Surviving When You're the Threat

Posted in Serious Fun on August 7, 2007

By The Ferrett

A long time ago I wrote an article called How To Dodge Bullets In Six Easy Lessons, which was about a vital question:

"How do you win when you're The Threat?"

Every group has a Threat, although not every group has The Threat. Every group has a Guy To Beat—the person who has the best play skills and brings the best decks, and wins more often than not.

Now, if you're the Guy To Beat and people can't beat you, then it's not a problem. You've learned how to build decks that can handle multiple opponents, and that's awesome. (Well, your friends might get frustrated and leave, but that's a whole other article.)

Fervent_ChargeBut what frequently happens is that as the Guy To Beat, you hit the tipping point and slide straight into the Guy Who Must Be Beaten territory. Everyone knows that unless you're stopped, you'll win—so by default, everyone attacks you first just to get you out of the way.

You have become The Threat.

And just to clarify—that's not a problem if you can handle a whole table of people rising up to throttle you from the first turn. But if you're the Guy To Beat and you can't handle that kind of constant aggression, you're in trouble.

The first item on every game's agenda is Wipe You Out. Every attack phase will be devoted to you. Every worst spell is pointed at your head, and will be until you are RFG. You cannot win, and you cannot hide.

So what the heck do you do?

I know it's a common problem, because not a week goes by that I don't get an email from someone asking for help. Up until now, I've sent them that link and sent them on their way. But given that this is Old Favorites Week, I figured that I'd revisit this topic on to expand upon my old philosophies.

Interestingly enough, I'm not usually The Threat at my tables. (Generally, I'm someone to be respected, but rarely the guy to beat.) But I've watched people and the strategies to deal with frustrating conundrum, and it boils down to managing two areas: strategy and psychology. Strategy involves the areas that you control in the cards—all the traditional stuff. Psychology involves understanding why your group thinks you're a big threat, and using their assumptions against them.

Let's start with the strategy stuff first.

Mulligan Aggressively

If you're the guy who everyone attacks by default, any hand that's not good is terrible. You cannot afford to look at a six-land hand and shrug, "Eh, I'll risk it."

Risk it? You will have five players baying for your blood. Keeping a hand like that is like a guy going to a Muggers' Convention in Dark Alleyway Convention Hall and muttering, "I'll risk keeping my pepper spray at home."

When a whole table is gunning for you, you must make sure you have the strongest start possible. It's advice that all good players know, but it especially applies here: if you're thinking, "Maybe I shouldn't keep this one," then don't.

Build in More Defense

Once the table starts slewing around towards thinking of you as the aggressor no matter what you do, then you need to tweak your decks to make it harder for them to get to you. Because remember the old multiplayer adage: offense is not defense.

In duels, you can quite often substitute offense for defense. As Mike Flores loves to say, "Who blocks in Constructed?" No, you come out of the gates a-blazin' with your Mogg Fanatics and your Troll Ascetics and your Warhammers, and you don't care about leaving anyone back home to guard the shop. And why should you? In a duel, if you've got your one opponent on the back foot, then that's all you have to worry about.

In other words, your "defense" is "punching your opponent so hard in the face that he's too dazed to attack back." And that's a valid strategy in many fights.

But in multiplayer, you will have at least two opponents, and sometimes as many as seven or eight. You can't punch everyone, and pouring all of your offensive resources into keeping Sean off-balance doesn't do a darn thing about Jamie, John, Geordie, or Evan.

Blood Knight
If you're not the threat, often you can get away with "good" creatures—a Blood Knight's a 2/2, and maybe you have a combat trick, and attacking you means they're left open to other people.

But if you are The Threat, then two things happen:

  1. People become much more willing to throw their creatures away so that others can get to you. As such, that Blood Knight might have deterred someone on turn four, but now he's sending his 3/3 at you because the table wants you dead. Better to lose his 3/3 now than to lose the game to Mister Threat!
  2. Because everyone covertly agrees that you're The Threat, they'll declare quiet truces. Before, people would have been afraid to send their 3/3 out to attack you because they'd have been left with no blockers... But hey! Everyone's attacking you! It's safe to send the troops out!

As such, you need to start thinking about actual, pure-D defense—ugly little guys like Wall of Souls will make it much harder for people to come after you. Or you have to play with much more global removal than seems sane to ensure that they can't hit you. Or you have to put in enchantments that ward off what you have, or have some reusable guy that people don't want to kill because he'll come back, or....

