“What are you doing?”
“This is my Horde deck.”
“Is this like the Magic equivalent of Solitaire?”
“Kind of, yes.”
In my last article I shared my take on a cooperative Magic format called Horde Magic. This week I wanted to go over some of my design decisions and how I ended up where I did. I would recommend reading my previous article for some context, but I can’t stop you if you want to charge ahead instead. You do you.
The Classic Zombie
A traditional Horde Magic deck is made up of 100 cards and tokens, typically containing 40 spell cards and 60 creature tokens. When the deck takes damage it puts cards from its library into its graveyard, and the players win if they can deplete the Horde deck completely.
On the Horde’s turn it reveals cards from the top of its library until it reveals a non-token card. Each token revealed is put into play, then the revealed spell is cast. To make things harder for the players, the tokens all have haste, giving the players little time to react. Some turns the zombies will pour out of the deck in one big wave, while other turns you’ll only see one or two. Those quiet turns are like the calm before the storm, because you know more zombies could be coming at any moment. It’s exciting, because you don’t know when you’ll suddenly be overrun.
The original Horde Deck was trying to capture the feeling of a zombie apocalypse; the few survivors are struggling for scraps while living in constant fear that the endless tide will arrive. When it does, they can only hope they have prepared enough to stop it. Mechanically, this is very well reflected in the flip-until-you-hit-a-spell mechanic; the basic zombie tokens chain together to form these mobs, and the players will feel that gnawing worry that is at the heart of all zombie stories.
But my Eldrazi deck isn’t a zombie story. I did away with tokens altogether, and changed around how many cards the deck revealed each turn. The question is, why?
A Choice of Tokens
When I first got the idea of building an Eldrazi Horde deck my only real token option was the old 0/1 Eldrazi Spawn token from Rise of the Eldrazi. While I could have probably built a deck using them and Broodwarden, it really didn’t strike me as all that interesting. I abandoned the project for several years until recently, when I started thinking about it again.
Since Battle for Zendikar, Oath of the Gatewatch and (spoilers!) Eldritch Moon, my choices for Eldrazi tokens has greatly increased. These days I could potentially use the 1/1 Eldrazi Scion tokens or the 3/2 Eldrazi Horror tokens as the basis for the deck. There are even terrifying 10/10 Eldrazi twin tokens I could use! The thought of having a mix of each token excited me, but using the 3/2 token as the basis for the deck made the most sense to me. It was the closest to the traditional zombie tokens, but provided that extra little punch. And so, this is where I started, with a pile of 3/2 Horrors with a light sprinkling of 1/1 Scions and 10/10 twins.
It’s funny how different a project can look once it’s done. If I had rooted myself in the established Horde Magic rules, I probably would have kept all of these tokens in the deck and built something around them. But something was bothering me, and it was going to force my design in a different direction.
The Wrong Theme
Zombies are all about overtaking the survivors with sheer numbers, but that’s not what makes Eldrazi so iconic. While it’s true that Ulamog’s spawn spread across Zendikar and devoured everything in their path, it has always been the titans that players remember. Eldrazi are BIG; they are the Kaiju of Magic, the city-crushing Godzilla monsters that destroy everything in their path. Even Eldrazi mana dorks are huge!
If I just poured tokens into play every turn like the Zombie Horde, the game would naturally become about surviving against overwhelming numbers. Any big Eldrazi that showed up would be a problem, but they wouldn’t really be the focus. By reducing the number of creatures the Horde deck put out each turn, I could include bigger threats, and those big threats would start to take centre stage. Given my budget, I wasn’t about to go out and get the three Legendary titans, but there were still a lot of big Eldrazi I could choose from.
The Ability to Fine Tune
This had an added benefit of being easier to balance. By having a set number of cards played each turn I could adjust the difficulty of the game based on how many cards you would play, as well as the contents of the deck. From a design standpoint this was great; I knew the kind of experience I wanted to recreate, and this was one more thing I could tweak if I needed.
The ideal game of Horde Magic is one that comes down to the wire, where each turn it looks like you couldn’t possibly win, but if you’re clever enough or lucky enough you can survive just a little longer. The traditional Horde Magic rules are very volatile in that respect. Some games the zombies will be nicely spaced out, or they won’t show up in huge numbers until late in the game. Other times you’ll see a giant mob right from the start and you won’t ever have a chance to catch up. I really wanted to avoid those outliers if I could; while there will always be some variance in a game like this, too much and it just ends up feeling random and arbitrary.
