Battle Prowess

Posted in Serious Fun on March 12, 2013

What do you think about when you hear the words "multiplayer Magic?" Do you think of a popular format, like Commander? Do you recall ways and wonders of making multiplayer happen? Perhaps historic principles of battling for supremacy among many?

When I think about multiplayer, it's what many of us call Free-for-All: each player is out for him- or herself, and the last player standing wins. It's multiplayer at its essential core and it's how I imagine the Gruul would play Magic, given their penchant for demonstrating strength within groups.

I also don't believe that would satisfy them.

If you like to hunt, eat, or otherwise break open multiplayer games, these are a few more ways to make it happen.

    Kings Sit Upon the Throne

Focusing on one opponent at a time, such as Attack Left (or Right), keeps games moving, but the free-ranging spirits who play multiplayer usually like a little more variety.


In Brief: Players draw other players as their marks for the game. The player with the most marks defeated at the end wins.

Rules Rundown: Each player is randomly, and secretly, assigned a unique opponent. That opponent is the player's mark. If the player defeats or otherwise causes his or her mark to lose, that player gains a victory point and inherits the mark(s) of the defeated player.

The last player standing earns 1.5 bonus victory points. Then, each player totals his or her victory points; the greatest is the winner.

  • Players can attack anyone they choose, not just their mark(s).
  • Causing a player to lose the game by putting cards from his or her library into his or her graveyard counts, too. If multiple players are milling cards, the last player to do so gets credit.

Pros: Assassins incentivizes players to attack and rewards them for defeating opponents. While a player can still choose to be entirely defensive, it will take more than becoming the last remaining player to win.

Cons: Secret objectives aren't for everyone. Attacks of opportunity to steal the kill on another player's mark can create moment of dissonance but comes with the same territory of general multiplayer.

Assassins is an old format originally published in The Duelist. It pushes a Free-for-All multiplayer game toward more cohesive attacking without requiring teams or attack direction. It's less primal than pure all-for-yourself, but secret targets don't feel quite so sneaky when you still just want to crush everyone else anyway.

Truly sneaky formats look like this:


In Brief: Players are secretly assigned a role at random. Victory for a player is determined by his or her role.

Rules Rundown: Each player is randomly, and secretly, assigned a role. This works best for six players, but alternative versions will work as well:

  • One player is the Monarch and makes his or her role known. (All other roles stay secret.)
  • One player is the Bodyguard. The Bodyguard and the Monarch win if they are the last two players in the game.
  • Three players are Assassins, who win if the Monarch is defeated.
  • One player is the Traitor, who wins when he or she defeats the Monarch and is the last player in the game.

While that's the nuts and bolts, there are a few more tweaks the players local to me use:

  • When the Monarch is identified, he or she may choose to switch decks before starting the game. This lets the Monarch use a deck better suited to resisting attacks and destruction.
  • The Monarch goes first. (It's good to be king!)
  • At the end of a game, whoever defeated the Monarch becomes the Monarch for the next game. The remaining roles are secretly assigned as normal.

Pros: Usurpers is a logical evolution of Assassins, amplifying the secrecy and reward for subtle blows. Creating quasi-teams that can win without necessarily coordinating fully, and that are formed randomly at the table, encourages socialization without collusion. Earning the right to become the next Monarch adds a subtle twist some players will enjoy.

Cons: Secret objectives aren't for everyone, and the inability to coordinate clearly with "teammates" can be frustrating. If the idea of Assassins isn't appealing, Usurpers will be even less so.

This format is the creation of Kevin, a player at my local game store, and it's maintained popularity for a couple of years now. What makes it truly compelling is the story that's created—the flavor of assassins come to kill the monarch, with the intrigue of a traitor in the midst with just one loyal bodyguard. Like the convoluted storylines I've heard manufactured for Archenemy, the desire to one-up the experience each week keeps it fresh and healthy.

It can even be adapted for different numbers of players: five players should have one less Assassin, and seven players should add an extra Traitor. For large, but not quite Booster Draft numbers of players, Usurpers will work.

But what if you just wanted to be the monarch and rule as much as possible? Who would need secret roles then?


In Brief: When one player defeats another, the defeated player's resources become the victor's.

