Attack of the Dreadhorde is my third Horde Magic deck, after the Eldrazi Horde and Horde of the Lich Lord. The final version of Attack of the Dreadhorde owes a lot of its design to the Eldrazi Horde, sharing a lot of the same core structure as it. It’s not an exact copy, of course; I do have some new and unique elements tossed in, but a lot of the decisions for Attack of the Dreadhorde were informed by the lessons I learned from making my other two Horde decks. I’m quite pleased with the final results; Attack of the Dreadhorde is a challenging deck to face, and I feel it does a good job of portraying Bolas’s invasion of Ravnica in War of the Spark.
A Complicated First Draft
When I first set out to make Attack of the Dreadhorde, I initially had three threats the players had to manage: the Planar Bridge, the Immortal Sun, and Nicol Bolas himself. The idea would be that when a player dealt damage to the Horde deck, they could either reduce Bolas’s life total (Bolas), remove cards from his library (the Planar Bridge) or remove counters from the planeswalker Triumphs (the Immortal Sun). Damaging each target would give the players different benefits, and it would be up to them to decide which one to attack first.
This all sounded great on paper, but in practise it failed. There were too many options for the players to choose from, and ultimately there was no clear right answer. It spread the players’ focus too thin and made for an impossible scenario. It didn’t take long for me to scrap that structure and switch to a simpler design that I knew already worked.
The Same Layout
I didn’t need to reinvent the wheel when I had already done all that work to make the Eldrazi Horde. I figured out the basics, so why was I trying to do it again from scratch? The Horde of the Lich Lord was something pretty different, and while it was alright it didn’t go quite as well as I would have liked. There is always value in testing entirely new designs, but if those designs aren’t working I need to be willing to set them aside.
The layout of the Eldrazi Horde solved a lot of the problems I ran into with traditional Horde magic decks, and looking at the issues I was facing with Attack of the Dreadhorde, the simpler Eldrazi setup would go a long way to resolving them, too. Borrowing my previous structure was a clean, straightforward solution. At first I felt like I was just copying my old work, but I knew that it would just be a starting point; in the end this new Horde deck would be its own unique thing. Plus, by reusing a lot of the same core mechanics it would make it easier for any players already familiar with the Eldrazi Horde to learn this one!
Continuing to lean on the successes and lessons learned from my previous decks, I also used the creature and spell breakdown as a rough outline for the Dreadhorde. The “curve” of the Eldrazi deck in particular felt about right in terms of creature size and the frequency of big threats, so that was my baseline. That said, without the Ingest/Processor dynamic to help those big threats scale up in the late game, I would need some other way to increase the danger as the game went on.
Amassing a Threat
One of the mechanics from War of the Spark that seemed perfect for a Horde deck was Amass. Here was something that was both thematically linked to Bolas’s Dreadhorde, and was one that could scale up as the game went on. If left unchecked, an amassed Army could rival an Eldrazi titan in size! The only problem I ran into with the mechanic was that it only ever made one big creature. A group of players could handle one threat with relative ease, either with removal or cheap blockers.
The Pacifism Problem
Bouncing or destroying a large Army token is generally the go-to solution in War of the Spark Limited, and I expected it to be much the same against the Horde deck. The problem I was facing was how to deal with auras like Pacifism. Neutralizing an Army token while still keeping it in play is one of the best ways of shutting down an Amass strategy; given the way the mechanic works, if an Army token in already play any subsequent Amass triggers have to add counters to that creature, and if the creature can’t ever attack the Amass trigger is useless. A single aura can shut down the entire strategy, meaning a Horde deck built around it would have an easily exploitable fatal flaw.
On the other hand, if the Horde deck could keep making new Army tokens when it amassed it would be harder to deal with. If each token also continued to grow then the threat would start small and gradually become overwhelming as the game went on. For a Horde deck that’s exactly the sort of threat I am looking for!
The Threat Level
Amass has a numerical value attached to it, so switching from +1/+1 counters on a token to a growing “Threat Level” didn’t feel like too big a leap. Whenever Bolas amassed he would make a new 0/0 Army token and increase the Threat Level instead of adding counters. It was a simple enough change, and one that would shape a lot of my design decisions for the rest of the Horde deck. I couldn’t just leave the Army tokens as 0/0, so they would have to get bigger based on the Threat Level, though the exact rate at which they would grow required some testing; too slow and it would be easy to pick the creatures off one by one, but too fast and it would become very unfair very quickly.
I tried a number of growth rates, including a 1:1 ratio (which was way too fast) and a chart that had the tokens growing at various intervals. The chart was promising at first, growing the tokens by 1 at Threat Levels of 2, 5, 9…. I liked the flexibility this chart provided, since it gave me a lot of control over when the Army tokens should grow, but in practise it was awkward to use. When playing you would be constantly double-checking the size of the tokens whenever they attacked, or when you were dealing damage to them. Ultimately the chart was a good idea that was just too cumbersome to use, but it put me on the right track.
