Five For Fifth In Five-Player

Posted in Serious Fun on June 1, 2004

By Anthony Alongi

Celebrating the best multiplayer cards in Fifth Dawn

The early weeks after a set's release has traditionally become a time when I get to focus on those new cards I feel are truly spectacular for group games. This time around is no exception.

To understand how I rate multiplayer cards, you'll need to recall my “animal elements” – yes, I mention those a lot; but they work as a nice shorthand and I'm not going to stop anytime soon! For quick reference, rattlesnake for the aspect of a card that warns off or deflects attention, gorilla for that part of a card that smashes, spider for when you're looking to bait and trap someone into card advantage, pigeon for those times when more people equals more fun, plankton for serving as food and thrills for everyone, and cockroach for repeatable and/or persistent effects. I rate on a scale of 0 to 8, and I even release overall scores in my annual Multiplayer Card Hall of Fame (next one comes up this autumn, shortly after the next big expansion's release). It's a lot of fun for me to do, and readers seem to go along amiably enough.

So if you need more context, don't be afraid to go into the archives and dig for it. You'll find all you need in last October's articles.

How Is The Set Overall For Multiplayer?

My first reaction to a scan of the Fifth Dawn spoiler was fairly sharp surprise. Wizards generally does try to save some of the more powerful cards for the third set of a three-expansion block (Apocalypse may be the most famous example); but in this case I think they were trying to push unusually hard.

I tend to rate the “pushiness” of a set by counting up the number of cards that either (a) outright break one of the comprehensive rules (think of Upwelling), and/or (b) introduce a significant, game-wide complexity to interpreting those rules (think of Portcullis, or Humility). It's not that I think complexity is always great – it's just that I tend to respect a game when it pushes its players to think a bit harder. Most small sets have about three or four of these “pushy” cards.

Fifth Dawn has at least eight.

My Top Five list has two, which we'll get to in a moment. The other six (and the rule they break/bend) include:

There are several others I'd list on the cusp: Crucible of Worlds, Lantern of Insight, Mycosynth Golem, Door to Nothingness, the five Beacons, and so on. That's a lot of cards that rework turns, refashion how you play spells, and recalculate your entire deck and multiple turns of combat math. I like the way Wizards is challenging us as players, and trust we can all step it up a notch.

The other thing I like about Fifth Dawn for casual players is the addition of scry. Based on manipulative cards like Opt and Darksteel Pendant, scry will be a nifty, subtle mechanic for players who like to keep their decks orderly. It will help a bit with manascrew or colorscrew, which helps keeps games more fun for casual players. And it may even lend itself to tricks compatible with Psychic Battle or the like. While it has the feel of a one-set mechanic, scry is something I wouldn't mind seeing more of a year or so from now.

On the less positive side, one of the most successful mechanics of Mirrodin block is starting to give me the jitters. Having seen three sets full of potentially game-breaking imprint cards, I'm hoping the mechanic takes a long and restful vacation. I love cards like Isochron Scepter and Soul Foundry; but who can say what card interactions years from now are going to haunt casual groups? I feel badly for those current and future developers at Wizards who'll have to run every sorcery and instant through Panoptic Mirror. (Beacon of Tomorrows worries me with that card as it is!)

All of this is, of course, speculation. So if we're going to speculate, let's get to the main event!

The Quaint Quintet

I am not presenting these in any particular order. Once you hit the top five of any list, distinctions are generally moot.

Summoner's Egg

Summoner's Egg. Bluffing holds great appeal to me. This egg can hatch lots of things – a first-rate champion like Akroma, Angel of Wrath or Bladewing the Risen; utility “comes-into-play” creature like Viridian Shaman or Gravedigger; or even some off-color creation like Royal Assassin in a mono-green deck.

Or it might be an Eager Cadet.

Customizable Rukh Eggs are wondrous things, and you won't find many opponents eager to attack into them. Because of this, the Summoner's Egg has a high “rattlesnake” rating. At the same time, it maintains a decent “spider” rating because of the instant-speed traps it can set up. (Think Death Bomb, Spontaneous Combustion, or Mask of the Mimic.) Usually, a card with a high rating in one of those two elements will have a low rating on the other one. But threatening an unknown changes that sort of math.

