Ante? You Can Bet on It!
In the original rules of Magic, players had to bet a random card from their deck in each game they played. This bet was known as the "Ante." This week, Sancho tells another of his stories from the old days of Magic before looking more broadly at this long since abandoned gambling aspect of the game.
One scary moment I remember from the old days of Magic was when the phone rang and the voice at the other end told me, that someone else was playing with my cards at a local high school … for ANTE! It was in the pre-mobile days of landlines and I was lucky to be home, and that this friendly call was made by someone taking his time to locate a payphone at the school. Naturally I jumped on my bike and speeded to the scene of the nightmare, where the unwitting perp was smiling hugely while enjoying yet another win. Luckily the cards of mine he was playing with had strengthened his deck so much for the lunch room meta that he did not lose any of them in the usually low stakes games.
What had momentarily brought my pulse up to match that of a crazed dancer at one of the 90's infamous raves turned out to be very undramatic indeed. I knew this was a good guy and that he would never knowingly make bets with other folks' property, and indeed it all sprang from a minor mix-up the night before. At that time, I shared apartment with three friends of which two were avid Magic-players like myself (to the bitter frustration of the fourth member of our household) and our place had naturally become a place to meet up for nights of gaming, trading cards and partying. Most of the people we played with never played at the local game stores, even if we all spent a considerable amount of our disposable income there.
Well, on this particular night, before the incident, trading and partying had been going on until late, and when people finally packed up their belongings, my favorite Blue-White deck had ended up in my friends Carte d'or boxes (see this article for the card ice-cream connection) and he had brought it first home and then straight to school the next day. There, he had been pleasantly surprised to discover all his new cards and expressed great joy regarding the favorable trades he must have made in the hazy early hours before heading home (perhaps this is a good spot to clarify that what I have translated as high school is the Danish "gymnasium" often attended by students between 17 and 20 years of age). Another friend of mine suspected that I would never have agreed to such trades and made the call, and upon my arrival, everything was cleared up right away with no hard feelings either way. Even if cards had ended up being lost, the problem would also have been solvable by the fact that the lunchroom playgroup in question always allowed players to trade back their lost ante cards for cards of a corresponding perceived value.
Magic: The Gambling – A Richard Garfield Game
We abandoned the concept of Ante very quickly. We only played a handful of games before deciding that this was not for us, even if a good portion of those games only ended up being for basic lands on both sides, and the most valuable card I remember changing hands was a Basalt Monolith I won early on. We just didn't like the idea of losing parts of our decks, and that was it, even though Wizards of the Coast considered games not for ante to be an unofficial variant mostly aimed at beginners still learning the rules of the game.
Richard Garfield has, at various occasions, stated that ante was supposed to be an integral part of Magic. The rule that tells players to bet the top card of their library at the beginning of each game was there for a reason. The games creator had a fear (which some would say has since proven to have been very well-founded) that Magic could end up as a pay-to-win game (by todays terminology). Back then, it was described as the rich kid syndrome, where some rich kid would buy up all the cards at a local store in order to have all the most powerful cards and build a nearly unbeatable deck. Garfield's idea was that by having players bet a card, the less well off might win more expensive cards even if they won less often, and thus the best players could aqcuire all necessary cards through skill from those who had gathered them by other means (i.e. by buying them).
Ironically, in the end, the ante rule, born from the noble intention of leveling the playing field across social backgrounds, was abandoned for the very reason of protecting the investments of those able to afford the most powerful cards. At least, that is one of the reasons more or less explicitly stated by Garfield as well as by WotC for the demise of ante. Of course, there were other factors that weighed heavily on the scales towards abandoning the concept of the ante besides the feel-bad factor. Most important was probably the implicit element of gambling brought to the game by ante, which is indeed a term rooted in gambling and one probably familiar to Poker players reading this. Back then, the concept of loot boxes was still many years in the future, and the lottery associated with buying randomized booster packs with a highly varying value was not the problem. But playing games that put those same cards at stake could turn out to place Wizards of the Coast at odds with gaming laws and even make some countries off limits for their world conquering product. Even in parts of the world with a more lax approach to gambling, the company risked that venues and stores would have to aqcuire gambling licenses to host games and tournaments. And thus, ante was removed from the official rules – but not before leaving a legacy in the form of nine cards with texts that either affected the ante or at least mentioned ante because they produced permanent change of ownership over cards and therefore included a line about removing the card from your deck before playing if not playing for ante.
The Poker 9 and Magic's Perhaps Most Broken Card
The nine cards mentioning ante in some form or other are Contract from Below, Darkpact, Demonic Attorney, Jeweled Bird, Bronze Tablet, Rebirth, Tempest Efreet Amulet of Quoz and Timmerian Fiends. The first three of those were printed in the first Magic set released, Alpha Edition and the next two in Arabian Nights and Antiquities. Legends had the following two and, finally, the last two came with Ice Age and Homelands. Since the release of Homelands in the summer of 1995, no new cards mentioning ante have been printed. Let's take a closer look at each of the nine cards influencing ownership of cards starting with the oldest and inarguably most broken of them – according to some, it's even the most broken card in Magic, full stop.
