Crowning Achievements

Posted in Serious Fun on September 2, 2008

By Kelly Digges

Kelly Digges has had many roles at Wizards over the years, including creative text writer, R&D editor, website copyeditor, lead website editor, Serious Fun column author, and design/development team member on multiple sets.

Over the last few weeks, I've spent some enjoyable hours thumbing through cards, building decks, working to condense this:

...into this:

Okay, so it's not quite a suitcase—it's actually a case for holding audio tapes I pilfered from the Goodwill box during a friend's move—and I've already filled it with decks:

...but it's a start.

I've been building a lot of decks lately. I've got a new green-blue Snakes deck and a couple of Snow decks, but the biggest project is the two-color decks my friend Laura and I (mostly Laura) have been working on building using mostly Shadowmoor and Ravnica block cards. I say "mostly" because, although they started as two-block concoctions, Laura decided that she wanted to build the decks using only two-color cards. That leaves a narrow enough card pool that we've started throwing in other multicolor cards from previous sets to fill out holes. Note to self: track down a Decimate or two!

Those decks weren't going to play themselves, so we picked up some frozen delicacies and invited our friends Dave and Will over for some Magic. The frozen food shamed me a little, as I consider myself a cook, but cooking for four on a Monday night and still getting Magic in afterward is a tall order. (Maybe next time, guys!)

Delicious mushroom turnovers

Laura actually intended the two-color decks for Star, which she really enjoys. Last time I played the non-color-driven version of Star, but the color-driven version looks like fun, too, and it could be played with two-color decks just as easily as monocolored decks, provided they were either all ally or all enemy. You could even play it with three-color decks, an idea I have this funny feeling I'll be coming back to in the next couple months.

Star is definitely a format I want to play more of, but we didn't make it to five this time. We tossed around the idea of Two-Headed Giant, but ultimately decided on good old multiplayer Free-for-All.

Format: Free-for-All

In Brief: Three or more Magic players play at one table without teammates, and the last player standing is the winner. Most multiplayer variants are based on Free-for-All.

Rules Rundown: Free-for-All follows the same rules as a duel, with a few exceptions. As for all multiplayer formats, the "multiplayer mulligan" is in effect—meaning that on your first mulligan, you draw seven cards rather than six—and the player who goes first doesn't skip his or her draw step.

By default, you're allowed to attack any number of players each turn with different creatures ("split attacks"), although some groups prefer playing so that you can only attack one player each turn. "Attack left" and "attack right" are also options for Free-for-All that give each player the option to attack only either the player on his or her left or the player on his or her right.

When a player leaves the game, all cards owned by that player also leave the game, as do all spells and abilities that player controls on the stack. He or she loses control of anything he or she gained control of, then anything that player still controls leaves the game as well. This rule is important—it lets you take all your cards with you when you lose, even the ones controlled by other players.

The winner is the last player standing, except in cases where a "you win the game" card like Helix Pinnacle lets one player win with opponents still in the game.

Pros: By far the most common multiplayer format, Free-for-All is what most people are talking about when they say "multiplayer." That means it's never hard to find a game. It's suitable for anywhere from three people up, with the only upward limit being how big your table is and how long you're willing to wait between turns.

With so many different players and decks, Free-for-All offers one of the most varied experiences in Magic.

Cons: Multiplayer games are famous for taking a long time. This is especially bad if you're eliminated toward the beginning of a long game, and it also means that there can be a long wait between turns. Keeping track of everything can be a tough task, occasionally resulting in questions of "Whose turn is it?" when everyone realizes they've been sitting around for five minutes.

Free-for-All can also be very political and a bit capricious, which is not to everyone's tastes. More on that in a minute...

Land of the Free-for-All

It was only fair to let guests pick decks first, so we went around the table. Dave asked for the blue-white deck, because those are his favorite colors.

Tapped Out?

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Will immediately proclaimed his love of green-white, so that deck went to him.

Token Effort

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Laura grabbed the red-black deck, which I know she was quite eager to try out.

Like Hell

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I was pretty curious how the blue-black would fare in multiplayer, so I shuffled it up for a spin.

