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CasualNation #16 - Top Ten Variants Of All Time


Hello nation! I wanted to take a second and let you folks know that I've had fun writing for this here site, and there are some very cool writers here. If you are reading this simply because you transplanted from my column over at SCG, make sure you check out the other writers here. I particularly enjoy Adam Willson and Robby Rothe.

Ever since Magic was changed to go from 40 card decks to 60 card decks and four of each card, there have been a ton of innovations to the way people play the game. From limited formats to multiplayer variants, from duels to deckbuilding rules, there have been a ton of variants to this game we all love. As the guy who has championed an eon of formats from his articles for a decade, I felt it would be a lot of fun to count down what I feel are the ten best variants of all time. Does that sound like an interesting article? Well, I hope so! (In order to prevent self-serving-ness, any formats I've created are not eligible.)

And since it sounds pretty nifty-keen-cool, let's just move into the whole article now, eh?

Oh, and what would a Top Ten list be without some Honorable Mentions?

Honorable Mention #1 – Type Four – Aka, Limited Infinity, aka awesome. It's a mana-free format that includes big spells, big swings, and just one spell a turn from you. When we introduced it to our playgroup, it was not only a ton of fun, but I think it really helped to make many of them better players. You are hardened by the fire of Type Four. For those who do not know, the rules are simple – draft, you can make any amount of mana with any color, but you can play just one spell a turn. It's rocking and powerful. I have it on my list to write a full article about someday soon.

Honorable Mention #2 – Mental Magic – For those who do not know, Mental Magic is very simple. Shuffle a random stack of cards together and draw. You can play any card as a land that can tap for any color. You can play a card as any card of that casting type in the game, you just have to know what the card is. Suppose your random stack of cards has an Elite Vanguard, and you are attacked by a big creature. You can tap a land and play the Elite Vanguard as a Swords to Plowshares. Then no one else can use Swords to Plowshares for the rest of the game. The result is a quirky format that none of my friends ever want to play with me, because I have a very extensive knowledge of Magic cards. So I make sure to abuse Richard Garfield, Ph.D. as much as possible in casual games!

Honorable Mention #3 – Momir Vig Basic – This is a Magic Online format that is built around the avatar for Momir Vig, which is a Vanguard card as well (as you'll recall, we talk about those in last week's article – it's all connected, baby!). You get +4 life, no extra cards with him. This format sees you build a 60 card basic land deck, and then you just activate Momir Vig. You can pay X mana and discard a card. Then you put into play a creature token that's a copy of a randomly chosen creature with that mana cost. So if you spend three mana and discard a random card, you could get a Feral Shadow or a Proteus Machine or a Farhaven Elf. Then you do battle with the creatures you make. The format is AWESOME, because it plays so differently from normal Magic. It's hard to find a game these days though. I'm currently working on creature stacks to play this offline, as I've heard some do. We'll see how it goes there.

Now onto the official top ten.

10. Auction – One of the coolest ways to play a limited format is to shuffle the cards, and then auction them off to players. Just how much is that Fireball worth to you, hmmm? You start with an arbitrary number of bucks, say 100, and people bid on cards. Will they bid on the solid but unexciting creatures for their deck? After playing some auctions, I have to say that it works best when everyone can see the cards ahead of time. Open the boosters, lay the cards out, let people see what's getting auctioned, then shuffle and choose randomly. Alternatively, you could let one person choose which card goes up for auction. Make sure you don't blow all of your money early! Once you've played a few auctions, you simply are not going to want to stop – the strategies are endless!

9. Peasant – Pez was the first format I ever recall where the rarity of a card was a part of the format. With only 5 uncommons and no rares allowed, Peasant was an awesome idea for a nice, cheap, and fun format. Uncluttered by many of the stars of the day (Wrath of God, Armageddon, Ancestral Recall, and more), it was a great format for a long time. I wrote an article critical of how the format had evolved a few years later, because uncommons of severe value (Library of Alexandria) were running around. In response, the community responded strongly and created a Ruling Council, and invited me to be a part of it. After making a few bannings, the format blossomed into a new age that lasted for a few years. It's been largely replaced by Pauper Magic today, since Pauper is cleaner. Jason Chapman, the writer of Peasant Magic over at pojo.com, was one of my favorite writers of the era.

