Name Day: What Colors R U? Izzet? Prismari?
- Tobi Henke
Riddle: start with a certain three-color combination, add or subtract B, and you end up at the same two-color combination either way, at least in 2007 terminology. Can you name it? No? Well, then you should definitely take this trip down memory lane and find out how we used to call color combos back in the day!
Apples and Pairs
The youngsters among you may be wondering: how did people ever manage before the first Ravnica block introduced the handy guild designations? Guess what, we simply referred to color duos by their proper names—red-white, blue-black, and so on—and that worked without a hitch for all of the game's pre-teen years. In fact, it took a while for the guild names to catch on. I looked up an old styleguide from my time freelancing for Wizards, and at least as of 2012, the official rule still stated:
|The two-color pairs are sometimes known by their Ravnica guild names; this is acceptable for the names of decks that the guild name has specifically attached itself to (for example, "Boros" as a particular brand of weenie deck), but shouldn't be used elsewhere.|
This changed at some point between our second or third trip to Ravnica. It makes sense too. After all Ravnica has become like a second home to Magic. There may be more cards from this world in circulation now than there ever were printed from any other. (Most of the early sets were set on Dominaria, but print runs have far outgrown initial outputs.) Specifically, when people think of a multicolor setting nowadays, more specifically one focused on color pairs, they think of Ravnica.
Two terms strongly associated with a color duo predate the guild model. (Big aside incoming.) Around the turn of the century, Magic was dominated by powerful noncreature spells enabling combo and control builds on one side and leaving room for lightning-fast weenie/burn decks on the other. Casting five-mana creatures (that weren't Morphling) and wrestling for battlefield dominance this way was virtually unheard of. Then Sol Malka designed a surprisingly successful black-green midrange deck and called it "The Rock and His Millions" (after a catchphrase from Dwayne Johnson's concurrent wrestling career). It used Duress for disruption and won through the interaction of Phyrexian Plaguelord with Deranged Hermit ("The Rock") and its Squirrel tokens ("His Millions"). The namesake card eventually left, succeeded by battlefield cruisers like Spiritmonger and, later, Ravenous Baloth, but the name, shortened to The Rock, stuck. For some time it referred to any midrange deck based in black and green, regardless of splashes. More recently, Rock enjoyed a renaissance as a signifier for pure black-green, differentiating the color combination from the now more popular Jund.
However, while Rock works as a name for a common play pattern found in black and green, it does not work for all black-green decks. The Top 8 of Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad featured two: Luis Scott-Vargas's Collected Company deck contained 30 creatures averaging a casting cost of two mana, while Jon Finkel's Seasons Past Control included just four creatures in total. No one ever referred to either of these as Rock, though many used Golgari. Likewise, the Turbo Dark Depths deck of current Legacy is emphatically not Rock either. Neither are Black-Green Elves or Yawgmoth Combo in Modern.
A similar case is Deadguy Ale. This was what Chris Pikula called his Top 8 deck at the very first Legacy Grand Prix back in 2005. Actually, the full title was supposedly "Rogue Deadguy Ale: A Homebrew." "Deadguy" referenced Pikula's old team, Team Deadguy, which had been a force on the Pro Tour in the late nineties. (Teammate David Price won Pro Tour Los Angeles in 1998 playing Deadguy Red.) The whole thing also pays homage to "Dead Guy Ale"—a brand of dark beer packaged in black with a bit of white, brewed by Rogue Ales & Spirits. One wonders whether the company appreciates the tribute or resents the tough competition among search results, but the two meanings still vie for the top Google ranking even almost sixteen years later.
Pikula's deck was dark, think Dark Ritual and Dark Confidant, and mostly black with a bit of white for Vindicate and Gerrard's Verdict. So the name was a great match in some respects and totally inappropriate in others. That's presumably why it enjoys continued popularity for basically all kinds of white-black decks in Legacy and Premodern. Just this year, I've seen the Deadguy Ale moniker applied to Stoneforge Mystic decks, a Chain of Smog combo deck, and even an 80-card Yorion deck, some clearly dominated by white cards. Again, though, like Rock, it's not a universal name for the color combination.