Rules Rundown: The game plays as Free-for-All or another multiplayer variant. If a player would defeat or otherwise cause another player to lose, the following happens:

  • The player who dealt the finishing blow gains control of all permanents the defeated player controlled.
  • The player who dealt the finishing blow is considered the owner of the defeated player's cards for the remainder of the game, including cards in other zones (suspended cards, cards face down in exile, cards in the command zone, etc.).

Pros: If you wanted a way to incentivize attacking in a pure Free-for-All set up, this is the format for you. Taking another player's stockpile of lands, creatures, artifacts, and more helps overcome the downsides of committing resources to attacking: players gain a reward for exposing themselves to attacks.

Cons: This way to play flies in the face of conventional multiplayer rules: things players own don't leave the game with them. The trust and patience to let this type of takeover happen is a tall order for random meet-ups, but among a close group of friends it can work better. There are also weird rules interactions that will require some finesse to sort out as they're encountered.

Conquerors is the perfect format for players who want to live the dream of taking other players' resources. Unlike a "reboot" format like Zombie Magic, where players come back from the dead to fight or you (or not), this take is straight-up attacker-take-all.

Formats like Usurpers are more subtle and indirect about encouraging attacks, but there're no jokes here. What Conquerors delivers is the satisfaction of value in attacking and defeating other players. While earning a victory point via arbitrary rules can be exciting, actually achieving an immediate result from a smaller victory is different. Being able to acquire Equipment, enchantments, and more is usually a bonus over the lands.

I often provide all the booster packs needed for some Limited and thereby make this type of conquest easier to understand (since I still own all the cards being used). What I enjoy about it is how it can lead to both quick player defeats and longer player lives. There's a tension between weakening a player enough to be defeated, but not so weak that someone else will get to swoop in to claim the prize. It's a delicate dance that creates quick alliances and fast turns on breaking them.

In other words, if you enjoy messy political maneuvering, Conquerors is for you. For extra political intrigue, try The Bazaar.

The Bazaar

In Brief: Players may barter and "sell" their permanents to other players.

Rules Rundown: The game plays as Free-for-All or another multiplayer variant. In addition, players also choose if they would like to sell permanents they control on the battlefield using the following rules:

  • During each player's turn, that player may choose to sell or auction a permanent he or she controls.
  • A sale is a direct offer and negotiation between two players. Other players may comment and discuss, but a player can only try to make a sale to one player.
  • An auction is an indirect offer with a specified starting big. Any other player may bid as normal for an auction, with the highest bidder taking the prize.
  • Only discrete game actions (such as a player drawing a card for his or her turn), permanents, and player life can be used to bid. Sales can use any or all available bidding elements to create a final sale price. Auctions, once a starting bid is issued, are locked to that bidding element for raising.

Pros: This is Thieves' Auction come to life. For nuance and control over who gets to control your cards, The Bazaar lets players with extra resources exchange them for something else, and even sell something helpful at a discount to a player who needs it.

Cons: This way to play flies in the face of conventional multiplayer rules: things players own don't leave the game with them. The same issues that lie in Conquerors exist in The Bazaar, although with only voluntary commitment it's easier. It's also possible to build a deck that takes advantage of what players may be willing to bid, or to sell booby trap cards to opponents that you will use to immediately punish them for buying.

What you can take in Conquerors is now reduced to what you're willing to part with for a time. Running The Bazaar is great in a bigger format, like Commander, where varied cards and effects are available. Selling land for someone else's draw step can be a great way to fight drawing too many lands yourself, but letting weaker players buy the forces they need to stay in the game is a wrinkle of politics usually unexplored in formats.

Ultimately, how your group handles sharing-cards-as-ownership during the game can open a whole new dimension of game play... if the usual stomp and howl isn't enough on its own.

    The Bludgeoning

What all of these formats tie together is the relative ease you can adapt an ordinary format (Free-for-All) into something exciting to try. Secret goals, public auctions, and everything in between can reshape your Magic experience even if the players and their decks stay the same.

Just don't hit them over the head too hard with something they're not interested in.

Join us next week when we take the time to be sneaky and subtle ourselves. See you then!

Adam StyborskiAdam Styborski
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Adam "Stybs" Styborski joined in 2009 to take over Serious Fun. From Commander to Cube to multiplayer of every flavor, if you think friends are as fun as cards, he'll find something for you.

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