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How to build a new format

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The letter I!'m still sifting through the reader ideas for Serious Fun columns. If you still have something to say, feel free to take it to the message boards. There have been some good ideas there already.

11/11 seems to be a 'blue thing'... for now...One theme that is coming out loud and clear is the desire to hear about new formats. I'm torn on this topic, for a couple of reasons:

  • Many new formats are pure experiments. That's fun, but results may vary, depending on the group. I'm a bit neurotic about telling my readers to try something freaky, week in and week out, when I know many groups work better with a stable format. (For example, half the guys in our group simply don't have the time to build new decks for a new format every week. Many, many groups are like this.)

  • "New" is a relative term. Often, people are asking me to go over "new" formats that I've already covered in past articles. For example, the starcitygames.com archives contains a four-part series I did on Emperor format - strategies, variations, and so on. I hate repeating myself, and I always suspect I bore my most faithful readers when I do so. (One reader actually emailed me a couple of weeks ago and asked me to talk about some different ideas for limited formats! Of course, I had just done two weeks' worth of articles on that very topic, and so I pointed him to the archives.)
  • But I certainly don't mind covering new formats now and again. Readers say they want it, and as they teach us in government, the customer is always undertaxed - whoops, I mean, the customer is always right!

    This week's article will not just introduce a new format - it will create it on the spot, and give you tips on how you might generate your own format as well. We'll do a little two-step dance to do it.

    Step One: Start With A "Big Idea"

    For a new format to be fun, it often has to be substantially different from what your group does week in and week out. You know your own group best - some will only put up with minor changes - but in general, if you're going through the trouble of creating new decks, it's best to do it for something off the beaten path.

    A "big idea" will generally come from bending or breaking one of the cardinal rules of Magic. An example would be adding a "random effect" deck to the group, which lets large enchantments like Awakening and Chaosphere appear, disappear, and reappear at unpredictable times. Another example would be a shared deck/graveyard ("big pile"), which breaks the rule of everyone having their own library and other zones of play.

    For today's format, let's look at another basic parameter: the number of cards in your deck. Most groups play under Type I rules, which means a 60-card minimum. But we're going to pick a much smaller, random number, and see what we can do with that.

    It's the 11th day of the 11th month. (Those of you reading this at 11:11 local time, a.m. or p.m., should pat yourselves on the back for that lovely bit of timing.) So why don't we go with 11? Every deck must have exactly 11 cards in it. That's the format.

    So what does that mean, really?

    Step Two: Work Out What The Big Idea Means

    Whenever you start up a new format, you should take a little time to work through the implications of changing a cardinal rule of Magic. When you change the rules so fundamentally, you often have to add a few of your own. Using the random-effect format noted above - does the deck have its own turn? Can you respond to the declaration of a new effect? Are the effects removable? Are targeted effects part of that deck and if so, whom do they target?

    The best solution to working all this out is talking with your friends and asking lots of questions. If this new format is your idea, don't take it personally if they begin poking holdes in your logic.

    I'll throw out another example, based on "hunt" format. ("Hunt" formats have restricted targeting options; I did an article on this early last year.) At first, the rule was always that you could only target/attack/target the permanents of your specified prey, or anyone who came after you. But very quickly, we realized that everybody would just play huge global effects like Hurricane or Bloodfire Colossus. That's not necessarily bad, but we wanted to give everyone the chance to stop something that directly impacted them - so we added rules that allowed someone to remove (via Counterspell, or Disenchant, or Stifle, or whatever) any spell or permanent with a significant negative impact on them.

    Well, you can imagine where this got us. Does Pestilence have a significant negative effect on me? Almost certainly. How about Urborg Stalker? Yeah, probably. How about Dingus Staff? I suppose, assuming I'm playing a deck with creatures (or the guy with a Dingus Staff also has Varchild's War-Riders). What about Soul Warden, or Congregate? Man, they're annoying. Does that count as a "significant negative effect"? What about a guy amassing an army of 5,000 squirrels, when the only other opponent has a Teferi's Moat out naming green and I'm the next likely target? Making me sweat is a significant negative impact, let me tell you.

    We've muddled through these grey areas, using common sense and letting the host make most judgment calls. But recently, I convinced the group to try a hunt variant with open targeting. To get people to hunt, we'd use the incentives of points - you got a point bounty for killing your prey, or your hunter. You'd also get a bonus for winning the whole thing.

    This sounds lovely and elegant - and it is, or else I wouldn't have proposed it in my incredible wisdom - but as any public policy geek will tell you, even incentive programs need to answer tough questions. How many points should each kill be? Do we want to set it up so that the last man standing gets enough points to win most of the time, or should we keep it closer than that? Should there be negative points for failing to kill your prey? What do we do with the "rogues" that get assigned themselves as a target? Are we encouraging people to push the game forward, or hold back interminably?

