The Contract Question

Before I was selected to be on the Five Color Ruling Council, I was very vocal about what is arguably the most contentious issue in Five Color. However, after being placed on the Council, I decided to no longer be vocal. My opinion was known by most already, why belabor it? Since it is such a divisive issue, why talk about it? At the time, I believed that nothing would ever happen, so why work for change? Therefore, this is the first time in over two years that I have made my voice on this issue public.

Before I was selected to be on the Five Color Ruling Council, I was very vocal about what is arguably the most contentious issue in Five Color. However, after being placed on the Council, I decided to no longer be vocal. My opinion was known by most already, why belabor it? Since it is such a divisive issue, why talk about it? At the time, I believed that nothing would ever happen, so why work for change?

Therefore, this is the first time in over two years that I have made my voice on this issue public.

Every few months, the Yahoo! Five Color Mailing List debates the issue all over again. It usually starts when someone new to the format asks,”Why is Contract from Below unrestricted?” Someone responds with a jab like,”Because, like guns, some people would rather die than have their Contract taken away from them.” At that point, it once again becomes open season on the Contract issue.

Why am I speaking up now? Two reasons, essentially. First of all, there needs to be a treatise, a central document that people who want information on Contract from Below can reference. Secondly, the format is continuing to flounder under the weight of its holy card, and that needs to be addressed.

I am going to try and make this examination of Contract as fair as possible. I admit my own bias in the first paragraph, but I will pull arguments in favor of the Contract directly from e-mails and forum posts, instead of making them up myself. I have never been in favor of straw men.

Let’s take a look at this contentious issue, and try to understand it:

A Look at Contract from Below

I have read e-mails and posts on the StarCityGames.com forum that say the same thing. How can they trust a banned and restricted list that has no integrity? Why should they bother to try a format when it seems out of balance?

First of all, let me say that no format is perfect, but the Council has tried to make the most balanced format with a Contract unrestricted. Cards are restricted or banned that interact too well with Contract, in order to help foster a more healthy environment. As such, all is not doom and gloom. Every format has its problems, but Five Color is a lot better than, say, a certain Recently-Dominated-by-Skullclamp-Type-Two.

Contract from Below essentially has three parts to it. Discard your hand. Shuffle your library and ante. Draw seven new cards. All of this is for one Black mana.

“Ante” does not mean the same thing in Five Color as it meant originally. In order to avoid an ante of, say, a Forest or a Llanowar Elves,”Ante” has been made a keyword, just like so many other keywords in Magic. Only non-land rares and non-basic-land foils are accepted as ante. Otherwise, you continue to flip over until an acceptable card is flipped over. Note that, if your opponent flips over a Lightning Bolt, and you need another one, you can choose to make him stop, so you can have that as an ante instead of the rare or foil.

Therefore, Contract will usually risk an additional rare, in order for you to have its effect. This is Contract’s additional cost, and is the source of some contention.

Lots of other cards make you lose your current hand and draw seven new cards. The minimum for this effect, outside of Contract from Below, is three mana. And those spells are symmetrical and refill your opponent’s hand as well. Therefore, priced at only one Black mana, Contract from Below becomes a very reliable spell that does not benefit your opponent.

The following is not really up for debate – Contract from Below is the most efficient card drawing spell ever printed by Wizards of the Coast. One Black mana converts to seven cards.

Therefore, the only question remains, is there something aspect of Contract that should keep it off the Banned and Restricted list?

Contract from Below for President!

Nobody can argue against Contract’s sheer power. However, as mentioned above, there are balancing effects for the Contract. Let’s begin with the obvious, shall we?

The Contract requires an ante. Obviously, if a game is being played for, say, Ghost Ante, where ownership of the cards never changes, then Contract should not even be played. The balance to Contract is the risk involved. If you ante an expensive card, then you are liable to play differently in order to ensure that you lose as little as possible.

Contract is a pay to play card. If you want to play this card, then you need to pay up. If you have anted a particularly expensive card, then you may use that Enlightened Tutor for a Jeweled Bird instead of a card that may win you the game. In other words, a poor ante may lead to you playing scared.

Plus, merely playing Contract is no guarantee of you winning. Everybody has a story about when So-and-so Contracted and anted a very expensive card, but still lost. That’s the nature of Contract – it’s a gamble.

There are other favorable aspects to Contract from Below as well. Contract is a fairly inexpensive card to acquire. You can pick up one from Revised, here at Star City, for a mighty dollar. That’s right, all of a buck. When the most powerful card in the environment is so cheap, it makes the game more accessible to everybody.

