Attacking the Right Guy

Posted in Serious Fun on September 4, 2007

By The Ferrett

AsI've said, the most critical skill you can have in multiplayer is threat assessment. All the cards in the world won't save you if you expend your hand to smash the wrong guy. Learning who's a threat to you and who can be left alone is the key skill in chaos games... and, unfortunately, it's the hardest to teach.

But I can try, albeit hesitatingly, by starting at the basic level—the attack phase. And every time your attack phase rolls around, you should be asking two basic questions:

  1. Should I attack?
  2. If I should, who should I attack?

When to Attack

Scout's WarningToo many players are overzealous in attacking, which costs them games. (And too many players never attack, which doesn't win you as many games as you'd think.)

So. The first rule of attacking is:

Before you attack, make sure your defenses are strong....

The problem with multiplayer is that it can be extremely swingy. The guy who's on top of the world one turn can be scraping for survival—or dead—the next... and that's because one chink in your armor can be exploited by multiple opponents.

Oh, sure, having that Blazing Archon out means that you're safe from everyone—right up until someone Putrefy it at the end of your turn. And then you get to endure not one but five attack phases from the quadruplet of other people who've decided they do not want you in this game any more.

Thus, before you start sending your boys out to attack, double-check to see that you don't need them back home. You don't need enough to hold off everyone's armies—you just need enough guys back home that it would cost them to attack you, even if someone fires a removal spell or two at you at the end of your turn.

You want strong deterrence, not total defense. Otherwise, you'll never attack at all, and that's bad. By "strong deterrence," I mean "something that won't collapse with one spell." Sure, having Moat out stops the Goblin player, but a single Naturalize opens the gates to the Mogg hordes. Have something else in case your first line of defense crumbles.

...or there's no danger of payback...

Hey, you're the only guy with a creature out! Why not go nuts? Pound the heck out of whoever you like!

Not so fast, Sparky. I said, if there's no danger of payback.

Mortal_CombatA frequent problem novice multiplayers face is the "shrug 'n' go" method of attack—as in, "It's turn three. I'm the first guy out with a Mire Boa. I'll pound whoever's open."

You know what happens? There's payback. Because the guy you just dropped is likely to remember who hit him, and then when he drops his 3/3 he comes right back at you. Next thing you know, you're engaged in a fistfight with the "helpless" guy you just picked on, and you're both burning cards and depleting each other's life totals as everyone looks on and laaaughs.

I'm speaking a little inaccurately when I say, "no danger of payback." This is a game of multiplayer Magic—which means that in the end, everyone is going to try to kill you. So you have to realize that no matter how nicely you treat everyone, eventually your best friend is going to stick a shiv in your spine. There's always payback in the end.

So by "no danger of payback," I actually mean, "you're not going to start a fight with someone who wouldn't be attacking you anyway."

If you know that someone's out for your blood already and there's a clear field, send the Mire Boa at 'em. If you know that you have to really have to take someone out now before their defenses kick in, then send the Mire Boa at 'em. But if they haven't messed with you yet, you might want to consider whether it's worth starting something.

Sometimes it is. We'll get to that in a bit.


Some people try to handle the early game by making a large play of attacking players in a counterclockwise order. "I'm attacking you," they say, "Then I'll attack Fred the next turn. Spreadin' the love, spreadin' the love."

Sometimes that works. It's not a bad strategy, since you get in some cheap damage on your opponents. But some people take offense at the wandering pain, and will decide, "Well, he hit me, so I'll hit him—nothing personal, Phil!"

I've seen a third-turn hit from a Wild Mongrel inspire a seventh-turn hit from a Rith, the Awakener. Why? "Just spreadin' the love." So beware that it can backfire.

...or that you have no other choice.

Quite often, you're in a situation where you're involved in a race. The dude has a 6/6 Dragon, and he's attacking you, and your only hope is to try to race him.

