Feature Article — Being Greedy in Two-Headed Giant

With Grand Prix: Massachusetts just around the corner, we’ve a bonus Feature Article for those players teaming up to sling spells! Quentin takes a long look at the 2HG format, and brings some sage advice on all aspects of the format… great advice for the beginner and the experienced alike!

First, we lost Rochester draft. With it, team Rochester too all but disappeared. Then came team booster draft, then team constructed. It seems Wizards are still trying to find a good team format that is both fun and challenging. Their solution – Two-Headed Giant.

For most people, Two-Headed Giant is a relatively new format. Others might have dabbled drunkenly in it with a friend at a pre-release. Whatever your experience is, it will be fairly limited. This format is essentially new. Sure, Two-Headed Giant has been around for a while now, but it is only recently that Wizards have provided solid rules with which to play it, and its draft portion is as new as a fresh layer of paint on a Ferrari in Dalston.

If you’ve not yet read it, I wrote an article a while back about how to assess new formats, and what it was that entailed whether a card was good or not; for those who didn’t have premium back then, Craig will handily provide a link for it here. This Two-Headed Giant format is doubly difficult because we have already played a lot of Time Spiral Limited. Yes, the fact that we’ve almost played it to death is a negative factor. We will come to the multiplayer table with preconceived notions and it is going to be hard to shatter these prejudices and see things in a new light. As the draft is still rather new, even to me, I will focus solely, for now, on the Sealed portion of the format, which I’ve somehow had a lot of success in. Hopefully, this will get you to the Top 8 of your PTQ, or to the all-important second day of the approaching Grand Prix.

The first Two-Headed Giant tournament I played was with my South African prodigy, Johannes, whilst slightly inebriated at the Guildpact prerelease. We were there to have fun. Obviously we wanted to win, but it wasn’t our aim. Our goal was to enjoy ourselves. As a result I played a deck with a tight manabase, with next to no fixers, supporting Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind and Hex, with a Netherborn Phalanx and an Ethereal Usher to find them. It was a bit greedy. Johannes’s deck was a solid Orzhov build with Agent of Masks, Orzhov Guildmage, and an Orzhova, the Church of Deals, splashing Brightflame to make his Storm Herd even better. You heard me – splashing Brightflame for a Storm Herd! We were like little kids let loose in a candy store. We were trying to be the kid that wished for more wishes. We didn’t want to just win, we wanted to crush. We wanted our opponents to be beaten up by Dragons and hundreds of Pegasi, whilst we sat back and laughed on the biggest life total possible.

It worked. We crushed.

The only game we got close to losing was a friendly, when our opponents topdecked a Netherborn Phalanx after we had just made 114 Pegasi! The experience was fun. But I learnt a lot. Round after round, our opponents curved out aggressively with Watchwolves and the likes, and we took a beating. Then one of us would lay our sixth land and we couldn’t lose. Our greediness was why we won. This format is all about being greedy (which is one of the many reasons why I’m teaming with Ruud Warmenhoven, possibly the greediest Pro around). Beating your opponents up becomes secondary when all the threats are similar and there are two people who can find the solution. It’s all about having the biggest threat and to keeping it in play until it’s the last thing standing. It’s about cards that get better because of their wording – Urborg Syphon-Mage drains twice as effectively, for example, as we should all know by now. More than almost any other format I’ve played, it’s about card advantage. It almost doesn’t matter what form of advantage it takes, so long as it’s advantage – Mwonvuli Acid-Moss can easily screw one player out of the game – especially as either one or both of your opponents will be three colors – whilst accelerating you to your game-breaking spells. Think Twice is even better than it currently is.

To summarize: think “long game,” where two drops lose value whilst seven drops are insane; card advantage is number one; cards that benefit from multiple players get better; and cards that can screw one player out of the game are also good. In this last category fall big discard spells like Mindstab and Haunting Hymn. These cards are awesome – there is always an opponent with a lot of cards in their hand, and it will almost always win the game. I’ve already mentioned Urborg Syphon-Mage in the “more players” category, but think how much better cards with Storm have become, with both you and your other head contributing – Volcanic Awakening becomes akin to a first-pick bomb. Cards with universal effects also get far better. Cards like Subterranean Shambler and Sulfuric Blast – though it is to also be noted that as the format is more about 4/4s and 5/6s, Blast also gets simultaneously worse. And if you get a Damnation… fill your boots.

