Aiming the Cannon

Posted in Serious Fun on August 11, 2009

By Kelly Digges

During my recent visit to U.S. Nationals in Kansas City, I had a particularly brutal turn with my Uril, the Miststalker Elder Dragon Highlander deck. With a 7/7 Uril in play, a Runes of the Deus in my hand, and two defenseless opponents—plus the "21 general damage is lethal" rule in EDH—I had a choice: Who was I going to kill?

This happens a lot in multiplayer formats. At some point, the life totals get low enough and the armies big enough that you hold the fates of multiple players in your hands. Some decks include what I call "cannon combos"—instant-kill combinations that can only be aimed at one player at a time. Uril, the Miststalker + Runes of the Deus and one other Aura is a sort of conditional cannon combo (in EDH as elsewhere), and I also saw Grindstone + Painter's Servant running around out of Arcum Dagsson decks until Grindstone was banned from the format. When you have a button you can press to take any player out of the game, there's some pressure to consider carefully before you press it.

More generally, a nice big Free-for-All game presents you nearly every turn with a decision about who, if anyone, to attack. Your creatures have some amount of possible damage output; your removal spells have a certain degree of kill-power. And every turn, you're making a choice about how to use those offensive capabilities.

As I said during Timmy Week, I tested as all three psychographics when I took the test in Mark Rosewater's Timmy, Johnny, and Spike Revisited. I wonder sometimes, though, whether I ought to turn in my Spike badge. Sure, I'm plenty competitive when I draft, and I can sometimes be found in debates about draft picks or subtle plays that make me sound more like my Tuesday compatriot Steve Sadin (except, of course, infinitely less qualified). But when you put me at a multiplayer table, my Timmy side firmly takes the wheel, and if pressed, I have to admit: I don't actually like knocking people out of the game.

Yeah, I understand that knocking people out of the game is kind of the point. And I love attacking. But when I actually face the prospect of consigning someone else to sitting around for the next half hour? As a dedicated social gamer Timmy, I balk. It reminds me of the time my family dog growing up finally cornered one of the back-yard squirrels he'd been chasing after for years and had no idea what was supposed to happen next. I attack gleefully, but, like him, when I actually stand on the brink of victory, I tend to freeze. Except in my case, all too frequently, the squirrel comes back with a bazooka.

At the same time, I acknowledge that it's a good thing not everyone has this compunction. If nobody ever killed anybody, it would be like a game of Monopoly I played once with my little sister in which we floated each other loans when one of us ran out of money: it would never end. And that doesn't sound like much fun either. (It wasn't.)

Today I'll talk a little about how to handle dropping the hammer blow, and directing attacks in general. I've tackled this subject from the political angle in the past, looking at alliances, favor trading, and all the other dealing and double-dealing that makes Free-for-All what it is. This time, I'll be looking more at the question of what to do if, like me, you don't actually relish the sight of a friend scooping up his or her cards. And even if you have no compunctions about it, there's still reason to worry over who to attack—because if you don't kill them, they may well retaliate.

    Evasive Maneuvers

The simplest way to avoid that moment of lethality is one I've advocated frequently in the past: play formats that avoid it for you. It's no coincidence that many (most?) popular multiplayer variants do exactly that. Two-Headed Giant and Emperor group four or six players into two rival teams. Attack Right and Attack Left simply answer the question for you (although barring some pretty complicated house rules, you'll still be free to point noncombat cannon combos wherever you want).

Star deserves special mention, because it reduces the number of opposing players to two while also, subtly, changing your win condition from being the last one alive to making sure two specific players aren't. That makes the idea of not taking someone out when you can seem awfully silly, and it also makes Star go way faster than other five-player games. Slightly counterintuitive (to me at least), a better strategy in Star may be to chip away at both your enemies' life totals and take them both out at once rather than focus on one at a time—one more way that Star keeps everyone in the game.

The other format that dodges the dilemma in a different way is Respawn Magic, where any player who's eliminated (or late to the table) gets to shuffle up again and come back. In Respawn, killing is guiltless and dying is painless, because nobody is ever just sitting there bored.

    Who to Beatdown?

OK, so let's say you're playing ordinary Free-for-All. There are still some methods I've seen people employ to help navigate the difficult choice of who to attack.

Perhaps the most common I've seen is the "fair share" method. "Yes, this turn I'm sending my flyer at you. But that's just because you're the first one on my left! Next time, see, I'll attack Tom over there to your left—you know, to keep things fair." I've even seen players, turned away from attacking one player because of strong defenses, attack that player multiple times in a row once those defenses are dealt with, because they "owe" that player a certain number of attacks. Common as it is, this method doesn't help you direct that final blow, after which fairness is not much consolation.

