The Problems With Prismatic

Now that no one’s talking about Prismatic much, I figured it was time to give the format a shot. I’d dabbled in Prismatic before, and found myself really frustrated. Initial forays into Prismatic Magic were stymied quickly by the presence of opposing power, and the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. So let’s run down a quick check for the impediments for the casual Prismatic player…

In these days between sets, we, the casual, have to do a rough approximation of holding our collective arses. Now, Time Spiral Set Reviews are going to come in gales, and this time around, I’m avoiding it because, to me, Time Spiral has little to no relevance. A month from now, sure, you might see me speculating about what Time Spiral brings, but until then, it’s just 421 blank cards to me.

Which, of course, means that nothing I say has much relevance at all.

In this situation, I was left looking for new things to write about, new things to play with. One of the things that came up as an option was the alternative formats offered on Magic Online. Since Frank Karsten was addressing far more Serious Business than Bennie Smith was, I couldn’t help but feel there was a bit of a vacuum to be filled.

Without anyone to talk about Prismatic, I figured the time was to give the format a shot. I’d dabbled in Prismatic before, and found myself really frustrated. Initial forays into Prismatic Magic were stymied quickly by the presence of opposing power, and the gulf between the haves and the have-nots.

So let’s run down a quick check for the impediments for the casual Prismatic player.

Prismatic Prices Are Screwed Up
You ever tried to buy Dark Rituals? Or Impulses? Or even the fetchlands from Mirage? How about Wayfarer’s Baubles? Since these cards are not tournament staples in any of the “real” formats, it’s not readily obvious. I honestly thought Mirage – given its irredeemable status – would be a really cheap set to buy cards from. Holy hell, was I wrong.

See, even your most thoroughly addicted draft monkey isn’t an idiot… or if he is, he doesn’t stay that way for long. Draft players will sell their cards as high as they can get away with – gone are the days of throwing away batches of rares Just For The Two Tix To Draft With. This is because the best players are busy going infinite, and people are realising that MTGO Money is a kind of money, and being wasteful with money is a good way to run out of it.

This means that a lot of cards that are only good in Prismatic are actually quite valuable. While this doesn’t mean much for, say, Dark Ritual, Joiner Adept is now worth two tickets each, and there’s Etched Oracle as well, a creature basically custom-made for Prismatic. The Bringers, too.

These cards have no value in other formats. Even the most casual of players won’t fork out too much for a Bringer of the Blue Dawn.

You can observe this effect in 1/1/1 Emperor, which has driven the value of New Frontiers to dizzying heights, with other niche-and-awful cards like Weird Harvest – prior to Heartbeat of Spring – being remarkably valuable for cards with no actual tournament pedigree.

What makes this worse is that there actually are Prismatic tournament events. This means that these cards – which are good and provide a serious edge in the competitive scene of this niche format, supported only online, and therefore, suffering all the singularities of the online economy – go further up in price. The people who forked out for their expensive new cards are not going to want to sell them cheaply, and those who want those cards will therefore raise their buy price to compensate.

Because Prismatic already had a high barrier of entry, before these “odd sets” were introduced, when Magic Online’s set was a bit more tame. Back then, the best decks needed painlands (especially enemy color ones), really liked some good lands like fetchlands, odyssey duals, and even the invasion taplands. All of which – due to their usefulness in extant formats – were selling well. So we have a situation where you have someone opting to make a good two-colored Extended manabase… four times over.

Then, Ravnica hit.

Now, when duals first hit MTGO, the prices were absurd. Everyone could tell they were hot property, and with good reason. To compete at the best level in all the first Standard-legal PEs, you had to have the duals. This means that even though the Temple Gardens that were worth fourteen then are worth four now, that investment was still worth it. So I have no issue with these cards being expensive. But even now, the worst of the duals is still expensive… if you’re buying a fleet of twenty of them.

Consider that there’s a format where the best hosers never rotate out, the elements of every back-breaking control deck are all there, all the good combo cards get banned swiftly and with vengeance, and then imagine that in this format there is a silent moratorium on land destruction strategies, and everyone waits until at least turn 4 before attacking. Also, the creatures with a power greater than their mana cost are few and far between.

This is not the dog-eat-dog world of “normal” tournament formats, where the slow, plodding control deck that wants to win over twenty turns with its nine-mana spells is eaten by aggressive decks before it can get off the ground. Conventionally speaking, aggro decks are cheap, and control decks are expensive – this means that you are generally going to see a lot of aggro decks and few control decks. In Prismatic, the opposite is true.

Aggro does not cast Rampant Growth. It does not waste time on Into the North. It wants to go bear, bear, bear-and-burn, answer-your-answer, kill you. That you have to waste your time doing ho-hum things like fixing your mana is giving your opponent turn after turn in which they’re not under pressure. Good aggro decks apply pressure and keep it on – which is very hard to do if you’re spooting around with Rampant Growth.