Rules note: If the Egg leaves play without going to the graveyard, there is no way to get that creature back.

Countermeasures and counter-countermeasures: Of course, the Egg is susceptible to bounce (which keeps the imprinted card out of the game for good). It's also not pleased when adorned with something like Arrest – so you'll want some fairly easy way of disposing of it, should the occasion arise. I'd wait an extra turn or two before bringing it out when blue is on the board. Once you have the mana, you can try one of the instant tricks above, or just blend with something simple like Claws of Gix, Goblin Bombardment, Metamorphosis, or Worthy Cause. Black has a million tricks involving creature sacrifice; you might consider Braids, Cabal Minion (works either on the board, or inside the Egg).

Animal elements for Summoner's Egg:
Rattlesnake: 7
Gorilla: 3
Spider: 4
Pigeon: 2
Plankton: 2
Cockroach: 5
Overall (weighted average): 3.95
Sample artifact creatures: Beast of Burden (4.12), Masticore (3.93)

Bringer of the Red Dawn

Bringer of the Red Dawn. All five “bringers” are excellent. No crying if I didn't pick your favorite color. But the voting was clear – four out of five bringers agree, the red bringer's the best for multiplayer. (The odd bringer out was, ironically, red, who predictably has a taste for other creatures...)

The repeatable use of other players' creatures makes the red bringer my slight favorite for group games. A player is less likely to provoke you with Crosis, the Purger if you have the means to tempt the dragon to your own army next turn.

One fair question to ask in casual constructed – how often will players pay either cost (that is, the conventional or the alternate )? This card seems a natural for an Oath of Druids deck, or even a blue-red Proteus Staff deck with Darksteel Colossus (I've got one myself) for those occasions when you Polymorph someone else's creature and end up getting something even nastier – like, say, their own Darksteel Colossus.

Here's something else to look out for – all five bringers are simple 5/5 tramplers. This isn't a big deal for red or green or even black; but 5/5 tramplers are rare in white and blue. Two or three years from now, you're likely to have a white-blue deck that could make use of a 5/5 trampler – maybe the next iteration of Phyrexian Splicer will arrive, or maybe you'll benefit from a Scourge-like converted mana cost mechanic. (It's a shame the creature type “bringer” wouldn't appear to have a future.) However the next few years unfold, try to see past the flashy abilities, and pay attention to those less conventional uses that will really make an innovative deck click.

Rules note: Don't forget that you untap the creature when you get it. The original controller is welcome to tap it in response to you putting the bringer's ability on the stack; but you'll still get it fresh.

Countermeasures and countercountermeasures: Against the red bringer specifically, you might try creatures that self-sacrifice (e.g., Bottle Gnomes), hordes of weenies, and/or the old standby, creatures with protection from red (e.g., Voice of Law). This will force the controller of the bringer to play more slowly and choose targets more carefully – he'll have to keep a third player alive, if for no other reason than he'll want to see you dead first.

It's possible the “bringer” mage can overcome most countermeasures to the red bringer by following the obvious advice of Wizards and playing all five in the same deck. You won't want to try and squeeze four copies of each in there; but a couple of each and some good deck searching like Solemn Simulacrum (which works well with the white bringer) could get you there.

Of course, a really nice counter-counter-countermeasure for all five bringers is Eon Hub. So if you go the five-bringer route, pack a Viridian Shaman or two!

Animal elements for Bringer of the Red Dawn:
Rattlesnake: 5
Gorilla: 4
Spider: 2
Pigeon: 5
Plankton: 2
Cockroach: 6
Overall (weighted average): 4.07
Sample red creatures: Shivan Hellkite (4.27), Crater Hellion (3.64)

Endless Whispers

Endless Whispers. As one of the rule-breaking cards I referenced above (dead creatures go to graveyards, dead creatures don't generally bounce back automatically, dead creatures who bounce back automatically generally come back under your control, etc.), Endless Whispers is my personal favorite in the set.

