This entry is part 23 of 41 in the series In General

Grandpa (Eric)

By Eric, AKA Grandpa Growth

 

Here on “In General” I don’t normally address the topic of strategy in multiplayer. This month I’m going on an extended binge into the fascinating world of multiplayer. Politics, intrigue, unique play structures, and strategies that exist nowhere else in the multiverse. This week I’ll begin by looking at some of the most entertaining and innovative multiplayer play structures. Some of these game types/play structures/what have you are their own format, like Stack. Others are just a special set of rules to add to your favorite format. Just for the sake of imagination, I’m going to assume we’ll be playing these with regular Commander decks, but they could work decks built for other formats. Rather than focus on more established multiplayer formats like Two-Headed Giant, Star, or Emperor, I’m hoping to show you a few things you haven’t seen before. Let’s jump in.

 

Dogpile Variants

When most people think of multiplayer they start with the assumptions that the game will be:

  • “Free-for-all,” where every player can attack and interact with every other player.

  • “Last Man Standing,” where everyone who dies loses and the winner is the one player that doesn’t die.

 

Essentially everything I find distasteful about multiplayer stems from these two concepts. If you have no restrictions on which players you can direct your efforts against, people tend to flounder around in the early game and things get political quickly. Declaring the last person standing the victor puts strategy firmly in the back seat as people try to appear (and often be) less threatening.  Dogpile elegantly solves these problems by incentivizing proactivity in the early game and making deceptive appearances irrelevant.

 

Dogpile is a free-for-all game structure where the last player standing loses. In fact, rather than standing around doing nothing, players need to get active early, because the first player to eliminate another player wins. This inevitably creates a scenario where the player in the least defensible position is quickly assailed by others, hence the name Dogpile. The player with the most aggressive strategy and most explosive start is in great position to win the game, which brings the play dynamic back into line with the typical single player strategy games.

 

Losing usually isn’t fun, but in Dogpile it’s actually quite entertaining. The other players have to trip all over each other to try and kill you first. The combo players will fizzle more often because they have to try and go off quickly. They don’t have the time and safety that multiplayer usually provides. Aggro decks have a real shot to compete because they only have to worry about defeating one player whose draw is weaker and slower than average.

 

Being the “losing” player can still feel like losing, but the reverse dynamic created by Dogpile results in the slower/less explosive decks banding together to save the player in last place. Because I don’t want to lose, but I can’t win right now, I may have to come to your aid against another player to insure that you don’t die before I can set up a kill. This let’s the group organically decide which players to target in multiplayer, removing the feel-bads of the head hunter/metagame police interaction you sometimes in multiplayer Commander. In the more common “Last Man Standing” game types, I have to beg you to save me, but you don’t have any real incentive to waste resources helping me. Not so in Dogpile.

 

In terms of multiplayer threat assessment we don’t all need to gang up on the most powerful deck to try and bring them down, instead we can attack other players furtively to further our own strategy. The players who are in the strongest positions can safely ignore each other instead of bogging the entire table down in a political cold war between the superpowers. It’s more difficult and costly to go to war against another strong player, so you don’t have any incentive to do it. This style of play still has great political interactions, though, because you want to keep your targeted player a secret. If you overtly weaken a player, then someone else might swoop in and kill them before you can, stealing away your victory from the jaws of defeat.

 

This structure works best with three players. It keeps the games short and exciting. If you have more players, though, it can still definitely work. I tend to dislike large free-for-all games because of the political quagmire that ensues, so I would suggest that if you have a larger group you also add some targeting restrictions to the play structure. For example, only being able to interact with and attack adjacent players, or my personal favorite: “F to the Left” (attack and target only the next player, proceeding in the clockwise turn order around the table). This structure helps the game to proceed in a more orderly manner and eliminates a lot of the hurt feelings that people develop when they are singled out in multiplayer. Afterall, you don’t have a choice in who you target, the rules spell it out for you. There is no threat assessment nor any personality conflict. To further spice things up, you can decide the seating order randomly or make the winner of the last game play last in the next game. Experiment with different configurations to make effect of changing the turn order more interesting. Alternate slow and fast decks, or clump them together; either way, it’s humorous.

