The Color Pie Is Stale

Everyone loves sweets, but are they actually good for you? In moderation and as part of a balanced diet they can certainly add some tasty goodness to life. Comfort food. But too much cake and pie is a recipe for disaster…

Last week, I wrote about how Magic has never been balanced. If you enjoy theory articles, give it a quick read.

In short, imagining Magic formats as ecosystems that ideally fall into a state of fair or balanced environments is an exercise in wishful thinking. Historically, Magic is rarely balanced—not all cards and strategies are equal and only the strongest thrive. Player’s assess and react to what they observe in tournament Magic and these adjustments are called “metagaming.”

The “best decks” are the best decks. But sometimes the decks that beat the best deck are a better choice. It doesn’t make them better in a vacuum, but it can make them better for a tournament in context.

The point is that the players choose.

Yet, players are confined by the available card pool to construct and tune their decks. The cards that are produced are largely beholden to the color pie.

What Is the Color Pie?

Let’s start with the basics. The color pie is a term used to summarize and characterize the identity of each of the 5 colors of Magic. Each color has certain elemental characteristics and can or can’t do certain things that align with its identity.

The color pie lays out the flavor of each color and gives us a feel for their character. Each color is well established. Someone could tell me the name of a card (real or imagined) and I would automatically know what color that spell would be.

If I had to sum up each color in one word (which is harder than it sounds), here’s what I’d say (if you’ve got a better one, drop it in the comments—I’d love to discuss):

  • White – Lawful
  • Black – Unlawful
  • Blue – Intellectual
  • Green – Communal
  • Red – Emotional

These characteristics matter from a flavor perspective.

Black spells need to sound and feel evil and dangerous or they don’t feel like black spells at all! “Angels of the Calming, Cuddling Puppies and Kitties” is not a black spell, never will be, and never should be. The color pie matters a lot to the flavor of the game because it is part of the world building experience.

As important as the pie is to creating cohesive flavor, it’s less important from a “game pieces” perspective. When I think about what the colors do:

  • White – Powerful enchantments/hatebears
  • Black – Discard/creature removal
  • Blue – Card drawing/permission
  • Green – Mana ramp/large creatures
  • Red – Direct damage/haste

I have created the most boring list of cliches in Magic.

These are not flavor related elements. These are historically accurate statements about the types of game pieces that tend to see play in successful tournament decks. These are expectations based upon what we’ve seen before.

They are familiar. But are they useful?

The Color Pie Has Never Been Balanced

Not all colors are created equal. You need to look no further than the original sets to see some color identities incorporated more than others.

Blue. Oh, the wild blue yonder had dominion over the following things: Anything that happened in the sky, sea, academia, a laboratory, or on an island. Blue had mastery over all things psychic, mental, intellectual, tactical, or pertaining to the manipulation of time and space. Giant efficient flyers (the best creatures in the game), counterspells, card drawing, library manipulation, bouncing and stealing opposing permanents, taking extra turns, interacting favorably with artifacts, copying cards in play—the list goes on and on. If it was something you’d want to do—blue could do it.

Couldn’t do banding (unless you had a clone).

I’m with the band.

An “intellectual” blue mage has more options and potential than an “emotional” red mage. Historically this has been true. In my imagination, it is still true, which I will try to unpack here.

Planeswalkers are interesting to deconstruct to see the inequality between how the color pie is imagined. Planeswalkers are the flagship representatives of each color. Jace IS a blue mage and Chandra IS a red mage.

If you take all of the Jaces and compare them to all of the Chandras, the Jace cards can do more.

Jace can draw cards, mill the opponent, bounce creatures, cast spells from the graveyard, shrink opposing creatures, exile opposing libraries, fateseal, steal creatures, make illusion creatures, and even copy himself. Chandra is a red mage and she does damage to things more than half the time.

I would argue that the reason Chandra is not interesting is because red is not interesting. Red is not interesting because the color pie doesn’t allow her to be.

We know what red is because we play Magic. But an observation of the scope and depth of what the colors are imagined to be tells me that red is much less interesting that Blue.

The Great Pie in the Sky

How come every good red deck is sligh?
How come every good black deck is a discard deck?
How come every good blue deck is a counterspell deck?
How come every good green deck is a ramp deck?
How come every good white deck is… white will be good someday… (just kidding hatebears).

Not “every,” but a lot. The decks, cards, and strategies that go outside the expectation of archetype tend to be the most interesting and memorable cards from a set or in a format.

I thought of a couple of nice decks that break from the cliche but it’s not as easy as I thought it would be: Skred Red (not your typical red deck), Merfolk (blue tribal aggro), and Zombies (black tribal aggro). I’m sure there are more great ones. Drop those in the comments.

The limitations of the color pie is what perpetuates the recycling of the same types of decks over and over again. The best red cards go into the sligh deck. The best blue cards go into the control deck. The best green cards go into the ramp deck. When the only tool in your toolbox is a Lightning Bolt, you can’t help but see every problem as a lightning rod.

What Would a New Color Pie Look Like?

We already know what the color pie is. How might it be different? What would changing it accomplish? It’s fun to use your imagination.

It is hard to imagine how things might be different because there are so many examples of the way things are.

