t's an innocent sound heard hundreds of thousands of times across card stores and kitchen tables. Flip, flip, flip. Cards, tumbling gently over, reveal something new to those watching. Sometimes it's for a Genesis Wave, other times during a Winchester Draft.
Recently it was for what is quickly becoming my new favorite format: Horde Magic. As shared last week, Horde Magic is a truly cooperative way to play for up to four players. Providing the spark to a flourishing fire of feedback, it's clear that many of you love the idea of all the potential and personalization that Horde Magic provides.
This week isn't about dishing out play instructions to give you more options. We're going to dive deep into our massing variant, and give you a bird's-eye view of Zombie fighting. Ready to slough off some dead?
It's probably obvious, but in case it you're wondering, here it is: you can craft a Horde deck around any series of tokens in Magic. Do the critters of the forest—Snake, Saproling, Wolf, Elephant, and Beast—tickle your fancy? Is it pearly ranks of silvery Soldiers? Do the Ogres and Dragons of the high mountain passes of the world excite your thirst for battle?
I've even seen some Eldrazi lists kicked around, and they obviously have to include Emrakul, the Aeons Torn. The Horde is what you make of it, and you can make it pretty much however you want.
In the spirit, er undeath, of the format I decided to put together a classic Zombie shamble, with a few changes to the mix.
Stybs's Zombie Horde
These changes can be summarized in two related classes.
I didn't have all of the cards on the original list available. Sometimes you just don't have whatever card you're particularly interested in. I was short Undead Warchief and Plague Wind, and had to dig deep to find any copy of Twilight's Call (in Chinese, no less). While it's certainly nice to have exactly what you want, in the quantity you want, for every deck you have, it's also often just as fun (or more!) to use a similarly themed card. That is:
I pulled replacements by theme, not power. I didn't want to necessarily empower or diminish the strength of the Horde deck, but when you change up cards it's going to happen. In looking over the original list I wanted to ensure that there would be more ways for the Zombies to interact with players other than just attacking (as flavorful as "just attacking" can be).
That's why Grave Peril and Smallpox showed up. Waning Wurm and Abattoir Ghoul felt like nastier dead to deal with. Since I was short a lord and Plague Wind, an extra Endless Ranks of the Dead felt right. I wasn't out to perfectly replicate the deck, but the experience I was hoping to encounter. (Spoiler: It worked.)
Seeking an incredible experience, I recruited a few fellow Commander elites, champions of the local cause, to rally in engaging the Horde on its terms: battle.
Left to Right. Rear: myself with Jor Kadeen, the Prevailer, and Mo with Olivia Voldaren. Front: Ando packing Jaya Ballard, Task Mage, and Dorian bringing the Horde of Notions for the Horde
A fully powered Horde against a font of Commander captains; I liked our odds, and I wasn't disappointed in putting my gut there. Our first turns rolled out a very quick start. Ando, Dorian, and I all had a creature on turn three, and Mo rolled Sol Ring, Braid of Fire, and Mirri the Cursed into a ball of mana and fury ready to erupt on the fourth turn.
The Horde fired off what could be considered an average-to-weak shot of three Zombie tokens and a Death Baron. We easily mopped up the crew, taking just 2 damage, and quickly untapped to reload. Mo had Bloodline Keeper, Olivia herself, and a Kalastria Highborn, and Dorian made a Phyrexian Metamorph play the Keeper act too. My Taurean Mauler looked promising, as the Horde casts at least one spell every turn (we considered only the nontokens to be spells that would trigger it).
The Horde's reply of adding another Zombie token and Unbreathing Horde also easily went down. A pattern was forming.
Our next turn started with Mo funneling Braid of Fire mana through Olivia Voldaren, pinging things and pumping her rather quickly. He also transformed his Bloodline Keeper into the Lord of Lineage, which Dorian quickly copied with Rite of Replication (unkicked). At this point our forces seemed more than adequate, so Mo took some cards off the top of the Horde with a 4/4 Kalastria Highborn attack.
Biting the undead with more success than blood from a stone.
The Horde, however, was not without its tricks. It only played a Delirium Skeins to lay low our hands. Dorian pitched It That Betrays, Avenger of Zendikar, and a Terastodon (the "I hope we get Twilight's Call" plan), Ando dropped some modest burn and artifact removal, and I dumped away absolutely worthless cards Land Tax, Into the Core, and Dust to Dust. Mo's Sengir Nosferatu and Butcher of Malakir seemed anemic compared to his current battlefield.
