It's a wonderful summer of Magic.
Magic 2015 recently released, bringing forth a huge slew of new and crazy cards with it. Players who have been around for a while are no doubt tinkering with their decks, trying to figure out what new cards get added into the mix. But if you're newer to the game, maybe coming in through Magic 2015—Duels of the Planeswalkers, you might not even be sure where to start. How does this crazy deck-building thing work, anyway?
Today, I want to cover something crucial and that can be sometimes hard to figure out, especially if you're just starting: how many colors should you play in your deck?
Before even really adding any cards, before figuring out which of Magic's many pieces are going to combine to form your deck this time, you need to figure out how many colors you even want to play in your deck. It's one of the first questions you tend to ask yourself when deck building, and one that will inform so much about your future decisions. Once you figure out how many colors you're playing (and which ones) the deck can begin coming into focus, but until then it's hard to even know which cards to look through to add in!
Today, I want to show off some of the upsides and downsides of playing one, two, three, four, and even five colors, and highlight when you might want to or not want to do it. Figuring out how many colors you're going for is a key part of the deck-building process.
Let's dive right in and go through the different kinds of choices you can make.
Monocolored decks—"mono" meaning one (as opposed to, say, the Spanish word for monkey, or mononucleosis), for those not familiar with the term—are often tempting. Pick your favorite color, put in some of your favorite cards, and voilà! It certainly has its upsides. Let's look at some of the reasons you might want to play a monocolored deck:
- Mana consistency. One of the great things about playing just one color is that your mana is going to be excellent. If you're three colors, you're going to have to draw the right lands to play all of your spells. If you're mono-white, then you can play 24 Plains and always have the mana requirements for your white spells.
- Mana flexibility. In addition to being able to play enough lands to ensure you hit your colors on time, it also gives you some flexibility with your mana base. If you want to play some colorless lands like, say, Mutavault or Radiant Fountain, your mana base is going to be more forgiving to that. Playing those lands in a three-, four-, or five-color deck is really going to eat into your mana base consistency, but in a one-color deck they're pretty easy to fit in.
- Powerful individual cards. Often, one big allure of being monocolored is specific cards. For example, you see this a lot right now with Theros block and the devotion mechanic: cards like Gray Merchant of Asphodel and Master of Waves fit best in one-color decks, and they are strong enough to push you toward monocolor. Heavy mana symbols do a similar job: a card like Phyrexian Obliterator really demands you be mono-black to play it, and if you do you get to unlock its power.
- Piling on a strategy. When you want to move in on one primary strategy, monocolor is often a good choice. For example, if you want to burn your opponent out, you're likely going to be mono-red: red has all of the best burn spells, and you're going to just want to add as many of those into your deck as possible.
Those are some pretty good reasons. I like casting spells! I like casting powerful individual spells! So, why not be monocolored all of the time? Well, there are a few major reasons why:
- Lack of ability access. The color pie (meaning how Magic's abilities are divided by color) is part of what makes deck building interesting. If you stay one color, you're going to miss out on accessing cards that help fill your color's holes. If you're mono-red, you're not going to be able to destroy an enchantment. If you're mono-green, you're not really going to be able to interact with any instants or sorceries your opponent might cast. Being one color is a big sacrifice in this respect. You become so honed in on one thing that you adopt all of its weaknesses.
- Decks that are good against your color are going to be really good against you. This is a bit of the corollary to the above, but it was different enough to give it its own bullet point. Simply put, if red is weak to, say, popular white cards in Standard, then playing mono-red is going to make your white matchup even harder to be victorious in. It makes protection particularly powerful: beating Stormbreath Dragon with mono-white can be difficult.
- Inability to play as many powerful cards. If you're green-white, you get to play with Polukranos, World Eater and Brimaz, King of Oreskos. If you're just green, you only get to play with Polukranos. Ideally, being monocolored means you have some powerful cards you wouldn't get to play with otherwise—because if you're don't, you're definitely missing out on playing some of other colors' most powerful cards.
Ah, two-color decks. These are what I would consider the core of Magic. If I had to choose one of these five options that most Magic decks fell into, it would be this one. Playing two colors has many advantages:
- You get to cover your weaknesses. As mentioned before, the problem with being monocolored is that you are restricted by the color pie. Being two colors means you can have each color address the other's problems. If you're white-black, you can use white's cards to destroy artifacts and enchantments and black's cards to make your opponent discard problematic instants and sorceries.
- Your mana base is still generally sound. While your mana is not quite as good as with monocolored decks, playing two colors generally still gives you a consistent mana base to work with. Especially with the number of dual lands that come out (cards like Azorius Guildgate or Temple of Enlightenment), two-color decks work fine.
- You have two colors to pull power from. In a monocolored deck, you might be missing out on a good chunk of powerful cards and even have to stretch sometimes to get the full number of cards you're happy with. In two colors, however, reaching the crucial 34–37 range of powerful cards shouldn't be a big problem.
Two-color decks are really not rife with many inherent problems. If you're building a deck for the first time and don't really know where to start, I always recommend starting with two colors. While you don't have the advantages of other choices—better mana base like one color, more card access like tri-color—there aren't really any inherent disadvantages to being two colors. A few combinations are going to still have holes (black-red still can't destroy enchantments), but on the whole your two-color deck is in good shape.
