What is Ante in MTG?: A Long Lost Mechanic & Its Strange New Home

Updated: Nov 2


Card: Jeweled Bird | Art: Amy Weber


Magic: the Gathering has changed a lot in the past 30 years. We have seen hundreds of mechanics. Some of them have been around since the start, such as flying.


Others were fan suggestions that worked their way into the game like double strike, while others have been in the game for years, but were only given a keyword late in their life, such as scry.





Today, I would like to talk about something different. A mechanic that is only referenced on nine cards.


Let's talk about the short-lived mechanic "ante."


What is Ante in MTG?

Calling ante a mechanic might be a bit disingenuous. Back in 1993, it was not so much a mechanic as it was a base rule of the game.


If you would like to read along with me, you can find the 1993 rules here.


To quote page seven of the rules "First, shuffle your deck thoroughly and cut your rival's deck. You may also ask to shuffle your rival's deck if you wish."


So far so good all sounds normal until the next line: "Turn the top card of your rival's deck face up and have your rival do the same with yours. Set the turned-up cards aside. They will be the ante, which the winner of the duel will keep."


And here we have ante!


At the start of the game, you put the top card of your deck on the line. The top player's prize for winning games is a piece of the opponent's deck. Granted, the rules are not sadistic as they do also state on page 31, "By mutual consent, players may agree not to play for ante."


However, the rules go on to say "You can also agree not to "play for keeps" but exchange ante anyway, keeping track of won and lost cards on paper so they can be returned afterward."


This is interesting as the game designers were conscious enough to realize some players may not like the idea of losing their cards. They also still encourage you to play for ante if you're playing a series of games to experience the mechanic and then give all the cards back. It's clear the creators wanted players to have this experience of exchanging cards.


Reception of Ante

The last card to reference ante was printed in 1995's Homelands. The mechanic was unpopular. In particular with the law.


As Wizards of the Coast began to run official events there was a growing concern that tournaments would be considered gambling in the eyes of the law. This would lead to local stores and venues requiring a gambling license to host events.


This was a nightmare not worth dealing with.


Since then, ante has been forbidden at sanctioned events, and all cards that reference ante are banned in all formats. This has even extended into modern-day events such as the Limited Edition Beta draft at a 2017 Pro Tour banning the use of ante cards if the player happened to draft one.


MTG Cards Referencing Ante

Ante-ing a card at the start of the game is one form of ante. There also exist nine cards (shall we say the Ante 9) that also play with ante.


All of these cards interact with the ante zone in some way or play with the idea of exchanging permanent ownership of cards.



These cards vary in power a lot with some being unplayable garbage and others being some of the most broken cards ever printed! All of these have the additional text "Remove CARDNAME from your deck before playing if you are not playing for ante."


Let's take a look at some of these relics from the past.


Upping the Ante

First up, we have a handful of cards that allow you or your opponent to add additional cards to the ante pile from your deck.


Rebirth is a six-mana spell that reads "Each player may ante the top card of their library. If a player does, that player’s life total becomes 20."


This is an interesting effect, especially in green. I could see players using this as a control piece against aggro decks. If you could survive the onslaught of burn spells to reach six mana you could cast this and reset the clock. Presumably, players running Rebirth don't care about their opponent's life total, or might even be trying to win in another way like mill.


We have seen many effects that set one player's life total to some number but, setting everyone's life total is a different game. The closest we have seen is Arbiter of Knollridge. A seven mana 5/5 that sets everyone's life total to that of the highest player. Alternatively, we have the inverse, Repay in Kind sets everyone's life total to that of the lowest life total among players for seven mana. These life manipulation effects are an interesting way to turn the game on its head at a small cost.



Following that up we have Amulet of Quoz. This is a six mana artifact with "{T} Sacrifice Amulet of Quoz: Target opponent may ante the top card of their library. If they don’t, you flip a coin. If you win the flip, that player loses the game. If you lose the flip, you lose the game. Activate only during your upkeep."


