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Subject: Commander Style Variant. rss

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Daniel Hickey
United States
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'Sup nerds? There will be a TL|DR at the bottom.

A few weeks ago (my day of birth) I managed to convince my latest group of nerdkind to play some of my board game collection. These guys and gals are not homogenous in their nerd game virgin status, (a few of them are MTG/Yu-Gi-Oh Vets), but after a night of drunken debauchery they were all hooked on playing games like these.

Now I have a game night about 3-4 times a week, and regularly host about 4-8 people depending on work schedules. So very quickly it has become apparent that the long term playability of some games was higher than others. In response to that revelation, we've started experimenting with variant rule sets to make games more interesting.

That brings us to this post. One of my regulars requested I come up with a new way to play Smash Up that mimicked the EDH/Commander style of play in MTG. Specifically he wanted to play a larger deck, led by a unique minion with a powerful or interesting effect, and also have games with a more strategic long-term thought-oriented play style.

So what are the elements of play in the EDH/Commander format?

The Commander:- This is a single copy of a legendary minion/creature which can be played at any time from a "command zone". Cool EDH decks boast commanders with typically large stats and/or powerful effects. The commander can be returned to the command zone after removal and usually ties together the overall strategy of the deck.

Highlander:- This means no duplicate cards in a deck, making decks generally less consistent and forcing games to last longer.

Color: In MTG there are five factions represented by a color, and the cards included in your deck must be restricted to the factions shared with your commander.

Long games: The typical MTG deck contains sixty cards containing no more than 4 duplicates of each card (this excludes a special card type called basic lands). A commander MTG deck contains 100 cards with no duplicates. That's a 66% increase in deck size, which also adds to the overall longevity of games. Additionally, the life totals of each player are doubled Twice as much damage needed to win.

Casual Play: Commander/EDH is generally a casual format, focusing on fun and quirky play. I consider this to be the most important element. Commander has to be fun!

So how do we achieve this in Smash Up? Let's take a look at the tool kit that we have available. The typical Smash Up faction contains

10x Minions: (usually total power 30, average power 3)
1x Power 5 - the "King Minion"
2x Power 4
3x Power 3
4x Power 2
10x Actions:
2x Some Action
2x Some Action
1x Some Action
1x Some Action
1x Some Action
1x Some Action
1x Some Action
1x Some Action

So right there it's pretty easy to see that these singleton "King Minions" are the best candidates for Commanders. So now it should simple to identify them in each faction right? Power 5 singleton minions in each faction? Nope... Turns out there are multiple exceptions to this rule. So before we go into the other picks the obvious commanders are below.

Aliens: Supreme Overlord - power 5 - You may return a minion to it's owner's hand.

Dinosaurs: King Rex - power 7 - (no ability)

Ninjas: Ninja Master - power 5 - You may destroy a minion on this base.

Pirates: Pirate King - power 5 - Special: Before a base sores you may move this minion there.

Robots: Nukebot - power 5 - Ongoing: After this minion is destroyed, destroy each other player's minions on this base.

Tricksters: Leprechaun - power 5 - Ongoing: After another player plays a minion here with less power than this minion's power, destroy it (resolve its ability first).

Wizards: Archmage - power 4 - Ongoing: You may play an extra action on each of your turns.

Zombies: Zombie Lord - power 5 - You may play an extra minion of power 2 or less from your discard pile on each base where you have no minions.

Bear Cavalry: General Ivan - power 6 - Ongoing: Your minions cannot be destroyed.

Ghosts: Spectre - power 5 - Special: If you have 2 or fewer cards in your hand, any time you can play a minion, you can play this card from your discard pile instead.

Killer Plants: Venus Man Trap - power 5 - Talent: Search your deck for a minion of power 2 or less and play it here as an extra minion. Shuffle your deck.

Steampunks: Steam Queen - power 5 - Ongoing: Your actions are not affected by other players' cards.

