The Metaworker – What’s in a Colour?

I think Magic‘s colour pie is one of the more interesting things in the world of gaming. Wizards, in their efforts to develop a rich atmosphere for the game, has assigned certain things to certain colours. If you’re a Vorthos, you might appreciate Mark Rosewater’s description of each colour’s philosophy (W U B R G) and the conflicts that occur when they overlap. There’s also this entry on TVTropes.com that outlines these concepts in terms of things you’ve probably seen elsewhere in popular culture.

If you’re more interested in the mechanics of the game, like I am, I would highly recommend reading this article that Mark Rosewater wrote back in June. Today, we’re going to be talking about colour identity and the implications that the colour identity rule has on deckbuilding and card selection. I’m a big proponent of making decisions deliberately with respect to power level. If you feel like you need to increase the power level of your decks, a lot of these ideas are going to come in handy. If you’re looking to decrease the power level of your decks, you can generally get there by doing the opposite of a lot of this stuff.

 

Colour Identity

904.3 The Commander variant uses color identity to determine what cards can be in a deck with a certain commander. The color identity of a card is the color or colors of any mana symbols in that card’s mana cost or rules text, plus any colors defined by its characteristic-defining abilities (see rule 604.3) or color indicator (see rule 204).

Example: Bosh, Iron Golem is a legendary artifact creature with mana cost {8} and the ability “{3}{R}, Sacrifice an artifact: Bosh, Iron Golem deals damage equal to the sacrificed artifact’s converted mana cost to target creature or player.” Bosh’s color identity is red.

  • 903.4a Color identity is established before the game begins.
  • 903.4b Reminder text is ignored when determining a card’s color identity. See rule 207.2.
  • 903.4c The back face of a double-faced card (see rule 711) is included when determining a card’s color identity. This is an exception to rule 711.4a.

    Example: Civilized Scholar is the front face of a double-faced card with mana cost {2}{U}. Homicidal Brute is the back face of that double-faced card and has a red color indicator. The card’s color identity is blue and red.

~Comprehensive Rules, December 22, 2017

Restrictions breed creativity, as they say, and colour identity is one hell of a restriction. Selecting a colour identity means you’re committed to only using cards that fit that colour identity, and that’s going to bring a unique set of strengths and weaknesses to whatever you’re trying to build. This is especially true as you move from 5-colour to mono-colour and colourless. Every time you eliminate a colour, you’re eliminating a section of the colour pie that’s specifically designed to handle certain in-game scenarios.

The Artifact Piece of the Pie

Once you end up in mono-colour, you end up in predicaments like being totally unable to deal with certain things. In mono-black, it can be really tough to deal with enchantments. If you’re in mono-red, it can be really tough to draw enough cards to fuel your machine. In mono-green you’re generally hard-pressed to deal with the stack in any meaningful way.

Artifacts are an interesting solution to this problem. In exchange for a little (or a lot) more mana, they can provide a little bit of what’s missing to a colour identity that needs to shore up some weaknesses. It can be really tempting to load up on these types of effects because it makes your deck feel a little more balanced.

I’m not going to say that you should never include cards like these, but I would definitely suggest that this can be a deckbuilding trap if you’re trying to bump the power of your deck upwards. Decks can only handle so many mediocre cards before they start to function like a mediocre deck.

 

If You Want to Play X, Play X.

I know we’re all caught up in Unstable hype, but I’m not talking about everyone’s favourite Human Spy. Whether it’s a counterspell package in a Naya deck or a robust suite of giant mana rocks in a mono-green deck, I frequently see people trying to force strategies into colour identities that don’t support them very well. That’s not to say that you can’t or shouldn’t try, but if you find that your deck feels clunky and ineffective, do some research into the strategies that your colour identity does support. You might find that another commander with another colour identity will allow you to better execute your game plan. Rather than paying a 2x premium for spot removal or card draw, you could incorporate a colour that allows you to do it efficiently.

If you’re dead-set on that giant mana rock package in green, maybe you want to consider adding blue to gain access to tech like Trinket Mage, Trophy Mage, and Treasure Mage or adding red to gain access to things like Daretti, Scrap Savant. If you want to play a significant artifact theme, set yourself up to actually be able to take advantage of your significant artifact theme.

I find this is also a good way to get inspiration for new decks. Sometimes I’ve got a pet card in one deck that doesn’t really fit, and when I start to think about the conditions that would have to be in place for it to be good, I’m halfway to a strategy for something else entirely.

 

Good in One, Bad in t’Other

Some of the best disruptive spells available in mono-red are things like Red Elemental Blast, Pyroblast, and Chaos Warp. These cards are versatile, efficient, and if you’re looking to build an interactive red deck they’re things you should definitely consider. Let’s say they’re on the list of the top 10 mono-red spells in the game. What happens if we add a colour and move into Izzet? Suddenly an entire world of countermagic opens up, and things like Swan Song, Mana Drain, and Cyclonic Rift are bumping our mono-red standbys further and further down the list, way out of the top 10.

