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Posted in Serious Fun on October 18, 2011

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.

You're staring down a gaggle of beasties, each one baring teeth, claws, and other unpleasant implements of flesh rending. You look left: more terrors and creepers. You look right: even more things that go bump in the night. Behind you lies only the cold, damp stone of a dew-filled night. At your sides: a broken arm and snapped, dulled sword. Above you: a cloudy night lit up by a full moon. Below you lies only where your blood will soon pool.

Victim of Night | Art by Winona Nelson

Stop. Right. There. This is a game, not a fancifully dark tale of intrigue and comeuppance. The puppeteers of horror on Innistrad are nothing more than figments of a collective, and clever, imagination.

Between flitting spirits, stark raving mad predators, and royalty that bites, it's easy to forget about the shambling of undying bodies that show up late to the party.

You want to be a good host for them during Undead Week, right? I mean, even if you lock the door and turn out the lights they're too dull to take the hint.

Army of the Damned | Art by Ryan Pancoast

Even worse, these are particularly demanding guests. Fresh flesh! More brains! You can clearly understand the frustration in their moaning gargles when such simple requests (that can obviously be handled by the abundance of tissue around us!) go unfulfilled.

So buckle down and get dirty with our nibbling numbs; it's time to play a little Magic tailored to the rotting zombie-folk.

30 Lives, Give or Take

Let's start with something new. Peter Knudson, a former Magic Ramp;D intern and a face we'll come back to later, recently shared one of the most interesting and exciting ways to play cooperatively. While variants like Star and Archenemy provide some cooperative elements, every way to play is predicated on at least one player being "the enemy" and the goal of the game is to defeat them. A format with everyone actively playing the game is on the same team, with the same goals for victory, hasn't hit before.

Think you and your friends could survive something like a zombie apocalypse? Welcome to Horde Magic!

Horde Magic

In Brief: Horde Magic is a multiplayer variant where all players work together to survive and defeat an opposing, automated, semi-random "horde" deck.

Rules Rundown: There's a lot going on in Horde Magic. We'll break it down into gameplay, player, and horde rules.

Game-Play Rules:

  • The objective is for the allied team to survive and eliminate the threat of the horde.
  • Players achieve victory when the horde deck has no cards remaining in its library, no cards in hand, and no creatures on the battlefield.
  • Players will lose the game at zero life, as normal.
  • If the team were to attack or otherwise deal damage to the horde "player," then that number of cards are put from the top of the horde's deck into its graveyard.

Player Rules:

  • There are up to four players total, and each player brings his or her own deck.
  • All players share their turn and life total, a laTwo-Headed Giant, and each contributes 20 life to the starting total (one player is 20, four players is 80).
  • The team takes the first three turns of the game, then alternates with the horde deck.

Horde Rules:

  • There is no player for the horde deck; it will play automatically.
  • The horde is a 100-card deck, taking away a random 25 for each player under four on the team (three players is 75 cards, two players is 50).
  • The horde is built using token cards as well as regular Magic cards.
  • The horde's turn starts by revealing the top card of its library. If it's a creature token, it is set aside and this process repeats until a nontoken card is revealed. Then, all of the creature tokens are cast (they cost ), followed by the revealed spell.
  • The horde will only cast spells once per turn, at the start of the turn. A creature hit by Boomerang or similar will be cast again after the revealed spell for the next turn has been cast.
  • The horde deck has any amount of mana needed, and can always pay additional costs required (such as Sphere of Resistance and Propaganda).
  • All creatures the horde controls have haste and must attack each turn if able.
  • If there is a choice presented for the horde, such as a player casting Fact or Fiction or controlling a planeswalker that the horde's creatures could attack, the choice is made as randomly as possible.

Pros: Horde Magic is completely cooperative, mimicking the experiences available in some first-person shooters and other games. While the original intent of the format was designed with a zombie horde and Commander players in mind, the horde can be custom-built to your group's desires (Squirrel horde? Goat horde!? YES.), and any assortment of decks can be used.

Cons: The average player probably doesn't have fifty or more tokens lying around, and a cooperative game against a nonplayer "opponent" making as few decisions as possible can take away from some of the "smart" things that make Magic exciting.


