A Deck, a Brain, and a Lot of Friends

Posted in Feature on December 6, 2010

By Dave Mills

It's no secret that I'm not especially interested in multiplayer strategy. It inevitably makes the assumption that there's only one reason to play Magic, and that's to win. Winning is fun. I like winning. But, as I argued in The Timmy Manifesto, overemphasis on strategy for multiplayer—an almost purely casual pursuit—runs the risk of marginalizing the reasons that a lot of people play Magic in the first place.

All that said, there absolutely is such a person as a casual Spike, and there absolutely is a place for multiplayer strategy. So when I came across this old article from The Duelist #27 (July 1998), it gave me pause. This is a multiplayer strategy article written by a Pro Tour player—something that's been a distinct rarity for most of Magic history, and has only recently gained some traction as pros like Patrick Chapin and Sam Black write about the Commander format. The following serves as a good basic primer for multiplayer, laying the groundwork for play in many different multiplayer formats.

Note that the trick Dave suggests about putting cards with upkeep effects on top of your library isn't legal in tournament play these days ... but we're not talking about tournament play, are we?


Kelly Digges
Daily MTG Editor

In preparing for this article, I spoke with top players about their ideas on multiplayer strategy. I heard many fun stories about multiplayer decks they played "back in the good old days" (mostly in Classic) but little in the way of good strategy. I came to the conclusion that Magic, is Magic, and good play carries over into all formats. Therefore, I have devoted much of this article to general Magic strategy and how to apply it to multiplayer situations.

First You Need a Deck

All Magic starts with deck construction, after which you need a brain and a friend. Since I can't help with the latter two, let's first take a look at deck construction. You can instantly improve your deck-building skills by thinking in ones or twos instead of fours. For example, which of the following cards is best: Counterspell, Dismiss, Power Sink, or Disrupt? You may think it depends on the deck and situation, but if you have four counters in your hand you're almost always better off having one of each rather than four Counterspells (unless you're using a Cursed Scroll). A diverse assortment of cards gives you more options. This is even more important when facing multiple opponents who will throw all kinds of threats your way.

When building your decks try to create potent offensive match-ups. I used to play an effective defensive-Classic deck, but I was defeated once by a black deck with Hymn to Tourach, Nevinyrral's Disk, land destruction, Order of the Ebon Hand, Nether Void, Necropotence, Juzám Djinn, Hypnotic Specter, and Drain Life. The deck wasn't the most original concept in the world, but it was powerful because it attacked me from so many angles, creating difficult match-ups for my defenses. The deck attacked my hand with Hymns and early Specters, used Necropotence for massive card advantage, and wreaked havoc with the Nevinyrral's Disk when I didn't draw a Disenchant. The more threats you can throw at your opponent the more likely you'll find a hole in his or her defenses. This can be very advantageous in a Grand Melee when you have to pound your way through multiple defenses.

Finally, do not break a broken card. A friend of mine dominated the Southeast during the "Necropotence summer" with—surprise—a Necropotence deck. Yet he rarely included Ivory Tower in his deck. Even though Necropotence-Tower is an amazing combination, he felt the Tower was unnecessary. Necropotence is broken enough without it, and the Tower is nearly useless without Necropotence. He also occasionally left Zuran Orb out of his deck as well. He regularly defeated other Necropotence decks, partly because he was not burdened by drawing these cards at the wrong time. If a card is only powerful once your deck has a lock, leave it out. For example, if you build a multiplayer deck around Earthquake and Circle of Protection: Red, you don't need Justice and Reverse Damage to gain 1,000 life as well ... although such occurrences do make for good stories.

Playing the Game

Okay, so you've built a deck, found a brain and a bunch of friends, and are ready to play multiplayer Magic. But now you actually want to beat your friends and maybe even win a multiplayer tournament. The Wizards of the Coast commercials on South Park didn't say anything about needing skill (which is why you bought The Duelist). For years I've been trying to figure out what makes great players great. I'm still not sure, but I have found a number of clues.

Little mistakes matter. I can trace approximately one-third of my match losses to mistakes or bad judgment calls. Sure, I'd like to blame those losses on bad draws or my opponent top-decking the perfect card, but you get better as a player by learning from your mistakes, not making excuses for them. That leaves two-thirds of my match losses to circumstances outside of my control. That's just part of Magic, and like life, it's more effective to concentrate on what you can control. Here are some tips on reducing mistakes (and trust me, I am an expert on mistakes):

Know what cards do. If you have not played with or against a card at least four times, you don't know it well. In multiplayer games, familiar cards may have new ramifications; you may see cards you never learned because they were weak in duels but become almost overpowered in a multiplayer setting. If a card comes up that you're unsure about, lose the ego and read it carefully. Think about the card, compare it with cards you're familiar with, and figure out how it's different. There is a world of difference between understanding the text of a card and really knowing it. I can't tell you how many times I've seen people look directly at Seeker of Skybreak or Oasis and then get wrecked by them.

