Hail, Hail, The Gang’s All Here

Posted in Serious Fun on February 7, 2006

By Anthony Alongi

You know what's good about duels? Your opponent. There's only one of them, and she can't team up with someone else to pound your face in.

You know what's good about team play? Your teammate(s). Even though you have more than one opponent, you've got a buddy (or two) to keep up with it all!

Which brings us to free-for-all, also known as chaos. Ah, the free-for-all, the most democratic format around. Each player is on his or her own, absolutely independent, making clear strategic decisions with no bias whatsoever, while –

What's that, you say? Your free-for-alls aren't that free? Your chaos not that chaotic?

Awww. Are people picking on you? You poor thing. All right, young man. The next time that happens, you tell your friends that they're not very good friends if all they do is pick on you! Also, if you need to hide behind my skirt, go right on ahead. Everything will be better soon, without any difficult actions on your part…

By which I mean to say: stop whining. Pick yourself up! Wipe the stuff off your nose. Get your head on straight, and start thinking about how to change things.

This article's here to help you do just that. There is an inevitable logic to the gang mentality. Understand the logic, and you can shift it in your favor. Ignore the logic, and you'll be fending off beeble-wannabes the rest of your Magic career.

A Short Primer On Sociology…Or Is It Biology? Anyway, Pay Attention.

Just about every complex animal prefers to be part of a group, at some point during their lives. (Blah, blah, solitary predators, blah blah. Save your breath.) Whether it's a large herd for protection, a pack for better hunting, or even a small family unit for learning and other supports, most animals like hanging out with others like them.

That's it. That's the primer. If you don't understand that, the rest of this is going to be way harder. So read it until you've got it, and then let's move on. (As a happy side benefit, if you learn the above paragraph and then train yourself on how to brew coffee anytime over the next three months, you'll be in better job search shape than the average Soc-Anthro major graduating from college this Spring. Congratulations!)

The Benefits Of A Level Head

If you find yourself on the receiving end of a group beating, you need to take three steps to solve the problem. The first step: stop panicking and calm down. Normally I'm not a big advocate of keeping your head down in multiplayer; but this is one case where talking doesn't help, if your group is savvy at all. Whining to a group of experienced Magic opponents is like waving your bloody wrist in shark-infested waters.

Yes, I know. It's not easy to be quiet. When you can plainly see that someone else at the table is the clear threat, and no one else can, you just want to scream. (Sometimes, I do anyway.) I can't write down in this space the sorts of things I scream, but I'll bet they'd be really familiar to you.

However, what I miss when I do that (and more helpfully to you, what you miss) is the first opportunity to stop the onslaught. Players who gang up on you can smell fear. Letting them know the assault bothers you is as bad a tactical play as putting a Morphling in play with no mana open and then covering it up with your hand while sobbing, "for the love of God, please don't target this because I don't have another Blue card to pitch to my Force of Will! PLEEEASSSSE, NOOOO! ...OH, THE HUMANITY..."

Opponents like to get rid of Morphlings, but they especially like to get rid of them when they look more vulnerable and important than they even thought. Same with players – if they come at you, they may just be feeling out your strength. If they're spoiling a master plan of yours, you'll whine. If they're just knocking around a bloody corpse, you won't say too much.

Your whole attitude should be one of quiet resignation. What, you want to attack me? Gosh, okay, I guess. If your keen analytical sense tells you I'm the big threat with no non-land permanents on the board, who am I to argue? Yes, yes, you can start assigning damage – I have no tricks, nothing to play. The damage you've done could have been done an hour from now with the same effect – but I understand your wanting to rush ahead and deal it now. Congratulations – you've cracked the code to my invisible defense. Yawn. You don't need to say any of this – you just need to feel it inside, and keep your mouth shut.

Why, Brutus? Why?

