By the Numbers

Posted in Serious Fun on March 31, 2009

By Kelly Digges

Unlike a lot of people, I don't have a regular "Magic night" or a group of friends I always get together with—the weekly Wednesday gathering I mentioned at one point only ended up actually meeting two or three times running, which rather stretches the meaning of "weekly." Partly that's because I'm lucky enough to know lots of people who play, and a regular night couldn't possibly accommodate all of them. Partly, of course, it's because we all lead busy lives, something I'm sure many of you can relate to.

Because I don't have a regular group, the number of people at the table varies wildly, from as many as a dozen (as when I played Respawn Magic) down to two (such as when I discussed Pack Wars) or even one (like last week, when I tested decks by myself). Again, I'm sure many of you can relate.

Even if you do have a regular group, in most such groups there's no telling how many people will actually show up on any given night. Things happen. Life intervenes. So like me, you'll find yourself sitting down to play with different numbers of people.

If you play good old Free-for-All, of course, it really doesn't matter how many people you have. If you have two people, you can just, you know, play Magic. If you have more than that, Free-for-All can accommodate, and you can break into groups if you have too many. Some groups, however, don't care for Free-for-All, and even groups that do may want a chance of pace every once in a while.

A number of you have written in to tell me that you choose your format based on how many people show up, which I think is great. It keeps things fresh, and it makes sure that you get a chance to try out formats with specific number requirements.

With that in mind, today I'd like to present a guide to Magic formats by the numbers, from one on up. As I said, Free-for-All works for three or more, and below that you probably know what to do. But if you don't like Free-for-All, are looking for a change-up, or just have an awkward number of people one night, here are some ideas to consider.


They say it's the loneliest number, and I'm inclined to agree. When you're all by your lonesome (and bored with building decks), the options are slim—but not quite as slim as you might think.

Playing Both Sides

Last week, I asked how you test decks by yourself, and there was a clear favorite among the methods I didn't mention: running two decks against each other, making all of the decisions for both decks. The result is, if not quite a real game of Magic, about as close as you can get all by your onesy, and it's great for getting a feel for the decks.

I've tested decks this way in the past and liked it. It's a little bit physically awkward, and I have to avoid second-guessing myself too much as far as what I "would do" if I weren't looking at both decks' hands, but it's good fun. It's also much better than "goldfishing" if you're trying to test a deck that's more reactive in nature.

If the decks you're testing are made for multiplayer, I suppose you could run more than two decks at a time. The sheer logistics of that are a bit dizzying, though—you'd have to keep all those decks and hands and decisions straight (I guess you could sit in the middle?). That said, I'm confident someone's done it.

Magic Online

There is, of course, one place where you can find a game of Magic at any hour of the day or night, and that's Magic Online. If you already have an account and some cards, you're all set—there's a healthy multiplayer community online, and I haven't had much trouble finding games.

If you don't have an account but frequently find yourself without opponents, you might consider taking the plunge. Starting with a couple of Sealed Deck runs or Drafts, you can build up a reasonable collection pretty quickly.

Magic Online is definitely a different experience, and it takes some getting used to. But it's still Magic, and when a big play in a multiplayer game is met with a chorus of "nice job lol," it doesn't feel so different after all.

Playing Your Pet

Last week I talked about "goldfishing"—playing your deck against a defenseless opponent to get a sense for how it draws. It's a good way to kill time and get to know a deck. it's a quick, easy way to kill time and get to know a deck, and most players are familiar with it.

What very few players know—what I myself didn't put together until recently—is that referring to that test as playing against a goldfish dates back to a particular article in The Duelist, the magazine to which this web site is a spiritual successor. That article, "Playing your Pet" by Beth "BethMo" Moursund, appeared in Duelist #8 in 1996. I still have that issue, and I remember reading that article as an impressionable lad all those years ago.

The Goldfish, you see, was only the first in a succession of animals against which BethMo proposed testing one's deck: Turtle, Snake, Rabbit, and so on. Some of the particulars sound incredibly dated at this point—the Turtle, for instance, started the game with an Ivory Tower and one of each Circle of Protection—but the concept of simulating an actual deck type instead of playing against a defenseless opponent is an interesting one.

One of the concepts that still works fine is the Rabbit, which plays a 1/1 creature every turn, attacking with as many as it can (although these days a 2/2 would probably be more appropriate to simulate a fast attack deck). A variant on the Rabbit is the Angel, which does nothing on the first four turns, but plays a Serra Angel every turn thereafter.


I doubt you're wracking your brains over this one. Pull out decks and play some Magic.


Three, of course, is where "multiplayer" begins. Free-for-All works fine with three people. It's easy to decide who to attack, although I don't like that it often becomes a case of two against one.

Attack Left or Right

To avoid that "two against one" problem, I recommend Attack Left or Right. As a refresher, in Attack Left or Right, you choose left or right before the game begins, and each player can attack only the adjacent player in that direction. Attack Left or Right is fine for any number of people, but I think tables of three or four work best.

