The Third Degree

Posted in Serious Fun on June 15, 2004

By Anthony Alongi

The last of three three-player articles

I hinted in past three-player articles that I'd try to do one more to finish up my ideas and suggestions. While Fifth Dawn previews “got in the way” of an earlier conclusion, I believe we can actually take some of the cards and mechanics from the set to give some final structure to the conversation.

There are three advanced three-player strategies I'd like to discuss today. Conveniently enough, each has a model card from Fifth Dawn to illustrate the point. I'm not suggesting the model card(s) are the only cards you can use; I'm just excited about the set and still in “card preview” mode so to speak, so bear with me.

All three strategies should be compatible with the other advice and tips I've given in the other two three-player articles – for example, you should be able to use these at any of the four stages of the game I mentioned in the “Two Out of Three” article.


We've all been on one or both sides of this situation: one player has a really low life total. The other has enough instant-speed damage showing on the table to kill the first player. As a result, the first player becomes a “pawn” of the second, unable to act against his purported enemy's interests.

(Our group clears the stack of all spells and abilities originating from a dead player. Any “hand grenades” you want to throw only resolve if you're alive at the time. It mirrors the strategy of a duel more closely, and penalizes weakness. Sounds cutthroat, but in fact it rewards tricky stuff like Refreshing Rain or Willbender. Bottom line, our group feels the resulting strategy is more interesting.)

Becoming a puppet master is a highly satisfying experience – and it's not just the control freak in me saying that. Okay, it's mostly the control freak. But it's also the part of me that enjoys watching the rest of the board scramble to deal with this new situation. They can either:

(a) let the player live, hoping he'll find his own solution to the fix he's in and then attack me viciously for even daring to presume I controlled him; or
(b) finish him off, doing my job for me and keeping whatever damage I have on the board for the next potential pawn.

When I see a puppet master at work, I tend to choose (b), assuming I'm not too vulnerable myself. Honestly, keeping an essentially useless opponent around is just begging for problems. In a three player game, if someone's a puppet, and someone else is a puppet master…that leaves you as the sole target.

When being used as a miserable puppet myself, my choice is almost universally to attack the puppet master. I'll be darned if I'm going to win someone else's game for them.

And when I'm in the fortunate situation of being a puppet master, you can bet I'm using a card like this:

Door to Nothingness

I'm sure many players suffered whiplash when they first reacted to this card. By now, I hope we've all calmed down a bit. The card has an undeniably powerful effect, but the cost is pretty insane. Even with a Joiner Adept and a Mana Flare, you need five lands of any type…um, you know what, I guess it's easier than I thought! For heaven's sake, be careful.

In multiplayer, cards like Door to Nothingness are a mixed blessing. You'll be sure to take someone out before you die; but once that permanent is gone, the board will react wildly to the way you exercised your power. No one wants to be the one to go through the next Door!

But the mixed blessing tilts positive in a three-player game. Put that baby out, untap, and sit and wait. What on earth will either opponent do to you? Honestly. Bind, Interdict, Willbender. That's all they've got. If they're not showing any of those, you're in excellent shape. You've got two puppets – and they're fighting each other for second place!

Now it may happen both players decide to revolt and take you down a notch, thinking their chances to win only lie in removing you. Sure, you'll show one of them the Door – but the other will win. A 50/50 chance is better than none. (And they're right.)

But this takes pretty heavy cooperation, and if you have even a moderate set of blockers and/or life gain (I'm thinking Wall of Stone, Spike Feeder, Fog Bank, etc. – nothing unusual or difficult to get), you should be able to weather the storm, remove the more annoying impudent puppet, and trust your deck to produce its second door soon. (Hint: since you're using base green in this case to make Joiner Adept work, why not throw in Eternal Witness as well?)

Puppet mastery works even better when your resources move at instant speed – in the deck above, you could consider Vedalken Orrery. Other decks benefit from instant-speed abilities such as Seal of Fire, Attrition, Crowd Favorites, or Narcissism. It works best when those resources are recoverable, so cards like Unholy Grotto, Genesis, and Compulsion are all worth high consideration in decks that meet their color and style requirements.


In many groups, there's a certain code at work. Part of that code is that you want everyone to be in the game for as long as possible. “Possible” is the murky term here; after all, I might decide it is no longer “possible” to keep you in the game if I want to have a reasonable chance of winning later on. But by and large, a fellow who stumbles early on gets a chance to regain his feet and rejoin the race.

At the same time, no one likes the life leader. The life leader is a model of success, and everyone else is full of spiteful envy. So all other things being equal, attacks and damage and other adverse effects will go to the player with the most life.

