The first thing I thought of when I saw the Contraptions I got to preview last week was, "how do these even work?" The next thing I thought was how cool these were going to be added to our regular games!
My group enjoys trying all kinds of variants to our regular games. Star, Hidden Alliances, deckbuilding restrictions, Commander, Canadian Highlander, Archenemy and Planechase all see regular play in our group.
Having a group of cards like Contraptions strongly lends itself to variants similar to Planechase, as they both use a separate type of card and involve a separate deck. It isn't identical though, as Contraptions are artifacts and can be destroyed much like other artifacts, while planes are just always there.
So how can you use all those Contraptions you are going to have after drafting piles of Unstable? I've got a few ideas.
Each player builds a Contraption deck. For this variant, each player's Contraption deck should be at least 15 cards, with no more than two copies of any Contraption in the deck. The "Rules" say that Contraption decks must be at least 15 cards with no duplicates, but we are talking about an Unstable variant, so I'm really not too worried about the rules. At the start of the active player's upkeep, that player moves the counter to the next sprocket and cranks any contraptions on that sprocket that they want.
Rather than forcing players to build decks that can assemble the Contraptions, each player rolls a Planar die on their upkeep after they have cranked their contraptions. A Chaos roll lets the player assemble the next Contraption in the Contraption deck. A planeswalk roll lets the player assemble the next Contraption in the Contraption deck, then move the counter and crank the Contraptions on that sprocket. This means that a player can crank twice on their upkeep.
How crazy this variant is will depend on how much notice you give your group. If players are building their decks with the knowledge that this variant is being used, they can maximize their decks to take advantage of the Contraptions they put in their decks. Players can also load up on artifact removal, since everyone will know that there will be plenty of artifacts to target on the battlefield.
When you make all the games multiplayer games, the crazy really moves up. With four players, the number of artifacts is only going to increase. The likelihood that someone will have several Contraptions at once goes way up. This can only make your games even more bizarre!
Variations on the variant: Start with a Contraption already on a sprocket. This means that everyone gets to enjoy the fun right away, rather than have someone frustrated that they are never rolling what they need to even get started. I think this can help even the playing field at least a little bit, however many won't want to see Contraptions holding that kind of power that early in a game.
Mana for rolls. Planechase allows you to roll the planar die again simply by paying an extra mana. You can do the same in your games. My concern is that this will produce games where every Contraption is attached to a Sprocket, and making them too powerful. I want a variant to spice up a game, not change it into a game that is decided by who happens to roll better. You can also allow players to roll at any time during their turn, only at sorcery-speed, or even only on their upkeep. Each option brings its own interesting strategy.
Commander. This could be run as an add-on to a regular Commander game. I'm not sure how a singleton deck where games start at 40 life would affect a Contraption deck, but if your Commander games regularly do nothing for the first three to five turns while everyone plays out land, Contraption decks could provide an interesting tilt to the game. I would be careful about commanders who can mess with artifacts, since that may give them far too much power. Perhaps Contraptions should be treated as though they are in the command zone but can still affect the battlefield? I'll leave that to you to decide!
This variant involves shuffling up a Contraption deck that includes every Contraption, then everyone uses the same deck! Follow the same rules for adding Contraptions that I laid out above for Contraption Adaption. The danger here is with the number of sprockets. Having a number different from the number of players in the game is a good idea. I know that there will be turns where a player moves the sprocket counter twice, but avoiding the players getting the same sprocket if that roll doesn't come up seems like a good idea. Create your own sprocket box with four or five sprockets.
I love the strategy options that come with this variant! Deciding where to put the Contraptions becomes a big decision, especially when you allow players to pay mana for extra rolls! Anyone who has played Planechase with all the cards stacked in a single stack in the middle of the table knows how crazy it can get. A Contraption deck is going to start the game less crazy than a Planechase deck, but as more Contraptions get attached, it will only get more and more wild!
Try the Sharing is Caring option, while also running the Planechase variant with a shared Planechase deck in the middle of the table. Instead of using a Planar die, I recommend using a six-sided die with one and six being the equivalent of Chaos or Planeswalk rolls, while three and four can let you assemble a Contraption or assemble a Contraption and move the sprocket counter.
I've played several Planechase games where you almost never seemed to leave a plane. By making four of the six possible results do something, the chaotic nature of the game will go up! Do you want to leave the plane or crank the next sprocket?
Instead of building your own Contraption deck as described in Contraption Adaption, what about drafting it instead? Create "packs" made up complete of Contraptions and have the players draft them before they start the game! Each player knows what will work best with their decks and can try to craft a Contraption deck that works best for them. This limits the likelihood of creating a completely broken Contraption deck and adds a drafting component to your games!
This is a great option as it doesn't require players to build a deck ahead of time, or even own any of the Contraptions. The time it will take to draft a Contraption deck is minimal, since you really don't need a full-on draft to make it happen. For a four-player game, a couple of 10-card packs per person will be plenty of Contraptions to make it work.
Naturally, there is a risk someone will get multiple copies of a single Contraption, but it is a draft, so if that happens, players will learn for next time!
Instead of drafting the Contraptions, try an auction option. Have each player start the game with double the regular life total. Shuffle up the contraptions and let the players bid life for various Contraptions! Once a player has 15 Contraptions, they can't bid any more. How much will players pay for Dual Doomsuits? How much will players pay to prevent one player from getting multiple Dual Doomsuits? If you are playing Commander, are you willing to spend 20 life on Contraptions? Are you only ever going to bid one life and take the worst Contraptions but start at a lofty life total? Are the best Contraptions worth paying bigger life totals? If everyone knows who is playing which commander, the value of the Contraptions likely changes with every auction!
For this variant, we are using a shared Contraption deck, but separate sprockets. Each time someone rolls to assemble a Contraption, there is an auction to determine who assembles the Contraption! Everyone starts at the double the usual life amount, so the early bidding will likely be fiercer.
The danger with this option is that those who are closer to losing, and thus, more in need of a boost that a Contraption might offer, are going to be less able to bid. Given this, you may want to give the player with the lowest life total an extra five life that can only be used to bid for Contraptions.
Unstable can bring a ton of fun to your kitchen table. Between drafts and sealed deck games that are completely Unstable or just partially Unstable, there will be plenty of fun. However, once the packs are cracked, there is no reason for the fun to stop. Contraptions can provide all sorts of variety to your group's games, depending on how wild you want to go!