6 Fun Commander Modes for Uneven Playgroups
Commander is a multiplayer format that is best played with four players. Experience teaches us, however, that it's not always easy to get exactly this number. Let's look at some Commander variants to play when you're in an uneven numbered playgroup.
Four Is the Name of the Game, or Is It?
In an ideal world, you have your three (best) friends all playing a Commander deck and they are always available for some games whenever you have time. This is not an ideal world (in that sense anyway) and unfortunately, as we grow older and adjust more to adult life, it gets harder and harder to plan a night of Commander with exactly three other players.
Another interesting situation that occasionally happens is when you suddenly have five players. While we could argue that this is better (or worse) than three players, it's still not optimal. Five-player games tend to drag out exponentially compared to four-player games simply because of the additional number of permission, board wipes, and/or stall pieces that one player adds to the game.
I'm here to tell you that this is not the end of the world. While Commander is at its best with a total of four players, there are plenty of options that spice up the game even when you have an undesired amount of players.
Keep in mind that all these game modes work best when all players have a deck that's roughly on the same power level.
Three-Player Commander Variants
Three-player Commander games almost always end up like this: Player A is winning. Player B and C focus on Player A to stop him/her from winning; Player A cannot handle the pressure of the two players and loses; Player B and C must now kill each other (usually with many of their resources already used), while Player A waits it out. This entire game can take up to an hour. Due to the political and "swingy" nature of the format, Commander with three players rarely makes for good games. While there aren't as many popular three-player Commander variants as there are five-player variants, I can still highly recommend these:
Archenemy was initially designed as a separate format. The concept is simple: one player is the "archenemy" and the other players form a team that must collectively take down the archenemy. R&D believed that they had maybe worked a bit too hard to keep Magic balanced and mechanically intricate, but they also wanted players to experience more flavorful and "cool" cards. The first Archenemy set was released in 2010 and contained scheme cards to give the Archenemy extra resources to deal with the onslaught of their opponents. It was not until seven years later that the second Archenemy set was printed, this time completely focused around Nicol Bolas. This format can naturally be applied to Commander – with or without the scheme cards – but let's assume you don't have 200,00 € casually lying around to buy all the scheme cards.
Archenemy Rules (without Scheme Cards):
- At the start of the game, one of the players is designated as the archenemy, while the other players form a team.
- The archenemy wins by defeating the other players.
- The other players win if they defeat the archenemy.
- The archenemy always plays first.
- The archenemy starts at 60 life.
- The archenemy draws two cards in their draw step.
- The archenemy may play an additional land during each of their turns.
- The players who are on the team share one life total and play as if it were a two-headed-giant game.
- The commander damage rule applies as normal and is counted per commander; one individual commander must deal 21 damage to kill a player.
- (Optional Rules) The archenemy gets four powers that can be activated. Each power can only be activated once and only during the archenemy's main phase. The powers are:
- Draw two cards.
- Destroy target artifact, enchantment, planeswalker, or creature.
- Target opponent discards two cards.
- Put a token into play that is a copy of a target permanent an opponent controls.
Attack to The Left!
Attack to the Left! is a fan-made format that is simple, but a lot of fun.
Attack to the Left! Rules:
- Players choose a deck to play. Once chosen, a player cannot change their deck.
- Players reveal their deck choices simultaneously.
- Players are seated at random.
- Players can only attack the person sitting on their left.
- A player wins the game by defeating the player to their left. They do not need to defeat the player that's sitting on their right.
This format results in a lot of unpredictable and fast-paced games. You want to kill the player on your left as fast as possible to win the game, but you also want to leave enough removals and blockers for the player attacking you. The game mode prevents players from ganging up on one single person and evens out the playing field by giving each player a clear objective and a clear threat.
It's important to have players first select their decks before assigning their seats. You could even have players wait till everyone is seated before revealing their deck because it's important that all players reveal their deck at the same time and can no longer change it. The randomized seating ensures that no player has a clear advantage by knowing ahead of time what their opponent will be playing.
The Highest Life
This is another fan-made format that requires you to play in a different way than what you are used to in Commander.
The Highest Life Rules:
- Players play a regular game of Commander.
- Whenever a player loses the game, it becomes game over and the person with the highest life total wins.
- If multiple players are tied for the highest life, any damage that could kill a player would reduce their life total to 1 instead.
- If all players somehow managed to get their life totals to 1, the game ends in a draw.
