Two Out Of Three

Posted in Serious Fun on April 27, 2004

By Anthony Alongi

Continuing discussion of three-player formats

Readers often supply me with great ideas for articles. I could credit three or four different people out there for starting this occasional series on three-player formats (see article two weeks ago). I won't mention names because (a) I'm not good at names; (b) half of you write to me using odd or suggestive aliases like “The Pepper Muffin” and, and I just feel silly reprinting stuff like that; and finally (c) I know you all don't suggest ideas for the glory of seeing your name in print – it's the children that matter, isn't it, because the children are our future. (If some of you are children, then what can I say? You're the wrong children.)

In any case, three-player formats are the topic at hand. My introductory article went through some basic strategy considerations – both deckbuilding and play. I'm going to revisit some of that in greater depth today. Then, I'll pose a few alternate formats for three-player games. By the end, we'll see if we need another article anytime soon to round out the topic (and by that, I mean I'll be watching the boards and emails for reader feedback on what else they may find helpful).

Three, Two, One – Contract

The typical three-player game I described two weeks ago made at least one silent assumption. I assumed “gradual elimination” – that is, players die one at a time, instead of all at once. Larger chaos games often play out like this. I made this assumption semi-consciously, because our group tends to frown on “arbitrarily large” combo decks (decks that go “infinite”). Such decks are the best way to break that assumption of gradual elimination and take care of a three-player game in one fell swoop.


I don't want to sound too sanctimonious here – I have a Stasis deck capable of handling four or five opponents, assuming they're not gunning for me from the start. (Please don't ask for the list. I haven't played it in over a year. I actually get more bored than my opponents.) Combo decks have their place, and I have no trouble at all with adventurous combos that find ways to interlock anywhere from four to seven cards in various formations.

The deal with a three-player game is, it can work an awful lot like a duel. Very, very good duel decks – and especially “arbitrarily large” combo decks – can take advantage of the slightly slower pace to pick up their pieces, while taking little additional damage from the extra opponent. So there's a way to exploit this format, and those of you who play those sorts of decks have already no doubt found yourself successful.

My problem here is the dynamic picture – that is, the long term. In the short term (that is, one game), you win. If you win again, your opponents may begin a 2-on-1 strategy. If you win again, they're going to become either (a) angry or (b) jealous or (c) both. If they become angry and you keep playing that deck, your tiny little group won't last long. If they become jealous, they're going to seek to copy your deck's approach; after a few weeks, you'll all be playing combo decks – each of you racing to the finish without a care as to what the other two are playing.

So I don't pay much attention to those strategies that involve killing two opponents at once. No doubt plenty of cool double-kill situations exist without combos – e.g., a Bloodfire Colossus on the board with you at 7 life and both opponents at 6 – but those represent the happy chance that comes with interesting, interactive decks.

All this is to say, if you're looking for those sorts of decks here, you probably won't find them. A few folks were asking, so there's my answer.

That said, let's look at a deck that can come awfully close to killing two opponents at once, without resorting to infinite loops. It doesn't use many recent cards, since it's based on an old deck I had two or three years ago:


The deck's linchpin from a three-player perspective is the Mogg Maniac, an excellent “rattlesnake” card. Mogg Maniacs almost always stay back on defense in this deck's early game, and on turn four you don't play a creature unless you absolutely must. I mean, if you were considering attacking through a Mogg Maniac and your opponent was showing Might of Oaks mana, would you attack?


For those trying to decode, here's what's going on – the Might of Oaks won't get played on the Mogg Maniac (well, it might, if someone's attacking into it with a 6/6 or a 7/7 and an 8/8 Mogg Maniac could survive and deal a nice chunk of damage to boot). It will get played on your attacking creature – say, a Hill Giant, just as it engages my Mogg Maniac. Now don't you worry – your Hill Giant is going to come out of this A-OK! In fact, it will never feel healthier. That Hill Giant, soon to be 10/10, is going to knock the stuffing out of that poor goblin.

Of course, the Mogg Maniac will then stumble and, with its last breath, smack you back for ten. Sprinkle in odd cards like Gratuitous Violence, and someone may be facing a fatal blow from the goblin's controller.

