Frontier Magic

Posted in Feature on May 24, 2010

By David Noonan

As a "diversity gamer" Timmy, I'm a huge fan of variant formats, from Vanguard to Planar Magic to Archenemy. Whether they're good for one hour of play or one hundred, variant formats are—for some of us, anyway—always worth exploring. Thus, I was delighted to rediscover this little gem from The Duelist, the analog ancestor of the modern

Although the examples in the article are old, the Frontier Magic variant seems like it would be plenty of fun to try with modern Limited decks, EDH decks, or anything else you might have lying around. The section on adapting specific mechanics to this style of play is pretty antiquated, obviously—I doubt you'll find yourself wondering how to address banding in Frontier Magic—but it got me thinking about how to apply more recent mechanics. Zendikar's landfall abilities in particular seem like a perfect fit; just treat exploring a land as having it enter the battlefield under your control. And all those Eldrazi Spawn will help ramp up your mana even more than usual ....

Anyway, this particular variant helped me while away an afternoon or three many years ago, and I hope it inspires some of you as well.


Kelly Digges
Daily MTG Editor

In this Magic variant, players take the roles of dueling planeswalkers exploring a newly discovered continent. Because they don't know the lay of the land, they summon creatures to scout out the terrain before they can tap it for mana.

Players of Frontier Magic will find they already know most of the rules; you'll cast spells, tap creatures, and try to reduce your opponent to 0 life just like in the regular Magic game. But there are two big changes to the Magic game you're familiar with: Your creatures move around a board composed of land cards, and those land cards take the place of the ones in your deck.


To play Frontier Magic, pull all lands out of your deck and shuffle them together with your opponent's lands. (Hint: Write down what you have so you'll be able to get the right ones back when the match is over.) You'll have a pile of 40-50 land cards. Lay them face down, left to right, in columns of five. Leave enough space between each card so that you can tap it without disturbing its neighbors. If you don't have enough cards for a complete row along the right edge, just set those "remainder" cards aside - they're out of the game.

You now have a grid of face-down land cards that represent the territory you'll be fighting over. You'll start at one of the wide ends, and your opponent starts at the other. Shuffle your decks and put a 1/1 token creature of any color on top of any face-down land card in the row closest to you. Then draw your opening hand from your library, and you're ready to play.

How the Game Works

Frontier Magic follows the usual Magic turn order: untap, upkeep, draw, main, discard, and cleanup. When in doubt, the Magic rules you're familiar with apply. But Frontier Magic requires you to think about moving creatures, tapping land for mana, and attacking in new ways.

Moving Around the Board

At any time during your main phase, you may move your creatures one card north, south, east, or west. You can move as many or as few creatures as you like, but once you've started moving creatures, you have to finish all your moves before you can do anything else. You can't move some creatures, cast an artifact, then move some more creatures, for example. Your opponent can respond to any individual move in the usual Magic fashion.

There are no diagonal moves in Frontier Magic, and each creature can only move once a turn. Special rules apply to creatures with flying, landwalk, and shadow; see the "Creature Abilities" section below. And unless a creature has banding (again, see below), you can never have more than one creature occupying the same land card.

Revealing Land Cards

Start the main phase of your first turn by flipping over the land card under the token creature. Whenever a creature steps onto a card, flip that card over if it's still face down. Eventually much of the board will be revealed this way.

There's another way to reveal a face-down land card. At any time during your main phase, you can tap a creature to flip over a card immediately north, south, east, or west of that creature - an ability all creatures have, called "scouting." This enables you to see more of the board and is particularly important early in the game. By moving, then tapping to scout a land, each creature can reveal two cards per turn.

Getting Mana

In Frontier Magic, you don't have unfettered access to your lands. To tap a land for mana, you must meet three criteria. The land card must be face up, untapped, and either under a friendly creature or adjacent to one.

If the land card is under one of your creatures, simply tap the land for mana - doing so doesn't affect the creature. If you need more mana (and who doesn't?), you can tap a creature to tap an additional land immediately north, south, east, or west of that creature. This also happens at mana-source speed, and the land to be tapped must be face up and not under one of your opponent's creatures. In other words, you can't tap the land out from underneath your opponent.

Always tap your lands clockwise. When it comes time to untap next turn, you'll need to be able to tell which lands you tapped and which ones your opponent tapped. And for the purposes of card text, you control only the lands your creatures are standing on.

Summoning Creatures and Casting Spells

Newly summoned creatures are played in a row between you and the land cards. They're considered to be in play, but can't move, block, or use any ability requiring them to tap. Creatures that don't suffer from summoning sickness can move onto the row closest to you during the main phase when you move your other creatures. Global enchantments and artifacts are also played into that row between you and the land cards, and they don't move at all.

