The Eight Rules for Multiplayer Magic

Posted in Serious Fun on August 14, 2012

By Adam Styborski

Stybs has played Magic the world over, writing and drafting as part of the event coverage team and slinging Commander everywhere his decks will fit.

Depending upon who you talk to, the 1999 movie Fight Club is either an elegant expression of self-development or an overblown, complicated allegory with gratuitous violence. Discussing the film's meaning, or lack thereof, is an excellent discussion., being a Magic site, means we're not going to be film critics today, but this movie is important for us.

The title's namesake set individuals to battle one-on-one, a duel, to the bloody end. Despite the barbaric nature of the meetings, order is kept through a set of "eight" rules. These rules are practical principles within the movie, and I'm sure some of you can run down all of them off the top of your head.

We don't live within that universe, and those same rules aren't practical for us. The world of multiplayer is vastly different from illicit brawling, and the rules of Fight Club become the opposite of what's practical. Whether you've just had your first taste of multiplayer through Magic 2013 or Duels of the Planeswalkers, or you're a seasoned veteran of multiple opponents, today's article is geared toward helping the newest faces of the game enjoy a multiplayer experience.

The Rules of Engagement

If you're a new to multiplayer and you want the rules rundown, jump below! Veterans should stick here for a quick aside.

Really, only us old timers.

Okay. Is it just we experienced folk of the multiplayer madness?


Let me answer a burning question some of you have: "Doesn't everyone know multiplayer?"

The answer is, obviously, no.

Any way to play Magic requires an introduction. I've met many new players unfamiliar with Commander. Players who learn from buddies and Duels 2013 aren't necessarily intimate with Draft. Local homebrewed and other less-encountered formats and variants only amplify the odds that someone hasn't seen it before.

It's easy for older players to gloss over details for a proper introduction. After all, we've internalized the things we need to know! That's why primers like this one are useful: Evermore, I can link back to today's article (and avoid rewriting it for as long as it doesn't require one).

In summary, today's article isn't a "necessary evil," but an awesome way to share that dealing with multiple opponents doesn't mean an unpleasant experience. I hope you can find new recruits to your circle of enemies, and use this as a way to introduce them before the fated hour.

With that out of the way, let's look at these eight rules!

Dueling an opponent is a quiet experience. Those of the competitive end limit themselves to saying only what's exactly necessary: targets, costs, and other need-to-know info. If you've battled solo against the AI in Duels 2013, table talk might be completely foreign!

Multiplayer is a game not just with multiple players but multiple people, and those people aren't engaged with 100% of the game actions. When it might take several minutes for your turn to roll back around, talking is a natural response. Things happening in the game are relevant to everyone, and keeping up with the latest plays can be helped by discussing them.

And you won't be alone in doing that.

Whether you call it table talk, my preferred term, or apply a more powerful word like "politics," sharing observations during the game is something to expect. What do you see? Do you like or dislike something? What do you think someone's going to do next? Questions like these drive the dynamic nature of multiple opponents, and exploring them in-game will happen.

Expect it.

Unlike in Fight Club, this isn't a repeat from above. While discussing the game is fine, multiplayer has one powerful edge over any duel: You can be playing with many more friends than one.

What I mean is while the plays and game are fine topics, so are "Fight Club: Awesome movie or awesomest movie?" and "Which Planeswalker is the most powerful?" Duels naturally lend themselves to an adversarial role. I fight you, you fight me, and we both get bloody. You're not going to be a friend in the game because there's no reason to be.

Multiplayer games open up the potential of having opponents who aren't an immediate enemy, at least for a time. When I sit down with friends, I want to talk to friends. It doesn't matter if, eventually, I might have to figure out a way to kill them off. I sit down with a conversation at hand.

Don't be afraid to be friendly in games, even if that has to change.

