For a game that is infinitely modular, and therefore laden with infinite potential – like a snowflake where no two are exactly the same – there is a boundary, an invisible speed limit to variability of games of Magic: the cards that players bring with them. Yet, there is a variant of the game that trespasses this limit and introduces an exciting, unpredictable external element: The Djinn-Efreet War. In this variant, someone serves as a kind of Dungeon Master – and their pre-game work shapes – but does not entirely determine – the progression of the game in surprising and exciting ways.
If you are unfamiliar with this game variant, please read the article linked above or the embedded game instructions. Having tested this bygone and forgotten game variant in the Bay Area at the ideal locale of the Albatross Pub in Berkeley, CA – which half resembles the Prancing Pony of the Lord of the Rings (or more accurately, the Eagle and Child in Oxford, England), I saw fit to try again. The first run was fun, but a bit chaotic as players learned the format and became comfortable with the concept. In the first run I invited 5 volunteers to join me in this exciting experiment. I brought the set of 8 Pro Tour New York (1995) Type 2 decks to draft among the players. The Pro Tour: New York commemorative decks contained a large dose of Old School flavor, but also spared players the stress of designing a deck for an unusual format. Further, we allowed players to pre-sideboard for the big game.
The initial feedback in the Beasts of the Bay chat group was overwhelmingly positive, that the format was fun and the gameplay was exciting. But the consensus was that we should find a way for players to bring their own decks for the next round. Sometime later, in casting about for a date for another round of the Djinn-Efreet war, I polled players regarding their preferences for the format, and this request was reconfirmed. Players appreciated the pre-set arrangement for Round 1, but wanted the flexibility to design their own decks. Understandable! Half of the fun of playing Magic is bringing your own ideas and weapons to battle.
We discussed the logistics, set a date, nearly a year after the first event, and I invited players to sign-up.. All that was needed as “6 hardy, stout, and courageous souls” to compete. The sign-up list filled up fast: Matt Sperling, Eliot Davidoff, Eliot Burk, Hampton Maxell, and John DeLustro were the first to volunteer (Eliot D. and Hampton were Round 1 veterans), and the wait list also filled up.
The key elements of the Djinn-Efreet War are the Resources, Treasures, Traps, and the Guardians who protect them. As the Dungeon Master or game-organizer, I was responsible for selecting these flavorful and fun cards. Of course, if I wanted folks to be surprised, I couldn’t simply run back the same cards I ran last time. I had to find upgrades, both aesthetic and tactical.
The Resources are static, at least insofar as the rules of the “Djinn-Efreet War” is concerned, so I kept those the same as the original game instructions provide. But I made significant adjustments to the other components of the game. Take a look at the 9 “Treasures” and 3 “Traps” I settled on, with each lying in wait beneath a Resource:
I removed the nifty, but somewhat basic Brass Man, Dancing Scimitar, Ebony Horse, Jandor’s Ring, Jandor’s Saddlebags, and Magnetic Mountain. In their place, I added two sweet Legends rares (Sword of the Ages and Mirror Universe), two Antiquities artifacts (Rocket Launcher and Golgothian Sylex), giving love to two other iconic Old School sets, as well as added three iconic ABU artifacts, Icy Manipulator, Cyclopean Tomb, and Chaos Orb. I also included Detonate as the new Trap (which seemed better than Magnetic Mountain). These all seemed like spicy upgrades, although I was most enthusiastic about Sword of the Ages, which I hoped might be a surprise game winner. But each of them rang the nostalgia bell like a gong.
Likewise, I mixed up the Guardians as well. Running back the same Guardian mix would allow players to build their decks with those in mind. Worse, it would be boring. Here are the Guardians that protected these treasures:
In the first round, I tried to match the power level of the Guardians to the creatures in the Pro Tour: New York decks. Because players would be bringing their own decks this round, I assumed that the creatures would also be more powerful. Therefore, I decided that the Guardians could be a bit more powerful, but more importantly, a bit more resilient. The trick is making the creatures vulnerable enough to justify the risk of attacking a resource early in the game, but resilient enough to avoid being easily defeated. Thus, I refocused my search on creatures with protection and activated abilities. Repentant Blacksmith, Dragon Engine, and Order of the Ebon Hand were new additions, as well as the iconic Shivan Dragon. Abu Ja’far seemed like another hilarious addition.
There remained other, more difficult issues to resolve, beyond the ambiguities involved in Emperor spell ranges.
