Playing Magic Like An Alpha

Posted in Serious Fun on April 25, 2006

By Turquoise Alongi

Author's note: This week, I've been too busy chasing after my naughty dog Turquoise to write an article. You can't leave anything around the house without her deciding to eat it. So I decided to solve both problems at once: as penance for her obnoxious behavior, the animal completes the assignment. If she can organize an email campaign to improve the local dog park, she can write a Magic article.

I have to say, after reading a first draft, she's not bad at this. And heck, it's not like she hasn't done it before: see her first literary attempt at Star City. But follow her advice at your own risk – I regularly kick her ass at Solomon Draft.

- Anthony

So I'm in trouble, which means work from The Boss. That's right, he insists I call him The Boss now. As in, "Can I go out please, Boss?" and "Why did you forget me outside during zero-degree weather, Boss?" and "Boss, if you could be any tree in the world, why are you such a moron?"

The author in repose.

What really sticks in my craw is the reason for the punishment. I ate a croissant that he left on the kitchen counter – for six hours. Okay now, you dogs reading at home – have you ever left a croissant on the counter for six hours? Six minutes? Six seconds? I didn't think so. Sue me for finally giving into temptation. I thought I'd get a taste before the Rapture struck.

But that's all crumbs under the doormat, now. I'd best get to work and give the reader something of value.

Dogs are really good at multiplayer Magic. (If there's one thing we dogs know, it's pack mentality.) The way we live has a lot to teach about smart group Magic. So pay attention to these five lessons – they may save your skin the next time you're in a free-for-all.

Lesson #1: Investigate the unknown.

Next to humans, dogs may be the most relentless and effective explorers in the animal kingdom. We're terrific hunters and we'll look into just about anything – strange smells at the bases of trees, twitching fur under the porch boards, and of course, the latest casual tech from Bennie Smith and Chris Millar.

Touch-pad: critical technology for the thumbless.

In Magic, this means surfing the net and learning a little about what other people are thinking. Some Magic players think that getting deck ideas from the Internet is cheating – disdain for "net decks" suffuses the message boards. These people are dumber than dolphins. Who's smarter – the lone wolves that still live out in the wild and have to scrounge for every meal, or their dog descendents who reached out to a network of fire-making humans and came to eat Beggin' Strips while TiVo-ing the foxy dog show contestants of Animal Planet?

Learning is okay, folks. Use those net decks. Learn why they're good. And you'll find before long, your growth as a player will come from improving them, out-thinking them, and surpassing them.

Magic is a battle. Intelligence is key. Sniff out what you can.

Illustrative insight: I'll be doing these for each lesson – dogs like to dig deep. Here, let's look at three different articles from around the web this past week that use specific decks and/or cards to give useful multiplayer strategy insights:

  1. Abe Sargent's Neo-Sneak Attack deck, which shows the value of abandoning a "key" card (in this case, Sneak Attack) to get the same effect in a more interesting and possibly more sustainable way;
  2. Taran Lewis Kratz's analysis of tournament-level decks based in Greater Good, which would make excellent candidates for the sort of deck conversion The Boss wrote about in recent weeks; and
  3. A different kind of research for those of you who prefer flavor-based decks – a great build-up to Cytoplast Manipulator by this site's own Matt Cavotta, who also smartly supplies many terrific combinations (but thoughtfully left Forgotten Ancient to me).

Lesson #2: No matter how cute and cuddly your friends look, they are still threats.

We see it over and over again in nature: a foolish small predator gets fooled by something that looks harmless, or attractive, or tasty. It gets closer…and closer…until suddenly, it becomes lunch for the trickster.

I've had my share of turnabouts, believe me. Small rodents that turn out not to smell so good, dogs that look a lot larger and meaner up close than from a hundred yards away… and my regular Magic opponents, Moosey and Stompy, who both like to play "gotcha" decks.

TWO Drowned Rusalkas? Nothing to do but scoop.

Here, Moosey just laid down his Orzhov Pontiff, which just blew away a bunch of my saproling tokens. Good play, right? Of course, the turn before, he was all like, "Dude, I'm not gonna attack you or anything. My deck can't stop saprolings."

Drowned Rusalka
Meanwhile, Stompy's got his usual Drowned Rusalka tech. Every deck he has starts with those. They're innocent-looking enough, but deadly in multiples. It's hard to explain why. Anyway, before long comes the rest of the combo… I don't need to run you through it, do I?

Illustrative insight: Stopping "gotcha" decks almost invariably requires strong utility instants. Think of the deck that suddenly seizes momentum of a game – either through an endless combo, massive controlling strike, or a sudden blaze of combat – and then try to think of the set of permanents that are as flexible and useful in stopping them as the "fantastic five" (and their many variants):

Quibble with the specifics if you will, but the cards that (a) remove creatures from the game, (b) stop enchantments and artifacts, (c) shift a devastating finishing spell to another target, (d) kill entire armies, and/or (e) stop specific tricks like storm combos, uncounterable spells, and endless combat repetitions – well, they're good. And they can stop a sneaky deck in its tracks, by fighting fire with fire.

