When Zombies Attack: Horde Magic

Variation on Magic is something that we take for granted. After all, there’s Vintage, Legacy, Modern, Extended, Standard, Block, Pauper, and of course, Commander. All of these things do basically the same thing, only with limited card pools and sometimes different rules. But it’s all basically the same game. You just need two or more decks and a couple of people, and away you go.

Then, there are the out-there formats that need more than a deck. There’re the popular Planechase and Archenemy multiplayer variants, where you need the big cards to play. I prefer Planechase, since it mixes everything up; Archenemy feels too griefery for me to get behind it. It’s a great idea, but once you tailor your decks for that format, everything just gets turned up a notch. There’s the much-forgotten Vanguard format—think MTGO avatars for real cards—which kinda kick-started this whole wacky format thing.

I’m sure that everyone, at one point in his Magic-playing life, has tried to make a new format, just to see what he can do. Most of them seem pretty uninteresting, at least from my point of view, because they’re all just other variations. Like, “Play all lands in your hand, then draw up to seven cards.” (Which, for some reason, is the way school-aged kids play when I play against them the first time. I don’t know if it’s a lack of time, or if they think that’s fair, but it’s no good when a person can abuse that system.) What make Commander so different are the Commander aspect and the Highlander aspect, which keep the games different.

Recently, on QuietSpeculation, Peter Kudnson brought forth a new variation of Magic: Horde Magic. This variant is interesting, for several reasons:

  • It’s co-op instead of everyone against each other, which is a nice change (it’s different than Archenemy).
  • It’s scalable to the number of players (but like anything, it’s more fun with more players).
  • It’s best described as Left 4 Dead in Magic.
  • It’s completely autonomous.

All right, I’m listening.

The issue with every other format is that one person has to be the bad guy. Not with Horde Magic. You and your friends are playing against a deck that completely operates with no player running it. How? Well, he’s bent some rules that other formats haven’t touched on before. In order to understand it, let’s take a look at the proposed Horde deck:

Wait, what?

Here’s how the deck operates: At the beginning of the Zombie player’s turn, it flips over the top card of its library. If it’s a token card, it keeps flipping over cards until it reveals a nontoken card. All tokens enter the battlefield, then the spell is cast. The Zombie deck has infinite (or a really large number, for all of you judges freaking out) mana, so it can cast anything in its deck or any other requirements that the players might throw in its way. Then, all Zombies have Haste and must attack each turn if able. (This is flavorful, because, “Since Zombies are generally brainless, they come charging in without thinking twice.”) Also, when a Zombie token dies, it goes to the graveyard, and is not exiled.

The Zombies are attacking the players, so everyone is in it together. The players are acting as they would in Two-Headed Giant; they share life totals, block together, and take their turns together. Your goal? Like any Zombie apocalypse, you want to survive. If you feel that you can survive the next attack, you can swing in against the usually-tapped-out Zombies. Damage dealt to the Zombie deck is by milling (e.g., if you deal 3 damage, the Zombie deck puts the top three cards of its library into the graveyard). Commander damage is normal damage in this format. When the Zombie deck has no creatures left on the battlefield and nothing in its library, you win.

Because Zombies coming at you in the first turn will most likely cause you to lose, you and your teammates get three turns before the Zombie player takes its first turn. After that, usual Magic alternating turns take place. Remember, since your team is working together, you are playing this like Two-Headed Giant, and you are taking your turns together and share a life total. So it goes like this:

Turn 1 – Players
Turn 2 – Players
Turn 3 – Players
Turn 4 – Zombies (Flip over cards until a nontoken card is revealed. Zombie tokens ETB, cast the spell, everything attacks the players.)
Turn 5 – Players
Turn 6 – Zombies

This format rocks because of the four points I made up before.

1. It’s co-op.

Sometimes, you’re tired of playing politics against other players. You don’t want to play mind games; you just want to beat face with your friends. This gives you that chance. You’re all on the same team; you all help each other. In order to survive, you have to put your differences aside from when your friend killed your Angel three games back; if he dies, you all die.

