Last updated on January 21, 2022
Contract from Below | Illustration by Douglas Shuler
2021 is Magic’s 28th birthday, and there’s a good chance you don’t know much (or even anything) about the “ante” rule if you started playing any time in the last 25 years. It’s said that when Richard Garfield first created the game, he intended for ante to be a way for players to get new cards for their deck by effectively gambling their cards over the outcome of a game, but the premise didn’t last very long. The rule seemed to be wildly unpopular and soon after the game began, it was scrapped.
New cards were often in short supply in the early days of Magic. Between store owners finding it difficult to get new stock and the immense demand for the game being wholly unprecedented, players found it very difficult to find the cards they wanted, let alone being able to gamble them away.
Today, let’s take a look at the ante rule in a little more detail. How does it work, and why exactly did it have to be removed from Magic?
What Was the Ante Rule?
Timmerian Fiends | Illustration by Mike Kimble
In short, each player must randomly choose a card from their deck before drawing cards for a new game. The winner of that game gets to keep the other player’s contribution!
The rule is actually still in the comprehensive rules just in case anyone wants to play it unofficially for fun. Here’s the long version of the official rule:
407.1. Earlier versions of the Magic rules included an ante rule as a way of playing “for keeps.” Playing Magic games for ante is now considered an optional variation on the game, and it’s allowed only where it’s not forbidden by law or by other rules. Playing for ante is strictly forbidden under the Magic: The Gathering Tournament Rules.
407.2. When playing for ante, each player puts one random card from their deck into the ante zone after determining which player goes first but before players draw any cards. Cards in the ante zone may be examined by any player at any time. At the end of the game, the winner becomes the owner of all the cards in the ante zone.
407.3. A few cards have the text “Remove [this card] from your deck before playing if you’re not playing for ante.” These are the only cards that can add or remove cards from the ante zone or change a card’s owner. When not playing for ante, players can’t include these cards in their decks or sideboards, and these cards can’t be brought into the game from outside the game.
407.4. To ante an object is to put that object into the ante zone from whichever zone it’s currently in. The owner of an object is the only person who can ante that object.WotC
This set of rules relates to the ante zone, one of Magic’s eight game zones. A card is kept in the ante zone where it can be added to or removed using one of nine cards that were printed to interact with the ante zone.
Why Are Ante Cards Banned from MTG?
Darkpact | Illustration by Quinton Hoover
That answer is simple: it’s gambling.
It’s the same reason bribery and agreeing to randomly determine the outcome of an official match are strictly forbidden. The penalty for committing either of these infractions results in disqualification, no matter how inconsequential they may seem.
Gambling is a pastime that has a very difficult history across the world with different severities in different countries. Particularly when it comes to age limits. WotC’s legal department is able to effectively argue that playing a Magic tournament for prizes doesn’t constitute gambling.
Using the ante rule, however, would count as gambling. So does determining the winner of a game without actually playing. These rules must stay in place in order for Magic to not be considered gambling and for events to stay legal. Especially where it includes playing for cash prizes (e.g., MagicFests and professional level events) and allowing people of all ages to take part.
Sadly, it’s not so easy to convince everyone of the simple fact that playing Magic is a game and not gambling. This is why Wizards no longer holds events in certain countries, particularly Germany and Austria. The last Grand Prix events that were held there were fraught with problems.
I was at the last German event, GP Bochum in 2012. The local police showed up during setup to inform the organizers that they couldn’t give out cash prizes for the event. If memory serves, players winning low tier cash prizes were given booster boxes and high-end electronics were purchased to replace the larger prizes. I believe that the event’s winner, Martin Juza, won a pretty nice Alienware laptop.
A last-minute age restriction was imposed by local police at the last GP Vienna and no one under the age of 18 was allowed to even enter the building. As I’m sure you can imagine, families that had already made the trip and paid for accommodations being told they suddenly couldn’t attend didn’t go down well.
Many countries have outright banned anything that even remotely looks like gambling for minors, and conversations regarding the legality of loot crates and other similar products are ongoing. For Magic to remain a game that can be played for high or low stakes, these rules must remain in place and can’t be broken under any circumstances.
The ante rule was effectively in the way of WotC being able to run the tournaments that many of us have come to enjoy over the years, so it had to be removed.
In addition to the ante rule, there are nine cards that interact with the ante zone during a game. These are commonly referred to as the ante cards, or the “Poker 9.” Just like the ante rule, all ante cards are banned in all relevant Magic formats.
List of Ante Cards
- Amulet of Quoz
- Bronze Tablet
- Contract from Below
- Demonic Attorney
- Jeweled Bird
- Tempest Efreet
- Timmerian Fiends
As I’ve already alluded to, ante cards and the ante rule were widely unpopular. There were some very serious supply issues in Magic’s early days. The game was unprecedentedly popular, and many game stores ended up having to ration booster packs. Even basic lands were hard to get a hold of thanks to the lack of any starter decks (starter sets contained random cards to encourage players to build the deck themselves).
I’ve heard plenty of stories of players using original dual lands in place of basics they were missing. If you played a game for ante and lost, there was a very real possibility that you would lose something integral to your deck and have a hard time getting your hands on a replacement.
The first ante card printed was from the very first set, Limited Edition Alpha in 1993. When Magic received its very first ban list in January 1994, all the ante cards were banned. The last card to be printed was Timmerian Fiends in Homelands at the end of 1995.
Some of these cards are also pretty powerful. Contract from Below is the most powerful card in the game if you take away the ante part. Ancestral Recall might draw you three cards for just one mana, but how does discarding your hand and drawing seven cards sound?
