The Kitchen Table #170 - Secret Alliances
Hello, good people of Earth. I hope that this article finds you well, and that you are on the way to happiness. Today I want to explore a multiplayer format that we occasionally play at my place… a format called Secret Alliances.
Before writing this article, I did a search online for the format type, as well as checking out a few web-pages where Magic variants are listed. I couldn't find this format, and I know it didn't originate with us, so if someone out there has more info, please post in the forums.
This format works best with an odd number of people, but an even number is typically good enough to work. The basic concept is pretty simple, but we've found over the years that a few tweaks are necessary in order to make the game work as smoothly as possible.
Are you interested yet? I hope so. Here we go!
Secret Alliances is a multiplayer format in which players are separated into teams of two. However, only one half of each team knows who their ally is, while the other half does not have a clue. That's the ringer in the format. Roughly half of the players know their ally, and the other half do not.
Rule #1 - The way we figure this out is simple. We gather one of each basic land for each team. Then we secure one card of each color of the basic land. So, for example, if we have six players, I might have an Island, a Forest, and a Mountain alongside a Boomerang, a Giant Growth, and a Fireslinger. Then we shuffle the card and everybody grabs a face-down card. Basic lands reveal who they are. The player with the color of card that goes with that land is their ally.
Let's stop for a moment and do some quick analysis of the game before we evolve it further. With just six players, and three teams, three of those players now have a revealed basic land. The other three players are face-down cards. If I flip an island, my ally is out there somewhere.
What often happens is that people go after the obvious target. The three players with flipped up lands know they are enemies, so it's a normal multiplayer game, albeit with a bit more pace to it. If I savage an opponent for ten with an alpha strike, there's a chance my ally could sail in and take out the player. Early offense and early defense are stressed.
When figuring out what to do, as a face-up player, you can concentrate on the other face-up players. What happens when a face-down player plays something nasty?
Suppose a face-down player plays a Darksteel Colossus off a Tinker in the early game. You have a sorcery-speed removal spell that will take it out – say, Fowl Play. It's your turn. Do you Chicken-ify the Darksteel or wait to see if he is your ally or enemy?
You could just play the odds. In a six-player game, there's a two in three chance that the face-down player with the Colossus is an enemy – and those odds get higher the more players are added to the game. You could just play the odds and cast the Fowl Play on the Colossus.
On the other hand, even if it is an enemy, that does not mean that they will be attacking you. They might attack a random face-down person, with just a 50/50 chance of hitting your erstwhile ally. Or they may attack your mutual face-up enemy. Therefore, your choices are much more difficult.
If a face-down person does not want to declare their ally by making an obvious move, then they almost always attack face-down people. Sometimes you'll have two multiplayer games going on, one with the face-up people, and one with the face-down people, until a face-up person is taken down by a face-down person and enlightenment arrives for all.
Rule #2 - There is one caveat to note. If a person plays a spell or effect that reads “opponent,” then that spell or effect essentially acts as a sort of bloodhound. If I play Unnerve, everybody will see who didn't discard two cards, and that person is my ally. Early in the game, outing your ally could get them killed, so you have to be careful when you play such as effect. Face-up players will know that that face-down player is a safe target for removal and attacks, and may exploit your mistake.
A lot of strategies manifest themselves as you play. One thing I like to do is attack my ally early as a face-down card, and then I'll look like I'm that person's enemy. Then I'll strike and kill a facedown person to take them permanently out. It keeps people guessing and creates a field of doubt.
As a face-down player, you want to figure out all of the other face-down players quickly. Since you have one less person to consider, as soon as you know who one other face-down player is, you know who they all are in a six-player game, and you are close to knowing everybody in an eight-player game.
Remember that a face-up person may not want to force reveal their ally with an “opponent” card, because the ally may get attacked. However, the ally can chose when they are ready to defend themselves.
Rule #3 - If you can't figure out a quick way to learn who a person is allied with, don't fret. If you can't cast a spell to do so with “opponent” on it, then when that person dies, they must reveal their card if face-down. This way you can confirm that a person is an ally or not.
A variant of this format keeps the face-down cards hidden, but that encourages bluffing and gambling to excess, so we prefer the revelation upon death rule.
One More Element
Despite the interesting interactions with an even number of players, as I mentioned before, this format plays better with an odd number of people. Why is that? Because you can include a neutral person then.
Rule #4 – With an odd number of people, toss in an artifact into your card pool. One face-down person who gets that card will be neutral. They win merely by surviving. Previously, one team could win, now a team and a neutral person can win. This gives you three winners in a five way game, a majority of players! The neutral person is still an opponent in terms of spells and who they can affect.
