The lights fade to black and the crowd begins to murmur with excitement. Dry ice smoke flows across the stage as the massive lighting rig flickers to life. The band strides confidently onto the stage, waving to the crowd. The four hour drive, the $50 you spent on your ticket and the cost of your hotel room suddenly all seem worth it as the band rocks the opening track from their new album. Then a few minutes later they stop playing unexpectedly and it's all over. You're a little disappointed, but that's just the way it goes.
Sound unbelievable? For a rock concert, maybe, but that's a normal day in the world of competitive Magic. A couple of bad matchups or bad draws and it's all over.
We all love the game most of the time, but its roots as a casual pastime have left us with a bizarre legacy of unwanted randomness. Even after more than ten years of R&D doing their best to improve things, the experience of keeping a two-lander and never seeing a third mana source hasn't changed a great deal.
Ladies and gentlemen, today I present the solution to these woes and more! An excellent and yet hitherto underpublicised Magic variant. The game is Five Card Blind, known to players and fans as simply 5CB.
Both as a Magic format and a game, 5CB also has a great deal more to recommend it. It's a very community-based format and is easily played over the internet. It is also a good format for players who enjoy the puzzle-solving aspects of Magic cards interactions. A good 5CB deck fits together like a Swiss watch. Or it would if there were any Swiss watches with only five parts.
The Rules of 5CB
Most of the rules of 5CB are simply the rules of Magic: the Gathering. The differences are as follows:
5CB Game Rules
1.1. Except for the changes described in these rules, games follow the Magic: The Gathering Comprehensive Rules.
1.2. Players' decks contain exactly five cards, which begin the game in hand. Players do not mulligan or sideboard.
1.3. Players' libraries begin the game empty. A player does not lose the game as a result of being unable to draw a card.
1.4. A random effect produces the result that least benefits the owner of the source of the effect.
As important as talking about the rules of the game is talking about tournaments. 5CB may seem like a bit of casual fun - and it is - but its lack of randomness makes it perfect for competitive play. However, 5CB is not played as a duel. Instead it's played in small tournaments where each deck is matched against every other deck.
The "Moderator" is the 5CB tournament organizer. In practice the 5CB Moderator will tend to calculate the results of the matches too. This is a lot of work, but for most tournaments it's simpler than trying to coordinate match scoring amongst multiple people. It's also typically the case that the Moderator designs a deck of his or her own prior to accepting submissions.
5CB Tournament Rules
2.1. Players submit their decks to the 5CB moderator.
2.1a. The moderator acknowledges submissions and informs players of mistakes in a timely manner.
2.1b. A player may submit multiple decks, but only the most recent is counted.
2.1c. If a player's final deck is illegal, the moderator replaces cards in the deck with Library of Alexandria (which in 5CB is just a land that makes colorless mana) until the deck is made legal. Replacements are made such that the revised deck functions as closely as possible to the original.
2.2. A player may not submit a deck that can, against any deck, win the game or force more than one card in an opponent's hand to change zones before either player's third turn. For example, Cabal Therapy + Swamp x4 is illegal because an opponent's deck may have duplicates of a card, but Cabal Therapy + Subterranean Hangar x4 is legal because Cabal Therapy can't be played until the third turn.
2.3. A deck may include any number of any card legal in Vintage (Type 1), with the exception of the following banned cards:
Force of Will
Magus of the Moon
Show and Tell
Pact of Negation
2.4. Each player plays one match, consisting of two games, against each other player. Each player is the starting player once per match.
2.5. Points determine tournament standings. Players are ranked, first to last, in order of decreasing number of points.
2.5a. For each match, a player earns 3 points per game win and 1 point per drawn game. However, a player that wins one game and loses the other earns only 2 points. Results assume perfect information and play.
2.5b. A table of match results is posted each round. Its rows represent players and its columns represent opponents. Match results reflect the combined result of both games played in a match; 3 is a game win, 1 a drawn game, and 0 a game loss. A player's points are listed at the end of his or her row.
