Every color in the rainbow

In his most recent column at SCG, Bennie Smith lamented the state of Standard, specifically the fact that Windbrisk Heights has had such a significant presence across all our top eights of late. While he holds out hope that Swans Combo will even this out, the conversation in the forums turned, in part, to the idea that the mana is just too good right now. With Vivids, filters, and Pools, it’s trivial to play all manner of apparently discordant mana costs together, with the only real fear being taking an Anathemancer to the face more than once in the same game. Some commenters are looking forward to the days when the mana gets worse, and we won’t have Cryptic Command and Cloudthresher living in the same deck, alongside Volcanic Fallout and Esper Charm.
That’s their problem with contemporary five-color control. It’s not my problem with it, though. Mine is fundamentally one of aesthetics.
I like four- or five-color decks. I played Sunburst Gifts variants in the most recent Extended season, and I like watching Domain Zoo decks bleed their way into the correct mana base.
I prefer both of these experiences to contemporary five-color control. Why is that?
When you play a modern five-color control deck, you take a one-turn action penalty (all those Vivids) and then play out a radiant mush of lands bejeweled with dice or coins, sitting next to filter lands, sitting next to Reflecting Pools. In contrast, if you examine one of my Extended Gifts decks, the experience is much more organic to the theming of the game. I need black and green mana, so I cracked a fetchland and search my library for a Swamp-Forest that can give me those colors. The next time I crack for a land, or search one up when I sacrifice my Tribe-Elder, I can end up with an actual basic land – maybe an Island this time around.
There are a lot of features that go toward having flavorful versus mushy lands in these two examples. Consider the Overgrown Tomb I alluded to above.
1) It’s a Swamp-Forest. This lets the land interact in a game-mechanically intuitive fashion with the rest of Magic, but it also just imprints the idea that this is providing a crossover service between some set of colors that don’t normally come from the same place.
2) It makes two colors. This also gives it a distinct identity, even in the absence of the typing described above. A Llanowar Wastes feels very different from a Yavimaya Coast, even though they are mechanically quite similar and both lack the typing of their shockland brethren.
3) It has a distinct name. I think this makes a huge difference, as you will look at your five-color mana base and see a host of very distinct names, emphasizing the idea that you’re pulling together a diverse set of resources in your deck.
So, what’s our flavorless counterpoint here?
1) Vivids are not typed at all. A Vivid Crag is not even a Mountain. It looks like a Mountain, but it isn’t one, and that makes us sad.
2) Vivids make any color. We know that if you’ve built and played your five-color control deck properly, you will rarely deplete the counters from your Vivids. They’re just little repositories for “any color” and they will be for most of the game. Contrast with Tendo Ice Bridge, which very much provides a tension of “use this or no?” for a multiland, which in turn is its own form of mechanical feel. I’ve heard that R&D is retrospectively not happy with choosing to have two rather than one counter per Vivid, and perhaps this is an error that is reflected in flavor here.
3) Vivid X. Each Vivid land is a Vivid land. This emphasizes their relative fungibility. Any one Vivid is as good as any other Vivid most of the time, and they’re all called basically the same thing.
Given that lack of typing, variation in ability, and variation in name, it’s no surprise that contemporary five-color control decks are so aesthetically uninspiring despite the interesting cards and game play elements they contain. Combine this with the lack of a need to search for them, instead replacing that with a one-turn tempo penalty, and our current five-color control manabase style is just bland.
As I loath a complaint given without a suggestion, here’s my aesthetic ideal for the five-color control experience:
1) Lands are distinct, in terms of names, typing, and functionality.
2) Each land only covers part of my mana needs
3) I search some of the lands I need out of my library
4) I’ll have Basic Lands in play during a normal game
That’s my aesthetic ideal. I hope the M10 and Zendikar lands will push things in that direction.