Alternate EDH Formats
An overview of some of the alternate EDH formats, their rules, and what you need to know about each one.
As Wizards of the Coast recently begged players to start their own formats (probably because they’re tired of taking so much heat for how they maintain them), I thought it would be a great time to make an overview of alternate play rules and variant EDH formats.
There are a lot of these so I’ll try to stick to the more widely known, higher-profile formats. I’ll start with the formats with their own ban lists and deck-building rules, and then show the alternate play-rules.
Table of Contents
French is a tournament variation of EDH with the following changes:
- This format has a different banlist, focused on balancing competitive play.
- You start at 30 life instead of 40.
- This is a one v one format, played as a best of three games.
- This format uses regular Magic mulligan rules, meaning the first mulligan is not free.
- There is no optional sideboard.
- All other regular EDH rules are followed.
- The Duel Commander Website
Also known as Duel Commander, or Heads-up, this format is primarily a tournament format, popular mostly in Europe. A large variety of decks are powerful and popular, with no deck towering over the others in power level. The format has a balanced and fair ban list, it warns players ahead of time of bans they are considering, and it is the best maintained format on this list. It’s also a blast to play.
I have written about the format before, and if the interest picks up, I’d love to keep writing about it.
The most popular deck in the format is currently Tasigur, the Golden Fang Control. A sample list of that deck follows.
The second most popular deck in the format is constantly in shift. However, Animar, Soul of Elements is currently surging in popularity.
Yisan is another popular deck in French, and is currently situated as one of the best decks. I have written about a multiplayer Yisan deck, which functions similarly to the French deck. Yisan is one of the few commanders to get major upgrades with the French ban list, letting you play Primeval Titan, Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary, Sylvan Primordial and Emrakul, the Aeons Torn.
Tiny leaders is another one v one format with the following rule changes:
- All cards must have a CMC under 3, including the commander.
- Decks contain exactly 50 cards, including the commander.
- This format has it’s own banlist.
- Tiny leaders is a one v one format, played as a best of three games.
- The Starting life total is 25 for each player.
- This format has dummy commanders available for sultai (3/3 for [m]u[/m][m]b[/m][m]g[/m]) and colorless (3/3 for [m]3[/m]), and has declared Ana Battlemage to be legendary, since no commanders with a CMC of 3 or less exist in those colors.
- Ten card sideboards are allowed for after game one.
- This format uses regular Magic mulligan rules, meaning the first mulligan is not free.
- All other regular EDH rules are followed.
- The Tiny Leaders Website
A lot of the hype for this format seems to have died down already, but lots of people still play it. The games play out like a singleton legacy, and the small decks make them far more consistent than they would otherwise be.
One of the big complaints about this format is that it’s solved. Ezuri, Renegade Leader, Merieke Ri Berit, and Alesha, who Smiles at Death seem to be the best tiny leader commanders, with Ezuri in the lead by a solid margin.
Here is a Merieke deck, but this version has a combo finish with Thopter Sword, and Time Sieve, which isn’t the most popular version of the deck, but probably the better one.
Pauper seems to have two rules that are always followed, with every other rule being the same as normal.
- Your commander can be any uncommon creature.
- Every card in your deck must be common.
Occasionally, you’ll see the following rules too:
- The starting life total is 30 for each player.
- Whenever a player is dealt 16 damage by any single commander, they lose.
For the most part, those rules are a good change. 40 is too much in fully-powered commander, in an underpowered format like Pauper EDH, it’s far too much. The commander damage change might seem low, but in an format where infect voltron is one of the stronger decks, it helps other commanders compete.
Pauper EDH is a relatively unexplored format. The top commanders are far from obvious, and there is a lot of room to brew. Combat damage ends most games, and combo is almost non-existant. Infect and flying are some of the most important keywords, and almost every deck ends up falling into the midrange or voltron.
Two of the more powerful commanders who are known to be good in the format are below. There are a few very questionable choices in these specific lists, but it’s still interesting to explore the relative power level of the decks, and cards that are somehow playable.
Peasant EDH is the same as Pauper EDH above, with two differences:
Generally, peasant EDH takes a backseat to pauper. Pauper is the more more popular format, but sometimes you need your fixing of uncommons. I happen to think Peasant is more fun: uncommons brings a ton of power to your deck without taking the focus away from creatures. Since it’s less popular, brewing becomes even more important, and finding your allocation of uncommons can be a lot of fun. EDH is a brewer’s format, but peasant is the true wild west.
It seems likely that given 8 uncommons, combo decks will become a lot more inevitable. However, I couldn’t tell you what those combos are.