The reason a deck like this can excel in a three-player game is simple: versatility. The Mogg Maniacs can deal their damage to either opponent (and threatening both will often lead them to attacking each other), the Wolves and Leeches can chip away aggressively at life totals, the Rolling Thunders can either remove difficult creatures or go straight to the head, and this whole time you can build to a finishing blow with Hydrae or the Colossus.

With so many possibilities, you can often find yourself in situations where everyone's below ten life, and a simple attack with a Lone Wolf (casting Might of Oaks) toward one player and an emptying of a Hydra's counters toward the other results in a win. That's three cards, all at four mana or less, and a little time. Not difficult at all.

Additional Deckbuilding Tips

I've emphasized red-green aggression quite a bit in this article and the last. I really do like the combination for three-player chaos; but it's not necessarily any more viable than any other two-color combination. (For the sake of simplicity, I'm only thinking in two-color combinations here. My favorite decks are actually often three colors; but that's a topic for another day.)

Every color combination has something to offer the three-player chaos enthusiast. I don't think I need to spend more than a brief moment on each to remind you of some possibilities. And of course, these are bare samplings…

JiltPerfect for 3-player

Red-blue. Jilt was made for this format. I've got a creatureless blue-red Mirari deck that makes heavy use of Jilt (and Submerge, and Capsize) to win emperor games. The same things that make it great at dealing with two enemy lieutenants make it a good bet in three-player chaos. The only caveat with “sparkler” decks like these (and I borrow that name from an old, Stronghold-era preconstructed deck) is the heavy early damage they can take. Consider Fog Bank or Flowstone Wall to ease the pain.

Red-white. Red's aggression, blended with white's protection, can make for an excellent combination here. As with Jilt in red-blue, I like multiple-target instants like Orim's Thunder, Lunge, and Embolden here. Story Circle can be amazing in three-player chaos, since you can set it to one player (hint: the monochrome) and pound mercilessly on the other guy.

Red-black. In past articles, I've noted how risky red-black can be in any multiplayer format. Neither color can really deal with enchantments. And even though red can deal with artifacts, it's really hard to find space in most red-black decks for dedicated artifact control. (Most white decks, after all, don't spend slots on Demystify.) That means you're often going into the fight unprepared to deal with anything but creature decks. This leads to smashing wins, and horrific defeats. I'm not saying you should avoid the color combination, or that there aren't ways to deal with those kinds of cards – just that you should go in with eyes open.

Blue-white. Most people think “fortress” when they think blue-white; but I'm more inclined to think of tempo tricks and ultra-efficient creatures. Simple commons and uncommons continue to work wonders. Man o' War lifts the blocker from the player to your right, so that the player to your left may attack freely next turn. Soltari Visionary should be able to keep on top of any offending enchantments. And a single Shelter (along with the presence of mind to keep open the rest of the game, whether you find a second copy or not) can go a long way.

Blue-black. Beyond instant tricks like Recoil and Spinal Embrace, I like more recent ideas born of Mirrodin's artifact theme. Creatures with affinity for artifacts blended with Nim-style creatures that get offensive bonuses for artifacts in play can present a very aggressive front – but unlike red-green, it actually has countermagic available to back it up (and countermagic is still pretty good in three-player games).

Strong and then some…

Blue-green. Perhaps my favorite color combination, blue-green offers you the absolutely amazing Mystic Snake to counter one player's spell while you present a blocker to the other. The combination with Crystal Shard (or Erratic Portal, for those of you who've thought of this before) is ridiculous – those two cards alone can carry 75 percent of the weight in a given three-player game. Mystic Snake is cool.

Oh, I suppose you could play other cards, too – Odyssey block gave tournament players some lovely synergy between cards like Wild Mongrel, Roar of the Wurm, and Wonder; and there's no reason we can't cheat off of their test.

White-black. This can work a lot like white-red; but there's something about black working together with white that's ultra-cool – kind of like in X-Men 2 when the “good” and the “bad” mutants are backing each other up, albeit with uneasy glances. White-black opens up opportunities for style points.