Basically, any deck that runs Sakura-Tribe Elder is probably not aggro, no matter what you think. If it is aggro, it most likely can lose the Elder.

But in Prismatic, you have to get your colors in order. This means that you have to run a critical density of things that fix your mana for no mana – and since these things are very good, they’re very expensive. Fetchlands and dual lands. If you want to play aggro in Prismatic, you ideally start with the following for your decklist:

4 City of Brass
4 Tarnished Citadel
4 Wooded Foothills
4 Flooded Strand
4 Polluted Delta
4 Bloodstained Mire
4 Windswept Heath

4 Sacred Foundry
4 Watery Grave
4 Overgrown Tomb
4 Temple Garden
4 Godless Shrine
4 Stomping Ground
4 Steam Vents
4 Breeding Pool
4 Hallowed Fountain

4 Blood Crypt

So, presuming we get a good deal and are paying something in the district of about ten tickets for each Fetchland, and about ten each for each dual land, with Cities and Citadels as throw-ins, before we move off our manabase of 68 cards – so still about 22 cards to go! – we’re talking 600 tickets.

Six. Hundred. Tickets.

Now for those clever d*cks out there who’ve Gone Infinite, this is quite feasible. After all, that’s what infinite means. You are no longer burdened by an amount of money that represents to some, say, four weeks work. Let me tell you, if I’m making a one-time six-hundred dollar investment into Magic, chances are it’s going to be a Mox of some description*.

So no lies here, Prismatic is expensive. And there are no substitutes. Goblins could scoot by on a landbase of 24 Mountains – Prismatic, there’s no cheating that doesn’t wind up booting you in the ass. Unless you cut corners, in a gimmicky fashion. But doing so is a bad idea… but that’s for later.

Now that we’ve got cost laid down, let’s consider the next problem.

Prismatic Decks Are Screwed Up
Prismatic is a format where manabases are staggered, combo pieces are banned, and the sheer cost keeps aggro from competing routinely. This means that you’re classically going to be facing mid-range or late-game control. And this means that your easiest deck to build is mid-range or late-game control.

For those of you like me, one of the most annoying things in the world to play is the late game control mirror match. Then add in the factor that if you miss land drop #3, you are probably dead. Then add in that everyone is running such a huge diversity of lands and threats that you can lose to huge, blow-out turns that feature things like Time Stretch or a quick Exalted Angel.

This means that losses can feel very random. Much like in Vintage from an external perspective, you see someone lose the game – effectively – in the first five minutes of play, and then the rest of the game is formalities. Two games out of three seem to end this way – one person brings a Just Plain Better Deck and it’s game over in short order; one player hazes on his third land, or gets the wrong colors in his draws, and it all goes to hell fast. But the third game…

I’ll address that third game later. For now, it’s worth knowing that there are some very, very common threats in Prismatic, which consistently make their presence felt. The multicolor nature of Prismatic means that you have to look at a lot of threats and, presuming availability ask yourself why you’re not running them.

Much as how, approaching another format, you have to ask yourself which threats you need to be able to answer somehow, you need to know what you might face in Prismatic, and then be prepared with multiple answers to them. You also need these answers to be fair draws on their own, without fear of drawing dead cards. This is, of course, annoying.

The kind of tension this brings into play means that carefully designed decks can routinely lose just because an opponent’s bombs are better or more numerous. Once you get past the four-mana flashpoint, cards start to do some rather ridiculous things, and when most everyone guarantees getting past that point, you can expect the bombs to drop in short order.

The problem is that these bombs vary all over the place, in their type, which means that the best solution is generally countermagic. That mandates a strong reliance on Blue. You’re already planting your feet firmly in Green, to keep your manabase strong…

In the end, this means that the best prismatic decks, in the casual room, have a strong core of tried-and-tested Good Cards that’s hard to deviate from. What makes it worse is that, for the better part, these Good Cards are expensive. Why? Because they’re good in Prismatic. Even if they’re rubbish elsewhere.

There’s a lengthy list of Why Aren’t You Runnings. Just off the top of my head:

Mirari’s Wake

Exalted Angel
Mystic Snake
Etched Oracle
Pernicious Deed (Holy Christ)
Meddling Mage
Eternal Witness
Deep Analysis

Flametongue Kavu
Fact Or Fiction

It goes on and on like this. And ultimately, you hit a point where cost becomes your only barrier. Again, if you’ve got the money, Prismatic is already fun to play, because it’s a big deck, big mana format, with swingy bombs and nominally unplayable cards hitting the deck early and often. But from the outside, knowing that every game you will have the chance of facing one or more of these cards…

It’s very bloody daunting.

Prismatic Is A Ton Of Fun To Play
This is what surprised me about it. I mean, part of the joy of Magic to many is the glory of the Big Play. We all love our blowout stories; we all love the intricate, complicated game states that lead to smashing our opponent with the most peculiar of cards. Quietly, we dream of formats were all these Great Plays can coincide, where the manabases grow big enough to allow these ridiculous turns, and where, in the end, six mana doesn’t have to win you the game.