 

Dogpile is a simple solution the strange interactions of multiplayer because you have a clear strategic goal. Players feel justified in their decisions to act on a situation and you don’t have to begin the game by doing a metagame threat assessment of your friends’ decks. Proactivity is rewarded, and games tend to end more quickly, because only one player needs to die to finish the game. Naturally, this means that the losers don’t have to sit out while they wait for the rest of the players to finish the game, which limits the isolation and prolonged humiliation of loss; you can just jump right back into the game. The best part about Dogpile is that it’s simple to set up and explain, you can combine it with any format, and you don’t need any special materials to play; just your friends and a deck.

 

Expanded Eternities Map Variant

Originally posted on DailyMTG.com, this article by Gavin Duggan several years ago details a new way to play with your Planechase cards. Normal Planechase kind of sucks, because it always feels like you’re randomly slipping from one inconvenient plane to the next at an inopportune moment. There’s very little strategy or control. You sometimes get stuck on a terrible plane and–despite everyone’s best efforts–you can’t seem to roll your way off of it. Turrible. Moving from plane-to-plane shouldn’t feel haphazard; you’re a nearly omnipotent interdimensional space wizard. Take some control, man.

 

Instead, we have what I call the Extended Eternity Map. You’re going to take all those planes cards and shuffle them together and deal just a few of them out, face down, in a grid according to some design. You could do a triangle, star, or whatever works best for the number of players and planes cards your have. If you aren’t that creative, a square will work fine, too–just adjust the size of the square up to correspond with the number of players 3×3, 4×4, 5×5, etc. If you need more cards you can just use multiple decks of planes cards.

 

Each player plays the game normally, and turns have the normal phases using all the normal rules, but we’re going to change the way that planes work. Once you have the face down planes cards all laid out on the board, you’re going to pick out something to represent your planeswalker, an avatar or game piece like the Meeples in Carcassonne or the characters from Clue work well. (I prefer the race car from Monopoly. That’s how I roll). Pick a place on the map and stick your dude on there. The other players do the same and you shuffle up your decks and begin the game normally. Once everyone has kept their opening hand, you each flip up the plane card beneath your avatar.

 

You always play with the special effect of the plane that your avatar is on, the same of course holds for each other player. This simulates building up your forces on separate planes, rather than each player being confined to the same plane as each other player. Each turn you can roll the planar die normally, paying extra mana as you would like to reroll the die multiple times. If you get Chaos, do what it says, easy. So far, this is remarkably similar to regular Planechase, but here is where we go off the rails.  If the die comes up with the planeswalk symbol, you may jump your avatar to any other face up planes card that is not already occupied by a player. Tricky.

 

Now as the game begins, you will see that each player is set up on their own plane, probably surrounded by at least a few unflipped planes cards that are not occupied. Each player can only attack/target/interact with a player that is occupying an adjacent card to theirs (diagonal is still adjacent). No two players can ever occupy the same planes card. Once per turn, in the beginning of combat step (after your main phase, but before you declare attackers), you can move your avatar to any adjacent unoccupied plane. The stack should be empty when you move to a new plane, and you can only do so if you have priority. You can’t respond to a player moving to a new plane, but you can use instants and abilities after they’ve done so, before moving to the declare attackers step.

 

To move your character to a new plane, you just choose which adjacent tile to move to, flip that card up, and place your avatar on it. This models the idea that you’re purposefully moving through the planes, exploring the available terrain, and building up your forces to invade neighboring planes and conquering the other player(s) territory. Like a real o.g. wizard should. Anything that triggers “when you planeswalk to Kansas” will get put on the stack at that point and get resolved normally. This play structure really enhances the theme of the Planeschase set and makes you feel less like a bumbling Jar-Jar Binks falling backwards into a new situation every turn.

