The Kitchen Table #359 – The Death Of A Casual Format

How do formats die? Specifically, how did the format Five Color die? Abe Sargent tells the tale of its stagnation and how to keep Commander and other formats from falling into the same pitfalls.

Hello folks. In between the release of Commander on one side and Magic 2012 on another, I decided to take a moment and pause, to talk about a topic that is near and dear to me. What I want to do today is talk about how a casual format that had become the toast of the day eventually died. Today I want to look back and talk about the Death of Five Color. What lessons can be learned from this that other casual formats, including Commander, can take with them? What really happened?

As someone who was on the ruling council of the format for seven years, I can speak with some authority on what happened. For those who are unfamiliar, allow me to tell you a bit about Five Color.

Five Color is a casual format. At the time, it required 250 cards and 18 cards of each color. It had Vintage-legal sets, and it had its own B&R list. It was played for ante. It allowed four copies of Contract from Below as its banner card and also allowed Chaos Orb (restricted) and so forth. It also had more generous mulligan rules.

Today, the requirements have changed, and you can certainly still play it. No format truly dies. You can find the rules here: http://www.5-color.com/. For proof, swing by the forums and see how little activity is there. Fewer than 100 are even registered, and board activity is virtually non-existent.

There was a time when Five Color had evolved into the casual format du jour. Pojo.com asked me to write a weekly Five Color column for them; WotC asked me to write a series of four articles for their website on it; and everybody was playing it. The Ferrett encouraged me to write a lot about it, since it was the hot topic of the day. It was even featured in the Invitational.

Five Color was en fuego. Then it slowly died, and a format called Elder Dragon Highlander rose to take its place in the sun. Today, Commander is bigger than Five Color ever was, and I admit that I wistfully wonder what would have happened if Five had continued to grow. Would it have become Commander? Would it have had cards specially made for it? (Which is a major honor.) What would they have looked like?

How did Five Color die? What was its fall? A version of it is still online, Prismatic. Prismatic is still popular. I can play Five Color today, although it is altered.

Here are the various reasons that Five Color fell by the wayside (and I do not feel that EDH killed Five Color. It died all on its own.) Let’s talk about the history of Five Color.

The History

Five Color was designed and played by people who had become tired of the same old formats and the same old tournament scene. It was an attempt to return to the casual roots that we all have, from our beginning in Magic. (Sound familiar?)

Five Color was immediately successful because it was a different sort of format. Seeing people play with 250 card decks was exciting. It was interesting. People would come to watch, and you could convert them easily. Just hand them a deck, or split yours in half, and play!

In the early days of the format, it was still in its nascent stage. Ante was included because it made the format fun for the creators. Decks packed with cards like Derelor and Nettletooth Djinn didn’t really care all that much about ante. Combo decks that were successful were handled with the B&R list because combo really wasn’t encouraged. Cards like Mind Over Matter made their way to the B&R list. Cards that made the format unfun, like Corpse Dance, also made their way.

This was just a format made by some friends, and played by their friends. There was no attempt to have a balanced B&R list or a format. Were they having fun? Absolutely! That was what mattered. The fervor with which they treated their format infected others. The occasional column, magazine article, and website spread the format to others.

As the format began to coalesce, certain cards were restricted regularly (tutors, for example). Five Color became quite common in tournaments. Before Odyssey even came out, we had a B&R list because Five Color was to be included in that year’s Invitational (which would be won by Kai). The format had grown enough by then to have some serious buzz. The rules for the Invitational were simple. Playing Five Color was best two out of three, with the ante cards staying in the deck after the game, but whoever won the most money in cards would win the game.

The format ended up being the finals, and Kai and his foe sat down. I don’t recall the specific details, but they split the first two games, with Kai having a financial advantage. In game three, he used Jeweled Bird to swap his ante with it, and he won automatically; the value of the previous ante won was more than a Bird plus the previous one lost, so the game was over, and his foe conceded. He won a tournament on the back of Jeweled Bird. That was quite unusual, to be sure. That’s why we have Voidmage Prodigy now.

However, it did give the format a black eye. It certainly wasn’t the end of the format, but we did not see the writing on the wall and make some significant changes. The problem was that the format, which by the early 2000s had been around for five or more years, had a lot of different people playing it. Casual people were playing it at the kitchen table, competitive people were playing it in tournaments, and lots of people had been playing it since it had begun and were not willing to make changes to the format they considered their own, and not the community’s.

I joined the format’s Ruling Council in 2002. It was finally disbanded in 2009, and I was still on it.

