What They Want

Posted in Serious Fun on March 21, 2006

By Anthony Alongi

Nowadays, everyone's giving their opinions on everything.

It's always been part of human nature to tell someone what you think – but never has it been easier. Technology like Internet message boards and video blogs makes sounding off a snap. Got something to say? There are hundreds, and often thousands or more, of people who'll listen.

But sometimes, getting someone's honest opinion is tougher than it may sound. Ironically, many people find it better to be honest with anonymous masses they'll never meet, than with people they know and see regularly. One example of the latter case may be your Magic group.

Speaking Their Minds

There are at least three cases where you might have trouble getting your casual Magic group to be completely honest with you.

Hidden Opinion #1: The True Threat. The first is when you are analyzing board position and want to determine the biggest threat. In a duel, an opponent cannot expect to deflect attention from herself – she's the only other person in the game, so who else would you attack? (Of course, she might not give you the best advice on what specific play to make.) But with three or more players, everybody has someone else to point to. "Attack him! I'm not the threat!"

It's the sort of politicking I'm not overly fond of, but just about every multiplayer enthusiast does it at some point, to a certain degree. There are plenty of play situations in a group game where the correct move is not obvious, even to the most experienced veteran, and now everyone's giving you an opinion – but no two are the same! What is one to do? Depending on the situation, consider one or more of these strategies:

(a) Consider past records of honesty. Based on what you know about these players, determine who you trust the most and take that person's advice to heart. The benefit to this solution is that it works effectively in long-term relationships with repeated games – it rewards the people who give you honesty, and punishes those who try to trick you. The drawback? It doesn't work so well when you're playing with new friends, or even complete strangers at the local store or online. Use more often with people you know well.

(b) Ask for a ranking. Ask each of your opponents to give you not just what they think the best play is, but also what the second- or third-best play would be. Why does this work? Partly because you get more nuanced information (and can simply add up the rankings for the person you'll tag); but also partly because it is harder to give a complex lie than a simple one. "I'm not the real threat" is easy to say. It's much harder to say, "I'm not even second or third on the list" when there are only five players at the table and the liar has an army of unblockable creatures. The benefit here is getting more information, and learning more about your opponents' priorities. The drawback? It takes time and you'll annoy people if you keeping asking for this level of detail every time you get a little confused. Use sparingly.

(c) Recalculate your own analysis. When you absolutely cannot depend on other people, you have to depend more heavily on yourself. Maybe this situation is not as complicated as you thought. Work that brain a little harder and see if you can't figure out what the best play is, without any outside help. You'll feel terrific if you get it right. And if you're wrong, you'll have learned something.

Whichever method you choose before making a play decision, be sure to note the results. Had you followed (or not followed) Player X's advice, would you have done better or worse? Use that information for future situations.

Hidden Opinion #2: What Formats People Like. Beyond specific game decisions, it's hard to get people to be completely honest about what kind of Magic they'd like to play. Unlike the first example, where the dishonesty is born of a calculated attempt to gain advantage, here the dishonesty is an attempt at social grace. It's particularly common among newer members of a group, who may feel that they have no business telling everyone else what kind of Magic formats are worth experimentation.

If you let people like this stifle themselves, they'll eventually come to resent the group because they never get the chance to try new and cool things. Yes, it's ironic and possibly unfair that they do this – but some people are simply passive-aggressive, and the aggressive-aggressive among us can take some small steps to make life easier for everyone. Choose from the following ideas:

(a) Rotate the formats regularly. Make it so that change happens automatically, whether people like last week's format or not. This works best with groups that meet regularly enough to establish this sort of rhythm.

(b) Reward hosting. If your group is the sort that moves from house to house, make sure you reward those who open their doors. A player who's getting tired of Limited formats can always host and then choose a Constructed format.

(c) Do a secret poll. The next time you're all together, have everyone write down their favorite format on a slip of paper. Commit before reading to doing all of the chosen formats at least once soon. Pay attention not to the majority vote (though that's useful info), but to the singular voices. These are the people most likely to become unhappy in the near future.

