The Level Playing Field

Posted in Serious Fun on June 22, 2005

By Anthony Alongi

Strategies and formats to ease group inequality

It's an email I get about once every two weeks. The tone is thoughtful, but the writer definitely appears at wit's end. It usually goes something like this:

Dear Anthony,

First, I just want to tell you how much better your column is than Aaron Forsythe's. Just way, way better. Leagues better. Light years better.

Anyway, maybe you can help me. We've got about five or six people in our casual Magic group. It's been good for a year or so, but lately I've noticed a gap forming. One other player and I have become a bit more interested in tournaments and improving our decks. The other players appear kinda stuck, though. They hate it when we play our "rare-filled" decks and win all the time. Sometimes they gang up on us during the game. Sometimes they threaten to quit.

I'm really worried because these are my friends and I don't want anyone to leave the group. Also, having someone leave the group would be hard on our numbers – it's hard finding players where I live!

Any ideas? Thanks for your time, and for your efforts in ousting that tyrant Forsythe.

- A Fan

The Value Of Inequality

Since my brother-in-law and I began playing together (badly, may I add) in the Spring of 1999, I have experienced inequality in our play group. His cards were much more numerous than mine; he's an experienced card collector. Later on, as we added friends to our group, and our friends brought in friends, and those friends brought in work buddies, and those work buddies told some friends, until it was like a shampoo commercial from hell…well, the inequalities changed over time, but inequality itself has been a constant.

Our group is a healthy group, on balance. We all like each other and we've assimilated (yes, assimilated…insert geeky Borg joke here) many different personalities and play styles. We're not perfect – we lost at least one good fellow a few years ago to irreconcilable differences – but we sit at about a dozen regular players, with eight or more showing up each week.

When those eight people show up, you can bet there are eight variations on each of the following:

  • collection size
  • knowledge of the game and its rules
  • deck-building skill
  • play skill
  • enthusiasm for tournament formats
  • enthusiasm for "wacky" formats
  • trading experience
  • unhealthy attachment to cards like Psychic Battle and Infernal Denizen.

Believe me when I say I do not rank #1 in any of these categories. Seriously, the freaks that come out each Thursday night would scare your socks green.

Because we've had to negotiate such a variety of abilities, resources, and preferences over the years, we've ironed out quite a bit. Here's my advice, complete with new and used format suggestions, to any group struggling with the same issues.

Even liking what you read here, you may still feel awkward bringing it up with your group. If it helps, put me at the center. I'll take the heat. Send this link to your group and ask them what they think. Ask the local store if they want to try any of the ideas here, for non-sanctioned tournaments or "general house rules". Whatever helps.

1) Get It Out In The Open

You know something about human nature? Not everyone speaks out when they're ticked. Sometimes, problems fester without anyone addressing the problem. Then they blow up, and it's too late.

Before you try anything new – a new format, a new deck, a new group – try something old: talk. Talk to your group about the problem you see. Then listen.

Maybe there isn't a problem at all, beyond your perception. Maybe there's a big problem and everyone's dying to talk about it. Chances are, others feel the same tension you do and just need a chance to talk it out.

When you open the topic, present it humbly. Do not point fingers. You've noticed something's wrong, you feel badly, the group is so important, it's usually such a blast, so do others see a problem? If so, what can we think of to solve the problem?

If all you get are non-committal shrugs, then move on to the concrete suggestions below.

2) Play More Team Formats

If you find yourselves in formations of four or six a lot, consider playing team formats more often. Two-headed giant and emperor are great ways to take a lot of hurt feelings out of the equation – "oh, he's playing that deck again, so let's all pound on him". Good team decks generally force a different playing style.

This isn't a cure-all; you can still generate hurt feelings in team formats. If tournament-style combo decks persist because the builder assumes he has a greater "life buffer" than before, you might try extending the range of spells so a simple Counterspell can stop the madness. (Friends don't let friends play 1-1-1 emperor with "gentleman's" rules!)

You might also run into occasions where multiple "good" players are on the same two- or three-player team, while the other team doesn't have that sort of depth. If this happens a lot and there are two clear player-captains, force them on opposite sides. (Be careful with assumptions, though. You'll still want to mix it up from time to time, and you'll be surprised how often the "bad" team wins. People improve quickly. Our group generally avoids this sort of rigid teaming; we keep it random.)

If more team play doesn't bridge enough differences, continue with the next few ideas.

3) Get More Creative

I'm not a big fan of combo decks. But I often find myself enjoying a brand new, creative idea for a combo – even when I'm about to die to it. As I say occasionally to my fellow players (and stalkers) in Magic Online, I'd rather lose an interesting game to a truly creative deck than win quickly alongside another Tooth and Nail deck with Mephidross Vampire and Triskelion (or Kiki-Jiki and Duplicant, or Akroma and Darksteel Colossus…)

Umezawa's Jitte

People generally don't mind if you play good cards, if you've got a new approach. One reason I didn't list Umezawa's Jitte last week is because the Jitte hasn't settled (yet) into a "single deck type" – a predictable sequence of "a, b, Jitte, d" that wins every time. I've seen it in cat decks, samurai decks, UB rat-and-ninja decks, RG stompy decks, and so on. Those decks don't follow a predictable sequence, so I've been okay seeing the Jitte quite a few times. (Also, it still cracks beautifully under a Naturalize or Hull Breach. More on that point later.)

