By Imshan AKA Sinis
On the show, Andy and many other co-hosts and guests have voiced their disdain for the Archenemy format. The experience for many seems to be one-sided: Archenemy games are never good, never enjoyable. The reasons are pretty varied; the schemes didn’t do anything or the schemes did too much, the archenemy took some land hits and got destroyed or the archenemy inflicted some land hits and destroyed the table. However, the value of the conversation is pretty much the same: Archenemy isn’t any fun, and you should probably play something like Planechase instead.
Occasionally, a guest will say how much fun they’ve had with Archenemy. Players in this camp tend to simply say that they had fun with it, that it there were some epic struggles, and then there was a victor. I’ll be honest, I find myself nearer to the players who have not enjoyed Archenemy, but, there must be something to the players who do.
Where’s the appeal? Many players I’ve talked to say that there’s a lot of fun to be had in being the ‘archenemy’ of the table, even if they’re not using the official variant with schemes. There’s a certain amount of pride one can take in earning the cardboard loathing of an entire table, and the chance of playing a one-against-many style of game where you can actually win. Other players like how politics gets removed from the equation; you have an enemy, and you might have teammates.
Part of the reason Archenemy doesn’t work for a lot of players is that it was created to interact with a very specific kind of environment in terms of tempo and card advantage. Schemes rarely destroy lands; of the 45 schemes, only three will destroy one or two lands, and one is limited to non-basics. There are no schemes that will force an opponent to discard their hand without having any remaining options like Mind Twist or Myojin of Night’s Reach would; they will give you options like sharing the discard with other players (Surrender Your Thoughts), or you will need to have no creatures on the battlefield (Only Blood Ends Your Nightmares), or it will be only one card in a Duress kind of way (Every Hope Shall Vanish).
Rather, the schemes tend to give the Archenemy tempo advantages in the form of free mana acceleration, extra turns, and animated creatures or tokens. The card advantage schemes are also fairly pedestrian; they will draw the archenemy cards, and perhaps not as many for the other players if they get mentioned. Other schemes are one-shot damage effects, though they are not always obvious (like Your Will Is Not Your Own), or payment activated tempo or card advantage, or free removal of creatures, enchantments or artifacts. Finally, there are weird symmetrical effects like A Display of My Dark Power or Approach My Molten Realm which are just as likely to bury the archenemy as they are to give him a big advantage.
The environment intended for Archenemy is not intended to involve a fair number of features Magic players – especially players of eternal formats including Commander – often take for granted: mass land destruction, mass hand destruction, prison or combos that will do much more damage than a player would normally be able to suffer (including infinite ones) were probably not accounted for during the design of the set. For anyone who played Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 (DotP), this environment will be familiar; DotP had preconstructed decks with a few customization options, most of which fell nicely into the Archenemy format by avoiding these strategies. Avoiding these strategies makes Archenemy more fun by doing something that is perhaps less obvious outside an article’s text: by eschewing mass land destruction, mass discard or the prison or combo archetypes, schemes become more proportionate to the effects of the game. The presence of these strategies in the hands of the archenemy make schemes overwhelmingly powerful. If the opposing team uses these strategies, schemes can become marginally effective, or completely useless.
The strategy of mass land destruction cuts both ways. If an archenemy loses a significant number of lands to an effect like Terastodon’s, they may be unable to compete with the combined strength of three other players. In a way, Terastodon is the counter to a scheme like Realms Befitting My Majesty. Schemes are meant to put the Archenemy on par with (if you take the default number of opponents in DotP Archenemy) three other players. Something like Terastodon brings them down to ‘regular guy’ status, which isn’t exactly favourable in a three versus one matchup. With enough land destruction payment-activated schemes (like Which of you Burns Brightest) become effectively blank. On the other hand, if the archenemy flips something like Realms Befitting My Majesty or Your Fate is Thrice Sealed and is ahead in terms of the number of lands they control, something like Tectonic Break or Destructive Force will put the archenemy far ahead of the opposing team. The archenemy can rely on schemes to help them recover or solidify their gains, while the opposing team faces an uphill struggle in recovery.
What is true for land destruction is also true for mass discard. An archenemy is usually on the worse end in terms of card advantage: in a three versus one scenario, the archenemy sees only one card for every three that their opponents draw. This is somewhat equalized somewhat by the discard schemes, or by schemes like Your Puny Minds Cannot Fathom. As most experienced players know, something like a significant Mind Twist is a game ender. It will set back a player forever. If an Archenemy is hit by it, they’re essentially losing a lot of ground in an already losing battle with the occasional high point. Conversely, something like Myojin of Night’s Reach or Cabal Conditioning in the hands of an archenemy will ensure that the opposing team will have nothing left when they are being punished by schemes that deliver damage or destroy creatures. While it is not quite as bad for the Archenemy to play mass discard since there are so few global effects, the ones that are global are devastating.
Finally, the combo or prison archetypes are utterly out of scope with schemes. If a player opposing the archenemy makes them draw an infinite number of cards from Basalt Monolith, Power Artifact and Braingeyser, the fact that the Archenemy would otherwise flip a scheme next turn or has additional life is irrelevant. Moreover, the tempo and card advantages delivered by schemes become irrelevant unless they furnished an answer for the combo. Arguably, this is what many find offensive about combo in general. On the other side of the coin, an Archenemy playing a combo deck not only has additional life that the other players must plow through, but might stall them with Behold the Power of Destruction, Choose your Champion or any number of other schemes. Worst of all, the Archenemy might tutor for combo pieces with I Call on the Ancient Magics or Introductions Are in Order, or simply dig for combo pieces with the regular card advantage schemes, accelerating the development of their combo far ahead of the opposing team’s capacity to win the game through damage. Especially difficult in this category is the My Genius Knows No Bounds scheme, where the archenemy will draw a huge number of cards while creating more of a barrier for defeat.
Schemes are meant to be powerful and to help the Archenemy keep pace with the opposing team. Certain strategies push the power of schemes in another direction. Thinking about it in practical terms, it’s easy to see how games involving these become less enjoyable: the archenemy who gets their lands destroyed, faces hand destruction, gets comboed or Stasis-locked is anti-climactic, boring. The archenemy is supposed to be a super-villain, not some chump to be paralyzed by Tezzeret the Seeker, Seat of the Synod and Stasis. The Archenemy who engages in these tactics feels overwhelmingly powerful; they play Death Cloud and recover faster while everyone else burns, randomly gets free and powerful tutors for combo pieces, and are simply too much to deal with in the time allotted.
If you didn’t like Archenemy the first time around, any of these things might have got in the way of your enjoyment. Some people are really attached to these strategies and find Magic boring without them. Archenemy isn’t for everyone, in the same way that people who hate extra layers of randomness in their games might not like Planechase. However, I personally find the most appealing part of Archenemy is the one against many mentality, and schemes, if properly treated by all sides, offer the power to make it an interesting fight.
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