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Drafting and Playing Five Colors in March of the Machine Limited

An in-depth 4339-word strategy guide to drafting, building, and playing with five-color decks in March of the Machine limited using the power of data! If you want to have a go at using the most powerful cards from each color while keeping open in your drafts, this article is for you!

It is fun to play a Five-Color soup-style deck in limited, but they are also notoriously hard to build and navigate. This week I want to look into data and try to figure out what makes those decks tick and what stops them from being successful.

Five Color Fundamentals

Invasion of Alara Art by Mathias Kollros
Invasion of Alara Art by Mathias Kollros

Five-Color strategies have their pros and cons, and just how good they are in a format will depend on how do those positive and negative components align in a given set. On the positive side, playing all colors keeps you open in the draft. It lets you pick powerful cards from every color, which means you will have fewer dead packs, where there is nothing of interest to you. You will also reap the rewards of that strategy in later packs, by getting passed powerful rares from your neighbours who are not in the color of the bomb, and are desperate to pick cards that can go into their decks, leaving you with cards you will never see passed in pack 1 or even 2. In most sets you will also have powerful 3 color cards, which will likely go later as not every deck is equipped to play them, so you might benefit from those floating around the table. This all should lead to your deck having a very high power level compared to streamlined 2 color decks, who are at the mercy of what is opened in their colors in the pod.

However, that power and freedom to chose comes at a price. To play five colors you need to sacrifice deck consistency. You will more often be in a situation where you have a strong card in your hand, but are not able to cast it. And because you want to limit those situations when you are sitting with a dead card in your hand, you have to dedicate several slots in your deck to fixing. Mana dorks, mana rocks, land tutors – all those types of cards will increase your mana consistency, but will take up valuable spots in your 40 cards, which means in some games you may draw too much fixing and not enough action. You can also fix by playing dual or three-color lands if the set has any. But those also come with a cost – to get them you may need to sacrifice early picks, where normally you will get valuable playables for your deck, thus losing part of the benefits of power boost playing five-color decks gives you.

Furthermore, this can have a big impact on viability of five-color strategies. In Kaldheim, in the early format, dual snow lands were going very late and because of that five-color was a powerful strategy. In a draft you would pick great cards early and wheel the mana base, ending with a powerful and yet consistent deck. But mid format, the snow lands stopped flowing. Now you had to prioritise lands earlier and pick them instead of the powerful uncommon spells, which often meant that you ended up with a consistent, but not powerful 5 color deck. And that is not the way to play five colors, as you were still less consistent than a 2 color deck, and yet, your card power was similar, making you an underdog. Quickly the win rates of 5 color soups in Kaldheim dropped off and ultra aggressive, streamlined aggressive decks in Naya colors became top archetypes.

Another weak point of playing five colors is that the mana inconsistency means, you can’t reliably win games quickly. Almost by definition, your five color decks will be tuned for longer games and a more controlling game plan. This is very different from midrange decks, which can play the long game, but given the opportunity can also transition to a more aggressive strategy if the draws align well.

Fixing in March of the Machine

MOM is one of the all time great sets for drafting, and that usually means that the set allows for multiple strategies to be good. This includes the presence of five-color decks at some level of being competitive. In MOM, four or five-color decks are not the most powerful thing to do, but they are not unplayable. The average win rate for users is around 56%, same cohort has a 52% win rate with four to five-color decks. A hit of 4 percentage points, which, if you want to win at all costs, will mean you should use the five-color strategy sparingly, but if, like me, you want to draft not only to win but also to have fun while doing it, that level of win rate handicap is something acceptable from time to time.

Still, fun is OK, but even while having fun I don’t want to chuck my gems away, I would rather maximize my chances of trophying (achieving the maximum wins) even with a lower win rate strategy. What makes the five color tick in MOM? And equally important – what doesn’t? To start answering the question let’s look at the most unique feature of the 5 color decks – the mana base. We are straying far away from the 9/8 land split here. I looked at ~33000 games of decks that include four to five colors from the public data set and analysed their mana bases. Firstly – what basics are the most played?

Looking qualitatively at presence or absence of basic lands, users choose Sultai (Green, Blue, and Black) as their base most of the time, white and red playing supplementary role in their five-color concoctions. 85-90% of the decks have Forest, Island and Swamp. This comes as no surprise: green is a color with the best fixing, blue is widely considered the most powerful color and black provides essential removal. More than that, those colors promote slower decks, and slower games is exactly what 5 color decks are interested in. White and red play mainly a supplemental role, perhaps providing some bombs or multicolor spells, particularly from the 3 color rare legend cycle.

