Team Week

Posted in My Favorite Flavor on December 1, 2015

By Chas Andres

Chas Andres is a freelance writer and MFA student living in Wilmington, North Carolina. When he's not at his keyboard dreaming up stories, you can find him playing with his cats, listening to records, or building yet another Magic deck.

Battles are rarely fought alone. It doesn't matter if you're a powerful Planeswalker looking to save the Multiverse from an unknowable evil, or a mild-mannered programmer fighting to create an awesome new game. Whoever you are, whatever your struggle, you need to have teammates you can trust.

It's Team Week here on DailyMTG, which means that it's time to explore some awesome multiplayer variants. As a Vorthos, I'm always drawn toward multiplayer Magic because it lends itself to the craziest stories, the coolest interactions, and the best chance of assembling some sort of strange flavor abomination on the battlefield. I've also gotten more than my fair share of "free" wins in multiplayer because people will let me live long enough to admire my cool-but-unthreatening deck. That gives me the chance to steal the game at the last second!

Team-based multiplayer is my favorite way to play. Games progress at a healthier pace (chaos games can devolve into board states where everyone is afraid to attack because they don't want to incur the wrath of the table, which kind of defeats the point of a game based around dueling Planeswalkers), and you can create fantastic team-up scenarios that Marvel Comics could only dream about. Let's take a closer look, shall we?

Two-Headed Trouble

Two-Headed Giant is the most popular team-based Magic variant. If you haven't had the chance to play the format at a Prerelease or an FNM yet, I highly recommend it.

For those who aren't familiar with the rules, the two players on a Two-Headed Giant team sit next to each other and face down an opposing Two-Headed Giant team. Players on the same team have separate decks, but they share a combined turn (you and your teammate each draw at the same time) as well as a shared 30-point life total. Combat is shared, which means that one of your creatures can double-block along with one of your teammate's creatures. Deck-building restrictions are also shared, so you can't have more than four of a single card between your deck and your partner's combined.

Flavor-wise, Two-Headed Giant can be interpreted several different ways. The format was named after a creature from Limited Edition (Alpha)Two-Headed Giant of Foriys—so the most obvious (and literal!) way to play 2HG is as a two-headed Planeswalker that must work cohesively in order to defeat your enemy.

What might this entail beyond the standard restrictions of the format? Well, let's think about what a two-headed Planeswalker might actually act like. I doubt the heads would choose to practice completely different schools of Magic—one isn't likely to be a ruthless necromancer while the other is only willing to cast Elves and forest critters. Nor would they cast from the exact same spell book—siblings always want to showcase their uniqueness, and I imagine that would go doubly for two Planeswalkers sharing the same body.

If you want to make your Two-Headed Giant team as authentic as possible, make sure that your decks are similar but complementary. They should both be trying to achieve similar goals, but they should take different paths to get there. The best way I've found to do this is to add a restriction where each deck is limited to two colors and each team must share one (and only one) of those colors between their decks. This gives each 2HG team a primary color identity (their shared color) but allows each "head" room to explore its own individuality.

Pia and Kiran Nalaar | Art by Tyler Jacobson

There are other flavorful ways to play Two-Headed Giant as well. If the whole "two heads sharing a body" thing feels restrictive to you, toss it out—maybe you and your partner are two very different mages who got trapped in that cave when the zombies showed up, or maybe you're two brilliant military commanders who have been close friends all of your lives. This allows you to play very different decks together on the same team, though I'd still recommend making sure that there is some sort of common philosophical bond between them if you want to play as true allies.

If there isn't, or if you end up squabbling with your partner the whole time, keep playing the game after you win! Divide up your permanents, give each remaining player a starting life total equal to what your combined life total was when you defeated your opponent, and start the fight again. This is a good way to play out those "we were allies when we had a common enemy, but now we must battle" situations that are so satisfying in fiction.

There's another Two-Headed Giant variant I love: the Betrayal. Each player on a team rolls a D20 before their untap step. If you roll a 1, you've been an undercover spy the whole time! Pick a player on the opposite team to switch places with. You, your deck, and all permanents you control on the battlefield switch places. Life total stays with the player who doesn't move. If you enjoy the idea but don't like it when things get too crazy, play a variant where you stop the die rolls after the first switch has been made.