When I removed the chart, I replaced it with a basic formula (Army tokens get +X/+X, where X is equal to the Threat Level divided by 2). It required players to do a little bit of math, but it was easier, faster and more intuitive than always looking things up on a chart. I also opted for a ratio that was easy to calculate; thankfully it also happened to be about the right rate of growth for what I needed.
One of the other ideas I had was to incorporate the Eternalized tokens from Hour of Devastation as “Bolas’s Elite”. The idea was to have the Elite tokens enter the battlefield instead of the Army tokens once the Threat Level reached a certain point. I even tested a special rule that if all of the Elite tokens were in play Ravnica would be completely overrun and the players would lose.
I really liked the idea of the Elite tokens, and I kept trying to make them work, but I kept finding that as scary as a 4/4 with a keyword is, it’s not as scary as a 6/6 or an 8/8 Army token. The Eternalized tokens were powerful, but thematically they needed to be the best of the best; by replacing the normal Army token with a 4/4 it put an awkward cap on how big the Army tokens could reasonably be. What’s more, I was artificially capping the Threat Level because of these Elite, which in turn meant that eventually amassing would become useless, and the values for each Amass trigger mattered less.
To cap it all off, Bolas’s Elite were just one more layer of complexity in an already rules-heavy game. Regrettably, I had to abandon the idea to include them, but I will say that I’d love to revisit this idea. My implementation of it didn’t work here, and removing them was the right call, but maybe with a bit of tweaking I could reintroduce them as a sort of mini-expansion. Maybe their power and toughness would also scale with the Threat Level?
After my tweaks I was getting really happy with how the Threat Level was working. One issue I kept running into, though, was that I needed some way for the players to reduce the Threat Level during the game. If the Army tokens only ever got bigger, players be overrun in the late game as they inevitably faced off against a swarm of 10/10 tokens. The official Amass rules give players a chance to “reset” an Army’s size by bouncing or destroying the token, but by introducing the concept of a Threat Level I had removed that as an option.
At first I tried having the Threat Level drop after various triggers, like if Bolas took enough damage in a single turn, but that particular trigger proved too hard to accomplish. Perhaps when an Army token left the battlefield, then? That one was far too easy. So what could I do? Being able to lower the Threat Level was important, especially if the players were falling behind, but these triggered abilities weren’t working out. Perhaps an activated ability, then? It needed to be something the players could do while in a losing position, but the cost would still need to be something significant or players would basically never lose. If the players had to seriously consider paying the cost then I would have hit the right balance between “good enough to use” and “hefty cost to pay”.
And so I added the “Desperate Measures” rule (Discard a card: lower the Threat Level by 2). By discarding a card players could keep the Threat Level in check, but losing a card isn’t always the right decision. Players might be inclined to discard excess lands, but even that might be worth keeping, since those lands could help them remove doom counters from the planeswalker Triumphs.
Initially, I only lowered the Threat Level by 1 per card, but my testing showed that the reward wasn’t worth the cost, especially in a single player game. Lowering the Threat Level by 2 for a single card was a lot more enticing, and with that change I hit that balance I was looking for.
Variable Mana Costs
One thing I could never do easily with the Eldrazi Horde was to include activated abilities and X-cost spells. How much was X? How many times could the Eldrazi activate their abilities? I ended up cutting all of the creatures with activated abilities from the Eldrazi Horde and Horde of the Lich Lord, both to simplify the deck and to sidestep the issue. With the Threat Level mechanic, though, the Attack of the Dreadhorde had a number that I could possibly use for X. I decided to experiment a bit, and began playing around with activated abilities and X spells.
The idea was relatively simple: X = the current Threat Level, and any activated abilities would “toggle on” when the Threat Level matched the mana cost of the ability. After some testing I decided that limiting an activated ability to a single use felt weird, especially with the various ‘pump’ effects that made Bolas’s creatures bigger, so I opened up the possibility of multiple activations. It played well; the creatures with these abilities started off manageable, but grew increasingly difficult to manage as the Threat Level increased.
Initially I didn’t have any creatures with non-mana costs in their activated abilities, like Spark Reaper; it wasn’t until much later that the idea of ignoring the other costs came to mind, and with that change it opened up a lot of possibilities regarding what creatures I could include. This added to the replayabiliy of the deck and meant I could add in a card like Dreadmalkin.
An observant reader may notice that the Attack of the Dreadhorde didn’t include any X-cost spells in the final version. I kept trying ones that I felt were somewhat thematic, like Battle at the Bridge, Death Wind, and Finale of Eternity, but in the end they were just a little bit more complexity than I needed, and they didn’t really fit with the rest of the deck anyway. If I ever use the Threat Level mechanic again for a future Horde deck (and I’m pretty sure I will) I think I’ll start by looking at what X spells I could include.
