HUGE CHANGES! FILM AT 11! CATS AND DOGS LIVING TOGETHER! OH, THE HUMANITY!
...okay, maybe not that much. But still. It's big.
Yet before you can understand the sheer magnitude of what happened, you must first comprehend the rhythm and flow of a traditional Evening o'Multiplayer Goodness, done Ferrett-style. Let me welcome you into my house, walk you through what it would be like to play a game with my friends and I.... And perhaps I can use this as an example to talk about how to create enjoyable multiplayer groups.
It is a Tuesday night at around 8:30 in Cleveland. You have your cards in hand, you're brimming with ideas, and you drive up this very street:
And you pull up next to this very house:
And walk into this very dining room.
It is a reasonably small house, but very cozy, and we have fit as many as eight people around this table. (If we have more than eight, which has happened all of twice, we split off into two groups or we all sit down in the living room before the black altar of my wide-screen TV and home theater system.
Welcome! You're the first to arrive! And as you call out merrily, asking, "Ferrett? You home?", this crazed man leaps out at you, frothing at the mouth, brandishing a deck feverishly in your direction:
"I KEEL YOU!" he cries savagely, flailing violently in your direction. "GET YOUR CARDS NOW! THIS IS THUNDERDOME! TWO MEN ENTER, ONE MAN LEAVES!" Panicked, you back off, but there is no escape from a rabid Ferrett. The lights flicker off. This is the last thing you see:
It is very dark. You have been eaten by a grue.
....okay, maybe the last two pictures don't happen. (As a Ferrett, I bite less than people would think.) But here is what has traditionally happened:
You show up, and generally anywhere between two and six other people arrive. There's a core group of players (Josh, Ian, Todd, and Jack) and those who show up somewhat less often (Dmitri, Peter, and the eponymously named Jonathan *).
We sit down, discuss some of the latest TV shows for about ten minutes, and then get down to slinging cards. We're a very talky table, both loud and—I hesitate to say this on a family-friendly site, but it is relevant—extremely profane. We throw a lot of jokes around, and table talk to an extent that would have driven my Serious Fun predecessor Anthony Alongi insane. There's a lot of open discussion about who the biggest threat is at any given moment, and what the optimal play is.
We laugh a lot. We enjoy ourselves.
But earlier last Tuesday, I got an email from a guy named "Ben," who I had met during a Future Sight Release Event. We'd talked about him coming over, and he said that he might bring some friends.
He did. Three of them. Suddenly, we had eight people in my house. And then Ben said another amazing thing:
"Actually, we just came from the card store around the corner," he said. "There are two other guys back there who didn't want to leave."
"Really?" I asked. "Will they stay open late?" **
"Oh yeah," he said. "We stay open until 1:00 a.m. for this. We play on Tuesdays, too!"
"Hm," I said, looking around my suddenly crowded dining room. "Would anyone here mind if we all moved the game over to the Compendium?"
Two-Headed Giant of ForiysAnd so we all tromped out in a car, and the next thing you know, we were all involved in a truly ludicrous three-hour long, five-team Two-Headed Giant match. *** Each team consisted of one person from the Ferrett group paired up with someone from the Compendium team, and there was much delight and exploration as we gossiped about each other's strategies and yelled foul things at each other in the spirit of brotherhood.
As it turns out, the Compendium people have been playing in their own group for a while; they'd meant to hook up with me, but it just hadn't gelled until then. They had between five to eight people on any given night as well, which meant that—if things went swimmingly—we could form into a twelve-person supergroup. Like HSAS, but without all the sucking. ****
Thus, I'm discussing a merger with these folks. We have to work out a regular date (if we're not playing at my house, Tuesdays are out, for I need an Internet connection on Tuesday night to dialogue and update my webcomic Home on the Strange—scheduling for everyone's always a bear for any good group, but it gets trickier when the original purpose of said group was to help me play multiplayer regularly) and a regular place to play, but it looks good.
The Compendium folks were also different than us, which is good. They were just as friendly and funny, but they were far more involved in the tournament scene than our guys were, flitting about from PTQ to PTQ. They like to build a lot of decks, and to explore strategies, and to try out new Constructed formats.
