When a Few Heads Are All You Got

Posted in Serious Fun on May 31, 2011

If you didn't know it already, Tom LaPille is a stand-up guy. While I had only some brief interactions with him at US Nationals in 2010, it's his work at sharing the Development side of things every week in Latest Developments that has made me a fan.

It was just the other week when I ran down a concise directory of busting booster packs to engage other players. What I didn't know was that Tom already had something Limited-related in the works for that week too, and introduced the world to Winchester Draft.

If there were a head-to-head battle between us, I'd call it a KO victory for the man behind the gilded gate. (Not that the Wizards of Renton always win.) Fortunately, we're on the same side of things: playing more interesting and fun Magic.

It was a little surprising to see several responses come through to me mentioning the desire for more ways to play with fewer players. While my local game store has the problem of too many players jumping into the fray, many of you make do with just a buddy or two. This can be annoying, but rest assured, there are ways to fight the too-few-players blues.

    Going Biblical

One way to play some Limited with fewer players is Solomon Draft, something that a few of you brought up.

Solomon Draft

In Brief: Solomon Draft is a two-player Draft variant where packs of cards are randomized, then revealed for one player to split into two piles for the other player to choose from, similar to the action of Fact or Fiction.

Rules Rundown: You'll need three booster packs for each player, who will then open the packs without peeking and shuffle all the packs together, excluding the tip/token cards and basic lands. (This means 84 cards total between two players.)

After deciding who will draft first, the other player reveals seven cards from the randomized pile, then splits the revealed cards into two stacks. The first drafting player chooses one stack to draft, the remaining going to the other. Then, roles switch. This continues until all cards are drafted.

From there, you're off to the races with crafting your 40-card decks.

Pros: Splitting the piles of revealed cards can be interesting exercise in psychology. If you ever played Fact or Fiction, all the same feelings of tension are there—now magnified by the nature of drafting a deck on the fly! And unlike Winston and Winchester, the options aren't mostly random; each player carefully sculpts the decision for the other!

Cons: Tricky drafting is tricky. While having control over the randomness can be refreshing in a two-player draft, crafty players can use this to their advantage. Also, having full disclosure of the cards means that there will be more moments when you see cards you might want for yourself head over to your opponent's side.

Solomon Draft should serve you well as another part of a rotation of small-group drafts. Of course, if you're wondering how you can have three players draft Winston, Winchester, or Solomon, I can help you there too.

Winston Draft is perhaps the easiest to slip an extra person into. Once draft order is established, the additional person simply takes a turn after the other two, peeking at stacks and choosing whether to take or add to the pile. Winchester Draft works much the same way, except the piles are all public. With Solomon Draft, you'll have public piles and the player who drafted before you will provide the split choice for you.

Part of the beauty of these two-player draft formats is that they are so easily adapted to three or four players. Other than Group Game Draft, which emphasizes multiplayer action, it's in these types of formats that Limited can meet small groups.

    Mirrored Universes

Alternatively, if none of those four small-group draft formats strike your fancy there's a few more tricks you can turn to. The easiest (or toughest depending upon how lucky you are!) is to have everyone work with the exact same Sealed pool: Duplicate Sealed.

Duplicate Sealed

In Brief: Duplicate Sealed is a variant on the usual Sealed Deck Magic in which every player has the same pool of cards to create their own decks from.

Rules Rundown: One player opens a Sealed pool (six packs being the normal number), then sorts and writes down all of the cards. With this list each other player then pulls together the same pool of cards. Each player creates a 40-card deck and plays from there as normal.

Pros: Everyone using the same pool creates some really interesting approaches, while still allowing different players to be focus on what they like most. If you want the most powerful deck, you can tune and learn from both yours and opponent's ideas. If you want to build something unique, you can actively move away from the approaches that seem to be common.

And unlike the deeper card pool that comes with using an entire block or Standard pool, the possibility of being overwhelmed is removed: while limited options can be odd, switching one color for another is a simple ten-card review and change rather than a long trek through dozens of available cards. And for friends looking to hop in, shooting over a list of cards to build a deck from makes things crystal clear.

Cons: One of the features many of us like about Sealed, and Limited in general, is that there is variety in the cards. Some players get bored dealing with an entire Standard card pool to choose from, and Duplicate Sealed will certainly feel much more confining.

The randomness of Sealed can also play a detrimental role by making some choices almost impossible to not make. If you opened an awesome bomb like Wurmcoil Engine or Moltensteel Dragon, why wouldn't everyone play it?

Duplicate Sealed may seem simplistic, but between just a friend or two the little choices made differently become incredibly exciting to discover. And if you take very different approaches with the same pool of cards, the social interaction of trying to see the other's perspective is easier than ever.

Of course, all this discussion about Limited formats is just a limited perspective on playing for two (or so). There are many ways to bring Constructed into small group play, and I'll share a twist on one of my favorite methods: deck swapping.


In Brief: Deckslaver is a rules variant that can be added to any game. Between each turn, players may randomly switch seats, thereby switching decks, life, and entire board states.