Of course, you need to go beyond cheesy Pestilence – CoP: Black combos (though those will work fine in a pinch) and seek a solution with more finesse, like PestilenceGlory, or PestilenceCommander Eesha, or Pestilence…oh, okay, how about a simple cleric deck featuring Master Apothecary, Weathered Wayfarer, and whatever else which splashes black for Cabal Archon? Or a Parallax Wave with stuff like Bone Shredder and Icatian Javelineer?

White-green. Unless you have Swords to Plowshares, spot creature removal is traditionally light in green-white decks. If your friends are artifact-happy, this may not be a problem – but otherwise, you'll either have to overkill with stuff like Wrath of God or just build a better army. I like the second idea better, because between white and green, you really have everything you need in creatures – offense and defense, evasion and bulk, protection and utility, etc. My current favorite white-green deck involves spiders, with Silklash Spiders killing my own Glory to make my arachnids superstars.

Consume Strength
Like Jilt but even better…?

Black-green. With a single Consume Strength, you can make your own creature strong enough to destroy another in combat and survive, while killing a third innocent creature on the sidelines. That's like a super-Jilt. If you're in lots of three-player games, you should have at least one deck with four copies. Odyssey block ramped up the volume considerably – what about Wild Mongrel to set up Living Death? Arrogant Wurm to key off Bottomless Pit? Genesis to keep a Bone Shredder going?

Black and green complement each other beautifully – black brings creature kill to the table, in return for artifact and enchantment control. And both colors are excellent at graveyard recursion, which helps you recover lost resources. So use this color combination as an opportunity to address the most annoying decks your friends have. It doesn't have to be Naturalize (which often ends up dead in your hand) – it could be Nantuko Vigilante. It doesn't have to be Terror – it could be Nekrataal (which in turn benefits from green's pump).

Those ideas ought to get you thinking more deeply about the kinds of cards you need in your three-player decks. But what about when the game starts?

Additional Play Tips

Last time, I suggested a primary strategy: keep your head up for the first couple of turns, and then head for the weaker opponent. Watch the stronger opponent for their reaction over 2-3 turns, and then judge your next move(s) accordingly. To me, a three-player game is really a duel with a longer setup. You just don't know who the real opponent is, when you start.

Thinking of the game this way really has more implications than I let on at first. Three-player games have a fairly reliable rhythm – what I'd call four “beats” leading up to the endgame:

First Beat: Early establishment. I often hear stories of how “my deck gets off to a good start, but then everyone pounds on it.” Tales like these serve as cautionary notes, but not much more than that. After all, your alternatives are poor: “hiding” is doomed to fail, since there are only three people sitting at the table; and all I can come up with after that is pleading and/or begging, which you're welcome to try, I suppose.

Good, solid plays in the early game give you the initiative, so you don't end up depending on your opponents' mercy. A decent setup – modest progress is fine – puts you in position to win the game. If you try to do in the second four turns what you should have done in the first four turns, don't be surprised if you lose a lot.

So what exactly is “modest” but “decent” progress? In the first four turns, I would recommend five goals for a traditional creature-based deck:

  • set up a reliable base of permanents (4 lands and 2 creatures, at minimum);
  • use no more than one instant or sorcery, and have at least one useful instant in your hand;
  • have at least one mid-range creature in your hand;
  • take no more than five damage; and
  • know who the stronger opponent is, at least in the early game.

If you've done all five of these things, you're in good shape. A lot of this comes from building your deck right – if you don't have enough tricks or creatures, you're going to fall short consistently in one or two areas.

(I expect my readers to be mature enough to recognize the exceptions to these goals – e.g., when you're playing a creatureless deck. There are parallels for less conventional decks, and I encourage each of you to establish your own goals for the early game. The point is to have a practical but ambitious plan and execute it.)

Power levels ratchet up at 4 mana…

Second Beat: Rise to Power. Somewhere around turn 4 or 5, a Magic game changes a bit. This is true in just about any format, and has mainly to do with the level of power Wizards allows in the game at four mana. (I call this threshold the Flametongue Kavu horizon. You can call it the Fact or Fiction horizon, or the Roar of the Wurm horizon, or the Mystic Snake horizon, or the Wrath of God horizon, or The Abyss, or whatever. But it's pretty much sitting like a fat duck on four eggs.) It also has to do with the fact that few good players keep hands that start with more than four lands – so any lands that come after the third or the fourth come from the library, so your ability to keep pace with everyone else depends on how many land (24!) you've put in your (60-card!) deck.

