Political Beat

Posted in Serious Fun on September 26, 2006

By The Ferrett

Hi, I’m Not Anthony

I imagine some of you are feeling a little stunned right now, perhaps even woozy; for the past four years, you’ve been greeted by the cheerful smile of Anthony Alongi beaming down at you every time you’ve clicked on the Serious Fun column. Now there’s this angry guy with sunglasses, a new and unknown author.

Oh God, you sigh. Not another set rotation.

But yes, things will be a little different around here, because – let’s be honest – the dearly-departed Anthony was one of the finest writers in all of Magic. And I know this, because I’m one of the most experienced editors in all of Magic – I’m the Editor-in-Chief of StarCityGames, perhaps the largest independent Magic site on the planet. I’ve been publishing and rejecting Magic authors for almost six years now, and lemme tellya: Anthony has a unique voice that really can’t be imitated.

“It is you who replace Dr. Franklin?”
“No one can replace him, Sir; I am only his successor.”
- Thomas Jefferson to the French Foreign Minister,
upon taking up Benjamin Franklin’s post as Ambassador to France.

So rather than trying to give you my best Anthony Alongi impression and failing, I thought I’d kick off this column by giving you a side-by-side comparison of Anthony Alongi and that new guy, whats-‘is-name.

Anthony Alongi:
A husband, father, public servant, and Magic player.
Occasionally votes on American Idol.
Anthony Alongi:
A handsome man who uses a current headshot.
The Ferrett
A vain and ugly man who uses a picture taken five years ago so that none of you will have to look upon the horror of his unblunted visage.
Anthony Alongi:
Occasionally, if sparingly, plugs his book Jennifer Scales and the Ancient Furnace
Plugs his nerdcore webcomic Home on the Strange (a comic about nerd culture and romances between dysfunctional adults) so often that some members of the forums were way ahead of him.
A good deckbuilder. Believes in the power of cards alone.
A decent, if not exceptional, deckbuilder. Believes in theory.

That bears a little more examining, so let’s stop the side-by-side comparison to talk about the rather large differences between Anthony and I.

“This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill. The story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill? You stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”

Whether you know it or not, there are at least two theories on How To Play Multiplayer floating around the Internet… And Anthony only believes in one of them. In fact, if you’ve only been reading Anthony, you may not even be aware that there is another way to approach multiplayer.

Under the Anthony Alongi School of Magic, you win games by the strength of pure power. In the Alongi School, there is no bluffing in multiplayer, no politicking (which is ironic given that Anthony left to become a politician, but never mind that) - there are only people laying down potent cards to create backbreaking play after backbreaking play. Break enough backs, and you win.

In the Alongi school, you only succeed because you had a deck that was strong enough to beat the other guys at your kitchen table. And for a year or so after Anthony began to write about multiplayer, that was the only theory floating around.

But I read Anthony way back when he was writing for seminal Magic theory site The Dojo (the progenitor of all Magic websites, including this one), and what he was talking about never matched my reality of it.

What happened in my groups was that all other things being equal, the strongest player usually lost.

It didn’t take long to figure out why. In a duel, there’s only one target to hit: your opponent. (Your only other option is to start aiming Shocks at your forehead, which is suboptimal to say the least.) But in multiplayer, there are many opponents to choose from, and particularly in the early game, a player has a meager handful of resources to work with. Usually, that means that when you choose to attack someone (or Counterspell someone’s spell, or destroy someone’s creature), you’re hurting them and letting someone else go unhindered.

In my games, dropping the elbow put The Fear into the rest of the table. “Holy Crap!” they’d say. “Ferrett just dropped a Phyrexian Processor with Angelic Chorus! We’d better gang up on him!” And thus, the strongest play was often the one that lost you the game, since everyone would form emergency alliances to pound the crap out of you.

I eventually decided that in multiplayer, politics matter. Learning what your friends and co-players will react to can help you design a deck that will win.

For example: A new player called Ray recently joined our group, and in the third game he pulled out a Blue/White deck. Within moments, he had played Lifetap and a few other color hosers, then Sleight of Minded them to affect whoever was on the table.

We crushed him.

