On a site with such a great mentality towards alternative formats I find a little depressing that the ďVariantsĒ section is so lacking. Perhaps this sentiment might offend some of you who have posted here, but, please, hear me out.
As you may have heard me say before, I am a very fortunate casual player. I am lucky enough to know dozens of people locally who organize for various theme tournaments, multiplayer events, and oodles of fun casual games played under many variants. We play a lot of different styles, but the styles are meticulously crafted and organized. In other words, we are very serious about our casual gaming, if you can believe that. We game for fun, but we spend gobs of money on cards too. We analyze the game and tear it apart, (Sometimes literally, as you will find out), and then test our assumptions by playing formats that turn common strategy on its side. Sometimes common strategy is even thrown out the window, but thatís another article.
I give you all of this introduction to explain why I have taken it upon myself to write a short bible of play variant formats. I live in a world where all of these formats are very structured and consistent and none of them are homebrews, (If they are homebrews, then they were brewed in somebody elseís home). I canít tell you the origins of all these play formats, but I can tell you that these are, well, as ďofficialĒ as these sorts of things can be. I think some of them are even WOTC/DCI recognized as I hear you can play them on MTGO.
I felt it was a necessary service to write this because a lot of the play variants already listed on this site are, coincidentally, near clones of these ďofficialĒ play variants that Iíve been used to for some time. It was these amusing coincidences that told me that a lot of you are probably ignorant of the wonderful world of play variants that I take for granted. Again, donít take offense, just read on enjoy. Iím sure everybody will find at least ONE new play variant in this list.
PART ONE: Play Variants
These are simpler to jump into because you can just grab your pre-existing deck and go. Of course, the change in play style advantages and disadvantages certain kinds of decks and if you ever really wanted to get into it you could custom build a deck just for a specific play format, but the point is, you and your friends can just jump into any of these formats on a whim, provided you have the requisite people.
Melee, Free-For-All, and general multiplayer notes:
First, some general points about more-than-two-player games:
1) The player who goes first does not skip their first draw step as usual.
2) Randomly decide who goes first, then have play proceed to the left. None of that goofy stuff where you bounce around in a wacky order from highest-to-lowest die roll. If you want the die roll to reflect the turn order, then reseat yourselves. There is no need to get confused on turn order just because you guys are too lazy to get up and move around.
3) Observe a spell range of 2. Spell range might be a new concept to some people, especially since a spell range of 2 specifically is only relevant if you have more than five people playing. Basically, the spell range is how many players away your spells and permanents can have effect. In other words, in a 6 player game, my Wrath of God does not destroy the creatures of the player across from me because they are 3 players away. I canít counter this playerís spells either, nor can I target any of their permanents. My Plague Spitter would not damage their creatures and my Wasteland could not target any of their lands. My Syphon Soul would deal no damage to them. For all intents and purposes, players outside of your spell range do not exist, (You canít attack these players either). When a player leaves the game, the circle closes up a bit more and your spell range reaches a greater percentage of the board. It is a good idea to observe a spell range because in massively multiplayer games of magic, mass removal, such as the Wrath of God, becomes too powerful if you donít limit its range. You can tool around with changing the spell range, but in most cases, a spell range of 2 is nice and balanced.
4) Finally, ďChaosĒ is a special play format, not just a three-player game as some of you seem to think it is. Ironically I am not going to cover the true Chaos format in this article simply because I think it deserves an article all by itself.
Okay, now I will discuss the difference between the Melee and Free-For-All formats. These are the two most common ways to play multiplayer games. All of you who just sit down with 3+ people in a game are probably playing one of these formats whether you know it or not. Free-For-All is just that. You randomly decide who goes first, then play proceeds to the left. Players can attack whoever they want. Last one standing wins. Melee is the same thing except with one crucial difference: Players can only attack the person to their left. ďAttack left, defend right,Ē is the common explanation of Melee, but the ďdefend rightĒ concept confused one player I knew. The rule is simple, you attack the person to your left. ďDefending rightĒ is just what inherently happens because the only person who will be attacking you will be the person to your right. I donít like melee most of the time, but I do suggest playing from time to time simply for varietyís sake. In general Melee is much less strategic, plus it advantages certain decks that it really shouldnít. Because only one player will ever be attacking you, your burn deck can just tear through the loop backwards because while you can only attack to the left, you can target whatever and whoever you want. Melee is a format for people who still adhere to the antiquated belief that attacking with creatures is the only way to win a game. A creature-less deck, or rather, a deck that does not use attacking as its primary method of winning is inherently advantaged in melee because it is free to set up its engine while only having to worry about holding back one playerís-worth of attacking creatures. Still, when you get to having a lot of people in one game, Melee is often just a simpler way to play, plus it prevents ďgang-upĒ situations which can be no fun at all for the person on the receiving end.
