Superior Numbers – Five Lessons Learned from Brewing with Five Colors

Her Voice is Five Hearts Breaking

Welcome to Superior Numbers, where I conduct numerical analysis on cards and deckbuilding trends using just a little bit of math and a little bit less snark.

My EHDRECast co-hosts and I all ended 2019 by levying challenges at one another. Matt Morgan tasked me to build a low-powered deck, as mine generally tended to reside around a 7 in power level, and Joey’s challenge was to build a super-popular commander. I, in turn, challenged each of them to get outside of their homes and spend some time in large crowds of people.

Guess I’m going to win.

I chose to pick up the gauntlet they’d thrown down by making a deck that accomplished both, featuring a popular commander and being low-powered. I had been tinkering with the idea of building an Exalted deck for a while, and when looking through a list of the most popular commanders, Kenrith, the Returned King jumped out at me. The abilities were vague enough to be logical in something like a deck of Exalted bodies, and the trace of Vorthos in me liked the notion of a King atop an Exalted deck.

Here’s where things get interesting. I tend to build almost exclusively mono-colored or two-colored decks. Of the 10 decks I currently have, all but one are mono- or two-color, and of the probably 30 decks over the years I’ve actually built in paper, all but three were mono- or two-color. Building a five-color deck was an eye-opening experience, and here are five lessons I learned while doing it.

Looks Like a Painting, Jackson Pollock’s Number 5

1) A five-color mana base is hard: Shocking, right? It’s not like I didn’t know that it would be harder… I just didn’t know how much harder it would be. Not just having perfect mana is frustrating, and the extent to which it is frustrating is something I hadn’t really realized in playing only mono- and two-color decks. You could probably get away with a budget mana base running 30 basics in two-color deck and be just fine most of the time. In five colors, though? I’m running ten shocks and the five Khans fetches, along with things like City of Brass and Mana Confluence and/or fetches that can get any target like Ash Barrens, Fabled Passage and Prismatic Vista, but even with all those, it just never feels like enough when you need to fairly consistently have access to all your colors. I can’t imagine how terrible it would be with a true budget package. Maybe some of that goes away with a full 10-fetch suite and all the ABUR duals, but I’m not going to shell out $3500 to get them.

It’s not just the color-fixing, either. Yes, when I see cards like True Conviction or Cryptic Command in a two-color deck, I know the pip count will be tricky, especially if I want to cast a second spell of that color in the same turn. ‘Tricky’ doesn’t even begin to describe it in a five-color deck, though; True Conviction was literally uncastable the 4-5 times I drew it. I eventually replaced it with Duelists’s Heritage, a card that, in hindsight, probably made more sense in a deck that’s only ever going to have one attacker a turn anyway, but the absolute impossibility of casting something with triple matched pips caught me off guard.

It also made utility lands near impossible to run. I was initially running both Strip Mine and Ghost Quarter as ways to answer strong lands, and in two different games the lack of colored mana production from these utility lands screwed up some of my turns. Luckily, the deck is intended to be used against lower-power decks where there’s less need to remove a Gaea’s Cradle or Cabal Coffers, so I was comfortable dropping to just one destruction land, but that would be way riskier in a deck intending to butt heads with higher-powered lists.

One, Two, Three, Four, Five Against One

2) There are too many staples: Restrictions breed creativity. The opposite breeds… the opposite. Don’t get me wrong, staples are great. If you’re a twenty-something pulling CAT-5 cable in a Menards store and you blow the groin out of your jeans, careful use of industrial staples and duct tape can get you through the rest of the day. Or so I’ve heard. Staples also get work done in an EDH deck, and even a hipster like myself doesn’t shy away from using a few of the best ones.

The thing is, in a five-color deck there’s a lot more than a few of the best ones. As an example, let’s look just at enchantments. In Selesnya, I don’t mind throwing in Sylvan Library and Smothering Tithe. In Orzhov, I’m fine running Phyrexian Arena, Land Tax and Blind Obedience. Mono-blue, I’m okay slotting in Mystic Remora and Rhystic Study. With these slotted in, I still have plenty of room for whatever deck-specific or pet enchantments I want to include. A five-color deck, though? The list of always-good staples gets way longer. We’ve got things like Land Tax, Blind Obedience, and Smothering Tithe in white, Rhystic Study and Mystic Remora in blue, Sylvan Library and maybe Carpet of Flowers in green, and that’s before we get to multicolored cards like Aura Shards.

