Off Topic: Magic Tactics

A couple of weeks ago, I took a trip to Austin, Texas to see some friends. We drove the whole way down from Minnesota. I have to say the drive along I-35 has to be one of the worst drives ever. There were all kinds of nothing to do. A person can get off the interstate to do nothing. The scenery of nothing was spectacular. I've never had such a good time spending 18 hours gazing off into nothing. Needless to say, my mind wandered a bit. Through the 36 hours of driving, I hacked at an idea of taking Magic and turning it into a 2-D game. Instead of just showcasing a bunch of rules, I want take a moment to explain the how, why, and where. Besides, the mental journey helps clarify the reasons for my decisions. Keep in mind, not everything here is explained in a linear fashion. Most of this went back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.

Final Fantasy Tactics

Not a full fledged otaku, but I am huge fan of the Final Fantasy series. On my commutes to work on a bus as of late, I have been hacking at Final Fantasy: Crisis Core and Final Fantasy: Tactics on my PSP. For my audience members not familiar with Final Fantasy games, Final Fantasy: Tactics is an RPG style game turned into a 3-D game. Instead of mindless attacks and spells, placement of the player's character actually matters. Characters can be moved on a 3-D battlefield to position them for sword fighting and spell casting. The extra strategy involved makes Final Fantasy: Tactics one of my favorite games of all time. A thought crossed my mind: why can't Magic be in 2-D? I thought about Final Fantasy: Tactics. I thought about Magic. Was it possible?


The first thing I needed was an objective. What was my goal? I tossed various things about, but I kept coming back to the same one. The new format had to play and feel different from any other format. The objective sounds overly simplistic. However, it makes no sense to develop a format similar to pre-existing formats. If I developed something similar to other formats, many players would wonder why they should bother. Why play some new game when it is exactly like an old one? It is one of the reasons I believe EDH has been so successful. Besides EDH being crazy fun, it feels and plays different than other formats.

The Battlefield

I love how Wizards of the Coast changed in play to battlefield. In what I will call Magic:Tactics, the game will be played on a battlefield. The decision on the final dimensions for the battlefield was a 20 by 20 square grid. The dimensions worked in alpha testing and the grid size plays well with your planeswalker avatar. That's right. Since it is a 2-D game, the opponent will need something to attack. I came to my final conclusions was because I had two problems. Where does a player initially place the avatar and how big do I make the battlefield? The answer came in the power of Magic flavor. As the mythos goes in Magic lore, planeswalkers can transport themselves to other planes by planeswalking. Even the most powerful planeswalkers can't move through the Aether with exact precision. As I have seen written, planeswalking isn't an exact science. Following the planeswalking thought process, I found the randomness appealing. Then I realized most Magic players have a 20-sided die in their possession.

Tactics Rule: 101a

Players will form a grid of appropriate size with dimensions of 20 x 20. Choose a corner to be the origin and the sides that correspond to the vertical and horizontal.

Tactics Rule: 101b

Each player will roll a 20-sided dice twice. Before the first roll, that player will announce whether the roll corresponds to the vertical or horizontal.

Tactics Rule: 101c

Each player will place their planeswalker avatar onto the battlefield for the coordinates rolled.

I love the idea of players having the planeswalker avatar randomly planeswalking onto the battlefield due to the flavor. The randomness also keeps the game fresh. Every game will play different due to the randomness of avatars planeswalking onto the battlefield. In one game, the two planeswalker avatars could be on opposite ends. In the next game, the avatars are next to each other in the middle of the battlefield. Plus, the rule solved a lot of problems. If I had decided to let players pick their positions on the battlefield, players could find ways to routinely abuse the system. I could have required players to start from a fixed position for every game, but players could still abuse the system and it just felt stale.

