Magic: The Gathering’s greatest attribute is its ability to provide near endless possibilities for gaming, and today I’ll explore an outside-the-box variant that requires no physical cards, but lots of imagination, creativity, and cunning to play: 3-Card Magic.
The concept and rules are simple: Each player secretly selects three cards and battles their trio against other players’ “teams.” 1v1 is fun, but the format really shines when you play multiplayer in a group (in which case you battle your team round robin against everyone else’s team).
It’s been years since the last time I thought about the 3-card format. In fact, what got the format on my mind is that I’ve been learning how to battle PVP PokemonGo Leagues. There’s a great deal of similarity between choosing a strong trio of Pokemon and Magic cards. Certain teams and cards are weak or strong, but always relative to what your opponent(s) have selected.
One perk that makes the format useful is that it doesn’t require actual cards or a tabletop surface to play (just a pen and paper or smartphone notepad to write down and lock in teams for each round), which makes it an ideal way to pass the time on an MTG roadtrip or killing some time in between rounds.
The most interesting part of the format (aside from thinking of unique teams to solve specific problems and configurations) is that the game itself really highlights how metagames works and shift. If you play three battle rounds, it’s truly fascinating to see how player’s teams shift and adapt based on what others have thrown in previous rounds!
Once I’ve taught you the basic rules of gameplay in the article, feel free to pick a team and drop it into the comments section below (Limit one team per player, please!). I’ll tally up the results and crown a winner.
But first… the rules…
3-Card Magic Rules
As is always the case with casual formats, there’s a ton of potential to customize the experience (since it’s a custom format to start with!). You can ban cards, change the cardpool, or even tweak the various rules of play to your liking.
I learned the game many, many years ago on an MTG roadtrip from Patrick Chapin, and I’ll be teaching you the version I learned.
• Each player secretly chooses and writes down the three cards they wish to select as their “team.” These cards start in your opening hand.
• Each player starts with 20 life.
• At the start of the game each player reveals their team to other players (all players have perfect information to inform gameplay).
• Each player must pay all costs to cast spells and use abilities.
• You cannot draw extra cards or use cards beyond your trio.
• You may take more than one of the same card in your trio if you choose.
• A win is worth 3 points and a drawn match is worth 1 point.
I recommend playing three battle rounds, and the player who scores the most points “wins.”
One thing you’ll quickly realize is that with just three cards there is a lot of parity and trading off.
If a stalemate occurs where no one can actually win the game, the player with the highest life total wins. If a game ends and both players have the same life total it is a draw.
There are some situations where being on the play or draw can impact which trio is victorious. If it is the case that each player wins the match up when they are on the play (and loses on the draw) the match is considered a draw.
For our first game, let’s start with a couple of simple and suboptimal trios to demonstrate how gameplay works.
I write down:
My opponent writes down:
Since my opponent and I both know the contents of each others hand, we set about to determine who wins.
Neither player will be able to reduce the other’s life to zero before all pieces have traded off. However, regardless of who is on the play or draw the red deck will always be advantaged in life and will therefore win the tiebreaker and the match.
3-Card Metagame Shapers
One of the coolest things about the format is that despite my best efforts I have been unable to assemble a trio that cannot be defeated by something else. I’m excited to see the strongest teams the readers are able to put together and if they can “break it.”
One of the most and format-defining teams is the Emrakul combo:
It turns out that turn-1 Emrakul beats a lot of teams (which tends to be true in most formats!).
While the combo is quite powerful and beats a ton of teams outright, it is also fragile and will fold if an opponent decides to take a card to disrupt it.
The combo also “ties” in the mirror, since whoever goes first wins (the player on the draw won’t have enough life to Channel their own Flying Spaghetti Monster of Doom).
The “hard counter” to the Emrakul combo opening is to play a disruptive control trio with an answer to an Emrakul team:
Fortunately, there are powerful answers to Emrakul (otherwise it wouldn’t be much of a game!).
In many ways, Chancellor of the Annex is the best and most format defining card because it is one of the few cards capable of generating a two-for-one (which is highly significant in a format where you only start with three cards!).
