The Perfect Casual Format, Pt. 3

Welcome to the third and final installment of my Perfect Casual format series. You can find the first two articles here and here. Throughout this series, I've been exploring some of the dynamics present in casual Magic, as well as detailing various play formats and card pools that work great for fun casual play. In this final article, I'll be talking about five-person variants, which are typically difficult to handle, with a brief mention of six-player variants toward the end.

Multiplayer and the Problem of Five

As I've mentioned in my other articles, one of the things that has always separated sanctioned Magic from casual Magic is multiplayer. Now that we have sanctioned Two-Headed Giant, there's a little less of a gap, though 2HG only has Sealed as a sanctioned paper format for the moment. Team Sealed and Team Unified Constructed are not quite mulitplayer formats in that there's no deck interaction between the players on the same team. So when we get a big group of players together, we are often relegated to one of these casual formats. Since the early days of Magic, there have been many variations for two, three, four, and six players, but what about five? Five has always been a bit of a problem for playgroups. There's an odd number of players, so team play is out unless one team doesn't mind a severe disadvantage. This left a lot of groups simply playing free-for-alls with five players, and I think that probably causes a lot more problems than it solves. Even more so than with three players, five player free-for-alls end up being lessons in social strategy and diplomacy more than actual play skill. This is fine for some people, but for most groups it can lead to problems.

See, in every group, there are people who exhibit traits that make them prime targets for elimination. For instance, I am the chronic complainer of my group. I tend to be pessimistic and defeatist, so when I get mana-screwed or flooded, don't draw removal, or forget to make a land drop, I feel like giving up and throwing in the towel. This often leads my friends to (reasonably enough) target me for elimination first. After all, who wants a whiner in the game? Also, groups frequently gang up on the person who presents the least threat, meaning killing the guy who obviously can't fight back. There's nothing less fun than being mana-screwed, then getting eliminated in ten minutes because of it, then having to wait for another hour until the next guy gets knocked out. This ties in to another problem of five-way games: too much down time for eliminated players.

Necromancy for Fun and Profit (well, just fun, really)

Fortunately, there is a terrific solution: Zombie Magic. The cool thing about this format is that it theoretically works with any number of players, but it's probably best with five. In Zombie Magic, whenever a player loses the game, the last player to have played the effect responsible for that player's loss becomes that player's "Master," and the losing player becomes his or her "Zombie." Generally, this will be because of life loss, but other factors come into consideration. Removing a Lich, destroying a Platinum Angel while its owner has -2 life, or playing Glimpse the Unthinkable on someone with seven cards left should all be pretty straightforward examples, but sometimes you'll have to use a little more judgment. Decking is probably the toughest to gauge in longer games, but here's a rule of thumb: if a player decks, the last player to play a milling or draw effect on that player gets the kill. But, as always, these rules are not hard and fast, so feel free to find out what works for you.

Necromancers are well known
for their wacky hijinks, as well
as their tomfoolery and shenanigans
Anyway, once a player becomes a Zombie, several things happen. That player essentially gets hit by a slightly altered Sway of the Stars: he or she shuffles every card from every zone (including removed from game) into his or her library, except lands that are in play. That player's life total becomes five, he or she draws seven cards, and his or her lands all untap. Once Zombification is complete, that player is then in complete servitude to the person who killed him or her. The Zombie must obey the orders of the Master, insofar as the game is concerned (no free Ashnod's Coupon for you). The Zombie can share information with the Master as though they were on the same team in Two-Headed Giant. If that Zombie is responsible for making another player lose, then that player also becomes a Zombie in the employ of that Zombie's Master. Also, killing a Master results in the responsible player (or that player's Master) claiming control of all that Master's Zombies.

The strategy in this format is pretty interesting as well. Later in the game, there are often several times where one player can severely damage a living player, or simply claim a Zombie. Usually, you want to take the Zombie when you can, as hurting a living player might just make it easier for someone else to get the kill. Most of all, have fun with it. If you are finding Zombies die too fast, have them start with seven life instead, or allow them an immediate turn after they are killed. Experiment with it until you find something that your group likes the best.

