The Compendium of Casual Magic, Part 1

Posted in Serious Fun on December 25, 2012

By Adam Styborski

Stybs has played Magic the world over, writing and drafting as part of the event coverage team and slinging Commander everywhere his decks will fit.

While Gatecrash previews firing from the get-go next week will push out my follow up significantly, the Compendium of Casual Magic is something I'm still working on. Whether it's a clever and small rules change or a fundamentally upended game experience, my first pass through the years of Serious Fun reveal a rich diversity of ways to play.

If Commander or Draft aren't your thing, but Standard and Modern aren't either, I guarantee you'll find something different here. At the very least, you'll have a few things to try while you wait for next week.

Over time, everything changes.

While I shared some personal changes during Transformation Week, and hinted at ongoing evolution that had been fruitful during the second Feedback Week, there's a much larger issue hidden in any consideration of "Where are we now?"

Where did we come from?

Yesterday, Mark Rosewater shared some of the history of, which hit its ten-year anniversary. I've been here just over a fifth of that time, but Serious Fun was one of the progenitor columns. Throughout the past decade, Serious Fun has been sharing Magic through a lens of multiple players, off-beat cards, and even more diverse ways to play.

But that's not what today's about. Today is for the decade of history that is hidden away within the walls of text that Anthony Alongi, The Ferrett, Kelly Digges, and I have all provided. What do I mean by "wall" of text? It's a simple mathematical problem to solve.

  • 50 articles each year
  • 2,000 words (a guesstimated average number in each article)
  • 10 years

These three together yield an estimated one million words of Serious Fun, and I suspect it's significantly more than that.

No wonder so many of you have asked for a breakdown of fun formats featured in the past. Just finding them is a needle-in-a-haystack problem. Of course, many of you also had no qualm about asking me to go find them all. (You're welcome.)

I promised to do that. Today I deliver on that promise. We have here an organized breakdown of casual formats from across the archive of Serious Fun. Today is just the first three years, all of which were under the fine wordsmanship of Anthony Alongi.

And one final important note: I did not begin running through the Feature Article archive, which also introduced many new ways to play. Once Serious Fun's archive has been exhausted, expect a rundown of the Feature Articles as well. (You're welcome, again.)

Now, for your gaming pleasure, here is the first part of a Serious Fun Compendium of Casual Magic.

Limited Formats

I love Limited—Draft, Sealed, and other pack-busting causes—and many of you do, too. Anthony felt strongly that Limited was one of the best ways to play Magic, and his passion led him to share some interesting ways to play with packs.

Format Players Summary
Booster Draft 8 A recap of the essentials and benefits of basic Booster Draft.
Pack Reconstruction 2+ Use existing cards to generate custom boosters, then used as per normal. (Ancestor to Cube Draft.)
Pack Wars 2+ A two-player draft format using just two packs of cards. (The same result as modern Pack Wars.)
Sealed 2+ A recap of the essentials and benefits of Sealed.
Backdraft 8 Intentionally draft the worst possible pile of cards for deck construction, then assign pools to players randomly.
Backdraft 8 A recap of the Anthony-original Backdraft format.
Emperor Draft 6+ An update to the usual constructed approach that pairs team-based fun with Draft.
Family of Four 4 Modified 4-player draft. Two experienced players helping to coach two inexperienced players. (Two parents, two kids.)
Mini-Master (Pack Wars) 2+ A recap of the single-pack Prerelease staple.
Rochester Draft 8 An introduction to Rochester Draft, where all packs and picks are made face-up.
Rotisserie Draft 8 An entire set of Magic is gathered to be drafted, face-up (a la Rochester).
Solomon Draft 2 A three-pack Booster Draft where each pack is divided into two piles, one player choosing a pile and leaving the remaining for the other.
Team Rochester 8 An introduction to team-based Limited, with Rochester Draft.
Team Sealed 2+ An introduction to team-based Limited, with Sealed.
Two-on-Two Draft 4+ An abridged, team-based Draft format for even numbers, started at 4.

The formats Anthony hit first include former high-level formats (such as the highly skillful Rochester Draft) as well as some much more accessible formats (basic Sealed and Booster Draft are unforgettable as they are). They cover the most basic of booster-pack cracking up through complex amalgams of constructed and collecting.

Two real gems hidden away were Anthony's Family of Four and Two-on-Two formats. While my default for four players is, essentially, multiplayer drafting, these two work for the more commonly encountered situations of small groups or new players.

Family of Four is Limited coaching. You provide hints and tips through pack organization, but still allow the drafter to choose the picks. Similar to attempting to send signals in a draft, just because cards are organized or presented in such a way doesn't mean that's exactly what will happen. It's a fair balance between assisting and instructing: giving them the ultimate choice matters. No one likes to be told what to do, but a few hints are often a welcome signpost.

