The Rules of Engagement

Posted in Serious Fun on February 12, 2002

By Anthony Alongi

Magic Online follows the "attack left" mantra in multiplayer.

Many casual play groups get into a bit of a “rut” with their formats. With all of the pressing non-Magic parts of our lives, building completely new decks for completely new formats each week may seem like an unaffordable luxury of time. I’ll explore some of those incredibly involved, time-consuming formats in the future; but this week we will be focusing on an easy way to use everyday multiplayer decks in new and exciting ways. In a word: targeting.

The Battle Royale boxed set, which came out a year or so ago, contained a rules card that suggested a couple different ways to switch up who and where you can attack and target. These formats, including Two-Headed Giant and “Attack to the Left (or Right, if you’re feeling spirited),” are fairly well known. The reason folks use them so often is because they change up the number and type of players and permanents you can go after, but are still flexible enough that most decks can fit right into the format without changing up cards.

So how can your group devise new formats that do the same thing?


Before we move forward, we need to recognize the unique nature of team formats, and what they do to cards. There are, after all, “team-friendly,” “team-neutral,” and “team-hostile” cards. (“Team-friendly” cards, like Sizzle, look smarter as you support more teammates by hurting only the opponents on the board. “Team-hostile” cards, like Aether Flash, may look great in chaos but can often get in your teammates’ way. “Team-neutral” cards, typically creatures like Shivan Dragon, have no direct affect on your teammates’ ability to win the game.)

This article will set aside considerations of team formats, since you’re usually building or using a different kind of deck for those formats, anyway. Like highly specialized formats, we’ll visit them some other week. (There’s plenty of alternate-targeting variants for team games, too – like infantry/artillery two-man teams, and odd-man-out formats where a seventh or eleventh player takes on multiple teams.)


People familiar with the Hunt format can glide over this section fairly quickly. But if you’re new to the idea of different multiplayer formats, you should try this one in your group.

I’m afraid I can’t properly credit the inventor of the Hunt format; it has origins beyond me or any web site I’ve written for. But whoever came up with it, came up with something solid. There are two basic concepts to The Hunt: you only care about your prey, and your intention stays hidden for as long as possible.

Preparation. This format works okay with five or more players; seven or more is ideal since it will cut down on the number of early “rogues.” Normal deck rules your group enforces should work fine.

This fellow is quite good at the Hunt format. Some claim he's the Master.

Get a deck of regular playing cards and count out pairs of like cards for each player you have. (So two Kings, two Queens, two Aces, two Jacks, two nines, etc.) Split up the pairs, and give each player a separate identity. Identity cards are kept face up. You have an identical set of cards left; those will be the prey cards. Keep them face down and distribute them randomly.

So, at a given table of five players, the Jack could have the King as the target, the King could have the nine, the nine could have the Jack… and the Queen could have the Queen. (That last is a rogue; and we’ll get to that later.)

Play. Start at a random player and play your typical game, with the following exception: you may only attack, or target, or target permanents/spells/abilities controlled by, a player who:

(a) is your prey; or
(b) has attacked or targeted you or your permanents/spells/abilities.

You can imagine how cautious this makes people! Hunt games start off quite slowly, as no one wants to go slamming into their prey until they have a vague idea as to who is hunting them. Slow developers, however, can get punished rather harshly if a faster developer is hunting them; the hunter is well advice to get in their licks while they can.

Death and Identity/Prey Transfer. When a player dies, that player who dealt the lethal blow swallows up both the identity and prey cards – so using the example above, if the Jack offed the King, he would end up with Jack and King as identities, and King and nine as prey. All past targeting of the dead individual is wiped clean. (That is, if the King and nine have been going at it, the nine has to wait until this new hunter decides to strike.)

There are rare occasions when it is uncertain who exactly dealt the fatal blow to a player. In those cases, your group can either reach consensus on the player who is “most responsible” for the death, or use random selection.

Rogues. If, at any time, all of the identity cards a player has matches all of the prey cards (so, Ace face up and Ace face down; or Jack/Queen face up and Queen/Jack face down), then that player is a rogue. Rogues may strike wherever they like – bear in mind that once you strike, that player may retaliate, of course, for the remainder of the game.

As you can imagine, rogues should be extremely careful about who they hit and when. If they deal lethal damage, they may assume an identity/prey package that deprives them of rogue status. Most rogues hold back and wait for only two or three players to be left, at which point it usually finishes as a rogue vs. rogue vs. rogue contest.

Our group uses the honor system, so that no one need reveal their rogue/non-rogue status. If someone targets or attacks someone, we simply ask, “Is that person legal prey?” If the answer is yes, it may be because they’re the designated hunter; or it may just be a rogue’s whim. (Asking all the time as a group is good to do, even if you’re used to The Hunt, because it’s easy for one person to forget and react to something she may not like.)


After you play with the above rules a few times, you will find that some really smart hunters are using spells or permanents that affect the entire board. This is the dolphin-in-the-tuna-net approach, the ol’, “Gee, I’m sorry; did that Hurricane kill you, too? Wow, I never wanted that to happen.” While welcome in most chaos formats, this approach undermines the spirit of a good hunt. So once your group is comfortable with the above rules, and has learned how to abuse them, you may want to put in a few exceptions.