Attacking and Defending

To attack another creature, you must be directly north, south, east, or west of it. Unlike regular Magic, you aren't limited to one combat, and the defender doesn't get to choose blockers. But just as with moving your creatures, once you've started making your attacks, you can't do anything else until you're done. You declare an attack, resolve it, and then either declare another attack or announce that you're done attacking. For the purposes of card text, the creature you're attacking is considered to be a blocker, but there's no declare-blockers step.

Terrain bonuses. Untapped creatures get a +1/+1 bonus if their color matches the color of the surrounding terrain. A Hurloon Minotaur, for example, gets +1/+1 if it's standing on a mountain, and a further +1/+1 for each visible, matching land north, south, east, or west of it as long as that land isn't controlled by one of your opponent's creatures. So a lowly Shanodin Dryads becomes a 6/6 creature if it's standing on a forest and surrounded by vacant forests in all four directions.

You can attack a tapped creature if you're adjacent to it, and it's often a good idea, because tapped creatures don't get terrain bonuses - they were too busy doing something else to dig in for defense. But even in Frontier Magic, you can't attack with a tapped creature. Keep in mind that just in like in regular Magic, your attacking creatures get tapped.

Attacking your opponent. To attack your opponent with your creatures, first move them to the row closest to your opponent. Then they'll deal damage equal to their power to your opponent. The move doesn't tap them, but the attack does.

Creature Abilities

To reflect the movement-oriented environment of Frontier Magic, some creature abilities work differently than in the regular Magic game.

Flying. Flying no longer affects who can block whom. Instead, flying creatures get a special movement ability. Rather than making the usual move, flying creatures can move two cards north, south, east, or west. They fly over the intervening land card (and they don't reveal it if it's face down), even if your opponent has a creature standing on that card.

Landwalk and shadow. These two abilities allow extra moves under certain circumstances. Landwalking creatures can move north, south, east, or west any number of spaces - without changing direction - as long as the intervening land cards are all of the appropriate type. For example, a Bog Wraith could move east to a swamp, continue east to another swamp, then move one more card east to an island, where it would have to stop. Creatures with shadow function similarly, except they rely on a row or column containing creatures (it doesn't matter whether they're friendly or enemy creatures) to move more than one space. They also move in straight lines, but must stop on the first unoccupied land card. A Soltari Lancer could move north to a land with a friendly Samite Healer on it, continue north to a land with your opponent's Hill Giant, then come to a stop on a vacant plains one more space north.

Landhome. This one's easy: Creatures with landhome must always stand on land cards of the appropriate color.

Trample. Creatures with trample assign damage according to the new trample rules. If they deal lethal damage to the creature they're attacking, any further damage continues on to any creature on the next land card beyond the defending creature. If the defending creature is standing on the row closest to your opponent, any damage that tramples through is dealt to your opponent.

Banding. In Frontier Magic, the banding ability lets you stack more than one creature on a land card. They'll attack as one creature: Combine their power and toughness. A stack of creatures can have an unlimited number of creatures with banding, and one creature without banding. The whole stack calculates its terrain bonus only once, but it gets the +1/+1 even if only one creature has the right color for that land. Creatures that have "banding when attacking," or banding under other conditions, have it all the time in Frontier Magic.

Regeneration. Regenerated creatures return to the game in the row between you and the land cards. They can move back onto the board the turn after they're regenerated.

Your token. No creatures means no mana, so if you lose all your creatures, you get a new 1/1 token in your back row for free.

Other Typical Magic Effects

Most of the time, land destruction works just like in regular Magic: Simply put the card in a special "land graveyard." If there's a creature on top of the land, it remains on the "hole" in the continent, but you can't move a creature into a hole in the map. That means if you move off a hole, you can't come back. If you respond to your opponent's move by destroying the land they're moving to, the move "fizzles" much like a spell without a legal target fizzles. The creature stays put, having wasted its move. If you have to sacrifice lands, they must be lands your creatures are standing on.

Cards That Just Plain Don't Work

Not every card works in Frontier Magic. In particular, steer clear of mass land-destruction (like Armageddon or Sunder), land cards that get up and walk around (like Stalking Stones), and artifacts that turn into creatures (like Chimeric Staff). All other Standard-legal cards should work, although you'll have to make common-sense rulings on the fly sometimes. How cards adapt to Frontier Magic should be straightforward in most cases. This isn't the Pro Tour; if a card is broken, just don't use it next time.

Chimeric Staff


Don't forget defense. You can't wish your blockers into existence; they've got to be in the right place at the right time. Keep an eye on the terrain in the row closest to you. If there are a number of islands there, don't let your opponent get a blue creature there, because terrain-pumped attacks on you really hurt.

Consider your deck. If you opt for a monocolor deck, you know at least half the lands out there will be useful. But stay mindful of the mirror matchup - those games can move very quickly.

Don't over-scout. Remember, you're not just revealing those land cards - you're revealing them to your opponent. Don't scout the center of the continent until you're sure you, and not your opponent, will be controlling it.

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