In Magic, the “color pie” is the name given to the set of guidelines that determine which colors have access to certain abilities. For instance, most life gain is found in white, most pump spells are found in green, most reanimation spells are found in black. In each case I say “most,” because of course many abilities overlap multiple colors (eg. Bountiful Harvest gaining life in green).
For the most part, bending the “rules” laid out by the color pie to suit various purposes – flavor, mechanical balance, etc. – doesn’t raise too many eyebrows. There has been a recent trend attempting to end blue’s near-monopoly on card draw, for example, with red getting cards like Act on Impulse. Stuff like this is just part of the game evolving, and the color pie changing with it.
But there are examples from Magic’s past where these rules weren’t so much bent as they were obliterated. We know that blue doesn’t get direct damage, we know that black doesn’t get counterspells or ways to destroy artifacts, and certainly you’d never expect green to get a time walk. Or would you? Read on to find out!
And of course, if you want to try any of these color pie-breaking nonsense cards yourself, feel free to check out ChannelFireball.com for all your singles needs.
There are more non-blue counterspells than you might think. Blue’s grip on this ability is strong, but not ironclad – over the years, cards like Mana Tithe, Guttural Response and Molten Influence have broken this “only blue gets counterspells” rule. All of them, however, come with a significant downside. Typically, they’re highly conditional and do very little much of the time – Guttural Response is only really any good against opposing counterspells, while Mana Tithe and Molten Influence can rot in your hand, doing nothing.
Withering Boon, however, doesn’t have all that much of a downside and offers what is, effectively, a hard creature counter in black. It’s not particularly conditional, it’s not hard to cast, and nor is it even prohibitively expensive – it’s easier to cast than actual, literal Counterspell. The downside? A paltry three life. Essence Scatter isn’t the most powerful Magic card, it’s true, but the fact that it’s available to black for such a trifling cost means Withering Boon brazenly thumbs its nose at the color pie.
Everyone knows that direct damage belongs to red. All the classic burn spells are found in red: Lightning Bolt, Lava Axe and of course the mighty Fireball. Occasionally, black will get a burn spell like Sorin’s Thirst as a little treat, usually connected with life gain. You’ll also see direct damage done by white, but only ever to creatures in combat with cards like Divine Arrow. In blue and green? Unheard of.
Except there are green burn spells, and more of them than you’d think. Hornet Sting, Bee Sting, and Unyaro Bee Sting are all unconditional burn spells pointing damage at any target, no questions asked. Now, that damage doesn’t come at a very good rate, it’s true. A four-damage sorcery-speed Shock isn’t something that many people would be interested in, but the fact remains that if you go back far enough, the option is there.
However – you don’t even have to go back that far! Only a decade ago, Hornet Sting was printed, providing a Modern-legal green burn spell. Again, not a very good one, but that’s besides the point. I think we can look back to ancient cards like Bee Sting and say “well, they still hadn’t figured everything out, that’s okay.” But Hornet Sting is in the new border, legal in Modern, and represents a huge break in the color pie. It’s also a huge break in the flavor pie, too – since when is a hornet sting half as painful as a bee sting?
Surprise! Green isn’t the only color to be forbidden direct damage and yet still have it – there are blue cards, too! Psionic Blast is a cut-and-dried blue burn spell, and it’s not even that bad! Worse yet, if I asked you to imagine a three-drop creature that tapped to ping any target, you’d think it’d be red. Nope – the first instance of this card was blue: Prodigal Sorcerer, nicknamed “Tim” after the sorcerer in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
The really funny thing about both of these cards is that both of them were reprinted “correctly,” as red cards. Prodigal Pyromancer is a functional reprint of Prodigal Sorcerer, first appearing as a color-shifted card in Planar Chaos. Psionic Blast, on the other hand, was “reprinted” in the original Ravnica block. I couldn’t quite believe it, however, when I saw it was printed as a rare. I don’t think I’ll ever complain about another bulk rare after seeing that I could have opened Char.
Black can’t destroy artifacts and enchantments. You know it, I know it, everybody knows it. Recently, this rule was bent to the point of breaking with Pharika’s Libation, which really has the feeling of a sneaky loophole – “oh, I’m not destroying this enchantment, I’m making them sacrifice it.” Even with Pharika’s Libation, however, black still can’t touch artifacts. Right? Right!?
Nope! Go back far enough and you’ll find Phyrexian Tribute and Gate to Phyrexia, both of which allow you trade your creatures for their artifacts. Sure, Gate to Phyrexia has very restrictive timing and Phyrexian Tribute means you’re hitting yourself with a three-for-one just to get rid of an artifact, but the fact remains that these cards exist and can be used to break some otherwise pretty ironclad restrictions on black’s abilities.
What’s really interesting, however, is that Phyrexian Tribute is from Mirage, the same set that gave us Withering Boon and Unyaro Bee Sting. Looks like the Council of Colors (a real thing inside Wizards R&D, they wear cloaks to the meetings and everything) was having a bit of time off when Mirage was in development!
We’ve already looked at the most famous Time Walk effects in Magic (R&D did me real dirty by banning Time Warp the week that article came out), but this card didn’t make the cut. Why? I’ll be honest – I didn’t realize it existed. There are a handful of two-mana Time Walks: Last Chance, Time Vault and of course Time Walk itself. Given the right circumstances, however, Seedtime offers the closest approximation of the legendary Time Walk out of all of the others.
Sure, it’s heavily conditional and does nothing if your opponent isn’t playing blue, but it’s a two-mana extra turn card without a pesky downside like “you lose the game” attached to it. And it’s green! The color of big monsters, mana ramp, pump spells, and, er, well… a lot of other things, really. Card draw, direct damage and now extra turns. I guess when you think about it, green really does just do it all.
The color pie has shifted and evolved over the years, and even today it’s being bent and stretched from set to set. Even so, black counterspells and green Time Walks represent a massive departure from what we’re used to. Hopefully things don’t get too wild like this again in the future, and we can stick to color pie rules that make sense – like 4/4 vigilant flyers staying in green and black, where they belong.