Updated 5-Color Primer

by Tom Fowler

[Editors’ Note: This is an updated version of the original 5-Color Primer published almost a year ago, on 25 March 2005. It has been updated to reflect the changes in the format. You’re also getting a completely new 5-Color decklist at the end of the article.]

In its earliest days, Magic was a game played for ante. Winning a game meant winning one or more cards, and losing spelled the opposite. Ante was touted as a good way for a player to build his deck, with the presumption that someone who won his cards via ante would be more a more dangerous foe than a rich kid whose mommy bought him a couple booster boxes. It didn't take long for ante to fall out of favor, especially with organized tournaments getting popular, and the prevalence of Magic in schools.

7 cards for :symb:? I'll take 4, Satan!
Fast-forward several years. Word begins to spread of a new unsanctioned format that got its roots in Wisconsin. It was played for ante, with the centerpiece card of the format being Contract from Below. That format is 5-Color, and it has come a long way from its roots in Wisconsin. Today, 5-Color is played all over the country, 5-Color Worlds is an annual event at GenCon, and the format has both a popular website and Yahoo group. Magic Online’s popular Prismatic format is based heavily on 5-Color. If you’ve played Prismatic but never tried the paper format, I think you’ll see a lot of similarities as this article unfolds.

If you want more information about 5-Color, you can visit the format's official website at www.5-color.com. There, you'll find the current rules of the game, the most recent banned and restricted lists, articles about the format, and the forums. I'm going to cover the basics in the primer, but if you want more specifics, or if I've just made you insatiably curious, I encourage you to go to 5-color.com.

Ante is not the sacred cow of 5-Color that it once was, however. As time has gone by, players have lost their enthusiasm for ante. Some still play for it (including playing for different kinds of ante, which we’ll get to in a bit), but some abstain from it altogether. The player base is fairly divided on this issue, but for now, ante remains an official part of the game.

The Basics: This is Not Your Father's Magic

The first major difference between 5-Color and "regular" Magic is that you are required to have a deck of at least 250 cards to play 5-Color. Yes, you read that correctly: 250. This obviously makes a 5-Color deck more than four times the size of the 60-card decks you know and love. Shuffling takes longer and requires you to split the deck into a few piles; if you can riffle shuffle 250 cards with just two stacks of about 125 each, then my hat is off to you, you enormous-handed mutant, you.

Along with a deck that's at least 250 cards, you're required to play a minimum of 20 cards of each color. It's called 5-Color for a reason, after all. Multicolored cards and split cards count as one of the colors in their mana costs. You may play any number of artifacts you can reasonably fit into your deck, but you must have at least 100 colored cards to accompany them.

The second major difference is the ante. All 5-Color games are played for ante. The 5-Color folks even have their own specific meaning for ante: “Shuffle the library. After an opponent cuts the deck, the top card is revealed. If it is a non-land rare card or a foil that is not a land, the ante is automatically accepted. The opponent may also accept the revealed card as ante. Repeat this process until a card is accepted as ante automatically or by an opponent. Shuffle the unaccepted cards into the library.” From this, you can see that any nonland rare or any nonland foil must be accepted as ante, though you are free to accept any card you see. Saucy uncommons like Flametongue Kavu and the restricted Demonic Tutor are often accepted as ante.

Ante is also used to determine who goes first in the game. Instead of a random method being used to decide who has the choice to play or draw, the converted mana costs of the anted cards are used. Whichever player's anted card has the highest converted mana cost decides whether to play or draw. If there is a tie, the higher colored mana requirement or greater number of colors in the mana cost determines who chooses (thus, a Visara the Dreadful trumps an Exalted Angel). If there is still a tie, the matter is settled by pistols at 10 paces.* Other random methods are also encouraged.

Ante in a 5-Color game is presumed to be "for keeps." However, people are bound to get bitter if they start losing good cards, especially if Lucky McSackerson beats them consistently by topdecking. Because of this, two ante variants have become popular. The first is gentlemen's ante. Even though most Magic players are not gentlemen (save you and I, loyal readers), this option is still available to them. The cads. In gentlemen's ante, the anted cards are simply given back after each game. The vast majority of 5-Color tournaments are played for gentlemen's ante. The other variant is graffiti ante. If you're playing for graffiti ante and you win, you get to sign and scribble on your opponent's anted card(s). This method is a lot of fun, as gamers tend to be a creative lot, and will thus be able to deface your cards in amusing ways. Some of the best I've seen: Isamaru, Eater of Babies (done by yours truly), Loxodon 9-Iron, Darksteel Chicken Nugget (which is "inedible" instead of indestructible), and Guns to Vigilantes, which replaced the farmer with a Rambo-like dude gunning people down while the village burned.