Why? Because no other card in Magic rates so strongly across so many elements of great multiplayer cards. You want to send a warning signal (rattlesnake)? Tell everyone your creatures won't die, and you get to choose where they come back. You want to impact the whole board (gorilla) and let everyone play (plankton)? Give all creatures that same undying ability. You want to see the effect happen multiple times (cockroach)? Have it happen automatically, with no additional mana investment. And of course, the more players there are (pigeon), the more strategic opportunities you'll have to place your resurrected creatures.

That's five out of six elements. (Sadly, you won't be baiting anyone into card advantage too easily from this enchantment. No card is perfect!) There are probably better multiplayer cards in Magic's history – perhaps even without leaving the color black – but the list is very short. Expect to see this one rank pretty darn high in the next Hall of Fame.

What's also interesting to me is the way this card “fixes” Lifeline, an artifact from Urza's Saga that went completely haywire with echo creatures such as Deranged Hermit. (Lifeline had other problems, not least of which were the considerable errata and necessary rules clarifications.) With Lifeline, Deranged Hermit was stupid. With Endless Whispers, a Deranged Hermit that continually sprays squirrels all over the board and pumps them intermittently is good fun. Here's hoping more old-school players will look to build Whispers decks, which will be more challenging and interactive than any Lifeline deck.

Rules note: Token creatures go to the graveyard, but are then removed from play. They will not come back under anyone's control. (The second half of the card's ability hints at this, by specifically mentioning “creature card”.)

Countermeasures and countercountermeasures: As with the Summoner's Egg, you're depending on a triggered ability based on a creature hitting the graveyard. If creatures never hit the graveyard (e.g., Swords to Plowshares), then Endless Whispers won't have much effect. The answer for the controller of Whispers is something to help get rid of creatures easily – e.g., Attrition. (And again, the choices for Summoner's Egg would apply here as well.)

Animal elements for Endless Whispers:
Rattlesnake: 5
Gorilla: 5
Spider: 2
Pigeon: 4
Plankton: 7
Cockroach: 5
Overall (weighted average): 4.72
Sample black enchantments: Grave Pact (4.74), Death Match (4.64)

Avarice Totem

Avarice Totem. Every couple of sets, Wizards tosses a wild push-and-pull card into the mix. Who'll end up with the Jinxed Idol? How confusing can you make Confusion in the Ranks? Now, it's a Totem grab. You may give the Totem to someone for a fabulous creature. Their first choice may be to spend five mana to get their creature back – or they might trade it for something another player has.

It doesn't have to be all fun and games, of course. The Totem is a plausible “finisher” in a land destruction deck. Activated in the wake of an Armageddon, you can steal the best creature on the board and remain confident of its supremacy for several turns.

I think the Totem will be more popular in restricted targeting formats (e.g. The Hunt, or my own “octant” format), since the first player with the totem may not be able to switch for the most powerful creature on the board – but she may just be able to encourage someone else who can. Sending the Totem off to an octant where it can really wreak havoc would seem to add a nice element to that format.

Another potential use for Totem will be in team play. It may seem strange at first to think that you would steal something from a teammate. But how about this scenario: in two-headed giant, you are more than secure while your teammate is getting pounded. He's mana-flooded. You play the Totem and activate it to steal…a land of his. In return, he activates the Totem and gets one of your best blockers. You repeat as necessary, until your forces are balanced and you can use your mana for more aggressive pursuits. I wouldn't call this a first-tier strategy; but it's a boutique trick and can help smooth out the differences between two unequal decks.

Rules note: you cannot activate the Totem, sacrifice it, and then expect to get the other permanent. Both permanents have to be in play for the exchange to take place.

Countermeasures and countercountermeasures: I'm not sure the Totem is built for countermeasures (or countercountermeasures) beyond the obvious strategies: artifact destruction, or just using it yourself. Good play habits – by which I mean keeping as much mana as possible open until the end of your last opponent's turn – should help you stay ahead in the “Ava-race”.

Animal elements for Avarice Totem:
Rattlesnake: 4
Gorilla: 3
Spider: 1
Pigeon: 5
Plankton: 6
Cockroach: 5
Overall (weighted average): 3.98
Sample non-creature artifacts: Howling Mine (4.16), Jinxed Idol (3.87)

Vedalken Orrery

Vedalken Orrery. How many of us have thought to ourselves, “Golly, I wish I could play this really cool sorcery at instant speed? Oh, well, it's all for the best – if Wizards gave me a card that let players do that…well, that would be insane!”