Which leads me to the big change here; with such a large group and a shift to the dynamic, you might actually get some of what you want.
See, I'm not a big fan of Two-Headed Giant or alternate formats; as you may have guessed, part of the fun of multiplayer for me is playing the other players, and Two-Headed Giant and star format are designed to reduce the amount of player interaction by limiting who you can choose as a target.
There's nothing wrong with that, mind you; it's all down to taste. But my Magic tastebuds want a lot of chaos. (Plus, I'm terrible about building new decks; I'm lucky if I do it once a month, and so a Two-Headed specific deck would be almost unheard of.)
I feel guilty, though. I know that some of you love the format—I know this because you've been emailing me from Day One, asking plaintively, "Why don't you write about Two-Headed Giant?" And the simple answer is, "We don't play it, and my group doesn't have enough interest in it that I feel comfortable strong-arming them into trying it."
I probably could churn out an article supposing what good Two-Headed Giant strategy is, but that's not my style. I don't like writing about decks I haven't tried, I don't like writing about cards that could be good, and I don't like writing about formats I haven't played enough to get a grasp on.
So the Two-Headed thing hasn't happened.
But my suspicions are good. Since these guys like building decks, and they defaulted to Two-Headed Giant for our first game, it may well be that I will have some strategy for you. Stay tuned.
But speaking of reader write-ins, today's column***** is about another topic I get constant emails about—and it's not about the cards, but your players. Namely:
How do you form a group where people want to play Magic?
It sounds stupid, but about once a week I get an email that goes something like this:
I used to be a part of a Magic group that got together to play every week. Then, I dunno, people drifted away from it. Now I don't have anyone to play with. What do I do?
Sleeveless in Seattle
Or, more heartbreakingly, something like this:
Ferrett O My Ferrett,
A while back, I had a really good group of guys to play with.... And then it just got too cutthroat, with half the group trying to go off in combos and the other half doing nothing at all. Now the tournament guys just go to PTQs and never show, and it's down to just me and Dave in the basement, which isn't exactly multiplayer. What did we do wrong?
Casual In Kalamazoo
I've been fortunate enough to have three strong playgroups in Anchorage, Cleveland, and Ann Arbor, and along the way I've learned some things about keeping a bunch of people happy when they sit down at your table. I may not be the best at spellslinging, but I do know how to organize a group that, by and large, keeps people together. So let me give you some tips.
I’m going to assume that you have some people to play with, since “Forming a group out of whole cloth” is an article in and of itself. But if you are starting from nothing, try these two steps:
- Go to the local Magic stores and ask around. They’re your best local resource.
- Participate in the Magic community. The forums on Wizards (and other sites such as StarCityGames.com and Brainburst) are rife with people who are incredibly devoted to Magic, and usually have a good idea of what’s going on. Don’t just hop on a board and go, “hi I want to play Magic.” Talk about Magic! Get involved in some discussions! Debate whether blue is too strong or players are too weak! And then, once you’ve formed some friends online and a reputation for being an interesting person, then ask about any players in the area. You’ll find it’s a lot easier to gather people to you once you’ve established that you’re willing to give as good as you get.
Set a Date and Stick to It
Scheduling, particularly if you're out on your own, is a stone-cold bitch. There's always going to be some weird hold-up on Wednesday, or someone's babysitter will cancel on Thursday, or maybe there's some class you have to take. The temptation is to shuffle the day around to fit people's schedules.
The goal is to make "Tuesday Night Magic" a part of everyone's routine. When you juggle a schedule to be more accommodating, what happens is that the idea of "Magic" stops being associated with a day and becomes more of a "Whenever we can fit it in."
Hold the line. The Magic starts at 8:30 on Tuesday, come hell or high water. If they're not there, well, sorry they missed it—we had an awesome time. If you're not going to be there, make sure that it's taking place at someone's house. Make it so that whatever day you have chosen is the day, and if they can't make it they should feel the pangs of loss.
That said, don't whine if people don't show up; some folks just aren't that committed, and they're lucky if they arrive once every six weeks. They're gonna show up even less if you're always riding them about how they should have been there, so don't ride them too hard. Celebrate their presence as opposed to lamenting their absence. Positive reinforcement works wonders.
