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Background: I'm currently writing a strategy guide for magic as my pet project, and I'm trying to explain decks with multiple colors. Here's what I have so far:

Dual color decks are useful because they allow you to take advantage of the best of 2 different colors instead of just 1. This allows you to minimize the weaknesses a mono-colored deck might normally have. For example, red decks usually have trouble dealing with enchantments, blue decks tend to have pretty bad creatures, green decks tend tend to be fairly bad with removal spells, etc. When combined with another color, most of these disadvantages are drastically reduced as you can use cards from each color to compensate for the other's weaknesses.

Some decks also have more than 2 colors, although they are much less common. With 3 colors your deck will have plenty of options to reduce the shortcomings of any individual color as odds are there's a card in at least one of the other colors you're playing that will fill that gap nicely. The downside of a tri-color deck is that it's substantially more difficult to get the mana you need to play the cards in your hand. This means you'll need to devote more of your deck to cards that can generate mana of multiple colors, which detracts from your overall focus of getting cards out onto the field that actually win the game for you. Tricolor decks often include green because it is the best color for generating mana in its own and other colors, making it great support for the rest of the deck. These decks often rely on tricolor spells for finishers as they are often extremely powerful to make up for the difficulty of casting them, to the point where some can almost win the game on their own.

Decks with more than 3 colors are extremely rare as there is usually relatively little advantage a 4th color will add that couldn't be covered by the others, and it is VERY difficult to create a successful 4 color mana-base that will let you play all of the cards you need to in a timely fashion.

When I read this, it sounds like I'm saying "Tri-color decks are bad because they're so hard to get to work correctly and people only play them because of powerful gold cards." However, I'm pretty sure this isn't true and is stemming from my own lack of experience with tri-color decks.

Question: Why would you want to play a tri-color deck? What advantages does adding the third color often add that makes the deck better than if it only had 2? What should I add to this section of my strategy guide to make it a little more complete/useful?

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I cant speak for everyone else, but most of my decks tend to be at LEAST 3 colors. And a good amount of them are all five. It can totally work well, if you build right for it. –  Ender Mar 6 '12 at 13:56
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4 Answers

up vote 27 down vote accepted

Your mana base is the chief constraint, but it's not always as restrictive as you think.

This really depends on the format and your budget, but, sometimes, it's really not "substantially more difficult to get the mana you need to play the cards in your hand" with a three-color deck.

In something like 20 playtest games with Domain Zoo, which is (albeit nominally) a five-color deck, I never once got color-screwed. The fetches+shocks mana base was just that good. Why did the deck play a fourth color? Because Dark Confidant, by itself, was worth it. Why did the deck play "Islands"? To get 1 point of extra damage out of Tribal Flames.

In Scars + Innistrad Standard, the distribution of multi-colored lands (one cycle of allied-color "fast" duals in Scars, one cycle of allied-color "buddy" duals in M12, one cycle of enemy-color "buddy" duals in Innistrad; Evolving Wilds as the only fetchland) makes a friendly-color three-color mana base comparable to an enemy-color two-color deck's. The reason most tournament decks are playing two allied colors instead is that this lets them cut colored-mana lands to run more utility lands like Nephalia Drownyard, Moorland Haunt, and Kessig Wolf Run + Inkmoth Nexus, which are some of the best ways to add depth and resilience to your deck.

Indeed, it's when you need your lands to do something special that you're most constrained on colors. Some examples:

  • Valakut requires lots of Mountains to operate. Valakut the deck, consequently, had a pretty awful mana base for a two-color deck, because most of the cards were green but the deck needed to max out on plane old basic Mountains to do get its combo.
  • A deck with Dungrove Elder will want copious Forests regardless of its color distribution. If you pick him in M12 draft but can't force mono-green, it still behooves you to play as many Forests as reasonable if you want to make use of the Elder.
  • Vedalken Shackles is, sometimes, considered reason enough to go mono-blue all by itself.
  • Tron devotes half its lands to the (colorless) Urza's lands, leaving it with very starved for colored mana. Balancing two colors and a ton of colorless lands is actually much harder than getting a working three-color mana base, because there's not a lot of flexibility in how you can pay for your spells.
  • Metagame-hater decks playing lots of non-basic-land hate (e.g. Back to Basics, Ruination) can find it limiting their own mana base.

