The vector of transmission for many of these formats from the early days of Magic was the regular "House Rules" feature in The Duelist, the magazine that served as most players' lifeline to the wider world of Magic in the days before the Internet truly took wing. "House Rules" was written by Duelist contributors, ordinary readers (who received a free Duelist life counter if their submission was chosen—which may not sound like much, but they were really nice life counters), and even a world champion or two.
Going back through the "House Rules" archives, I've encountered formats that I've always taken for granted as part of the Magic landscape. These range from simple variants like "all land down" (which I think many play groups arrived at independently) to more tuned formats, including (in Duelist #29) the proprietary "Type B" Constructed format used at the University of Illinois Magic club that was my first exposure to the tournament scene. Many now-familiar variants got their first mass exposure in "House Rules," from Star to Two-Headed Giant to Emperor, and, in Duelist #12, something called "Drafting," which I seem to recall catching on. In Duelist #11, I even encountered something called "Elder Dragon Legend Wars," which reads like the predecessor to today's EDH, certainly in spirit and possibly by direct inspiration.
In addition to some interesting slices of Magic history, "House Rules" was host to a number of formats that didn't catch on to the same degree, but that have plenty to offer in terms of fun. In the spirit of the recent spate of interesting variants such as Archenemy, Tweet MTG, and Magic Community Labs' Uktabi Kong, I offer the following compendium of long-forgotten Magic variants for your perusal and enjoyment.
Daily MTG Editor
Assassins (Duelist #8)
by Sean Mahoney
"Assassins" is a multiplayer variant for Magic: The Gathering intended for those who are tired of free-for-all games but don't have the right decks (or number of players) for a team variant. It gives players an incentive to concentrate on a certain opponent, while allowing them to focus on other players if necessary.
The basic mechanic for Assassins is simple. At the beginning of the game, everyone's name is written down on a slip of paper and thrown into a hat. Starting with whomever goes first, players draw one of these slips to get a mark (the player they are assigned to eliminate). Those who draw their own names should get a new mark, which might require restarting the assignment process. Play then begins normally. Note that marks are always concealed unless players inherit themselves as a mark later in the game (see below).
Assassins encourages you to concentrate on your mark by incentives, not by restrictions. Players are free to attack whomever they want, target anyone they want, and so on, though you may still want to play with range. However, victory is not determined solely by who the last player is, but also by who manages to take out the most marks over the course of the game. The normal method of defeating someone is to reduce that player's life points below 1. For example, if Player A is at 8 life and Player B hits her with a Fireball for 9 damage, Player A is eliminated at the end of a phase and Player B receives credit for the mark.
Note that if you force your mark to lose by means other than damage, such as Disenchanting their Illusions of Grandeur or forcing them to draw more cards than they can, you receive credit just as if you had defeated her normally. Also, if multiple players deals the final blow simultaneously (for instance, if two players cast Lightning Bolts at another player with two life), credit goes first to the active player or to the next closest player in order of play.
If you defeated the player you are assigned to, you receive 1 victory point and inherit your victim's mark. If your victim was assigned to defeat you, then you score an additional victory point and discard your new mark (yourself) without getting another. If you finish off yourself or someone other than your mark, you don't get any victory points and that player's mark is discarded. The last player remaining in the game scores 1.5 victory points, and then everyone compares victory points to see who won.
Zero Sum (Duelist #10)
by Aharon Bianco
Members of the club I founded here in Israel—the Dominia Republic Magic: The Gathering Club—play a multiplayer Magic variant we call "Zero Sum." Each player starts with 20 life, split evenly 10/10 between the player's "right" and "left" sides. Any damage done by a player to the immediate left or right pushes the life points to the opposite side. For example, a Lightning Bolt from the player on your immediate left would make your life 7/13. Only when a player's life points are less than -10 on either side does that player lose the game. The player who dealt the crushing damage, however, receives a bonus of 10 life to be distributed between his or her right and left sides.
Damage not done from a player's immediate left or right simply strikes the player head-on, splitting the damage between the left and right sides and pushing equal numbers of life points to the opposite side, thereby having no net effect. Thus, Earthquake only damages the players to the immediate left and right of the casting player and annoys everyone else, who loses creatures.
