Yawgmoth’s Whimsy #125: 241 In 5-Color, Plus The Great Portal Debate

None of the cards in Portal are format-shattering; the problem is that the quantity of tutors is reaching critical mass. I define “critical mass” as having enough tutors that you can rely on having the tutors necessary to find important cards often enough to build a deck that relies on tutoring for a given card by turn 2 or 3. And what does that mean for the format?

In 5-Color, you only get to play 250 (or a bit more) cards in your deck. You have to economize. Your cards have to work overtime. At the very least, they should at least both go to the head and do something else as well – but a good 5-Color card needs to do at least two things, do them both well, and do them both cheaply.*

5-Color is a fairly unique format. It requires everyone to play all five colors, meaning that you really can play all the good cards from every color, and color considerations consist of worrying about double and triple mana of a given color, not single mana symbols. Even so, cards like Future Sight are still widely played, despite having triple blue in the casting cost.

The Basics:

For those of you not familiar with the basics of 5-Color, here’s the format in a nutshell: There is a 250-card minimum, with at least eighteen cards of each color, all the playable tutors are restricted. The original concept was that games would be long and strange, since you would never be quite sure what your deck – or your opponent’s deck – would produce.

5-Color was created as a fun, casual format. Early 5-Color decks ran lots of strange creatures and funky cards. It has evolved since then. At the high end, the decks are very streamlined and tight. At the low end, 5-Color games are a lot more like a big multiplayer game where everyone hates combo decks, full of unexpected creatures and strange tricks.

5-Color has its idiosyncrasies.

Chaos Orb is legal. Chaos Orb is a flip card – the original kind of flip card. You drop it from a height, spinning, and it kills everything it touches. You play 5-Color with your permanents spread well apart.

Contract from Below is legal and unrestricted. That is just bizarre – and the signature of 5-Color. (It’s ridiculously overpowered – The Ferrett)

5-Color is, nominally, played for ante. You are supposed to ante a card to start the game. Whoever antes the card with the highest casting cost gets to draw and play first. Some people play “fake ante” – they just set the ante cards aside until the game ends, then shuffle them back in. Some people play for nickel or dime buyback. Some may play with you for a while, let all the ante cards stack up, then call it even – even if the piles are not. They may trade back for stuff out of your trade binder – and may give you a break on those tradebacks. They may play for signature ante (winner scribbles on the loser’s cards, but gives them back.)

Or they may just keep the ante cards they win. It varies, so it’s a good idea to ask before you play.

If your opponents keep the ante cards, 5-Color is a very expensive format to learn. It takes a lot of games to learn and understand what is going on, and each game can cost you a rare. Of course, playing with Contract from Below and not playing for ante is really stupid. The card is undercosted when you ante – and it’s beyond insane when you don’t.

Hard core 5-Color players usually play without sleeves. At one time, this was a rule – now it is an option. Shuffling a 250 card deck is significantly easier without sleeves. With sleeves, it requires either gigantic hands or a lot more riffles to shuffle. I, personally, have my 5-Color deck sleeved in all the mismatched and cast-off sleeves I can find – probably seventy0five different colors and types of sleeves. The deck doesn’t shuffle well at all – but it looks cool, uses up my odd sleeves, and sleeves mean my cards don’t get wrecked.

The Three Tiers of 5-Color

Tier One:

At high levels, 5-Color is a rich man’s sport. The core of a serious 5-Color deck is thirty-four to forty dual lands, twenty Onslaught fetchlands, various restricted Vintage cards (Sol Ring, Demonic Tutor, etc.), and the power ten if you can afford them. Control decks run full sets of Mana Drains and other expensive goodness. I once said that a Vintage deck costs more than my first car; a tier one 5-Color deck cost more than my first good car. Even more true now, except that the prices of all the old cards is still increasing. The value of my cars is not.

At tier one levels, the power and consistency of 5-Color decks is approaching that of sixty-card Standard, and may be higher. Tier One 5-Color decks can often give Extended decks a run for their money.

