Originally posted on my blog (http://butlerwpn.blogspot.com/) as a 2-part article.
Reposting here in hopes of getting some feedback.
Magic: The Gathering - The Hydra
In the following paragraphs I hope to (1) Introduce the Hydra to people who perhaps know something about Magic, but not about this particular product. (2) Identify the various dials and variables in this particular game mode. (3) Give readers a toolbox of options for modifying their own challenge deck experience.
About the Author: Dan Regewitz is a certified level 1 magic judge, and tournament organizer. For 5 years he has been keeping things fair and fun in his local community. He is a firm supporter of casual play, commander, and variants.
=== What is the Hydra?
The Hydra is the first challenge deck issued by Wizards of the Coast. By far the most interesting part of this product is that it supports solo or cooperative play for 1-4 players. The hydra deck not only uses a specialized deck of 60 cards (MSRP 11.99), but also a set of scenario-based rules that only apply when playing against it.
Hero cards are special promotional cards, released earlier this year, specifically designed to be used against the Hydra. They are totally optional, but if you use them, you may bring up to two into a game with you. The effects of these cards vary, but they essentially sit in the command zone and give you the option for some small advantage each turn.
Currently, there are 7 of these promos. 5 different ones attached to the five different colors for the Theros prerelease. One promo for solving a visual puzzle on launch weekend, and a second for defeating the hydra on Game Day. According to our best information, an equal number in a similar distribution will be available through Born of the Gods events early 2014.
== The Hydra Rules
The hydra uses special scenario rules that changes setup and play. These rules only apply when facing the hydra.
* You may start with up to two hero cards on the battlefield.
* Choose a starting number of heads, take that many cards named "Hydra Head" From the challenge deck and put them on the battlefield. Shuffle the remaining cards to form the Hydra's library.
* You go first.
* You follow all regular Magic rules with the following exceptions:
* You can attack heads directly with your creatures. Any number of creatures can attack a single head.
* Whenever a head leaves the battlefield, reveal the top two cards of the Hydra's Library. Put any heads onto the battlefield, and any sorcery cards into the Hydra's graveyard.
* At the start of the Hydra's turn, untap any tapped heads.
* Reveal the top card of the Hydra's library. The Hydra casts that card. When that spell resolves, if a head - put it onto the battlefield. If a sorcery, follow its instructions and then put it into the Hydra's graveyard.
* The Hydra deals 1 damage to you for each untapped card named hydra head it controls, and 2 damage to you for each untapped elite head it controls.
* If the Hyrdra would be dealt damage or lose life, instead deal that much damage to a head of your choice.
* Ignore effects that would cause the hydra to draw or discard cards, or any impossible actions.
* If a head would move to exile, instead put it into the Hydra's graveyard.
* You make any choices for the Hydra.
* At the end of any turn, if there are no heads on the battlefield, you win!
I will also take a moment to point out the Official Hero's Path FAQ by Dave Guskin.
== The Hydra Deck
As previously mentioned, the Hydra is a specialized Challenge deck filled with 60 cards that are unique to it alone. I have compiled a deck list, complete with notes on card text for future reference and consideration.
= 18 Heads
11 Hydra Head - 0/3 when this leaves the battlefield, each player gains 2 life.
4 Ravenous Brute Head - 0/6 when this leaves the battlefield, each player gains 2 life, and draws a card.
1 Savage Vigor Head 0/8 At the beginning of the Hydra's End step, reveal the top card of the Hydra's library and the Hydra casts that card. When this leaves the battlefield, each player gains 4 life and draws a card.
1 Shrieking Titan Head 0/8 At the beginning of the Hydra's End step, each player discards a card. When this leaves the battlefield, each player gains 4 life and draws a card.
1 Snapping Fang Head 0/8 At the beginning of the Hydra's end step, this deals 1 damage to each player. When this leaves the battlefield, each player gains 4 life and draws a card.
= 42 Sorcery
6 Unified Lunge - This deals X damage to each player, where X is the number of heads on the battlefield.
5 Distract the Hydra - Each player may sacrifice a creature. Each player who sacrifices a creature this way chooses a head and taps it. Each player who didn't sacrifice a creature loses 3 life.
5 Disorienting Glower - Players can't cast spells until the Hydra's next turn.
5 Swallow the Hero whole - Each player exiles a creature they control. Until the Hydra's next turn, when a head leaves the battlefield, return the exiled cards to the battlefield under their owner's control.