Two-on-Two is another small-group Limited format, but this one is meant to make the games faster. Instead of setting up a series of duels round-robin style, jumping into teams sets up just one big game. Team multiplayer is a beautiful thing; I plan to give this a formal reintroduction and demonstration sometime after Dark Ascension!

And, for trivia buffs, you'll notice that Pack Wars appeared as a single-booster Draft variant, while Mini-Master proudly stood for our modern take on Pack Wars. "Pack Reconstruction" serves as a Leibniz to our modern Newtonian Cube format. And Backdraft, while dripping with the griefer feel that's quite polarizing, is an easy inversion to understand, and an even more hilarious way to see new things at work in a set.

Constructed Formats

Anthony created a variety of interesting formats, many of which predicated on the idea of changing or creating a specific rule for Magic. We'll get to many of those in the next section, but this breakdown covered the more ambitious and creative ways to float some fun.

Format Players Summary
11 2+ An 11-card format built around the number 11.
Mulligan Points 2+ Mulligans earn points, which earn access to special abilities.
Theme Deck 2+ Guidelines and purpose to creating a thematic deck.
Tribal 2+ Progenitor of Tribal formats to follow. Larger deck size combined with forced variance.
12 Days Deck 2+ Build a 120-card deck that plays off the song "The Twelve Days of Christmas"
Bad Deck 2+ Intentionally make a deck with "bad cards." Intentionally have a load of fun!
Emperor 6+ A six-player format with two teams of three, each with an emperor to strike down.
Flock of Rabid Sheep 2+ Modified Tribal rules that stretch the definition of creature type to include ludicrous types, and a higher-than-average token generator count.
Ghazban Ogre 2+ Using specific color and creature type rules, create a deck that pays homage to the choices thereof.
Gift-Givers 2+ Build a deck that grants or changes control of things to other players.
Goblin Wars 2+ Tribal-type format focused on new player accessibility.
Lexivore 2+ Construct decks using cards with no lines of rules text (vanilla creatures) or at least five lines of rule text (complex things)!
Red-Green Deck 2+ Build a holiday-themed deck using just red and green cards!
Sorry 2+ Sorry sits out as a global enchantment. (No, you can't get rid of it in any way.)
Spirit Deck 2+ A spirit Tribal deck. It's seasonal!
The Adaptable Servitor 3+ Combine Contagious Servitor with Well-Heeled Servitor for even more fun.
The Contagious Servitor 3+ Every creatures has the Myr Servitor ability, and everything else counts as a Servitor.
The Crowded Servitor 3+ Everyone adds a deck with four Myr Servitors, then plays with one big shared library.
The Servitor Incarnate 3+ Players rebuy into the game, similar to Respawn Magic.
The Well-Heeled Servitor 2+ Decks must contain four copies of Myr Servitor.
Vengeful Servitor 3+ Myr Servitors gain aggressive, pining abilities.
Wall of Wonder 2+ Players may spent mana, anytime, to give target creature +4/-4 until end of turn. Walls will be friends!

Now this is a list of formats. Some of these have not aged well—four formats are based around maximizing the efforts of Myr Servitor, for example—but others are tantalizingly fresh. Bad Deck sounds like an adorably good time. Mulligan Points is both instructive (mulligans can be good) and balancing (for those times when your deck just isn't being nice on opening hands).

One of the most powerful treasures I found was a comprehensive—and strategic—breakdown for creating Theme Decks. I don't mean any sort of previously released preconstructed product, but a clear and effective rationale for going with an overriding theme. I've sometimes struggled to get a theme to click, and Anthony's method not only keeps players like me on track but also encourages good construction of the theme!

General Formats

These formats and variants aren't limited to just Limited or Constructed. Anthony spent a lot of effort creating formats from simple implements—words, cards, principles, ideas, themes, and more—that resulted in a quick-fix of fun. Of course, much more complex and layered ways to play percolate throughout as well.

