Two-Headed Wizards

Posted in Serious Fun on June 9, 2009

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.

Let me set the stage.

Grand Prix–Seattle/Tacoma. Over eleven hundred players vie for Grand Prix glory, wielding the latest Standard tech in their quest to be the best. The stakes are high, the competition is tough, and the tone is dead serious ...

Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa, Yann Massicard, Luis Scott-Vargas

... but they're not the only ones here. Elsewhere in the huge convention hall, hundreds of people are playing in side events ranging from hardcore Sealed in a Pro Tour Qualifier to multiplayer in an Elder Dragon Highlander event to something called the "Moustache Championship." Even more players are trading, playing pick-up games, and getting cards signed.

And 19 lucky players are getting ready for an unusual event. They're going to team up with 19 others to play Two-Headed Giant Sealed Deck. Their other heads? Wizards of the Coast employees, ranging in pedigree from Pro Tour winners like Mike Turian and the web team's own Scott Johns to players of more humble achievements, like brand manager Mark Purvis, graphic designer Tom Jenkot, and yours truly.

The Wizards half of the Two-Headed Giant teams.

The prizes for the non-Wizards participants (or civilians, as we thought of them) were generous, especially for such a small tournament—varying numbers of packs down to 8th place, a box of boosters for 2nd, and a unique trophy for the winner: a framed uncut sheet of Urza's Legacy rares.

My jaw dropped when I saw that, and later I asked someone from the Brand team where they'd gotten it.

"We found it," was the enigmatic reply. Those Brand folks do love their secrets.

Double Your Fun

Each of the competitors had been given a card with the name of a Wizards staffer on it and sent to an assigned seat for deck building. Once they were seated, the Wizards folks spread out, looking for whoever had our name.

Without much trouble, I found my partner holding a card with my name on it—misspelled, as it often is.

He introduced himself as Adam, and we chatted easily until the decks were passed out. Adam, who has a tongue-tying surname of French origin, commiserated with me about the misspelling.

Adam told me that he and a number of friends had road-tripped to the Grand Prix from Vancouver, British Columbia, three or four hours north of Seattle. Many of them had played in the main event, but by Sunday afternoon only two of them were still in the tournament. That didn't seem to bother Adam at all.

He explained that he manages a restaurant, and has no illusions of having the time or dedication to become seriously competitive. He and his friends mostly just came to play, and even though Adam's main-event Grand Prix experience had ended relatively early, it was obvious that he, and his other friends I spoke with, were having a great time.

Adam and several other friends had arrived on Sunday planning to play in the Pro Tour Qualifier tournament, but had decided against it when they saw what looked like a field of big-name players and competitive PTQ players. That was when they found out about the Two-Headed Giant with Wizards Staff event, and they immediately got in line.

This was at 11 a.m., and the tournament wasn't until 2 p.m. They were the first four people in line. Unfazed, they hung out for three hours chatting, trading, and getting updates about their friends who were still in the main tournament. They wanted to make sure they got slots in the 2HG event, and they didn't have anything pressing to do. As the line formed up behind them and some people were turned away from this unique event, they must have been glad they stuck it out.

Even better, Adam had come prepared. He had sleeves for both our decks, enough pretty textless Unhinged lands to supply both of us, and two gorgeous playmats, one featuring the art of Predator Dragon by Raymond Swanland, and the other bearing the stunning Slave of Bolas art by Steve Argyle.

"First purchase of the weekend," Adam said proudly. Although he had a long list of cards to acquire for the ridiculous All-Foil Draft Cube (!) he's building, the playmat was his top priority. And with reason—I can't get enough of that art! I also got to flip through a large stack of his acquisitions for the Foil Cube, which were stunning in their own right.

Me? I just brought my dice bag, which didn't seem like much effort by comparison.

Built to Last

Once everyone was settled, our head judge passed out the packs. Each team was given three packs of Shards of Alara and two packs each of Conflux and Alara Reborn. Now, that may not sound like much, given that in regular Sealed Deck you get five or six boosters to build one deck. But in single-player Sealed, this means leaving good cards on the bench if you can't support their colors. This is why I usually build two full decks out of my Sealed pools (which says a lot in and of itself), and this is what I love about Two-Headed Giant Sealed. Just about every bomb you open is going into one of your two decks. No more forlornly sighing at the Predator Dragon in your sideboard because the red's just not there (although I did talk to one team who did exactly that, and swore it was the best way to build their decks).

