That last bit – different formats – is something we haven't done in a few weeks here at Serious Fun, so we'll take this week to revisit. Following are six different “top-down” format ideas, each with multiple variants. These are meant to inspire flavor in your group, and get players to come up with crazy stuff outside of their comfort zone. This is because they force restrictions onto players that most decks won't naturally meet, and restrictions breed creativity.
I've repeated a couple of formats from past columns – not because I'm out of ideas, but because I've learned that many readers are new to the site, and may have missed odd ideas thrown into the corners of past columns. Also, some of these have new tweaks or thoughts from my own experience, or from reader correspondence. Those faithful among you who've been with me since The Dojo will still see plenty new, I hope.
You can, incidentally, try more than one of these at a time. But try each singly first, and tweak it to your group's preferences.
DIABOLIC EDICT #1: YOU MUST CONFORM TO THE TRIBE
Follow this link to one of the first Serious Fun columns, which reported on a great underground Tribal format. Onslaught block made such decks fashionable, so the stretch isn't as great as it used to be. Thus, my suggested variants:
- Ban all tribes that received more than ten creature cards in Onslaught block. Beasts used to be hard, didn't they? Go back to that era, and build your Spider decks (don't forget the Tangles!) and your Cat decks. (Hint: cats actually got a few nice, gentle boosts in the block, across four different colors!)
- Ban Onslaught block cards. A bit more to the point, but of course harder for newer players. At least you won't have to think of all the new cards tribal formats are trying to ban, now.
- Focus the new tribes. The reverse of the above path would be to embrace only those tribes that received ten or more creature cards in Onslaught block. You still don't have to pick the obvious zombies or elves, of course: the more interesting decks might be illusions and mutants. Illusions go back quite a ways – see nifty cards like Aura Thief, Ertai's Familiar, Imaginary Pet, and of course the mighty Palinchron.
DIABOLIC EDICT #2: YOU MUST SERVE ANOTHER
Of course, there are hundreds of different team formats, but this one is a bit more provocative than most, and means more for your deck design, which is the point. Here's how it works:
In advance, you generate two-person teams. Each team has a person “in control,” and a person “in service” – say overlord and thrall. (Try not to be too offensive, here.) The overlord can probably use any deck they want, but they should bear in mind the restrictions of the thrall deck if they want to win.
The thrall deck is the interesting deck. It may play any card it likes, but has the following play restrictions:
- It may not attack.
- It may not deal damage to any player, nor cause loss of life.
- It may not mill cards in any player's deck, nor forces any player beyond the owner to draw cards.
- It may not assign poison counters.
- It may not win the game based on any condition stated on the card (e.g., Coalition Victory).
Put informally, the thrall deck is unable to win a game. It is the overlord deck that must generate the win condition, and the thrall deck must support that condition. Maybe it just removes or pumps creatures. Maybe it just counters or redirects spells. Maybe it just sits there like a lump. Whether you let the teammates strategize beforehand is, of course, up to you.
Other than that, you can play two-headed giant rules, or whatever team format you like. If your group enjoys this format enough, you may even find yourselves using the better thrall decks in other formats – there is no reason why a decent thrall deck can't function as an Emperor in that team format! (For more on Emperor Format, see the Serious Fun archives or the Casual Fridays archives at starcitygames.com.)
- Losers become thralls next game. Start with a normal chaos multiplayer game, if you like. The first half of the group eliminated from the chaos become thralls in the next game (team). The first teams to lose that game become thralls the following game. Continue indefinitely.
- Losers become thrall this game. When a player dies, you gain control of that player. Reset the entire team's life totals to five times the number of players on the team (so when you get your third thrall, each player on the team gets reset to 20 life points; on the fourth, 25). A new thrall resets and reshuffles his deck, searches for four basic lands to put into play, shuffles again, and draws five cards. When any player on a team dies, the entire team becomes thralls to the overlord of the winning team. This sets up some fairly interesting dynamics in the late game; but the deckbuilding implications are less direct, so we'll explore this some other time.