Rules Rundown: This can be performed with any game of Magic, but works best with two to four players. After the end step is over, but before untapping or otherwise moving to the next player's turn, the about-to-become-active player randomly determines one of three possible outcomes involving switching seats, and therefore boards and decks, with an opponent. (Note that the turn order goes by player, not seat, so the player who rolls will take the next turn whether or not he or she switches seats.)

I'll use a six-sided die, but however your group wants to swing things is just fine.

Die RollOutcome
1You must switch seats with an opponent if any of them so desire. (Randomly determine which opponent if multiple players want to switch with you.)
2, 3, or 4Nothing happens. (No one changes seats.)
5 or 6You may choose an opponent to switch seats with. (That player doesn't have a choice. You don't have to choose to switch.)

The goal of playing Magic isn't different: you still want to defeat your opponent through various means. However, now you have a regularly shifting position from which to achieve it. Hands, permanents, decks, and other zones, as well as life totals and poison counters, stay attached to the seat—only the physical person-players move about as determined.

If you defeat another player, the cards that that player owns stay in the game, but the cards associated with the seat that player was sitting in leave play as per normal rules. That is, the seat loses and the person sitting there lost, but the remaining boards stay the same and aren't based on the person who lost – just the deck at that seat.

If a player wishes to concede or otherwise leave the game and they are not seated with their deck, the conceding player and the player currently sitting at that person's deck immediately switch so game play can continue. That is, the player who is leaving takes their deck and the remaining player takes over wherever the leaving player was.

Games can be played as normal Magic or as any desired format, such as Commander or Draft.

Pros: One way to equalize deck power is to fidget and tweak decks to match up against each other, as in the Duel Decks series. Another way is to embrace it through deck swapping. Between a few players, the "best" and "worst" positions become a mini-game of "hot potato" crossed with political maneuvering.

Do you think someone will be trying to switch with you soon? Do you want to get rid of a permanent even if it's currently beneficial for you? Many of the things that are unpleasant about getting hit with a Mindslaver are turned on their head when everyone is in on the action. And unlike Shared Fate, it isn't just a temporary enchantment; jockeying for the right seat at the right time, with a little bit of randomness thrown in, can make any two decks much more interesting to play against each other.

Cons: Sometimes we just don't like other decks. And giving up the sweet spot just because of a die roll can feel pretty lousy if you don't appreciate that type of randomness in games. Switching over to take control of a deck you're not familiar with or don't like the style of play it provides can be disconcerting as well.

Playing Magic this way is best reserved for those of us who appreciate Warp World and similar randomizing effects. Patience to have been eliminated but wait for others to finish as your deck is being used can be annoying if the game continues on for a significant amount of time. This isn't necessarily a quick in-and-out way to play.

Deckslaver is a curious case where the normal rules of Magic simultaneously apply and are changed completely. While everyone will be looking to win the game, long-term planning requires a very different approach. How we choose to attack and block is certainly something that's impacted by the chance that we'll end up sitting somewhere else.

Many of you really enjoy the political side of multiplayer Magic, and this is a major wrench to throw into the plans of players who ignore that aspect. "No man is an island," as the adage goes, and to stay in the game you'll have to focus more on what other players are doing than necessarily which seat they happen to be in.

More specifically, three players games often run into the problem of "You and I are weaker, let's just bash the strong guy!" and it quickly degenerates into a race to being just a duel. Deckslaver makes this issue a feature by adding in some interesting decisions:

  • Do you take the "stronger" seat or stay where you wouldn't be a target?
  • If you're in the hot seat, do you switch out if given the chance?
  • Do you attack the player whose turn is next, or wait in case they switch to the more powerful seat?

There aren't right or wrong answers to these kinds of questions, even if we were looking at specific examples. The fact that these are new questions to ask brings a refreshing set of experiences to liven things up when it's just a small group again.

    Time Travel Anecdotes

I know I had promised to avoid doing another rundown style article again so soon, but that so many of you asked about more ways to play with fewer players I felt today would better serve those in need. And speaking of results from polls, here's last week's response:

What do you think of the games covered in Serious Fun? (Today featured just such coverage.)
I love to hear and see game play! I want more details!32.9%
The interesting moments captured are great. The detail level is fine.49.8%
There is too much going on. A little less detail would be great.5.9%
I don't like hearing about games.11.4%

The overwhelming response is right in line with what I had hoped: gaming is fun, and that's where we need to be! And this idea, coincidentally (wink, wink), brings us to a poll for this week:

Which of the following formats would you like to see game coverage of next?Winston, Winchester, or Solomon Draft (two-player, head-to-head action)Duplicate Sealed (three players, one card pool)Deckslaver (four or more players)Commander

Take a moment to let me know, because next week we're jumping head first into Magic: The Gathering Commander previews! Join us then as I will be helping share the awesome and dancing in delight in the lead-up to getting down with all new Commander goodies! See you then!

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