2. It’s scalable.

Sometimes, you have three people; sometimes, it’s just you. You can alter the Zombie deck to fit how many players are playing. There are times when you don’t have three other players—maybe even any other players. Yes, you can play Horde Magic as a single person. All you do is play with a different-sized Horde deck. Just shuffle the Zombie deck, and deal out that many cards so that you don’t know what’s in the deck.

PlayersSize of Deck (randomized)
145
260
375
4100

But, just like in a Zombie attack—the fewer players you have, the harder it becomes. Single-player is very, very hard. The game still functions the same, since you get more and more people playing, which is the whole point of something like this: to get your friends working together.

3. It’s Left 4 Dead in Magic.

The great Valve game that came out a few years ago was nothing but killing zombies. You were able to live out a good number of your zombie-apocalypse fantasies with that game. While cards and video games are different, the fact that you can emulate it pretty well in Magic is pretty amazing. And you know who will get a kick out of this format?

Vorthoses.

They’re the ones I want to play with this. By imagining that they are under attack from the undead, you can see them watching every flip of the card, as more and more Zombie tokens hit the battlefield. You do have the group mentality; you’re in this together. “Hey, can anyone block this beatstick?” “Yeah, I got something to take care of it. What about that over there?” I can only imagine the insane scenarios that they would dream up for this type of format.

4. It’s completely autonomous.

And, since the zombies are brainless, you know that they’re not going to pull any sneaky combat tricks. You are fighting Zombies. This is the selling point that hooked me into trying this out. You don’t have to deal with people complaining when their decks have mana-screw, or when you killed all of their stuff. Sometimes, players are the best and worst thing about Magic. Since this deck is “on rails,” all of the decision-making parts are out of it, and you can just play.

Peter said this was a living object, like a Cube. It’s meant to be changed around to fit other players’ wants and needs. Before you start throwing other things in there, let’s talk about why this works beautifully.

The engine that makes this whole thing works is the tokens; the more tokens you flip over, the more powerful the attack phase is going to be. This creates a huge amount of variance. The base deck is 60% tokens, which means that the more tokens you have in there, the bigger army you’ll have to face. Obviously, you don’t want it to be 90% tokens (or, you do if you want to just face down Zombies), nor do I believe you want it to be under 50%. I think that sixty tokens (out of a hundred-card deck) is a very nice sweet spot. Sometimes, you’ll encounter flips of eight tokens and a huge effect; other times, you won’t hit tokens for a few turns. Not knowing how many Zombie tokens, or what the end result will be, is one of the best times you’ll have in Magic.

One of the odd things about this deck is the “bad” cards. Rotting Fensnake and Walking Corpse are traditionally “bad.” I would recommend that you keep some in there. By only playing the most powerful Zombies, I believe the rush would be too much, and that you wouldn’t find it fun at all. Of course, you’re certainly free to make any changes you want, but just be forewarned that sometimes you need that breather of “just” a 5/1 Zombie Snake.

If you also notice, none of the spells target anything, nor does the deck contain any activated abilities. The Zombie deck has to make no decisions, because none of the cards target. This is huge, because it just keeps on running without slowing down and trying to “cheat” the Zombie player. All players (and I’ve been running it with the Zombie deck having no player) or all creatures are affected. They all lose 1 life, or all discard a card. Of course, you can put in Terror and cards like that, where the other players will have to decide what it targets, but it takes away from the fun of the format. None of the cards regenerate, since you can’t win unless all the Zombies are off the battlefield.

Other rules you might be curious about:

  • The Zombie player doesn’t have a hand. If anything is bounced back to its hand, it just casts it (for free, obviously) the next turn, independently of the flipping of the cards.
  • If the Zombie deck needs to make a decision, it does so randomly. The only exception that I’ve come across is when it needs to sacrifice a Zombie: Choose one of the 2/2’s to make the game more interesting.
  • All of the Zombies entering the battlefield do use the stack, but only the nontokens actually count as being cast (for something like Lurking Predators’ trigger).