The Theros Challenge Decks
When Theros came out, Wizards of the Coast released three “Challenge Decks”, special decks that players could play against in a fully cooperative game: “Face the Hydra“, “Battle the Horde” and “Defeat a God“.
Personally, I loved these Challenge Decks. As soon as they came out I snatched up one of each deck and played a whole bunch of games against them. I had already heard about Horde Magic, but these were released after I had given up trying to make my own. Of the three, the “Battle the Horde” deck was perhaps my favourite, where you had to stop a minotaur attack. Mechanically it was very similar to Horde Magic, but it had some interesting twists, including the fixed-rate reveal of cards each turn. When I was working on my Eldrazi deck I kept thinking back to the Challenge Deck, and was obviously inspired by the minotaur mob; I ended up borrowing a few more design elements from it, but I’ll get into that a little later on.
Finding the Right Cards
Now that I had started to deviate a bit from the traditional Horde Magic rules, I began to wonder if I needed to include tokens at all. The zombie horde used them to signify when to stop revealing cards, but if I was always revealing the same number each turn the tokens were effectively just creatures with no abilities. Looking at my options, there were a lot of 3/2 Eldrazi creatures from the Battle for Zendikar block, and they were a bit more interesting than a plain token.
Removing the tokens from the deck also allowed me to include some of the Scion creators, like Brood Monitor and Scion Summoner. This meant the deck could still get a swarm of creatures out on occasion, but it would be in a more controlled manner. Additionally, I could include the Deathless Behemoth as a recurring threat, though one that the players could keep in check if they were able to whittle down the Scion swarm.
A few of the creatures I was looking at had activated abilities that could complicate things, but as I began to whittle down which cards to use I found I had enough other creatures that I could just avoid using any that I found to be problematic. This game mode was complicated enough to explain, so if I could simplify it somehow by my choice of cards I figured I probably should.
Spells and Targets
I had a good selection of creatures ready, but what I was lacking were good, thematic spells. In Horde Magic it is recommended to have as few decisions for the zombie deck to make, and any that it does make should be done randomly. This is to reflect the mindless nature of the zombies, but I didn’t really like this rule. The most thematic cards for the Eldrazi deck were, of course, the Devoid spells from the Battle for Zendikar block, and most of them were targeted spells.
Assigning these targets at random didn’t feel right, so I took another page from the Challenge Decks and put the decision making squarely in the hands of the players. If they had a spare creature they wanted to sacrifice to Oblivion Strike, that was fine, and if they would rather take 3 damage from Touch of the Void that was ok too. The players would naturally always choose the option that was best for them, but by forcing them to make the choice it made the game more engaging. Maybe taking 3 damage early on was ok, but would you regret it later? Because it was ultimately the players’ choice, if it went well or badly it would be their fault.
One of the big problems I was having was with the giant titans. I knew I wanted some big Eldrazi in the deck, since that was the whole point, but facing down a Bane of Bala Ged on turn 4 wouldn’t really be the most pleasant experience for players. I needed some way to ensure that huge threats like that wouldn’t show up too early, but I didn’t want to make setup more complicated; ideally, the players would just shuffle the deck and get started. I considered having set ‘milestones’ where a big Eldrazi would appear after a certain interval, but that felt a bit too predictable. Oddly enough, the answer lay in a card that I had completely dismissed while it was in Standard, and one that I even avoided during Drafts: Ulamog’s Despoiler.
The beauty of the Despoiler is that if it shows up on turn 4 it’s only going to be a 5/5 threat. It’s big, but even at that stage of the game the players will probably be able to handle it. Later on, though, after the players have taken a few hits from Ingest creatures, the Despoiler gets to show off as a massive 9/9.
I realized that, while the Eldrazi deck wouldn’t be using mana, the cards it Ingested could act as a sort of ‘resource’ for the deck; if the players couldn’t contain the small threats then the Processors would arrive and be that much harder to deal with. It also meant that if the Processors came down first the players wouldn’t necessarily be completely screwed. Moreover, this gave the deck a focus, a theme, and a mechanic that didn’t require much tweaking to make it work autonomously.
