It’s that time of year again, folks.  Spoilers for Born of the Gods are in full swing, and that can mean only one thing here at GDC:

Wonderful new things to complain about.

(It’s good to be back.)

To begin today, I had this idea for an article brewing in the back of my head for a while, but I couldn’t quite wrap my head around where I wanted to go with it, or really, what exactly I was trying to say.  I knew that there was something about five-color decks that needed to come out, but I couldn’t quite put a point to it all.  (Lots of lonely nights staring at a blank Microsoft Word doc and my sad, lonely and deck-less altered Progenitus.)

Then, Wizards of the Coast saved me by spoiling this multi-colored piece of magic this morning:

chromanticore

Here’s the thesis for todays’ article: Five-color generals should be the best thing to happen to EDH, and instead they tends to be the worst.

Before I lose all you Child of Alara players out there, hear me out.  I promise I’m not trying to bag on you or anyone else here.  There is a point to all of this.

So…Chromanticore.  There’s so much happening here (other than the slightly goofy name) that this should be the coolest card ever printed.  It hits all five colors.  It’s a creature and an enchantment.  Bestow is a pretty cool mechanic, or at least, it is…er…mechanically.  It’s got an Akroma’s Memorial-worth of keywords.  (Haste would have pushed it over the top, I suppose.)  This thing is a veritable smorgasbord of awesome things.

However, here’s why it isn’t.  Repeat after me:

“That goes right into my five-color deck!”

Now, I know I’m going to get killed by readers who swear that it doesn’t belong in their Slivers deck or whatever, and I agree – it doesn’t literally belong in every five-color deck.  I’m talking bigger picture.  I’m trying to figure out why five-color cards are either hot or cold, but never in-between.  And I’m trying to decide if that means that Wizards of the Coast is having as hard of a time designing these cards as we are trying to figure out how to do interesting things with them.

DECK ARCHETYPES

This is where the problem typically starts.  There are currently eleven legendary five-color creatures that could be built around in EDH, but there are really about three different decks:

  • Child Of Alara control.  Typically, this is the ‘wipe the board every turn until other players quit the game, the format, and Magic in general’ deck.  Very controlling, and frequently, very mind-numbing to play a game with.
  • Tribal!  Five colors opens up the ability to run any tribal deck a player could dream up.  In reality, it ends up being Allies or Slivers.
  • Combo.  This is either the Hermit Druid deck, or it’s the ‘all the tutors and two-card combos’ build.  In either case, it’s a puppet general.

Before I lose the rest of the five-color players that didn’t leave after the Child of Alara comment above, please understand that I’m not trying to insult anyone here.  I’ve literally owned and played every single one of the described decks above at one point or another.  (Not the Hermit Druid one…even I have some morals.)  In all reality, about 60% of my decks are completely uninspired, and one or two are even (GASP!) net-decked to one extent or another.

I’m not bagging on the players, I’m bagging on the design constraints.

MARO SAYZ

Mark Rosewater has repeatedly talked about the problem with trying to make four-color legendary creatures.  It’s not a matter of what the sum of their colors creates, but rather that it becomes about giving a creature an identity based on what color it isn’t.  This is negative design space, and it leads to some pretty uninspired (at best) and telegraphed (at worst) creatures.

You know how it’s hard to make a Rafiq of the Many deck that isn’t a Voltron general deck, or a Sharuum the Hegemon deck that isn’t a…well…”Sharuum” deck?  This is what would likely become of four-color generals.  And it holds very true for five-color generals as well, but for slightly different reasons.  With the full rainbow at your disposal, there’s a slight autopilot factor to the building process, and that saps the ability to really create something new and interesting.

Let’s imagine for a minute that Wizards revisited Tempest block and decided to pump out a bunch of two-color legendary Slivers.  How many would see play after the “Oooh..shiny!” period wore off?  Not too many.  Why?  Because Sliver Overlord exists.  If you go tribal, you lose out if you cut yourself off from colors that represent solid inclusions to the Sliver oeuvre.  Allies seems to fall into this groove too for similar reasons.  That’s a subconscious design constraint that pushes people to build similar five-color tribal lists.