2.6. The player with the most points over the course of a month becomes the Player of the Month.
I'll come to the rather odd-looking banlist in a moment. The most important thing about 5CB is that you have a five card decklist and it all starts in your hand! The rest of the rules are required simply as a consequence of the way the format plays.
Most of you, I imagine, will never have played 5CB before, so I'd like to propose a little game. Grab a piece of paper (or Notepad or whatever sleek, sexy program Mac users have that is still basically Notepad) and design yourself a 5CB deck. Remember you can use anything so long as it's not on the banned list. This is your chance to play with the power nine!
One thing worth doing before we get round to playing with your deck (yes, I know most of you didn't make one, but I'm giving you the benefit of the doubt here) is to discuss the history of 5CB. It's easier to appreciate the subtleties of the modern game if you have some sense of how the format became what it is today.
The History of 5CB
Quite some time ago a gentleman by the name of Nick Chandler-Klein (better known on this site as Goblinboy) wrote an excellent series of articles on the subject of Three Card Blind. As the name implies, this is a game much like 5CB but using three card decks. If you want to know more the articles are still available: Part One, Part Two, Part Three. Predictably, this caused 3CB to become massively popular for a while. During this period, various variant formats were also played. One of these was 4CB (which I surely don't have to explain). Since that seemed to generate better gameplay than 3CB it was only a matter of time before someone proposed 5CB.
The first Moderator of 5CB back in March 2005 was Max Willenberg (better known here as Greebo). For an idea which sprang naturally from 3CB and 4CB it generated a surprising amount of controversy. Several prominent players expressed the view that the format would be "broken" and was clearly a bad idea. Greebo took a more scientific approach, adopting the philosophy that simply running 5CB games and then banning any card which appeared to be causing trouble would soon determine whether the format was worth pursuing.
The First 5CB
The very first 5CB was jointly won by r_x_, zorbop and Greebo himself. The deck played by r_x_ was as follows:
Force of Will
Sharp-eyed readers will doubtless notice the presence of the banned Force of Will. For that first tournament the banned list contained only Strip Mine, Wasteland and Meddling Mage (in all cases solely because Greebo was concerned at their potential impact). Force of Will appeared in all seven of the top decks, but was not banned until 5CB #3. I chose the deck above to list in full because it's a good example of the kind of deck one expects to see with Force of Will in the format. Force of Will stops the opponent's first threat, Duress strips the second from their hand, or perhaps forces them to play their own Force of Will (pun intended, sorry) and Mishra's Factory ignores countermagic altogether.
It's also worth noting that there were a few rules differences at the time of this tournament. The discard rule at that time was that decks were not allowed to cause the opponent to discard more than one card per turn. Decks were also not allowed to be capable of generating infinite mana on their first turns (primarily to limit some of the more broken plays available). Perhaps most significantly, winning was forbidden on the first turn, but not the second (a restriction only recently introduced).
Early Evolution of the Banned List
Greebo won 5CB #3, which was the first tournament for which Force of Will was banned. This was his list:
Eater of Days
The card Smokestack went on to many further wins in the years to come, but the really broken thing about this deck is Trinisphere. With most 5CB decks either running cheap cards or relying on Black Lotus to use expensive cards, Trinisphere shut them down completely. And Foil (now the counterspell of choice in the absence of Force of Will) was no good with Trinisphere out either, so Foil players had to waste their precious counter stopping the Trinisphere.
Not until 5CB #8 was Trinisphere actually banned. The round in question consisted mostly of Trinisphere decks and otherwise weak decks designed specifically to do well against Trinisphere decks. Having thereby proven it was harming the format, the card had to go.
The strategy Trinisphere epitomises is an important one in the context of 5CB. Players are not allowed to win the game immediately, but this does not stop you from making your eventually victory immediately inevitable. Take a look at this deck:
Show and Tell
Form of the Dragon
The strategy here is simple: get Form of the Dragon into play, using Unmask to ensure your opponent cannot do anything about it. With most of the other strong decks needing non-flying attacks to win, Form cast a huge (dragon-shaped?) shadow over the metagame. The curious thing being that the above deck came 12th of 16 decks submitted but was banned after that week!
