Recently, a shift in Standard has opened the door for 4- or even 5-color decks. The mana in the format is becoming less and less of an obstacle in deckbuilding. The mana is probably better now than any time since the Vivid land era. And remember, we do not even have access to all of the shocklands or gates, so things are just going to get better.
To try to get a jump on when those duals do hit the market, as well as work on Standard creations for everything until then, today, I would like to talk about 4-color (and some 5-color) strategies. Rather than break down a specific list infinitely, I would rather discuss what makes 4- and 5-color decks viable, directions to go in the future, and mistakes that many deck builders make when approaching this genre of decks. That is not to say we won’t be talking about specific decks at times, but simply giving a list and running through all 75 cards is not very helpful for understanding why an archetype works.
Choosing an Archetype
So this is where our journey begins. I rarely like to build decks in this manner, by choosing an archetype to begin with and working toward it, but for a mix of topics, we will go ahead and lead off with it. In older formats, playing 4 colors, or 5 colors, would tell me nothing about the genre of deck you were playing—but in Standard, that isn’t true. By wanting to be 4 or 5 colors, you basically have two options:
Midrange or Control
Your mana would just be too unstable in an aggro deck, with no type of fixing, inconsistent hands with M10 duals when you need shocks, and too much self damage through lands to win any type of aggro mirror match. And if you wanna chime in ramp here, sure, but let’s be honest, it’s just a midrange deck that wants to cast ramp spells on turns 2-4 instead of the typical creatures.
Midrange or control both allow you access to additional mana fixers outside of the insane lands themselves. While testing for GP San Antonio, you have seen that I was using [card]Lotleth Troll[/card]. Not only is he not good in the deck, but the absence of [card]Farseek[/card] was striking. [card]Chromatic Lantern[/card] and [card]Ranger's Path[/card] are both options as well, and you can always try to go deep with [card]Deathrite Shaman[/card].
Beyond that, you get the ability to actually sculpt your lands a little bit before casting your spells. The mana in Standard is good, but it isn’t fast as we will talk about next. Having some time through removal and high impact spells to establish that mana goes a long way.
Which one is better? I think that is metagame dependent and has no right answer in a vacuum. I like that midrange has a tighter range of power level in its cards, making most topdecks similarly powerful. In exchange though, control gets to play THE most powerful spells. With countermagic being a bit weak at the moment, I favor midrange—but like I said, there is no wrong answer here.
Skewing Your Mana
With these kinds of lists, people evaluate the mana in a typical fashion. I need to cast [card]Angel of Serenity[/card], so I will add white, etc. But in reality, your mana is not great and you need to survive long enough to get it great. Because of this, skewing your mana to enable early drops is crucial. Back in the Vivid land strategies of old, you were pretty content with having 12 lands that always entered play tapped. Your spells were great at making the game even and eventually pulling ahead, so you could afford to fall behind.
Today, not many of those same traits still exist. You have some powerful spells of course, from [card]Thragtusk[/card] to [card]Sphinx's Revelation[/card], but they can still only do so much a turn behind. [card]Thragtusk[/card] on turn 5 versus turn 6 is staggering. You rely on great 2- and 3-drops to keep you in it, like [card]Wall of Omens[/card] or [card]Kitchen Finks[/card]. [card]Lingering Souls[/card] and [card]Loxodon Smiter[/card] are both great, but they don’t provide the same value.
So, while you should always construct your mana base in a similar fashion, it is especially important to make sure that your early spells are easy to cast. [card]Centaur Healer[/card] or [card]Loxodon Smiter[/card] should increase the number of green and white sources in your deck more than [card]Risen Sanctuary[/card] (Now if [card]Risen Sanctuary[/card] is in your deck, we probably have bigger problems to tackle).
