The Color Wheel: Black

Many people think that the color of Yawgmoth’s Will needs little if any tweaking. I agree wholeheartedly. Black is the best understood color (despite that whole “can it be good, not evil?” issue), and it has had the most consistent abilities for ten years as a result. Black is a color with a little of everything, from good, reliable mechanics to good, reliable weaknesses. As a consequence of being so well mapped-out, Black teaches us a lot that can inform design and reformation of other colors’ abilities.

Many people think that the color of Yawgmoth’s Will needs little if any tweaking. I agree wholeheartedly. Black is the best understood color (despite that whole “can it be good, not evil?” issue), and it has had the most consistent abilities for ten years as a result. Black is a color with a little of everything, from good, reliable mechanics to good, reliable weaknesses. As a consequence of being so well mapped-out, Black teaches us a lot that can inform design and reformation of other colors’ abilities. Also, just like algebra, having one variable nailed down makes the rest about five hojillion times easier.

For a long time, just being balanced made Black the undisputed second best color in Type One. Then everyone noticed that Brown (or the now avant garde Silver) is a color of its own around October 2003, and Black became the undisputed third best. Then Red defied the color wheel to become Blue’s best friend, and Goblin Welder became the best creature ever printed, so that now it’s not so clear. However, Black still has a good pool of tools to fool around with.

Drawing and Searching: The Non-Blue Perspective

In Alpha, Black got Demonic Tutor. Shockingly, a non-Blue search ability was allowed to continue existing. If it had been up to me, I would never have printed Merchant Scroll; it sets a tempting precedent for shifting the Last Un-Blue Mechanic into the all-consuming dominant color. Regardless, the tutor mechanic managed to stick to Black. Later on, Necropotence and other cards in its vein even let Black draw cards directly, based on the appropriate flavor of sacrificial power-lust.

In my previous color wheel article, I mentioned that every good color is driven by support spells. One group of support spells that I’ve come to see as essential is some way to search for solutions. Draw/search spells let you run a “denser” deck, amplifying your ability to devote slots to diverse threats from the metagame, without the need to run four copies of any particular answer. They add flexibility, staying power, and the capacity to recover from a losing situation.

If you’re not convinced that searching is key to every color, let’s take some examples. In Odyssey Block Constructed (PT: Osaka), Onslaught Block Constructed (PT: Venice), and Mirrodin Block Constructed (PT: Kobe), the winning decks were non-Blue board control decks. In each case, the decklist looks like nothing if not a giant pile of removal spells.* In small formats, this works fine, clearly, and “control” is not synonymous with drawing into more counters. Even here, though, OdBC MBC played Diabolic Tutor and Skeletal Scrying; OnBC Astral Slide clearly cycled into a huge number of cards; and MirBC Big Red used Solemn Simulacrum.

* : It’s enough to give credence to my running theory that Block Constructed is like what would happen if Booster Draft were played with a dozen or so extra packs.

As the format’s card pool expands, the strategies expand, too. Successful control decks have to be prepared for attacks from more varied angles, and can’t just pile together a (albeit well-refined) combination of removal spells. Upgrading to Extended, The Rock retains the minor draw engine and significant removal components, but switches into an aggro-control deck to keep up with the expanded threats. By the time you get to Vintage, everyone just gives up and plays blue. The last actual control deck in Vintage that wasn’t blue was Parfait. It doesn’t have much of a track record in the last two years, and even when it was considered more viable, it centered on the Land TaxScroll Rack “draw” engine.

White’s and Green’s have usually been pretty shoddy and mostly confined to land searching; Red’s main ones are the components of the Goblin combo deck. Black is the only other color that got a fair shot at this very necessary type of mechanic. It is my belief that this is one of the main reasons for Blue’s long-term dominance.