Duels provide one goal: Make your opponent lose. You can deal 20 damage, cast something like Battle of Wits, or hit them with a Door to Nothingness. You can also set up a state where they feel it's impossible to battle back from, and they choose to concede instead of continuing on.

Multiplayer is vastly different. You still have ways to win and make others lose, but multiple players increases the difficulty in achieving those goals. Multiple opponents divide resources, forcing the dominate players to juggle multiple incoming enemies, even if they're individually weaker. It isn't easy to simply sweep away with a multiplayer game (although it can happen).

A more common situation is where a powerful play hits another player hard, but leaves that player alive. That power player temporarily neutralizes a threat to him- or herself, but he or she doesn't have enough to finish the job, or even specifically chooses to not defeat someone. Rule 1 implies that politics—how you handle yourself and others in games—can play a powerful role.

It's absolutely true.

Being alive and injured in multiplayer is sometimes the same as a having Monopoly's "Get out of jail free" card. Others ignore you because, well, you just got stomped on. Between friends, games can carry on quite differently than if you were just battling heads up against a random stranger. Nobody really wants to be the bad guy, so you often get a second chance.

Quitting a multiplayer game, even on the edge of defeat, can lead to some very strange things. When you leave a game, everything you own just disappears too. The Oblivion Ring you cast to seal away someone else's Primeval Titan goes "Poof!" without the opportunity for the Titan to return. (The "leaves the battlefield" trigger can't trigger because the player who owns the trigger isn't part of the game!) The creatures already committed to attacking you won't get to attack someone else or deal their damage (which affects things like lifelink and infect). The resources another player would need to risk to finish you off instead get to be used elsewhere, potentially changing what another players would have had to face down.

If you're going to quit, or someone else is, stop and ask "Why?" Playing it out might indeed lead to the conclusion predicted, but stranger things are routine occurrences in multiplayer. Keep the game going, and make sure Rule 2 is used to make it more pleasant for players potentially on the way out.

And, as a final word here, you should never force someone to stay who still chooses to quit. Concession is always a player's right. Encouraging and creating games where someone won't choose that is everyone's responsibility.

You can't pick and choose who to tangle with. Oh, you can when you're attacking or casting spells, but asking for a reprieve or "Safe Zone" isn't possible. The game is wide open, and everyone can engage the table.

Whether your game has something like "Spell Range" (your spells can only target or affect yourself and the two players sitting immediately adjacent to you) or is something like Star Draft, casting Planar Cleansing and Devastation Tide will affect others whether you want to or not. Talking to friends and being friendly are, ultimately, incongruent with battling in multiplayer: The games end with one player left standing.

Your spells are going to draw attention from everywhere. You're fighting in a fishbowl that only gets smaller over the course of the game. Embrace the bowl and play big.

When you practice and learn playing in a duel, cards like Murder seem great. One hit, one kill is awesome against one opponent. Multiplayer asks for something larger. Instead of just Murdering one creature, consider Mutilate to slay a slew. Sublime Archangel makes attacking one player an excellent idea, but Odric, Master Tactician makes attacking any and every player appealing turn after turn.

When you join a multiplayer game, you step away from the duel-driven ideas of tit-for-tat and into a world where the cards you draw and spells you cast will always sum up less than that of all your opponents put together.

If your cards are going to draw attention, you'll want to find the cards that make it worth your time!

It's an easy idea to overlook, so it bears pointing out: You can attack any number of opponents and/or Planeswalkers they control when you declare your attackers (so long as you have enough creatures to do so). When you have one opponent, the attacks you make are obvious. With multiple players, the possibilities explode.

Which opponents? Which Planeswalkers? How many do I attack with? Which creatures should be back to block? Each of these questions are much harder to answer when looking across at two, three, or more players. And, just as importantly, each of those players will be looking right back at you.

Don't let that fear paralyze you. You can attack two players. You can block over multiple opponents' turns. Sometimes, you'll feel like you made a mistake, but that's okay.

Playing the way you want is much better than doing nothing at all! It's okay to be wrong!

