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Utter Beatings: Mythbusting Five-Color in AAC

Myth: Five-color decks have terrible mana bases

Five-color decks should be drafted to have mana that is comparable in quality to that of an average three-color deck. Sure, sometimes that isn’t going to happen, and reliably casting all of your spells is going to be a little dicey. Sometimes you run the 6-6-6 in a three-color deck, but that doesn’t mean that three-color decks have terrible mana. The all-basic fallback plan is obviously not an option in five-color, so I can understand trepidation about five-color mana bases. It takes a bunch of fixers to pull off, and there are many costs associated with those fixers, but rock solid five-color mana bases are very viable in this format.

A quick example for the skeptics. Take a three-color deck with two fully on-color tri-lands and a 5-5-5 split of basics. Not the best mana base ever, but it is perfectly acceptable clocking in at seven sources of mana in each color. Now let’s compare to a good five-color deck that might have:
Jungle Shrine
Crumbling Necropolis
Esper Panorama
Jund Panorama
Obelisk of Bant
Rupture Spire
2 x Armillary Sphere
Counting panoramas as half sources and the spheres as a full source for each color, the fixers yield five sources of black and five and a half sources for each other color, with most likely twelve basics left to play with, giving us an average of 7.8 sources per color. This set of fixers would produce quite a consistent mana base, and getting this level of fixing in a draft is perfectly reasonable if you are valuing the fixers high enough.

Myth: The format’s mana-fixing is slow

Fixers in this format are slow like Courier’s Capsule is slow – they require a substantial tempo investment – but they aren’t necessarily inefficient. Investing in fixers is perfectly acceptable as long as they are generating good returns on your investment. They certainly can do this; there are plenty of undercosted spells in the format for your fixers to power out. A card like Woolly Thoctar should by all rights cost five mana, so a fixer that enables a turn three Thoctar is basically masquerading as Dark Ritual. That’s the kind of dividend you want to see your fixers paying, but this is obviously an unreliable expectation. More realistically, casting several spells that are undercosted by a mana or two over the course of a game will pay for your investment in fixing.

The oft-maligned Obelisks give you returns not just on their fixing, but also the acceleration they provide. When the alternatives to Obelisks are paying two mana to landcycle or crack a Panorama, paying an extra mana for the acceleration is quite a bargain. When that investment is translated into accelerating out spells for a couple of turns in a row, or powering out multiple spells a turn, it is pretty easy to recoup the tempo you gave up earlier.

To ensure that your fixers are generating worthwhile returns, you need to have both undercosted spells to cast and enough time to take advantage of the fixing. Having undercosted spells is mostly a matter of card quality, as undercosted spells are by definition high quality. But there are plenty of abstractly unexciting spells that fixers essentially transform into undercosted monsters, such as Kederekt Creeper, Matca Rioters, Fusion Elemental, Dragonsoul Knight, etc. The format is by and large slow enough to give your investments time to mature. The most explosive, aggressive starts are going to kill you too quickly, but that is something you have to be willing to accept, as such starts are just not very common. It is not hard to keep pace with a curve that started on two if your spells from turn four and on are superior. The fixers are fast enough for the format, in that they generally have time to pay for themselves. Of course, the longer the game goes, the more value you get from your fixing.

Myth: Five-color decks must play control

There are many good reasons for five-color decks to be controlling. Five-color decks with shakier mana bases will want to see longer games to have time to get their mana sorted out. Goodies in Shards like Obelisks, super-cyclers, eight-mana bombs, copious removal, and more pushed five-color decks in the controlling direction. It is the investment in mana-fixing that is most responsible for pigeonholing five-color into control. Starting out behind on tempo and needing several turns to recoup the investment cost is a bad proposition for racing, and the fixers ask for longer games to get full value out of them.

However, more aggressive five-color decks are definitely viable. What they need are cards that more immediately make the fixers worth it, and the new toys in Conflux definitely delivered on this front. Conflux has lots of incentives pushing five-color towards more aggressive decks: Might of Alara, Matca Rioters, Fusion Elemental, Dragonsoul Knight, Paragon of the Amesha, Manaforce Mace, etc. These cards are just so efficient that they can make up for a lot of ground that was lost to fixers. A Matca Rioters makes an Armillary Sphere do a pretty good ‘Reinforce 2’ impression, and the fixers are incredibly powerful when they have such an immediate board impact.

On net, there are definitely more incentives to play control than an aggressive deck in five-color, but there are plenty of times where playing beatdown with five colors is the right play. If the cards flowing your way draw you towards aggressive cards and five colors, go with it. Not all five-color decks are going to have the tools they need to effectively play control, but attacking with undercosted monsters is a very effective strategy. Even for controlling decks, the ability to beatdown is very useful. If you are going to play for the long game, you had better ensure that you are going to win it, and most often five-color decks cannot guarantee that.

Myth: Drawing cards is a good plan for inevitability

Your average five-color control deck in this format has infinite removal spells, some dorks, and a few draw-twos. The plan is to trade one-for-one a bunch and draw some cards to get ahead. It’s a good plan, but it is not enough to seize inevitability. Sometimes a game will go according to script, and you will just bury your opponent in card advantage. Other times everything will be going right, with tons of trading and you drawing some cards, but you draw a few more lands and your opponent just ends up attritioning you out. Sometimes your opponent will drop a Cruel Ultimatum. Or an Empyrial Archangel. Or, perhaps worst of all, a Necrogenesis. These are all beatable, but can you do it consistently in a long game? You certainly can’t by just drawing a few extra cards. I’m not trying to understate the importance of card advantage here, but to make the point that card drawing as a strategy is not a tenable long game plan. You need a deck packed full of quality cards. You want every card drawn bringing you one card closer to a game-winning bomb. You want to not just draw more cards than your opponent, but for each of your draws be stronger.

Myth: Five-color decks have increased card quality

The primary incentive for playing five colors is increased card quality; you get to take the best card out of every pack, regardless of color! Well, no, you don’t; you are too busy taking fixing. The sacrifices you make drafting five colors undermine the entire purpose of doing so. When you are taking tri-lands/Rupture Spires/Armillary Spheres over premium spells, Panoramas over solid spells, and Obelisks over playables, you are potentially giving up a ton of card quality. Five-color decks generally struggle even getting enough playables, as you have to devote so many picks to lands. It can be hard for access to five colors of mana to actually make up this lost ground in terms of card quality.

Five-color decks tend to be poorly positioned to take advantage of synergies between cards. Taking the best cards across all colors leads to “good stuff” decks full of abstractly strong cards, but without the strong synergies you might find in shard-based decks. A card like Etherium Sculptor has a nice role to play in an Esper-heavy deck, but is pretty useless in five-color decks. Bone Splinters is a powerhouse in a deck with unearth or fodder support, but is mostly marginal for five-color. Cards simply have different valuations in different decks, and five color decks are seldom well suited for maximizing the value of their cards.

Playing five colors does not in and of itself lead to higher card quality. Sometimes you get passed bombs across all colors and can pick up plenty of fixing, and five-color is the place to be. Sometimes you will find better quality sticking to an open shard. Reading the packs and taking what is open is the surest way to increase card quality.

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