The interesting thing is, this being multiplayer, it's often a good idea to try to race, even if you can't possibly win. If he can do 6 damage a turn and you can only do 4 damage a turn, then it's sometimes worth pounding him back in the hopes that someone else says, "Wait a minute, this guy has a dragon—maybe I should do that last 4 damage to him and finish him off before he can turn that Crosis, the Purger on me."

Attack only when you can afford to lose your attacker.

This is often what trips people up—but unless you're in a position where you have to attack, consider your attackers to be lost already. They are superfluous. They are excess baggage.

Because, frankly, once you send your big tramply guy out to assault someone, there is a good chance they may fall to some ugly trick. Hence, even if you've got a guy with vigilance, don't attack unless you can still survive without your big dude.

Sure, that Windborn Musecan attack for 2 in the air. But if that Muse is all that's stopping you from an all-out Saproling swarm, then why risk it just to do 2 damage to Joe Random? It's not worth it.

(Of course, that dynamic changes if you're attacking the Saproling player in the hopes of killing him before he finds some way of getting rid of your Muse. As I said, "attack when you have no other choice." But sometimes deciding when you have "no other choice" is the tricky bit.)

Who to Attack

Okay. You've decided that you can attack and that you should attack. Now comes the big question, and often the one where the wrong decision will cost you the game: who gets the shot to the face?

Look for the biggest threat.

In general, you should look for the biggest threat in this order:

Board position: You want to think about taking down the guy who's got the stuff on the table that's the likeliest to kill you. That's pretty elementary.

BacklashBut novice players frequently forget to take their position into account. If you have a pair of Wrath of Gods in hand and enough defense to last through an attack—remember, you want to keep enough back to act as a deterrent—then you don't really have to worry as much about an army of large men.

Remember, the more you can lay back and let other people do the dirty work, the better. That guy with the giant men may decide to attack someone else, taking an opponent out of the game while you do nothing... and then you Wrath. Or another opponent may flip out at the gigantic men and burn his own Wrath of God, leaving you with yours still mercifully in hand. So if you can affect someone's board position, there's not necessarily a reason to go after him.

In reality, the control guy with no creatures and a hand full of seven cards may, in fact, be the greater threat to you.

Which leads to the other major mistake novice players make: not taking hand size into account when they're sizing up board position. A guy with seven cards in hand and nothing on the table is either hopelessly land-screwed, or waiting to clean up after everyone else is done fighting.) A guy with no cards in hand and a board full of permanents is going to be pretty much pantsed after a single board-sweeper resolves (barring some kinda crazy recursion, natch).

Remember: the more you can hold back, the more likely someone else is to act before you, and that leaves you better off.

Decks: If board position tells you where someone is, decks tell you where they're going. This is hard to gauge if you've never seen a deck before... but if you have, then you have a decent idea of what their overall strategy is.

Does that strategy conflict with yours? If you're Mister "Attack with a Swarm of Men" and someone's laid his third Swamp, you might want to start in on Mono-Black Control guy even if he hasn't messed with you yet. Because he will.

It is what he must do. It is his nature.

Players: All else being equal, hitting the guy with the best play skill is a decent option. Remember, you're only throwing your excess at him, so forcing him to burn a couple of cards isn't the worst idea.

Make sure you're not killing your ally.

Phyrexian_ArenaQuite often, you will need to team up with others to deal with control decks, which by definition are geared to handle several players at once.

Let's say you're playing a red-black deck without any artifact removal and you're facing a guy with a deck that you know packs four Vedalken Shackles. Yes, you probably can lay that Rorix Bladewing and beat on someone else... but you may also be taking out the green-red deck that has the Splinter you desperately need to win.

Look at each other players. Ask yourself whether you could win in a duel against them, and them alone. If you can't, then ask yourself who could kill them—and then make sure not to attack that guy. You want to keep them around, at least long enough to get rid of the guy that you can't handle. And hope to high heaven that they don't decide that you're the threat.

Verify you're not drawing unnecessary heat.

Quite often, you can make the mistake of attacking someone who wasn't paying attention to you. Sure, they had a Liege of the Pit out... but they were more concerned about figuring out a way to get rid of someone else.