What struck Adam and me about our pool, however, was not the bombs, which were pretty thin on the ground. It was the staggering amount of removal. Between our two decks we came to the table packing Bant Charm, Jund Charm, Resounding Silence, Resounding Thunder, Skeletonize, Naturalize, Crystallization, Esper Battlemage, doubles of Terminate, Executioner's Capsule, and Vithian Stinger, and counter backup in the form of Traumatic Visions, Countersquall, Offering to Asha, and good old Cancel. Not a lot was going to get past us.

As for bombs, we had excellent attackers in Bull Cerodon, Fusion Elemental, and Blitz Hellion, but nothing on the order of, say, Karrthus, Tyrant of Jund. We also didn't have much evasion, period. We did, however, have one legitimate bomb: Maelstrom Nexus.

Maelstrom Nexus

Oh, that was bound to be fun—especially since half of our low-cost cards could kill something.

We ended up building an Esper deck for Adam (splashing green for Bant Charm) and a five-color Jund-based deck for me. The Esper deck was tricky, with Esperzoa and Glassdust Hulk as competent (and synergistic) beaters, the four counterspells and two Executioner's Capsules, and an assortment of random creatures. The Jund deck featured plenty of mana fixing for its two splashes—we even cut Druid of the Anima. My deck was going to do most of the heavy lifting, with all of the big creatures and much of the removal, plus of course Maelstrom Nexus.

As a quick reminder: In Two-Headed Giant, you and your partner have a shared life total of 30, and you can look at each other's hands and converse freely. Matches are one game instead of best of three. You take simultaneous turns and attack and block together, but you don't share mana pools or control of cards. And if something says "each opponent," it affects the opposing team twice, which makes for some interesting differences in card quality vs. two-player Sealed Deck ....

Two-Headed Sights

The first thing I noticed as we sat down was the uniquely casual nature of this event. At the very least, one person on each team knew one person on the other team. Add in the fact that many of the competitors arrived in groups and we Wizards folks know some of the local players, and you get an atmosphere halfway between the tournament hall and the kitchen table.

Our first-round opponents, Magic judge program manager John Carter and his partner Nate, came at us fast and never let up. Even with Jund Charm killing several creatures, Resounding Silence to stop a Rhox Brute, and Skeletonize to kill an attacker and add a blocker, they quickly bashed us down to 10. Then, after a very carefully maneuvered turn, they revealed what they'd been slow-rolling:

Breath of Malfegor

Because it says "each opponent," Breath of Malfegor deals 10 damage to your team—a bargain at five mana, and instant speed too! We had two Terminates, but another team had two Breath of Malfegors—and I'd gladly have swapped them.

Another card that shoots way up in power in Two-Headed Giant (or any multiplayer, really) is Infectious Horror from Conflux.

Infectious Horror

An unblocked Infectious Horror deals 6 damage total when it attacks: 2 to you, 2 to you, and 2 in combat too. Conflux lead developer Mike Turian and his teammate, quite appropriately, opened two Infectious Horrors and proceeded to terrorize the top tables with them.

I also noticed that most teams were much better-equipped than we were in the bomb department. Karrthus, Tyrant of Jund made an appearance, as did Thraximundar, but the best table I saw was that of developer (and Latest Developments author) Tom LaPille and his partner, who had Lord of Extinction, foil Dauntless Escort, and foil Rafiq of the Many, with Mosstodon to help Lord of Extinction punch through. Nice pool, guys!

Double Plays

In the end, Adam and I finished at 1 win, 2 losses, and 2 draws, a finish that isn't disappointing as much as it is bizarre. When half the players in a tournament are out of the habit of playing on a clock, draws do happen.

Our first draw was in the second round, against Magic Online developer Lee Sharpe and his partner Derek. After some early trades, we were hoping to break up the stall with Telemin Performance—suspense!—but all we got for our troubles was a Deft Duelist. The real culprit in the draw was Lee's Scepter of Dominance, which led to a sad, strange sight: a tapped Bull Cerodon.

Not even Maelstrom Nexus and that sweet playmat can cheer me up when I see a Bull Cerodon tapped. It's just not ... natural. And not even Maelstrom Nexus could make up for all our lost time. The game was a draw.

Round 3 vs. graphic designer Tom Jenkot and his partner John was a beautiful game; our decks finally did everything they were supposed to do. I had a Fusion Elemental in hand and no Islands or Plains in sight, but Tom played Path to Exile on my early Vithian Stinger. Quite arbitrarily, I chose to get Island.

The next turn, I drew my one Plains. Fusion Elemental hit the table with a thud.

