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CasualNation #54 – Secret Alliances Again


Hello, Nation! On October 8, 2001, I had my first Magic article published. As part of a recent tenth-anniversary article I wrote for StarCityGames, I looked through a lot of my old articles. During my search, I was reminded about one of my favorite formats of all time. In Casual Nation #16, I put Secret Alliances as my fourth-favorite variant of Magic of all time. I love it! I started wondering why I wasn’t playing it more.

I introduced it to some of the people I was playing with, and they really embraced it. I thought it would be fun to write up Secret Alliances for the 2011 crowd, and also to talk about strategies and stories from the format.

Secret Alliances

Secret Alliances is a variant of multiplayer. It can be played with any multiplayer format. Play it with your Commander decks this week. It requires very little preparation, and it can be played with five or more people. (You can play with four, but it’s really not as good.) I feel that the ideal number is in the five-to-seven range, but I’ve played great games that had more. This format was from an old magazine years and years ago—I’m not sure if it was Inquest, or Scrye, or what have you.

At the beginning of the game, you have everybody take one card face-down from a prepared stack. Those who have basic lands flip their cards. They are enemies. If you have a nonland, you are the teammate of whoever flipped the land of the associated color. You just don’t tell anyone.

Let’s say we have six players. The prepared stack is composed of an Island, Mountain, Plains, Demystify, Unsummon, and Rock Badger. Everybody draws a card, and the Island, Mountain, and Plains flip and are revealed. If I have the Rock Badger, I know that the Mountain is my ally and teammate. The player with the Mountain does not know that.

You reveal your cards upon death.

Now, having played the format for years and years, let me tell you that nothing hurts the format more than a card with the mechanic that reads, “All opponents do X.” If you play a Liliana's Specter, what do you do? I believe the best answer is to only have it affect the people on your side. Are you a flipped land? Then your Liliana's Specter only forces discard from the other flipped lands. Similarly, if you are face-down, everyone else who is face-down discards.

You may attack anyone—even your teammate.

Whichever team is the last standing wins. If you have an odd number of players, one face-down person is given a colorless card. He is neutral, and he wins by surviving. In a five-player game, you can have three winners, and that’s nice.

Now that we’ve discussed the rules of the game, let’s review the strategy.

Secret Alliances Unmasked

The players with face-up lands have it rough. Because everyone knows who they are, they are often attacked early and powerfully. It’s a slaughterhouse for them. It’s almost like being on the end in an Emperor game. All of the face-up people know they are enemies of each other, and they know that, if they are vulnerable, they will get attacked by face-down players as well. Even the neutral person might attack.

If you are the face-up person, make sure that you play your cards with that understanding. Prepare to fend off waves of attackers. Prepare to take advantage of an opening that any other face-up person has. Don’t hesitate.

The game is different, though. If a face-down player’s card is a threat, do you take it out? Normally, any player with a Bringer of the Blue Dawn is going to find it killed with alacrity. A face-down person has it out, and you, a face-up person, have a Terror. Should you play it? Should you allow him to draw a ton of cards off it? What if he is an enemy? What if he is your ally?

It changes the whole nature of multiplayer. What often happens is that two separate games take place. All face-up players knows they are enemies of every other face-up player, and, similarly, for face-down players. So face-ups are attacking and destroying cards face-ups play, while face-downs are doing the same. Then a face-down crosses the streams by attacking the Island player for 7 damage. It’s all crazy!

It’s also really easy to play politics. I’ll regularly attack my ally in order to look like I’m not his ally, and then I’ll sail through and kill an enemy who left his defenses open by swinging all-out at my ally while expecting me to follow suit. On the other hand, since I regularly attack my ally, in some games, I will attack my enemy, so people think I may have attacked my ally, and confusion sets in again.

How do the neutral players roll? Do they sit back or get involved? Do they sell their services to the highest bidder?

It’s a very interesting, and detailed, environment.

Other Ways to Play

There are many other ways to play, but I recommend playing the game through before deciding what alternate rules to use. I actually prefer Option 1 and Option 2, but not the others.

  1. Only face-up cards roll to go first. This helps them out, as they can nab a little extra speed.
  2. The land card that face-ups flip over is actually in play; they can tap them for mana, it doesn’t count against their lands, it can be destroyed or landwalked, etc. Since they are often exposed, this is another way to help them ramp up to speed.

