Smithers... Release The Hordes!
I'm a huge fan of cooperative games, so when I saw Peter Knudson's Horde variant, I jumped right on it. After reading the original article, I built a Zombie Horde deck right away, then invited some friends over to give it a try. There ended up being eight of us, so we had quite an evening of poolside EDH and Zombie-testing.
From the original idea, I thought that given that we were playing EDH, there shouldn't be more than one of any non-token in the Zombie deck, so I swapped in other Zombies for them. I had only 53 Zombie tokens on hand, so that's what I put in. Having not played the variant before, I simply grabbed cards that I thought might be cool. Here's what I built (although I've already taken out a bad Zombie and put in Syphon Mind):
All Is Dust
Army of the Damned
Call to the Grave
Death Pits of Rath
Endless Ranks of the Dead
Rank and File
Skullbriar, the Walking Grave
Zombie Giant Tokens 5
Zombie Tokens 53
I also grabbed a banned list for the Survivor decks off of Peter's follow-up article (which is linked from the above page):
Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite
Leyline of Singularity
Magus of the Moat
Urabrask the Hidden
Instead of having people modify their decks, we simply agreed that if you drew a banned card, you'd cycle it—and if it mattered, like on a Living Death, that card couldn't come into play. We also agreed that if someone had another card that simply won for the Survivors by shutting down the Zombie deck, we'd note it and not play it. More later on what we came up with.
I think we ended up playing 12 games, although I only have notes on 10 (and we didn't play any games with only 2 Survivors, which I'll try to do a few games of this week and report back). I'll note that we played each game with the 100 cards, not the modified deck size as Peter originally suggested. We did, however, play with 20 life per person. As we played games and noted trends, we modified the rules to see if we could make things more balanced. It was clear early on that with well-tuned EDH decks, a three-turn head start for the Survivors was way too much (even though the Zombies won the first game). There were also a number of games when at a certain point, we knew the Zombies couldn't win—like in the case all their recursion or bombs were in the graveyard and our life was high enough.
GAME 1: 3 man, 3 turns.
Shea was playing Cromat, Mike playing Mayael the Anima, and I have Phelddagrif. With three turns, we were actually establishing some good control and had milled quite a few cards—which proved to be our undoing when the Zombies cast Living Death, putting 21 Zombies into play, to include the difference-making Undead Warchief. We lost to 64 damage. If we could just get rid of the Warchief, we were good, but none of us had anything.
GAME 2: 4 man, 3 turns.
We added Ben and his Progenitus Planeswalker Control deck, and the Zombies simply didn't have a chance. Ben's T3 Pernicious Deed kept us from taking too much damage early, and we even survived the Zombies' All Is Dust. Our level of control provided way too much, as we ended the game with 113 life.
GAME 3: 4 man, 2 turns.
Todd with Rith, the Awakener, and Michael with Karador, Ghost Chieftain, replaced Shea and Mike. This was a real teamwork game, where Todd sacrificed his own individual development for the team by playing turn 1 Maze of Ith and turn 2 Vesuva, copying it. That kept the biggest Zombies off our back early. We ended the game with 61 life.
GAME 4: 4 man, 2 turns.
Same lineup. The Zombies got seven guys on turn 4, and it was almost enough, but Rith hitting once made enough blockers for us to Survive and then gain control.
GAME 5: 4 man, 2 turns
GAME 6: 4 man, 0 turns
We decided to see what happened if we didn't have extra turns on the Zombies. We went first and didn't draw. The game was in some doubt when the Zombies cast Army of the Damned, but I could Twincast it to maintain equilibrium. They flashed it back next turn, but one of us Wrathed, and the Zombies didn't recover. There were still a few dicey moments when we'd done a fair amount of damage but not gotten rid of the big recursion spells. Fortunately, they never came up, and we mill/Wrathed them out.
In this game, the question of Fellwar Stone came up. We ruled that since the Zombies can actually create any color of mana (to pay costs that they have to in order to attack) that Fellwar Stone can also create any color.
GAME 7: 3 man, 2 turns
Thinking that maybe it was the fact that there were four of us, we cut down to three, Michael staying with Karador and Nate coming in with Olivia Voldaren. The Zombies got Necrogen Mists turn 3, Army of the Damned turn 4, flashed it back turn 5, and we were swarmed to death.
GAME 8: 3 man, 2 turns
The Zombies got nearly no dudes early, and it was no contest as we once again milled away their answers.
