I’m doing some philosophizing this week, then I’ll stick my nose in the biggest hornet’s nest in 5-Color. First, I want to ask a question: How competitive should your deck be? How competitive should this game be? Is being dominant good?
I’m not talking about the Pro Tour and PTQs here – I’m talking about playing with your friends. If you win all the time, you are either going to be playing something else or having fewer friends. Outside of tournaments, is it important to lose at least as much as you win?
I have been playing games for – well, let’s face it, a long time. I’ve got dice that are older than many of my opponents. I’ve played in a lot of roleplaying campaigns, which are a decent analog to CCGs. I’ve been in roleplaying campaigns that lasted years, and others that escalated out of control within weeks. I have played with (and written adventures for) some of the sickest characters I have ever seen.* And all the successful campaigns, sick or not, had some balance between the characters themselves, and the characters and referee. The unbalanced ones, with one person or group dominating, never last.
Abe Sargent wrote about the problem of unbalanced groups. I’ll talk about balancing them, but I also want to talk about types of players. Some types have more problems balancing than others. Power gamers, value winning above all else, have the most problems.
In college, I was in various gaming groups. In every group, there was tension between the roleplayers and the power gamers. The role players wanted to develop the storyline and give their characters personality. The power gamers wanted to squeeze every drop of advantage out of the rules. You could see the difference when each type built a character in a rules system like Champions, a superhero game where you spend points to buy powers, and gain points for disadvantages. When both types of gamers started with 200 points to build a character, the differences were obvious. A roleplayer would come back with a weak Green Arrow with four different arrows in his quiver, plus skills like “fletching” and “history of archery.” A power gamer (a.k.a. “rules rapist”) would return with a fully-powered Galactus, complete with Silver Surfer and the other heralds bought via the agent rules – and with eleven points still unspent.
(For the record, that’s more a function of familiarity with the rules system than it is player type – Champions is so complex that you really need an expert rules lawyer to squeeze power out of it. But his overall point is valid – The Ferrett, who will cheerfully offer his services as Champions CPA to anyone who asks for it)
In magic terms, roleplayers build Dragon decks featuring Dragon Arch. For power gamers, Dragon decks involve animating Worldgorger Dragon no later than turn 2.
Now, obviously, roleplayer/power gamer is a continuum, not an either-or. Most people are somewhere between the extremes, and their positions change in different circumstances. Moreover, no one characteristic can define a person.
That said, the analogy is still pretty good.
In Magic, there is a continuum between power gaming and casual play. However, Magic is different from roleplaying in that Magic is played to win. Every game will have a clear winner. In a roleplaying game, a new player can lay back and play carefully until her character gains some experience and power. That doesn’t work in Magic – it is harder for a new player with few cards and a bad deck to play Magic with the big boys and enjoy the experience.
The “rare cards” issue just makes this difference more obvious. I have been playing for a long time. My wife also plays – and we both collect cards. We play casually, so we tend to keep double playsets of everything. Moreover, I have been writing for a long time, and I get paid (a pittance, but paid) in store credit. In other words, I have the cards to build practically anything I can think of. (Well, anything Extended-legal, at least.)
Not everyone is that lucky. I am now playing at two different stores. One store has a lot of serious players, including a bunch of pros. The other store has a lot of kids, and a lot of multiplayer and casual games. I generally build multiple decks. I usually have a few competitive Constructed decks to playtest for States, Regionals, or the next PTQ format, and I take those to the competitive store. I have some powerful multiplayer decks, some less broken decks, and some no-rares/cute decks in my bag, and I take them all to the other store. I play the good decks against the good players, and the silly decks against the really new players. In a few cases, I have even played my old draft decks against newer players’ Constructed decks – along with giving them some free cards and advice on deckbuilding. The idea is to be competitive given their card pool – as opposed to blowing them out on the strength of my cards alone.