 

There are a few interesting implications here. First, you’re going to be incentivized to branch out early and find the best plane to build your army on. Something Eloren Wilds can really give you a huge advantage early on. Most planes are neutral to negative, so you want to move quickly off of things like Narr Isle to find something more suitable. Remember that each plane’s effect only applies for the player who is actually occupying that plane, even if the text of the card refers to “each player” or “any time a player”, just treat it as though it says “any time a player occupying this plane”. The uneven advantages of certain planes are going to drive players to move around the map and compete for space.

 

Secondly, since only one player can occupy a plane and you can only attack/interact with adjacent planes you have to carefully balance the dynamic of traversing the planar tiles with, you know, actually playing a game of Commander and trying to kill your opponents. You may have to sacrifice occupying a beneficial plane in order to move into to position to attack a weak opponent, or you might have to retreat away from an aggressive player who had an explosive start. The shape of the planar board vastly affects the outcome of the game, defining the limits of how each player can move. If you get stuck in a corner, or are walled in by opponents occupying all the nearby planes, you may be forced to roll the planar die to jump away. Remember though, you can’t jump to a face down plane, nor can you ever move onto an occupied one.

 

As an alternative to the planar jump mechanic, you can use this alternative: If you roll the planar die and come up with the planeswalk symbol, take the planes card that your avatar is on discard it. Replacing it with a new card from the remnants of the planar deck. There are fifty planes cards total so you probably won’t use them all, even if you have no repeats. This gives you the ability to replace any single spot on the planar map with a new card, should you find yourself on something that sucks. Keep in mind though this can still happen randomly whenever you roll the planar die, so you don’t want to do so lightly. You have to be strategic and decide whether this plane card you’re currently occupying is worth replacing with something that could be even worse. As a consequence this makes the game a bit more unpredictable, but usually shorter because it’s harder for a player to escape from a detrimental plane and you can’t teleport away from the threat of attack from another player.

 

Settlers of the Multiverse

Settlers of Catan is a very popular European board game where you play the role of settlers coming to a newly discovered island. You try to take over the island by establishing your own settlements and building a network of roads across the island to link yourself to more and more resources. There are cards, and dice, points, and trading with other players…it’s great. Prior to 2015, I’d only played a handful of casual games in college. More recently though, an old friend introduced me to the world of online cutthroat Catan. And, of course, I’m hooked, but that’s neither here nor there. We’re not playing Catan. We’re borrowing a few of the concepts and building them into Magic.

 

We’re going to adapt the basic rules of Catan and use it to play a really whacky version of multiplayer Magic. For this format, we won’t use Commander decks, or any constructed decks for that matter. Instead we need some curated collection of cards like a Cube, Battle Box, or Chaos Stack. Whatever you choose, that’s cool. Rather than playing with your own deck, you’re going to play cards from this deck according to some special rules which we’ll cover in a moment.

 

To play this format, you kind of have to get familiar with the basic play of Catan. It’ll be helpful to have one of the players in the game be able to help clear up some weird rules interactions and generally explain the game. I’m not going to cover everything here. We’re also going to be using the all the game materials of Settlers, so you’ll need to pick one up from your LGS. In fact, just start hanging out with the people who play Catan and pitch this game as a group mixer. Friends.

 

In Settlers of Catan there are five resources: wheat, lumber, brick, ore, and sheep. Conveniently, these overlay very nicely onto the five colors of Magic: wheat is White, lumber is Green, brick is Red, ore is Black, and sheep are Blue…you know, like Ovinomancer. The terrain cards are shuffled up and then laid out face down on the game board. Before you begin play you flip them all up and each player stakes out a spot on the game board in turn order, you place your town piece on an intersection between two pieces, once every player has a town on the board, you place a second town on the board in reverse turn order. Towns can’t be adjacent to each other, they have to be separated by at least two lines. This is all basic Catan, here is where things differ.

