The Mercenaries

Posted in Serious Fun on July 1, 2003

By Anthony Alongi

A few weeks ago, I blew through some formats your play group could try for a fresh multiplayer experience. Today, I’m going to focus on an entirely new format that grew out of one or more of those.

“Mercenaries” began when I started to build a “Deck of Many Things” – an independent deck throws random effects at the group, under certain conditions. I found myself using more and more creatures, like Marble Titan and Crater Hellion, that didn’t currently reside in any deck.

At the same time, I was thinking about a “Ronin” format that another guy in our play group had hosted the previous week. I’m not going to get into it now; but the basic idea is that you can hire decks, or even players, when you’re in a pinch. (As part of my continuing mission to broaden readers’ horizons, go here, here, or here to learn more about what ronin were, as well as their place in Japanese history and literature.)

So I’m flipping through creature cards, thinking of hiring warriors, and then came up with the following. Many thanks to the other players in our play group who thought some of this through with me, and practiced it just a few days ago. I think it works, and that each group can tailor aspects to their own needs.


The objective of the Mercenaries format is the exact same as any other game of Magic you would play. You can apply the Mercanaries format to other formats – team formats like Emperor, or chaos formats like The Hunt. It’s essentially a twist you add to anything else you happen to be doing.


Mercenaries are creature cards that you get periodically without paying the mana cost. (Oh, don’t worry – you do pay for them.) They come from a deck that the host (or group) makes beforehand. In most respects, they are creatures like any other – you may attack with them, block with them, target them, etc. They can be destroyed, stolen, or have anything else done to them that they could if you just played them out normally. There are two big exceptions: first, as noted above, you don’t pay their mana cost to get them. Second, when your mercenary dies, you get an option to replace it. More on that later.

The Hiring Step

When you play this format, add a step to the beginning of each player’s “beginning of turn” phase. This comes even before untapping, though you can adjust it to later if your group prefers. The active player rolls a ten-sided die. On a roll of 8, 9, or 10 (use any die or numbers you like; but you’re shooting for somewhere between 25 and 35 percent), that player gets the option to hire a mercenary.

Here’s the important thing to remember about hiring: you don’t have to do it; but if you decide to do it, you will pay the cost. You do not know what the cost will be, when you make your decision. So you’ll have to calculate the risk against your resources, and decide.

If you decide yes, then flip over the top card of the randomized hireling deck. That’s your creature. You pay for the mercenary before it comes into play. (To be all rules language-y: “Pay this card's mercenary cost and put it into play. If you do not, you lose the game.”)

Paying for Mercenaries

It’s easier to remember what each creature costs if you slip a tiny piece of paper into each sleeve. A simple “1”, “2”, or “3” serves as a helpful reminder. Over time, I imagine you won’t need those scraps.

The number “1”, “2”, or “3” refers to how many points you must pay. You have your choice in how you pay each individual point. Here is my suggested equivalency.

One point =
Remove one card in your hand from the game =
Lose seven life =
Remove two non-land, non-token permanents you control from the game =
Remove the top twenty cards of your library from the game.

So if you get a creature worth one point, you could choose to lose seven life; and if you get a creature worth two points, you could choose to lose seven life and remove the top twenty cards of your library from the game; and if you get a creature worth three points; you could remove six non-land, non-token permanents you control from the game.

Once you pay for it, your mercenary comes into play as if you played it from your hand. (This makes Phage the Untouchable and Karmic Guide more palatable choices.) When it comes into play, it opens an opportunity for spells and abilities to go on the stack, starting with the active player. But it will come into play; it is not counterable.

I recommend that anything removed from the game under any of these rules be ineligible for return under such devices as Living Wish, Ring of Ma'ruf, etc. But that’s a judgment call, and may not even be an issue in your group.

Removing and Renewing Mercenaries

A mercenary you’ve hired stays with you as long as you can keep it alive, just like any other creature. It is, however, a bit more fragile. If it leaves play (to graveyard, library, hand, “out-of-game” zone, or wherever), it is removed from the game permanently, just like a token. Worse, another player could even steal your mercenary with something like Control Magic. How awful!

To make up for this, and to give the format the same sense of permanency that a “Deck of Many Things” offers, you get an automatic option whenever a mercenary leaves your play zone: you may hire another one. Of course, you will have to pay whatever it costs.

Before long, just about every player who wants one should have a “rolling mercenary” on the board – some days, that mercenary will be good. And some days, not so much. See advanced options for more.

Once the library of mercenaries are empty, players may not hire any further mercenaries. (Come on, give the table that already faced down all these guys a break!)

Double Mercenaries

You may not control more than one mercenary at a time. If you do at any time, consider it a duplicate-legend style state-based effect: you must sacrifice one of your choice, without replacement. (For this reason, when you have a mercenary and flip for another one, consider using the first one as one of your non-land, non-token permanents to remove from game as payment.)

