"We can afford to be quite bold...."
– Dr. Chinnery, local vet
Jack knew that he had no hope of victory while Ian was in the game. He'd be dead in a handful of turns. And once Ian untapped, Ian would be at full Counterspelling power once again, ready to stop whatever Jack did in his tracks.
There was just one problem: Jack wasn't willing to risk it.
"Come on!" we cried from the sidelines (we're all horrible, horrible kibitzers at our table). "Ian's dead if you do!"
"Naw," Jack demurred. "I'm one point short of killing him."
"You're doing the math wrong," Josh said. "You've got enough to wipe Ian out right now."
Jack looked vaguely uncomfortable, which was only fair since two of the louder players in the room were ganging up on him. He shrugged. "But I'm not going to kill him...."
"So what? You will never have this chance again! I'm too dumb to do the math to see whether Josh is right or you are... But even if it brings him down to one life, that makes him play entirely differently!"
"Right now, he's at fourteen. He can afford to send his Keiga out to destroy you. But if you put him down to one, then he has to keep all of his boys home, lest you and Adam both draw some ugly burn spell simultaneously. It would let you live longer."
Still Jack hesitated. And that was when I realized I had to write an article.
Because I can't blame Jack. Viewed from his perspective, it's a scary risk – he'd be emptying his hand of almost every card to try something that might not work. And even if he did kill Ian, as Josh thought he could, what about Adam, the other remaining player? He wouldn't have anything left to handle Adam's deck, and might well fall prey to second-place syndrome.
Moments like these are the times that try men's souls. But if you don't know when to take the big risk, you'll win a lot less.
Learning when to go for the throat and when to lay back is one of the hardest skills to learn in Magic, let alone multiplayer Magic. Mike Flores wrote the infamous classic article "Who's the Beatdown?" oh those many years ago, in which he posited that every deck has to assume one of two roles: Beatdown and Control. Figuring out your role is critical. But what Mike does not discuss – and it becomes more critical in multiplayer – is, "How much should you commit to the role?" Every card is a precious resource, and you shouldn't exhaust your hand willy-nilly... So when is it worth burning your hand to take someone out?
But here are some starter tips that might begin to set you on that road. And we'll begin by considering a comparatively simple situation: What do you do when your back is against the wall?
When All Hope Is Lost
This is the simplest way to tell whether it's time to consider going all-out: If the other guy has you in a squeeze where you don't have a chance of winning otherwise, you might as well throw all caution to the wind – because what the heck do you have to lose? In the worst-case scenario, you'd lose anyway, and in the best-case scenario you might just throw everything away and then win a topdeck war against the other surviving players.
But that is, as we noted, a path strewn with danger. Thus, there are several checks you should take before you commit to the all-or-nothing strategy... So we'll ask the vital questions, and then look at each of them from Jack's perspective.
Can My Deck Beat This Guy's Deck?
Every deck has good matchups and bad matchups; the wonder of multiplayer is that you'll face both good and bad at the same table. But it also means that there are occasionally decks that your deck has no hope of beating, because it's just not equipped to handle the threats that this opponent is putting out.
In that case, you need to look at this like it was a duel. If it was just you and him, mano a mano, knowing everything that you know about your deck and his... Could you beat him with what he has out right now, and with what you're likely to draw?
Even assuming that Jack could have destroyed Keiga (and then destroyed the creature that Keiga would have stolen), he'd still find himself hard-pressed to attack for 14 damage into a blue control deck with a fistful of cards and large creatures. His deck simply wasn't equipped to face such a bad matchup once Ian's blue deck gained enough steam.
So no, Jack deck wasn't able to beat Ian's deck by pure beatdown. Which leads, neatly, to the next question:
Does My Deck Have Any Outs?
Kai Budde, who was once the World's Greatest Magic Player, was famed for his strategy when he found himself in a seemingly unwinnable situation. He would think about his deck and try to see if there was a card in it that might save him. Then he'd play in such a fashion so as to maximize the impact that card would have when it arrived.
