Part I: Intro and Survivor Deck Construction
Everyone knows Horde Magic is awesome. If not, check out the original posts on the format by inventor Peter Knudson here and here. Be forewarned that a working knowledge of Horde Magic is required in order for this article series to be (hopefully) something other than gibberish.
Horde Magic brings a uniquely cooperative style to Commander somewhat akin to role-playing games and is much fun. But as with most variants (and especially sub-variants, thank you very much), there are some unintended consequences regarding certain card interactions that, unchecked, would ruin the experience. Peter’s follow-up post addressed some of those issues and proposed a ban list which has been expanded onhere. Presumably, as long as a Commander deck adhered to the spirit of that ban list, virtually any could with any other to battle the Horde. Even if certain cards would be ineffective or too good, the consensus seems to be “cycle it” and play on.
While I don’t disagree with the ban list, and in fact totally concur that the cards on it have no place in the format, it seems to me the experience would be enhanced if no card in your deck nonbos with the Horde. By way of easy example, take Strip Mine. That’s a Commander staple if there ever was one. But the Horde has infinite mana and no lands. Your Strip Mine is now clearly suboptimal. Sure, you can play it and tap it for colorless, but wouldn’t you rather play something more worthwhile? And even if you just “cycle it”, that is one less card in your deck for you to use. What’s the fun of that?
Regardless, I wanted to play Horde Magic, but a couple attempts with even my own “friendliest” of decks suggested I would be “cycling” a lot. Too much, in fact. Plus, I couldn’t play my combo-ish decks because it is unfulfilling and trivial to combo out against yourself (fishbowl, anyone?). Even heavy synergy seems a little silly given that the Horde isn’t exactly ace at interacting with the stack and stopping your plans, no matter how obvious or permanent-based. In other words, Commander decks in general seem to be a little too tough for an inanimate object to handle.
Given that the point of facing the Horde is to struggle to survive, I was willing to look outside of my Commander deck stable to improve my Horde experience.
So I turned to my inner Vorthos and really considered how to bring more role-playing game elements to Horde Magic. I know I’m not the first person to think about this kind of stuff, in terms of Horde Magic or Magic in general, but the best examples I found involve new card types that do not currently exist in legal M:tG sets or don’t involve Commander. My goal was to develop Commander-legal decks that, working together, would consider the Horde a significant, but not insurmountable, challenge, while making sure that each and every card choice would be useful and flavorful in Horde Magic. The only tools I wanted to use to play were the ones I would ordinarily use to play Commander, namely existing Magic cards and some dice (the only tiny caveat turned out to be that some rules ended up requiring one four-sided die and/or one eight-sided die).
Here and there on the interwebs a few like-minded folks have proposed preconstructed Commander “Survivor” decks specifically built to battle the Horde. One of the best brainstorms on the topic I found was here, where traditional RPG/D&D character classes would determine your general options and keep your deck’s power level under control. After ruminating on those posts, and as a long-time RPGer, I heard the clarion call of destiny: build Survivor Decks featuring generals that were both Human and each of the original Dungeons and Dragons, 2nd Ed. character classes: Warrior/Fighter, Magic User/Wizard, Rogue/Bard, and Cleric/Priest. Although there have been some fits and starts along the way, the results have included an expanding roster of decks for the format, no “cycling,” and a much more satisfying cooperative experience.
Although I will describe the metrics and additional rules considerations I used to build the decks and flesh out the format in detail below, I had a few restrictions in mind that guided the process from the outset. First and foremost, I wanted the decks to be affordable. You don’t need full sets of ABUR lands to have fun it turns out. Second, as the cooperative environment is perfect for teaching, I wanted the decks to be easy enough to play for new players, but tricksy enough for veterans to enjoy. Third, I wanted to tackle the issue of power variance between decks in Commander by applying the same deckbuilding restrictions to multiple decks so that each player would hopefully feel like they were impacting the game without anyone running away with it. Fourth, these restrictions allowed me to use a multitude of cards and strategies to which I never give a second thought when I build “real” Commander decks. Finally, I wanted the card choices to make sense in the context of the general’s flavor.
Ultimately, the budget and flavor restrictions I applied resulted in decks less powerful than their traditional Commander counterparts, allowing us to achieve the goal of Horde Magic as a format: giving the players a real threat to deal with. After all, in Horde Magic: Survivors, it’s not about winning. It’s about surviving.
