Driving the Truck Through the Hole

Posted in Serious Fun on February 19, 2008

By The Ferrett

If you aren't familiar with Limited Resources, well, then you weren't playing in the time of Exodus. (Wow, that sounded biblical.) One of the more potent cards ever created for multiplayer, it breaks one of the primary rules of Magic: you can have as many lands as you want.

One of the most successful decks I ever built was this:

White-Green Limited Resources

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You have to mulligan aggressively for this deck to function, for at its heart it's a combo-style deck that relies on getting a first- or second-turn Limited Resources into play... but once I got it down, people found it almost impossible to work around it. If I went first, with the right start, some poor folks never got to lay a land.

Limited Resources
Thanks to my land-fetchers and Quirion Elves and so forth, I was able to function quite nicely with next to no resources. But my opponents? They had nothing. They had, foolishly, just thought that putting a land down a turn was their birthright. And oh, how they paid for that.

The reason this deck was so good is that it assaulted one of the fundamental assumptions of my metagame (and, I'd wager, yours): You get to play as many lands as you want. At a ten-man table (which is what it was designed for), your opponents have probably built decks assuming they'll get to at least three lands before they get wiped out.

Kick that out from under them, and they die. Their decks just aren't prepared for that sea change.

Then you win.

Now, this deck obviously isn't going to work for everyone. It has a lot of old cards (and you may note that back then, I couldn't afford the 4x Mox Diamonds I really needed to make it work), and would be expensive. But I'm bringing it up to discuss one of the critical skills about the multiplayer:

To win, you need to look at what people assume will happen, and then make sure it doesn't happen.

Let's take a look at another deck I've referenced here in the past: my friend Todd's Paradox Haze deck.

Todd's Deck

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Is that a great deck? Probably not. The Dousing Shaman helps a little, but a Pernicious Deed or a Tranquility (or, for you newbies, a Tempest of Light) would destroy this deck. It's fragile.

But the thing is, Todd had been paying attention to what we'd been playing. He'd noticed, quite properly, that the Pernicious Deed decks had subsided, and hardly anyone was playing with enchantment kill. Better yet, nobody was playing with global enchantment kill, meaning that plopping three enchantments down at once would be almost unstoppable.

He noticed our assumption: "Enchantments aren't a problem." Then he made that a problem. And he won, ending in grand fashion at 96 life, forcing force three players per turn to discard four cards (thanks to not one, but two Paradox Hazes), doing four damage to three targets per turn, and churning an ungodly number of Spirits to the table.

Let me say it once again, just to drive it home:

You need to look at what people assume will happen, and then make sure it doesn't happen.

Wrath! of! God!After writing last week's "Living in a (Wrath of) Godless World" article, some folks seemed confused. "Don't you espouse laying low?" they asked. "A Wrath of God is a huge threat! It'll draw a lot of reaction from your fellow players. It's a terribly apolitical move. Aren't you contradicting your own statements?"

Really, I'm not. I am a big fan of not attracting attention... But when you see an opening, you have to go for it. And if your group's assumption is, "I can play whatever creatures I want and they'll all stick around," removing that assumption will leave them so helpless that politics won't matter.

Seriously. If the assumption up until now has been, "Barring targeted removal, everything I put down will stick around," then everyone will naturally plop their entire hand down onto the table as quickly as possible. Why hold anything back? It just makes you weaker when the people who didn't hold back start the attack.

Which means when you Wrath of God for the first time, your opponents will likely have nothing left in hand. Sure, they'll be angry at you. But what are they going to do? You now have your own creatures, and (ideally) you can finish them off at will before they recover. Or, if they recover, Wrath of God again! (After all, you've been stockpiling since the last Wrath of God, whereas they've been forced to play them as they got them.)

Remember the old adage:

Diplomacy is the art of saying "Nice doggie!" 'til you can find a rock.

But here's another thing about the metagame: You can change it with a single deck. As soon as you Wrath of God once or twice, people will immediately understand that they can't rely on critters staying around. (They ain't dumb.) That metagame might shift to "Say, I'd better get some Wrath of Gods" or "Hey, we should kill Jonathan whenever he's playing white," but it will change.

A solid metagame deck won't win more than once or twice. A metagame is fluid. Todd's deck might have been king when he first played it, but two weeks later we were back to Deeds and Akroma's Vengeances, just in case. People started packing Abolishes and Disenchants and Elves to handle my potential Limited Resources, just in case.

A metagame—at least a healthy one—is in a constant state of flux. It does not stay constant (unless you're cursed with a bunch of players who never change decks no matter what, in which case I'd advice tuning some nasty decks to exploit that, then help them to design new decks—it worked for me!). So be prepared for that change.

Looking at the metagame involves really paying attention to what your group plays. Every time you sit down with them, think about what you see—and, more importantly, what you don't see. Look for the absences and assumptions, and then build a deck that exploits them.

Still, there are several fundamental assumptions that you can tweak, with a little bit of help.

Nonbasic Lands Are Harmless

Our most metal player, Jack, had killed us with this assumption on more than a few occasions. See, our group loves all sorts of crazy lands—Ravnica's bouncelands, the Kamigawa legendary lands, the old-school dual lands, and let us not forget the Mirrodin artifact lands in the right decks.

Blood Moon
Jack plays Blood Moon and Goblins.

That hurt. Suddenly, we had all of these cool lands, but they were locking us out of our good colors! And Jack had Goblin King, meaning that these lovely, lovely Mountain-wannabes were a bridge to a beating from several hasty, angry Red men.

Todd also noted this assumption and played Price of Progress. There are a lot of cards that can hose folks like that—Destructive Flow's popular in Extended, but you can also try such luminaries as Ruination, Sowing Salt, Back to Basics, Primal Order, the probably-too-slow Detritivore, a beefed-up Dryad Sophisticate, or Wilderness Elemental.

