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Getting the most out of your group games

A Seriously Fun School of Magic

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AN IMPORTANT MULTI-LAB NOTE

Anthony: Buried under emails

The letter F!or a couple of reasons, I'm going to send up a warning flare on Multi-Lab submissions. I'm not stopping them outright, but people who send them after today (April 8, 2003) should realize that it will take several months for me to get back to them.

The first reason is, I've gone through about 600 and I have another 500 to go through. So it's going to take months anyway, and I might as well be up front about it! Every dozen a day that comes in now would be manageable, if I didn't have the backlog sitting there. But the first two months have been enormous.

The second reason is, all of the Magic advice is beginning to burn me out a bit. I get paid well for this gig – but not well enough to abandon my family. So I need to do less Multi-Lab, and not feel guilty about it. And wonder of wonders – I don't.

The third reason is, I find myself saying very similar things, on at least 80 percent of the submissions I get. Those of you with small children (or who just like watching Nick Junior instead of getting your homework done) may be familiar with "The Map Song" on Dora the Explorer. It goes a little something like this:

I'm the map
I'm the map
I'm the map
I'm the map
I'm the map
I'm the map
I'm the map
I'm the map
I'M THE MAP!

Just reading it probably makes you want to drill something sharp through your nostril, doesn't it? Tell it to my three-year-old. Anyway, I'm beginning to feel a bit like the map, except it's more like:

Sixty cards
Sixty cards
Sixty cards
Sixty cards…

…you get the idea.

So for all these reasons, instead of encouraging additional Multi-Lab submissions (and I'll still answer a few of the more involved and older ones publicly, every month), I thought I'd cap the open season by doing something I've wanted to do for a while here at magicthegathering.com: I'd like to put my "school of Magic" out there for wide consumption and consideration. In the future, I may send readers to this link, when I think they might benefit from it. So bear with me if I'm a bit basic at times, or if I repeat a couple of decks I've thrown up recently.

SCHOOL DAY ANNOUNCEMENTS

The Alongi School of Magic is, given my experiences and background, primarily a multiplayer school of Magic. That's not to say casual duelists can't benefit from what I'm about to say – but you guys already have Brian and Mark G. to help you think through duel dynamics, and the universe is bigger than you. About two or three players per game bigger, to be precise! So group play is the focus here.

Most readers know my qualifications on this, but I'll review for the newer folks: I have lived and breathed multiplayer Magic for several years now. I play with a group of twelve or so friends who range in play style, play experience, collection depth, and format preference. They teach me constantly. I've also played group formats at local stores and while waiting for the next round at the local tournaments, and have seen many different "schools," explicit and implicit, in their play.

I also won the only "official" Multiplayer Invitational, back at Pro Tour Los Angeles in 2000, by a combination of these principles and sheer, unadulterated luck. There was a guy there named Randy Beuhler who tried to kick me when I was down, for which I will never forgive him…wherever he is.

Last note before we begin: the message boards are a great place to give feedback on the school. Not only will I read it (I always read the message boards, and in fact write to some people who post more quickly than I respond to some emails), but a bunch of other people will too. Good for you, good for them, good for me. Everybody wins.

The Alongi school has four lessons in its curriculum. Yes, we're small: but we're the education you need!

FIRST LESSON: WHAT'S GOOD FOR SPIKE IS GOOD FOR YOU

Might as well start off with something that'll raise some hackles. In the "Invitational" game above, I remember something Randy said very clearly. He told the story of how he built his deck, and how Richard Garfield came up to him during deck construction and said something like, "Don't think about it. Just throw a bunch of random fun cards together, and have a blast."

I think that method is perfectly valid, for players who know that they're doing that, and why. The problem is, many newer players do it unintentionally, and don't have much fun. I know this because I've just talked to hundreds of them these past couple months (and well before then, in similar emails). There are also veterans who do it, know intellectually that it's probably why they lose, but aren't ready emotionally to break with a well-worn play style.

That's okay. Take your time. But when you're ready, try a deck that does the following: limits itself to 60 cards, runs 24 lands, and contains as many copies (up to four!) of as many cards as you have in your collection – or are willing to get.

This is what tournament players do. And they don't do it because they're evil, or mindless, or lemmings. (Note to self: suggest "Evil Mindless Lemming" card to Mark Rosewater.) They do it because they understand (or mimic understanding) the laws of statistics and probability, and because they want to see their decks work as much as possible.

Casual players want that, too. Yes, we want unpredictability. But the funny thing about unpredictability is, it happens when you least expect it. Trust me – enough crazy things are going to happen if you build your deck to be both effective and efficient. You've got, what, five players in a given game? That's a lot of stuff going on at once. After several years of weekly group games, I don't think I've ever seen two multiplayer games in our group play the same way twice.

