Dmitri, on the other hand, had a Morphling. He looked around, saw that I was the only person open, and shrugged. “I attack you,” he said.
“Do you mind if I ask you a question?” I asked.
“Why are you attacking me?”
He looked a little surprised. “You don’t have anything out,” he said, as if it was as simple that.
Dmitri considered that. “But you’re wide open,” he said, touching his Morphling thoughtfully.
“And that’s why you almost always lose,” I said. “You’re nearly never first man out – but you go after the easy targets, while the guys who are actually going to destroy you are quietly building up power. You smash the lesser competition, but by the time you swing your deck around to face the biggest threat, you’re outclassed. So you’re almost always second or third place.”
“But wait!” D replied. “If I spend all my time clashing with Vrax, then you can swoop in when I’m weak and just kill me!”
“That’s true,” I admitted. “If you overcommit, you lose, too. A big part of multiplayer is learning when to attack someone, who to attack, and when to hold back. It’s too complex to just always attack the weakest or the strongest player.”
That’s when the light bulb went off in my head. Threat assessment in any multiplayer game is a huge part of playing well… And not surprisingly, it’s the most complex part of the game. It’s tough, looking at four or five other people and deciding who to leave alone and who needs a bit of the ol’ smackdown. It gets even worse when you realize that each spell changes the dynamic; the right artifact at the right time can transform the king of the hill into the weak fish in just one turn.
The question is, how do you assess threats in multiplayer? And can one lone weasel try to flesh out a strategy over the course of several articles?
The Classic Error: Rattlesnake!
Pernicious Deed is one of the strongest cards in multiplayer because it’s a gigantic deterrent: “Attack me, and you’re going to lose that army.” And the reason it works well in multiplayer because of that Rattlesnake effect – once you have a Pernicious Deed and the mana to activate it, newer players start attacking easier prey.
Unfortunately, picking on weaker opponents gives strong guys the time to get even stronger. It’s not like that Deed is going to go away when everyone else is gone. If someone gets a Pernicious Deed out, every turn that goes by is a chance for him to draw another Pernicious Deed.
Unfortunately, if you take your business elsewhere and start picking on someone who’s less trouble, you play right into your opponent’s hands. The usual result is what I call the “Second Place Sucker” syndrome: while the novice player picks off the other opponents one by one, depleting his resources in the process, the guy with the Deed sits back in isolation and builds up an incredibly strong hand. Eventually, the novice dispatches everyone else.
“Now,” he says, breathing hard. “Now, I’m ready to deal with that Pernicious Deed!”
But of course the Deeder has built up an unstoppable lead at this point, and there’s no hope in heck that the novice can vanquish him. The lesson to be learned here is that if someone has a spell that you can’t stop, get him to cast it as soon as possible. If someone’s hiding behind a wall, make a few sacrifices to knock it down. Make him burn up his resources to deal with you! Force him to acknowledge your might!
Of course, there’s a balance to be struck; you want to force your opponent to pop his big threat, but you don’t want to be caught with your pants down. If you attack into a Deed every time, you can burn up all of your creatures and artifacts to deal with a player who really isn’t that big a threat to you.
Which brings us back to our main lesson: How do you determine who your biggest threat is in multiplayer? Who do you know how to attack, and when to hang back? When should you stage an all-out rush to de-Deed someone?
To do that, let’s take a sample game.
How To Think Threats
Let’s assume that you’re in a mid-game situation where:
- You have enough mana to cast most of the spells you need;
- You’ve got enough creatures out that you can commit fully to an attack without leaving yourself wide open;
- Nobody’s able to kill you without committing so many resources to you that they wouldn’t die the next turn to someone else.
In other words, you have your choice of people to start picking on. Some of them will have defenses in place, others will be sitting ducks. How do you determine who needs to be taken down a peg?
We shall start with the basics.
What Is Your Deck Trying To Do Right Now?