You can read a lot more about the creator's thoughts in his article, but the main point is that it should feel like a mindless horde out to savage you. Speaking of the horde, grab your cricket bats as this is what was proposed as a Zombie-based horde deck:


Download Arena Decklist

As Peter put it:

This is the current iteration of the Horde deck. Just like a cube, this is a living, breathing object, so it should be altered to fit power-level of the Survivors or if new cards come out. For example, we can add Army of the Damned and Endless Ranks of the Dead because of Innistrad. I'm trying them out for now, but it's probable that 13 Zombies is just a little too good.

Of course, if you and your friends find things too easy to handle, sprinkling some Gravediggers, Ghoulraisers, and Ghoulcaller's Chants will up the ante considerably. And if building a Commander deck specifically to fight a Zombie horde is up your alley, check out what popular Commander writer Robby Rothe wrote recently as well! I'm very interested to hear your thoughts on Horde Magic, and I know Peter is as well, so please comment and share in the forums!

If sudden death with one life seems a little pale, then I have a spicy classic Serious Fun recommendation for you!

Respawn Magic

In Brief: Respawn Magic is a multiplayer variant where all players continue to play after being defeated, allowing the game to continue looping until otherwise desired.

Rules Rundown: All players, up to any number desired, play a free-for-all multiplayer game with some additional rules for when a player loses:

  • That player chooses to rejoin the game or not. There is no penalty for failing to rejoin other than having less fun.
  • A player who rejoins the game may use the same deck or choose a new deck.
  • That player will immediately take three turns in a row. These three turns are inside the "new-player bubble" which protects that player against negative effects (as per the table's vote), from being attacked (unless he or she attacks first), and is meant to be a window for that player to get up some speed in the game.

While you can just enjoy playing games for as long as your group desires, you can also keep score (as originally suggested by fellow Magic writer Abe Sargent):

  • Players earn 1 point for landing the killing blow (or life loss, or whatever) on an opponent. Players lose 1 point for being defeated.
  • If a player leaves the game at any other time ("Hey guys, I have to get going... Sorry."), that player loses 1 point. The last player to deal damage to (or inflict life loss on) the leaving player gain 1 point.
  • The player(s) with the most points at the end of the session (when everyone has had their fill) wins.

Pros: Rebooting back into a big game is awesome, since there isn't any awkward downtime without a game available. Even if you're knocked out quickly and early, it's just a minor setback as you're right into the thick of things again!

Cons: While points aren't needed, they do encourage the game to move along as well as reward more active and thoughtful attempts to regularly defeat opponents. If you wanted to play a quick game, or play a variety of different formats, this way to play will effectively preclude that.


Kelly Digges' fantastic article details the now epic exploits of just such a game. I really recommend reading that as it hit on so many of the little things that make Respawn Magic great. A bit a trivia: one of the participants in that game was Horde Magic creator Peter Knudson, as it occurred during one of his internships at Wizards. Once fun is in your blood it's impossible to boil out!

Back from the Brink | Art by Anthony Palumbo

What makes Respawn Magic more special than other, more rule-intensive variants is that it's highly adaptable through a variety of customization options that can help any group jump onboard the speeding locomotive of multiplayer:

  • If playing Commander is your group's thing, try having each player pick out three or four different Commanders for their preferred deck. Instead of respawning with the same Commander, you get to keep going as long as you have a different one to try! It's a veritable Commanderpalooza!
  • If Limited is more your group's thing, try Sealed deck. If you happen to have lots of extra booster packs (or kept the pools together from other Sealed events, or you're participating in the Innistrad Sealed Leagues available), you can keep joining back in with a different deck each time. While making or remaking a deck every time is slow, the game can carry on until deck construction is complete; there's no time requirement other than rejoining before the game ends!
  • Sometimes there's a Mr. Suitcase who has a dozen decks but only gets to use one or two in a night. Instead, have an appropriately sized group all play decks out of the suitcase, one at a time. Not only will everyone get to see the incredible work of an avid deck builder, but each deck will have its chances to shine! This also works for when somebody forgot or otherwise doesn't have decks available.
  • If your group is finding that three turns to get back into the game is just some number too few, try bumping it up until getting knocked out doesn't feel so bad! For a really interesting twist, if your group is up for reversing the polarity, you can even up the benefits of restarting so much that getting knocked out is a bona fide benefit!

Both new kid on the block Horde Magic and proven veteran Respawn Magic promise undying fun, but there's one more format you can try. This one is specifically about being undead.

Zombie Magic

In Brief: Zombie Magic is a multiplayer variant where all players continue to play through being defeated the first time.

