Hello fellow cardslingers, and welcome back to my series exploring casual formats. Last time we examined some of the basic principles behind casual Magic. If you missed the first installment, you can read it here. I also wanted to thank everyone who read and offered feedback from part one; I hope to be able to address some of those things in this article as well.
One of the things I didn't spend a lot of time talking about before was the composition of a particular playgroup. This can be very important to determine, because it's pretty senseless to cater to needs that don't need to be met.
Most of the men that I know prefer one of three types of movie - comedy, horror, and action. If I were to have a movie night once a week for my guy friends, it wouldn't make sense to include a dramatic romance in the lineup, as it wouldn't appeal to anyone in the group. In Magic as well, there's no need to go out of your way for Timmy if Timmy is not a part of your playgroup.
This leads to the question of "How do I profile my playgroup?" Understanding your friends' motivations for playing can go a long way towards making your casual Magic experience better, though it does offer a steep potention downside, which I'll get to shortly. It's one thing to take Rosewater's little quiz from his Timmy/Johnny/Spike articles, but it's another thing entirely to figure out how this applies to your friends. There are two main ways to go about determining your friend's types: direct or indirect. The direct method involves tying the person to a chair and threatening said individual with a hot iron until he divulges his type. Or I suppose you could just ask. If he doesn't know, direct him to Rosewater's article and have him report back afterwards.
The indirect method involves a little more detective work on your part, but it's also pretty rewarding. If you pay attention to what your friends play at FNM, what they tend to draft, the colors they like best, and their favorite cards, you can usually form a good idea of what their types are. The reason I say it's rewarding is because people like it when you do things for their benefit without asking what that might be. Those of you with significant others have (hopefully) figured this one out. Surprising a loved one with something he or she really wants is definitely cooler than the old "I bought you this [blatantly inappropriate gift item], honey."
As I mentioned earlier, there is a downside to profiling your group, and it's a little something to do with human nature. People are adaptive and mutable, meaning it's unlikely that each person in your playgroup has a specific type that never changes under any circumstances. When I mentioned last time that I am really a Spike, I think I raised some eyebrows of people who were surprised to find a Spike writing an aritcle series about casual formats. The reason why I like to play casually as much as competitively is that it allows other aspects of the game to take center field for me. I still have quite a bit of Johnny and Timmy in me, but since the majority of the Magic I play is competitive FNMs, I have adapted to focus more on competition and efficiency instead of fun, innovation, and card interactions. This is not to say that those things aren't still important (I played Snakes at Regionals for crying out loud). However, I play casual because it allows my focus to shift from being a total Spike to being more of a Timmy.
Tying this back in to our original point from this section is a simple rule of thumb - it's much better for you to try out something new and not like it than to ignore it completely just because you think it's not a good fit. In our earlier example, if no one in the group had ever seen a dramatic romance, is it right to exclude that from the movie lineup without trying one first? What if no one had ever seen a horror movie instead? Maybe we'd miss out on Jaws, The Sixth Sense, Alien, The Ring, or the good version of The Haunting*.
The Un-Casual Casual Format
For many years now, my favorite casual format for four players has been Two-Headed Giant (2HG for short). Before I learned of this variation, four-player games were generally either free-for alls, which lead to people getting picked on, or team games with individual life totals, where the winner was often determined by whomever gets killed first. The biggest problem with playing teams this way was when one player would have a slow start, leaving him or her wide open to a quick assault from the other team. Two-Headed Giant helps solve a lot of these issues by allowing the team to share blockers, giving a slow-starting player a bit more breathing room. Because the rules for 2HG are readily available in the Comprehensive Rules (and a special 2HG Cranial Insertion), I'm not going to discuss them in detail here. Instead I had some comments concerning the appropriateness of 2HG as a casual format. The newest 2HG innovation came from Wizards of the Coast themselves prior to the sanctioning of the format for Limited and Constructed play, and that was the concept of simultaneous turns. When I first learned 2HG many years ago, each player still took his or her turn in order. In fact, you actually had to sit across the table from your teammate because no sharing of information (i.e. "table talk") was allowed, either. Now, you not only sit next to but take your turn at the same time as your teammate, as well as being allowed to share information with your other "head." While these additions certainly streamline the process of playing and make games go a lot faster, they have one major disadvantage: Constructed 2HG is a lot less fun.
A Brief Rant on the Intersecting of Casual and Competitive Formats, or, Why Combo is Bad
For me, and likely a lot of other players, one of the defining characteristics of casual Magic is the presence of more than two players in a game. Multiplayer Magic has been a casual mainstay for as long as the game has existed. One thing that has always been a problem in Constructed multiplayer Magic is the presence and power of Combo. Generally, Magic is defined as having three distinct deck archetypes: Control, Aggro, and Combo. Regardless of how you feel they line up against each other in a duel, their relationship changes drastically when placed into a multiplayer situation. Aggro often wins by expending resources to win as quickly as possible via creatures and/or burn. Control generally wins via attrition and steady card advantage. Both of these strategies are much, much harder to implement when there are more than two players present. Counterspells become a lot less potent, and burn is practically worthless unless it hits everything. However, Combo tends to become much more potent, especially when the Combo player can mask his or her presence until he or she is ready to "go off."
