The First Two Turns

Posted in Serious Fun on June 29, 2005

By Anthony Alongi

Getting off to a good start in group play

Lots of people think that multiplayer Magic games go something like this: do nothing for five turns, and then watch everything happen at once.

It's not a fair, or even accurate, stereotype. One of the most important skills to master in group Magic is how to use your first two turns. Beatdown week seems like a good idea to get into this – although we won't be talking exclusively about beatdown strategies, beatdown figures very prominently into the card, deck, and play choices we'll make.

Each game poses the question. Do you begin the beatdown – or set up for the control? The decision you make by the end of the second turn may decide the outcome of the game.

Your Required Reading

Flores, at GP Milan ‘02

One of the most important Magic articles ever written was a piece by Mike Flores, from his Dojo days, titled "Who's the Beatdown?" In it, we learned why even a supposedly suicidal deck featuring Hatred might, under some conditions, actually be the control deck in a match-up – or a Wildfire deck might be the beatdown.

If you haven't read it yet, you should. I don't care if you'll never play a tournament game in your life. You are missing out on a fine thought piece if you skip the article.

Lots of casual players think that articles written by tournament players aren't for them. I'll readily admit I find a great deal of that stuff unpalatable. (It's always funny when I get another email from a reader who normally goes for tournament stuff, but wanted to comment on my article as well. I want to reply with something like, how can you read that stuff? I'd rather drive nails through my eyeballs. But I don't, for three reasons. First, it's rude and probably not very "corporate team" of me, since some of those articles reside on this quite official site. Second, the reader's trying to be nice to me – and I'm going to kick him in the teeth? Doesn't sound too sporting. And third, as indigestible as tournament reports may be, my own articles are hardly literary ambrosia. So I generally come up instead with something more professional, like, "Thanks, and welcome to real Magic!")

But even if you don't like most tournament-focused articles, you should make a habit of reading one or two each week. Why? Because (a) some of these guys are quite entertaining writers, and (b) you will learn something about Magic. The old "I'm not in it to win; I'm in it to have fun" line doesn't really excuse you from intentionally stunting your skill development. If you're going to play a game, learn how to play it as well as you can.

Start with Mike. When you've read the link, come back.

So You're Back – What Now?

What we do now is go back to basics. Remembering that we're talking about casual (and more specifically, multiplayer) Magic. Ask yourself this fundamental question:

Why would anyone want to play a spell on the first or second turn, when a deck only has so many slots and the stuff on turns three and four are usually so much more powerful?

Why play four copies Wild Mongrel and four copies Troll Ascetic, instead of four copies of Troll Ascetic and four copies of (say) Call of the Herd? Why play 4x Sakura-Tribe Elder and 4x Kodama's Reach, when you can play 4x Kodama's Reach and 4x Harrow? Why, for that matter, play 4x Savannah Lions, 4x Silver Knight, and 4x Paladin en-Vec when you can just play 4x Wrath of God (and eight copies of other variants) and wipe out everything that showed up until that point?

There are at least four reasons.

1) Time. If all you play are enormous creatures that come out on turn 11, you will probably be dead before you get to that much mana. The point extends to less expensive cards – decks that don't get started until turn three take large risks. Tournament decks are absolutely unforgiving on this point. Casual games have a reputation for allowing "late" decks to succeed from time to time; but it doesn't happen as often as tournament jockeys like to think.

2) Smooth development. Closely related to time, the matter of development has a lot to do with a deck's consistency and playability. If you have a play on turn one, and your opponent has a response, you have learned something about her deck. If you have a subsequent play on turn two, and your opponent has another response, you've learned a little more. If you have yet another play on turn three, and your opponent does something else, look at all you've learned about what you're facing!

On the other hand, if your first play is on turn six, you may not know anything important about your opponent's deck. Many decks succeed by sitting back and waiting to counter everything, for example. Not knowing what you're facing – countermagic, mass kill, or just a simple case of mana flooding – can hamper your ability to make the right play at the right time – to achieve victory, or pull off your fun combo, or whatever.

