Starving The Frenzy

Posted in Serious Fun on March 7, 2006

By Anthony Alongi

Four weeks ago, this column took on the topic of "ganging up" in free-for-all formats. The feedback from that article led to an article two weeks ago on a special case many readers brought up – when the ganging happens toward a perceived "best player".

As I stated back then, tagging the "best player" is often a sign of good decision-making. Yes, it can be taken too far – but players in most group play situations are like a wolf pack, and the alpha is always going to be fending off challenges. You can't become #1 without knocking out #1.

But pack behavior is not the only common animal behavior we Magic players indulge in – we also like a good feeding frenzy.

Blood In The Water

Most teenagers and adults know the well-worn metaphor: sharks gather near prey, one takes a bite, blood hits the water…and suddenly, bedlam breaks out. Everybody gets hit a little, but the first to bleed is almost certainly the first to die. And of course, that's the way with many Magic games: one player takes a small hit, and suddenly everybody joins in. Three or four turns later, the player with a slight flesh wound is a decapitated mess.

What's going on? Nothing too surprising: the attackers have excellent senses of smell, blood is pungent, and the instinct to feed overwhelms all.

Based on my email – hardly a scientific poll, but often an illuminating sample – this sort of frenzy appears to happen more often in younger groups. If true, why would this be the case? Is it because younger people are still growing out of bullying behaviors (something plenty of adults struggle with as well)? Some of my readers clearly think so – I heard many complaints from high school students who consistently get blown out of games where they show the slightest weakness, and they often feel quite bitter. Are they being bullied? Perhaps.

But sometimes, it might be something simpler – something the shark already knows.

When To Let The Sharks Feed

If feeding frenzies happen more often with younger groups, it may have a lot less to do with attitude than with structure – most high school students play Magic during school lunch hour (which, in America, is generally more like 40 minutes). As any shark can tell you, speed is of the essence while eating. Diplomacy and even-handedness takes time. Heck, smart threat analysis takes time. It's much easier to simply hit the low life total and hope for the best. Hey, if you're wrong, at least the game's over faster, right?

When this is indeed the reasoning behind the gang-up, I'm actually in favor of it. Hitting the low life total is actually a well-established casual format in some groups – and it does speed up the game. (It also can, under certain circumstances, slow it down.) High school students who are buds, know each other pretty well, have roughly the same level of play skill, and establish this sort of culture in their Magic play aren't doing anything wrong. They're just trying to get games done before time runs out.

The trend is less desirable when there's one player who always seems to play the role of Tuna.

Groundhog Day, As Lived By Tuna

Empathy is not a common masculine trait – and since most Magic players are male, let me run you all through a quick exercise in imagination.

For the next five to ten Magic games your group plays, pay attention to who's struggling early. Is it the same person over and over? If not, you can simply use this time to note the same common causes for bad starts – a poor decision not to mulligan, simple bad luck, or whatever.

If it is the same person most of the time, spend some time imagining yourself in this person's seat. We'll call him Tuna. When Tuna plays Magic, what is their experience? Does a typical Tuna Magic game look something like this?

  • Draw a hand that looks pretty good, keep it.
  • Get an early creature out, lose it to combat or other means.
  • Receive a 20-point pounding before you can get another two or three creatures out.
  • Watch the rest of the game unfold.

You may have someone like this in your group without even realizing it – especially if you have a newer player. It's easy to take Tuna's failure for granted. Of course they're going to suck, they're new at this. And don't they have to go through what the rest of us went through?

Maybe. But most of us learned the game in groups where the weakest player didn't get completely crushed, time after time. It's hard to pick up intermediate Magic skills when every game you play lasts about four or five turns. And it's not much fun either.

Now, if you already know all of this and you still enjoy dumping on Tuna, I'd submit you and I will probably have more to say to each other after you're done growing up. We'll have great conversations, you and I. Oh, the conversations we'll have! They'll be glorious, and we'll laugh, and laugh, and laugh. And let me tell you – it will be a special day, when you finally find that golden nugget of self-esteem.

Meanwhile, don’t be shocked if your group gets a bit smaller soon.

Tuna-Safe Dolphin Nets

So if you're interested in not bullying the weakest player, but it's happening anyway, what do you do? And what do you do if you are Tuna and you're sick of getting ripped apart by a gang of attackers?

Like most situations where people are doing things you don't like, it's helpful to separate out the things you can control from the things you can't control.

