Sultai or Pepper: The Choice

Posted in Serious Fun on February 3, 2015

By Bruce Richard

Bruce's games invariably involve several friends, crazy plays, and many laughs. Bruce believes that if anyone at your table isn't having fun, then you are doing it wrong.

The Sultai are known as the ruthless clan. They take any and every advantage and exploit it to its utmost. Whether it is reviving the dead, quietly poisoning an adversary, or dealing with an unworthy opponent swiftly, the Sultai epitomize ruthlessness. The Sultai are the inverse of the tacky movie villain. The movie villain devises some long, slow, torturous method for killing the hero, providing so many opportunities for escape that it is laughable. Almost every James Bond movie includes this moment. The villain slowly lowers the hero into a pit of sharks.

The Sultai just give you a push into a pit of crocodiles and end it now.

Dead Drop | Art by Greg Staples

Sultai of Swing [1]

So how do you bring a Sultai level of ruthlessness to your casual games? While withholding food, water, and the use of the bathroom are all effective ways to Sultai some wins, perhaps keeping your efforts in-game would be a better plan. One of the ways to demonstrate ruthlessness in your casual games is the cold, calculated elimination of one of your opponents. My Master of Cruelties deck is designed to hit an opponent with my deathstriking[2] Master of Cruelties, usually relying on Goblin Tunneler to make the Master unblockable. While the opponent is still on 1 life, there are a variety of ways to do the last point of damage.

Man of Distinction

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The deck demands a level of ruthlessness. You look at your opponents and determine which opponent is the biggest threat to you, then begin the elimination. The Sultai clan would be proud of this cutthroat style.

Sultai One On

The problem lies with the early elimination. In many games, I'm in a position to eliminate an opponent early in the game. I'm also not foolish enough to believe that I'll be able to move from the first elimination to the next and the next in the following turns. Invariably, someone has a way to stop the play, usually forcing me to find one of the pieces of the puzzle again. Sometimes, one player will try to encourage me to attack others, hoping to have me do all the work while he or she holds a way to eliminate me after I've done all the work for.

Many games involve eliminating one opponent early on, then watching the game go on for an hour while everyone else settles into their positions and are capable of handling what my deck can do. This isn't a problem when you look at the game with Sultai ruthlessness. The point of the game is to win. If that means someone is left watching on the sidelines for a while, so be it. That's better than letting him or her live and kill you later in the game. However, these are casual games, not a Sultai life choice.

Bow (Sul)tai

Being eliminated early is no fun for the person eliminated. No one wants to be sitting on the sidelines watching everyone else play. Many of us only get limited time to play Magic, and spending any of that time just watching the game going on can be no fun at all. And if someone isn't having fun when you're playing Magic, then you're doing it wrong.

I'm not saying that you should never try to take out an opponent. There comes a time in every game when players start to drop out. Often when the first player is eliminated, others fall like dominoes. Board states, particularly multiplayer game states, are often set up like a carefully constructed house of cards that all comes crumbling down with the addition or subtraction of just one card. If someone is sitting on the sidelines while the game is wrapping up, there is no real issue. It may take a few turns, but everyone can see that the game is coming to a head and will be over quickly.

I'm talking about those games where you can eliminate an opponent on turn four, but you know this game will likely continue through turn twenty. It is the correct play to eliminate that opponent,[3] but it won't be the fun play for that opponent. In these situations you are forced to choose between making every effort to win and maximizing fun.

Or are you?

Tasigur's Cruelty | Art by Chris Rahn

Sultai Chi

If you are running into moments when you have to choose between fun and winning, things need to change. I don't want to choose between winning the game or having fun playing the game.[4] Is there a way to resolve this issue?

Environmental Options

One way to resolve the issue is to keep the fun going. Where possible, the player eliminated early can join another game. If you find yourself in a store with many players, it should just be a matter of rounding up enough players to start another game. The downside of being eliminated early is having to wait for the other players to finish, so you can start another game. Rather than wait for more players, simply start another game.

Often this is an ideal solution. Many players who are eliminated early are simply having mana issues or find themselves in games where they are completely outmatched. More players gives everyone a chance to start afresh with a new deck, a thorough shuffle, or just new opponents.