The point was that I could have a bunch of decks, and play decks that allowed both players to have fun. I could balance the power level of the decks, taking into account our relative skill levels, and have competitive games.
Now, however, people at both stores are playing 5-Color.
For those who don’t know, 5-Color is non-sanctioned format that requires decks of at least 250 cards, with at least 18 cards of each color. Playable tutors are almost invariably restricted, and the rest of the banned and restricted list looks like Type I, except that ante cards are permitted. That means that Contract from Below is legal. Contract from Below is the most broken card drawer ever printed – Ancestral Recall isn’t even close.
The other defining feature of 5-Color decks is dual lands. Dual lands, and the fetchlands and other methods of finding duals, make colors pretty consistent. With duals, fetchlands and so forth, 5-Color decks can consistently get all five colors by turn three.
My idea of having several decks, and playing a different deck for each group, works for normal decks but not for 5-Color. I don’t have the duals and fetchlands to build several 5-Color decks. Nor the time or patience.
Part of the problem is that 5-Color has greater swings in power level than practically any other archetype. On the one end are the really great decks – the ones that really can win quickly and consistently. At one store, the 5-Color crowd includes Pat Fehling and Jim Hustad – the 5-Color world champions for the last three years. (They alternate) At the other store are a fair number of kids that are just learning about Harrow and Fertile Ground – and playing creatures like Spiritmonger, the ‘Volvers and the Invasion dragon legends. (No, when it comes to competitive 5-Color, those creatures are not that good.)
Now if those two groups were all I had to deal with, I could build two decks. Unfortunately, both stores have players that are somewhere closer to the middle of the power spectrum. These players have some duals and some good cards – but a deck with ten duals and a few good rares can be either total junk (like some of my attempts) or a complete beating. It is harder to find a happy medium in 5-Color, just like it is hard to find one in T1 – some decks are incredibly broken, and some are piles.
The whole Contract issue is another problem. Contract is incredible. If you cast it, odds are you will win. However, Contract is an ante card, and I generally play for fun, without ante. Playing Contract without ante seems dumb – the card is just too broken – so I didn’t run Contracts in my initial 5-Color decks. However, that made my tutors much less valuable. (Tutor for a new hand is very strong.) It also meant that I would lose games to opponents getting Contracts, since I could barely keep pace once they drew seven new cards.
Earlier, I said I had just one 5-Color deck. That was then, this is now. I have three different 5-Color decks assembled at the moment. One is the serious version, which I try to make competitive, but I haven’t convinced myself to add power and have enough “fun cards” mixed in that it really can’t compete with the really good players. The second is a 5-Color version of the Rock. It even has a Phyrexian Plaguelord and the other classic components – it is more casual. Finally, I have a no rares, no Contract version that I am trying to make work. It’s okay – but just okay.
I think that I could make a deck that could be quite competitive with the best in the format – but that would take including my power, all my duals and fetchlands, and stripping out all the “just for fun” cards and replacing them with cards that just win the game. But that would mean carrying a deck worth thousands and thousands of dollars that contained about three win conditions – and forcing one of them out game after game. I could probably win, but I’m not sure it would be fun.
Actually, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be fun. At least, not for me after a few games, and probably not for my opponent. If my ideas worked in practice the way they do on paper, the deck would go off quickly every game, and the games would be over. The opponent would do practically nothing. It would get boring for me, and frustrating for him. (If, on the other hand, my combos are not quite as good in real life, the deck would still be no fun – but the frustration would be on my side of the table.)
So I’m not playing a Tier One deck. I am playing several more marginal 5-Color decks. I am trying to be competitive enough to challenge opponents at both stores, but not so broken I blow out the kids. At least, not all the time. For some people, that is probably heresy. For some, winning it what it’s all about… But that’s why I write a casual column, and they write about their Pro Tour experiences. Different strokes.
Whine it with me: “I could be great, but I prefer to play casually.”