The chance-based games you play The chance-based games you win
The effort you put into your Magic skills The skill of those teaching you the game
How well you treat your girlfriend How well your girlfriend treats you
What movie you'll see this weekend The absolute saturation of horrible television ads for claptrap like The Hills Have Eyes, and Nose Hairs to Boot
How you treat other players in the group How other players in the group treat you
What new Magic formats you suggest to the group How receptive the rest of the group is to new, unfamiliar formats
The effort you put into your schoolwork (or job) How good your teachers (or co-workers) are
What creative deck you'll build this week, or play next game The absolute saturation of "net decks" that encourage multiple expensive rares and/or well-worn strategies
Who you hang out with Who wants to hang out with you
How many items in these two columns you'll tolerate reading before you start skimming How many items in these two columns I'll tolerate throwing in here to test your patience

People – including Magic players – spend way, way too much time getting down about things they cannot control. They lose opportunities to improve their lot, because they're not focusing on the things they can control.

Once you're focusing on the correct column, you can come up with actual strategies to change things. Here is what I would recommend to the so-called "weakest player", in pretty much the order I'd recommend it.

  1. Get better. Yes, I know it's frustrating to be a new player and hear this – especially if you don't feel like you're getting enough time each game to bolster your skills. But you can get better, even if no one's helping you. And you owe it to yourself to seize control of the easiest thing in the word for you to control: your own work ethic.
    Just as neophyte basketball players can get better by spending some alone time with a ball and hoop, so you can get better on your own time with just a few tools. First, do you spend a little time at places like (and other Magic strategy sites) learning about the game? Do you read the columns on decision-making and deck-building? Do your decks and play decisions look similar to the ones the authors are using? (Hint: the answer to that last one is "no".) Study those decks and decisions hard – the way experienced players use four of a given card (or reasonable substitutes, if a chase rare is involved), the way veterans don't overextend their troops, the cards that don't seem to do much but everyone's using, the higher number of mulligans among smarter players – why are they doing these things? What can you learn from them? The answers are generally in the articles themselves (including the ones I sometimes write), and you need to dig for it. No, don't send me an email and ask where they are. We're talking about self-empowerment today, right? Look for them. They're out there, and this web site has searchable archives.
    If there's one member of the group you trust more than the others, ask them privately to mentor you a bit, maybe play a few extra duels a week, point out opportunities for improvement, etc. We'll talk more about this below – but it's a great way to learn fundamentals, so I don't mind repeating it a few times today.
  2. Play patient. While there are some fundamental skills that many weaker players haven't picked up, there are other skills – specific to multiplayer and free-for-all – that even seasoned players don't practice very well. Chief among these is patient play.
    Put another way, you may need to learn the value of a good, early wall. Maybe one with flying or some other helpful benefit? Seek ye the benefits of cards like Drift of Phantasms and Carven Caryatid. Watch what happens to the board when you play them. Learn why these are good in multiplayer (and other formats).
    While I don't tout it as much as I probably should in this column, holding back is a perfectly viable and often essential multiplayer strategy. It prolongs games, but it increases your chances of survival.
    At the same time, recognize that survival does not equal victory. You can't put 24 walls in your deck and expect to win. This learning step is not an end point – it's a way for newer and overly aggressive players to learn how to take a deep breath, watch the board, and learn from other player's mistakes for once.
  3. Play monochrome, with cycling lands. Color-screw, by definition, happens less with one color than with multiple colors. Mana-flood, by definition, happens less when you can get the land out of your hand and pick up the next card.
    Even if you love multiple colors, try mono-decks for a while. In this "guilded" age, you can still build competitive decks using a single basic land type. (Actually, you may gain some advantage by revisiting some stuff from Mirrodin that used to be harder to play, when artifact destruction was more prominent.)