Green, especially, has some historical ways to draw, but contrasting it with Black shows why I describe it as shoddy. Rowen, Call of the Wild, the temporarily Green ability of Hystrodon, Survival of the Fittest, and Enchantresses are all Green card draw. The problem with them (besides the overcosting on the first three) is that they are all permanents. Black’s tutoring and drawing power is usually at sorcery speed, but because it isn’t permanent, it is less vulnerable. Necropotence and Yawgmoth’s Bargain are exceptions in the most flagrant way, so we can leave them out of this – if Argothian Enchantress drew seven or more cards at a time, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. Survival of the Fittest shows how powerful a permanent draw card needs to be to thrive over time.* In order to increase the effectiveness of Green draw, it needs to be less tied to permanents.**

* : Compulsion has seen use in some niches, but I view that as a discard function, not really a draw function.

** : A year ago I thought that the solution for White might be to get the Enchantress mechanic. That might make sense, but it would only be a mediocre and incomplete solution, as I’ve realized in the intervening year.

As an aside for why I don’t count Regrowth et al as draw/search, it’s because they don’t perform the functions described above of letting you run a denser, more flexible deck. They only solve problems that have already been solved, in a sense. They’re a separate dimension of card advantage, just like mass removal spells.

So what are all the different ways Blue searches? Well, Blue has tutors, for instance Tinker. Blue draws cards directly; this is the way we’re all most familiar with. Blue draws cards and then discards some fraction. Blue filters through a small group of cards to pick one. Blue draws cards from creatures’ triggered and activated abilities. Blue rigs the positions in its library (sometimes included in the filtering or drawing of cards as in Dream Cache and Brainstorm, sometimes separate as in Ancestral Knowledge). Blue manipulates the contents of its library (Foresight, Manipulate Fate). Blue even steals other players’ draws (Plagiarize). Blue goes further and resets everyone’s hand to seven. And while I haven’t gone through and counted, I would be mildly shocked if Blue didn’t have the most cantrips of any color.

Black’s lesson here is that each color needs a specifically flavored niche of draw/search – the ability is far too powerful to deny to the other colors. The challenge is to find as flavorful a way to do this as possible. Right now, Blue has all of them except life conversion, and a too-close second place in tutoring.

Lest I be accused of Type One information bias, I looked at the current block to see if anything is changing.

Champions of Kamigawa Draw/Search Spells

0 White

15 Blue: Azami, Lady of Scrolls; Counsel of the Soratami; Eerie Procession; Gifts Ungiven; Honden of Seeing Winds; Jushi Apprentice / Toyama the Revealer; Myojin of Seeing Winds; Peer Through Depths; Petals of Insight; Reach Through Mists; Sift Through Sands; Sire of the Storm; Soratami Cloudskater; Soratami Seer

2 Black: Night Dealings; Seizan, Perverter of Truth

0 Red

3 Green: Commune With Nature, Glimpse of Nature, Kodama’s Reach

Betrayers of Kamigawa Draw/Search Spells

1 White: Tallowisp

6 Blue: Heed the Mists; Higure, the Still Wind; Ninja of the Deep Hours; Ribbons of the Reikai; Sway of the Stars; Tomorrow, Azami’s Familiar

0 Black

0 Red

1 Green: Enshrined Memories

And I didn’t even count cantrips like Squelch. (Depending how you count, I noticed two Black creatures that could search up something related to their creature type. I don’t think that really counts, but if it does it only improves my point.) So by my count, about a quarter of all Blue spells even in this block are search, and the tiny amount outside of Blue is mostly conditional chaff. They’re hardly bad spells, either. Gifts Ungiven is Vintage-level broken, and Ben Kowal has been talking about Ninja of the Deep Hours for Type One, which gives it a 50/50 chance of being a genuine sleeper card.

It’s not gonna sound like I’m talking about Black for the next few paragraphs, but Black is the primer for a well-conceived color, so bear with me. Over ten years, this card-drawing dominance has made Blue unbeatable more often than not. I find this especially odd in the face of how certain drawing mechanics would make more sense in other colors. Examine Timetwister. Doesn’t it kinda make everything… more equal? Timetwister is a White mechanic! Garfield flavored it Blue by including the word “time” in the name. I found the same trick in Plagiarize; the name makes it sound knowledge-related and Blue, but the effect is the card-drawing equivalent of Reverse Damage. Plagiarize is a White-feeling card, too.