8. Quest – This will be the only variant or format from a computer game on my Top 10. It's the latest addition to Forge, a free to download program that I featured recently. It is also one of the most addicting Magic variants of all time. You start with a sealed pool of cards and have to built into a new deck after playing against tougher and tougher opponents. I love formats where you start with crap, and have to built yourself up over time – look at Magicshop, Shandalar, and my own Magic: the Role-Playing Game for other examples.

7. Rochester – One of the greatest losses to limited play was when Rochester stopped being an actual format used at the high level events. That led to it not being played at Magic Online, which means I was unable to play it. Rochester is so simple that it is awesome in concept. The problem is that it makes drafting take a longer time. Who cares? It also makes drafting a ton more fun! For those who don't know, Rochester works like this: Assume eight players in a draft pod. Crack a pack and turn all cards face up. The first person takes a card. The next person takes a card. It continues until the 8th person takes a card, and then they also take the 9th card and it reveres direction. The person who got the first card does not get another. Then the next person over cracks the next pack, and play continues. The result is that you know, exactly, what cards are out there, what issues you should encounter, how to build a deck to beat your first round opponent, and often, when to grab a card to prevent it from breaking the table wide open. It changes the draft value of some cards significantly. Imagine you were drafted B/U and you knew your first round opponent was G/W. How highly would you value that Deathmark? Would you main deck it, despite knowing it would be a dead card in later matches? This was the awesomeness of Rochester Draft.

6. Emperor – Who has not played Emperor? It's a classic multiplayer format, going all the way back to the dawn of time. The concept is simple. There is an Emperor for each team. If he dies, the team loses. On either side of the Emperor are two generals. You can only attack those that are adjacent to you, and spells have a limited range, preventing you from hitting the opposing Emperor until you've taken down a General. You can also move your own creatures into your General's command as the Emperor. I've played it with two and three teams. I've even played it with a group of five on a side, where the two at the ends are just Colonels. It combines a lot of the elements of early Magic multiplayer rules – limited attacks, spell range, and such. It is the iconic multiplayer variant of all time, and it's still a lot of fun to play.

5. Commander – Well, we've reached the top half of my countdown, and that means these are the five best formats and variants to Magic of all time (according to me!). Commander is a great format to play! Whether online or in real life, swinging 100 card highlander decks with some of the classics is always fun to play. The flavor of the format is very high. You have a Commander, and you can bring them back again and again, building around their colors, their strengths, and their weaknesses. The format is known for swinging games from one end to the other. It's about to get cards developed specifically for it (and multiplayer in general too) (which is terribly exciting!). It has become the banner alternate format for casual players everywhere, and that's because it's a lot of fun. There's a reason Emperor became iconic – it's a ton of fun to play. The same is true of Commander, and its day in the sun is well deserved.

4. Secret Alliances – Where Emperor is the iconic multiplayer variant, Secret Alliances is the great unsung hero. I've played it in a ton of groups and they always adore it. I've written about it once or twice. We picked it up from a Magic magazine about a decade ago. The idea is simple. Ideally it's played with five players. You grab five Magic cards – a basic land of each of two types, a card of the color of the basic land, and an artifact. (So, an example, you could have Mountain, Lightning Bolt, Island, Unsummon, and Ornithopter). Then you shuffle them and give them, face down, to each player. The two basic lands flip theirs up. They are on opposite teams. If you have the card that matches a basic land, then you are that player's teammate. If you have the artifact, then you are neutral. You can attack anybody, including your teammate. However, some spells and effects only affect opponents. Then you must reveal that you are not affected by your ally (or that they are not affected by your ability). The winning team must defeat both members of the other team. The neutral person wins by surviving. You reveal your card if you die, but cannot simply tell someone you are their ally. The format results in having a lot of misdirection, suspicion, and fun. Sometimes there are two battles. One between the revealed lands and one between those face down, until someone crosses the stream and then everyone starts attacking their enemies. Yes, I am the person who once killed a teammate about to die so people would think I was their enemy, and then played it as if I was the other team's ally until I got them to kill their actual ally unknowingly, and then defeated them in a duel. The teammate I killed ending up winning (by being on the right side). The format can be used for 6 (three teams and no neutrals), 7, (three teams, one neutral), 8 (three teams and two neutrals or four teams), but really doesn't work with 4 or less. You need at least three cards face down to give the game some suspense. Anyway, I hope you can see just how freaking awesome Secret Alliances is, so let's move to #3 on the countdown.

