Ante League 101

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So you’re looking for something better, something more fun, something mystical. You’re sick of losing to the top tier decks with your “fun” brew, you’re tired of beating the snot out of scrubs with nothing to show for it, you want it to mean something, you want a symbol of your dominance. Jeffrey Dahmer, Ed Gein, they all had trophies, they had power that they took, they didn’t ask, and now, so will you.

Ante League is a format that has been around for at least 10 years and just like any format it ebbs and flows in popularity, I am currently on a mission to bring it back and want to share with you the ins and outs of one of the most interesting and fun formats I’ve had the pleasure to enjoy.

Getting Started

You will need 3 booster packs of Magic: The Gathering and 25 basic lands (5 of each type). The booster packs can be from any set you want but must be from 3 different sets. In the past this rule has changed quite a bit but currently this is how I play and I personally feel that it is the most fun and “fair” way to do it; feel free to implement your own rules. For example, we have done it where: all the packs had to be from the same set/block (except Mirrodin, fuck that), 3 of the same pack (again, no Mirrodin block), 2 of the packs had to be the same set and the third had to be from a different block, and way back in the day I’ve even heard the old men talking about how they started it with a Starter Deck and a booster pack. The great thing about Ante League is that as long as the people involved are having fun, how you choose to set it up is up to you!

If you are trying to get this set up at your LGS, or if you are (or are working with) your LGS then I recommend some kind of entry bonus. I have to give a shout out to Brian Ziemba from Phoenix Comics for restarting the Ante League bug. He organized it with the owner (Hi Mike J) to create an Ante League “starter kit” (your 3 packs and 25 basic lands for a special price) and has set up Ante League Mondays for people to play at the store. An idea I had was that if there were extra promos that a store wanted to make use of they could include a random one with each “starter kit” as an added bonus, but like everything else in Ante League, there are no rules! Try it out until you find something that you like.

Deck Construction

This is the easy part.

Step 1: Open your packs.
Step 2: Remove the token/ad/garbage from your packs.
Step 3: Shuffle your 3 packs and 25 basic lands together. DON’T FORGET TO INCLUDE THE BASIC LANDS THAT COME IN YOUR PACKS (if any).
Step 4: Play.

Easier than blowing up an anthill with a rocket launcher.

Gameplay

Ante League is the same old Magic you’re used to with a few exception.

Start by shuffling your deck and presenting it to your opponent to cut. Once both decks have been sufficiently randomized and cut the fun begins.

an·te
   [an-tee] noun, verb, an·ted or an·teed, an·te·ing.
noun
1. Poker . a fixed but arbitrary stake put into the pot by each player before the deal.
2. an amount of money paid in advance to insure an individual’s share in a joint business venture.
3. Informal . an individual’s share of the total expenses incurred by a group.
4. Informal . the price or cost of something.

All 4 of these definitions (thanks Dictionary.com!) are pretty close to what we are doing, in Ante League, each player puts up a “stake” or “prize” and the winner takes all.

I suggest for your first few games only ante-ing the top card of your deck, once you learn the intricacies of Ante League you can increase this how you see fit (more on this later). Usually what I do at this point of the game is one of 2 things, I will either ask my opponent how many cards they would like to ante OR I will flip one and ask if they would like to flip another, rinse repeat until we are satisfied with the number of cards.

Next, determine who goes first using your favorite random method and draw your opening hand of 7 cards, resolve mulligans and proceed to play Magic. In Ante League you only play one game, the winner of that game wins the ante-d cards.

The best part about Ante League (besides winning your friend’s (and sometimes not so friendly opponent’s) cards) is that the loser has to sign the cards they lose. There are no rules to this process, some people:

Simply sign the cards

Alter the card title or card text

Doodle

Incorporate their signature and a doodle together

Create a “panelled” picture across all the cards they lost

Oh sorry about that, how did those get in there? Let me just fix that…

WOOPS! Damnit who keeps doing that? Sorry again, terribly sorry, here let’s try this.

WTF…

Yep. That’s what happens in Ante League. Everyone draws dicks. Isn’t that awesome? By all means, if you don’t approve of dicks, or dick-like art, or your store doesn’t allow it, or there are children that you do not wish to corrupt, etc. etc. then you do not have to draw dicks and you can even tell people “Hey man (she-man, girl, lady), please don’t draw dicks or anything equally repugnant on my cards, thanks”. By the same token they don’t have to obey, since they are not your cards until they hand them over to you, and some people are quite bitter when you beat them (more on this later) and will do what they want anyway. I mean, they’re just dicks….