Yes, if you're on a budget, you won't be running four of a given rare. Big deal. The workhorses in your deck are your commons and uncommons. It's no budget buster to suggest you get four (or even three) of those cards. Then sprinkle the rares to taste, but don't let those single copies dominate your deck.

Here's the kind of deck I think is generally accessible to a fairly new, casual player who stretches a bit and goes to a local store to acquire a few extra copies of uncommons. This should compete effectively with decks laden with rares:

Evil-Cycle.deq This deck has no rare cards.

Main Deck

60 cards

Barren Moor
Forgotten Cave
Mountain
Polluted Mire
Smoldering Crater
Swamp

30 lands


0 creatures

Death Pulse
Expunge
Infest
Lightning Rift
Seal of Doom
Seal of Fire
Slice and Dice
Solar Blast

30 other spells


By all means, if you have a rare you think would look nice – Starstorm or even a creature like Vampiric Dragon – chuck it in there. My own version of this deck does have those kinds of things sprinkled in.

But here's my point: this deck will lose its share of group games. It'll drop like a stone to the better defensive enchantments out there, or to (eep!) Tranquil Grove. But it will also provide some really fun and thoughtful moments – swiping the board with a Slice and Dice, warning people off with your Seals of Doom, nicking a pesky 1/1 with Death Pulse as you draw another card, and so on.

In a team game just last week, I had a deck like this as an emperor (we play range of two). Each team had lost a flank, and time was running short on me: I was facing Iridescent Angel. Now, I have two Massacres (instead of Infest) in my deck, and I've been able to pull that off before. But this time, my hand was empty, and all I had to my name was three Lightning Rifts (yes, three…that's why my hand was empty!). The opposing emperor was in my range at 18 life. As he ended his turn, I knew my remaining teammate and I had to win this game, or not at all.

My teammate, who was out of gas, draws and…cycles Barren Moor! Hey, Lightning Rift works there. Pay three, deal six damage, opponent is at twelve. Now it's my turn. Looking uneasily at the Iridescent Angel and my own life total (four), I draw: Forgotten Cave! I deal six as I cycle to…Smoldering Crater!

Smoldering Crater wins! Smoldering Crater wins!

Predictable? Not even close. Fun? You bet.

And all because I have enough of them in my deck to give me a chance.

LESSON TWO: THREATS, NOT DIPLOMATS, RULE YOUR LOGIC

You will find many people who disagree with me on this one. I hear from them frequently, especially after I do an article like this. But I stand by my guns on this one.

Diplomacy is overrated in multiplayer – heavily. This "diplomacy" takes one of two forms. First, there's the bald horse-trading of "I won't attack you if you kill that enchantment." Everyone plays Magic differently, but I just don’t find that to my taste.

Second, there's the "lay low and then surprise everyone!" approach, which generally involves a seven-piece combo. Again, everyone plays Magic differently, and if you like this kind of deck, great. But you should not expect to surprise anyone after the first time, and no amount of deck tweaking will help you.

Rattlesnake cards

Here's what I think works best, using an example. In a three-player game, you put out a threat – say Seal of Fire, to stay with last lesson's deck. One opponent has a Grizzly Bear. The other opponent has nothing.

All other factors equal, whom will the Grizzly Bear attack? You, because you're being aggressive? Because you dared to have a first-turn play? Because you're not laying low? Of course not. That Bear is hitting the other opponent, because then it stays alive.

This is what a call a "rattlesnake" card. Someone looks at you, and the Seal starts to rattle a little. You deflect the attention elsewhere, not by being tricky but by being smart.

Threats don't have to be huge to be effective. On a good day, that little Seal of Fire can do four or six damage to that second opponent (who will remember that Bear angrily, and probably do another four to six in retaliation as the game progresses). And it hasn't even sacked for two yet, which can net you a card or extra damage to the head.

Of course, as you scale up, you get more impressive threats. Somewhere near the top of the scale is Pernicious Deed, which is like a rattlesnake combined with a python. "Come at me, and I swallow the board." Nice.

The Deed gains its power not just from the rattlesnake element, but also from what I'd call the "gorilla" aspect – it shakes the board. Cards like Purify, Obliterate, and Evacuation all work much the same way. Most players call these "sweepers," and any good deck has to either use or be ready for them.

So the upper end of your deck is going to have substantial rattlesnakes that can go off with minimal effort. This is, in plain English, backing up your threats.

See the following deck. I'm using heavy rares for illustration only.

Now, Repercussion is a pretty tough statement to the board. That's going to get a lot of attention. Why? Because it's good. And I guess the question is, do you want to leave good cards in your box because they're good, and only play with the mediocre ones? Or do you want to play with good cards, and try to build a deck that survives?