However, presence or absence of a color doesn’t tell the whole story. Specifically it tells us little about the intensity each color is played at – yes, 90% of decks play green and blue, but I would expect green being the main color more often than not, and that has important implications, for example you want your early drop to be in your main color, meaning cards like Wary Thespian will be potentially important for your 5 color decks. To know how people construct their manabase, I looked at the average number of each basic type per deck in the decks that play any of the given type.

And as predicted, despite being played at a similar rate, 5 color decks have more Forests than Islands or Swamps. But basic lands are not the only weapon in 5 color players’ arsenal. In order to fix your mana you will be using other tools, namely the dual gain lands that can fix for two colors, but come into play tapped and fixing cards like Blighted Burgeoning or Flywheel Racer.

Those come with their own set of pros and cons. Dual lands only help you to some extent. With multiples you have a lower chance of being mana screwed and very importantly, you don’t have to sacrifice slots in your deck that would otherwise be occupied by spells. However, they will occasionally cause you not to be able to play your spells on curve, as they do come into play tapped and they still cost picks in the draft, making your pool have fewer spells. This can be a cost if you need to pick them early, as explained earlier on the case study of Kaldheim format evolution.

So how many dual lands is too many? To answer that I looked at the deck win rate depending on the number of dual lands in a deck.

I was expecting to see an increase on win rate, at least to some point, with the increase in the number of dual lands, but there is no such trend in the data. It seems that whether you play 0 or 5 duals in your 5 color decks, it has little impact on the win rate. This is a surprising find, and I don’t want you to think that land fixing is not important because of this finding, but I would definitely lower the prioritization of those lands in my multicolor decks.

In the end, even with 5 of them, you don’t get reliable access to all colors and you did have to give up 5 spells in order to get there. Dual lands in theory are a much better fixing plan if you play a 3 color deck than if you play a 4-5 color one. 5 color decks will likely do better with cards that provide WUBRG fixing. And MOM has several of those, including the Blighted Burgeoning, Flywheel Racer and, in a slightly different way, Skittering Surveyor.

My next step is, of course, to see if including those cards is key for the 5 color decks. I looked how many 5 color fixing cards per deck is the optimal amount.

Turns out it is 2-3 of those spells, and this is in line with how you want the structure of such decks to look like. You want the core to be a regular 2 color deck – maybe UG, maybe BG, and the other colors play a supplemental role, with one a bit more prevalent and the other two just adding some late game bomb capacity. If you build your 5 color deck like that, 2 Blighted Burgeonings and Invasion of Zendikar should be plenty of fixing, as long as you have enough green sources to play your fixing spells consistently.

To summarize, in order to have a functional mana base in this format make sure you have 2-3 5 color fixing spells, pick dual lands opportunistically, but don’t prioritize them over good playables and definitely do not trust the Arena default mana bases – something that comes not from data but from personal experience.

Key Cards for Five-Color Decks

With the mana base out of the way, we can look into what cards you want to play in your 5 color decks. Firstly I wanted to look into the most played cards. And the list is pretty intuitive. Here are the top 15 cards by play rate – so percentage of decks in the dataset that contain at least one copy:

As you can see the bulk of the list are the dual lands. The only one that didn’t make this list if Wind-Scarred Crag, the Boros one, and it does make sense. You want your duals to contribute towards casting the spells in your main colors. That is why Sultai dual lands are the most played ones, followed by the non-Sultai duals that can give green mana, followed by the ones which give blue and lastly, the ones giving black mana. This is a good heuristic to remember when drafting – if your dual land sources allow you to cast cards from your main colors, your mana base is healthier and can support for example running splash color basic lands for Skittering Surveyor or Invasion of Zendikar much better.

Apart from the duals, majority of the most played cards help with fixing: Blighted Burgeoning takes the top spot, Skittering Surveyor is played in 43% of the decks, Overgrown Pest sort of helps you fixing or at least helps you have your land drops – a key thing for a 5 color deck that wants to have a powerful late game. Then there is a Portent Tracker, less of a mana fixing card, more of a ramp enabler, and a card that combos off with Blighted Burgeoning very well. Last piece of fixing is the mentioned Invasion of Zendikar present in the 1/4 of the decks. Among the lands and mana-related cards hides the only card not directly linked to fixing – the Wary Thespian, a 3/1 two drop. But still, even though its main role in the deck is to stop getting overrun by aggro, the Surveil triggers can help you hitting the lands, or not hitting them if that is the best course of action.

You may wisely question me by remarking that being present in a deck doesn’t mean a card is good. And I would very much agree with that statement. We want to know not only what is played, but what is good when it is played. To figure out which cards are key for the success of 5 color decks I look at is from a slightly different angle than normally. Instead of looking at a cards win rate, I look at the difference in win rates of 5 color decks that contain a certain card and 5 color decks that don’t. This is not a strategy I would use for most of the data sets, but as you might have guessed, 5 color decks are different from your regular decks. They have a much more diverse pool of cards in them, despite their similarities, they will offer larger diversity so I thought this approach would be an interesting way to look for good versions of 5 color.