However, that's not to say the banning was a mistake. Again, the deck was distorting the format. That week (5CB #21) the field was full of Form-hating decks. So Form was banned? Yes, and so was Unmask. Seem strange to you? The reason is actually very simple: with some players expressing dislike for Unmask the matter was put to a vote which ended 15-6 in favour of the ban.
Some years later when Wizards printed Thoughtseize it was interesting to note that nobody made the comparison between Swamp plus Thoughtseize and Unmask plus some other Black card. This illustrates an important but often overlooked point about card bans: banning a card is a means of steering the format towards the kind of game players want. There is no such thing as an objectively correct ban. At the time of writing Thoughtseize is legal whilst Unmask remains banned.
The democracy continued following 5CB #34 when Anurid Scavenger received a similar poll and was elected to banned status by a 13-4 majority. Scavenger? Really? Yes, thanks to this deck:
Here we start to see a theme. This deck is again not tremendously dominant, but again forces the other decks in the field to build with it in mind or lose horribly. In case it's not obvious, what happens here is that the Scavenger is used to recycle Rage and Lotus repeatedly until the opponent's board is wrecked. In the meantime, any threat to this plan is countered by Foil.
might reasonably ask why Foil was not the banned card in place of Scavenger. The answer is that the game was actually healthier with Foil in the format than without it. If not for Foil, all-in combo decks could easily become a problem. And speaking of combo decks...
No, not that kind of foil.
No, not that kind of foil.
Forward in time once more to 5CB #46 and yet another poll saw the banning of Mycosynth Lattice. In this case the deck in question had been getting better very slowly. From a starting point of going 3-3 most of the time (that is, usually winning on the play but seldom on the draw) the deck had been gradually improving. Here is one of the late variants:
The key interaction here is between Lattice and Song. Due to a quirk of the layering rules, the result of playing Lattice then Song is that all permanents are artifact creatures with no abilities. This has two important consequences:
1) Lands are 0/0 creatures.
2) And so are Black Lotus and the rest of the 0-casting cost artifact mana sources.
So Foil stops it, but not much else. And it's still some good on the draw since if undisrupted it can destroy the opponent's board quite easily with Shattering Spree.
The Middle and Modern Eras of 5CB
And then one day after sixty 5CB tournaments, Greebo departed. 5CB was still very popular, often reaching 20 players or more, so briefly the Moderatorship simply changed hands. But after five more tournaments, 5CB was dead.
At least, it was dead until more than a year later it was brought back by Michael Noel (carrion pigeons). Some thirty tournaments later, he passed the position of Moderator on to Glenn Patel (WhammWhamme), who moderated the game for almost another thirty rounds. During this period, the game remained quite stable. Player numbers were generally lower than they had been in Greebo's era, but the banned card list remained stable aside from occasional new printings disrupting things. Barren Glory was banned for more-or-less the same narrowing of the metagame that Lattice/Song had caused. Then Magus of the Moon was later banned for being a bit too good in conjunction with Foil (the reason it's so much better than Blood Moon being that you can actually win with it).
By this time 5CB was played primarily by very experienced players and a lot of debate about the format took place. What should be banned? What policies were best for the health of the game? Significant changes to the game's fundamental rules were proposed by Robert Luemers (Mogg) and Greg Weiss (ghweiss). The new rules were similar to those at the top of this article but involved a fairly radical experiment: removing the restriction on decks being unable to win on their first turn and instead placing a similar restriction on play. So it was legal to submit a deck which could win on its first turn but durng play it would be forbidden from doing so.
Another experimental change was to forbid discard during the first turn, which predictably had a large impact since discard is no use against an opponent who has already played out their hand!
After a few rounds, the modified format quickly proved itself playable and Mogg became the new regular Moderator of the game. The lack of discard (still legal of course, but no longer powerful) changed the metagame considerably, but not beyond recognition.
