Magic is designed today with Commander right at the forefront, alongside Limited and other constructed formats, which means the game is partially balanced around free-for-all multiplayer. That’s quite a recent change relative to the game’s history, and Wizards of the Coast is still in somewhat early days when it comes to creating new multiplayer-focused mechanics.
The Initiative, Goad, Myriad and the rest all have a big role to play in Magic’s planned future. They all explicitly impact multiplayer gameplay, and each clearly aims to patch over issues created when you apply a ruleset for one-on-one dueling to four-player free-for-alls. But the inherent volatility of multiplayer means these attempts to put a finger on the scales of gameplay can just as easily throw everything out of balance.
THE SCIENTIFIC APPROACH
Multiplayer gameplay doesn’t lend itself well to hypothetical discussions, so let’s look at some actual examples. There’s not room in this article to try and cover every multiplayer mechanic from the past 15 years, but a few examples should help add context to our discussion.
First seen in 2009, this mechanic essentially adds a rotating, randomized world enchantment to the battlefield, with each player having the power to re-roll the current effect during their turn.
To me, Planechase really exemplifies the design aims for multiplayer Magic: inject novelty and flavor into turn-to-turn gameplay, plus some fun variance to the eventual outcome.
Planechase definitely had the kind of reception you’d want for such a proof-of-concept design. It had a cult-classic buzz around it from day one, and the popularity has held long enough for us to still be revisiting the mechanic in 2023!
The only drawback is Planechase is fundamentally siloed into its own variant rule set — which is a lot harder to introduce to games than a regular mechanic. Framing it this way felt like a reasonable choice by Wizards at the time, given the constant effect plane cards have on gameplay and the extra components required.
However, in the years since, we’ve seen that Companions, Dungeons, Attractions and the Initiative all exist within the default rules despite having comparable baggage. Perhaps if Planechase released in 2019 rather than 2009, its impact would be as keenly felt as these other examples.
Will of the Council
While Planechase and the early Commander precons had dabbled with multiplayer-focused design, it was Conspiracy that really opened the floodgates for cards explicitly referencing multiplayer scenarios in mechanics, primarily with the Will of the Council (a.k.a. voting).
As the name implies, Conspiracy really tried to hook into the complex power dynamic of free-for-all multiplayer, directly invoking the idea of alliances and politicking between players. Will of the Council can also be seen as making literal the group ownership all players have over the narrative of a game, since it affords everyone equal say in the outcome regardless of their boardstate.
It’s not hard for a design to divide opinion in a playerbase the size and breadth of Magic’s, but the vote cards have an especially polarizing reputation. Critics can’t even agree on whether the cards are powerful or what’s bad about them.
Some can’t fathom spending mana on a spell when their opponents can dictate the outcome, but I’ve also heard the opposite — that their premise falls flat because they’re still too weighted toward their controller.
To me, the criticism that’s hardest to shake is one that directly refutes the idea of a “political” multiplayer mechanic. Being punished by simple majority vote (whether in the literal Will of the Council sense or otherwise) feels like a bitter break with our expectations of a cutthroat multiplayer game — not to mention how much more personal it can feel. Some players easily take those adversarial moments in stride, but should they be something we create so directly through spell text?
The Monarch & The Initiative
Conspiracy: Take the Crown expounded on the same multiplayer-centric and politics-heavy gameplay as its predecessor set. Its signature mechanic was The Monarch, a title players passed around through combat that grants an extra draw per turn. More recently, Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur’s Gate called back to this idea with The Initiative — a similar player designation and combat incentive with an alternative set of rewards.
These mechanics seem like they’re trying to redress two recurring complaints around multiplayer gameplay, especially in Commander: a lack of resource generation in colors other than blue-green and the diminished role of creature combat.
While it would be foolish to pass sweeping judgment on all 60 cards that bear these mechanics, it is strange to me that they seem to function much better in 1v1 Constructed than the multiplayer formats they’re designed for.
