Last updated on August 16, 2023
Curse of the Swine | Illustration by James Ryman
Magic’s color pie is an essential part of its game design. The five different colors of mana and their unique identities within the game are a core part of its balance. A more complex look at the color pie can also tell you how colors tend to interact with one another when paired together on cards, creating common archetypes like Golgari () sacrifice or Simic () ramp mechanics.
The color pie is influenced both by the game’s lore and its mechanics. Each color represents a certain ideology, which is why some characters are aligned to a specific color of mana. More importantly for our purposes, each color also has certain abilities that define it mechanically. Red gets aggressive cards like direct damage spells and creatures with haste. Blue gets more control spells like counterspells or bounce spells that slow down your opponent’s game. And so on.
There’s always some flexibility when it comes to Magic’s color pie. Keyword abilities are often found in a few different colors instead of just one. But sometimes a card is printed that seems to deliberately go against the established mechanics of the color pie. I’m going to go through what exactly these color pie breaking cards look like and some of the best ones you can find in Magic.
Esper Sentinel | Illustration by Eric Deschamps
A color pie break is when a card’s mechanics seem more suited for a different color of mana than the one it costs. For example, counterspells are mainly blue cards, so when a red or green counterspell is printed, that’s considered a color pie break.
Over time, there’s also what is known as color pie bleeds. This is when mechanics from one color slowly start to bleed into another. This can be done for a variety of reasons. Mark Rosewater gives the example of mono-green dragons as a color bleed, since the design team has typically steered away from giving green big fliers. In certain circumstances, it makes sense for the team to mess with the mechanics for thematic purposes or the environment of a specific set.
While color pie breaks and bleeds can create some interesting cards, too many of them can also have a negative effect on the game. The purpose of the color pie from a gameplay standpoint is to put a limit on the power of mono-colored cards. This way, players are forced to play multiple colors of mana if they want access to a variety of effects and mechanics. This makes it harder for players to establish a consistent mana base, but it has the upside of allowing them a mix of abilities not available in a single color.
If color pie breaks become too common, players don’t need to play multiple colors to have access to all the different abilities in the game. This makes playing multiple colors essentially pointless because each color can do everything a player wants to. These breaks are especially dangerous in eternal formats since color pie breaks don’t rotate out.
Typically, decreasing the power and toughness of a creature is an ability seen mainly in black. Holy Light is a rare example of this ability in white. It can be a great way to wipe out token creatures, though since many of those are white it can sometimes be a bit of a miss.
I find this card is best for giving you a bit of an advantage in terms of creature strength because many white decks run weak token creatures or low-cost weenies.
The first half of Suture Priest’s ability isn’t out of the ordinary for white, but the second part is. Yes, there are white cards like Authority of the Consuls which tax players for playing creatures, but having opponents lose life is not so much a white ability as a black one.
While it can be found on Orzhov () cards, it’s usually seen on black mono-colored cards.
Card draw is something that many players have pointed to as being a weak spot for white. More recently, it seems as though Wizards has been trying to fix this with a bit of color bleed with cards like Esper Sentinel.
This card is similar to blue cards like Mystic Remora or Rhystic Study. It won’t draw you quite as many cards as its blue counterparts, but this card is an excellent source of card draw for mono-white decks.
It’s funny. Armageddon is one of the more iconic land destruction cards, so I never really thought of it as a color pie break but it kind of is. Land destruction is primarily a red ability, with black and green having a few instances of it as well.
But white isn’t really known for having land destruction cards outside of a few instances of mass land destruction like this card.
Stealing creatures is very out of the ordinary for white, so your opponents likely won’t see Evangelize coming. There are some major downsides to the card, but it can be handy if your opponent just has one very powerful creature.
I probably wouldn’t play this outside of Commander, given how expensive and inconsistent it is, but I think it can be a good way to surprise other players. If you have enough mana to buy it back, you can also get a lot of mileage out of this card.
Only one of Dawn Charm’s abilities are technically a color pie break, that being the one that makes it a counterspell. I like this card because of its versatility which makes it a great limited pick if you’re drafting Commander Legends.
Another fun bit about this card is that every copy has the same typo. There should be a space between “that” and “would” in its first ability, but it appears on the card as “thatwould[.]”
Lots of players are in the habit of just looking for open blue mana when considering if a spell can be countered, so they feel more comfortable tapping out to play a bomb if there’s none. This makes Mana Tithe a nasty surprise for your opponents.