- Contract from Below: Draw seven cards for a single mana... where do I sign? Most Magic players would probably claim to be ready to pay various limbs and sell organs, or (as the name and illustration imply) indeed their very souls to get that kind of power – even if it comes at sorcery speed. Adding an extra card to your ante is a small price compared to those options, I suppose. This should be the most expensive ante card, and it probably is, but the incredible scarcity of Alpha rares for sale on Cardmarket and unpredictable price fluctuations make it a bit hard to make the exact call. Only two near mint cards are for sale at the time of writing at 895 € and 1250 €. If we look at Beta and Unlimited, Contract from Below even more clearly comes in at the top when comparing Ante card prices.
- Darkpact: Sorting chronologically, alphabetically, and even by price in this case, Darkpact is number two on the list, also being originally from Alpha. When it was first printed, exchanging ownership of the top card of your library for any of the cards in the rarely mentioned ante zone (that is either your own or your opponent´s ante cards) was quite a gamble. Today we have access to plenty of methods to manipulate the top card of the library, and Darkpact would almost certainly usually follow immediately after a Brainstorm or a similar spell or effect was used to put something worthless such as a basic land on top of your library.
- Demonic Attorney: This card follows suit by being the third in price, printing, and alphabet. As with the two previous cards, it was printed in four official English versions (Alpha, Beta, Unlimited and Revised) plus in various non-English versions, Collectors Editions, and the retracted "Summer Magic" set. At the time of writing a single Summer Magic version is up for sale on Cardmarket priced at 1000 €. As a side note, it is the only ante card I remember ever drawing in a game of ante, and I was losing so bad at the time I drew it that my opponent happily upped the ante with an extra card.
- Jeweled Bird: According to my research, this card has actually seen sanctioned tournament play in a special format allowing ante (we will return to that briefly at the end). Of course, being from the very sought-after Arabian Nights expansion, players have opted to use the reprinted bird from Chronicles to exchange for their ante, leaving their opponent with a 10-15 cent white-bordered card.
- Bronze Tablet: This is yet another ante-swapping artifact, and this one very fittingly from the artifact focused expansion Antiquities. Bronze Tablet lets you steal a card your opponent owns leaving them with the Bronze Tablet. Nice Sol Ring Invention Masterpiece, my friend. Hope you like this heavy six mana piece of copper instead. Of course, it's slowed down by the fact that it comes into play tapped and that the effect can be countered by your opponent paying 10 life – and of course by the fact that the opponent can just concede the game and only lose the card they put up for ante – if it isn't something even more costly...
- Rebirth: Nothing to see here. Move on. Six mana and an extra card in the ante to gain up to 19 life. I just don't see that happening. Rebirth is yet another sad example of a boring and very rarely played card from Legends.
- Tempest Efreet: The other ante related offering from Legends is much more fun than Rebirth. Being a typical chaotic red card involving randomness, it is of course a gamble (as is any ante game) but most probably worth it – at least if you use the reprinted 4th Edition version which cost 10 cents – even basic lands from the current Guilds of Ravnica will be a good exchange
- Amulet of Quoz: The mere suggestion of deciding the outcome of a game of Magic with a coinflip will lead to disqualification in a normal tournament setting. However, that is exactly what this very odd-looking Ice Age artifact (which according to the illustration seems to have been found in a 70's style bathroom) lets you do. Should you be up against someone who trusts their deck and abilities as a Magic player above their luck regarding coinflips, they can choose to counter the effect and leave the goofy amulet to once again clog up the sink or bathtub drain.
- Timmerian Fiends: I will leave it up to the reader to decide whether Timmerian Fiends is the most peculiar illustration among artist Mike Kimble's 19 contributions to Magic. This very last card in the line of ante related cards is a more limited card stealer, since it only lets you target artifacts. But even so, this limitation leaves some of the most expensive cards open for theft by the pair of trick-or-treaters from the Homelands expansion. Move over Ihsan's Shade and Serrated Arrows, could this perhaps be the most useful card from the least powerful expansion ever? It could even steal you … well, some Serrated Arrows.
To wrap up the list. Contract from Below stands head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to ante cards in market value and perhaps even above all other cards when it comes to play value. If ante once more became a part of mainstream Magic, it is close to a safe bet to say, that it would become one of the most expensive cards available, its price only kept down by the fact that it has been printed in far greater number than the Power Nine, because it was in Revised Edition whereas the Power Nine only stayed in the core set until Unlimited Edition.
Are All Bets Off?
Ok, Ante probably won't make a comeback. Wizards of the Coast would never allow the potential feel-bad of some kid who bought half the store to get a playset of muscular Gideon planeswalkers losing them to some poor sucker from the wrong side of the tracks getting lucky with their budget brew and mere playing skills. However, ante has made an appearance at official tournaments if even just as a side event in the shape of the 5-color Magic variant. I must say that I am not very familiar with the format, but as far as I could gather, they had to adjust the ante rules to avoid too many cheap Jeweled Birds being swapped for the ante – even though cards did not actually change hands during the games (at the tournament in question) but players' scores were instead adjusted based on the secondary marked value of the cards won – if I am not mistaken. But I'm definitely not ready to bet that I got that part right.
But how about you? Do you believe that ante could or should make a comeback? Would ante possibly give Magic a huge breakthrough before broadcast audiences like poker had it with televised games where commentators go nuts as Vintage players ante Black Lotuses and Ancestral Recalls? Or do you think the odds are against that? Share your views on ante in the comment section below along with any good ante stories. I look forward to reading your input and to hear your tales of cards lost and won.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.