I Choose To Fly!

Posted in Serious Fun on November 18, 2003

By Anthony Alongi

Unless you’re reading me for the first time this week, you know that I spend a lot of time in Serious Fun discussing the dynamics of group play, especially “chaos” (free-for-all). To me, chaos format represents a challenge that duels can’t touch: navigating and beating multiple opponents.

To many players of chaos, this means “playing politics”. I’ve discussed this topic in the past, but this is a theme I don’t mind repeating now and again. I have a very strong philosophy on “playing politics” in group, and this week is a good week to reinforce it.

But wait, isn’t this flying week? Why yes it is – and in fact, to talk about politics in the right light, we have to start by talking about flying.

Wings vs. Prayers

There’s conventional wisdom about casual group games that I’ve found doesn’t wash too well in practice. Ah yes, I have to give a standard disclaimer about how every group is different – but after years of playing in different groups and chatting with countless readers, and then measuring the experience of all the players I’ve opposed, teamed with, watched, and heard from, I’m pretty sure some theories out there are just wishful thinking. We may pray that they come true; but some prayers just don’t get answered.

Prayer #1: You can take your time in a group game. You certainly have more time in a group game to get your act together than you have at your local Pro Tour Qualifier; but you don’t have as much time as you may think. Turns two, three, and four set an important tone in a chaos game. You are either taking early damage and showing vulnerability; or you are not.

Prayer #2: If you take damage early, you can hide behind the scenes since no one will think you’re much of a threat. This is true if you play among rabbits. Rabbits don’t enjoy the smell of blood; it scares them and they go nibbling somewhere else.

When you play among sharks, your blood in the water becomes a problem. Flailing about uselessly becomes a problem. Waving your hand like a friendly seal becomes a problem. Anything short of impersonating a large, dark shadow becomes a problem.

Put those two prayers together, and you’ve got a lot of decks that I see fail regularly – clunky decks that take too long to set up seven pieces of a potentially dastardly scheme, timid decks that try to hide until they can piece together a “killer” combo, even potentially powerful decks that simply don’t have a strong play until turn six or seven.

Big and brilliant ideas are great – they’re what usually win the late game, by which I mean something like turns 12-15 and beyond. But you have to last that long, first! When all other things are equal (and they’re equal more often than you may think, or at least equal enough), the decks that make it through the short and mid-game are those that are able to pose and deal with early threats.

Which brings us to flying.

Fast flyers are among the most potent early threats in the game. Leonin Skyhunter, Gaea’s Skyfolk…and of course, the dreaded Dark RitualHypnotic Specter combo.

What early flyers give you that early ground-pounders don’t (and I’m a big fan of both) is choice. (Cue Matrix Reloaded music…and whatever you feel about the other aspects of the last two Matrix movies, you have to admit that the soundtrack to Reloaded was sooo much better than the non-descript chaff in Revolutions.)

Imagine a Grizzly Bears (2/2 without flying) and a Gaea’s Skyfolk (2/2 with flying) facing each other down. The Bears can decide to attack, but it cannot hang back to block. (Well it can, I suppose, but it’ll end up with a severe neck strain and a mild sense of disappointment.) The Skyfolk can either attack, or hang back to block.

Well, duh. We’ve all learned about flying, right? But we don’t always follow through on the logic. More choices in a duel are nice. More choices in a chaos game are essential.

A Matter Of Choice

Think about every time you’ve lost a close chaos game –those cases where you came in second or third out of a large group. Why didn’t you focus your efforts on the guy who ended up winning? Was it because you were stupid, or didn’t see something coming?

Maybe. But more often than not, it’s because you realized you weren’t going to win. You were destined to be a kingmaker, but not a king. Your options were limited. You had no choice. So you sighed and took someone else out before you would die, so you could at least have second place.

We get into those situations because we don’t have the tools in every deck to deal with every situation. My red-black creatureless cycling deck can’t do a darn thing about enchantments, short of outracing them. My brother-in-law’s Oath of DruidsMagnivore deck dies horribly to a simple Withered Wretch. And a lot of white-blue decks struggle against creatures with non-attacking abilities, such as Cinder Elemental or Visara the Dreadful.

So you get into the late game, and you realize you can beat one deck time and time again, but never the other – or either one of the decks, but not both.

Does this mean you should have an answer to everything in every deck? No, that wouldn’t be fun. It would stifle creativity, and it would also give you a bunch of dead or suboptimal cards in your hand a lot of the time (imagine sitting with nothing but a bunch of Disenchants against a creature swarm).