Another way to "keep it fair" that I've seen more than once is just rolling a die. "Yes, I'm attacking you this turn. But it's not my fault—it was random!" This method takes the pressure of the decision off and eliminates any lingering feelings of doubt, but it slows things down just that little bit, and it probably won't actually assuage anybody's unhappiness that you attacked them. This could actually backfire in that regard; if you're choosing your victims randomly, you can't be predicted or bargained with, and that makes you more dangerous in the eyes of long-term planners. Unlike the "fair share" method, this is a fine way to decide who to kill as well as who to attack.

It's also possible to take a more reactive tack. I've played with people whose entire multiplayer strategy is based on revenge. Some go all-out for even the slightest slight. Others keep it strictly proportional; eye for eye, point for point. Cannon combos that work at instant speed (like Grindstone + Painter's Servant) are a great deterrent; the first one to attack you dies. There is, however, a limit to how long you can keep an entire table off your back that way, and eventually either you or they will probably break the standoff.

I've seen any number of other systems—more specific than "good politics" or "good strategy"—to inform the decision of who to go after at any given time. Some go after the weakest player on the grounds that you should get them while you can. Others attack the strongest player to make sure they don't go unopposed. Perhaps you only attack tapped out players to avoid instant-speed removal resulting in a "wasted" attack. And maybe, if you are very sneaky, you attack the player you want to retaliate against you so you can spring some nasty trap against his or her attacker.

    The Only Way to Win Is Not to Play

Confronted with the rich variety of options as to who to attack in a multiplayer game, some players inevitably conclude that the right answer is "no one." Whether it's an unwillingness to knock anyone out of the game, a fear of retaliation, or the need to keep your creatures back to deter possible attacks, sometimes you look around the board and decide that your dragon is just going to sit this round out.

(Incidentally, I theorize that this is one of the reasons for newer players' frequent habit—infuriating to helpful Spikes—of declining to attack in duels. For many of these players, their first experience playing may well have been in multiplayer; even if it wasn't, that anxiety that something bad will happen to you or your creatures if you attack is pretty powerful. The funny part in my mind is that some classic friendly Spike tips to new or casual players—like "always attack" and "life gain is bad"—aren't universally good advice where multiplayer is concerned.)

There's a lot to be said for just not attacking, making no threatening moves. You don't make anybody angry or send them to sit on the sidelines, and you don't leave yourself open to a swing back. Whether it's through indecision, consideration, or cold calculation, you may find that sitting back and waiting looks like your best possible play. You may even find yourself, as I did two weeks ago, unwilling to deliver the coup de grace—and in my case, nearly swallowing a Phage the Untouchable for my trouble.

As I've said in the past, you'll find whole tables of "knife-sharpeners" who are perfectly content to do exactly that for turns on end, although that is not my idea of a good game personally. Even at a more aggressive table, I can see, at least in theory, some amusement value in building a deck wholly dedicated to the defensive, patiently building its little fort and repelling every attack while the others kill each other and wear themselves out. In practice, that's a description of the Fog deck I faced late last year, and while I certainly respect the accomplishment, its humor value remains largely theoretical.

And while declining to attack will keep you from making any specific enemies, and you might be able to fly under the radar for long enough, my experience is that as soon as you build up a really threatening-looking board position, you are getting attacked anyway. The more impregnable your defense looks, the more likely everyone else is to try to kill you before it becomes even more so. That's just the nature of the beast.

These factors—boredom and the fact that eventually I'm going to get attacked anyway—are why I choose to err on the side of attacking, and they're also why I'm a huge fan of cards that get the game moving in one way or another. Rites of Flourishing, Spiteful Visions, Fumiko the Lowblood, Progenitus, whatever—just so long as people sit up and do something, even if that something is pounding me into oblivion. I'm perfectly happy to go out in a blaze of glory. Just as soon as I figure out who to attack.

    The Wider World

Two quick heads-up before I go, in case you missed them. Yesterday, the mysterious " staff" revealed the full rules of Planechase, the upcoming release designed specifically to bring a little spice to your Free-for-All multiplayer game (though as the article says, it works equally well in duels or multiplayer variants). Planechase release events are September 4-6. I got an advance taste of the format, and it is fun.

The Arcanas so far this week are pretty exciting too, showing off some gorgeous full-art lands that have me drooling for Zendikar. Zendikar previews start Monday, September 7. It looks like September is going to be an excellent month for Magic!

    The Final Analysis

So how do you deal with the tough decisions that come between you and smashing faces? Do you generally ignore them, like I do, and just pick something? Do you occasionally wish you'd given it more thought, like I do? Do you use some system to help you decide, or do you just eyeball the table? I'm curious to hear your insight!

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