In situations where there aren't multiple opponents, a variant called Respawn is an option. Former Serious Fun writer, Kelly Digges, wrote about this variant. Roughly, it involves the eliminated player rejoining the game, either with the same deck or a new deck. The player gets three consecutive turns, then the game continues. As with any format, there are some issues, and certainly ways to break the format, but the format certainly eliminates the downside of a player waiting for a game to end.

Sibsig Muckdraggers | Art by Zack Stella

Deck Alteration

If you can't or won't change the environment, you can try to prevent ever getting there in the first place. After a few games, I could see that a problem with my Master of Cruelties deck was that it could quickly take out one player, but not more. I considered retiring the deck as something that was just "unfun," then opted to see if I could fix things. I turned to you and my friends for suggestions, looking for ways to alleviate the single kill aspect of the deck. Many of you suggested Seize the Day. With multiple combat steps, it would be possible to take out multiple opponents in a single turn. While Seize the Day hasn't been a complete cure, it has certainly improved the way the deck plays. If anything, Seize the Day has embraced the Sultai ethos even more, becoming more ruthless than ever.

Attitude Adjustment

The answer could be on the psychological level: acceptance.

If your group understands that early eliminations can happen, and the players involved truly accept it, that may be all you need to remove the dichotomy between fun and the correct strategic play. Getting an entire group to this stage of acceptance is not easy, but it can be done. For many players, understanding the reason for the early elimination makes it easier to take. When you couple it with the idea that players are often eliminated early because they are seen as the primary threat, it can make acceptance much easier. When players associate an early elimination with a belief that your friends and players view you and your deck as the most serious threat on the board, an early elimination can bring the satisfaction that you are deemed one of the more talented players in the group. While that is not always the case, it can make an early elimination more tolerable.

Sultai Runemark | Art by Volkan Baga

This type of understanding for your group can also change the metagame for your group. If your group becomes more accepting of the early elimination, it will allow for more quick decks into your games. While it won't always be the case, this will allow many of your group's games to wrap up much faster than they have. Many groups are trying to find a balance between the early elimination and games lasting all night. A change in attitude can lead to a change in your metagame.

Most of the players in my group have a deck that is just vicious about eliminating a single opponent, but has difficulty with the long game. Our reluctance to eliminate a single player so quickly has led most of those decks to sit on the sidelines, only coming out in rare situations. As our group's attitude changes, I expect the meta to change with it.

Eliminate the Unfun

Rather than trying to change a group's perception, your deck, or format; another option is to make an early elimination fun. Whether you are playing or not, you are still getting a chance to spend time with your friends. Other games can make an excellent alternative. Whether your host offers videogames, or you are just playing a few rounds of Trivia Crack on your phone, your game night doesn't need to stop and hang in suspended animation while you wait for everyone else to declare a winner.

Using the time to build a new deck, or tune current decks, rather than simply sitting there, twiddling one's thumbs, can make the extended time between games fun.

Sultais that Bind

If you find all of those options lacking, then we find ourselves back to the original dilemma: the choice of the strategically sound play or the fun play. If you are forced to make this choice, let me leave you with this thought. If you find that your play is regularly leaving you with this choice, and you choose the strategically sound choice over and over again, at some point, your opponents will not be having fun. If you are playing casual games with players who aren't having fun, how long will they continue to play?

If your opponents are not playing, then you're not playing. Now ask yourself again, how strategically sound was your choice?

Bruce Richard



[1] I am not particularly ruthless, but I do like a vicious pun. My apologies in advance.

[2] A quick nod to Abe Sargent’s recent article splicing keywords, and my editor, Mike McArtor’s (@MKMEdits) Twitter conversation along the same vein. Future articles will certainly include fladow, traste, and possibly flynk!

[3] I’m not saying it is always the correct play. There are times when you could eliminate an opponent early, but it is clear that having another player in the game will take the heat off you. Elimination, whenever possible, is not always the correct play. However, when it is…

[4] The game that most fits that description for me has been Balderdash. The players are provided with a word whose definition wouldn’t be known to most players. One player writes down the actual definition of the word while the others try to produce plausible definitions. Players earn points when other players believe their definition. This game became far more fun when we stopped caring about who would win and started writing definitions whose sole purpose was to make the reader laugh. Definitions involving bovine flatulence were my specialty!

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