Yawgmoth’s Whimsy #118: The Most Challenging Format, Contract from Below and Ante

I’m going to kick a few hornets’ nests today. I think that everyone who has written about most challenging format gets it wrong, so I’m going to cover that. I will also discuss the whole issue of Contract from Below and ante in 5color. Abe Sargent has described banning Contract as the abortion issue of 5color — it raises heated debates, with zealots on both sides. Time to feed the flames.

I’m going to kick a few hornets’ nests today. I think that everyone who has written about most challenging format gets it wrong. I will also discuss the whole issue of Contract and ante in 5color. Abe Sargent has described banning Contract as the abortion issue of 5color – it raises heated debates, with zealots on both sides.

Time to feed the flames.

The Most Challenging Format

In some respects, this question is way too broad. It is like asking which is the best wood cutting tool. Depending on what your are doing, the correct answer might be carving knife, drill, chainsaw or daisy-cutter (it’s a really big bomb.) The same thing is true of the various formats – each stresses different skills. To determine which format is the most “skill intensive,” you have to define which skills are to be considered. For example, if the skill to be tested is looking ridiculous while doing strange things, the answer is probably Unhinged sealed.

If you really wanted to know which format provides training in the widest set of skills, then you would want to ask something like “If you could play only one format for a month, in preparation for a multi-event tourney like the Invitational, what format would you play?” Even then, answer would probably depend on what formats would be played in the Invitational.

Let’s look at some broad skills, and the formats that test them.


This skill is tied to a later one – predicting likely plays – but let’s look at it alone. I’m defining memorization as the ability to remember what you saw and/or what has been played. Formats like Type I have some of this involved, but you have all kind of crutches – for example, you can write down the content of players hands and ask to look at their graveyard. Maybe memory plays a part in scouting in T1, but that’s about it. Where memory really is important is in draft, where it is just as important to remember what bombs or removal you passed as to remember what you have taken. My vote for the most memory intensive format: Rochester draft, where you see every card and who picked it, but cannot take notes. Mental Magic, which does not allow anyone to repeat a card, gets an honorable mention.

Deck Construction

Put simply, deck construction means building the best possible deck from the available pool of cards. In Draft, that pool is limited, but you have some ability to select the cards. In Sealed, the pool is less limited, but you have no choice over the cards. [Technically Sealed has the smallest pool of seen cards if you consider the drafting and deckbuilding portions together. – Knut] In Constructed, you have a much larger pool of cards. 5color has the largest pool. I’m not sure that really matters.

In all formats, you have to carefully consider what your deck is trying to do, and what the opponent’s decks may do, when designing a deck. Limited formats are driven by mana curves, removal and creature combat. Type I is more driven by early plays and broken combos, but deck design is still constrained. 5color is a bit more complex, since players can – and do – put any form of weirdness in 5color decks, and you have to be able to deal with all of it, without sideboarding. However, I believe multiplayer decks require the greatest degree of deckbuilding skill. A multiplayer deck has to be able to deal with beatdown, combo, control and board clearing effects – often all at once. You can do that with things like Nev’s Disk, Forge[/author]“]Darksteel [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author] and Mycosynth Lattice – but getting that into play and active before dying requires really good deck design.

In terms of deck construction, the least skill intensive format has to be DC-10 (the deck is a random pile of draft leavings), with Mental Magic running a close second.

Metagaming / predicting an opponent’s likely answers:

Once again, I am attempting to define the skill in a way that’s meaningful across formats. In limited, this skill covers both knowing whether an opponent is likely to have an answer or trick in hand, as well as knowing whether to take enchantment or artifact removal early or late in a draft, and when to maindeck it. In constructed, it covers sideboard design, and a knowledge of when to include “sideboard” cards maindeck.

I don’t know that any single format has an advantage in this area. I think that metagaming is more a function of how good your opponents are, and how heavily influenced the format is by the Internet. I find metagaming to be a lot easier for a constructed PTQ in week six of the format, than in a Type Two FNM with a bunch of unknowns. The more well-known the format is, and the more strongly people want to win, the easier it is to predict what people will play. Metagaming, and making sure you have an answer for whatever an opponent might do, is quite difficult in 5color, since most players play Wishes and the Wishes can fetch practically anything. It is even harder in a multiplayer format.

Opportunities to make the Wrong Play:

I have played a lot of Type I, as well as hundreds of Sealed games, tons of Drafts and a lot of practically everything else. I think you have just as many chances to make the wrong play in Limited as in Type I. The mistakes are just a bit more obvious in Type I, where the mistake frequently ends the game in one cascade of brokenness. In Limited, you can often easily trace a loss to a single mistake made early on, but since that mistake may have only cost you tempo or a couple life, the effect may take some turns to play out. It may also be less obvious than having Yawgmoth’s Win resolve.

