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I'm building a casual (anything goes, kitchen-table) deck for my friend, out of our combined pool of cards, which will have 3+ colours (atm it's three). She's a Vorthos/Timmy. She often builds her own deck out of the biggest/prettiest cards, but suffers/is frustrated when she plays against control style. I'm making it Red/Green/Blue, with as many elves/merfolk/faeries as possible for flavour reasons.

As a general question, how do you stop a deck with 3+ colours from being unfocused? That is to say, focus on a successful tactic (engines, brute force, lots of little creatures etc) whilst spanning the three colours. You need to juggle 3 types of land, which can end some games too early through having to mulligan/suffer the consequences. How can an aggro style, also be anti-control?

I'm sorry if this question is too localized/general. I'm really struggling to get my request into a SX style, but I do want a list of correct practices in making this deck, without a long list of good cards; chances are I won't have them, and can't afford to buy any more.

  • What type is this for? Standard, Modern, Vintage...it changes the answer pretty drastically. – Ian Pugsley Dec 21 '11 at 14:05
  • @IanPugsley It's just for casual play. I'm not even sure what those terms mean... – Pureferret Dec 21 '11 at 14:27
  • @Pureferret those are some of the constructed formats for magic. check this out to get info on them: wizards.com/Magic/TCG/Resources.aspx?x=mtg/tcg/resources/… – DForck42 Dec 21 '11 at 14:36
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    @AlexP no offense to Pureferret, but if it was the second, I doubt he'd be asking this question. – Ian Pugsley Dec 21 '11 at 15:46
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    This other question might be somewhat relevant to the 3-color aspect, although it's not anti-control specifically. – David Z Dec 21 '11 at 21:44
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You've stated that your card pool is limited, and your ability to buy more cards is even more so. This restricts specific card advice significantly, so I'm going to give some general advice on the process of tuning the deck.

Running a 3 color deck is difficult, as you've already noticed. Without some specialized cards which are in many cases quite expensive to obtain, it is hard to be competitive. Here's what I would do:

  1. Ensure the deck is 60 cards, you can go a little higher if you need to. In no case should you be anywhere near 80+ cards though! The more cards you add, the more likely you are to get some really weird mana fluctuations. It's also difficult to sufficiently randomize a larger deck.
  2. Make sure you have enough land! For a 3 color deck, I'd want probably 24 land and a couple mana producers. Upwards of 26 land if you have no other mana producers (artifacts/birds of paradise) to include.
  3. Proxy some dual-lands. Take 4 swamps and write "Red/Green" on them, take 4 plains and write "green/blue". They are land that can generate either color as necessary (but only 1 mana a turn from each land). When you are playing with friends, I think a little proxying is fine, but be sure to let them know about it before hand. Encourage them to try out a few cool old cards as well! Just because you didn't spend $2000 in 1996 on cards doesn't mean you shouldn't experience those cards every so often.
  4. As you play the new tuned/proxied deck try to figure out which colors are most important. Shift things around to try to favor 2 colors, focus the third color on being the "finishing" color. This will allow you to decrease the mana supply for that third color and will make your deck run smoother. An example would be just including a few mountains and a couple fireballs. In other words, try to move your color mix from 40%/30%/30% to 40%/40%/20% or even 50%/40$/10%
  • That is excellent advice. I think I can do at least 3 out of those 4 with ease! – Pureferret Dec 21 '11 at 18:27
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On the subject of managing "focus" (i.e. color distribution), what you'll really need to worry about is lands. With three colors, mana fixing can become incredibly important. You'll want to play dual and tri-color lands and maybe some mana-generating creatures (what's a multicolor green deck without Birds of Paradise?) or "mana rocks" (mana-generating artifacts), to lessen your changes of getting mana screwed. On that same note, I'd recommend a lot of the hybrid-color spells from the Ravnica and Shadowmoor blocks - they're fairly versatile and see quite a bit of play (e.g. Kitchen Finks, probably not for your deck but just as an example).

One of the better resources I've found for mana fixing is intended for Commander, but is great for deckbuilding of any kind (link is noncommercial, and I am not affiliated in any way): McGee's Commander App.

Secondarily, there's the issue of "how can aggro be anti-control." The answer to that question is and always has been speed. You're racing to see what happens first - you winning, or the control deck hitting its stride (which usually means a loss for you). There's always certain cards that are going to help (e.g. Autumn's Veil - in fact, see What are good strategies against counterspell decks? for specifically counter hate, though it's specific to Standard) - try to find the right balance of speed to evasion.

I'd look around for what other RUG aggro decks are doing - you'll see some commonly-run cards (Tarmogoyf, Vendilion Clique, Spellstutter Sprite, etc.). It really depends on how competitive (read: expensive) you want this to be. I'd also recommend tossing in Kird Ape, Trygon Predator, and/or Bloodbraid Elf.