Sometimes that card never arrived, and he lost... But he'd have lost anyway. But sometimes he did draw that card, and because he'd positioned himself to take perfect advantage of it, he would snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
As a real-life (and simple) example, in Time Spiral Limited, Sulfurous Blast is a very powerful card, enabling you to clear the board. There have been games where I've thought, "God, I'm overmatched here; my only hope of winning this game is to draw my Sulfurous Blast and play it during my main phase."
That changes my whole strategy. I'm no longer concerned about winning a damage race; I know that I'm going to lose it unless I draw my Sulfurous Blast. So I'll play differently, putting more creatures out than I normally might to try to get my opponent to get frustrated and overcommit to the board, making him burn up his tricks... So when and if I draw that Blast, it devastates him.
(Or I might choose to hold a creature or two in my hand back when I'd normally play them, reasoning that I'll need them for a post-Blast environment. It all depends on how close I am to death. But the principle's the same.)
In multiplayer, you need to think about your deck. Sure, what's facing you is pretty much unbeatable. But is it "pretty much" unbeatable, or is there a card in your deck that might save the day if you draw it? Sure, your opponent has a big scary Keiga that can smash face, but do you have Word of Seizing or a Grab the Reins or some other thing that might decimate an opponent who would otherwise have the upper hand?
In Jack's case, his out was "Fireball to the face when Ian's Counterspell shield was at his weakest." So in fact, this was the moment. But because this is multiplayer, there are two multiplayer-specific questions you should ask:
Do The Other Opponents' Decks Have Any Outs? Are They Inclined To Use Them?
Remember, one of the optimal strategies in multiplayer Magic is to get your opponents to do the work for you. If you can get Dave to cast Decree of Pain and kill everything on the board when you're overwhelmed, that's a total win for you; your strategy has been advanced considerably, all without you spending a card!
So the question is whether your opponents not only have an out, but whether they feel that the guy that you cannot beat is someone that they cannot beat. And unfortunately, all too often, they're not worried.
For example: I usually play creature-heavy decks. I like swinging with men. So mono-black control decks are horrible for me, because all of those ugly Innocent Bloods and Damnation and Barter in Bloods wreck my creatures, and their Drain Lifes wreck me while strengthening them.
So figure out whether your opponent(s) can stop the Big Juggernaut That You Have No Hope Against. If they can't, or it doesn't look like they're likely to, it's time to go nuts.
In this particular case, the only remaining opponent was a guy named Adam, and he was piloting a very old-school Mono-Black Deck featuring Sengir Vampires. (Though he had none at the moment – Ian had slaughtered his entire board.) There was a good chance that Adam had a Drain Life (or would draw one), meaning that Ian could fall prey to a gigantic soul-sucking effect.
The issue was, of course, that this was a one-turn opportunity. Remember, Ian had four mana open – the only reason now was the time to strike was because Jack had Kaervek's Torch.
- If Adam had or drew a Drain Life in the turn turn, and;
- If Ian didn’t have a counterspell costing four mana or less, and;
- If Adam had enough Black mana to destroy Ian totally, then;
- Adam might do it. There’s no guarantee that Adam believed that destroying Ian was in his best interests (though given how he was currently the one getting pounded by Keiga, that probably was a pretty easy sell).
The chances are good that Adam couldn't do it. Thus, the destruction was up to Jack.
But wait! There are still more questions to be asked! (See? I told you it was complicated. And this is just for checking what to do when your back is against the wall!)
Will This Opportunity Arise Again? Am I Incurring Unwanted Ire?
One of the dangers of going for the throat, particularly in the early game, is that you can draw someone's attention when they weren't even concentrating on you. If you unload on someone, they might have a trick – it's just the nature of the game. But if you don't do it now, you'll definitely lose.
The problem is that often, someone's too busy pounding on someone else's head to pay attention to you just yet. Thus, by signaling your intention – "BY THE WAY, I KEEL YOU NOW IF YOU NO STOP ME THANKS" – you swing their armies over to tromp you dead first.
