In Magic, we’ve seen every combination of two and three colors represented again and again throughout sets but rarely do R&D tread into the murky territory of the four colors. Today I’d like to give a brief history of the four-color designs we’ve seen as well as discussing what we can learn from them as Cardsmiths. The goal of this article is to inspire you to try your hand at defining these color mixes since they don’t have any real identity of their own at the moment. So, without further ado, let’s get into it.
Part 1 - The First ComingThe first time we saw a four-color combination brought to life was in the shining city of Ravnica during the Guildpact set. A cycle of four primordial beasts simply titled the Nephilim were printed, each featuring a four-color and four CMC cost. Now Mark Rosewater himself actually spoke of their impact and some design notes in an article titled Absence. In this article, he states that the designs of the Nephilim are subpar and goes into the reasons why. What’s relevant for us are the following two notes that he gives.
There were too many colors fighting to do different things.
To design a four-color card, the best thing to do is design around the color that isn’t there. However, this can be difficult.
Okay sweet, so now we have some pointers on what to do and what not to do when making our four-color cards. We can also take these notes and see how the Nephilim don’t really fit their identities at all.
- Yore-Tiller has an effect that is easily Rakdos and doesn’t really represent the lack of Green.
- Glint-Eye is easily Dimir (and also just weak in general) arguably the lack of White is noticeable.
- Witch-Maw kind of works but Black isn’t really represented and the loss of Red is negligible
- Dune-Brood does actually work for the most part but again Black’s presence isn’t felt at all.
- Ink-Treader is, in my opinion, the best of the group with an ability that makes some kind of sense given that three of its colors like to target its own creatures. But still, it’s certainly clunky.
- All in all, none in the Nephilim cycle quite feel right as a four-color creature. At worst they’re weak and forced and at best they’re interesting but there was no need for them to be four colors.
Part 2 - If at first, you don’t succeed…So now that we have the first examples of four-color cards, let’s move on to the second and last time we saw these color combinations. When Commander 2016 was released, each Precon featured a four-color commander at the helm of the deck. Let’s take a look at these five new cards and see how they explore the design space.
Atraxa, Praetor’s VoiceAlready we’re off to a much better start. All of her keyword abilities make sense, one fits for each of her colors and her use of the Proliferate mechanic is perfect. On New Phyrexia we know that red has the least Proliferate cards of any color (It has exactly 1). However, I do think that there is an argument that Blue and possibly even Black or Green aren’t exactly necessary from a mechanical perspective since all the keywords and even Proliferate fit into a White/Green or White/Black identity. Nonetheless, Atraxa works from a flavor perspective perfectly so any complaints that could be leveled can be easily dismissed.
Breya, Etherium ShaperBreya is arguably the best example of R&D learning from the past. Being that Breya is White/Black/Red/Blue, it makes total sense that she’d be an artifact commander since Green has historically been the only color to not have much artifact synergy. She’s another great example of building around the color that’s missing, using what the other colors have in common that that one doesn’t.
Kynaios and Tiro of MeletisThis one is interesting from a color philosophy perspective. Black is the color least seen to have cards that help all players equally. We see good examples of the group hug philosophy in literally every other color because of their personalities. White believes in helping the little guy, Blue doesn’t always hoard its knowledge, Red is about freedom for all, and Green loves the idea of unity. It makes perfect sense for Kynaios and Tiro to be designed like this!
Saskia the UnyieldingOK, so Saskia is actually a bit weird to me. It is actually a very simple yet effective non-blue design. Its effect certainly makes sense and is incredibly unique but it’s not as great an example as the previous commanders. Saskia’s effect I think would fit comfortably in a few other color combinations but she’s still solid. Showing that blue isn’t great at the combat step is still a valid design point.
Yidris, Maelstrom WandererFinally, we have Yidris, the non-White commander of the bunch is another great hit. Each of the other colors has some element of chaos to them and White would absolutely not fly with the massive amount of Cascade triggers you can get with a Yidris deck. Yet, this one is a little shaky. I genuinely believe that the Black on Yidris is unnecessary for the abilities it has, however I think it is needed to make Yidris a little harder to cast. It’s up to you whether or not you believe that’s enough.
These later five designs are more in line with what a four-color card should look like. We see a unification of the themes of the four represented colors into a card that (for the most part) wouldn’t exist otherwise. However, some are certainly better than others. Breya and Kynaios and Tiro are the best examples of the crop, Atraxa falls right in the middle, and Yidris and Saskia dabble a little too much in three color territory.
Part 3 - The TakeawayNow that we’ve looked at all the examples we have to pull from, what can we as a designing community do with this information. First off we can start by recognizing that Rosewater was absolutely correct, the right way to design is around the missing color. So the best thing we can do from there is identifying what themes we can fit within each four-color combination. That way we have some basis for what cards in that area should do. Below are my best attempts at identifying these unifying themes. I tried to include three themes per combination
- R/B/U/G - Land Synergy, Graveyard, Chaos
- W/G/B/R - +1/+1 Counters, Creature Tokens, Aristocrats
- R/U/W/G - Group Hug, Aura Synergy, Creature Support
- U/B/R/W - Artifacts Synergy, Noncreature Spells, Flying Creatures
- U/B/W/G - Enchantment Synergy, Snow Synergy, Defender Synergy