Lastly, running blue usually means running counters. In Vintage this means you've got the fun stuff (Force of Will, actual Counterspell, etc.) - it's also an answer to control, but be careful not to accidentally build a slower deck that ends up in the midrange (between aggro and control).

  • Unfortunately I can't afford to buy anything new. So special lands and some anti-counter specific cards? Thanks. – Pureferret Dec 21 '11 at 16:38
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    If you're looking at only using your existing card base, I'd say the biggest pieces of advice are the mana fixing and trying to stay as fast as possible. – Ian Pugsley Dec 21 '11 at 17:26
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If you're using the Red-Green-Blue "wedge" and you're playing "casual," you might find some use in one of the Commander decks produced by Wizards of the Coast: the "Mirror Mastery" deck, in particular. It includes a number of tools to help smooth out the mana in a deck with three colors — multi-lands and artifact mana sources among them.

  • A lot of choice Commander cards are slow as heck in regular 20-life Magic, though. E.g. even in 20-life multiplayer, actually getting to use Riku's copy-effect shenanigans is tough. – Alex P Dec 21 '11 at 15:21
  • Conceded. However, the circumstance in the OP says that she's facing off against control -- which means she may have time to set up those slow effects. More importantly, it gives access to a lot of mana fixers, which will reduce the mulligans which are frustrating to her. (And she'll get a Sol Ring. Who doesn't love a Sol Ring?) – Jadasc Dec 21 '11 at 15:27
  • I might have some of those cards! But otherwise I'm at a loss. What's a 'wedge'? What techniques make those particularly good? – Pureferret Dec 21 '11 at 15:31
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    I don't know that the advice for a tri-color aggro deck looking to beat a control deck is "run these slower cards" - rather the opposite. At the same time, this is good advice - I'd just be careful to stick with the faster stuff (i.e. dual and fetch lands, filter lands, etc.). – Ian Pugsley Dec 21 '11 at 15:34
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    A "wedge" is a color triad made of two allied colors and one enemy color. If you look at the five-point pentad on the back of each card, you'll see that they form a thin triangle: a wedge. – Jadasc Dec 21 '11 at 15:35
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Pat and Ian have covered the three-color angle pretty thoroughly, so this answer focuses on aggro-vs.-control.

Aggro-vs.-control matchups tend to revolve around board presence. I look at it this way:

The aggro deck is trying to put a lot of threats on the board, and the control deck is trying to remove them or build his own board. Every turn that the aggro player has a stronger board presence brings her closer to victory, because she gets additional incremental value from each of her threats. For example, any turn that it's on the field and your opponent doesn't have a blocker, Goblin Guide gets to do 2 more damage.

At the beginning of the game, the control player's immediate priority is to "stabilize", usually by getting to a sweeper like Day of Judgment. We often talk about the "card advantage" build into a many-for-one spell like that, but the momentum swing it provides is usually more decisive. I think your priority as the aggro deck isn't so much avoiding card disadvantage as it is maintaining pressure, through a mix of two strategies:

  • "Be fast": play an all-in game where you dump your hand out as fast as possible and try to get your opponent to 0 life (or 10 poison) before he has a chance to play many cards. During deckbuilding, this means prioritizing low-curve, cost-efficient threats like Goblin Guide and Wild Nacatl, and packing in "guaranteed" damage like Lightning Bolt to get in that final blow after you've lost control of the field.

  • "Be tough": develop a respectable board position to create pressure, then maintain it despite removal and disruption; you're still playing aggressively, because your opponent's "endgame" probably trumps yours, but the idea here is to deny your opponent the ability to stabilize early and easily. During deckbuilding, this involve persistent threats like Doomed Traveler, Chandra's Phoenix, and Thrun the Last Troll, or alternate lines of attack like Shrine of Burning Rage.

Note that these aren't so much competing gameplans as two facets of the same goal: getting your opponent to 0 life quickly and consistently. A good aggro player will tailor her current approach to the strengths and weaknesses of her opponent's deck, so it's valuable to build decks that can play both "fast" and "tough" (and are, ideally, at least a bit of both at the same time).

If your deck is running blue, you also have recourse to countermagic -- which you'll often see used in tournament "Bant" (green-white-blue) and "RUG" (red-blue-green) list. This is the basis for the "aggro-control" style of deck, which uses control cards to protect its board position. Forcing your opponent to wait until he has enough mana to play Day of Judgment with counterspell backup is often backbreaking against straight-up control decks. Generally, though, avoid running specific answer cards unless they are also threats, so that they don't just languish uselessly in your hand while you wait for the right moment; e.g. Qasali Pridemage is a better aggro choice than Disenchant because a 2/2 exalted is always useful even if you don't have an enchantment or artifact that you need to blow up.

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I'll answer this question on a general level and ignore the fact that you're playing Vintage. Vintage is a very dangerous format because the power level is so high: top decks in Vintage are capable of winning on turn 1, and they're filled with insanely powerful cards such as Ancestral Recall and Black Lotus. The power level makes it a hazardous format where many decks (such as the one your friend is playing) simply isn't viable. Your comments make it clear though that you're not playing Vintage - you're playing a casual format. That's fine and gives more scope for this kind of deckbuilding.