Because of the potential interactions far into the future (see short discussion of imprint above), I'm more ambivalent about this card than any other card on the list, or perhaps even the set. That said, there's no denying this thing can be a powerhouse in many formats, including multiplayer. It's not symmetrical, it makes many other cards in your deck better, and it's not even terribly expensive.

While obvious choices for the Orrery include Upheaval, Mind Twist, and the mighty Balance, I might suggest some finesse in your deck as well. How about alternate play cost spells like Cave-In and Massacre? (Or if your Orrery is the target of a Shatter, sack your Summoner's Egg to Mind Swords at instant speed, to bring in a Leonin Abunas!)

Or how about other nonland permanents, like Thundermare or Thornscape Battlemage or Isochron Scepter or Opalescence or Morphling, for heaven's sake? The list goes on.

It all seems quite nerve-wracking to me. Perhaps I'm over-rating a card that, in reality, does nothing by itself. But then again, neither Aluren nor Equilibrium does much on its own, does it?

Rules Note: If you bring a Portcullis into play at instant speed in response to someone playing Mystic Snake which was in response to you playing Balance at instant speed which was in response to someone playing Humility…well, then, I hate you all.

Countermeasures and countercountermeasures: The best countermeasure against an “enhancer” card like this is not to focus attention on the Orrery (though by all means, tag it if it's easy), but rather on the cards that form the actual path to victory for the deck. For all of its elegance, Orrery cannot win the game by itself. This generally means you'll be gunning for the creatures and sorceries and whatever else would beat you in a deck without Orrery. Taking this worldview, you're actually treating the Orreries as “dead cards” for your opponent.

If you control the Orrery and want to see it work at maximum effectiveness, you also need to rethink the game a bit. Remember that (short of March of the Machines or similar effect) Vedalken Orrery will never win you the game. Some other card(s) will. So play the Orrery fearlessly – use it as bait for Counterspells, if you have to. See it as an accelerant, rather than the flame. A really, really good accelerant.

Animal elements for Vedalken Orrery:
Rattlesnake: 6
Gorilla: 6
Spider: 2
Pigeon: 2
Plankton: 2
Cockroach: 6
Overall (weighted average): 4.20
Sample non-creature artifacts: Portcullis (4.24), Nevinyrral's Disk (4.19)

An orrery, by the way, is a lovely image for this sort of card. This is a nice example of an artifact with real mystique. If you don't know what an “orrery” is, ask Vin Diesel.

So Which Is The Best?

As I suggested earlier in the article (and have said in past articles), picking a single card as “best in multiplayer” is an even more subjective exercise than picking the best card in the set from, say, a limited tournament perspective.

What your best bet is depends on what you crave. If you're after straight-out game-changing effects, you probably put Endless Whispers or Vedalken Orrery at the top. If you enjoy complex creature-based strategies, you're looking at Bringer of the Red Dawn or Summoner's Egg – or perhaps Whispers or Orrery, since they both impact creatures so heavily. If you're just in it for the fun, I'd recommend chasing down a few copies of Avarice Totem or Endless Whispers.

And me? Well, I see Endless Whispers on all three of those lists. That's my card of choice for the set – at least as Fifth Dawn rolls out. But I reserve the right to change my mind at least three or four times before all is said and done!

To close out, here's a thought or two for an Endless Whispers deck:

4 Fog Bank
4 Chittering Rats
4 Man-o'-War
2 Doomsday Specter
4 Avatar of Woe
2 Bringer of the Black Dawn

2 Scroll Rack
4 Endless Whispers
4 Psychic Battle
2 Undermine
2 Mutilate
1 Crystal Shard
1 Demonic Tutor

Also consider Equilibrium in there. Another way to go might be black and “creatureless” featuring Last Laugh, Mutilate, and Nuisance Engine. I'll leave the rest to readers' imaginations. Enjoy the Whispers, and all the other great multiplayer cards in Fifth Dawn!

Anthony cannot provide deck help, but really liked the orrery scene in Pitch Black.

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