Forming the battlefield requires some savvy logistics. Nothing is set in stone when it comes to the battlefield. It can be made as large or small as required. The size to most comfortably accommodate game play will be quite large. My suggestion is to form a battlefield 60 inches by 60 inches (80 by 80 if there is room). The battlefield can be formed using some masking tape. A narrow width and colored tape would be most preferable. Don't use something like duct tape. It is thick and the glue will stick to the carpet or table. Doing the math, the grids should be 3 inches by 3 inches. In the end, these are only suggestions. If you want, the battlefield could be made smaller or larger and by whatever means. Do what works best for the space and materials available.

Planeswalker Avatar

Each player will have an avatar to represent themselves as a planeswalker. It doesn't matter what a player chooses as an avatar. It can be Monopoly pieces, a card, a token card, a statue, etc. The important part is all players can recognize the object as an opponent's avatar. There should be no confusion. Therefore, players shouldn't choose a token, card or an object that can confuse the game state.

Tactics Rule: 201

Players will choose an object to represent their avatar that is clear to all players involved.

Slinging Spells

At the beginning, I didn't have the technicalities of how creatures would move around the board, a few games of mental Magic made me realize I had a problem to solve when it came to sorceries and instants. With creatures moving around the board, creature removal was very good. Without restrictions, spot removal was too powerful. My original thought was to dissect the board for each individual planeswalker. Separating the board presented problems especially when it game to multiplayer. How does one dissect the board for three players? Once I had settled on the planeswalking idea, everything began to congeal. At the same time, I was having a debate in my head. I wanted to differentiate instants and sorceries. Over time, instants have increasingly become more important in a game play. Why play with Eye of Nowhere when I can play Boomerang? It was what I called the Volcanic Hammer vs. Incinerate dilemma. Most of the time, Incinerate is purely superior due to it being an instant. If I was developing a new game, I had an opportunity to add some spice to sorceries. When I cast a sorcery, I want it to feel like I am playing something different than an instant.

As I drove further south on my trip, I began to notice more and more billboards for guns, gun shows, and the like. Thinking about gunpowder, the thought of gun ranges crossed my mind. What if I restricted the range of spells? I decided spells with targets could be restricted to the distance by the amount of mana (gunpowder) spent to play a spell. Therefore, spells like Volcanic Hammer would have a grid distance of two (two spaces). The origin of the spell would be always from the planeswalker avatar. As I played out a few games of mental Magic, it played out well. As much as I liked it, my Volcanic Hammer vs. Incinerate problem wasn't solved. I tried making instants weaker to no great effect. Finally, I thought about making sorceries better. My final solution was to allow players spend more mana when they play a sorcery to extend the range of the spell. Therefore, I could spend three mana on a Volcanic Hammer to extend the range of the spell by one. What I really liked about the sorcery solution is I only had messed with Magic: Tactics rules and didn't throw a monkey wrench into regular Magic rules.

Tactics Rule: 301a

Spells with a target have a range equal to the amount of mana that will be spent to cast a spell.

Tactics Rule: 301b

Players may pay additional mana when casting a sorcery with a target. Each additional mana spent this way on a sorcery will extend that spells range by one.

I suppose a lot of questions are cropping up. What about cost reductions or alternative costs? To simplify, it doesn't matter. How much mana did you spend? Take Force of Will and you played its alternative cost. How much mana did you spend? The answer is zero. My answer is Force of Will has a range of zero. Oh, I heard you wrong. You paid the full cost for Force of Will by tapping six islands. The spell now has a range of six. Mana spent = Range. Normally you choose targets before determining costs, but now you have to check the legality after determining costs, too. A minor change.

