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Commander in the Time of Coronavirus: Horde Magic


We are in strange times. There is absolutely no way around it. Schools the world around are canceled, people are working from home or not working at all, people are trying to figure out how to navigate a world where we have to stay six feet away from each other. More and more of us are being compelled to stay home for everything except basic necessities.

If you're grinding MOTO or playing a lot of Arena, you might be fine for your Magic fix. But Commander players are in a bind; it's a social format, compelling us to be together, to play together, to laugh together, all at a time when we can't be together.

So, if it's all right with everyone, I'm going to hit pause on our journey around the wheel and try to present some things to help keep our spirits up and keep us playing the game we love during this time of social distancing, self-quarantine, and isolation. I've got a couple of ideas and I suspect I'll need a few more before all this is over, but it's a big community. So, I'm going to start off where I normally end: if you have a way of continuing to play EDH during this time, please share it in the comments. We can explore it more fully in a column. (While I'm at it, Facebook has gotten rid of my account and won't let me start a new one or log in to my old one, so I can't respond. My editor can, though, so I'll have him post any responses.)

In the meantime, let's talk about Horde Magic. Former editor of this site and the mothership's former Serious Fun writer Adam Styborski made this format popular through his coverage of it, but it was invented by former Magic R&D intern Peter Knudson and presented to the world way back in 2011. It's a way of playing for anywhere from 1 to any number of players, so it seems perfect for right now.

The nice thing is you can build a Horde deck right now to play by yourself, and then when we can get together with our friends again you can play with them against the same deck, so it will hold its play value.

Here's the rundown:

  • A Horde deck is a 100-card deck. 60 of the cards will be tokens, 40 will be actual Magic cards.
  • The player(s) take their turns at the same time. They don't share mana pools, but attacking and blocking happens at the same time and are coordinated; the Horde attacks the assembled players, not individual players. Each player contributes 20 points to the group's life total, so 3 players will have a life total of 60.
  • The player(s) get three turns to set up before the Horde deck takes a turn.
  • The Horde deck has the following rules:

    • Each turn they turn over cards from the top of their deck until they turn over a non-token.
    • They have infinite mana and will cast everything.
    • Choices will be made as randomly as possible (though the deck should be built to avoid having to make choices).
    • All Horde creatures have Haste and "this creature attacks each turn if able."
    • The Horde deck has no life total. Every damage taken results in a card being milled from the deck to the graveyard.
    • The Horde deck cannot gain life in any way.
    • The Horde cannot search its library for any reason.
    • The Horde will always attack players, not Planeswalkers.
    • The Horde has no hand, so any spell which directs that a card go to its hand [either] fizzles [or] sends the card to their graveyard [or] sends the card to their library in random order [or] sends the card to the top of their library (take your pick).
  • The Horde deck loses if it has no cards left in its library. The Horde deck wins if the players' life total is reduced to 0 or below. There are no other win or loss conditions.

It seems that in this time of global pandemic, fewer things could be more appropriate for the Horde than Rats. Let's see what we can do.

There are a few ways to do this, but this is one of the most direct. We ignore Tribal buffs like Door of Destinies or Adaptive Automaton in favor of more Rats. In fact, the only non-Rats are Ogre Slumlord (which gives our Rats Deathtouch) and Midnight Scavengers, who would be called "rats" when discussed in polite company and melds with Graf Rats to make Chittering Host, which is like the biggest baddest Eldrazi (non-)Rat out there.

One thing about Rats is they're truly relentless. They have incredible immune systems, which is one of the reasons they carry so many diseases - they don't get sick themselves, so they can kind of live anywhere without fear. They're also limited to spaces only by the size of their skulls; they can squeeze into any hole as long as their head can fit through it. Once they get somewhere, they're notoriously hard to get rid of. Only through diligence, care and teamwork can they be exterminated.

Rats in Magic also have some very specific skills. They're often strengthened by how many other Rats are around. They often have Fear, which is old-school Menace. They regularly make opponents discard cards or, worse, permanently reduce the hand size of their opponents. They're insidious, frightening, and take away all the things we like to do.

But they can be beaten. Wrath effects will work wonders. Silent Arbiter or Crawlspace can help. Larger creatures with Trample or Flying ignore the Rats completely, stomping them underfoot or eying them as mere specks on the ground. Counterspells will prevent spells other than measly 1/1s from entering the battlefield. Traumatize, anyone? Maybe Narset, Parter of Veils.

The rules up there are for Horde Magic in general, and I encourage you to build a Horde deck in any way you like. However, if you want to play this one, there are some specific rules to try and a few ways to adjust the power level of the Horde.

  • Marrow-Gnawer only attacks.
  • Whenever a Rat says each "player" discards a card, it means "opponent."
  • Skullsnatcher will exile the two most recent cards in the damaged player's graveyard, and Ruin Rat will exile the most recent card from a randomly chosen player.
  • Sinuous Vermin will be Monstrous immediately.
  • Midnight Scavengers will return the most recently deceased Rat.
  • Ink-Eyes will always return whichever creature died most recently for that player.
  • Ogre Slumlord's "may" ability is treated as a "must" ability.

Built with 100 cards and 60 tokens, the Horde deck is quite difficult to defeat with one player. However, there are ways to make the game a bit easier. You can reduce the number of tokens (thereby reducing the size of the deck and lowering the Horde's life total, in addition to limiting the number of Rats on the field). You can reduce the number of Relentless Rats tokens, as those can get out of hand quickly. You can up your own life total; why not start with 40 life? In fact, for the first game or two alone, I'd go with 80 cards, cut all the Relentless Rats and tokens to get to 80, and start with 40 life. Plus I'd run my deck with the most board wipes!

You can also make the Horde more formidable. Make all the tokens Relentless Rats tokens (!), or worse, Pack Rat tokens (!!!). Add in a copy or two or three of Kindred Dominance, or throw in those tribal buffs Obelisk of Urd or Coat of Arms.

You may have to make up some rules. There are a lot of cards in Magic, and some of them will interact poorly with a Horde. What happens if you cast a Fact or Fiction? You don't have an opponent, so you're going to have to make it up. You could choose randomly (flip a coin for each card), decide for yourself, or decide you don't have an "opponent" so there's no way to resolve the spell and it fizzles. Other things will come up: what if you force the Horde to discard? Or return something to its hand? Make decisions as they come up, just make sure you're giving yourself a challenge.

Also, no need to buy a million (well, 60) Rat tokens. This is a great use for all those tips cards and ad cards you know you've got in a box somewhere, or just excess lands and a Sharpie. Make a project out of it, drawing rats on each one! Even if you can't draw, it'll be hilarious and fun, plus you could get your roommates or family in on the project - everyone draws 12 Rats or whatever. Heck, now may be the time to teach your family to play Magic - build enough simple decks (Creatures and Sorceries only, maybe, and single color) for everyone and teach them the basics, then take on the Horde deck together. Families and housemates, coming together even while distant from their friends, to beat back the disease.

Thanks for reading. Stay safe, everybody.

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