3. Protect the things that are important to you.

Any well-functioning pack knows the value of protection. The stronger members of the pack protect the cubs all the time. (You know, the cubs are our future, treat them and teach them well, blah blah blah.)

Magic is no different. Whether you're protecting your permanents and spells during a game, or protecting your spiffy rares and foils with exquisite sleeves, or protecting your reputation by snarling louder than your opponents, you've got to treat your assets like your children.

Paws off.

Of course, sometimes you have to be selective – especially when it comes to your permanents. Mass removal and spot removal abound in every multiplayer Magic game. You cannot stop every Wrath of God, nor can you Shunt every Putrefy. Sometimes, protecting your assets means not deploying them too quickly.

Illustrative insight: Graveyard recursion decks are a notch above most creature-based decks in multiplayer because they store creatures in a nearly invincible zone – the graveyard. Only one color has lots of recently printed commons and uncommons available to it that hose graveyard strategies – black. White and red do okay, while green and blue have boutique cards at best. While you'll occasionally get unlucky with something like Samurai of the Pale Curtain or Carbonize, you'll more often find yourself with two different supply lines for your army – your hand/library and your graveyard.

Better yet, most inexperienced players (and even some veterans) tend to forget the graveyard, unless there's something ridiculous and obvious in there (e.g., the three copies of Kokusho, the Evening Star you just put in there with Buried Alive; or Wonder, Anger, and Crush of Wurms all at once). The best protection for your creatures may just be death.

Lesson #4: You can never learn too much from the opposition.

Much like investigating the unknown, deeper research of the already-known is all about inquisitiveness. Sure, you know what that neighbor's poodle's butt usually smells like – but do you know what it smells like today?

And you are…?

In Magic, this lesson is all about paying more attention to your friends. What are they playing, and why? What's working against you? Is there more of it lately, or less of it? What were the hot cards six months ago – are they still hot? How many cards does the best player in the group have in their hand every time, in the late game? What good cards didn't the blue mage counter two or three turns ago?

Illustrative insight: Most casual groups have stopped playing Mirrodin block cards en masse, which of course are usually artifacts. Kamigawa and Ravnica block don't have nearly as many high-powered artifacts (though there are certainly a few here and there), and so there's been a secondary effect here: fewer casual players are playing with strong artifact hate. Cards like Viridian Shaman are simply less necessary.

If you see this sort of thing happening in your group, you might decide to dust off a deck from two years ago and update it. I dunno – arcbound artifact creatures, a guild that features +1/+1 counters, maybe it can all work. That's up to you to build – I'm just the clever dog that put the idea in your head.

Lesson #5: Victory = food.

No night of Magic is complete without some kind of food. It can be as involved as a host with a three-course meal, or a friend grabbing you a snack bar from the school vending machine. But if you're going to spend energy playing and winning this game, the least you can do for yourself is replenish body and soul.

Me, I'm fond of carrots – though my latest favorite is organic canned tomatoes. Everyone has their own thing.

Il cane italiano.

The thing about hunger and satisfaction is, you can hunger for anything. And any hunger can be satisfied. Just don't hurt anyone, and you won't end up getting fixed (or worse) for your trouble.

Illustrative insight: For this lesson, let's focus on etiquette. Sleeves on cards become particularly important when you're eating and playing at the same time. Food also generally requires someone to prepare and/or pay for it, which means some gratitude may be in order if you weren't involved. And third, if you're hosting, older players often appreciate efforts to provide healthier food – because their bodies aren't 18 anymore (or two and a half in dog years), and that crap keeps them up at night.

Bonus Lesson #6: It's okay to let loose once in a while.

What good is life if you can't take a moment here and there to let down your fur, howl at the moon, and dress up like a Jackalope?

The rest of the herd was quite tasty.

Don't take Magic too seriously. Don't take Magic articles too seriously. And don't take yourselves too seriously. You look kinda silly to your pet when you do, even though most of you are about four times our own size.

Most importantly, keep your tails up and your tongues hanging out. It's a great way to meet friends, and that's what Magic and life are both all about.

Turquoise Alongi is a half-border collie, half-German Shepherd who follows roughly 20 voice commands and at least five hand signals flawlessly. She's faster than every dog she's met in her local dog park and once bravely defended her four-year-old charge from a well-meaning but dangerously clumsy Labrador Retriever. She spots evil cats for her master and purges the cellar of zombies for her mistress. You cannot counter her with a Spell Snare. Since she's also a character (by the name of Phoebe) in the JENNIFER SCALES series, she'll even allow the plug in this bio. Would your dog do that? Didn't think so.

Oh, and it's true – she does eat carrots, as well as green onions, broccoli, apple and pear cores, tomatoes, blackberry yogurt, and brussel sprouts. And occasionally lemon peel. But not mushrooms and green peppers – those are for freaks.

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