Heads Up

Posted in Serious Fun on November 25, 2008

By Kelly Digges

Kelly Digges has had many roles at Wizards over the years, including creative text writer, R&D editor, website copyeditor, lead website editor, Serious Fun column author, and design/development team member on multiple sets.

When you're getting a group together for a Magic night, you don't always know how many people you're going to get. A lot of people have written in to say that they pick their format for the night based on how many people show up, an approach I've been quick to adopt.

... Case in point: my now-weekly gathering last Wednesday. I'd hoped to have five for another go at the Star format, but when only four showed up, we had to improvise. Recently I've played Attack Left/Right and Free-for-All with four people, so I suggested we try something else—namely, Two-Headed Giant.

Format: Two-Headed Giant

In Brief: Two-Headed Giant (or 2HG) is a format that lets two players play together as a team against other two-player teams with a shared life total and a shared turn.

Rules Rundown: Players form two-player teams. Each team starts with a shared life total of 30, but the two players have separate decks, hands, libraries, mana pools, etc. Each of the two players can look at anything the other can—cards in hand, morph creatures, face-down cards removed from the game, etc.—and can freely discuss strategy, but they each control their own cards. A team loses if its life total is 0 or less or if either of its players loses for some other reason, such as trying to draw from an empty library.

Rather than individual players taking turns, each team takes its turn together. The team that goes first skips its first draw step in games with two teams. The team's creatures attack at the same time, and the defending team's creatures can block attackers controlled by either attacking player.

(There are a few other wrinkles, but these rules will get you through a game.)

Pros: Less experienced players get to "ride shotgun" with someone else, so 2HG is a great format for groups with uneven skill levels. You can use decks built specifically for the format or decks you happen to have around, and you can play 2HG either as a "duel" between two teams or free-for-all with three or more. This can be a good way to keep big games organized.

Cons: This format requires players to cooperate as a team, which doesn't always work for any given set of people. If you're building decks specifically for the format, it's pretty easy for more competitive deck builders to assemble unfair decks. And of course, if you have an odd number of people, you're out of luck.

Let me introduce you to the players.

Prince of Thralls

First up was, of course, myself. I decided to play an updated, three-color version of the Ogredrive deck from a few weeks ago. I started thinking about the deck more back then after its surprise victory in our Attack Right game. I thought about it again after Noel deCordova's recent article featuring combos with two of the cards from Ogredrive: Prince of Thralls to go with Rakdos the Defiler ("Take seven, and oh, unless you'd like me to have all your permanents ...."), and Deathrender to go with Blood Speaker. Hilarious! I hadn't really looked at the deck since Shards of Alara came out, so I took this chance to additionally upgrade the deck with the versatile yet vile Viscera Dragger, the formidable and reusable Fire-Field Ogre, and, thanks again to the blue mana, Guildpact's Ogre Savant.

My teammate was my friend Andrea, whose deck was a pretty serious green-white concoction for two-player Standard, although not one that's really on the radar. I still think Ogredrive's a little weak, so it made sense to pair the two of us.

Matt was back again, and this time before we finalized teams he announced, "Don't team up with me if you really care about winning!" His deck, he explained, was a bit off the beaten path. As for what the deck actually did .... well, we'll get there.

Laura decided she didn't "really care about winning," so she volunteered to be on Matt's team. To make up for Matt's apparently off-the-wall deck, she played a deck she calls Soul Stealers. Every nonland card in it is both black and white, and the result is potent enough that I refuse to play against it one-on-one.

Sure enough, on Laura and Matt's second turn, down came the Nightsky Mimic. I don't know how she does it—turn two, every single game with that deck, there's the Mimic, and you just know it's going to hit you for 4 every single turn until you kill it or it kills you, usually the latter. Nice trick if you can pull it off!

Andrea used our third turn to put Shield of the Oversoul on her turn-two Safehold Elite (whoo!). My half of our turn was, shall we say, less productive. All I could do was play back down the (tapped) Crumbling Necropolis that I'd played (tapped) on turn one and returned for a (tapped) Rakdos Carnarium on turn two. The high price of fixed mana! Oh well, basically nothing in my deck costs one or two anyway.

