He was talking about a silly little Lifeline deck that I had created, which had gone 2-1 in recent games. I enjoy dragging out old and forgotten cards to surprise people at my table—my Mercadian Masques-style Rebels deck was surprisingly dominant for a while—and I realized that nobody was playing with Lifeline any more.
Lifeline, in case you're not familiar with it, is a card that basically states, "As long as another creature is in play, every other creature that gets put into a graveyard comes back at the end of the turn." So the obvious thing is to abuse "comes into play" effects with a Lifeline in play, sacrificing them before the end of each player's turn and getting the benefit when they come back.
So I had this silly little deck, made up of old, creaky cards that old, creaky players like me love:
The idea behind this deck is to sneak a Lifeline into play, then use Goblin Bombardment to sacrifice the creatures before the end of turn comes around so they'll come back. In the last game I won with it, I had just destroyed the last player with artifact destruction and was doing 4 damage to everyone's face each turn (by sacrificing four creatures with the Bombardment), then gaining 10 life from a pair of Radiant's Dragoons, thinning my library with the Yavimaya Grangers, and doing 5 damage to someone's face with the Hellkite. I was getting ready to use Survival of the Fittest to tutor up the Avalanche Riders to destroy a land a turn when everyone conceded.
The interesting thing is what I didn't put in.
Some folks suggested that I jam in the classic Survival engine of, say, Recurring Nightmare (which, since you can retain priority immediately after playing and pay its cost of sacrificing, can't be responded to when done properly with a Disenchant or even a Krosan Grip) and Squee, Goblin Nabob.
Then there were the combos. I could easily put in a singleton Enduring Renewal and Shield Sphere for an insta-Pebbles kill (sacrifice Shield Sphere to Goblin Bombardment to do a point, Shield Sphere comes back, I sacrifice it again, and do ad infinitum to kill everyone).
Which led to Eric's comment that this deck was weak. And he's correct; this is a slow, easily disruptable deck that can be poleaxed by a single Harmonic Sliver.
So, in a sense despite the prevalence of crazy Legacy cards, this deck is weak... but in another very real sense, it isn't.
Which leads to the lessons of the Treefolk. Who are very, very wise indeed.
The Alpha Threat
One of the recurring themes in the Treefolk flavor text is that they act slowly, responding only when necessary. Which is the Treefolk theme; there aren't any Treefolk with haste (barring those sneaky changelings), and given that the average Treefolk costs 4.3 mana to play, it takes them a few turns to get rolling.
Forests look weak. But given enough time and lack of interference, they'll overrun any city you can throw at them. (Seriously. There's a book called The World Without Us that I highly recommend, discussing what would happen to the cities if mankind disappeared tomorrow.) Their roots run deep.
The interesting thing about a lot of multiplayer decks is that, like the woods, they often look weak to experienced duel players. And duel players are used to playing in a different environment, where you go for the throat as quickly as possible, seizing control with the most potent cards you can.
These same experienced duel players often wind up losing.
I've seen it happen more times than I can count; Joe Experienced sits down at the table with a potent lock or assault deck, and launches into his speedy, speedy attack. Then everyone else at the table says, "Whoah! Check that out! He's going to kill us all!" and kills him first.
He had what was, technically, the best deck. On paper, it packed much more firepower, was redundant, and had awesome synergy. But in real life, what happened was that it triggered a group stomping.
Part of that is the deck. But a larger part of that is also their play.
These duel players will almost invariably take one or two players down with them, but they can't survive the response. They overextended too quickly, coming out with powerful cards that signaled their domination prematurely, before they could protect those cards.
Mike Flores wrote a very influential article a long time ago called "Who's the Beatdown?" in which he discussed understanding that in duels, you played one role: control or beatdown. In multiplayer, there's also the assignment of "Alpha Threat" and "not Alpha Threat."
The Alpha Threat is the player who is so dominant that he has achieved a delightful tipping point: the majority of players at the table now agree that he has to die before they have a chance of winning. Generally, the Alpha Threat has such overwhelming power on the board (or perceived power in his deck) that, left unstopped, he's going to win the game.
That power is comparative. If you have seven 4/4s on turn one, people will try to kill you. If you have seven 4/4s on a board where everyone has a bunch of chump blockers, it doesn't matter. If you stick out significantly above the rest of the crowd, the crowd will hammer you.
Now that's not a bad thing. Eventually, you have to be Alpha Threat to win (barring some sort of "end of turn, Shock, Shock, Shock, I win" shenanigans). But it is going to equal a game loss if you become the Alpha Threat before you have the strength back it up.
Peaking early as Alpha Threat often means you lose. Ideally, your Alpha Threatness only emerges once people have no way of stopping you, which means you're generally shooting to vault into Alpha Threatitude come the late game.
Yet duel players, packing decks where every card that is as powerful as they can make it, sometimes are at a greater danger for prematurely peaking in their Alpha Threatness. They play cards that stick out like a gigantic spike, forcing them into Alpha Threat position several turns earlier than they should.
The lesson is that you have to time your shot at dominance perfectly. You have to wait until your opponents don't have the resources to stop you, or you have the ability to stop them. In a duel, it's often to your advantage to play your powerful cards as soon as possible in order to get their effect... But in a multiplayer game, you have to ask yourself whether the negative effect at the table you'll get from playing a Liliana Vess will catapult you into Alpha Threat category or not.
This isn't something you have to worry about in a duel, where every card you play is all-upside.