But the end goal is to make your night as immutable as it can be. There's a reason Friday Night Magic is so popular; you know that no matter what happens, on Friday there is Magic. Make your day just as strong.
Set Some Clear Social Mores
Let me share the darkest secret of multiplayer with you:
It isn't that hard to win. If you want.
I hinted at this when I wrote my faux-reportage piece on "What if there was a Multiplayer Pro Tour?", but it bears repeating: it's almost trivially easy to win with some crazy efficient combo deck. There are tons of old-school combos that can wipe out eight players in the blink of an eye. I've personally watched groups degenerate into "Who can fire off first on turn three?", at which point it's not very fun at all.
If efficiency is your goal, you can win. No problem at all. (Though it's a bit harder in more restricted formats like Standard, and much more difficult in Block.)
Now, if your entire group is one mad rush for the finish, then that's fine. And if your entire group gets frowns on cards like Wrath of God because "That's cheating," then that's also fine.
The problem comes when some people want to go hell-for-leather and others want to interact. When you have a sets of people with different goals in the same room, things are going to get a bit tense.
The best way to deal with this is to come up with a pretty clear set of expectations for people, powerwise. Some people try to do this by limiting people to Constructed formats or by using banned and restricted lists; sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn't.
But the best way that I've found is to tell people flat-out when things are a little cheesy. As an example, someone asked me the other day, "So you run Vintage-legal lists? That's a little worrying. What's stopping me from going nuts with my crazy combo?"
"You can do it," I said calmly. "And if you do it enough, we won't want to play with you. So that's up to you."
As a general rule, I try to let people know that occasionally whipping out some broken deck or lunatic combo is fine as an aperitif, but if you're slamming down the über-winner every round, we probably are going to get a little cheesed off. All the regular players at our table have our good decks—the ones we break out once or twice a night, the ones filled with sheer deadliness—and the fun decks that don't necessarily win but do fun stuff.
I like to think that's the culture I try to create. Yeah, you wanna win, but the fun takes precedence.
So we don't play the good decks all the time. There's almost always a good deck at the table, so there's a challenge, but an entire group playing Dragon Reanimator vs. blue-white übercontrol gets real boring fast.
Now, your mileage may vary. Maybe you want a full-on assault all the time. Or maybe you think that, as I said, mass destruction is too much. That's all fine and well; you have to find your own focal point.
Either way, let the new arrivals crack open their decks and then let 'em know whether you think it was too much. Most people, you'll find, are pretty understanding about overpowered decks (though underpowered decks bring their own set of challenges).
You can win, sure. But for most casual players, a game full of people who go all-out all the time means that it stagnates quickly. Mix it up a little.
Be Aware of Imbalances
Like I said, if half the group wants A and the other half wants B—or, heck, just one player wants B—then you're in trouble. Be on the lookout for these.
Imbalances in Cash
I work for a site that sells singles for money. We do a fair amount of business just crackin' packs and selling Pact of Negations. But on a regular basis, I tell someone what I do, and they look at me like my head was screwed on sideways.
For some people, Magic is a hobby where you spend a certain amount each month, and any pack you spend your moolah on is a pack you're going to have forever. For others, Magic is a crazed whirlpool to pour your paycheck down, and you're leaving stacks of stupid commons on the table after the draft because you have too damn many cards.
Phil's going to lose. A lot. And it has little to do with Phil's talent (though, in my experience, the guys who spend a lot are usually better players just by dint of playing more), but rather to do with the fact that Richie's deck is just better, card-for-card.
So how do you rectify this?
- Be generous with cards. If you're the kind of guy who throws commons away, then give your commons to Phil. If you have tons of cards you know you'll never use, donate them. In our group, we have some rare-light players, and we've all given a card or two to ensure that Jack's Heartless Hidetsugu deck has four Heartless Hidetsugus. Even if Phil doesn't win, he'll at least feel like he's wanted.