Elder Things: Elder Thing - power 10 - Destroy two of your other minions or place this minion on the bottom of your deck. This minion is not affected by opponent’s cards.

Innsmouth: ??? - problem child, see below (Sacred Circle – Play on a base. Talent: You may play an extra minion here with the same name as another minion here.)

Cthulhu Cultists: Star-Spawn of Cthulhu - power 5 - Talent: Place a Madness card from your hand into another player's hand.

Miskatonic University: Professor - power 5 - Talent: Discard a Madness card. If you do, you may play an extra action and/or an extra minion.

Cyborg Apes: Cyberback - power 5 - Ongoing: You may play actions onto this minion from your discard pile instead of from your hand.

Shapeshifter: Doppelgänger - power 5 - Special: When this minion goes to the discard pile from a base, search your deck for a minion and play it as an extra minion. Shuffle your deck.

Super Spies: Secret Agent - power 5 - Ongoing: After another player plays an action, he or she must discard a card.

Time Travelers: Doctor When - power 5 - You may return another of your minions in play to your hand. You may play it again as an extra minion.

Geeks: ??? - problem child, see below (Wil Wheaton - power 4 - Special: You may play this minion when an opponent plays an action. Discard that action; it has no effect. OR Felicia Day - power 4 - Move all minions to this base.)

Giant Ants: Killer Queen - power 4 - Talent: If you played another minion here this turn, place a +1 power counter on this minion and that minion.

Mad Scientists: Herr Doktor - power 5 - Talent: Place a +1 power counter on another one of your minions.

Vampires: The Count – power 5 – Ongoing: After another player’s minion is destroyed, place a +1 power counter on this minion.

Werewolves: Pack Alpha – power 5 – Special: Before this base scores, each of your minions here gains +1 power until the end of turn.

Fairies: Titania - power 5 - Return an opponent's minion to its owner's hand, OR play an extra minion.

Kitty Cats: Queen Fluffy - power 5 - Talent: Take control of a minion of power 3 or less until the end of the turn.

Mythic Horses: Starlyte - power 5 - Ongoing: This minion has +1 power for each of your other minions here.

Princesses: ??? – problem child, see below (Marie DeGraw – Power 5 – Talent: Reveal the top card of your deck. If it is a minion, draw it. Otherwise, place it on the bottom of your deck.

Dragons: Great Wyrm - power 5 - Ongoing: Other players here are awarded 1 less VP from this base when it scores.

Mythic Greeks: Odysseus - power 5 - Ongoing: After you play an action, place a +1 power counter on one of your minions.

Sharks: Megalodon - power 5 - You may destroy a minion of power 4 or less here. Special: Before this base scores, you may destroy a minion here of power 3 or less.

Super Heroes: ??? – problem child, see below (Mind Lady – power 5 - Talent: Choose another player's minion. That minion's abilities are cancelled until the start of your next turn.)

Tornadoes: Monster Tornado - power 5 - Talent: Move a minion of power 4 or less from here to another base, or from another base to here.

Astro Knights: Space Knight – power 5 – Talent: Reveal the top three cards of your deck. You may draw one action from the revealed cards. Return the rest in any order.

Changerbots: Leader Two – power 6 – Talent: one of your other minions gains +2 power until the end of the turn.

Ignobles: Aunt of Drakes – Power 5 – Talent: Give control of one of your minions to another player to draw a card and play an extra action.

Star Roamers: Ship’s Captain – power 5 – Search your deck for a minion, reveal it, add it to your hand and shuffle your deck. If it has power 3 or less you may play it here as an extra minion.

So what do we do about our neglected problem child factions? Namely Innsmouth, Geeks, Princesses, and Superheroes. Well each of them have their own quirks and peculiarities so I’ve developed solutions for each case and explained my reasoning here.