3) More fun. Back to the game above where you do something, and then your opponent does something, and then you do something, and then she does, and so on. That sounds pretty darn interactive, doesn't it? Even if she's countering everything you're doing, it requires a back-and-forth. (And in the wider metagame, it encourages you to play more stuff like Blurred Mongoose and Isao, Enlightened Bushi.) If instead you wait six turns before the real game starts, you've shortened the span of time where you could have had cards on the board doing things with each other.

4) Acceleration. Some players like to play certain cards on turns one and two – say, Wayfarer's Bauble or Rampant Growth – because they want to hurry up and get to the more powerful cards before their opponents can. It may not seem like much, but the ability to get Seedborn Muse or Seizan, Perverter of Truth out by turn three instead of five can have a huge swing on a multiplayer game. In some (but not all) respects, it's like getting two cards up on your opponents, since you have a threat out and their answer may be two cards down in their deck. Play it on turn five, and they have the answer. Play it on turn three, and they don't.

While some of these points may seem incredibly basic to some readers, believe me when I say the majority of readers need to hear this sort of thing – and often. Playing with nothing but lots of expensive and powerful cards in your deck will lead to nothing but loss after loss after loss.

I hear a lot of this when I'm playing Magic Online: "Of course Alongi's decks do well. He has access to four of every card."

Sometimes people say this when I've just played my third copy of Pernicious Deed, enjoyed two Mystic Snakes against key spells, and have six Apocalypse dual lands in play. At these times, I try not to argue the point. After all, they may be on to something.

But other times, people say this when I'm beating down with a Graceful Antelope, Copperhoof Vorrac, or Dross Harvester. (Sure, they're all rare; but are you trading any of them for 30 tickets?)

My decks do well in part because I have access to resources not every player has, true. But they also do okay when the five-star rares don't show up. The following cards are a big reason why. None of them are rare.

Ten For Two

When you build a deck – cardboard or electronic – do yourself a favor. Sort it out by the casting cost. Put the stuff that costs one in the far left-hand column, and the stuff that costs two in the next column to the right, and so on. (If you want to get fancy, put the creatures across a top row and the non-creatures in a row below that.)

Your typical deck should look a little bit like a bell curve, with the bulge of the bell somewhere between three and four mana. (Preferably not five, and never six.) Always try to have at least eight plays in the two leftmost columns – stuff you can play on turns one and two.

Here are three picks for each color, when playing just about any multiplayer format, team or free-for-all. You'll remember some of these as "staple cards" from my Multiplayer Card Hall of Fame; but I've sprinkled in some newer choices and applied additional analysis on how they impact beatdown strategies.

Wayfarer's Bauble

Artifacts: I've already mentioned Wayfarer's Bauble as a great accelerator. This card is good even in monochrome decks because it accelerates and thins your deck; but of course it really shines in decks where you're looking for that second, third, fourth, or even fifth color.

From a more aggressive standpoint, many decks are quite compatible with Myr Servitors. While they do beg for several combos (the latest of which would be Shirei, Shizo's Caretaker), they also do an admirable job of doing some early damage – or sitting back to chump-block endlessly, if you have more than one.

My third artifact pick will also be from Mirrodin block. Isochron Scepter may bother a lot of people – especially if you tack Echoing Truth or Orim's Chant onto it – but it's a card you should make sure you have in your collection. They will be making good, inexpensive instants for a long time at Wizards. Scepter will be back. And it will generally break the back of many good aggressive decks. Be ready for it.

White: White has so many good second-turn creatures, I could just do one sentence on them, encourage you to look them up in Gatherer, and be done with it – and in fact, I think I will.

Okay, I'll add a few more sentences to mention one of the few instants on this list – Shelter. This card does wonderful things both early and late. In any white deck where you have good first-turn plays, consider Shelter as a way to protect them as they launch their first attack.

Green: Sakura-Tribe Elder is my unsurprising first pick here. For two mana, you fix your color base and get an early creature if the situation suits. I've seen decks devote considerable resources toward stopping the effectiveness of Elders (e.g., Engineered Plague, Stifle).

