High Stakes Magic - A New Way to Play

High Stakes Magic

In this article, Stairc outlines a new variant format with stakes higher than normal Magic. Also, advice on buying cards with gold.

The Pitch
Imagine a salesman coming up to you and saying, "Step right up, because have I got a deal for you! It's a brand new game with infinite replay value, deep strategy, and over twenty years of content. And what will this game cost you? Nothing! You can play it with the cards you already have."

Sound good? Then let me tell you a story.

The Origins
As a game designer, I spend at least half my time worrying about how to cost stuff. I'm working on a fantasy card game right now called Faeria, and the team has spent countless weeks discussing the core economics underlying the game. It's a lot of work, and it also means that we can't design a lot of cards we'd like to because we might not be sure what the right cost for a hard-to-evaluate ability is.

On the other hand, when I'm playing a game it's completely different. If I find something is undercosted as a player, I get to have fun winning with it. If I'm the designer, I have to fix it.

I decided to try something out. Could I make a game where players set the cost for each card themselves? Some sort of auction perhaps, so figuring out how much a card should cost becomes part of the game. We designers would suddenly be able to make all the cool stuff we've wanted to and spend more time on making the game as fun as possible. Meanwhile, players would have a huge opportunity for strategy by figuring out how much they should bid on each card.

I slapped together some quick rules. Since I was only trying to figure out if the process of setting your own prices for cards would be engaging, I decided to test out the concept with an existing card game: Magic: the Gathering. Why make hundreds of new cards and new rules to test one idea? If the gameplay proved even remotely fun with Magic cards, I could look into building the standalone game I was thinking about.

I called up my friend Carson for a quick test.

Four hours later, it was 2 AM and we were still playing.

As you can guess, things were more than just "remotely fun." Even after the night dragged us away from our games, we went home and kept cooking up changes to the rules and tweaks to the cards we were using. This wasn't just a test for a game concept. It wasn't just a new way to play Magic. It was basically a whole new game you could play with the Magic cards you already owned.

Here’s what I ended up with after a few weeks of polishing, dozens of playtests, and hours of lost productivity.

High Stakes Magic
The Nutshell
Instead of building decks and managing mana, each turn players bid on cards revealed from a shared stack called the auction block. Players get to assemble their strategies while they’re playing the game.

How Does it Feel?
It depends on the auction block you put together, but in ours the game feels both tense and chess-like. As you get an equal chance to bid on every card revealed, and you know what your opponents have access to because you saw them purchase it, the game becomes a unique experience of card evaluation and counter-play. For a detailed discussion of a lot of our experiences testing the format, you can listen to episode four of the Remaking Magic podcast.

The Rules
Gameplay follows the normal rules of Magic, save for the following exceptions:

1) Players begin the game with 10 gold and no starting hand. Gold is a currency used to purchase cards that come up for auction. At the end of each player's turn, all players gain 3 gold.

2) Players do not bring decks to the table. Instead, a single stack of cards called the auction block is shuffled and placed on the table.

3) The draw step is replaced with the auction step. At the beginning of the auction step, reveal the top card of the auction block. The active player may then bid an amount of gold for that card, including zero. In turn order, each player may top the high bid. Each player may only bid once. The bidding ends when all players have had the opportunity to bid. The high bidder loses gold equal to the high bid and purchases the card.

Note: Players cannot bid more gold than they possess.

Note: If no player bids on a card, it is placed on the bottom of the auction block and the auction step repeats.

4) Upon purchasing a card, the purchasing player may choose either to cast the card immediately without paying its mana cost, regardless of timing rules, or to put the purchased card into their hand. Players may cast cards in hand without paying their mana costs. However, once a card is in hand, it must follow the normal rules as to when it can be played.

For example, a player might purchase a Grizzly Bears during the auction step. They then have the option to cast the spell immediately without paying its mana cost or put it into their hand. Once in hand, the Grizzly Bears can only be played when it is legal to play it card type.

5) If the purchased card wasn't a creature card, repeat the auction step. This process repeats until a player purchases a creature card.

6) The auction block is considered a communal library for the purpose of card effects. For example, Sage Owl's effect allows you to rearrange the top four cards of your library. In High Stakes, this allows you to rearrange the top four cards of the auction block. Similarly, Memory Lapse counters a spell and returns it to the top of the auction block. You can probably see how such library manipulation effects have wildly new strategic applications in High Stakes, as they allow you to manipulate the auctions to your advantage.

7) Likewise, whenever an effect causes a player to draw cards, that player puts that many cards from the top of the auction block into their hand. Like all cards in hand, they will be able to be cast without paying their mana costs.

8) At any time, and as many times per turn as they desire, a player may spend one gold to add one mana of any color to their mana pool. This allows players to pay for certain costs, like kicker, cycling, or equip costs. It also makes cards like Mana Leak rather interesting.

9) Players play with their hands revealed. This is to prevent people from having to memorize cards they've already seen purchased at auction by the other players.

The game has only been tested in a two-player format so far. It's recommended that you play the game as a two-player duel before testing anything else.

Why It's Fun
I've been addicted to playing High Stakes for the last few months. Here are a few reasons why.

First, High Stakes provides the draft-like experience of evaluating card choices and crafting your strategy while you're playing the game. You don't have to separate the drafting experience from the gameplay, you can just grab your auction block and start playing.