Speaking of legends, sometimes a mercenary will be a copy of a legend already in play (e.g., Kamahl, Fist of Krosa). This is what we call hard luck. You must still pay for that mercenary, and then you will lose it as a state-based effect, as existing game rules provide. You may opt for another one, though we’ll all understand if you feel a bit burned by that last experience.

That’s pretty much it. Everything I’ve mentioned above is actually pretty easy to track, once you do it. You can make the payment more complicated, as I do below with “zero-cost” creatures and “bid cost” creatures. Or you can just keep it simple. Either way, you may want to print all this out and keep it handy for reference, for the first few times your group runs through.

Suggested Mercenaries

You don’t have to pick the ones we picked, of course. The key here is matching the right cost to the right creature. (Costing creatures appropriately may give us all some rough insight into what the Development team must go through with every set!) You may be tempted to try to screw people over by making them pay three points for a Mossdog; but that isn’t ultimately what will make this format fun. There’s enough chance introduced without being unfair.

In each group, I’ve suggested a mercenary for each color. There are certainly other options. I’ve also tried to roughly balance power level across all groups – so if red feels underpowered in one group, it probably gets a boost in another.

Solid Contributors
Cost: One Point

These are generally useful cards that may just keep your head above water if you’re getting undue pressure. They won’t save the game for you single-handedly.

Cost: Two Points

These are cards that have a good chance of swinging the game in your favor, all other things being equal (or slightly less than equal). They are indisputably hot stuff.

Cost: Three Points

These are the ones with killer instinct. (Thorn Elemental already comes close above; but that color had to put up with the erratic Seedborn Muse earlier; so it balances!)

Okay, I cheated a little for blue on this one. But the point was to get close to the best card in each color – and Morphling requires to activate most abilities, so it doesn’t work. Thundermare makes it here because the “hiring step” comes before your untap step – thereby letting you untap all your creatures and handing you a nearly certain victory over someone. If you don’t like this nuance, Crimson Hellkite makes for a decent 3-point creature, and you can push other stuff into the lower categories. Black has at least a dozen creatures that would be excellent three-pointers; but I’m using them in other decks, and I only have one copy of Phage, so there you go.

Advanced Settings:
Zero-Point Mercenaries, Color Favorites, Bid-Arrival Mercenaries, and Morphs

If you build a deck out of the cards above, you’re going to run into two slight difficulties. First, there may still not be enough risk to hiring a mercenary. Second, with only 18 cards, you’re likely to go through the entire deck fairly rapidly, especially if your group has more than five players.

Consider the following three additional categories of mercenaries.

Opponent Boons
Cost: Zero Points

You do not pay for these in points, because they come with a natural payment in the form

of helping all other players. They're a Masques block cycle. These add a slight, tolerable element of risk to this venture. (Hey, it’s still a free creature.)

Color Favorites Cost: One or Three Points

How horrible is it to have to leave the Morphling off this list? This set accounts for that factor, giving each color a shot at a very friendly creature. Of course, any creature with activation costs has a little trouble in group play; but these each have their charms anyway.

When you flip one of these, you pay three points if you currently have the mana in play available to activate at least one of the colored-mana abilities. (This mana may be tapped or untapped; it just has to be on the board.)

Otherwise, the following creatures will set you back only a single point:

You might also consider the six “younger” Darigaaz the Igniter from Invasion, which I would cost at two points (if no activation possible) and three points (if activation possible).

Cost: Variable

There are those creatures, of course, that you may not want to see play every time. When you flip one of the following cards, you get a choice. Tell the group that you WANT or DON’T WANT the creature. You bid zero points on that position. Any opponent may challenge you with a higher bid for the opposite outcome. Continue bidding until someone wins.

There is no way for an opponent to get control of the creature in question – you not bidding on the matter of control, but rather of existence.

If the bidding results in you losing the creature (i.e., you bid DON’T WANT and win, or bid WANT and don’t win), you do not get an option to flip another mercenary. That was your fun for this cycle.

Bear in mind that you’re already in your turn when the Wormfang Manta comes into play. You’ll finish this turn, and then lose your next one.

Cost: Variable

What a shame that we can’t use some great Onslaught-block cards in this deck, eh? Well, there’s a possible fix.

Have a separate deck of 10-15 morphs. When you get the opportunity to hire, you may hire from the main mercenary library, or the morph mercenary library. You get the card face down, for no cost at all.

The morph cost of the creature is now the converted mana cost of the morph cost – that is, a mercenary with morph cost of now has a morph cost of . (This lets all players enjoy most morphs.) When you morph the creature, whether it’s in your colors or not, you must pay its “point” cost before the morph is complete.

Here are suggested morphs and point settings:


There’s nothing hard or fast about any of these rules. It’s a completely new format (as far as I know), and I’m interested to hear from those others who try it out. If there’s enough feedback, I’ll tweak the format in a future column based on reader suggestions.

Have fun!

You may reach Anthony at Regretfully, Anthony cannot help with decks any more. But he loves hearing from fellow players on just about any other topic. He also checks the message boards regularly for reader ideas and comments.

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