Horde Magic Revisited

I’ve been playing and enjoying the money sink known as Magic: The Gathering for many years now.

To those unaware, games of Magic fall into two main camps of gameplay:  Tournament and Casual. Tourney play is fast and challenging, but if you are going to participate in competitively structured formats (such as Legacy, Modern, or Standard), it often requires investing lots money in the best (and therefore more expensive) cards for your format at that time. That’s not to say that Casual play doesn’t have these elements, it’s just more, well, casual. It’s the format you play with your friends on Friday night (or Tuesday); it’s the format where the 60 card rule is hardly a requirement, and it’s also the format with the most variety. We wish the tourney players luck, but here at Cardboard Republic, our focus is on the casual Magic environments.

Magic: The Gathering. Now heading into its 20th year, it’s been around for quite a while. If you want to talk about a game that’s been molded by house rules, this is it. Traditionally a one-on-one contest, gamers have been tweaking the rules to accommodate more players or new concepts since the very beginning. Many player-made variants have remained somewhat unofficial. Some, such as Two-Headed Giant or Sphere of Influence have semi-official variant status since they exist in the Comprehensive MTG rule book. At least one format has gained such popularity (I’m looking at you EDH-turned-Commander), that it’s been renamed and had official Wizards of the Coast products made for it.

With the advent of the gothic horror-themed block Innistrad, I heard about a new twist a year ago called Horde Magic, a new cooperative way to play the game. In essence, it’s an automated deck with no human pilot versus the players. Peter Knudson, a former Magic R&D intern, created the format. You can see the original post on its creation, as well as the follow-up to it here and here.

Up to four players team up to form “The Survivors”, tasked with surviving the coming onslaught of a mindless, unending wave of creatures. The pertinent rules are:

The Survivors:

  • Players use 100-card Commander decks.
  • Players share turns, and their life totals consist of 20 per player.
  • Players get three turns before the Horde starts, then play alternates with the Horde.

The Horde:

  • The Horde has no life total, and any damage done to it results in that many cards being “milled” (put from the top of the library into the graveyard).
  • Players win when the Horde deck has no hand, no creatures, and no cards left in its library. Players lose through the normal methods of 0 life, poison, etc.
  • The Horde, assuming four players, is also a 100 card deck, consisting of 60 tokens and 40 other spells. It can scale for fewer, however.
  • On the Horde’s turn, players reveal the top cards of that library until a non-token card is revealed. All token cards revealed this way are put into play, and the spell is cast without paying its mana cost.
  • The Horde will only cast spells once per turn, at the start of the turn.
  • Any cards been returned to the Horde’s “hand” are subsequently re-cast the following turn.
  • The Horde has infinite mana available.
  • All creatures the Horde deck controls have haste, cannot block, and attack each turn if able.


Now, it should hardly be surprising that the theme of the initial Horde deck was Zombies. Using Magic decks against a mindless army of the undead just seems so cool it was impossible to resist giving Horde Magic a try.

I won’t try to give a play by play of the games we played but rather an overall impression. The gameplay itself was fun. Not knowing how big of an assault was coming next turn, and when the hammer did fall, deciding who we could afford to sacrifice to the Horde. Plus there was the flavor of surviving the long night against the undead…

The only problem I had was what is Horde Magic’s only major weakness: there are enough cards that break the format that it can be difficult to enjoy the game as it’s meant to be played. The notion is nothing new. Even before Commander was known as Commander, the group behind its creation has been populating and updating a banned list with cards deemed too powerful for that format.

For example, playing Aether Flash destroys most tokens as they come into play. Teferi’s Moat and Dueling Grounds keeps them from attacking. No Mercy and Dread shrink the Horde every turn. The list goes on. Moreover, building a Horde deck requires you to avoid using any cards with activated abilities or targets (without further house rules). So, my initial thought was it could make for a niche format to build around. In Peter’s follow-up article, he did create an initial banned list for the format, but it is in no way comprehensive.

The release of the Horde variant coincided well with the release of the Innistrad block. We were curious what the status of Horde was as we move into new territories and decided to go to the source. Peter was graciously willing to give us some insight into his thoughts on Horde, now that it’s been percolating around the Magic community for a little over a year:


Clearly this format requires a banned list to avoid breaking the game. (e.g. Teferi’s moat, etc.) Given the competitive nature of Magic players and our tendency to TRY and break the game, how do you think most gamers would respond to willingly limiting themselves?

Good question.  I equate Horde Magic to playing Dungeons & Dragons.  It takes self-dedication to the experience and the enjoyment of playing by the rules for the game to really work.  If  you wanted to, you could magically gift yourself a bunch of great items and the quests would be really easy.  Is that fun?  No.   Magic players who have normally-powered Commander decks would enjoy the occasional Horde game with their friends, especially since you  get to play with your friends, not against them.  At the end of the day Horde is about two things: the creative aspect of building new Horde decks and trying to beat them, and about a completely different way to enjoy your Magic cards (cooperative vs. competitive).


Have there been a lot of requests since its debut for you to list a regularly updated rule set and / or banned list like the Sheldon gang does for Commander?

Not a lot, actually.  If there was, I would probably have tried spearheading a community site for that.  I am still considering that for the future, but I think that casual players (who were the ones most infatuated with the format) took it upon themselves to police their Horde games, which is great.


How do people feel about your philosophy of ‘open sourcing’ the rules and banned cards list?

