Cutting Things Short

Posted in Serious Fun on August 10, 2004

By Anthony Alongi

Strategies for living large

Gravebane Zombie, art by Gary Leach

As I do with many specific topics about multiplayer (e.g., emperor, three-player, etc.), I'd like to spend more than one off-theme week on the idea of large multiplayer groups. I got some good feedback from the article two weeks ago, so I thought I'd share an idea or two on how to get larger groups to play shorter games.

From Simon Cassell, a “zombie” format. In the past I've suggested similar formats that either reanimate players or involve sub-games, but this is a nice blend of both:

Start off as any normal chaos game. However, when someone dies, they are not out...but instead they enter the “zombie pool”. When there are two players in the zombie pool, they play a sub-match against each other and the winner re-enters the main chaos game. However, he keeps his board position from the sub-game...Additionally, he is a “zombie” enslaved to the person who killed him. That person may give him one instruction per turn which he must follow...If at any point a zombie's master dies, that zombie is free....It is also possible for a zombie to have his own zombie slave.

This format doesn't try to get the first game over much at all – but it creates so many sub-games, most people don't care. Moving from multiplayer to duel and back to multiplayer (and perhaps back to duel) means more creativity in decks, more interesting game situations, and very small intervals where a single player is sitting alone, waiting.

I also like the idea of zombies who are a bit independent. If a zombie's master can only give one instruction per turn, there's a lot of wiggle room for a zombie to turn nasty.

Here's another take on resurrection, from Mathieu (no last name):

A player has three “life tokens”. When he dies, he loses one of the tokens and rolls a six-sided die. On a roll of 1, he remains dead [and out of the game]. On a roll of 2 or 3, he is reincarnated and must take another deck [from his collection, setting the original deck aside]. On a roll of 4 or 5, he is resurrected [with the same deck]. On a roll of 6, he steals the body of the player that killed him. [This works like a permanent Mindslaver effect.] The replaced player dies and gets to roll a die.

You can set whatever parameters you like for a player coming back – Mathieu's group lets them put any four lands in play and draw four cards – but the nifty point of this format is to give a dying player the chance to take over a victor's body.

Hunter Thornton suggests a different approach to large multiplayer games: let the group set a time limit:

There are no life totals. You set the game to a certain number of turns (we usually pick 10-15) and then whoever does the most damage in that set amount of time wins the game. It doesn't matter how much damage you take, just how much you can deal.

Formats like this can be a little dangerous because you always have to worry about cards like Repercussion and arbitrarily large Earthquakes. One interesting variant would be to ban the color red for this format.

Another idea I heard from multiple readers was the “bust 'em up into duels” plan. This one definitely has its advantages and disadvantages. The advantages are: more and quicker games, and the decks tend to get more focused more quickly. The disadvantages are: you can lose that “group feel”, and you don't want decks to get too competitive, or you might as well just be training for the next Pro Tour Qualifier. Also, if you have a number like seven or eleven show up, you still end up with someone on the sidelines for at least one match duration.

That said, there's nothing wrong with setting aside one night every month or so for duels. While I'm on the topic, I received a heads-up from Michael Lewis on a message board thread that was discussing “Type 2.5”. I found the thread interesting and thoughtful, though a bit short.

Here's how it works: any deck that was ever Standard (Type 2) legal at the end of a given season is 2.5 legal. The idea here is to let older-school Necro or Fires decks go up against more modern decks like Tooth and Nail or Raffinity.

Only certain casual groups will be able to pull this off; I would expect the majority of us would have problems pulling together one modern tournament deck, much less a whole bunch of tier-one decks from the days of Mirage and Rath blocks. But it's something more seasoned groups might consider tossing around.

Strategy For Larger Groups

Putting different formats aside, what is the best strategy for winning chaos multiplayer games in larger groups? Here are my quick thoughts on the subject.

1. Your chances of winning a given large chaos game are very low. This is a perverse sort of pep talk, I know: but I've seen people get to the final two of a ten-player chaos game and get ticked off because they didn't quite pull off the final victory. “Man, my spell was only one card away!” This sort of statement is annoying enough when you're in a duel with someone who doesn't seem to understand probability and statistics; but when you've been sitting on the sidelines for half an hour waiting for these folks to finish up, the last thing you want to hear is sour grapes from someone who finished ahead of you.

In strict mathematical terms, coming in second in a seven-player game is harder than winning a three-player game. When you enter a large multiplayer game, set reasonable and incremental goals:

Long Term Plans

First, aim for not being the first person eliminated. You do not want to be the one waiting the longest for the next game to start.