Not a good way to set up a "stealth" combo...
Not a good way to set up a "stealth" combo...
Because disruptive and counter-based strategies are so much worse at dealing with multiple players, Combo tends to be the best way to go. Anyone who has played Constructed 1-1-1 Emperor or Constructed 2HG know that this is typically the case. This is a large part of why I am so adamant about finding not only a good format, but a good cardpool that challenges the players' ingenuity. Anyone can netdeck and build a dominating pair of 2HG Standard Constructed decks. Doing so in Limited or otherwise restricted pool is much more challenging. Obviously, some players greatly enjoy the 1-1-1 format or Constructed 2HG. If that's something you like, then go for it. Some players really enjoy formats that give them the chance to play the most broken spells and take ridiculous turns, and that’s fine. They have 1-1-1 Emperor and Vintage. As I said before, don't discount something until you've tried it. However, I believe it is more of a niche format than something that is widely and easily accessible to the majority of players. Since this series is looking at formats that can be enjoyed by a variety of players, I will not be talking about Standard 2HG or any type of 1-1-1 Emperor.
2HG and the Best of the Worst
Having said my piece on why I prefer not to use any cardpools as large as Standard (and even Block, though that's a step in the right direction) for 2HG, I can now address a few ways to generate cardpools for playing this great format with your friends. The first is probably the easiest, but it's also the most expensive. Simply pony up the cash for two Ravnica tourney packs and four packs each of Guildpact and Dissension, then split them evenly amongst the four of you. 3 Ravnica boosters will do in a pinch (but proper Tourney packs don't have doubles unless they're foil). Saving prizes from actual tournaments can help immensely here. However, this is not only somewhat expensive, but also kind of dull, as it's also a sanctioned format now. There are many other ways to create card pools for 2HG, including my favorite draft cardpool of all time: the Reject Rare draft.
Many of you have heard of this type of card pool before, and I had at least a couple people mention it in the forums of my last article. I first learned about it from Mark Gottleib when he was still in charge of House of Cards over on the official Magic website. It's not only an incredibly fun format, but it's relatively self-sustaining and will pretty much always be a little different, especially in larger groups. Basically, each player brings in 45 rares that he or she no longer wants. While you can stick to Standard if you want, it's really a lot more interesting to allow cards from any set. However, there really need to be some ground rules established or else you'll wind up with the four of you bringing in a couple dozen Mudholes apiece. My group has a simple set of rules that makes RRD much more interesting and fun for everyone.
Rule #1: All cards must have been rare at some point in the past, and not by a printing error (i.e. no Mountains, just because one wound up in the rare slot in Arabian Nights). U1s from sets with less than 15 cards per pack count as rares - check Oracle/Gatherer to make sure. You can use any version of a card, though I strongly encourage you to put a cap on this if you are afraid of abuse. Wizards upgrades a lot of uncommons to rare (and sometimes vice versa) with the Core Set. Exhaustion, Urza's Armor, Sage of Lat-Nam, and Brass Herald have all been both rare and uncommon, and either printing is fair game.
Rule #2: Each participant must bring at least seven mono-colored cards of each color. This ensures a relatively even color distribution, though the packs still get shuffled together and can produce odd color gluts. The remaining ten cards can be anything else you want: gold cards, artifacts, lands, split cards, or more cards of the other colors.
Rule #3: Each participant's pile must contain at least 20 creatures. Since a lot of bad rares are generally non-creature spells, this keeps you from having a card pool that's all sorceries and enchantments. For the purposes of this criterion, anything that makes or becomes a creature may count (i.e. Opal/ Hidden creatures, Genju of the Realm, Jade Statue, Ication Town).
Rule #4: The card has to actually do something. This one is a lot more subjective, but it's intended to keep people from bringing stuff like Mudhole, Pale Moon, or Stabilizer. Anything that's really, really narrow or applies only to a special subset of cards or mechanics is generally frowned upon. Having a couple of these in each pile is not the end of the world, but the more playable cards you have to choose from, the more fun you will have overall.
Rule #5: No Un-sets. This one's totally up to you. If you want to allow Silver-bordered land to encroach on your 2HG action, go for it.
Rule #6: The draft is for keeps, so don't expect to get everything you contributed back. There's no "prize" per se, but just like in a real booster draft, you will keep whatever you draft. This is particularly cool for people who like to collect certain cards or subsets of cards (I collect mono-black Legends).