For one, their considerable bookkeeping and mental overhead is easier to manage — especially compared to everyone needing to track their Undercity position in multiplayer! It’s also much more viable to try and hold the Monarch/Initiative in 1v1, whereas in multiplayer you’re often just letting the next player snatch it off you and taking it back on your turn to get the trigger.
But more than that, the gradual drip feed of resources just doesn’t feel impactful for Commander games, where the majority of the Undercity room triggers are non-events. Even drawing a card is fairly ho-hum with how much card advantage has been built into every color through recent years. A few specific support cards can crank up the advantage to appreciable levels, but otherwise you could question whether it’s worth the bother of the whole thing.
It’s useful to remind ourselves that goad also debuted in Conspiracy: Take the Crown, as it addresses similar complaints as The Monarch and obviously plays well alongside it. But perhaps due to the popularity of “forced combat” as a Commander playstyle, Goad has come into its own as a mechanic and continues to see a lot of use across different sets.
Creature combat is probably the most interesting and interactive part of Magic gameplay, so Wizards is willing to use a heavy hand “encouraging” more of it in Commander. It might also be seen as an evolution of red’s classic Act of Treason effect, minus the paradigm-shifting option to just sacrifice their creature instead of giving it back.
Goad seems like a mechanic that is conceptually sound and initially well-received, but it has become more contentious with time due to creeping over-exposure. There’s certainly a huge difference in gameplay feel between what Agitator Ant does and the ability of Geode Rager or Baeloth to take the game right off your hands.
Being forced to swing with your whole board is often incredibly destructive in multiplayer, even if you don’t lose a bunch of creatures to blocks, let alone having it happen every single turn. I believe this power creep is a big part of why people don’t enjoy Goad, but I also think being “forced to misplay” is a uniquely bad experience for most players.
GOOD INTENT GONE AWRY?
Regardless of how effective they may each have been on their own, I’d say these mechanics together at least let us understand the goals Wizards has in mind when designing multiplayer mechanics.
First, designers want to return creature combat to prominence in Commander, where the innate nature of 40 life multiplayer has generally diminished its role in the game. This also adds interesting wrinkles to card evaluation and gives more reason to pay attention while it’s not your turn.
Wizards especially wants to encourage proactive play and attacking, often with the caveat of attacking the richest or strongest player, which helps to keep games closer (or at least discourage bullying the weakest player out of the game very early on). The company is also trying to improve access to cards and mana across all colors and archetypes. Generally, the idea seems to be to make more powerful aspects of Magic that are naturally weakened in a multiplayer context.
The other common goal seems to be just as noble — making certain strategic choices more interesting and less automatic, like when and who to attack during the midgame. But for whatever reason, this often ends up happening in a way that feels like it’s reducing agency instead.
Goad is an obvious culprit here, as it literally controls your Declare Attackers step and can be very hard to recover from. But even something like the Initiative or co-operative/politicking mechanics like Pendant of Prosperity or Join Forces frequently creates this intrusive feeling, simply due to how their resource incentives interact with the prisoner’s dilemma of free-for-all multiplayer.
You may not think it’s a smart trade to help ramp the player casting Collective Voyage, or to vote for reanimation from Magister of Worth, or to mindlessly swing at whichever player has The Initiative on your turn. But if you’re the only player at the table who ignores that offer of free resources, you’ll be left in the dust regardless of how right you were about it.
Magic is as much about multiplayer now as it is about tight and gritty 1v1 duels, so future explicitly multiplayer-focused mechanics are inevitably going to add to this list. I just hope that designers can keep refining how to reward or compel certain lines of action without the high-stakes swings of multiplayer blowing things out of proportion.
Tom’s fate was sealed in 7th grade when his friend lent him a pile of commons to play Magic. He quickly picked up Boros and Orzhov decks in Ravnica block and has remained a staunch white magician ever since. A fan of all Constructed formats, he enjoys studying the history of the tournament meta. He specializes in midrange decks, especially Death & Taxes and Martyr Proc. One day, he swears he will win an MCQ with Evershrike. Ask him how at @AWanderingBard, or watch him stream Magic at twitch.tv/TheWanderingBard.