hat makes a good multiplayer format? Why not just jam everyone into one big melee and let things sorts themselves out?
If you trawl the archives of Serious Fun you'll notice that there is a lot of discussion around multiplayer strategy. From politics and feints to classes of cards and player types, quantifying and qualifying ways to win is a deep topic, with every writer making his stake along the way.
Where this becomes dangerous is when strategies for finding victory overtake the reasons you sat down with several friends: the experience created by the game is more important that who ended up winning.
Last week's rundown of non-Free-for-All multiplayer options pointed out options that keep the game moving while providing smaller goals to achieve. Winning is, of course, still the general idea, but breaking that down into compartments of accruing points or taking on a flavorful role creates an experience beyond everyone fighting.
So that's what I set out to do with another set of guild packs, this time from Gatecrash. With Return to Ravnica packs, we looked into Star Sealed. This time it's a different format that suits five player: Usurpers.
A King and His Men
Check last week's article for the breakdown on how Usurpers works. It's straightforward, but there isn't room for it here. The real meat comes from how five of us duked it out for our own goals.
Andrew, as King, had his pick of the guild litter. He quickly zeroed in on Orzhov as his pick. "It seems like the guild that could last the longest." Nobody disagreed.
Andrew's Orzhov Sealed Deck
Kevin, the source of Usurpers among us, picked up Boros. Was he a protector or defector?
Kevin's Boros Guild Sealed Deck
Being the sneaky Traitor I am I had picked Dimir before even the King had a chance. "Why do you get to choose first?" Brendan asked. "It's for Dimir Week," was all I offered.
Adam's Dimir Guild Sealed Deck
Brendan ended up with Gruul. As a fan of multiplayer fun he thought our idea was pretty cool, and dressed to show it.
Brendan's Gruul Sealed Deck
Dave had the maniacal Simic to work with, and wasted no time giggling about his cards as he opened his packs. We had no idea what we were in store for.
While I had forced things to be both Dimir and the Traitor, everything else was still an unknown to me and the others. Just because I decided to pack blue-black doesn't mean I stole everyone's secrets.
The game started quickly, with Andrew using Syndic of Tithes to extort from an early Prophetic Prism, with Kevin right behind him extorting back on turn four with Skyknight Legionnaire off Basilica Guards. The attack using the Legionnaire revealed Kevin as the first Assassin.
Despite an immediate attack against Kevin using my Drakewing Krasis, Andrew wasn't warm to me at the start. "I don't trust you," were the wise words of the King. I had my work cut out for me.
Over the next rounds, Kevin continued his assault, attacking Andrew with Skyknight Legionnaire, extorting an Assault Griffin into play, then attacking with that too. Brendan began to amass a force of baddies enhanced with +1/+1 counters, namely Ghor-Clan Rampager, using an Ivy Lane Denizen. I added a Keymaster Rogue (bouncing and replaying an Incursion Specialist) and Leyline Phantom. But all eyes turned to Dave as he played Lazav, Dimir Mastermind on one turn, and followed it on the next with Gift of Orzhova.
Even without any copy effect kicking in yet, Dave had a 4/4 flying, lifelink, hexproof monstrosity to work with. Andrew summed his thoughts succinctly: "I hope you're on my side."
Andrew's Arrows of Justice dealt with Kevin's Assault Griffin, but that was just the moment the other Assassin was looking for. Brendan piled into the King with his 5/5 Ghor-Clan Rampager and 2/2 Spire Tracer. After damage, Dave had an Executioner's Swing for the Rampager, turning Lazav into it. (That made it a 5/5 flying, lifelink, trample, hexproof for those counting at home.)
Kevin's Guardian of the Gateless seemed imposing but it couldn't block my Keymaster Rogue or survive stopping my Leyline Phantom, and thanks to both Frilled Oculus and Gateway Shade on my next turn, Incursion Specialist could get in on the action. Even through extort triggers, Kevin was down to just 10 life. Brendan didn't have much going on at the moment and Dave, known to him and myself (but no one else) as the Bodyguard, took the opportunity to put Lazav to work and dropped Brendan to 10 as well.
Except Dave gained 5 life doing it. I wasn't happy about the challenge ahead of me.
Andrew continued to pick apart Kevin, using One Thousand Lashes to seal away the Guardian of the Gateless and extort again, but Kevin wasn't out of tricks just yet. Angelic Skirmisher appeared for the Boros Assassin, and Andrew quickly ran the math.
