Developing for Friends

Posted in Latest Developments on January 15, 2016

By Sam Stoddard

Sam Stoddard came to Wizards of the Coast as an intern in May 2012. He is currently a game designer working on final design and development for Magic: The Gathering.

Two-Headed Giant is one of my favorite formats of all time. I know that there are a lot of people who roll their eyes when presented with the idea of competitive-level Two-Headed Giant, especially when there was a Pro Tour for it, but I have always found the format to be very fun. It's not just me, though—Two-Headed Giant is also very popular as a format at Prereleases and Friday Night Magic. What's great about it, in my mind, is that it allows for people who are at very different levels of engagement to play together. Parents and children, spouses, friends—the ability to play with someone who is newer to the game and for everyone to have a great time is an amazing combination. It also allows for formats to play very differently, and many of the "things" a format is usually about often work very differently in Two-Headed Giant. So you get to play with a lot of cards that might not be quite strong enough for normal Limited games, but are just right for Two-Headed Giant.

A favorite format of mine is Two-Headed Giant Cube Rochester Draft, something I did on a regular basis with one of my best Magic-playing friends, Matt Kransteuber (the keeper of the cube). Easily my favorite Cube format when you only have four people, you draft the whole pack face up. The first team gets one pick, the next gets two, then the first team gets two again, and the teams each use their total card pool to create their decks. I love how much it changes a lot of the picks within Cube (where life totals are a different ratio) and creates a very different strategy for putting decks together. A lot of what is strong are two-card combos that require each player to play a different part of the combo, or ways to (as much as possible) take one head out of the game so it can be two against one. It's not something that I would want to use as my exclusive style for Cube Draft, but it's definitely one I can do 20 or more times per year.

Previous Two-Headed Missteps

As great as Two-Headed Giant is, it has some challenges as a format. The one-game matches are pretty swingy, as are the mulligan rules. A lot of cards in Magic are not made to work well with teammates, and it can be frustrating to not be able to cast a spell on one of your teammate's cards because the rules text was worded with "you control." It also just doesn't get the type of rigorous testing or focus that we do for regular Limited and Standard. This has led to there being both mechanics like exalted that fell pretty flat, and common cards like Mind Sculpt that occasionally blow games out of the water if one team opens up several of them.

As Commander became more popular, one of the things we started doing in regular Magic sets was making more of our cards scale based on the number of players. Syphon Soul, all the way back in Legends, was a group game all-star, and over the years we made a few cards like Syphon Mind to play on that fact. Between infect in Scars of Mirrodin, extort in Guildpact, and cards like Gray Merchant of Asphodel in Theros, there were a lot of places where it was clear we were not making the world more fun for the Two-Headed Giant player. Although those players are certainly less visible and vocal than the Commander players, we did keep getting feedback about how un-fun these things were in Two-Headed Giant, and have worked on pulling those things back. While we used to flip the switch on whether a card scales based on the number of players pretty easily, we are now more thoughtful about how that will impact multiplayer Limited.

Fruitful Two-Headed Space

Time Spiral was the first set that had competitive play using Two-Headed Giant. What I enjoyed about Time Spiral, for Two-Headed Giant, was how complicated the set was and how well the mechanics worked in the format. Though, technically, the block had around 60 mechanics, so finding more than a few that worked well would be hard. In particular, storm worked great when combined with suspend to create huge and dramatic turns. This wasn't always the most balanced thing, but it was much more fun than losing to things like infect or extort that were just undercosted for what they were doing in the format.

Two-Headed Sliver | Art by Dany Orizio

This isn't a problem unique to Two-Headed Giant. I certainly look at many of the early cards that we created for Commander and cringe a bit. It wasn't that we didn't have our hearts in the right place, it was that we erred too heavily on the side of "this is much more powerful in a multiplayer game," rather than "this is somewhat more powerful, but also much more fun in a multiplayer game." It had impact and moved the needle, but didn't always do so in a way we are happy with. As a group, I think the developers are much better at making the decisions for Standard and Modern that make those more fun, because we have played a lot more Standard and Modern. As the development and design teams has grown, we also have picked up more people who are good at being sensitive to the power level of cards, and who have a good eye for what would make multiplayer formats more fun.

Two-Headed Giant in Oath of the Gatewatch

For Two-Headed Giant, I believe the basic thing that makes things more fun is allowing for one-two punches, and allowing teammates' cards to work with each other, not just in terms of scaling up. What I think feels best is when you get to cast something that is more powerful because of the situation, and not just because damage to all opponents scales differently in Two-Headed Giant. Things like combat tricks really shine in Two-Headed Giant, where there is just a lot more blocking and attacking than a normal game. To that end, when design had the idea to make Oath of the Gatewatch into a set that had elements intended to play up the strengths of Two-Headed Giant, we thought it was important that it do so in the ways that were fun in the format without just relying on higher scaling effects.

The first mechanic that did that was support. While the mechanic can be a little bland in one-on-one games—where it just adds a counter to some of your creatures—it adds a lot of strategic depth to Two-Headed Giant games, where it is very easy to sculpt huge gains out of the cards, especially the instants. On the support cards with larger numbers, you will frequently not have enough actual creatures to get the full value out of the spells by yourself; this is less of a challenge in a multiplayer game.

Surge, as a mechanic, can be strong if you build your deck around it in regular Limited or Constructed games. But the mechanic really sings in Two-Headed Giant, where you can much more easily and reliably get the effect. There is a lot of strategy around it, especially when your teammate has to use an instant they would have preferred to use later to get the surge bonus. It also rewards both players for keeping something in their reserve so that they can trigger their teammate's surge on a topdeck. Also, the cost-saving nature of surge generally requires that players save up a Bone Saw or some other cheap spell to get their bonuses. It is much easier to play your spells on curve in Two-Headed Giant.

Beyond just the actual mechanics, there was thought put into making sure the cards were fun in Two-Headed Giant, which is a bit different than we tend to do in sets. Because of the focus on the format, we actually played test games of it in development, and made card changes as a result. Some of the cards that ended up feeling way too generous or un-fun in Two-Headed Giant got scaled back to only hit one opponent. While we usually have our Divination variants only let you draw cards, Comparative Analysis targets any player—so you can refill your teammate's hand. Gravity Negator, Deepfathom Skulker, and Steppe Glider all give either player's creatures evasion.

If you are someone who already enjoys Two-Headed Giant, I hope that Oath of the Gatewatch provides you with one of the better experiences you have had in the format. And if you are someone who doesn't usually play Two-Headed Giant, I suggest you give it a try.

That's it for this week. I'll be back next week with the first part of the M-Files for Oath of the Gatewatch.

Until next time,

Sam (@samstod)

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