Adding the neutral person adds a whole new element to the game. Some players will play a neutral person by choosing to attack each face-up person in turn. You can use this to your advantage as a face-down allied person by appearing neutral and justifying it by attacking each face-up person in kind. Note that even with a neutral person, face-down players can still attack other face-down players with the certainly that they will not be attacking allies. As such, a neutral player typically would not include face-down attacks to prove they are neutral.
Another neutral strategy is just to sit back and attack no one, killing nothing. This can prove effective if the other face-down players aggressive announce who they are allied with by attacking face-up people early. However, sometimes it is difficult to tell a neutral person who is sitting back from an allied person who is sitting back waiting or an allied person who is sitting back mana-screwed.
A third way to play the neutral player is to pretend that you are the ally of the most powerful face-up player at the board. This is good in two ways. You get a powerful ally first of all. Second, since you are neutral, they may not turn against you like they would if you were allied with their enemies.
Now, having the face-down neutral person also changes the strategies of the face-up players and their interaction with face-down players. In a five-player game, two face-down players are either an ally or a neutral player, leaving just one person as the enemy. In a seven-player game, there's just a 50/50 chance of hitting an enemy with your removal, targets, and attacks as opposed to either an ally or the neutral player.
In fact, hitting the neutral player early can cause that person to turn against you, essentially squandering a valuable resource. In the previous example, playing a Fowl Play on a face-down enemy's Colossus isn't going to turn them against you, because they are already fighting you. And your ally will remain your ally. However, a neutral person likely has vengeance in their heart.
As you can see, the neutral person adds another element of strategy to the format, so when you have an odd number of players, it behooves you to run with the neutral player.
I would advise running a few games of secret alliances in your group before moving to these rules. We've played hundreds of secret alliances games over the years, so these are tweaks to the rules that we think make the game better. However, your experience may differ, so play the game first before making these part of your guidelines for playing.
These rules came about because we saw that face-up players had a tendency to die much more quickly than the face-down players. Neither of these rules hands the game to the face-up players, but combined, these two ideas can give your face-up plays a minor boost, which will hopefully be enough to get them over the hump.
Rule #5 – Face-up players are the only ones who roll to see who goes first. Face-down plays can never go first.
In multiplayer, the player who goes first can get a significant advantage. If I go first, then I can play my Wall of Blossoms on the second turn. Then everybody else takes their second turn, and now they can't attack me with their one drops. This is especially beneficial in a game where you have one ally and a bunch of enemies. In this game, as a face-up player, you are likely to get attacked by the early creatures, so getting the first turn is a boon.
You are also more likely to get attacked if you are a face-down player in any game where the number of face-down players is greater than the number of face-up players. As I mentioned before, there's a tendency to have face-up player battling themselves and face-down players battling themselves each around each other in the early game. Well, if four players are battling in the face-down world and just three players are battling in the face-up world, that means every time a face-up player wants to attack with an early drop, you have a 50/50 chance of being the target. You only have a one in three chance of being the target as a face-down player. (In the common seven-player game).
This rule creates a nice bump, but the next rule really helps out.
Rule #6 – Whatever basic land you flip up is really there. That means you can tap it for mana, bounce it with a Lair or a Karoo land, have it be destroyed, be landwalked, etc.
This rule was to give the face-up land players a bit of breathing room. Note that since every face-up person gets the same amount of a speed bump, that it doesn't really help you much against the face-up crowd. Instead, it dissuades the face-down players from attacking you immediately. This helps to prevent Sharking.
Sharking is where you are a face-up player, and another face-up player attacks you on the second turn with a Savannah Lion and then plays a Jackal Pup and Lightning Bolts you. Then the other face-up player attacks you with his Soul Warden for another hit. Then a face-down enemy sees his chance and swings in with a Carnophage for two more. Another face-down players decides to add his Magus of the Scroll for another damage. Then you untap and play a defensive creature, which gets Swords to Plowshares'ed. After that, another wave of massive attacks rolls your way. They all ganged up on you because you were vulnerable, like sharks.
Getting that extra mana helps prevent you from being Sharked. In fact, Sharking has become very rare at our table since we instituted this rule. After all, ramping up to a third turn Wrath of God is pretty sweet.
The Next Topic
After you have played the game for a while, you get your head wrapped around it. Once that happens, you can begin to try out variants.
Variant the First: Double Neutral – If you want to play with a neutral player, but you have an even number of players, then don't despair. Drop a pair of face-up land and ally and toss in two neutral players instead of one. This really changes the math, and I wouldn't recommend this with six players. (With six players, there are two neutrals, and just two face-up players. That means face-up players can get obliterated quickly and then the face-down players duke it out. It also typically results in the classic version of the game getting tossed out with a super majority winning the game every time (four against two), you get muscled out quickly if you are deemed to be on the losing side. This works best with eight players).