Format Players Summary
Mercenaries 2+ Players may hire mercenary creatures, at random, from an outside deck.
Multiplayer 3+ Theory article reviewing various complications around having more than two players. Useful for examining house rules of all sorts.
New Format 2+ Guidelines and purpose to creating your group's own format.
Zombie Magic 3+ Multiple flavors on the "player-as-Zombie, back from the dead" approach to gaming.
Bronze Calendar 3+ Play a deck that is typically antithetical to your usual play style.
Bundling 4+ Players play in multiple games simultaneous, but win by surviving to the end.
Checks and Balances 3+ If all other players pay a specific cost, a spell is instead exiled rather than resolved.
Clam Session 3+ Each player chooses a key word that he or she must weave into statements at the beginning of his or her upkeep.
Collapse to Teams 5 Start as Attack Left or Attack Right, but change to two-on-two team-based game when the first player is eliminated.
Detention 2+ Players can put spells or effects into detention to temporarily prevent or remove their use.
Deuxième Repêchage 3+ Eliminated players may duel those who defeated them. If eliminated players win, they return to the game as-is.
Flexuous 2+ Players take turns choosing a non-fundamental rule of Magic to break.
Free-For-All 3+ As the game progresses, more and more creatures are randomly reassigned controllers.
Get A Life 3+ As the game progresses, more and more life totals are randomly switched.
Gus 3+ The more you win or lose over a period of time, the more lopsided your games becomes with a helpful or handicapping effect.
Hypsometry 2+ Each player chooses three separate, secret goals. The first to achieve all three wins!
In and Out 3+ Players are either "in" (normal Magic) or "out" (phased out of the game). Rules to assign status create dynamic interaction.
Infantry/Artillery 4+ Teams of two. Everyone can target Infantry and their effects, but Artillery and their effects can only be targeted when the paired Infantry is down.
Kismet 2+ Kismet sits out as a global enchantment. (No, you can't get rid of it any way.) (Yes, I want to too.)
Krovikan Vampire 2+ When creatures die, something good (or bad) happens.
Octant 8 Eight players each reside in an octant, and each octant gives a player access to only adjacent octants.
Octant 8 The quick revisit breaks down zones into flat mappings, clarifying just who interacts with whom.
Orcish Oriflamme 2+ Creatures get bonuses or detriments based on whether they're attacking or not.
Première Repêchage 2+ The primordial form of Zombie Magic, with defeated players serving their masters.
Primal Clay 2+ Whenever you cast a creature, that creature may be modified through power and toughness, as well as the addition of abilities.
Sliverocity 2+ Every creature is treated similar to a Sliver, and shares it's powers and abilities with others.
The Hunt 3+ Progenitor of "Rogue" and other secret-target-based game variants.
Turkey 3+ The chosen turkey gets special abilities, if he or she survives!
Two-by-Two 4 A modification to free-for-all multiplayer, where players share turns but aren't necessarily allies.
Unkempt 2+ At the beginning of each player's upkeep, roll a die. Some random effect will happen from a provided list of effects.
Volrath's Motion Sensor 2+ For every permanent a player controls, he or she must balance a coin, card, or other object of choice. If it falls... blam!
World War 4+ Players start neutral, which has certain benefits. But once someone considers your play "an act of war" the game breaks loose.

Okay. I lied. This—really, truly, this is an amazing list. Those of you who have called for "more funky, more different" ways to play have found a deep vein of gold to tap. If you've been looking to spice up any way Magic pops up—Limited or Constructed—then you should take a second, closer look above to see what jumps out at you. I'll share a few of my favorites here.

"Mercenaries," or Mercenary Magic as I'll call it now on, appeals to the analytical side of me. While I love randomness and the zany happenstance of the multiplayer games I seek, I also like to thoroughly consider Magic at a logical level. Anyone who enjoys building multiple, different, unique Commander decks, or has created your own Cube, can understand what it's like to look forward to the results of some careful planning up front.

Mercenary Magic lets players hire a random creature, for its casting cost, from a library of preselected creatures. You don't always know what you're hiring before you see it, and failure to pay comes with very steep penalties. However, like with Horde Magic , how and what goes into the Mercenary deck makes a huge difference in the game play it provides. Will you use safe utility creatures, like Solemn Simulacrum, or try out huge, messy critters of multiplayer madness, such as Geth, Lord of the Vault? High costs make the risk significant, but the reward that much more appealing. Letting players buy cheap, helpful creatures can get any game going quicker. (Expect a much bigger dive when I came back to this someday!)

Another format that can completely shake how you approach the game is Sliverocity. When everything shares everything, everything is something else. Got a Llanowar Elves out? Now every creatures taps for mana! Your opponent casts a Borderland Ranger? Now the creatures you play fetch up a basic land too. The possibilities for interaction are off the charts, and the dynamics of games wildly shifts. Suddenly, opponents might start protecting your guys to keep benefiting from their abilities!

The final format that I found really engaging is Turkey. Archenemy has a similar feel, but this has a very different goal. Randomly determining the Turkey that everyone will go after, and the shift in Turkey when he or she finally falls, presents many more opportunities than you might see at first glance. Do you spend all your effort on the Turkey, or do you begin planning ahead to when your number is up? Do you bring your game-breaking deck with huge effects, or a compact and defensive array meant to hold out for the benefits of being targeted? Perhaps the biggest bonus of all is how much faster games will go—there's always one clear and present target, and the impact of political considerations is much smaller!

Our Time is Nigh!

Of course, a few words and dozens of links—more than 60 formats were pointed to above—aren't a complete picture of everything that's fun. This is just a way for everyone, myself included, to start 2012 off on the right foot. I hope you find this as helpful as I know this will be for me down the road. And, of course, suggestions to improve the experience for the next batch of formats is definitely appreciated!

[Modified from original to remove time-sensitive poll. —Ed.]

Next week is the start of Dark Ascension previews. If you thought things were bad on Innistrad, a whole new level of awful is descending. See you from the shadows next week!

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