2 versus 2:
People who donít typically play team games usually get the rules wrong. Of course, casual players can use whatever rules they want, but this set of rules is the most balanced for casual play in my opinion. You have two teams of two. Seating is randomly decided, but teammates must sit across from each other, so there really isnít a whole lot to randomize. Dice can be rolled or a coin can be flipped to determine which team goes first. The teammates confer which one of them will go first, and then play proceeds as usual to the left. Each player has their own life total and each player can be knocked out of the game individually. The winning team is simply the one to still have at least one player alive. I have seen too many people seat teammates next to each other and give them a mutual life total of 40 and allow teammates to block for each other. The method I described is more balanced for several reasons. First, seating teammates across from each other makes sure that each turn is alternating teams. Itís not fair for a team to get two turns in a row, even if both of them are, because it drags down the value of instants, fast effects and control spells, and that is a silly thing to do in a format that is simply looking to pit two teams against each other, not change the way the game is played. Second, mutual life totals make spells that ask you to pay life more powerful. ďBlah, blah, blah,Ē you might say to this, but Iím sure youíll change your tune once an opponent pays 20 life on their Phyrexian Processor. Lastly, mutual blocking again assumes that creatures are the only way to win a game. Also, mutual blocking does not hold a deck accountable for its own actions. I know itís a team game, but big blockers like Serra Angel that already pull double duty attacking and blocking become too strong when they can start pulling triple duty. Of course, sharing life totals and blocking mutually can make for some interesting game mechanics, but theyíre better suited for a theme tournament, not a casual throw-down. Some people complain about my methodís ability to allow two players to gang up on one, but if youíre really so scared of such a tactic why donít you try it yourself and tell me what you think.
Players: Any multiple of 3, usually 6.
The simple, in-passing explanation of Emperor is that it is 3 versus 3, but it is really more complicated and more rewarding than that. The design of the game calls for teams of 3. In theory any number of teams can play, but two is typical. It is very important to observe a spell range of 2 in this format because much of the strategy comes from the fact that each player has one opponent that they canít touch, at least not until somebody is knocked out of the game. The organization is as such:
1) Each team has one Emperor and two Generals.
2) A team loses when its Emperor is killed.
3) Emperors begin with 40 life while the Generals get the typical 20.
4) Emperors sit between their Generals.
5) Play proceeds to the left.
6) Players can only attack the enemy player that is next to them.
The result, in a two-team match-up, is that you have each team making a half circle, with each Emperor unable to attack anybody and each General only able to attack the opposing General in front of them. It is essentially a war on two fronts. Each General is trying to push through the General in front of them so they can start attacking the Emperor. If the spell range is observed then the Emperors are outside of each otherís range while each General is outside the range of one of their opposing Generals. What ensues is really quite fun.
To help players support each other there are rules that let players pass around creatures to their allies. This is most commonly seen in the form of the Emperors sending creatures to the ďfrontĒ where they can help break through the opposing Generals. The rules are as follows.
1) During a playerís attack phase, they may move any creature they control in front of any allied player adjacent to them instead of attacking with it.
2) Creatures donít tap to move, but creatures that are tapped or have summoning sickness canít be passed around. When a creature is passed it gains summoning sickness again, which means any tapping abilities it has canít be played until itís controllerís next upkeep. Obviously a creature with haste can be passed to another player on the turn it comes into play.
3) This is the important one. Players never stop having control of creatures they pass around. The creature is simply in front of the allied player. The creature still attacks during its controllerís attack phase, but its controller can also declare it as a blocker for the player that it is in front of, (Actually, the creature can only be declared as a blocker for the player that it is in front of; it canít block for its controller unless it moves back).
4) Creatures can attack any enemy players adjacent to the player they are in front of. This allows Emperors to slowly mount an offense of their own.
5) The spell range affects passed creatures as if they were controlled by the player they were in front of. In other words, once an Emperor passes a creature forward, that creature can be affected by the spells and abilities of the opposing Emperor. Conversely, if a General passes a creature back to their Emperor, that creature is no longer affected by the opposing Emperorís spells or abilities.
6) Abilities of the creature can only be paid for and used by the player that controls them. If an Emperor passes a Master Decoy to a General, the General canít pay one white mana and tap it in order to tap target creature.
These rules can make for some complex interactions, but in the end they are more balanced than simply exchanging control of creatures. Emperor can be a load of fun to play. A good way to play it casually is to have teams randomly decided, perhaps even having the Emperors randomly decided, then when the set-up is known, player confer with their team and choose which decks they will play.