Once your head is level enough to deal with reality, you can go on to the second step: determining why you're getting so much negative attention. Don't assume the worst! There are at least six different reasons why this is happening:

    Fog Bank
  1. Bad luck. Sometimes, multiple opponents knock around a single target without even meaning to. One guy doesn't pay attention to life totals or who the last guy attacked; or somebody's considering attacking two possible defenders and decides to choose randomly…and the die roll ends up on you, for the third time in a row.
  2. Bad position. Everybody except you has a Fog Bank and a Sengir Vampire. Guess what.
  3. Bad attitude (yours). You've been a pill and everybody wants you to go home. This doesn't necessarily mean you should leave the group – but it does mean you should assess your behavior and consider whether or not you might not be contributing to the problem.
  4. Bad attitude (theirs). Your friends are less mature than you hoped. Sometimes, a pack drives a member out. The reasons are not always logical, or even particularly kind.
  5. Bad threat analysis (theirs). Your friends are less intelligent than you hoped. Or heck, they're just making an honest mistake. Magic is a game of limited information.
  6. Good sense (theirs). You are the threat. No, don't bother denying it. You're about to take this game and the only real chance anyone else has is to band together and take you out like the rotten, stinking trash monster you are.

So how to diagnose? There's a way to do this pretty quickly, taking each of the reasons in a particular order. Use this Handy-Dandy Chart (Warning: Handy-Dandy Chart may not work on all continents, without proper electronic adapters. In southern hemisphere, turn Handy-Dandy Chart upside-down, and rotate counter-clockwise):

No Handy-Dandy Chart is 100 percent correct, 100 percent of the time. But these are the sorts of questions you should be asking yourself – and more often than not, they'll point you in the right direction.

So you've used the chart and you figured out what's probably going on. What do you do now?

Dealing With The Raw Deal

The third step in overcoming the gang-up is solving the problem. The solution, of course, varies with the problem. Here's my advice for each of the six situations:

Good sense. If your opponents are just showing good sense, openly dwelling on the gang-up is only going to make things worse. Applaud their ability to assess threats, either openly or silently, and finish out the game. In future games, make sure that you increase your use of "rattlesnake" cards, which threaten action against people who come after you, and/or "spider" cards, which protect or replace your assets at instant speed.

A very common style of ganging up happens against the perceived "best player" in the group. When in doubt, many players go after the opponent most likely to ruin their plans. If you're this player, don't take it personally. Understand that this is part of the flow of a group. After you lose a lot, for several days, the equilibrium should change a bit since someone else will be winning more often. If you can improve or change your decks to take on this tougher challenge, feel free. If you can't, accept the lesson in humility.

Serra Angel
Bad threat analysis. As I said before, Magic is a game of limited information. You can't land too hard on someone who acts on the assumption that you're in this game to win it, just like them. Occasionally, a single attack on you by a single opponent will start a bit of a frenzy, as everyone assumes the previous player knew what they were doing when they came after you for no apparent reason. After the game, talk about what the true threats were – without being obnoxious about it. "I'm surprised you thought I was that serious a threat. Sure, I had a Serra Angel; but when you think about it, that was going to die soon to Call to the Grave. And I was the only player who could Naturalize the Call. What in my deck worried you in particular?" Make it a conversation, not a lecture – you might learn something, too.

Bad luck. This can look pretty similar to bad threat analysis. In our group, there are a couple of players who will roll a die if they don't know whom to attack – "heads I attack Anthony, tails I attack Paul." Very early in the game, there's not much wrong with this. Later in the game, it makes less sense. Decisions shouldn't be random. People should be thinking. That said, some groups revel in random decisions because they feel they are fun. You can't take it personally if this random walk tramples over you for a few turns. If it extends to multiple games, something else is going on.

Bad position. If you're getting hit hard because you can't defend yourself, take the lessons you can from this game – maybe you should have mulliganed more aggressively; or perhaps you should not have overextended early on. Analyze your play deeply, and don't be afraid to tell yourself you could have done better. It's perfectly legitimate for two or three players to see your weakness and exploit it – why should they wait for you to become strong so you can foil their victory (or other fun) plans?

