Team Trials and Triumphs

Posted in Serious Fun on February 26, 2002

By Anthony Alongi

The first several weeks of have brought a great deal of email to me. I love it all, and you can send more to Anyone who sent me an email as of a week ago should have received a response; if you didn’t, press me again. (My wife and I do share an account, and as a published author she gets her own fan mail, which reads a bit differently since it’s mainly from housewives who love romance novels. Every once in a while, the lines cross and I end up telling some frazzled mother of eight that she ought to consider “generating more creatures” for more happiness. Meanwhile, my wife is probably telling some of you that if you put your mind to it, you can achieve a romantic evening with your Sengir Vampire.)

I’ll be looking to create an occasional “reader feedback” article once every couple of months; so the more creative and thoughtful ideas may see themselves on the web soon! Keep the cards and letters coming.

This week’s topic is an excellent opportunity to chime in. We’ll be talking about teams -- a quick review of basic team formats, explorations into variants you may not have heard of, and my naturally keen strategic insights throughout. Speaking of which, an excellent way to get your email posted in a future article would be to tell me just how keen my strategic insights are, and how natural it all seemed.

Two-Headed Giant and Emperor are the most popular multi-player team formats.


Any format where more than one person can win under the same conditions is a team format. (Claiming a “team victory” where you sorta won because you achieved your goal of outlasting another schmuck before you died at the hands of the real winner…well, that’s creative, and perhaps technically true, but also pathetic. Have the guts to stand tall as the loser you are, dammit.) You can make teams however you like, and we’ll bend the envelope bit below. But the most common team formats are two-headed giant and emperor.

The two-headed giant format, also known as “shared life,” is most commonly played with four players. (You can have three-headed giants, and four-headed giants, and so on.) Each team has 40 life; when one team runs out, the game’s over. The giants on a given team can either sit opposite one another and attack any opponent, or next to each other and only attack an adjacent opponent.

Emperor is usually 3-on-3 (but can work easily with any odd number on both teams, and in fact can work okay with an even number on both teams, with tweaking), where the center player on each team is the emperor and has the only 20-life total that matters. Targeting is restricted so that the emperors are (somewhat) protected. The lieutenants on either side try to fling themselves at each other to get through to the opposing emperor.

Whenever you play a basic (or advanced) team format, there are some simple strategy guidelines you can follow. These are all optional, of course: there’s nothing rules-bound about them. There are players who enjoy ignoring all of the advice I’m about to give, because they like screwing their teammate over as hard as their opponents. I’ll submit that there’s a bit of charm in such an approach -- but after a while, you might want to settle on the following principles for your team play:

You can leave the defensive cards at home and go for the throat in team play.
  • Know the difference between team-friendly and team-hostile cards. Persecute is team-friendly. Bottomless Pit is team-hostile. (Mind Twist is team-neutral; but your teammate will thank you anyway when you flush an opponent’s hand.) Stick to the team-friendly and -neutral cards. We all know your Armageddon-based deck is effective. But it is less fun for your teammate to watch you lock the board and grind down the other team without any input or help from him at all.
  • Flyers: better than ever. In two-headed giant, it often boils down to whether or not both teammates can block that pesky Gaea's Skyfolk. If one cannot, he is a sieve for damage. If you both have flying creatures, even ones that would trade and die, then that Skyfolk is still likely to stay home. After all, its controller doesn’t want to be a sieve, either.
  • It’s hard to be too aggressive. In both two-headed giant and emperor formats, aggression pays off more often than it fails. Most veterans of multiplayer games are used to “holding back” and “not attracting attention.” While this may or may not be useful in chaos (and I feel it’s overhyped), it has virtually no point in a team game, even when there are three or more teams. Teams cannot ally, betray, avoid, or dupe each other as fluidly as individuals can. I’m not saying avoid blue/white, or don’t bother with defense: I’m just saying have a deck that can drive to the hoop.
  • Card advantage is easier and more effective than in chaos. As long as it’s not team-hostile, any card that achieves card advantage will act and feel more like it does in a duel -- which is to say, much better. That’s because you typically have fewer opponents, so fewer to target and fewer who can stop it. Tempo cards and “comes-into-play” creatures like Temporal Spring and Man-o'-War also fit into this category.
  • Countermagic, discard, and land destruction: also better. Taking out one opponent with a control strategy while your teammate goes on the offensive is a perfectly valid path. Decide clearly between teams if pre-game collaboration is allowed. (Our group usually doesn’t allow it, but we all know each other’s styles fairly well.)

Once the players in your group have mastered some basic team formats, you may be ready for something more creative.


I’ve written in the past on Star City about different ways to think about teams, particularly emperor formats. Here I’d like to key in on one or two of those, and add some fresh ones for consideration.

Infantry/Artillery. Any even number of players will work here, though it won’t look distinctive as a format until you have at least six players. Each team has one infantry and one artillery. You can experiment with the order of turns. (All infantry go first then artillery, or the reverse, or each infantry/artillery pair in sequence.) The basic concept is that the infantry players can only target each other, and the artillery players can only target…infantry. In other words, no one can target an artillery player until the infantry goes down. (This includes countering an incoming spell: infantry are simply powerless against artillery.) Once the infantry is down, the artillery on that team can target, and be targeted by, other artillery (and anyone else).

