The Octant, Revisited

Posted in Serious Fun on November 29, 2005

By Anthony Alongi

About a year and a half ago, I took a random look at a word and built a non-sanctioned format out of it. Actually I took a look at four or five different words; but the one that really stuck was octant.

An Octo-Licious Review

Octant was a way of playing with eight players that allowed you to play chaos Magic, with a limited – but mobile – range. As refined in a follow-up article, start with a map:

This is the Starting Position. Put this map in the center of the table. Each player chooses a small avatar – something they have two of. (Pennies, paper clips, dog food morsels, tiny cars from Monopoly if you happen to have two sets of Monopoly, etc.) Put one of your avatars in front of you, so everyone can see who you are. Using a random method, assign players to each of the eight zones. (An eight-sided die is a good way to do this.) The second avatar goes on the map, where each player is assigned.

Each player only influences his own zone, and the zones immediately adjacent to him. Using the sample map above, #1 influences #1, #2, #4, and #5. That means he can only target permanents and players within those four zones, attack enemies within those zones, and affect those zones with global spells. A Wrath of God cast by player #1 does nothing to #3 or #6. A Syphon Soul cast by #1 only damages three players (#2, #4, and #5) and gains him six life. A Biorhythm cast by #1 will not kill player #8 if she has no creatures.

For all intents and purposes, the game looks like this to player #1:

Play the game normally (or apply any alternate Magic format rules you like). Other than restricting range, the octant framework will not come into play again until a player dies.

Conquering a player. That player removes his or her avatar from the map and is out of the game. At that point, the player who dealt the killing blow (last point of damage, last card out of library, or whatever) gains priority and makes one of the following choices:

  • expand into the conquered player's zone (remaining in the old zone as well);
  • move into the conqured player's zone (leaving the old zone behind); or
  • stay put.

Since this move uses the stack, any player may respond with instants or abilities of their own.

Note how the "zone" number becomes unimportant as the game progresses. It's the player numbers (and avatars) that count – you can call the zones anything you want.

Multiple or unusual wins. If a player kills multiple players at once, they make one decision per player conquered.

If a player plays a card that "wins" the game upon resolution (e.g., Coalition Victory), all adjacent players lose (barring a Platinum Angel or some such). The "winner" then makes expansion/move choices for each conquered territory, and play continues normally, even if there are new adjacent players, since the spell that would have cost other players the game has already resolved.

If a player plays a card that "wins" the game upon a triggered event (e.g., Test of Endurance), the win condition must retrigger for each time there are fresh adjacent opponents. Put another way, you have to last another round, to your next upkeep.

End of turn movement. At the end of a player's turn, if that player is adjacent to an empty zone, he or she may choose any of the following options:

  • expand into any one adjacent empty zone (remaining in the old zone as well);
  • move into any one adjacent empty zone (leaving the old zone behind);
  • consolidate from X+1 zones into X zones (i.e., reverse expansion); or
  • stay put.

As before, any of these moves will use the stack.

Note that it is possible for player #1 to eliminate #5, swoop into #5's zone, Terminate one of player #6's creatures, and then withdraw at the end of his own turn so that #6 cannot attack him next turn. (Player #6 would have to wait until the end of his own turn, and expand into what used to be #5's zone.) Note that it is also technically possible for player #1, after eliminating player #5 during #1's combat phase, to expand into #5's zone right away; play a 20-point Fireball on player #6, killing him and expanding into #6's zone right away; mill out #7 with a daring Tunnel Vision/Junktroller combo, killing her and expanding into #7's zone right away; cast Wrath of God, destroying all creatures on the board (since he can now reach everyone); play an Eager Cadet; and then cast Biorhythm to finish all other players off.

But, um, that's not gonna happen too often.

So why should the average Serious Fun reader care about this format? Isn't octant old news? It's not like Wizards staff are going to support it on Magic Online, are they?

Are they?

(Okay, they're not. And maybe that was a hard tease for Online players. But I keep hearing from these players, telling me to mention Magic Online in more of my columns. So, er, there you go. A less provocative attempt will come in future weeks.)

The real reason the average Serious Fun reader should care about octant is this: I am beginning to believe seriously it may be the multiplayer holy grail – the perfect format for seven players.

Septant, Octant, Whatever…

If you have seven players, try the octant format. The board simply starts with an empty octant:

Players #4, #5, and #7 start with a slight advantage – they face two opponents instead of three. (This is actually a disadvantage for certain kinds of decks; but usually it's a good thing.) For that reason, you may need to make one or more of the following adjustments:

  • First three players out of the last game get those three spots;
  • Those three players go last in turn order (nothing says the player #'s have to be turn order #'s);
  • Those three players do not draw a card on their first turn.

Beyond that, you're good to go. (Our play group doesn't even adjust, and I haven't seen much measurable advantage in starting next to a gap.)

Here's what works when seven players play octant, compared to typical chaos (free-for-all):

1) The games go faster. For two reasons, you can expect to get in more games in a given night. First, there are usually fewer strategic decisions when you're facing two or three opponents, as opposed to six at once. Second, the number one cause of slow multiplayer games – global clearers like Razia's Purification – only affect a subset of the players. Ditto stuff like Ensnaring Bridge.

There can occasionally be "zone dancing" and other ways to slow down an octant game – but they are few and far between.

2) The strategy is more layered. It takes some thinking to figure out the best time to expand or move – even at the beginning of the game, when a player next to an empty zone may make a decision to jump into a different sub-game, which affects five of the seven players on the board. For example, if player #4 jumps into the empty spot, #5 and #7 are now facing three opponents, and #1 and #3 are facing two. If #1 or #3 is off to a good start (which would be a fine reason for #4 to move), they could get rewarded for that fast start by having one less opponent to deal with, temporarily. Which brings us to our third advantage…

3) Aggressive decks can win. While all-out goblin decks will still not be a viable option, since you need enough gas to take out a few players, you can build strong, creature-based decks that use the attack phase to get the job done.

4) You can chat more. Imagine a format where you can safely and politely ignore several other players' turns, and go for a fridge run without worrying if someone will play something you need to counter. With the early stages of octant, you don't have to pay attention to every permanent on the board or spell on the stack, all the time – and it's easy to find another player who also doesn't care either. So talk away, without feeling rude! Someone else will be doing the same thing during your turn.

Simpler, faster, more combat-oriented, friendlier games – sounds like a winner! All you septophiles out there can rejoice, and start that game without Late Number Eight.

Anthony has been playing multiple Magic formats for several years, and has been writing for much longer than that. His young adult fantasy novel JENNIFER SCALES AND THE ANCIENT FURNACE, co-written with wife MaryJanice Davidson and published by Berkley Books, is available now.

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