On the graphs you will see a small number, either positive or negative. Positive means 5 color decks with this card have a higher win rate than the ones that don’t contain the card, negative means decks with the card in questions do worse than the 5 color decks that don’t include it. I also look at cards in 3 arbitrary categories: commonly played cards (present in 10% or more decks), uncommonly played cards (5-10% of decks) and rarely played cards (1-5% of decks). This is to make sure you don’t lose the importance – a successful card that is in 20% of 5 color decks means quite a lot more than a similar finding for a card played only in 2% of the decks.

Let’s start with commonly played cards, which are in more successful decks. This category will contain potentially important commons and uncommons and some rares that you may count on getting passed later in the game – so sort of rewards for being in 5 color.

The decks with Tandem Takedown win almost 4%p more than the decks that don’t contain that card. I initially thought that this might be just a knock-on effect of green being open but after some thought and noticing Cosmic Hunger also on this list my hypothesis for this would be – you want to have reliable access to interaction, an what better way of ensuring it than having the said interaction in your main color?

This rule is not written in stone yet, but it is worth thinking about it when you draft, that even though Deadly Derision is undoubtedly a stronger card than Cosmic Hunger, you will not be always able to play a spell so heavy on the black mana and if you build your decks in a way that can relaibly cast Derision, you may sacrifice some capacity to cast your splash cards because of it, so having a green interaction package will remove some strain from your deck design. Having said that, Tandem Takedowns being passed around will also mean green was more open in your seat, so that can also play a role in this result.

Second card on the list is Captive Weird. And it is one of multiple cards on the list which acts as a great early game stabiliser. One mana 1/3 will stop most 2 drops from attacking or trade with them. Later it will net you a card and generate a solid threat/blocker. And this is a trait of all the 4 cards I selected here.

Streetwise Negotiator is a 2 mana 3/3 most of the time, which can either put you in the early beatdown position in some games or stonewall opponents board if you start on the backfoot.

Preening Champion puts 2 blockers on board and can later threaten evasive damage. It is not uncommon for controlling deck in this format to stabilise the board on the ground and finish the game with a couple of flying creatures.

Herbology Instructor will cushion your life total, stop smaller creatures from attacking and later in the game act as a removal and become a bigger threat. All these cards act slightly differently but in general fulfil the same role in the deck and all of them do it well so you should prioritise them in your 5 color drafts.

Next cards I wanted to highlight are value uncommons. Each of those acts as a natural 2-for-1 and with some building around can become more than that. Invasion on the front side already swings the card advantage in your favour, but it is also easy to flip and usually produces a high value creature.

Halo Forager will be usually a very good 2-for-1 but a fail state of a 3/1 flying creature is not the end of the world. Imoti will cascade you another creature in most cases, but if your deck has any of the landcycling creatures or another card from this list of good 5 color cards – Merciless Repurposing – it can become much more than that netting you another spell. Make sure that you don’t overload on cheap counterspells if you play cascade spells as it may backfire if you hit them.

Last category I wanted to highlight is the Incubate package that seems to be doing well in 5 color decks. Converter Beast is doing really well and that did catch my attention. Aside from cards on this list, Blighted Burgeoning which was not far outside the graph above already nets you an Incubator token. This made me think that incubate cards do particularly well in those 5 color shells so I decided to test their performance as a function of number of cards that make Incubator tokens in them.

And I was not disappointed. It seems the incubate flavoured 5 color decks do particularly well. On top of the mentioned cards, you can easily slot in Norn's Inquisitor which makes all your incubators better, but also helps improving other flip cards like the Captive Weird. This is a format specific advice, but I would pay attention to those types of interactions as they might be something more typical to multicolor decks and might be missed if you mainly play streamlined 2 color decks.

But not all commonly played cards are improving win rates.

There is not much useful information in the cards that do worse in 5 color decks, but there are two cards on that list that you should think about.

Those two look like perfect rewards for finding a 5 color lane, but actually decks that do contain them have lower win rates. In part this has to do with the fact that my dataset contains both 5 color and 4 color decks, and 4 color decks perform slightly better, and both Omnath and Alara will be only found in 5 color decks. But another possible reason is that those cards put an extra strain on your manabases and people tend to try hard to be able to play them.

So far I drafted Invasion of Alara 3 times and in all those drafts I ended up in decks that couldn’t support them, so it stayed in the sideboard. And the same will apply to Omnath, with a caveat that it is a weaker card. I suspect some number of players will pick those cards early and try to build around them. That is fine, but you should be doing it with a mindset to resign at some stage if the fixing is not sufficient or the 5 color plan does not pan out in your pod.