There are also some people out there who think that Two-Headed Giant is just a fancy name for a three player game. They are wrong. Two-Headed Giant is a three-player-only format, but itís more complicated than just three players beating the snot out of each other. The long and short of it is that Three-Headed Giant is 2 versus 1, with some extra rules to give the solitary player a chance. In fact in some match-ups these rules can give the solitary player a severe edge. The solitary player is the Two-Headed Giant. The two basic rules are as follows:
1) The Two-Headed-Giant starts the game with 40 life while the enemy team begins with the standard 20 each.
2) Play does not proceed in a loop, but rather in a back-and-forth pattern. The first enemy player takes their turn, then the Two-Headed-Giant, then the second enemy player, then the Two-Headed-Giant takes another turn, and then the pattern starts over again with the first enemy player. Yes, this means that the Two-Headed-Giant gets two turns for every one turn either of the enemies get individually, but hey, itís two-against-one, right? To account for this tempo advantage, however, the Two-Headed-Giant should never go first.
Two-Headed-Giant is a great way to spice up a play session where you could only scrounge together three people.
Siege is Two-Headed-Giantís big ugly cousin. Essentially, Siege is a game of one against the world. This can be played with any number of players in excess of 3, with 5 being the ideal number. The rules are actually simpler than Two-Headed-Giant. All players start with 20 life in this one. What happens is that Siege player, (the solitary player who is taking on all the others), takes X+1 uninterrupted Siege turns, where X is the number of opponents they are facing. During these Siege turns, the spell range is 0. In other words, the Siege player canít attack or target any of the others, and the others canít do anything to disturb the Siege playerís set up. After that, spell range should not be observed, (anybody can touch anybody), and play then proceeds to the left in a loop as normal. All the Siege player can do is hope that all those extra turns of set-up were enough to let them hold back all of their opponents. Siege is amusing to try from time to time, but usually what happens is either the Siege player pulls off some combo quickly, (or drops Multani), and smashes everybody in the face, or all the other players just work the Siege player over. Either way the game is usually over pretty quickly.
This is my favorite play variant. I could argue that this is Magic as it was meant to be played and only as it was meant to be played. This is a game with enemies and allies and yet, in the end, there can be only one winner, (well actually, it is possible for two allies to tie with each other). The rules are fairly simple, but the diplomatic strategy they create is immense. They are as follows:
1) 5 players sit in a circle, (It might actually be easier to imagine them sitting in a star, where each player is a point on the star).
2) Players adjacent to each other are allies, which means each player has two allies.
3) Players across from each other are enemies, which means each player has two enemies.
4) Players can only attack their enemies, but they can target any player, (It is in fact sometimes strategic to burn your ally out of the game).
5) A player wins when both of their enemies have been defeated as long as that player has not been defeated themselves, (It is quite possible for both of your enemies to be defeated after you have been defeated. You do not win the game in this case).
6) Play does not proceed in a circle, but rather in a five-pointed star. The easiest way to put it is that play proceeds to your left-most enemy. New players of this format get confused by this concept easily, but donít worry, everybody still gets their turn in due time this way. The rule exists so that each player gets to have a turn in between their enemiesí turns, which keeps things balanced.
Those are the rules. If you donít see how amazing this style of play is, the ramifications of the rules just havenít hit you yet. To explain this format a bit better, imagine each of the five players being assigned a number and sitting in a circle. Player 2 is allied with 1 and 3, while enemies with 4 and 5. Players 1 and 2 have the common enemy of 4, and Players 2 and 3 have the common enemy of 5, but Player 2ís problem is that its allies, 1 and 3, are enemies of each other. If Player 2 tears through Player 5, Player 3 wins if they can defeat Player 1, which would leave Player 2 scratching their head wondering why they bothered helping out Player 3 so much by removing one of their enemies for them. If this isnít making sense, draw a diagram. A common mistake newbies of this game make is they donít realize that their allies are not united in helping them defeat their two enemies. You typically donít want to eat through your enemies too fast and itís often wise to save some of your best control for your allies so that you can keep them from killing each other. The more you play this format, the more youíll come to appreciate its diplomatic intricacies.