Some of you may look at some of these early flyers and scoff.

“You play Hypnotic Specter? So what?” many players have said over the years. “I’ll just Shock it!”

Let’s assume that you’re lucky enough to be (a) playing red, (b) have the Shock in hand and the mana ready to cast it, (c) smart enough to wait until I attack you, and (d) impatient enough that you can’t hold the Shock for something even worse. Okay, fine: you will Shock my creature. Congratulations. We’ve traded one for one. I will look for another creature (read: permanent that I can use multiple times against multiple opponents), while you look for another removal spell (read: instant that you can only use once, against one opponent). I don’t know: maybe you Shock all my early creatures and I never really get going and I lose. But that’s you playing a duel, which means you’re pretty likely to lose, too.

Simplify the logic dramatically. By playing early creatures, I either swing and beat you (I survive, you lose), or watch them die one at a time and get trapped in a duel with you (we both lose, and someone else wins). My chances are 50 percent. Yours are zero.

Not exactly, I know. But the momentum is against you. Reactive spot removal, like reactive countermagic, is a horrible theme for a chaos deck. Instants are best used as flavoring in a deck that’s trying to get something else done – like, say, swing with creatures.

So back to the choice: playing the laws of probability, do I wish I was the guy with the 2/2 flyer on the board right now, or do I wish I was the guy pretending he had the universal answer ready to roll at a moment’s notice?

You may argue the minutae of this treatment on the message boards. I’ll see you there.

Instead, you can try one of three strategies: (a) hope someone else will come up with the answer; (b) try to eliminate the offending strategy/player before it locks you down; or (c) include cards in your deck that solve multiple problems at once.

While options (a) and (b) are both viable strategies, (c) is the most certain. Devout Witness, for example, can act like a creature – or it can act like utility. And flyers have a similar role: more than any other type of creature, they can either push the attack for a kill, or hold back on defense and await a better day.

Serra Angel
When you give yourself more choices, you will find yourself winning more games. (This assumes, of course, that you make the right choices. Another column for another time!) That’s because choices in a Magic game tend to be zero-sum: the more of them you have, the less your opponents can have. Go back to the Grizzly Bears and Gaea’s Skyfolk example above. What if both players played Skyfolk? The guy who used to have Grizzly Bears just gave himself more choices (going from attack and risk trade, or stay back and accomplish nothing; to attack and risk trade, or stay back and risk trade), while the fellow with the original Skyfolk just lost choices (going from attack without risk, or stay back and risk trade; to attack and risk trade, or stay back and risk trade).

Magic games get a lot more complex than trading 2/2 bears; but the basic idea stands: if you have a bunch of vigilant creatures (e.g., Serra Angel), you can attack and block all day long, while your opponents can’t find an opening where you’re tapped out. Their choices boil down to overpowering your army, or removing it – and for most decks, that’s a diversion from being proactive, playing their own game, and winning on their own terms. Likewise, if you’re playing an elf-ball deck that can win with a bunch of huge elves or a massive Fireball, your opponents must race a clock to defuse one or both paths to victory, which takes valuable time from casting their own threats.

Again: more choices for you = less choices for them.

Notice how we’re talking less about flyers now, and more about politics – or should I say, the futility thereof.

Magic Is Not A Democracy

In a democracy, candidates for public office, and the office-holders themselves, “play politics” all the time. They curry favor, hand out pork, plead their case, and try to make the other guy(s) look bad while making themselves look good. Why is this? Because in a democracy, voters have a choice. By playing politics, candidates hope to get voters to choose them, instead of someone else.

In a Magic game, if you’re treating your opponents like voters, you’ve already lost. You don’t want to let them make choices. What kind of nonsense is that? “Whom would you like to attack today, sir? Very good. Take your pick, sir. Shall I hold your coat for you, sir?” This is giving your opponent choices through pure weakness – you don’t have the cards to demand anything, so you curry favor with the few tricks you have – a Rancor on an opponent’s flyer when you have nothing to block it, a promise not to attack him later if he doesn’t attack you now, and so on. The very extension of an offer belies weakness.

The other way to give your opponents choices is to hang back and do nothing – you know, stay all quiet-like until your really clever combo goes off. The choice you’re giving your opponent here is to ignore you, or not ignore you. But why are you asking your opponents to please ignore you? Can’t your deck win when people are paying attention? Do we honestly feel soft, comfortable shoes make for a dependable success strategy?