  4. Stay calm. Okay, we're off the Magic learning curve suggestions and onto the steps involving attitude, friendships, and personalities. As I told everyone in the first two articles in this series – complaining about getting ganged up on usually just makes it worse. Whining = bleeding. The sharks are circling. Keep your whining body parts out of the water, so to speak.
  5. Use positive reinforcement. On those rare occasions when you do last more than a few turns, let people know you had fun. You don't have to make a big deal of it – just something like, "I like how long that lasted! I guess it was the Fog Bank that saved me early on." You may get some affirming feedback that helps you figure out how to succeed next game, as well.
  6. Ask for more duels. When the second person gets eliminated (assuming your group is more than three people), ask him or her if they want to get a friendly duel going. Even though it's not multiplayer, it's still a chance to get your skills in. And it will help salve the burn of getting moved out of the big game early.
    Even more helpfully, it will get the other players in the group to see you in action more often. Ironically, many multiplayer veterans see side duels as their time to "relax" from the main event. So they'll be more willing to offer play tips, share ideas, and come to see you as someone who's trying to learn how to play better. And maybe, just maybe, they'll cut you a break in the next multiplayer game. People protect the investments they make – of money, yes; but also of time and effort. I'm not saying this guy'll embrace you like a brother; but he'll probably be interested to see if you take his advice if/when he helps you last longer.
  7. Push for team formats. I know – I've said this before. But the fact is, team formats are the absolute best solution for groups where ganging up is a habitual problem. I can't not mention it! But I can be brief, and move on now.
  8. Talk it out. Just like I told the "best players" two weeks ago to try a chat with their group, you might want to try the same. It's important not to come across as overly negative, or your friends will just dismiss your remarks as whining. Here's how it might go:
    Guys, I know I'm not the best player here. And I'm having a hard time getting up the learning curve here. You're all more experienced at this game. What can I do to last longer in these games and get a chance to learn more?
    Massage the words to what you think will get the best reception – but try to keep the basic elements, where you (a) acknowledge that you're trying to get better, (b) flatter the male egos around you, and (c) give them the opportunity to invest time and energy in you.
  9. Leave. If you've tried everything here, and everything else you can think of, and you are still getting run out of games constantly…well, I think your group is trying to tell you something. And they may be foul jerks for doing it this way, but that doesn't make staying in the group any better an idea.
    What about threatening to leave – should you do that? (After all, I hinted at it as a strategy in the "best player" article.) I would recommend against it, because your position is different from the "best" player's. For a variety of reasons, people gravitate toward the alpha(s) of a group. They may show their devotion in strange ways – e.g., pounding on them – but the fact is, there's an attraction there. The alpha can use that for a certain amount of leverage. They can negotiate with it – some people play in some groups simply so they can keep testing themselves against a player they feel is better than them.
    If you're just playing a punching bag role, you do not have this sort of leverage. In the group's calculus, they offer you more than you offer them. That may be horribly incorrect – we should be judged on more than our play ability! – but some groups do it anyway, particularly groups of teenagers and younger adults. (Older people have their own neuroses. We'll cover them some other time.)
    I'm taking the time to lay all this out so that you understand how you can avoid making a bad situation even worse. If you're getting ripped apart unfairly and you feel you should leave a group – then leave. Don't advertise it. Don't threaten it. Don't wave your arms and jump up and down on your way out of the room.
    Just let one or more of the group know that you think you'd be happier doing something else, thank them for helping you learn a cool game, and move on. If someone presses, keep your explanations simple and positive. "I had a hard time keeping up with all you guys." "I found a new Magic group (online?) that's more my speed." "I'll still catch up with you guys at the next Pre-release." That sort of thing.
    The group may let you go – which is fine. You may be able to stay friends, since there wasn't any big scene. You may not want to stay friends, and that's okay too. You know your own situation and what you need, better than anyone else.