Luck can always bring you down, but on average, turn five or six is where the better-built decks and more experienced players will start to shine. There will be about three or four turns of growing dominance, coming to a head with two or three big plays centered around one or more deck's main theme. This is where each player learns what their opponents are really up to, and where most of the tempo cards like Jilt can have devastating impact.

Speaking of tempo. If you remember the article Mark Rosewater wrote last week on sorceries and how they force players to make tough decisions at key times – well, an awful lot of tough decisions get made here. Fortunately, we know from past discussion that three-player chaos doesn't need big, unwieldy sorceries too often – cheaper instants with multiple targets often work just as well, if not better. So let's thank Mark for making clear why sorceries exist – and save them for the seven-player chaos-fests.

Third Beat: Recovery or Death. If the game lasts past turn ten for all three players, it should still be clear by now who's rising and who's sinking. This phase is critical for those players who are losing ground – either they meet the challenges posed by the strongest deck(s), or they fail within two or three turns.

How do you recover when you're down? You have two options, which I've ranked in descending order of preferability:

  • Focus like a laser on the most powerful player. You send every attack and every targeted spell at the player who looks most dominant, even if it means sacrificing a little. (Note I said “sacrificing”, not “crashing and burning out of spite.” You don't have to be an ass about it. There's a difference between urgency and carelessness.) Demonstrate to the third player that there is one enemy. No need to chat about it: let your actions speak for themselves.
  • Keep your head down. If you have absolutely no resources to throw at anyone, your best bet is to look as pathetic as possible. That shouldn't be too hard, right? Again, there's no need to chat about how useless you are – everyone already knows this. Your job is to pretend you don't exist in this game. (Good practice for what may very well happen!) You may be lucky enough to be in a game where both opponents still find your presence useful – maybe neither of them is sure which of them has the upper hand, and they'd both rather keep you around as another potential source of damage, or a distraction, or whatever.

Those are your options – strike clearly, or not at all. Don't try to do both. It may seem silly for me to write that; but I've seen players try to hide and harry when they're in poor mid- or late game position, and the results are just not good.

Now, a trio of players who play well or get lucky breaks can keep the game going into uncharted territory, with any number of subsequent rises and falls. So this “beat” can last quite a while! But once one player goes down completely, the game goes into its fourth and final phase.

Fourth Beat: Duel. The ending duel is the “real game” – with all due respect to the absolute loser who couldn't keep up with the two better players. (I'm kidding, people. You're all wonderful, self-validated geniuses who deserve to win every game and who have nothing to do with your own failures.) Here, we get into all the basic theories about traditional Magic games, but perhaps none is more important than knowing “who's the beatdown.” Former editor and current colleague Mike Flores did an excellent treatment of this topic, years ago. I won't do full justice to Mike's work here – but I will touch on the minimum you need to know.

Here's how the theory works: every duel has a beatdown player and a control player. It doesn't matter what you think you are, or what you like to play; it only matters what you are. More than that, it only matters what you are relative to your opponent.

What do I mean by relativity? A blue-green tempo deck may be the “beatdown” deck against a blue-white control deck full of Wrath of God and Upheaval; but it's the “control” deck when playing against a swarm of goblins. And that's not all – one given game may see the roles of “beatdown” and “control” change, depending on the board situation, cards in hand, etc. So even after you think you know what your deck is, it may change. Keep your eyes open!

Once you know whether you're the beatdown or the control, you can make far better decisions about your play. The control player has a clock over his head – how many turns until the beatdown player has her life total at zero (or reaches some other victory condition)? Everything he does must be geared toward delaying the assault until he can establish control of the board.

“Once you know whether you're the beatdown or the control, you can make far better decisions about your play.”