I reached out to my local community here in the UK asking for fun stories of people using the ante rule back in the nineties. Unfortunately, most people remember just never using it. Some recounted stories of losing dual lands in ante games but not worrying too much because they only cost about $10 each back then.
One friend, David “Dibs” Sisson, who now owns his own LGS (Underworld Games), recalled playing for ante with his friends because they thought it was part of the rules. They’d play for ante but often trade anted cards back to their owners so it wouldn’t be too rough on their decks.
He also remembered a story where someone in the group was able to buy half a box of Legends when it was released in 1994 but ended up losing most of the good cards to ante. The group stopped playing for ante in September 1994 when they started playing in organized events.
Epic Ante Games
Rebirth | Illustration by Mark Tedin
Although the ante rule has been strictly forbidden in sanctioned play since sanctioned play has existed, that hasn’t stopped it from remaining a part of casual Magic to a certain extent. There’s even been a single high-profile sanctioned event where ante was used: the 2001 Magic Invitational.
For those reading who, like myself, started playing Magic after 2007, the Magic Invitational was a tournament like no other. Invited players would battle it out across a variety of weird and wacky formats for the honor of having their likeness used for the artwork of a card that they’d have a hand in designing.
There are eleven Magic cards that have been created by invitational winners, including Chris “Meddling Mage” Pikula, Bob “Dark Confidant” Maher, and Jon “Shadowmage Infiltrator” Finkel. The last invitational was held in 2007 and was won by Tiago Chan, who then helped to design Snapcaster Mage.
WotC recently brought the privilege of being immortalized in a card’s artwork back by adding it to the prizes given to the winner of the World Championships. We’ve had two World Champions receive this prize so far: Javier Dominguez (Fervent Champion) and Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa (Elite Spellbinder)
In 2001, the Invitational was a Round Robin tournament played across five weird formats between 16 of the game’s greatest players, including Brian Kibler, Jon Finkel, Antoine and Olivier Ruel, and the eventual winner Kai Budde. One such format was simply known as “5-color.” In this format, players used a deck of at least 250 cards with a minimum of eighteen cards of each color. Rather than playing out a real game of Magic, ante was encouraged. The winner of a match was determined by the monetary value of the cards that were in the ante zone when they won.
In the final match of the invitational, Kai Budde won game 3 of the match with a $3.50 lead on ante value using Jeweled Bird, a card worth only $2 at the time, to reduce the value of his ante below the $3.50 that his opponent, Dan Clegg, would need to win the match. Kai won the honor of designing Voidmage Prodigy.
Since the 2001 invitational, the 5-color format has evolved and has its own banned/restricted list. The website housing its rules hasn’t been updated since 2010, though, likely because Commander launched a year later and many casual formats have been left by the wayside. There have been some fun tweaks, like certain proxy cards allowed.
Jeweled Bird also had its white-bordered versions banned because they’re extremely cheap and replacing your anted card with them is too powerful a move. The black-bordered version from Antiquities still fetches a nice $75 price tag, though, so it’s not too bad.
Are Ante Cards Allowed in Commander?
Jeweled Bird | Illustration by Amy Weber
No. All ante cards are automatically banned in Commander. There is one caveat to this, though.
Remember that Commander is a casual and unsanctioned format. If you and your friends or playgroup want to play using ante, then the only thing stopping you would be your local laws pertaining to gambling (e.g., not allowed for minors and so on). You could also use ante cards similarly to the 5-color format mentioned above, which doesn’t count as gambling unless you’re playing for other stakes.
In general, just play whatever you and your friends/playgroup are comfortable with.
Ante cards are officially banned in all sanctioned Magic formats. When it comes to playing casually among friends, there’s no restrictions that absolutely must be followed. You could build a Cube with ante cards and use the rule as a way to improve your decks as you play.
I couldn’t find any other formats that specifically use ante. The rule is so old by now that it just isn’t a part of how people play Magic anymore.
Do People Ever Play Old School for Ante?
Bronze Tablet | Illustration by Tom Wänerstrand
Old School is a Magic format where only cards printed in 1993 and 1994 are legal. It has its own dedicated group of followers, its own events, and is particularly popular across Europe.
Ante isn’t used in Old School. With the Power 9 legal and decks costing north of $100k, it’s not surprising why. But there are some advocates within the community who do enjoy it. Some even suggest using a variation where ante rules are used in an event and losing a card to ante just removes it from your deck for the rest of the event while your opponent proxies it into their deck.
Like with the previous sections, it’s worth noting that Old School is a casual format and isn’t sanctioned. There’s nothing stopping you playing with ante.
One safer way of playing for ante is to do so with a Sealed deck. There are a number of different rule sets available online, but the most prevalent among them is that you simply ante up cards from your deck, so losing typically weakens your card pool while winning can strengthen it.
Given that commons are the backbone of Limited play, it can often be backbreaking (excuse the pun) to lose a strong common. Imagine playing this with Forgotten Realms Limited. Losing Priest of Ancient Lore or Celestial Unicorn could be devastating to your Selesnya lifegain deck and create an exciting game. But doing so doesn’t lose you any monetary value, so there’s less risk involved.
Once again, this could be something that you play in a group for some fun, but there’s no form of ante allowed in sanctioned play. It can’t be authorized by WPN stores, either. If you and some friends fancy giving it a go amongst yourselves, then local laws are still the only thing stopping you.
Demonic Attorney | Illustration by Daniel Gelon
I hope this has been as enlightening for you as it was for me. I’m sure many of you won’t have ever touched the ante rule, while others may have fond memories of it. Have you ever played a game for ante? And most importantly, did you ever win anything nice from it? Let me know in the comments down there or head over to our Discord for a longer conversation.
Until next time, take care of yourselves and I hope you’re all having an amazing summer!