First among them was finalizing the rules for deck construction. My goal was to avoid decks of the power level usually seen in Old School events, and to keep players restricted to 3 colors. For that reason, Commander seemed like a perfect solution: it was singleton, with 100 card minimum decks – and therefore less powerful than regular decks, and since every Legend from 1994 was no more than 3 colors, it restricted decks to no more than 3 colors.
But the volunteer recruits resisted my suggestion, primarily on the grounds that a “Commander” did not feel particularly Old School. Fair point. The Command Zone was not exactly a patch of Old School territory. We agreed on 100 card decks, however, and singleton. That was settled. I also added that King Suleiman and City in a Bottle (as well as all ante cards) were banned. They are antithetical to the format set up. Also, Shahrazad would have been nearly impossible to operationalize in the space we had, so I banned that as well, for good measure.
There remained one last issue: whether to allow players to target Guardians during combat with spells, or give them shroud, as the original setup intended. Players voted to shroud the Guardians, which made sense with the more powerful decks that players could bring. That also influenced my final selection of the Guardian mix.
The players trickled in not long after 7PM, for a 7:30 scheduled start the evening of September 13th. I set up the game by randomly distributing the Guardians, and then setting traps and hiding treasures (also randomly).
The game is set. The traps have been laid, the treasures buried, and guardians summoned. The Djinn-Efreet War, part deux shall commence. pic.twitter.com/443G41uVoW
— Stephen Menendian (@SMenendian) September 14, 2018
Once everyone had arrived, and made their drink orders, we rolled a twenty-sided die to decide Emperors (with the two highest rollers becoming so), and then rolled to determine seating for Generals. I rolled low, so flanked Eliot Davidoff, my Emperor, in our fight against Eliot Burk and his two Generals, Matt and Hampton.
Here is what I played:
Although I had never done so before, I built my deck like a Commander deck, with Rubinia Soulsinger as my putative Commander. Set in blue, green, and white, I designed my deck like any other 2-player constructed deck, with an emphasis on efficiency, utility, and flexibility. I tried to bend my mana curve lower, eschewing big, over-the-top threats. I was unaware of how differently game development might proceed compared to regular constructed play.
The game began with me, and I opened with this big play: Black Lotus, Mishra’s Workshop, Birds of Paradise, and The Hive!
It was a splashy play, but not very effective. Matt Sperling burned out my Bird, and the Shop and Hive did little the rest of the game. I had Moat in hand, and probably should have played it instead.
The game progressed as both teams developed their mana bases and played creatures and spells. Our Emperor, Eliot Davidoff, got surprising value out of a third turn Xira Arien to draw additional cards, but Eliot Burk built a fearsome presence on the other side while we dawdled. Fat Moti dove headlong into the center of the board to pick fights with Guardians. Rasputin Dreamweaver, in particular, saved several creatures in a single instance of group combat with Guardians. Eliot Burk was aggressive in pursuit of Resources for points, and was rewarded for his efforts with abundant treasures. He secured a Library of Alexandria, Sorcerous Queen, and Icy Manipulator for his efforts.
Mahamoti Djinn reveals, and attacks, Abu Ja’far.
On my side of the table, I was pressed by aggressive play from Matt Sperling, but managed to stave off a lethal attack with a last minute Moat. Unfortunately, Eliot Burk’s timely attack into the center of the board surfaced a Chaos Orb treasure, which prompted an interesting discussion of whether Chaos Orb is better suited as a trap. As an honest Dungeon Master, I had to inform everyone it was indeed a treasure, much to our disadvantage.
Eliot’s Jund deck did not seem particularly well designed for Emperorship, and Matt picked me off after the Moat was removed with Chaos Orb, while Hampton picked off John at the other end of the table, leaving Eliot Davidoff a sitting duck. Eliot D. Demonic Tutored for Inferno as a last-minute reset button, but a hard-won Icy Manipulator tapped down his red mana the turn he was about to make his 7th land drop to cast it.
In the end, Eliot Burk didn’t even have to kill Eliot Davidoff to win the game. Burk’s team scored their first four points with attacks on Resources. Knocking me off took them to 6 game points, while our team still had none.
Eliot designed his deck with a surprising number of Legends, which proved perfect for the buffered development space Emperor’s enjoy. Eliot Burk’s team got another easy point (a one-pointer coming with Golgothian Sylex) to get to 7, and then launched a massive assault on King Suleiman spearheaded with Dakkon Blackblade.
Dakkon Blackblade attacks King Suleiman!
The attack by Dakkon revealed the King’s Guardians, including the great Shivan Dragon. Their combined defense was not enough to stop Dakkon, who had at least 9 power, and probably a bit more.