This is the same reason that you’ve likely sat down at a Commander side event at a GP or PTQ, and faced off against a five-color combo deck.  If you want to come up with the broadest and quickest way to combo-kill an entire group of players, it’s usually best to keep your options open as to what cards you can play.  Why cut off black tutors, or blue counterspells, or green acceleration, or red Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breakers, or whatever that fifth color is?  It’s the best strategy, and as a result it becomes strictly inferior to play something lesser.  Again with the subconscious design constraint.

Scion of the Ur-Dragon?  There are dragons in all colors, so why play this guy as your general in anything but a dragons tribal list?  Reaper King suffers from this too…even lists that try to do other things other than being scarecrows tribal still toss in a few here and there, because why wouldn’t you?

THE REST OF THE STORY

Let’s look at the fringe options.  Things like Progenitus, and Horde of Notions, and Karona, False God.  This is the flip side of what I was discussing above; there’s a little more room to play around here with theme and strategy, but the card design starts to creep in and ruin the party from the beginning.

You know what’s great in a five-color deck?  This:

Conflux

And this:

Nexus

These are killer cards, and they can’t be played anywhere else but a five-color deck.  For that reason alone, it becomes incredibly hard to ignore them when building any five-color strategy.  And therein lies the problem…the power level of five-color cards subconsciously homogenizes the decks they go into.

There’s a reason that I’ve never played Transguild Courier or Fusion Elemental in any of my various Progenitus lists.  They’re not good.  On the other hand, how often do the five Bringers make it into my lists?  Nearly every time.  Why wouldn’t they?  They’re amazing at a discount.  (Well, except for the green one…)

This brings us full circle back to Chromanticore.  If you have a combo list or a slivers list, you probably pass this up.  But if you’ve really tried to come up with something new and interesting with one of the other generals, it’s going to really hard not to get excited about trying this thing out.  The limiting factor of the color identity ends up subconsciously turning this into a “must-include” card.  That’s really what I’m rallying against here; it’s not the card itself or the decks that people make that can use it, but the fact that the good five-color cards nearly become auto-includes, while the bad ones end up nearly forgotten.  There’s no in-between.

And that gets us back to the design issue.  Because it is so hard to build a deck that can use cards like this, R&D needs to over-engineer cards in order to make them work well enough to catch people’s attention.   The usual problem that happens with newer generals is inverted – Instead of forcing strategies where it isn’t necessary to do so (Hello, Nekusar!), the cards are designed to force themselves or be instantly forgotten.  That’s really too bad, because I know that there are a ton of honest deckbuilders out there trying to break Cromat in interesting and new ways.  I’m dying to figure out a way to get my Progenitus deck back together in a way that I don’t get instantly sick of.

We need to see five-color cards that suggest different strategies.  Show me a five-color enchantment that copies sorceries only, or an aggressively-costed beater with Exalted or something wacky like that.  Make them good enough that it makes sense to make an Atogatog all-spells deck, or a Slivers deck that isn’t tribal, and to include one but not the other.  I want great cards that don’t end up snap-jammed into decks just because they meet color requirements here…I want great cards that support great strategies of all kinds.  Not great cards that support all strategies at once.

Maybe I’m being overly-sensitive here…I don’t know.  At the end of the day, I just want to be surprised by some good decks from some good players who can honestly feel that they’re pushing the envelope with design and creativity.

Okay…ramble over.  Still finding my sea legs again, everyone.  What do you think?  Is this on the money?  Are five-color cards trying too hard?  Or am I wrong?  Is it possible to just build fun decks without these things in five colors, just like any other options out there?  Am I just a jerk for insulting a huge chunk of the player base and half of Wizards of the Coast?

Hit the comments below and tell me how it is.

-Cass
@GDCCommander