Wild Mongrel is still probably the best turn two creature from a beatdown standpoint – and will be, for some time. Wizards staff members have said on record they probably don't ever want to try to top its power level.

Traproot Kami

Traproot Kami is an increasingly popular choice for early defense against beatdown strategies – as well as later defense against large flyers. In a multiplayer game, you can easily end up with a 0/13 spider-like creature that no one feels like removing because they'd feel like an idiot squandering a precious Terminate on what amounts to a tangly wall.

Red: If you don't have Mogg Fanatic, go find four at your local store. Frostling is a mediocre substitute in most situations.

The Slith Firewalker is perhaps the most feared of all the Mirrodin-block sliths (though I'm also partial to the Arcbound Slith). In a free-for-all game, it can almost certainly find enough open defenders early to grow to 4/4 or larger.

My third choice for red is Pyroclasm. When a board gets ugly early, no color can beat red for two mana. (Well, okay, maybe black. We'll get to that in a moment.)

Black. While I've seen Chainer's Edict be incredibly effective, I have to say I prefer Innocent Blood for group games. This is the swamp's answer to Pyroclasm. Your own deck can work around it, your teammates generally don't get hurt to bad, and everyone else is often devastated.

Hand of Cruelty makes it to this list on artwork alone. Thank goodness it's also a stellar card.

Finally, I like Ravenous Rats as an early salvo for discard-based decks. It will only get better with time – it does, after all, come out a turn before Skull Collector.

Blue. Of course, blue has the classic Counterspell, which over time will become harder to acquire since it seems Wizards would like blue to work a bit harder to say "no". Condescend is a fine substitute in most instances.

I have become very fond of Wall of Deceit in one of my blue-red decks. (I have an online and actual-card version of the deck, because I love it so much.) It does so much – stop early beatdown, flip over to apply its own pressure, or even come out morphed and confuse the enemy for a bit.

But perhaps the most effective blue spell I've seen in a long time is Echoing Truth. It does horrible things to early tempo, and it completely wrecks token decks. I see it a lot, but I'm still not sure I see it played as often as it should be. Even without Isochron Scepter, it is a fine solution to beatdown decks.

Gold: Of course, virtually all of the good common and uncommon gold cards which cost two or less come from Invasion block. As Magic's perhaps most beloved block, even commons can be hard to come by. But you should try.

Goblin Legionnaire

The five "pro-knights" (like Shivan Zombie) and the five "Apocalypse knights" (like Goblin Legionnaire) are almost automatic considerations in any deck playing their colors. If you don't have them in your decks, know why you don't. If it's not a conscious choice, it's probably a mistake.

Terminate is the (pun intended) gold standard of removal. It can stop a beatdown strategy in its tracks; or it can remove the blockers necessary to make beatdown succeed.

And no list of effective early-and-affordable cards would be complete without Hull Breach. This is an absolute wrecking ball in most multiplayer environments, especially since Mirrodin block made artifacts so popular – and then Champion's hondens made enchantments popular again! You'll almost always get to play this in double-smash mode. Excellent for removing obstacles to your army's attack, such as a Ghostly Prison and Ensnaring Bridge.

A Format To Encourage Beatdown

Now that we've looked at the sorts of cards you ought to be putting into the early phases of your decks to increase your chances of success, let's talk about a format that encourages beatdown. I call it "Half-Life", in honor of the fine first-person action video game that revolves around the mishaps of the Black Mesa xenobiologic research institute.

The premise is this: each player starts with ten life. Hidetsugu's Second Rite is banned.

That's it. What, you wanted a pro-beatdown format to be complex? Try it out – I think you'll be surprised at how it can change the tenor of the game, and at how certain colors don't do as well as you might think they would.

Let the beats begin!

Anthony has been playing multiple Magic formats for over seven years, and has been writing far longer than that. His new fantasy young adult novel, Jennifer Scales and the Ancient Furnace, was co-written with his wife MaryJanice Davidson, and comes out August 2005 from Berkley Books.

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