Mechanical Memories — Minigames in MtG

The Celestial Toymaker | Illustrated by Jake Murray
Fact or Fiction & The Toymaker's Trap | Illustrated by Matt Cavotta & Eric Wilkerson

I Want to Play a Minigame

Magic, at a certain level, operates on a fairly singular axis. Players exchange resources (spells, creatures, mana, life) until someone’s expended resources let them win the game. This is a gross oversimplification of Magic, but you can squeeze most aspects of the game into this dynamic. But what if there were ways to introduce another game into Magic? I’m not talking about subgames, so sorry Shahrazad. And I’m not talking about other games as in Universes Beyond. No, I’m talking about cards that flex you and your opponents’ brain muscles. Let’s learn all about Magic’s many magnificent minigames with my Mechanical Memories!

Welcome to Mechanical Memories, the series where we explore the history of Magic design and its impact on the Commander format! Minigames offer an interesting social dynamic to Commander, one where you get to mess with your opponents and possibly create new allies. A lot of these cards have a huge learning curve. Cards like Fact or Fiction are infamous in one-on-one formats for being instant wins if your opponent doesn’t know the metagame. These are cards that don’t just get better when your deck gets better, their power grows when you expand your view of Magic beyond its normal constraints. There’s no better way to learn about how to use these cards than through their history, so let’s begin!

First, I define minigames are broadly with the three Gs of a game: Any card that forces you or your opponents to Gamble, Guess, or Group. Cards that gamble include Ad Nauseam and Wheel of Misfortune. The wheel is a prime example, risking your life total in favor of some sweet, sweet card advantage. Guess cards involve an element of mystery. They’re the Magic equivalent of the “What have I got in my pocket?” riddle. Finally, there’s the group cards. These are the most easily recognizable as they ask players to divide cards into subgroups, commonly referred to in the rules as piles. Your Fact or Fictions, Intuitions, and Truth or Tales all fall here.

While the “official” first minigame cards premiered a few years into Magic’s history, the mechanic’s progenitors arrived fairly early on. The first place that design experimented with minigames was with bidding on cards like Illicit Auction or coin flips with Mana Clash. These were all red cards, playing into the idea of red being the color of powerful, if unreliable, magic spells. A more refined version of these cards arrived in Tempest block with the powerful artifact Cursed Scroll and cEDH staple Intuition.

Cursed Scroll was a constructed powerhouse in its day. The card cares about randomly selecting a card in your hand. The problem (for your opponents, that is) was that having one card in hand or multiple of the same card in hand made this a repeatable Shock. While not eye-catching today, reliable sources of damage that played into strategies where you dumped out your hand were perfect for classic Magic. Intuition saw a good amount of play as well, though it has only grown more powerful with the surplus of combo-conducive cards. Tutoring cards into your graveyard and into your hand is a surefire way to do silly things with busted cards.

These types of cards asked players to consider a different element of the cards, making them really attractive to professional players. If you were an invested tournament grinder, it felt great to apply your knowledge to get tons of power out of these cards. Their popularity led to an unnamed mechanic in Invasion block entitled “divvying.” This asked players to divide cards, creatures, etc into piles, then to make a choice between those piles. Most of these cards had a naming convention of “X or Y,” such as the famous Fact or Fiction. For a lesser known example, check out Do or Die, a two-mana “wrath” effect.

Maybe calling this a wrath is generous. Do or Die has you separate your opponent’s creatures into two piles, then they lose one of those piles. This offers an interesting dilemma. Let’s say you have an opponent running a Chulane, Teller of Tales deck. They control their commander, a Noble Hierarch, a Llanowar Elves, a Coiling Oracle, a Birds of Paradise, and an Archivist of Oghma. Once you’ve finished being furious with your opponent for their deck choice, imagine you cast Do or Die. How do you divide the piles?

There’s plenty to think about here. Chulane is the primary threat, so maybe you put him as the sole member of one pile, forcing them to sacrifice their board to keep their commander. However, that could make it too obvious you want Chulane dead, so should Coiling Oracle join the pile? And that Archivist is going to be troublesome if you’ve got lots of tutor effects, so maybe you should prioritize killing that. Chulane can also get tons of value off of bouncing the Coiling Oracle, so killing that could be a major priority. But that only matters if they control Chulane, so maybe you should prioritize that. . .

Okay. So Divvy cards are fun, but they’re incredibly complex. Plus, they put a lot of onus of the effect onto your opponent. If you include one of these cards in your deck, you kind of force your opponents to play that minigame with you. This can draw out games as players mull over every single option, especially in a competitive context. This gets into a difficult aspect of Magic design. Effects that reward invested, spiky players are often fairly complex. This doesn’t just effect new players’ ability to learn the game, but it can also make tournament play especially problematic. These designs were well liked, but they caused problems. Luckily, design had a solution.

Gaming the System

If the issue with these cards is their time-consuming nature, adding an element of mystery can turn the question into a gamble rather than a statistics-weighing option. If you look at recent Fact or Fiction-esque designs such as Fortune’s Favor, you’ll see they often have a face-up and face-down pile. This is in order to make the choice between the piles easier to understand. The face-up pile either does or doesn’t have the kinds of cards you’re looking for. Therefore, it asks the caster of the spell if they’re willing to take the mystery cards or stick with the safe option.

a Family Guy meme template showing a Fortune's Favor card and two Swords to Plowshares cards

Spells that are four mana or less follow this pattern. Atris, Oracle of Half-Truths and Sauron’s Ransom play with the mystery of card advantage. More mana-intensive options like Intrude on the Mind keep the face up piles, but they also have the player casting the spell making the decisions. That way the mental load of the sell is primarily on the person who included it in their deck.