Now that you have won some sweet sweet booty the next step is deck re-construction. Don’t get too excited, think of it more as “adding a new room onto the house” as opposed to “tearing down this old piece of shit and building a sweet, new, technology filled mansion”. Take the cards you just won and….wait for it….add them to your deck. That’s it – boop – just slide ‘em right in there. No fuss no muss. Can you feel the power? Oh yeah… I can feel it…..

Be aware of what is in your deck, Ante League is unique in that the more you play it the worse your deck gets, almost exclusively. Remember, your deck is 5 colours, most likely with multiple cards that have two or more mana symbols in their casting cost across all colours. Sure, ante-ing a land or two against your opponent’s Hypersonic Dragon and Craterhoof Behemoth seems sweet, but are you going to be able to cast your spells if you have no lands in your deck? Are you going to be able to reliably keep opening hands with so many high CMC cards?

Tips and Tricks

Ante League is a totally different beast and I wanted to share with you some of the things I’ve picked up along the way, to give you the edge.

The hardest thing for a lot of players that are new to Ante League to grasp at first is the deck and hand quality. It seems obvious, you took 3 random booster packs and shuffled them together with 25 basic lands. This isn’t rocket surgery, what you’re piloting isn’t going to win any Pro Tours. That being said, it shouldn’t operate any differently than any other game of Magic.

Have a plan and mulligan aggressively. Remember that your deck is 5 colours, with (probably) minimal fixing, try not to keep hands with cards or mana you can’t use. If a hand has more than 3 lands in it, it’s probably a keep, whether you can play your spells or not. Don’t be fooled, like any other time, the decisions you make regarding your opening hand will sculpt the game that follows, be precise. Most games of Ante League will go long, plan for that, and if you can exploit it.

I once kept a 2 land (Plains, Swamp) hand with 3 off-colour 5 drops in it because I had the Trained Caracal and Dark Favor. Having a fast clock (the lifelink didn’t hurt either) is sometimes more important than being able to play your cards, it was a huge risk, but the reward was that on turn 5 he was at 3 life and I was at 40 and he still hadn’t played a single spell. On the other hand I have kept 5 or more land hands with nothing lower than 6 in the casting cost because having mana is often way more important than having a turn 2, 3, 4 play.

Try not to tilt, Ante League is great because anything can happen, and some cards are just unbeatable bombs. In the aforementioned example where I had him at 3 on turn 5, my opponent managed to stabilize by playing a blocker, then another, then by playing Commander’s Authority. He was able to stall the board for 20 or so turns while we each built up armies. I couldn’t profitably attack (he could infinitely chump – or worse – block and kill my guys while his larger dudes survived) and he couldn’t attack for fear of dying on the backswing. I ended up winning the game, but he got me down really low and it was closer than the first 5 or 6 turns let on, it was a great game.

Part of the fun in Ante League is not knowing what is going to happen, taking you back to a simpler, earlier time of magic, when everyone wasn’t playing Caw-Blade or Delver, and things were random. If you opened a bomb, or (got super lucky and) opened a combo, keep it a secret, it’s more fun that way, and it will save you at least 1 game, I guarantee it.

Focus. Play this game and this game only. Don’t over extend into a potential Wrath, try to remember if he had a counter and bait him, pay attention to the board state and make good attacks and blocks. While Ante League is mostly about having fun, losing all your cards will soon turn your mood sour.

When you’re buying your packs, be aware of power creep. While some of the older packs may contain very powerful cards (that are difficult to play around because of the different environments that encompass set design) they will most likely also have a significantly lower power level than newer sets that have cards like the Titans, Baneslayers, Swords, mana fixing, dual lands, Planeswalkers etc.

At any time you can restart with a new deck. If you don’t like your old deck, boom buy 3 new packs, add 25 basic lands and you got yourself a nice new shiny ride. If your deck is unplayable because you lost too many lands and can’t cast your spells, POW the guy behind the counter can fix that for you. Remember though, in Ante League you can’t add or remove any cards from your deck outside of winning and losing cards from regular gameplay, and if you open a money card or a card you don’t want to lose, you can’t just take that card out, you need a whole new pack. If you opt to have RTR as one of your packs and open a foil Jace, well it’s time to grow up son, you have a choice to make, high risk – high reward or get that wallet out and crack a new pack.

Unfortunately I started playing Ante League a couple of months before writing this article so I can’t post what my starting pool looked like, what I will do instead is post my deck list for those of you that want to see what a typical run of the mill deck looks like. There are bombs in my pool (Carnival Hellsteed) and lots of duds (Muddle the Mixture), let me know what you think, or if you see any cool combos I may have missed. The packs I started with were RTR, Mirrodin Faction Pack, M13.

