Alongi’s Fabulous 500!

Posted in Serious Fun on September 21, 2004

By Anthony Alongi

If it's autumn, it must be time for the Multiplayer Card Hall of Fame!

This week and for the next two non-theme weeks (October 5 and 19), I will be looking at the cards that do the best job of making multiplayer games great. I've been working on this edition for a few months, based on reader feedback since last year, and I'm excited about what I'm able to show you this time around.

This time, the Hall is bigger and fuller than ever! I figure the more stuff I cram in there, the more people will enjoy it. It's the fraternity party approach to the Hall. Let's look at what you can expect this time around:

  • Full rules text for all rated cards! This is a big deal, since it lets you filter through the spreadsheet much like the way you'd expect to go through any database. I've been dying to do this for about two years. (Well, okay, not dying to do it. But mildly interested. Play along, friends.)
  • Enhanced info on cost, spell type, color, expansion, and rarity! I've cleaned up a few categories, so it's a lot easier to sort by whatever parameter you like. I still have the creature types and stats inside the rules text, since it makes the sheets easier to print. Speaking of which…
  • Much easier printing options. The Excel sheets have all been set to legal-sized paper, which will get you all the data except my extraneous notes. The entire Hall and its 500+ cards prints out in a mere eight pages! But if you can only do letter-size, you can simply reset the print area to the first 10 columns (rank # through "com" score) and let 'er rip.
    If you want to read all of the rules text on each card, you'll need more paper. But in most cases, the rules text that fits in this format is enough to remind you of what the card does.

Of course, the same things you've come to love about the Hall of Fame – animal elements, highlights of new additions, and all that – are still here.

Before You Enter

Disclaimers can be boring, but I'll try to keep these peppy so you'll read them. They'll save you some misunderstanding.

  • These are my opinions. They're better than your opinions. Okay, maybe not. But I just want you to realize that even after six years of doing this, it's still just me doing this. It's not a Wizards corporate plot. (The corporate plot, if you must know, is to kill me, replace me with a robot which the diminutive Mark Rosewater can operate from inside – sort of like Kenny Baker in R2-D2 – and sabotage my campaign for Hastings City Council by replacing discussions of municipal issues with senseless ramblings about life as a Hollywood writer. Sort of a less exciting, more pathetic take on The Manchurian Candidate.)
    Anyway, Wizards isn't telling you what cards are the best, or what to play, or trying to brainwash you, etc. When you see a bunch of rares in the Hall, that's not Wizards telling you to buy lots of packs. (They do want you to buy lots of packs, by the way. I've done some research into this, and it appears to help them make money.) This Hall is just me telling you what I think works most spectacularly in a group game. I was doing it before I wrote for Wizards, and I'm still doing it now.
  • I decided to rank your favorite card too low just to tick you off. Yes, you. Personally. Yes, I'm yanking your chain again. But the six "animal elements" I use – rattlenakes that warn, gorillas that pound, spiders that trap, pigeons that mooch, plankton that feed, and cockroaches that replicate – are notoriously subjective. So is the weighting system I use to average the six scores out. I've given you all the tools you need in these spreadsheets to download and adjust the Hall to your own liking.
    If you need to learn about the "animal elements", check out the special section at the end of the article. This is old info for many of my readers, so I didn't want to make them slog through it.
    Please don't send me your version – I don't open attachments in emails, even if you're my mom. (Especially if you're my mom! Mom hates computers and after a few moments of tinkering would no doubt unwittingly send me an amalgam of all the worst known viruses she had accidentally collected on my father's hard drive.)
  • I don't care about any format but chaos. Another obvious lie. But to make a Hall consistent, I need to pick one format and stick to it. Some of the cards ranked highly in this Hall (e.g., Grave Pact) would be less swell in your average Two-Headed Giant game. Maybe a future Hall will have an animal element that describes the card's capabilities in team play.
    But probably not.
  • If you restrict yourself to the cards in this Hall, you'll lose. Okay, this one's true. You will lose. Spectacularly, perhaps. Multiplayer environments are more forgiving than tournament environments. But they're not grade school either. The average casting cost in the Hall is – oh, heck, I don't know, 7WUG or something. Most of these cards are best played as finishers or game-swingers in a deck that uses 60 cards – including 24 land, lots of things to play on turns two through four, and preferably 3-4 copies of at least the commons and uncommons.
    Look to the "staples" I list for each color for ideas on how you could fill decks with cheap, generally low-casting-cost commons and uncommons. Many games are won (or at least turned around) with simple stuff like Man-o'-War and Seal of Doom.