Tier Two:

These are the 5-Color decks that try to play beatdown, or aggro-control, or whatever, without running power and so forth. Just like in Vintage, they can run from “competitive, sorta” to “can win if you mulligan a lot, then get mana screwed.” These decks beat each other, but not the tier one decks with any consistency. In that respect, 5-Color is a lot like Vintage before StarCityGames and The Mana Drain started emphasizing the format.

Tier Fun:

This is where 5-Color gets interesting. A lot of 5-Color decks are more focused on cool than on winning fast and hard. It’s these decks that I want to talk about when covering double duty cards. These are the decks that are most likely to meet other interesting and varied decks, and these are the decks that benefit most from double-duty cards.

The best example of a double duty card is probably Flametongue Kavu. FTK is a solid removal spell and a 4/2 creature to boot. Removal and beatdown – or at least a two-for-one card. Double duty.

Academy Rector is the next example. Technically, he is a win condition, but his beatdown is irrelevant. In reality, he is a wall. He’s like a whiney little twerp with a tough big brother – the kind that says “If you hurt me, I’ll make you so sorry!” And he can. When he dies, Academy Rector fetches any one of an annoying series of enchantments, from Future Sight to Pernicious Deed to Rancor to Confiscate. The Rector is restricted, and for a reason.

Orim’s Thunder is another basic example. 5-Color has a lot of artifacts and enchantments that can cause problems. Disenchant (or Naturalize, for you young’uns) is pretty much a necessity. However, Orim’s Thunder with kicker can be a two-for-one. It is a staple in all my beatdown decks. In control decks, Dismantling Blow is my disenchant of choice. Running just a bit behind those cards are Artifact Mutation and Hull Breach.

Vindicate is in a similar category, but it is a staple all by itself. Vindicate is the gold standard in flexible removal.

The Invasion block Battlemages and ‘Volvers are an option for the beatdown mage on a budget. Battlemages are usually a two-for-one, often a three for one – and they get even better if you also play a couple Ninjas to bounce them back. Volvers are just big and fun to play. Neither Battlemages nor ‘Volvers are really competitive in serious 5-Color, but they are quite useful in more casual games. Play ’em if you have them.

Etched Oracle is playable in serious Type One, especially control, and easily acquired. You should always be able to play them with four counters, and should only play them when you also have the mana to sacrifice them to draw the cards. My favorite play is to target my Oracle and an opponent’s creature with Orim’s Thunder, then sacrifice my Oracle in response. I draw cards, and my opponent’s creature takes a hit. (Rules stuff: Orim’s Thunder has two targets, so it is not countered on resolution as long as at least one of the targets is still in play, and the creature takes damage based on last known characteristics of the Etched Oracle.)

Trinket Mage is another example of a two-for-one – and a very flexible one at that. I run one copy each of several useful artifacts in my deck: Tormod’s Crypt to smash reanimation strategies, Engineered Explosives as removal, Skullclamp to draw cards, Mox Diamond, artifact lands and Sol Ring for mana, etc. etc., etc. – and Trinket Mage can fetch any one of them. Trinket Mage can even fetch Jeweled Bird, if you play for real ante.

I have been trying to limit my suggestions to the commons and uncommons, to keep the cost low. Obviously, cards like Pernicious Deed and even Fire / Ice are solid options with multiple uses, but they are pricey – especially in Magic Online. Cards like Quiet Speculation are far more affordable. Quiet Speculation should be able to get at least three copies each of Roar of the Wurm and Deep Analysis, plus Ray of Revelation. It can also fetch removal, like Diabolic Edict, and the invaluable Recoup.

(Recoup is so good it’s restricted, because it lets you cast a Contract or any other useful sorcery out of the graveyard. Getting a second use from Contract is pretty broken.)

In some respects, 5-Color is more like multiplayer than like Standard, Extended and Vintage. 5-Color has a varied metagame. It has vast regional differences. It also has significant differences between playgroups. Some people I have seen playing 5-Color are sporting complete sets of duals and tightly focused decks. Those people fear Price of Progress, Skyshroud Warbeast, and Ruination. Other groups rely on Harrow, Sakura-Tribe Elders, and Kodama’s Reach to smooth their mana, and the aforementioned cards do nothing to them.