There is no competitive disadvantage to the card. Because it is so cheap and versatile, Contract from Below will fit into virtually every deck. When everybody has four Contracts, the game is in balance.

Another positive to having a cheap powerful card running around is that it gives power to everybody. Competitive balance is achieved, not just because everybody plays Contracts, but also because Contract is the primary tool that a player can use to defeat someone who has spent hundreds of dollars on their deck.

There is another reason to want an unrestricted Contract. In what other format can you play with Contract from Below? No sanctioned format, and practically no other casual format allows a person to play with Contract. So why not play with four here?

Contract from Below is the heart of Five Color in a way that no other card could ever be. The card is synonymous with the environment. People identify Five Color with Contract from Below, therefore you cannot restrict it.

Note: The above comments are the arguments made by various people online who have argued this point. These are their points, and as you will see, I disagree with most (though not all) of them. However, in the spirit of fairness, I only thought it appropriate to express their thoughts first, and to use their arguments, not ones of my own creation.

Contract from Below Isolated?

First of all, there are three possibilities with Contract from Below. Ban it, restrict it, leave it alone. These are the possibilities.

Have you ever witnessed two people arguing, but they didn’t realize that they were talking around and above each other? They were arguing about two different things, but they didn’t even notice? I have heard several arguments about Contract proceed like this:

“Contract is dumb. It needs to be restricted.”

“Don’t take my Contract away from me! You can’t ban the heart of Five Color.”

“Contract is too powerful, though.”

“But it’s cheap!”

Did you catch it? The first person proposed restricting Contract, the other reacted as if the proposal had been to ban Contract. Those are two different things, entirely. If you do not believe that this sort of misunderstanding occurs, you have only to look up the archives on the Five Color list to see proof.

Let’s set this record straight. I am in favor of restricting Contract from Below, not banning it. In fact, I agree that Contract from Below is the banner card of the format. If it were not, I’d want it banned, because it is that powerful. I am willing to make a concession because it is so important to the format. Even with a restricted Contract, you could tutor for it in numerous ways, so it would still be played a lot.

Balance is restricted, yet it is one of the most common tutor targets. It gets played a lot, but because it is restricted, its play never dominates the format. With a restricted Contract, the Five Color websites could still have Contract banners and you could download Contract wallpaper and such. It would simply be restricted.

Chaos Orb is another such card. Five Color allows Chaos Orb, where no DCI sanctioned format does. At least we have the sense to restrict it, though. The Five Color website has the art of four cards in a banner at the top – Chaos Orb, Contract from Below, Demonic Tutor, and Mind Twist. Three of those cards are restricted, and yet they are, quite literally,”banner” cards for the format. How would restricted Contract take it off the list?

Now let’s address another argument regarding Contract from Below – the cost. Sure, Contract from Below is a cheap card, and readily available to players. So? (My high school English teacher would write a giant red”So?” on your paper if you could not connect the dots.) How does being cheap translate to being unrestricted? How does being so pervasive that every deck wants four copies translate to being kept unrestricted?

Let’s use the exact same argument, but instead, substitute in Balance. This sort of argument, in logic, is called argument by analogy. Balance can be acquired here at StarCityGames.com for as little as three bucks. That’s pretty cheap considering how uber-powerful the card is. An unrestricted Balance is the best thing for the environment, but then every deck could run four copies of Balance. It would also give the cheap decks a tool to use against the expensive decks.

If you honestly believe that four copies of Balance in Five Color would be healthy, then I’ll let you argue for four copies of Contract. I think we see that unrestricted Balance would result in a very”unbalanced” environment (Hehee. Sorry.) Just because Contract is cheap does not mean it should be unfettered.

When a card is so good that it can fit into virtually every deck in multiples of four, it probably should be restricted. Is there any other card in Five Color that is an automatic inclusion into almost every deck, whether combo or aggro or control. People rightfully complained about Skullclamp in Type Two because so many decks played it. Now imagine if, instead of over half of the decks played Skullclamp, if over 95% of every single Type Two deck played ‘Clamps. What kind of format would that be?

That everybody wants to play four should serve as an important notice – Contract from Below is obviously not as balanced as those who support it portray it to being. If Contract were truly balanced, then there would be a lot of decks choosing to run other cards instead. There are not, because Contract is so brokenly powerful.

That leaves the ante issue. There are two major issues with ante, so let’s look at the first by analogy.