The King looked over to me. "We can't let that thing—" pointing to the Skirmisher—"die, or he gets to copy it," Andrew finished by waving at Dave. While I didn't ask for fear of throwing the moment, it was clear to me that Andrew decided I was his Bodyguard. Keeping it that way was the next step in my plan.
"If we can kill Kevin before the Skirmisher dies he won't get the chance," I said. While using the rules of multiplayer to keep the graveyard clear of the powerhouse seemed simple, Kevin now had a method to gaining life during combat, keeping blockers up, and continuing to extort nearly every turn. Killing him first was a tall order.
My Keymaster Rogue did keep Kevin's life in modest check, but Brendan began to attack again with a renewed force of Spire Tracer, Ivy Lane Denizen, and Cinder Elemental. Andrew's 27 life was still plenty as a King, but it was going to quickly evaporate if the Assassins didn't go defensive.
Dave used Voidwalk to flicker one of Brendan's creatures out and into play before ciphering Voidwalk onto Lazav. His attack at Kevin was strong, since gaining any life would require Kevin to put his Skirmisher up for trade. Instead, he fell to just 6 life. Voidwalk flickered Dave's down Realmwright, letting his Sage's Row Denizen put some of Kevin's library into his graveyard.
Andrew just passed the turn to a weakened but undaunted Kevin. The Assassin cast, and paid to extort, from both another Skyknight Legionnaire and a Daring Skyjek, then used vigilance to pound on Andrew in the air yet keep his defenses ready. Now at 17 life, the King looked uncomfortable.
But the turn wasn't over.
At the end of Kevin's turn, Dave cast another Executioner's Swing to kill the Angelic Skirmisher. He wasted no time saying that was what Lazav copied now. Before my attack step, Andrew conferred with me on battle strategy. While I was getting low on life myself, I didn't hesitate to agree to go lower from extort triggers if it meant clearing away Kevin's Basilica Guards. A quick Grisly Spectacle later and I had an excellent attack for Kevin (which put him back to 10 life again), and a lethal attack for Brendan.
Dave continued the assault, forcing Kevin to sacrifice another flying creature to Dave's Lazav, Dimir Superfatty. Andrew didn't need to attack, as he could pay for three extort triggers from casting just Corpse Blockade. Kevin was finally painted into a corner, but he still had one last trick for us. He played a Forest, his first source of green mana in the game, followed by Clan Defiance with X equal to 6.
His targets were clearly aimed to keep his chances alive: 6 damage straight to Andrew, 6 damage on the ground to Dave's fresh Knight of Obligation, and 6 damage to Andrew's new Kingpin's Pet. Kevin didn't have blockers and hadn't gained life; it was the final throes before death.
I made my move to try and secure victory by attacking Dave instead of Kevin. "I don't have any way of getting rid of the thing," I said to Andrew, pointing at Lazav, "but I can get some damage in to keep his life down." The King's blessing was given, and Keymaster Rogue crashed into Dave after I cast and ciphered Call of the Nightwing onto it.
With Andrew working with me I hoped it would be possible to outrace Dave. With an unblockable creature giving me a free flying blocker every turn, it looked like I could buy time to get more evasive creatures onto the battlefield. If Dave attacked without vigilance I could threaten a ton of flying damage. If he attacked without lifelink he wouldn't gain the life Keymaster could eat away. The situation was critical but stable.
Then Dave dropped the hammer of doom upon anything I could do.
Diluvian Primordial was absolutely backbreaking. Copying Andrew's Grisly Spectacle destroyed my ciphered Keymaster Rogue, and Kevin's Homing Lightning wiped away both Drakewing Krasises. He attacked Kevin to death, rising to 21 life, then cast his copy of Voidwalk to flicker his Diluvian Primordial. This time he took my Hands of Binding to lock down my Bane Alley Broker (which had drawn nothing but lands for me over the game). To add insult to injury, Sage's Row Denizen's trigger milled me through my Consuming Aberration and Dave copied it with Lazav.
Lazav was now in the neighborhood of 20 power and toughness, and was only going to get bigger.