The attack narrowly succeeded, netting 3 game points, and the game victory.
Our team, Team Eliot Davidoff, did not get a single game point.
Since the first game wrapped up so quickly, and the night was still young, we agreed to play another game. The Emperors were re-seeded, and Matt Sperling and Eliot Davidoff were the new Emperors.
This game was more interesting, if not more competitive.
Matt Sperling hinted through the first game that his familiarity with this format led him to some unusual card choices. One of them was revealed immediately into the second game Matt snapped this photo of his Game 2 opening hand:
Mana Flare is an incredible card for an Emperor, considering the spell range rules in the format. It boosts the mana supply of all the generals, while denying the advantage to the opposing Emperor. Since Matt was able to play Mana Flare on the first turn, this had hilarious consequences.
Immediately after Matt’s turn, his left General, Eliot Burk, was able to cast a turn 1 Timetwister, before his direct opposition, Hampton, had even gotten a turn!
Hampton was not pleased with a compulsory mulligan, while Matt’s hand was refilled by the maneuver. By the time the turn counter reached me, I played another Timetwister, giving Matt an even better hand while making the most of the Mana Flare.
After another turn cycle, our team tried to parlay the Mana Flare into a massive Mind Twist. Hampton took advantage of the Mana Flare to cast Mana Drain off a single Island, with simian gesticulating.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the table, John and I sized each other up. John played a Gaea’s Avenger, which was neutralized by my Maze of Ith. He Cloned it, just before I picked off the first one.
His Land Tax was fruitless on account of the fact that he played before I did, and we step-patterned land drops. After a few turns, his board was fairly innocuous, despite Cloning the Avenger, while I built up an enormous defense, which included the Maze of Ith, Forcefield, and Preacher.
The defensive castling maneuvers caused both teams to turn their attention to the center of the board, where game points seemed easier pickings.
Hampton sent a Jade Statute into the thicket in the middle, and while he successfully battled a Guardian, and secured a resource (a City of Brass no less!) and a point for his team, he sprung a trap!
This is probably the first and only time we will ever see Oubliette on a Jade Statue!
Eliot Burk’s creature feature came into play in a big way, and he began hammering both Hampton and the center of the board. Hampton was the first player eliminated from the game, giving our team two game points. And we secured another resource.
With his right flank unprotected, Team Davidoff needed to go on offense if they wanted to have a shot at winning. Eliot Davidoff sent his army into the center to try to win resources and acquire treasures, but his creatures and the Guardians murdered each other in combat, leaving the Resource open and unprotected, but unclaimed – one of the quirks of the game.
Fortunately for us, Matt Sperling’s 0/1 Birds of Paradise was able to secure the Aladdin’s Ring and its treasure by attacking into it, netting our team another two game points!
The coup de grâce!
From that point on, and after some laughs at the sight of Birds playing such a pivotal role, the game was a landslide. We turned our attention to the highest value target, King Suleiman, and secured him. Team Sperling surged from 5 to 8, and then to 10 game points with two more targeted attacks on high value interior targets.
Not long after 10PM we were done.
I revealed the final Treasures to everyone, since we had not seen several hidden cards, including Swords of the Ages, perhaps one of the coolest new additions.
Despite an imbalance of success, everyone had a great time. The games were as fun as they were hilarious.
The Djinn-Efreet War is more than a paean to Old School Magic – it is a model for bringing more ‘wild card’ elements into the game of Magic than it already enjoys. Although we experienced this concept using Old School packaging, anyone could implement the same underlying idea using virtually any set of cards. The core concept is strong.
But what I did not fully appreciate beforehand was how the Emperor structure might influence deck design calculations. Unlike 2-player constructed, the Emperor structure rewards symmetrically beneficial effects like Mana Flare and Draw 7s, and also allows the Emperors – who enjoy the natural defense of being flanked by Generals – to develop a larger mana base and more easily deploy larger threats. These facts made the games even more interesting than I hoped, as players effectively used iconic Old School tactics like Dakkon Blakeblade, Xira Arien, and Rasputin Dreamweaver.
Going forward, I would imagine that pre-selecting Emperors – and teams – could create an even more cohesive experience. This would allow players to even more carefully design decks for synergy and power. I hope to this again, and encourage you to try as well. But feel free to try this game using other cards and other sets. I’m eager to hear how it goes.
Until next time,
Here are the decks from the other players that night.
Matt Sperling’s deck, entitled “All My X’s”:
Eliot Burk’s deck:
Eliot Davidoff’s deck:
John DeLustro’s deck:
Hampton Maxwell’s deck: