Out Of Hands, Out Of Minds

Posted in Serious Fun on April 13, 2005

By Anthony Alongi

Making discard work in multiplayer

As I mentioned two weeks ago in writing generally about control strategies, there are certain types of cards and decks that struggle in group games. The more opponents you have, the less effective these cards and decks are.

This week, we focus specifically on one of those control strategies: Discard.

Case Study: Under Duress


Let's begin with a fairly basic case study, using a specific card. I've seen this card played in multiplayer games both face-to-face and on Magic Online, so I know this will do at least some readers some good.

Duress is a stellar duel card. It can devastate control decks, rip the heart out of combos, and serves as a speedy one-for-one on the first turn. Many tournament decks included it (or still include it) as an automatic "4 copies of" card. It's a tier-one card, all the way.

Duress stinks in group play.

Here's the best a Duress can hope to do in a multiplayer free-for-all: it will take away one piece of a combo that may or may not affect you. With each additional opponent, the chances increase of each of the following:

  • you will choose a player with no useful cards (or no legal targets at all);
  • you will miss the player with the card you need to get rid of;
  • you will draw the Duress when the real threat is already on the board;

With these chances increased, your chances of winning (or surviving long enough to have your fun) decrease.

So should you never play Duress in a multiplayer game? Never is a strong word; but you should certainly be aware of these risks before using the card. With the advances discard has made over the past few years, Duress can be complementary to a wider discard strategy – or a distraction from other cards you should be playing.

Speaking of which…

Your Basic Discard Tools

Just about any viable multiplayer discard deck should contain at least one of the following four cards. Certainly there are decks without them; but the smart money is on inclusion. In increasing order of power:

Syphon Mind. To paraphrase former Presidential candidate Ross Perot, that sucking noise you hear is the sound of cards leaving your opponents' hands and coming to yours. The overall effect is not devastating to your opponents – but this is one of the few discard spells that does not result in effective card disadvantage in group play. Consider it the standard multiplayer discard spell – what we should consider the "average" card in a decent multiplayer discard deck.

Unnerve. At some point, a discard deck has to care more about nailing your opponents' hands than bolstering your own. What's great about this card is its team-friendliness – only the bad guys lose cards. In a normal emperor game, you'll get a six-for-one. That's not bad at all for – and if you time it right, you'll get quite a few bombs players have been holding back.

Bottomless Pit. When you want devastating discard playable on turn one with a Dark Ritual, the Bottomless Pit is your enchantment. Absolutely mean things can happen with this card – the worst of which would be for a player to lose a key land out of an opening hand, which in turn leads to several other (now unplayable) cards getting trapped in a shrinking pool.

Mindslicer. This Odyssey rare gave discard decks what it really didn't have before then – incredibly strong discard in an efficient, lethal creature. Myojin of Night's Reach is a bit friendlier for team play; but getting this 4/3 out on turn four can do two things: it can hold off most ground-pounders by either force or threat; and it can actually cause all hands to go if you have a quick way to sacrifice it (say, Spawning Pit).

Don't see one of your favorite cards in this list of four? That doesn't mean it's not a good group discard card. It just means you should go to the message boards and suggest I've forgotten it. (I haven't; but I enjoy the sounds of outrage.)

Your Accessories

Discard may be necessary for your deck to win – but it's not sufficient. Here are three cards you'll want to consider for supplementing your strategy.


Megrim. A discard-related path to victory would be nice – after all, you don't win simply by emptying hands. The Mindslicer (or even a Ravenous Rats) can eventually swing for damage, but Megrim can certainly be faster. Some yahoo always has a story to tell about Memory Jar with this enchantment; see also Windfall, Wheel of Fortune, and so on. I personally think this is a boring way to win; but if you're facing a bunch of other boring combo decks, I suppose everyone involved deserves it.

Geth's Grimoire. This was a nifty inclusion in the discard player's arsenal – fine replenishment for your rapidly dwindling hand. There's a nice combo with Words of Waste, but it's fine with any discard spell.

Tsabo's Decree. Discard decks often lose to problems on the board – especially fast creatures. Fast creature decks often stick to a single creature type. Enter Tsabo's Decree. It's expensive, but for at instant speed, it does an awful lot. A sorcery to consider for roughly the same purpose would be Void.

Discarding Black

It's hard to write about discard – especially multiplayer discard – without engaging in a minor variant on "black week." The color simply has the overwhelming share of cards.