  3. Use multiple neutral people. It’s a nice diversion, but I don’t regularly like too many neutral people. Maybe you will!
  4. Have the neutral person flip up a colorless land. Also a nice diversion, but the neutral person often has less of an incentive to get involved in the game. As a face-down card, neutrals are attacked and brought into the game by other face-down cards. Who attacks the face-up neutral?
  5. Have “all opponent” cards literally work as a way to find out who everyone is. I used to play like this for years. It changes the metric of the game. As a face-down card, it can really kill you, literally, to have your ally expose you by playing a stupid little Rishadan Cutpurse. Now, you are essentially a face-up card but without any preparation. Before it’s your turn, you are attacked twice by face-up cards, and your life total has been reduced by 7. Also, the whole point of the format is the mystery, and allowing these sorts of cards to sniff out who is what seems a bit off to me. If you like it, great! To each group their own. But I’ve come to the conclusion that this has too much baggage.
  6. Add gold cards. You could have an all-color card instead of neutral and you could have people who win with winners on two different teams, and this really plays with people’s heads. You could also flip this and add dual lands for the lands and regular colors for the face-down people. For example, instead of Island, Forest, Mountain, you could have Tropical Island, Taiga, and Volcanic Island. You win if either of your colors wins. The same is with gold cards face-down; you win if either of your colors wins. This is a fun way to make larger numbers of players workable. For example, with nine players, you could have three basic lands, three monocolored cards, and three gold cards.

The Stories

Some of the best stories from multiplayer Magic come from this variant. (A variant is a different way of playing; a format is a different way of building decks. Emperor is a variant; Highlander is a format.)

There are a lot of times when someone would do something completely against his card. Let me tell you a few stories.

We’ve all seen someone angered after dying in a game, and he grabs what I gently refer to as a spite deck. This is a deck designed to kill one person, fast, in a blaze of glory. It’s usually Red with a lot of fast burn. By the way, one of my basic multiplayer rules is to never take stuff personally. You shouldn’t. But, let says someone at your group goes off, grabs his spite deck, and the next game is good ol’ Secret Alliances. What happens when that person is the ally of his target?

That happened once. He had pulled out the burn deck and was set for redemption. The cards were selected. He was the face-down ally of his foe, who was playing face-up. For a few turns, nothing, then his foe was attacked a few times for minor damage and was at 16. Then, at the end of his fourth turn, he went, “Lightning Bolt. Chain Lightning. Incinerate. Fireblast. Fireblast. You’re dead.” He immediately flipped over his card, showing that he had just burn-killed his ally, and said, “It was worth it!”

We ended that game early, but it was a sight to see.

One of my favorite stories is one I’ve told before. We were playing a five-person game with two teams and one neutral player. I made sure cards actually had two of one land, none of another, and a neutral person. I also cheated and made sure I got the land with two allies.

We started playing like normal, and it wasn’t long before both of my allies killed my face-up opponent. Now, at that point, we’d technically won, since every player left was neutral or on one team, but I just let everybody keep playing. Naturally, the two face-down players who teamed up to defeat my foe thought that the neutral person was the other enemy. After tag-teaming to take him down, he revealed he was neutral, and they just looked at each other. Clearly, one had been playing as my ally but was not! Which one? So, I declared that I wouldn’t be involved and that they had to kill each other. I didn’t want to kill one and find out that I had accidentally killed my ally only to be stabbed in the back. So, I let them go at it, and each of them wound up the other more and more, until one died and revealed that he was my ally. Then, the other looked fazed and revealed that he was my ally, too. Laughter ensued!

There was another time when a face-up player quickly defeated her enemy with a White Weenie rush-style deck. She was bored with the pace of the game, so she started attacking the face-down person who she thought was her enemy, and she killed him. He kept saying, “You don’t want to do that.” She thought he was baiting her. After, he revealed he was her ally, and anger ensued.

Magic is about stories. Multiplayer is even more about them. It’s about the good times you have with each other. If you were to ask me what the greatest accomplishment of my Magic career was, I wouldn’t say writing, but making many friends. Those two to three years when everybody was coming to my place on Friday night with twelve to eighteen people each week to flip cards was the best part of my Magic life, and I’ll never forget it.

Secret Alliances helps to turn those multiplayer games into events. It helps you make the stories you’ll tell and retell each other. In short: It’s awesome!

Like many Magic variants, you might build a deck for it. Just like you know the Standard metagame, so you build a deck for it, and just like you know the Emperor metagame, so you build a deck for it, you’ll learn how your group plays Secret Alliances. Decks that can prevent an early onslaught might be really keen for being the face-up land. Or, perhaps, you’ll want to be the quick-striker attacker. You’ll figure it out. If you haven’t played Secret Alliances, check it out!

I recently opened my Innistrad boxes, so I have cards for decks. I feel that Innistrad is to Magic as Ravenloft was to D&D. Ravenloft was fun, so that’s okay. Heck, I’m currently running a forum-based werewolf (Mafia) game that is set in the world of Masque of the Red Death. If you are interested in following along, check it out here.

Anyway, if you’ve played Secret Alliances, let me know what you thought. Have tons of fun!

Until later,

Abe Sargent

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