Yawgmoth’s Whimsy # 142: Whither 5-Color?

Last month, Pete wrote an article about the how, why, and history of bannings. Nothing much happened when the new banned and restricted list came out on March 1st — but bannings and restrictions are causing a huge uproar in the 5-Color format. It’s safe to say that the format with Chaos Orb is in chaos itself.

Last month, I wrote an article about the how, why, and history of bannings. Nothing much happened when the new banned and restricted list came out on March 1st – but bannings and restrictions are causing a huge uproar in the 5-Color format. It’s safe to say that the format with Chaos Orb is in chaos itself.

5-Color was the brainchild of Kurt Hahn and a collection of Milwaukee players. The concept was simple – big decks, all five colors, allowing people to play everything they have. The format initially allowed all the cards that were available, including ante cards (like Contract from Below) and dexterity cards (like Chaos Orb.) Beyond that it used, technically, the Type 1 (now know as Vintage) banned and restricted list, but that was not a huge deal, since few people played power cards in the early days. 5-Color also restricted all the tutors, because 5-Color decks were not supposed to be consistent. 5-Color was supposed to be a Constructed format with a Limited feel.

Early 5-Color was a format defined by mana problems. People could, and did, play dual lands, but this was in the days before Onslaught. The only fetch lands were the old Mirage tap lands, like Bad River. The only other cards that could get dual lands were Wood Elves, Natures Lore, Land Grant, and Silverglade Elemental – and those only worked if one half of the dual was a Forest. Beyond the duals, the only playable multicolored lands were Gemstone Mine, Undiscovered Paradise, and City of Brass. People played painlands, and even stooped down to the depletion lands, because there simply was nothing better.

Harrow was an automatic four of, because it was one of the few cards that could really balance or fix your mana.

In those days, a format with shaky mana and a big card pool was a random format. Mana costs were a huge concern, and people avoided double mana costs wherever possible. A classic archetype from that period was 3-2-1 Contract, which was basically a huge pile of cheap, efficient creatures plus Contract from Below, and nothing had double mana costs. Kurt Hahn played Derelors, because, in those days, that was about as good a creature as you could get without double something.

Ante was a huge part of the format, and was generally enforced in those early days. I know I lost a lot of good cards to better decks back then. Contract was everywhere – as it always has been.

One of the first bannings in the new format was also an ante card. Darkpact was, and is, a cheap rare. It allows people to steal expensive cards from the ante, but has no other effect on the game. Kurt Hahn once said that the first time he saw someone trade Darkpact for an anted dual land, he knew Darkpact had to go. It was banned shortly thereafter.

Darkpact also violated the “golden rule” of early 5-Color: don’t be a dick. The DBaD rule applied to any card or circumstance that was just too much of a pain to be worth it. For example, Haunting Echoes is heavily frowned upon, because resolving a Haunting Echoes on a 250-card deck takes forever.

Survival of the Fittest was banned for much the same reason. It is pretty broken in a format with few tutors – but the main reason is that searching a 250-card deck several times per turn wastes a huge amount of time. Ditto Shahrazad, and pseudo tutors like Phyrexian Portal.

Ante – and Contract:

Contract from Below has been the defining card for the 5-Color format forever, and the cause of many bannings. Contract is the best card drawing card ever printed – it gets more than twice the cards of Ancestral Recall, and for the same mana cost.

Contract is stupid good.

Contract has one “balancing factor” – it requires you to ante an additional card. Early in 5-Color history, the format wrote special rules for 5-Color that said that the card you anted for Contract had to be good – it had to be a rare, or at least a decent foil. If you flipped a basic land or common, you kept flipping until you anted something good.

Some people believe that the concept of ante, or enforcing ante, makes Contract fair. Adrian Sullivan, for one, thinks that simply enforcing the rule that you have to remove Contract if not playing for ante would solve the problem. Other people claim that ante controls the problem of the Power 9 and other expensive, broken rares. They have always claimed this – and still frequently make the claim on the 5-Color listserve and in the forums. This seems especially prevalent in certain areas: mainly Colorado and, now, California. Madison players, Adrian aside, seem to disagree.

5-Color has a World Championship. That is the major purpose of the 5-Color Rules Committee – to set the format for 5-Color Worlds and to make sure that the format is not too broken.

5-Color Worlds have been played for the last six years.

Madison players have won every single time.