It continued to grow, but the growth had slowed. There were two major barriers to entry that people naturally had—ante was one and how to build the thing was another. People would play for pack ante, dollar ante, drink ante, mark on my cards ante, real ante, ghost ante, and not ante at all. It was very inconsistent.

Slowly we began to streamline the format. It continued to have players. We took cards off the B&R list that were from the early times. Gone was Restock and Corpse Dance and Mind Over Matter. It took a while, but it did happen.  

Contentious issues like Contract from Below and ante were not solved. We would change the rule making ante optional, but it was still a thorn in people’s sides. Contract from Below was banned in non-ante games, but it was still a thorn. By the time we got enough people to vote for massive changes, the format had stagnated.

There are a few things that players often point to as what hurt Five Color. One was a major change instituted when we banned a bunch of cheap tutors, because tutor effects were becoming too good. Another was in 2009 when the Council was disbanded and the format handed back to one person to make the changes. These were not what killed the format, they were just the death knell of it. It was what sent lethargic and stagnant players elsewhere, not what caused it to begin with.

What were the causes? Looking back in hindsight, how did a very popular format lose its players and stop growing? What lessons can other casual formats learn from it? I’ve identified eight reasons why Five Color died.

The Principles of Death

Know What You Are

It is important for every format to know what its core message is. At its heart, Five Color was a format about playing a really big deck with all five colors. Your core is what you can say in one quick sentence, without commas. Ante, Chaos Orb, its own B&R list, generous mulligans, the No Permanents rule—these are all additions.

Pauper is a format that only allows commons to be played. Commander is a format about playing a 100-card highlander deck built around a legendary creature. Everything else is ancillary. Stay true to your mission. Don’t allow yourself to get stuck on the trees. If a few trees are preventing people from seeing the format in all of its glory, then cut them down.

The moment ante caused a major issue in the Invitational, ante should have been banned, and you move on. Doing that would have removed the major obstacle for people joining the format. Post articles saying, “Well, if you liked us already, get ready to love us, and if you loved us, get ready to do something illegal!” But that didn’t happen. Ante got in the way. It was a detail, not the heart of the format.

Don’t Be Afraid to Slaughter Sacred Cows

Similarly, there are going to be rules and cards that people like and dislike to extremes. Don’t be afraid to take them down the second they hurt or splinter a format. The second that Contract from Below became divisive, we should have banned it and moved on. It certainly was at a banned level of power. Don’t try to find compromises by restricting it and making neither side happy and continuing the debate. End it and move on for the health of the format. Just pull off the Band-Aid; don’t pull it gently.

One such rule we had was the rule that a player who controlled no permanents anymore also couldn’t speak. It was cute. But it had major issues. Could you call a judge in a tournament if your land was Strip Mined on the first turn? It added to the length of the rules. It even violated the spiritual rule of the format—Don’t be a D!@&. Nevertheless, it was not removed. I tried late to remove it, but I failed. I should have pushed for it sooner and harder, but it was just one example of many.

You Need an Active and Visible Council/Leader

I was one of the most vocal and visible members during my tenure, and that enabled me to connect with a lot of folks. I got tons of e-mails and forum posts about the format through my many articles for StarCityGames.com and more. In today’s day of social networking, being visible is even more expected.

I don’t care if you write an article, post in a forum, send an e-mail to a newsgroup, Twitter, post comments in Facebook, or take out a banner ad on every website with Magic in its name. Your rulers must be visible. They must be engaging; they must explain why they voted in a certain way; they must listen; and they must be willing to change their mind. They just have to be involved. Any person can play the format once a week at a kitchen table, and that’s all. The people who run your format need to be running tournaments, writing articles, working the website, admin-ing the forum, and more. The qualifications for a council should never be friendship, or who you know, and especially not who agrees with you, but what you’ve done with the format and what you will continue to do.

Don’t Get Competitive

Once the format began to regularly engage in tournaments, it had a tension. This was not a format that was expected to be played in tournaments, and it certainly wasn’t designed for it. Because of this, we had to put a lot more cards on the B&R list than we should have, in order to keep tournaments fair. The result was a causal format that claimed it was for casual players but that restricted cards on it that made no sense for casual play (the many cheaper but not as powerful cards like Gamble fit here, plus combo elements). At the same time, it restricted cards that made no sense for competitive play (such as Bribery and Grinning Totem).