Here are examples of an infantry and artillery deck. I’ve left out obvious universal effects like Hurricane; and for kicks I avoided green in infantry and red in artillery. I restricted myself further by refraining from rares. And incidentally…these two specific decks don’t necessarily work together very well!


Infantry deck

2 Drifting Meadow 2 Polluted Mire 11 Plains 10 Swamp 4 Mother of Runes 4 Putrid Warrior 4 Bone Shredder 4 Farrel's Zealot 2 Knight of Dawn 2 Devout Witness 3 Angel of Mercy 2 Pit Raptor 4 Embolden 3 Haunted Crossroads 3 Shelter 2 Dark Banishing

Artillery deck

24 Island 4 Steel Golem 4 Legacy's Allure 4 Withdraw 4 Capsize 4 Legerdemain 4 Counterspell 4 Exclude 4 Dismiss 4 Ray of Command 2 Chamber of Manipulation


Army/Navy. One variant on infantry/artillery would be exclusive spheres of combat: imagine the artillery only able to gun for other artillery, while the infantry fight out their own battle. Army/Navy is a lightly better metaphor, since it’s harder for either to fight in the other’s sphere. (Yes, yes, military history is rife with examples of naval bombardment and/or carrier-based aircraft used in brutally effective support of land ops. Stay focused on the game with the pretty cards, people.) There should be a winner of the “land ops” and a winner of the “sea ops.” If they’re on the same team, great. If they’re not, they duke it out for the college football title.

In the Army/Navy variant, a tactical switch of positions can make all the difference.

Of course, this variant at its foundation is two concurrent chaos games. If you want to spice it up further, add some amphibious vehicles: allow creatures to cross from one teammate to another (and get summoning sickness as they do so). And if you really want to freak yourselves out, allow each team one “tactical maneuver” per game: at the beginning of the first teammate’s turn, he and his teammate may elect to switch positions. That is the end of the turn, and play continues with the opponent that would have gone next. Adding Disenchant power to a game that needs it, or putting the Fires of Yavimaya into a better board position, adds a layer of strategy that a simple chaos game can’t match.

Fox and Geese. My six-year-old and I play board games from time to time; the name is borrowed from one that she rather likes. The basic concept is uneven teams: 2-on-1, or 3-on-2, or 5-on-2. There are many ways you can even the odds for the lighter team. In ascending order of gutsiness, here are the ones I would propose:

  • Extra turns. The easiest place to do this is the 2-on-1 format, where player A is fighting both B and C. A goes, then B, then A again, then C, then repeat the pattern. This gives the A player twice as many cards, and twice as many combat phases. It’s pretty fair when the ratio is 2:1.
  • Extra draws. If extra turns is too easy for the disadvantaged teams in your group, just let the other team draw twice a turn. If that’s still too much, try just letting one player draw an extra card each round (where a round is the time it takes everyone to take a turn).
  • Extra life. You can set the ratios for life so that they are the reverse of the player ratio. For example, in a 3-on-2, the larger team has an effective 60 life and the smaller team has an effective 40. Switch the two, and distribute among the players on the team. For a tougher fight, don’t distribute: play the multi-headed giant style, so that the smaller team has to face its disadvantage for the entire game.
  • Better deck parameters. You can agree to certain deck restrictions. For example, the larger team may have to restrict themselves to creatures only. Or, if you’re playing a creature-type format, you could give the small team the Crystalline Sliver, Llanowar Knight, and/or Mogg Fanatic…and make everyone else play Kobolds of Kher Keep, Balduvian Bears, and Frozen Shade. (Please, if your internet address is, don’t take that personally.)
  • Raw skill. Just play it straight up. If your play and trash-talk are as obnoxious as mine, every chaos game feels like this anyway. Why not formalize it?

Betrayal. Random triggers are always loads of fun, and what could be more fun than having your best friend stab you in the back? Each round, roll a six-sided die. On a six, switch the composition of teams. I recommend you keep the seating order, just so turns don’t get horribly confusing. If you’re playing a shared life format, you just need to split each former team’s total evenly among its players (rounding up), and then for each new team add up its players’ shares.

This is likely to provoke very conservative play, and in fact may even contribute to “chaos” feel where everyone is just in it for him- or herself. You can offset this by having a player draw a card for every three damage he deals to an enemy team. Rewarding productivity should get the pace going nicely. Of course, this also puts an interesting spin on milling decks!

You can also have the game dissolve into chaos on a die roll, instead of into different teams. Players would be unsure of how much to support their team, and how much to improve their own position. After all, the triggering die roll may never come, in which case the best strategy is to help teammates…or it may come next turn, in which case helping them would be foolish. This confusion would fit the old saying, “there is no ‘I’ in ‘team’…but there is an ‘I’ in ‘win.’”

Anthony may be reached at

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