The Madison players, the good ones at least, almost invariably play Power 9 cards in their 5-Color decks. I remember the very first 5-Color worlds, and playing against Jason Moungey (the first 5-Color Worlds champion) both before and after Worlds. His deck ran a full set of Power 9, forty dual lands, four Force of Wills and a pile of the other super-expensive cards from Legends and other early sets. His deck was also a sick, powerful variant of the Maher Oath archetype.

He played for ante.

After the first Worlds, Oath of Druids was banned in 5-Color.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should state that I am no fan of losing cards and I hate ante. It’s a personal bias, and after losing a small pile of decent rares, I quit 5-Color shortly after the first 5-Color Worlds. I didn’t play it again until it became a format at a regional invitational I earned entry too, and then dropped the format again until I was sure everyone was playing for fake ante.

I would note that, over time, many areas have moved away from ante, for a variety of reasons. Some people don’t like losing cards. Some don’t like having to rebuild their decks (and when people play for five hours straight, completing games every five or ten minutes, that means a lot of cards get pulled out and tradebacks become a pain.) People started playing for “gentlemen’s ante” (simply remove the card for that game, then give them back), scribble ante (winner defaces the losers card), or for coins. With ante changing, 5-Color boomed, in Madison at least. I have seen people playing at three different stores, with at least a dozen players at each store. That would never happen if ante were enforced.

But let’s get back to bannings and restrictions.

Odyssey Block

Odyssey Block brought a couple of new bannings and restrictions. Battle of Wits was banned as soon as the card was spoiled, because no one thought it would be fun to have a card that just randomly won the game in the format. Diabolic Tutor was restricted, like any other tutor. The format’s biggest battles, however, came over Quiet Speculation, Recoup, and the Wishes. Quiet Speculation fetched a lot of 6/6 beaters, but it also fetched Recoup, which let you cast Contract again. Contract is really good, and since no one was willing to ban or restrict Contract, Recoup and Quiet Speculation got restricted (although QS is once again unrestricted.)

The Wishes illustrate another problem with governing a format. Since 5-Color does not use a sideboard, the Wishes had little function at first. Then the ruling council decided to let the Wishes get any card you had with you, provided you didn’t already have four in the deck. This lead to people casting Wishes, then paging through their card binder to find something that could help in the particular situation, or keeping an extra 150 cards in with their 5-Color deck as a wish targets. Resolving Wishes started to take forever, and opponents got bored. In a backlash, the council changed the rule so that Wishes only got cards that were removed from the game. Of course, since Wishes were most commonly used to recover Recouped Time Walks and Contracts, that was not that big a change, but it did piss off a lot of casual players.

Holistic Wisdom, which allowed you to cast Contract over and over again, was banned.

Onslaught Block

Looking over the current 5-Color B&R list, the only Onslaught block cards on the list are Parallel Thoughts – a pseudo tutor that is just broken, and the restricted Future Sight. However, Onslaught block’s impact on the format was not through restricted or banned cards.

Onslaught brought the fetchlands, and the biggest revolution 5-Color has ever seen. With the inclusion of twenty fetchlands and a nearly complete set of duals, 5-Color players could be reasonably assured of all five colors of mana on turn 3. Cards with multiple colored mana symbols in the casting cost (like Future Sight) went from unplayable to restricted.

Mirrodin Block

The land of broken artifacts brought some additional power to the format, and some banned and restricted cards. Panoptic Mirror was banned, because the format was full of cards that were just wrong when cast every turn, whether those cards were Contract, Time Walk, or even Mystical Tutor. Crucible of Worlds was banned as well, since Wasteland/Crucible is an insane lock in a format that is designed to have mana issues.

Eternal Witness and Skullclamp are restricted.

Sundering Titan caused huge fights in the format. Since every competitive deck runs duals, and since decks could consistently reanimate or Tinker it into play somewhere before turn six, the games really devolved into a race to see who could get Titan and Armageddon away the opponent’s mana base. After that, Titan usually won in a couple turns, since he is a hard card to get rid of if you have no lands. However, the format was deeply divided between those who enjoyed playing “turbo Titan” decks and those who saw them stifling the format. This is always the case with a sick format – some people love the degenerate decks and some people hate them. People can even be on both sides at different times (e.g. I loved Survival decks; I hated Affinity.)

Kamigawa Block

If you’ve played the block, you know. Nothing much happened.

Ravnica Block

Ravnica block brought a whole new set of dual lands, which can allow a lot more people to get into the format. The biggest impact, however, came from the Dimir guild: Transmute. More tutors.