Keep it Simple

One of the things that I do like about Commander is that they have kept their rules as simple as possible. It is a format with a lot of rules. Because it’s Highlander, it only needs to keep a banned list. Look at it. By putting all of the Moxes on the same line, they reduce the size of the list visually. That’s clever. They also state that they have the Vintage B&R list, so they don’t need to list the banned ante cards or dexterity cards. There was a long time when our list was pushing 100 total. That’s just way too many. Every time a set was released, we would ban or restrict another card or two from it. That’s crazy! By splitting the rules into different sections, Commander is making it look like they are much smaller, and that helps. If we had removed the sacred cow rules, cut down a few trees, and fixed the B&R list, then I honestly feel that you would still see Five Color being played on the sidelines at PTQs all over.

Look at it from a Fresh Perspective

I think every leader of a casual format that has its own B&R list should occasionally go over every card in their mind and justify why it’s there. Look at every play restriction and see if it’s justified as well. By doing this, we could have more easily done what was needed.

Let me give you an example from Commander. You are required to build a deck of exactly 100 cards, whereas most formats require you to have a minimum. A few times I have advocated adding cards to Commander decks when people got bored, and once I simply mentioned it in an article as a way to make the format fresh again for your playgroup. I got some mean posts from people upset that I would advocate, even with a throwaway line, to break the rules of the format.

People who run formats need to know that there are a lot of people who are not inclined to just chuck away the rules when they don’t like them. Is the rule that decks must be 100 cards worth the restriction you place on players? I have no idea, but my guess is that it’s not worth it. Whatever format you have, I think you should regularly re-justify every rule and restriction.

Don’t Be Afraid to Make Change, Don’t Be Afraid to Not Make Change

When a council person stopped being active, we should have immediately chucked them. When someone asked to have multicolored cards to not count in the 18-card total, we should have told them no thanks, and explained why. We should have embraced radical ideas that better enabled our format but also stayed the course when it was working. You are always going to get griping from people. Sometimes we would make changes based on griping and not evidence. We axed Flash even though it had not won a single tournament. If it wasn’t winning, why bother taking it out? I think we should have weathered the storm on that one, and it would have died down. We were too reactive. Our response was to ban and restrict rather than explore and discuss options first. Don’t automatically dismiss those who say, “There is a better way,” but don’t automatically embrace them either. Listen, heed counsel, and make wise decisions.

The N vs. the S

In previous articles, I’ve brought up the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and how it relates to Magic. One spectrum is the iNtuitive vs. the Sensing. Intuitive people are those who are more likely to think outside of the box, discard rules, rebel, and ask probing questions. They are also less likely to notice details and other things.

Sensing people are those who tend to follow traditions, rules, and more. 75% of people are S’s, and not N’s. I think one of the biggest issues we had is that we just assumed people were N’s. We would say things like, “These are just the basic rules, feel free to modify them as your group pleases.” The problem is that only a minority of people do that. Most people see the rules, and then either play the game or not based on those rules, not based on how they can tweak the rules to make them better. Are there play groups out there that modify Commander, Five Color, Pauper, and so forth to enhance their play? Absolutely! However, they are a very small section of playgroups.

We just assumed that issues would be handled by house rules. We even told people so, and yet they didn’t. If they didn’t like ante, they usually would just not play the format, rather than play it and ban ante in their playgroup. I mention above how some people got upset that I would advocate to play more than 100 cards in Commander because the rules say you can’t do that. 75% of people are more likely to adhere to rules than not. Don’t just assume that they will fix problems. They won’t. I think we lacked the courage to make changes, not only because we allowed factions in the format, but because we could just lean on the good old standby of, “Make your own changes as you see fit. ” It won’t work.

With these eight principles in place, you will continue to grow and develop. As the rules get better and better, you will find your players enjoying it more and additional converts to the one true format.

If you truly believe that your format is one of the best you’ve ever played, should you do any less?

I hope that this little trip through the death of a casual format was interesting for you. I also hope that other formats find some inspiration here. Unfortunately, this will likely be the last article I will ever write on Five Color. So long, old friend.

Until later,
Abe Sargent

P.S. Do you find that many games are gone long before you grew tired of them? No one plays the ICE CCG Middle Earth: The Wizards and its spinoffs anymore. I loved it, but it’s dead. Battletech is holding on in a playgroup or two, but that’s just inertia; it’s dying. HeroClix was once my second passion, and I judged tournaments on a weekly basis and even wrote a column, but after being unmade for a year, I find fewer and fewer places with active playgroups. Heroscape is now done, even though it was amazing. I was a bit disappointed at WotC’s handling of the intellectual property, and now it is discontinued. Star Chamber was amazing but never caught on, and now very few play, and no new cards have come along to keep it fresh. Ultima Online is dying but still has some shards with enough people to keep it real. How long will that last? To the trash heap of yesterday, I now must add Five Color, and that’s a very sad thing indeed. I gave it so much of my time and energy. Ah me.