The Lesson of the Changelings

Posted in Serious Fun on November 20, 2007

By The Ferrett

In multiplayer, it's best if no one knows for sure what you're up to.

Who are you?

Sit down with me at this table. We'll play a few games. I'll tell you who you are. So will my friends. We'll all know.

Mirror_EntityGive us an evening, and we'll tell you what sort of decks you like to play. And whether you are a changeling.

Most of you are not.

But here's the trick: We're not special. The fact that we can tell what your play preference is after a couple of hours spent slinging cards doesn't make us psychic; it just makes us marginally observant. It's not much of a trick, knowing what styles people prefer... since unless you are a changeling, you wear your style on your sleeve.

(Or, perhaps, in your sleeves. Heh.)

Are you set in stone? Listen to my table, and I can tell you what sorts of decks people will be playing....

Jack, that aggro master, will always be playing something that involves playing big creatures and attacking, supplemented with burn if at all possible. He might be playing Black-Green Dredge, but that Dredge will have a large body in the form of Sisters of Stone Death and Gleancrawler. He might be playing White-Blue-Red Control, but that control will feature Numot, the Devastator. And when you're at 5 life, if he is in red, there will be an Earthquake or a Blaze awaiting.

Nick, on the other hand, is subtle and crafty, where Jack is a blunt instrument. He builds decks composed of fine synergies, favoring things that do well in twos and threes. He leans towards the slow boil, launching his crawl towards victory on the backs of unassuming cards that suddenly combine, Tetris-like, to create a winning strategy out of seemingly nothing. Nick's decks are finely-tuned watches, and in turn must be watched closely.

Ferrett, on the other hand, is straight aggro-control every time. He covets the large men that Jack controls, and so he plays with absurdly large things. He does not have clever tricks in his decks; he tries his best to rule the Red Zone, eschewing combos. But all of his favored decks feature either board sweepers or counterspells (or both!), and should any game go long he's got at least a 50/50 shot of winning it.

Or, put another way:

Creature - Aggro


Creature - Clever


0/1 *
Creature - Aggro-Control

See that? Our player type is written on our faces, as clear as day. You can glance at a couple of games and know exactly what we are... and then you don't have to worry about us any more.

Then there's our deck quality. All three of us always build the best deck we're capable of. I don't think any of us have any "bad" decks, at least in terms of our overall skill. You might think that my decks are bad, but it's not for lack of trying.

Some players are just predictable. You know that Tournament Tommy's going to bring some hard-to-beat infinite combo that's designed to be brutally competitive, and that Titanic Timmy is going to pack some deck with too many creatures, too little land, and a whole lotta hope.

When you sit down to play, you know them. You know who to watch. Their forms are shaped, and you can factor them quite easily into their calculations even if you don't quite know the nature of the exact deck they're playing.

But do you know who the best player at our table is? That's Josh. And his card reads thusly:


Creature - Shapeshifter
Changeling (This player can be any player type in any game.)

Rakdos_GuildmageThe reason Josh is as good as he is is because he has no natural deck style. He has a feared Dragon Reanimator deck that can chain into three flying dragons by turn three, and then keep bringing them back for more. But he also has a "Rocker" deck, featuring that Master of Metal Rakdos Guildmage (who is totally playing death metal on his guitar) and Acidic Sliver, which is a terrible, terrible deck that he threw together.

His decks span all categories. He doesn't generally favor combo, but aside from that I don't know what he's going to bring every time he sits down. Some of his decks are very tuned, very competitive beasts, and some of his decks are The Monk Deck, which featured all the best Monks in Magic. (Hint: there aren't a lot of good ones.) On a scale from 1 to 10, his decks actually go from 1 to 10.

Because of this, he wins. **

He wins with the good decks, because when he does whip them out, people aren't prepared for them. By the time they realize Josh has emerged with his killer instinct, he's already crushed folks on his way to victory.

He wins with the bad decks, because he'll say, "No, this is a terrible deck"... and you can believe him, because he does have terrible decks. You can relax your guard on Josh's front, since there are bigger fish who need cleaning now. Yet once everyone has finished clearing out all of the good decks, they're weakened to the point where The Monk Deck actually has a chance to do what Monks do best.

(...which is not much. Yet WE LOST TO THE MONK DECK. Oh, the shame!)

Like the changeling, Josh is unpredictable. That wins games.

