Yawgmoth’s Whimsy # 227 – Disorganized Play

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Friday, May 23rd – A few weeks ago, Wizards announced that it was pushing organized play resources farther out. Some of the emphasis was moving from Pro Tours, States and store events to supporting casual play groups. Casual play means more than just non-sanctioned drafts and Two-Headed Giant – I want to give you some idea of just how much more by brainstorming about a bunch of formats, targeted at different numbers of players. Just five players in your group – no problem, I’ve got some formats for you.

A few weeks ago, Wizards announced that it was pushing organized play resources farther out. Some of the emphasis was moving from Pro Tours, States and store events to supporting casual play groups. Casual play means more than just non-sanctioned drafts and Two-Headed Giant — I want to give you some idea of just how much more by brainstorming about a bunch of formats, targeted at different numbers of players. Just five players in your group — no problem, I’ve got some formats for you.

Yes, I know Pro Tour: Hollywood is right around the corner. Gawds, do I know it. I am so buried in work trying to get ready for the PT – and the Public TV Auction which starts the day I return — that I have not been able to do the grunt work, testing and math for a more immediately relevant article. Besides, as this article goes up, you’ll have coverage to read / watch, and my article would be out of date.

Casual play, on the other hand, never goes out of style.

For reference, BDM’s article on the change of emphasis is here. As I read that article, Wizards is going to support smaller, more casual play groups. The only requirements appear to be that the group is committed to playing regularly, and that someone from the group signs up as an organizer & reports results. At least, that’s what I think. I had initially planned to go through the process and report on it, but that’s yet another thing on my list that isn’t going to happen on time.

Worst of all, I have been too busy to play this week. The withdrawal symptoms are harsh. I may have to bust a couple packs to cut the cravings.

Moving on. Let’s look at how you can play with groups of various sizes.

Two Players

I don’t know whether you can register a two player group for this — I sort of doubt it. If Wizards would do that, it would seems less like supporting casual play and more like throwing support at everything in sight. Nice, but I want a better return for the money I send Wizards.

In any case, two players can face each other in a “duel.” Most players are probably familiar with duels.

Two players can also draft. Various people have written about two-player Winston drafts. I won’t rehash that — just read this. Ingrid and I have a developed a different method of two-player drafting. You need two draft sets per person. (Yes, it is a bit profligate, but it beats just busting packs.)

The problem with one on one drafts, as Aaron Forsyth once noted, is that “the goal of one-on-one drafts isn’t to get the best deck by normal means, but rather to memorize your opponent’s picks and use that information to hate-draft him and sabotage his manabase.” Finding ways around that problem is the secret to making a one-on-one draft work.

In our drafts, we each bust the first pack as normal, pick a card as normal, then shuffle the pack and set aside a random card. Then the other person gets the pack, and does the same. By the end of the pack, we each have a pile of picks, and a set aside pile of random cards. Because of the two set-aside piles, we only get, in effect, the first, fourth, eighth and twelfth cards from the packs we open. More importantly, any given card may, indeed, have gone into our opponent’s hand, but since two-thirds of the cards we pass on have been removed at random, you never know exactly what your opponent has picked.

We keep busting packs and picking cards in this way. We don’t look at the randomly set-aside cards until after play has finished. The set-aside cards are the reason that we use four draft sets — we end up with half the cards in the set-aside piles.

This does make for a pretty solid two-person draft experience — and if you want to follow it up with something far less structured, just give one of the set-aside piles to each player and build decks from those. Since those cards were chosen at random, and the piles only have 45 cards each, that plays like a really bad Sealed deck.

Three Players

Three players can draft, using the method described above, and wind up with decent decks. The downside is that, once done drafting and building decks, you either have to play three player games, or have one player sit and kibitz while the other players duel. Not perfect, but it sure beats not playing at all.

Three player games typically devolve into two-on-ones. This may be a fluid situation, where the player with the best board position automatically attracts all the beats, or — more commonly – where the two weaker players gang up on the better player.

Since three player games tend to become two-on-ones, why not incorporate this deliberately? Assign the role of singleton (the bear) in advance, and let the other two players (the hounds) enter the game knowing they will be a team. Of course, the bear needs some advantages to make the game level. I like having the bear start with 30 life, 10 cards in and three basic lands in play is a nice start. Allowing the bear to have a wider card pool (e.g. bear builds a Legacy deck, hounds build Standard decks) can also work. The amount of advantage may vary, depending on the players, their card pools, and so forth. You may also need to ban some decks or combos, or play with 100+ card decks — the point is to have a battle, not see whether someone can build a combo deck that can go off turn 1 because of the lands in play and extra cards.