Well, you have a lot of options. But when you're The Threat, and only when you're The Threat, it's generally a good idea to build that hard, first line in.

Whatever you use, devote four to twelve slots (depending on how hated you are) to keeping you safe in the face of a global onslaught. You'll need it.

Build Stronger Decks by Building Weaker Decks

There are some strategies that say, "KILL ME NOW OR I KILL YOU." Mono-black, for instance; the moment you play that first Barter in Blood and clear the table, it's clear to everyone that any sort of creature-based strategy will have to deal with you first.

There are some strategies that say, "YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT I DO, BUT BY GOSH I MIGHT KILL YOU." I've discussed this concept in a past article, and having a crazy deck that nobody's sure what it does means "Death by Gang-Up" if you're The Threat.

The problem with both of those approaches is that they're strongarm tactics. The moment you play that first Innocent Blood, you're in a pitched battle until either you're dead or they are. And if you're The Threat, you're already starting the game with a target imprinted on your forehead—that sort of power play will just seal the deal.

What you're looking for are quiet strategies—the ones that look like your opponents can handle them until you lay down that final card. Some of the best multiplayer strategies boil the water slowly, quietly laying down card after card, each additional piece judged as "not too bad" until the very moment when you careen straight into "unstoppable."

Find a strategy that doesn't have to strangle the table to win. Lay back, let the others kill each other. If you keep going, "I PLAY Numot, the Devastator ON TURN TWO!" then by God, everyone has to kill you. Having a deck that ramps up into Numot on turn six, which is when people can handle it, may be a better move... and allows you a little more flexibility in your deck, since you can devote fewer slots to powering out that Numot ASAP and more slots to doing ugly things with Numot once he arrives.

Of course, this depends on everyone Not Attacking You. They might still decide, without even checking, that you are The Threat regardless of your cards. But there's a better-than-even chance that they're killing you because it actually is the best strategy; maybe if you toned down your act, you might not force the knife to your own throat.

(Fun point for multiplayer: Numot the Devastator says "two target lands," meaning that you can attack Phil and then pay the to blow up Larry's lands. Or, in the case of Josh—who did have a turn-three Numot when I kept a land-light hand—you can attack Jack and blow up Ferrett's lands. Good game, fella!)

Have More Synergy

I'll admit it; my weakness as a player is that I tend to have decks consisting of good cards held together by a weak central theme. That's better than nothing, but it's not ideal.

Vesuvan Shapeshifter
Ideally, you have the kind of deck where every card works with every other in nice ways, supplementing each other. For example, my friend Ben has a mono-blue Pickles deck designed for multiplayer, and it's pretty nice in that it has four-of Vesuvan Shapeshifter, Brine Elemental, Willbender, and Fathom Seer. Now, the Shapeshifter works well by itself in multiplayer, but obviously being able to draw two extra cards a turn by unmorphing your Shapeshifter on command is quite nice, and so forth. Each card builds upon the power of the other ones, and the Brine Elementals eventually make for some fairly backbreaking Oppositions.

The best multiplayer decks are highly synergetic, with each card helping the other in subtle ways. We're not talking "combo," where the cards don't do much in isolation and have to be teamed up—we're talking "already good cards that get markedly better when put together."

That's a whole other article for another time, though. (And to be honest, since it's not my forte, I'd need some help.)

Play Low-Power Decks

If every deck you build is the Most Powerful Deck You Own, then people will gang up on you. This isn't necessarily a problem if you're winning... But if you're reading this, going, "Gosh, I keep getting killed because everyone's attacking me!" then by definition your deck isn't good enough.

Perhaps you should switch for a while. Not every deck has to be the Go For Blood deck—play some silly theme decks, like your Zombie deck or the "all-Matt Cavotta artwork" deck. Give the table a breather where you can show them that not every deck you build is so all-consuming that it will DEVOUR THEIR SOULS, and in turn they might relax a little so that you don't always get trounced.

This seems counterintuitive. You win more games by playing worse decks? Well, if you can't build a deck that can consistently take on all comers, then it might just be your best option for long-term victory.

It's okay to lose sometimes. No, really.