Five Star Showdowns

Sometimes, it's nice to have allies that are a little more distant. Two-Headed Giant is fun, but it can get exhausting having another person's voice in your mind all night. Enter Five Star. If you like Magic games that are fraught with tension and have multiple shifting allegiances, this is the format for you.

The basic rules of Five Star are relatively simple. You and four friends sit around a table—ideally a circular one. The players directly to your left and right? They're your teammates. The two players across from you? They're your enemies. Confused about who's who? Take a look at the back of a Magic card for reference. If you're blue, white and black will be your teammates while red and green will be your enemies.

Turn order progresses clockwise around the table, but it skips a player each time. This prevents a run of teammates from picking on the people across from them before they can regroup. Going back to the "back of the Magic card" example, the blue would go first, then red, then white, then black, then green, then back to blue.

Your goal is to kill the two players across from you. They're the only people you can attack—your teammates are off-limits. Other than that, you can be as magnanimous or as cutthroat toward your teammates as you'd like. All alliances are unsteady in Five Star, though; the teammate on your left is trying to kill the teammate on your right, and vice versa. If one of them succeeds, your best option will be to ally with your remaining companion and try for a shared victory.

Electrolyze | Art by Zoltan Boros & Gabor Szikszai

For example: you're blue, and you've managed to kill green, but red is still alive. On your left, white has managed to take down black. If red dies, you and white will fulfill your win condition at the same moment. That's a shared victory.

I used the colors on the back of a Magic card as an example, but the Color War variant to Five Star is actually one of the most flavorful ways to play. The struggle between allied and enemy colors isn't as emphasized now as it was in the early days of Magic, but white still feels like more of a natural ally to blue than, say, red does.

If you build Color War decks for the table, try to focus on what makes each color stand out from the pack. Avoid color-hosers—this should be a fair fight—and say no to color pie benders like Jugan, the Rising Star and Mana Tithe. I recommend building a white deck with Soldiers, Angels, and spot removal; a blue deck with counterspells, bounce, and card draw; a black deck with Vampires and reanimation; a red deck with Phoenixes and burn; and a green deck with small mana-producing Elves and massive Hydras. Feel free to substitute as you see fit, though. You might prefer your red deck filled with Dragons instead of Phoenixes, or you could ditch them both and go the Goblin route.

Five Star is also a great way to explore parts of Magic lore where tentative alliances already exist. Ravnica is the obvious choice—take any five guilds, imagine that the Guildpact has just been broken, and watch how some bonds are strengthened while others are dissolved in the ensuing conflict.

If you want to stick as close to the lore as possible, make sure that your teammates share at least one color with your guild while your enemies do not. There are some great stories to be told while flouting this rule, though, so don't be married to it. You haven't played Magic until you've seen the Selesnya Conclave and the Cult of Rakdos team up to kick the stuffing out of the Izzet League.

Ravnica is just the start, too. The Tarkir block clans are perfect in a Five Star clash like this, though you're going to have a tough choice between the original timeline and the modified one. Personally, I prefer Tarkir Prime in this format—the clans are a little more exciting and well-differentiated in their original forms. Don't underestimate how cool it would be to see the Dragonlords clash in a battle like this, though.

You don't have to stick to obvious factions like guilds and clans, either. An Innistrad-based Five Star battle could pit red-green Werewolves and black-red Vampires against white-blue Spirits and blue-black Zombies. You could even use this as an arena for interplanar conflicts that you wouldn't otherwise get to see. Your five-deck battle could be between Dominaria's Elves, Lorwyn's Elves, Mirrodin's Elves, Ravnica's Elves, and Zendikar's Elves. You could have Magic's five most evil villains battle it out for Multiverse supremacy. You could have a five-way Planeswalker showdown. As long as you can think of a reasonable scenario where each of your five decks might ally—as well as a reasonably scenario where each of your five decks might come into conflict—you're on your way to a really interesting story.

That's all for this week! Until next time, may your teammates always have your back.

—Chas Andres

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