While Mana Tithe can hit more targets, I prefer a counterspell like Illumination that definitely counters my opponent’s spell when it resolves. This consistency makes up for having a narrower range of cards it can target in my opinion, and there are plenty of artifacts and enchantments you’ll likely want to keep from hitting the board.
I can easily see why Balance is a white card because it fits in with the theme of taxes often seen in the color.
That said, a mass sacrifice ability is really something you’d expect to see on a black card instead of a white one. You’d typically expect the white version of this card to allow other players to catch up like Land Tax does as opposed to causing players to sacrifice permanents.
Debt of Loyalty is an interesting steal card, and not just because it’s a color pie break. It’s a lot cheaper than these cards usually are, and there are no stipulations on which creature you can gain control of. It’s important to note that this card’s rules text has been retroactively changed so that the creature needs to regenerate in order for you to gain control of it.
But there are plenty of instances where this card comes in handy and you can easily get a powerful creature for very little mana.
Cards that cause your opponents to lose life are usually black, making Psychic Transfer a bit of an anomaly. This card doesn’t technically have to mean your opponent loses life, so it’s unlikely you’d want to play it in another situation.
While not super powerful every time you draw it, a five-life swing in your favor can sometimes make a big difference in a close game.
Both of Phyrexian Ingester’s abilities are somewhat of a color pie break. Exiling creatures is usually something you’d see on a white card or some black cards, but typically not blue. The buff this card gets also seems more like a green ability than a blue one.
This card is a great bit of removal because it only gets rid of a threat for you and also gives you one of your own at the same time.
Backfire is a great way to dissuade your opponents from attacking you with one of their more dangerous creatures. I especially like this card in Commander because your opponent likely just chooses to send their creature at another player instead of risk sending it at you.
A blue spell doing direct damage is definitely far from the norm, and something you’d expect to see more from a red card.
Dreamscape Artist is a great bit of ramp for blue decks because it can essentially turn any card in your hand into a copy of Harrow. Mono-blue decks can be hard up for cards that find lands, making this a very helpful color pie break.
Looking at a player’s hand and forcing them to discard cards is typically something you’d see on a black card. Amnesia is also a bit more expensive than you’d usually see for a discard card, but I still think it works pretty well in blue decks.
Since blue has lots of cheap bounce spells like Chain of Vapor or Cyclonic Rift you can easily bounce a threat to your opponent’s hand and make them discard it with Amnesia. This essentially turns bounce spells into roundabout removal that gets around indestructible.
Energy Field is a semi-permanent fog effect, though it goes away as soon as your opponent decides to remove one of your creatures. That said, this card can be pretty effective against red or green decks that largely rely on damage for their removal.
Fog effects appear in some form in all colors, but it’s primarily a green or white effect, making this a bit of a color pie bleed.
False Demise is the blue equivalent to typically black cards like Kaya's Ghostform. These cards are a great way to protect your more valuable creatures and can be especially helpful in Commander if your deck relies heavily on keeping your commander on the battlefield.
There are cards like High Tide in a couple different colors, but typically cards that allow lands to tap for extra mana are in green. Though this card is a one-off, it can still create some very splashy turns for you. This cards also works well with Isochron Scepter or cards that allow you to copy spells, since its ability does stack.
These cards give mono-blue decks a way to directly destroy creatures, something they typically don’t have. They’re also both very cheap, meaning you can pay one mana to destroy a massive threat and get a big mana advantage on your opponent for that turn.
Like Pongify, Curse of the Swine is a rare bit of removal for blue. I consider this card a bit better thanks to its variability and the fact that it exiles instead of destroys. The creature tokens your opponents get are also slightly weaker, making it an even better trade.
Feed the Swarm is one of only a few instances black has for targeted enchantment removal. I stick it in most of my mono-black commander decks just in case an opponent plays an enchantment that I can’t deal with otherwise. The life penalty for this card is usually worth it, especially in formats with a higher starting life total.
Bad Moon is an anthem card that seems more like a white card than a black card. It’s great for zombie decks that are looking to make a lot of tokens, since even a small buff is effective when spread out between a large number of creatures.
Darkness is basically just Fog printed in black instead of green. Fog effects typically aren’t in black, so it can be a nice way to surprise your opponents. This also works well in Golgari decks that are already running a lot of fog effects that are looking for another option.
Dash Hopes is an interesting counterspell. In formats that have only 20 starting life, you’re forcing your opponent to choose between a good chunk of their life and the spell they just cast. It’s sort of a win-win for you, and the card is a lot cheaper than it would normally cost to do 5 damage to a player.