Adding the Retreats
One of the best innovations in the minotaur Challenge Deck was the inclusion of a cycle of artifacts that, when revealed by the minotaurs, gave the Horde an extra card every turn. This helped to escalate the threat as the game went on, and gave the players an incentive to go on the offensive if possible. To entice the players even more, if the artifacts were ever put in the gaveyard they would give the players some sort of bonus. I really liked this mechanic, and so when I made my Eldrazi deck I looked for some way I could do something similar.
I wanted something suitably thematic, and that’s when I decided to include the Retreat enchantment cycle. Thematically, these enchantments would represent the players trying to evacuate Emeria, Coralhelm, Hagra, Valakut and Kazandu before the Eldrazi destroyed them. If the players could find the enchantments in the Eldrazi deck they would be rewarded with the card, but if the Eldrazi found them first they would exile them and bolster their numbers.
Mechanically and thematically it all seemed to fit, but something was still missing.
My deck was made, and I had a working prototype. It needed some balancing, but the initial testing was promising; the creatures swarmed in, the giant Eldrazi were splashy and terrifying, the Ingest/Processor dynamic fit really well, and the Retreats gave the deck a clear story. And yet, the decisions were all pretty straightforward.
I discussed the design of my Horde deck with a friend who used to play the old World of Warcraft Trading Card Game, and he liked what I had come up with. He compared it to the WoW TCG Raid and Dungeon decks, which were also designed to be a cooperative experience. We got to talking about how the Raid decks were structured, and he asked me what resources the players had to manage other than their mana. It occurred to me that he was on to something; the players needed to be able to make meaningful decisions beyond just how to block or what spell to cast if this was going to be worth playing more than once. I mulled over the problem a bit, and eventually realized I could use the Expedition enchantments from the original Zendikar block as a series of side quests for the players.
The Expeditions would start off to the side of play, and every time a player played a land they would have to choose which quest they wanted to progress. This decision was made harder by how early it had to be made; would you start by getting extra cards or extra lands? Were you better off having access to an early 7/1 token, or would you want a way to get creatures back from your graveyard? Even the life gain could be relevant if you were struggling to keep up; those 8 points could end up making the difference between victory and defeat in a close game. And to make it even more tricky, once the quest was completed the players would then also have to decide how to use the spoils: who would draw 2 cards? Who would get the extra lands? Would the 7/1 be better used as a blocker or an attacker?
Mechanically, it wasn’t that hard to add in these side quests, but they really do provide a lot of extra flavour and a surprising amount of decision making. They are powerful effects, but this also means that the deck itself can be made harder, since the players have an extra tool at their disposal.
Once I added the side quests, my Eldrazi Horde was ready to go. While more play-testing is always required, it’s in a good place right now. Games are generally pretty challenging, though I am thinking that the deck may need a bit more punch. Time will tell.
That said, if you’re playing against my Eldrazi Horde and are looking for an extra challenge, here are some additional rules you might want to try:
Eldrazi Horde Optional Rules (for harder games)
- Overwheming Numbers: Reveal 3 cards per player each Eldrazi turn instead of 2.
- Impossible Speed: Eldrazi with base power or toughness 5 or higher can attack right away (they don’t enter tapped).
- Crippling Touch: All Eldrazi have Wither (they deal damage to creatures in the form of -1/-1 counters).
- Unnatural Resistance: All Eldrazi get +0/+1.
- Total Ruin: When the Eldrazi reveals a Retreat, in addition to exiling it, it reveals 2 extra cards immediately.
- Unending Tide: When the Eldrazi deck runs out for the first time, shuffle its graveyard into its library.
- The Final Showdown: When the Eldrazi deck runs out for the final time, return all Eldrazi with base power or toughness 5 or higher from the graveyard to the battlefield.
What about you? Have you ever built your own Horde Magic deck or know someone who has? Now that you’ve seen what I’ve done, do you plan on making one? Which tribe would you focus on? And finally, do you remember the Theros Challenge Decks as fondly as I do? Let me know in the comments!
And if you are going on any side quests this week, watch out for giant tentacle monsters.