Alphabet Soup

Posted in Serious Fun on April 27, 2005

By Anthony Alongi

Four alternative formats based on card names.

Card names, like flavor text and artwork, are part of the "parallel Magic universe" that casual players have occupied for some time. While tournament-based Magic remains (necessarily) focused on elements like efficiency and power, most kitchen-table players have dabbled with Magic formats and decks that use entirely different criteria.

For this special "Card Name Week" I will offer Magic players four different formats that use card names as the basis for building decks. The Serious Fun column's mission is, after all, exploration of alternative formats! It's been a while since we've done that.

Virtually all of these formats will require some advance notice in your group. Give your friends time to be creative!

1. My Name is…

Yawgmoth's Will

One of the most commonly used "name" formats uses exactly that – your name. Each player arrives with a deck that (except for basic lands) uses only cards whose names start with a letter to be found in the owner's own name.

For example, Anthony Alongi could use Nezumi Graverobber, Ashen-Skin Zubera, and Yawgmoth's Will and in his deck; but not Marrow-Gnawer or Bloodthirsty Ogre.

One advantage to this format is that it's eminently adjustable. You can tailor it to be as easy (allowing use of middle names would let the Ogre into my deck, but don't bother asking why) or as difficult (forcing each word in the card title to match would disallow all cards but the Graverobber) as you like. If you have people in your group whose collections are much deeper than others, you might consider forcing them to restrict themselves to a smaller subset of their name.

Alternatively, you could implement an "efficiency rating" into the games. The person who builds the winningest deck with the most name restrictions could be the true champion for the evening.

One particularly challenging path such a rating might encourage is to build an anagram deck – a deck with card names that use ONLY the letters in the person's name. You may need to allow repeat-letter use, and maybe add a street address as well – I had a heck of a time finding even a couple of cards, and I have a pretty long name! It occurred to me during this experiment that there really ought to be a non-Unhinged card with the name "Nothing." Can we arrange this, please? Also acceptable, if Jay Moldenhauer-Salazar and other card-name writers are watching: "Yogi Hat," "High Igloo," and "Goat Thong." And from there, it's really easy to digress:

Goat Thong, Artifact Equipment
Equip 1
Equipped creature has "sacrifice three artifacts: until end of turn, equipped creature gets +1/+1 and is unblockable."
Flavor text: "He's…too sexy for his horns…"

2. The Undiscovered Country

This one's for those who enjoy alternate win conditions.

Before you get together, pick a topic and minimum/maximum letter limit. (For example, fruits and vegetables of between four and seven letters.) Each player builds a card-name deck that only uses every letter of their chosen subject – in this case, if I chose "apple" I'd have to make sure I had cards that began with a, p, l, and e. No other letters to start my card names. Again, basic lands don't count.

The first player to get all letters of their subject out before someone guesses the subject wins. If a player in the game guesses your subject, you lose. (Players can still win or lose normally, of course.)

Obvious rules:

  • Players may only guess for a given player's deck once per round – that is, in the space of time it takes for each player to take a turn. (This prevents people from being annoying and guessing endlessly and randomly.) So if Joe, Paul, and Tim are playing, Tim can make one guess for Paul's deck and one guess for Joe's deck per round.
  • Players must wait at least three seconds after announcing each spell and paying all costs. (No throwing out all seven pieces of your combo at once and claiming you beat the guessing.) This is good practice anyway, folks.
  • If two players shout out the same correct guess at once, that's fine. The "discovered" player still loses, and play proceeds normally.

(Please note: There are likely other restrictions necessary to prevent irritating behavior. It all depends on how annoying you and your friends are, I suppose! No need to email me and tell me, since this generally results in 400 emails all describing the same annoying behavior [which, when you think about it, is fairly ironic]. Instead, use common sense – make an agreeable adjustment among your group, independent of my involvement. Then, if you're feeling civic-minded, throw a message up on the boards for everyone else to read. Thanks.)

Since this format will only work once for a given deck, you should follow up with a sub-format the same decks can use: any player with a "discovered" deck plays on one team, while those with "undiscovered" decks play on another. The teams are loose – players still win and lose independently; but "discovered" players may only attack and target "discovered" players, and vice versa.

This way, "undiscovered" players can still win and lose using the methods above, while "discovered" players can still participate (and draw additional players to their ranks in subsequent games). A particularly well-disguised "undiscovered" deck may find itself facing incredible odds before too long! You might give a deck that stays undiscovered all night (and which probably loses the last game conventionally, to something like a 4-on-1 gang-up) a prize.

3. Card Name Themes

For the more flavorful among you, a format with some fuzzy boundaries. Plan accordingly.

Take me out to the card game…

Pick a modern, non-fantasy theme. (Someone in our group decided to plan a theme around the anniversary of a divorce. This is a bit dark; you can pick a theme that's more romantic if you like!) Everyone shows up with decks using card names that speak to that theme.

So if your theme is "dating," you could come up with stuff like Akroma[s Devoted, Harmonic Convergence, and Despondency. If your theme is "baseball," you could come up with Sky Diamond, Field of Dreams, and Ronin Warclub.

Naturally, some calls will be borderline. Putting angels in that baseball deck makes some limited sense, because of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. But putting in Lightning Greaves and calling them the "Red Sox" is probably a bit much.

If you like, you can have each player pick a separate theme (maybe within a larger super-theme, like "sports" or "entertainment"). Then you can overlay format No.2 on top of this one, having each player bring an "undiscovered" deck and try to guess other players' words.

4. Continuous Card Name Hi Jinx

This one's for the harder core among you.

Chains of MephistophelesNo, not that kind of chain.

Many readers may be familiar with the mental exercise that involves "linking" card names from one to the next. For example, there are three cards named in the chain Wall of Stone Rain of Tears: Wall of Stone, Stone Rain, and Rain of Tears.

For this format, players will first need to create at least a nine-card chain of names. Then they have to build a workable deck with all of those cards.

Of course, you may need a longer chain. A chain of nine cards presumes you'll use four copies of each card, in a 60-card deck with 24 basic lands.

Am I still being too easy on you? Very well, try this: after you play your first spell (or non-basic land), you may only play spells or non-basic lands that link with something you've already played. (What you've already played can be in another zone: the graveyard, or removed from game, or back in your hand or library. You may want to track this.)

If you actually try this, I'd love to hear from you.

Anthony cannot provide deck help. He is torn between relief that the Red Sox finally won a World Series, and general ennui at the sad state of the sport.

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