4 Hydra's Impenetrable Hide - Each head gains indestructible until the end of the Hydra's next turn.
4 Noxious Hydra Breath - Choose one - This deals 5 damage to each player, or destroy each tapped non-head creature.
4 Torn Between Heads - Tap up to two heads. They don't untap during the Hydra's next untap step. This deals 5 damage to each player.
4 Grown from the Stump - Put exactly two cards named hydra head from the graveyard onto the battlefield. If you can't, reveal cards from the top of the Hydra's library until you reveal a head card. Put that card onto the battlefield and the rest into the Hydra's graveyard.
3 Neck Tangle - if there are 5 or more heads on the battlefield, tap 2 of them - they don't untap during the hydra's next untap step. Otherwise, reveal the top card of the Hydra's library, and cast that card.
2 Strike Weak Spot - destroy target head, if that head was elite, the hydra takes an extra turn.
=== Digging deeper
The pre-constructed experience of the Hydra challenge deck is a unique one, and I feel the base experience actually does a decent job of accomplishing what it set out to do - namely make a solo (or cooperative) magic experience that provides some game tension, back and forth play, yet remains simple enough to run itself.
However in my play tests with and against the Hydra this gameplay experience starts to break down when you push it's limits. With 1-3 players, I think the base deck delivers what it promises. However starting at 4+ players, the Hydra as a much lower chance to reveal (and cast) heads, or regrow lost heads, resulting in it not applying enough pressure in the mid to late game.
The other arena where it breaks down is adjusting to opposition of the decks brought to bear against it. Anyone who is familiar with competitive magic knows that there is a world of difference between something you might pull out for casual play, and a deck you would play in a tournament.
There can be just as big a difference between that deck you bring to your weekly Friday Night Magic, and that deck you bring to a Grand Prix (large events with thousands of players and cash prizes).
So if you intend to use the Hydra for 1-3 players against decks that are roughly as strong as an "Event Deck" product - congratulations because I feel like that is the exact sweet spot for creating really good interesting games with the Hydra. If not, we are about to dive into the rabbit hole together and see where it leads.
Before we go tearing apart the base hydra deck, I feel it is important to know what we can about how it was built and published. Fortunately, there is an article about just that "Building a Hydra" by Sam Stoddard. I encourage anyone who wants to modify their hydra experience to review this.
Fundamentally, we can tweak our challenge deck by doing one of two things to it.
(1) Build our own Hydra Deck.
(2) Change or introduce rules that create a different 'scenario' for facing the hydra.
Our goals in this article are thus two-fold
(1) Suggest modifications that will allow the challenge deck to support higher player counts. The challenge deck should provide a functional experience for 1-6 players.
(2) Suggest modifications that will allow the challenge deck to support stronger or more competitive decks, or decks from alternate formats (such as commander).
Consider anything I may present to you my humble suggestions. Try it out for yourself, and if it makes your challenge deck experience more fun - great. If it does not - don't use it! Also, if you do choose to use any of the tools and options I present in this article for your challenge deck, make sure that any players playing against it are aware of the variations from normal magic.
=== Building a Challenge Deck
As I mentioned previously, one of the issues the Hydra deck has is that it does not provide sufficient challenge when pitted against decks that are significantly stronger than an event deck. This is largely a design decision to make the Hydra difficult, but not impossible to beat in casual play. That's a great choice by the way, as the Hydra is targeted to that audience.
This doesn't help us if we want to fight the hydra with our modern, legacy, limited (draft or sealed deck) or commander decks. I think the best way we can create a fun experience in these situations is to build our own challenge deck.
= Card Pool
The first question we've got to ask ourselves is what cards can the challenge deck include. The most basic answer is that when we build a challenge deck, it can include any cards that the decks it might face could include. Thus, if we construct a challenge deck for the modern format, the Hydra deck must run modern legal cards (8th edition or Mirrodin or more current, excluding any currently banned cards). This limitation can be based on any current format sanctioned or casual.
Wizards resources on formats.
However, the cards from the actual hydra deck are not part of any format. With their non-standard backs, they are not - strictly speaking- legal cards. The intent of the challenge deck is that these cards can and indeed must (in the case of heads) be included.
* A custom challenge deck may always include cards that were printed in an official Wizards challenge deck, such as the Hydra.
The other thing that is strange about making your own Hydra deck is that the default deck includes more than 4 copies of certain cards, thus breaking a rule that has been around since the early days of tournament magic. For "Hydra heads" I believe this is necessary, less so for other cards.
* A custom challenge deck may include any number of cards of the same name that were printed in an official Wizards challenge deck, such as the Hydra. [A custom challenge deck may include up to 4 of any other card.]