The guild names weren't supposed to be universal either. Wizards rejected the idea at first because they wanted people to associate the guilds with a mechanical identity more than just a color identity. In the original Ravnica: City of Guilds, for example, House Dimir was very willing to win via milling. Mill still was part of the Dimir playbook for Gatecrash, but lines had become blurry. In that set, blue-black concentrated on a so-called "saboteur" strategy instead—effects triggering when creatures got through the opponent's defenses. Finally, Guilds of Ravnica's Dimir used surveil to manipulate exclusively their own library. A classic chicken-or-egg situation, the erosion of themes mirrored the changing attitudes regarding color pair nomenclature.
Of course, just when the guilds have established themselves, Strixhaven comes along and has to make things complicated again. Though I don't expect the college names to maintain a lasting impact on naming conventions. For one thing, there are only five of them, which renders consistency impossible. The idea that two years from now people will look at the contents of a Sealed Deck pool and debate whether to build a Prismari or a Gruul deck sounds like fingernails on chalkboard, but unlikely. Nonetheless, as long as Strixhaven is topmost on everyone's mind—and especially when decks include actual college-crested cards (see the watermark in Blade Historian's text box)—Lorehold and company remain legitimate alternatives.
Note that there is an official rule on how to order the colors within each combination. For two-color combinations, you go clockwise around the color wheel and pick the shortest distance. And it is indeed a wheel, going round and round, with neither end nor beginning: white followed by blue followed by black followed by red followed by green followed by white again followed by blue and so on.
It is white-blue because white comes immediately before blue. It is green-white because white comes right after green. It is white-black because it takes two steps to get from white to black but three steps to get from black to white. And it is green-blue because this way you're only passing over white rather than skipping black and red.
This is the way in which you will find colors and basic land types listed on the cards themselves, mana symbols ordered in costs, et cetera. If you have any regard for aesthetic symmetry, you'll follow suit.
The situation looked different for three-color combinations. Speaking of or spelling out blue-black-red was always too unwieldy. Thankfully, sets up to Mercadian Masques lent themselves primarily to the construction of monocolored, two-colored, or five-colored decks, so the issue never came to a head.
The source of the first shorthand for three colors was never intended as such. It was a time when you had to beat powerful enchantments like Necropotence as well as red decks running Jackal Pup, Fireblast, and Ball Lightning. A team set out to do so with brute-force methods and arrived at a white-black-green concoction that ticked all of the boxes but included a number of hilariously terrible cards. They would give their opponents' high-powered-low-toughness creatures a little additional push with Funeral Charm, ambush others with Simian Grunts, and enchant Hunted Wumpus with Spirit Link. It is unclear whether the following was ever played in this exact form at a Pro Tour or whether the deck name was aspirational, but they called it "Pro Tour Junk"—referring to the card selection, not the colors.
|PT Junk by Adrian Sullivan, Joe Cain, and Toby Wachter|
Then, somehow, the term Junk took on a life of its own and became the default designation for everything white-black-green. The word peaked in popularity many years later when the big Jund/Junk divide split players into Bloodbraid Elf and Lingering Souls proponents.
At a European Grand Prix in 2010, I interviewed a globetrotting Japanese player about his Sealed Deck. Comprehension was tough, as usual, but what really threw me off was when he referred to his color combination as "Crosis." In theory I knew that this was the name of the blue-black-red Dragon from Invasion, released ten years prior. I also knew that once upon a time people used those Dragons as shorthand for the trios adjacent on the color wheel. (Treva, Dromar, Crosis, Darigaaz, and Rith for those curious.) But the practice was never all that common in Europe to begin with, and this was two years after the release of Shards of Alara. Starved for official terminology, the community had gobbled up and internalized the shard names with gusto, so what I expected to hear then was Grixis, not Crosis.