I also think that people are more likely to spot mistakes, and to immediately comprehend their results, in formats with which they are very familiar. T1 players will spot mistakes in T1 games, and Limited players will spot mistakes in Limited. The reverse is less likely to be true – the Limited player is less likely to spot a subtle error in T1.

Type I has a ton of bombs, but bombs are hardly exclusive to the format – or any format. I think that all formats have bombs that can get you out from under, even if you have made a number of mistakes. How often have you heard this:

“I made a couple mistakes, and he had me on the ropes. Then I ripped and just won.”

Does it matter whether the card was Yawgmoth’s Win, Upheaval, Arcbound Ravager, or Kumano, Master Yamabushi? Each is a game-swinging bomb in it’s own format.

Combat Tricks

This is one area where Limited formats have a clear advantage. No one plays Giant Growth in Constructed formats, but Kodama’s Might is a high pick in draft. Most Limited players are masters of combat effects, but – among Constructed players – only Tog players routinely have a strong grasp of combat phases and stack effects. There are exceptions, but the bigger the card pool, the less relevant combat-affecting instants are, and the less skilled (in this respect) the players are.


I did not include format-specific skills, like sending signals in draft, but politics isn’t format specific. Politics is most obvious in multiplayer games, but keeping UU up to bluff Counterspell or baiting an opponent into a trap is something that can be done in any format. I still remember playing Mike Pustilink at GP: New Orleans – he did an amazing job of suckering me. True, that was a Type I match, but the skill is not format specific. There is just a whole lot more opportunity for politicking in multiplayer. The opportunity is probably less common in tournaments like Worlds, where table talk is limited and language barriers exist. The nod goes to multiplayer, however, as most skill intensive when it comes to politicking.

Reading Tells

Reading an opponent’s body language is another skill that is not format specific – a good player can read an opponent in any format, even poker.

So where does this wind up? Simply put, I don’t think any one format has a higher “skill level” than any other. I have seen good and bad players playing each format. However, if I had to pick a format that challenges the most widely varied list of Magic skills, I would have to give the nod to multiplayer – when played between a group of skilled players. For duels, I would have to go with 5color. It has all the challenges of Type 1, but with larger, more varied decks, the options, choices and opponent’s potential responses are much more varied.

In the end, though, any argument like this really only serves to stroke peoples’ egos. So, with that in mind, feel free to say “the most skill intensive format is {insert what you play here.}” I won’t object.

Contract from Below and Ante

Contract from Below is the poster child of 5color. It, along with Chaos Orb, are the cards that 5color – and 5color alone – allows (and plays). Contract from Below is also the most broken card drawer ever printed. “Pay one Black, draw a new hand.” Sure, I’ll take that.

Some people think Contract is too broken, even for 5color. They want to restrict it, or even ban it. The format restricts cards like Recoup and Regrowth primarily because they can reuse Contract. No question Contract verges on ridiculous.

Some people think the answer is to play for real ante. Here’s an excerpt Josh Wilkin’s post from the 5color discussion forum:

“I believe one of the bigger problems, at least in my area, is lack of real ante. I think ante was put in place so people who were playing big money cards had to put them at risk of losing them. After a player loses a $20 dual land or two they may start thinking twice about showing off money in their deck.”

My first reaction to this was “you are so wrong.” It still is. Ante does nothing to stop people playing power, or even duals.

I started playing 5color five years ago – about six months after the format took off. I played in 5color qualifiers just after the first 5color Worlds. People not only had power, they played it. They still have power, whether or not they play for ante. Ante does not stop power.

One big effect of power is that – just like in Type I – decks with power kick the crap out of decks without power. A full powered deck can be expected to win often enough that ante will pay for itself, even if the power player is unlucky enough to ante their Lotus. If you play a well-tuned, fully powered, 40 duals, 20 fetchland 5color deck, and have at least a reasonable amount of skill, you really only need to worry about people playing equally good decks. You are going to crush lesser decks. Just like in Type 1.

Where ante really has an impact is on people entering the game. If you have people playing the $5000+ decks – and we do – and playing for ante against the new players, those new players are going to lose a ton of cards. It takes a fair number of games (a lot of games) to learn how 5color works, which means learning that the high level metagame is not about Spiritmonger with equipment and paying kicker on ‘volvers. Then it probably takes another big bunch of games to learn how to build and tune a deck. Even if you are a fast learner, if you are playing for ante that’s going to cost you a ton of cards. That means you are giving up rares and duals – and those are hard for a lot of players to come by. They are harder to lose.