I'll give you a free strategy tip: Cards like Captain of the Watch and Cathars' Crusade are awesome in multiplayer. Getting extra stuff, turn after turn, or a bunch of great stuff all in one shot, helps level out the problem of multiple opponents. (See Rules 4 and 5.)

And if you choose to heed my words of wisdom, please do your games a favor and bring some dice and tokens. Using just dice makes it hard to track which token creatures are which, and without dice it's hard to add +1/+1 counters to things. (Or charge counters. Or -1/-1 counters. Or track if you've been poisoned. You can see where this is going.)

While some of your opponents might be willing to lend you dice for the game, Rule 3 points out that when players leave their stuff goes with them. While the game rules specify cards and tokens owned by the players leaving with them, the physical players with their physical property might want their dice back, too. Having your own isn't just convenient, like in a duel, but a practical necessity in keeping track of what's yours.

And as an avid user of counters and tokens of all varieties, I can also share that losing someone else's dice is a miserable feeling. If you're prone to forget things (I am!), please be courteous to others and lose your own stuff (I do!).

The only multiplayer rule in agreement with Fight Club's is the seventh: Fights will go on as long as they have to. Duels are usually 10-15 minutes, but multiplayer games are almost never that fast. (If they are, I would suspect that something has gone horribly wrong!)

Multiplayer games take time. The more players, the longer the game can last. Variants like Commander, with large libraries to shuffle and a starting total of 40 life each, can last for hours. Since leaving a game early can be terrible (see Rule 3), multiplayer asks for you to plan to stick it out however long it takes.

This isn't a complicated deal: Defeating multiple players takes longer than defeating just one. It's simple math, so be prepared!

What strikes me about learning new formats is that the first time I try it I'm often unsuccessful. I don't know all the little rules and tricks. I'm unfamiliar with how others engage it. I won't know which of my decks will work best for giving it a go.

I hear stories about why someone tried Commander once and "didn't like it." I've heard "multiplayer doesn't make sense" from dozens of folks. Admittedly, my sample is coming from the floors of Grand Prix events. But many also shared that they were handed a deck, given the rules once, and tried to play in a way they didn't quite understand.

It's perfectly acceptable to watch Magic. (You'll have the chance to do that from home with the streaming coverage of the World Magic Cup this weekend! /CoveragePlug.) You don't have to try to play a game in an unfamiliar variant until you've watched one play out yourself. Multiplayer doesn't demand you to play: It asks nicely for one more player, and you can wait to understand what's happening before diving in.

Sharing ways to play isn't about forcing the new on others, but inviting them in to try it for themselves. Show it so they know it: If everyone's patient everyone will have a stellar time.

Captain of the Watch | Art by Greg Staples

I Wanted to Share Something Beautiful

I hope these guidelines lay out what the multiplayer experience can be, and if you want to introduce someone to playing with multiple players this should be a great way to get them ready.

Since we're dealing with formats, I want to remind everyone of the ongoing "Show Your Way to Play" challenge I've tasked us with:

  • Pick your favorite format you want to have shared with the world (so more of us give it a go, too).
  • Provide the best representative deck that shows off what's awesome about making decks for the format.
  • Send the format, it's rules (as description or a link somewhere else), and the deck to me using the Respond Via Email option below.
  • All emails must be received by midnight Eastern on Friday, August 17. (Now updated with more time!)

I added more time because, well, I'll be at Gen Con this weekend (hanging around to watch the World Magic Cup live, of course!) and I have something awesome to share next week. Since I won't be sharing the formats in next Tuesday's article, everyone has more time to demonstrate the best way to share a new way to play.

If you'll be around at Gen Con, don't hesitate to reach out to me on Twitter (I'm @the_stybs!) and maybe we can get a game in. There's always something to do at Gen Con, so I hope we'll both have time to squeeze it in.

Join us next week when we throw a party. See you then!

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