Stolen Secrets

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(Yes, that’s a 74-card deck. I’m not exactly sure how that happened, but I’m pretty sure I just shuffled in some extra blue-black cards that were laying around by accident. So it goes!)

We started with creatures all around—Dimir Infiltrator and Wasp Lancer for me, Seedcradle Witch and Selesnya Guildmage for Will, Augury Adept and Silkbind Faerie for Dave, and Gobhobbler Rats and Spiteflame Witch for Laura, who was stuck on two lands and had to send a Demigod of Revenge to the grumper when she had eight cards in hand.

"Demigod of Revenge!" said Dave. "Is there another one of those in there?"

"Maybe," said Laura, grinning.

Once she did get to three land, Laura did the neighborly thing and plunked down Everlasting Torment. That left Dave's Augury Adept—and the Swans of Bryn Argoll he played the next turn—looking a little wan.

Meanwhile, I played Ghastlord of the Fugue, giving me 5 points of unblockable power with extra punishment, while Will added a Phytohydra and a Raven's Run Dragoon to his growing army. When two of your three opponents are playing zero creatures that aren't black, you've got to feel pretty good about the Dragoon.

We all had plenty of creatures, which meant that in short order we were all faced with a tricky question: who to attack?

Who to attack? Other than those mushroom turnovers, that is.

To be honest, it's been a while since I've regularly played multiplayer Free-for-All, but it all came flooding back to me in a hurry. Free-for-All can be confusing sometimes.

Attack the strong? Attack the weak? Attack those who attack me? Don't attack anybody? I didn't have any idea. Of course, neither did anyone else, and between the four of us we cheerfully tried all of those strategies over the next few turns.

Will (left) and Dave contemplate the board.

I zipped in at Laura once with Wasp Lancers but focused my efforts elsewhere, reasonably sure that she wasn't any threat.

Will was the Ghastlord of Fugue's first victim:

Pollenbright Wings had to go.

I hit Dave with the Ghastlord a turn later and saw another Swans of Bryn Argoll, another Augury Adept, two Æthertows, and a sad little Palliation Accord.

Dave had his own ideas as far as which one I ought to take...

...but I opted to nab the Swans, because 4/3 flyers are bad news even when they're not nigh-invulnerable.

I passed the turn to Laura, who quietly dropped her fourth land and slammed down Ashenmoor Liege, then attacked me with Gobhobbler Rats and Spiteflame Witch, now a 4/4 and a 4/3. Yikes!

Ashenmoor Liege

I chump-blocked one of them with a Dimir Guildmage and went down to 10, which was starting to look perilously low with all these Swans and Dragoons running (or, um, flying) around.

The funny thing was that I had a Clutch of the Undercity in hand and mana up. I could just bounce the Ashenmoor Liege and block her creatures. There were just two problems. My untapped creatures were 2/2 and 3/2, so I'd still be trading... and I'd lose 4 life too. I held onto the Clutch.

Meanwhile, Dave was at 8, with much of his deck shut down by Everlasting Torment. It was clear he was in trouble, and I didn't like the idea of Dave going out. This was partly because I thought he might be a useful ally against Laura's aggression and Will's growing swarm, sure, but it was also partly because I didn't want to see him get knocked out early and have to sit around. He gave Will a ride, so he wouldn't even be able to skip out early. Boring!

So when Will tapped out to attack Laura and Dave attacked him with Augury Adept and Silkbind Faerie, I helped Dave out a little. I bounced Everlasting Torment with Clutch of the Undercity, taking 3 life from Laura and helping Dave get back in the game a little.

Dave is ready to reveal that card, which turned out to be an Azorius Guildmage.

On my turn, I suited up my Dimir Infiltrator with Helm of the Ghastlord (ha!), sending it at Will and Ghastlord of Fugue itself at Laura.

My Ghastlord pull showed that despite her early stumble on mana, Laura—still with four lands in play—had some scary stuff in store for us:

"Oh, wow," I said. Two Torrent of Souls? Lyzolda, the Blood Witch in an all-red-black deck? Wow indeed.