Tap your lands properly. No, I don't mean tap your lands before you cast your spells. I mean tap the right color mana for generic when you have an option. I've seen many games decided by players tapping out of a color for no reason. This is surprisingly easy to do when you're focused on something else, such as killing an opposing general's Thalakos Sentry that wasn't too threatening until it received +11/+0 from Endless Scream. This is especially important in multiplayer games in which you can cast instants for three or more turns before you get a chance to untap.

Put cards with upkeep effects on top of your library. It's easy to get distracted in multiplayer games and forget optional upkeep effects. Legacy's Allure tops the list for this, since the card reads "you may put a counter on Legacy's Allure during your upkeep." I used to constantly forget to add counters until I used this trick. With cards like Spindrift Drake and Hungry Mist, you can keep the proper land tapped under the card. Cards that are better used during an opponent's turn (such as Prodigal Sorcerer) that you don't want to forget about before your next turn should be treated in a similar manner.

Don't get caught in automatic, unthinking patterns. Attacking before casting spells is a good rule of thumb, but look at your hand first to make sure you're not holding a Lightning Elemental. Sometimes you should cast your best creatures first, but if your opponent is using Diabolic Edict or Counterspell, sometimes you shouldn't. Never play a certain way out of force of habit. Remember, in multiplayer games you're facing more than one brain trying to decipher what you're doing. Don't make it too easy for your opponents to figure out your strategy by playing by rote.

Force your opponents to play your game. Be aware of things like game tempo, extraneous talking, and attitude. Don't let opponents break your concentration by playing too fast or too slow, or by constantly talking. Play your game. Just as importantly, maintain a focused mind-set-defensive or offensive. For instance, if you can make opponents feel like they're on the defensive and you're on the offensive, you might gain an advantage. I've coaxed an opponent so completely into this mind-set that when he cast a Mahamoti Djinn and I said, "Now that's a pretty effective wall, I don't know how I'll bust past that," he sat back and blocked with the Djinn instead of beating the snot out of me.

Certain cards, like Howling Mine and Winter Orb, can change an opponent's mind-set. My first impression of Howling Mine, a popular multiplayer card, was that it was weak because you spend a card to give your opponent the same benefit, plus he or she draws the extra card first. In actuality the Mine is powerful because it changes the nature of the game to the point where card economy becomes irrelevant. Likewise, Winter Orb makes mana all-important. It is vital to stop these cards when your opponents play them. By stopping them you force your opponent back into playing your game.

In a multiplayer melee, though, some players use Howling Mine to make friends and influence opponents. The players near the Mine player benefit by keeping him or her alive, so that player does not get attacked as often. If you're benefiting from the Mine, leave it out there, but kill the player who has it once you have enough cards. If you don't, you might be sorry.

How to Make Friends and Influence Opponents

Now let's turn to some specific strategies for the basic multiplayer formats: Grand Melee, Emperor, and Partners. Politics is most important in a Grand Melee game, but there is some degree of politicking in all multiplayer variants. So pick a player-probably one of the two people next to you-and create the mentality of "you and me, we're a team."

One way to set up this partnership is to play with countermagic and pick a player with a powerful, combo-based deck that can be devastated if his or her Earthquake or Pestilence is stymied. Show him or her a few countermagic spells from your hand (perfectly legal as long as you show everyone) and offer to work as a team. Your countermagic ensures your partner's powerful spells will go through and the partnership takes some heat off you. Just don't forget to destroy somebody to get points.

People also tend to like others with similar interests, so point out something you have in common. For example, tell the player to your right, "Oh cool, you're playing black too! Between the two of us, I'll bet we can take out all the non-black decks here." Again, the partnership you form can help stabilize one front, allowing you to concentrate on the other.

Another effective tactic is to have a threat card on the table that remains harmless until someone messes with you. Two good examples are Serrated Arrows and Nevinyrral's Disk. The Arrows is like your own personal Moat. Who wants to attack someone and get a guaranteed negative effect?

There Is No "I" in Team

In Emperor, two teams sit across from each other with the emperor between two generals, and the emperor can only effect his or her generals. When you're the emperor use supportive spells that protect creatures and players, or beneficial spells like Howling Mine and Mana Flare. With proper support, your generals can fend off the opposition long enough for you to set up the game-winning combo. As a general, you'll need a fast deck that can take out an opposing general quickly so you can reach the enemy emperor before he or she sets up and digs in.

Finally, there are the Partner formats: one in which teammates share life totals and one in which they don't. Resource denial, such as land destruction, is dominant in both formats because it can effectively take an opponent out of the game. If life totals are not shared, then burning out one opponent with direct damage is highly effective, as is a white weenie-Armageddon strategy. You want to concentrate on taking out one opponent by any means possible, thus turning the game into a two-on-one situation.

Double Your Pleasure

When playing multiplayer Magic with a partner, you should pick a teammate who won't mind your suggestions and who can help you as well. We all notice and/or forget different things, so if your ego doesn't get in the way you can benefit from an extra brain and set of eyes.

While it's true that your one-on-one Magic skills are translatable into multiplayer games, working in tandem with and/or against other people over the course of a single game requires political skills that you simply don't have to develop in standard dueling. Playing in either format will increase your skills, but playing in both will increase your skills, your playing circle, and your appreciation of the game.

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