There aren’t enough staples in mono- or even two-color decks to suck up all your slots, but that’s not the case when you have access to everything. I could basically go down the EDHREC top lists for each category, and load up on just staples and nothing but staples. That’s perhaps not a problem, I guess, if you aren’t someone who likes to have room for pet cards and wonky, corner-case things in your decks, but as someone who really likes those things, it’s significantly harder to find room for them.

We Had Five Years Left to Cry

3) There are too many choices: Not only are there too many staples for slots in your deck, there are too many difficult cuts to make. Decision paralysis is a real thing.

This is a bit of a variant on the previous problem, but it’s coming from the other end. Because there’re too many good cards to start with, it’s much harder to make cuts. It’s easy to look at your Boros deck and pick which removal spells you obviously aren’t going to cut when you try to get down to 100 cards. Path to Exile and Swords to Plowshares are easy includes for creature removal. Wear//Tear is a nice, flexible piece of artifact and enchantment removal. Generous Gift, Chaos Warp, and Council’s Judgment solve any problem, and Blasphemous Act and Wrath of God are probably a good start for board wipes. Maybe you need more, and there are more options, but that’s a good start.

Take those 10-ish cards above for white, and assume there’s roughly that many in each color plus more in each color pair. The notion that I might have to actually cut Beast Within from a deck had just never occurred to me before, but after starting with a list of 25+ good removal spells, I had to dump it and another dozen great spells that I thought would be auto-includes in any deck that could run them, and it genuinely feels disconcerting.

It’s Five in the Mornin’ and I’m Goin’ All In

4) Mana curve? More like mana plateau: A proper mana curve is way trickier to maintain when you’re playing five colors. You know how many good three- and four-drops there are in EDH? All of them. All the cards are good three- and four-drops.

Generally a curve isn’t a challenge for me to just accidentally assemble. Some of that is probably just natural, unconscious choices made when brewing, where I find myself balancing the cards I add without really realizing I’m doing it. Tripling my card pool apparently throws off that rhythm, though, and I found myself having to consciously work at keeping a smooth mana cost distribution of cards in a way that I never had to in mono- or two-color decks. It added an extra layer of work to the deck that I wasn’t expecting, and that, along with the previous problem of there being too many choices, really made getting down to 100 cards much harder than I had anticipated.

That 5.0 Thing, They Say 5-0 Came

5) The perception of power: People can often assume that when you’re playing a five-color deck that the power of the deck is high.

That’s not entirely illogical, either. I’ve already mentioned the problems with building a deck with access to every good card ever. When you have unfettered access to all the best things, the assumption is that you’re running those things.

I think it’s more than that, though. Look at some of the most five-color commanders added to the pool in recent years:

They’re all almost universally considered strong, and about half are legitimate top-tier cEDH commanders. I almost never have people default to assuming my deck is strong just by seeing that it’s mono- or two-color, but I’ve flat-out had people tell me that they assumed my deck was bringing heat due to it being five colors. That’s something I’ve internally thought, myself, about other five-color commanders, but didn’t truly realize that I was doing so until I was on the other end of the situation.

We Had Five Years Left to Cry

So building five colors was a bit of an eye-opening experience for me. It’s not one that I really have any desire to repeat again, but it’s been useful at making me examine my assumptions. Do you have any thoughts, opinions, or experiences with five-color decks, particularly how they differ from decks with just one or two colors? If so, sound off below, and thanks for reading!

Kenrith, the Returned King: The Exalted King

Commander (1)
Creatures (21)
Sorceries (10)
Instants (14)
Artifacts (6)
Enchantments (12)
Lands (36)

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Dana is one of the hosts of the EDHRECast and the CMDR Central podcast. He lives in Eau Claire, WI with his wife and son. He has been playing Magic so long he once traded away an Underground Sea for a Nightmare, and was so pleased with the deal he declined a trade-back the following week. He also smells like cotton candy and sunsets.