That’s not it, though. For one thing, I don’t know if I could play on the tour, even if I put in all the work required and played the best deck every time. Probably not. In any case, I have no intention of doing the necessary testing: I don’t want to play five hundred games with Arcbound Ravager. I get that kind of pain at work, and they pay me for it. Magic’s just a hobby. I play for, and expect to have, fun.
Which brings us back to power levels and deck design. If I want to play a “fun” deck, should I be able to expect a reasonably fun game? Or should I expect to be smashed, repeatedly, if my deck is not Tier One?
For those of you who chose the later – how do new players break into your game? Do you really expect newer players to stick with a game if they get pounded and pummeled, and have no chance. Why would they ever come back?
This leads me around to the other big debate in 5-Color: Contract and ante.
First, a note. I don’t like playing for cards. I don’t like ante. I don’t really like gambling. I don’t play poker. I once played 5-card draw for six hours with a friend – and I never got better than a pair of jacks. Six hours – and I barely got openers in all those hands. After a while it got funny, and we just kept playing to see if I could ever get any luck. Didn’t happen. So anyway, I play for fun, but I don’t gamble, if I can avoid it.
That’s just me.
Anyway, 5-Color is, at least nominally, played for ante. Ante is the only thing that makes Contract from Below even close to reasonable. Spend B, get a new hand, is insane. I have seen people play normal, sixty-card decks against 5-Color decks – and Contract is so broken it lets the 5’s win if they draw it. Without Contract, the games depend on the decks, but the matchups are a lot more even.
Some areas play for ante – for the cards or their typical sale price in cash. Those people take great pride in that fact, and rant about it on the 5-Color lists and forums. If they like that, that’s fine. I’m just glad I don’t live there.
The more serious Madison players tend to play for trash rares or $0.25 per card in the ante. The casual Madison players play fake ante – ante cards to decide who plays first, but just give those cards back.
I don’t know for sure how large the groups that are playing 5-Color for full ante value are. I heard one person comment that his group was a half-dozen hardcore players, and maybe another half-dozen that played on occasion. At the casual store last night, there at least were twice that number playing 5-Color – mostly kids with decks full of random cards, Harrows and, if the opponents did not mind – proxies. They were playing for fun, and to learn how the format works.
How many of those kids would be playing 5-Color, especially with more experienced players, if they were playing for ante? Even without power, my good 5 will win nearly every match against their decks. I’ll lose the random game to lucky Reanimator decks with a turn 2 Akroma, Angel of Wrath, but not often – and I’m not running power or a full set of duals. If we were playing full ante, these kids would be giving up serious chunks of their collections to play – and their decks would not get better if they kept losing their rares game after game.
I played against eight to ten different opponents last night, and played several dozen games. That would not have happened if we were playing for real ante.
I did start playing 5-Color, briefly, five years ago. We did play for ante. I lost about a dozen rares, then quit playing. I didn’t mind the losing, but paying to play like that made it really expensive to learn the metagame – so I quit. I played a ton of magic for free, and played tournaments that didn’t cost me my precious duals, but I stayed away from 5-Color until people started playing without ante.
I should probably add something vaguely strategy or deck related. I’ll include my current “no-rares” 5-Color decklist. This is the one I play unsleeved, just for fun. It is pretty basic – and I have not included Contracts because all the Contracts I own are in other decks.