Enchantments vs. Artifacts

I then began thinking about the problem with enchantments and artifacts. I have often wondered: why do we need both? Take Mirari's Wake vs. Gauntlet of Power. In similar circumstances, the two play in an identical manner. Again, I wanted to take the opportunity to make artifacts and enchantments play differently. Enchantments to me have always felt like a halfway point between a spell and an artifact. Enchantments are really just spells whose effects last for an extended amount of time in the game. Spells could be made to say some target creature gets +2/+2, trample and lifelink as long as target creature remains in play and put a sticky note on that creature to remind everyone. Auras are simply sticky notes or reminders that I played a spell to give some creature a stat boost. Once I had resolved the range issue for instants and sorceries, I decided to treat enchantments like spells. Therefore, in a game of Magic: Tactics, enchantments can be tossed out onto the battlefield within a range equal to their mana cost. In the case of Mirari's Wake, the enchantment can be placed anywhere within 5 squares of a planeswalker avatar. However, once on a battlefield, the enchantment cannot be moved. Also, the solution works well with auras like Confiscate.

Artifacts, to me, are physical items. They are something that can be held and moved. To make the distinction between enchantments and artifacts even greater, I decided to treat artifacts more like creatures. (More on the avatar's summon zone later) artifacts can only be placed onto the battlefield in the summon zone. Unlike enchantments, artifacts can be moved around battlefield. Being able to move artifacts around the battlefield felt right and the ability to change their locations makes sense. Why shouldn't I, as a planeswalker, be able to move a physical object? I imagined a planeswalker using his/her Jedi planeswalking powers to move an Loxodon Warhammer. Even though Mirari's Wake and Gauntlet of Power would play similarly in regular Magic, in Tactics, the two can play very differently.

Tactics Rule: 401a

When cast, enchantments have a range equal to the amount of mana spent to cast the enchantment. The enchantment may be placed anywhere within this range when entering the battlefield.

Tactics Rule: 501

Artifacts are placed onto the battlefield anywhere within an avatar's summon zone.

Summon Zone

At one time in Magic's history, planeswalkers summoned monsters to do their bidding. Since that time, summon is now considered politically incorrect. In Tactics, I am going to steal, or should I say borrow, the term. The summon zone is the grid area around an avatar in which creatures and artifacts can be placed. With a 2-D Magic game, I needed to figure out where artifacts and creatures would enter the battlefield. Having the permanents enter the battlefield randomly felt wrong. Also, letting players put their creatures anywhere they wanted felt wrong as well. Restrictions needed to be placed. The natural thing I felt was to have planeswalkers bring creatures into the battlefield around them. Therefore, I needed a restriction. This led me to the creation of a zone I dubbed the summon zone.

This only led to more questions. Luckily for me, I had nine more hours of driving to go and whole lot of nothing to look at. First, would the zone be fixed or flexible? A fixed zone felt boring. The trouble with allowing the summon zone to expand requires a way for it to be controlled. I came upon a solution after remarking to myself on the drive through Kansas that I felt like I had been exiled from civilization. From that thought, I remembered the rumors of the new name for the removed from the game zone. One word speculated was the void. What if some resource could be sacrificed and placed into this new zone? The resource I finally decided upon was cards in hand. A player could remove a card permanently from the game by placing a card from in hand into the void. Doing so will increase the summon zone grid size by one. Mental Magic games led me to realize the system worked well except for a few corner cases. A proper time or restriction needed to be enacted to prevent abuse. The beginning of the turn in the untap phase felt like a proper place. It was a phase during the game very resistant to abuse. For a time, I thought about just exiling cards in hand. However, I wanted eliminate any chance a person could abuse the system now or in the future. Thus, the void was created.

Tactics Rule: 601a

At the start of every Tactics game, an avatar's summon zone grid size is one (One space adjacent to a planewalker).

Tactics Rule 602b

During the untap phase, a player may move one card in hand into the void. Each card placed in the void this way increases the summon zone grid size by one.