Further careful adjustments were made as a result of player feedback. The prohibition against winning on turn one was extended to turn two. Then ultimately the rule returned to the form of a deck restriction, since this avoided the awkward cases where players would arrange to deal 19 damage on turn one and then finish the job at the earliest permissible moment!
This takes us to the present day.
The Modern Metagame
It is now time we took a look at some contemporary 5CB decks. These six decks are all considered to be somewhere near the top tier in the current environment. Take a look for yourself before I discuss them...
Chain of Vapor
City of Traitors
Leyline of Singularity
Maze of Ith
The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
How does the deck you designed earlier fare against these decks? If you beat even one of them both on the play and the draw you're doing well, unless you have played 5CB before!
The first thing a new player typically notices about 5CB decks is how important mana sources are. Two of the above decks make use of Black Lotus and this is a smaller proportion than in a typical tournament. It's simply the best source of fast mana there is. The first deck in the list illustrates this in the context of a pure combo deck. Notice that whilst this deck was once banned it has since returned! In this case it was changes to the scoring system that saw the ban lifted. This deck is very good at winning on the play but is very vulnerable on the draw. A string of win/loss results no longer scores anything like as well as it once did.
The second deck focuses far more on disruption. The powerful discard package will wreck any deck that plays its hand out too slowly and Chain of Vapor has a good chance of returning the opponent's best threat to hand to be discarded anyway!
The third deck is a slower control deck. Voidstone Gargoyle blocks any problem spells in the opponent's deck and Powder Keg blows up everything else. Soldevi Digger allows the deck to beat almost anything if it has enough time and also helps to give the deck resistance to countermagic. The deck's main weakness is its lack of speed, it will often die to threats which Powder Keg could remove given a few more turns.
Speaking of countermagic, one of the most format-defining cards in 5CB is Foil. Many otherwise excellent decks lose outright to a single Foil (decks based around Channel, for example). Its one drawback is that it's very expensive to play, using up three of your deck slots for a single counter. The fourth deck in our list above gets around this to some extent by exploiting the alternate casting cost on Daze, using the same land to both deploy its threat and act as fuel for Foil.
The last two decks in the list serve as an illustration of how unlike regular Magic decks 5CB decks can truly become. The fifth deck exploits the remarkable synergy between Karakas and Leyline of Singularity and the final deck is an example of the "five land" archetype which has existed in different forms almost throughout 5CB's history.
Special Weeks and Player of the Month
So far everything I have discussed has been about normal 5CB, but in reality only about half of the 5CB matches played follow this format. The rest are so-called "special weeks". So what's the difference? Well... it could be just about anything, since each special week is different. Each special week involves some kind of twist ranging from subtle changes like "your deck must include a creature" to massive shifts in the game like "the cards in your deck must begin with consecutive letters of the alphabet".
Unlike normal 5CB where great care is taken to balance the format, special weeks are often a bit wild and woolly. Trying to come up with something really broken is half the fun. It's a great chance to enjoy the extraordinary depth of Magic's cardpool.
On this site, 5CB tournaments are run on a weekly basis with typically about half of the weeks being special weeks. Then at the end of each month the title of "Player of the Month" (PotM) is bestowed upon whomever has amassed the greatest combined score across all tournaments that month, with normal and special weeks combined. At some points in the past, PotM has been hotly contested, but this happens less the fewer players enter all the tournaments in a given month. Personally I can't imagine how it's even possible for anyone to knowingly miss a 5CB, but apparently it happens.
I see that sad look on your face. Having read about Five Card Blind you are now thinking to yourself "But when will I get a chance to play this fine game?" Don't worry, it's your lucky day. A special New Player Round of 5CB has been set up for this very purpose. If 5CB sounds like something you'd like to try, head over to that thread in the forums and submit an entry.
Good luck and have fun!
Thanks due to all of Salvation's 5CB community, but particularly to Mogg for his extensive assistance in putting together this article.