If you find yourself in inferior position over and over again, and the ganging up continues, then your group has a bit of a cruel streak – but again, the most efficient solution lies in you improving your deckbuilding and play skills. Ask for advice. If your group gives you this advice, take it. If they don't (or if the advice never seems to work, even after weeks of trying), then something more sinister may be at work. Which brings us to our last cause(s).

Bad attitude. Any of the above situations can evolve into this one. Even ganging up for "good" reasons can cause hurt feelings, which can last into future games, which can begin to poison an entire group.

If you think there's a conflict within the group, you have to indulge in some very healthy and thorough examination. What are you doing to contribute to the problem? Read my Multiplayer Monsters article from last year to identify possible behaviors. Add to this list:

  • Are your well-meaning jokes maybe a little too biting or crude?
  • Do you take offense a bit too easily at well-meaning jokes?
  • Do you carry your burden of hosting duties, or paying your fair share for the food?
  • Are there new players in the group that you may not have worked very hard at getting to know?

You might want to talk with your friends about the situation. Open by taking responsibility for whatever you may be doing wrong. Ask them for ideas on what everyone can do to solve the problem.

If this doesn't work, and you're making a true effort to solve the problem, then you may be better off with other players (and perhaps even other friends). Deciding how much abusive behavior you can take is a personal decision. This article can only take you so far. I'm not a trained psychologist and I'm not going to know what every unhappy group should do. I would hate for someone to ditch a group right after reading what I've written here – you're your own best judge of what you should do.

I just want you to ask yourself honest questions, and take responsibility for your own happiness. If you're happy, stay. If you're unhappy, make it work…or leave, on the friendliest terms you can.

An Even Better Cure: Prevention

I hinted in the "good sense" portions above that certain deckbuilding and play techniques can ward off some forms of ganging up. Among them:

    Wall of Souls
  • Use permanents that you can sack for a punishing effect, like Seal of Doom.
  • Use instants with alternate play costs, like Reverent Mantra or Misdirection, to trick players who think you've left yourself open to multiple attacks.
  • Use less huge, expensive cards – and more swift, efficient spells, so that you can cast more than one spell at a time.
  • Use graveyard recursion.
  • Punish the combat phase. That is by far the most common way of ganging up – multiple attacks with multiple creatures. Tangle, Warpath, Devouring Light, Spike Weaver, No Mercy, whatever you can come up with – these will help keep invaders away.
  • If you must rely upon lifegain, make sure you use cards that also give you other benefits – for example, Spike Feeder gives you a creature as well.
  • Without becoming too fond of overextension, go ahead and push an extra creature out there, so you can withstand multiple attacks. Use lots of early, effective defenders – like Carven Caryatid, Wall of Souls, or Drift of Phantasms – to discourage early attention.
  • Change up your decks. Change up your decks. Change up your decks! The more predictable you are, the more players want to gang up against the ones they recognize as true winners. Try to build a new deck every two months.

Beyond these Constructed tips, you can also try to encourage your group to play formats that discourage ganging up. I've touted casual Limited formats to "cure" other ills, such as unequal collection sizes and groups who are in creative ruts. At the risk of annoying players who don't enjoy Limited formats, I'm going to push draft and sealed experimentation today as well. When you change up the format and make people focus on cards they don't usually consider, your opponents will be too busy figuring out the right play to spend too much time on vendettas or paranoid fantasies. And the freshness of a new format may get people to loosen up a bit and forget old arguments about "who ganged up on whom" last week.

Thoughts For The Future

This feels like the sort of topic where readers may have additional, fruitful insights. I recommend folks use the message boards to share their stories and experiences. If there's sufficient interest, I may pick up this topic again in the near future. There are a few other angles we could explore. For example – if you're one of the people regularly ganging up on someone, how can you do it without being cruel or insulting, while still protecting your interests? And in a group where ganging up is common, is it ever just better to come up with "gang-ready" formats, such as unequal teams, and let it all happen in the open?

Food for thought. See you next week.

Anthony Alongi has played various Magic formats for over seven years, and has been writing for much longer than that. His latest book, Jennifer Scales and the Messenger of Light, will be in stores June 2006.

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