Andrew flashed me his hand after casting Cinder Elemental on his turn. Devour Flesh was there, and the plan was simple: get it down to just Lazav in play and Devour it. Without much removal at all in my deck, and a real threat of being milled out of the game looming, I promised to help however I could. I drew Prophetic Prism for the turn, which drew me into Deathcult Rogue and therefore a +2/+0 and unblockable Incursion Specialist.
Dave chuckled a little when I attacked for 3 damage. I wasn't close to outracing what he would gain on his turn, and things got worse. Dave untapped and cast Duskmantle Seer, milling me more cards, and attacked with the massive Lazav. One of my Horror creature tokens took the hit, but Dave jumped to 36 life. Andrew conferred with me, and we agreed that getting rid of the Duskmantle Seer was the best option for Cinder Elemental.
I cast a Balustrade Spy I had been holding, then the Death's Approach I drew for the turn. Dave's Realmwright fell to the enchantment, and by casting two spells in a turn again I had a 5-damage attack between the Incursion Specialist and Deathcult Rogue. At the end of my turn, Andrew used his Cinder Elemental to end the Seer as planned.
It wasn't enough.
Dave slammed Angelic Edict onto the table, targeting my new Spy and milling me down to just one card left in my library. With only one flying creature to block with, I was crushed by Dave and his Aberration-mimicking-Lazav and Diluvian Primordial. The game stopped. Andrew looked over to Dave. Dave looked at Andrew.
"Well, do we continue?" Andrew asked, shuffling his hand and glancing at it.
"We won," Dave said, revealing his Bodyguard card. Andrew was stunned.
"Wow. Initially, I thought you—" he said, looking at me—"were the Traitor by the way you looked at the board, but then for the rest of the entire game you decided to do everything I asked you to without question. We came up with plans together. Apparently, my confidant over here," Andrew said, now talking to Dave, "apparently decided to just sit quietly and say nothing every time I asked him of something. That was kind of interesting. So initially I thought the Traitor was the Traitor, but I was fooled and I was literally clueless until the last action in the game was taken. And then the game was over and we won."
I asked Dave what he thought and if he had tried to convince Andrew of his true role. "I wasn't trying to convince him; I was basically putting my board state to a point where no one could attack me and big enough that I could kill the Traitor in one swing. I knew you were the Traitor immediately when Kevin and Brendan attacked, so basically I had to figure out a way to keep you at bay. I couldn't do enough at once to kill them, so I had to let you kill them for me and then I could direct my whole front at you."
I turned to Kevin, the sharer of Usurpers, to get his thoughts on how a five-player game worked out. "It worked out pretty well. Usually, it's played with six players and three Assassins, so I was a little worried the Assassins would be short on power and end up getting ganged up on by the King. For me, my deck pretty much just curved out so I got all the power plays.
"Extort really helped," Kevin continued. "I was able to do a good amount on the King. I think if Brendan had gotten a better curve it could have worked out. He got to play a couple of small guys, but when he did get one big guy it got killed immediately. He only contributed a little bit of damage, so in the end he just couldn't pull it off. But it was a pretty cool ending."
What made Usurpers so compelling for me is the idea of multiplayer politics and table talk with a purpose. It isn't random, although the role assigned is itself. Each player has a purpose, but he or she can play up or down his or her true goals. Every player has obvious attacks at every stage of the game, although choosing when to attack is just as important as ever.
I hope this recap shows you that even without preconstructed decks and balanced numbers, formats like Usurpers can not only work well but deliver on the promise of a good time. Join us next week when we look at just how good it is to be king. See you then!
Bonus: A Note About the Origins of Usurpers
When I shared Usurpers last week, several of you emailed sharing there exists a standalone game called Bang! that works under the same rules for victory. While flavored with trappings of the Wild West, the core for winning matched up to Usurpers: the sheriff is King, the deputy sheriff is the Bodyguard, outlaws are Assassins, and the renegade is the Traitor.
There's a lot more to Bang! than just that, and it seems obvious that Kevin could have borrowed inspiration from that. Since I played this week's game before last week's article was published, I didn't get a chance to ask Kevin about it, and while independent discovery is possible, calling out Bang! here covers the Occam's razor explanation.
Thanks for pointing it out, and keep the emails (or mentions on Twitter) coming!
Adam "Stybs" Styborski joined DailyMTG.com in 2009 to take over Serious Fun. From Commander to Cube to multiplayer of every flavor, if you think friends are as fun as cards, he'll find something for you.