A League of Your Own

Posted in Serious Fun on October 7, 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.

It's Bant Week here on magicthegathering.com, and I'm excited. Bant is one of my favorite shards, and not just because it's the one that has blue and green in it. Each of the shards has a sort of a culture to it, and while some of them appeal to me more for other reasons, I'm fascinated by Bant's culture.

See, Bant is a world of knights and angels, high castles on rolling meadows, and a well-ordered society with a strong sense of right and wrong. Ordinarily I find all that white-aligned stuff a little oppressive... but on Bant, with no red or black mana to speak of, the color white, with its two allies beside it, is finally free to build the society it wants to without having to get nasty about it. There are wars on Bant, but they're not crusades. They're highly ritualized, mostly based on single combat between carefully selected champions (hence the exalted mechanic).

I really like that idea. You can take somebody on without it being a knock-down, drag-out fight to the finish. You can make rules that all the combatants follow, not because you couldn't handle a real fight, but because resorting to ruthless means to win would be beneath both you and your opponent.

This week, I've been thinking about one form of ritual combat within Magic: leagues.


In Brief: A league lets you play matches within a limited group of people over a limited period of time, usually with a limited card pool. There are many different ways of organizing a league—I'll give you a rules rundown under, well, "Rules Rundown"—but they're all dedicated to starting everybody on the same playing field.

Rules Rundown: Every league starts by finding a group of people to be in it. You can add more people later, but you'll want a good-sized group to start. That group can then sit down and decide what rules the league should use. You'll want to think about starting card pools, adding cards, deck size and card limits, trading, and scheduling (including minimum / maximum number of matches per "period"). I'll go into each of those in more detail.

Pros: Leagues, just like ritual combat, put everybody on the same page. It doesn't matter that one person has two decks and another has twenty—for league play, you've set those decks aside for a bit. This can also make them a fun change of pace. You get to open a bunch of new cards, trade with your friends, play some games, and see what you like, and you don't have to worry about whether those new cards fit in your existing decks or whether you're just going to get rolled over by "that one deck" again.

Cons: Leagues rely on agreement. Your whole play group, ideally, would agree to play in a league, and then you've all got to agree on rules, too. This means, for instance, that you're going to have to agree on the starting card pool—potentially a contentious issue if people have differing budgets. Leagues do involve setting aside your existing decks for a while, which isn't a plus for everybody (although you don't have to play exclusively league games during a league, of course). Finally, leagues are structured. If you'd rather just play some Magic than worry about keeping your card pools separate, leagues might not be for you.

You've probably picked up that leagues are really flexible. There are a lot of choices to make when you're thinking about starting a league. Things like...

  • Card Pool

Most leagues use a limited card pool and don't let players add cards from outside the league. You could probably run a league that would just involve tracking games played with the decks you've already got, but that sounds (to me at least) like a lot of work for not a lot of gain.

So nearly all leagues are going to standardize what sort of card pool each player can start out with, usually by opening packs like a Limited event (Sealed Deck or Draft). But unlike a normal Limited event, where you're going to take your deck apart at the end of the evening, leagues let you open some packs, build a deck, and play with it for an extended period before dispersing it into your collection.

I've been in some leagues where each player started with a standard Sealed Deck pool—a tournament pack and two booster packs (or five boosters, which is equivalent)—and builds a 40-card deck. This keeps the starting decks really low-key, but it can be boring if you're used to having access to more cards. On the plus side, it's a small enough amount of packs that probably everybody in your group can agree on it, and if you were all going to get some packs anyway, you might as well play a league with them.

On the far opposite end of the spectrum, there are leagues—like the one I'm in right now—that start with an entire box (!) of 36 boosters for each player. These leagues are called, appropriately enough, "box leagues." They're a popular pastime around Wizards of the Coast, especially when a new big set comes out, but I recognize that most people out in the real world don't have the resources to open an entire box at once.

Fortunately, there's a whole spectrum in between those two extremes. It really depends on what sort of resources you have and what sort of Magic you enjoy playing. As long as everybody in the league can agree on an amount of cards to start with, it really doesn't matter what it is. The more cards each player starts with, the more powerful and streamlined the decks are going to be. Depending on the size of your starting card pool, your initial decks might be 40 cards, 60 cards, or even somewhere in between.

Rather than starting by getting your own sealed packs, you could just as easily start a league based on a Sealed Deck from a Prerelease or Launch Party, or any other Sealed Deck event, if you go to events like that.

You could also have each player pick up one of the new intro packs. Each one contains a 40-card deck based around one of the five shards, along with a booster pack. The decks are pretty balanced, and the packs could provide fodder for customization and trade.

  • Adding Cards

If you start with a larger card pool, you probably don't need or want to add more. But in a smaller league, it can be really fun to open more boosters and add them to your pool of cards to build from. Everyone should be limited to opening the same number of boosters at the same time. The upside to adding more cards is that it injects more cards into the league system and shakes up the decks people have built. But adding cards also means you need to get more cards, and at some point your decks are going to be good enough that you won't really want more cards.

In the first league I ever played in, we opened one booster each week to complement our initial Sealed Decks, and that worked pretty well. In the box league, we opened our initial pool, and there won't be any more cards.

If you do open more cards, it's probably a good idea to also allow trading in some form (see below). That way, even if your new pack has something in it that you don't want, you can probably trade it away.