Matt, meanwhile, was stuck on two dual lands, leaving me wondering what was going on over there. My confusion deepened when he played Wall of Shards.

Wall of Shards

"Kavu Predator?" I wondered out loud. "That still doesn't explain the mana ...."

Matt just smiled.

Laura, meanwhile, was not nearly so cryptic. Shockingly, she hadn't had a turn-three follow-up play for the Mimic, but she was back to form on turn four with Voracious Hatchling (and, oh yeah, Mimic you). The soon-to-be 6/6—with lifelink, mind you—presented a huge threat ... and a point of contention between myself and my teammate.

See, I had four mana up and a Wrecking Ball in hand, and I was ready and willing to destroy something. I saw a potentially huge life-gaining monster over on the other side of the board. Andrea saw ... one of our opponents stuck on two land.

"Take out one of his lands," she implored, stressing that this could cripple him for the rest of the game.

"That's terrible," I said. "You are the enemy of fun."

It's true that I hate mana-screwing people, with exceptions for special occasions (like locking Dave out of a Cube Draft game with Strip Mine and Crucible of Worlds, which somehow he didn't seem to get much enjoyment out of). I was also legitimately worried about that Hatchling ... and on top of that, I really wanted to know what Matt's deck did, and I wasn't going to find out if I trashed his obviously fanciful mana base.

So down went Voracious Hatchling. My fifth turn, unfortunately, saw me stuck on four mana off of three lands. Ogredrive needs more lands, methinks. The next turn was no kinder, and it wasn't long before I was deciding which of my eight cards to discard. I went to pitch my worst spell, then changed my mind and took the wise course of tossing my most expensive, Prince of Thralls. The deck even has—fingers crossed—ways to cheat it from the graveyard into play.

Andrea kept pumping out awesome creatures and attacking with them. Her indestructible Safehold Elite ate an Unmake, but that didn't stop a Troll Ascetic and two Wall of Shards–dodging Wren's Run Vanquishers from getting serious with our opponents' life total.

Meanwhile, Matt was doing very little. His Wall of Shards jumped in front of a Wren's Run Vanquisher and was quickly replaced by another. He then "cycled" Quickchange for a card at end of turn and finally, finally started finding his lands. And what a salad they were! His initial Adarkar Wastes and Sacred Foundry were joined by Godless Shrine, Stomping Ground, and a slightly sad Nimbus Maze to give him access to any color of mana. All that mana ... all those colors ... Wall of Shards ... and Quickchange? What is he doing over there?

Through all of this, of course, there was my favorite thing about Two-Headed Giant: the conspiring. No, not the Æthertow kind of conspiring; the heads-together, hushed-whisper, what-happens-next kind of conspiring.

Laura lost her Nightsky Mimic to Andrea's Oblivion Ring when it had "only" dealt us 12 damage—I kept a tally—but she was far from helpless. Agent of Masks drew applause from Andrea as a sterling choice for multiplayer. The next turn, Laura plunked down Divinity of Pride, immediately boosting it up with a greedy (and thematically appropriate) Edge of the Divinity.

Quick aside: I said above that there are "some other rules" for Two-Headed Giant that you usually won't need to know. The question of "your" life total is one of them. Your life total is half of your team's life total, so the team has to have 50 life before Divinity of Pride gets +4/+4. Strange but true! Divinity of Pride, it turns out, is still pretty good.

I was quick on the draw with another Wrecking Ball for the Divinity, but Matt proved that he wasn't so helpless after all with ...


... Odds?! As in, Odds. Flip a coin, all that. Wow! Either way, it didn't look good for us. Either Matt could copy Wrecking Ball to nuke one of Andrea's creatures—or my Rakdos Carnarium, say—or, worse for us, that Divinity of Pride was sticking around. The coin flip came up ...

... heads! Divinity of Pride was safe. (And man, with our repeated, predictable double-Vanquisher attacks, Ends would have been a beating too!)