Function of Causal as Fun approaches Infinity

This leads to one of the most important parts of non-sanctioned Magic: there are no rules. Don't like the way something works? Change it. This is one of the greatest strengths of playing Magic simply "for fun" as opposed to playing in a sanctioned environment, and I would argue that the potential for mutabililty is what defines Causal Magic. There is a lot of gray area here, however, so here are some guidelines to help groups and individuals better sort out differences and establish ground/house rules for casual play.

1. Be flexible. Realize that your way is not the best way for everyone, and allow others to have a chance to try out their ideas. As I mentioned last time, open-mindedness is the key to discovering new territory.

2. Communicate openly, but sensitively. This is most useful if there's a format you don't like, or if a particular card is seeming too powerful. Instead of scooping with expletives every time you see Umezawa's Jitte in your casual group, perhaps you could suggest that the card be banned, and see what happens. If you talk about why it bothers you, you're more likely to get others to listen to you than if you simply throw a fit.

3. Be understanding of others' needs. Conversely from the last point, if you are the one who plays the Jitte, realize that the card can be frustrating to play against and that for many casual players, it represents pure Spikedom (which is often seen as an extremely negative trait in Casual Magic). Learning to appreciate the diversity of players will help you become a better player by forcing you to adapt to different play environments.

4. Stick closely to the "real rules" of actually playing Magic. This is pretty important for people who like to play both casual and sanctioned Magic, but it really should apply to everyone. The way the game actually functions has been tuned, re-tuned, and fine-tuned over the course of more than a decade, and I would hesitate to mess with that system. Some things such as hand size and life total are a little more flexible, but deciding not to use the stack or changing the rules for targeting or priority can cause a little more trouble. Just be very careful when messing with the game's core rules because that can make it very hard to move between formats.

5. Establish the rules ahead of time. Everyone should be clear on what's allowed or not before a session begins. Take the time to make sure everyone knows what's going on and what house rules might be in place before hand. Some people play with "no land destruction" rules. Make sure you establish whether Annex, Herald of Leshrac, or Neurok Transmuter/Shattering Spree count as LD or not.

Again, these are simply suggestions, but I think following them can go a long way to improving the quality of your casual gaming sessions.

Speaking of Infinity...

This card is an anagram of
"mobius strip", just like Nicol Bolas is
an anagram of "Basil Colon."
The last card pool format that I'm going to introduce is Type Four. There have been plenty of articles written about this format, but even still, not a lot of people know about it. Basically, you have infinite mana, but you can only play one spell on each player's turn, including your own. The real trick to this format is that you pretty much have to put together the card pool yourself, or else you'll end up with super-broken effects. Non-tapping abilities are extremely powerful in this format, and consequently must be monitored carefully. In general, anything that can deal damage to players, gain life, make tokens, or increase power unchecked should not be allowed. This means innocuous little cards like Flamewave Invoker or Storm Shaman are too powerful. Some other cards prove to be too powerful without breaking those rules, so just make sure to monitor your pool and make adjustments accordingly.

Pretty much the whole point to playing Type Four is to play with those various ridiculously overcosted fatties and spells that would be so cool "if only it cost 2 less." Type Four is run as a draft format, and we've used Topdeck Draft and Booster Draft before. (Ed. Note: The game is also frequently played using the Rochester Draft format.)

They both work fine, but Topdeck tends to go a lot faster. Either way, the real issue is making sure you've got a good range of cards in your pool. In general, your card pool should be about 40-50% creatures/threats, 10-15% targeted removal, 10-15% mass removal, and 15-20% counters. The spells should be a good mix of instants and sorceries, with a couple of enchantments thrown in for good measure. Here are some example cards along with what's good and/or bad about them.

Elder Dragon Legends: Though hard to find, they are all pretty cool except for Vaevictis Asmadi. Basically, if he hits you, you lose. Nicol Bolas is pretty absurd, too, but he's not as blatantly unfair as Asmadi. Still, you'll have to try him for yourself. Personally, the coolest one is Arcades Sabboth, as he's very powerful, but not unfairly so.

Mirrorwood Treefolk: One of the most powerful creatures in the format, he completely ruins combat for the other team. Personally, I think he's a bit too strong, but he's worth trying to see if you like him.