  • Deck Size and Card Limits

If you start with a Sealed Deck–sized pool of cards, and thus with 40-card decks, you'll probably want to up the minimum deck size as the league goes on. That makes sure that you have room in your decks to add new cards; 40 cards is just not very big, and it doesn't leave you much room to expand if you want to keep your deck at the minimum. If people in your play group don't tend to stick right at the minimum, this is less important.

Most leagues limit each deck to four copies of any given card, just like normal Constructed decks (and unlike Sealed Deck and Draft), but if you start with smaller card pools, it might be fun to try it without that limit. If you allow opening new cards and/or trading, it can easily be possible to get more than 4 of some common cards; you'll have to decide whether this is a good thing or not.

  • Trading

Some leagues, like my current "box league," allow unlimited trading—players can trade any cards within their league pool, any time. This lets everybody decide what sort of deck they want to build and get the parts they need to do it quickly, but it can also mean that everybody's deck settles into its "final form" very quickly.

Other leagues don't allow trading at all; many of these have some kind of rule for adding new cards, to make up for the otherwise static card pool. Some leagues tie trading to matches—for instance, up to three one-for-one trades per match with the person you played—but this isn't always a good thing; those with lots of time to play will keep getting better and better decks, while those with little time will fall increasingly behind.

You can have unlimited trading, no trading, a limited number of trades per match or per week, a specific "swap meet" when everybody trades at once, or any other system that strikes your fancy. Unlimited trading is a good default.

  • Scheduling

This is pretty much just a matter of preference. My favorite leagues are those where the point is really just to play, so there's no minimum or maximum number of matches. If you like a little more structure—and especially if you've tied trading to playing—you'll probably want to set a maximum number of matches per some unit of time, like a week or a month.

I played in one league that actually required everyone to play everyone else before we could move on to the next play period; this works fine if you can absolutely rely on everybody making it to any given session, but in our group it quickly dissolved into irritating nagging for people to play their matches, plus the "make-up" matches we let them have because we wanted to start the next period and they weren't ready yet. If you don't want to get to the level of demanding a doctor's note to excuse an absence, I can't say I recommend this approach.

  • Boxing Day

As a sample league, let's take a look at the Shards of Alara box league I just started, bearing in mind that most people aren't going to open as many cards as we did. The league is made up entirely of people I work with, and we haven't scheduled any meeting times after hours, so we grab games as we can when we're in the office. (At Wizards, this falls under the very broad umbrella of "work.") That means no minimums or maximums—just build a deck, trade whenever you want, and play whenever you can.

We're tracking wins and losses, but not on any formal system, and we don't have any prizes lined up for the best record at the end other than bragging rights. We don't even have any kind of plan for when the end is.

Our method of tracking wins and losses? A simple whiteboard:

Monty's winning!


Everybody's name is recorded on both axes, with some boxes blanked out because people can't play themselves. A notch in a box indicates a win for the player on the left-hand side. The cool thing is that this also tracks losses; you just read down instead of across.

I haven't gotten to actually play any games yet—see my earlier comment about grabbing games as we can. In fact, I haven't even built my deck yet. But I sat down and opened half of my card pool (with the rest reserved for a little Sealed Deck before it goes in the pile), and I liked what I saw.


I started by pawing through my three-color cards, hoping that some ridiculous stuff there would give me a direction. There are a few compelling reasons to build a Jund deck...


...some awfully tempting stuff over in Esper...


...a solid little spread in Bant, even if Clarion Ultimatum isn't going to be very useful until I've picked up some more duplicates...


...a really lovely pile of cards over in Naya...


...and honestly, nothing much to recommend Grixis in this pool so far. Ah well. I've still got some packs to open.

And which of those will I pick? I haven't decided yet. I love the idea of actually doing the exalted thing, and I've got a really good starting point for it with Stoic Angel, three Waveskimmer Aven, and three Steward of Valeron (even if I only have one Jhessian Infiltrator).

In the end, I'll probably pick Naya. It's hard to pass up a chance to play with one of the new planeswalkers, and Realm Razer is awesome if you time it right. Hmmm, two proponents for the ever-fun theme of blowing up your opponent's lands... I'll have to think about whether I actually want to be "that guy."

I was also really excited to see Bull Cerodon in there. Fellow columnist Brian David-Marshall said that the Cerodon is "a Kelly Digges kind of card. You slam it down on turn six and grin and say, 'How do you like that? I've got four more like it in my hand—and two more on top of my library.'"

I couldn't have said it better myself.

I'll check back in on my league deck later after I've played some games and made some trades (not to mention, you know, actually building the deck).

  • 20,000 Leagues?

Have you ever played in a league format before? If not, does it sound like fun? If so, did you enjoy it? Did you use some of the league systems I outlined, or did you use rules I didn't even think of? Is there some other way to play that you think better captures the feel of a league? Click on the Discuss link or shoot me an email and let me know!

Latest Serious Fun Articles


January 5, 2016

Hedron Alignment by, Bruce Richard

When I first looked at my preview card, I couldn't really wrap my brain around it. The card does so much that I wasn't really understanding its value. Kind of a "forest for the trees" thi...

Learn More


December 29, 2015

Eternal Pilgrim by, Bruce Richard

When religious belief turns into religious fervor, things get problematic—particularly on Zendikar. When the Eldrazi were originally imprisoned, stories were told to ensure no one would t...

Learn More



Serious Fun Archive

Consult the archives for more articles!

See All