Blue, black, and red. Three colors that strike terror into the hearts of Limited players everywhere. When you see an Island, you know that your spells aren't safe. When you see a Swamp, you know that your creatures aren't safe. When you see a Mountain, you know that your creatures aren't safe AND your life total could vanish in the face of some intense direct damage.
I started playing Limited during Invasion. The "Crosis colors" were the colors that everyone wanted to be. And rightfully so! I mean, who in their right mind wouldn't want to be able to draw cards, counter spells, play awesome evasion creatures, kill creatures and bounce stuff?
Even though it isn't easy to do in every format, and it isn't always necessarily the "best deck," Whenever I'm playing with a good blue-black-red deck, I always feel like I'm in the driver's seat. There are tons of great things that I can do, there's nothing that I can't answer, and I can pull spectacular things out seemingly of nowhere.
And, well, that's exactly the type of Magic that I like to play.
Don't get me wrong, there are some things that blue, black, and red can't do as well as green and white do. Green is traditionally quite good at fixing mana and playing the biggest guy every turn, while white is traditionally the best defensive color and has been known to have some pretty good cheap creatures, evasion creatures and removal itself.
But how do these terrifying colors play with each other, and the noticeably less frightening green and white colors, in Shards of Alara?
Right now we're experiencing a pretty odd thing, two of the three best common removal spells in the format, Oblivion Ring and Branching Bolt, cannot be played by a straight blue-black-red deck. This radically affects the way that I think about the format.
The fact that Shards of Alara is smaller than previous large sets magnifies the effect that each individual card has on the format. That coupled with the very existence of Oblivion Ring and Resounding Silence means that someone playing a white-blue-green deck, without any other splashes, can have access to multiple pieces of awesome removal.
Don't get me wrong, Agony Warp is ridiculous, and Grixis has the most overall removal cards. But, if I open up an Oblivion Ring, then white could very easily be one of the colors that offers me the most removal.
You see, between easy splashing and a relatively high percentage of removal cards for white, blue-black-red isn't as uniquely powerful now as it was in, say, Invasion block Limited.
Even green, a color which certainly isn't known for its ability to kill creatures, is necessary to play the likes of Branching Bolt and Naya charm. If you open up a Branching Bolt and get passed a Naya Charm, then, well, you're going to need to play some Forests to burn out your opponent's creatures.
While I was looking for an example of a powerful base green removal deck, I took a stroll down to the Pro Tour–Kyoto qualifying season Top 8 lists page, and I found exactly what I was looking for.
Peter Yong won a gigantic 230-person PTQ in Edison, New Jersey with a Naya deck that featured some awesome creatures, two planeswalkers (!), and several pieces of awesome removal.
1st place, PTQ, Edison, NJ, USA
In the finals, Peter beat Joseph Cugliari, who was piloting a very solid Grixis deck that featured 2 Agony Warps, 2 Bone Splinters, and a Skeletonize as well as some solid creatures such as Blood Cultist and 2 Kederekt Creeper. (Oh, and for all of you who noticed that I accidentally wrote up Kederekt Creeper as "unplayable" in my Sealed pool last week, that was an unfortunate typo. Kederekt Creeper is quite good if you can play it. Not only is it nearly unblockable, it's fantastic on defense, trading with virtually any creature. All in all, there isn't too much more that you can ask for out of a three-drop. Good catch guys!)
2nd place, PTQ, Edison, NJ, USA
Joseph had an advantage over Peter in terms of quality removal thanks in a large part to his two Agony Warps, but Joseph was unfortunately completely outclassed by Peter on the creature front and the bomb front. Peter's cheap creatures such as Akrasan Squire and Wild Nacatl are big enough to either warrant removal or throw down with pretty much any creature that Joseph could muster.
Even if Joseph had a good enough draw to win a creature-based fight, Peter had his two planeswalkers that he could lean on. Unfortunately for Joseph (and fortunately for Peter) his Grixis deck wasn't able to make that last push that he needed to walk away with an invite.