I remember reading a piece on the poor schmucks who were assigned the task of guarding Michael Jordan in the NBA playoffs. For your average player, you'd watch the videotapes of all his old performances and note his tendencies; Player A usually broke to the left. Player B looped up and around. They did different things occasionally, but in general they had a default.

Michael Jordan, changeling of the NBA, had no default.

When you were guarding him, you had no idea where he'd go—he could go in any direction at any time, without any sign. Because you had no foundation to work on, you had to rely on reading Michael Jordan's body language in that first tenth of a second, and then hope to use your reflexes to beat his.

Tough game, really. But that's Josh. Where's he gonna go? Who knows?


Nemata, Grove Guardian
As a converse lesson, take me. On a whim one day, I made a Thallid deck. The Thallid deck was absolutely awful—oh, it had Putrefy, and potential power in the form of Deathspore Thallid, Soul Warden, Sprout Swarm, and Nemata, Grove Guardian, but on the whole it was just a bad theme deck and I knew it.

People frickin' killed me.

I laughed and said it was because they hated Thallids, but I suspect the truth was that they were used to seeing me make big, splashy plays out of nowhere—my "Defense of the Heart into Spirit of the Night and Multani, Maro-Sorceror" plays are so legendary that people do not allow my Defenses to live any more. They assumed that my Thallid deck contained something equally big and splashy, because that was the way I played.

Whoops! I was gone.

Ironically, once the Thallid deck was a known entity and they realized that in fact, it was a genuinely bad deck, it won. People left it alone, squishing other players into a fine goo, and then it stole a victory out of nowhere with Nemata.

That didn't make it a good deck. It made me a low threat. And as such, I came in with a victory... but a victory that arrived only after people realized that no, this deck wasn't eventually going to clear the board and plop down some huge mop-up dude.

But they had come to expect Pernicious Deed in a black-green deck. And they acted accordingly.

The lesson of the changelings is that often, you're locked into a set style of play... and that play probably costs you some games just because everyone knows what's coming. But to win the game, you must learn to be everything you can be.

One of the big complaints I get in my mailbox is that "the other players always gang up on me." And of course they do! You win if they don't! You've set yourself in stone as "Creature – Spike," and you are now the hurdle that must be surmounted before anyone else can triumph, regardless of the deck you're piloting.

You think Josh couldn't devise another three or four Dragon Reanimator-quality decks—decks so potent they win by default? Of course he could. But he is smarter than that.

ShapesharerThese days, when Josh whips out the Dragon Reanimator deck, we all go, "Crap, that's Dragon Reanimator" and swarm him just so we have a chance. And when he breaks out the Islands and Vedalken Shackles deck, we also team up to defeat him.

But that's the deck. That's not Josh.

Ironically, he wins more games by not playing his most powerful decks every time. If every deck he had was that good, well, we'd just have to default to ripping his heart out. But his decks range such a gamut that we cannot assume anything about an unknown deck from Josh in any given game.

That's the power of being mutable.

The lesson? If you always go for the throat, make a couple of casual decks. (And by "casual" decks, I don't mean "Thallids with Skullclamp," as someone else brought recently—I mean actual, lousy ol' Thallids.) If you're always relying on the attack phase, whip out a combo deck. If you favor combos, bring on some silly Goblin deck! If you're a big fan of synergy, try throwing together something clunky and ugly!

Vary your play. Vary your decks. Be Michael Jordan.

Never let 'em see you coming the same way twice. ***


* I've never been in a fight, and as a man approaching forty, I doubt I ever will be in a successful fight. Jack, on the other hand, has punched someone so hard he's torn up his shoulder so that it requires surgery, and Josh and Ian and Todd are all pretty darned good at martial arts. I can relax knowing that no stranger is going to start anything at my Tuesday night games, but sometimes the old discussions of bloodied eyes and leg sweeps make me wonder about the regulars deciding to just beat the crap out of me.

** When I say "wins," I don't mean "dominates." Generally, if you pull off two wins in the same night at our five-man table, you're having a hot night. (I had a four-win streak once, which I immediately bronzed and placed over the mantelpiece.)

*** I should add that this lesson applies if your table consists of reasonably evenly skilled players. If you're the best guy at the table and win every game, then perhaps this advice is not for you. Though if you win every game and people are still playing with you after a couple of months, you have a much nicer set of people than most.

Though if you're the worst guy at the table, building a tight combo deck really would surprise the heck out of everyone.

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