As I mentioned above, ante is losing its luster with a sizable portion of 5-Color players. While it’s still in the format’s official rules, some areas simply don’t play for ante. Ante, particularly in its strictest form, represents a barrier of entry to the format. New players see decks packed with dual lands and perceive a high barrier of entry already (not necessarily true, as we’ll see shortly). The chance of losing a card they worked hard to acquire is far from an attractive proposition. Many 5-Color tournaments are run with ante completely removed from the format, and the game suffers not one bit for the absence.

Not being the best draw spell
makes my head hurt!
Because 5-Color is supposed to be played for ante, some ante cards are allowed in the format. The current banned and restricted list for 5-Color can be found here. The signature ante card is, of course, Contract From Below, and this is the card which defines the format. A player could be staring down a grim board position and have an empty hand, but for just B, he can draw a new hand of seven cards. You know a format has some broken tendencies when Ancestral Recall isn't the best draw spell available.

Many 5-Color players believe Contract is too powerful. They say it distorts the format rather than defines it. Look at that B&R list again. A lot of the cards on that list are there because of Contract. Recoup has barely been played in competitive decks, but when a single one of those plus a Contract = 14 cards, restriction is in order. Holistic Wisdom and Wild Research are also on the list because of their very powerful interactions with Contract. There is some truth to the position that restricting Contract would enable several cards to come off the B&R list. I'll let you make up your own mind about Contract after playing with it for a while.

More fun with ante: who knows what Jeweled Bird does without clicking on the link? In a game that's played for ante, Jeweled Bird has a very powerful effect. This is especially true if you've anted something valuable, like a Mox Jet, and your opponent has anted some crappy foil common you'd rather use to line your birdcage than put in your deck or binder. All is not lost in this case, as Jeweled Bird will take one for the team. By the 5-Color rules, however, your Jeweled Birds must be either originals from Arabian Nights or "heavily modified" reprints from Chronicles. While there's no standard for what constitutes "heavily modified," you're encouraged to be creative with your cards. A friend of mine put stickers from The Legend of Zelda over the picture of the bird; it's kind of strange seeing Link diving headlong into the ante zone.

One other key difference: 5-Color has special mulligan rules. Because randomness increases in a 250-card deck, you'll draw land-light or land-heavy hands more often than with a normal deck. Because of this, 5-Color has three special mulligans a player can use. If you have no lands, one land, or all lands in your opening grip of seven, you may reveal your hand and mulligan, drawing a new hand of seven cards. Seven, not six. A player may use each special mulligan once per game, and the opponent may choose to "ride" that mulligan, also getting a new hand for free in the process. The "Paris" mulligan still exists, with one caveat: once you Paris, you lose all the special 5-Color mulligans. Scrutinize your opening hands wisely.

Good Cards: A Different Standard

Just like cards that are good in Limited are not always good in Constructed, cards that are good in the 60-card world don't always make the transition to 5-Color. On the other hand, some cards which are mediocre to good in a normal deck become amazing when your deck is 250 cards. With a Standard deck, you can probably only activate Arc-Slogger three or four times. But when you have 226 cards left in your library when the electric beast comes into play, it can be good times indeed. For you, at least.

Similar to normal Constructed decks, 5-Color is defined by three archetypes: Aggro, Control, and Combo, with Aggro-Control sneaking in there from time to time. "Combo?" you ask. "The bloody decks are 250 cards! How do you get a combo off?" Yes, the decks are indeed 250 cards. However, look at the tutoring power that's available to you. Look at the card drawing you have, especially with the ability to draw a new hand in one fell swoop. I don't play combo, but I've seen people build combo decks that have reliably gone off on relevant turns, usually turn four or five. Even with more tutors getting banned late last year, combo decks are still remarkably consistent, even if they are a small portion of the metagame in many areas.

A good card for Aggro will not be a good card for Control, and vice versa. Control decks can play Fact or Fiction, while aggro decks will find it too slow. Aggro decks will play hyper-fast mana acceleration and fixing, in the form of Mox Diamond and Land Grant, while Control decks will opt for slower solutions like Fellwar Stone and the Mirrodin Talismans. Building a solid, dedicated Aggro deck takes a while; you need dual lands and fetch lands to make your mana base reliable, and you need a plethora of men that cost three mana or less. When your one-drop choices are Jackal Pup, Sarcomancy, Skyshroud Elite, and Savannah Lions, you’ll see that a diverse (read: expensive) mana base is important to aggro decks.

If you're just starting out with the format, though, I can recommend some good cards you should pick up. If you later decide to focus your deck on Aggro or Control (or even Combo, for the diseased maniacs among you), then you'll want to reevaluate your choices, but these cards will at least get you started. The bulk will be commons and uncommons, and the rares won't be too hard to get.