To keep the format fresh for an entire session, have each player build one bear and one hound deck, and alternate roles.

Four Players

Sure, four players can play Two-Headed Giant. Alternatively, four players can play a more traditional form of partners games. Years ago, Ingrid and I would play meet another couple every weekend for some RPG, followed by some four-player Magic. We rolled randomly for teams, then played together. Partners sat opposite each other, and we merely cooperated — no shared turns, no shared life total, no looking at each other’s hands. We just played as allies, and games ended when both players from one team were eliminated.

It worked. It still works.

Four player drafts work pretty well. You can either play teams or round robin (everyone plays everyone.) You can draft knowing that you will be playing 2HG. These work, and there’s nothing much to say about these formats. They are pretty common.

A slightly more uncommon format is Emperor — 1 Pawn Shy. In effect, you are playing Emperor, but with two invisible, indestructible pawns who do nothing on one side. In short, instead of:

Pawn — Emperor (1) — Pawn

Pawn — Emperor (2) — Pawn

… you get:

Pawn — Emperor (1) — Empty seat

Pawn — Emperor (2) — Empty seat

You play the game as if the seats were filed — emperors cannot attack each other across those seats, and range limitations count the seats. The standard emperor rules (whatever version you prefer) apply, but you need to make one adjustment.

Normally, when an Emperor passes creatures, those creatures tap. Then the creatures untap during the pawn’s untap phase. This means that the emperor passing creatures in the direction in which turns pass. In the diagram above, Emperor (2) has an advantage: when he passes creatures to his pawn, they untap immediately, and the pawn can use them. Emperor (1) has a disadvantage, in that creatures he passes do not untap until three player turns later. To equalize this advantage, I have tried giving that Emperor’s pawn a temporary blocker, like Shield Sphere, but the simplest answer is to let Emperor (1) pass creatures without tapping them.

Five Players

Five players is a bit of a problem for drafts and the like, but it is just fine for all kinds of multiplayer fun. Five is about perfect for Chaos Magic (unlimited range, attack anyone, last one standing wins.) You can also play attack left, limited spell range, and all the rest of crippled multiplayer (just personal preference — I don’t prefer that junk.)

Five player also allows for a lot of fun variants. Bear and Hounds games are interesting: two on three is pretty good, but one versus four is a blast, provided you can get the balance right. When three hounds play counter decks, and the last hound fires burn to the head, games get boring, but when the bear can play a really powerful deck, and the hounds snap at his heels whenever and wherever possible, the games can be really intense. In four-on-one matches, in addition to the advantages listed above, consider giving all the bear’s creatures Vigilance. It does help. A strategy hint — the bear will concentrate on killing the hounds one by one — the hounds should include some cards to help each other stay alive. Energy Bolt can be as effective when used to heal an ally as when thrown at the bear’s head (especially since the bear may need to start with a lot of life.)

A hint for four-on-one bear matches: cards like Noble Benefactor, Eureka, New Frontiers, and Howling Mine are often questionable because they help everyone. Of course, when “everyone” includes you, three teammates and one opponent, they get a bit better. Actually, they can be a whole lot better.

Five players groups are also perfect for arranging Magic games based on the color wheel. Magic has five colors, and each color has natural allies and enemies. Multiplayer games can be based on this. The classic variant — often called Star Magic — has each player assigned a different color. The player builds a mono-colored deck in that color. Players are seated according to the color wheel (look at the back of any Magic card.) Their allies are their allied colors — those sitting to their immediately left and right. The enemies are those opposite. The winner is the first player to eliminate both of their enemy colors.

This can get political. Let’s say you are Green, and your enemies are Blue and Black. Let’s also assume White — and only White — is dead. At that point, you need to carefully control your attacks on Blue. If you don’t pressure Blue, it may get too powerful to control. However, if you weaken Blue too much, Red may kill it and win the game. What you really want to do is kill Black — but Black is the ally of both other players. It’s going to be tough — you probably shouldn’t have let White get killed in the first place.

If your group likes deck design, have each player build a deck of each color. Then, before each game, shuffle five basic lands together — one of each type. Each player draws a land, and that land determines the color that player is playing for that game.

You can invent a number of variants of this format. Play the same colors, but twist it up by requiring you to eliminate your normally-allied colors. This requires some different strategies. Changing to this variant occasionally will also help control the use of color hosers — playing Choke, Perish, or Hibernation is never as good when you suddenly find that you want to keep those colors alive.