Variant the Second: Face-up Neutral – For an interesting twist, give the neutral person a colorless land and require them to be face-up with all of the accoutrements thereof. This creates a while new dynamic for the neutral player. No longer can they bluff, they just need to survive. On the other hand, now that they are revealed, they can sell themselves to the highest bidder, i.e. the one who takes out that creature that's attacking me. Note that you can combine this variant with the above variant to create one neutral person face-down and one face-up.
Variant the Third: Gold Rush – If you want a truly interesting game that may hurt your head, and you have nine players (or maybe six or seven or ten), have I got the variant for you! With nine players, start out as you would normally with six players on teams – maybe a Plains, Forest, Mountain, Unyaro Griffin, Joreal's Centaur, and Aftershock. Then add three new cards to the mix – for example, add a Yavimaya Barbarian, Sunhome Enforcer and Wax / Wane.
The new players may win if either of their allied teams wins. In essence, you can win either as Green or White if you grab the Wax/Wane. However, you do not scan as an ally, you scan as an opponent when someone plays an opponent spell. Why? You have the taint of your enemy about you! That also means that if you play a spell that affects all opponents, then all of your opponents are affects always.
(There's also a game-related reason that may not become obvious until you play your first game under this variant. When someone plays a spell, like Unnerve, that has an effect on all opponents, if you are face-down, you can tell the face-up person that is your ally not to discard. If you are face-up, then the face-down ally simply doesn't discard. However, under this variant, if a face-down person, like the Griffin, played Unnerve, then how would the Wax / Wane know not to be affected by that spell? Also, if you are the Wax / Wane, when you play Unnerve, then the Griffin, the Centaur, the Forest, the Plains, the Barbarian, and the Enforcer would all not discard, leaving just the Aftershock and the Mountain to discard. That's a bad situation, obviously).
Once you figure out the variant, you'll see that more people can win. If the White team wins, then the Plains, the Griffin, the Enforcer and the Wax / Wane all win. Four out of the nine players leave with a good feeling. That's pretty cool.
If you have ten players, you can add a neutral person to the variant. If you have six, you drop the direct allies and leave the gold allies. With seven, you add a neutral player to that mix. However, adding a neutral player along with the gold allies creates situations where too many people may end up winning for it too feel like a win.
Variant the Fourth: Everybody's Friend – In this variant, you replace a neutral player in any normal game or variant with a card of all five colors, like Genju of the Realm. Now you are everybody's ally instead of being neutral.
What difference will this make? For the most part, the rules for being neutral or five color are precisely the same, except for one area. Normally, when a Plains plays an Unnerve, everybody except for the one White face-down card discards two, even the gold allies. However, if you are everybody's ally, then you will always scan as an ally of the scanner, instead of as an enemy like you would if you were neutral.
If the Plains plays that Unnerve, the revealed face-down ally could become a target, and has been essentially face-upped. On the other hand, play the Unnerve with a Five Color players out there, and two player do not discard. Now, there is still some hidden information out there.
Note that in a game with five players, face-down people will learn nothing from an Unnerve with a Five Color player out there. If I am a face-down person, I know that the other two people are face-down and Five Color. No matter who playas an Unnerve, my two face-down “foes” will always act in concert, giving me no additional information. However, the face-up players get additional information, which puts them on a level with the face-down players. That's a pretty interesting dynamic.
And a Story
To finish, let me tell you about a story from our secret alliances days. A few years ago, I was preparing the cards, and I chose to slip two Blue cards into the group of cards instead of one Blue card and one Green card. There was a neutral card, an Island and a Forest.
I made sure I got the Island while one player in particular got the Forest. We then proceeded to play the game, with me having two allies and a neutral player. My opponent and the neutral players are getting more and more confused, and the Forest is obviously the first to go. Both of my allies and the neutral player actively attacked him, blew up his permanents, and so forth.
He is railing about how his ally is the worst player ever for several minutes.
Now, I have a choice. I can keep the charade going until one of my Blue allies dies, and then when they reveal that they are my ally, the other person will reveal, and the joke's up. On the other hand, I could just reveal now and end it out of mercy.
I obviously decide to wait it out. The beauty is that my allies feel that the neutral person is the Green player, so they kill her next, and when she dies and reveals, they each target the other. Meanwhile, I am claiming that, “Since I don't know who is my ally and who is not, I'll just stay out of it.” Ten minutes later, one falls and the other emerges victorious and starts calling the newly dead person a bad player until that person silently reveals a Blue card, which silences everybody for about three good seconds before everybody begins talking at once.
“I knew something was up.”
“That was well done!”
I hope that you find secret alliances as enjoyable as we have. Good luck using it at your next multiplayer game!