What is scarier than a horde of Zombies?
Not long ago, my playgroup became aware of the undead apocalypse. We’d known the time would come, but we didn’t expect it to arrive so soon. We certainly weren’t expecting it to show up at my dining room table during our Thursday night Magic games first. We were caught unawares; no shotguns, no axes, no refurbished pickup trucks. The only thing we had were our decks, so we whipped those out and prepared to do battle.
Peter Knudson revealed the Horde Magic variant to the internet and it has caught on like wildfire. Everyone loves the idea of working together against a mindless horde of zombies (or other Magic tribe), and my group is no different. Where we differ is in the size of our playgroup. While many groups have only three or four players, our group regularly has seven or eight. This is a great problem to have, and anywhere else it would just mean that you would run two games at once. We are a little different…
If one Horde is good…
Our group had two players who had each built a horde. Jesse went the traditional route and opted for zombies, while Aaron built an elf horde. We decided to try them together, and face both hordes at the same time. It made sense that if both hordes were going off every turn, that doubling the number of players should keep everything balanced. This meant seven player and two horde decks.
Let’s get straight to the horde lists:
An Elf horde may not have the same mindless brain-eater vibe that zombies have, but in Magic, their long history gives you plenty of options to choose from. Aaron decided he should not power up the deck too much. While the zombies throughout Magic history are generally not too nasty, elves can be insanely good, so Aaron made a pointed effort not to crank the knob to 11.
60 – 1/1 Green and White Elf Token
Jesse felt no reason to really hold back with the zombies. While some of the cards in the deck are vanilla zombies, there are some nasty cards in the deck that absolutely turn the whole game around on you. Reset buttons for the horde deck can be a nightmare and give the horde hope of a win when all appears lost.
2 Festering Goblin
2 Warpath Ghoul
2 Scathe Zombies
2 Grave Defiler
2 Grixis Slavedriver
2 Mass of Ghouls
2 Maggot Carrier
2 Severed Legion
1 Fleshbag Marauder
1 Lord of Tresserhorn
1 Death Baron
1 Zombie Goliath
1 Gluttonous Zombie
1 Cemetery Reaper
1 Anurid Murkdiver
1 Dross Crocodile
1 Infectious Horror
1 Undead Warchief
The first thing anyone who has played with hordes before will notice is that there are cards in here that require thought. Ezuri can give the Overrun effect every turn. Lord of Tresserhorn picks an opponent. How do two mindless hordes determine who to target and when?
We opted to go the completely random route. Ezuri would trigger if the coin flip said he triggered. Die rolls picked which opponent suffered or received a benefit. This did mean that the horde’s turns were more involved, but these cards were just too much fun not to include!
We are Magic players, so we naturally opted to change the rules. Rather than flipping cards from the top of the Horde deck until you got to a spell, we tried that and a “wave.” This gave the Horde one more card each turn, starting with a few cards in their first turn. We hoped this would reduce the lousy games where the Horde would get only one or two creatures in a turn.
We also opted to not have a shared life total, but independent life totals. This was because we wanted to let the Horde attack particular players. We rolled a die for each attacking creature to randomly choose who the creature would attack.
After several games, I think we can safely say two things: (1) Horde Magic is a ton of fun. It was a nice change from trying to slide a knife so smoothly into an opponent’s back that they don’t even realize it until they fall down dead, to working with everyone to put down the hordes. (2) Two hordes are not twice as scary as one. We played four games and the survivors never lost a game. In fact, no survivor died in any game. While this is a little anti-climactic, going into detail on each game was not something I was going to do here. A couple of us saw our life total dwindle to single digits, but that was mostly due to bad luck with the dice rolls or intentionally allowing certain creatures to hit you, rather than allowing them to end up in the graveyard.
Immediately everyone knew that it was best to go after and eliminate the stronger Zombie horde. There was no point splitting up the damage between the two hordes if the Zombie horde was stronger, since this was just ensuring two hordes would be flipping cards when we could reduce this to one horde simply be focusing our attacks. The hordes are mindless but there is no reason for us to be mindless as well! This meant that spells that could target creatures, targeted only zombies. Spells that did damage were all focused on the zombie deck. This really prevented the zombie deck from having any really big turns. The elf deck being left alone wasn’t a particular problem either. With so many of us, we were able to kill much of the elf horde every turn when they attacked. It kept the elves to less than five creatures in most of the games.