We followed up with a fearsome barrage. Mo funneled Braid of Fire mana to again pump Olivia (now a more-than-healthy 10/10), Ando found an Inferno Titan (chipping away at the Horde a little more), and I had a Sword of Fire and Ice to suit up my Transcendent Master. Dorian, now with both a Bloodline Keeper and a Lord of Lineage, just made two 4/4 flying Vampire tokens.
With defenses set we struck in hard, gouging the Horde for twenty cards. Some of the hits we milled away were Waning Wurm, Undead Warchief, and Endless Ranks of the Dead (along with 15 assorted Zombie tokens). Dorian reiterated that he'd enjoy seeing Twilight's Call despite the much stronger graveyard the Horde now had.
As if on cue, the Horde deck hit another Zombie token and the called shot Twilight's Call. An 8/8 Unbreathing Horde, Vengeful Dead, Undead Warchief, Death Baron, Waning Wurm, Cackling Fiend, Severed Legion, and Infectious Horror all piled onto the battlefield, with haste and big boosts to boot.
But the Horde didn't profit alone.
Dorian got his Avenger of Zendikar (with six Plant token pals), It That Betrays, and Terastodon. Mo landed a previous pitched Sengir Nosferatu, and used it in conjunction with the also previously pitched Butcher of Malakir to make the Horde smaller before it could even attack.
But then it came on anyway, oblivious to certain doom. Mirri took out the Vengeful Dead, putting us to a respectable 52 life after handling Infectious Horror's trigger. A Beast token, courtesy of a former land of Ando's after the Terastodon, stopped up Infectious Horror, the Severed Legion was throttled by the Undead Warchief that was randomly sacrificed, and Inferno Titan took care of the Death Baron. The rest of the crew were soaked by Plant tokens.
The next turn for us survivors turned out to be the last. With the Horde tapped down we calculated our total power: 117. It was easy to destroy the remaining bits of the library and have enough laid back to finish off the remnants.
With us packing heat like that it's no surprise the Horde crumbled easily. Naturally, I wanted to try again under different circumstances, and switched to two-player mode (removing some of the Horde deck at random) with Brendan, the consummate casual of wacky decks.
Ruhan of the Fomori was looking to battle.
This game proceeded in a similar way. We had early plays, with a Sol Ring and Solemn Simulacrum for myself, that led into a Ruhan on turn four. The Horde presented some early annoyances, Infectious Horror being the worst, but quickly fell into a rhythm of "a few Zombies" that crashed into prepared defenders.
Ruhan, being that he had to attack, laid into the Horde in seven-card swipes.
When the worst threats were milled away before they could really get us, the game moved a little too smoothly. The turn after Damnation hit the graveyard, Twilight's Call was milled too. We mopped up the Horde deck easily after that.
After a brief discussion, Brendan and I decided to go full-bore, taking the challenge all the way up to the top. We were going to duo-duel the entire 100-card Horde deck. If we had too much power, giving the Horde a boost seemed to make sense.
Unlocking the obvious, if fictitious, achievement of defeating the full Horde as a twosome was also appealing.
Our start-up turns were somewhat slower, and we managed to field only a Transcendent Master before the Horde got to take a swing. But what a mighty swing it was: two Zombie tokens and a Forsaken Wastes. That little enchantment, alongside a crew of Zombies, began to eat into our life total.
We untapped and managed to field Ruhan of the Fomori from Brendan, and a Journeyer's Kite for myself, before the Horde struck again. This time it was Cackling Fiend. While we had do-nothings to throw away, we certainly hoped to avoid a Delirium Skeins anytime soon.
Ruhan got to attack after we dipped to 32 life (ripping away another Cackling Fiend, Gluttonous Zombie, and Infectious Horror). I was mana shy, but used the Kite to find a Plains to play as Brendan suspended Chronomantic Escape. At least a reprieve was on the horizon.
Obviously, the Horde deck was a merciless thing and ripped a Delirium Skeins anyway, and added a few tokens to pummel us down to 25 after our next upkeep. With our hands depleted, I moved in to use Oblivion Ring to remove the quickly-turning-deadly Forsaken Wastes. I had a Batterskull in hand and another potential source of life if Transcendent Master accumulated enough level up counters. Brendan, however, was whiffing on drawing anything other than lands, and we were forced to let Ruhan continue to pound into the Horde. The deck was getting dented, but it wasn't even close to being over.
