Yawgmoth’s Whimsy #131: Two-Headed Giant

At long last, Wizards is supporting multiplayer games with official multiplayer rules and sanctioned multiplayer tournaments. The first Two-Headed Giant tourneys are already in the books, and more will follow. So let’s look at the format, and decks to break it.
It’s good stuff.

At long last, Wizards is supporting multiplayer games with official multiplayer rules and sanctioned multiplayer tournaments. The first Two-Headed Giant tourneys are already in the books, and more will follow. So let’s look at the format, and decks to break it.

It’s good stuff.

The DCI official rules include a section on multiplayer (comp. rules, section 600-609.) The rules on Two-Headed Giant are in section 606. Those rules are going to mess up online Two-Headed Giant a bit, because some things have changed. The changes, overall, make the format better – and making it sanctionable is a great step.

Previously, the only sanctioned team format – at least the only widely played, sanctioned format – was three person sealed. This format had its good points and bad points. On the plus side, team Rochester drafting is extremely skill intensive, and rewards practice. On the down side, the DCI floor rules do not allow teammates to talk to each other. Players didn’t like that restriction, and judges hated enforcing it. It just felt weird to be able to talk without restriction to your opponent, but not be able to ask a friend and teammate if their match would be over soon enough to grab lunch.

Two-Headed Giant allows players to talk to each other freely. You can show each other your hands, discuss options and generally coach one another. Thank gawd. Magic is a social game. If you prefer silence, play chess.

Two-Headed Giant is played with two teams of two players each. The team shares turns and life totals, but not cards, lands or creatures. At least, that’s the official version. I know some groups play different variants, but the DCI rules only recognize one version (although they do give a nod to Three -Headed Giant, Four-Headed Giant and so forth.)

Life Total

The shared life total is simple, and pretty much what every group I have ever seen uses. Each team starts with 40 life. Attacks that do damage reduce that life total. Spells that hit a player reduce that total. When the total goes to zero, the team loses.

Cards that do damage to each player subtract that amount from the life total for each player. For example, Sizzle does 3 damage to each opponent. In a Two-Headed Gaint game, there are two opponents, each taking 3 damage, so the shared life total is reduced by 6.

Spells that ask for a player’s life total look at half the shared total (or one third for Three-Headed Giant, and so forth.) This is different from current online practice, and means that the value of my digital Beacon of Immortality is going to fall like a stone. Under the old rules, the Beacon would double the shared life total. Now it sets the total equal to twice half the life total – meaning that the Beacon does nothing if the team’s total is even, and adds one point if it is odd.

Casting Beacon of Immortality in Three- or Four – Headed Giant is a big mistake.

Other Shared Objects

There are none. Each player has his or her own library, hand and graveyard. Each player has his or her own permanents, and can only use mana from his or her own lands. You cannot equip your partner’s creatures, sacrifice your partner’s creatures or transfer creatures to your partner’s control. Sorry.

Turn Structure

The shared turn is something I haven’t seen people use before, at least not in any of the casual and multiplayer groups I’m familiar with. Under the new rules, each team takes a turn together. One untap step for the team, one upkeep, one draw step, etc. Each player can take actions during each phase of the shared turn. Both players get to draw cards and put lands into play, since the rules allow each player to do that once per turn. There is one shared combat phase.

The shared turn structure means that beginning of phase affects trigger once per side, not once per player. For example, if someone has a Luminous Angel in play (hey, someone must play one, somewhere), that player gets one spirit token on his team’s turn, not two.

To avoid arguments over which player can act first, the rules designate the player in the right-hand seat as the primary player and the partner as the secondary player. The Primary player can act first, or pass to the secondary player. The first player can always act later: phases don’t end until all players have passed on an empty stack.

Chris Richter came up with the following mnemonic to help remember priority in a Two-Headed Giant game: PAP SAP PNAP SNAP. (primary active player, secondary active player, primary non-active…)

Chris has way too much time on his hands.


Put simply, creatures attack in a swarm and defend in a swarm. In the past, I have seen Two-Headed Giant rules that have you attacking just the opponent sitting opposite (as in MTGO) or choosing which opponent a creature attacks. Now it’s different. All creatures attack the opponents together. The opponents chose which attacking creatures to block, and either opponent’s creatures can block any attacking creature (subject to normal blocking rules.) Damage that gets past (or tramples over) blockers is subtracted from the opponent’s life totals.