The pain in my side was trying to figure out how to move creatures around the battlefield. I liked players getting benefits from spending more mana. Why shouldn't players get more out of spending more? It was a common theme evolving out of Tactics. Therefore, when I debated on how to let creatures move on the battlefield, I didn't like letting creatures move depending on their power or toughness. Creatures like Tarmogoyf or Phyrexian Dreadnought and other powerful creatures were still monsters. I didn't like it. Not that I didn't have a problem with any of those creatures. The game play simply felt very similar. I decided to let creatures move around the battlefield based on their mana cost. Yes, this means cards like Tarmogoyf and Phyrexian Dreadnought get incredibly weaker. They are still large and can present significant threats to an opposing player, but they are now handicapped. Tarmagoyf can move two squares and Phyrexian Dreadnought can only move up to one square during combat.

I was perfectly fine with the final result. Cards once considered junk can actually be good in Tactics. Take Trained Armodon and Elven Riders. We will ignore Elven Riders's extra ability for a moment. Trained Armodon costs two less mana with the same stats of being a 3/3. In Tactics, Elven Riders can actually be the superior creature. With a cost of 5 mana, it can move five spaces during combat. The Trained Armodon can only move three. The system worked beautifully until one starts to think about tokens. Stupid tokens! It would be nice to keep the “spend more get more” thing, but it just didn't work. Tokens are created so many different ways. We have the infamous Dark Depths and Vampire Hexmage combo, creatures like Imperious Perfect, artifacts like Phyrexian Processor, spells as Cobra Trap, enchantments as in Goblin Assault and planeswalkers like Garruk Wildspeaker. Trying to pin down a rule or some kind of logic was incredibly insane. Just typing token into a search engine, I found 639 entries.

In the end, I scrapped the whole “spend more get more” mantra for combat. Foremost, I finally came to the conclusion Magic isn't broken so why fix it? This still left me with the problem with combat. The obvious and correct choice was to have creatures move in regards to their power and toughness, but which one. The answer was somewhere in between. Again, flavor saved the day. Power is for attacking and toughness is for blocking. Take walls, they are designed for blocking. Cards like Ball Lightning are meant to attack. The final solution was to have cards move/attack via their power. Being able to move a card like Ball Lightning six squares made the creature feel aggressive. What was I suppose to do with toughness? I created the intercept zone (Intercept is a retired term once used to mean blocking in Portal's language of Magic). The size of the zone is equal to a creature's toughness. Thus, Glacial Wall cannot move to attack, but can be moved to protect. Does this mean Wall of Swords can move? It has defender. It can't be declared as an attacker. Thus, Wall of Swords can't progress to the movement stage during the attack phase. However, it can move to intercept a creature. An example to help clarify:Giant Spider can move two spaces during the attack phase and has an intercept zone gird size of four.

One thing that always bothered me in Magic is I could never attack an opposing creature directly. I could send my army to attack a planeswalker, but my creatures are too stupid to attack another creature? In Tactics, creatures can be attacked directly. The solution was to have creatures end up on the same square. If I wanted to take down a Royal Assassin with a Serra Angel, I could take down the Assassin by placing the Angel on the same square. Having creatures attacking each other directly brings up interesting aspects. In Tactics, if a player concentrates an attack on any given creature, even the largest of creatures can be taken down by a direct assault. Creature stalemates don't exist or at least to a lesser extent. A player can't just sit behind three Glacial Walls against three Trained Armodon. In Tactics, all three Trained Armodon can be brought together to take down a single Glacial Wall.

Tactics Rule: 801a

After a player has declared all attackers, the step is followed immediately by the movement part of the attack step. No player gets priority between declaration of attackers and the movement of attacking creatures.

Tactics Rule: 801b

Abilities that trigger from a creature attacking have a range beginning with that creature's origination of attack.

Tactics Rule: 801c

The attacking player indicates the path each attacking creature will move on the battlefield. Following the movement part of the attack step, players may spells or abilities as normal.

Tactics Rule: 802a

The defending player may declare blockers if an attacking creature's path crosses/enters the intercept zone of a creature the defending player controls.

Tactics Rule: 802b

When blocking an attacking creature, the defending player must indicate a square. The square must be within the intercept zone and on the path of the attacking creature.