Tri-color is really where we start to see a different kind of deck. One-color decks and two-color decks tend to work in similar ways, but good tri-color often decks do a few things differently. Let's take a look:
- You have access to many strong cards. The more colors you play, the more cards you have access to. And by the time you hit three colors, that's where it really shifts over to "my deck is mostly a collection of powerful cards" rather than having any gaps to fill. A good reason to be three colors is when you're going to be doing something more powerful than your opponent at every turn.
- There are strong multicolored cards around. As a corollary to the above, often a good time to play tri-color is when a set is full of multicolored cards. That means you can choose three colors and get all of the overlapping two-color cards in each. Playing green-white means you only get to play green-white multicolored cards, but playing red-green-white means you get to play green-white, red-green, and red-white multicolored cards.
- You can answer nearly any problem. Some two-color combinations still have blind spots with certain kinds of cards. But by the time you hit tri-color decks, you should have an answer of some kind to any problematic card type for you.
But, of course, there's a reason why not all decks are tri-color:
- A tri-color mana base becomes problematic. Playing three colors usually means one of two things: a lot of your lands are going to enter the battlefield tapped or your lands are going to deal a lot of damage to you…or, sometimes, both. Play three-colors only when your deck doesn't mind one of these two things. Having a stable mana base is important, because if your deck is full of powerful spells that it can't cast 25% of the time then you should have just started with spells you can cast in the first place.
I should note as an addendum to this that splashing a third color can be a lot easier than playing three straight colors. If you want to play one late-game card like, say, Simic Sky Swallower, you can focus the deck toward two colors and then ensure you have the fixing to cast your seven-drop. But decks that are evenly split among three colors are where you're going to run into the most problems.
The fabled four-color deck is not something you really see that often. There are a few wonky decks that do it, but it's hard enough to make work that generally people stay away. If you can make a four-color deck work, often you can make five colors work, and that's just a better option. But let's go over some of the upsides.
- You have access to even stronger cards. As is probably apparent by now, the more colors you play the more strong cards you have access to.
- You can take advantage of unique synergies. A majority of four-color decks I see are decks that need something from every color to work. Maybe it's a combo between two dual-colored cards. Maybe the pieces just stretch between many colors. Regardless, I often see decks in these colors built that way because they needed every color for a reason.
The downside to four-color might be a pretty clear one by now:
- Your mana base is going to be troublesome. You are going to have to play a lot of lands that enter the battlefield tapped or deal damage to you, or perhaps a lot of green mana fixing, but either way you are going to have to do work to get your colors satisfactory. During most of the early game, you're probably just going to have to hold tight and pretend it's a plan.
- You aren't five-colors. This isn't really a downside, per se, but most of the time, if you can be four colors you could be five with minimal effort. Then you could get five's advantages.
Ah, five-color. The land of dreams. Presuming your mana base is good enough, this can work out. If you're a new deck builder, I would probably recommend avoiding this (and four-color, for that matter) but, if you want to delve into the fray you have a few advantages:
- You can play the most powerful cards. Figure out the kind of deck you are, and you can play all the strongest cards in that archetype. A control deck? Play all of the best removal spells. An aggressive deck? You can play all of the best creatures. You can literally play any card in the format you want to.
- You can play WUBRG cards. Often, we make over-the-top cards that cost to cast under the pretense that they are very hard to put into your deck. Well, this is the one deck that can play them! It's time to break out the Chromanticores.
And, like four-color, it might be clear what the downsides revolve around:
- Your mana base might not work. Even if all of your lands are dual lands, you may still have trouble finding the color you need, when you need it. Even if it does work, most of your lands are probably entering the battlefield tapped or dealing damage to you. Getting consistency with a five-color deck is challenging.
- You are susceptible to land-hate. A well-placed land destruction spell or Blood Moon can completely mess up a deck like this. There aren't a lot of those cards around these days, but they're certainly problematic when they do show up.
Around the Wheel and Back Again
And there you have it: a look at the many different combinations you can take building a Magic deck. The next time you sit down and are trying to figure out which deck to build next, start with asking yourself: What am I trying to do? How many colors should I be? and see where it leads.
With all of that in mind, let's put this thinking into action with a deck-building challenge! Let's take a look:
Deadline: Monday, August 11, at 6 p.m. Pacific Time
Submit all decklists by emailing me at email@example.com
Decklists should be submitted with YOURNAME's DECKNAME at the top. Underneath should be one card per line, with just a leading number. For example:
4 Satyr Firedrinker
3 Ash Zealot
4 Lighting Bolt
…and so on. Please don't use anything but a space to separate the card numbers and names—don't write "4x Lightning Bolt," for example. Well-formatted decklists have a much better chance of being read and making it into the column. Poorly formatted decklists are more likely to be ignored. (If I can't read your decklist, I certainly can't talk about it!)
Also, take note that, for this week, please send your decks to firstname.lastname@example.org. There is currently a bug that is causing difficulty with me seeing your decklists sent to my Wizards address.
Enjoy working on Standard decks for this week! Now that the Pro Tour is in the books, let's see it you can draw any inspiration from that. Additionally, if you have any comments on this article, feel free to send them my way! I'd love to see what you think. You can go ahead and send me a tweet or ask a question on my Tumblr if you have anything you'd like to let me know.
I'll be back next week with a budget look at Magic 2015. Talk with you then!