Star Power

Posted in Serious Fun on February 1, 2012

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.
Note From the Editor in Chief: I am very pleased to announce that our editor Kelly Digges will be the new author for Serious Fun. I hope you'll all join me in wishing Kelly congratulations and good luck in his new role on the site.
- Scott Johns

The letter H!ave you got a Magic card handy? Doesn't matter which one.

Okay, flip it over and look at the back.

Card Back

Specifically, take a look at that famous pentagon of colors.

The five colors

It's a familiar sight, the circle of five colors. Most pertinently for this Enemy Color Week exercise, note that each of them sits across the circle from two colors (its enemies) and adjacent to two others (its allies).

That arrangement isn't just convenient; it's really quite clever. Each color has two enemy colors, not just one, so the rivalries are not simple push-and-pull affairs. Each color has one enemy in common with each of its allies... but each of its allies is allied with one of its enemies, too. Not to mention the fact that each color's two allies hate each other....

In Magic's early days, that surprisingly nuanced little symbol inspired players to invent a format called Star (at least, that's what I've heard it called; as with most home-brewed formats, you may know it by a different name). In the original Star format, five players play five different mono-colored decks, sitting in a circle in that familiar White ManaBlue ManaBlack ManaRed ManaGreen Mana order. Each player's goal is to eliminate his or her two enemies before any other player does, meaning that those two "allies" are, in a sense, actually enemies after all, at least in the endgame. Hilarity, of course, ensues.

Of course, they don't call them enemy colors for nothing. It's not only their philosophies that are opposed (I find the philosophy aspect fascinating, but I'll spare you the doctoral thesis this time). Their antipathy plays out on cards as well, from brutal oldies like Flashfires all the way up to Eventide cards such as Marshdrinker Giant. In a format that's all about beating up on your enemy colors, those cards are obviously going to be punishing.

Some Star groups banned color hosers outright, others established a "two hoser" rule or similar to keep things fair but occasionally spicy, and I'm quite sure that somewhere, some mad band of misanthropes allowed any and all hosers, and spent a great deal of game time swearing at each other in the wake of an endless parade of Karma, Anarchy, Boiling Seas, etc.

The original Star format is really narrow—a fun little exercise to simulate playing on the back of a Magic card. But that clean, simple system of enemies and allies can be used just as easily—minus, ironically, the color associations that spawned it in the first place—to create a unique multiplayer format for use with any decks you happen to have lying around.

Party of Five

 Format: Star

In Brief: Five players sit in a circle, each trying to be the first to eliminate the two players across the circle.

Rules Rundown: Players sit down in a circle. Order is very relevant, so I strongly recommend random seating, but any mutually agreeable method, including just sitting down at the table, will do fine.

The two players across the circle from a player are that player's enemies. Each turn, a player's creatures can attack either of these enemies or be split between them.

The two players who sit adjacent to a player are that player's allies. A player's creatures can't attack his or her allies, but he or she can target them and their permanents with whatever spells he or she wishes.

A player's allies aren't opponents, so cards that say "each opponent," "target opponent," etc. can't affect them. (You could try Star without this rule, but letting an ally "opponent" split your Gifts Ungiven or graciously accept your Knight tokens from Hunted Dragon seems like it would be hilarious exactly once, and very tiresome thereafter.)

The winner is the first player with no enemies still in the game. If two players have no enemies left, they both win. Players who have already been eliminated can't win, but that shouldn't stop them from claiming moral victory if they meet the victory condition after being eliminated.

Pros: You can play Star with absolutely any decks, so playing it is as simple as telling your friends where to sit and who to attack. Playing a five-player game with two opponents instead of four addresses some of the overload problems I discussed last week. Star games are almost always shorter than free-for-all games, which is nice for players who get eliminated early.

Cons: The most obvious problem with Star is that you need exactly five people to play it. You could probably try a variant with seven, where each player has two allies, two enemies, and two neutrals, but six is out, in any case.

My first encounter with Star was not in the good old days, but on an occasion when my play group back home had planned a six-person draft. Our sixth, however, failed to materialize, leaving the five us crinkling our booster packaging and wondering what to do with our evening.

Star was the only five-player format I had ever heard of, and I'd never played it. This play group played Limited nearly exclusively, so we didn't have decks... but we did have these packs. I suggested that we do a Star Draft, and the others agreed to try it out.

It was a blast. Our group had a real problem with drafting cooperatively (figuring out what colors adjacent drafters are playing and trying to stay out of those colors), but it gets a lot easier when you know that the person you're passing to is your ally. We drafted and built decks and played two or three really good games of Limited multiplayer.

After that, we never happened to have only five people available, so we never did it again, but I always kept it in the back of my mind as a possibility for drafts that failed to fire.

Sweet Home Chicago

When I decided to write about Star this week, I realized how much I wanted to play it again. Saturday evening, after a hard day working on the coverage for Magic Weekend in Chicago, I started gathering people up.

I immediately hit a snag: it can be tough to rustle up five people and five roughly equivalent decks on short notice. It's a pretty major drawback when you're setting out to play Star instead of just letting it happen. Most people were heading to bed, and casual stalwarts Ken Nagle and Evan Erwin were nowhere to be found. I eventually assembled a crew and some Standard decks, and after we were square on the rules, we sat down to play.