- Thralls are creatures. Think of the card Form of the Dragon. Then think of the card Fling. Squish ‘em. In short, you allow overlords to sacrifice a thrall to deal half of that thrall's life total to target creature or player. Set a five-round grace period on this ability, or you'll see a lot of early thrall flinging! You could also allow the raising of a dead thrall, by paying 150 percent of what you want the raised thrall's life total to be. Certainly, we can think up decks that take advantage of such schemes!
DIABOLIC EDICT #3: YOU MUST ADHERE TO AN ARTIST
This one goes back to my third or fourth Magic column ever, when I did a lovely stick-figure self-portrait. (Mike Flores, who used to be my editor, still cuts and pastes it into selected board postings, which speaks incredibly well of his artistic taste.)
The rule here is simple: every card in the deck (excluding basic lands, though you can be hardcore!) must come from the same artist.
How harsh you are depends a lot on how deep your group's average collection is. You can either demand that deeper collections generate single-artist cards, or you can simply assign penalties to each card that does not conform with the deck's main artist. (So if you're playing a Richard Kane Ferguson deck, and only three of your four Drain Lifes are from Mirage, you may have to pay life, or cards, or some other random penalty for your Fifth Edition transgression.)
MagicTheGathering.com's own talented (and lovely!) Reverend Toby Wachter has done several major artist profiles; if you go to the archives, you will find lists of every card each of these artists has done – a pretty good resource for the format!
DIABOLIC EDICT #4: YOU MUST CHOOSE YOUR NEXT CARD FROM MORE THAN ONE DECK
The most basic version of this format is to make two piles out of your deck: lands and non-lands. To start the game, draw three from your lands pile and four from your non-lands pile. Then, each time you draw, you may choose to draw off of either sub-library (shelf?). The same goes for milling – you as the owner can mill each card individually from either deck. Note that this has implications for cards like Grindstone and Helm of Obedience.
The advantage to this format is that you can build decks with increased mana costs – Scourge, anyone – with less fear of being short on lands. When you want one, you'll take one, right? You'll also have some strategic decisions to make, as you balance the cost of continued mana screw against the cost of forgoing a money card. (Quick flash to the Matrix Reloaded: “The problem…is choice.”)
As for cycling lands, well, that just seems silly, but go ahead. Still helps threshold, and cards like Lightning Rift, I suppose!
- Make different stacks. Why just land and non-land? Why not blue and green? Goblins and Zombies? Artifacts, enchantments, sorceries, instants, creatures, and lands? Just note that the more stacks you agree upon, the more banal the format will get – if you can choose too precisely what you will get, an important part of Magic dies.
- Draw off of your opponents' libraries. This has even deeper implications for how you build your deck! Everyone plays the same color (or two colors, or whatever). Use different sleeves to avoid confusion. During your draw step, you may decide to draw from any deck. You are the “owner” of that card only for as long as it remains in your hand. You control it if you cast it; but if it is bounced back to “owner's hand” (say, by Boomerang), then it goes to the player who had it in her deck. This is simply easier than shifting Magic's rules of ownership.
DIABOLIC EDICT #5: YOU MUST CHOOSE COLORS
One of the most basic restrictions is also the one generating the most variants out there, as best as I can tell. Of course, these formats tend to work best if you have five (or multiples of five) players. If you have six, you can make some adjustments for artifacts.
Here is a short list of some of the ways you can fit color-play into your format:
- Each player is a color. Chaos. Doesn't get simpler than that.
- Each player is a color. Quasi-team. Win many points for killing your enemy colors, lose some points when an allied color dies. Highest point total at end of game wins. You might award bonus points to the last color standing, to offset the loss in killing off a second-place ally.