5-Color started as a format where huge decks and five colors created inconsistent, unexpected Magic games. It was like Limited in that respect. However, Onslaught fetchlands straightened out the mana, and now the number of tutors hit the tipping point. People could, and did, build broken combo decks every bit as potent as good Standard decks, and as good as many Extended and Legacy decks. 5-Color was turning into Vintage Lite (in terms of consistency and speed, not dollars. 5-Color decks started going off on turn 3, not 2, but in terms of cost they were twice the cost of Tier 1 Vintage decks, since they have all the same power cards plus a full set of duals and fetchlands.)

5-Color decks now had a lot of tutors, and you could reasonably expect to get a tutor to get Contract or the card you needed by turn 3 (even if you had to tutor for a tutor first.) Decks could consistently do broken things.

Here’s the question that the 5-Color Rule Committee had/has to address: is that bad?

It is a judgment call. The 5CRC had to determine just how broken the format was, and what was necessary to fix it. To some, the format needed radical surgery. To others, the format was just fine. That’s always the case – public opinion is always split on these issues. One big problem with 5-Color is that the forums and listserve are full of strongly opinionated players – and all basing their opinions on their own experiences in widely different metagames.

Last fall, the 5CRC decided to begin a multi-step process to rebalance the format. They had a lot of options – everything from limiting the total number of tutors you could put in a deck, to banning fetchlands, to trying to assign point values to cards. In the end, they chose to ban Time Walk, Tinker, and many of the one mana tutors. This was the infamous “November ballot.” Dominic Riesland has written a bit about that.

As for the spectrum of opinions, here’s one end:

From: "joshua timberman" [email protected]
Subject: What killed 5C… for me

Was the November ballot passing.

I really like brokenness. I really like plays like Yawgmoth’s Will, [Time] Walk, Contract, clear the opponent’s board, toss a couple creatures back on the table and move to the next turn for the win.

I like Walk, Regrowth it, Walk, Recoup, Walk, Burning Wish, Walk, All Sun’s Dawn and do it again.

On the other end, I pulled a lot of my good cards out of my 5 and put them in other decks, like Elder Dragon Highlander and multiplayer specials, because I didn’t find that sort of game any fun at all. I didn’t play more than a handful of 5-Color games in the last six months of 2005. I did, however, put my deck back together after the November ballot.

Was the format broken? Opinions vary. They always do.

What makes the job of a group like the 5CRC so much harder is that people see very different metagames. Some people see players with a handful of duals, a couple fetchlands, and Juggernauts as their big threats. Others see a metagame where practically every serious play has thirty-five-plus duals, Time Walk, and Ancestral Recall. Here are a couple posts – look at how their experiences vary:

From: "joshua timberman" [email protected]
Subject: What killed 5C… for me

….Brokenness like this is widely available in Vintage, sure. However most people in my area aren’t interested in Vintage. They are missing some of the key cards (moxes, workshops, blue power of course), or they got tired of combo decks smashing them on turn 1-3. They do however play 5-Color and I haven’t heard a complaint about super broken plays like the above when playing 5-Color. Even when there’s something decent on the line in the ante, like their only dualland or a good Type 2 rare or something…

In his metagame, his opponents don’t generally have power, and people are missing the Blue power cards “of course.” Posters from other areas have similar responses. I seriously question whether anyone can have a good feel for how broken the format is if they do not play against the most broken decks. Playing inferior decks can skew your perception:

Krark, From the MTGIowa Forums:

I’ve played the format extensively with my wife and I think y’all are banning too much, thus defeating the purpose of this alteration of the format. What happens if the only banned cards are Battle of Wits and Tinker, and nothing’s restricted? And don’t say "broken-ness" because that’s simply not true.

That’s a real post (although it may be irony, not a real sentiment.) That post appears on an Iowa website that is trying to create a “democratic 5-Color council.” The problem I see, after reading a ton of posts on their boards, and looking at their decks, is that I think their metagame/cardpool is even less powerful than grumpysmurf’s. Krark’s two-person metagame may be satire – but it isn’t that far from the typical Iowa player.

The only place that the different metagames get together for head to head competition is at 5-Color Worlds. I don’t have access to all the winning decklists, but the first fully powered 5-Color deck won the first Worlds, and the winning decks in the last couple years have also been powered.