If you want to know who’s a danger to you, you have to figure out where you’re vulnerable. And to do that, you need to know what you’re trying to accomplish this turn.
But each of those strategies involves intermediary steps. Let’s take the Goblin deck: To get to the point where you can start smashing players out of the game with your happy little Goblins, you have to:
- Cast enough Goblins to kill someone
- Keep them alive long enough to attack successfully
- Clear out enough blockers to get to someone’s face
- Deal fatal damage with a burn spell.
There are also additional steps you may need to take to get there, such as “Draw enough land to cast your Goblins” or “Stall for time until you can draw a burn spell to finish someone off.” The game of Magic involves working with what you have on hand at the time, which often requires changing your strategy on the fly because you simply haven’t drawn enough Goblins to be a threat.
But the point is that this strategy is like Chutes and Ladders; if any of these steps get disrupted, you have to start climbing towards the win all over again. To get to the final winning step you need to walk through each of those intermediary steps successfully, so knowing what goal you’re trying to accomplish right now is critical to understanding who can send you hurtling back down the Big Chute.
You need to know what both your immediate and long-term goals are. And that shifts with every card you draw.
Note: This is a reasonably deep topic, and I’ll most likely get into more on another day.
What Is This Opponent’s Deck Trying To Do, And How Close Is He To Doing It?
Now that you know what you’re trying to do this turn, you need to look at each opponent and see what his deck does. How is he trying to win?
You don’t need to know specifically how they win (except if it’s a crazy combo deck, which comes out of nowhere). Most decks’ strategies fall into distinct patterns: attack with a horde of weenies, attack with a huge hard-to-block creature, steal your best creatures and kill you with them. (Cataloguing these archetypical strategies is actually the topic of my next article on this subject.) It doesn’t usually matter whether your opponent is going to be coming at you with a Stronghold Overseer or a Spirit of the Night; it’s going to be a gigantic black critter in your face.
But in any case, you need to know (or at least guess) how your opponent is going to try to win, because some methods of winning hurt you a lot more than others. If you’re playing a Goblin deck, you don’t have to worry about the guy who steals your best creatures all that much; she’s going to get a 1/1 or a 2/2, and chances are good that you’ll just swarm around that single stolen creature anyway. Likewise, a player whose whole strategy is to cast an early Armageddon-style effect isn’t going to bother you, because clearing all the lands when you have the Gobbos on the table works in your favor.
But you do have to worry about the guy who casts Wrath of God to clear the path for his huge, hard-to-block creature, because if your Goblin army hits the bin then you’re back to Step 1. How close is he to accomplishing that? Can you disrupt him or kill him before he goes off?
…the guy who had attacked me last.
That was a stupid move, because I was attacking out of sheer revenge. What I should have asked was, “Now that I have a 9/7 and nobody has enough land, who is going to be the biggest problem when they recover?” If I had been thinking, I would have realized that Dmitri’s “steal everything” deck would take my Gargadon when he got to four mana and would have taken him out of the game first. As it was, I was stupid, and I lost because of that.
This is yet another complex topic, because understanding the metagame is something that tourney players have struggled against for years (and they’ve never had to face multiple bad matchups at once). But it’s also the most important step!
As a general rule, if your opponent is well on his way to achieving her strategy and you cannot beat that strategy, then you need to disrupt it now. That’s the one you need to pick on post-haste, because if her strategy succeeds then it completely neuters yours. You don’t have to beat her, mind you; committing to an all-out attack can mean that you lose. You just need to knock her back a few steps on the Strategy Ladder, picking at her fringes.
If your deck can handle an army of infinite 5/5 fliers (and many can), then you don’t really need to worry about the guy who’s building up counters on his Soulcatchers’ Aerie. But if your deck isn’t so good at getting past a wall of fliers, then you need to cut this guy off at the knees before he gets rolling. (Or convince someone else to cut the guy off at the knees; after all, impromptu alliances win games!)