Green’s marquee card, Survival of the Fittest, is almost Black (tutoring), but it is Green for two reasons: it’s obviously creature-based, and it’s selective. Black’s tutors are for one card in spell form; its draw enchantments are based on life conversion. Green’s flavor niche here is to be selective. Green aims for nature, evolution, burgeoning, and growth. Doesn’t “Impulse” sound rather un-Blue? Blue doesn’t act on impulses; Red and Green do that. In the case of the Impulse mechanic, it’s Green. Commune With Nature indicates that on some level, R&D knows this. “Frantic Search”, on the other hand, is definitely Red. Red is reckless, but does every single card have to require random discard to represent that (e.g., Control of the Court)? Thirst for Knowledge and Careful Study are extreme misnomers, but should also be Red for this same reason.

If this setup sounds strange to you, think of the mechanics as you go around the wheel and mix in some of Mark Rosewater own statements about each color’s style (see the end of this article for links to all of MaRo’s color primers). Blue is supposed to be slow, studious, painstaking; it should have to draw every card so as to consider all possibilities. (“With access to unlimited information, blue has all the answers. The problem is that this way of working is very slow and blue has a tendency to be passive when it needs to be taking action.”) Black is supposed to lust for omnipotence; it should also have to draw every card, to make sure that it gets as much power as possible, or at least pay the price to find the most powerful spell immediately. (“Black does not shut off any avenue or turn away any opportunity.“)

Red is the color of emotion and speed; it doesn’t necessarily have to draw every card, but it does need to decide right away what to keep – Red doesn’t have time to wait and decide what to play later, or try to build up a lot of cards. (“Yes, red is not the thinking color. But this doesn’t mean red is unintelligent. Red is emotional. Red is short-sighted. Red is impulsive. But none of these are mutually exclusive of intelligence.”) Green isn’t interested in studying everything; it just wants to find the most useful tool that it can at any given time. (“It taps into a primal force that grants it great power. The downside to green’s way of life is that it relies completely on its instinct to gauge danger.“) White doesn’t care about the depth of study like Blue; the most important thing is that nothing is out of control and no one’s power conflicts with the Leader/God(s)/True Way – White will suppress anyone getting too far ahead. (“If white can make you play by its rules, the opponent doesn’t stand a chance. The downside to this structure is inflexibility.”)

Notice how under this setup, each color is driven nuts by the way its opposing colors draw cards. Blue finds the Green/Red willingness to ignore so many interesting spells impossible. Black hates that Green and White have so limited when and how much they can draw. Red thinks Blue and White are ponderous and too thorough (at least Black is trying to do everything quickly). Green thinks Black and Blue are unnatural distortions that are trying to subdue and usurp the natural order (at least White respects tranquility). White thinks Black and Red are going to destabilize everything they touch as they race through their library for the most destructive card available.

If every color followed that pattern of flavors, there would at least be the possibility of “control” not immediately conjuring up the image of an Island in formats broader than Block Constructed. Black has long been included in Vintage control decks specifically because it made up some of the weakest points in Blue’s arsenal of search. The most classic example is Demonic Tutor, the most recent is probably Skeletal Scrying. Bringing this set of abilities into a flavorful balance will let other colors do similar things in Vintage, and even more in Legacy and Extended.

Philip Stanton

prstanto at gmail.com

Rosewater’s Color Primers

Green: http://www.wizards.com/default.asp?x=mtgcom/daily/mr43

White: http://www.wizards.com/default.asp?x=mtgcom/daily/mr57

Blue: http://www.wizards.com/default.asp?x=mtgcom/daily/mr84

Black: http://www.wizards.com/default.asp?x=mtgcom/daily/mr109

Red: http://www.wizards.com/default.asp?x=mtgcom/daily/mr133

Artifact: http://www.wizards.com/default.asp?x=mtgcom/daily/mr165