In 5-Color, it is a lot easier to tailor your decks to your friend’s metagame than to a global metagame. It is also a lot harder to pull 5-Color decks off the net, probably because it is a lot harder to type in complete decklists. Look around StarCityGames.com: the articles, deck databases, and forums all have hundreds of decklists for most formats, except 5-Color.

Sometimes it’s nice having a poorly-defined metagame.

I was going to spend the whole article on double-duty cards, but I want to ramble a bit on the big debate currently raging on the 5-Color listserv: Portal cards. For months, some players have been championing making Portal cards legal in 5-Color. Others have opposed it. Truth be told, I spent a bit of time throwing gasoline on that fire.

Now that Wizards has announced that it will allow Portal into Vintage, the debate has heated up further.

Dominic Reisland has calculated that Portal, Portal II, and Portal Three Kingdoms contain 358 cards that are not already legal in Vintage. The rest are either reprints in Portal from Vintage-legal sets (like basic lands, Natural Order, and Stone Rain), or have been reprinted in the main sets after being introduced in Portal (like Balance of Power, Ambition’s Cost, and Peach Garden Oath).

When Wizards developed Portal, it tried to create a simplified version of the game that would let new players learn the basics without being too badly swamped with rules. That meant that certain things were cut from the Portal vocabulary – most notably artifacts and instants – and other concepts were renamed – e.g creatures don’t block, they intercept. Wordings of other cards were changed accordingly. For example, the Portal wording of Blessed Reversal reads: “Sorcery. Play Blessed Reversal only after you’re attacked, before you declare interceptors. For each attacking creature, you gain three life.” The current Oracle text is “Instant. You gain three life for each creature attacking you.”

Many of the Portal cards have received extensive errata. Sorceries that can be played during your opponent’s turn have become instants, of course, and many other changes are obvious. Some changes are less self-evident. I worry that this will result in even more rules debates, and in having to tell kids their decks don’t work because card wordings change. I hate that, but that’s life. The 5-Color folks generally don’t feel that that is sufficient reason to worry about Portal. Fair enough.

Portal also introduces a number of new cards. Jungle Lion, for example, is a very good 2/1 for G – something beatdown decks will generally like. Fire Imp is another useful creature, and one I played in multiplayer many years ago. Creatures like those may well see play, but they won’t break 5-Color.

However, the introduction of certain other cards might cause some problems; specifically certain tutors and possibly Ravages of War. Some tutors will be irrelevant (namely, Sylvan Tutor is a reprint of Worldly Tutor, which isn’t played anyway). The tutors that will have an impact are Imperial Seal (Vampiric Tutor under another name), Cruel Tutor (a bad Vampiric Tutor), Personal Tutor (fetch a sorcery) and probably Gift of Estates (a slower, costlier Tithe). Cards like Hunting Cheetah and Imperial Recruiter could also be useful in some decks, but they are not format-shattering.

Actually, none of the cards in and of themselves are format shattering. The problem is that the quantity of tutors is reaching critical mass. Both Brian Epstein and Adrian Sullivan beat me to the post on this, but we all see the same problem – the sheer number of tutors in 5-Color is getting large enough to threaten the format. Adding the tutors from Portal brings the format closer to that level.

I define “critical mass” as having enough tutors that you can rely on having the tutors necessary to find important cards often enough to build a deck that relies on tutoring for a given card by turn 2 or 3. In tier two and lower 5-Color, that generally means finding Contract from Below, then burying your opponent with the resulting card advantage. In tier one 5-Color, that seems to be finding Time Walk, then recasting it over and over again.

5-Color was created in a time when getting all 5-Colors of mana was difficult and time consuming. The only fetchlands available were the Mirage versions, which came into play tapped, and stuff like Wood Elves and Land Grant. You could not build a deck expecting to have all five colors of mana by turn 4. Today, with the duals and Onslaught fetchlands, plus stuff like Fellwar Stone, having all five mana on turn 4 is pretty much a given.