Wizards first experimented with giving color triples a proper name/prefix in 2001. Apocalypse featured a fifteen-strong two-dimensional cycle—a common, uncommon, and rare in each of the five colors—with matching titles that never appeared before, never since, and apparently had no other significance than to associate the card's color with its two enemies.
|Dega Disciple||Ceta Disciple||Necra Disciple||Raka Disciple||Ana Disciple|
|Dega Sanctuary||Ceta Sanctuary||Necra Sanctuary||Raka Sanctuary||Ana Sanctuary|
It would appear that the concept of resonance hadn't been invented yet. Without any grounding in the storyline and no further context, this purely mechanical execution failed miserably. It probably didn't help that none of the cards were three-colored themselves. Dega and company never caught on and quickly fell from memory, a footnote of history of interest only to trivia buffs. (You're welcome.)
Instead of Raka, blue-red-white decks of the time adopted Captain America as their figure of identification. (For the sake of completeness, I feel compelled to point out that some trolls later inexplicably succeeded in establishing "Team America" as a name for a black-green-blue Legacy deck, but know that I do so reluctantly and with the utmost degree of disapproval.)
To sum up the story so far: by the end of this century's first decade we called the five contiguous color trios by their shard names, we (sometimes) called blue-red-white Captain America, and we (regularly) called white-black-green Junk. But what about the remaining three three-color combinations? Well, the single-letter abbreviations of two of them formed natural words all by themselves: BUG and RUG. They endure to this day, parallel to subsequent innovations in naming technology.
This leaves red-white-black. The best option until then had come from 2007's Planar Chaos, which featured another quintet of legendary Dragons. Folks were more interested in Junk than in Teneb, Numot couldn't match Captain America's brand recognition, and neither Intet nor Vorosh were able to dethrone their RUG and BUG counterparts. However, Oros got a bit of traction, if only for lack of competition.
Finally we come to the part you've all been waiting for: answering the riddle from way back at the very top of this page. Subtract B, meaning the color black, from Oros and you're left with just red and white. Add B, the letter, to Oros and you get Boros, which is of course another word for red-white. (Why, yes, I do feel mighty proud of myself for this one, and you can't take that away from me—unless, I suppose, you figured it out right off the bat, in which case you should better feel proud of yourself. Don't forget to leave a comment to celebrate.)
Alas, Khans of Tarkir replaced the community-anointed terms with market-researched test-tube babies devoid of history and little potential to offend. No more Junk? Well, the jury's still out on that one, whereas BUG proved harder to squash than a cockroach and no one has been able to sweep RUG under the carpet.
Note that the colors in these threeways also go in a designated order: clockwise along the color wheel, with the common ally or the common enemy always sandwiched in the middle (which BUG and RUG defy, of course). Note too that older Magic cards did not follow this pattern consistently. (Compare the casting costs of Zedruu the Greathearted.)
On All Fours
I don't have much to add regarding four-color combinations. Some have tried to make the Nephilim naming system happen: Glint-Eye, Dune-Brood, Ink-Treader, Witch-Maw, and Yore-Tiller. But their appellations aren't catchy enough that anyone could recall them, plus everyone actively wants to forget the Witch-Maw.
Commander 2016 waxed philosophical and assigned each quartet one word based on the absent color: without white's penchant for order you get "Chaos," without blue's thoughtfulness you get "Aggression," without black's selfishness you get "Altruism," without red's random acts of destruction you get "Growth," and without green being in touch with nature you get "Artifice." Curiously, none of these were free of prior connotations. Rather, virtually all had been associated—closely and for years—with just one enemy of the missing color.
The truth is there is no need to have proper names for four colors. If you play Commander, it's easier and more enlightening to announce your commander. If you play tournaments, the context of the format will generally determine what's part of some Four-Color Control or Czech Pile. The best solution to a nonproblem is to have some fun with it, so one might as well use the tongue-in-cheek terminology that the community created on a case-by-case basis: Moist Mardu for a red-white-black deck with a splash of blue, for example, or Embarassed Sultai for a black-green-blue deck that has turned a little red.
But if you feel the need to list four colors—clockwise along the color wheel, starting with the one that follows your absentee.
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