Basic Lands
8 Forest 8 Plains 8 Island 12 Mountain 6 Swamp

Non-Basic Lands
Selesnya Sanctuary Shimmering Grotto

Colourless
Jayemdae Tome Gust-Skimmer Selesnya Keyrune Heavy Mattock Graveyard Shovel Darksteel Ingot Sawtooth Thresher

White
Mirran Crusader Frantic Salvage Guardian Lions Holy Justiciar Topple Strength of Unity Righteous Blow Scourglass Loxodon Partisan Divine Offering Pacifism Sunscape Apprentice

Blue
Hover Barrier Quicksilver Geyser Muddle the Mixture Jace’s Phantasm Quickchange Talrand, Sky Summoner

Black
Corpse Lunge Dark Favor Resounding Scream Skeletal Grimace Knight of Infamy Highborn Ghoul Sewer Shambler

Red
Blisterstick Shaman Dogpile Raka Sanctuary Rally the Forces 2 Pursuit of Flight Traitorous Instinct Viashino Racketeer Turn to Slag Dragon Hatchling Shiv’s Embrace Tenement Crasher Ogre Resister Hanweir Lancer

Green
Tangle Mantis Bramblecrush Centaur’s Herald Melira’s Keepers Revive Archweaver Reclaim Stampede Driver Drudge Beetle Dripping-Tongue Zubera Horncaller’s Chant Sulam Djinn Wirewood Savage

Gold and Hybrid
Carnival Hellsteed Mercurial Chemister Congregation at Dawn Vassal Soul Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage

FAQ

I wanted to answer some of the more common questions I’ve been getting, if you have any questions please don’t hesitate to ask in the comments or (preferably) on Twitter (@JayBoosh).

Do you choose which card is ante-d or is it random?

This is one of the only rules I think should be set in stone, in my opinion it should always always be random. If you got to pick the card, why wouldn’t you just always ante your worst card? How would anyone ever lose a bomb? I have been wanting to try having your opponent choose your ante card from your deck for you, but the same problems arise, you will always lose your best card, who chooses a Plains when there’s a Tamiyo or Sun Titan in the deck? In terms of randomly choosing a card, I usually just cut my opponents deck and then flip the top X number of cards (that we have previously agreed on) from their deck.

Do I have to use all the cards in my packs, some of these are bad?

Yes, in Ante League you cannot edit or make changes to your deck outside of the cards you win and lose during gameplay. It sucks that you opened a nearly unplayable Dawn Elemental (I think, costs WWWW) but hopefully you will have the chance to ante it to your opponent and make his deck worse!

What happens if I don’t actually want the cards that I have ante-d back, can I concede?

In my league this is allowed, in some it is not. In case anyone is confused, what is being asked is similar to this: “I flipped over Dawn Elemental, Muddle the Mixture and Remember the Fallen, these cards are bad and I don’t care if I lose them, in fact I don’t want them in my deck so I just concede, here you go sucker!”. Now that being said, when you concede so that your bad cards go to your opponent, they can also concede instead of taking your cards, and in that case no cards exchange hands, everyone keeps their cards and a new game is started. In my opinion no one should be able to do this on purpose, this is harder to police in practice than on paper though.

What are the best packs? I want to win!

There are no “best packs”, there are “worse” packs than others but because Ante League is very random a lot of it will depend on what you open. For example, my friend Brandon (@bmkmedia on Twitter) chose Invasion for 2 of his packs (back when you could have a double pack choice) and opened 3 Tribal Flames, which is an 2 mana sorcery that deals damage to target creature or player equal to the number of basic land types you have. THREE OF THOSE HE OPENED, those are bombs in Ante League. If I were to buy in today, I would go with Original Ravnica, a core set (probably M10 or 11) and Return to Ravnica. Both Ravnicas have good fixing and fun cards, as well as powerful bombs, and core set will probably have some good mono coloured mans for you to just turn sideways.

I have an 11 year old, can I teach him Ante League?

Of course! Ante League is for everyone, be aware though, the success of Ante League with your children will depend a lot on the lessons you are trying to teach them. Ante League doesn’t focus on things like deck construction sideboarding or meta gaming, but it does focus on variance, mullaganing, mechanics and the value of winning and losing cards. Some children have a hard time losing their cards to someone else, some don’t, some will get really frustrated with their hand full of red cards and their battlefield full of Swamps and Plains. Also, be aware that most people will draw inappropriate things for the typical 11 year old, if you are concerned about that make sure you tell the other players “Hey, this is my Daughter/Son and I would appreciate no rude drawings or words on his cards if he wins, ok?”.

When do I know if my deck is unplayable?

