Be A Star!

Posted in Serious Fun on February 8, 2005

By Anthony Alongi

A five-player format worth testing

Our play group is fortunate enough to be a comfortable size. (The night before I wrote this article, we had eleven people show up, not unusual at all for us.) Often we'll find ourselves breaking down into smaller groups – six and five, four and six, three and eight, and so on.

Finding a good, quick format for five players has become something of a survival tactic for us – a way for the first five players to pass time while waiting on the sixth for emperor, or something to end the night on with the last stragglers who don't want to risk a two-hour game.

Right now, “star” is our five-player format. I don't recall how it began – though we sometimes try stuff that appears from this column (including reader emails), I believe someone else in the group introduced it. You may want to introduce it to your group, too.

How It Works

Your objective in a star game is simple: you win when the two players furthest from you (i.e., not adjacent) are out.

You may not attack either adjacent player. You may target them or their permanents. They are still “opponents” when it comes to interpreting cards (so they discard to Unnerve, etc.).

That's all there is to it.

Strategy Considerations

If this is your first time in the “star” pool, here are three simple swimming lessons:

  1. Don't overdo it. Many multiplayer decks are built to last through three, four, or even more opponents. But that's not necessary in this format. You only have to make it through two opponents, with some light attention to the worst card in two other decks. A lot of duel decks can handle this. So don't restrict yourself to your extra-careful, nine-player chaos control deck. In fact, such a deck may be too slow to take advantage of rapidly dying opponents.
  2. You don't have a lot of time. Because attacking is less risky in Star than in a normal five-player chaos game (only two opponents can swing back at you, not four), it happens more often. In addition, no one wants to stall to the point where someone else can get lucky and swoop in for the sudden win.
  3. Rattlesnakes do extremely well. Building off the last point, people will want to attack. Well, if you have cards that warn off an opponent's attack, they only have one other place to go: the player next to you. Something like Legacy's Allure is just ridiculously good in the format.

You know what else I've recently found works well in a star format? An emperor deck, particularly one suited toward suppressing/eliminating two opponents. I recently used a creatureless black-red Lightning Rift deck in star format and liked what I saw. The irony is, this deck controls creatures heavily, which seems counterintuitive given the advice I just gave above – but it can kill very quickly, and I've used it on the flank in emperor games with moderate success.

Here was how the game played out, with some minor poetic license taken here and there. (This is for those readers who ask me to talk more about fun stories with my group. I always skip those parts when I read Internet Magic articles, including my own; but we've all got different tastes, right?) Going clockwise from my seat, my opponents are George, Laura, Mike, and Todd.

Quick quiz to see if you've been paying attention: who are my attackable opponents?

Trick question. I'm playing a “creatureless” deck. Here's the list.


If you're trying a deck like this and don't have the black rares, I imagine it would work just fine with white and stuff like Wrath of God. The important thing is to have untargeted removal for something horrific like Akroma, Angel of Wrath (which Decree of Pain handles in my version).

The game: George opens early with a couple islands and a couple of mountains and not much else. (He ends up not doing much this game, so whenever you see George's name today, you can pretty much skip ahead a sentence or two.) Laura has a Bringer of the Red Dawn out by turn four, which Todd and I find startling. I find it less startling than Todd, since I have a Seal of Doom on the board. Meanwhile, Mike has snakes, which I figure is only a problem for me if Seshiro the Annointed shows up, since Starstorm can quickly take care of swarms with toughness up to 3 or 4.


Todd, like Laura, is playing with five colors. Unlike Laura, he has a bad deck, based on sunburst and (wait for it) sanctuaries. (Cast your mind back to Apocalypse.) How he figured these two went together, I'll never know. The guy's a really smart deckbuilder and player, and all I can figure happened there is he assumed he'd see enough of the sanctuaries that they'd play off of each other.

Laura smashes Todd's face in for a couple of turns with the Bringer, until she steals a morph from George, finds out its an Echo Tracer, and baits the Seal of Doom from me so she can rescue her bringer from the board. I use the window to Massacre all of the accumulated snakes and wizards away, which is a lucky thing since Mike plops down Coat of Arms the following turn. (Despite the clear board, I feel stupid. How did I not see that coming? I have Coat of Arms in my own snake deck!)

Laura replaces her red bringer with the black bringer, which I'll bet she thought was really cute until I Terminated it. Believe me: there are many times when Laura just crushes me. She's a killer deckbuilder and player. But my Lightning Rift deck is (and the capitals are important here) A Deck that Loves Me, and Decks that Love Me give me the cards I need to face down threats I haven't even seen yet. It is not a statement of our relative abilities or insights; merely my dumb luck. Laura was fighting the stars on this one, as we'll see later on.

Anyway, a turn later, I'm staring at Todd's two non-land permanents: Raka Sanctuary and a Skyreach Manta. To his credit, the manta has four sunburst counters on it; but he's not even showing white mana yet.

“Wow,” I tell him. “That's some interaction you've got going on there.”

He agrees it would probably look better if he had a blue or white permanent in play, instead of (say) an artifact; but then he goes on to claim that his day will come, etc. etc. Whatever; I lose interest in what he has to say at about the time he stops agreeing with me completely.

The game goes on. Laura replays the red bringer and sends the blue one out next to it; George plays some useless Mistform Walls; Todd does no better than an Ana Sanctuary; and Mike gets out about one and a half snakes before I've played Starstorm for 5 and we're staring at an empty board again.