Rakdos Guildmage
(And this is different than "build weaker decks." You can build very strong decks that aren't overtly powerful. Then you can build The Rocker Deck, which features only cards with artwork showing creatures who are rocking out—Rakdos Guildmage, for starters. Play a genuinely weak deck as opposed to a deck that's strong, but not strongarm.)

...Okay, that's the Magic strategy. Now let's talk attitude.

Do Not Gloat

This should go without saying, since players who gloat tend to be utter kneebiters anyway. But if you're the sort of guy who smirks when he's pounding down people, or makes some cutting comment when someone makes a bad play, then people are going to go for you just out of sheer anger.

Be a nice guy. Nobody likes attacking the nice guy. Sure, you have to take people out of the game... but if you can do it with a wince and a "Sorry," then you'd be surprised how often that ameliorates the issue.

Also, acknowledging your cheap wins helps. If someone's a little irritated because he got mana-screwed or you just topdecked everything when you needed it, it does help to express sympathy by saying, "Yeah, that was just the luck of the draw. Can we play this next one for reals, when your deck gives you cards that actually work?"

Be Friendly

As I said, nobody wants to attack the nice guy. Make it your business to cheer when someone makes a cool play, even if you're the one getting chumped. Smile a lot. Make jokes, even if you're dying.

Looking grumpy and sullen because everyone is picking on you does one of two things: It either makes everyone uncomfortable and not want to play with you (which is never good), or it gives everyone the impression that you really should be the one who gets pounded, since someone who's getting that bent out of shape by a silly game is someone who's clearly the kind of player who'll go for your neck every time. Better kill him, because someone with that competitive a spirit needs to be put down now.

Being a nice guy won't always save your neck. But it's a good idea anyway.

Playing the Players

If you're The Threat, there are certain kinds of players who you can often manipulate with psychological tactics. These are usually best used against novice players, since experienced players won't fall for them... But some people have been playing for a very long time and haven't learned.

Novice Players: A Source Of Misdirection

If you're The Threat because the less experienced players at your table fear you, then remember that they will fear what you do. You can sometimes send novices over to attack other players just by expressing concern (assuming, of course, that your group allows table talk):

"Oh, Jeez," you mutter. "Ben just dropped a morph. You know what that means."

If they don't ask, don't tell. Just start aiming your spells at Ben, trying to show them what Ben is up to. But quite often, assuming you nod with sage wisdom and act as though this something that affects you both, they'll say the magic words:

"No. What does that mean?"

At which point you explain that Ben, since he's playing Islands, is obviously playing Pickles, with a Brine Elemental / Vesuvan Shapeshifter combo, and will soon launch into an infinite-lockdown loop that will swallow you whole. Your deck doesn't have much hope against a deck like that... and if it's not stopped, everyone will die.

Do not lie. If Ben's not playing that, don't try to fool them. But the strange thing is that if you fear a threat, and ignore them in order to try to head Ben off, sometimes they'll take your lead. They'll go, "Well, jeez, if The Threat's worried about that, then maybe I should be."

"But I do that!" you say. And maybe you do. But what I see more often is not an acknowledgement of consensual trouble, but this:

"Why are you attacking me? For God's sake, Ben's playing Pickles! Sheesh, just go after him, because he's going to kill you!"

That's not the same thing at all. That's telling your opponents that they're idiots—and even if it's true, people hardly ever listen to someone who's calling them a dunce. And it sounds defensive and angry, which is exactly what someone who's trying to get your mind off of him would say.

No, you need to be calm. That's Ben. He's the threat. Sure, you're a threat, too, granted, but that's the kind of threat that's going to kill everyone, given time.

Sure, you should kill me. I'm always a danger. But this time, just for once, maybe we should take him down first and then kill me.

Now, this doesn't always work—in fact, it rarely does, at first. So if Ben does win, as you predicted, you want to rub it in a little... but just a little. "I told you," you say calmly as you shuffle up the cards for the next game, unruffled and unangry. "Didn't it happen exactly like I said?" Make sure they know that you called the win, and you gave them the opportunity to stop this trouncing, and they blew it.

Does that matter to you? Heck, no! You're not mad. You couldn't have won that game, anyway, but they could have. It's their loss.

Too bad about that.

Eventually—and it may take many more games than you'd like—they'll start to realize that your dire predictions are not just to save your skin, but the honest truth about what will happen if they don't start handling other people.