I realize there's a line there – no deck can withstand concentrated attention from multiple opponents for long. I'm just closer to the line than I think many other players are. And I like being the player that can threaten, and then pull the trigger. I have control of the situation. (Ironic, isn't it – aggression, for the control freak.)

If you try aggression and you lose a lot, moderate a bit. Any strategy – combo, aggression, control, or any of their offspring – can go too far. Combo's extreme is the "lay low" bit discussed above. Aggression's extreme is taking a threatening deck and leaving creatures untapped, lands tapped, permanents unsackable, and nothing savable. Control's extreme…well, we'll get to that next.

LESSON THREE: PERMANENTS ARE KING, UNTIL YOUR LAST OPPONENT

I like Spinal Embrace. I mean, really like it. It's an incredible group card, and it's so wonderfully insulting to the controller of the creature you take.

And I like Reverent Mantra and Embolden, too. And Evacuation, and Terminate, and Ghitu Fire, and all sorts of cards that come out at instant speed. Keeping with the animal aspects I've used so far (rattlesnake, gorilla), I'd call a card like this a "spider": it sets up beautiful traps, springing out at key moments to gain you card (or life, or tempo, or whatever) advantage.

But here's the problem with them, and with most sorceries, while we're at it. They don't last long enough. Think of many duel strategies that use sorceries and instants heavily – discard, countermagic, and land destruction – and you'll see strategies that have a hard time translating into group. Sure, you can do it. But often you end up relying on permanents – Mindslicer and Megrim, Voidmage Prodigy and Willbender, Seismic Mage and Army Ants – to maintain some sort of board presence that will last for longer than one opponent.

Many, many Multi-Lab emails came to me asking one of the following two questions:

  • (a) I'm a blue mage and this counterspell deck isn't working. What's wrong?

  • (b) I'm not a blue mage but his counterspell deck is working really well. What's wrong?

Here's what I think is going on. I think countermagic works on group players who are fairly new, or aren't used to each other yet. That's because a good portion of countermagic depends on bluffing, which makes up for the fact that to actually stop something bad from happening, the blue mage must spend a card.

Countering a good spell is fine. But do the math for a five-player game. The standard draw-go duel deck runs at least 20 counterspells (and often 24 or 28). With four opponents, you don't need four times that – that statistical model's a bit too simple, and there's some play in what you'd consider a threat – but you would need at least double that. That puts you to 40 counterspells, and now we're back to lesson one: you must either go above 60 cards in your deck, or run less than 24 lands.

People who don't play blue much don't know this, but I'm going to tell you a secret: the counterspelling mage is petrified. He's got one counter in his hand, he already had to let stuff like Gustcloak Harrier and No Mercy slip by, and he's facing down three other people besides you. You're wondering if he'll counter your Rhox if you put it down. He's wondering what will come after the Rhox, if he counters it.

So I tell these anti-control players: the solution is 50 percent in early game plays, like Wild Mongrel, which put pressure on the blue mage before he can catch his breath. The other 50 percent is in patience. Watch this guy as other opponents lay down threats. Is he even paying attention? Is he thinking of tapping two islands? Is he shaking his head sadly? Has he tapped out? Is he sweating blood?

Over time, every multiplayer group should be able to purge pure counterspell decks from their midst. (Note the strategy still works just grand in team.) And I have nothing against blue – I'm quite a big fan. But it is the ultimate color of "spiders," and spiders just can't impact a multiplayer game that well.

Until the end.

When it's just down to you and that last player, instants go from okay in group to absolutely terrific – just like they do in a tournament duel. (Whoops, dirty word again.) This is the time for backbreaking stuff at instant speed – Bone Harvest, Jilt, Mirror Strike, it doesn't take much.

The other time instants are good is when they're attached to permanents – see Mystic Snake, Fleetfoot Panther, Simian Grunts, and so on. It's no accident that most of these involve green.

But enough about instants at the end, or when you have green mana. What are you supposed to do the rest of the time? If you can't have spiders, what can you have?

Enter the "cockroach."

Durability and replicability are cornerstones of good multiplayer decks. When you think of Masticore, to take an expensive example, what do you think of? That's right: lather, rinse, repeat. "Cockroach" cards are those cards that are likely to have lasting and/or multiple effects. This is a group game's answer to card advantage: use a permanent, over and over again, to gain position.

Haunted Crossroads. Shivan Hellkite. Genesis. Treasure Trove. Story Circle. The cheaper the cost to repeat activation, the more cockroachy it is. Things that regenerate (like Fog of Gnats): cockroaches. Things that flip in and out of the game when you try to squash them (Rainbow Efreet): cockroaches. Things that replace themselves (like Wall of Blossoms): cockroaches. Giant Cockroach? Amazingly enough…not a cockroach.