If you’ve ever reworked a deck by expanding your colour identity, it’s generally a good idea to review the pieces of the old deck to determine whether they’re simply outclassed by the new options that have become available. If you’ve got a good reason to be running Lapse of Certainty or Mana Tithe in your 5-colour deck, great, but if they’re only in there because your list was originally led by Jor Kadeen, the Prevailer, you’re ignoring a huge pool of cards you now have access to.

 

The Best Each Has to Offer

You might be surprised at how powerful the tools in some colours are when you actually get to playing with them. When you finally settle in and stop measuring a blue deck by how many blockers you’re able to put out, or a red deck based on how many cards it can draw, you can actually start tweaking your strategy by utilizing the tools that your colour identity naturally gives you.

White

Some of the strongest effects in Commander in the white section of the colour pie come from “rules setting” as a primary ability. It’s fairly far down on MaRo’s list because it’s sorted alphabetically, but in Commander if you’re looking for ways to increase power level, this is where you want to be. He makes the distinction between this ability and things like taxing and preventing actions, but they’re thematically very similar, so I would include them here as well.

When you’re using white as a supporting colour in your identity, you want to look towards things like the premiere removal cards in the format, as well as tutors and boardwipes.

Blue

You can’t talk about blue without talking about card draw. You’d be amazed at how lean your deck feels when you devote at least a small package to filtering cantrips, and other efficient sources of card draw. One of the best ways you’re ever going to increase the power level of your deck is to increase the number of cards you get to see in the average game.

Secondarily, blue provides a really great supporting package of counterspells and tempo-removal. It can be really tempting to go overboard on this stuff, but try to keep in mind that you’re unlikely to be able to keep the entire table pinned down unless you have a really robust source of card advantage to lean on while you’re doing it. When you’re including this stuff, do it with a goal of being able to consistently interact at really key points in the game—disrupting haymakers so they’re not as impactful as they could have been.

You can also rely on blue to do a lot of heavy lifting if you’re running a significant artifact theme, as I mentioned before. There are some disgustingly powerful artifacts that are legal in this format, so things that interact positively with them are similarly powerful.

Black

With how much I love the black slice of the colour pie, I’m actually pretty surprised that I don’t play it very often. Black gives you unconditional tutors, and their power really can’t be understated. Adding black to your colour identity is one of the best ways to make a really inconsistent strategy hum when it really has no business humming. If we’re talking quadrant theory, these cards are all-stars in all four corners.

It’s somewhat related, but black’s ability to play with the graveyard as an extension of your hand is incredible as well. Rather than straight up drawing cards like blue, this provides card advantage by either reusing cards that you’ve already extracted value from (recursion) or enabling you to take a discount on tutors like Intuition or Entomb.

Red

I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about red land destruction here. I wish more people would read up on land destruction, understand its purpose, and talk about it with their groups. When you deliberately exclude an entire set of tools from a colour identity that relies on it, you should be aware that the consequences will be that that colour is a lot worse than it should be as a result. Magic is as much about destroying as it is about building, and I firmly believe that the format is more enjoyable when both types of strategies are represented. When blue runs a suite of cards designed to interact with powerful artifacts and green runs a suite to interact with powerful lands, you definitely have to think about what you’re doing as a red deck that will be as impactful.

Sometimes the answer to that question is just taking that away to bring everyone back to an even playing field. There should always be a risk of being punished when you overextend, and just like a white weenie deck runs that risk with wraths, green decks should run that risk when they expend the bulk of their early game resources ramping. You obviously have to use this judiciously, and even though I’m a big proponent I’d be very careful that I’m not imposing this playstyle on a playgroup that’s not likely to be receptive.

If we were talking 1v1 or 60-card constructed formats, this is where we’d talk about things like burn. In a multiplayer, 40-life environment, though, I love wheels in red. Wheels have the ability to screw with people who sit and sculpt their hands for several turns in a row, and if you time them right they can offset card disadvantage that you’re taking with your other plays.

Green

People seem to instinctively realize how powerful ramp spells are in green decks, so I won’t go into those in-depth. Ramp spells are green’s way of powering out big spells before the game would naturally allow it to. They help you hit your land drops, and sometimes even provide you with access to additional land drops.

When green is supporting your strategy, I love how green’s tutors enable you to play your regular non-creature suite of abilities on creatures themselves. When your creatures all do something when they enter the battlefield, your tutors give you access to an entire toolbox of effects at your fingertips. This kind of thing just lets you focus your deck a little bit more, rather than including a whole suite of non-creature spells and the tutors to search them up.

 

In Closing

Like anything I write, I’d definitely caution you against following it to the letter in every scenario you meet. If anything, this is more something to keep in mind while you’re brewing. If you’re going to deviate from what your colour identity does really well, just make sure you know why and you’ve got a good plan to support it! It might seem a little counterintuitive, but rather than homogenizing my decks, I find that having a solid grasp of these concepts provide me with the ability to explore some truly bizarre strategies in ways that produce something greater than a pile of 99 loosely-related cards.

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