During the second game, Jesse was playing white weenie and was gaining life for each creature that came into play. With seven of us and two hordes, his life total quickly spiraled into the hundreds and the only question was whether the horde would kill any individual, since we knew there was no way it was going to win.
The third game provided a slow start for everyone, and neither horde was attacked until the fifth turn. At that point the zombie deck was being hit for more than 20 points of damage each turn, as the pendulum swung in our favor. Once the zombies were gone, the elves managed to survive only one more turn, with the survivors hitting for more than 90 damage in a single turn to completely wipe it out.
The power imbalance was obvious. Seven survivors makes for a far more nasty horde than any deck of mindless tokens.
The best way for the Horde to win games is through card advantage. A Horde should draw and play more cards than survivors early on. With 7 opponents there is no card advantage. Whether we used the wave method for playing the horde decks or flipped cards until we hit an actual spell, the hordes just had a terrible time trying to outdraw us. Even if a horde managed to get 4 tokens out and a spell, we were drawing 7 cards. The horde would mindlessly waste creatures by attacking into certain death situations, while we were careful with our resources. If two sides are going to fight like that, the horde better get a significant card advantage and that didn’t happen.
There are several ways to get around this problem. The most obvious to me was to reduce the number of survivors. Fewer survivors means the survivors draw fewer cards, so the ratio should improve. A second way would be to reduce the three turns the survivors get to prepare for the onslaught. With seven of us playing, even without drawing a card on the first turn, the survivors drew 14 cards before either horde played a single card. That card advantage is just too much. Reducing this advantage to a single turn, without drawing a card, would help bring parity, while giving the survivors a chance to put out a defender or at least get a start on mana. Another option would be to allow the hordes to draw twice. While this would improve card advantage, I think it would deplete the hordes’ decks too quickly. I suspect the best move is to limit the cards the survivors see.
Another problem was the strength of the hordes. Aaron brought the Elf horde home to power it up. The list above is the powered up version. I suspect if both hordes were filled with the nastiest creatures and spells that Jesse and Aaron could put together, the game would go very differently.
This is an easy problem, since you can simply strengthen the horde decks until you have a real fight on your hands. The other solution is to have two horde decks that are fairly evenly matched. If both hordes are putting out cards that must be dealt with immediately, it means the survivors can’t lock in on one horde and ignore the other. Take the card quality advantage that we survivors held and balance that out a little, and I’m sure it will lead to closer games.
Our variant of attacking individual players was interesting but it involved a whole lot of die rolling. When there are 15 attacking creatures in the hordes, you need to roll 15 times to determine who they are attacking. This could make combat take some time and was occasionally pointless when someone had blockers that could obviously kill the creatures attacking him.
The solution here is easy as well. We tried a variant to the rules that didn’t really work out. It was interesting to picture zombies just heading out in whatever direction to attack whatever came in front of it, but making the survivors a single unit is probably a better plan, gamewise.
Giving the horde effects that involved rolling to see if they would do it is probably not the best plan either, although we haven’t given up on it just yet. Twice it happened that Ezuri did not pump up the other elves. This just seemed wrong, but at the same time, it seemed way overpowered to insist that it happen every turn.
Another consideration for the format is to ensure that you aren’t building decks for the format. We did not use decks tuned to be the hordes, but it became quickly obvious that some cards were just broken against the hordes. Peter Knudson dealt with many of these cards in his followup article, creating a banned list. Sheldon Menery suggested using random decks and simply cycling the banned cards away, should any come up. It seems like an elegant solution to me.
I enjoyed the different style of play that Horde Magic encouraged. Playing a cooperative game is not something I do when it comes to Magic, so I found this to be a pleasant change of pace. This can also be a way to guide new players in gameplay. You can see everyone’s hands and what they can and can’t do, so experienced players can suggest optimal plays to newer players that they may not have seen. While the Horde deck isn’t going to respond to your spells, it could be an easy way to help a new player to “level up” in Magic. I’d recommend that your group try out Horde Magic in your next gaming session. Variety, spice, etc. etc.