Let's get this one straight.


Amulet of Quoz takes this entire game you've just been playing and says, "meh let's just decide this with a coin flip." This feels like an immensely unsatisfying card to play against as you are practically forced to accept the alternative and ante an additional card. Possibly the biggest offense this card pulls is the fact that it does not exile itself. I could see a world where someone returns this from their grave only to force their opponent to ante more of their deck again and again.

The last card in this vein of cards is Demonic Attorney. The original text for this one is insane, however, its oracle text is much more stripped back "Each player antes the top card of their library."


This one is pretty simple, I could see this being a fantastic turn-one play for all the grinders out there looking to ante as many cards as possible with a turn of one Dark Ritual into Demonic Attorney.


It requires a certain amount of courage to spend an entire card just to force everyone to ante an extra card. This is one of those cards that just makes me chuckle. Ideal if you're in a win-more position to just rub salt in the wounds.


Outside the Ante Zone

Next up, we have a handful of cards that allow you to exchange control of cards permanently in the middle of the game!


For triple black and sacrificing Timmerian Fiends "The owner of target artifact may ante the top card of their library. If that player doesn’t, exchange ownership of that artifact and Timmerian Fiends. Put the artifact card into your graveyard and Timmerian Fiends from anywhere into that player’s graveyard. This change in ownership is permanent."


This one is a bit of a mouthful. In short, you destroy the target artifact and sacrifice the Fiends, but instead of putting them in their owner's graveyards, they go into your opponent's grave unless the opponent adds a card to the ante. At its floor this a strictly worse Demonic Attorney! At best you get to steal your opponent's Mox, I guess? This card is so bizarre, everything from the weird art, ability, and a statline no one would ever want to play this card is just so strange I wonder if it ever saw any meaningful play.



I think Tempest Efreet is one of the most interesting cards of the bunch. Its oracle text reads: "Sacrifice Tempest Efreet: Target opponent may pay 10 life. If that player doesn’t, they reveal a card at random from their hand. Exchange ownership of the revealed card and Tempest Efreet. Put the revealed card into your hand and Tempest Efreet from anywhere into that player’s graveyard. This change in ownership is permanent."


All for the low cost of tapping the Efreet you can steal one of your opponent's cards. Honestly, I like this one. A four-mana 3/3 is pretty pathetic by today's standard, but in 1995 it could stand up against its contemporaries. I like the utility here of it being a 3/3 beater that can also force your opponent to lose a card and you gain a card.


It is a really weird form of card advantage that I appreciate. It reminds me a little bit of Dauthi Voidwalker or Intellect Devourer--just permanently. You force them to go down on resources that you can then use yourself later!


Bronze Tablet is a bit of an amalgamation of the previous two cards. It comes into play tapped, and for four mana you can tap and sacrifice it to "Exile Bronze Tablet and target a non-token permanent an opponent owns. That player may pay 10 life. If they do, put Bronze Tablet into its owner’s graveyard. Otherwise, that player owns Bronze Tablet and you own the other exiled card."


This is a steep cost to exile a card.


Additionally, if your opponent is about to win with their big threat, Bronze Tablet does nothing if they can just pay the life. This one is so strange. It costs so much mana but does so little. This feels like a greedy card people played with as a way to steal powerful creatures. In all honesty, I am struggling to see a deck that would want this. Even if it was a six-mana artifact that entered untapped, four to exile a card is just not worth it.


Save Your Ante

The next few cards are some nice utility pieces that let you reclaim your cards from the ante pile! Jeweled Bird can be tapped to "Ante Jeweled Bird. If you do, put all other cards you own from the ante into your graveyard, then draw a card."


Something is endearing about Jeweled Bird.


Unlike the previous effects that were over-costed attempts to up the ante, this removes all your cards from the ante pile and lets you play the game with less risk. Besides that one mana to draw a card is fine. Nothing to write home about but there are worse things you could do with one mana.