Meanwhile, the beatdown player has a clock of her own. Somewhere, lying in wait deep in her opponent's deck, is the answer to one or more of the threats she presents. That threat needs to activate and succeed before the right control card(s) come(s). If and when her opponent establishes control, there's a tangible “inflection point” – the part of the game we've all felt, on one side or the other, when one player's fortunes switch places with the other. Call it a turning point, a bridge too far, or the “coulda-shoulda-woulda” turn – it's not always obvious, but it happens in virtually every game where the control player wins.

So, when do you attack? When do you block? Where do you use that spot removal spell? Do you wait another turn before casting your mass removal? Should you play your Counterspell or hold it? The right answer to all of these questions starts with knowing what role you play – beatdown or control.

That's all I'll say about “who's the beatdown” here. Many, many duel articles can give you more. Even writers who have no idea they're using Mike's work often speak in these terms, now. Keep an eye open for strategic discussion on beatdown vs. control – it will sharpen not only your duels, but your multiplayer game as well.

My only point in bringing this up here is to say: in a three-player game, you're given multiple “free” turns to figure out who's beatdown and who's control before you truly have to worry about it. That time is a gift – take advantage of it! Know what role you will play when the first opponent dies, so that you can hit the ground running.


To close this week's treatment of three-player games, here are a few suggestions on how to play trios differently from traditional chaos. Not all are specific to exactly three players; but the dynamics are different enough with a trio that you should find the variation rewarding.

  • Attack left. Many players have already heard of this, but it's worth repeating: a game where you attack/target to one side and defend the other just plain feels different. Note that mass removal goes up a notch in this format.
  • Attack right. Okay, I'm just padding here. You know, it's not always easy to come up with a dozen freaking variations for your amusement! I'm entitled to a bit of fluff, once every two and a half years. The clock can't tick forever, you know…
  • Attack switch. Ha ha! That was just a setup for this one, so I wasn't really slacking. Keep that clock running! Here's how it works: start with attack left. Once every two rounds or so, roll a die to see if you switch to attack right. Then repeat every two rounds or so. (The interval's up to you, but don't do it too frequently, or it will feel stupid.)
  • Kill left (or right). A variant on “attack left” that a message board participant reminded me of two weeks ago. Here, you can target or attack either player – but your sole victory condition is the defeat of the player to your left. So it's like a duel in that you only have to deal 20 damage to win…but it's not like a duel in that two opponents' decks are working against you. It's always interesting to find yourself protecting the player to your right from certain death – even as that very player is trying to kill you.
  • Rotating 2-on-1. This puts a schedule on what often happens informally – two players gang up on another one. For the first three rounds, play normally. Then, at the beginning of the first player's fourth turn, the two players with the lower life totals (or randomly, if there's a tie) present as a two-headed team against the other player. Go two turns like this. At the beginning of the first player's sixth turn, reset teams. Keep doing this every two turns.
  • Forsaken Wastes
    The fourth unseen. This is a more radical departure than the other formats. All three players are on the same team. A shadowy, invisible fourth player is your common opponent. (Think of yourselves as hobbits, working together against Sauron. Or against Tom Bombadil, who always annoyed the heck out of me. Honestly, who sings that much? And couldn't it have occurred to him to escort them to the Road in the first place, rather than letting them play with ghosts in the hills? And what the hell was the point of Goldberry? Weaving baskets, picking flowers, making honey cakes…wow, I wonder how that stuff never made it into the movie…) You can really set whatever parameters for Tom you like, but I suggest the following:
    • starts at 100 life,
    • has a sixty-card deck with no creatures or lands (sorceries, instants, artifacts, and enchantments),
    • gets a 1/3 green wall and a 2/1 black wall with flying every turn (read: this player does not attack, but continually replenishes blockers),
    • flips over a card every turn – any targeted effects can either be random or “by agreement” hit the most powerful permanent/player on your team.
    • Forsaken Wastes is “on the table” – that is, no life gain, and each player loses one life at the beginning of his or her turn. (Tom won't lose life from this.) (For a greater challenge, lose two life.)

Readers should feel free to put more ideas for “triumvariants” up on the message boards. I prefer that to email, since I'll likely read them sooner (and would therefore be more likely to put them in a future article). Thanks in advance for your enthusiasm and good ideas!

You may contact Anthony at Anthony cannot give deck help. The whole issue of Goldberry has simply upset him too much.

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