But ironic non-examples aside, these are all things that usually require your opponents to invest more than one card in extermination costs – and so you start to draw even in the card advantage math again.

I posted a partial of this deck before, and got many requests to put up the whole thing. I demurred at the time to each of these, but this deck really gets to the point of timing when it comes to spider and cockroach cards – and also mixes in a little rattlesnake and gorilla, too, so it's a good review point for our Alongi School curriculum thus far!

I don't apologize for the rares in this one. It took quite an investment to make this happen, and it was not easy. I even got some Unglued basic lands, so that everything looks extra-nice. Come to think of it, I'm proud to show it off.

See? I told you I like Spinal Embrace, after all.

This deck doesn't just do cards as cockroaches – it does strategies as cockroaches. Specters return jellyfish or snakes. Deeds leave Spiritmongers and Anavolvers intact. Even Bone Harvests are one of the few instants with brown wings and antennae, since you can restock your entire library for the next dozen turns.

What I really want readers to take from this is not that I have lots of dual land. I want them to notice how many instants there are – five. I want them to notice how many creatures there are – 28. I want them to notice how many lands there are – 24. And I want them to see how many cards either have repeatable effects or replace themselves – 16, by a conservative definition. Put in whatever uncommons or commons you like, use basic lands, whatever your collection will allow. But remember: permanents are king for most of a multiplayer game, and they need to do more than swing.

LESSON FOUR: IT REALLY IS ABOUT FUN

You should seek the roads that tournament players cannot afford to take (mainly, because they're Evil, Mindless Lemmings™). Wizards does take extra effort to make sure there are cards in each set that are absolutely impractical, and gosh darn it, we oughta use 'em!

And we ought to use them in ways that freak people out. Somewhere out there, we ought to have someone using Urza's Incubator to make cheaper Ali-from-Cairos and Island-Fishes. We ought to have Phyrexian Processors and Riptide Replicators making camel tokens for some ungodly reason, and maybe we even ought to have Delif's ConeArgivian ArcheologistAggravated AssaultTest of Endurance decks. (The attacking creatures and mana engine are up to you.)

Wheeeeee!

There are at least two more animals I'd like to introduce to you, and they tend to fall into this lesson plan. First, "pigeon" cards are stuff like Congregate, Sizzle, and Beast of Burden – they inherently get better with the more players there are. Pigeons like large crowds of people, so we're going with the bird on that one.

The second animal is "plankton." (No, no, don't start. Go here, and you'll learn all about zooplankton, which really are animals. Maybe. Of course, I'm really after the phytoplankton aspect here, but that wrecks the whole animal thing. And of course, in fleshing out this theory on starcitygames.com, I've heard from scientists who tell me that they're really protozoans, or Protestants, or something. Whatever they are, they're in the sea, and lots of things eat them. This is all I need to know.) "Plankton" cards let the whole table feed off of them – as with Veteran Explorer or Noble Benefactor.

Both kinds of cards are a little showy, and can be a great deal of fun. Whether you're being nasty by putting an Unnerve through the Mirari or being perfectly pleasant by putting both Eladamri's Vineyard and Sailmonger on the board, they tend to be the cards that people really remember.

Green is loaded with plankton cards – Awakening (now turned selfish with Seedborn Muse, but still a classic), Eureka, Hunted Wumpus, Verdant Force – whoops, that one's a pigeon. In any case, green is the order of the day on these aspects, and our sample deck will find a base there:

Feed (Off of) the People.deq

Naw, this deck doesn't want to win – it wants to help people! Let 'em get their permanents out. It'll be more fun. Every once in a while, you'll manage to keep a Wishmonger and a Beast of Burden on the table long enough to make something happen. But I built this deck to demonstrate that it's not the winning that's all important – it's getting your tricks to happen, whatever they are, reliably and in a way that makes you proud of what you did.

Wishmonger is one of the coolest multiplayer cards around – it's a pigeon and a plankton card, since the more players there are, the more there are who would/will activate it to get around someone else's creatures. Oath of Lieges also reflects both aspects: the more players there are, the greater the chance that you can activate it and go get land.

CLASS DISMISSED

Let's review the Alongi School of Multiplayer Magic before the bell rings:

  • respect statistics and probability;
  • make threats and back them up;
  • rely on permanents for most of the game; and
  • have fun!

So how well did you do in this school? Fortunately, you all get to grade yourselves.

Remember to use the message boards for comments, so that we can all read what you have to say!

I'll let folks know once I've caught up on Multi-Lab; until then, remember that response will be extraordinarily slow.


Anthony may be reached at seriousfun@wizards.com.

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