Returning Out of Bounds

Posted in Serious Fun on August 13, 2002

By Anthony Alongi

A few weeks ago, I took a look at three major categories of cards that are not DCI-sanctioned for tournament play--and which typically don't get explored by even casual players. The categories were 1) cards with abnormal backs, 2) cards from the Unglued set, and 3) homemade cards. This week, I want to round out the theme by posing three more categories: "beginner" cards, "falling" cards, and ante cards.

A Portal to . . . Nowhere?

Virtually all cards from the Portal expansions (Portal, Second Age, and Three Kingdoms) and from the Starter game are illegal in conventional formats. The only exceptions are cards like hidden horror and blinding light, which have DCI-sanctioned - set equivalents.

In most cases, this is no loss: the majority of cards from the Portal sets are inferior to their expert-level brethren. This is because there are no instants or activated abilities in Portal sets (though a few cards, like Apprentice Sorcerer and Warrior's Stand, certainly act like it). But there are exceptions. Devastation gives newbie players something that veterans do not possess in a single card: the ability to destroy all lands and all creatures at once, without touching either enchantments or artifacts. Fire Imp is comparable to Ghitu Slinger, but without the echo. And Primeval Force and Vampiric Spirit seem like they could affect the Standard environment.

What I find satisfying about playing Portal cards--and I did just start playing them again, with my daughter--is their simplicity. I'm glad there's a place where vanilla creatures reign supreme. It makes teaching the game far easier because you can focus on other parts of the game for the novice. The flip side is that vanilla creatures get old very fast--witness conversations elsewhere on this site, including the message boards--and my daughter and I are already throwing in stuff like Flametongue Kavu, Voice of All, and Faceless Butcher. (She loves what Faceless Butcher does.)

Here's my recommendation for those of you out there wondering about Portal or Starter. If you have kids ages ten or younger, buy some Starter cards. Use those cards and as much vanilla as you can muster from your advanced- or expert-level collection to build five decks, one in each color. Don't get any more complicated than the most complex Starter card you see. Over time, as your children adjust, weed out the more boring creatures and bring in stuff like Dark Hatchling and Verdeloth the Ancient.

I've often felt that, as a consumer, the Starter game should have had nothing but commons and uncommons and sport a really low, kid-friendly price--around a buck. Either that, or keep the price high and add twice as many cards. Most Starter rares are not really collectable in the long run, and holding back expensive rares for the expansions that older kids and adults use does two things. First, it shows a friendly economic face to the new consumer. And second, it actually might encourage new players who can afford it to move into the more expensive game faster. But I'm not married to this opinion. What do readers think? Chuck me an email or use the message boards. Please note that I have no decision-making authority at Wizards; I am merely curious and enjoy the intellectual exercise of it all. I mean, we ought to use the Starter game for something, right?

Fall from Grace . . . onto Your Voice of Grace

There's a much tinier set of cards that also fits the illegal label--two cards that are banned because of their incredibly random effects. Both Chaos Orb and Falling Star require physical manipulation to work their best. Their effects depend on how close cards in play are to each other. The surface on which you happen to be playing the game--on a tiny card table or on large patio furniture--can make all the difference. These cards employ, at their foundation, Unglued mechanics. And so these cards are treated, for all intents and purposes, like that unconventional set.

"I'll flip ya. Flip ya for real."

If your group is searching for a way to play these cards consistently, I suggest one of the following three solutions:

Random Vindicate. Flip the card, let it land where it lands . . . and then choose one permanent from among those it lands on. This is probably the most scientific compromise, but also the least fun.

Predetermined Spacing. Agree before the game starts on how far apart permanents should be from each other. When the Orb or Star is used, all players (including the controller) flip over all permanents, shuffle them into a big pile, and then distribute them face down in as even a circle or square as can be managed, using the predetermined spacing. Then wreak your havoc. This is probably truest to the spirit of the Orb and Star. It's also the most time-consuming.

Die Rolls. Roll a ten-sided die to determine how many permanents get nailed. Then choose that number of permanents randomly. (Fastest way: If you have few enough permanents on the board, you can use a twenty-sided die after assigning a number to each permanent.) Again, include the controller's permanents in these calculations. That's what the cards are trying to do, thus the names Chaos Orb and Falling Star--not "Biased Orb" and "Guided Missile."

Ante Up!

The last category of illegal cards I'm going to look at is ante cards. But first, a short explanation for the newer among us: Early on in Magic history, each player began a game by setting aside his or her top card (or top rare) in his or her deck. Those cards remained outside of the game, and the winner of the game won both of the cards.

Earlier sets supported this habit (see Amulet of Quoz or Jeweled Bird), but as the game matured, Wizards made the excellent decision to drop ante cards from the game. Ante comes more perilously close to a strict definition of gambling than just about any other Magic mechanic (with the possible exception of coin-flipping), and we don't need that kind of heat in this community. Second and more importantly, most players are turned off by the idea of carefully building a deck, and then losing a key $20 rare to the whims of fate.

I hear from readers now and then on the topic of ante--especially from the 5-Color community--which I'll get to below. Most folks don't care for ante, but there's certainly a crowd that's hot to see ante cards reintroduced. As "Ask Wizards" indicated a couple of months ago, there are no plans to bring back the ante mechanic. While I feel bad for those few who want it, I can't say I'm sorry to hear that.

Contract from Below and Jeweled Bird are quite popular in the 5-Color format.

The one place where you can reliably play ante is 5-Color Magic-- founded by Kurt Hahn--which you can learn all about at The basics of this format are that you build a deck that's at least 250 cards strong, uses all five colors, and is ready for ante. There's a supreme 5-Color ruling council (or whatever it's called) that makes all the decisions on restricted and banned cards; really, you ought to go to the site if you have any questions. I've played the format a few times and enjoyed it, but my play group stresses enough variety that neither 5-Color nor any other format dominates for long. (And the decks are hell to shuffle.)

That said, I've seen Magic players, including Pro Tour players, come alive when playing the format. Unlike when they're competing seriously (they're all business and take none-too-kindly to clever editorial remarks from event reporters such as yours truly), when playing 5-Color they smile, they laugh, they joke around. In short, they act an awful lot like the rest of us. The ante is incidental, and the culture of the format demands that you offer back any cards you win in trade, anyway. So hats off to Kurt and the 5-Color community for finding a really neat niche for ante cards.

In summation, I'd like to let readers know that we have a few weeks coming up when we authors are free to play around with topics. I'm planning an article on teaching the game to new players, and another on--ahem--multiplayer "politics." I welcome perspectives on both topics, as well as suggestions on other topics that we could explore together here in Serious Fun.

Read the first part of this two-part article here.

Anthony may be reached at

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