So if people complain about your deck and you feel bad about that, consider setting it aside and building a completely new deck. Do another combo, if you like. Use all the rares you want, if you're lucky enough to have them.

Play it for one week. Then put it away and build a completely different one.

Play that one for one week. Then put it away and build a completely different one.

I'm sure you get the idea. After two or three months of this, you will have eight or so decks that your group has barely seen. Some will be annoying, some will not. Some will send you in directions you hadn't considered before, because you ran out of annoying cards and had to build something quite adorable in its freakishness.

The point is, your group will have less occasion to be churlish, because it will be obvious you are trying to be creative. That's hard to complain about.

Now. For the rest of you – the ones who face "big, expensive" decks. Keep reading.

I tried to make a certain point last week. (Most people got it; but a few missed it. I accept some responsibility for not being crystal clear.) If cards are popular, they're popular for a reason. The guy playing a copy of the latest Tooth and Nail netdeck has his issues, to be sure. But the responsibility doesn't lie completely with him. He will stop playing the deck when you show him the error of his ways. And I don't mean by whining about it.

Psychogenic Probe

This means you are going to have to stop playing the decks you are playing (or adjust them, at least). They are not working, and a big part of that is your fault. You need to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and try something new.

The answer might be something else expensive, like Cranial Extraction or Time Stop. The answer might be something easy to acquire, like Counterspell, Nezumi Graverobber, or Orim's Thunder. The answer might be something offbeat, like Psychogenic Probe or Biorhythm.

Mix and match. Try different things. Read Adrian's column, and Jay's column, and Bennie's column. Hit Mark G.'s archive. Hit the other Magic-focused sites as well – there's tons of good stuff out there. Seek advice from friends, or from folks you know at the local store or online whom you respect and trust. (A quick reminder that I cannot give deck help myself.)

If this doesn't work – well, you're probably not trying hard enough. Keep it up, and keep reading for more ideas.

4) Limit Yourself

Limited formats are popular for good reason. People don't like seeing the same decks over and over. And people also like the challenge of building decks with a "suboptimal" card pool.

For equalizing card collections, there are few solutions as sound as resetting everyone with a small, random pool of cards. People who get a bit lucky one week will not be so lucky the next. At the same time, the repeated deck-building that happens when playing limited formats over and over should improve the all-around skills of the less experienced players.

This is where our group has put the most emphasis, over the past year or two. We play limited formats virtually every week now – so much so that we've actually tried scaling back a bit before we alienate one or two members, and/or we forget how to build and play 60-card constructed decks!

Basic Booster Draft Rules

Each player at the table starts with three unopened booster packs. Instead of just opening your cards and building a deck, you and the other players at the table have to draft the cards for your decks.
At the start of a Booster Draft, each player opens a pack and picks the card he or she wants from it. Then each player passes the rest of the pack to his or her left. You pick up the pack that was passed to you, select a card, and pass the rest to your left. This process continues until all the cards have been drafted.
Next, each player opens a second pack, but this time, you pass the pack to your right. After all those cards are drafted, you open the third pack and pass to the left again. At the end of the draft, each player has forty-five cards—and unlimited basic lands—to build a deck with.

The limited format you play is entirely up to you. You can do a conventional booster draft if you're lucky enough to have eight players ready to go. Rochester draft is even more interactive, but it takes tons of time. If you don't know the basic rules of drafting, you should look them up. You can also try:

  • Emperor draft – I've talked about this before;
  • 2x2 draft – teammates sit opposite each other at a table of four, run a normal booster draft, then each player plays duels against each opponent. Order doesn't matter. The team with the better combined W-L record "wins". If each team logs two wins, you can do a playoff (or even a two-headed giant game).
  • Two-headed draft – same basic idea in that teammates sit opposite each other at a table of four. This time, you care more about team-friendly cards!
  • Star draft – we've begun doing this when we have 11 people show up and six are already doing an emperor draft. A table of five drafts, and then you play a chaos game where the object is to eliminate the two people sitting furthest from you. You can only attack those two players; you can target anyone/anything. So yes, red burn is good
  • Peer draft – very good for large groups, but workable in groups as small as four. You split the group into teams of two, intentionally pairing more experienced players with less experienced ones. (This requires some folks to swallow their egos.) Draft normally. Then, teammates switch decks, so the partner who's really good has to play the deck her teammate drafted; while that less experienced teammate gets the benefit of his more experienced teammate's drafting skill. Play duels against other teams, individually or as two-headed giants.

There are dozens, if not hundreds, more ways to draft. Backdraft, big-box draft – this site (and this column) have gone through bunches of them. Seek ye the archives. If you have more suggestions, fire them off to the message boards before you email me. (Then feel free to email me.)