Abilities and affects that affect attackers and blockers affect all attackers and blockers. If you have Tanglewalker and an opponent has an artifact land, all attackers are unblockable. If an ability prevents an attack on one player, attacks are prevented for the team. If Dueling Grounds or Silent Arbiter is in play, only one creature can attack, not one per person. If an opponent has Propaganda, then attacking is going to cost two mana per attacker – and the cost for an attacker has to be paid by that creature’s controller.

When a creature gets through to damage the opposing team, the attackers chose which player will be dealt the damage. The damage is still subtracted from the shared life total, but this rule is necessary for damage prevention effects and for effects which trigger on damage being dealt. For example, if one defender has Urza’s Armor in play, the attackers will probably want to assign damage to the other defender. Likewise, if one opponent has two cards in hand and the other has none, the attackers would be better off assigning damage from Okiba-Gang Shinobi to the player with cards to discard.

Tournament Format

Two-Headed Giant comes in both Constructed and Sealed formats. The Sealed is pretty self-evident: the team gets some product, and builds two decks from that product. The Constructed events can be Block, Standard, Extended, Legacy or Vintage, and use the typical banned and restricted lists for the formats. However, the two decks, together, must meet the requirements for deck construction. That means that if one player has 4 Cities of Brass, the teammate cannot play City of Brass.

Because Two-Headed Giant games take longer (due to discussion, etc.), the structure is one game per match, not best two out of three. With just single game matches, sideboards are not used. (I have not seen any exception for formats in which the Wishes are legal, but I could see Wizards making a clarification for that situation.)

Because mana screw is more devastating in single game formats, Two-Headed Giant has a special mulligan rule: you get one “free” mulligan per player. That means each player can ditch their hands and draw a fresh seven cards for no reason beyond wanting to do so. (Only at the start of the game, of course.) After that, you get the normal Paris options.

Winning the Game

The rules are pretty straightforward here. If one player on a team loses (e.g. Door to Nothingness), the team loses. If one player on a team concedes, the team loses. If one player on a team wins (e.g. Battle of Wits), the team wins.

Platinum Angel prevents both players on a team from losing, not just the Angel’s controller.

The Metagame and Deck Design

Actually, we don’t have a metagame, yet. Therer was a large Sealed 2HG event run at U.S. Nationals, but it was an unsanctioned trial run. There was a Two-Headed event at Gencon, but I wasn’t there.

In other words, you have to start cold.

I have played a ton of Two-Headed Giant in the past. My most broken designs and games have been when my partners and I have played highly synergistic decks – often synergistic to the point of being almost identical.

For example, back before these cards were neutered, we both played Spirit Mirror / Unnatural Selection decks. We had the lock out and active by turn 3 – after which we killed every targetable creature our opponents could play. On the flip side, I have had both opponents playing Reanimator decks. Turn 1 opponent A dumped Akroma into his graveyard – and the other opponent Reanimated it. However, both of those deck pairings would violate the new “max four cards in both decks” rule, so they are dead.

The secret to successful Two-Headed Giant deckbuilding is to make the decks very synergistic without breaking the rules. This can be done – but the first step is to make certain your decks don’t work at cross purposes.

For example, if I am playing my Akroma’s Vengeance / Wrath of God deck, my partner should not be playing the Elves. Likewise, if you are playing Grave Pact, make sure I am creatureless. In short, don’t be stupid.

True synergy can be smart. For example, in Legacy Two-Headed Giant, Counterslivers could be a very effective strategy. One player could be primarily Blue/White, and concentrate on counters, Crystalline Slivers and Swords to Plowshares. The other Sliver player could concentrate on the other three colors, and removal and special effects in those colors. Fully powered Slivers without needing to play Cities of Brass could be nice. The only drawback is that you could only play 4 Aether Vials between the two of you.

Twinned mana denial decks could also be interesting. One deck could go the Birds / Elves / Terravore / Armageddon route, while the other goes the Winter Orb / artifact mana / Tinker route – maybe even playing Storm Cauldron and Land Equilibrium to really mess with opponent’s heads. It’s a dangerous strategy, since it can leave one partner high and dry if they don’t get their non-land mana sources, but it could really screw over opposing decks with high mana curves.