The horde found two more Zombie tokens and an Endless Ranks of the Dead. After the required combat step there were three tokens left. Trouble was afoot, and we were already down to just 19 life.
Drawing off the top wasn't ideal, but I was pleased to rip Kismet. This would give us some breathing room against attacks, but would certainly help Endless Ranks of the Dead do its job. Ruhan managed to knock out Army of the Damned and Soulless One in his attack that turn, and as happy as we were we also became very nervous about Twilight's Call floating in there still.
The Horde, as if on cue, had a tremendous turn as six Zombie tokens, a Zombie Giant token, and Severed Legion jumped to the battlefield, but tapped. We still had two Zombies slip through against us. On our turn, Chronomantic Escape popped, giving up another break in the action, and we took advantage by pressing in with an attack after I leveled Transcendent Master to six.
Back to 20 life, and with the Horde deck obviously diminished, we were less than thrilled to see another surge of Zombies: five from Endless Ranks, then a Zombie Giant and Undead Warchief.
The Zombies were piling up, but Brendan had a trick up his sleeve: Energy Arc. Yeah, read the card.
On our turn Brendan played Inviolability on Ruhan, ensuring that he could continue his castle-crashing antics. I had my Jor Kadeen, the Prevailer pop in, adding a welcomed first strike to our arsenal. Ruhan attacked and five random Zombies blocked, Ruhan ruining three.
The Horde's turn was disheartening: seven Zombies from Endless Ranks, then a Nested Ghoul. When the Horde invariably attacked, Brendan used Energy Arc to stop all but Undead Warchief and a Zombie Giant token. Jor hacked down the Warchief first, then the 6/6 Master stopped the token. We went up to 26 life, with things bleak but looking better.
Our turn was more backpedalling to regain composure. I had my Batterskull down now, and was just two more level up counters away from a maxed-out Master. Brendan had a Champion's Helm to help Ruhan eat more Zombie blockers, now eating four when blocked.
But the Horde was finally coming into true power. Eight tokens hopped in off Endless Ranks of the Dead—still entering the battlefield tapped thanks to Kismet—but the Delirium Skeins on the top really cramped our style. I was forced to pitch Recoup, Covetous Dragon, and Linvala, Keeper of Silence, which was all I had left in hand.
Then the attack thundered in: 28 damage was bypassing our defenses, but we gained a total of 10 life through lifelink. Sitting at 8 life was not a prospect I liked, but we had a window to work in: Chronomantic Escape was going off again on our next turn. I put the Master to max level and sent it and Batterskull in alongside Ruhan. We jumped back to 20 life (after we fetched lands) and crushed a huge chunk of the remaining Horde deck. The second Endless Ranks of the Dead was now gone, along with Damnation and Smallpox.
The Horde's turn provided it with 11 Zombies from Endless Ranks, then five more and a Syphon Mind. Once we had our turn again we continued to press the attack to gain some life. I shifted Batterskull to the Master and attacked; together with Ruhan they ate ten tokens and put us up to 33 life. Would it be enough?
Fifteen Zombie tokens came down from the Endless Ranks. How endless they seemed! A Vengeful Dead as the Horde's spell for the turn sealed our doom: we couldn't gain enough life while killing Zombies to stay alive. The Horde's 58 damage rolled into our 13 points of lifelink; 45 was greater than 33 the last time I checked.
The Horde deck as just a wisp at this point: four more tokens and a Brain Gorgers. So close and yet so far!
The survivors, and the Prevailer himself, did not return.
If you had your curiosity piqued by Horde Magic, I hope today showed you a little more about what makes it so much fun. The game I enjoyed the most was actually the third. While getting munched up by flooding Zombies isn't ideal—we died and everything—it was certainly more of the challenge and excitement that I was expecting from Horde Magic.
Since Tom LaPille shared that the polls are working as intended, it's back to a weekly poll. I'm pleased it was that short of a stop off!
What Horde would you want to battle?
Some of you shared your opinions last week, but I'd like to see some numbers. Someday, when it's time to revisit the Horde, there will be a need for a new Horde to battle. Your ideas so far have been awesome! Keep them coming!
Join us next week when we meet the modern era! (And, no, I didn't actually steal from Mark Rosewater this week. That got a little bump for down the road. Patience.)