Fervent Denial: Competing with the next card in the list for best counterspell. Flashback on an instant is insane in this format, especially on a counterspell.

Decree of Silence: Hardcasting it is pretty amazing, but the cycling trigger is what makes it really nuts. It's the only spell in the format that can be used to counter someone else's attempt to counter your original spell, since cycling it doesn't count as playing it.

Rout: Instant speed unconditional mass removal is good.

Inferno: Almost as good as Rout; doesn't hit Elder Dragons, but can kill players.

Lord of Tresserhorn: This guy is actually quite good. His drawback is less relevant when you can only play one spell a turn, and regeneration is surprisingly useful.

Maze of Ith: Some groups like to play with lands, and this is one of the few with a relevant ability. They also don't take up spells for the turn. Others you might want to try include Svogthos, the Restless Tomb, Vitu-Ghazi, the City-Tree, and Volrath's Stronghold.

Tatsumasa, the Dragon's Fang: Borders on ridiculous. It's nearly impossible to remove for good: bouncing the token is about the best you can do. Hope you've got an Upheaval in hand.

Kuro, Pitlord: An example of a really good, but still fair card. Every stack should have one, as you can find him easily for fifty cents.

Iname as One: Another very powerful card that's worth playing with because no one will ever cast this for retail in a real game.

Insurrection: This reads "Win the Game" about half the time.

Warp World: Pure insanity. In other words, highly recommended.

Thieves' Auction: See Warp World.

Recoup: Since you can only play one spell per turn, this actually doesn't work at all.

Putrefy, Mortify, Faith's Fetters, Condemn, Disembowel, Repeal, Devouring Light, Wrecking Ball, Brainspoil, Twisted Justice, Hit // Run: These are some of the best targeted/single card removal you could put in your pile, and all of them are widely available Ravnica Block cards.

Rakdos the Defiler: Worth mentioning because his drawback and ability don't do as much with no lands on the table. Should be interesting to try out (I haven't yet).

Razia, Boros Archangel, Isperia the Inscrutable, Experiment Kraj, Borborygmos, Ghost Council of Orzhova, Szadek, Lord of Secrets: All excellent Ravnica Block legend choices.

Chorus of the Conclave, Sisters of Stone Death: Poor Ravnica choices, as infinite mana makes them quite unreasonable.

That's all I'll list for now. Try some of these, but most of all, hunt down every crazy card you can think of that you've wanted to play with, but it was just too much to cast. Because this format is so much different than others, it demands a different approach to the strategy of the game. Remember that Instants go up significantly in value because you can only play one spell per turn. When you get playable instants, they become quite powerful because you can do something during your opponent's turn as well. Also, any instant with Buyback is extremely good, even if it just does a single damage EOT. Another thing that's worth mentioning is that the format of play determines some of the strategy. If you are playing with teams, your teammate can protect your plays with his or her counters, while in single-person formats, you have to be more careful. I think Type Four works best with Two-Headed Giant, personally.

Right Dead Six-y

Though I won't spend as much time here, I should take a little time to introduce a couple of six-person formats that my group has played. The more widespread one is Emperor, but as with just about every other format, you'd be hard-pressed to find two groups that use exactly the same set of rules. I ranted last article about the problems with Constructed Emperor, which is apparently a big problem online. The few times we have played Emperor, it was with draft decks, though if you use the right set of rules for targeting and range, even Constructed works fine. I think the biggest problem in Emperor is determining the rules for range and targeting. In the current official Magic rules, there's a section about this, explaining that certain things (such as global effects [i.e. Wrath of God], targeted spells and abilities, and attacking) can only be done within a certain range. The rules suggest a range of two for each Emperor, and a range of one for the Flankers/Generals. This, however, can cause some major problems. Essentially, until one of the flankers is removed, neither of the Emperors is in range of an opponent, meaning that the Emperors cannot be targeted, attacked, or have permanents removed (even with mass removal). I remember one really lame draft where my team won simply because my Emperor had a Nightshade Seer that went unchecked the entire game. The opposing Emperor had removal, but neither General could ever mount any sort of creature offense through the Seer.