3. Anaconda - The highest charting limited format is the awesomeness of Anaconda Draft. I haven't even seen one in ages. I've always loved the crap out of them, because it makes one, small change to drafting, and completely changes drafting. Have you ever opened up a pack, or got passed one that had a ton of goods in it for your deck? Did you feel it was unfair you just could take one card from it? Then Anaconda Draft is for you! You start a booster draft like normal. You pick a card and then everybody passes. Then you pick a card. And everybody passes. However, each time, after you have taken your normal card, you can exchange cards you have already picked for those in the pack for a 1:1 basis. Perhaps you get passed the third pack, and that Dark Banishing and Howling Banshee tells you Black is very open. Okay, you'll just draft one, toss back one of these two adequate Blue cards for the other, and then pass. At the beginning of the next pack, after you take your first pick, why not take a few more from this virginal pack by sending in those late drafted cards for some goods here? Perhaps something someone else thought was chaff for their deck is really good for you. The last Anaconda draft I played I had drafted a bunch of slivers early, and people didn't see. So I kept tossing out a Hivestone for better cards in the first pack, the second pack, and then took it with one of my last picks in the third pack. It made my deck amazing, and I got several cards for it by using it again and again as an Anaconda card. You can also see someone just change colors completely in the second pack, and then you see a pack of 13 White cards. It's funny! Anaconda is an awesome way to draft!

2. Five Color – If you have any knowledge of me in the least, then you know that this format would be scoring highly in today's article. This format requires you to build a deck of at least 300 cards and 25 cards of each color. It has its own banned and restricted list. I was on the Five Color Ruling Council for years, and helped to oversee the awesomeness of it. To this day, Five Color is one of the best experiences I've had playing Magic. We still play versions of Five Color decks in my casual group. It is transformative. People love playing it. For a while, Five Color was THE casual format, much like Commander is today, but it had several flaws Commander never did. For one, it was played for a long time for ante, and that just sent away scores of people. Secondly, a lot of people didn't know how to start with a 250 card deck (at the time). It was for jaded veterans who were looking for something different, not for newer players. Finally, Commander has flavor. The idea of building a deck around a single legendary creature is fresh, interesting, makes sense, and drips with flavor. Commander is a great format, but Five Color is just at another level. Feel free to try it out! (You can find the B&R list here: http://www.5-color.com/page/banned)

1. Highlander – That this is NOT Five Color may shock people. Did you know that Highlander is actually a format? A lot of people think Highlander is just playing with just one card, but it's not. Check it out here: http://www.highlandermagic.info/ A few things are important to note about Highlander. It makes every other format more fun! What is better than Five Color? Five Color Highlander! What is better than Pauper? Pauper Highlander! Imagine if Elder Dragon Highlander was just Elder Dragon. Yuck. It's not even worth considering. Highlander is like salt. It enhances the flavor of so many other formats. It's been around since the beginning days of Magic. It has not only sustained through to today, but it has become the foundation of the casual format du jour. It gets added to everything from Standard to both Prismatic AND Pauper to create PPS online (and Acid off line). Highlander is the secret ingredient that makes everything worth playing. Here's a secret about Highlander. One way to keep Highlander as a fresh and exciting format is to simply take your Highlander decks that have gotten old, and add more cards to it. Keep adding cards until it's fresh again! Who cares if you are playing 150 card Commander decks or 500 card Five Color decks? Are you having fun? Then that's what matters! Highlander is the ultimate format of all time.

With three honorable mentions and a list that includes ten of the hottest variants of all time, I hope that you found something in here worth trying out! If not, at least you can argue with what you think goes in the top ten instead of my stuff!

See you next week,

Abe Sargent

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