Getting To Know Yao-Yorozu-No-Kami

Posted in Serious Fun on February 15, 2005

By Anthony Alongi

Japanese mythology and multiplayer Magic strategy

Today, in deference to this week's illustrious theme, I am presenting small, rice-cake-sized portions of multiplayer Magic strategy. Each portion will come after a brief moment of Japanese mythology. If you haven't read much Japanese mythology, I highly recommend it. I've read books and studied a bit under my aikido sensei in the past; but a simple scan of the Internet provided some excellent reminders of the more colorful stories. You can read about the examples I use below here and here. I would also recommend books such as Myths and Legends of Japan by F. Hadland Davis and The Japanese Fairy Book by Yei Theodora Ozaki. Spellings vary on some of the gods' and heroes' names from source to source.

While I poke a bit of gentle fun at some of these tales and the characters within, I hope it's clear that I deeply respect the culture responsible for this mythology. I would love to make a trip to Japan sometime in the future, and I'm horribly jealous of those who've had the pleasure. I hear nothing but wonderful stories from these visits.

Let's get started.

Multiplayer Lesson #1: The Mountain Couple

Here's a verbatim definition on “Mountain Man” from my research:

A Japanese demon who lives in the forests. Woodcutters describe him as very strong and resembling a hairy ape. To pacify him they offer him rice.

Did you ever notice that pacifying the nearby village monster generally requires whatever the villagers have handy? And a good thing, too. Heaven help the village in Japan that ends up with a Mountain Man just in from Antarctica who'll only accept, say, penguin meat. Frankly, if I was a Mountain Man and I knew the village was interested in pacifying me, I'd up the ante from rice. Why not some fine, sushi-grade hamachi? Or lobster? Think bolder, is all I'm saying. Let the village work out how to get it.

The “Mountain Woman” also lives in the forest:

[The demonness] flies like an insect, but she is bigger and stronger than a man. It is believed that she can pick up an unwary traveler and devour him.

No mention here of pacification, I see.

From a multiplayer Magic perspective, we have seen the Mountain Man and Mountain Woman in this space before. They are the rattlesnake (Man) and spider (Woman) of group play. A multiplayer deck that plays good rattlesnake cards (e.g., No Mercy, Door to Nothingness) demands obedience from those who understand the “tit-for-tat” system. On the other hand, the multiplayer deck that plays good spider cards (e.g., Willbender, Shining Shoal) actually hopes someone will break ranks and do something foolish.

After years of writing on the topic, I've never answered a question many readers have asked: which is better to play, rattlesnake cards or spider cards? After all, one tends to be a permanent you can activate or sacrifice; while the other tends to be an instant from your hand.

I believe the answer is to see them like the Japanese saw those demons: two images representing the same ultimate danger. Chosen and played correctly, there should be less distinction between these kinds of cards than first appears.

For example, say I use a Misdirection early in the game. The spent Misdirection sits in my graveyard, a reminder to all that I have them in the deck. Do I have another in my hand? Do you want to take that chance? The echo of a spider card is a rattlesnake.

Coming from the other direction, I may have a Bloodfire Colossus in my hand…but nothing much is on the board for my opponents. Do I stick it out there now, when no one has anything at stake? The rattlesnake would have no fangs. Better to wait until the moment when everyone has extended a bit further, and some players are hovering under 10 life. Then, slapping it down can be quite a nasty surprise for folks. A sorcery-speed spider, to be sure: but the timing of the rattlesnake is important.

Multiplayer Lesson #2: The Gullible God.

"Amaterasu Omikami" by Joseph Inverso

Amateras-Ohmikami, which means "the goddess who shines in the heavens," represents the Sun. This story was inspired by eclipses.

Her brother Susanoh was always mean to her. One day he threw a horse's hide into her temple. The temple maidens were sewing and one of them was hurt. Angry, Amateras hid herself behind a big rock (presumably the Moon) and the entire world went dark.

So the other gods made a plan. They had a big party in front of the rock, and Amateras was so curious of the noise that she asked them what was going on. One of the gods answered, "Another great goddess appeared and we're having a party for her." When Amateras moved the rock slightly to see, one of the gods pulled her out from behind it. Presto – daylight again.

This leaves open the question: why are the gods in myths – not just Japanese myths – so often so dumb? Gods from all corners of the world are always tricking each other with real simpleton schemes. “Come on out, we're having a party for someone else?” Are you serious?

There are really two lessons multiplayer Magic can take from this myth. First, it can be incredibly easy to provoke some people into rash action, and you'd better know who those people are. Susanoh had his sister's number – throw a horse carcass into a temple. (There's a more adult version of this story; but the point is, he knew how to tick her off.) He wanted a certain reaction that would make many people suffer, and he made it happen.