Choke, Perish, and Hibernation… wow, am I dating myself.

Another variant of Star Magic is to allow three-colored decks — each point on the star is a three-colored deck: the point color, plus both allies. This allows for more creativity in deckbuilding.

Another deckbuilding challenge is to build mono-colored decks, but to ban the color’s best, or two best, abilities. Thus, the Blue deck may not be allowed to use card drawing or counters, and the Red deck cannot use burn to the head or land destruction. To avoid controversy, it is worthwhile to have the group agree on the abilities which will be banned in advance, jointly. This definitely has to be done before deck construction, of course, but it is easier to do this as soon as possible, before anyone starts getting excited about any particular deck.

Six Players

Six player is a nice, balanced number. A lot of the classic multiplayer formats were designed for six players — usually involving two teams of three. Three-Headed Giant, for example, is a good example. Classic Emperor is another.

Of course, six players can also get into a large multiplayer chaos game. That works.

Six players is also a perfect number for Team Drafts. Players form two teams and sit alternately. Drafting proceeds normally, as does construction. Each member of the team plays one match against each member of the opposing team, and the team with the greatest number of match wins is declared the winner. At the local stores around here, team drafts are often played for ownership of the rares and foils.

Of course, drafts do not have to use fresh packs from the latest sets. To be sanctioned, drafts just have to give each player the same packs. If you want to draft Onslaught, Invasion, Beta, and Fallen Empires, go to it. If you don’t care about sanctioning, then you can mix it up even further. Dump a whole bunch of random packs into a sack, and have each player pull out one pack, sight unseen, at the start of each pack. You don’t even need packs. Years ago, we took two boxes of Unglued, busted the packs, removed the lands and sleeved all the rest. If we want to do an Unglued draft, we just shuffle the cards a bit, then pull out three piles of fifteen cards per person, at random, and draft those “packs.”

You can do the same sort of thing with any set of cards — it helps if you have them all sleeved the same. This is the basis for Cube Draft, or Reject Rare Draft, or a bunch of similar variants. Just take a bunch of cards, shuffle them up, divide into packs of 15 and have at it.

One recommendation: don’t bother putting together a pile of bad cards. Yes, you can create a “cube” of 500 really useless commons, and let everyone draft from that. It is funny to see peoples’ faces when they pick up their first pack — but that enjoyment pales quickly. It is long gone by about pick four, and by pack three you are realizing that a video of the draft could be titled “New Adventures in Tedium.” It is not worth the effort.


Seven Players

Seven players is about the upper limit for multiplayer play. You can play with more, but a lot of people spend a lot of time sitting around waiting for a turn. Seven players can play Chaos, or most of the other variants, but it is often better to split a seven-player game into a three- and a four-player game. That’s generally what happens with EDH games, I’ve noticed: they tend to split.

The one version of multiplayer that can work with more than six players — with pretty much any number — is Grand Melee. The format even has official rules. However, making Grand Melee work almost necessitates having a couple people not playing, but just moving turn markers and making sure the game keeps going. Forget that — if I show up for some casual Magic, I want to play, not move turn markers.

Well, maybe some group, somewhere, can keep Grand Melee going without any non-player help. I’ve never seen it, but if you can make it work, more power to you.

Another variant that seems to work well with four to seven players is what we called “Bounty Hunter,” but goes by a number of names. In this variant, each player brings two copies of some random bad card. Each player puts one copy of the card face up in front of him, and throws the rest in a pile. The pile is shuffled, and everyone draws a card, and keeps that card hidden. Each player is now hunting the player with the card they drew. (For example, if I drew a Chimney Imp, I am hunting the player who has a Chimney Imp next to his deck.) You can only attack, throw burn at the head of, etc., the player you are hunting. (You can throw removal at any creature or permanent, no matter who it belongs to.)

When you kill the person you are hunting, you take their card, and start hunting that person. If you get your own card, either at the draw, or when you kill someone you are hunting, you become a free agent, and can attack anyone.

Because the cards are hidden, no one will initially know who is hunting them. This variant has a lot of strategic thinking — you may want to sit back and skip an attack if keeping people guessing is more important that a bit of damage. Or not.

The point is that any number of people can play casual Magic, in duels or multiplayer formats, and the number of possible variants is almost as large as the number of possible decks. Find a play group, try some formats, and keep playing something you like. You may even get some loot from Wizards for doing so — over and above the fun of tapping cards. So go play.

Me, I have to pack. The plane to Hollywood is leaving in a couple of hours.


“one million words” once I can find time for MTGO again…