Does that mean the other four colors have nothing to offer? Not at all. Consider the following, as supplements to either black or each other:

White: My personal choice here would be Spirit Cairn splashed into a black deck, which would allow you to consider strategies such as Devouring Greed and other Kamigawa "spirit-based" cards. You could also consider Gerrard's Verdict – but consider my warning above about duel-style cards.

Red: Red's relation to discard is fairly random: it tends to be your price for getting a desirable effect – for example, Gamble or Hanabi Blast. But red does offer some mass discard, in the form of Wheel of Fortune and Dragon Mage. It also dabbles in some interesting effects, such as madness (Violent Eruption) and land-chucking (Seismic Assault).

Green: The obvious path is madness creatures (Basking Rootwalla, Arrogant Wurm) in the wake of a Mindslicer. Green may also be the best color for "self-discard" – cards such as Wild Mongrel, Narcissism, and Greater Good. Why focus on your opponents, when focusing on yourself can lead to a finisher like Gurzigost?


Blue: Old-school veterans will point immediately to Amnesia. True, this is a heckuva discard bomb. But it may be impractical to run in a blue-black deck because of its heavy blue cost. (I love quirky off-color cards like this – for absolute discard? The correct move today for a card like this would be – and please, don't even try to argue this. Few things sound more spoiled than a blue mage whining about color wheel "injustice.") But if you can swing it, consider other cards like Apathy, Doomsday Specter, Marsh Crocodile, Mind Bomb, Probe, and the creature-quashing Breathstealer's Crypt. Blue also has a shot at discard-milling through draw-and-discard cards like Forget and several Cephalids.

In closing the alternate color section, I'll point to two artifacts (beyond Geth's Grimoire) which I've seen do very fine things for discard strategies:

Anvil of Bogardan begins like a Howling Mine, keeping players happy with your presence and getting you to the cards you need. It ends, often with Megrim, in quite a bit of pain.

Possessed Portal can affect not only hands, but board position as well. If players do not have removal in hand, it can put the game entirely in your hands.

To Hold or not to Hold?

Discard, like land destruction, can provoke occasional bad feelings. Even though I consider discard (and land destruction) a legitimate strategy, I know I'm always a little ticked when I have to lose a card before I even get a chance to play it. It can be hard not to feel persecuted (pun intended). So for those playing discard – and those getting hit by it – I have some advice:

If you're playing discard: Favor spells that impact multiple players at once. Not only is this more efficient, as discussed above – it's also harder for a single player to take personally.

If you're facing discard: You need to hear two messages. First, most solid decks should be capable of outgunning all but the most dedicated discard deck on its luckiest day. If you're losing to discard a lot, you're not thinking hard enough about how to combat it. (More on this below.)

Second, try not to whine. Discard is incredibly important to the game. It is very effective against those decks many players find even more offensive – combo decks. There have been many times I've watched a teammate discard one or two combo pieces; and I've actually been relieved my opponent saved us all the trouble of sitting through such-and-such boring sequence. Realize discard exists for a reason, and players play it because they're reacting to something out there. We learned this last week – it's not all about you, right?


Combating Discard

There are at least four ways to counter discard decks. All of the colors have access to at least one or two of these:

  • cheap and efficient creatures, which get out before discard can purge them;
  • direct damage, which can work off the top of a deck and always find a deserving target in the discard mage;
  • graveyard recursion, which can actually turn the discard mage's strategy around in your favor; and
  • hand replenishers ranging from Howling Mine to Prosperity, both of which counteract discard's effects and give everyone the tools they need to pound on the player that started it all.

Discard can be good in multiplayer. But it is not invulnerable. Whether you're trying or tried by it, know the weak spots.

Monstrous Follow-up

I'll close with a short note on last week's article. While I've been fortunate enough to enjoy many good receptions to my articles, this was definitely a piece that spoke to the vast majority of readers. I'm pleased you like it, and I'm impressed (though not particularly surprised) with how many Magic players are introspective and mature enough to (a) spot some of this behavior in themselves and (b) want to remove it.

For those (blessedly few) readers who were faster to see others in the article rather than themselves, I'll urge you as gently as I can: read it again, and try to catch your own reflection in the computer screen as you do so. Make sure you're being honest with yourself.

Anthony cannot provide deck help. He's hypnotized by the synergy of Chain of Smog and Dodecapod.

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