The MVP Award

Posted in Serious Fun on December 9, 2003

By Anthony Alongi

I've done a couple of articles on Emperor format recently. Today, I'll focus on strategies that work not only in Emperor, but most other team formats. You may catch me using examples and language closest to Emperor format; but I'm sure you're all bright enough to adjust grammar and terminology where necessary.

Team play can really bring out new aspects of your Magic play. The biggest change is that instead of being the last person standing, everyone's striving to be the most valuable player on their team. It's a fun, healthy dynamic – but how do you become the Most Valuable Player?

Maybe I can help. Following is "basics" section, and a (shorter) advanced section. Skip about as you will. Depending on reader interest, I may advance other ideas and experiences as time allows.

So You Finally Made A Team

Team formats generate a refreshing change from week-in, week-out chaos formats. Just last week, I got three different emails from readers who were looking for tips on how to re-energize groups that had fallen into the same old ruts and the same old decks. My prescription is usually two-fold: introduce limited formats (see articles earlier this year), and really embrace team play.

What do I mean by "really embrace"? Most newer casual groups have certainly tried various team formats before – we're all clever enough to get the idea of playing in teams without much help! – but use the same decks they've used successfully in chaos. There's a fairly simple logic at work here: "I know my chaos deck is good. I want my teammates to value my contributions. Good decks contribute in valuable ways. Ergo, I'll play my chaos deck for this emperor game." (Only people using faulty logic in my articles will ever say "ergo" in this space. I promise.)

Once you step back for a moment, however, it's not hard to knock this logic down. The fastest route: imagine a duel player using the same logic to play his most excellent, tournament-winning beatdown deck in a chaos game. It's unlikely to work out so well.

Team decks and players must act in different ways, when a limited amount cooperation becomes necessary to win. There's all sorts of lovely game theory at work beneath the surface here. I'd fill you in; but I already paid thousands and thousands of dollars in undergraduate and graduate courses to understand it all, so you should too, dammit. Or you can just trust that players need to act differently, okay? Excellent.

We all play differently, and so we'll all build our new team decks differently, too. But in the interests of putting forward a didactic, inflexible set of rules with which readers will instinctively want to argue, here are the first five "commandments" for team deck construction and play:

1) Thou shalt put "we" over "me". In everything you do, you must consider the consequences for your teammates. If you find yourself doing something because you're afraid you're going to lose a permanent or take some damage, stop. Is that spell or ability you're about to play, or that attack or block you're about to make, better done at a different time? Could a different course of action – perhaps a less selfish course of action – save a teammate from a larger danger than you now face?

The other "commandments" tend to link back to this first one. It's pretty darn important.

2) Thou shalt scan every card in your deck for team-unfriendliness. Team-unfriendliness, you ask? What's that? Think of global impacts. The classic is Wrath of God; but every color and card type has several examples of cards that your teammates may not be thrilled to see: Tranquility, Crater Hellion, Evacuation, Noxious Ghoul, and so on. It's not that you can never play these cards in team. But you have to be super-careful. Like me.

Last week, I promised you guys an embarrassing story. Here it is: about a month ago, I'm playing the righthand lieutenant in an emperor game. (We play targeting range of two, global spells hit everyone.) My emperor Todd is playing a cute little elf-trick deck that gains lots of life through Wellwisher and then puts down Zur's Weirding to control everything that happens, ever. (You have to know someone like Todd, am I right?) I'm facing a green "untargetables" deck (think Deadly Insect) from the near enemy lieutenant, and a red-blue counter-and-burn deck from the enemy emperor.

Me? I'm playing mono-black, a variant on old Dark RitualHypnotic Specter decks that features easy-to-attach equipment (Lightning Greaves, Nightmare Lash). By turn five or six, I'm drawing nothing – I've got only three lands, no creatures, and a Gigapede is pounding my head in. My emperor has a couple of elves out, but not much else. My teammate far to the left is facing down a Serra Angel with nothing.

The other emperor is taking a tea break, but taps out to counter one of my teammates spells. When it comes back around to me, I untap and draw – a fourth land! Excited beyond belief that I'll be able to do something, I slam the swamp down and then play one of the few resets I have in the deck – Mutilate. Sure, I reason to myself, my emperor will lose a couple of elves – but I'll stop taking damage (see the problem already? I'm saying "I" instead of "we"...), and I'll also wax that Serra Angel from a distance. That's why I put these questionable cards in there – for just these sorts of extreme situations!

Todd turns fairly white when he sees my spell, but there's nothing he or anyone else can do. He loses his elves. The controller of the angel peers over and says, "how many swamps ya got?"

We interrupt this story to bring you an advertisement for Onslaught's common cycling lands. Cycling lands, when you want all the advantages of basic lands and card drawing, with none of the disadvantages! Okay, technically, they're not actually basic lands – a Barren Moor isn't really a swamp, for example – but when on earth is that gonna hurt you, huh? I mean, what kind of ass can't tell a swamp from a Barren Moor, when it becomes important?

We now return you to your regular programming.

After sinking all creatures for –3/-3, instead of –4/-4, my emperor congratulated me on killing his elves while deftly saving the enemy's best creature, all so I could get a one-turn reprieve from a Gigapede (I think the guy discarded Brawn to get it back, so that didn't work out so well, either. Why do you need to know so much, anyway? Get off my back.)

Anyway, the point of all of this is that you, the Humble Reader, should be more like me, the Teammate of Champions. Or don't, if you think that would be better. Your call.