This is very different in Ante League than in any other format. In Magic the term “unplayable” is generally used in hyperbole to mean “Terrible, garbage”, in Ante League it is very literal. When your deck doesn’t have enough lands in it (you have 83 cards in your deck but only 15 of them are lands) or when you are out of all lands of 1 or more colours, it’s usually time to retire the deck. By no means do you have to, but it will be very difficult for you to even come close to winning any games.

How do I retire my deck, what does that mean?

In Ante League when your deck is unplayable, or you are bored with it you can retire it. This can be done 1 of 2 ways: 1) dismantle your deck, these are your cards and you can do what you want with them (except adding them to a new Ante League Deck) OR 2) you can Ante your entire deck to your opponent and if they accept (remember they can just concede and not take your cards) then they add the whole monstrosity to their deck. My friend Russel has a deck that’s over 2000 cards.

Is there a maximum or minimum number of cards?

No there is not, as long as you started with 3 packs and 25 basic land your deck is legal no matter how many cards you win or lose.

Can I add land if needed?

Certainly, as long as you won it from your opponent 😛 In Ante League you cannot add or remove cards from your deck unless you have won or lost them in an Ante League match.

But what if I lose all my mountains? Can’t I just add some mountains?

No, you can’t, I’m sorry. If you lose all your lands of one colour it’s probably time to retire old yeller, but don’t worry, because you get to open a bunch of new packs and win more cards!

Does Ante League have seasons?

Mine doesn’t but yours could, if you want! In my opinion no, Ante League doesn’t have seasons. Forcing people to retire their really sweet deck after they won all of these (mostly unplayable in regular formats) cards seems like a wrong move to me. Plus it’s a great way to interact with (and potentially win) old cards. How else would my M13-RTR-NPH deck be able to get a Darksteel Ingot in it?

Do I have to keep my opening hand, or can I mulligan?

Some people have a rule in their Ante League where there are no mulligans. In my opinion this is wrong, it really sucks when your opponent has a playable hand and you have to start with a 1 lander.

I’ve been winning so much that I can’t shuffle my deck, what do I do?

Try harder! Sometimes Ante League decks will get very large, if you are having trouble shuffling your deck try making multiple smaller piles and shuffling those.

Can I sleeve my deck?

Yes, I recommend it, but you don’t have to.

If me and my opponent are using different coloured sleeves, what happens? Do I take his sleeve with the card? Can I have a red sleeve in my all black sleeved deck?

This is a very good question, and very cool. I would say that there is no rule to this and it depends on how strict your group is on the rules. My knee jerk reaction would be that you would only get your opponents card, and he would unsleeve it and then you would use one of your sleeves on it, but a deck full of different coloured sleeves might be a cool facet I never considered. Of course, there is an issue that would arise with someone who didn’t use sleeves, so you should probably just unsleeve the cards. If anyone tries it the other way please let me know how it turns out.

Can Ante League be played by more than 2 people?

Of course! Ante League doesn’t have a set format, it’s very liquid, try out new things and let the community know! Planechase Archenemy Star Ante League? Why not?!

That’s it, that’s Ante League, I hope you get a chance to play it, it’s great for between rounds at FNM, a PTQ, even a GP, or just hanging with your true dude bros. Let me know in the comments or on twitter how your ante league went, and feel free to ship me suggestions or cool ideas you have. Below I have included an “interview” with one of the old legends in my local Ante League, where I simply asked him to tell me what it was like back in the day, hope you enjoy!

Back in my day…

We were not allowed to use sleeves. I don’t know why, but that was the rule. It was awkward because your cards got uneven wear over time. Somehow this was not seen as a problem.

We had a 15 card sideboard of cards that were not in our deck. It somewhat made sense since there were some awful cards that just did nothing (more than there is today). And Wishes.

We didn’t have enough land in our decks. That led to almost every game being decided on mana/color screw. On the plus side, games where this happened to both players were EPIC!

When a new set came out, or if you found an older set pack, you could add a pack to your deck and add 1 of each land (but you could never add another pack of a set that you already added). This is how most people ended up with large decks (and not enough land!). Most packs didn’t come with a land in it.

Dylan once lost his entire deck to Russell in one game. I’m sure it was over 100 cards. It took him forever to sign them all.

I once won a Jeweled Bird (ante card), but I lost it again before I could use it.

This was running in Calgary long before I started playing Ante League. And I started in Champions of Kamigawa block somewhere I think.

I try to play as many different people as possible. I like to try to get as many different signatures in my deck as I can. The more signatures on a single card the better.

This has to be the only format where a 5 land (one of each type) is a god draw and a 7 land hand is a snap keep!

Now get off my lawn!

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