Door to Nothingness

Then Todd plays Door to Nothingness, and I remember how I've been meaning to add artifact destruction to my Lightning Rift deck since, oh, about Mirrodin, but I haven't gotten around to it yet. (Small, intentional plug for Magic Online: I've found out early in my experience that when you find a strategy that wrecks you, it's nice to be able to go to your collection and quickly adjust your deck. You don't think about it, then forget it by the time you get home, and then re-experience the disaster one week later.)

It takes Todd a couple of turns to find his second Island, during which time I've found Lightning Rift, George has found a Spellbinder (Savage Beating imprint) for his Spire Golem, and Laura and Mike – loving couple that they are – have joined together in stallfullness. I'm desperately trying to whittle down Mike's life total before Todd can kill George. (Laura is safe for now, since both Todd and I will both be gunning for her later, and each of us wants the other one to do our dirty work for us. It's nice to play with several people who understand game theory so well.)

I get a second Rift out about the time George tries to get infinite attack phases and Todd decides George must go. George disappears through the Door to Nothingness.

I've got a Terminate for Todd's Bringer of the White Dawn (what is it with the bringers?), so I have a bit more time to whittle Mike down to two life and slap a Seal of Fire on the board. Now I'm in control, right?

Wrong. Todd (who now has three sanctuaries and two honden out, covering all five colors) plays Legacy Weapon, which several years after its release is still one of the most terrifying things you can play in multiplayer, and an excellent reason to kill of any opponent you see playing five colors as soon as you possibly can.

I consider another smarmy remark about how the Weapon also doesn't work with the Sanctuary, but that hardly seems an effective response to Todd removing one of my Rifts from the game.

My remaining Rift can eliminate Mike and bring Laura down to less than ten; but once it's gone, Todd can jog home for the win. This is an unacceptable outcome for a multitude of reasons. Let me share four of them with you.

  1. Todd is not allowed to win. Honestly, this reason ought to be enough for anyone who knows Todd. Some would say there's a corollary to this rule, written by Todd, that states I may not win. But this is false rumor.
  2. I am not allowed to lose. While seemingly a restatement of the first principle, the two are really not the same at all. The first principle is necessary, but not sufficient. Even if Todd loses, the possibility remains that I might not win. For example, another player (probably not George; but Laura and Mike are always good candidates) might win. And when one of them wins, as when Todd does, it significantly increases the chances that I will lose.
    Is winning that important to my psyche, to my self-image, to my sense of worth? Some members of my group would have you believe so. And I might be one of them. Let me put it this way: I blame myself for every loss, even if I'm muttering about land screw or lucky opponents or whatever else. It may not be healthy from a personal standpoint, but I feel it's more appropriate than focusing negative energy toward pieces of cardboard, or my friends.
  3. Todd will now think his sanctuary-sunburst synergy is really rad tech. Normally Todd would know better. But it doesn't help our group to encourage him with a game win. We should know better. I should know better.
  4. Other players will now try to use Door to Nothingness. I've got nothing personal against the card – it's a great rattlesnake card, and the mana requirements are high enough that it won't ruin any games. But I'm just not looking forward to the “activate my Door in response to you activating your Door” finish to our next chaos game.

Challenges Of The Format

Ghitu FireBurn is strong, but so far the game you get is worth it

There are at least two interpretive challenges to the format. Your own group should decide how to deal with them.

First, burn is a little too good. Technically, as I've presented the rules, you can just level a Ghitu Fire at any player you want, even an adjacent player. It gives red and black (with Consume Spirit and such) a bit of an unfair advantage, perhaps. (If you're wondering, I did not use Lightning Rift against either Todd or George above that game; but Todd did find it useful to target me with his Necra Sanctuary a few times, so that he wasn't lowering Laura's life total into a convenient range for me.)

But our group hasn't inserted a “don't target other players” clause yet. We seem to like the fact that a very complex control deck can still get its clock cleaned by a simple spell. Always remember the point of the format is to have fun quickly with five players, often while you're waiting to do something else. Giving red and black a small advantage doesn't seem like an inordinate price to pay.

Yes, under our rules, Todd could have killed me any time with his Door to Nothingness. And I could have concentrated Lightning Rift fire on him. Consider it a mixture of our good strategic sense and our group's “spirit of the format” culture that we did not. We both gave ourselves the maximum chance to win by focusing on our true opponents. More often than not, your group will find it works out that way.

The second challenge? Sometimes it won't be obvious who won. Taking the example from above, with George and Mike both out, is it crystal clear who wins when Laura leaves the game? Todd dealt the fatal blow, and so our group considers it his win. But you can also make a case that I did a lot of the damage. Personally, I don't think it's worth arguing. But if your group would like to call that a tie, do it and move on. Again: the point is to have something fast to play, not to quibble about rules minutiae.

Format Extensions

There is no reason why you cannot play star format with six, seven, or even more players. It loses some speed with more bodies, as any format would. But it's a reasonable way to do a seven-player game.

Just maintain the rule: you may not attack your adjacent opponents. Everyone else must go.

Actual experiences with the format are welcome on the message boards, or through my email. Enjoy the star-crossed experiment!

Anthony cannot give deck help. He's too busy cobbling together something that can support Door to Nothingness.

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