And Now On To The Hall

We'll take the colors in the following batches:

This week: artifacts, gold, and lands. Most of the new cards here are from Darksteel and Fifth Dawn, so I'd like to handle them first and then move on to the more recent stuff. Besides, these "colors" all deviate from the 40-card limit on each of the five Magic colors, so they group together well.

October 5: black, blue, and green. Black has had some intriguing cards out in the past year – including a contender for Top Ten overall – but blue and green have also done well, sometimes in unconventional ways. All three colors have at least a couple of Champions cards worthy of early Hall inclusion.

October 19: red and white. We'll close with the two colors that may have benefited the most from Champions – and which managed a few standouts in the artifact-dominated Mirrodin block as well.

Rage After The Machine

Mirrodin was so deep in group-worthy artifacts that this "color" is now the deepest in the Hall – 57, compared to 40 for each color (and 28 for gold, and 15 lands). The #1 and #2 multiplayer artifacts overall both come from Mirrodin block – and neither of them are Engineered Explosives or Oblivion Stone (ranked as similar cards to #6, Nevinyrral's Disk).

Here are the new artifacts with full entries in the Hall, in set and then alphabetical order. You'll have to go into the Hall (47k Excel file) to see how they stacked up against each other. There are also a few additional artifacts (e.g., Blasting Station) listed as similar cards, so you should poke around.

Arcbound Ravager
Chimeric Egg
Darksteel Colossus
Genesis Chamber
Mycosynth Lattice
Panoptic Mirror
Spawning Pit
Sword of Fire and Ice
Talon of Pain
Avarice Totem
Door to Nothingness
Possessed Portal
Staff of Domination
Summoner's Egg
Summoning Station
Vedalken Orrery
Vedalken Shackles

I've covered many of these in past articles, but let me focus on three I haven't spent much time on yet.

Vedalken Shackles

Vedalken Shackles really isn't an artifact card. It's a blue card. (So is Memnarch.) In fact, I was sorely tempted to rework the Hall so that artifacts and certain lands could "cross over" into a color. Turns out, it's not worth it – but I do want to make clear that when you see darn few "pure" blue cards from Darksteel and Fifth Dawn next week, that doesn't mean a whole lot.

The Shackles are an improvement over Legacy's Allure, which was already quite good. Allure tends to afford a bit more permanency; but the Shackles give you more flexibility and quicker build to threaten a large creature. They also get around protection from blue, which isn't enormous but can still count against stuff like Iridescent Angel.

Possessed Portal is a potential powerhouse in multiplayer, even though it appears to be a "drag" on the game. I'm not sure if I like it or hate it, so I just built a deck using the two I have and I'll get back to you on that. What's undeniable is that forcing the game to use existing board and hand position should have a big effect on group games.

My prediction? Not as despised as mana denial like Armageddon or Limited Resources; but probably too annoying for more than the occasional boutique deck. Either way, its stats put it pretty firmly in the Hall.

Mycosynth Lattice got plenty of attention from stripper-turned-soldier-of-fortune Mark Gottlieb in a preview several months ago. So we don't need to rehash the combo with March of the Machines. I think a more interesting (if ecclectic) combo is with Tanglewalker in a five-color deck that includes stuff like Blinding Angel, Ophidian, Mindstab Thrull, and so on.

Lattice is the sort of card where everyone forgets about the second and third abilities – you know, the stuff about tapping mana for any color and such. How many cards let you fix color so well? (Ah, Joiner Adept. Fine, put that in the deck too.) The lesson from cards like Lattice is to read the whole thing. Creative possibilities often come from the soft, hidden underbelly of a card.

Searching For More Gold

This'll sound a bit like a crotchety old man, I know – but I miss gold cards. Especially this time of year, when I have no substantial updates to this part of the Hall. I'll just put the link here (35k Excel file) and let you review. Pernicious Deed still tops out the multi-colored list – but will it remain on top of the entire Hall? HA! Not telling. Only I know. (Well, me and site editor Scott Johns. And, um, the guys doing the links for future articles. Them too. And anyone who's reading this article, like, six months later and just clicks over to stuff that comes later in the archives. But beyond all those people, it's in a vault, I swear.)

The Hall Has Landed

Hall of the Bandit Lord

I've pared back on the lands in the Hall – too many of them are just plain good utility, not necessarily multiplayer powerhouses. And frankly, I'm in the mood for more pruning next year, I think. But in the meantime, you'll see many familiar faces here (30k Excel file).

The one newcomer is Hall of the Bandit Lord, which threatens selective haste for your new creatures. I've talked about how haste can impact a group game in a previous article, and the Hall provides some interesting options to decks that don't run Fires of Yavimaya or its several red/green variants. Most people, for example, don't expect a white deck to rely on haste – but using white's considerable life gain capacity, you can offset the Hall's payment pretty easily. Should make it worth playing Serra Avatar with haste, no?