- Be generous with deck expertise. If Richie runs away with a lot of victories, Phil's going to feel like he's losing because he's poor, and he will walk. But it is possible to build solid decks with cheap commons, as long as you follow the basic principles of Magic; I did it once for my friend Dmitri, and I think the resultant article is a good primer on how it can be done. If you can sit down with Phil and show him that it's not all about money, it will help Phil to feel better about the game.
- Be generous with evaluation. Some cards are just better than others, because you'll use them again and again. For example, Rancor's a cheap enchantment that was a common back in the day, but you can pick up a playset for around five to seven bucks. Phil may balk at the idea of paying cash for cards, but once you explain to him that these cards can go into almost every green deck he owns, it helps. Show him the bargains of Magic, those go-to investments where you'll always have a use for them. Likewise, point him to power commons, the ones that can be gotten easily.
- Be understanding. Honestly? I'd love to have some multiplayer Drafts or Sealed Deck in my group. But the guys I'm with aren't willing to pay $20 a night to play Limited, a format they're not overly familiar with and will probably lose at a lot at first, so I let it slide. Sometimes, you just gotta let it go.
- Talk to Richie. We'll talk about that in a bit.
Imbalances in Power
This is closely related to the cash imbalance, but every group has a certain default style of deck. Some guys are still nursing that first freshly plucked Damnation, while others are packing that black-white near-creatureless Astral Slide deck.
This isn't necessarily about cards, though, because some people have huge collections and can't build a coherent deck for crap.
The imbalance here is that every group has a rough center point where decks live. Some decks are a little more powerful, some decks less so, but there's a rough range. Try to gently discourage the wrong sorts of decks.
I still have a Vintage deck that uses Furnace of Rath, Replenish, Saproling Burst, and Opalescence to do like 144 damage to everyone at the table. Never played it with my group, because that'd not be fun. And the goal here is fun.
Imbalances in Skill
It's rare when a group has all players with the same level of skill; generally, there are one or two guys to beat, some mediocre players, and the guys who hardly ever win because, well, they're either beginners (in which case they'll get better) or just don't invest that much into Magic (in which case they won't).
Lavamancer's SkillNow, winning isn't the main goal of casual Magic. Fun is. But it's also hard to have fun when you're not only continually losing, but you never had a chance of winning.
You don't want to reward bad skill. And it's also frustrating when everyone's been bringing their A-game, except for Joe and Tina, who haven't bothered to pick up one bit of strategy at all in the past six months.
But there are ways to help new players learn and/or cope without losing all competition:
- Help Phil. If Phil has seventy zillion Saprolings on the table and keeps them all at home when he could enter the Red Zone and kill you, be a man. Ask, "Why didn't you attack me? You'd have wiped me out." Point out places where he could make better plays ("Don't forget to tap that Stuffy Doll at the end of his turn," "That would be a spell you want to counter") and slowly show him what you think is good strategy.
There may be debates, as other players tell him why it's not a good move. Bring the whole table in, because it's often good for Phil to see the "better" players showing him that Magic isn't as cut-and-dried as he wants. And be honest, because sometimes you should shrug and go, "Yeah, I'm probably the guy you want to axe right now. I could kill you if you leave me alone."
- Be honest. If you have a guy who's actively misleading Phil the bad player so that he can win, you do not want this guy around. Scroll down.
- Institute a sliding scale. If Phil isn't so good at Magic and doesn't want to play as cutthroat, then he gets passes where the good players don't. If Phil forgot that you could give your creature protection from black at will, let him take back that Terror.
There are those who claim that this encourages sloppy play, and it does. That's why you don't always allow it. My general rule is, "If the game depends on it, you don't get to take a stupid move back." In other words, I'll let you undo the minor dumb moves, but nothing teaches a lesson better than watching your whole army die horribly in combat because you forgot that I had Teferi out and you couldn't play that instant at the right moment.
- Don't go for Phil's throat all the time. Honestly? If Phil's that bad, you know that you can usually kill him off at any time. So don't. If Phil gets land-screwed, don't kill him because you can. If Phil gets out the crazy combo or the über-creature, destroy whatever you need to survive, but don't bay for Phil's blood afterwards.
Phil's not that good a player. He's probably not going to be that big a threat, and you can deal with him later. Leaving him in for another seven or eight rounds lets him keep playing, which is more fun than losing, and sometimes he pulls out a crazy win. That's fun, too.