Another effect of the slow down and top heaviness of the format is that paradoxically acceleration gets inferior. Even though it is all about the expensive spells, getting there first is not so important as being the one who has more expensive spells. An accelerating card fills up the slot of a card that could have been used to have an effect on the game. If you think about it, all games easily pass turn ten… does it matter who casts their fatty first if you cast one more fatty than they do eventually? Remember, you have thirty life to play with, so you can afford to fall temporarily behind if your late game is going to be better. You can still play a Search for Tomorrow or a Prismatic Lens over your eighteenth land because it does accelerate and fix, but fixing is equally less important because you have more time to find your splash color. The total number of mana cards in your deck should probably be between 17 and 18 in Two-Headed Giant. While this is the case in normal Time Spiral Limited, you must be aware that manascrew is deadly in a one-game format, while mana-advantage is not necessarily back-breaking.

A lot of cards have been made a lot worse too. Temporal Eddy is no longer the Time Walk of old, as one of your opponents will still get to draw a new card. The tempo aspect it had, along with other bounce, is lessened too, as tempo itself becomes less important because of the Last Threat Standing principle. White loses a lot of its power because now your friend’s creatures are also tapped by Ivory Giant, and there is a higher chance that Amrou Seekers will be blockable, and Celestial Crusader obviously gets worse. Unless you can build both of your decks to have enough Slivers to thoroughly abuse Screeching Sliver (which is awesome, because if one opponent gets decked, then you win), Slivers get worse, as it is even more likely that your opponent can benefit from them too. Jedit’s Dragoons is worse because four life isn’t that big a swing, and a 2/5 isn’t even that big any more.

Creatures need to be bigger or to have evasion. Any form of land walking is phenomenal, so Viscid Lemurs and Sol’kanar the Swamp King improve drastically. One creature that might benefit more than any other is Scryb Ranger – not only is its protection from Blue going to be even more relevant, you can untap your team mate’s creatures for even more ridiculous effects, making combos with cards like Merieke Ri Berit even more likely. Pingers now have even more targets to kill, and pumpers have even more combat to dominate. Repeatable effects improve because there is more time for them to be repeated, so cards like Voidmage Usher, Giant Oyster and D’Avenant Healer keep getting better. Disintegrate, Conflagrate, and Wurmcalling are huge. Combined with multiple storage lands, these cards can end the game by themselves. It is not uncommon to see thirty point Disintegrates finishing matches. As a result of bombs getting even bigger, counterspells are now phenomenally powerful, in every form possible, so long as they are hard. Kai, Cancel, Draining Whelk, Spell Burst, Mystic Snake, and even Trickbind are now auto-plays. Magus of the Jar becomes insane, as both of you get to abuse it whilst, hopefully, neither of your opponents can benefit too much.

With every new format come new rules tricks. Two-Headed Giant is no exception. For example, Weathered Bodyguards is now almost completely useless. Why? Because when you assign combat damage you can divide it amongst the two heads, so you can opt to deal it all to the head without the Bodyguard, or even split off just five to that head to finish the card off. Tromp the Domains affects only creatures you control. In Two-Headed Giant, ‘you’ refers to your head, you control creatures you cast or took control of, so only those creatures will gain the Tromp’s effect, not your fellow head’s guys. Walk the Aeons gives both of you an extra turn (it actually only gives the caster one additional turn, but since his turn is shared with his other head, that head gets all the extras too). There are more obvious additional extras, like giving your other head the land off a Yavimaya Dryad or you tapping out first to let you friend draw the cards from your Careful Consideration, who can then cast them as they are not tapped out.