Hidden Opinion #3: Who's Ticking the Group Off? Among the trickiest and most personal of topics to discuss, the question of dissatisfaction with a particular player requires a great deal of care and diplomacy.

Some lucky groups never have to deal with this sort of situation – perhaps everyone's been buddies for years before Magic even appears on the scene. But even the tightest groups can occasionally experience tension. How can you find out how people are feeling about the group's relationships, and how can you pinpoint the source of the problem?

Realize first that there might not even be a problem beyond perception. (Put another way, the problem could be you.) Realize second that unless you have a clear leadership role in the group – e.g., you started the group and everyone who plays is always asking your opinion – people may not want you to play Emotion Detective.

If you're pretty sure there's a true problem, that you're not it, and that the group would like you to take the lead in sniffing it out, then try any or all of the following approaches to hearing out individual opinions:

(a) Keep names out of it. Try asking players individually if they ever feel frustrated during games. What sorts of things are going on at those times? Make it clear that you're not asking for names – just situations that will help you all establish ground rules. If you can pull together a list of 2-4 things everyone agrees are unacceptable, the group can police itself better.

(b) Seek ye the malcontent. If there's a clear front-runner for someone who's disrupting games – you don't even need to ask around – then try taking the fellow out for a beer (or an ice cream soda, if appropriate) and chatting with them about everything but Magic for a while. Find out if something else is bugging the guy in their life. At some point in the conversation, you can try to bring up Magic; but chances are he'll do it first. You may discover something that the group is doing that's setting the guy off. Then you can go back to path (a) above and set some ground rules, without naming names to anyone.

(c) Model the change you want to see. Make certain that you are not doing anything to exacerbate a problem. If you have a tense group and you're contributing to arguments, then people will not trust you with honest opinions. Good people seek honest leadership when there's a crisis – if you want that responsibility, act like it.

So let's review: when looking for honest opinions in Magic (or anywhere else), it's not enough just to pester people until they pinky-swear that they're telling the truth. You have to:

  • Make sure you're being honest with yourself;
  • Focus on actions, not words;
  • Use anonymity as a way of focusing on behaviors and ideas, instead of names;
  • Value repeated contact and long-term relationships, and find those who feel the same way.

And with that in mind, let's finish this week's article with an opportunity for me to seek your opinions on the column itself.

Taking Responsibility For Your Own Happiness

I've noticed that some of the most popular Serious Fun columns have been those that taken one topic and spent a good three weeks (actually six, skipping theme weeks) exploring it. "Ganging up" is the most recent example, but there are certainly others. These mini-series not only seem to satisfy readers – they also give me a really neat place to refer readers who join the site months later and wonder if I've ever talked about Topic X.

What I'd like to do this week is poll the readership and find out what your top choices are for future topics. A chosen topic would likely last at least two columns, depending on how well the muse smacks me upside the head.

Let me be clear, so that I may keep proper order in this column: I'm not blending any of these together. That way lies Rosewater-style madness. But I will group several similar topics together here today, so that you can pick your favorite from each bundle. This will give me enough feedback to consider priorities for the next few months.

Let's get started.

Please note that I have not listed any of the following as topic options, and I am likely to ignore them on the message boards if requested. I'm not trying to be cruel – I just would not be able to satisfy your appetites for any of the following.

  • Any topics relating to providing deck help
  • Any topics about reader-generated card ideas
  • Any topics explaining why Wizards does what it does
  • Any topics already covered extensively in the Serious Fun archives, and/or which you can find easy answers to in the Frequently Asked Questions article
  • Any topics about games other than Magic

When will you learn which topic(s) won? On Tuesdays, when I write the columns.

It will be great to learn more about what you all want to read about. Thanks for taking the time this week to be the authors of your own story arc.

Which of the following are true about Anthony?

He has played various Magic formats over the past seven yearsHe is co-author of the forthcoming JENNIFER SCALES AND THE MESSENGER OF LIGHT, with wife MaryJanice DavidsonHe's a politicianHe's a bureaucratHe's a beacon of morality and justice to his childrenAll of the above, except maybe that beacon bit was overstated

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