Because our custom Hydra deck will potentially include standard magic cards, we need the following rules:
* A custom challenge deck must be prepared in opaque sleeves with identical card-backs.
* Draw Step: Reveal the top card of the Hydra's library. The Hydra casts that card without paying its mana cost.
Any other considerations for deck building that I have not mentioned are normal.
= Card choices.
It should go without saying, but the rules I've outlined for building your own challenge deck certainly allow you to consider more cards, but some (cards with X in the cost, cards with activated abilities requiring mana) are virtually useless for the Hydra.
The best cards for the Hydra are ones that effect each opponent, all players (the Hydra is one player facing 1-6 players so most of these are good), all creatures / enchantments / lands / artifacts.
Also the addition of non-head creatures is somewhat dubious as there is nothing in the base rules that allows those creatures to attack. However, since the player's turn is 'normal' you could interpret that the Hydra can declare blockers. This is a stretch however, and opens up additional complications as what the Hydra blocks (and with what).
To make use of a large swath of magic cards, you will have to create rules that will allow them to work.
= Add Heads!
If there is one recommendation I will make to others attempting to make their own Challenge deck, it is to include more heads (cutting spells in the process).
At 18 Heads in a 60 card card deck, the Hydra is exactly 30% heads, 70% spells. The more heads in the deck the larger the threat from the Hydra becomes, as it can regrow heads easier, cast more heads during the game, and apply pressure to the heroes who face it for longer stretches.
You can start with 2-4 heads on the field. The thing about this is that the more heads start on the field the chances of getting a head as the top card actually reduces. Starting at 2 heads, heads now make up 27% of the 58 remaining cards. Starting at 4 heads? We're down to 25%. While this does make the Hydra a LOT more dangerous in the early game, it makes it easier in the mid-to-long game, and makes for a weaker challenge (assuming you survive).
So how many heads do you want in a challenge deck? The answer is likely to vary based on exactly what environment you plan on playing your challenge deck in. However heads are pretty important for the challenge deck as they represent both the victory condition of the scenario and the primary way the challenge deck can actually win. My testing indicates that the challenge deck should be somewhere around 35% heads - or 22 cards in a 60 card deck.
Playtest note: My playgroup did try a higher 'saturation' of heads. At 40% heads the challenge deck was still beatable, but the scenario was less forgiving and higher pressure. At 45% heads the challenge deck beat us soundly to the point where it seemed unlikely we could ever muster enough board presence to stabilize - let alone win.
Another relevant question is how many heads you want to start with. The default setup of between 2 and 4 actually has worked in most of my games. However I would recommend adding an extra head at higher player counts. Thus for 4 or more players play with 3-5 starting heads.
=== New Hydra Rules
Before we dig into interesting rules we could add, I want to take a moment and look very closely at the Hydra's turn. What the Hydra does in it's turn ties very closely to the alternate rules that it uses.
On a basic level the challenge deck does only 2 things during its turn. (1) cast a card, and (2) deal damage based on the number of Head cards on the battlefield.
The first item involves revealing a card from the library and provides the same basic function as drawing a card in normal magic.
The second involves dealing damage to each opponent, and serves the same basic function as attacking with creatures in normal magic. In the challenge deck's case, this damage occurs outside of combat near the end of the turn however - and the following turn sequence reflects that:
Untap: The Hydra untaps any tapped permanents.
Upkeep: The Hydra has no Upkeep.
Draw: Reveal the top card of the Hydra's library. The Hydra casts that card without paying its mana cost.
Main Phase: The Hydra has a main phase, but performs no actions in it.
Combat Phase: The Hydra has no Combat Phase.
Main Phase 2: The Hydra has no second main phase.
The Hydra deals 1 damage to you for each untapped card named hydra head it controls, and 2 damage to you for each untapped elite head it controls.
Any "At the beginning of the Hydra's End step" triggers are put onto the stack, and are resolved.
You may be wondering why I gave the Challenge deck a Main phase if it performs no actions in it.
Without this main phase, the Hydra only has turn based actions and triggers to resolve - as a result the allied team only has limited chances to play instants on the Hydra's turn. Namely, during it's main phase (which we added), or at the end of the turn with triggers waiting on the stack. Without allowing the players to cast instants on that main phase, a large number of instants and flash spells become about as useful as a sorcery. I felt it was important to maintain tactical differences between the two spell types. Also it will become handy later when we consider how to ramp up the Challenge deck.