Survivor Deck Construction
While I will get to general choices and deck lists in a moment, the first issue was to develop a suitable deck construction schematic for Horde Magic: Survivors (HMS, or just “Survivors”). As I mentioned above, the ban list proposed by Peter and expanded on here is great, and I adhere to it 100%. But if the Survivor decks want a real fight, additional consideration must be given to exactly what it is that makes things too easy for them. Thus, I present my Do Not Play List for Horde Survivor Decks (AKA 10 Commandments for HMS). Less a ban list and more a discussion of cards and categories of cards that just aren’t much fun against an inanimate opponent, applying these criterion has significantly improved the Horde’s chances and player enjoyment.
Without further ado, Do Not Play…
1. Sol Ring and friends. Yeah, surprise surprise, even a Survivor deck with first turn Sol Ring can get far enough ahead to negate the Horde outright. Much like in traditional Commander, that is no fun. So Sol Ring got the banhammer. And so did Mana Crypt, Mana Vault, Lion’s Eye Diamond and Grim Monolith. Basically, all the fast mana that’s banned on the French List is banned here too.
2. Anything that causes any player to pay life for an effect. In my meta, Survivors start with 60 life if there are three or four players, 80 for two, and 100 if you want to go solo for some reason, and the Horde always gets 200 cards to work with. These life points are too valuable to selfishly spend; resources are scarce in a Zombie apocalypse! Unsurprisingly, Black card draw takes the biggest hit, as staples such as Phyrexian Arena and its ilk are off limits. Fetch lands and other lands that include a payment of life are no go, so fetches and shocks are banned (note that this conveniently dovetails with the desire to keep the decks underpowered to increase the difficulty). So basically, if a card says “pay life”, it’s banned, even if it’s conditional.
3. Anything that causes an opponent to make a choice. The Horde is not capable of choice. Peter’s original rules contemplates having the Horde make choices as randomly as possible, and that’s fine, but I’m an impatient person, and it just seemed to make sense to ban Fact or Fiction, Intuition et al rather than roll dice every time we turn around. So I say default to the random choice rule if necessary, and avoid cards that would force the Zombies to choose if you can.
4. Mill effects. Given that in Horde Magic damage to the opponent results in milling equal to the damage, there is no fun in actually using mill effects against the Horde. Sorry Phenax.
5. Planeswalkers. Yeah, that’s not going to be a popular one, but again, the Horde is not really capable of choice. I like the suggestion to have the Horde attack with one zombie for each loyalty point, but that led to Planeswalker sandbagging (“hey, come munch on my Jace rather than me, yippee!”) that just didn’t seem fair or flavorful. Plus, this rule again works to keep the Survivor decks pleasantly underpowered and more affordable.
6. Anything that causes all players or any opponent to draw or clash. This rule builds on the previous one. The Horde deck’s mechanics do not depend in any way on drawing or scrying cards, so the ability to draw cards is not a factor in its threat level. Peter’s rules provide that the Horde plays the cards it draws as soon as possible with its infinite mana. I say Survivor decks should ban draw effects that include the Horde; if you cast Wheel of Fortune, even if the Horde gets to play its seven cards on its next main phase, the Survivors (assuming a game of four) still net a 21-card advantage. Seem too good to you? Banned. So red and some blue card draw take a hit here, and the Clash mechanic from Lorwyn is banned for this reason (and also because 65% of the Horde’s cards are CMC 0). This rule keeps Survivor decks simpler, less expensive, and less reliant on staples. What’s not to like?
OK, those were the easy ones. Ready for some brain teasers? Read on.
7. Any ability that creates an asymmetrical benefit for the Survivors that was intended to be symmetrical, and is thus disproportionately friendly to the Survivors relative to its casting cost. This is a hard concept to explain, so it might be best to start with an example. Take Lantern of Insight, which costs one colorless mana and (in relevant part) forces all players to reveal the top card of their libraries at all times. While that is not an overpowered effect by any stretch, the fact remains that the Survivors are the only ones who benefit from the information the revealed card provides. The Horde, as an inanimate opponent, does not benefit from this information. Thus, Lantern of Insight’s effect is not balanced by the fact that an opponent or opponents could also use the information, which also happens to be the drawback that makes the card reasonably cost 1 CMC. If the card read “all opponents play with their top card revealed,” that would be an effect that would cost much more than one.
