This entry is part 1 of 13 in the series Notions of Horde

Billy headshot

By Billy


Most of my articles have been about specific hordes, suggestions for building them, and commentary on lists I’ve created. Today, I’m going to do something different: I’m going to talk about my process, and how it leads to a final list.


Step 1: Find a Theme

This is harder than it sounds (especially if you want a good theme). I haven’t written very many of these articles, and already I’m feeling the noose of design space closing on me. A good horde theme will guide your decisions through the rest of the process, and hopefully inspire you to create something unique and fun. For practicality’s sake, a horde theme needs on-theme tokens, a clear flavor or mechanical Identity, and fun cards that work in a horde setting.


Really, the most important thing is to include fun cards, but clear themes help make your horde feel different from other hordes and frequently can net you fun and power through synergy cards like Diregraf Captain. Your theme can be anything, within reason. “Artifacts” is a great theme. Bring on the robotic overlords! “Birds,” maybe not. That’s way more evasion than works out for an interactive horde experience. I’ve tried it twice, and there’s no good way to line that up.


This is the point where you get on Gatherer and start looking up thematic cards while figuring out what the feel of this horde will be. This is the point where I decided my Eldrazi horde would be focused on the boss monsters and Godzilla-style beasts. If things aren’t looking good at this point, you may want to consider looking at a different theme.


Step 2: Pick Horde-Worthy Cards

This is one of the trickier parts, and one that has killed a few of my ideas. Are there enough cards that the horde can use that are still on-theme? This is can be difficult when some of the best thematic cards for a player’s deck rely on activated abilities–abilities which the horde can’t necessarily activate.


Take a Zombie deck, for example. Havengul Runebinder is a fun card for a Zombie tribal deck, but is very hard to rule for a horde due to being both an activated ability and a targeted ability. Imperious Perfect is a better choice for an Elf horde, due to it giving out a static boost, and having an activated ability that doesn’t target, and could easily be ignored without removing all the utility from the card.


Adaptive Automaton can fill the “Lord” role for any horde, and is a nice crutch for WOTC to give us, but I need a thematically appropriate Advisor Lord for my brilliant bureaucracy-themed deck.  My suggestion is to look for unique or on-theme cards with a mix of sizes, abilities, with a notable focus on static abilities. Diregraf Captain and friends are great for their respective tribes. They have a numerical bonus for their type, as well as a second static or triggered ability that also interacts with their compatriots. These are very strong, synergistic cards that tie the horde together.


Not everything needs to be a synergy piece, though. Sometimes you need big individual threats or even just filler cards. Look for opportunities to include large thematic creature. Krosan Beast can serve this role in a Squirrel horde, while Heedless One or Elvish Aberration are solid Elf examples. These cards aren’t there to boost their friends; they’re there to bring up the average Power/Toughness of the horde. Remember that your tokens are the baseline minimum for your horde, and having more variation gives the horde a little bit different texture, and adds unpredictability. Unpredictability equals replay value in Horde, so the more variance you can work in without swinging the power level into too high, the better.


To that end, add some disruptive spells to the horde. That could be anything from Plague Wind, to Balance, or Scab-Clan Giant. Some themes are going to be better at this than others, but I suggest you dig deep to find the sorts of effects that’ll keep the horde’s creatures alive while harming the players. Whelming Wave is great for Sea Monsters while Harsh Mercy can fit in most places, while also encouraging you players to consider building tribal decks


Step 3: Adjust Power Level

At this point you should have amassed a pretty big list of idea cards, so now we need to decide what we’re keeping and what we’re cutting. The Original Zombie Horde had a 60/40 split of tokens/non-tokens. This means that (on average) there will be about three tokens revealed for every two nontoken creatures/spells. That’s not a bad ratio, especially since there will always be clumps and long runs of either tokens or nontokens. If you want your horde to be more of a swarm–a mass of tokens with a few larger champions–you can tick up the number of tokens to taste. Be careful with ticking it down, though, as the fewer tokens in the deck, the more likely the horde has one-card turns. That’s ok if your nontoken spells are so massive in impact as to compensate, but those spells are hard to find.


There is also the danger of low variance when changing the token ratio. A higher token count means larger armies on the table, but it also reduces variance simply because there are now fewer nontoken options to come off the top. That affects replayability, because it’ll get boring if it plays the same every time.


Once you know how many cards you’re keeping, it’s time to start cutting the questionable cards on both sides of the power spectrum. Squire’s probably not worth a card slot in a challenging horde, while Emrakul, the Aeons Torn is a bit beyond the pale for all but the most insane of Horde-builders.


Be on the lookout for “I Win” cards, too. They may be exactly what you want to cheat out in competitive formats, but these cards ruin the players’ fun. Frequently they end games before they begin, or represent a surprise loss players cannot interact with. Eldrazi Titans, Insurrection, and Blightsteel Colossus are all examples of cards to be avoided. However, you do want your nontoken spells to have a noticeable effect on the board almost every time you see them come up. There’s no need for each of them to be an utter gamechanger, but you want them to do something more than the tokens. Whether they add evasion, size, or synergy, nontoken spells need to do something splashy.


The next thing to look at is to make sure you don’t have any infinite combos. While designing The Wrath of the Gods, I had Eidolon of Blossoms in one draft for days before I realized it would lead to the horde drawing its entire deck and decking itself. That’s an easier mistake to make than you’d think, and there are many strange interactions in Magic to look out for.


Step 4: BATTLE!

Play games. Play with different people, different numbers of people, and different decks. Make sure it’s working how you want and, if not, repeat Step 3 as necessary. Check new sets for more cards that fit your theme. Zombies recently got Diregraf Colossus in Shadows Over Innistrad, and there’s always something new just over the horizon.


Keep it fresh, keep in fun, and if it gets boring remember: you can always change it. It’s your horde; it’s your own closed environment. Above all else, Magic should always be fun.
Good luck, and share your builds in the comments!


Series NavigationNotions of Horde: Eternal Musings >>

2 Responses to “Notions of Horde: Skeleton of a Horde”

  1. Alex Cook said

    Yea the theme is always the hard part – once you get that it’s easy to put something together. Great read, thanks!

    • ggodo said

      Can I ask what you’ve built? I’m always interested in what other people have done for their hordes.

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