For more on Attack Left or Right, see Left and Right.


Now we're talking. Four people can split into two groups of two for ordinary dueling, but that ability to pair off can do other things as well.

Two-Headed Giant

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. Two-Headed Giant Sealed Deck is easily my favorite tournament format, and I love the "war council" feel that any 2HG provides.

With four people, 2HG gives a multiplayer game the flow of a duel, with just two "players" trying to eliminate each other. There aren't any politics in four-player 2HG—you only have one opponent to attack.

You can play Two-Headed Giant with any even number of people, pairing off into teams and playing any normal multiplayer format ... such as, say, one of the ones on this list.

For more on Two-Headed Giant, see Heads Up.


Five is where things can start to get ... involved. Trips around the table get long. Politics get complicated. Plays get crazy. Multiplayer as most people think of it thrives at five. If you're tired of the usual dynamics, however, there are other options.


In Star, five players sit in a circle. Each player has two enemies (the players across the circle) and two allies (the adjacent players), and the first player with no enemies remaining is the winner. Players can only attack their enemies, and (in the variant I favor) the turn is passed across the circle and to the left, to one of your enemies. (Another way to think of this is that every other player takes a turn.)

The victory condition does mean that sometimes there are two winners—that's part of the format's charm—although one variant rule is that the last two players fight it out. I've also heard of people playing Star such that it collapses into normal Free-for-All as soon as a player is eliminated, but I've never tried that.

Star, as I've said before, has just enough politics for my taste. Whenever I have five people, I suggest Star. It's a ton of fun.

I've received email from people saying that Star isn't just for five people, and can be adapted for other numbers by changing how many allies and enemies you have. Thus, you could accommodate six (three enemies, two allies) or seven (two enemies, two allies, and two ... others?). I'd be interested to hear from folks who've played this way.

For more about Star, see Star Power and Three by Five.


Six is another good, flexible number. You still have the option of pairing off for dueling, of course, and you also have Two-Headed Giant. Additionally, six is often considered the minimum for Booster Draft (although you can do that with four if you hold your nose, or five if you play Star Draft), and I've been sucked into many an after-work draft by plaintive cries of, "You'd be our sixth!"

Quick aside: Draft is generally thought of as a dueling format, but that doesn't have to be the case. I've jointly indulged my impulses for Limited and multiplayer on many occasions, and no matter which direction you come at it from, a multiplayer draft is a great change of pace.

Three-Headed Giant

Yes, you can do this. No, you probably shouldn't. I've never gone there, but I must admit to a morbid curiosity.


Emperor is a three-on-three team format, and as such, some groups treat it as the default when they have six. Each team consists of one Emperor and two Lieutenants. The Emperors sit in the middle of each team, and each player can only attack an adjacent enemy. Play proceeds clockwise, and each teammate takes a separate turn (unlike 2HG). A team loses when its Emperor is dead.

Often, spell ranges are limited such that the enemy Emperor can't be targeted unless the opposing Lieutenant "in the way" is dead. So, for example, an Emperor can aim a Fireball at a Lieutenant, but not at the opposing Emperor. When one of the enemy Lieutenants dies, the Emperor and the Lieutenant on that side can target the opposing Emperor. (I'm sure there are as many variants in the specifics of targeting as there are groups who play Emperor.)

Emperor is great fun. It has many of the same advantages of Two-Headed Giant—that "war council" feel, plus reduction of politics—for a greater number of players. Emperor and Lieutenant are both enjoyable roles with their own challenges. As an Emperor, you're responsible for your team's wellbeing, and ideally for controlling the board behind the safety of your Lieutenants. As a Lieutenant, you can gleefully forfeit your safety to take out the opposing Lieutenant in a blaze of glory, or you can turtle up to defend your Emperor while your team's other Lieutenant goes on the offensive.

Emperor Draft deserves a special mention. If you're into drafting, it's a unique experience I highly recommend. There are two ways to arrange the teams. You can sort out teams before the draft and sit with the Emperors opposite and the Lieutenants "switched" so that each player is sitting next to two enemies (as in ordinary team Draft). Alternately, you can determine Emperors beforehand (since knowing your role affects how you'll draft) but not determine teams until afterward. The latter is my preferred method.

For more about Emperor, see—oh, never mind .... I don't seem to have written that one yet.


With more than six, you get into the realm of Respawn Magic, Grand Melee (a special, and very complicated, rules set that allows for players taking simultaneous turns), and good old-fashioned splitting the party. I am also tempted, I will admit, to multiply every number on this list by two and try Two-Headed Giant Star or even Two-Headed Giant Emperor. That doesn't sound remotely practical, but who says that should stop you?

    The Numbers Game

I like to switch things up, and tailoring format choice to number of players is a great way to do that. I'm curious—do any of you do what I've described, picking your format based on how many people you have? Or do you do pretty much the same thing from week to week, with these other formats as occasionally distractions (if that)? Let me know!


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