Other cards on that list include weaker early drops like Aetherblade Agent and Iridescent Blademaster and low power interaction (Shatter the Source and Invasion of Lorwyn) and fixing linked with weaker aspects of 5 color decks (Wind-Scarred Crag, Furnace Host Charger). Interestingly, Forest made it to the list, meaning that 4 color decks without green are not only possible but potentially not bad, even if they come together less frequently.

Role Players of the Five-Color Strategy

Uncommonly played cards (5-10% of the decks) will mainly be rares that play well in 5 color strategy.

Interesting aspect of this list is the presence of three 3-color cards: Thalia and the Gitrog Monster, Zurgo and Ojutai and Borborygmos and Fblthp look to be the real rewards for choosing the 5 color paths.

Not only you will see more of those during draft, but decks that do have them seem to be doing better. That of course can be explained not only by the card strength, but also by the fact that in pods where these go later, also other cards specifically linked with the multicolor strategies will be passed to you.

Other cards on that list are mainly bombs that you want to draft in a 5 color decks. X-for-1s like Etali, Primal Conqueror, engines like the Chrome Host Seedshark, control powerhouses like Sunfall or cards that win if unanswered like Glissa, Herald of Predation – these should in part be the reason to go 5 color. If you have a Glissa and the Shark and open Etali in pack 3, you may want to evaluate if you have enough fixing by now to try and go for including all those bombs in your deck, or if you want to maybe limit yourself to a 2 color decks with a splash for Glissa and give Etali a miss in favour of a strong uncommon.

Last two cards I wanted to highlight are Scorn-Blade Berserker and Norn's Inquisitor. The former is a perennially under-appreciated card in the format. For a small investment you almost always get a card, you might net two or make your creature slightly bigger. and will net you some life in the process. Good early, great later – card does a lot for a one drop. The latter will synergise with a whole lot of cards in your good 5 color decks – it will make Incubator tokens stronger, boost your double faced creatures. All on something that already is way above rate. Both those cards are uncommon but are still underplayed in 5C strategies, yet yield good results, so maybe you should have those on your radar more.

Cards uncommonly played in 4C with middle play rate or an eclectic collection. You have bad interaction like Failed Conversion and Invasion of Muraganda. It is important that if you go through the hoops of making a 5 color deck, you put only the finest examples of each cards category. You don’t want to fill your all color deck with low quality removal and bad creatures, because that would not counterbalance the substantial cost of having a complex mana base. If you need to play Failed Conversion to get any removal in 5 color, you probably were not in a seat that could support such a deck.

The rest are cards that are even good, but their play modes just don’t align well with the deck plan. Either because they slant aggressively too much, like Rampaging Geoderm and Order of the Mirror, or because they require a particular set of synergies that will unlikely come together, like Botanical Brawler or Dreg Recycler. This is probably the best glance in what strategies will not work well a 5 color deck. Think about the cards on this list and try to figure out why they would be bad on your own – maybe that will be a useful excercise for beginner players to stretch their limited brain and start looking at limited from a different angle.

This leaves us with the rarely played cards. 1-5%. Not much but not little. Here we see really strong rares and mythics that are either not opened frequently enough to make it to the uncommonly played echelons, or because they are slightly overlooked by the 5 color players.

Sheoldred being good, or Invasion of New Phyrexia doing well in a deck that wants to play a long game is not surprising. But some cards on this list surprised me and I am sure some others are perenially undervalued.

What surprised me was the Polukranos Reborn. But after some thought, if you are good in fixing, GGG in mana cost should be also fixable. And the reward of playing it, even if it not on turn 3 but 6, are quite substantial, especially if you manage to flip it.

Cards that may fly under the radar a bit are Atris, Oracle of Half-Truths – this card has an amazing rate and in 5 color decks picking the piles is a bit easier as in most of the cases you don’t mind drawing lands off it. Zephyr Singer and Ezuri, Claw of Progress are a bit of a conundrum, but maybe their presence is linked with the more open blue in the pods? And both cards can be pretty strong if played well.

Other cards on the list are exactly the kinds of bombs you want to have in your multicolor deck – expensive and maybe hard to cast but obscene in their effect on the board (hello Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite, I am looking at you).


I hope that after reading this article you understand the 5 color strategy slightly better. If you are still hungry for more, why not jump in to the full seminar I did on the topic?

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I am a limited player, who mainly skips playing in order to analyse the limited data using I run a podcast: Magic Numbers, where I try to use data to let you improve your limited game play, find out which heuristics work out and which common ideas are not well supported by data.

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