This game mode creates interesting scenarios where you must decide whether to gang up on the player with the higher life or not. Choosing to do so might result in the other player having the highest life total, thus turning the tables, but still perhaps not to your advantage. You could argue that playing a lifegain deck is a huge advantage in this format, but keep in mind that the other players will be committed to stopping you.
Five-Player Commander Variants
Five-player Commander games pose a different problem from three-player ones. With five players, the flow of the game is more out of balance. There are more spells that reset the game, more weird political mind games, and you'll have to wait just a bit too long before it's finally your turn again. I was never a fan of five-player games and would've even preferred to spectate a four-player game rather than participate in a five-player game. That is until I tried some of these game modes with my playgroup.
Theoretically a very similar game mode to Hidden Roles, Kingdoms goes a step further by assigning every player a unique role with a clear purpose.
- Get one Plains, one Swamp, one Forest, and two Mountains. If you have a sixth player joining, add one Island as well.
- Every player receives one land face down at random.
- The player who received the Plains is the King. The King is the only player that reveals their identity. All other players cannot reveal their roles until the game is completely over.
- The King always starts first and begins with 50 life. The King wins the game if they are the final player alive.
- The player who receives a Forest is the Knight. The Knight's goal is to protect the King. If the King and the Knight are the lasts ones alive, they both win the game.
- The players who receive the Mountains are the Bandits and their goal is to kill the King. If the King dies, the Bandits win the game, regardless of who else is still alive.
- The player who receives a Swamp is the Assassin. The Assassin wins when all other players are dead.
- The player who receives an Island is the Usurper. The Usurper's goal is to deal the finishing blow to the King. If this happens, the Usurper becomes the King (and vice versa). The Usurper's life total is then set to 50, while the King stays at 1 life. It's now also the Knight's purpose to defend the new King.
- Players besides the King cannot reveal their roles until the game is completely over. (The only exception is if the Usurper kills the King.)
- Players can "claim" that they have certain role.
Star is originally a five-player game mode wherein each player represents one of the five colors of the color pie and plays a deck that consists solely of that color. A player wins when their opposing colors are defeated. For example, if you are the red player, you would have to defeat the white and blue player. This concept can easily be adapted to your Commander group, but without anyone having to build a specific monocolored deck.
- Players choose a deck to play, once chosen, a player cannot change their deck.
- Players reveal their deck choices simultaneously.
- Players are seated at random.
- The two players directly seated next to you on both sides are your allies.
- The two other players are your enemies.
- You need to defeat both your enemies to win the game.
- Any spells that refer to "opponents" refer to your enemies only.
- You cannot attack your allies.
A very cool and interesting thing about playing Star is that your allies also have an alliance with one of your enemies, thus often creating a lot of drama and politics. It's also great that players have a clear objective, which often leads to fewer "feel bad" moments.
This has been our go-to five-player game mode at work lately. At first, I was a bit skeptical, but having played it quite a few times now, I have to say, I'm impressed by this mode.
Hidden Roles Rules:
- Set aside five cards to define the roles: two different basic lands, two monocolored cards that match the color of the basic lands, and one artifact. This can be done with bulk-rares or draft-chaff as these cards have no impact on the game and are solely used to assign roles to players. For example, one Swamp, one Plains, one Banehound, one Charmed Stray, and one Prismite.
- Shuffle the five role cards facedown and make sure every player receives a card at random (still face-down).
- Players privately look at their cards. The two players that received a basic land reveal their card to the players and leave their card face-up.
- All other players leave their cards face-down.
- The two players who revealed the Swamp and Plains card are enemies.
- The player who received the Banehound forms a team with the Swamp player and the Charmed Stray player forms a team with the Plains player. However, the monocolored cards players still do not reveal their roles.
- The player who received the Prismite is the "rogue".
- The "Swamp" team wins when the "Plains" team dies and vice versa.
- The rogue wins if all other players die.
- Players with face-down cards are only allowed to reveal them once the entire game is over. They are not allowed to reveal their role even upon dying.
The two players that revealed land cards have a clear purpose – to attack each other. Now it's up to the other three players to influence the game in such a way that their team will win – without revealing what their role is! The rogue can, for instance, help or hinder a team, thus tricking the other players into believing that he/she is an ally. It's very interesting when you help your team in subtle ways without revealing to the other players what your actual role is. The basic land players have a clear objective and can focus on just killing the other player, while receiving help from other players along the way.
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Hopefully these game modes give you an idea on how to spice up your awkward numbered playgroups. Have you already tried any of these modes? Do you have a cool game mode that I did not mention here? I'm looking forward to reading your experiences. As always, thanks for reading and until next time!
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