We all have attributes that we are proud of. When we think of ourselves, these attributes help define us. For me, being fast was one of these attributes. All throughout childhood, being the fastest kid around was part of what it meant to be me. Nobody raced up the wing in a hockey game like I did. Blowing past the corner on a post route in football was sheer joy. A quick fake then chasing down a long pass in Ultimate Frisbee was great. I wasn't particularly good at any sport, but if I could use my speed in the game, I was generally good enough.
Not surprisingly, I loved track and field, particularly track. The 100- and 200-meter events were all mine. My long jump was an uncoordinated mess, but I was tall, skinny, and fast, and that was usually enough. It wasn't until I discovered the 800- and 1,500-meter events that I found fast just wasn't enough. I would start out fast, but I just couldn't hold that breakneck pace, and eventually I'd be caught and passed. I'd used up everything I had, and I couldn't even keep up once the group had caught me. I tried going faster, but that just didn't work. The others would push themselves to stay close to me, no matter how fast I started, then would catch me when I finally ran out of gas.
After a few races, I realized I was never going to win longer races like that, so I stopped trying to be the fastest right away. Winning the race didn't mean that I needed to lead every step of the way. As long as I was the first to cross the finish line, no one cared about the rest. The next time I ran the 1,500 meters, I let someone else set the pace. I tucked in behind the guy I knew was the strongest at this distance and just followed him. It was tough staying with him, but I wouldn't let him get away from me. Finally, with 100 meters to go, we had reached my race. I blew past him and won.
I discovered that running out front made me the focus. Everyone else ran faster races, because they were chasing me. I wasn't running faster because I wasn't chasing anyone. I was just trying to outrun everyone. Once I left others to set the pace themselves, they ran slower races. It was easier for me to keep up with them when they weren't trying to catch me.
I started running every race with that strategy. I was still the fastest over the last hundred meters, so I just had to stay close until then. The guys I raced got smart and would burst away from me during the race, but I would steadily bring them back each time. I just needed to be there at the finish.
The Magic Race
This same lesson is something I brought with me to Magic. When I started playing, my decks just weren't very good. I wasn't a great deck builder, and my collection of cards was fairly small. I didn't trade much, so my decks were mostly a handful of decent cards and a bunch of other cards that worked well with those few cards. I won occasionally, but not often enough for me. There were several games when I would get a great opening hand and come out flying. I had control over the board and was clearly in the lead to win the game.
Then one opponent would bounce my enchantment.
Then another opponent would destroy a key creature.
Then another opponent would destroy another creature.
Then I had nothing. And my deck, with limited power, wouldn't be able to get me back into the game. Just like my early track events, I was starting too fast. I had become the target because I had started quickly and was the most dangerous player at that time. My opponents would focus their decks against mine, and I would quickly crumble. Even when I could fend them off, I was forced to use up valuable assets in my deck, so it would only be a matter of time until someone was able to overtake me and win the game.
My decks (and, if you're being honest with yourself, most of your decks, too) simply can't win if every opponent is determined to take them down. Being "The Threat," that player who everyone else believes is in the best position to win the game, is a dangerous spot to be in, particularly so in the early game. Leading from start to finish can be done, and it is satisfying when it happens, but if you are looking to win more games, being The Threat early on will only leave you trailing behind at the finish.
From a Magic strategy perspective, it just makes sense. Being The Threat forces you to lose card advantage. Players are focused on you and your board position, so you'll likely have to defend that position more than other players. This invariably leads to using up cards—cards other players didn't have to spend to hold their position.
How to Run the Race
If being The Threat in the early game is a recipe for disaster at the end, how can you win more games? There really are only two options:
1. Change the Game. The problem with becoming The Threat in the early game is suffering a loss of card advantage that eventually forces you to give up the lead. What if you changed the parameters of the game, so the early game is actually the late game? If you come out to a blazing start, then win the game in the next two turns, suddenly you are not The Threat in the early game. Everyone else playing thought it was the early game, but in fact, it was the late game. You knew that because of the way your deck was set up to win through a combo or series of spells that simply end the game. (If you are going to win this way repeatedly, I recommend talking with your group. A lot of players love multiplayer for the interactions and intricate board states it can create. If you are constantly attempting to win a game before what the rest of your group would call "the fun part" of the game, you may not be looked upon too kindly.)
2. Avoid Being The Threat. Once I discovered that I was the target if I was leading a race, I just made sure not to lead a race until I knew I could handle being the target. The same holds true for Magic. In a race, discovering the target is easy. In Magic, it takes a little more work. If you think the person with the biggest life total is The Threat, getting your life total below other players' may eliminate you as The Threat, but only in your own mind. We want to know who the players in the game consider The Threat. Erica may look at the battlefield to determine who is The Threat. Jim is always concerned about the cards in hand. Frank watches Erica, the strongest player in the group, no matter how many cards in hand she has or what she is doing on the battlefield.
Once you understand how to avoid being The Threat, just put yourself into the strongest position you can without being The Threat. And to add another layer to this, you'll also want to consider who The Threat thinks is the biggest danger to him or her. You may have positioned yourself in a way to not be attacked by others, but if the strongest player in the game is coming at you, you are still in some trouble.
The Threat Avoidance
While each group is different, I've found there are a few things that seem to hold true for many groups:
Big ramping. If you ramp up perfectly in the first three turns, there is a good chance you'll be considered The Threat. Six mana on turn three scares most players. Even if you aren't following it up with something serious, just the idea that you could is often enough. I'm not saying don't ramp, just try to stay with or only slightly ahead of your opponents.
Huge life gain. Seasoned players know that life gain in multiplayer games is a good thing, but sitting at 22 life when everyone else is at 18 should not be enough to be considered The Threat. However, far too many players view the highest life total as The Threat and target accordingly. If you are extorting early in the game and find yourself at 30 while everyone else is closer to 13, expect a lot more attention coming your way.
Cards. I find most players are fine when you are holding five or six cards in hand, even when everyone else only has one or two. Players are fine when you play Reliquary Tower. When you are holding more than seven cards in your hand for several turns, expect some serious trouble to come your way.
The Best Offense
A great way to avoid being The Threat is to set up a comfortable defense to start. I'm not suggesting you build some pillow fort and hide behind it. (A pillow fort is a type of deck that is loaded with cards that make it very difficult to attack you, while doing very little to actually win the game. Pillow fort decks often tend to come undone when players take out specific cards that hold everything together.) I'm suggesting a few creatures just to deter others from coming at you. The key is to find solid creatures that aren't too threatening. A 2/2 deathtouch creature will likely keep you from being a target in the early game, while not being all that concerning to others, since it would only mean 2 damage.
Check out this deck I recently put together:
The first game I played with the deck, I played out Luminarch Ascension on the second turn. You want to play out the card early in the hopes that no one, or perhaps only one person, is able to attack you early, so you can build up the counters and start getting Angel tokens. The problem is that Luminarch Ascension is a card that makes me The Threat immediately. I was attacked repeatedly until I was eliminated, since getting 4/4 Angels for two mana is considered a very good thing in my group.
I realized that my deck had no way to protect that play, and I don't really want to be playing the Luminarch Ascension later, since it will bring even more pressure. I was left with either removing them or protecting them early on. I added the Deadly Recluses and Dawnstrider to the deck to give me the early protection I need if I want to continue playing the card. While I may decide to remove the Ascensions and go with a token producer the group finds more fun, my current changes to the deck illustrate the importance of a good defense.
I encourage you to look at your playstyle and your decks. You don't need to weaken your decks, just take care how you play things out. Check things out from your opponents' perspectives and see if you can't set yourself up on a more fruitful track.