- Encourage others not to as well. There are some aggro players who always pick on the weak. When they pick on Phil, you pick on them. This usually stops it right quick.
Some Players Just Aren't Right for Some Groups
A good casual group is a culture, and not everyone is ideally suited to every culture. For example, Anthony Alongi's group really hates table talk, and expects people to make their plays in silence. You don't suggest, goad, inspire, or nudge anyone.
If I were to show up at Anthony's group, that would make me miserable. I like to point fingers, to try to influence people. And in doing so, I'd probably honk off Anthony and everyone else there along the way.
Their group would not be for me. And that's fine; they're not evil people, but rather folks who get a different kind of enjoyment out of Magic than I do. Not every culture is going to find a home for everyone, and it's not a good trade-off to make five people miserable to accommodate a sixth.
But if you're the de facto leader, sometimes you're just going to wind up in a situation where someone's not happy and he's not going to be happy. Jake wants to play combo decks, all the time, and gets pissy when people constantly stop him from going off. Alice is big on the tourney scene and is forever busting out her "kill everyone" decks and dominating to a degree that is no longer fun.
You have to do your best to accommodate them. Talk to them and tell them that here, we do things this way, and try to find some happy medium where you can meet in the middle. Explain that combo decks aren't friendly, and offer to help Jake build some combo-ish decks that aren't auto-kills. Tell Alice that yes, she can win, and she's clearly the best player, but maybe she could play some sillier decks for awhile? She really has nothing left to prove.
If that doesn't bring them around, it may be time to say goodbye.
I'm not saying to witch hunt, but there will be times when someone says, "I'm not having fun here" and your only legitimate response is, "Well, I'm sorry, but I don't think we can change enough to make it fun for them." Wish them well, clap them on the back, but let them go.
Anthony, in fact, wrote an excellent article on dealing with troublesome players. I can only refer you to it again, because he says it better than I can.
Have a Good Time
Remember that the main goal of casual Magic is not to win, but to have fun. If you're the sort of shy person who just mutely deals the cards, well, you're probably not going to be able to sustain a group.
Too many groups get together to play Magic and not much else. Almost every largish group has someone who's impatient to play the cards, but it's okay to take fifteen minutes to debate, say, whether twenty ninja midgets could beat up a polar bear in a cage match. That's the fun part. It is what people remember.
If you can, crack jokes. Smile a lot. If you act really happy to see everyone, you'll be surprised how often you'll be happy to see everyone, because people respond positively to a host who's thrilled to see them.
Encourage rounds of applause at good play. Give people the high-five for an amazingly cool combo, even when you're the one they just hosed. Lose with dignity, and set the tone for everyone else.
Give crazy prizes. We used to have "crap rare ante" in Anchorage, wherein at the beginning of every round players would ante up a Deep Water or an Adventurers' Guildhouse or a Rakalite. Whoever won got all the bad cards, autographed by the loser. Some cards had multiple autographs, or they'd just get torn up and used for tokens.
Your goal as the host should be to make sure everyone's smiling and involved. Crack jokes. Encourage friendships. Lend DVDs.
Have the best damn time you can. Really, that's the best advice I have to give.
* Fun fact: We had some new players over, and in my next column I referred to one of them as "Jonathan." The problem is, that wasn't actually his name. Thus, in order to cover up for my horrible memory for names, I now call every new player "Jonathan." This is how erstwhile comedians turn an awful public humiliation into a "running gag."
** Actually, Ben and I had discussed the idea of playing at the game store long beforehand, but it makes a better story if I tell it this way. And so Ben learns his first lesson about playing with me: if I think it'll make a better story, I will twist the facts. (But not the truth, I promise.)
***** It's only taken, what, a thousand words to get to the point? Sheesh, for a guy with no teeth I sure am running on at the mouth.
****** Two brief additions here; I actually couldn't have killed the Psionic Sliver, since there was a Crystalline Sliver out; I could have countered it. But saying that I could have countered something twice seemed so.... monotonous. It's also of interest that somehow, despite allowing these ludicrous plays, I managed to win both of those games. Weird, huh?