In general, the more competitive decks are likely to pair one strong kill deck with one protective, controlling deck. Years back, we played in an Emperor tournament at Gencon. The two general’s decks had counters and some creature control, and the Emperor played a Worldgorger Dragon combo. The same sort of thing should work well against most combos – but just make sure that the combo is fast enough not to get run down by combined speed decks. Forty life is a lot, but two really fast decks might be able to steal wins, if they can sneak under the countermagic. For a totally unknown format, I would look to a partner deck that combines countermagic and the ability to stop attacking forces.

Here’s one example: Solitary Confinement. Solitary Confinement prevents the opponents from attacking either partner, and but only prevents the opponents from targeting one head. However, the disadvantage of Solitary Confinement has always been getting a kill through, while maintaining the Confinement. With a partner still drawing cards, that is less of a problem. The only trick then becomes getting and maintaining Confinement. I would recommend Intuition, Enlightened Tutor and Squee, Goblin Nabob for that role. Squee also works with Forbid and Compulsion, and so forth. For those of you without access to Masques (e.g. those online), Squee can be replaced with Shard Phoenix or Hammer of Bogardan, if you have the Red mana. If you don’t, consider Mikokoro, Center of the Sea. Even if you cannot find another way to win, Mikokoro will, eventually, deck your opponents.

Solitary Confinement is also a nice combo with Epic Spells. Just get the lock going, then Epic for the win, if your partner can’t do it.

Here’s what I will drag down to casual night at the store sometime. It is Vintage legal right now, because of the Sol Ring. That could be modified, if people wanted to play Legacy, or something like that.


4 Islands

3 Plains

4 Coastal Tower (replace with the Ravnica duals eventually)

4 Flooded Strand

4 Tundra

3 Mikokoro, Center of the Sea

1 Karakas

1 Sol Ring (Talisman of Progress if Legacy)

1 Null Rod

1 Tormod’s Crypt or Phyrexian Processor

1 Cursed Totem

2 Sensei’s Divining Top

3 Squee, Goblin Nabob

2 Eternal Dragon

2 Compulsion

4 Force of Will

3 Intuition

1 Fact or Fiction

2 Forbid

1 Misdirection

3 Wrath of God

2 Akroma’s Vengeance

4 Enlightened Tutor

3 Solitary Confinement

The partner could be almost anything – although a Blue control deck running the other counterspells could be useful. However, the partner could run practically anything reasonably compatible (e.g. not Tranquility or Nev’s Disk), but even a beatdown deck would be fine.

If you are not designing your decks together – for example, if you want to play in pick-up games at a store, or online, then a counter-heavy control deck could work. Here’s a simple, cheap deck for online or standard. It won’t dominate, but it will help your partner win the game for you.

Cheap Blue

23 Islands

4 Wayfarer’s Bauble

4 Serum Visions

2 Inspiration (or better card drawing)

4 Hinder (or other counterspell)

4 Mana Leak

3 Boomerang

3 Rewind

3 Echoing Truth

3 Confiscate

3 Thieving Magpie

3 Spire Golem

Obviously, this deck gets better with rares like Isochron Scepter, Erayo, Soratami Ascendant, Vedalken Shackles or recursive Mindslaver (which takes control of the entire shared turn – all decisions for both players.) This is just a very plain framework – but a framework that should have reasonable synergy with anything your partner is playing. Since my online collection is still quite small, I would probably take something like to the Two-Headed room – although I do expect lots of screaming about playing counterspells in casual.

I busted my second online Vedalken Shackles yesterday – I would expect more whining once I add those.

At this point, many, many strategies can work. Anthony Alongi mentioned paired milling decks – both targeting one opponent. I am experimenting with a Door to Nothingness / Bringer build – but I need to tune that more. The concept of pairing a control deck and one that can do the kills looks pretty broken – so I have been experimenting with really, really fast decks, to see if we can find one that can kill by turn two or three in Legacy, up to turns three to five in Standard, in the face of some counter magic. That should be fast enough to beat the combo decks, but I don’t have the decklists, yet. I’m not Dan Paskins.

The biggest problem, so far, is the time it takes to playtest this format. Two-Headed Giant is inherently casual, which means far more talking and joking than playing. On casual nights, we can only get through a handful of games per evening. It may be better online, once the new rules are implemented – but I like casual.


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