The Politics of Red

Posted in Serious Fun on April 29, 2008

By The Ferrett

Editor's note: Due to unexpected circumstances, the Ferrett was unavailable for this week's article. For those who may have missed it, the article that follows is the one that ran in this slot last week.

Psst. Wanna see a deck that has a 3-1 record in group games?

Now, 3-1 might not sound spectacular to tournament players.... but when you realize that I had to defeat an average of four other opponents in each of those games to win, it becomes more impressive. And none of those games were mop-up operations, either; near the end in each game, I had at least two players ganging up to take me out.

This record actually surprised me. Because it wasn't one of my "good" decks.

See, I have two methods of building casual decks. The first method involves approaching it like it was a tournament-quality deck; I decide exactly what this deck's goal is, then I get four of every key card that I think will make this happen. This often involves the expense and time of procuring the good cards that I need, but it's worth it for a deck that I think will be fun if it's focused.

The second method? It's the "big pile" method.

"Say, here are a bunch of cards I want to play with!" I cry happily, looking at the huge pile of singles I've picked up over the years but haven't managed to get out yet. "Can I stuff them into one deck with a rough theme? How many do I have of this card? It's my only copy? Well, one's plenty. Now let's see what other cards I can put in there to support this crazy theme!"

So what you are about to see is one of my "I've always wondered how fun this would be" decks, wherein the whole goal is to try out cards that I can't fit into my "serious" decks.

Yet it won! More than it should have. And I think that reason is due to one thing that many Magic players overlook.


The Fury D’Weasel

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So why did this deck do so well? I have to attribute it to two things... and neither of which is Viashino Heretic, one of my favorite ways of all time of handling a Darksteel Colossus. (Oh, it doesn't kill the Colossus, but its controller sure wishes it did.)

Of these two things that contributed to this ragtag deck's win rate, the first is much less important than the second, but I'll mention it up-front:

The Fact That It's Easily Handled

Taurean Mauler
There's a psychological ploy at stake here in the early game that I find fascinating, and it's what won me two of those three games:

The fact that I was handled.

See, some folks chastised me for calling Taurean Mauler a good card. "It's too threatening!" people say. "And folks will just kill it anyway! Then they'll gang up on you and kill you!"

But remember a few weeks ago, when I talked about giant-sized decks? And at the time, I said this?

The thing about giant effects is that they're not love-taps. If someone survives a giant card, they know they missed certain death by that much. It's not like shrugging off a Shock, or taking a hit from some 2/2 flier—a giant card makes people go, "Whoah, that would have taken my head off!"

Well, Taurean Mauler? It's threatening enough that it could kill people, but most people can take the hit. Once they take down the Taurean Mauler, they don't shudder in fear of the next Mauler hitting the table.

It's a threat, but it's not one that's going to annihilate them unless they run out of defenses. Unlike a giant-sized swipe, the Mauler is a love-tap—enough to be respected, but not enough to cause everyone to run in fear.

Likewise, Jaya Ballard, Task Mage. She has the power to dominate the table, true, but at a significant cost to you in cards and in mana... and that's assuming she lives to your next turn, which she generally won't. She can certainly land the deathblow, but she's a fragile 2/2, and most experienced players won't panic instantly upon seeing her.

So what happens? A curious phenomenon I've noted before among certain players: They take out the Taurean Mauler. And now, armed with the false security that "His big threat's * out of the way, now I can look elsewhere," they ignore you.

Why? Because of The Rule.

The Rule in multiplayer games is this: The person who does the least wins. The longer your opponents leave you alone, the better your chances are of winning the game. If you haven't gotten into a tussle with anyone, you've probably stockpiled a nice hand of seven powerful cards, and are at your fullest strength.

Pernicious Deed
This is why you always attack into a Pernicious Deed or a Ghostly Prison, if you can. Yes, you're going to sacrifice some of your own resources, but leaving Fortress McDoNothingPants alone means that by the time you do feel like attacking him, he'll have an answer for everything you can do.

The thing is, if your group knows The Rule—as mine, by and large, does—players begin actively looking for the person who is doing the least and then starts pinging them. They're fully aware that if they don't start forcing those untouched players to burn some resources, they're going to fall to them.

Thus, in a more complex metagame, putting out a sacrificial threat can actually be a fine play. They will mentally mark you down as someone whose threat has been neutralized, and then move on to the scary guy with the Witherscale Wurm.

So what often happened is that I play a big ol' Taurean Mauler or two, and people blasted it. And then even though I might have been slightly more vulnerable to attacks at that point because my Mauler was gone, we were shifting into the midgame. By then, my other opponents were playing other, larger things that needed to be handled, and I had been successfully "neutralized," so they left me alone.

Allowing me to stockpile cards in hand. **

Propelling me towards the victory.

It was very odd. But I've noticed this before with other decks, and the idea of The Sacrificial Almost-Threat is something to keep in your quiver. Sometimes, you'll play something that has the potential to be scary but really isn't too much trouble to deal with, just to keep your opponents feeling like you're in the game but not so much that they can't handle.

Plus, as an extra bonus, if they can't handle it and you start Infernoing people out of the game with Jaya Ballard? Awesome work. The word "win" will be placed firmly in a twinned pair, separated by a slash to indicate an overused corporate jargon.

But that's merely a footnote. Why did this deck win so much? Here's a hint:

Because Red Is Awesome

Seriously. A lot of people dismiss red as "the worst color in multiplayer." I'm not sure what I would choose as the worst color, if pressed.... but red would not be near the bottom of that very short list. Red's actually quite a potent force in multiplayer.