Life-bonus cards like Healing Salve don't add points to a player's life total, but instead become part of a "life-point shield" that absorbs X damage, where X is the amount of life granted by the healing spell. The shield absorbs damage coming from any direction, including head-on. Also, cards like Creature Bond can be played on any player's creature, but the creature's controller only suffers damage if a player to her left or right enchanted the creature.
Not for the timid, Zero Sum is filled with groveling and temporary alliances, as well as unrelenting, vicious assaults. The variant adds a different strategy twist in that you want your opponent to leave the game but at the same time want to be the player who gains the extra life points after sending the eviction order.
Landless Magic (Duelist #10)
by Doug Weathers
As Anna and I settled into our seats at the Rose Arena, I took an inventory of our supplies. "Let's see—we've got our Portland neck scarves, our pocket binoculars, the life stones. Sweetheart, where's the cards?"
Anna stared at me. "They were next ot the radio. Didn't you pick them up?"
I reached into the bag for the radio and came up with a granola bar. "Oh, no," I groaned, "I left our decks at home! Now what are we gonna do?" Mortified, I stood up. "I'm gonna run down to the concession stand and see if they have any starters."
"Well, we can use the lands to make a pair of lamp shades," she said. "Get me a pretzel if they have any, please."
I gave her a hasty kiss and pushed down the aisle. Behind me, the players were skating onto the ice. When I got to the head of the line, I could see that the starter decks were all gone.
"No more starters?" I asked the kid behind the stand.
"Nope, nothing left but boosters."
I could feel the kid waiting impatiently for me to decide. Then an idea hit me like a Lightning Bolt. "Uh, give me a pretzel and eight booster packs. Mix in a few Ice Age."
I carried my purchases back to my seat, where Anna was watching the duel on her left. From what I could see, the woman's opponent was going to have some trouble against her Stasis. I slid down next to Anna and handed her the boosters. She looked at me incredulously. "What am I supposed to do with these? We don't have any land."
I grinned. "I have a cunning plan. Look, it's fun to play with a deck when each card is a surprise, right?"
"Yeah, but what about the land?"
I looked at her, and she grew thoughtful. We could use spells as land," she said. "When played as a land, a red card would be considered a mountain."
"Right, and artifacts played as land would give colorless mana, and multicolor cards would act like dual—or triple—lands. Here's what I thought we could do," I continued. "You get to play one of your cards as a land each turn. Next turn, you can tap it as a land, or you can use it like normal."
"Hmmm, that would allow you to play one really expensive card for free each turn. If you can do that, why do you need mana at all?"
"For Fireballs?" I said hopefully. My vision of free Polar Krakens began to fade. The woman next to Anna played a Boomerang on her Stasis and joined the conversation. "I agree with her. It would completely change the game dynamics."
Anna nodded. "How about if you can put a land token into play by skipping your draw phase? That would be like drawing the land."
"How do we tell what land they are?"
"Well, we could just say they were any type we want when we tap them," she said quickly. "Or, how about this? On turn one, you get one mana of any color. On turn two, you get two, and so on. No tokens to keep track of."
"Okay," I said, "we need land so we can use our Flashfires. Let's say that you can play any card as a basic land. Once you've played it, it stays a land. If you play your Pestilence as a swamp and then draw a Circle of Protection: Black, too bad—it's a swamp forevermore." I paused. "Unless it goes into the graveyard and comes back into your hand somehow. Since cards have no memory, you could play it as a Pestilence this time. Are you game?"
The sudden cheering by the crowd seemed insignificant compared to the happy crinkling sound of booster packs being ripped open. We shuffled, drew our hands, and looked thoughtful.
I considered my Goblin Ski Patrol and asked Anna, "What about snow-covered lands?"
"How about we say that all Ice Age cards played as land are snow covered?"
I agreed, and the game commenced.
The fellow at my elbow sympathized with me. "Gee, it's a shame you couldn't use that bolt on her Tor Giant, but I guess it was worth it."