Thus, you must ask the vital question of whether you will have another opportunity... And whether you need to do this now.
As noted, it was highly unlikely that Ian would tap down again so low with certain death already on the table. And yes, Ian would be occupied cleaning Adam's clock for the next three turns, but his attention would soon swing over to Jack. Thus, all signals are "go."
Is Anyone Else Likely To Interfere?
Oh, this one bit me badly the other day. I was playing my U/W Rebels deck against Ian, who was playing yet another controlly-style deck with a lot of fliers. All of my guys flew, thanks to a timely Wonder in the graveyard.
Ian was, once again, a creature of pure terror. He was down to one creature – a Pristine Angel, always a difficult target, but I had just enough guys to swarm around it. I sent my whole team in for fatal damage...
...and Ian looked to Josh, who was piloting a rather silly Rakdos deck.
"Do you want to save me?" he asked.
"Yeah," Josh said. "I do." And he zapped one of my guys, leaving Ian at 3 life, and they all then ganged up on me to put me out of the game.
Try to figure out whether someone else benefits from keeping this guy around... Or by making you vulnerable. It was a lesson I had ground into my very skin, like salt into a freshly opened cut.
No, I'm not bitter. Why do you ask?
The only other person who might stop Jack was Adam, and Adam's old-school black deck certainly contained no freaky Punisher-style counterspells like Dash Hopes. He was good to go.
One last question. I promise.
If This All-Out Blitz Won't Kill Him, Will It Change His Style Of Play?
You have to play very differently when you're at 1 life than when you're at 20. At 20, you can fritter away combats in sloppy losses of life – but at 1 life, your play has to be vacuum-tight. You can take no risks, for a single spell can end the game.
You also have to play differently when you have a ton of dudes out. With seven creatures out, you can cheerfully send a few of them off-site to bash face. But when you have two or three, barring some über-blocker like Stuffy Doll or guys con vigilance, you then have to make the ugly decision of whether it's worth the impending damage to dish it out.
Sometimes, it's entirely worth it to go all-out, simply because it will change someone's tactics to your advantage. You don't always have to win; you just have to put them in a situation where they're more vulnerable and have to turtle up.
Actually, this is a perfect example – because at the time, I didn't know whether Jack had fatal damage in his hand. But reducing Ian to a single life would make him much more vulnerable; since he was still facing two opponents, it could be entirely possible for both Jack and Adam to draw a burn/Drain spell in the same turn and thus overload his defense. Any single spell to the face, left unchecked, would mean death.
And particularly given that Jack had a couple of hasty dudes in his deck, that would have made his deck that much scarier. If Ian sent the big dragons out to play, every uncountered creature could be a fatal Death Spark. Thus, it was in his interests to reduce Ian's life as low as he could, the moment he could.
But again, we return to the other, central questions: Will he be able to win otherwise? Will this chance arrive again? The answer in both cases is still "no." Yeah, he'll be eating dragons for breakfast, but it's not like Ian wouldn't have eventually turned his attention to face Jack anyway. Thus, his best hope is to shoot for the stars.
So What Actually Happened?
Josh and I convinced Jack to go off. (Which would be thoroughly annoying in some groups, I agree... But our group's dynamics allows such things, and so Ian shrugged in acknowledgement that this was, indeed, the right call.) As it turned out, he did have fatal damage and killed Ian outright.
Unfortunately, Adam's next draw (and play) was a nine-point Drain Life to Jack's head. There was a topdeck war that happened over the next six turns as both of them struggled for position and land, but eventually Adam won out.
Alas, things do not always go as planned. Sometimes, when you throw all of your might into defeating King Kong, there is still a Godzilla. But I do ask you to realize that with another Torch and some better draws, Jack might just as easily have won.
Thus endeth today's lesson.
A Special Bulletin
If you live in the Cleveland area and feel like playing multiplayer, I've created a special Yahoo! group/mailing list for those who'd like to play at my house. Email me to get an invite, and I'll put you on the list, which tells where and when the games are.