3) Thou shalt make a point of helping each teammate at least once. If you don't have the type of deck that can do this, consider playing something else. Yes, an aggressive red-black deck can be a real "help" by collapsing one of the enemy flanks – but if this is all you ever do in team games, try a different sort of deck. You don't have to play white to make this happen, but you should probably consider it, as well as blue or green.

I just built, for the first time, a mono-white emperor deck that has no path to victory. It's an extreme version of the "protector" style deck I described two weeks ago. In other words, my lieutenants are my path. Everything I do will be to help them. Nothing like putting your money where your mouth is, am I right? We'll see how it does.

You don't have to adhere to this commandment every game with every deck – but you do have to try it out. It'll teach you a lot about how to think of others.

4) Thou shalt not argue strategy with your teammates. This is a cultural preference, so play it the way your group wants to play it. But I highly recommend not discussing strategy while someone is trying to make a decision. There are a few reasons for this, and they're all patronizing, so we'll all have fun.

First, egos are going to get in the way. Statistics suggest you probably play among young men. Now, egos are not monopolized by the young, nor the men, in society – but testosterone is not the good teammate's friend. If you meet with continual emotional and psychological success when you dictate what every teammate should do before he does it, congratulations on completing your functioning team of lifelike robots. The rest of us, however, should take it easy before we tell people what to do. People like to play. Let 'em play.

Second, you're probably wrong. No, seriously, think about it. Nobody can possibly foresee every possible consequence of every decision in every game, especially when that game has six different decks operating. I make money by suggesting strategy, and I can't tell you how many times I've (silently) thought so-and-so was an idiot for playing such-and-such...and three turns later, that moved looked like genius. You may be thinking it through more carefully than your teammate or I will, but you could still be wrong. So be quiet, and see what he does, and then see what happens.


Third, people learn better when they make mistakes. If you wait until after someone has made a play, and then wait a little longer until they see the consequences, then the player in question may be more receptive to your (gentle, friendly) inquiry about what the hell he was thinking when he played Mutilate and killed all your elves. I know I was.

Our group has a "no kibitzing" rule that prevents teammates from showing each other cards, giving each other orders, or even talking to each other about what they ought to do. If there's a board situation a teammate ought to know about, we tolerate someone saying something like, "how much damage does Caltrops do, again?" right before someone attacks with their army of 1/1s. You simply can't regulate sneaky stuff like that. But we all use our best judgment. (Even with oblique reminders like that, you'd be surprised how many players still miss some aspects of the board. It can actually be pretty funny, so letting it happen doesn't seem to ruin the game.)

5) Thou shalt not give up. If your emperor concedes, that's one thing – but you do not give up the ghost for any reason. Giving yourself mana burn, attacking into certain death, or doing other obviously foolish things is simply bad form.

You may even be trying to help your team – "hey, if I mana burn and leave the game, my emperor can roll over the opposition!" But I would still recommend strongly against slipping down this slope. Your opponents deserve your respect, and your best game. You may be frustrated, or you may consider yourself irrelevant. But again – it's not about you. Play the game and do your best.

After you've played in team formats for a while, you'll notice some truths about the format that I probably don't need to write here. I'll do so anyway, but I'll be briefer. Some lessons are just best learned in practice.

Mana Flare

* Sometimes, it's worse to play a card that's friendly to your opponents than it is to play a card that's unfriendly to your teammates. This is what I call the "Mana Flare" phenomenon. As you check your deck for team-friendliness, make sure you don't get too friendly.

A nice nuance, when you're playing universally good cards, is to sit at the "head" of your team – that is, you are the first on your team to take their turn. A New Frontiers will still help your opponents – but not until your teammates get a chance to take advantage of having ten extra lands, first!

* Knowing yourself, your deck, and your role becomes more important, especially as your group becomes better. You can get away with randomness in a team deck when your group is young and/or foolish – but the more people pay attention to the team dynamic and supporting roles, the harder it is for a team with a loose cannon to win.

I'm not saying you can't play random cards in team. Well, yes, I am. Don't play random cards in team. Or if you do, don't get upset when your team hisses at you.

* Instants really shine. Yes, permanents are still king when it comes to facing multiple opponents. But just as an emperor "lives" in the combat phase, so do most teammates who want to lend a helping hand at critical moments. As you can imagine, permanents with instant-speed abilities are probably best – they signal not only to your opponents, but also your teammates, what your capabilities are. That really helps your team work together well.

* Teammates who die for the cause deserve the same respect as those who survive, and win. If one flank goes down in emperor, but your team wins, you have to give credit to the dead player. Maybe it was a key play early in the game that drew a Counterspell. Maybe it was crippling the opposing lieutenant just enough for your emperor to punch through. Maybe she was just a 20-point speed bump. But just like the offensive lineman who ends up on the ground so that the running back can dance in the end zone, so your fallen teammates deserve credit for your side's overall success. Make sure they get it.

We'll have many more times to discuss what works in team, and what doesn't. This much will do for now.

To close, I'd like to get a sampling of opinion from my readers. I try to keep my polls to once a year, and I think this is the right one for 2003.

Once I see the results, I imagine I'll have a column on the topic – but readers should not take the presence of this question as anything but one person's interest, nor the results as anything but a poll of my readership on an interesting, theoretical topic. To the best of my knowledge, Wizards is NOT considering ANY new sanctioned formats. (If they were, I would have let it slip!) So relax, and just answer the poll. Thanks!

You may email Anthony at Sadly, he cannot help readers with their decks. Have you thought of asking your teammates what THEY think?

Latest Serious Fun Articles


January 5, 2016

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


December 29, 2015

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