Of course, we’ll need a way to generate 7 mana to cast Chancellor of the Annex…
The Fallen Empires storage lands are slow, but they fill a unique roll of being a single card capable of producing an infinite amount of mana over the course of many, many turns.
The key to understanding an Icatian Store/Chancellor of the Annex trio is that you are going to win via attrition by turning Chancellor of the Annex into a potential two-for-one in a format where each player only starts with three cards!
As is always the case in 3-Card Magic, there’s a hard counter for storage lands as well!
Strip Mine is the bullet for beating charge land based strategies. Strip Mine is also useful against configurations that hope to tap the same land twice to cast two seperate spells.
The third corner of the metagame is aggro!
I would describe this trio as the equivalent of playing an aggro control strategy similar to Delver of Secrets.
The powerful thing about it is that it completely ignores Chancellor of the Annex’s Force Spike ability and doesn’t use mana.
The obvious weakness of this set is that if an opponent can produce anything better than a 1/1 through a Force Spike + Strip Mine… You’re toast!
The most obvious counter is to take a second Chancellor of the Forge, but doing so comes at the expense of Strip Mine or Chancellor of the Annex and will leave you soft in other matchups.
It’s important to note the way the life total tie-breaker impacts the game in aggro vs. control trios. It is possible for some control hands to deploy Chancellor of the Annex to create a stalemate against two Goblin Tokens, but the hit points tiebreaker will still hold up.
Control decks built around Chancellor of the Annex and a storage land have viable answers to Chancellor of the Forge and other aggro threats that they can take in their third spot.
Even triple Chancellor of the Forge cannot race these Enchantments, however backing up Goblins with a Strip Mine always defeats a storage land control opening.
Basically, 3 color Magic functions as an elaborate and nuanced rock, paper, scissors metagame. It’s amusing to play 1v1, but things really get intense when there are 3+ teams being thrown at the same time over multiple rounds with cumulative scoring.
Another interesting aspect of gameplay is that what is “good” or “bad” is completely relative to what you and your friends decide to throw into the ring against each other. The better a team or strategy is perceived to be, the more likely a player is to take a hard counter or a favorable strategy against it.
It’s an interesting exercise in how metagames work. While I think Chancellor of the Annex is the most important meta shaping card, if a lot of people are taking Chancellor-based teams there’s a lot of value to playing teams that dodge and punish it!
It’s kind of funny, because when I first learned the format back in the day, most of the defining cards were not even printed yet. One of my favorite parts about playing the format with friends is that people come up with some insanely wacky technology over the course of a three-hour car ride to absolutely demolish everybody else in a battle round and completely uproot the meta.
I’ve basically included what I’d consider to be the basic level 1 metagame of control, combo, and aggro and a few of the signature threats and counters that have a lot of coverage. There are many other important and impactful cards, strategies, and trios that I’ve chosen not to include in today’s article for a couple of reasons.
First, I think I hit critical mass on explaining how a bunch of weirdo cards interact in an abstract way, but second because I want to leave the door open for the readers to think about different cards and strategies that can be pushed and used. Part of the fun of the format is thinking about creative ways to deal with the types of combinations that people are bound to select!
I’ll admit that I haven’t “broken it” and found an unbeatable team. I doubt such a thing even exists but I’m looking forward to seeing if the readers can come up with some new technology that I haven’t seen before.
All things considered, 3-card is an interesting exploration of how metagames work, shift, and change in real time! It’s also just a solid way to jam some game on a car ride or standing in a lengthy concession line (I’ve done both plenty of times!).
It’s funny because the “best” trio is always relative to what is the best counter for what is being played the most! So, go ahead and pick a team and throw it in the comments and I’ll tally them up afterwards to determine which trio scored the most points in the comments. Also, feel free to drop in some neat teams based around cards that I didn’t discuss in the article. There are certainly some awesome ones that I didn’t get around to mentioning!
If you have any questions or need clarification on gameplay, I’ll also be happy to answer questions in the comments.