Now, if you're not the weakest player in your group but have sympathy for poor Tuna, your to-do list is a bit shorter – but just as important. Again, in order of my suggested priorities:

  1. Play your own game correctly. Nobody is forcing you to gang up on this guy. If there's a feeding frenzy and it's not to your clear advantage to join in, why bother? Assess the real threats, and go after them.
    There are two benefits to this path – an altruistic gain, and a selfish joy. The altruism comes in leaving a poor, battered soul alone. The selfish joy comes in watching the face of one of the sharks as you suddenly swerve and take a chomp out of his flank. Mmmm, tasty shark flank! Nothing like it.
    You may encounter not just surprise, but animosity from your group for not "going along" with the gang-up. You may even become the new target. No one ever said doing the right thing would win you lots of awards. Do not insist on help from the player you temporarily saved – it's not very becoming of an experienced veteran like yourself. Besides, if you come to expect such help, you'll just set the group up for more hurt feelings when it doesn't arrive on time.
    Your best bet is to reserve your move for that time when you can deal a crippling blow to another shark – so crippling, in fact, that the blood in the water is irresistible to everyone else. If you hit hard enough, other players may forgive you for your betrayal, since you served up such a tasty alternative.
  2. Go after the best player. Or second best, if you feel you're the best.
    Isn't the irony delicious? I serve you all up an article suggesting how to get people to stop attacking the best player all the time…and then in the next relevant article, I offer up the previous problem as a potential solution! It's stuff like this that keeps writers like me gainfully employed.
    In all seriousness, you do this to send a clear signal: there's more than one way to end a game quickly. If everyone wants fast games, why not make better sport of it and go after the guy who can handle it best? More glory for him if he holds you all off; and no loss to anyone else if he doesn't. Where's the problem?
    You can formalize this, if you like, by adopting the "high life" format in advance. This may be a more polite, less argumentative approach than just slashing away in a random game. Players agree that only the player with the high life total (or that player's permanents) can be the target of spells/abilities, and any attacks must go in that player's direction. This format has its complications – you have to ban mana burn – but it works well enough. Our own group operated like this for at least a year, early on. We dropped it only because we wanted to try other stuff – not because of any structural problems.
    Of course, the "best" player isn't always the one with the high life total. But close enough. The point is, the tuna hunt is off.
  3. Suggest alternate formats. When someone who's not getting picked on suggests an alternate format, the others are less likely to take it as whining or defensiveness than when Tuna does it. You're just a regular dude, you win and lose your share of games…and you want to try something else.
    You don't have to be the one to make the decision – it's enough just to say, "how about we try something new? Two-headed, drafts, star, emperor, hunt – I don't care. I'm just getting tired of the same ol' same ol'." Then let the rest of the group discuss it. It's very hard to argue against trying something new, when someone brings it up and offers a range of solutions. "Geez, dude, why are you having such a problem with this? I know you and I both win a lot of games in free-for-all, but what's wrong with trying something else and getting good at that, too?" Again, adjust the words as you like but notice the same key elements we used before: acknowledgement, flattery, opportunity. We men fall for it every time. Suckers.
  4. Play more duels with Tuna. Of course, I mentioned all the mentoring opportunities earlier in this article. Pay attention to when the tuna's sitting around, waiting for the next game, bored. You can even take the radical step of conceding a group game or two, if it has been a long while. "This game's taking forever, and I'm pretty sure I'm helping to gum up the works. I'm gonna scoop and play one or two with [insert Tuna's real name here…don't actually call him Tuna!] while you guys finish it up. I hate it when I have to wait, myself."
    How do you not come out of this looking like a hero?!? You're such a stud. Take a bow. And you still get to play.
  5. Tell the worst offender to back off. This can be done in conjunction with #1, where you're letting your actions speak for themselves. Adding a few words to the mix can make your logic clear.
    Why talk about it? Well, nothing pressures like peer pressure. What one shark doesn't want to hear from the tuna, he may be okay hearing from another shark. "Geez, [insert Bad Shark's real name here], take it easy! [Tuna]'s not going anywhere. I think we got him when we combined for 19 points last turn and blew up his entire land base. Me, I'm much more worried about other guys on the board here."
    You may hear the Bad Shark sputter and protest. They may argue, or even try to turn the others on you. But ignore the words, and pay attention to the actions. More likely than not, you'll see them back off of the Tuna and focus somewhere else. (Maybe on you.)
  6. Consider leaving. This is a highly unusual step for someone to take – for person C (you) to leave because person A (Bad Shark) is bullying person B (Tuna). And in most cases, you shouldn't do it. You are not responsible for Tuna's happiness. Your leaving, or even threatening to leave, may be an overreaction to something you think you saw but didn't. You may embarrass Tuna, or even get them upset at you. (Who asked for your help?) Even worse, you may teach Tuna that other people will step in and solve their problems for them.
    That said, in a truly extreme situation, where you have a friend you know is feeling miserable and everyone else is acting like an ass, you should certainly feel the tug of friendship and civilized, adult behavior. You might turn to Tuna and say, "I don't know about you, but I think I'd be happier playing a duel. You interested?" And then follow their lead. Often, the offer is enough. By giving them the chance to stop it, you're giving them the control they haven't had until now.
    If he says yes and you peel off for a game, don't make a big deal about it. Later on, you might try some private conversations – "What are you guys up to? If you keep this up, we're going to lose [Tuna]. And remember what it was like trying to get enough Magic players in this group? I don't want to go through that again."
    And what if that doesn't work? Frankly, I can't imagine the group that would want to continue picking on someone after you've tried all this. It's not a group I would be part of. You'll have to come to your own conclusions.

A Frenzied Finish

This will close out the multi-week series on ganging-up in multiplayer. I hope you've found this series helpful in dealing with your group. So much of what I've recommended in all three articles plays around in tricky territory. Before taking any of the steps I've suggested, be sure you're aware of:

  • your personality;
  • the personality of the player on the receiving end of ganging up;
  • the other personalities of the group – in particular, how thoughtfully they might receive constructive criticism;
  • how many other options you have for Magic play in your area, including Magic Online;
  • how close you are to the rest of the group (were you all friends who began playing Magic one day, or Magic players who gradually became friends?);

The last two factors are particularly important. The fewer other play options you have in your area, the more latitude everybody has to give each other and the more careful you all have to be with drastic measures (or threatening drastic measures). Also, the deeper your pre-existing friendships, the more you should look inward for solutions – after all, you got along fine before you started playing Magic, didn't you?

So, does that mean that in a group of friends that is the only Magic option for a few hundred square miles, bad behavior is okay? No. It means that you have less control over what the entire group does. And it means you have to be more careful, and smarter, in exploring the things you do control.

Remember those two columns. Things you control – and things you don't. That Magic game last night will not be the last time you will find yourself needing to know the difference.

Anthony Alongi has been playing multiple Magic formats for over seven years, and has been a writer for much longer than that. His latest book, JENNIFER SCALES AND THE MESSENGER OF LIGHT, releases this June.

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