The Most Critical Skill in Multiplayer is Threat Assessment
No ifs, ands, or buts. That’s the difference that makes multiplayer more challenging than duels for many people! In a one-on-one match, you have to take into account what’s on the board, what your opponent has in hand, and what deck he or she is playing.
But in multiplayer, there are more cards to keep track of, making it an inherently more complicated board position. Learning how to keep track of everything on the table is a challenge in itself.
In casual multiplayer, though, you’re often faced with a greater variety of decks than you would be at the local Standard tournament. Everyone knows what Faeries do (and hopefully, you have a good idea how to defeat them)... but what’s that crazy red-black deck with the Rix Maadi, Dungeon Palace trying to do? (The answer, at least in our group? A couple of Smallpoxes and Signets, followed by a Wildfire.)
The problem with threat assessment is that you can’t just look at the board—that’s a novice player’s error. Not every deck can be judged by the number of permanents it has out! There are any number of decks that look perfectly innocent right up until they explode in a flurry of cards. Part of winning multiplayer games involves anticipating that this deck is going to explode, and then quietly defusing it.
You have to look at the deck. And if you don’t know for sure what it does (which you often don’t in group games), you have to try to cast the bones by asking why someone would play these cards, and what tactic they’re aiming for for the win. Quite often this involves some knowledge of deck history (“Why would someone have a morph and a Vesuvan Shapeshifter out.... Oh! It’s the Pickles deck that relies on Brine Elemental!”), but sometimes you just have to wing it.
Then, once you’ve guessed what this deck does, you must judge how close it is to doing damage to you. And that’s the key factor: to you. Remember that the ultimate issue is not, “Would this player’s likely plan hurt most decks?” but rather, “Would this player’s likely plan hurt your deck, at this moment?”
Then lather, rinse, and repeat for every other player at the table. And quietly recalculate every time someone plays a new card. Every turn, every moment, every tap.
That’s tough. It’s a skill you never entirely master. But it’s something you have to start if you wish to succeed, young padawan.
(And never, ever forget the biggest indicator of someone’s probable power: “Cards in hand?”)
Seasons Don’t Fear the Rattlesnake
I’ve discussed the Rattlesnake Error in one of my first columns, but let me say it again: People will often present disincentives for you to attack them, like Ghostly Prison or Pernicious Deed or a Contested Cliffs ready to go—heck, even just the threat of a Terror you know they have in hand.
When that happens, then it’s often in your best interests to take those players out as soon as possible.
Why? Because it’s not like they’re going to get weaker as time goes on. Every turn that passes when you’re successfully cowed is a turn where they get more time to recover. It may seem like a good idea to kick the weaker players when they’re down, but you’ll often just wind up handing victory to the snakes.
It’s not good advice in real life, but in Magic, you should poke the Rattlesnakes until they strike. Weaken the strong, and do your best to entice the weak into taking care of them, too.
(But we’ll talk about politics in a moment.)
Offense Is Not Defense in Multiplayer
Goblins are very popular in duels. They win, even though most of their guys are crappy blockers. Why? Because they may not be able to block for anything, but they can smack you in the face until you’re reeling.
Their defense is pushing you down as quickly as possible, plunging your life to such perilously low levels that that you have no room to maneuver. You can’t attack them because if you do, their counterattack will kill you.
That’s a fine defense if you can manage it, but it doesn’t work in multiplayer. In multiplayer, you have to knock not one, but two or three or eight opponents off-balance, and that hardly ever works... especially not with creature assaults.
Hence, most multiplayer decks want at least a little honest defense. You see Walls more often in multiplayer, and rightfully so. You want some creatures with big butts whose job is to hold the fort while your aggro critters kick it old-school.
My biggest weakness as a deck builder? I forget this, and build very efficient decks that collapse when someone pokes them hard. This is not a good idea.
Don’t Assume Your Deck Is Going to Carry Out its Plan
We’ve all had it happen: We had this great idea for a deck. Left to its own devices, it was a total win—assemble these three cards, and it’s a stampeding juggernaut! (And why isn’t Stampeding Juggernaut a card? Get right on that, Wizards.) You goldfish, and you get quick victories, and you get all excited.
Then you bring it to your local game. And lo, it turns out that it would be a stampeding juggernaut, except that those pesky opponents keep raising objections. When you begin assembling your Cosmic Cube for ultimate power, they destroy a card or two, and whoops! You’re dead in the water.
(Or dead in the mountains. Or dead in the plains. It all depends on the color of your deck.)
Savvy multiplayer deck builders assume that they’re going to get set back a few times, and put in plans to deal with that. Hence, every multiplayer deck worth its salt includes at least one of the following:
- Cards that are extremely hard to deal with (Akroma, Angel of Wrath and Darksteel Colossus are the poster children for “difficult to dispose of,” but there are many, lesser cards that require your opponent to take card disadvantage to get rid of them, like Kitchen Finks.)
