Many players bringing twenty-five cards. One deck. One graveyard. And only a couple of Avatars to share.

Every once in a while, I’ll get an email from a reader who wants to know how our multiplayer group generates and plans new formats. I was hoping to use one such email to start off this week’s column – but like the fickle beasts you are, none of you were kind enough recently to send me one asking that exact question. So much for the spin of realism. Pay attention anyway.

Our group meets weekly, and the timeline for forging each week’s exciting evening of fun goes something like this:

Friday, around noon: Pete writes an email.

Thanks, Dave, for a great format last night! Loads of fun. I particularly liked the way that Anthony crushed us all.

So who’s hosting next week?

Tuesday morning: I write an email.

So, no one’s volunteered to host yet this week. Don’t forget that hosting our group comes with many benefits, including: (1) feeding all of us, (2) cleaning up after all of us, and (3) picking the format. Sign up now! Operators are standing by.

Wednesday afternoon: Pete writes another email.

WHO’S HOSTING THIS WEEK?!?!? And what’s the format???

Wednesday evening: My wife asks me what the plan is for tomorrow: Where will I be? How will she reach me? I tell her, in a lame attempt to be clever, that my cell phone will work no matter what prostitute I am with, and my hands should (probably) be free to answer it. This gets me an icy stare, but diverts any embarrassment I might feel at revealing what a disorganized group of chumps me and my friends are.

Thursday morning: The rest of the group finally reads their email from the past week, and someone, say Gary, speaks up.

I will host. My place at 6pm, until whenever. Regular decks.

“Regular decks” is our way of admitting that we have no collective planning skills. So we’ll show up with about five or six moderately-powered Type I decks and let the evening roll along – chaos at five players, emperor at six, hunt at seven, sudden move to draft at eight, if someone thought to bring packs, back down to the earlier formats as folks leave for the night, one by one, until around 3 a.m., when Gary is playing himself (and still losing).

About once a month, someone will actually have the foresight to claim hosting duties a few weeks in advance. This allows for a more thoughtful format – for example, Dave initiated a”State of the Union” format this past January that had us building decks based on the letters of two adjacent states. (I tried to get cute and picked two adjacent Great Lakes, Huron and Erie, just so I could pick the fewest letters without resorting to Utah and Idaho. It included that lame Empress Galina/Unnatural Selection trick. As a reward for my amazing creativity, I lost a lot.)

When it seemed about time for me to host in the cycle, I proclaimed that we would revisit the Big-Butt Deck format. This format has all players drawing from a common library, and using a common graveyard. The first time we tried it a year or two ago, we nominated a couple of players, each of whom would build a separate huge deck, and we’d rotate them through the night. The main problem with doing this is that the deckbuilder knows the intricacies of the deck way better than anyone else (and so, in my case, I knew to wait for Exhume, Blossoming Wreath, Coffin Queen activation, and a bunch of other stuff to go on the stack before playing Repopulate). The second problem was that everyone tried to get extra cute with their particular deck, so we had a red Soldier of Fortune”shuffling” deck, as well as a blue deck where everyone was stealing and bouncing creatures and no one could figure out who the original owner was of a given permanent. This is all fine to do a grand total of about once in your lifetime… But if you’re going to play the format again, you want to be a bit more discerning.

So here are the rules I laid down, with help from the more loophole-minded in our group:

  • Each player brings in twenty-five cards – fifteen of whatever they like besides basic land, and ten lands capable of supporting those fifteen cards (so, if you include a Hypnox, you must have at least three black mana sources that can all be used the same turn).

  • No cards that require searching or shuffling of the library. If a card has searching or shuffling as an optional (read: activated) ability, you can run it, but the ability is always countered.

  • No spell or ability may cause anyone to draw, mill, or otherwise pull off of the library more than seven cards in a given turn. (So you can run Prosperity, but X will never be more than six. Five, if there’s a Howling Mine out.)

If I were going to run this again, I might restrict to three colors. (Best bets: Blue, green, black. And artifacts, of course.) This would solve the mana problems we had without resorting to removing all lands and just giving everyone infinite mana, which creates a whole new set of problems.

Because each player brings his or her own”package” of cards, there’s great opportunity to watch different styles interact with each other. Gary contributed fifteen expensive black and red cards, such as Avatar of Woe and Cauldron Dance, that challenged us in the late game. I put in a”blue” set using Cephalids, with the expectation that the game may come down to the milling win condition. And Pete slapped together fifteen worthless cards (think Apocalypse Chime) just to watch some of us fret over useless draws.

One of the more broken cards in this format is Ill-Gotten Gains, which has everyone discard their hands and then pick out three plums from the graveyard – you first, of course. I also like Psychatog and Sarcatog in the format, since they not only function as strong closers, but also wipe out the graveyard so that cards designed to abuse a common graveyard don’t wield so much power.

Worry Beads and Ichorid each made strong impressions; and Beast Attack would have been a great deal more fun if more than one player had contributed green (and therefore green mana). But the main strategy we were employing before long was trying to get an active Avatar of Woe before anyone else could play or recur their own.

I might suggest, if you try this at home, restricting converted mana cost to no more than four. That would force even more creativity, and help keep games shorter, since more cards ought to be playable earlier. (It also closes out heavy bombs like the Avatar, as well as a few resets like Living Death or Rout.)

I’m interested to hear from folks on what”twenty-five-card set” they might run in such a format. Don’t forget: Ten of them have to be appropriate mana-producing lands. If I get enough responses, I might throw some of them out there in a future article.

While you’re emailing me, don’t forget that BREAK THIS CARD: CEPHALID VANDAL is well underway! The deadline is in two weeks. Get your shredding decks together! I’ve already received three or four distinctly different ideas, which always bodes well for the contest. I’m arranging for a foil Cephalid Vandal as a grand prize, with additional prizes as the number of entries grows.


Anthony Alongi

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