Redefining Game Actions
One of the trickiest parts of making a Horde deck has always been figuring out what various game actions mean in the context of the Horde. Most Horde decks don’t use a life total, so what does it mean for it to gain life? What about discarding cards? When the deck only ever plays cards off the top of its library, a Mind Rot is pretty much useless against it. It’s always an option for the Horde deck to ignore these game actions entirely. Sometimes this is the only choice, but it usually feels unsatisfying. Wherever possible I like game actions to do something, even if it isn’t exactly how it works in a normal game of Magic.
Ignoring life gain isn’t usually that problematic, since very few decks make your opponents gain life. Moreover, having a rule that says the Horde deck “can’t gain life” is easy to add, since so many cards exist that already do that. Changing what “target opponent discards a card” means, on the other hand, is harder to redefine.
Normally I would be fine leaving “discard a card” unchanged against a Horde deck, much in the same way “destroy target land” would be. In the case of Attack of the Dreadhorde, however, I was making use of Liliana’s Triumph as a part of the cycle of “side quests” for the deck, and that card makes an opponent discard a card. Ignoring discard effects entirely wasn’t really an option.
One of my first ideas was to just replace the effect of Liliana’s Triumph itself. You were rescuing Liliana, so maybe you got to reanimate something instead? I toyed with this idea for a while, and while it was thematic it still felt weird to ignore over half of the card’s text. This was compounded by the fact that players were already tasked with ignoring part of the Triumph’s text: the need to control a Liliana planeswalker.
Initially the Triumphs were more complicated to cast, only giving you the additional “if you control a _____” planeswalker effects after finding the matching Defeat in Bolas’s deck. I wanted players without access to planeswalker cards to be able to get the extra effects from the Triumphs; not only would this make it so that the deck you used against the Horde deck didn’t matter as much, but it also helped support the budget nature of the Horde.
To that end I needed to make some changes. Nissa’s Triumph was tweaked to get any two matching Basic lands instead just Forests. This felt like a sensible change, and one that was easy to understand. I also included a note that Liliana’s Triumph returned a creature card from a graveyard to its owner’s hand instead of discarding a card. This was a lot less intuitive, but my initial test games made it seem promising.
The tweaks to the Triumphs were alright, the way I implemented how the players got the spells’ bonus effects that was too cumbersome. It didn’t add to the experience, so I made it simpler: the players would always gain the benefits of controlling that Triumph’s planeswalker. (I also learned that I needed to make players pay mana for these benefits; drawing three cards for zero mana with Jace’s Triumph was way too good!)
While I was tweaking the Triumphs I was also trying to figure out how I could include a Merciless Eternal in the deck when Bolas was never going to have cards to discard. At the time I hadn’t yet made it so Bolas ignored additional costs, so I was facing a second discard effect and no good answer as to how to handle either one. Treating them differently sure felt like a recipe for confusion, though.
My initial idea was to have players exile a card from Bolas’s graveyard whenever he would discard a card, but that didn’t work as well as I would like; it took a long time to decide what to exile, and it had a negligible impact on most games. Bolas’s graveyard was an important resource, but exiling one or two cards over the course of a game never made much difference. Still, I liked the idea of replacing discards with exiling somehow. I moved the effect over to the library, and it clicked together. If Bolas spent the game casting spells from his library instead of a hand of cards, then it made sense to me that discard effects would interact with his library. It was also a simpler solution that made more sense. Players wouldn’t spend a lot of time trying to decide what cards to exile, and discard effects actually had some extra value; they would prove to be slightly better than just dealing 1 damage to Bolas, since the cards would be removed from the game, but any discard effect would also help close out the game like those damage sources.
When in Doubt, Simplify
Magic can be complicated, and making a Horde Magic deck is even more complicated than that. Not only do you have to juggle the existing rules, but you have to figure out what rules to add or change to keep things running smoothly. It’s tricky, but a Horde deck will usually benefit greatly by keeping its new rules simple whenever possible, and by cutting unnecessary mechanics if they aren’t adding anything meaningful to the experience.
Complexity for complexity’s sake is never a good design, especially for games like Magic. Attack of the Dreadhorde is a bit more rules-intensive than my other Horde decks, but the rules that I do have are all there for a reason. Everything fits together nicely, and I removed the various rules that didn’t work. The addition of the Threat Level was certainly a risk, but one that I think paid off. Not only did it work well for the Attack of the Dreadhorde deck, but it’s a flexible enough mechanic that I look forward to using it in future Horde-mechanic projects.
I’d love to hear what you think, though. Have you tried Attack of the Dreadhorde yet? Did you find the rules to be too long, or were they alright? Was anything left unclear? What would you change if you were designing it? Let me know in the comments!
Thanks for reading, and good luck against the Dreadhorde!