Also note my interpretation of the draw step and hydra damage is that these are turn-based actions. Turn based actions occur automatically during certain phases of the turn, and cannot be responded to as they do not use the stack. Fair warning: others may choose to interpret them as regular triggers which DO go on the stack and can be responded to.
= Drawing Cards
One of the simplest things you can do to make a challenge deck more difficult is to give it multiple cards a turn. Think about this: in a 3 player game (3 heros against the Hydra), on each hero turn the heros draw 3 cards (1 per player), while the Hydra reveals and casts 1 card. Card advantage is of course a resource that is integral to the game as land or life.
So how many cards should the Challenge deck get for its draw step? The obvious minimum is one. I have had successful tests adding an extra card draw at 4 players, and a third at 6 - so that's what I'm going to recommend. Whatever number you choose for your group, insert it into the following rule as N.
* Replace Draw step: Reveal the top N cards of the Hydra's library. The Hydra casts those cards without paying its mana cost [Cast the spells in the order they are revealed].
The other thing you might be interested in including is the following rule which allows the challenge deck to take advantage of cards such as Howling mine or Font of Mythos. Thus far my testing is inconclusive on this. Currently we think the rule might be too strong for the challenge deck.
Optional* If the Hydra would draw a card, instead reveal the top card of the Hydra's library. The Hydra casts that card without paying its mana cost.
As we mentioned before the addition of creatures to the Challenge deck has somewhat limited utility. The challenge deck never gets an attack step, thus creatures that are good to include in the challenge deck are effective blockers, or creatures that we can use for their triggered or activated abilities.
If you put non-head creatures in a Challenge deck, you'll need some rules to determine when the Challenge deck uses their abilities or uses them to block.
* The Challenge deck can activate any activated abilities only once per turn.
* The Challenge deck will activate relevant activated abilities: Hero's beginning of combat step, Hero's End of Combat step, Hero's End step, and the Challenge deck's main phase - and at no other time.
Playtest note: I personally feel that these guidelines for activated abilities need improvement. The trouble is that activated abilities are so diverse, it's hard to come up with rules that will cover most of them.
* The Challenge deck will declare blockers to protect elite heads only.
* The Challenge deck will block creatures with the most power to least power.
* The Challenge deck will not assign multiple blockers to a single attacker.
* If the Challenge deck can declare blockers in such a way as to deal lethal damage to one or more attacking creatures, it will do so for as many creatures as possible.
= Non - heads as Heads
Let's face it, it would be pretty awesome if you could run whatever creatures you wanted in a challenge deck and they simply counted as heads. There is however one chief concern if you want to go this route. The 'Heros reward' that is printed on the default heads is actually a vital piece of the challenge deck experience. It serves 2 important functions.
First, it provides the heros with some life points as they kill heads. Without some incremental life gain in the early to mid game the challenge deck would actually eliminate the poor heroes a lot easier. Second, they provide some back-and-forth swings that provide for interesting gameplay. As a result this is a feature that we wish to preserve when we start turning non-heads into heads.
Let me point out that it is entirely possible to use any combination of Challenge deck heads, creatures that count as heads, and creatures that don't count as heads (discussed above). However, whatever rules you implement for your custom challenge deck determines how you build it. That is - you should determine what counts as what before building the deck.
If you choose to use this option, then these creatures (who do not have head printed on them), gain errata to have the creature type 'Head' and gain Heroes Rewards abilities as follows:
This is my current, largely experimental configuration.
All Commons => Standard Hydra Head. When this leaves the battlefield, each opponent gains 2 life.
All Uncommons => Standard Hydra Head. When this leaves the battlefield, each opponent gains 2 life.
All Rares (including Mythics) => Based on Converted Mana Cost (CMC).
CMC <= 3: Standard Hydra Head. When this leaves the battlefield, each opponent gains 2 life.
CMC 4-5: Elite Head. When this leaves the battlefield, each opponent gains 2 life, and draws a card.
CMC 6+: Elite Head. When this leaves the battlefield, each opponent gains 4 life and draws a card.
If you have only creatures counting as heads in your custom Challenge deck then do the following to set up your game:
*Shuffle the Challenge deck. Starting on the Bottom, remove the first N creatures that count as a standard head. N = the number of heads you wish to start with for this game. Put those heads onto the battlefield, and shuffle the remaining cards. Those cards become the Challenge deck's library.
Also keep in mind when building your Challenge deck using this option, at least half the creatures in the deck should count as standard heads, and you should remain around 35% heads (or 22 cards in a 60 card deck).
