29 September 2017
Can’t we be archfrenemies instead?
Magic: The Gathering’s Archenemy format is a fantastic idea – why not allow three players, each controlling their own deck and planeswalker, to team up and fight a single powerful villain, with a unique set of event cards to really shake things up from turn to turn?
Unfortunately, the original 2010 release was far from approachable for those not already well versed in the complexities of building a custom Magic deck, offering four separate decks of normal cards and the oversized scheme cards for four different superpowered baddies, but requiring that players construct their own 60-card setups for their heroes, individually crafted to adjust for the different setup.
This year’s follow-up fixes that problem, focusing on a single big bad: the titular god-pharaoh Nicol Bolas. In place of the three other villains, the complete box includes three pre-constructed decks for the opposing planeswalkers: Gideon Jura, Chandra Nalaar and Nissa Revane.
All of the normal cards have been seen before, although the four planeswalker cards feature fresh artwork and the scheme cards are all brand new. There’s also a handful of token cards, deck boxes and a life counter to track Bolas’ increased 40 hit points of health. All in all, then, the box feels much more like a self-contained event – something you could bring out and enjoy with non-Magic fans after quickly explaining the basics. No deckbuilding required.
You’ll be wanting to get as many people involved as possible, too, as Nicol Bolas is a hell of a foe to take on. A new scheme card is revealed at the start of the villain’s turns, setting in motion instant and ongoing effects that have the potential to quickly wipe out his rivals. The effects are good fun and make the battle feel distinct from a standard Magic showdown, but they’re clearly designed for a full house of four players – playing with just two or three noticeably throws off the balance, especially as Bolas’ health and abilities aren’t adjusted in any way to account for the smaller group.
Two of the three planeswalkers break with Magic tradition and offer decks built solely around a single type of mana and play style, rather than the traditional two, making it key to work together as a team to dish out damage while fending off Bolas’ crippling attacks – the boss gets three types of mana to wield. In a major change from the 2010 rules, players can now choose to block an attack on their teammates using their own creatures, which both strengthens the feeling of co-operation and helps to even the odds a little. It makes each turn an exciting, cinematic affair, as scheme cards are drawn, blows traded and the planeswalkers regroup before taking another run at felling the mighty dragon, who must consider his attacks more carefully against the combined force.
It’s not quite easy or simple enough to be a gentle introduction to Magic, but the three-on-one format is a thrilling way to experience the card-battler with a larger group that feels like a fantastic game in its own right. The scheme cards give the intense boss battle the epic, unique feeling it deserves, while the focused makeup of the planeswalker decks and rule tweaks smartly encourage effective teamwork – even if that means the game suffers with fewer players. Still, nothing’s stopping you just playing a round of standard Magic if a cracking two-player duel is what you’re after.
It’s not too far removed from the card-duelling foundations of Magic, yet Nicol Bolas feels like a standalone event as the scheme cards and planeswalkers’ flexibility to work as a team disrupt the usual flow of a match. Just make sure you take full advantage of the opportunity to play with four people.
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Time: 30+ minutes
This review originally appeared in the August/September 2017 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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