Once you've got all the cards together, it's time to create some booster packs. Any drafting method will work here (like the Topdeck draft from last time), but we generally prefer to do a booster draft. This will also allow me to demonstrate how to shuffle a large preselected cardpool. To create the packs, have each player shuffle his or her contribution of card several times, then pass half of it to the left. Do this three more times (shuffle, then pass half), so that all the piles are fairly well mixed together. This should only take a few minutes. Then have each player deal the cards into 15-card "packs" face down on the table. If anyone comes up uneven, distribute the cards to make sure all 12 packs are equal. Once you've done this, booster draft them like normal.
Since this format is a little weird, I'll throw out some pointers from my experience with it.
1. Pick creatures highly. There don't tend to be as many of these as you want to have. If it's even remotely efficient or costs less than 4, it's almost an auto-pick. Morphs should be strong considerations for first picks, even if they're not on-color. The Invasion Leeches are all very strong, too.
Amazing first pick?! You betcha!
Amazing first pick?! You betcha!
2. There is almost no removal that's not overcosted or conditional, so be wary of picking a bad removal spell over a decent creature. Some removal (Planar Despair, March of Souls) is too good to pass, but a lot of it is very conditional or hard to cast (Hero's Demise, Soulscour). This format really hammers home the idea of "There are no wrong threats, but there are wrong answers."
3. Pay attention to cross-set synergy, as it's not usually readily apparent. Last time, I drafted Azami, Lady of Scrolls along with Mistform Ultimus, Barrin, Master Wizard, and Soramaro, First to Dream. I also had an Ascendant Evincar in my pool, so I was keeping an eye out for Wizards or anything that benefitted Legends. Noticing things like that is the key to having a successful deck.
4. Finally, pay attention to your mana curve. Most "reject" cards are overcosted, so anything that's remotely playable in your colors that costs less than four should receive strong consideration. Oracle en-vec has been a house in this format simply because she hits the board two or three turns before anyone can play anything else and gets in a lot of damage in the meantime. One-drops are almost always playable simply because they are cheap, but reject rare one-drops are uncommon (Planar Guide and Mogg Sentry leap to mind) so keep an eye out for them.
Once you've finished drafting, you must build a 40-card minimum deck just like a normal Limited match. We allow teams to discuss deckbuilding, but try to set a time limit or you'll spend all day figuring out how best to use Junkyo Bell and whether it's worth throwing in an Island for Tek to have flying.
Reject Rare Drafts are one of the most interesting and enjoyable formats, and lead to some really bizarre situations. Have fun with this and stay tuned for my next article!
BONUS FORMAT: Winston Draft
Since I skipped straight into three-player with my Cutthroat and Topdeck Draft last week, I suppose I could offer up this little morsel of fun for you and a friend to try sometime. I did this once after just missing Top 8 at an FNM; my friend Matt and I bought three packs each of a random set (me: Nemesis, Scourge, Fifth Edition; him: Onslaught, Prophecy, Planeshift) to do this, but it works just fine with any stack that contains around 90 cards.
This one's similar to the Topdeck draft but a bit more complex. First, start by dealing the top three cards of the pile face-down onto the table in a row next to the main pile. The active drafter takes a look at the outermost pile (which is only one card right now) and may draft it if he/she likes. Otherwise, that player adds the top card of the main pile to it. This continues until the player either selects a pile or sees all three piles. If he/she still doesn't see anything he/she likes, the player then takes the top card of the deck (like in Topdeck draft) and is stuck with it. If the player does take a pile, he/she replaces it with a single card from the top of the deck.
Example: It's my turn to draft, and I'm mostly R/G at this point. The first pile is Break Open, Aven Flock, Spy Network, and Index. It's tempting to snag the pile just for the Aven, but I decide to try to stay in my colors if possible. I add a card to it (without looking) and take a look at the second pile. This one has a single card in it: Promise of Power. It's pretty strong, but not really splashable. I put another card in that pile from the main stack, and pick up the third and final pile, which contains Talisman of Indulgence, Thrive, Dogpile, and Thresher Beast. The Beast alone can be an absolute nightmate in Limited, and the addition of three potentially playable other spells is certainly not terrible either. I happily add the four cards to my draft pile and replace them with a single card from the top of the deck. This ends my drafting turn.
The reason why this tends to work only for two players is that you don't often get very even card pools, which can be really annoying when you have three or more. It's also a bit slower, since there are often several cards in a single pile. Experiment to see what you like best. Since there's a lot of randomness in the format, it's also fun to play a few games, then shuffle the cards back up to try again. It's interesting seeing how knowing what some of the cards are changes your strategy.
*That would be the 1963 version directed by Robert Wise. It is my favorite ghost movie of all time, and I've seen pretty much all of them.