In fact, we know that red wins. Metal Jack has a white-red Earthquake deck that's mopped the floor with us a few times. Ian has his own Elemental Hostility deck that has its own surprising win record. We fear red.

...or should. Somehow, despite all of this, we find ourselves going after the black and white and blue players, leaving red to burn us away at its leisure. You'd think we'd learn, but nooooo.

Okay, let's go over the traditional reasons that red is cited as sucking:

  1. It's vulnerable to all sorts of protection effects, and it can't handle enchantments. Tru dat. Why do you think I have Ghostfire in the deck? You need a Ghostfire to get around that Circle of Protection: Red or that Silver Knight sometimes.
  2. It's got unscalable removal. Again, true. Lightning Bolt is all awesome as long as you have a guy with 3 toughness, but in multiplayer you're often facing dudes with 5 or 6 toughness. What do you do then? Hope for Fissure? Burn a Disintegrate? Burn two Lightning Bolts and hope he doesn't have a Giant Growth effect? Not so much.
  3. It has dinky creatures. Well, not at the upper scale of things, where red's legendary monsters can swing with the best of them.... but it is true that in the early game, when green and white are laying early, undercosted beef, you're casting little dudes with drawbacks.

But you know what's great about red?

It can hit everybody. Certainly green has a handful of Hurricane effects. But red has the more consistent ability to Earthquake for 6, clearing the field of both unwanted creatures and unwanted players. (And, may I add, in the wake of Molten Disaster and Sudden Shock and Flaring Pain, you don't have to worry nearly as much about those pesky Circle-style enchantments.) When you can often clear two or more opponents out with a single spell and reduce everyone else's offense to zilch, that's a color worth getting into.

It's the Spanish Inquisition. It can come out of nowhere thanks to insane accelerators like Seething Song. More than once, I've seen a red player stuck at five land and seemingly helpless go "Seething Song, Seething Song, Rite of Flame, Rite of Flame, Earthquake for eleven damage, four of you die."

It has the best combat trick in the whole dang book. This happened any number of times.

"I'll cast Overrun."


"And, Ferrett, I'll attack you."

"What are you at?"

"Eight life."

"Beacon of Destruction, Lightning Bolt. You're removed from game."

Beacon of Destruction
Lightning Bolt

The best combat tricks in the world don't matter if your opponent doesn't survive combat. And generally, they'll have ploys to save their creatures, but a barrage of death to the face is hard to beat.

Admittedly, not so easy to pull off in the early game. But so satisfying.

It has monstrous late-game plays. When you get to up to seven or eight mana, your guys start becoming huge. Butcher Orgg? Yeah, your blockers don't count. Insurrection for the win? Oh yes. And all of those lovely dragons! Yes, Akroma still trumps you, but man you have options.

It has haste. You'd be surprised how many players, even experienced ones, will tend to only leave back just enough to block what you have right now. With red's haste, you can often add something ugly like Rorix Bladewing to your arsenal, reversing a marginal set of blocks into one where your opponent has little choice.

(NOTE: It's an older card, but surprisingly few people remember the words "Anger in the graveyard." And that will absolutely decimate people if they haven't taken that into their calculations, particularly with tappy guys with big effects.)

And tied into that is....

It has Hostility. I took some flak for placing Hostility as the best multiplayer card in Lorwyn over a card like Forced Fruition, but I will stand by this decision, because Hostility allows for absolutely back-breaking surprise plays when everyone's tapped out.

That's right. The Wrath of God has hit. Everyone's played their big dudes. And then I go, "Hostility, Flame Rift," and get an insta-army of 3/1 guys to take out whoever I please.

Hostility's even great on defense!

"I attack you for the win!"

"In response, I Lightning Bolt you to the head. No damage, but now I have three chump blockers to throw in front of your army. And now that you've sent everything in my direction, I'll steamroll you next turn. Thanks!"

Deep-Slumber Titan
There are some notable red cards in Shadowmoor that might add to the archetype—Deep-Slumber Titan might work in conjunction with something like Pyroclast Council as a way of causing havoc, Demigod of Revenge gives you some late-game beef and recursion with evasion. Everlasting Torment is a killer for a lot of decks, especially if they don't pack enchantment removal—all of those lovely protection spells and regenerators just cease to function, which is pretty sweet. Kulrath Knight is not only a solidly priced evasion creature, but it can serve as a mini-Peacekeeper if your opponents are still +1/+1 counter-happy.

On the other hand, Impromptu Raid can give you devastating late-game turns (particularly after a board clearing) with enough mana, but isn't much good in the early game. And Vexing Shusher can shut up those annoying blue mages with some extra mana. But more testing, as always, is needed.

The thing about red is that yes, it is vulnerable. Nobody denies that. But that vulnerability also comes hand-in-hand with a lot of power... and the good news is that power is often masked in your hand, making you appear like a second-tier player until you step right into your role as the One True King.

Which makes red a strangely political color. And isn't that odd?

* – Some folks might question whether an early Flame Rift and Sizzle can be a big threat. And yes, they do draw some attention, but they hurt everyone equally, and generally unless you're under 5 life most people have bigger fish to fry. Play them on turn two or three, and you're generally not in danger unless you play multiples one after the other.

**Journeyer's Kite was also instrumental, since when I drew it and people left me alone, I thinned my deck down to pure awesomeness. I need more of these. Now.

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