Heck, you could try something as loopy as Mercadia's Downfall. I guarantee you they'll have to read the card.

I'll Have as Many Lands as I Want

We all know that Land Destruction isn't particularly fun. But I also think it has its place in a proper multiplayer metagame, just as a reminder that it's not entirely safe to build a deck around eight-mana creatures.

If your group pretty much relies on stalling until the late game, then taking that away from them with a global land destruction deck isn't a bad thing. The classic method is Armageddon, of course, but as an older card that might be hard to get. But Boom is relatively new, and a solid way of destroying everything (as is the more expensive Myojin of Infinite Rage), Wildfire is a classic that most decks have a hard time recovering from, and Obliterate removes the risk of those pesky counterspells.

Desolation Angel, of course, remains one of the highlights of multiplayer land destruction, giving you both a threat and a bigger threat. And again, if you want a "What's that do?", whip out Impending Disaster.

'Course, you have to make sure that you're in a position to win once your lands go away. That's tricky, because the later the game goes, the more likely it is that someone might have something ugly on the table. But that's the challenge of any LD deck, really – you can kill the lands. What now?

I'll Win via the Attack Phase

Another classic that's often answered by the word "combo." But even if you don't want to go with filthy dirty combo (and who could blame you?), there are a couple of other options, like pinging someone to death or destroying them slowly with an enchantment.

This is the weak spot of a lot of groups. If they can't attack, then wow, they just sit there.

Now, everyone espouses cards like Propaganda and Blazing Archon, but in my experience it doesn't always work. Sure, sometimes a well-placed Propaganda will turn people away from you, causing them to attack someone else... But what happens after the first few times you win behind you happy wall is this:

  1. Someone blows up your Propaganda / Blazing Archon at your end of turn.
  2. Someone else shouts, "THE GATES ARE DOWN! ATTACK NOWWWWWW!"
  3. Everyone attacks you for a turn, knowing that this is their last, best hope for peace.
  4. You lose.

Besides, encouraging people to attack other people isn't affecting their metagame. It's just mutating it. I'm talking taking their attack step away, like you'd yank a stick of delicious chocolate away from a kid.

What happens then is interesting... Because for every attacker who's hosed by this strategy, there's generally a behind-the-eight-ball attackee who doesn't want to get hit quite yet. So in the right circumstances, you can actually have people protecting your universal Moat.

Hence, you might want to think about playing things like Peacekeeper—which, as a 1/1 is pretty fragile without some other support. So you'd probably be better off playing Ensnaring Bridge, that old-style method of locking people out from attacking. Then you can go about your business. (Hellloooooo, Form of the Dragon.)

Alternatively, try something fun like Powerstone Minefield. Whee!

I'll Keep All of My Guys Back on Defense

Grand Melee.

Keldon Twilight.

War's Toll.

Siren's Call on an Isochron Scepter.

All fun ways to shake up a metagame where people have begun emulating walls. 'Course, you realize they're going to attack you, right?

It's Okay to Stockpile Cards in Hand

Mind Shatter
This one's slightly more difficult to exploit, mainly because, well, if they have a bunch of cards in hand they're very likely to have answers in hand. Which makes it a little harder to punish them.

Some would advocate the use of mass discard, but even something as efficient as Syphon Mind doesn't work terribly well. If they have a bunch of cards in hand, the other six they have on-hand are probably good enough to defeat you. And cards like Mind Shatter are great—but when you have to use one card for each opponent, it's not good.

Mindslicer's your best bet to force people's hand—heh—especially if you have some sort of sacrifice outlet. But again, you have to make sure you have dominance on the table when you destroy it. (Myojin of Night's Reach is a more expensive version, but equally good otherwise.)

But even if you can't get them to discard, Wheel of Fortune-style effects work pretty nicely, taking those carefully-chosen seven cards and replacing them with something considerably more random. (Bonus points if you can keep a Megrim in play, but... you probably can't.) And "everyone plays" cards like Hunted Wumpus and Hypergenesis can encourage other players to whomp down enough threats to force their hand a little bit.

Also? Try a little Impatience. Not efficient, but kinda fun.

In Conclusion...

There are other multiplayer assumptions floating about —"I can win with large creatures as a finisher" (try stealing 'em all with Bribery or locking them down with stuff like Meekstone), "I can have a lot of small creatures" (Wrath of God, again, or something funny like Fade Away), "I don't need to worry about artifacts" (play really nasty artifacts—duh), and so forth. But if you start looking, you almost certainly will find them.

I should add one caveat, though: exploiting multiplayer metagames isn't always fun. It serves a valuable purpose: it keeps everyone on their toes, shaking up otherwise-static groups. Without the occasional spanner in the works, your games will become as predictable as an episode of House. (Does the guy ever diagnose a disease properly in the first five minutes?)

The wins themselves, sometimes, can be excruciating. You're taking advantage of something your opponents can literally do nothing about, because they didn't bring the tools. The wins will involve you sitting around, shrugging, while everyone asks each other whether anyone can do anything about it. And if you've done it properly, they can't.

In the long run, it is more fun, because "people playing new decks they built" is a hoot. There's the joy of watching someone's coolest creation unspool in response to a change you made. There's the happiness of the unknown—hey, what's Ted playing tonight? And lastly, there's the thrill of countering someone's deck—when someone hauls out that danged Ensnaring Bridge deck out, only to discover that you've quietly slipped a Splinter into your mono-Green beatdown deck.

But that twenty minutes achieving the win might be a bit of a bummer. Just warning you. Switch decks afterwards, let them mentally note that your deck exists, and move on.

And, hopefully, the process of metagame evolution will begin.

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