Tactics Rule: 802c

Once blocks have been declared and considered legal. The defending creature and attacking creature are placed on the same square. Combat resumes as normal and players may play spells or abilities.

Tactics Rule: 803a

All legal blocking and attacking creatures in the same square will enter combat.

Tactics Rule: 803b

If a player controls a creature not required to block, that player may then choose whether they wish for the creature to enter combat.

Example 1: The attacking player places a Grizzly Bears in the same square as the defending player's Serra Angel. The defending player may choose whether he/she wants the Serra Angel to enter combat.

Example 2: The attacking player places a Serra Angel in the same square as the defending player's Grizzly Bears. Those creatures will enter combat.

Cliff notes: Think of it this way, if the attacking creature could block the defending creature. They will enter combat (for creatures that land in the same square).

Example 3: The attacking player places a Serra Angel in the same square as Dauthi Cutthroat. Those creatures will not enter combat.

Example 4: The attacking player places a Serra Angel in the same square as an Ashenmoor Gouger. Those creatures will enter combat. In Tactics, can't block is interpreted as can't intercept. Can't intercept is not the same as can't enter combat.

Tactics Rule: 901a

All Magic cards with text of can't block are instead interpreted as can't intercept.

Tactics Rule: 901b

Players may have more than one creature per square.

Range of Influence

Phew, I finally got everything figured out. What about abilities? Darn it. I guess I have the 18 hour drive home to figure that out.

We go back to the more important aspect. Abilities will be treated the same as spells by having a range. Specifically, an abilities range will be based on the converted mana cost of the spell or permanent that created them. Jeska, Warrior Adept will be able to deal one damage to a creature or planewalker within Jeska's grid size of four. Therefore, Jeska, Warrior Adept could deal damage to a Prodigal Sorcerer four squares away, but the Prodigal Sorcerer would not be able to return fire. The same holds true for static abilities. Gauntlet of Power has a range of five. Any creatures outside of this zone do not get a power boost and the same holds true for lands. If a permanent or whatever is not within range, those permanents or spells are treated as if they don't exist.

Tactics Rule: 1001

Any permanent outside of a spells or permanents range is treated as if that spell or permanent doesn't exist.

In a flavor aspect, I like it. I don't believe any permanent should have an infinite range. I don't believe my planeswalker should be influenced by a permanent that is a half a planet's distance away from me. An Orcish Artillery shouldn't be able to hit me when it is 40 miles away. What's really cool is Moat. A person can cast a Moat and it very much feels like a moat. This brings up all kinds of interesting nuances. Cards like Wrath of God will not clear an entire battlefield of creatures. It makes sense. Why should a bomb like Wrath of God be able to take down creatures thousands of miles away? Since I mention it, Wrath of God doesn't have a target. Spells without targets have a range beginning from the planeswalker avatar. If I cast Wrath of God, it will destroy every creature within a grid size of four around my avatar. The implications of this means I can move my avatar within striking range of my opponent's creatures and spare my creatures by having them outside of the Wrath of God's range.

Tactics Rule: 1101

A spell without a target has a range beginning with that player's avatar.

Artifacts and Planeswalkers

Deciding on how to move planeswalkers was much easier. I took my original idea for moving creatures and applied it to actual planeswalkers like Ajani Goldmane. The question was the how and when? I figured the when could be during the upkeep step. The step hardly gets used anyway. It might as well be put to better use. Also, I like the tension of having to move planeswalkers before a card is drawn. Having a player spend mana to move planeswalker avatar sounded like a good idea. At the same time, it also sounded like a good idea for artifacts as well. After some pilot games, I didn't mind using mana to move my planeswalkers and artifacts around. Later on in the game, I can utilize my mana to move objects or my planeswalker avatar while I wait to draw something useful. It's actually kinda fun to just spend mana and dodge the other player's creatures. It turns into a big cat and mouse game.

Tactics Rule: 1201a

A player may move planeswalkers only during his or her upkeep.