To my immediate left was Laura, my ally, playing her trademark Changeling Lord deck. To her left was my first enemy, Seamus Campbell, a DCI judge, playing a red-green Snow deck generously lent by U.S. Nationals competitor Mat Marr. Next to Seamus was enemy #2, House of Cards columnist Chris Millar, piloting a Block-legal Kithkin deck he'd just finished scrounging together from draft leavings, MacGyver style. To his left, my right, was Nick Fang, another judge, who was playing a red-green Warriors deck that Chris built. I was playing another one of Chris's decks, a variation on the mono-green "Spawnwrithe Stompy" deck he mentioned in his article last week.

A second snag: I forgot my digital camera back at the hotel, so I don't have any pictures of these fine folk to show you. Next time, gadget! Next time!

The table

I saw my opening hand of Birds of Paradise, Llanowar Elves, Spawnwrithe, Ohran Viper, Boggart Ram-Gang, and two Forests, and giggled. My kind of deck!

Laura played first, leading off with Mutavault, and Seamus followed with Treetop Village.

"Uh-oh," said Nick. "Both of my opponents played man-lands the first turn? That could be bad for me."

We all built up our boards over the next few turns—Burrenton Forge-Tender and many Plains for Chris, Nettle Sentinel and Bramblewood Paragon for Nick, Birds of Paradise into Ohran Viper for me, an obnoxious pair of Wall of Roots from Seamus, and a dizzying array of changeling-powered Lorwyn reveal lands and other duals from Laura.

(A quick word about Laura's deck: As you might guess, the five-color Changeling Lord deck is packed with rare lands, mostly borrowed from me. It's a bit ostentatious, I suppose, but it's undeniably enjoyable to see Reflecting Pool and Secluded Glen being tapped to play Amoeboid Changeling and Shapesharer.)

When Nick sent his two 2/2s at Laura, Seamus didn't hesitate. His enemy was attacking his ally—can't have that! He blasted the Bramblewood Paragon with Skred, not only getting a potentially nasty creature off of his opponent's board but saving an ally some grief in the process.

Chris left a menacing three Plains up, hinting at Unmake or Fire at Will, or maybe Crib Swap, but I was undeterred, hitting him with Ohran Viper and, later, Spawnwrithe, netting a token copy of the squirmy Elemental. Laura got in on the Spawnwrithe action as well, using Shapesharer to turn Mirror Entity into a Spawnwrithe of her own.

Everybody kept playing things and attacking, but it became clear pretty quickly that Chris was mana-flooded, while Nick was stuck at two lands. I sent a few attacks at Seamus, but Chris was a much easier target; he didn't do nasty things like flash out Cloudthresher to eat my creatures. I succumbed to the temptation to prey on the weak, a choice I would come to regret. Laura beat up on both Chris and Nick, and by the time Seamus finished Nick off, Chris was at 8 life, and things got really interesting.

The table, without Nick

Political_TrickeryStar changes dramatically when someone is eliminated. Chris was still my enemy, but suddenly I didn't want him to die, because that would hand Laura the game, and he didn't want me to die, because that would give victory to Seamus. Seamus had only one enemy left, me, and Laura also had only one, Chris. So Seamus and I were going to try to kill each other while Laura attempted to finish off Chris, a weird sort of crossfire.

This is all politics, but you'll notice that it's not the open-ended politics of free-for-all. (Whether that counts for or against is entirely up to you.) Rather than bartering alliances and promises of aid, we had pretty clear shifts in priority—we just had to figure them out. That done, we could get back to the happy business of smashing each other.

Chris was well and truly land-flooded, and neither Seamus nor I had any removal handy to help him out. He got up a respectable defense with Mirror Entity backed up by lots of mana and a Wizened Cenn wearing Armored Ascension, but my attacks and Laura's Shapesharer-copied Cloudthreshers had gotten him low enough that she was able to attack with everybody and kill him. Laura was the winner, with no opponents remaining. Good game!

Just for Starters

Star is a really neat format that offers some surprising subtlety. For me, that's a huge plus, because I like strategy—I find it really interesting that I probably should have stopped attacking Chris a couple of turns before I did, and that Seamus accidentally aided Laura by taking Nick out when I was still healthy. Even if you're less excited by that sort of thing than I am, the politics are light, and the strategy should come easily after a few games.

Naked_SingularityThere's one change I would definitely make, and that's the turn order. It can be really brutal that your two opponents get their turns right in a row. Not a feel-good couple of turns for you. To solve this, Seamus mentioned a variant he'd heard in which the turn is passed not directly to the left, but across and to the left, to one of your enemies. You now get to take a turn in between your two opponents, which sounds way better to me. That funky turn order can be a little hard to figure out once someone is eliminated, but it's the same as usual—you just skip that person's spot in the turn order and keep passing.

Star's greatest strength is that, like free-for-all, it doesn't require any unusual deck-building. You can grab any decks you have handy, from casual Standard decks like these to EDH decks to Draft Decks or even Sealed Decks from a Prerelease. All you need is five people... which brings us to the format's greatest weakness.

If your play group is five people and you enjoy it, Star could become your usual thing. For most groups, though, it's a good standby format for those times when you happen to have five people, rather than a regular staple. So the next time you're shuffling up against four opponents, consider giving Star a try.


Last week, I asked you about what formats you play and got some great feedback, including several emails about Star. It occurred to me, though, that there's an even more basic question: Do you usually play multiplayer games or two-player games? Why? Do you build decks with one or the other in mind, or do you build casual decks that can do both?

Sound off in the forums, and I'll see you next week!

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