This is a very complex balance, and it’s where most people lose (even if they don’t realize it). The obvious threat is not always the biggest threat. You have to anticipate what your opponent wants to do.
You can generally check the status of someone’s progress with three factors: cards, lands, and armies.
“Cards in hand?” is the most critical question you can usually ask of an opponent, because barring the occasional bout of land flooding, cards = power. All other things being equal, if you have an opponent with seven cards and another with one, the guy with seven cards is much closer to winning and probably needs to be taken down a peg, stat.
Lands are easy; if someone has five or six lands, she’s probably at close to full power. And if she’s manascrewed, you’ll know.
Armies are measured by “how many creatures they have on the table, and how strong those creatures are.” The best creatures can protect themselves without requiring the investment of a card; regeneration, untargetability, renewability. Some armies are worse than others.
Note: There are some creatureless decks that rely on enchantments, obviously. I know that. That’s why I say you can “generally” check.
What’s The Worst Spell That This Deck Can Cast?
Some of those spells can be determined by in the colors they have on the board; if they’re playing blue you can usually assume Counterspells are around, for example. Some of that is in the player’s temperament; you know that control-happy Phil is going to have a lot of global destruction effects. And if you’re lucky, you may have seen the deck before and know how it works.
In any case, look at the spells he’s likely to have, check to see whether he can cast it yet, and try to figure out the absolute worst spell he could have in hand. (If he has a hand.)
What’s The Worst That Could Happen?
Look at your hand. Now pretend that the guy just cast The Worst Spell In The World For You. Imagine what the board would look like; would you be able to recover?
If the answer is “No,” then see whether you can take this guy out of the game now, before he can cast it. If not, then you want to start planning for the inevitable; a spell will get countered, that gigantic creature will attack your face, the Wrath will hit the board. At which point you can take one of two approaches:
- Fatalism: “If I’m going to lose X to X, then I might as well get my jollies in now.” Attack the guy with your big fatty, figuring that since you’re going to lose it, you might as well make him pay in advance. The good news is that you almost always draw the spell from his hand, weakening both him and yourself; the bad news is that he may have been thinking someone else was the threat, and you’ve just made yourself the Number One Target.
- Protectionism: “If I’m going to lose X to X, then I should wait until maybe I can save it with a spell (or start saving cards up to rebuild my army ASAP).” Hold back for now, and hope that your opponent isn’t feeling threatened enough to cast her wrecking-you spell just yet. The good news is that sometimes she has to burn that spell on someone else; the bad news is that sometimes she destroys your creature anyway, and you didn’t even get the satisfaction of attacking.
If the answer is “Yes, I’m not going to be completely wrecked if he casts that,” then he’s not a threat. (Any spell worth its salt will hurt you at least a little bit, but not every lessening of strength knocks your strategy out of true.) Remember that he can do that for future reference and move on to your next opponent.
The words “I don’t attack anyone” are not heard frequently enough in most games. You do not have to attack anyone, and the best strategy is often to anger no one while you bide time. Remember the Golden Rule of Multiplayer: The guy who gets left alone the most, wins.
Okay, so assuming you do this for every opponent – and it gets quicker with time – you’ll have a good idea of who’s threatening you. Once you get good enough, you can start scanning the board to figure out who’s a threat to someone else.
Once you start grokking the board in toto, you get to see the full scope of things. And then a whole other level of strategy opens up, where you start thinking, “Johnny’s going to take Sven out very shortly, but Sven’s not good enough of a player to recognize that. Do I want Sven to realize how much danger he’s in? And do I want Johnny to be dominant for a while?”
That’s enough for today, though. This article’s running long as it is.
“Hey!” you’re no doubt crying. “What about the Best Time Spiral Card in Multiplayer challenge you’re holding? Where did that go?” Well, I got about two hundred responses, each of them almost essay-length, and I need another week to really judge which are the best. Tune in next Tuesday for the Best Multiplayer Card!