Politics in Magic is a lost cause. The only recourse, after you’ve rejected the forms it takes above, is deception and misdirection – to convince the rest of the board through talk and jive that you’re not the threat, some other guy is. (This is the equivalent of negative campaigning, in the political world.) How successful you’ll be depends on how easily fooled your friends are; but I’d submit that in Magic at least, this strategy has a short life-span. After all, how many times can you successfully fool a table, win, and then expect them to fall for the same trick twenty minutes later?

(Based on the increasing success of negative political campaigns, I suppose I’m suggesting the average Magic play group is smarter than the average democratic voting block. So be it!)

And bear in mind that even when you try to deceive, you are still giving your opponents a choice: whether or not they believe you, or their own eyes.

Bloodfire Colossus
Try this instead. Instead of giving your opponents choices, give yourself choices. Will you set off your Bloodfire Colossus, or will you wait a while? Will you tap out against the red mage with Misdirection and a spare (but good) blue card in your hand, or will you leave five mana open so you can play it normally? Will you sack your Bottle Gnomes for three life, or keep it on the board? Will you spend that six mana to play a dragon on your turn, or save it for a Spinal Embrace during an opponent’s combat? Will you make a token with your Centaur Glade and trade for an oncoming Vulshok Berserker, or wait for the next attacker?

None of those questions have good answers right now – the answer will depend on what you’re actually facing at that time, across the entire board. The point is to put yourself in a position of making choices, rather than accepting them.

The only viable long-term strategy in a chaos game is based in choice – giving yourself more choices, and thereby your opponents less. Politics is moot. After all, if you can squeeze your opponents into a set of clear (and bad) choices, what’s the point in chatting with them?

Let’s get right back into theme here. Flyers are such a critical part of giving yourself choices. Not only do they give you the basic superior choice that comes with evasion – the better flyers also tend to come with some interesting features, some of which aren’t even available in ground-pounders.

Consider the following five sets of partial decks. In each set, there’s a half-deck that maximizes choice, and a half-deck that doesn’t. It shouldn’t be too difficult to spot which is which.

This exercise is NOT about strict card quality, or even flyers vs. non-flyers. Many cards in the “wrong” column are often better than some of the cards in the “right” column! What’s important here is the context – how are the cards working together, to improve your choices? (If you don’t believe context is important, then you won’t think Hurricane is any good, after this week’s worth of articles is over.)

Again: context rules. So don’t just ask yourself which set you’d choose. Ask yourself why.

SET 1:

Deck 1A
Chaos deck fragment
4 Impulse
4 Recoil
4 Chilling Apparition
4 Abyssal Specter
4 Wall of Tears
Deck 1B
Chaos deck fragment
4 Raven Familiar
4 Man o War
4 Fog of Gnats
4 Doomsday Specter
4 Fog Bank

SET 2:

Deck 2A
Chaos deck fragment
4 Llanowar Elves
4 Concordant Crossroads
4 Viridian Shaman
4 Subterranean Spirit
4 Molder Slug
Deck 2B
Chaos deck fragment
4 Birds of Paradise
4 Fires of Yavimaya
4 Viashino Heretic
4 Shivan Phoenix
4 Silklash Spider

SET 3:

Deck 3A
Chaos deck fragment
4 Skytail Hawk
4 Leonin Skyhunter
4 Diving Griffin
4 Skyhunter Patrol
4 Blinding Angel
Deck 3B
Chaos deck fragment
4 Savannah Lions
4 Silver Knight
4 Elite Javelineer
4 Seasoned Marshall
4 Staunch Defenders

SET 4:

Deck 4A
Chaos deck fragment
4 Skizzik
4 Wind Drake
4 Bone Shredder
4 Mahamoti Djinn
4 Air Elemental
Deck 4B
Chaos deck fragment
4 Skizzik
4 Aven Fisher
4 Ghitu Slinger
4 Fallen Angel
4 Crypt Angel

SET 5:

Deck 5A
Chaos deck fragment
4 Downdraft
4 Pegasus Refuge
4 Teferi’s Moat
4 Veiled Apparition
Deck 5B
Chaos deck fragment
4 Crosswinds
4 Spirit Cairn
4 Moat
4 Opal Gargoyle

For the record, my selections are in my signoff line below – but like I said, I wasn’t trying to be crafty here! I’ll be happy to engage in further discussion on the message boards – on the nuances of the choices above, or on my broader thoughts on what works in chaos games.

You may reach Anthony at seriousfun@wizards.com. He cannot provide deck help to readers. If you wonder why he would choose B, B, A, B, and A from the columns above, your best bet is to go to the message boards – you’ll get a faster response that way.

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