Rules of the Gathering (How House Rules Change the Game)

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Magic: The Gathering was born of roleplaying, and as such, from the release of the first Alpha deck in 1993, it gained a particular level of participation from players. Roleplaying games allowed for a great deal of flexibility for participants. A framework of rules provided an environment for play but the bulk of the roleplaying game genre relied on the innovation, imagination, and creativity of the players. Magic: The Gathering was unique in many respects but one of the most important aspects was the unique way it’s very structured rules appealed to groups of gamers used to having a great deal of creative control. As such, permutations with the rules began almost immediately, and because Wizards of the Coast has been extraordinarily responsive to feedback from players, a number of these “house rule” permutations developed over the years have become mainstream.

Though the possibilities for house rules are as numerous and varied as the kinds of ways people add wild cards to poker, they can be loosely categorized into two different categories: Equalizing Rules and Variation Rules. Let’s examine each category in turn.

Magic the Gathering House Rules to Equalize Game Play

It became apparent early on in the history of the game that some players were able to gain advantage quickly. Clearly, a player willing to spend a great deal of money on booster packs was able to draw from a much larger base when forming a deck. In addition, some cards were so powerful that they altered the game. One of the first common house rules were extra limitations on decks and cards, limitations that either regulated how many of a card could be in a deck or actually altered the specifics of a card. Before long, equalization required banning cards outright.

Wizards of the Coast acknowledged early on that there were some cards that were simply too powerful. In the beginning, the impact of these cards on the game was so profound that whichever duelist played the card first would win, eliminating the whole concept of strategy and instead making random chance far too important. Of course, almost everyone understands that playing a Black Lotus has that impact but there are more. In fact, there are forty-eight from the original Alpha Set that the company recently admitted were “mistakes.” Equalizing house rules are designed to mitigate the effects of random luck and maximize the importance of strategy. Because official MTG tournament rules derive from careful examination of play as new sets are released, almost all tournament rules regarding banned cards began as house rules before becoming official.

Equalizing rules not only encompass restrictions on particular cards. They can also impose restrictions on decks in general. For example, some house rules may call for all green or all red cards in the decks. Some rules involve constructing a single, massive community deck from which all players draw. Some rules involve a pre-selected but incomplete deck that must be supplemented by cards pulled from unopened booster packs at the time of the game. These rules are essentially designed to make the play favor those with a breadth of knowledge about strategy and not just depth of skill with a particular deck.

Magic the Gathering House Rules Designed for Variety

Sometimes, players just enjoy permutations. Some of the permutations have become sanctioned tournament fare like Two-Headed Giant, a variation enabling team play. Many have been shared (primarily in The Duelist, the magazine Wizards of the Coast published prior to the Internet becoming the standard means by which game information was distributed). Variations range, as might be expected, from minor changes to major, game-altering upheavals. Some, for example, call for all land to be played instantly while some change the means by which someone wins or loses. A particularly interesting twist is a variation called Assassin, set for group play but with a twist. All players draw names and get a secret player target, or mark. Bonus victory points are awarded for killing your mark, and any marks that player owns are inherited.

There are variations intended to add elements from other popular card games such as bidding (as in spades and pinochle) and bluffing (as in poker). This adds additional opportunities to create more damage. One player might say, “I will do four points of damage this turn.” If the opponent wishes, she may simply accept the four points. If she believes he will do less, she may play the turn out taking no damage at all if he fails but instead causing him to take the damage. If he succeeds, she takes double damage. There are even variations that create “hands” like poker, blackjack, and rummy. These hands offer amplified power when all of the cards are in play.

Variety rules add an element to the home game that keeps players interested, shortens or expands playtime, and generates additional excitement. It also allows them to blend aspects of other games they enjoy into the Magic experience. Most of the rules designed for variation would be completely unworkable in a tournament situation but occasionally they find their way into mainstream acceptance and become standard

What Are Your Rules?

If you haven’t played using house rules in the past, you and your friends might like to try them for a change of pace. If you have, how did it work out? Ultimately, the point of MTG is fun. What rules make it more fun for you? What rules have you invented? Do you have a favorite house rule? Use the comment section to share your thoughts.



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