A good, inexpensive 5-Color land
For lands, you'll need to hit your colors as soon as possible, so throwing 90 basics into the deck isn't going to cut it. City of Brass is a staple in 5-Color. The Onslaught fetchlands will also help your mana, and their prices should lower once Extended season is finished. The slower Mirage fetchlands will work in a pinch, but don't rely on them too much. Dual lands are obviously great for any 5-Color deck, especially since you can find them with the appropriate fetchlands. If you lack duals, cheaper alternatives are the 10 painlands, Gemstone Mine, Undiscovered Paradise, Reflecting Pool, and Grand Coliseum, though you'll want to minimize your lands that come into play tapped. The Invasion/8th Edition "slow lands" are also options, but the same caveat applies. Some players run the Planeshift dragon lairs, but you'll want to minimize those, too, for obvious reasons.

The problem most players run into when they start out in the format is mana consistency. If you don’t have dual lands (and the new duals are very playable; you don’t need the originals to compete), then mana consistency can be an issue. Look at some of the lands listed above. There are a good number of inexpensive lands which produce more than one color of mana. If you can pick up dual lands, new or old, as you go, then your mana will become more consistent, but it’s possible to have a good mana base without spending a lot of money. Just recognize that such a mana base is better suited to a control deck.

Building A Deck

Unless you have a very deep card pool or a sugar mama (or sugar daddy, for female and nontraditional male readers), you're not going to be able to pack your deck full of dual lands and saucy rares right away. What you'll probably build is a "good stuff" deck, not focused on aggro or control, but probably falling somewhere in the middle, while playing generally solid cards. The list of cards above is a good place to start. If your first 5-Color deck contains those cards, you're off to a good start.

The best thing to do is focus on two of the five colors. Typically, one of those will be Green, since you get good beaters plus the mana acceleration and fixing. For a second color, Blue and Black make fine choices, Blue for its card drawing and fliers, and Black for its removal, tutoring power, and solid men. Whatever your two primary colors are, you'll want to minimize the other three. This means running them as close to 20 cards as you possibly can. While you're doing this, don't sleep on artifacts: they give you mana sources, too, as well as creatures like the surprisingly effective Etched Oracle.

On your first run-through, you might end up with something like this:

Color A: 56 cards
Color B: 48 cards
Color C: 24 cards
Color D: 22 cards
Color E: 20 cards
Artifacts: 24 cards

Some quick math shows that to be 194 cards, leaving you only 56 slots for lands. That's clearly not enough, so you'll need to go back and make come cuts. I've helped quite a few players do this, and this is the first thing I do: separate your deck into two piles. In one, put all your spells which cost three mana or less. In the other, put all your spells which cost four or more. Take a very serious and critical look at each card in the 4+ pile. Do you really need Aether Mutation? How easily do you expect to cast Arcanis the Omnipotent? Give cards like that a quick axe. Do you have too many redundant spells? Are you playing a set each of Unsummon, Jilt, Repulse, and Seal of Removal? Pick one, maybe two, and lose the rest (BTW, bounce really isn't very good in 5-Color).

After making some cuts, maybe your deck now looks like this:

Color A: 48
Color B: 40
Color C: 22
Color D: 20
Color E: 20
Artifacts: 14

That's 164 cards, leaving you room for 86 lands. Presuming you have somewhere from 8-16 nonland mana sources, and that you don't have an abundance of dual lands and fetchlands, this is a good number. If your land base is, say, 70% basics, you shouldn't run fewer than five or six of your lowest color, just to make sure you hit it. Presuming we're working with 60 basics out of the 86 total lands, you could run a configuration of 19, 15, 9, 9, and 8.

Sample Decklists

I'm going to provide two sample decklists. The first is a "budget" deck, with no dual lands and no Power 9. It was my second deck before I remade it into a control deck. The theme is Zombies, so it's heavy on the Black, but the other colors definitely show their strengths.

(Note: decklists have been updated to reflect the current B/R list.)

5-Color ZombiesMagic OnlineOCTGN2ApprenticeBuy These Cards
24 Swamp
7 Forest
7 Mountain
7 Island
7 Plains
4 City of Brass
4 Grand Coliseum
4 Wasteland
3 Llanowar Wastes
3 Sulfurous Springs
3 Underground River
3 Caves of Koilos
3 Unholy Grotto
2 Gemstone Mine
2 Mirrodin’s Core
2 Mishra’s Factory

4 Mox Diamond
4 Fellwar Stone
4 Solemn Simulacrum
4 Etched Oracle
1 Sol Ring
1 Chaos Orb
1 Tormod’s Crypt
1 Skullclamp
1 Engineered Explosives