I also like seeing haste capability (as well as the uncounterability provided by Boseiju, Who Shelters All) in a land. Land is generally more secure in most formats than enchantments or artifacts.

For those who need more background in the animal elements, read on. For everyone else: thanks for your patience this week as we spent most of the time going over artifacts in Darksteel and Fifth Dawn. Expect more talk of recent cards a couple of weeks from now. I'm excited about what Champions offers multiplayer environments – we just have to get into the five basic colors to have most of our fun!

Special Section: Animal Element Review

A few years ago, to help readers remember what sorts of cards work best in a multiplayer setting, I came up with six "animal elements". Every card possesses these elements to varying degrees:

Mystic Snake, art by Daren Bader

The rattlesnake element warns players off. It makes coming at you unappetizing, and going after another player more so. It also includes cards like Ivory Mask that offer you impregnability. (I could have separated this out into an armadillo element or some such; but that just seemed silly.)

The gorilla element pounds the board. It's a measure of impact – on life totals, permanents, hands, whatever. I tend to rank impact on board presence (Wrath of God) higher than impact on life totals (Sizzle) or hands (Mindslicer) – though I make special considerations for exceptional cases like Biorhythm.

(Note of detail: It's sometimes hard to separate out gorilla from rattlesnake when you have a permanent you can activate for a big effect. I try to focus rattlesnake on how easy it is for you to carry through on your threat, and gorilla on how big that threat actually is. So, a Bloodfire Colossus is high rattlesnake because it costs only R to activate and shows a willingness to damage yourself as well; it's high gorilla because it generally wipes everything out and does universal player damage as well. A high rattlesnake, low gorilla card would be Diamond Valley. A high gorilla card with comparatively low rattlesnake would be Worldslayer.)

The spider element surprises opponents by trapping them. The best spider cards can gain you card advantage, like Spinal Embrace. But the main thrust here is that spiders tend to be the instants that let you back up your big threats and punish those who think they can just "remove/attack X and it will be okay".

The pigeon element grows stronger the more opponents there are. I interpret this pretty strictly: some cards can sometimes get better with more opponents (e.g., a good blocker), but I'm more interested in those cards that actually count up permanents (Congregate) or opponents (Syphon Mind) or cards (Multani, Maro-Sorcerer) to define their impact. In general, they're great in the early game and grow weaker as you eliminate players.

The plankton element feeds the whole table without much discrimination. If you're letting everyone draw cards, add mana, put creatures in play, etc., you're playing with plankton. This element has a bit more presence in green (and artifacts) than most other colors. It's partly why green is a popular group choice. (Obviously, the big smashing beasts are another, larger part.)

Endless Cockroaches, art by Ron Spencer

The cockroach element represents the part of the card that replicates an effect and/or multiply resources. Put another way, if someone kills the first token you make with a Riptide Replicator, how easy is it for you to make another one? Not too hard. But compare that with how many times a Genesis Chamber effortlessly produces token creatures without even tapping, and you can see the difference between a good "cockroach" card and an excellent one.

These animal elements are pretty central to how I think about multiplayer Magic. I believe laying down big threats you can back up is the most direct – and repeatable – route to multiplayer success. Break it down: you need to (a) make the threat, (b) have it intimidate someone, and (c) follow through with additional punishment when someone challenges you. So that means the interaction between rattlesnake, gorilla, and spider are key. A deck absolutely needs cards with those three elements – though certainly not all three need to be on the same card! (Think of how Mirari, Jilt, and Misdirection can work together, and you've got a pretty good idea of how rattlesnake, gorilla, and spider can cooperate.)

I weigh the other three elements equally in the Hall (each makes up 14 percent of a card's total score, compared to 16 percent for spider, 20 percent for gorilla, and 22 percent for rattlesnake). But in my own decks, I absolutely value "cockroach" cards more than I do "pigeon" or "plankton". The ability to repeat an effect (like Masticore's) is absolutely terrific in group play, since you often find yourself needing to threaten more than one opponent at a time.

So why don't I weigh it more? Because the element heavily favors permanents, which stick around longer and can attack/activate multiple times just by virtue of what they are. (Flashback and splice onto arcane help out a bit; but they just can't make up all that lost ground!) A hall dominated by "cockroach" cards wouldn't have much room for instants and sorceries. But we all know instants and sorceries are important parts of multiplayer games. So I suppressed my own preference here and let a more interesting Hall unfold.

If you're new to the Hall and/or you disagree with how I balance things, you can easily manipulate the weights in the Excel spreadsheets and create your own rankings. That's why I put those features there.

Anthony cannot provide deck help. He's burned out on copying and pasting Excel formulas and precise Oracle rulings.

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