Everything on Red: Gambling in Magic

Magic is a game of high variance, with even the most skilled players only achieving win-rates in the 60s. But if you are a thrill-seeker wanting to test your luck even further, the color red is the way to go. Join Sancho as he picks a random selection of cards for gamblers while doing 90's dance steps to Ace of Base's Wheel of Fortune.

Sometimes, when playing a game of Magic, it all comes down to luck and most players have, at times, felt the excitement when reaching out towards their library, thinking: "This is it!" The moment when you know that top decking will bring you the sweet taste of victory. Will the Magic gods bless you with their fortune, or has Lady Luck forsaken you?

Homo Ludens Magicus

Truthfully, Magic has a number of aspects which could be seen as akin to gambling when defining the term in the very broadest sense. In itself it is a game sometimes played with high stakes at the competitive level, and originally some portion of gambling was an integral part of the rules back when playing for ante was still the norm. Opening boosters for any other purpose than draft has a mild gambling facet to it, and some go as far as to call booster packs the original loot boxes. Even buying single cards not meant for one of your decks, your cube or to complete a set collection, but because you expect the price to go up carries an element of gambling, as do all forms of investments.

Kenny Rodgers pictures
Gambling and luck is a subject treated in the classics by some of the most remarkable names in western history from Machiavelli over Dostoyevsky to Kenny Rogers (oh, that last one may actually have been country and western history). Disappointingly Kenny Roger's "Magic Collection" does not even feature his greatest hit, The Gambler, written by Don Schlitz.

With this in mind, it is no surprise that Magic has cards that added small subgames of skill or luck to spice up the game and to give players a mild gambler's rush. I think it was my very first Revised Edition starter deck that introduced me to this concept within the game, since as far as I recall, that was where I got the artifact Bottle of Suleiman. Paying just four to cast and one mana to activate, this card promised me very even odds of getting a game winning 5/5 flyer.

However, it just never happened and after losing two or three games paying five mana to lower my life total by five, I was cured of my gambling fever once and for all. This also means that a lot of the cards mentioned in this article have been sitting safe an unused in trade binders and bulk boxes in my collection, because from early on in my Magic life I had no faith in coinflip cards and other cards relying on chance.

Looking for a Silver Lining

But some years later with the release of the first silver border set, Unglued, I dabbled a little in games of chance again playing Goblin Tutor and Jack-in-the-Mox (both of which did serve for a while in early iterations of my cube nearly two decades later). Having never played with or against the O.G. dexterity card Chaos Orb from Alpha Limited Edition, I also tried to play Chaos Confetti one single time. But due to Mark Rosewater (I'm not sure, but let's blame Magic's lightning rod anyways) stating in a Duelist Magazine article that opponents were allowed to huff and puff and gesture wildly while you spread the destructive confetti, only two pieces even hit the board, and both of them on my side. This was also my only time ever destroying a Magic card on purpose.

Chaos Confetti Giant Fan
I never was a Giant Fan of luck-based cards and seeing my Chaos Confetti pieces ending up as a Windfall for my opponent. Well, let's just say, it really blows.

Not surprisingly many of the cards dealing with luck and games are red, since this is the color of strong emotions and impulsivity, and as we have seen, a smaller subset are artifacts which may come down to tradition or causes only the games original designers will know. When it comes to certain cards their names may refer to luck and randomness, but in reality, this is only flavor and anything to do with how the cards play.

Know When to Hold Them…

Unlike the many coinflip and die roll cards one card that has never spent much time in a trade binder but always was in use in one of my decks is my single Revised Wheel of Fortune which is also one of my more played and worn out cards. Few people would argue that this card has much to do with gambling, since it ideally really reads "Draw seven cards while your opponent discard their (close to seven cards) hand and draw seven new cards." Or at most "Discard your surplus lands and draw seven cards while your opponent … etc.".

Wheel of Fortune Bonfire of the Damned Cursed Scroll
Cursed by bad luck or blessed by fortune? On a closer inspection these cards favor the prepared player and their effects rarely rely on a random element, but when they do, the reaction is priceless as you can see in this video.

This use of bending the randomness of luck and circumstances using your drive, talent and abilities to achieve your goals is very much in accordance with the Italian renaissance writer Niccolò Machiavelli's concept of conquering Lady Fortuna with the human drive, that he calls virtú. And nowhere is the idea that luck favors the well-prepared truer in the world of Magic, than when it comes to cards with the Miracle keyword. There have of course been times, when players top decking a Miracle card has indeed seemed miraculous, but more often than not a Sensei's Divining Top or some blue cantrip manipulating the top of the library is the far more mundane cause of the windfall.

Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Mo

Of the eternal formats Commander is probably the one where random effects are used the most in their truly random form, and entire decks revolve around coinflips and dealing damage to arbitrarily selected targets. But even here, there is often a method to the madness, and no one would ever deny that for example Chaos Warp is a format staple for a good reason. The odds that an opponent's game winning permanent gets swapped for a land or something less usable are usually with you when casting the three-mana instant. Cursed Scroll which saw a lot of play back in the 90's and Cragganwick Cremator which still sees some play both also fall in the earlier mentioned category where no luck needs to be involved.

Supposedly Chaos Moon could also be harnessed with some work, but I have never seen anyone play it, and it is mostly on this list, because of the Drew Tucker illustration. Other chaos cards from Ice Age-block include Game of Chaos (Ice Age) and Chaos Harlequin (Alliances) both of which have not left my trade binder since being pulled from their respective boosters back in the mid-nineties. More recently and on the same plane Dominaria gave standard some randomness with Haphazard Bombardment but at six mana I am not sure how much play the card has seen in any format.

Upping the Ante

If you want to be a true high roller, when it comes to the gambling world of Magic, you'd probably put all your chips on Reserved List cards going up, and here the aforementioned Chaos Orb seems like the thematically appropriate bet along with Falling Star from Legends, but you would never hear me calling it a safe bet, since it would be a prime example of gambler's fallacy to believe that any trend is proof of where things go next in this world of random and indeterminable factors.

As always, comments on the subject at hand will be read with great interest. So, feel free to share your tales of incredibly luck, give a shout out to your favorite gambling cards and arguments for why more people should play them, or other random thoughts and insights.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.

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