He was reasonably upset about this, because he didn’t think that his silly little deck was that much of a threat. But the rest of us were playing mono-colored decks, and we didn’t want to wait around for him to drop some color hoser that would completely stop us in our tracks. So two of the remaining three players ganged up on him, and three turns later he was out of the game.

Was his deck that dangerous? Ya got me; I never saw the dang thing do anything! The important thing was that we thought it could be dangerous…. And that thought was all it took to shove poor Ray onto the sidelines until the next shuffle.

(Fun fact: Ray is from Anthony’s old group, an Alongi expatriate.)

It’s like being a teenager all over again. You remember back when Mom thought it was really important that you put the dishes away whenever the dishwasher was done? How silly Mom was! It was so much more convenient to leave the clean dishes in the racks and pull them out whenever you needed them!

So what if the dirty dishes piled up in the sink? It was less work!

But if you were a smart teenager, you soon learned that none of that mattered. What mattered was that Mom thought that having the dishes put away was a Very Important Thing. According to Mom, if the next-door neighbors came over and saw your dirty dishes in the sink or your school jacket thrown willy-nilly over the chair, everyone who knew her would shun her. Her entire social circle would collapse!

To your Mom, not having a clean house would destroy her whole way of life. You may not have agreed with her… But if you were smart, you soon learned to treat her housekeeping mania as if it was important, because otherwise she would refuse to drive you to the movies.

So think of your multiplayer group as a bunch of very mean mothers. (I know I do.) Just as your Mom mistakenly thought that dirty dishes in the sink would destroy the feng shui of her house, each player thinks of some strategy as being so overwhelmingly dangerous that they have to deal with it right now.

It doesn’t matter how dangerous those spells actually are; they only act based on how dangerous they think the spells are.

Some groups will mangle anyone who dares to play Counterspells. Others will go after people who play land destruction like Armageddon. Still others will hit the guy they think is the best player, regardless of what deck he’s playing (and yes, there are ways to get around that), and others don’t really care, attacking people at random just ‘cause.

By the way, if you live in the Cleveland area and shower on a regular basis, we’d love to see you in our multiplayer group! We’re just getting started, so don’t be intimidated; just email theferrett@theferrett.com and let’s get something set up!

Learning what your group fears allows you to develop your strategy in blissful isolation, while the dude who has just inadvertently terrified everyone wastes time and cards dealing with his opponents. You might even try to steer people in someone else’s direction: “Hey, Phil - you do realize that Tim’s deck has a card that destroys the Elves you have on the table, right?”

That’s the essentials of The Other School of Multiplayer Magic: Politics matter. And learning how to play those politics, learning how your group functions, will not only notch up a couple of random wins here and there, but it can also be a sneaky kind of fun.

Anthony dislikes politics, to the point where I’m told he doesn’t allow table talk at his games. And that’s fine, that’s a personal choice. But in a lot of games where there is talking and advice-giving, learning to understand what your opponents will do steals games that you might have otherwise lost.

Note: Keep in mind that I’m not saying that politics are a substitute for lousy decks. You need to have some power to back up your sneakiness, and decks that can’t handle staple multiplayer cards like Wrath of God or Darksteel Colossus are going to fail on a regular basis. Politics are simply another edge to be considered when you’re thinking about what kind of deck you want to play.

Darksteel Colossus
“But Ferrett,” you say. “It’s not all about winning!” And I absolutely agree; when you’re sitting down at a kitchen table with your pals, it’s all about the good times. If you want to win all the time, you play ugly combo decks that either alienate your friends or turn the whole table into a race to see who can go off on turn 4.

But it’s hard to enjoy yourself when you’re the first one out of every game, so ideally you play a deck that’s at least competitive.

There will be time to go into all of this later, of course. There’s a lot to multiplayer politicking, and there’s only so much I can talk about before it starts to sound like Giles giving a lecture on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But you guys have been listening to Anthony for years, hearing his thoughts on Rattlesnakes and Cockroaches and Flying Spatulas….

…now it’s time to listen to a weasel.

Which brings up the next question: since this new version of Serious Fun is just getting started, what would you like to see covered in it? I want to know what sorts of things you’d like to see me write about, so give me your input in the forums.

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