GAME 9: 3 man, 2 turns
Nate got turn 2 Olivia, and when the Zombies came out of the gate slowly, we had time to set up Nevinyrral's Disk and Glen Elendra Archmage protection, so we couldn't lose.
GAME 10: 3 man, 0 turns
I switched to Animar, Soul of Elements and Nate switches to Zedruu the Greathearted. When Michael got turn 2 Stoneforge Mystic, it looked like control for us, but the Zombies squeezed off a big Living Death. Unfortunately for them, I had Spike Weaver and could infinitely Fog due to Evolution Vat. Once again, all the recursion spells were in the graveyard already, so we knew we were going to win.
- If the Zombies don't spit out several tokens on their first turns, the game is over quickly.
- The Banned List for the variant will have to be huge. There are simply so many cards that shut down the Zombies and stop them cold, making things rather unfun. We came up with two more to add to the above list: Angelic Arbiter and Keening Stone. It didn't come up in play, but Nate also suggested one of his new favorites, Sever the Bloodline. I'm not quite sure if it completely hoses the Zombies, but I think it does.
- Unlike regular EDH, I don't think that a giant Banned List will hurt this variant. In fact, I'll suggest playing it as we did—don't modify decks, just cycle cards that are either on the list or you find making the games bad. This way you're not spending a great deal of time modifying your decks only to have to sleeve up the old cards when you return to normal games.
- While the original design is to ensure that the Zombies don't have to make any choices, it will come up. Cards that we found them needing to make decisions for included Scrabbling Claws, Fact or Fiction, and Consuming Vapors. For clarity, there has to be an agreed-upon decision matrix for the Zombies. Sure, we can simply do ‘what feels right at the time,' which wouldn't be out of keeping with the fun idea of the variant, but some players also like a rules set handy.
I think we can take two different tacks here. The first, in keeping with the idea that the Zombies are mindless, is that choices for things like Scrabbling Claws or Consuming Vapors are random. The second, in line with perhaps making it a better game, is agreeing and choosing what's best for the Zombies. I think there won't often be too many arguments, but there still has to be a default answer—like lowest power non-token creature. It's clear that tokens are the real power of the deck. The more tokens they hit each turn, the greater their advantage, so I would only remove them (for Scrabbling Claws) when there's nothing else. I would sacrifice a token to Consuming Vapors, however, protecting the deck against the aforementioned Sever the Bloodline-type cards.
- In the decision matrix, we have to find something reasonable regarding planeswalkers. The cleanest I've seen so far is Peter's suggestion in his follow-up article:
If the Survivors control a planeswalker, flip a coin at the beginning of combat. If it comes up heads, the Horde randomly allocates one Zombie per point of loyalty for each planeswalker the Survivors control, starting in a random order (in case there are multiples).
I'd actually make it a little more likely that they attack the planeswalker—maybe roll a d6 and on 1-4 they attack it/them. I know we gamers love charts and tables and could come up with a really spicy d100 matrix—but keeping it simple is probably a better idea.
- For Fact or Fiction (and likewise Sphinx of Uthuun), we ruled a 3-2 random split, which seems like the only choice to make.
- Tormod's Crypt and Relic of Progenitus are blowouts for the Zombies because once the initial onrush is dealt with, the only real fear is the recursion.
- In order to make the games competitive, every one of the Zombie spells has to be huge and splashy, which I think the deck already does well enough. I'd consider Pox in addition to Smallpox. It's thematic enough, although it might simply be too crippling to the Survivors. I'd also think about Oblivion Stone, which would be “cast and blow immediately.” Again, it starts taking us down the road of activations, which we kind of want to avoid.
- The non-tokens Zombies can't be vanilla either. Even though the Zombies can't activate Lord of the Undead (although there was some “why not?” discussion on that point—“it can just be the top or bottom creature,” which I'll concede has some merit, but I think takes us down a pretty bumpy road, since then the Zombies will start “playing,” which is really contrary to the idea of the variant), I would still include it for the bonus it gives. Likewise, Zombie Master is clearly a very scary card for the Survivors, even if the Zombies aren't regenerating. It becomes quite frightening when you have Zombie Master and they auto-regenerate.
- Counterspells wreck the Zombies. Since all their spells are indeed huge and there are few of them, one player having counterspell backup makes that counter orders of magnitude more powerful than it might be. This observation is especially relevant in the four-player game, where one player can sit and be the defensive guy (like Todd did in the game where he T1'd Maze of Ith). I think counterspells are probably less relevant in two- and three-player games, where there's a little more desperate feel. The Survivors are spending all their energy and resources simply surviving and don't have the luxury of sitting on the counterspells.