I still remember the last 5color qualifier I played in that summer five years ago – I ended up losing a net of two Survival of the Fittest, a Phyrexian Plaguelord, a Bayou and couple random rares, even though I won one match and friends gave me back my stuff two others. I quit 5color after that. The next time I played – could not avoid playing, because it was one of the formats in a multi-format invitational – I played a deck with some Vec Townships as the only rares. At least one other player at the invitational also played without rares – we both chose to sacrifice our chance at the first place cash to avoid losing good cards in ante.

Sure, I’m a wimp. But when a format revolves around ante, it quickly brings out the sharks. I know better than to play 5color with random people at game conventions – too often those are the people who play 5color primarily to win cards off suckers. They don’t play interesting decks, they don’t play casually or for fun, and they don’t offer bad rare trade-back or discounted buyback. I’ll play any format with anyone at Gencon or Origins – except for 5color.

Ante isn’t a serious problem when you have experienced players against equally experienced players, or newbies against newbies. The problem with ante comes when someone tries to build their first decent 5color deck. That deck is going to have a handful of duals and as many fetchlands as they can muster – and a fairly random assortment of other good cards. That means that these players are going to be playing a lot of $10+ cards. Inevitably, they will ante a lot of those cards – and they will lose a fair number.

New players don’t usually like drafting when the winner gets all the rares and foils. They also don’t like losing cards – especially when those cards are expensive. Ante – for everyone but the really good players who know the format and have the best decks – is painful. Enforcing ante is going to keep a lot of the newer players out of the format.

I’ve mentioned I play at two stores. Misty Mountain is full of pros and great 5color players. Pegasus Games caters to kids and casual players. I often get my butt kicked by the serious players at Misty, but I slaughter the kids at Pegasus. If the games were played for real ante, I wouldn’t play many of the folks at Misty, and if I went to Pegasus, the kids wouldn’t play me.

If you want people to actually play the format, enforcing ante is not the answer.

That said – even with Ante, Contract is the most broken piece of cardboard in existence – including the stuff in Unglued and Unhinged. Without ante, Contract is ridiculous. The only thing that makes Contract even vaguely balanced is the ante. So I propose another option: don’t ante to start the game. Roll a die or something. Then enforce ante if you play Contract. That would mean that when you Contract, whatever you turn up becomes ante. You Contract five times, you have five cards in ante. Your opponent doesn’t Contract at all – he has no cards in the ante, and his Jeweled Birds don’t draw cards. This should stop one problem the folks on the 5color list talk about – people who cast Contract when they are losing, because they have nothing on the line. I’m not sure that it solves all the problems, though. Let’s see how this plays out, by looking at the major problems involving Contract and ante.

1) New players (& wimps like me) hate losing cards / don’t like getting involved in the format if it’s played for ante:

Now they don’t lose cards unless they play Contract. Learning the format is now painless (financially, although new players will still lose game after game until they tune their decks & learn how to play, but that’s true in any format.) The new kids might even get excited by actually winning a card when an opponent Contracts and still loses.

2) New players get to see the poster children of the format – Contract and Chaos Orb.

Sure. Contract is broken, and very few cards are more likely to get a “WTF! Let me read that!” when first seen than Contract. So it gets played. It can even get played against new players, without them having to ante. The power level of the card might still be sufficient that the 5color council might have to consider restricting it sometime, but that’s a different issue.

3) Limiting people Contracting when they are clearly losing.

Sure. You will likely lose an ante card. Real ante. To the extent that matters, people won’t Contract when their position is hopeless. Maybe. Contract give you seven new cards, and at a cost so cheap that you have almost all your mana left. You position has to be pretty hopeless, or your deck really bad, if seven new cards cannot get you out of the mess.

4) Promote playing for real ante.

It should. People like me – that hate losing cards more than losing games – can play without ante and not have to worry about losing cards. People who love Contract can play it. The only downside is that people who like playing for ante with bad players, just so they can win cards, are not going to win as many cards. That’s also good. If you are playing 5color because ante is, for you, a legitimate way of ripping off kids, and if you leave the format as a result of this rule change, that’s also a good thing.

5) The format does not have to ban or restrict Contract.

Probably not. Contract is really broken, but the ante drawback is significant when you cannot assume that you will win enough in initial ante to cover using it. It is possible that Contract is so broken that ante may not be enough, but that remains to be seen.

So that’s the proposal: Do not ante to start the game. Ante only when cards (e.g. Contract) call for it.

I have discussed this a bit with the kids, and more serious players, at Pegasus. They were not thrilled – none of them want to play ante at all. I haven’t had much chance to discuss it with the serious 5color players, although their initial reaction was positive. Of course, the folks at Misty don’t usually play for ante anyway. I also posted this idea to the 5color discussion forum. Results were mixed.

I don’t know whether the 5color council will take this up.

You can discuss this issue, along with anything else in this article, on the StarCityGames.com forums. Just click on the “discuss this article” link.

I’ve got my fire resistant long johns on. Flame away.


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