Of course, if you're a jerk, they'd probably rather lose to Ben than lose to you. Another reason, just in case you needed it, to be a nice guy.

Brand, Spanking-New Players: A Source of Alliances

If you have someone who's just starting out and doesn't know the game very well, go out of your way to be their mentor. Remind them, kindly, that they can play instants at the end of their turn, and ask them if they're sure they want to tap that land when they should really leave that Forest up for regeneration, and basically help them as much as you can without being a nudge.

If you can see a way for them to kill you and there's not much hope of you winning, heck! Point it out! Show them the way to deal those last 5 points that will kick you out of the game, and explain why it's a risk worth taking.

If you're nice enough to the newbies, they will frequently not want to join in the gang fights that ensue. "He's been good to me," they'll say. "Maybe I should just hold my guys back." And it doesn't always work, but it does often pay off—because you can form alliances with them, asking them to join you in a "you and him against the world" bargain. Often, they're flattered that you think they're worthy.

Stream of Life
Now, I should add that I didn't find this strategy by cold-bloodedly helping newbies. I just helped them, and then one day it all became clear when a guy I'd been coaching literally gave away his game, casting a 12-point Stream of Life at me on the turn before he died "because he helps me all the time."

The help should not be a quid pro quo. It should be a genuine friendship. And like the lion with the thorn in its paw, maybe helping out will pay off... and maybe it won't.

But who cares? It's nice just being nice. If you can get frosting on that chocolate cake, all the better.

"Attack Anyone" Players: A Source of Beats

There are some players who want action in their games. You know the type; they almost always play red or green, and if they can't send their guys out on the attack that turn, they make a little frowny-face. They hate doing nothing.

They'd rather lose than be bored.

As such, these are often the most dangerous players to you, because they want to attack somebody. And everyone will be giving them every incentive to attack you.

You can't psychologically outmaneuver them. If you're defenseless, hey, free lunch! So the solution, if you know you have someone like this, is to make sure you have early defenses in the deck, and make sure they're good enough. I wrote earlier about how "offense is not defense"—take that to heart, and be sure to bring a deck designed to deal with a full-on assault from Mister Attack.

Timid Players: A Source of Bottomless Terror

Some groups have players who take forever to do anything. It's not that they're considering the options deeply; they don't like getting hurt.

You know the type; they hardly ever attack, and they hate using removal because maybe it'll get countered, and they're always wondering whether they should do this this turn.

If you have a guy like that, it doesn't hurt to cultivate it. Call the shot.

"If you attack me, you will lose your guy."

I've said this before, but the best way to say it is in a rather bored voice. You don't care if he attacks you; he'll just lose that guy. He's making a stupid move, sure, but that's his choice.

Then he attacks. And he loses the guy.

"Told ya."

This doesn't bother most players. But the timid ones? They'll remember how they got smacked down. If you do it enough times, saving your removal for them and them alone, often you can build up a reputation with them as The Guy Who Kills.

I've seen this conversation:

"Attack him! He's tapped out!"

"I dunno. He looks like he's got something up his sleeve. Maybe I'll just skip this turn."

"He's tapped out! He has one card in hand! You'll kill him if you do! Send in!"

"...No. I can't chance it."

Cultivate that fear and terror, if you know someone is susceptible to it. After all, you're The Threat; the whole reason they're attacking is because you always have the answer. Why not make that work for you? Why not make the meek inherit nothing?

Experienced Players: A Source of Threats

These tactics won't work on experienced players. They won't flinch when you destroy their guys, they won't be misdirected when you point at Jimmy, and they will stay quietly and wait for you to fall so they can take over.

Experienced players love it when someone else is The Threat.

In fact, the frustrating thing is that when you fall because everyone's stomping you down, the second-best player will often win. He'll lay low, wait for everyone else to deal with you while he builds up a head of steam, and by the time everyone's done shoveling the last spadeful of dirt on your grave he's in firm control of the game.

Thus, your best option if you're losing a lot is to stamp them as The Threat.

Start a list of who's won the most games. Get statistics—and only bring them out if it suits you—to prove that Jimmy's the winningest guy here. When you lose, and Jimmy wins, make sure to point out that Jimmy's on top again.

Your best bet, should all else fail, is to hand this lovely little grenade off to someone else. With any luck, in a few months, Jimmy will be The Threat and you'll be in the catbird's seat.

...or so you hope.

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