I did mention tie games earlier, so let me explain how its possible. Assume Player 2 eliminates Player 5, then Player 1 eliminates Player 3. The three remaining players are Players 1 and 2, and their common enemy Player 4. If the two of them can defeat Player 4, then they have both defeated their enemies and they are both remaining in the game, so therefore they both win. Sadly, this sort of thing happens more often than Iíd like, but since most of us are just casually gaming and not so concerned with winning, we shouldnít have any qualms with just saying, ďWow, another tieÖĒ and shuffling up for another game. Still if you crave a tie-breaker, two simple methods are as such:
1) The player with the higher life total wins OR
2) The two remaining players continue playing against each other as if they had been playing a one-on-one match the whole time.
Of course, the diplomatic ramifications of these rules are also very interesting, but Iíll them to you to ponder about yourself this time.
As stated earlier, Chaos games are not simply three-player games, but Iím going to explain them in another article on another day. Stay tuned!
I wonít explain Vanguard, Iíll just point out its existence to those of you who are unaware of it. To play Vanguard you need special Vanguard cards. These cards are usually not found in stores, but WOTC prints a new set of them with every new block. I suggest checking out wizards.com if youíre interested. Vanguard cards are essentially big cards, (You donít put them in your deck), that give players additional abilities. Playing with Vanguard cards can be lots of fun, and its truly a practice of the casual player.
PART TWO: Deck Construction Variants
These variants have to do with changes to the rules one follows for building a deck. In a sense, the 4 sanctioned formats, (Types 1, 1.5, and 2 and Extended), are deck construction variants because the formats differ in what cards you are an arenít allowed to play with. Thatís how these formats work. In general these formats are more inconvenient to play under because you have to specifically build decks for them Ė you canít just throw down with decks you already have Ė but these formats can be very rewarding because they change strategy down to its bare bones: deck construction. Iíll begin with an old classic.
Highlander gets its name from the catch phrase, ďThere can be only one.Ē There are three basic rules for building Highlander decks.
1) Each deck must have a minimum of 100 cards.
2) All cards, except for basic land, are restricted. In other words, you canít play with more than one of anything.
3) Players start with 100 life, (Yes, this technically has nothing to do with deck construction, but it is an integral part of how the format plays).
Now, if you let these rules sink in, you can see that Highlander games will typically take a long time to play. Because everything is restricted, you typically donít see a whole lot of card synergy or card combos. Good Highlander decks will make these things happen anyway, but thatís not the point. The point is this is a great casual format for many reasons. First, the restriction of all cards appeals to ďpeasantĒ players because now you arenít required to own a playerís set of anything you might ever want to play. Suddenly your one awkward Ancient Silverback doesnít look so ghetto floating around in your green stompy deck. Also, the restriction of things destroys much of the power of quick combo pieces that maybe you canít/donít want to pay good money for. Additionally, the slow pace of the game is conducive to those of us not so keen on advanced play strategy or to those of us who just want to keep things leisurely.
Monster Mash is a good way to celebrate Halloween, what with the emphasis on monsters. Actually itís a good way to celebrate anything because this format is so fun to play its obscene. Two rules for deck construction.
1) All spells must be creature spells.
2) All lands must be basic lands.
I wonít discuss this format for very long. Itís simple and fun, and nothing else. Just donít think you canít play control if you still want to. Creatures that tap other creatures, ping other creatures, destroy other creatures, bounce other creatures, and counter other creatures, (Stronghold Biologist), still exist. Of course, Blastoderms backed up by Taunting Elves are broken too.
Bring Your Own Block, (BYOB), is just Block Constructed with a twist. For those of you who donít know what Block Constructed is, itís an official sanctioned format thatís popular only on the highly professional level where players are only allowed to play with cards from the most recent block. If youíre so ignorant that you donít know what blocks are, I salute you, you are a true casual player. For those of you who are still with me, BYOB is just Block Constructed, except that you can play within any block, not just the most recent. This makes Block Constructed a little more accessible to casual players because a lot of them typically have a glut of cards from the block or blocks that were new when they started playing, but a limited selection of those from later or earlier blocks. I reiterate, itís still Block Constructed; you still have to stay within one block, but the player next to you can play with cards from a different block if they so choose. This format breathes new life into the Block Constructed decks of yesteryear, keeps new Block Constructed decks on their toes because now they have to deal with decks from other blocks, and limits the environment such that a casual player can perform well. This format really is best played in a tournament setting, even if it is a casual one, but itís still a unique way to spend a day gaming with your friends.
