Two-Headed Adventures!

Posted in Serious Fun on February 22, 2005

By Anthony Alongi

Alongi explores the "2HG" format

A few weeks ago, the dastardly Jay Moldenhauer-Salazar got me hooked on Magic Online. I have lost much sleep to this habit since then, and plan on retaliating someday by putting slugs in his bedtime slippers.

A guilty look if ever we've seen one…

While I've dinked around with draft enough to have some good stories to tell, I wanted to take this week to relate some of what I've learned about Two-Headed Giant on Magic Online. It's a fairly unique experience – especially to me, since our play group prefers to do Two-Headed Giant differently. (In our version, teammates sit across from each other and can attack either opponent.)

I won't be spending every week on Magic Online – Jay will generally handle Magic Online issues. I just get to raid his territory this week.


So far, what have I found works best in Two-Headed Giant? Here are the four key components to success, as I currently see them:

Akroma's VengeanceAlways keep cards like this in mind
  1. Your deck must be focused. I know it's really hard for folks to pull together an online deck on a budget. But whether you have lots of rares or not, it shouldn't be difficult to stick to 60 cards, include 24 land, and give yourself plenty of plays on turns two, three, and four. This is the way the paper card world works. The online world is no different when it comes to the laws of statistics and probability.
  2. Your deck must be able to deal with creatures. Sometimes you'll come upon a creatureless deck. (I've got one myself.) Sometimes you'll hit upon a zubera deck and you don't want to kill all ten of them just right now. But usually, you'll want to be able to wipe the board, or hit a few choice creatures. Flametongue Kavu and Bane of the Living are the upper end of removal, since they also provide a path to victory; but many people can do wonders with Pyrite Spellbomb or Exclude. I've seen Echoing Truth be absolutely devastating (in this case, vs. insect tokens).
  3. You cannot overextend. Too many players throw everything they've got on the board, and then have nothing to do when someone plays Akroma's Vengeance. In the absence of discard (see "failures" below), you should have no more than two "extra" creatures on the board – by "extra", I mean "more than the amount necessary to blow through the defenses and deal respectable damage".
  4. You must have a capable teammate. While I've certainly lost with a good teammate at my side, my survival percentage is much higher when I'm playing with someone who understands the first three principles above. In the Online game, it also helps a great deal to open up that private chat window and talk about what you see, what you fear, and what you have. Learn to type fast and use abbreviations – it's not cool to make opponents wait while you endlessly strategize – but don't be afraid to chat. Heck, you'll probably make a friend while you do it. And that's a good thing.


The first four "failures" I could mention are not doing the four "successes" right. But beyond those, I've seen some common elements among teams that lose 2HG games – including my own. Here's what happened, more often than not:

  1. Someone didn't mulligan when they should have. Magic Online allows the "big deck" mulligan when you have one or no lands in your opening hand. This should be a no-brainer. I don't care if you have a Sakura-Tribe Elder in your hand or not – if your second land is only three cards down, you've done incredible harm to your team. Take the mulligan, let the other team see your cool cards, and move on.
    A corollary to this: do not complain when you are four, or six, or ten turns into the game and your hand is full of blue cards and you've only got mountains. More often than not, those blue cards were in the player's hand from the start – and they didn't see an Island, and they kept the hand anyway. Pulling that hand is bad luck. Keeping it is a bad idea. Mulligan.
  2. Discard blew up hands. I'm amazed by the amount of discard I see on Magic Online. It's nothing like what I've seen in the paper Magic world. Part of it is because many discard cards are common or uncommon; part of it is folks were getting sick of combo decks; and part of it is because discard is devastating to better players who know enough to hold 2-3 cards back in the late game.
    A note to those using discard: when you choose the discard (e.g., Duress), hit the player with more cards. When the opponent chooses the discard (e.g., Waking Nightmare), hit the player with less cards. There are very few exceptions to this strategy. It sounds simple when I write it; but I've seen too many players choose the "wrong" player with no compelling reason.
  3. Someone didn't hear the train coming. The "train" generally comes on turn four: the turn after a Kodama's Reach (when a fifth land comes down), or when 4/4s become real possibility, or the cheapest of the "tough" enchantments (e.g., Opposition) hit. The train will run you over if you don't have an answer ready. If you are playing blue, trying saving your mana more often on turns 4 and 5. If you're playing red or black, don't kill the first creature you see (unless it's with Chainer's Edict). If you're attacking with weenies, go ahead and attack: but consider using sackable creatures if you find yourself burned repeatedly by Grab the Reins.

    Be smart about what you hit.

    Be smart about what you hit. I hesitate to give away this sort of strategy since inevitably someone will use it against me; but I always love it when I'm playing my five-color artifact-flinging deck, I play Solemn Simulacrum on turn four, and someone bothers to kill it. Honestly. You just did me a favor! A 2/2 is not a threat. The 5/5 trampler that recurs the Simulacrum the following turn – that's the threat. That's the train. Save your Terminate for that bad boy.
  4. Someone didn't spot the weak link. With two-player teams, there's a fair chance that one cylinder won't "fire" as well as the other. Often Online people only worry about the opponent right in front of them. That's where they send the removal, the burn, the discard, and whatever else. That can be fine; but when the guy across from you has an advantage over you, what do you do?
    Well, you might consider looking at what you can do to free up the board for your teammate. Maybe it's time to race, and your teammate is the only one who can get through – but only if you fire that Shock over there, instead of right in front of you because you don't want to take damage.
    Many teams that look "strong" are just one mass removal spell away from crumbling like cheap bricks. Read the board carefully. Don't despair. Find the chink in the armor. It's there.
    Corollary to this rule: always send your damage and other effects to the player with less mana available. I've been asked multiple times by players sitting across from me with four or five plains untapped, "Why are you hitting my [tapped out] teammate instead of me?" One guy even thought it was personal. No, it's not personal: it's smart. Too many white cards read "prevent damage to you", or words to that effect.
    Look everywhere. The board is full of possibilities.