Innsmouth: With 10 copies of a singular underwhelming minion and no “King Minions” to speak of, Innsmouth is understandably weak. So to helm the Innsmouth faction I propose you use “Sacred Circle – Play on a base. Talent: You may play an extra minion here with the same name as another minion here.” This action functions thematically and mechanically to tie together “The Locals” with a few other factions and gives the deck a much needed boost.

Geeks: The issue here is that both Felicia Day and Wil Wheaton are minions that fit the criteria for being a commander, and both abilities are interesting enough to warrant inclusion. I really like both cards but there is also a small fear in the back of my mind that they might both be broken. So until such time as more playtesting can be done I think it’s fine to choose either. EDIT: After further testing we have determined that Felicia Day is a little too powerful in certain swarmy games. A smart player can easily use her to completely invalidate several turns of setup in one turn. With no counterplay options you just have to play around her all the time and that's no fun for anyone.

Princesses: 6 possible choices, each one with a unique and ultra powerful ability. Initially I let players pick any one of the six, turns out Eliza is a little on the broken side if perpetually in play. Sleeping Beauty and Grizelda’s abilities are useless without some extreme fringe scenario. Apricot and Snow White are cool minions, and certainly fair enough in this format, but they have abilities that are snorably boring. With the way the Princess deck is built, you really want to search through your deck for your powerful minions and play them ASAP. I find that Marie DeGraw is the closest approximation to this style of play, and still provides a powerful unique flavor to the deck.

Superheroes: Awesome Guy, The Burst, Captain Amazing, and Mind Lady, all tutorable via the Mild Mannered Citizen. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t considered just naming the citizen commander and calling it a day, but playing the citizen quickly turns into a game breaking minion every turn. So onto our four options. Awesome Guy is an empirically worse General Ivan , Next. The Burst seems cool, but it makes Pirate King look like a chump. Captain Amazing holds hands with Pack Alpha and while werewolves aren’t hurting as much as pirates, it doesn’t feel unique or flavorful. So the Mind Lady, interesting ability, unique among the gang and she’s the box art diva! Makes the deck a good counterpick to Robots and decks that rely on minion abilities.

You’ll notice I neglected the Munchkin set entirely, this is because I do not believe it has a place in this format, and I think it is basically just a standalone set.

Now that the commander’s are sorted, how do we go about making the games last longer and feel more unique?

Let’s start with deck size, a typical smash up deck contains 40 cards and 2 factions, to increase this card count by 66% we would have to add around 26 cards. So step one seems to be adding a third faction, fine by me. 60 cards and 3 factions, How wild right!?! Jk, I’m sure we’ve all dabbled in the tri-deck style of play, it’s pretty much the first thought I had when I bought this game. Still, we’ve got another 6 cards to add to reach our goal. How do we accomplish this without digging into a fourth faction? We must keep trying to make things simple while we complicate them!

I was having problems trying to resolve this issue, but I think I found a neat solution. Bases. Each player will simply select 6 bases in much the same way that you go about selecting decks. At the start of the game you will lay out your bases in the command zone above your deck in any way you might please. (I prefer to fan them in stacked groups of three.) Whenever a base cracks on your turn, you may play one of your six bases as the replacement. This applies a slight buff to time travelers by way of their base recursion cards, and cards that prevent a base from scoring until your turn. It also slightly debuffs aliens for the same reason. In this sense Star Roamer’s Weird New Worlds will prevent players from playing their own base when the next base scores. It adds another dimension to play as some bases can be counters to certain playstyles, or enablers to deadly combos. In testing it has proven to be fairly balanced, despite some bases having more synergies with specific decks.

Next lets talk about hand size and points. In Smash Up the end of game condition is to reach 15 Victory Points. So lets double it, 30 VP done. How about hand size? In my house rules we draw 7 at the start of the game and at the end of phase 5 we check to see if there are more than 10 cards in our hand. If there are, we discard down to 10 and pass the turn.