The hydra Challenge Deck does not include any instants. Because the challenge deck only casts spells during its main phase, the additional utility of an instant (the ability to play it at any time), is lost. However, I see no reason why to exclude instants from your custom challenge deck.
If you do include any instants in your custom challenge deck, they essentially will take the place of, and function identically to a sorcery.
The hydra Challenge Deck does not include any land. Because the challenge deck casts it's spells for free, the addition of any land to the deck only serves if the deck can spend that mana (say on activated or triggered abilities), or the land provides some utility function beyond simply tapping for mana.
There is another issue I would like to address here however, and that is abilities that "reveal cards from the top of their library until they reveal a land card" that appears on Mind Funeral, Undercity Informer, and Consuming Aberration. These abilities create awkward moments when they are played against the default challenge deck.
Because no lands are in the deck, the entire library is revealed, and put into the graveyard. This does not win the game on the spot (The heroes only win if the challenge deck has no heads at the end of any turn) - but it does make the game a lot shorter.
So, no. You are not allowed to put land into any challenge deck. To put it another way, Land are illegal cards for challenge decks.
Although the rules implications of this are far from clear, it is my personal opinion that if lands are illegal, the action of "revealing a land" from the library becomes an impossible action. If you recall, the challenge deck simply ignores illegal or impossible actions or effects.
If we prohibit land from being in the Challenge deck, we still have to answer a question about mana. Players new to the game often mistake land for mana. These two are actually different things. Land are the physical cards (plains, island, swamp, etc). Mana is the mystical magical energy that players use to cast spells and pay for costs. Land usually makes mana, but there are lands that do not generate mana, and non-lands (such as llanowar elf) that can generate mana.
* The challenge deck never pays 'X' costs in any spell or ability. X is always 0.
* The challenge deck automatically pays any imposed costs. Examples: Rystic Study, Mana Leak, Propaganda, Leonin Arbiter.
* If a card has an additional finite cost- the challenge deck pays that cost. Examples: Kicker
* If a triggered ability asks for a mana payment, the challenge deck may pay that cost. Examples: Echo
* The challenge deck can pay for any activated ability that requires mana that also uses the tap or untap symbol.
The following rule is entirely optional, but allows the challenge deck to pay for 'X' costs, or activate abilities that don't have the tap/untap symbol.
Option * Setup - put a die (such as roll-down d20) on '1' next to the challenge deck.
* At the beginning of each challenge deck turn, increment this die by 1, and the challenge deck has that much mana to spend. This mana does not drain out of the mana pool as phases or steps end. It does go away when the Challenge deck untaps the following turn. This mana is any color, and can only be spent on the following items:
- Pay 'X' costs.
- Activate abilities
- Pay additional costs on spells it casts.
- Pay for any triggered abilities.
- Pay for any schemes, planes, or hero cards that the challenge deck may have access to.
= Life Gain
By default the Challenge deck does not have a life total, and therefore cannot gain life, lose life, or pay life for various costs. Personally I feel as if attempting to give the challenge deck a life total causes the entire experience to loose focus. The challenge deck is a unique scenario that is quite a bit different than normal magic. Attempting to give the challenge deck a life total for any reason makes the experience a bit too much like regular magic - which isn't the direction we should move in.
For those fellow customizers who want to play in this realm, I think the following rule is necessary:
* A challenge deck never gains any benefit from any 'heroes reward' ability.
I want to note something that my playgroup tried - and it didn't work. I toyed with the idea of turning any lifegain the challenge deck would receive into activations of Reito Lantern or Soldevi Digger. Both of these artifacts basically take cards in the graveyard, and put them onto the bottom of the deck.
So as I mentioned, It didn't work. After we changed the deck to be 35% heads, the challenge deck does a good job of maintaining pressure throughout it's whole library. If the deck can also reliably send cards from its graveyard back to the deck, then players may get a sense in the middle to late game that the scenario can actually last indefinitely. While I never tested it, I'm pretty sure that with enough constant life-gain or reshuffle effects, It may be possible to create a scenario that is in fact unbeatable.
This is obviously not the end goal, and is not a lot of fun. So I give this word for the wise for others who want to experiment with their own challenge decks.
=== More Challenge decks to come.
Hopefully I've provided enough tools and options for people to continue to have fun with their challenge decks for quite some time. I'm quite a fan of this alternative way to play the game. I also would like to encourage others out there to share their own experiences with the challenge deck (modified or not). Playtesting custom builds can only improve the knowledge base.
I also fully expect that as future challenge decks come out (we're expecting the next one in February) we may gain more tools to customize our individual challenge deck experiences. Until then, make sure you are having fun!