- Each player is a color. Selfless team. Your goal is to support the allied colors, and your fate is tied to their success. You gain points each time they eliminate an enemy color, and a bonus if either of them wins. You gain marginal points for taking action yourself. This will be a slow game, as people will do much maneuvering.
- Each player is three allied colors. Repeat three choices above. So if you're the WGR player, your enemies are the and players. This just gives you more flexibility in your card choices, and opens up some Invasion block possibilities you otherwise wouldn't have.
- (Ten-player variant.) Each color gets two players. The players in each color play their deck in a duel, for the right to be at the “winner's circle”. The winner of each color plays off (any of the variants above), as does the loser of each color. Prizes for ultimate winner, as well as best color finish record between the two tables.
A short note on including artifacts: first, don't allow them in color decks. Second, if there's a sixth (artifact) player, you may need to set up some very specific rules on allowable cards. If you're allowing Anarchy, I suppose you can also allow Shatterstorm – but just make sure everyone's clear on what people might be packing.
Enemies and allies in six-player are a bit tricky (you could consider white an ally of artifacts because of history in Hanna's Custody and Fountain Watch; or black an ally of artifacts because it never “chooses” to remove them; and does green hate blue or ); but here's what I suggest for seating: ( is artifacts), with wrapping around to ally with .
DIABOLIC EDICT #6: YOU MUST WEATHER THE STORM OF RANDOM EFFECTS
The core format is known by several different names: “Deck of Many Things,” “Random Global Effect”, “Uber-deck,” and so on. Here's the concept: there's an extra deck, of between ten and 30 cards, in the middle of the table. At a specified interval, you flip the top card over, and whatever card that is, happens. These are uncounterable, untargetable, unkillable effects.
Here are the parameters you need to figure out, in advance. No right answers.
- Frequency of flip. You'll need to decide how often you want new effects to come on board. Our group is probably settling on a 33 percent chance every turn (roll of five or six on a six-sided die).
- Overlap of effects. Do you just want one card out there at a time, or several? Having both Psychic Battle and Grip of Chaos out simultaneously can cause headaches; but some players like headaches. Our group does not, and weathers one card at a time.
- Opportunity to respond. If you are about to watch an Aluren leave, or an Furnace of Rath come in, you might want the chance to respond. It's up to your group whether and when you allow it. For rules purposes, our group most recently counts the uber-deck action as the first part of the “beginning of turn” phase, coming in before untap, but giving two opportunities to use the stack – upon a successful die roll (five or six), and then again upon the entrance of a new card (treat as the spell going onto the stack). But if that hurts your head, you can just have the cards leave and enter play without opportunity to respond.
- Type of cards. In general, global enchantments like Awakening and artifacts like Meekstone are the kinds of things you're looking for – they don't target, they don't require choices, they don't refer to “you”, they don't use X values or require other payments, and they generally affect everyone equally. But some sorceries or instants – Balance, Evacuation, Tranquility – are perfectly fine in a deck like this. There are even some creatures (such as Marble Titan and Karona, False God) that lend themselves pretty well to the format.
Here's a sample “Deck of Many Things.” It's lovely how a deck like this can be a dumping ground for those single rares you have lying around!
The point of a deck like this is to give players opportunities to accelerate and reset at random points. Does it influence deck design? That depends on how frequently your group uses the format, and how dependable the deck becomes. If you know that you're going to be playing this format next week, and you know that Infernal Genesis is somewhere in that uber-deck, you're going to play a certain style of deck, using a certain proportion of high-cost Scourge cards!
You might even decide to have each player in your group forge a separate uber-deck reflective of his or her personality. You'll have some use aggressive cards (Upwelling, Repercussion), and others use heavy control cards (I don't recommend Winter Orb or Armageddon, but they're illustrative of the extreme), while still others will use quirky stuff like Clear the Land and Show and Tell.
You can, of course, set restrictions on this format, which is itself a restriction. Diabolic edicts within diabolic edicts! Sounds like time to sign off.Anthony may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.