I had decided to stop holding onto nifty spells while waiting for mana. I was using them as mana to get other nifty spells into play. Then I realized, this was working! We were playing a real game of Magic using only booster packs.
I won the first game, and we looked briefly at the figures skating below and then shuffled and dealt again. Intermittently, the crowd howled as we played on. I won the next game, and Anna won the third.
"Play another?" I asked.
She looked down at the ice and then up at the scoreboard. "Looks like it's time to go home. Apparently Portland won again."
Once on board MAX, a man across from us looked at our scarves and asked, "Good game this evening? Who won?"
"Well, I won two duels, and Anna won one. We're going to go home and play more to see if this landless deck idea keeps working.
"No," he said, "I meant who won the hockey game, not the Magic game."
Anna looked at me. "If Seattle played any better, maybe we'd have to pay more attention to the ice."
The man laughed. "Now tell me about this landless-deck thing."
We missed our stop.
House Rules (Duelist #30)
by Jesse Decker
Friendly play is the root of Magic's success. Keeping friendly play interesting, however, requires lots of friends or some new ways to play. So the next time someone in the group complains about "the same old game" or groans "not that deck again," offer to change the rules.
This variant borrows from a number of trick-taking card games the concept of bidding. After players draws their initial hands, they each make a bid as to how many turns it will take to defeat their opponents. Bidding can be done publicly with each player stating his or her bid or secretly with each player writing his or her bid down and keeping it hidden. Either way, assign a penalty for not achieving the bidding goal; for example, during the upkeep of every turn past a player's bid, that player loses one life. On the flip side, award points for coming close: three points for winning on the exact turn bid, two points for winning within one turn, and one point for winning within two turns. Keeping track of points earned over an evening's play can keep the same two players interested in the same game.
A Risky Proposition
Multiplayer games are the favored way for many casual groups to play. The variant called Siege from Duelist #10 [an Archenemy-style one-against-many variant –KD] is an interesting one. Play begins with a large communal deck—just grab a bunch of commons from a couple of colors and the appropriate mix of land, then pile them in the center of the table. Each player draws and plays from the pile as if that were his or her deck. Now, while the Siege variant is great fun, it can get bogged down (like most multiplayer games) because eliminating another player exposes one to attack from someone else at the table.
Risky Proposition gets around this problem by borrowing a simple idea from the board game Risk: When a player is eliminated from the game, the person who did the last point of damage gets the cards from that player's hand. Permanents are buried in the communal graveyard as usual, but the attacker gets a significant reward for moving the game closer to its conclusion.
Don't Settle for Less
One of the most enjoyable aspects of the exceptional board game Settlers of Cataan is the high level of player interaction. Try shaking things up by allowing card trading in your multiplayer games. As in Settlers, each trade must include the active player. There are no restrictions on the number of cards that can be traded at one time. This variant works fine for constructed deck play, but alliances form quickly among players using similar colors. Trading allows players without sufficient mana to trade the spells they can't use for land and also allows weaker players to influence the game despite their vulnerable position. For an additional variant, you can also allow trading while using the Siege variant from issue #10 or the Risky Proposition variant above.
Liar's Dice is one of my all-time favorite party games. Incorporating the Liar's Dice mechanic into Magic is easy. Say we have two players: Adam and Beth. During his upkeep, Adam declares how much damage he can do that turn. Beth chooses either to agree or to disagree. If Beth agrees with Adam, then that amount of damage is subtracted from her life total immediately. For the remainder of the turn, Adam can't do any damage to Beth. If Beth disagrees, however, then Adam takes the rest of his turn as normal. If he succeeds in doing the exact amount of damage that he declared, then Beth will suffer that amount of damage again at the end of the turn. On the other hand, if Adam is not able to do the exact amount of damage that he declared, then Beth takes no damage that turn-instead, the amount of damage Adam declared is subtracted from his own life total at the end of the turn.
Variety is the Spice of Magic
Whether you choose to try out one of these variants or to make up one of your own, keep in mind that there is no one correct way to play Magic outside of a tournament. Keep things varied, try variations on these variations, and you'll find your play group is playing more and complaining less.