There’s more to be done with these minigames than just piling cards. As established, minigames involve the typical play/counterplay of Magic being disrupted by some sort of new rule. Tons of recent Magic mechanics fall into this category. Morph and Disguise cards turn blocking into a mental math game, one where you could have anything from a Scornful Egotist to a Krosan Cloudscraper. Un-sets first introduced the guess mechanic on the card Squirrel Farm and have continued to iterate on these minigames. Photo Op, Phone a Friend, and D00-DL, Caricaturist present novel gameplay that couldn’t exist in Eternal Magic.

This is what’s so novel about minigames. Cards like Fact or Fiction can be exploited (if you want to call it that) with a knowledge of game theory, the format’s card pool, and a ton of Magic skill. However, they’re also incredibly fun to play in a Commander game. Running short on cards and need to dig for some answers? Ask your friend to give you a pile of five cards in exchange for a peace treaty! Cursed Scroll is an absolute beating once you dump your hand onto the board, but it can be a blast when trying to psych out your opponent.

With all the fun in these mechanics, players have wanted to build a minigame deck for a long time. Modern design paradigms say that every strategy, no matter how niche, needs a dedicated legendary creature, leading to the release of The Celestial Toymaker. Hailing from a poorly-aged TV serial and returning as a Tony Award winning actor, the Toymaker rewards you for making piles and guesses. So let’s see what games the Toymaker has in store for us.

Spice Up Your Life!

The Celestial Toymaker specifically cares about piles and guessing, which limits the kinds of minigames that we want to include. A quick Scryfall search shows us 32 cards that care about this, though we certainly won’t be running all of them. Liliana of the Veil is a solid card, but she’s unlikely to unleash her ultimate and is better suited for a Tinybones, Trinket Thief deck. When initially browsing these cards, I noticed the majority of them were instant or sorceries. If we were to build the deck on copying and recasting these spells, we could run the best versions of the effect without running dry on fuel. For this reason, The Celestial Toymaker is going to have a spellslinger subtheme to help keep card quality up.

Considering this isn’t a competitive deck, we’re going to be relying on casual table talk to get folks on our side. Our main priority is getting The Celestial Toymaker onto the battlefield, then accumulating as many pile and guess effects as we can to damage our opponents. Remember, the Toymaker doesn’t care if we do this on our turn, so feel free to leave up mana for instant speed interaction. For your first couple of minigames with the Toymaker, I suggest finding an opponent to align yourself with. Rather than using Epiphany at the Drownyard to dig for powerhouses, instead use it to find answers to larger threats, establishing your utility to the rest of the table.

Once the gears start turning with this deck, The Celestial Toymaker will become a magnet for removal. Protection spells like Sejiri Shelter or Loran’s Escape can keep the Toymaker safe, but that can only last so long. Once we get into the later turns, our pile and guess effects are going to get pricer in mana. To ensure we’re getting a sizable benefit, we’ll start cloning the Toymaker with Irenicus’s Vile Duplication and Quantum Misalignment. This will rapidly speed up the clock on our opponents. Now our Hostile Negotiations will hit every opponent for 4, 6, maybe even 8 life on our end step. Copy that with Strionic Resonator and you’re in Magical Christmasland!

What’s our plan for closing out the game, you may ask? We have plenty of effects that make tons of copies or care about the copies of our spells. Swarm Intelligence will copy every instant and sorcery, speeding up Professor Onyx’s drain. If we can chain together pile effects with a Spellweaver Volute in play, there’s no end to our shenanigans. However, my favorite way to win with the deck is by giving our opponents their own Toymakers. Fractured Identity gives everyone a Toymaker that will trigger on each end step. We’ll lose life as well, but our opponents will hopefully be in a worse situation by then. Worse case scenario, we’ll save ourselves with Angel’s Grace.

But it wouldn’t be a Doctor Who deck without Nanogene Conversion! This turns every single creature into copy of The Celestial Toymaker. With just one well-timed Truth or Tale, your opponents are likely to lose 20 or more life. With all the card advantage you’ve accrued with this Esper value engine, that’s likely to be game over for them.

I’ve included this decklist below for your playing pleasure. Be sure to minigame responsibly by not taking up time with establishing piles! Once you’ve figured out the ins-and-outs of the deck, it’ll rewards you with tons of fun. Are there any of your favorite minigames that I missed? Let me know in the comments! Thanks for joining me everyone.

Mechanical Memories — The Guessing Game

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Commander (1)
Artifacts (9)
Creatures (11)
Enchantments (6)
Instants (23)
Sorceries (11)
Battles (1)
Planeswalkers (1)
Lands (37)

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Jubilee Finnegan (they/them) is English literature student and writer based out of Southern California. They got hooked in Magic with Throne of Eldraine and haven't stopped since. When not deckbuilding, they're working on poetry, gardening, or trying some new artistic endeavor. They can be found on Twitter at @finneyflame or on Instagram @jwfinnegan.

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