Common or ďPeasant MasterĒ:
One of two ways to go about this really. Either ban all uncommons and rares, or just ban all rares. Frankly the rules about allowing 5 and only 5 uncommons is absurd because it doesnít really devalue any uncommons. If there is one bomb, high-dollar uncommon you want to play with, (Force of Will, for example), you can still run a playerís set of them under this rule. This sort of format has appeal to the casual gamer because, for the most part, itís more affordable. However, if I may digress, I would like to go off on a mini-rant about that sentiment. I like this sort of format not because it has the illusion, (yes, illusion), of being cheaper, but because it simply mixes up the card pool. Those who like the ďPeasantĒ format will only like it until somebody drops Rukh Eggs and Sinkholes on them, and then theyíll continue with their whiny diatribe about how itís a money game. You can probably get Terravores cheaper than you can Mana Leaks or Diabolic Edicts, so donít delude yourself into thinking that rares are ďthe devilĒ and that an all-common format is really all that cheap. Force of Will was a 12 dollar card at one point, despite only being an uncommon. I donít know if Meddling Mage was ever any higher. Blue/Green Madness consistently beats down in both Type 2 and Extended and it uses no rares at all. Furthermore, within the older sets that used the C1, C2, C3 type rarity, the C1 cards were, for all intents and purposes, more rare than the U3 cards. Ever since Exodus when WOTC started printing the rarity on the card people have been deluded into thinking that rares are inherently more valuable than uncommons and uncommons inherently more valuable than commons. Rarity is what you make of it. Build all-common decks not because you envy people with more money to spend on cards than you, but because you want to challenge yourself to build a strong deck with only a third of the card pool. Also, just because youíre building an all-common deck doesnít mean you shouldnít concern yourself with things like card advantage, deck thinning, tempo and other advanced strategy. Limiting yourself to a ďPeasantĒ format is supposed to make you a better player, not a whinier, more self-righteous one.
This is a wacky idea with a couple of variants within itself. Frankly itís not that great of a format, but should be fun for at least one go. The idea is that you canít play with cards that start with the same letter of the alphabet, (basic lands excluded). The simple version of this format is that you play with standard 60-card decks, and you can still play with up to four copies of anything, itís just that your deck canít contain both Arcane Denial and Ascendant Evincar, if that makes sense. The other version is that you play with 40-card decks and you canít play with more than one of anything, (kinda like Highlander). This version is a little more interesting just because itís so limited you could cry. Neither format works if you force people to have at least one card for each letter, so donít bother trying. Just make sure you have no duplicate letters.
If you use the ďofficialĒ rules then this format is anything BUT casual. This format actually has no abnormal restrictions on deck building, but there is a play rule twist that alters deck building strategy so much that you really do have to build decks specifically for this format. The one hardcore, highly uncasual rule of this format is:
1) Whenever a card is sent to a graveyard from anywhere, tear it up into tiny little pieces.
ďGASP!Ē you say. I know, I know, I donít like it either, and for the casual players who donít even have basic land to burn, this concept is utterly unviable. However, I bring it up because the underlying idea can be turned into something very interesting. In casual play where you just sit down and play games just to play games, this format is useless, but imagine if you and your friends organized a small tournament. The format is called Iron Man because the permanent loss of cards makes your deck very tiny by the closing rounds. Now if you are like me, you donít want to tear up your cards, but the interesting deck shrinking effect can still be simulated with this simple rule:
1) Whenever a card is sent to a graveyard or removed from the game from anywhere, remove it from the tournament entirely.
Of course, you can only really appreciate this effect if you organize a little theme tournament with your friends, but hey, if you arenít doing that already anyway, you should. Now, I say this affects deck building strategy because it puts instants and sorceries at a severe disadvantage. Sure, Suicide Black might tear through your first opponent, but where will your Dark Rituals and Hymn to Tourachs be for your second opponent? In a pile in the corner of the room, thatís where. This doesnít mean you donít want to run instant and sorceries, you just have to understand that youíll only get one go per card for the whole tournament so youíll need to make them count. Permanents that destroy things will be invaluable, not to mention cards like Ravenous Rats and Ambassador Laquatus.
Junior and Tower of Power:
These are simple. Juniors are simply decks with a 40-card minimum. If you donít think this drastically changes play, then youíve never tried it. Only having 40-cards means you start the game already having thinned out 20 cards in your deck. Cheap combos come easier, and suicidal decks can reign supreme. If I have the rules for Tower of Power wrong, then somebody please correct me, but I think Tower of Power works like this:
1) Each deck must have exactly 15 cards.
2) Players start with 10 life.
Tower of Power, as you can imagine, is the product of psychosis.
Itís hard to wrap something like this up without it sounding abrupt, but thatís all Iím writing here. Iím sure there are other viable play variants too, I just wanted to lay a solid foundation of ideas for those of you who are fortunate enough to play most of your Magic with your friends, and not your enemies at the card shop tourneys. If you enjoyed the ideas expressed in this article then keep your eyes peeled for an article on playing Chaos in the near future.