Often, these same duel players would have won if they'd just waited a turn or two and spaced out their power cards so they were a little better than everyone else, but not so much they needed to be hammered down. Every multiplayer match is a control match, whether you realize it or not, and there's a time when you need to lay back and law low.
The lesson the Treefolk teach us is that in multiplayer, moving slow is often to your advantage. You must put down roots slowly and surely, making sure you have secured your position before grasping for more. You must shoot for the long game.
You are not trying to burst through the walls like the Kool-Aid Man; you are, instead, waiting for a crack in that wall where you can wriggle a root into that will crumble their defenses.
That crack can be as simple as:
- Not playing Akroma, Angel of Wrath the moment you draw it, and waiting until you have the ability to win with that flying hellion before you commit her to the board
- Taking your lickings and going down to a handful of life, hoping the blue players will tap out so you can play Austere Command without interference
- Stockpiling creature destruction cards for the moment when the Alpha player finally attacks you, dissolving half their army with a barrage of Shocks and Terminates
- Waiting for the perfect moment to Naturalize their Ensnaring Bridge at the absolute worst time so that they'll be swarmed under by everyone, and setting you up perfectly to play Molten Disaster to clear the board on the next turn before they can attack you
Multiplayer's not a race. You must shoot for the long game, even in a deck designed for the short game. This is the first lesson of the Treefolk.
Avoiding the Arms Race
The second lesson of the Treefolk is a cautionary tale. The Treefolk move slowly partially because they are slow, but also partially because they're skeptical of change. Just because you can do something doesn't mean that you should do it.
As witness my Lifeline deck.
I knew it wasn't as strong as it could be. Certainly, I realized I could have hearkened back to the days of old Survival Engines and transferred some of those cards, and after the feedback I could have easily put in all of these crazy mini-combos that would just blow people out of nowhere.
You killed my Lifeline? Fine, I've got Fruity Pebbles waiting for you.
Oh, you killed that? How's about this Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker destruction?
How do ya like losing, chump?
I could do it. As mentioned, combo is the easiest way to win in multiplayer. And I already have a Cleric deck that goes with infinite life.
Buried throughout old decks throughout time are nasty little decks waiting to resurface. Old combos that people have forgotten about, lost in the backwaters of forum posts from four years ago, waiting to be revived in a more fiendish state....
But then I think of the Treefolk, and debate whether it would be a good thing.
We have a new player, Adam, and he's hungry to win. He comes straight from the cutthroat scene of chess tournaments, and what he wants is to win every time. That's not a bad thing, but I can see the need for victory in his eyes.
He keeps asking about unstoppable decks. And the problem is, there are essentially unstoppable decks. There are decks that can, essentially, only be beaten by racing them to the finish.
What happens if I unlock that arms race?
It's the dirty little secret of Magic—the most powerful decks are the ones that allow for the least interaction. From a purely winning-based perspective, the perfect Magic deck would be one that won on turn one, before your opponent had a chance to do anything.
But if I started making all of my decks to be insta-win decks—which I could—then I'd start up not one, but two ugly races. First, I'd have the Vintage conundrum—the more sets you have available, the fewer cards actually get played. That's because when you play with all sets, only the most powerful ones actually get used. Who would play with a Shock when you can play with Lightning Bolt?
We like Lorwyn's cards. They're cool. We want to play in an environment where we can play a lot of them and not feel silly for playing subpar cards that can't win.
This means not always going for the throat.
If I started playing with the most powerful decks with the most powerful cards I own, making it so that every deck had to beat a Legacy-powerful deck or lose, then I'd catapult my poor group into an arms race of pure monetary power—forcing them to buy a lot of older cards to keep up. They wouldn't need as many cards as a lot of folks think, but it'd still be an investment. And having to pay with the wallet to win is Not Fun.
The other thing is—and I have seen this all too many times—the arms race ends in disaster. People build faster and faster combo decks, and they start winning on turn three, and then who cares? You didn't win, you just played a game of solitaire. You didn't lose, you just didn't play solitaire fast enough.
That kind of arms race can destroy a play group, turning things sour. It can make novice players feel shut out, it can make casual players feel a pressure to win that gets nasty, and it can seed a group with an ugly jealousy.
I could lose everyone I play with. I could even lose their friendship. I've seen the emails from people, telling me their sad stories.
I have a good group of friends, a loose band of between eight and twelve people who come over every Tuesday night. We like Lorwyn and all the cool new cards. We like each other. And Eric Taylor's right; this Lifeline deck is easily disruptable. One piece of artifact removal and this deck's crutch is gone, baby, gone... and my Lifeline "combo" also takes a long time to win.
But is that better than the alternative?
The downside of the deck, its slowness and vulnerability, means that it's more interactive and more fun to play against. And just because I could dig up lethal technology from the ancient past doesn't mean that it would be a good idea. Allowing decks like the silly Thallid deck and the whacky Kavu Predator deck to win occasionally make it a good time for everyone.
We know what we can do. The old-school players have deadly toxin-decks that we could break out... And we do, occasionally, just for fun. But we also know that an arms race often ends in The Day After, so we don't force the issue by playing those decks all the time.
The Treefolk know that grabbing for the most potent weapons you have all the time just isn't wise.
Be at peace, like the Treefolk. Be strong. But be wise and strong.
Alas, there's not nearly the coverage I'd like to see on it—Mark Rosewater's Treefolk decklist appears in his column, but where's the winning Coalition Victory deck?—but the scant bit we did get of the multiplayer Free-for-All at Worlds gives us a cool new preview card. Y'all should check it out, since that card is a hizzouse, yo.