Once you achieve that goal, aim for the halfway point. If you start with seven players and you're not the first one out, seek to be among the final three. Early strategy beyond that point is fairly useless: six decks, even if everyone's playing commons, can set up a dizzying array of twists and turns. Do your best to eliminate the worst threats at the table for you, so you don't have to deal with them in the later game – but your first priority is survival, and survival happens one player at a time.

If you make it to the upper half, now you go for the gold. A three- or four-player game “with a head start” is how you should see the situation. How good were you at setting up your board and hand position, so you could deal with the remaining players? If you've survived to the “upper half” moment and you've got an empty hand, you're in deep trouble – but at least you're alive, and amazing draws do happen.

My larger point here is that success in a huge multiplayer game has a broader definition. The ultimate winner does enjoy something special; but that doesn't take too much away from second and third place.

2. Basic strategies from smaller games work heavy wonders here. Modest “rattlesnake” cards like Wall of Souls or Seal of Fire are incredible in large groups. You will not even be able to calculate the number of times an attack or removal spell did not go at you because you had something simple and useful standing in the way.

Look at it from your opponent's perspective: do you want to go through the trouble of removing that Fog Bank, or do you just attack one of the seven other opponents who don't happen to have one and save your Lightning Bolt for something far more fearsome down the road?

Seven players is, incidentally, where Sun Droplet really starts to get amazing. At that point, this modest artifact literally negates a Thorn Elemental. That's a pretty special type of rattlesnake effect.

3. Combo decks become even more unpredictable. If you're a Johnny and you love setting off unpredictable situations, larger chaos games can be a haven for you. The chances someone will notice you too early is, of course, smaller than in a three-player game. But long-term success really depends on the mood of your group. Our group enjoys a little creativity, so the more complex machines tend to get a fair shot at starting up over and over again. Well-worn, three-piece combos don't generally get as lenient a hearing once they're recognized.

4. Cards that help everyone are nice, but won't get you the rewards you expect. This is the law of averages talking here. The more people you help with your New Frontiers with X = 15, the greater the chances are at least one of them has a Fireball and a distinct worry that you've got one too. I don't like “plankton” style cards – the sort everyone can feed off of – in very large groups. The loud chorus of cheering just doesn't last long enough.

5. Countermagic is nearly useless. Yes, we can all point to instances where a well-timed Counterspell saved the day for the table. The point here is, you remember it because it doesn't happen that often in large groups. You have to have that Counterspell ready, and your opponent has to have that killer spell ready to go, and you have to successfully counter it, and you have to end up winning the game for it to be meaningful at all for you – and you just spent a card doing something other than winning (which is to say, you spent it not losing). And yes, you have anywhere from five to nine other opponents who have to not play their killer spell before you find your next counterspell – otherwise, you become a player in the story of their victory, rather than the author of your own.

If you must play countermagic, play spells that have another use – Mystic Snake, Exclude, Desertion, and such. Get something for your money besides a dirty look.

6. Mana denial is horrible form. One goober always thinks an Obliterate halfway through a complicated nine-player game is simply hilarious. In our group, we've actually had people get up and leave the table when they see that happen. I don't endorse that action myself; but I can understand the emotions behind it.

Magic is a game with plenty of room for creativity. If you can't think up a deck that can win without denying mana to your opponents, then I suggest you reflect on what you find interesting and fun about the game. Personally, I would find it more rewarding to win a car race without puncturing opponents' gas tanks. Let your deck win on the race track.

7. Overextension is still stupid. If you have enough lands in play to make your deck work, don't drop another one. If you have enough creatures (or other victory conditions) in play to pressure your opponents, don't drop another one. If you retain enough blockers to stay reasonably secure, don't drop another one. If there aren't any creatures that absolutely must get blown off the board right now, don't blow removal right now.

If you hate mass mana denial, I'm on your side. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't take responsibility for your own success. At all times in a large game, try to keep at least three cards in your hand – a land, a creature/victory condition, and an instant to respond to emergencies.

Again with the law of averages – the more opponents you have, the greater the chances someone is packing Wrath of God, or Pernicious Deed, or yes, Obliterate. Don't just whine about it – recover from it.

That's it for this week. A word for those of you who have crazy formats and would like to see your name in lights: this column isn't really set up to do it more than once every year or so. If you want others to see your favorite format(s) on the Internet, may I suggest you post them to the message boards – I will not be revisiting this topic for a while. I do read the boards diligently and take note of great ideas there as well. Promise!

Anthony cannot give deck help – as this week's subtitle suggests, he's just living too darn large.

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