Fully powered is just better than underpowered. That’s true in any competition. It also follows that unless you are routinely playing against the most powerful competition around, you don’t really understand top-flight competition. The fact that you have been racing lawn tractors does not make you an expert at unlimited tractor pulls (although it may give you some interesting insights).

I mentioned that the Iowa group is trying to define its own format – a so-called “democratic” 5-Color format. Last time I checked, that group was bogged down in rehashing arguments over Sundering Titan. The group began by trying to “vote” on issues, but soon became a battle over who could, or could not, talk during meetings held over IRC, and is now dominated by a couple people who talk the most.

One Colorado group is also threatening to break off, or has broken off, or quit.

5-Color is fragmenting. If that continues, it will slip into the same category as Elder Dragon Highlander, 500 card Singleton, Blitz Magic, or Alphabet Soup: it will become a format with a couple of devoted fans, no mass base, and no chance of growing.

A few casual formats have taken off. It has generally required two things to make the format work: a high profile celebrity has to hype the format, and a website has to actively support it. This happened with Peasant Magic, and with Elder Dragon Highlander when Sheldon wrote about it here. It also happened because those formats have one unified set of rules.

5-Color is a fun format, but it starts with a couple strikes against it. First, building and tuning a 250-card deck is hard – much harder than a 60-card deck. Second, ante is a scary concept, if you have to lose cards while learning the format. Third, the Tier 1 decks are really expensive. However, the format has grown – during periods where the head (or heads) of 5-Color really supported the format.

5-Color may die soon, or may grow to new prominence. It depends a lot on whether the hotheads can bury their differences and work together, or whether everyone splits into factions and those factions all die off.

I’ll wrap this up with a couple more quotes, mainly from the forums on the 5-Color website.

GoblinKingX on 5-Color forums.

I think the biggest problem with the 5-Color format is the forums. Specifically it is the perception that the forums represent the vast majority of 5-Color players when in reality the forums represent the vocal minority.

Let’s use some numbers from magicthegathering.com to put things into perspective:

56% of Magic players own zero Revised dual lands.
15% of Magic players own 1-4 Revised dual lands.
52% of Magic players do not play in organized tournaments of any kind.
68% of Magic players have never played in any tournament larger than FNM.

The largest poll I could find was taken from approximately 21,000 people. That is 21,000 of more than 6 million players worldwide. There are 20 or 30 people who post on these forums regularly? Out of what 2,000? 3,000?

The simple fact here is that these forums are overrun with a very angry competitive minority of people who want to play with the most powerful cards available. The vast majority of 5-Color players play because the format is fun, it is different and it is casual…

Tbone – same forum

My 2 cents. I am not a fan of low mana cost tutors because they allow you to get to power cards too easily. I own the power 9 and a complete set of duals; however, I intentionally keep my decks from becoming too streamlined. I do this because I am trying to get my friends to play 5-color too. If I beat them 90% of the time because I have all of the power and tutors to get my twister or bazaars then they won’t play. I enjoy playing a game that lasts more than 5 minutes.

briane – another thread

[Quote:] Is there anyone on the committee that will honestly say, of their free-will, that they will give up their seat to someone who will potentially do a better job, and at least participate? [/ Quote]

Don’t think I haven’t considered it. Multiple times. Every week. Especially including this one.

Some famous Greek guy (Plato? Socrates?) suggested that the leaders should be those that do not seek to lead. For the past year, I’ve embodied that ideal: I’d like nothing more than to see the 5CRC delivered into capable hands, so that I can walk away. Governing such a diverse group is a truly humbling experience.

For every person that wants more changes, someone else wants less. For every person that wants Contract limited, there’s another person that disagrees. It is impossible to make everyone happy, and it seems that the 5CRC has pissed off everyone by walking the middle ground. Instead of joining in the process (which, admittedly, could be improved), people have split away from the format. Is it at all surprising that the 5CRC is doing the one thing that seems to settle everyone down: shutting up?

This whole process seems to be guided by polarization. "You’ll restrict Contract over my dead body." "Why didn’t you ban Enlightened?" The bulk of the people that have left the Yahoo! group (at least) are doing the format a service by leaving: polarizing individuals are unlikely to attract new players. Rather than lose level-headed individuals, I would encourage everyone to realize how important it is to have a united format: it’s certainly more important than having a "correct" or "best" format.

I wish the 5CRC luck with this one. They’ll need it.

pete (dot) jahn (at) Verizon (dot) net