But no. You've sent your guy at them... and now that you've mentioned it, say, you probably are someone who deserves to have this handy-dandy can of whoop-butt opened up on 'em! Oops.

Remember, the goal of politics in multiplayer is to get someone else to do it. In order to do that, pay attention to the table dynamics—who is everyone looking at the most? Are they still smarting from an early attack on turn three, and are just waiting to get revenge? Who do they think is the threat?

Again, the prime rule is that if you have to take someone down, do it. But if you can sit back and let two people slug it out, then mop up afterwards, that's even better.

You can attack to reduce options.

It's one of the great truisms in Magic: Life == options.

At 20 life, you're king of the world. You can take risks, run rampant, send your guys out to slay anyone. Hey, you have life to burn, amiright?

At 1 life, you can't risk a dang thing. The slightest slip will mean your demise, so you have to play it close to the chest. Your offenses will come only when you have everything else locked up.

As such, quite often you'll want to attack people to get them into a spot where they don't have as much wriggle room. Not every attack has to be for the kill, or part of a continual effort to destroy someone; every once in a while, you may want to attack seemingly at "random" in an effort to reduce someone to 10 or 5 life, just to keep them on the back foot.

You don't always have to commit to a full-out attack. Sometimes, you may even want to split attacks between two or more players, sending a 5/5 here and a 4/4 here in order to put them both down into a place where they can't really maneuver.

Also remember that when it comes to "reducing options," cards in hand count as options. Sometimes, walking into a trick to draw it out is the best maneuver.

Decide whether you need to finish someone off.

Fatal_Blow]Assuming you're not in the pole position where everyone at the table is baying for your blood, you can often grind someone down to a place where you can easily finish them off... and then leave them there.

The art of leaving survivors is another article in itself, but leaving someone alive and at 5 life is often a great move, as long as they're not a serious threat to you. Depending on how you play it, leaving someone on the board who's no longer a worry to you but is a concern to other players can be a valid stratagem.

It can backfire, of course. As I said, multiplayer is often swingy, and if the guy draws the right cards then you're dead. (Or if he allies with someone else against you, you can be dead.) To pull it off, you have to know the man's deck, the man's play style, and the man himself. But sometimes, forcing someone else to burn up resources in order to clean up your leavings is a good strategy.

But as I said, that's probably another article. Just keep it in mind that "I KEEL YOU!" is not always the correct move. Just usually.

Remember the dynamic.

"Who blocks in duels?" people ask. That's a valid question.

"Who blocks in multiplayer?" As it turns out, it happens a little more often. The bulk of the good attacks will come from evasion creatures, of course, but you'll find some more blocking done in multiplayer just because people have to do it.

(Also see: If I don't block the first attack, everyone else "knows" I don't have the trick, and then I might endure a bunch of other attacks.)

You're not hoping for a trade. A one-for-one trade is awful in multiplayer. So people will be a little more likely to block, even if you have a trick, just because life is a precious resource. Expect that, and don't attack unless you have the trick or—once again—you have no choice.

Who else gains?

It's rare, but not that rare—someone will often decide that they want to keep someone in the game, and they may interfere. Some Busy Betty may decide to throw in a Giant Growth or a Terminate just to keep his interests at play... especially if you're in the lead.

There's not much you can do about it except to counter-trick, if you have it. But beware the interferer!

Latest Serious Fun Articles


January 5, 2016

Hedron Alignment by, Bruce Richard

When I first looked at my preview card, I couldn't really wrap my brain around it. The card does so much that I wasn't really understanding its value. Kind of a "forest for the trees" thi...

Learn More


December 29, 2015

Eternal Pilgrim by, Bruce Richard

When religious belief turns into religious fervor, things get problematic—particularly on Zendikar. When the Eldrazi were originally imprisoned, stories were told to ensure no one would t...

Learn More



Serious Fun Archive

Consult the archives for more articles!

See All