Darkpact is a slightly more devious rendition of Jeweled Bird. This sorcery for triple black reads "You own target card in the ante. Exchange that card with the top card of your library."


Here you can use this card as a weird piece of card selection. If you see a desirable card in the ante you can grab it for yourself. Additionally, Darkpact lets you grab any card in the ante, you could preemptively steal your opponent's card!



Triple black is very steep for this effect, however, I like it. This card fostered some feel-bad moments back in the day. Just make sure you don't accidentally ante an even better card into the pile!


The Really Good One!

Those of you who know have been waiting for this one, those of you who don't know, prepare for what many consider the most broken card in the entire game.


Contract From Below is a single black mana for a spell that reads "Discard your hand, ante the top card of your library, then draw seven cards." This spell sings to me as something truly broken.


One mana for a fresh grip of cards is bonkers. I can only imagine what kind of insane turbo mono black decks could exist with this! Two copies of Black Lotus, cast Juggernaut, follow up with a Contract From Below to reload your hand and do it all again.


Remember this is back in the day when there was no limit on the number of copies of one card you could have in your deck! This magical Christmas land is surprisingly possible. We have seen variants of this effect before but at one mana this is absurd.


This costs two mana less than Wheel of Fortune and it's a one-sided effect!


This is awesome at any moment of the game, and the ability has been unprecedented ever since. You would likely find it hard to lose a game after casting this.


What Do We Do with Ante now?

To some, the story of ante starts and ends here. A novelty of a time long since passed.


But I have found one place where ante can still have a home. Ante should have a home in the one format where every card is welcome: Cube.


For those who need a quick primer on Cube, you can have a look at our previous article here. In short, Cube is a format in which you design your draft environment using cards from throughout Magic's history. The true "Magic of Cube" is there is no ban list. Cube is your own bespoke draft set. You are R&D, you decide what cards are in your cube, so why not try up the ante a little?


As we discussed prior, ante comes in two forms, there's anteing the top card of your deck, and there are the cards that interact with ante. If you are a cube enthusiast, try out ante on your next game night! Players ante the top card of their deck every game and thus their decks change for the night! In some ways, you are continuing to draft even after the draft is complete. All this gives you a unique slant on a draft night without needing to add any extra cards to your cube. It is an alternative game mode you can try out on a whim.


On the other hand, if you want to include the cards that reference ante, then it is a small package of cards. I think these cards would play well in an old-school Cube or a low-power cube in most cases.


Many cards like the aforementioned Bronze Tablet and Timmerian Fiends are not that powerful but could be good if your cube is durdly. I think Rebirth is an incredibly unique effect that I would love to see in more cubes.



I think it would be a perfectly fine card if the ante was dropped altogether and it simply read "Each player's life total becomes 20."


Tempest Efreet looks like a blast to play. I feel like a discard deck would love this, and it keeps the ante relevant throughout the games. If you want to encourage the ante theme try to include multiple copies of these ante matter cards in your cube, in particular Jeweled Bird.


This card creates plenty of wild moments where you steal back that card you needed. It's already not awful at one mana to draw one. Multiple copies of this make the ante zone something players can interact with more readily.


If you are thinking about including ante I would be very careful if you're considering Contract From Below. This is an immensely powerful spell in any environment. This should only be played in the most powerful of powered cubes. It cannot be understated how strong this effect is!


If you push for ante in your cube, one rule you may want to consider is allowing players to use mana of any color to cast spells they won through ante. This gives players an incentive and the ability to play the cards they won through ante without jeopardizing their deck. This naturally involves tracking what cards were won through ante. Something like a slip of paper in the sleeve, or simply writing down what cards you won in your wagers can help this.


Conclusion

With that, I hand the rest to you! What do you think of ante? Should it stay in the past with all the other chaff of 1993 or is it a diamond in the rough?


Let us know what you think of ante, bad beat stories, awesome wins, or "trading" a basic land for a black lotus. Whatever your experience with ante, we want to hear it!


 

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