When 5-Color was born, it also had a very limited set of tutors to work with – primarily Demonic Tutor, Merchant Scroll, the Mirage tutors, Intuition, Demonic Consultation, plus some iffy tutors like Gamble and Rhystic Tutor. In the beginning, there were maybe eight playable tutors – say ten to be generous – and they were all restricted. That meant one card in twenty-five could be a tutor. Now the restricted list includes two dozen actual tutors, plus numerous draw 7s and so forth. You can now build decks where one card in ten is a tutor.

Critical mass would unquestionably be a tutor, on average, in every opening hand. That would mean that you could expect to have Time Walk or Contract in your hand by turn 3 or so. That level of critical mass would require thirty-five tutors – but with Brainstorm and fetchlands, plus all the other cheap blue draw, critical mass is probably one tutor in the first nine cards. At that point, you should be able to tutor for Contract or Time Walk and make practical use of it almost immediately. One tutor every 9 cards also means a 78 percent chance of drawing a tutor off every Contract.

Consistently drawing a tutor in the first 9 cards would require 27 tutors in a 250 card deck. We have 24 tutors now on the restricted list now. Portal would add four more.

24 + 4 = 28: critical mass.

The only saving grace is that some of those tutors are Gamble and Rhystic Tutor – otherwise this would, indeed, be combo heaven. That and the fact that some tutors only fetch other tutors – like playing Merchant Scroll to fetch Mystical Tutor to fetch Contract.

The critical mass problem is why the Portal issue is worth debate at all. (Nobody’s seriously worried about Jungle Lion and Fire Imp.) Portal is of concern because Portal pushes certain types of cards closer to critical mass.

Portal affects not just tutors, but other types of cards and decks. For example, I wrote about my 5-Color deck built around Armageddon and Terravores a while back. That deck relied on getting Armageddon and casting it early and often. The deck had to rely on marginal ‘Geddon effects, like Impending Disaster and Cataclysm. Portal, Three Kingdoms, however, includes the card Ravages of WarArmageddon under another name. With Portal legal in the format, I get four more Armageddons. That may not be critical mass, but it is a lot closer – and it is relevant, because a lot of other beatdown decks also rely on the classic Ernham-Geddon strategy of dropping a fast threat, then destroying all the lands to keep opponents from responding.

Another category approaching critical mass is Regrowth effects. When 5-Color first evolved, you had Regrowth and Recall, and shortly thereafter Restock, plus bad stuff like Elven Cache and Soldevi Digger. Now you have Restock and Regrowth and Nostalgic Dreams and Eternal Witness and All Suns’ Dawn and on and on. These are all restricted, but getting back Time Walk or Contract is still almost easy. Portal adds two more Regrowth cards: Déjà vu and Sage’s Knowledge both put a card from your graveyard back into your hand for 2U. It would make regrowing Time Walk even easier. Once again, Portal might take us to critical mass.

So what would it mean to hit critical mass? It would mean that 5-Color decks would be as consistent as sixty-card Constructed decks. In Extended and Vintage, that means combo. In 5-Color, that probably also means combo – although it could also mean that Keeper-style decks could draw enough cards to lock down opponents. Either way, it certainly means bad times for the casual crowd and for the Tier Two 5-Color players.

Even the tier one players are not too happy about this. Pat Fehling, former 5-Color world champ, has opposed the inclusion of Portal. So have others.

Critical mass means that effects are both common and redundant (meaning having the first one countered isn’t enough to stop you.) With the Portal tutors in the mix, and the card drawing already in the format (*cough* Contract *cough*) the format will be very close to redundant tutoring power. Everyone can argue about exactly what 5-Color is supposed to be, but I think everyone has to agree that redundant tutoring is not what 5-Color was created to be.

People can argue about whether 5-Color is at critical mass now, would be at critical mass with the Portal Tutors, or would not reach critical mass until Wizards prints a few more tutors after Portal joins the mix. Brian Epstein said it might be three years; Adrian Sullivan suggested it is closer. I’m not sure, but I think it’s really close. Adding Portal to the mix either brings it closer or puts it over the top.

