Playing Not To Win

Posted in Serious Fun on May 4, 2005

By Anthony Alongi

Coping with eccentric players

In what has become a sort of unintentional series over the last couple of articles, I have taken a look at what sorts of behaviors impoverish multiplayer games, and what sorts of behaviors improve them. Reader response has been very thoughtful to both articles, and I appreciate the comments.

One such comment spurred this article. I don't often base entire articles on reader emails, but I did find this one inspiring. From Raymond Russell:

One…behavior I've seen is what you might call "the vindictive player." This is a player who plays a multiplayer game with no thought to victory, but only revenge for a previous loss…I've been guilty of this myself on occasion.

One of the peculiar things about multiplayer games is that they allow this sort of thing, which really isn't possible in a duel. This both increases the complexity of the game, and also its potential for frustration on occasion. Maybe sometime you could write another article similar to this one, discussing other aspects of multiplayer etiquette? For example, what happens when certain players are not playing to win?

The sort of behavior Raymond describes is one of several we'll look at today. After all, describing behaviors that hurt games, and then behaviors that help games, is not quite comprehensive.

Somewhere in between are the behaviors that, truth be told, neither help nor hurt games consistently. Sometimes they're funny and help your group bond. Sometimes they're unbelievably irritating and you want to bury the player. But all of these behaviors are what I'd label "eccentric" – they're unpredictable, born neither of immaturity or maturity, but rather honest impulse.

ECCENTRICITY #1: The Vengeful Attack.


Let's start with what Raymond described. How many of us have lost a game due to some perceived injustice – and then sought to correct that injustice by taking it out on a single player the next game?

"Next-game payback" is generally not sustainable, over multiple games or nights. But in small doses, it's hardly lethal.

What works: First, every winning deck should expect a certain amount of pressure in a rematch. Combo decks, in particular, have no business whining if folks attempt to eliminate a known ticking bomb.

Second, some players use next-game payback as a simple extension of the sort of tit-for-tat that occurs during a normal game. If you get a reputation as someone who'll fire off on someone for dealing a killing blow, maybe people will deal fewer killing blows.

What doesn't: If everyone who loses uses the next game to take it out on the person who dealt the last killing blow, the group never gets a chance to start with a "clean slate". Every game is just a replay of the last game's feuds. Eventually, feelings can get hurt. People can start overreacting. People can actually leave groups over this sort of thing, if it happens often enough.

Prescription: Reserve "payback" for those times when you have learned you need to be aggressive against a certain deck to win. Keep a clear head regarding each confrontation – if you eliminate it early, have you weakened the group's ability to deal with an even worse deck?

ECCENTRICITY #2: The Control Freak.


Much as there are players who can cause chaos by being aggressive in irrational directions, there are players who can disturb the table by seeking to limit other players' options in virtually every deck. They may or may not be trying to win – to them, it's more about stopping things for as long as possible, and "exerting control".

This one causes some complications in some circles – including, I've discovered, many players in Magic Online. Simple strategies such as countermagic, discard, and land destruction cause foaming at the mouth. Even good creature control – timely Wrath of God, a Lightning Rift or Opposition that last long enough – can make players proclaim your deck is "boring" or "not worth my time".

What works: Control strategies are an important part of the game. Without countermagic or discard, combo decks (and I include here less rigorous stuff like decks that depend on a single card and massive amounts of mana, like Tooth and Nail or Rude Awakening) would dominate. I'm a huge fan of several control cards – Pernicious Deed is my favorite – and always feel bad after a game where I've chastised an opponent's deck as "boring". Hey, it's my responsibility to overcome the control.

What doesn't: When two or more control players team up and coordinate (whether it's a team game or not), the effect can be devastating. Two simultaneous control decks are enough to wipe out both creatures and other spells, or both lands and hands, etc. People don't have fun when nobody has anything to show after eight turns of effort.

Prescription: If you like control, play control. But try to build a completely new deck every two weeks. Stretch yourself to demonstrate different modes of control. You do not owe your friends and/or opponents the means to win every game. You do, however, owe them the respect of exercising your mind every few days to come up with something new. Magic is a creative game. Join the crowd.

ECCENTRICITY #3: The Random Move.

Confusion in the Ranks

Perhaps the most popular "eccentric" behavior (at least, based on our own group's games and the volume of email I receive) involve players who seem not to care if the card they play creates complete chaos – or in fact, are looking to mess everyone up.

Often a player will go against his or her own interests by playing a game-changing card. This can happen often if the player is on a team – a teammate is ready to collapse a flank in an emperor game with an army of wurms, and all of a sudden the emperor plays Confusion in the Ranks. Two turns later, the once-dominant player has nothing but myr tokens.

What works: Entire formats have been built off of "random card" effects. (I've done several articles on these; yet I still get readers who believe their group was the first to come up with this! It's just that intuitive.) Lots of people find them fun. And if you believe that winning isn't everything – that sometimes the point is just to show what your deck can do – then random moves are what it's all about.

What doesn't: Magic already has a good deal of randomness in it (starting with the shuffled decks), and many players are looking to overcome that randomness with skill and careful planning. That's the challenge for them. It's the seed from which tournament play springs. It's a perfectly legitimate way to play the game. Too many casual players, perhaps insecure in their tournament play skills, try to ridicule or shame players who want to win. It's okay for winning to be fun. (Put into Wizards R&D lingo, casual players can be "Spikes". Our play group is living proof of this.)

In particular, team games ought to be a place where players can count on their teammates for support – or at least a lack of interference. Otherwise, why are you playing a team format?

Prescription: Try to keep the random effects to chaos games (which, after all, are labeled "chaos" for a reason). View team games as your skill-building opportunity, where you learn how to play nice with others. Stretch yourself a bit for the sake of your teammates – and then you'll enjoy the relaxing free-for-all that much more, when you don't have any to answer to.

ECCENTRICITY #4: The Inefficient Deck.

Battle of Wits

One of the fabulous things about Magic Online is that it's far more practical to play with (read: shuffle) a 300+-card deck. As a result, you see way more of (and in fact, there are entire formats that support) them. They sneak into supposedly "efficient" formats all the time.

What works: They're quite loveable. They play differently each game, generally use all five colors, and use cards you'd never see otherwise – often because they're using a player's entire collection, bad rares and all!

What doesn't: Their inconsistency can frustrate their owners, and occasionally their teammates. (If you're playing one as my teammate, don't worry. I don't mind one bit. But others can be less patient.) The more well-developed large decks learn to use lots of mana-fixers – which means they play more predictably, which by definition takes away one of their major assets.

Prescription: Play 'em, and just stick to 2-3 colors if your collection permits. That way, you can do lots of different things without having to resort to mana fixers.

ECCENTRICITY #5: The Chatty Player

This last one's less about play style or skill, and more about personality. Magic is undeniably a social game, but sometimes you get a player who's simply dominating the conversation. (Yes, I am occasionally that player.) Maybe it's one dude who doesn't realize it's a timed online game; maybe it's a new guy at the local store who's trying to make friends; maybe it's just a guy who doesn't know when to shut up and play.

What works: It's nice to talk with someone during a good game of cards.

What doesn't: An overchatty player can distract from the actual game, causing missed and/or slow play.

Prescription: Chat smart. In person, watch others closely for signs of irritation. Online, keep your chat lines short, and don't chat when you have priority.

Okay – I think we've covered most of the relevant multiplayer behaviors, for good, evil, or just plain craziness! Future weeks will focus on new topics.

Anthony cannot provide deck help. He is too eccentric.

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