    Questions like these are likely to come fast and furious. The fellow proposing the change may feel quite put upon - in my case, the only reason I even proposed the point system was because my friends were always bitching about the old way of doing hunts. But I had to be open to hearing the problems with the new format, and I had to seek ways to fix it if I wanted to see the point system succeed.

    (Of course, I wasn't nearly that mature in reality. My real solution to this problem was to drop the point system after hearing two straight Thursday nights of whining, reinstate the old hunt format, and then whine myself about all the old faults we still haven't fixed. Physician, heal thyself!)

    All of this is to say that new formats take lots of hard work. There's testing, there's refinement, there's give-and-take, and there's just plain ignoring certain problems because the whole point is to have fun, not to debate rules changes all night long.

    So be flexible. Be fun.

    With that in mind, here are the parameters on our 11-card-deck format:

    11 Card Format

    What restrictions will you put on the 11 cards? No lands. No more than one copy of any card. Every card must be Type I legal.

    This is ridiculous. Won't we deck ourselves after four turns? Good point. No opening hand, so now you'll last 11 turns. And just in case, we'll say you cannot lose from failing to draw a card.

    Still sounds stupid. If you have no lands, how will people get mana? Assume everyone has as much mana as they need, at any time. This will give us maximum creativity within the 11-card decks.

    Now all I need is a couple Fireballs and a Stream of Life!

    Oh boy, now you've done it. With infinite mana, why don't I just play with Fireball and ten variants? Fine, smartypants. I'll bury you in 11s. No effect may go off for more than 11 of anything total - damage, cards, power/toughness, number of tokens, anything. No activated ability may be used more than 11 times in a given round (round = everyone has a full turn). No player may control more than 11 permanents, no player may cast more than 11 spells in any given turn, no player may have more than 11 potato chips out of the common snack bowl, and no player may wear shoes greater than size 11. Got it?

    Okay. But combo decks will still be amazing, won't they? That may very well be. If that's the case, I'd consider restricting the format to Extended - or Standard-legal cards.

    This should be enough to get you started, if you're thinking of doing the 11 format. If the format gets into a rut too quickly, you might consider adding one or more of the following elements:

  • There must be creatures in the deck adding to both power and toughness of 11, exactly.
  • Each card title must have exactly 11 letters in it, not counting spaces.
  • Each card must have a common object in the artwork, but only one copy of that object (so that you have 11 of those things in your deck).
  • If someone in your group can still rip off a nasty combo with all those restrictions on him or her, give them a prize, and try another format.

    If someone in your group still has rules questions, your answer is as good as mine. Experiment! After all, 11 is a prime number, which really ought to mean something relevant to this paragraph, yet doesn't.

     P/T = 11  

    For some ideas, here are the Type 1 creatures with P/T equal to 11

    Aku Djinn
    Ancient Silverback
    Avatar of Will
    Avatar of Woe
    Barktooth Warbeard
    Bartel Runeaxe
    Carrion Wurm
    Covetous Dragon
    Halam Djinn
    Hundroog
    Jareth, Leonine Titan
    Jerrard of the Closed Fist
    Jhovall Queen
    Krosan Tusker
    Lady Orca
    Mahamoti Djinn
    Mungha Wurm
    Petradon
    Prowling Pangolin
    Root Elemental
    Rorix Bladewing
    Sandbar Crocodile
    Serendib Djinn
    Sibilant Spirit
    Sir Shandlar of Eberyn
    Spirit of the Night
    Sunweb
    Titanic Bulvox
    Trolls of Tel-Jilad
    Tsabo Tavoc
    Verdeloth the Ancient
    Zanam Djinn

    Step Three: Test It, And Then Revisit Step One

    See what I mean about being flexible? I told you there'd be a two-step dance, and as it turns out, we end up in a waltz. There's something else we need to do - evaluate our work honestly.

    Here are the criteria I'd use in evaluating your format:

    Does everyone in the group feel that overall, it's fun?
    Does anyone in the group feel that it needs more than just minor tweaks?
    Does someone in the group feel they have an interesting variant to try on the format?
    Does no one complain after you've tried it two or three times, after tweaks?

    I can't evaluate the "11" format yet - our group hasn't tried it. But you're welcome to do so, and let me know how it goes.

    Readers are also welcome to send me their own fun formats. I'd appreciate it if you tested your format first, and stayed brief. (Yes, I get the irony/hypocrisy here. Move on.) I make no guarantees on publication - it may even be a while before I come back to this topic again, by which point it may seem more sensible to do another four-part series on Emperor! What can I say - I'm a crazy guy.

    Closing Note

    Since the 11th day of the 11th month is Veterans Day in America, readers in this country should take a moment to recognize the incredible sacrifices our soldiers past and present have made. Maybe you know someone who's overseas, or you live near a family they've left behind. Do something nice for them - they're all facing a long holiday season ahead.


    You may reach Anthony at seriousfun@wizards.com . He regrettably does not have the time to give deck help to readers, since he must be in bed by 11 every night.

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