did a fabulous job, I also think that we often lived in the shadow of Dave. He put so much blood and sweat into the game, I think most of us can only imagine. His 39 Pro Tours comes over much less a length of time than most people that played the game, and his championship at Pro Tour: LA made him not just King of the Qualifiers, but King of Beatdown. When we think of Red today, we might think of people like Dan Paskins, but ahead of any of those others, we would have to put Dave Price. While I worry that he may not use the nomination, but I have to vote with the person that so many people I’ve talked to said had to be on the ballot.

#5 — Jelger Wiegersma

When it comes to workhorses, Jelger is clearly that. As he continues to show us today, he can be a master of Draft and a master of Constructed. As Patrick Chapin put it, sometimes being a currently active player can hurt your chances in the Hall of Fame, because people assume that you’ll be able to nab the nomination in some other year. With over three hundred lifetime Pro Points, and a Pro Tour win with the Dutch superstar team of Kamiel Cornelissen and Jeroen Remie, not to mention countless Pro Tour and Grand Prix Top 8s, Jelger is probably the most successful player regularly playing in the game today. Yes, he has time to keep building up that resume, but does he really need to?

The Honorable Mentions

This was a hard vote. The ballot was tough. In the end, I had to cut some truly incredible names. Justin Gary, Scott Johns, Ben Rubin, and Alex Shvartsman were my last, mind wracking cuts. I expect that if any of these players aren’t voted into the Hall of Fame, I’ll certainly have the chance to vote for them again. I wish I could just vote yes or no for everyone that was worthy, but unfortunately, I had to cut people who were.

Adrian Sullivan

One final note before I go, dealing with the 2009 Pro Tour Season. Maybe I’m the only one, but I worry about what the new format (split Constructed/Limited) will do to those players who struggle hard to make it onto the Pro Tour for their first time. I wonder if we’ll lose any aspirants to the game, simply because the bar might be raised to high for them. Also, I dislike the idea of not really knowing who is the best drafter in a format, necessarily, or what is the best deck (or at least not having nearly as good of data on these things). I’m pretty sure that it is likely that Mike Hron might actually have been the best drafter in the room when he won that Pro Tour in Geneva, but in a mixed format, would we have had any reason to know that.

I hope that the 2009 experiment isn’t continued into 2010.

Just my two cents.

And finally, one last wish of luck to all of the nominees for the Hall of Fame. You inspire us all.