After the amazing feedback I got from my earlier Horde articles, I was asked how cards in Dominaria and Battlebond might influence this fully-cooperative format. Between Sagas and Assist, both sets introduce some very interesting options for designing new Hordes. Let’s dive right in.
The mechanics of Sagas are quite the boon for Horde decks, because their effects always trigger in a specific order and build up over a series of turns, culminating in one large effect. This sets players up for several turns of increasing threats that follow a logical progression.
Order From Randomness
The consistent sequencing of Sagas is a particularly valuable tool. Previously, to replicate the effects of a Saga, a Horde deck could just shuffle in three Sorceries, and while this worked it always looks a bit foolish when the Horde deck cast its spells in the wrong order. Having a single card with a fixed sequence of effects not only ensures the Horde deck will resolve them in a sensible order, but by grouping them onto a single card it frees up extra space in the deck for other spells.
Additionally, because players can see what effects are coming up, they can plan ahead. This makes for more interesting decisions, and helps to build tension as a powerful Chapter approaches.
Delaying the Inevitable
With a regular game of Magic you can often anticipate that your opponent is planning on playing a big threat; you know something scary is coming up when your opponent is sitting on a lot of mana and hasn’t cast a spell in a few turns. Against a Horde deck, players don’t get that same warning. Big spells can pop up out of nowhere, leaving players feeling doomed and frustrated. This means Horde decks usually benefit from a flatter difficulty curve; the difference between the strongest spell and the weakest spell isn’t that large.
In contrast, by delaying big effects for a turn or two it allows a Horde deck to include more powerful spells while still feeling fair. Players can see these effects coming and can prepare for them. Facing off against a card like Plague Wind is extremely frustrating if it comes out of nowhere, but Phyrexian Scriptures provides the same effect (more or less) in a fairer way.
It’s this reasoning that made me decide to have the larger Eldrazi creatures enter the battlefield tapped in my first Horde deck; a 9/9 creature attacking right away is no fun to play against, but if you have even one turn to brace yourself it becomes a challenging, but managable, threat. The same principle applies with any big spell; if players feel like they have no control over their fate and that the Horde deck just randomly destroyed them, they won’t want to play it. If they have a shot at puzzling out solutions, then their games end up feeling less random and arbitrary, and will be more fun to play.
More Delaying Tactics
As a side note, the Suspend mechanic from the old Time Spiral block is also worth exploring for future Horde decks for a lot of the same reasons; those cards could also work to provide bigger, more devastating effects that loom over the players for a few turns.
Triumph of Gerrard is almost purpose-built for a Horde deck. Because its targets are determined by the Saga itself, it becomes harder for players to “cheat the system” by spreading counters around to weak creatures that are easily picked off. This Saga makes most of the decisions for you, so the players just need to follow the instructions on the card.
Do you want to make a Knight Horde? Then History of Benalia is a great addition. Not only does it add knights to the battlefield, but it sets up a massive cavalry charge in a few short turns. Like the other Sagas, players can see it coming and try to prepare, but it’s still a looming threat that could easily make the players lose the game. And that’s what a Horde deck should be: something that can be defeated, but not easily, and one that makes for a memorable game, win or lose.
It is rare that we see a set designed with team play in mind, let alone an entire mechanic. Assist is very unique in that respect, and could be a powerful addition to any deck built specifically to play against Hordes. I generally prefer to use decks I already have when playing against Hordes, but tailoring players’ decks specifically for this format could create a very rich gameplay experience. That said, Assist is not limited to just players’ decks; I think it could have a lot of potential as a part of a Horde deck itself as a way of giving players a leg up.
Once upon a time, with the release of Theros, Born of the Gods and Journey into Nyx, Wizards of the Coast released three “Challenge Decks” that were effectively their take on Horde Magic. As part of their release Wizards created Hero cards which players could use when playing these decks. They started the game in the command zone, like Emblems, and could be used at any time.
When I made my Eldrazi Horde I knew I wanted something like Hero cards, so I gave the players quests they could complete. They empowered the players, but also give the game an extra twist, like having access to a Commander.
A Leg Up
One possibility would be to give players access to a small selection of cards with Assist in their command zone at the start of the game. This wouldn’t work for every Horde deck, but if it was designed with these cards in mind it could work. Balance-wise, the players would still have to spend mana to cast these spells, and they would only have access to each one once, but because of Assist they could pool their resources to cast what they needed. A powerful Play of the Game, or a small Huddle Up could work, but I would be more inclined towards the smaller effects, as they would be easier to keep balanced.
If having access to these cards from the beginning of the game proved to be too much, they could instead be shuffled into the Horde deck itself and only added to the command zone when revealed. This would also add some variance to the Horde deck, since which Assist cards would be available would vary from game to game.
Tug of War
Another twist on this idea could be to let players cast Assist spells when revealed from the Horde deck, but only when revealed. The players would have an opportunity to cast the spell, stealing it from the Horde, but if they couldn’t afford to cast it or chose not to, then the Horde deck would cast it instead. This could completely change how players play against that particular Horde, preferring to keep up as much mana as possible in the hopes of stealing a powerful spell.
You wouldn’t want players to be able to steal every spell in the deck, and not every Assist card would work for such a design, but it would certainly be interesting to include a few ‘stealable’ creatures here and there, like Charging Binox or Magma Hellion. It could make for some very tricky decisions for the players, and some dynamic games to boot.
Dwarven Lightsmith and Vampire Charmseeker are both very interesting options for ‘stealable’ creatures in a Horde deck. Their power is very dependant on the board state, so whether the players want to steal the spell or not would vary greatly from game to game; there could be times when it isn’t worth keeping up the mana, while other times snagging one of them from the Horde deck could be the difference between winning and losing the game.
Notable Assist Cards
Drawing cards is always great, and being able to pool your resources so that everyone can get more cards is even better. Huddle Up is a small enough effect that giving players access to it at any stage of the game wouldn’t be backbreaking, but it gives decks that have stalled out a fighting chance against more powerful Horde decks.
Removal against most Horde decks is essential, and having the players work together to destroy the biggest threats on the battlefield has got to feel good. A card like Gang Up can also act as a sort of “safety valve” against a Horde deck, allowing it to include a higher density of big threats. The players might have access to a Gang Up from the start of the game to help alleviate the pressure, but deciding exactly which threat to use it on shouldn’t be an easy choice.
A Question of Theme
One of the unfortunate sticking points for both Sagas and Assist cards is that the they don’t fit thematically into a lot of Horde decks. Most Sagas are very specific to Dominaria, while the names of a lot of the Assist cards are closely tied to the tournaments of Valor’s Reach. “Gang Up” and “Time of Ice” might be able to sneak into a few different Horde decks, but “Play of the Game” and “Fall of the Thran” are a lot narrower in scope.
That’s not to say that a Horde deck themed around Valor’s Reach or one of the many parts of the history of Dominaria wouldn’t work, mind you. It’s just that having a consistent theme and tone for a Horde deck is also important, and these cards somewhat break the mould. Getting Sagas and Assist cards to fit both mechanically and thematically into a deck could be quite the challenge all its own.
Want to Assist?
In the end, I’m not sure what I’ll end up doing with these new Assist and Saga cards, but I’m excited by the possibilities. Do you have any suggestions for how best to use these new mechanics in Horde Magic? Is there a particular theme you feel would best suit the Sagas or Assist cards?
Let me know what you think; I’m always happy to brainstorm new ideas.