- Cards that can be gotten back from the graveyard (The whole Dredge mechanic, any recursion engine, Demigod of Revenge)
- Spells to help get rid of any barriers to your eventual victory (Counterspells to protect your precious cards, creature removal to destroy any pesky blockers, Fracturing Gust in case someone’s artifacts and/or enchantments are ruining your day.)
You Don’t Need Rares to Win
There’s a perception in some circles that you need to pack über-gold-symboled decks in order to win a lot. That’s not true. Truth is, you just need a focused deck with a clear game plan and the cards to back it up. It’s entirely possible to build a decent deck with what you have lying around the house. You may have to get creative, but find a good theme and stick to it.
It’s probably the best article I’ve ever written for this site, so I’ll just link once again to That New Deck Smell.
Don’t Force Your Opponents to Kill You Before They Have To
One of the biggest problems people face in multiplayer is the dreaded Gang-Up. You play your Deus of Calamity and slip that handy Runes of the Deus smoking jacket on.... and everyone goes absolutely nuts. When the smoke clears, you’ve been dogpiled into oblivion.
As the old adage says, “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” If you present a threat that’s so powerful that it’s going to kill any given player at the table, and it’s simply a matter of who you’ll pick on, they will resort to herd mentality.
This is not to say that you don’t want to play threats. But unless you’ve got a sufficient set of defenses in place—i.e., you can handle the fury of everyone still standing—then don’t play your big guns. Play something threatening, but not overwhelming.
And speaking of politics....
All Politics Is Perception
The most important thing to remember about multiplayer politics is that it’s about what the other players think.
The truth is that Phil, piloting a Lorwyn Block multiplayer deck, has eight 1/1 Elf tokens out, and he’s just waiting for a Furystoke Giant to arrive. He is the biggest threat at the table, no question.
But if Jimmy over there doesn’t know that Furystoke Giant exists, he’s not going to be concerned. He’s just going to go, “What’s the big deal?” and pick on Faeries. (Everyone picks on Faeries.)
Yes, Phil is the threat. But if Jimmy doesn’t think Phil’s threat-worthy, then Jimmy’s going to play entirely differently—to Phil’s benefit, and to the detriment of everyone else at the table.
Meanwhile, Jackie over here knows about Furystoke Giant, but she’s been beaten by Merfolk so many times that she is, irrationally, terrified of Merfolk. She consistently overestimates the power of Merfolk, pounding them when they’re smooshed flat under the water.
That’s bad if you’re piloting Merfolk. And again, it has nothing to do with what’s on the board, but rather with what Jackie thinks is important.
And finally, Susan knows about Furystoke Giant, and she knows it would decimate her if it resolve...but she’s not worried, because she has a Repel Intruders in hand ready to counter Phil’s Furystoke Giant at a moment’s notice. This is going to backfire in a moment when she discovers that Phil has a Guttural Response, but hey.
It wasn’t about what was really a threat. It was about what concerned them.
Hence, one of the second-best skills you can develop for multiplayer Magic is the ability to put yourself in another player’s shoes. If you can catalogue others’ habits and gaming tendencies, then view the board as they imagine it, through the lens of their play styles, their decks, and what they’re likely to have in their hands, well...
Then you can start to envision how the next few turns will play out very clearly. Because if you’re smart, you’ll know that I fear the Furystoke Giant, and will likely start bashing Phil to try to cut his lead down. Then Phil will see me as a threat. So even though you have an Austere Command in hand, why use it when you can get me to do your dirty work?
That’s politics in a nutshell. You don’t change what’s happening—you find ways to change people’s interpretation of what’s happening. And by that, you actually change things.
(The biggest danger of politics, ironically, is that you get seen as political. If you’re always going, “DUDE, THAT Witherscale Wurm WILL KILL YOU!” in a vain attempt to distract people from the fact that you have three Avatar of Woes in play, then everyone’s perception of you will be that you’re a BS artist. And while people might want to get into politics, nobody wants to have a reputation as a politician.)
Politics Is Power
Politics can shift some perceptions. But honestly? No politics works unless you can back it up with power—either your own power, or the power of someone else who’s going to kill everyone unless you stop them. For all the talk about how much politics matters in multiplayer Magic, in truth none of it matters unless you can fend for your own bad self.
Remember, politics is the icing on the cake. It’s what you do after you’ve honed your skills at table-reading, proper multi-threat deckbuilding, and playing strategically.
I mean, I personally wouldn’t want a cake without icing—I have been known to scoop frosting out of the can. (For shame, doc.) But that’s not a cake, that’s frosting. If you want a cake, frosting’s an extra. Like multiplayer, you can have cakes with no frosting at all, like a bundt cake or a coffee cake.