The key rule exception is this: a player may target a permanent, spell, or ability of any player if it would have a sweeping, adverse impact on the board. So you can counter that Earthquake, or disenchant that Nevinyrral's Disk, or Bind the Pernicious Deed’s ability.

The price you pay as a player for “leaving the bounds” of your hunt, however, is this: if you target something like this that doesn’t come from your prey (or someone who has already come after you), that person may now target you or your stuff. You, on the other hand, must wait for them to make the first move; you didn’t just give yourself automatic permission to target them whenever you like.

The problem with using exceptions stems from cards that may not have a very strong or obvious “sweeping and adverse” impact on the board. Urborg Stalker starts to enter a grey area, but it’s still dark grey and I’d make it eligible for universal targeting. Awakening and Prosperity are perhaps lighter shades of grey: are the impacts really adverse? Usually, the way a player uses them, they are. Little dribbly creatures like Abyssal Gatekeeper don’t seem like they should rate as “sweeping;” but in fact they are right on that line.

Cards like these should be discussed ahead of time.

We can spend all article debating what you’d include, what you wouldn’t. Make up your own rules, and try to be consistent. Our group does not include Equilibrium in this category of exceptions, since it has an effect that forces the controller to target anyway. We also leave a Soul Warden alone, since her effect on its own is hardly sweeping or adverse to the board.

The more you debate these cards, the more you may be yearning for a way to avoid the conversations altogether. There is a variant called The Trophy Hunt that goes a little something like this:

Set up as before, with Identity and Prey cards. Now play a normal chaos game. Hit whomever you like. If you kill your prey, however, you should reveal your prey card to everyone, so that you can collect 3 “trophy” points for accomplishing your mission.

Players who die reveal their prey. If you are someone’s prey, and you kill your hunter, you get 5 points. (So if two players have each other as the target, the victor gets 8 points total.) If a player you kill is neither prey nor hunter, you get 1 point.

The last person standing gets 10 points. (Adjust this upward in larger groups.) This gives some small reward to the rogue that “outwaited” everyone; but also encourages him to give up rogue status and get into the fight for points.

The winner of the game is the one with the most points at the end, not the last person standing.

This variant forces people to choose individually what constitutes a “global, sweeping” threat. As an analyst trained in economic theory, I prefer this market-driven solution to the case-by-case, bureaucratic solution my friends prefer in our group. (My love for capitalist democracy fades when I continually get outvoted on this issue.)

I have prepared a basic white-red deck for your consideration, if you play the Trophy Hunt. The strategy here is to be fully prepared for your hunter with early defensive creature, deal him surprise damage with Mirror Strike and Captain's Maneuver, and pick off other dying players when and where you can with Legionnaires, Seals, and even the Gorge. (Not only do you pick up a point when you do this; you deny another player anywhere from 3 to 8 points.) The Angels and Dragons could, really, be any large red and/or white flyer you like.

Hunter-Killer Deck

Hunter-Killer Deck

1 Shivan Gorge 10 Mountain 9 Plains 4 Battlefield Forge 4 Soul Warden 4 Goblin Legionnaire 4 Angelic Wall 4 Flowstone Wall 2 Serra Angel 2 Two-Headed Dragon 4 Seal of Fire 4 Mirror Strike 4 Captain's Maneuver 4 Aura of Silence


One of the things that your group will need to learn to play The Hunt effectively is the Oracle wording of cards. (For those of you unaware of “Oracle” wordings, these are the official, updated rulings of cards that may not have been clear when they first saw print. They tend to apply to older cards, since it took some time for Wizards R&D to become the completely, indisputably, 100% error-free machine it is today. The Oracle is available here.) This is because a very few cards work differently in multiplayer than you may expect, and formats like The Hunt really bring those differences out.

For the past three blocks, Wizards has been more careful than ever to design and develop cards with multiplayer impact in mind. As a result, there are no more cards that come through with misleading or outright incorrect text. The two most notable examples are Lifeline, which works for all players’ creatures; and Aura of Silence, which affects all opponents without targeting.

All I’m saying is, pay attention, and get to know the rules as well as you can. It will make you a better player, anyway.


Beyond The Hunt, there are plenty of other restrictions you can try with your group when it comes to who you can slam, and when. Consider the following play variants on typical chaos, when your group feels frisky:

  • Defender’s Headstart. No one may attack or target permanents/spells/abilities until every player has taken at least four turns.
  • Creatures’ Headstart. No one may attack, target permanents/spells/abilities, or play any cards beyond creatures and lands until every player has taken at least four turns. (Arguably faster than the first, since it disallows early resets like Wrath of God or Devastating Dreams.)
  • The Fog of War. Targeting is normal. A player who declares an attack must declare all attackers, and then the defender is randomly selected. If a player ends up selecting himself, the combat proceeds normally, and he had better have some blockers ready, too!
  • The Very Heavy Fog of War. Like the Fog of War, except targeting of all spells and abilities is now also done randomly. That is, whenever a spell or ability announces a target, the spell or ability instead chooses randomly from the set of all eligible targets. Since everyone now has a really good reason to run nothing but Grizzly Bears and Hill Giants, you may want to reward targeted spells or abilities by letting them strike their intended target as well.

It’s fairly easy to come up with your own. Go ahead and send them in, if you like, to I’ll revisit the best entries in a future column.

Anthony may be reached at

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