These cards should feel wrong to you:

Forester’s Snare
1G – Enchantment
Flash – When Forester’s Snare enters the battlefield, exile target creature spell from the stack. When Forester’s Snare leaves the battlefield, return the exiled spell to the stack.
“Fruits and nuts will feed the village for a day. A dragon will feed us for a month.”

Approach the Mountain Alone
1RRR – Instant
Choose one or both: Destroy target planeswalker. Counter target planeswalker spell.
“If you come to the mountain, you come alone. Your friends will not follow you here.”

Corrode in Muck
1B – Sorcery
Exile target nonblack artifact or enchantment.
“What the gods have giveth the swamp taketh away.”

Spawning Jellies
2U – Creature – Jellyfish
Deathtouch, Trample
U: +1/+0 until end of turn.
When Spawning Jellies deals combat damage to a player you may put a copy of Spawning Jellies onto the battlefield.
“I’d like to be a jellyfish, ‘cause jellyfish don’t pay rent.” -Jimmy Buffet.

Sir Wescoe, Slayer of the Profane
WW – Legendary Creature – Human Knight
First Strike
When Sir Wescoe, Slayer of the Profane enters the battlefield, if your opponent does not control a Plains, you may draw a card.
If your opponent does not control a Plains, Sir Wescoe gets +2/+1.
“There should be a rule that if no one at #MTGChamp registers a white card, I am automatically added to the tournament.” -Craig Wescoe

Green counterspell. Red planeswalker punisher. Black disenchant. Blue grindy creature. White fatty.

To illustrate my point, I tried to design a few cards that are tournament power level and clearly break from color pie expectations. They use flavor and “comparative positioning” to feel more plausible.

A green Remove Soul shouldn’t be the “best” version of that effect to exist because it isn’t as important to green’s identity as it is to blue. But it opens up a lot of design space for interesting cards when people realize: Interacting with the stack is a huge chunk of the game. So why does only one color do it well?

There are conditional counters in other colors: Artifact Blast, Dash Hopes, Bind. The problem is that they were simply too bad. Having more options and types of interaction spread across more colors creates more space for depth in the game because there are more kinds of things that might happen in any given game. Players have more options.

The reason I bring this up is that I’ve been wondering (and wondering if others agree) if opening up the color pie could be a way to create more diversity in Magic.

That certain colors don’t have the ability to interact with types of cards makes it difficult to play those combinations in formats where interacting with those types of cards is necessary. I’m not saying every color should get everything at the same rate.

Sun Bolt
W – Instant
Deal 3 damage to any target.

Grass Bolt
G – Instant
Deal 3 damage to any target.

Water Bolt
U – Instant
Deal 6 Damage to any target.

(Because blue is obviously the best.)

What if the color pie was less about what each color can or cannot do and more about facilitating flavor and generating narrative?

Everything is a Keyword or a Cliche

Tier 1 decks tend to fall along two axes.

  1. Broken Mechanics – These decks are not so much about color identity as they are about synergy. Think of a deck that is named for a keyword mechanic: Affinity, Storm, Energy, Madness. Color identity doesn’t really matter here since players are just combining the best cards that work together to achieve a goal.
  2. Cliche Decks – These are decks that play to the obvious strengths of each color as described by the color pie: Green Ramp. Blue Control. Red Aggro. White Prison. Black Discard.

When the color pie dictates that certain colors cannot do certain things, each color can only ever do one or two things with any kind of effectiveness. It’s why the same types of decks always get made, format after format.

The color pie has shifted over the years. It was a big deal when Nature’s Claim was printed. People said, “WHAT!? That’s white’s thing!” People barely even remember that green wasn’t always the master of disenchantment.

Moving this effect to green was a major Dis.

I don’t think green gaining access to that effect made Magic worse or less interesting. I think it made the game better because it created a great depth of strategy and interaction.

Also, don’t get me started on how it makes sense from a flavor perspective that green has some intrinsic advantage over technology. Good luck tapping the burnt stumps of the trees in the Argoth Forest for green mana to cast Naturalize after an Urza artifact bombed it off the map. It doesn’t make a lot of sense that some promiscuous monkeys can take take down a Skyship, but Yawgmoth and all of his minions are just like, “Yeah, I got nothing.”

You can make the argument (and many have) that green’s market share in the color pie has been growing out of control for years. Is green currently the best color in Magic?

Well, its identity includes great creatures (the most important thing in the game), ramp, fixing, tutoring, card draw, library manipulation, creature-based combos, the ability to interact with all types of permanents, land destruction, hexproof, infect, and whatever CoCo is. What doesn’t green do? Discard and counterspells. Good thing green has that sweet fixing so that you can splash them if you want.

When only 1 color (in this case green) branches into new territory, it creates an unequal distribution of potential in design space.

I believe that less rigidity with regard to the color pie would result in every color gaining access to more types of effects and that would open up new strategic space within the game. Deck design would be less about being limited by narrow strategies (keyword mechanics or linear “all-in” decks) or playing a super color (green or blue), and splashing the effects those colors can’t do well (discard, removal, or permission).

I seriously wonder if the color pie’s existence in its current form is one of the primary factors that encourages and facilitates a tendency toward one-dimensional strategies and counter strategies. I’m a firm believer that “more options” creates “more options.” Duh.

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