Where this skew is really focused is on the 1- and 2-drop mana fixers, like [card]Farseek[/card] and [card]Avacyn's Pilgrim[/card]. You cannot afford to cast a turn three [card]Farseek[/card] in most games you play. Taking three turns off, providing no pressure or formidable defense, might put you too far behind for your follow-up [card]Thragtusk[/card] to be enough. If you check out my list from San Antonio, you can see this skew in effect:
2 Armada Wurm
4 Avacyn's Pilgrim
1 Borderland Ranger
4 Huntmaster of the Fells
4 Loxodon Smiter
4 Restoration Angel
3 Bonfire of the Damned
1 Mizzium Mortars
2 Ultimate Price
3 Unburial Rites
2 Blood Crypt
3 Clifftop Retreat
1 Isolated Chapel
2 Kessig Wolf Run
4 Overgrown Tomb
2 Rootbound Crag
4 Temple Garden
1 Acidic Slime
2 Golgari Charm
1 Oblivion Ring
1 Olivia Voldaren
1 Rakdos's Return
1 Rest in Peace
1 Sever the Bloodline
3 Slaughter Games
2 Triumph of Ferocity
1 Zealous Conscripts[/deck]
While my mana was far from perfect, I have 11 untapped green sources available on turn 1, and only 2 green sources that enter play tapped. Despite [card]Mizzium Mortars[/card] and [card]Armada Wurm[/card], there were only 8 sources of white and red mana, because once [card]Farseek[/card] and/or [card avacyn's pilgrim]Pilgrims[/card] got online, the mana smoothed itself out. It might have been better to skew the mana even more than I did.
The basic premise of tiered planning is to know what your deck wants to do at each stage of the game. This lets you round out the edges with supplemental cards, and allows you to evaluate your deck not by the number of Ws and Ls it picks up but by how on track it is.
In San Antonio, I knew that my game plan fell into four main stages:
My first two turns were dedicated toward making the rest of the deck work, through mana fixing and acceleration. From there, the defense comes out. I ran defensive options that could also be offensive options, but you can opt against this in an aggro-heavy field, and work on patching up control matchups through sideboarding.
Then I reached the phase of the game where I dished out punishment myself, while maintaining enough defense to keep my life total comfortable. The last stage is where the finishing blows, like [card]Bonfire of the Damned[/card] or [card]Kessig Wolf Run[/card] come into play and look to end the game before your resources are drawn too thin and you are put into pure topdeck mode.
You can imagine how not every 4- or 5-color deck wants to do this. For example, in the Omnidoor Thragtusk list, you are looking at not having the Turnaround phase, and are instead in full defense mode until you assembled enough cards and mana to go for the win. A deck playing something like [card]Supreme Verdict[/card] over [card]Huntmaster of the Fells[/card] might also choose to follow that path to victory.
Other strategies will eschew the acceleration phase for more defense as well. And once you move to formats where 4- or 5-color aggro is viable, you can have no defensive phase at all and still be on track for your own tiering.
Basically, have a benchmark set for each turn of the game and then measure yourself against that benchmark each game you play. If something is consistently off, tinkering might be necessary.
Fighting Fire with Other Things
Building a 4/5-color deck implies that you give up some amount of consistency in favor of powerful spells. Because of this, it is hard to fight one by simply using good cards. Chances are, their pool of cards is just better than yours and all you can hope to do is draw even against them. Instead, building a deck to beat a 4/5-color deck requires a more holistic approach. Your deck's plan needs to be able to beat the greed of 4/5-color decks, because any individual card likely cannot.
Look at Zombies for example. They have no one card that can stand up to the power level of something like [card]Sphinx's Revelation[/card], and yet they have a reasonable matchup because their plan of attack takes that card out of the equation. If the game plan was to let those decks do whatever they wanted and hope that [card]Thundermaw Hellkite[/card] or [card]Falkenrath Aristocrat[/card] could stand up to the results, the deck would be a failure. By hitting these decks hard early, and making the 4-color decks play on their terms, they can potentially take Revelation out of the equation altogether.
You will often see this principle surface in what looks like 4-color mirrors. Generally, the deck with the better plan, not the better cards, wins. [card]Unburial Rites[/card] and [card]Restoration Angel[/card] are not as good as [card]Sphinx's Revelation[/card], but I managed to beat that card, and the decks that played it, by generating advantage turn after turn with the synergy I built into my deck.
The [card]Supreme Verdict[/card]s and [card]Detention Sphere[/card]s they throw back are good, but all of their power level is on the surface. A [card]Thragtusk[/card] in a deck with 8 enablers to get extra value out of it has a lot more upside than a lone [card]Thragtusk[/card].