3 Aura Shards (or shadow dudes if your opponents don’t run targets)
4 Swords to Plowshares
3 Dromar’s Charm
4 Orim’s Thunder
4 Kami of the Ancient Law (enchantment kill and beats)
3 Deep Analysis
4 Quiet Speculation
4 Evasive Action (or Serendib Efreet if you have them)
4 Trinket Mage (fetch lands, Skullclamp, Bonesplitter)
2 Fire / Ice (I run four – two count as blue cards, two as red)
4 Bone Shredder
4 Dauthi Horror
3 Diabolic Edict
3 Chainer’s Edict
4 Nezumi Graverobber
4 Flametongue Kavu
4 Viashino Heretic
4 Dwarven Blastminer
2 Fire / Ice
1 (R) Eternal Witness
4 Commune with Nature
4 Fertile Ground (replace with Birds of Paradise if you can)
4 Kodama’s Reach
4 Nantuko Vigilante
4 River Boa
4 Roar of the Wurm
4 Sakura-Tribe Elder
4 Wall of Roots
2 Woodripper (replace with Genesis if you can)
4 Yavimaya Elder
4 Lumbering Satyr
4 Fellwar Stone
1 (R) Sol Ring
4 Etched Oracle
3 Serrated Biskelion (kills River Boas, Spectral Lynxes, Birds, and recurs with Unearth)
4 Loxodon Warhammer (bad, but fun)
1 Tormod’s Crypt
1 (R) Isochron Scepter
4 Lightning Greaves
4 City of Brass (okay – a cheap rare, and former uncommon)
4 Mirrodin’s Core
4 Mishra’s Factory
6 Artifact lands (one of each)
4 Krosan Verge
1 Strip Mine
4 Treetop Village
4 Faerie Conclave
2 Coastal Tower
2 Urborg Volcano
4 Slippery Karst
It isn’t amazing, but it does pretty well against newer players. The closest thing to secret tech is the Lumbering Satyr – wait until you have a Lightning Greaves in play, then drop it and Forestwalk over for the win.
Some of these cards are just favorites for mine, like Viashino Heretic. It is reasonable artifact control, and I get a random win against someone playing Darksteel Colossus often enough to keep them around. (They play Colossus even though I have an active Heretic. At the end of their turn I smash it – it doesn’t die but they still take eleven, then do it again during my upkeep. Good game!) However, Lightning Bolt is better if your opponents play lots of creatures and few artifacts.
Unearth is solid with a deck full of cheap creatures, and it cycles.
Obviously this gets better and better as you add rares. Ravenous Baloth, Genesis, Birds of Paradise, etc. If you face more combo decks, or aggro-control, Duress could be good. And so on – if we swap enough cards, we can morph this into practically anything. The point, however, was to build a passable 5-Color deck on the very cheap.
I would try to add a real 5-Color deck here, but this article is already pretty long. Next time, more on 5-Color – unless I get too excited about the Unhinged release.
Actually, is anyone excited about Unhinged?
Not me. (Me! – The Ferrett)
Maybe I’ll do a card-by-card review of Unhinged. Teddy Cardgame loves editing set reviews.
But don’t hold your breath.
* – One example of sick characters for old school roleplayers: I wrote a 1st Edition AD&D module for high-level characters. The party had to enter a lich’s fortress, the walls of which are impervious to disintegrate, teleport, displacement, etc, via a staircase. The staircase angled up at 45 degrees, extending 100 meters. Nystul’s Magic Aura and phantom traps were everywhere, so detects were useless.
The traps changed, but here’s one example: When the party was halfway up, Walls of Stone backed with Walls of Force sealed both ends of the staircase. Decanters of Endless Water in the walls opened automatically and flooded the passageway completely in about fifteen seconds.** Once the staircase was full of water, and the characters either breathing water or drowning, a lich at the top of the staircase cast Passwall, Polymorph water to iron, then Heat Metal, meaning that everyone in the staircase was immobilized, encased in steel heated to lethal temperatures. Those people who were water-breathing had additional problems.
The point wasn’t that the trap was deadly – the point was that in two years of running that adventure for different groups, that trap, or it’s variants, never killed a single character. The characters entering that castle took stuff like that in stride. Being drowned, then immobilized in searing-hot metal was an insignificant threat – just the trap at the doorway to set the mood. It got tougher once you got inside.
That’s what I mean by sick characters.
** – Yes, the air went somewhere – at high pressure through multiple small tubes. It did not go to a good place.