Tactics Rule: 1201b

Planeswalker permanents may be moved up to a number of spaces equal to their mana cost.

Tactics Rule: 1201c

Planeswalker avatars may be moved up to one space for each mana spent.

Tactics Rule: 1301

A player may move artifacts during his or her upkeep. Artifacts may be moved one space for each mana spent.

Land Matters

For a short time, I contemplated not having land on the battlefield. I was worried they would muck up game play. I soon realized the errors of my ways because certain interactions would be lost and I would have to rethink my thought process. Besides, removing lands from the battlefield eliminated another opportunity for a player to interact with his/her opponent or the game. I would have been eliminating a potential strategy. This brought up another aspect of the game I found less desirable. It is the landwalk abilities. I have always been a fan of landwalk. There are multiple parts that always confused me. One, I didn't get any benefit for having a forest when I had a creature with forestwalk. Two, my opponent controls one island and suddenly my entire merfolk army are unblockable? No matter my personal feelings or judgements, I needed to figure how lands and landwalk would work on the battlefield. As I have learned so far, my final decision would need to be flavorful.

Landwalk abilities are considered an evasion ability. Sometimes, I find them closer to being a hoser more than anything. What does landwalk really encompass flavor wise? In my mind, creatures with landwalk are creatures that are more powerful in or knowledgeable about certain terrains. In some sense, don't mess with the home team on their home turf. Merfolk would be the poster child for landwalk in my mind. Fish creatures are more powerful in the water. It makes sense. To test it out, I made a grid and started throwing out Islands and fish. Originally, I thought about putting Islands on intersections to make four squares into an island. I thought this would be helpful to get them out of the way. It became apparent quite quickly there are more than enough squares out of the 400 for a few islands. Having the islands having a grid size of one, taking up nine squares, might seem daunting. However, turning 9 squares into islands can quickly turn parts of the battlefield into rivers and lakes. Five islands equals 45 squares. Doing the math, 45 islands would turn the entire board into a waterpark. My army ofLord of Atlantis and Merrow Reejerey could islandwalk all over the place. It finally dawned on me; why not just change the rules?

Tactics Rule: 1401a

Lands have a grid zone of one.

Tactics Rule: 1401b

Only one land may be in a square at any time.

Tactics Rule: 1501a

Landwalk: Creatures with landwalk in the appropriate grid type cannot be intercepted or dealt combat damage.

Tactics Rule: 1501b

Landhome: Creatures can only move, intercept and deal combat damage within a grid zone of the appropriate land type of their landhome ability.

With my landhome rules change, I immediately developed a scene in my mind. I imagined if I destroyed an island around a Manta Ray. It would just be flopping about until that creature's controller put it back into the water by placing an island around it. Until that time, my creatures could attack unabated at the beached sea creature.

Terms of Use

Through all of this, I recognize holes and gaps may and probably exist. I am treating this experiment like any other Magic format. Mistakes will be made, rules will require revising, and certain cards may need to be banned. It's a living, breathing experiment. Also, the suggested Tactics format is only a suggestion. Take it or leave it. Tactics was purely a mental exercise I used to entertain myself during a very long and boring drive. I merely present Tactics to those casual players out there looking for something to break up the monotony. If I have missed something, I implore players to treat this as any Unhinged or Unglued game of Magic and just do what feels right. Most of all, just have fun with it. If anyone has suggestions or ideas and even criticism, feel free to post them in the forum or send a message to me personally.

I want to take a moment for a few more thoughts. Tactics will require a player to build their decks differently. I'm fine with this aspect. Tactics shouldn't play like other Magic formats. This gives credence to the fact the format is indeed different. It means I was successful with my objective. Different cards will shine in the Tactics format and others will flounder. I take solace in the fact cards once considered unplayable might actually be worth playing again. Why not? If players can find ways to put more of their cards to good use is a win, win situation in my book.

Tactics Rule: 1601

All players in a game of Magic Tactics are required to have fun.


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