You can do the same thing in your Magic group. Everyone knows who the sensitive souls are. Often, they're the same people who play with indiscriminate, board-changing effects in order to scare off competition. (“If you keep attacking me, I'll Earthquake the whole board for 5!”) Use those people to serve your goals. If you're worried that you're falling behind in creatures, use the few you have to harass the guy with the Pernicious Deed and an itchy trigger finger.

The second lesson from Amateras is about the value of reason and modesty. Lured by noise and excitement, she wanted to see what party was going on and who this new goddess was. Was she as fabulous? Was she as powerful? Was she – yoink, now she knows she's tricked and she's embarrassed.

Reason and modesty in multiplayer Magic lead to measured responses. Is an enchantment hurting you? Use the minimum force necessary to neutralize it. Do you have a creature advantage? Use only enough to deal significant damage to your opponent – do not overextend! There is little point in showing how much cooler your deck can be if you play four more beasts in addition to the five you already have. If five is enough to punch real damage through, use five. If it takes seven, use seven. If it takes two, use two. Or one.

Getting you to play out your entire hand is an old veteran's trick. I've done it many times recently in Magic Online – I guess the average age there is younger than our play group (or at least less experienced), so it works more often. I lay down enough threats to provoke my opponent, and he generally reacts with as many cool permanents and spells and he can muster…and ends up with an empty hand by turn eight or nine. Then they can't recover from a board-clearer. “Hey, what are you playing? Is it as fabulous as what I'm playing? Are you as powerful? Are you – ” YOINK.

Multiplayer Lesson #3: The Dangerous Centipede

Japanese legend describes the Centipede as a terrifying, man-eating monster the size of a mountain near Lake Biwa. It even had fireballs for eyes! The dragon king near Lake Biwa asked the famous hero Hidesato to kill this Centipede for him. The hero slew it by shooting an arrow, dipped in saliva, into the brain of the monster. The dragon king rewarded Hidesato by giving him a bag of rice that could not be emptied; it fed Hidesato's family for centuries.

Here's a situation that's arisen in our group many times (with much poetic license taken involving names and such, since that often changes from game to game). How many times has something like this played out in your group?

George plays a Rith, the Awakener.

Todd (eyeing the dragon, with no flying defense at all): Yep, that's a dragon.

No one says much.

Todd (looking around the board, settling on Paul's Intrepid Hero): A big, 6/6 dragon.

Sometimes that's all it takes. The dragon king points out there's a big centipede, puts out the word to Hidesato, and Hidesato takes care of it with some spit and a pointy stick. But sometimes it takes a bit more:

Paul: I'm not killing that dragon for you. What am I, stupid?

Todd: Of course not. Here's a bottomless bag of rice. (He plays Aether Burst on the Intrepid Hero.)

The point here isn't that Todd's vision of a bottomless bag of rice and a dragon king's vision of a bottomless bag of rice are different – certainly they are. The point here is that both used incentives to get someone else to do something. The strategy or card doesn't have to have my “animal elements” attached to it. It just has to get an opponent to see the wisdom of, say, activating the Intrepid Hero in response, so that Rith can't hit anyone.

Multiplayer Lesson #4: The Political Death-Dealer

Directly from the first mythology site noted above, a piece on a god named “Emma-o”:

The Japanese Buddhist god of the underworld. He lives in the Yellow Springs under the earth in a huge castle all covered in silver and gold, rosy pearls, and other jewels. He is the judge of the dead and notes the sins of those who are sentenced to purgatory, and decides the degree of their punishments according to Buddha's Law. Anyone who has killed an innocent will be thrown into a boiling cauldron full of molten metal. However, if they have made a pilgrimage to each of the 33 shrines of the goddess of mercy Kannon, then all the evil they have done will disappear. Sometimes he is portrayed less pitiless and returns life to those who appear before him. Currently, Emma-o is used as a bogeyman to scare little children.

Here's my dilemma with this myth. I have a niece named Emma and what better way to honor a cute kid than finding a similarly-named Japanese god who loves boiling murderers? But at the same time, the only real lesson for multiplayer Magic out of this tale is that if you get an opponent angry, you should try to do lots of nice things to make up for it so that they like you again and won't attack you. And quite frankly, I find that sort of slobbering distasteful and counterproductive.

So everyone just ignore the myth itself, and accept the fact that I have a cute niece (whose father was a dork growing up but has since earned a brown belt in judo, thereby triggering a bit of slobbering respect of my own), and let's move on.