After you play your Commander and it’s base scores, how do you get it back? We simply give the players a Talent ability with the text “Search your hand and discard pile for your Commander and return it to the Command Zone. Play this ability as an action.”(Edit:We have changed this ability so that if your Commander is shuffled into your deck it is not possible to retrieve them with the ability, this is due to the similarity of rules in MTG). This is not an extra action and to play your Commander again you will have to play it as your minion for the turn. I should note that this is a TALENT that counts as an action, so you can only do it once per turn. Period. So it may be considered a disadvantageous play, but likely a beneficial one in the long run.

Also, there are potential infinite loops in Smash Up. To solve this debacle in this format we have instituted the rule of banishment.
“If an action or minion entering into play would cause an unending chain of triggered abilities to activate, banish that minion or action instead. Banishing a card removes it permanently from the game.”
This rule cuts down on confusion and can be used to set up some pretty neat removal options in the right hands. Although this really has only come up once, we have yet to discover anything broken about this rule.

We are currently experimenting with the idea of “Commander damage” meaning an alternative win condition that can be achieved through the use of your commander. At this time we are simply saying that for every third time your commander is played (from the command zone) you gain 1VP.

(Other rules relating to commanders taking bases for extra points are in the pipeline.)

That’s pretty much it, all the variant rules.
After this point I will just be gabbing about the debatable greatness of the format.

Check my math on this, but with 40 factions and 41 possible generals in this format of three faction decks.

There are 30381 possible deck combinations. ((40 Choose 3)*3)+(39 choose 2)

The base options for a 6 card base deck are around 300500200 ((80 Choose 6)

Typical 3-4 person games last around 2-3 hours and are surprisingly neck and neck between a wide variety of class combinations. Often we have all or most of the player base hovering around 29 points as the game comes to a close.

I recommend you play with no more than four people, theres not really a problem with more It’s just more fun with a tight knit group.

To start a game with three classes we abandon the Catan style of selection. We simply go round-robin.
The first round of selection requires players to select their Commander and corresponding command deck first. The second and third rounds will then procede regularly in a round robin style. Typically the player who picks their general first will play and pick their bases last.

Next the player who was last in the deck selection rotation picks the first base and selection continues in the reverse rotary pattern until all players have received 6 bases.
The remaining bases are shuffled into the standard base deck and the appropriate amount of bases are put into play. The player who picked the first base draws 7 cards and plays first, with play continuing in it’s finalized form from here on out.

I’m sure you guys are wondering if any of the Commanders have been proven too powerful, and the short answer is…, Nah. The one I was most concerned with was Zombie Lord. Turns out Zombie Lord requires quite a bit of setup before paying off, and while it pays off well, it’s power steeply wanes after you’ve been playing a long time.

That said, Zombies are still a powerful strategy. So you may want to pick up some grave hate like the Innsmouth base or any of the classes that allow you to shuffle your opponent’s discard back into their deck.

I plan on shooting and releasing a playtest video of this format after the holidays. I will post the link here when it is done.

Something we need more than anything is further playtesting. So I humbly beseech you reader to experiment with this format and send back your results, we’ll make something great of this yet.

TL|DR Choose a Commander and it's accompanying faction from the list above. Then pick 2 other factions and shuffle your deck together without the commander. Then pick 6 bases and form a personal base pile. When play begins you draw 7 cards and proceed as a normal game of smashup. Your commander sits above your deck in the command zone and can be played at any time. If your commander isn't in the command zone or in play, you can put him there as an action on your turn. First player to 30 VP wins.
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Zandler Chavez
United States
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i like the idea i just had one question about the whole thing how come you don't pick a king separate from the factions. just curious about that
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Zandler Chavez
United States
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i mean i understand that most "king minions are built to work with their factions. but i thought it would be something to try probably wont work though.
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Daniel Hickey
United States
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Sup, So, to answer the question above, there's no problem with that for casual fun play. I just prefer the way listed above because it's more thematic, and it cuts down on the potential game breakage.
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