My Variations

Here are some of the cards and rules that I’ve changed to make the format feel better to me.

Life Totals

You may have noticed that I didn’t say how much life players start out with. What was suggested was that for every player, you share an extra 20 life (three players means starting at 60 life). I feel that this is too much in multiplayer, and not enough for the single-player campaign. Here’s my suggestion:

PlayersStarting Life
130
240
350
460

You need the extra life when you start out by yourself. The more players you have, the stronger you guys are together. Again, like anything else, you can adjust the numbers to what you feel is right. (I feel that if you’re playing in single-player mode, you get four turns to start up, rather than the suggested three turns. But that could just be me.)

Change in Cards

I added a few cards and took out a couple.

Minus:
−1 Blind Creeper
−1 Cackling Fiend
−1 Maggot Carrier

Adds:
+1 Baneful Omen
+1 Noxious Ghoul
+1 Everlasting Torment

Baneful Omen It gives the human players another challenge they have to worry about. Plus, it gives them a heads-up about what’s coming next. A Zombie token? Well, at least two cards are going to be flipped. A Damnation? Don’t play anything. It works beautifully by triggering at the end of the turn.

Noxious Ghoul I felt that pro-Black and Indestructible creatures were going to be too much of a hindrance for the Zombie decks, and that this would be a great addition. Too bad the spell doesn’t trigger first (I’m still playing around with that concept), but it doesn’t affect Zombies, which Infest would. It takes care of token blockers as well.

Everlasting Torment One of the better additions to the deck. While it does break the deck-building rules of Commander, the rest of the deck kind of breaks it as well. It’s another “can’t gain life” card, but the other two parts are important. Gone are all the pro-Black cards, and, suddenly, attrition matters with the Wither element. I felt that the deck was missing something to go up against the larger creatures that Commander players always bring onto the battlefield.

I have been toying with adding Living Death in the deck as a third way to wipe the board. Plus, it’s very flavorful. Add your own cards to see what works.

Planeswalkers

The issue with planeswalkers is that they’re really good against the Zombie deck. It was tossed around that the Zombies ignore the planeswalkers and just attack the players, and unfortunately that’s the best answer we have at the moment. If you want to play so that the Zombies attack the planeswalkers, I suggest you flip a coin for each attacking Zombie to see if it attacks that planeswalker that turn (or roll a die and it comes up odd).

A Survivor Deck

I’ve wanted to build this, and I finally did. This is a legal Commander deck, built with the intent of going up against the Zombie deck. It’s basically a G/W Humans deck with a Wall subtheme. The deck isn’t perfect, since I’m still messing around with some of the cards, and it was made with cards I had lying around. I doubt it’s very good against regular Commander decks, but it’s a flavorful way of fighting off the Zombie deck.

You may have noticed that I didn’t add many of the cards in there that would’ve taken it over the top. I wanted to keep the idea very flavorful and close to what you might see in a horror movie. You might think there should be more Equipment in the deck, but you want to build up your resources. If you have any suggestions (I may add Mobilization in there), I would love to hear them in the comments.

With Halloween coming up, and the Walking Dead returning to television, this is a pretty fun variant that people will start getting in the mood for. I would like to remind you that this is a casual format. If something seems weird, just try to figure out the best solution. Cards like Moat or Teferi's Moat take the fun out of the format, so just cycle them away. Try to enter the mindset of being attacked by an army of Zombies; you’ll embrace the format more quickly. This is one of those “What’s the spirit of the format?” situations.

The decks and rules are still in flux, and I’m curious to hear what you guys have to say about this. I would highly recommend that if you have a ton of Zombie tokens around, you try to put this together. This is one of the most fun times I’ve had in Magic in a while.

Now, kill the Queen, grab a couple of cue sticks, and fight with your friends against the unending Zombie horde.

Just aim for the head.