I think people get it.  It’s not a competitive format.  I think that EDH/Commander got too competitive for my tastes.  When you have a regularly updated banned list, people try to break the format until the list rotates.  By “open-sourcing” the format, different play groups can alter and change Horde to something that fits their style and interests, rather than waiting around for me to update a website.


WotC has published several Magic products over the last few years aimed at casual players. If Wizards created Horde Deck products, what types of cards would you like to see created specifically?

Awesome new tokens to build decks around.  I think part of the fun for Horde is noticing, mostly by accident, that a particular card can play nicely in a Horde deck.


Are there any recommended “staple” cards for players making their own Horde or Survivor decks?

Interesting Anthem effects, such as Lord of Atlantis, work great for increasing the difficulty of the Horde (specifically Merfolk) as time goes on, which makes for great gameplay.  Also, random effects that shake up the game quite a bit also play nicely.


What are your thoughts on the “Endless” variant? (Each time the Horde loses, reshuffle and restart with an emblem giving all it’s creatures +1/+1, and seeing how many rounds the Survivors last)

That’s pretty neat, actually.  Try to beat your record each time.  I think that the flavor for the Zombie Horde specifically, where the players are actually attacking the Zombies in an effort to save themselves is pretty convincing.   It provides a different set of choices as well, but I think that an “endless” variant would be interesting way to mix it up from time to time, but I might not make it the default rule unless people found it a lot more fun.


Thoughts on another variant: to better simulate Survivors dying off one-by-one, whenever the team takes a certain amount of damage, the team has to decide on one of the Survivors dying.

I experimented with each player having a separate life total, but it made the rules way less elegant.  This is an interesting take on that, but I can see it leading to some arguments.  Maybe if the choice was random, it could be more fair, and maybe a condition to raise players back from the dead as well.  I’m personally still playing a rules set that is very close to what I published a year ago.


What does this mean for M:tG players looking to experiment? I would say this: absolutely give it a try. Just know that there are many decks that shouldn’t be played against a Horde. It’s within the nature of Magic players to try and break the system, to make the unbeatable deck, and the idea of holding yourself back from being unbeatable can seem foreign. But if you can live with the idea of a band of survivors not being uber-mages, you can have a ton of fun! Especially when you consider that Zombies aren’t the only token creatures in Magic. Soldiers, Squirrels, Dragons…

After watching some Hitchcock lately, I was inspired to create “The Birds”. A token army is much harder to stop when it’s flying.

I share my 1.1 version with you today:

For The Birds!

Creatures (23)
Aven Brigadier
Aven Fleetwing
Aven Mindcensor
Aven Smokeweaver
Commander Eesha
Duskrider Peregrine
Gustcloak Savior
Jotun Owl Keeper
Mercurial Kite
Phantom Flock
Pride of the Clouds
Shriek Raptor
Silver Erne
Storm Crow
Swans of Bryn Argoll
Tine Shrike

Other Spells (17)
Airborne Aid
Day of Judgment
Favorable Winds
Gravitational Shift
Hallowed Burial
Hour of Reckoning
Safe Passage
Soulcatchers’ Aerie
Spare From Evil
Suppression Field
Time Reversal

Bird Tokens (60)
55 1/1 Birds
3/3 Birds


 Rules and notable cards about The Birds:

  • We did not want to deviate from the basic rules much. However, there are a few additional stipulations to make:
  1. Any time the Horde has a choice that they “may” do something, they will always opt to.
  2. Whenever the Horde draws a card, it will wait until its turn’s next main phase, and casts those cards after the Horde reveals and resolves cards per the normal turn structure. This operates the same as any cards returned to its hand.  Per usual, non-token cards are played after token cards. If multiple non-token cards are to be cast at the same time, they are done in a random order.
  3. The Horde has no hand limit.
  4. Poison counter limits should adjust on the same per-player basis as life totals. Your local play group can experiment with amounts, but we found the following to be fair: | 1 Player: 10 | 2-3 Players: 15 | 4 Players: 20 |
  • We slightly adjusted the Creature-to-Spells ratio compared to the Zombie Horde to slow down the volume of Bird tokens and creatures coming at you. Even still, flyers are not to be underestimated.
  • In addition to the existing list, Raking Canopy is banned.


  • Aven Mindcensor: A devious anti-Commander card.
  • Jotun Owl Keeper: I thought this one was a clever use of Horde’s infinite mana resources without getting silly (i.e. Apex Hawks). You’ll want to get rid of him early, or his death will generate a lot of birds.
  • Storm Crow: We almost had to ban him, but Storm Crow wouldn’t let us.
  • Airborne Aid: There is something very intimidating about knowing what you’ll be dealing with next turn on top of what you don’t…
  • Mercurial KiteAurification, Favorable Winds, Suppression Field, cards involving the “protection from” ability : All nice flavor cards representing fear and paralysis due to The Birds swarming and pecking you to bits.
Like any Horde deck, cards can be cycled in or out to increase or decrease the difficulty level, and I will provide suggestions on doing that in another piece.


Horde Magic is a fantastic casual play style for Magic players, and I highly recommend it. I’d love to hear people’s responses to playing with the Horde variant, using The Birds especially. Until next time; let’s hope the skies stay free and clear.

Nathan Crocco is a regular contributor to the site and can be reached at nathan@cardboardrepublic.com.

Peter Knudson can be reached on his twitter account, @mtg_pete.

 Have you tried Horde Magic? We want to hear your stories over on our forums!