You are playing blackjack at a casino and have bet $10. The dealer has a 5 showing. You have a 7 and a 3. What do you do? Typically, you will want to double down. The likelihood of you beating the dealer with just one card is rather high. Even if your one card is a low card, the dealer might still bust. Therefore, the odds are in your favor. By doubling down, you double your bet. If you win, you get an extra $10. But if you lose, you lose $20 instead of $10. It’s a good play to double down, because you are more likely to win than to lose. So why not profit off it?

Contract from Below is like doubling down in blackjack. You pay a bit extra (ante a card) to position yourself to win. The only difference is that, in blackjack, doubling down does not give you a higher chance of winning, it just let’s you profit more from winning. In Five Color, playing Contract from Below helps you to win.

Can you lose in blackjack after doubling down, even in the most advantageous position? Sure you can. Can you lose in Five Color no matter how many times you Contract? Sure you can. Neither is very likely, though.

Here is the important thing about Contract, though. Very rarely, you will ante a card that is critical to your deck’s success. Some decks do not even have cards that are vital to winning with them, so this won’t even happen with those decks. In every other situation, however, there is a key to Contract.

Anteing a card is immaterial to the game. In other words, ante has no effect on the game. None whatsoever. Zero effect, sir. If you win, nothing was paid. If you lost, you pay an extra card. In neither case did it affect the game.

What about the claims that anteing an expensive card can change the way you play? I call bulls*!&. As a player, I am trying to win before I play Contract. I am still trying to win after I play Contract. Whether I anted an expensive Morphling or a cheap foil Harrow does not change that. I am trying to win.

Those are reasons why I think the logic on the pro-Contract side fails. Let’s look at a few reasons why the Contract should go.

Contract on Its Own Terms

It has been stated many times that the banned and restricted list has a lot of cards on it. One concern of the format is that we do not want too many cards on the list – we do not want to make the format unwieldy. In Type One, there are a variety of cards that are restricted because of Tolarian Academy. Ban Tolarian Academy, and you could take several cards off the restricted list, in order to clean it up. The same logic applies to Contract from Below in Five Color.

A restricted Contract would help clean up the restricted list. Cards like Grinning Totem continue to be restricted because of Contract. With Contract restricted, the following cards are arguably upgradeable: Holistic Wisdom (currently banned), Grinning Totem, Restock, Recoup, Parallel Thoughts (currently banned), Rhystic Tutor, and Diabolic Intent.

Although we may want to keep a couple of those where they currently are after some playtesting, all could be either upgraded from banned to restricted or unrestricted entirely. In other words, we could remove almost ten percent of the B&R list simply by restricting Contract. Since we are adding cards to the list virtually every expansion set, something needs to be done sooner, rather than later, to clean things up.

Another point revolves around the metagame. In a format like Five Color, random things are bound to happen. That makes consistent aggressive decks, with cheap and mana friendly creatures, a more powerful deck. It takes longer for control to set up, because they have to take a few extra turns setting up their mana base before trying to control the board. That extra window is often enough for aggro to win.

Aggressive decks have to sacrifice card drawing and control for speed. That is the pain in order to build a faster and more consistent deck. The Aggro-Control-Combo trichotomy of Magic keeps everything in balance. In Five Color, aggro already gets an extra boost because of a lack of consistency in the other two archetypes over 250 cards.

However, with an unrestricted Contract, aggro no longer has to make any sacrifices. It gets to play without the pay. The result is that aggro is far and away the best archetype of the three. I know, because I have a competitive Five Color aggro deck built, just like practically every other player I know.

Things have gotten so out of hand that just a couple of months ago, there was a major push to restrict Armageddon. They did think that they could restrict Contract, and Armageddon was the only tool left. If aggro is so powerful that Armageddon becomes your target, maybe we need to re-examine why Contract is so sacred.

The Best Reason

The best reason for restricting Contract, however, is the health of the format in the long term. I have spoken with players, read e-mails, and read forum posts. There are Five Color players who proclaim”If you take away my Contract, I’m leaving.” However, I have also heard a lot of,”How can I play a format that has an unrestricted Contract?”

Contract from Below has become a hindrance, not a selling point. There are people who are not trying out Five Color because Contract is running around. It’s obvious that the card is more powerful than practically every card on the restricted list. Why play a format if they can’t even get their banned and restricted lists in order?

That’s the most compelling argument I can think of. Contract belongs on the restricted list, at least, due to its power. Past the ante question, past the metagame question, past all of the other arguments, what is left is a simply statement, made by many with whom I have had contact.”How can I play a format that has an unrestricted Contract?”

If Contract is a stop sign that prevents some people from entering and enjoying this great format, then isn’t it time that we did something about that?

Until Later,

Abe Sargent