Ambassador has just one new rule.
- Any creature can be used as your commander
Ambassador is a format with a name, and it gets talked about quite a bit, but besides the general consensus that the format is probably badly broken, not a lot of community exists around it. It almost seems like more of a thought experiment, where people are more interested in discussing the possible generals instead of playing it.
But those things wouldn’t really matter if you have a playgroup who are willing to brew around their favorite cards. The exciting part is, no one knows what it would look like! Perhaps Sage of Hours as a commander is an amazing combo deck. Perhaps you haven’t got your fix of Siege Rhino from standard and modern. Or you realized how broken an enabler Shardless Agent would be for a combo deck, and you want to dupe your friends into thinking you’re getting into more casual EDH variants, only to crush them on turn three! At least that’s what I would want to do.
If you have any ideas for an Ambassador deck, send them my way in the comments, I’m writing a think-piece on the format.
Planechase is a product made by Wizards of the Coast.
- The planar deck is shuffled, and a random plane is chosen. That plane will have an effect that adds a new rule to the game. (For example, Llanowar says ‘All creatures gain “[m]tap[/m]: Add [m]g[/m][m]g[/m] to your mana pool.”’)
- Any time during a player’s turn, that player may chose to roll the planar die (At sorcery speed). If the Planar symbol is rolled, a new plane is flipped up. If the choas symbol is rolled, the chaos effect of the current plane happens (Llanowar says, “Whenever you roll the chaos symbol, untap all creatures you control.”) Otherwise, nothing happens.
- A player may roll the planar die again by paying mana, [m]1[/m] for the first reroll, [m]2[/m] for the second, [m]4[/m] for the third, etc.
While Planechase isn’t still being made, you can get a planechase deck (10 planechase cards, along with a 60 card deck headed by a Legendary creature) from Amazon: Savage Auras [m]g[/m][m]w[/m] (The cheapest one), Night of the Ninja [m]u[/m][m]b[/m], and Chaos Reigns [m]r[/m][m]u[/m][m]g[/m] (Maelstrom Wanderer comes in this one, but you won’t believe how expensive it is).
Planechase is a lot of fun. The randomness of it all can be a little frusterating, but the entire idea is to embrace the chaos and enjoy what the deck deals you. They sometimes let you do really powerful things, and sometimes they ruin your plans.
Generally, while playing planechase, you’ll want to be playing a deck with creatures. Some of the planes enable combo decks like crazy, so avoiding those is a good idea too. Midrange decks tend to do the best, but if you’re playing planechase to win, then you might be playing the wrong variant.
It’s unfortunate that a new planechase product hasn’t been made in years, and that the older products are getting increasingly difficult to get ahold of, but I think it’s still worth mentioning.
This variant format is a strict power upgrade to typical EDH, and is entirely unexplored in a competitive manner.
- In addition to your commander, you may have a lieutenant as well. The lieutenant is a legendary creature with fewer colors (or the same if mono-colored), and an equal or lower CMC than your main commander.
In addition to that rule, you’ll occasionally see the following rule as well, but like many of the other alternate rules, they’re inconsistent.
- You cannot control both your lieutenant and your commander at the same time. If one would enter the battlefield while you control the other, one must be sacrificed as a state-based action.
This lets decks play with fun synergies. Here are some examples of powerful lieutenant and commander pairings.
- Nekusar, the Mindrazer with Kami of the Crescent Moon
- Jeleva Storm, with Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy
- Derevi, Empyrial Tactician with Yisan, the Wanderer Bard
- Alesha, who Smiles at Death Stax with Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
- Karador, Ghost Chieftain Boonweaver Combo with Sidisi, Undead Vizier or Gaddock Teeg
Once again, I think lieutenant would not stand as a competitive format, but the options are good, and the added consistency would be fun for a few games at least. This format isn’t popular though, and if you want to play it, you’ll probably need to convince your playgroup to build some lieutenant decks.
Frankly, I think the lieutenant choices would be pretty predictable. Blue decks will use Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy, Stax decks will use the best hatebear in their meta, and combo/reanimator decks will use Sidisi, Undead Vizier. All sorts of new combo decks are great in this format too: 5-color Splinter Twin will become a real deck if it can play Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker as a lieutenant. But probably the most exciting thing is how the lieutenant slot allows decks to meta against each other in a powerful new way. Cards like Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet, a potential commander who will never see serious play, will hose graveyard combos without limiting the scope and power of your deck as the lieutenant.