I think the best way to play Emperor is to customize the rules a bit. There are two solutions. The first is to give global effects a range of 3, meaning they affect everyone no matter who casts them. This allows some indirect affecting of the Emperors. The other solution (which would probably work better for draft) is to allow Generals to target the opposing Emperor's permanents (or affect them with global effects), but still prevent Generals from attacking or target the Emperor directly. Also remember that in Emperor, creatures have the ability “{T}: Target teammate gains control of this creature. Play this ability only any time you could play a sorcery.” This ability is not affected by things that remove abilities like Humble or Humility.

Lotsa Heads

The other six-person format that we've tried is a lot simpler than Emperor: Six-Headed Giant. Basically, it's a three-way Two-Headed Giant game. This is actually a lot of fun, and you can even use Cutthroat rules (see part one) if you want. Cutthroat three-way Two-Headed Giant is far and away the fastest format you can play with six people, since you take turns in pairs and damage is more or less doubled. Other than having three teams, it plays just like regular 2HG, with 40 life per team and sharing of the combat phase. This is tons of fun for Type 4, too.

It's All in the Mind

"...And five is right out!"
I'll close the article with a brief introduction to my favorite casual format of all time, Mental Magic. Mental Magic is one of the easiest formats to set up and play, since all you really need is a pile of random (usually non-land) cards. In Mental Magic, there are three main rules of play. First, every card can be played as any card that shares that card's mana cost. This means exact mana cost, so a card costing 4U could be played as Meloku, the Clouded Mirror, but not Morphling or Tephraderm. Second, any card in your hand can be played face-down as a land with the following rules text:

______ (no name)

Basic Land

T: Add one mana of any color to your mana pool.

In otherwords, they count as basic lands, but have no name and no basic land type. This means, among other things, Blanchwood Armor does nothing, and Landwalkers are generally useless. The third main rule is that any card can only be named once. A card is named whenever a player plays, activates from a zone other than in-play, or triggers an effect from a card that is not in-play. This means that if you have a 1R card in hand and someone plays a Ravenous Rats, you can discard that card and have it be a Guerilla Tactics in order to trigger the Tactics's discard trigger. However, this means no one can actually play Guerilla Tactics for the remainder of the game.

In this format, card advantage is king. Cantrips are often amazing, and two-for-ones (or more) should be your goal.

Devil in the Details
There are a few more pointers and tidbits about the format, but these are mostly a matter of house rules. Generally, the above three rules apply to every group with little variation. However, some people use some additional rules to help govern the game. The most common of these is that players can't play a card as what's printed on that card. This rule is pretty arbitrary, and I feel that it discourages newer players from the game (as it becomes more difficult for them to think of what to play it as). The other strike against this rule is if you are using Ravnica Block extras to play. There are many cards in Ravnica Block that have only one or two cards in existence that cost that much mana (Culling Sun, for example). Another house rule deals with multicolored cards for the same reason just mentioned. Because of the large amount of gold cards in Ravnica, it's often tough to come up with something playable for certain costs. Some people use a house rule such as "any gold card of those colors," or "any gold card of that converted mana cost." Both of these make gold cards pretty strong, but it's still fairly well balanced. Some people disallow interactions with the graveyard (i.e. Flashback, Glory/Genesis, Squee, Goblin Nabob), but that's pretty rare. Some groups even use lands, allowing you to play with things like Maze of Ith, Treetop Village, or Barbarian Ring. If you do this, remember that you can cycle them as lands from Urza's Saga or Onslaught, too. Finally, there's the legality of certain cards themselves. We use a Legacy card pool, and we ban Exploration, Fact or Fiction (since it always says "Draw three cards" and is usually flashed back as Deep Analysis), any effect which can be used to bounce your own land (Soratami, Trade Routes), and any card which allows you to go through your entire library for another card, regardless of card type restrictions (i.e. no Rampant Growth, no Eladamri's Call, no Vampiric Tutor, but Impulse is fine).

Cleanup Step
Well, my article series has drawn to a close. I hope that you all have found something new from reading these, and that you can bring something exciting to your casual group. As always, I invite any comments in the forum. Most of all, I hope that reading this has given you an appreciation for the myriad of forms Casual Magic can take, and has helped you even discover what you think is the Perfect Casual Format. Adios!


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