The very next turn, the Divinity was joined by a Deathbringer Liege—foil, no less—and swung in for 9. We chump-blocked with one of Andrea's several Birds of Paradise, but the real damage was the 9 life Matt and Laura had just gained.

Ah, but Andrea and I weren't out of tricks yet, and Laura and Matt were still dangerously low on life. I had drawn Torrent of Souls a few turns earlier and was just waiting on my fourth land, which generously showed up this turn. Andrea slammed down Wilt-Leaf Liege, pumping up all her creatures, and I pulled Prince of Thralls out of my graveyard with Torrent of Souls. My only other creature was a Villainous Ogre that I didn't have enough mana to regenerate, but still, that meant we were attacking with two 4/4s with deathtouch, a 4/3 that could regenerate, a 5/2, and a 9/7—and, oh yeah, that whole Prince of Thralls thing.

Naturally, Matt had Unmake for Prince of Thralls, which was removed from the game without once asking its wonderfully lopsided question of our opponents. Oh well. It was still a huge attack, and Laura ended up losing both her Deathbringer Liege and her Agent of Masks in blocks to keep them alive at 8 life.

Laura rebuilt quickly, however. After she'd swung in and gained her 7, she played another Voracious Hatchling, which immediately buffed up to 4/4 thanks to Mourning Thrull. Wow, do they enough lifelink creatures over there?

Matt played Gemhide Sliver and ... Transguild Courier.

"Oh!" I said. "That's a real clue."

(Get it yet? I didn't. I can be a little slow on the uptake in the middle of a game.)

Me: "... Bloom Tender?"
Matt: "Oh, that's a good idea! ... But no. Not Bloom Tender."
Me: " ... "

On our turn, I sent Voracious Hatchling back to Laura's hand with Ogre Savant, and Andrea made one last big attack, sending in Troll Ascetic, both Wren's Run Vanquishers, and Wilt-Leaf Liege. Mourning Thrull made a block to keep them alive, and we had to pass the turn back.

Laura made one more attack to see if we were sandbagging anything (or, you know, just for the heck of it), and then Matt finally revealed his master plan:

Coalition Victory. I just lost a game of Magic to Coalition Victory. That is terrible. It is also awesome. But also terrible.

And yes, because Matt won, their whole team won. (And the same goes for losing.) After the shock of it wore off, I asked Matt if I could see his deck, which he generously agreed to share.

Matt's "Surprise!"

Download Arena Decklist

That ... is ... a weird one. It's not a tuned Coalition Victory deck by any stretch of the imagination, but there are some neat ideas in here. Wall of Shards is pretty awesome when you're not planning to win with damage. All the split cards mean he's likely able to do something no matter which part of his ridiculous mana base shows up, which I like—especially Demand, which can find either Transguild Courier or Coalition Victory, as needed.

Matt said that he hasn't updated the deck in a while, and that he would probably add Bloom Tender to it. I'd also like to see Vexing Shusher and maybe Guttural Response in there for counter protection. As Matt cheerfully admits, the deck is awkward and fragile—one Cranial Extraction, he notes, is lights out for him—but when it does go off, it's spectacular, as Andrea and I can attest.

Two Heads Are ...

Two-Headed Giant has sort of an interesting history. It's been around the community in one form or another for many years, but it's gotten a rules overhaul and increased exposure in the last few years—even, last year, its very own Pro Tour. It's one of my absolute favorite formats, mostly because somebody always has your back. Sure, a team that's half mana-screwed is in grim shape, but not nearly as grim as one person who's all the way mana-screwed. Even better, you have someone to discuss big plays with—someone who might catch something you missed. Whether you're a novice or a veteran, I think there's something comforting about having somebody flying copilot.

I'm curious what you think of Two-Headed Giant. Is it a common fallback in your playgroup, an occasional distraction, or nowhere to be seen? If you do play it, how do you pair off? Do you build pairs of decks to go together, or just do as we did and throw together whichever decks people happen to have? Head to the forums and let me know!

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