Now, if you want to specifically beat these greedy decks, you can definitely turn your strategy up a notch. Rather than just having a pronounced and focused game plan, you can tailor it to beat them. Cards that go over the top, like [card]Sphinx's Revelation[/card], [card]Olivia Voldaren[/card], and [card]Angel of Serenity[/card] are all huge in the matchup, but I find them most effective as part of a cohesive strategy rather than as individual bullets in an otherwise sketchy matchup.
Remember that by expanding your colors, you have access to lot more cards, meaning an answer to a single Olivia or Angel is more than reasonable. When they have already had to stop your aggressive midgame though, or your reanimation A-plan, doing that becomes significantly harder.
So that’s all nice. I threw a bunch of generic advice out there, yadda yadda—where’s the deck list? Well, let’s quickly breakdown the following 4-color deck that Yuki Matsamoto piloted to a Top 16 finish in Grand Prix Nagoya to see where we differ in theory and application:
4 Huntmaster of the Fells
3 Restoration Angel
2 Snapcaster Mage
3 Detention Sphere
3 Izzet Charm
3 Mizzium Mortars
4 Searing Spear
2 Sphinx's Revelation
3 Think Twice
2 Cavern of Souls
2 Clifftop Retreat
3 Glacial Fortress
4 Hallowed Fountain
3 Rootbound Crag
4 Steam Vents
4 Sulfur Falls
4 Temple Garden
4 Geist of Saint Traft
3 Pillar of Flame
1 Purify the Grave
1 Ray of Revelation
2 Rhox Faithmender
2 Thundermaw Hellkite
1 Zealous Conscripts[/deck]
So right away, let’s go to his early plays. You always want to do one of the following on turn 2:
Despite the deck being a solid 4 colors, our turn two plays only involve 2 of them. Now, let’s shift over to the mana base breakdown:
With White only needed for 8 maindeck cards, I can easily see shifting one or two of its sources over in favor of red. You absolutely need to cast a turn 2 removal spell to keep up against the aggro decks, and you need red to do that in every case. Only 7 green sources is a bit scary, but the pair of [card]Cavern of Souls[/card] will often enable a green card as well, so I can let that slide. There is an issue once we move to the sideboard with then needing more white, but if the balance is off, we might be able to fix that with sideboarded lands, or just upping the number of [card]Clifftop Retreat[/card]s in the main deck.
As far as the deck’s plan is concerned, I worry a little bit about straddling the line between a midrange deck and a control deck. There are not a ton of counterspells in the list, so I can see them just being used once you have deployed your threats, but defining our midgame a little bit better might be necessary. [card]Syncopate[/card] is fine, but I do not know how much we need it and we could just want more threats. Cards like [card]Think Twice[/card] are already going to be awkward during the midgame, usually stranded in our hand until late, so having additional cards like that, such as [card]Syncopate[/card], makes me worry.
The late game of this list is strong, with both [card]Sphinx's Revelation[/card] and [card]Mizzium Mortars[/card] offering huge swings to put you ahead. I especially like that because we have a more controlling suite, Mortars was chosen over [card bonfire of the damned]Bonfire[/card]. Bonfire is nice when you always want to cast it, but Mortars rewards the long setup a lot better, which this deck can certainly do.
In general, I think this deck needs a more defined midgame spell suite, and better mana, but a lot of what the deck does is great. By moving it to a slightly more proactive list, I think we better take advantage of the power of the shell, but you could also move it to more of a controlling list as well, you just need to dedicate more room to true control cards. Some ideas include [card]Burning Oil[/card], [card]Thundermaw Hellkite[/card], and [card]Flames of the Firebrand[/card].
I think that with the release of Gatecrash, 4- and 5-color decks will likely become the bar that everything else has to live up to, at least until some type of nonbasic hate is created, akin to [card]Anathemancer[/card] during Vivid Standard. Even now, there are a lot of powerful combinations of cards that just don’t get to see play without access to those colors, but 4/5-color gets to do so easily. Taking advantage of this is a sound strategy so long as you keep the deck focused and enable your early game to keep you alive. With Standard events taking place each weekend, expect further evolutions of these decks to continue to come out, so if you want to milk your money while you can, fire one up sooner than later and get into those 8-mans! Thanks for reading!