Multiplayer Lesson #5: Entrancing, Deadly Beauty

I don't know if it's the original writer or the translator at work here, but some Japanese myths just come out sounding quite lovely:

On the last day of the Festival of the Dead, the sea is full of shoryobuni (soul ships), for on that day the high tide brings a flood of returning ghosts who go back to their spirit world. The sea is luminescent with the light these souls emit, and their whispering can be heard. While the ghosts are embarking, no human ship should come near. Should one stray into the soul-covered sea, the ghosts will ask for pails. The sailors should only offer them pails without bottoms, for if they do not, the ghosts will sink their ship.

The use of a lure to capture prey is common (in both nature and mythology), and good Magic players certainly use it in group games.

Hunted WumpusHowever it may seem, your opponents do not have your best interests at heart.

Cards like Howling Mine, Hunted Wumpus, or Veteran Explorer can appear to be big-hearted – “Isn't this nice? Aren't you having fun? Say, would you mind handing me that pail over there?”

But in fact, there's usually an ulterior motive to cards like that. (Using the examples above, respectively: Underworld Dreams, Control Magic, and Acidic Soil…and there are certainly others.)

Do not become so enchanted with an opponent's permanents that you forget why you packed those Hull Breaches and Terminates in your deck to begin with. Your opponents do not have your best interests at heart. Even the really cool guy who always tells good jokes and says “I don't care if I win; I just wanna have fun…” Guess what? He would rather win, too, if he had a choice. (I should know. I am this player, at many tables.)

One closing story, which includes a bonus (and voluntary!) plug for Magic Online.

I'm playing two-headed giant on Magic Online one night. I go to a random table with my five-color artifact-flinging deck. (I'm not going to get into the entire decklist, either here or via email. The cards I describe below are the core. If you want to see the whole thing, my handle online is SeriousFun. I play the deck about once every three or four games; feel free to come watch. End plug.)

About three turns in, playing on the right side of the table, I learn a few things about this game:

  • The opponent directly across from me (my “near” opponent) is playing with lots of zuberas.
  • The opponent diagonally away from me (my “far” opponent) is playing mono-black discard – nothing outrageous, just a pinprick here and there.
  • My teammate is a jerk, because he conceded and left the room without comment after facing down only two Ravenous Rats and nothing else. Why? Because he didn't draw a third land.

So here I am in a 2-on-1 situation, with no nonland permanents, facing down about four creatures and two opponents who are at least friendly with each other (if not outright coordinating, which I don't mind...if I have a teammate!). I'm already down a few life, they're untouched (in fact I think a Syphon Soul put them up a little), and the only thing I've got going for me is…well…

…the fact that I'm a nice guy.

I offer to stay in the game, since folks online appreciate it when you don't concede early. They agree, and after some polite banter, we continue.

I'm cracking a joke here and there, talking about how much fun this was, and really meaning it – these were nice guys, and I was having fun. And I think they relaxed a bit too much around the mid-game. I don't know why they did – maybe they just didn't have the cards. But I did spot some small errors, and I wonder if they just got a little complacent. After all, 2-on-1 is easy, right?

Meanwhile I'm putting down more and more grotesque things. I put down a Bringer of the White Dawn, which before it dies keeps the hordes away long enough for me to draw Solemn Simulacrums, and Draco

…and finally Bosh, Iron Golem.

I certainly took damage that game. Crypt Rats hit me, zuberas hit me...most of all three successive Devouring Greeds not only meant I lost life, but they gained it!

They got me down to less than 10, and were sitting at about 30 by the last turn. But I had the game won. Strong swings with Bosh and Draco, and then some massive flinging…and the crowd goes wild! (Or as wild as online crowds get.)

I normally don't get such heroic opportunities, much less take advantage of them! As exhilarating as it was, I never forgot two things. First, I am having lots of fun with really cool people.

And second, I would like to win. At full life, I would like to win. With a weak teammate evidencing a significant yellow streak…or with no nonland permanents on the board…or with only two creatures on the board and less than ten life…in all of these situations, I would still like to win.

More than that: I am counting on it. Do not let my pretty underwater lights and gentle voice fool you. I, and every opponent you face, will be asking you for a pail. By all means, be polite. Be friendly. Have fun. But hand us the pail with no bottom.

The Lessons Don't End Here

There are many other interesting Japanese myths – in one last example, the first meeting of Sarutahiko Ohkami and Ama-no-Uzume no Mikoto caught my eye. It's a bit on the risqué side, so I won't repeat it here. But Magic players may learn some interesting facts about Sarutahiko Ohkami. His name is not just coincidence – he is the chief of the kami on earth, and he guards the bridge that links this world to the heavens.

Good to know the folks at Wizards did their homework!

My sincere thanks to the nation of Japan and its scholars for documenting their wonderful culture and mythology so well. I thought it was intriguing a dozen years ago when I first began learning about it, and I find it even more captivating now. It was rewarding to return to some of these names and stories.

Anthony cannot provide deck help. He is rapidly growing melons by the side of the road.

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