Second, I get to enjoy playing with cards in my collection I never have before, because almost every card is worth at least one gold. Chimney Imp has been a great card in our block, and I've had even more fun with Witch-Maw Nephilim. Wurmskin Forger might even be one of the least playable cards in Modern, but here he's a powerhouse that combos with all our counter-loving cards.

Third, High Stakes makes even cards we're familiar with feel new again. Cards like Figure of Destiny and Evernight Shade work with the gold system in interesting new ways. Scrying lets you control the auction and bid more intelligently. There are many, many more examples and I've found myself spending hours pouring through the game to discover hidden gems.

Fourth, each game is an extraordinary new challenge. The correct value for each card naturally changes based on the board state and every game is different. Also, because I have a chance to buy each card, there's not much room for frustration. There was always a way I could have won.

Fifth, it's very fun to build an auction block. It gathers all the fun of building a custom limited environment, like designing your own cube, in a new and elegant way. Designing a great cube is highly complex, but High Stakes lets you skate around worries of converted mana cost and color. As long as you keep some major ratios balanced, you can mostly include any card that looks fun.

Building an Auction Block
A few months ago, I made the mistake of introducing High Stakes to Reuben Covington, my co-host on the Remaking Magic podcast. For a while, every recording was delayed as we tried out the latest versions of his ever-changing Auction Block. In the process we've discovered some guidelines that will help you construct your own.

  • Make sure your auction block is about 50% creatures. You want to frequently be flipping noncreature cards to make the auctions more exciting. You might want to stay closer to 60% if your prefer a little less variety in your auctions, or drop down below 50% if you want to buy tons of cards each auction. 50-60% is probably a good baseline though.

  • Make sure few, if any, creatures are useless in combat. The rule about auctioning until you reveal a creature is to ensure that the player behind on the board has a chance to buy a crucial blocker and stabilize. Including Squire in your auction block alongside a bunch of 6/6 creatures won't lead to a great experience. In general, you'll want to keep the power level of your creatures to affect the board state somewhat similar. Our auction block uses mostly creatures ranging between 2/2 and 4/4, with some notable outliers that have cool abilities.

  • Make sure there are lots of cool strategies to build around in your auction block. Try out interesting artifacts alongside an Etched Champion. If your auction block uses a lot of +1/+1 counters, add in Abzan Battle Priest. These cards add new twists to the auction, because they make cards with synergy more desirable.

  • Make sure removal is about 15% of the auction block. Additionally, this removal works best when it has limitations. Pacifism can be destroyed later by purchasing an enchantment-destruction effect. Pillar of Light works only on creatures of a certain toughness. Since players play with their hands revealed, you always know what answers your opponents have. If your opponent purchases a Pillar of Light, you can suddenly try to avoid buying creatures with high toughness. You can protect your most expensive creature investments by playing around the opponent's answers.

  • Avoid including cards that easily draw you more than one card when played. Even a Divination is extremely powerful, since your cards in hand can be played for free. Ordeal of Thassa, on the other hand, provides a great reward to work towards.

  • High Stakes encourages board stalls if you aren't careful. You shouldn't include any cards like Wall of Frost or Guardian Lions. Include cards that push the game to an end, like creatures with flying and cards that prevent your opponent from blocking. Additionally, you're going to want to avoid cards like Agent of Masks which do their best to slow the game down as much as possible.

That's it. Just make sure you have lots of cool strategies to build around, stick to 50% creatures and 15% removal spells, make sure few of your creatures are useless in combat against the other creatures in the block and make sure you don't include lots of cards that stall the board or make the game go on forever. Oh, and card draw is super powerful, so bear that in mind.

Our Auction Block
Here’s the current form of the block Reuben and I have been testing for a few months now. It's very long, so I'm going to place it in a spoiler. Because our current block tends to use smaller creatures, we've decided to start our games at 13 life instead of 20 for fast games. We use the full 20 when we want a more epic back-and-forth.

Final Thoughts
I've been having an absolute blast playing High Stakes, so much that it's been seriously interfering with my productivity. Every game feels completely fresh, every auction provides brand new considerations to the card's value based on the board state. It's a wonderful mix between having no idea what cards are going to show up and having extraordinary control over how you react to them. Except for card draw effects, any card that's killing you is doing so because you decided to buy something else instead.

I've also spent hours going through my collection and searching Gatherer to find cards that could be cool for the format. Can we add spirits to our block and take advantage of both Kamigawa and Innistrad's spirit tribal? What about adding in bounce effects in combination with lots of enter the battlefield triggers? Hey, Æther Adept can bounce itself and then be recast in an infinite cycle of creatures entering the battlefield! That could be cool with Herd Gnarr.

I even got to play with Chimney Imp... and it was awesome.

Magic feels fresh and strange again, skill-testing and tense. I feel like I'm rediscovering the game I love, but in a new way that just happens to be played with the cards I already have. Whole shoeboxes of junk cards are calling to me, alive with possibilities.

Welcome to the auction. We hope you find a bargain.

Since Magic is decades old, I'm sure a lot of awesome people have already have been enjoying similar ideas. If you're one of those lucky people, please post your ideas and discoveries. I'd love to hear what you've come up with.

Editor's note: A previous version of rule 3 was unclear regarding cases where players have zero gold. The rule has been updated to address this.


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