In other words, the Survivors are leveraging much more value from a one-cost card than they should be able to. That is an unfair advantage for them. As such, any card that creates an asymmetrical benefit that is supposed to be symmetrical and is thus disproportionately powerful relative to its casting cost is banned.
Another good example would be Helm of Awakening. The Survivors can’t just put that card in their deck to reduce all costs of their spells, as the effect would only benefit them given the Horde has infinite mana. So the Helm is also banned.
By way of counterpoint, I am justifying Keeper of Progenitus because although the effect is not symmetrical, it wasn’t intended to be; opponents playing black or blue are SOL and so is the Zombie Horde.
Speaking of the color pie, what do we do about specific color hosers? When they were printed, cards such as Perish and Absolute Grace were absolute houses in the right matchup, but are meta-dependent on playability. In other words, they were designed to be sideboard cards. Are they too asymmetrical if you know you are always going to face an opponent heavy on a particular color?
Of course, the color-hoser issue is moot if you’re battling a Sliver Horde, Elemental Horde, or anything that’s not one or two colors, probably. But for Survivors fighting mostly mono-black Zombies, it’s definitely something to consider.
One suggestion was that the prevented damage should be proportional to the number of players; for example, if someone casts Riot Control in a four-player game, only 25% of the damage should be prevented. But if we play it like that, Riot Control probably isn’t good enough.
When in doubt: don’t play it. No more Riot Control for me, and lots of other Fogs to choose from.
8. Overtly broken cards/interactions. This is of course inherently subjective, and even though “we know it when we see it” lacksConstitutional muster, that’s pretty much what has to happen if you want an honest Horde experience. Expensive staples like Gaea’s Cradle, the ABUR duals, Swords of Stuff and Junk, and Force of Will just have no place in a format where the objective is to survive, not win. Likewise, things like Aluren/Cloudstone Curio shenanigans, Kiki Jiki, Deadeye Navigator, Palinchron, or anything else that just screams “broken” are banned. (Note: Humorously, Consecrated Sphinx gets no triggers in this format. Any time Mahamoti Djinn is a better card than C-Sphinx is a good time.)
9. Annoyingly recursive combos/synergies. You know what I mean. A good rule of thumb is that repeated effects are probably too good. Wrath of God is fine, recurring Wrath of God via E-Wit is fine, recurring Wrath of God via E-Wit under Mimic Vat every turn is not fine. In this example, the conclusion is that Mimic Vat shouldn’t be played in this format. While that is depressing, because Vat is fun, the good news is that there are 25,000+ other possibilities, just play something else!
10. Any combo, synergy or ability that makes you feel a little guilty when you play it. Sometimes, banning obvious brokenness is not enough; you have to cut cards only after you see for yourself how devastating they are against the Horde. Does Essence Warden seem broken to you? Ask yourself again after the Horde is held off by a 1 CMC. Banned. One of the great aspects of this format is to use cards that are otherwise too weak for your LGS Commander meta, so just find something else. Sometimes, that desire to use different cards results in unforeseen consequences and a corresponding ban hammer.
Finally, in addition to the hypothetical Mimic Vat example above, I have a feeling that other really good artifacts and enchantments are likely simply too good, because while the Horde does fine removing creatures on a somewhat regular basis, it just doesn’t have enough answers for those crushing Commander staples beyond a Plague Boiler or three. Think Grave Pact, Mana Echoes, the previously mentioned Cloudstone Curio, even Crystal Shard; in their own way, those highly efficient enablers are just as detrimental to the format as Moat. Banned.
Finally, while Fog effects in reasonable doses are legal, let’s not get all Angus McKenzie and pack Survivor decks chock full of Fogs. But I must say that Wrathing the board is often counterproductive in HMS, and Fog effects represent a nice alternative to broken one-sided removal a la Cyclonic Rift. Just don’t get carried away. After all, it’s not about winning. It’s about surviving.
So how much sense did that make? If it didn’t make enough, modify to your specifications. But I would submit that adherence thereto is a good start for a good time.
Next up: Part II: Survivor Generals: Strapping Up Your Commander and Anafenza’s Strike Force