It was joined in the attack the next turn by Blitz Hellion. Seeing our only nonblack creature on the board, Tom elected to use Executioner's Capsule, but Adam had Call to Heel. Blitz Hellion attack count: 1. They took 8 from Fusion Elemental, electing not to block with Tidehollow Strix, then hit it with Bone Splinters on their turn and attacked. They also killed the second Vithian Stinger I'd gotten down a turn or two earlier. On our turn, I played Maelstrom Nexus, and we were ready to take over the game.

When they swung in again with their two flyers, Adam cycled a beautiful Resounding Silence to get rid of both of them—and, oh yeah, draw a card. On our turn, Blitz Hellion cascaded into Manaforce Mace thanks to Maelstrom Nexus. Whatever else I'd been planning to do was out the window—I equipped and swung with a 12/12 trampler. When they double blocked it with a Valley Rannet and a Topan Ascetic pumped to 7/7, we put damage on the stack to kill both creatures and deal them 2, then Adam Unsummoned the Hellion. Hellion attack count: 2.

Their next turn didn't yield anything much, and then I drew a very lucky Jund Charm. The Charm killed eight of their creatures and none of ours, then I unearthed Vithian Stinger to finish off their one remaining creature, an Ember Weaver. Rockslide Elemental was now up to 13/13, and Jund Charm had cascaded into Might of Alara, pumping Adam's Esperzoa to 9/8.

Having wiped their board clean and pumped our offense enormously, we attacked. John played Flurry of Wings to block our creatures and forestall their demise, but Adam had carefully saved Traumatic Visions. We hit them for 27 damage, leaving them at 2, then a Soul's Fire using my Rockslide Elemental dealt an additional 13. Kill nine creatures and then deal 40 damage, through Flurry of Wings? What a turn!

Round 4 ended up being a snoozefest (and a loss), when Adam got stuck on two of his three colors and ended up only casting one spell the entire game. I got Manaforce Mace on a Skeleton token to try to hold the fort, and even played an Igneous Pouncer for the sad purpose of blocking. Alas, brand manager Mark Purvis and his partner Jared had an Igenous Pouncer of their own and it played its more traditional role, giving them the extra damage they needed to finish us off.

The fifth and final round proved exciting. Our opponents were Corey Fellows, who I believe is a Customer Service rep, and his partner Colin. They were both cagey players, and they got the upper hand early. But when Colin played Battlegrace Angel, Adam broke Executioner's Capsule to kill it. Corey had Call to Heel to save the Angel and let Colin draw a card, but I responded with Terminate. End result: they were down an Angel and a Call to Heel, and we were down two removal spells. Probably a fair trade. We carved chunks out of them with Glassdust Hulk, but not quickly enough.

This match, too, went to time. That meant we had three turns—total—to finish the game after the end of the current turn. The first turn was ours, and the big question was whether to defend against a possible loss, all but ensuring the draw, or risk it and try to set up a win on our last turn. When in doubt, go for the awesome.

That meant spilling out Maelstrom Nexus with zero instants in hand, knowing it would only cascade once, plus adding a few other creatures to the board. On their turn, they attacked all-out—a bad sign, since it meant they either thought they could win that turn or knew we wouldn't be able to win on our turn. We blocked cleverly and lost just one creature, taking only a few points of damage.

Then it was our final turn of the match and the tournament, our crowning moment of awesome. I dropped Bull Cerodon onto the table, then paused. Much would depend on this cascade. I flipped over the top card of my library—and saw Blitz Hellion!

We'd attracted a crowd by this point, as we were the last match in the tournament still going, and the crowd cheered when they saw Blitz Hellion. We attacked for a very healthy 26 damage, and at last the reason for their smug security was revealed: Colin played Angelsong to stop our attack, leaving us—


—but wait! Adam had drawn a Cancel that very turn, and quickly snapped it out to counter Angelsong and ensure our vict—


—no, wait a minute, it's still not over! Colin pulled one last card from his hand. Was it a Cancel of his own? Instant-speed life gain? Some removal spell they'd had waiting in the wings? Was it ...


... another Angelsong?! You've got to be kidding me!

Last Laughs

So our tournament ended in a second draw, and the trophy went to the partner of Magic developer, Pro Tour Champion, and Hall of Famer Mike Turian, who, it turns out, is pretty good at Magic.

We may not have won, but Adam wasn't there for the trophy anyway. The important thing was that the tournament was a blast, and a totally unique event. A Grand Prix side event had taken on the tone of something you'd host in your living room. And that, my friends, is some serious fun.

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