...Wow, that metaphor went well.
“Magic‘s like an onion....”
Anyway, the point is that if you’re the ninety-eight-pound weakling at your multiplayer table, eventually you’re going to have to get into a Hulk-like brawl. Build your muscles. And while we’re at it...
Eat Your Vegetables
I said it a few weeks ago, but mana bases are still really important. Do not neglect them. Oh! And...
Change Up Your Style
As I said a long time ago, if you always play the same “killer” decks then you’ll always provoke the same killer response. Paradoxically, you’ll win more if you can loosen up and have “fun” decks that do goofy things in addition to, or instead of, “go for the throat” decks that win. When your opponents don’t have to make a habit out of roasting marshmallows over your smoking corpse before they have a chance at winning, you’ll discover that you start winning more games.
And finally, speaking of fun....
Magic Should Always Be Fun
I don’t mean to cat macro all of Magic... but if you’re not enjoying yourself, UR DOIN IT WRONG.
In the end, Magic is about friends. And I’m glad I play multiplayer with a bunch of great guys, where we get together and laugh and exchange foul jokes and applaud when someone makes a play that’s just spectacularly entertaining.
My personal rule? If you can’t find pleasure in a very clever play or combination of cards that kills you, you’re probably a little too stiff. Loosen up! It’s about winning, yes, but it’s about friendship, and camaraderie, and the people you meet along the way.
Without people, Magic‘s just a heap of brown cards in a box somewhere. People are what make it tick. People are what make it interesting.
Magic. Is. Fun.
Timmy, Power Gamer And that said, there’s a problem with Serious Fun, at least as it’s written now: It’s too serious and not enough fun. And it’s a little too focused on free-for-all multiplayer shenanigans. I’ve tried to talk about the love of the game when I can, and to get into the variants of Magic, but at heart I’m a one-format guy and I know it.
The web team wants to revamp this column to be much more about the love of the game. They want it to be less about how to win big around the multiplayer table and much more about the actual joy of playing Magic in all its forms.
They want someone who’ll swing on down to the local store, some crazy Elder Dragon Highlander deck in hand, and really talk to fellow players and shake hands and maybe get across the sheer adoration we all share for this funky game. They want to talk about the breadth and depth of Magic everywhere. And I’m not saying the future of this column will be a travelogue, but they do want to take the focus off of Ferrett’s Kitchen Table and start bringing it to something a little cooler.
But they talked with me about it, and explained what they wanted to do going forward, and then they sat down and looked at me very seriously.
“You’re not that guy, are you?”
I shook my head.
And I’m not. I’m too New England reserved. There are players who can go down to a tournament where they don’t know anybody and come out with a bunch of friends, but my quiet reserve forces me to seize up when not formally introduced by an intermediary. And there are folks who have a deck for every Magic variant slung neatly in a bandolier, from EDH to Peasant Magic to casual duels to Rainbow Staircase, whereas I have to be forced, groaning, at gunpoint (or, as is more accurate, new-Magic-set-point) to build another multiplayer deck for my group.
So I don’t know who they will get to write this going forward. The next two articles will be Eventide previews by Kelly Digges, a fine writer (and editor!). After that will be a few guest slots followed by an update from Editor in Chief Scott Johns about the future of the column setting up the big revamp when the new site launches around Shards of Alara. Crazy things are afoot!
(In fact, they have bigger plans, some of which they’ve hinted at to me, and even I’m a little excited about how they’re planning to revamp the column.)
The new Tuesday slot won’t neglect multiplayer, I’m sure, but it’ll be about more than multiplayer, and more kinds of multiplayer.... and so I’ll respectfully bid you adieu.
If you think you’ll miss me, well... I appreciate it. I’d say you could catch me at StarCityGames.com, but I’ll be going to the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop for six weeks, where I will be taught how to write short stories by such luminaries as Neil Gaiman, Kelly Link, James Patrick Kelly, Mary Anne Mohanraj, Nalo Hopkinson, and Geoff Ryman. (There are a lot of Hugo, Tiptree, and World Fantasy Award-winners in that bunch.)
But I will be back at StarCityGames.com, and I’ll always be there at my post-apocalyptic rock comic, My Name Is Might Have Been, which is entering one of its most climactic storylines yet. (I’ll also be premiering another web comic, “Awesome in Theory,” after I get back from Clarion. It, too, looks good.)
More importantly, I’ll still be here in Rocky River. If you’re around on a Tuesday night after I get back in August, you can always email me at email@example.com and ask to come over and play. We’re a friendly bunch. We like new people.
We love Magic.
So long, and thanks for all the fish.