- The four-player game is too much for the Zombies for two reasons. First is that there are simply too many weapons brought to bear against them, too much opportunity for board wipes, after which the Zombies have some difficulty recovering (without hitting one of the recursion spells). Second is the 80 life. Even with heavy-duty attacks, the life total gives the Survivors enough time to recover. Even if there is only one dedicated control deck among the four, the Zombies have no real chance.
- Finding a balanced game seemed pretty unlikely. It seems like most every game will play out with the Zombies either overrunning the Survivors pretty quickly, or if they don't, not being able to mount a comeback once the Survivors establish control—especially if there is any life gain involved. I thought that there might be some games where the Zombies rushed out early and got us low, and we equalized but were low enough that another rush would come that we couldn't handle, but it never did. The only time the Zombies won after we equalized was with a huge recursion spell—Patriarch's Bidding with one of them being Vengeful Dead is nearly always fatal.
- I'm not sure balance in individual games is actually what the variant is striving for, though. The balance to be found is in numbers of games won. When it gets to the point where it's close enough to 50/50, then we've found it. If I were to err, I would err on the side of having the Zombies win slightly more often—the players will then get a feel of accomplishment when they actually do win. It can't be so tilted towards the Zombies that the players have to get super-lucky or super-god-draw hands to win.
The major problem will come if games always play the same. One of the major draws of EDH is the high variance in games. You can play the same deck and have it operate differently (unless you've gone overboard and use the entire Tutor suite to make your deck function identically every time—but you're not really the primary audience for the format), so making games against the Zombies have some kind of variance (within the obvious bounds of the fact that you're fighting off a Zombie horde every time) will keep it fresh.
- Lower the per-player life total, or make it a set one regardless of the number of players. Sixty seemed about right, although I'd give thought to going as low as 45. This is a major factor than can be tweaked in order to bring the balance we talked about.
- Just play with all 100 Zombie cards instead of taking some out based on the number of players (with the caveat reminding you that we didn't play any two-Survivor games).
- Again with the caveat of not playing two-Survivor games, but it seems like having the Survivors go first (and not draw) with no extra turns provides the right opportunity for the games to be interesting.
- Don't play with four Survivors without significant changes to the Zombie deck. I really think the fourth Survivor is the tipping point.
- Since we're messing with the rules of Magic anyway by putting tokens in the deck, consider making deck-specific custom cards that give the Zombies an extra buff—like cantrips that do stuff, giving the Zombies the chance to cast extra spells during their turn. I don't know if we've come up with a term yet for peeling Zombies off the top—I like “spawning”—but you could do something like “Zombies Spawn again in the Second Main Phase. That's just me spitballing at the moment.
I'm definitely keeping together the deck, but I'm going to make some changes. The chaff Zombies are going out, replaced with either more tokens or splashier spells. I think the key to the variant will be figuring out the math for the perfect number of tokens. It's probably somewhere in the 60s; I'm just not sure exactly where. One of you math people can probably work it out, especially given a life total target. I actually want to make fewer big changes at once, giving us a better (or at least slightly more scientific) idea of what's working and what's not, so all I'm going to do is take out four Zombies and add three tokens and Twilight's Call. We'll see if that changes the math at all.
Other Suggested Cards for the Zombies:
Simple card draw: Since the Zombies get to cast all cards they might have in their hand each turn, drawing a few cards might be helpful. Decree of Pain would be a total blowout, I think.
Demoralize: Certainly flavorful, given that you're facing an army of Zombies
Everlasting Torment: A serious game-changer in how you approach the Zombies. I noticed that once we got bigger dudes out, whittling down the horde was possible with favorable blocks. Not being able to count on that giant guy being there changes everything.
Bone Harvest and Footbottom Feast: You'd always have to go with “all” instead of any number, but it might work.
Hoarder's Greed: Might be interesting in that it fills up the graveyard, might be too much.
Night's Whisper, Sign in Blood: Stuff in the yard, stuff in the hand.
The Horde variant is an interesting, exciting, and novel way to Embrace the Chaos. I'll continue focusing on the Zombie version, although I'm sure there is plenty of design space for Squirrels, Slivers, and any number of other creature types. I'll keep you posted over the next few weeks on what we discover.