Rules Rundown: There are a few different versions of Zombie Magic, so I'm going to share the rules I learned. All players, up to any number desired, play a free-for-all multiplayer game with some additional rules for when a player loses:

  • The first time a player loses, that player remains in the game with his or her life total reset to 10, and is considered a "Zombie." If that player lost the game due to poison counters, all of those counters are removed. A player who loses for any other reason (cannot draw a card from their library, Door to Nothingness, etc.) has been truly destroyed. (Sorry!)
  • That player continues with the same board state, cards in hand, and other features intact.
  • The player who inflicted the last point of damage/life loss/poison on the defeated player is now the Zombie Master for the Zombie. Zombies may only attack and choose targets as approved by their respective Master. Hidden information (library, cards in hand) remain hidden, but a Master's instructions should be followed if possible. (Destroy that creature! Attack that player! Don't block that!)
  • The second time a player loses, the above rules apply (including switching to a new Master, if applicable) except the life total is reset to just 5. The third time that player loses, there's nothing left to be reanimated.
  • If you become the only Zombie Master, or all of the other players cannot be resurrected, you win!

While it may be tempting to just make the Zombie Master have an endless Mindslaver effect on the Zombie players, doing so takes away the other player playing at all. These player-zombies, unlike the mindless husks found on Innistrad, should be more reminiscent of the clever Zombies of Otaria (found in the Onslaught block). Let your minion figure out how to handle your command!

Pros: If you don't have an entire night to while away through Respawn Magic, this provides much of the same feel while putting a definitive cap on ending the game. It's also oozing delicious flavor; who hasn't thought of being some dark shaman raising minions out of your fallen foes?

Cons: Losing control of your game isn't always fun. While Mindslaver is obviously much more severe, no one enjoys being told what to do. If players show up and join randomly, disparities in deck power will quickly divide the haves from the have-nots; losing control just because your deck isn't nearly as powerful is among the worst experiences that can be inflicted.


About three years ago, our local game store's casual crew organized weekly Zombie Magic games for two months. While I was fairly new to the group at the time I found it to be a hilariously clever format, as the politics of a table where a hard-earned ally is suddenly, unwillingly, turned into an enemy are something completely new to most games.

Cemetery Reaper | Art by Dave Allsop

By the end of the third week or so, specifically crafted Zombie Magic decks appeared, packed with ways to both stay alive longer (through life gain and damage prevention effects, like Fog) and help out any Zombie minions picked up (with Spectral Searchlight and Trade Secrets being the most prolific).

It's a ghoulishly good time!

For Whom the Poll Tolls

I tried to pack as much Magic potential into this week, and I hope at least one of these formats finds a way to keep your love for Magic undying! Of course, if you've already tried some of these ways to play, have even more awesome ideas for undead Magic, or have an idea to share just jump in the forums! We'll be lurking there for you!

Village Cannibals | Art by Bud Cook

Your feedback through the forums are more important than ever before, because there's an ongoing issue many of you have noticed: the weekly poll is "broken" and doesn't register a vote from some browsers. While an immediate fix (or improvement) would be amazing, it just isn't possible in this case. Therefore, until the issue is resolved, I'm putting the weekly poll on hiatus.

I firmly believe the poll shares useful information, even if it's missing an unknown number of responses (including my own from when I tried to vote). For example, last week's poll asked for your feelings on Winchester Draft:

Have you already tried, or plan to try soon, Winchester Draft?
Yes 144 49.0%
No 150 51.0%
Total 294 100.0%

I expected a pretty even split—Limited isn't everyone's cup of tea—and that's certainly what we got. I was also pleased to see that those of you who enjoy digging in the details liked that they were there, but they didn't bog down an otherwise refreshing article on fun.

However it's also obvious that the count of responses is abnormally low. I usually hear from several readers each week that "the poll didn't register my vote, so here's how I feel." I'd like to take that to the forefront.

Not running a poll doesn't mean I don't want, or am not interested in, weekly feedback. On the contrary, I'll take all that you're willing to share! So, please, in lieu of hitting a button and moving on, take a few more seconds to share in the forums, send off an email (I get them, read them, and occasionally respond to them directly!), or mention me on Twitter (I'm @the_stybs).

There are a lot of fire starter questions I could challenge you with, so you take your pick:

  • What horde would you make for Horde Magic?
  • Do you plan to try any of these formats, if they're new to you?
  • Do you like reading about new, different ways to play Magic with your friends?

Whatever is on your mind, just send it off! Let your voice be heard! Join us next week when I blatantly steal from Mark Rosewater, again. See you then!


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