The main benefit is, as you said, access to stronger and more varied cards.

Some prominent historical examples of very different applications:

For a modern-day example, consider control in Scars + Innistrad Standard. These days, blue-based control decks usually use other colors to supplement their counterspells with strong finishers and removal. Assume you're choosing between U/W, U/B, or W/U/B ("Esper").

In Modern, where players have access to Path to Exile, the strategic calculus changes: white is just as good, if not better, for powerful spot removal, while black's advantage is powerful targeted discard (Thoughtseize, Inquisition of Kozilek). At the tournament level, it only takes a few strong cards to effectively shift the color pie.

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Great mini-essay there, easy +1. I even like the (presumably unintentional?) "plane old basic Mountains" pun... –  thesunneversets Feb 29 '12 at 10:52
    
I originally wrote that you "can't deal with" utility lands without Ghost Quarter, but that's not really accurate: you can't remove them directly, but you can nullify their abilities, e.g. using Spellskite to stop Wolf Run or graveyard removal to shut down Moorland Haunt. –  Alex P Mar 6 '12 at 15:13
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I'll add just a little bit to what Alex and Timothy already said: multiple colours decks are playable with no huge problems, especially if you limit the cards with high casting cost in one specific colour. Several legendary cards have multiple colour casting cost and... they are there to be seen in play!

I think multi-coloured decks are special fun when you construct a combo deck (that, let's say, grants you automatic victory when you manage to play the combo-cards together) around a three cards combo, where the cards are of three different colours. If black is not one of that three colours, you may want to add also that four colour just for adding Demonic Tutor, etc.

In general, being this a card game that you play for fun and to confront different playing styles, having more colours may be fun and add to the variety of the game, otherwise everybody would play the very same deck that won last world championship or so ;-)

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Alex P's answer is fantastic, but I think I can add to it somewhat.

Limited: You mentioned limited in your answer, and in limited it is very frequently necessary or nearly necessary to play 3 colors to get decent cards. Of course even then your third color should often be a "splash" with just one or two cards and keep a heavy emphasis on the two primary colors. Even when I could make a decent 2 color deck in limited, I am willing to splash a third color if it gets me a good removal card..

Constructed: Alex P covered this one far better than I ever could, but I'll add that if green is one of your primary colors it becomes much easier to support a third color.

Casual: This probably does not matter much if you are writing a strategy guide, but in casual play a lot of decks have themes or self imposed constraints that nudge them towards more colors. I used to have a 5-color dragon deck. Most of the cards in the deck were mana fixers/accelerators and the rest were dragons. It hardly ever won, but it was fun to play and when it did win it was because I hard cast a massive dragon that proceeded to eat my opponent. I also had a 4-color (no blue) angel deck that did a bit better than the dragon deck, but was also fun in a casual sort of way.

Format: Ok, this is obvious, but I'll say it for completeness. Some formats (prismatic, etc) require multiple colors. Also, some blocks encourage it. Many Ravnica block decks benefitted from a third color.

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During Dark Ascension prerelease Sealed, I pulled two Evolving Wilds, which allowed me to run a solid two-color deck plus 1x of any land I needed to pay flashbacks. It was wonderful. –  Alex P Feb 29 '12 at 18:47
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Another example that Alex P didn't cover is that adding another color can, in the right application, make your deck a lot more powerful. Consider all of the flackback costs in Innistrad and Dark Ascension. A decent amount of them are off-color of the main casting cost of the card. If you don't play the right colors, the card is a one-off. However, if you play both colors then the card is a two-fer, giving you a decent amount of card advantage (especially considering the effect of the flashbacked spell).

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