Put these two trends together, and you have a sort of quietly understood egalitarianism in many casual groups. Does Fifth Dawn have anything to offer the player who wants to take advantage of this?

Ion Storm

I'm sure this card has constructed or limited tournament implications; but here, we only care about the multiplayer uses. Ion Storm is a nifty way to distribute repeated, small amounts of instant damage across both opponents over an extended period of time.

The adjectives I used are all very important here, so check them again. Repeated. Small. Instant. Both. Extended. Ion Storm isn't meant to deal massive amounts of damage (though it can certainly do so, off of a Forgotten Ancient and enough red mana). It's meant to keep the race even and keep your opponents honest. If someone gets ahead by more than three or four life, they can expect an adjustment. If someone puts out too many creatures, they can expect a thinning of the herd. If someone smacks you a little too hard, they can expect continual retribution.

Even though many groups practice it, egalitarianism is a difficult environment to sustain for very long. Once life totals sink below ten life, opportunities arise. The beauty of Ion Storm is that it's well suited to shift from being a tool of egalitarianism to a tool of domination (see “puppet mastery” above, then see “Forgotten Ancient” above).

Other egalitarian tools include Copper Tablet and Barbed Wire, Warmonger and Squallmonger, Bubble Matrix, Eladamri's Vineyard, and so on.


I was a bit derelict in my duty in past articles. With all that talk about preparing for duels, I didn't pay enough attention to the possibility that you might eliminate both opponents at once. Some readers pointed that out. Fair enough.

There are certainly instances when you'll find yourself in the enviable position to crush two opponents at once. (This is true in larger games as well; but it's less certain you should take that opportunity since they're not the last two opponents you have to worry about. More on that when I do a series on larger chaos groups.) In a three-player game, this is a near-automatic green light: you do it.

This situation may arise for any number of reasons. Perhaps you're playing a combo deck, and that's how the combo deck works. Perhaps you just happen to have enough attackers on the board and an Overrun in your hand.

But aside from combos and creature swarms, there are those situations where it just so happens the board has tilted a particular way. You have just enough creatures to eke through, and have just the right spell to remove the right number of blockers, and have exactly the right number of Pyrite Spellbombs sitting around ready to sack and finish off the last opponent. This confluence of happy events can be the most exciting and rewarding way to win a three-player game – or to lose it, if one of your opponents has the right instant-speed answer in his hand.

Tournament strategy authors occasionally chastise mediocre players for blaming bad luck on their losses. Whether talking about land ratios or mana curves or whatever, these experts say, “you have to maximize the chances you will win…you have to make your own luck.” And they're right.

In the same vein, I'd like to encourage those of you who play in three-player formats to maximize your chances of a massive, sweeping final turn. I'm not necessarily saying, “play combo.” I'm not necessarily saying, “play creature swarm.” Rather, I'm suggesting you look for cards that increase your chances of inspiring a certain, well, confluence of events.

A card like this:

Tornado Elemental

Here's one specific scenario I'm thinking of: you face down an army of flyers on one side and an army of ground-pounders on the other. You have your own green stompy things, and with a splash of red you've dealt a little damage, too. Either Anger or Fires of Yavimaya is giving your creatures haste, so it's pretty frightening for your opponents. (More on hasty math when we do Red Week, sometime soon!) Everyone's down to less than ten life – say, six.

If only you had a card that could wax all the flyers on one side to open up the path for your existing army…and then swing to the other side through the other blockers with the elemental!

This sort of thing will happen more often than you might think – especially if you design and play your deck to create such situations. Hasty creatures get life totals down fast, and encourage opponents to hold back blockers. Good early and mid-game creatures will present enough of a threat to both opponents that they'll likely keep each other in the game to deal with you. (Yes, you're actually trying to keep them both in the game until your spectacular finish. Haven't you ever tried to show off before?) Of course, you can't make opponents' creatures fly in a red-green deck without some costly tinkering; but if you face down two decks with absolutely no flyers, so much the better. It's not like the Tornado Elemental is useless if it doesn't kill any flyers!

Any decent card can work as a double-finisher in the right situation, but some of the more obvious examples include Death Cloud (kill the player with low life, flush the blockers and hand of the survivor), Bloodfire Colossus (swing to the open player, then sack to finish), and Alexi, Zephyr Mage (who like the Tornado Elemental can benefit from a bit of haste). It depends a great deal on your deck preferences and your collection. My point with this third strategy is more universal than a “big finish” – it's about designing your deck to create success.

Success can be victory; or it can be pulling off an impressive trick; or it can just be making people laugh. However you define success, use your imagination to make it happen. I suppose that's good advice for any Magic format with any number of players, and indeed anything you do at all.

Anthony cannot provide deck help to anyone. It's his own interpretation of egalitarianism.

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