How do you build the decks? This is more complex than normal. Once you’ve finally worked out which colors go where, if you share a color you have to divide the cards appropriately, and then comes the hardest job, cutting down to the 22 or 23 cards you’re each actually going to play. It helps if both of the decks curve out nicely, but this is less important than normal, for the same reason that acceleration – the tempo factor. Both decks want to have tricks so that when one player taps out the other has many untapped to deal with whatever might occur. The jury is still out as to whether you want one deck to be super tricky and the other to be creature heavy. The benefits of this theory is that one player never does anything and can react to what is going on, but good opponents can easily overwhelm you if that player is screwed. The downside is that that the tricky player will likely have some powerful creatures / sorceries of its own and will have to tap out, leaving your team exposed. Cards like Mindstab will also hurt more if that player is hit. I advocate a balanced approach, ensuring that both decks can keep the other alive if they are experiencing mana problems, whilst enabling either deck to respond to your opponents’ strategy and guard the other head should the need occur.

Certain cards will dictate how your decks are built. Let’s say you have an Akroma, Angel of Wrath and your White is weak. Normally, you can just leave it in your sideboard and it will be correct. But in Two-Headed Giant, you have to maximize the number of bombs you play, so it is criminal to leave the Angel in the board. This means that you will usually have to pair the White with the Green or in whichever deck plays more fixers, be they Prismatic Lens or White storage land. You have to maximize the potential of everything you can. I think consistency can be sacrificed for power in Two-Headed Giant, meaning if you open a Firemaw Kavu, you want it in the deck that has the highest potential to abuse it. So you’ll flick through your pool to see how many Momentary Blinks, Dream Stalkers, Tolarian Sentinels, Dread Returns and the like you have. Similarly, if your pool is Fungus heavy, you’ll probably want to pair your Black with your Green so your Deathspore Thallids do something. If one of your decks looks like it will hardly ever be contributing to the attack step (normally some combination of White/Black and Blue, especially if you’ve not pulled the good rebel chain from Planar Chaos), then it might be possible to play any Eyes you might have in that deck, as they only prevent “your” creatures from attacking, not the other head’s men. If you have a lot of Strangling Soots or a lot of Gold bombs, they will dictate how you put your pool together.

There is one more, very sly aspect of deck construction – who plays which deck? I’m not talking about player style here, as you will both effectively be playing both decks. Which deck do you give to player A and which to player B? The difference is that when you are on the play, player B gets to draw a card on the first turn. This might seem like an almost insignificant detail, but one of your decks should definitely be in the B seat. They might have more crucial early drops, most likely suspend cards, so their early game is more important. One deck will probably not be Blue, and so failing the suspend condition the non-Blue deck should be in the B seat to increase the chance of your game being more balanced. There are a myriad of other reasons for putting a specific deck here, like one of your deck’s mana might be awful, so to increase the chance of not being screwed, the placement becomes important.

Who do you team with? There are two factors at work here. You obviously want to be playing with the best player possible; but this format is also about communication. It might sound like you have all of the time in the world to finish the single game match, but games will often go to time because both teams spend so long conversing about what the correct play is each phase of each turn. You should be playing with someone who’s opinions you trust, who you won’t have a huge argument about during deck construction or about which card to suspend on turn one. I imagine the communication factor will be even more crucial during draft with its even tighter time constraints. Sometimes it’s important to let one player take the reins if a judge forces you to make a play or you do so of your own volition to save time, again, especially important during the draft.

I will issue one warning. Be careful. More than any other format there is the potential to cheat. Teams distract themselves, a single player can easily distract the opposing team so the other head can cheat in some way. It will be virtually impossible to stop good cheats from cheating, which will place a higher requirement upon the judges to watch out. I have a feeling that the Two-Headed Giant Pro Tour will have more disqualifications than any other event. If possible, make it the duty of the minor head (the less skilful player, if there is one) to always be watching the opponents. Not only will this cut down on cheating, but you will probably gain valuable information from eavesdropping on their conversations and by watching their eyes and expressions. Have fun, but always keep a wary eye open.

Above all – maximize your greediness.