Both blue and white have cards that strip creatures of their abilities and lower their power and toughness. Sudden Spoiling is the black version of those cards, and I think it can be particularly effective in this color. Cards like The Meathook Massacre or Massacre Wurm can be paired with this card to quickly wipe a player’s board.
Most attack-taxing abilities can be found in white, while the next most are in blue. What makes Koskun Falls a unique color pie break is that it wasn’t one when it was printed. This card is actually the original attack taxer, an ability that was later shifted away from black, retroactively making it a color pie break.
These types of cards are very effective against decks that create many small creatures because your opponents likely won’t be able to afford swinging out with all of them.
Temporal Extortion is similar to Dash Hopes as your opponents have to choose between letting it resolve or paying a good chunk of their life. An extra turn spell usually has a huge positive effect on your game, and for only four black mana this one is much cheaper than most.
Most parts of Aftershock fit perfectly into red’s section of the color pie, except that it can also destroy a creature. Usually, red has to rely on direct damage for creature removal, so it’s nice to have an option that can just destroy a creature outright.
There are a few red counterspells, but I think Molten Influence is one of the better options. It’s great for burn decks because many players choose to lose the life and let their spell go through. This gets their life total lower and possibly within range to take them out with burn spells.
Artifact Blast is another good option for a red counterspell. Thanks to how cheap it is to cast, it’s very easy to leave just one mana up and have this as a way to keep a big threat off your opponent’s board.
One doesn’t usually associate red with cards that slow down the game. In fact, it’s usually the opposite. That’s what makes Caverns of Despair such a unique color pie break. I wouldn’t normally run it in a mono-red deck, but I do run it in my Nekusar, the Mindrazer deck as way to slow down attackers.
Descent of the Dragons can be a very powerful way to take out multiple big threats. Since you get to choose which creatures to destroy, you can ensure that you aren’t giving your opponents a token that’s more powerful to replace it. I also like using this card in goblin decks as a way to turn all my goblins into big flying dragons.
#1. Chaos Warp
Chaos Warp is a staple in red Commander decks because it’s one of the most thorough forms of removal in the color. While there’s still a slim chance your opponent top-decks something better than what you remove, this card is usually better for you.
Avoid Fate is a nice cheap way to keep one of your permanents safe. Green has other cards similar to this, though they don’t fully counter the spell. The main distinction is that if the spell your opponent has cast gives them any other benefits, they won’t get those either since the spell won’t resolve. This makes Avoid Fate slightly better than something similar like Ranger's Guile.
The Great Aurora is several different things, many of them not typical of green cards. It’s a bit of a wheel spell, it’s a thorough board wipe, and it draws you a lot of cards. It’s a great way to reset a game when things aren’t going your way, especially if you know you’re running more lands than your opponents.
Punishing players for having nonbasic lands and direct damage are two abilities that are more common in red, but Primal Order breaks with that tradition and allows you to have both in mono-green. This card can be very punishing against players with 4- or 5-color decks because they’re most likely running a lot of nonbasic lands.
Green’s removal is primarily done through bite spells or fight spells. Beast Within mixes things up a bit by allowing you to destroy a creature without any additional set up. This card is a staple in Commander, and it’s thankfully been printed a ton of times to make it easy to get your hands on it.
Song of the Dryads is similar to blue and white enchantments that strip creatures of their abilities. Because it becomes a Forest land and is no longer a creature, it also can’t attack or block. This card also works well if you’re running forestwalk creatures because it allows you to give an opponent a Forest even if they aren’t playing green.
Elephant Grass is a good attack taxer, though it starts to get expensive to keep after a few turns. It can still be a great way for you to catch back up, especially if you’re playing against a mono-black deck. These cards are primarily in white and blue, making this a color pie break.
Beast Within | Illustration by Dave Allsop
Color pie breaks make for some of the more interesting and surprising cards in Magic. That said, it’s better that they’re kept few and far between. The color pie’s integrity is very important to keeping Magic mechanically sound, and a little more ramp in blue isn’t worth letting the game fall apart. The color pie cards that do exist can be good additions to your mono-colored deck that need access to an ability they wouldn’t usually have.
What is your favorite color pie break? Is there any color pie bleeding that you think needs to happen for balance purposes? Let me know in the comments below, or over on Draftsim’s Twitter.
Thanks for reading, and I look forward to seeing you in the next one!
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