This means that you can play the Life From The Loam Engine and Dark Confidant and Shred Memory toolboxes and Perplex Toolboxes and holy crap what else do you want in here?

I’ve been loving my experience playing Prismatic because the format is so wide open. You can, generally speaking, run a bunch of cards that, while not remarkably good, are certainly fun. You get big plays, you get slower games, and you get more opportunities to play with fruity cards. But this is after I acknowledged the ugly truth – I am a little kid in the big kid’s pool.

It took my collection to its extreeeeeme to get together my one Prismatic deck that I play for funsies. This is basically every good card I own, held together with some less-good ones.

I’m going to post a decklist now. You can hold my hand if you want.

Talen Prismatic
Talen Lee
Test deck on 10-22-2006

Two pages of pure budget Prismatic glory. I was angling for mid-game, and of course, there’s almost no countermagic in the deck (unless Plaxmanta counts). Perplex vaguely counts. But the thing that I love about this format is that this deck is, itself, a dozen sub-themes stapled together. And they all get to interrelate. I’m reminded of Mark Gottlieb building a honden deck, which eventually wanted Baku Altar and Kodama of the North Tree and then a Reanimator loop and then… it was complicated.

This is basically, as I said, every good card I own. But let’s have a look over it and see what kind of interrelations we can find, okay?

Shred Memory: Shred Memory can tutor up Crime, Punishment, Supply, Demand, Rise, Fall, Sakura-Tribe Elder, any of your utility guildmagi, and Life From The Loam. Also, the spell’s good on its own. Every target Shred can get, the Dimir Infiltrator can get… and Demand can get the Dimir Infiltrator.

Demand: Demand can go get a hell of a lot of stuff, obviously. It can go for removal, the split cards, Isperia, Firemane Angels, Loxodon Hierarchs, Trygon Predator, or the ever-impressive Wilderness Elemental. Of course, tutors are best when cheap – Demand can cheaply tutor up a cheap removal spell, or, going long, it can go for one of the expensive win conditions. It’s worth noting that Demand should be able to get any castable removal spell, given the colors it costs and the multicolored removal available to you, provided you have Red or Black.

Perplex: Another toolbox. Perplex can’t go get the utility split cards – unless you use it to get Demand, then use Demand to get them. On the other hand, Perplex can fetch Compulsive Research, Kodama’s Reach, Electrolyze, Mortify, Putrefy, Azorius Herald, Court Hussar, Civic Wayfinder, Daggerclaw Imp, Eternal Witness, my lone Ohran Viper, Trygon Predator, Shrieking Grotesque, or, once more, Wilderness Elemental.

Sensei’s Divining Top and Panglacial Wurm: In a deck sporting 30+ ways to shuffle the library, some repeatedly, Top is obviously going to be good. But Panglacial Wurm turns late-game shuffles into threats.

Chord Of Calling: Again, another tutor. Which can be retrieved with Perplex, even. In this case, Chord gives you the opportunity to bicker over something in your opponent’s end of turn step. My only complaint about Chord is that it can’t get me the other tutors – I can’t Chord up a Shred Memory when I want to go get Life From The Loam, for example (whereas Demand can go for Infiltrator can go for Life From the Loam for the reasonable price of 2UUBW, with 1G up to cast the Life). However, Chord encouraged me to put more creatures in the deck with “good” abilities – the Ninja of the Deep Hours, the Indrik Stomphowler and the like.

This is just my one deck, though, and I won’t lie, it wasn’t cheap to make. Since I already owned the cards, it wasn’t “expensive” per se – but there’s no way to get around the fact that there are six or so duals, a number of one-ticket fetchlands, more than a few two-ticket rares, and so on up the Finance Curve. Being truly budget in Prismatic is very hard, for reasons I’ve already mentioned.

You may ask why I present my list. It’s to have a starting point. Honest to god, when I started out, I had to get Rivien Swanson himself to help me through it (and a lot of his recommendations were very good), and I realised that nobody had really written anything about Prismatic recently – especially odd in the era of the multicolor mage. With that in mind, I opted to at least give my fellow interested parties a glimpse into a deck that can at least win half as many games as it loses.

If there’s any interest in this kind of thing, I’ll do some more writing and researching. This should be a bit of an introduction into the format, and presenting the problems and barriers to entry to the format in an honest fashion – and honestly, where have all the Prismatic Writers gone? I know you guys know the format better than me – you all in hiding or something?

Next time, if Prismatic’s enough to earn interest from others, I’ll talk about my efforts in cutting corners, and perhaps even some more advanced deck-d*ckery.

Hugs and Kisses
Talen Lee
Talen at dodo dot com dot au

* Dear Vintage Players: Would this be me getting ripped off? Could I get two moxen? Hang on, pc Mox plz?