by Tom Fowler
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!
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.
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 18 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 90 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. If you ever get to play against Magic Rules Manager John Carter, he has a Mox Emerald with a smiley face and sombrero on it, and a Library of Alexandria with someone passed out on the stairs. Yes, those are both real cards, not proxies.
Because 5-Color is 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.
Not being the best draw spell
makes my head hurt!
Not being the best draw spell
makes my head hurt!
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. Mystical Tutor isn't a big deal, unless it fetches a draw-7 spell that costs just one mana. Recoup has barely been played in any 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 restricted 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.
Just like regular 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.
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.
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.
- Wild Mongrel
- Fellwar Stone
- Quiet Seculation
- Roar of the Wurm
- Fire // Ice
- Flametongue Kavu
- Contract from Below
- Demonic Tutor
- Fact or Fiction
- Tainted Pact
- Mystic Enforcer
- Swords to Plowshares
- Trinket Mage
A good, inexpensive 5-Color land
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 18 cards as you possibly can. If you end up with five sets of four in your other colors, for 20 cards in each, that's fine. Stick as close to 18 as you can, though. 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: 42
Color C: 20
Color D: 20
Color E: 18
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.
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.
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 "A" deck. It has dual lands and Power 9, and it's focused aggro.
Note that the only cards in the deck that cost more than three mana are the set of FTKs. This deck has plenty of gas on the first few turns, and plays out a suite of aggressive creatures. It has burn and removal for your guys, Contract and Skullclamp to draw obscene amounts of cards, and Winter Orb to lock you down when it looks like you might get back into the game. If you have the cards, or if you're going to play online via Apprentice or Workstation, build this and give it a try. It's a blast to play, though not always a blast to play against.
Mox Crystal, by the way, is a 5-Color promo card that you can only get by winning a 5-Color Worlds Qualifier. (Worlds is an open event, but winning a Qualifier earns you a bye.) It's a 0-cost artifact that taps for one colorless mana. It's just as restricted as the original five Moxen, since it's fast mana for no intitial cost investment. Mox Crystals just recently went out of print (they're made by the 5-Color Committee), and a new card is being made to replace them.
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 store has seen an explosion in the number of 5-Color decks, and 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.
* 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!