At some point, and probably before October when Portal becomes legal in Vintage, the 5-Color ruling council (the group that makes the rules for 5-Color) will have to address critical mass. Here are some possibilities they could consider:

1) Ban Portal

This is probably overkill, and will make some people who really like Jungle Lion or Bear Cubs unhappy. Moreover, it will only delay the critical mass issue. However, I don’t expect any Portal card to have any impact on the format unless the type of card (e.g. tutor, Armageddon, Regrowth, etc.) is already close to critical mass. In other words, Portal will be either irrelevant or speeding us towards the train wreck, so maybe it should stay banned. Banning Portal does not, however, prevent the train wreck – it only delays it.

2) Ban The Portal Tutors (And Anything Else Reaching Critical Mass)

This is probably better than nerfing all of Portal, but this is also just a temporary solution. Wizards will keep printing tutors. On the plus side, people will get to play their favorite strange Portal cards, like the musketeers and steamboats.

3) Restrict The *Number* Of Tutors.

Right now, all the playable tutors (including such gems as Rhystic Tutor and Gamble) are on the restricted list. The sheer number of restricted cards creates critical mass, even at one apiece. As an alternative to restriction, the 5CRC could limit the number of tutors that could be in a deck. This would involve putting all the tutors on a “tutors” list, and limiting decks to a set number off the list – for example, fourteen. The “tutors” list might be 29 cards long, but your deck could have a total of fourteen cards on the list. Those tutors might not even have to be restricted – Suicide Black could play four Demonic Tutor, four Vampiric Tutor, 4 Demonic Consultations and two Diabolic Tutors, just like it’s supposed to. (Yes, I see the problems with that – see next option.)

4) Give Each Tutor A Point Value, And Limit The Points.

Some tutors are obviously better than others. For example, Demonic Tutor (which puts cards directly in hand) is better than Enlightened Tutor (which eats a draw step), and Enlightened is better than Gamble (which can lose the card altogether). Therefore, you could, for example, price Demonic Tutor at three points, Enlightened Tutor at two points, and Gamble at one. Other tutors, like Worldly and its clones, could probably be priced at zero. (They aren’t played much now, anyway.) Under the points plan, 5-Color decks would be allowed to run a maximum of, say, thirty points worth of tutors. This would force people to choose between quality and quantity of tutors.

(I haven’t tested these numbers at all. They are just illustrations, to get the point across. If the 5CRC looks at one of these options, it would have to test the numbers. )

5) Increase The Deck Size

Critical mass is defined by number of tutors in a deck divided by number of cards in the deck. If critical mass is one tutor in every nine cards, that means twenty-seven or twenty-eight tutors in a 250-card deck. If the deck size were to increase, the number necessary to reach critical mass would also increase. For example, if 5-Color decks had to contain 350 cards, critical mass – one tutor every nine cards – would not be reached until the tutor count approached thirty-nine.

Oh, yes – there is one other option. The unmentionable one.

***Warning – the following is not suitable for some 5-Color fanatics and other small children.***

6) Restrict Contract from Below

I’m sorry, I’m sorry – stop foaming at the mouth. I did not mean to gore sacred cattle. However, restricting Contract does solve part of the tutor problem. Most of the rest would be solved by errataing Time Walk so it is removed from the game when cast.

I’m just trying to be mention all the options. It’s okay – we won’t touch your Contracts. Go back to sleep now. It was just a nightmare.

Okay, sorry about that. Back to reality now.

The same sorts of rules could be applied to handle other effects that might reach critical mass, such as Armageddon. However, the 5-Color metagame should be able to find answers for that type of problem without restrictions, provided that the tutor problem doesn’t allow people to overpower the answers.

Personally, I prefer option number 4 – point values for tutors – but I don’t have to decide. That’s what the 5CRC gets the big bucks for.


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* – Okay, some cards just do one thing, but do it so well and so cheaply that they are restricted or banned everywhere else. Cards like “draw three cards for U,” “take an extra turn for 1U,” or “go get whatever card you want for 1B” aren’t really that flexible – but so what? If Ancestral Recall was modal – if, for example, it read “Draw three cards or look at opponent’s hand” – it’s not as if anyone would ever even consider playing the second ability.