Although Joseph's Grixis deck wasn't able to get him to Kyoto, there are some interesting things that we can learn from it. As is often the case, Joseph's Grixis deck didn't have the best creatures, but it made up for that by having a boatload of removal spells (six in total counting Bloodpyre Elemental). Joe's deck played to a lot of Grixis's natural strengths, but it didn't have enough cheap, aggressive, creatures to allow him to beat a more potent deck such as Peter's Naya powerhouse.
So, if you are going to play Grixis to success, the first thing you want to do is to lean on the natural strengths of the colors, hopefully winding up with a deck chock-full of removal, card drawing and evasion creatures.
Now, that's much easier said than done. With that in mind, let's look at some of the other strengths that you can lean on in order to get a winning Grixis deck.
While pretty much all of the removal in the set is splashable, Bone Splinters is a card that benefits greatly from being played in Grixis, the unearth shard. Sacrificing a creature just isn't that big of a drawback when it was going to get removed from the game at the end of the turn anyway. (Joseph, whose deck was lacking in unearth, has a Puppet Conjurer to help power up his two Bone Splinters). This means that your blue-black-red deck is likely to be the beneficiary of some late-pick Bone Splinters that, while awesome in your deck, couldn't find a very good home in your neighbors' decks.
Now, little unearth synergies are all well and good, and you should certainly be aware of them when you are drafting or building your Sealed deck. But you can't build an entire deck around a couple of marginally beneficial interactions.
The Grixis deck that I've been able to pilot to success most frequently is very aggressive, featuring a bunch of cheap, efficient guys such as Goblin Deathraiders and/or Tidehollow Strix, some more good evasion creatures such as Kederekt Creeper and Cloudheath Drake, and, of course, some awesome removal.
Blightning is an absolute all-star in this type of deck. The discard is quite good and the damage is incredibly relevant. And let's not even think about what would happen if you ever fired off two Blightnings in a game...
To sum things up, Grixis isn't as overwhelmingly powerful as it has been in years past, but there are still a lot of great things that you can do with the colors. Just don't think that you are going to be able to pick up a stack of removal spells and have the wins fall into your lap every time. You're going to have to work for your wins.
What Can Each Color Do For Me?
What roles each color can play is a very important thing to keep track of. When you are drafting, then you use the information of what cards are in the set, combined with what cards you've taken so far, to figure out what your deck can do, and what it still needs to do.
When you're building a Sealed deck, abstract color identities aren't a particularly important thing to think about. You just need to look at what cards you have in each of your colors to figure out what your colors can do for you.
For an example of this, let's take a peek at our Sealed exercise from the end of last week's article:
Last Week's Sealed Exercise
None of the red cards in this pool jumped out at me, and Executioner's Capsule was really the only black card that caught my eye. The blue didn't have quite enough good cards or playable cards for it to be a base color, so that left me with a green-white base.
From there I built a green-white deck that splashed a bit of blue and the tiniest bit of black just for Executioner's Capsule.
Interestingly enough, the way that I was able to play the most removal with this pool was to play a green-white base.
A lot of the people that I heard from via email and in the forums tried to fit enough blue into their decks to play Cancel. While Cancel is a very respectable card, there's no need to warp your mana considerably to play it. In my build I'm playing a mere 3 blue cards which I support with 1 island, 1 Seaside Citadel, and 3 Panoramas. This minimal splash lets me play plenty of green and white sources.
Now this isn't necessarily the most powerful deck in the world, but it's good enough to get the job done. It has a decent amount of removal and a good mana base that will allow the deck to play its spells pretty seamlessly. Even though it would be possible to play slightly better cards, such as Cancel, you would have to give up a lot more than you might realize in order to do it.
This deck's biggest strength is that it can play the game that it wants to almost every time. Once you start messing with the mana, it becomes a lot harder to do things like play your Steward of Valeron in a timely fashion, or attack for 2 with your Wild Nacatl by turn two or three.
A good thing to keep in mind when you are building a Sealed pool is that if your deck doesn't look like it can win a long game, try your best to prevent the game from getting there—even if you have to leave some pretty good cards in your sideboard to do so.
Bonus Sealed Deck Exercise: GP–Kansas City
Grand Prix–Kansas City Sealed Pool