It will also push everyone out of mono-color decks; they have no real strategic benefit because you can use the mono-color commanders as the lieutenant of a deck with more colors. Any deck that doesn’t have great lieutenant options would probably not be played, unless they are substantially better as a 5 color deck with the commander as the lieutenant instead.
Despite all the downsides, it’s fun to play powerful decks, and this is one of the most flavorful and fun ways to increase the power-level of an EDH deck, even in casual settings. But mostly, the flavor is just great.
- Every player gets placed into teams of two.
- You share life points and your turn with a teammate. You draw, attack, block, and go through game phases as a team.
- The team that goes first does not draw a card on their first turn, unless there are three or more teams.
- Resources and card zones aren’t shared. Mana, cards in hand, commander, battlefield, etc, are not shared.
This is one of my favorite variations. Working together with another deck is a strange thing sometimes, especially if you pair unlike decks together. Politics-wise, it doesn’t add as much as some of the other variations, but in 6 player games, Two-Headed Giant is the only way I’ll play, since it alleviates a lot of the problems that come with really big games, primarily the very long turn cycle.
It even gives you someone to argue with to pass the time! Although, typically, from my experience, I don’t find players arguing much in this format. If your playgroup never pairs off for two-headed giant, out of all the options on the list, this is one that I recommend the most if you don’t experiment much with variations.
I’ve never built a deck specifically for two-headed giant, but that’s not uncommon for constructed two-headed giant. Making a deck to synergize and support your teammates deck sounds like a lot of fun, but two Nekusar, the Mindrazer decks working together does not sound like fun, and that combination sounds a little unbeatable. A rule about unique commanders might be a good addition, but I would still be wary of the team that jams every wheel with Waste Nots and a Nekusar.
Other combinations I’d be weary of would be two storm decks, Yisan, the Wanderer Bard with a Stax deck, or a glass cannon deck like Sidisi, Undead Vizer with a counter spell deck to protect the combo.
If you are a fan of the card game Bang!, this is the EDH version of that. If you aren’t, I highly recommend checking it out because it’s a blast.
- This variant is for 5-6 players, who each get assigned a role. Each role a different win-condition.
- The roles are as follows: one King, one knight, two bandits and one traitor in a five player game. The Usurper is added for the six player game.
- The King player reveals their role, while the other players keep their roles secret.
- The King starts at 50 life, and goes first. The King wins when he is the last man standing.
- The Knight wants to protect the King. The Knight wins along with the King if he and the king are the last men standing.
- The Bandits wants to kill the King. The Bandits wins when the King dies as long as they’re still in the game.
- The Traitor wants to kill a bandit. Once a bandit is out of the game, they win when the King dies. If the King dies with both bandits alive, they do not win.
- The Usurper wins if they deal the killing blow to the King. Then the Usurper and the King switch roles, the new king’s life goes to 40, and the old King’s life goes to 5.
Of all the variants, this one has the most variation. The roles always have some variation along with their win conditions, some include the usurper, and others don’t, etc. I have included the version I believe is best balanced and most interesting.
This version of the game is known as Usurper, Kingdoms, or Monarch, and can be played using whatever kind of props you want. I’ve seen basic lands handed out randomly, and there are print-offs you can find online and throw in sleeves over some commons. Using the cards from Bang! is another option.
All in all, I don’t think this variation is a balanced game. Even if you are playing a deck capable of doing your role (and many won’t be), some roles make it harder to win than others, but they all foster interesting new strategies and deductions. For example, the Traitor and the Knight will often both protect the King in the early game, but only one of them has the King’s best interest at heart. But it’s rarely in the Bandit’s best interest to be found out too early, so four players may be pretending to protect the King while three of them build up forces to eventually destroy him.
It’s somewhat terrifying to be the King. And the politics of role deduction are just about my favorite thing to do in any game. Even if you get stomped, guessing your opponent’s roles correctly still feels like winning.
Star is a slight political variation on a normal EDH game.
- This is a 5 player variant, where, if you arranged all the players to be points of a star, you can only attack the two players directly across from you in the star.
- You win if you defeat two the players across from you.
In this format, the two players sitting next to you are somewhat allies: you have a vested interest in protecting them and you share common enemies. But it’s not quite that simple. A creature deck still is still interested in the board-wipe deck leaving the game, but once that happens, you might have to beat your enemies in a certain order, or help kill an “ally” so they won’t accidentally win first. It gets politically complicated, and the typical political tendencies of a group are usually cast aside entirely. I recommend this format for any groups with players who hold grudges too often.
These are a few of the many EDH variants. Hopefully, some of them were new to you, and you get to try them out with your playgroup. Have a favorite variant? Share the rules for it in the comments!