 

When you take your turn and roll the die you get to pick up resource cards from the tiles surrounding your towns, and you can do all the normal things with these resources: build roads, new settlements, upgrade your towns into cities, etc. You can buy development cards, but we are going to replace all the cards in the development deck with the cards from our special stack that I mentioned earlier. Unlike in regular Magic, you don’t start with twenty life, instead you will have ten. This is like the ten points that you need to win in Catan. Rather than accruing points like in Catan we are going to try and reduce our opponents from ten to zero, thus killing them. You don’t get points or life or anything like for having extra cities, or building the longest road, etc. Rather we are relying on the cards in our ‘development card’ stack to give us a creature to attack with, burn spells, a land card to produce an extra resource card every turn.

 

Obviously, you’ll want to curate the stack somewhat to make sure all the cards work in this format and fine tune the experience that you want. You’ll need to use some creativity to decide on exactly Magic cards should behave in this game, but that is half the fun. Something like Wall of Blossoms might seem innocuous, but getting a blocker in play and drawing a second development card could be really broken in some situations. You’ll have to make judgment calls like whether to include things like removal or certain types of enchantments. Can Vindicate destroy a player’s towns and cities? Should you include things like Stone Rain to destroy an entire terrain card? The only advice that I’d give you is that you probably want to avoid including tutors and anything that interacts with the graveyard. Once something is gone, it should be gone.

 

When you buy a development card, you can’t use it right away (those are the rules in Catan), but during any of your future turns you can play that card without paying its mana cost. You can target any player with your cards, but you can only attack a player if you have a road connecting one of your settlements to one of their settlements. This means that you will still have a strong incentive to build a large road network around the map to let you win, but you have to balance this idea with the fact that going on offense means spending resources on roads, which could open you up to counterattack by players who invested more heavily in the development deck. A creature can only attack one player per turn, just like in Magic, but if you have multiple creatures they can attack different players.

 

Turns progress like this: You roll the dice and each player collects a resource card from the corresponding number terrain tiles if they have a settlement that borders that terrain. If you roll a seven, you still play the robber the same way as in Catan: each player with more than seven cards in their hands discards half their hand rounded down. Then the player who rolled the seven gets to steal a random resource card from the hand of another player and place the thief onto a tile bordering one of their settlements. The thief negates that terrain tile as long as it’s on it; whenever that tiles number is rolled, the thief means players can’t collect resource cards from that tile.

 

After you have your resource cards you have an opportunity to trade with other players. You can exchange resource cards from your hand with them or trade through port settlements or the bank, just like you can in Catan. After you’re done trading, you build. You can spend resource cards to buy roads, settlements, development cards, etc. After building comes the combat step, so you can attack with a creature by using a newly paved road. After you do combat damage, your turn is done and then the next player starts at the beginning. The game keeps going until someone eliminates all the other players. To simplify things and shorten the game, you may want to discuss the procedure for what happens to the settlements, roads, development cards, and resource cards of the defeated player. My vote: their creatures and development cards go away, but their roads stay intact. Their resource cards go the player that killed them, but their cities are destroyed in the process. That way the player who killed them won’t get a dominant advantage by acquiring the resources from that city, but the option is left open if they want to rebuild their own city in that spot.

 

Settlers of Catan is an awesome tabletop game that’s simple to learn, but tough to master. It can be a fun game to play with friends and developing your own special house rules and variants is half the fun. The same is true of “Settlers of the Multiverse.” Have fun, experiment, and shoot me some feedback on your experiences.

 

-GG

“In General” is the place where I share my ideas on unconventional topics that are often only tangentially related to Magic. This column is a mixed bag where I collect and present ideas that don’t have a home anywhere else. If you want a column about strategy, psychology, design, economics, philosophy, internet culture, and referential humor, you have come to the right place.

Series Navigation<< “In General” – Multiplayer TechnologyStrategy: “In General” – The State of the Format >>