Still in the mindset of helping Dave, and awfully happy at finding the combo of bounce and Ghastlord of Fugue, I sent Everlasting Torment away for good.

Meanwhile, this attack sent Laura to 3, which put her at the mercy of pretty much anybody at the table. But she got to take a turn first, at least. She drew her fifth land, played Lyzolda, the Blood Witch, and sacrificed Gobhobbler Rats to kill Will's Seedcradle Witch and draw a card. (Will was tapped out.) Rats don't kill witches—witches kill witches.

Laura's next turn, after we all passed on killing her for our own various reasons, was even better. Torrent of Souls brought back Demigod of Revenge, which, with Ashenmoor Liege still in play, was an enormous 9/6 flyer. She could actually have killed me and Will that turn, but at 2 life, that would have left her dead to Dave.

And she couldn't kill Dave that turn even if she sent all her forces his way, despite the fact that he'd been as low as 3 life at one point. See, by taking away Everlasting Torment permanently, I'd created a monster. Not only was he drawing cards and gaining life off of his Augury Adepts, plural, but his Palliation Accord was online now, and he swiftly buried it under a pile of life-sustaining shield counters, chuckling each time someone attacked—especially if they weren't attacking him.

Laura ended up deciding to kill Will with Demigod of Revenge and take Dave down as far as she could.

But with Everlasting Torment out of the way, Dave was drawing cards and gaining life, when the rest of us were stuck with what we had. He weathered Laura's attack, drew yet another card with Sky Hussar (man, I love that card), then played Sky Hussar, tapped my blockers with Azorius Guildmage, and killed Laura and me all at once.

The decks all did their thing, too, which was cool to see. We tinkered with them a little after the game, notably swapping out Phytohydra in the green-white deck for Juniper Order Ranger.

Fit for a King

Crown_of_ConvergenceI have to admit, I've got some misgivings about "kingmaking." I don't think there's any way Dave would have won that game if I hadn't taken mercy on him and taken out the Everlasting Torment, which was doing very little to harm my deck, and I feel a little silly about that. For that matter, even besides the explicit kingmaker moment, there were something like half a dozen points in that game when one of us passed on killing one of the others when the best strategic play was probably to go for the throat.

I'm torn on this. On the one hand, I don't like it that the "correct" play is often to take one player out of the game while you have the chance. Knocking people out of the game is dull with a capital yawn. But on the other hand, leaving everybody alive makes games go longer, and when the conclusion does come, it can feel a little... random.

In some groups, I think it would have made the other players angry when I took out Everlasting Torment. Why did I take out a card that was really only hurting Dave and hand him the game?

I can imagine other groups, though, who wouldn't dream of taking out another player before everyone was good and ready for the fighting to start. Some groups even formalize this with grace periods or cease-fires. In a group like that, certainly nobody would have batted an eye that we all passed on killing Laura, and in fact, there would probably have been some anger if we hadn't. Couldn't we see she was mana-screwed?

In this group, everybody shrugged and laughed and said goodnight, because we're all really laid back. Gaming with relaxed people who don't get too wrapped up in winning has serious advantages.

So in addition to all the variations in card pool, experience, play skill, and whatever else that make one casual group different from another, there's also this aggression factor to think about. It's not quite the same as competitiveness; you can play with five-turn grace periods and still be totally committed to winning. It's how willing you are to knock people out of the game.

Emblem_of_the_WarmindThis group was sort of funny. We all attacked like it was going out of style, but then we were reluctant to actually seal the deal (except for Laura, who took Will out at pretty much her earliest opportunity). It reminds me a little of my family's dog T.J., who chases squirrels at every opportunity but had no idea what to do when he actually caught one.

In future games, I'm going to try playing around with different styles. I'll try being ruthless and eliminating players whenever I can, and I think maybe one game I just won't attack at all for as long as I can get away with it. I'm not so concerned about which approach is better as a strategy; I'm more interested to see which one feels better for everyone concerned.

I'm curious, though, about all of your experiences with this sort of thing. How aggressive is your group? How aggressive are you? Would you rather send people packing as soon as you can, or would you rather keep the game fun and full as long as possible? Shoot me an email or jump in the forums and let me know!

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