4 Vindicate
1 Enlightened Tutor
1 Balance
2 Anurid Brushhopper
4 Mystic Enforcer
4 Orim’s Thunder
4 Swords to Plowshares

1 Eternal Witness
4 Birds of Paradise
4 Wild Mongrel
4 Skyshroud War Beast
4 Sakura-Tribe Elder
1 Regrowth
1 Restock
1 Recollect

4 Shivan Zombie
4 Dwarven Miner
4 Flametongue Kavu
4 Terminate
4 Firebolt

4 Vodalian Zombie
4 Trinket Mage
4 Fact or Fiction
1 Stroke of Genius
4 Fire // Ice
4 Impulse

4 Rotlung Reanimator
4 Llanowar Dead
4 Twisted Abomination
4 Skinthinner
4 Graveborn Muse
4 Withered Wretch
4 Noxious Ghoul
4 Undead Warchief
4 Sarcomancy
4 Carnophage
4 Lord of the Undead
4 Crypt Creeper
4 Chainer’s Edict
3 Tainted Pact
3 Patriarch’s Bidding
1 Living Death
1 Demonic Tutor
1 Rhystic Tutor
1 Mind Twist
1 Diabolic Tutor

What it lacks in sheer power, it makes up for in consistency. The solid Black base gives you a lot of options, but the best one is usually to get some Zombies out and turn them sideways. Undead Warchief is quite potent here, giving Unholy Strength to all your undead men. None of the Zombies are expensive to cast -- in fact, you'll find this deck is light on expensive spells all around. This is a good deck to build if you're just getting into the format and don't have things like dual lands and old broken power cards in your cardpool. In fact, I built this deck specifically to play against people who were new to the format or who were interested in learning it.

And in case you're fabulously wealthy and sexy like I am, here's the list for my Control deck.

My First Turn Cost $2000Magic OnlineOCTGN2ApprenticeBuy These Cards
4 Wall of Blossoms
4 Sakura-Tribe Elder
1 Eternal Witness
1 Life From the Loam
1 All Suns Dawn
1 Regrowth
4 Pernicious Deed
4 Putrefy
1 Recollect
1 Fastbond

4 Flametongue Kavu
4 Arc-Slogger
4 Firebolt
4 Fire // Ice
4 Electrolyze

4 Exalted Angel
2 Mystic Enforcer
4 Swords To Plowshares
4 Pulse of the Fields
4 Wrath of God
2 Rout
1 Balance
1 Enlightened Tutor

4 Pschatog
4 Shadowmage Infiltrator
1 Dimir Infiltrator
4 Clutch of the Undercity
1 Demonic Tutor
4 Vindicate
4 Massacre

4 Etched Oracle
7 SoLoMoxen
4 Engineered Explosives
4 Fellwar Stone
3 Nevinyrral’s Disk

4 Brainstorm
4 Condescend
4 Impulse
4 Mana Leak
4 Evasive Action
4 Counterspell
4 Dromar's Charm
4 Forbid
4 Absorb
4 Deep Analysis
4 Fact or Fiction
4 Force Of Will
4 Remand
1 Stroke of Genius
1 Merchant Scroll
1 Ancenstral Recall
1 Future Sight

4 Underground Sea
4 Tundra
4 Volcanic Island
4 Scrubland
3 Badlands
2 Taiga
2 Tropical Island
2 Plateau
1 Savannah
1 Bayou
1 Overgrown Tomb
1 Sacred Foundry
1 Temple Garden
2 Watery Grave
2 Gemstone Mine
1 Skycloud Expanse
2 Darkwater Catacombs
2 Underground River
2 Adarkar Wastes
3 Yavimaya Coast
18 Fetchlands (4 of all, except 2 Polluted Delta)
4 Wasteland
4 City of Brass
4 Krosan Verge
2 Blinkmoth Nexus
2 Faerie Conclave
1 Cephalid Coliseum
1 of each basic land
1 Strip Mine
1 Library of Alexandria

It plays like you’d expect a control deck to play: spend the early turns establishing position, then dominating the late game. The deck has a good suite of countermagic and plenty of removal. Transmuting Clutch of the Undercity into a free Massacre is extremely saucy against aggro decks. Many of the creatures can win the game all by themselves if they go unchecked.

This is the end, my friend

I hope this has taught you a lot about what I consider to be the best format in Magic: 5-Color. Go to the official site and forums to fill in whatever knowledge this didn't give you. As the first deck showed, building a 5-Color deck isn't all about having a lot of cards and/or money. My local area has seen an explosion in the number of 5-Color decks, and several of those decks have nary a dual land among them. It's very possible to build a deck on a budget, but however much money and time you spend on it, I think you'll agree that the format is a hell of a lot of fun to play.

Now get out there and start scribbling on people's ante.

--Tom Fowler

* This is not true. It's pistols at 20 paces. **

** OK, there are no pistols in 5-Color. Really. I mean it. Put that away!


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