First: manabase. You say you're running three colors. This is potentially possible if you have enough lands that produce multiple colors. Do you have access to, for example, Volcanic Island, Rootbound Crag or Stomping Ground? The more of these dual lands you have, and especially if you have fetchlands like Scalding Tarn that can tutor for the relevant color, the more viable it is to run three colors.

The manabase is important! If you don't have access to these dual lands, you might not be able to cast your spells. Being mana/color screwed is a very miserable way to lose. It's better to ditch a color and play 2-color decks or even 1-color decks in that case. If you do have these dual lands, you can play 3-color or even 4-color decks, but you need to have the lands. Do you? If not, and the other players don't mind, you can try proxy-ing some of them (e.g. take a Mountain and turn it into a Taiga).

Second: how to make a deck more resilient to control. What control decks do is they kill/counter all your creatures. If some creatures slip through, they play a sweeper like Supreme Verdict that kills all of them. The first thing to do is to have a high density of threats. If you draw more threats than the control deck draws answers (remember they're probably running 26 or more lands, which means you'll draw more spells than them), then you can brute force a threat through. This isn't foolproof however, since they can afford to take some damage, and control decks are generally going to have card advantage spells like Divination that lets them draw more answers. Still, the fewer non-threat cards you have such as Giant Growth or Growth Spiral, the better your chances.

Another thing to do is to have threats that survive the sweeper. I don't know what sweepers the control decks you allude to are playing, but some generic ideas are:

  • Planeswalkers. Cards like Gideon, Ally of Zendikar are perfect because they're unaffected by "destroy all creatures" sweepers. You don't ever have to animate Gideon to attack: you can just sit there and make 2/2 tokens until the opponent is forced to sweep, and then you can make more 2/2 tokens. Planeswalkers are some of the most threatening cards against control decks since they're also immune to creature removal.
  • Vehicles. Cards like Smuggler's Copter also survives "destroy all creatures" sweepers. This is vulnerable to instant-speed creature removal though (such as Murder), which control decks will also have a lot of.
  • Manlands. A card like Raging Ravine is immune to sorcery-speed sweepers. Like vehicles however, manlands are also vulnerable to instant-speed creature removal.
  • Creatures that survive sweepers. Some creatures simply live through these "destroy all creatures" cards. An example is Adanto Vanguard. If opponent casts Supreme Verdict, you can pay four life (they're a control deck and don't pressure your life total) to make it indestructible, and it survives. Other examples are Rekindling Phoenix or Conclave Cavalier. In the last example, Conclave Cavalier itself dies, but it still leaves behind 4 power.

Other things you can do:

  • Hexproof threats. Geist of Saint Traft is dangerous against control for this reason: if they can't counter it, the opponent must sweep since they can't kill it with targeted removal. Sweepers tend to cost a lot of mana. If you can trade 1-for-1 (your Geist for his sweeper) at mana advantage, you've gained an advantage.
  • Uncounterable threats. Same as the above, except this takes out the "counter it" part of their plan. If the creature you want to play doesn't have uncounterable, you can make it uncounterable with Cavern of Souls.
  • Cast triggers. A few cards (e.g. Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger and Hydroid Krasis) say "when you cast [this creature], [do something]". In this case even if the creature is countered, you still get to do something, which will let you grind out the opponent.
  • Discard. Control decks rely on holding specific answers for specific threats - for example Dead Weight is great against Adanto Vanguard, but is a dead card against Geist of Saint Traft. Meanwhile Supreme Verdict is great against Geist of Saint Traft, but is a dead card against Adanto Vanguard. This makes targeted discard like Thoughtseize very effective. If you play Thoughtseize, you can take the card that kills your threat. For example if you have Adanto Vanguard, you can take the Dead Weight and rely on the now-unanswerable Vanguard to kill your opponent. Similarly, Thoughtseize protects you against sweepers since it can remove the sweeper before it's cast.
  • Counterspells. If you've got a nice board, sometimes the opponent's only viable way to get back into the game is with a big spell. Cards like Disdainful Stroke and Negate are especially good in these situations because you can simply stop the spell from resolving. For example, if you have two Steel Leaf Champion in play, the opponent will die in two turns so they have to play some kind of removal. If you are able to counter this, they take 10 damage and are that much closer to dying. The danger with playing counterspells is, if you draw them but don't draw threats, you're still going to lose. Don't play too many counterspells.

You can read a bit more about this in this classic article by Hall of Famer Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa. It deals with sideboarding, which you presumably aren't doing, but the concepts are the same.

Third: you can also play better. The key ideas are to 1) not overextend into sweepers and 2) not let the control deck use their mana. This is not easy to do, however, and it's psychologically frightening to do nothing against a control deck even if they are also doing nothing. If you want to learn more about how to play against control decks, I suggest reading this article.

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