A Magic Online aside: I believe Wizards should seriously think about putting a casual limited format online, even if they can't do it until v3.0 is released. (They may have thought about it already; but I have no particular insights or information on this matter.) Pay for packs only, keep what you draft, no additional prizes (or perhaps a nominal prize), and just have folks draft for a two-headed giant or emperor game. I don't know about others, but I'd probably play that format quite a bit, just to get away from the gauntlet of similar decks I see every day.

If you like the idea, say something on the boards, or let Bennie Smith, who runs the Into the Aether column, know. (The genius of my idea is that others can sponsor the discussion! A cruel trick to play on Bennie, perhaps; but he's a good sport and I'll owe him one.)

5) Bring in New Blood

Now, before I even start here, I know how this will sound to you. A guy with a paid contract with Wizards is suggesting you hook your friends on this game so you can play with more people, and buy more cards. Isn't that just a money-making ploy?

Well, I get paid the same flat rate no matter what you do, so do what you like. But if you've tried everything I've suggested above and things are still really tense after several months of true effort, then your group needs to bring in more people, fast.

Why? Because it's likely to die, and some of you are going to need other players to play with.

It may sound cold, but not every group makes it. Different players have different goals, and you shouldn't feel bad if you like tournament play and expensive rares. You also shouldn't feel bad if you like casual play and all-commons decks.

Ideally, you'd all be mature enough to work it out if you're in the same group. But if you find you can't stand each other despite your best efforts…well then, why play this game together if it just makes you all miserable? Find other people and play with them. Use Magic Online if people are sparse in your area. Leave on polite terms, and with the clear and stated intention of saving friendships. No shouting or whining allowed.

And stay honest, no matter how successful or unsuccessful your new group is. After a week or two apart, call the other guys and ask them if they want to go get a pizza together – no Magic involved. Keep your friends.

5a) Bring in New Electrons

There's an online version to this "new blood" issue. People occasionally ask me why I always time my games – often in an accusatory tone of voice that presumes I don't care about their feelings. Isn't a clock anti-social? Isn't it too hard-core? Isn't that the opposite of fun, Mr. Serious Fun? Come to think of it, Anthony, why do you hate America?

The clock brings many benefits, not all of which I'll list here. But the one most relevant for today is: if I get stuck in room with a schmuck, I know there's a time limit. I won't have to leave the room in a huff, or abandon a teammate, or anything like that. I just wait the guy out, flicking back and forth between the game and a news web site, or my next novel, or a hard disk virus scan, whatever. I can be productive, and I know a better game will start soon.

Think of every multiplayer online game as a new play group. Buddy lists help you maintain your ties with past groups where you've had fun so you can be sure to play with them again soon, and blocked lists help you weed out the head cases. Every game, there's new blood coming – and it runs hotter and faster with a clock.

Time your online games! You'll be glad you did.

6) The Road(s) Not Taken

You will please notice I have not suggested that any player water down their decks to meet the requirements of players with smaller collections, or with less affinity for rigorous decks. I do believe strongly that players should play what they enjoy, and use the cards they have.

If a player has a deeper collection than yours, it is not appropriate for you to try to make them feel badly for it. Some people work hard just so they can afford certain luxuries, like Magic cards. Others, like you, might work hard for other goals. I cannot think of a social situation where it's advisable to judge people on this sort of thing.

If a player likes a deck style you do not, you can certainly point that out. But you accomplish nothing by dwelling on it ad infinitum. What's more annoying – watching a combo deck take ten minutes to go through a turn, or listening to someone whining about it for that long? Answer: it's a tie.

If your group wants to try a new format and you don't think you'll like it…try it anyway. If you hate it, say so. Then come up with a better idea.

In Sum

I don't normally do conclusion paragraphs, but I've been looking over my nine-year-old's essays from the past school year and it seems like a good idea this week.

When it comes to enjoying yourself – in Magic, or any other pursuit – the key is self-reliance. You are the person most responsible for your own happiness. Depending on others to provide it for you is a sort of emotional pan-handling. If you're not happy with the way your group works, seize the day and take control of the situation. Talk with your friends, listen, try new things…and then act on them. If you do not see those around you taking the same amount of personal responsibility, you need a change of scenery.

Good luck.

Anthony has been playing multiple Magic formats for over seven years, and has been writing far longer than that. His new fantasy young adult novel, Jennifer Scales and the Ancient Furnace, was co-written with his wife MaryJanice Davidson, and comes out August 2005 from Berkley Books.

Latest Serious Fun Articles


Hedron Alignment by, Bruce Richard

When I first looked at my preview card, I couldn't really wrap my brain around it. The card does so much that I wasn't really understanding its value. Kind of a "forest for the trees" thi...

Learn More


Eternal Pilgrim by, Bruce Richard

When religious belief turns into religious fervor, things get problematic—particularly on Zendikar. When the Eldrazi were originally imprisoned, stories were told to ensure no one would t...

Learn More



Serious Fun Archive

Consult the archives for more articles!

See All

We use cookies on this site to enhance your user experience. By clicking any link on this page or by clicking Yes, you are giving your consent for us to set cookies. (Learn more about cookies)

No, I want to find out more