Other Considerations

  • Green acceleration rules. The three most popular cards in 3-4 weeks of random sampling across my two-headed giant games (and I'm not including my own decks here)? Forest, Sakura-Tribe Elder, and Kodama's Reach. Not too far behind in terms of popularity: Cloudpost, Sensei's Divining Top, and Chainer's Edict.
  • Obliterate or no? All of the cards I've listed above are fairly resistant to metagaming. How do you stop an Elder from getting the land? Do you counter the Reach, or the spell he'll play next turn? Can you time your destruction of a Top correctly? More to the point, how far do you want to bend your deck to do any of those things? Really, the only sure way to blow up complex, high-mana strategies is mana denial like Obliterate or Decree of Annihilation. But those require their own mana investments – and they'll also annoy some players. Would it be better just to accelerate to your own cool stuff? Many players think so. I'm not certain myself, and I've looked at the 4 Obliterates in my folder with a certain gleam in my eye. Someday, I think, I will use them.
  • Deflection cards are a possibility. There are enough targeted effects being used, from Naturalize to Chainer's Edict to Terminate, for me to think cards like Shunt may be worthwhile. I've seen them do wonders. The problem is, Shunt is more expensive than most good targeted removal spells. That means you'll often be unable to play it when you need it most: you play your Wild Mongrel on turn two, and you're tapped out with Shunt in hand when the Edict shows immediately afterward.
  • Artifact and enchantment hate are very good main deck. I've got a deck with 4 Hull Breach and 3 Void – and gone through six of the seven cards without problem. (Well, there was still a problem: a deck with four Legacy Weapons. We lost that game. But my removal was the only thing giving us a fighting chance.) My first white deck will include four Altar's Light, because I know I'll always have a use for them.
    There are many, many honden decks out there. They're beginning to annoy me. I'd consider it a great personal favor if some of you would pack more Naturalize and any one of a few dozen white enchantment removal cards. Thanks tons.

Looking To The Future Of "2hg"

So what can we look forward to in the world of Two-Headed Giant, both Online and off? In one of the more exciting developments in multiplayer Magic history, Jay and I have both received word that the establishment of multiplayer Magic rules proceeds apace…and there is intention to sanction a two-headed giant format at some point in the future!

This is a good time to read a message from John Carter, rules guru at Wizards.

Dear readers,

Several months ago my predecessor, Paul Barclay, announced a plan for a new section of rules-- the [O]fficial Multiplayer Rules. Magic R&D is getting closer to reaching that goal. One such goal involves Two-Headed Giant (2HG)-- a team format with two-player teams sharing one life total. Most often flavor bends to the rules, but in 2HG, the rules are being written with flavor in mind.

The testing that R&D is doing is developing a "simultaneous" system of Two-Headed Giant. Playing Magic Online currently, players take turns one after another-- call this "sequential". Simultaneous turns means the two heads will be taking their turn at the same time. Hands, mana, and permanents remain separate, but combat is on one shared battlefield: all of your team's creatures against the other team's creatures. You decide with your teammate what to attack or block with using creatures from either player. Using a simultaneous system you can even have one head focus on all combat while the other "head" recovers from mana problems and/or develops other aspects of the game, e.g. enchantments and artifacts.

R&D has found that simultaneous 2HG makes the games feel more like you're both deciding your fate. This puts you directly in the game together rather than just playing side-by-side duels. One of the added benefits is faster game play – a key component for any sanctioned format.

Since this is the first time Magic would let players take turns at the same time, we'd like to hear your impressions of this new approach. Use the poll below and provide comments in the forums. R&D and I will be listening while we tighten up the last few nuts and bolts on Multiplayer Magic.

Some other tidbits in the Multiplayer Rules:

  • Players can communicate with their teammates (including talking and showing hands)
  • The decks on a given team (2HG or Emperor) must be legal when stacked together-- no more than 4 copies of a card except basic lands, and all applicable Banned and Restricted lists apply
  • Yes, the Multiplayer Rules are being written to accommodate sanctioned play at all levels

John Carter

I have no further details on this matter, beyond what John Carter has just shared. If you email me, feel free to share your opinions – but please realize I have no role in the decisions Wizards makes.

If you want my opinions, then here they are.

  1. I'm stoked beyond belief that they're setting this up in preparation for a potentially sanctioned multiplayer format.
  2. The "simultaneous" format appears extremely elegant – a way to reduce the time of a game without running into horrific stacking issues. And it even adds flavor. I'll be encouraging our group to try this version with our paper cards.
  3. I like the idea of allowing communication, since it's virtually impossible to enforce silence in a tournament setting (where there are too many people for a judge to monitor), and ridiculous to enforce in casual setting (where you ought to be talking with your friends).
  4. Once all is said and done, I may still prefer the 2HG formats I've come to know and love over the past years. I just don't know yet.

Note On Last Week's Column

While I was fortunate enough to avoid reader complaints, I made an interpretive error when discussing Japanese "mythology". The fact that some other scholars continue to make this mistake does not excuse my own error. Japanese Shinto, from which many of these stories come, isn't "mythology" as most westerners think about myths. It's a current religious practice, and one that I hold in deep respect. Those of you in Japan (or elsewhere) who follow such practice are blessed with an amazing kaleidoscope of cultural icons, religious symbolism, and thoughtful philosophy. I hope I made that clear, both last week and now.

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