In Los Angeles, Mark Rosewater kindly invited The Ferrett and I to chat over dinner about "what works" and "what doesn’t work" in multiplayer Magic. I am not going to rehash the entire conversation here, since I would rather not have readers misinterpret this as a "this is what I think Mark Rosewater thinks" kind of article. (Plus, you don’t even want to know what The Ferrett eats at 2 a.m.) (The Ferrett doesn’t even know what the Ferrett ate at 2 a.m. — The Ferrett, feeling oddly like Bob Dole) Instead, I am going to put out for broad consideration some of the ideas I had before, during, and after this meeting, since I think they can be helpful in at least two ways.
First, looking at multiplayer mechanics – or any game mechanics – makes us better players. We look at cards more carefully, dissect them, use the information to teach ourselves about the game. It’s a simple "cogito, ergo mise" kind of logic.
Second, over the past year I have become more and more interested in those cards, logic, articles, and theory that are less exclusive to either the "casual community" or the "pro community." What I would like to see are more and more cards that create exciting situations in group play, but are also tournament worthy. There are dozens (not quite hundreds) of such cards already, and there is no reason not to make more. The card sets of casual and pro players have become more and more congruent; and this is a good thing. After all, kids play on the same ten-foot hoop that Shaq and Kobe argue around. And a rook is a rook is a rook, no matter who is castling with it.
Before starting, I want to make clear that I believe the last two blocks – that is, the current Type II environment – have been a solid five steps in the right direction for both group and duel Magic. Looking at the cards and mechanics that have made a splash on the recent Pro Tour scene – Fires of Yavimaya, the rebel search engine, Wash Out, and the occasional dragon with one or more heads – we see stuff that got multiplayer gamers all pretty excited when they first arrived. (Yes, we all got excited about rebels, once upon a time. And if you didn’t, you played against someone who did; namely, the controller of that Jhovall Queen.)
Of course, we also got Thieves’ Auction and Nether Spirit. It’s certainly fair to have cards like these, clearly group and clearly duel (in order, right?…thanks). They’re obvious early choices for their respective environments; and they’re also fun to think about in unusual settings (e.g., Zvi Moshowitz’s old Mindripper analysis of the Auction for duel).
That said, I think Wizards and the Magic community is better off when we can all speak the same language, just in different dialects. You use Wash Out in your Skies variant to deal a punishing blow to the Fires deck to reach Top 8 in Chicago. I’ll use it with a Sway of Illusion to annoy four other players in my kitchen. We’ll each have a blast.
So let’s look at the successful mechanics of group play, and where they might fruitfully lead. Warning: I include some "fake cards" to illustrate my points. After a couple of years of receiving various proposals for fake cards, I am not the biggest fan of such things. But I use the device anyway, together with real cards, to show what I mean. That may bother some of you, and you have my symphathies. I’ll keep them to a minimum.
MECHANIC ONE: SACKABLE PERMANENTS
Perhaps the most successful intersection between casual and professional play has been the sackable permanent. These really hit stride in the Rath cycle, with cards like Mogg Fanatic, Spike Feeder, and Bottle Gnomes. All became tournament deck staples, since they provided useful effects upon sacking (especially once Sixth Edition rules took effect) that often nullified any card advantage opponents might gain from targeting them. The fact that powerful commons like Capsize were useless against sackable permanents made them even more valuable.
In group play, sackable permanents keep all of those advantages, and gain another. They can serve as warnings to opponents with options: Come at ME with your Rhox, and it will follow this Seal of Doom to the graveyard. Go over THERE, and both Seal and Rhox stay on the board. The actual sacrifice of a permanent can arguably be riskier in a group game than a duel, since every card you have must deal with that many more opponents. But the presence before the sack offsets that drawback – the permanent deals with ALL of your opponents by threatening ANY one of them.
As long as the sack can happen at instant speed (and so cards like Smoldering Tar are not in this category), sackable permanents should be good fun, and good strategy, in just about any group game. We should hope to see more of them, as time goes on. Prospects are good, since the mechanic has been heavily pronounced through the last three blocks and shows no sign of letting up.
MECHANIC TWO: SWEEPING EFFECTS
Among the oldest cards in the game are those global sweepers that take out all of a certain kind (or kinds) of permanent. Wrath of God, Armageddon, and Nevinyrral’s Disk are a few of these tournament staples.
They work in multiplayer, of course, because they affect everybody: you can disable a hundred opponents with the same four mana you use to disable one. But we can be more nuanced than that, I think.
Global effects, first of all, are symmetrical. That means that duelists use them with a bit of a wrinkled nose – they must recover more reliably (e.g., rebels after Wrath of God), assure themselves of a clear board advantage (e.g., Ernham Djinn before Armageddon), or simply accept that there are just some things that require extreme measures (e.g., any black mage and Nev’s Disk). Casual players sometimes are equally strategic, but other times we’re just using the card to see what happens when X, Y, and Z blow up. So in that sense, we get a bit more out of the global sweeper.
But we might also argue that these cards detract a bit from the multiplayer game in that they usually slow it down. In a two-player game, you play Wrath of God with several cheap creatures (or countermagic, or more resets) waiting in your hand and you shift momentum toward yourself so your strategy can win. Time typically doesn’t play into it; even if it does, there’s a time limit to the match.
In group play, the dynamic is different. A Wrath of God smashes multiple people’s offense and defense all at once, and essentially restarts what has already been a long game. (After all, why else would you play Wrath of God if there weren’t an unmanageable number of creatures on the board?) From the casual player’s perspective, longer games mean less games, which means less chances to try out (and yeah, show off) your various decks. This is a bit of a bummer.
Of course, we still love the sweeping effect. We can tell so many stories about it afterward! But we have to recognize that we are telling fewer, probably higher-quality stories instead of more, perhaps lower-quality stories. We can live with that, right?
In any case, we’re likely to see sweeping effects for some time. Wizards loves variants on staple cards – Rout is only the latest example – and almost every significant sweeper is a staple card.
MECHANIC THREE: ALL-PLAY
There are two kinds of mechanics under "all-play." Neither has found much use in the tournament scene, since they are by definition symmetrical; but if we can get pros to play with symmetrical cards like Armageddon, maybe we can design some here that they’ll like. If not, well, their loss; we’ll still have a ball with them.
The first group of "all-play" cards are those that say, "any player may play this ability." Most of the cards are in Masques block: the ‘Mongers, the glittering cats, and stuff like Task Mage Assembly.
The ‘Mongers were the most successful of these in multiplayer, I think (never mind that silly, ingenious Cursed Totem/Glittering Lion combo!). It’s difficult to set up exactly the right deck for each ‘Monger; but the idea of giving all opponents access to a card – and then figuring out how to use that to your advantage – has great appeal to many of us in the casual crowd.
Let’s take a look at our first hypothetical card. I wouldn’t mind seeing the ‘Monger mechanic back, but in instant form:
(a) Battlefield Adaptations. 1G Instant. Target creature gets +3/+3. Any player may pay 4 to give target creature of his or her choice +3/+3. No creature may be targeted more than once with this spell.
Looks a little like Rhysticity, doesn’t it? Timing would be a bigger issue; there’s no "unless" at work here. But this gives shape to the idea, at least. Now let’s talk about the second part of the all-play mechanic: The "hot potato."
The "hot potato" mechanic, as Wizards terms it, involves an undesirable permanent that you can offload to another player if you pay a cost. The permanent tends to bounce around and around until someone can’t pay. A person with more resources to pay the cost, of course, has a natural advantage. The classic card here is Jinxed Idol: A player can get into a bidding war with creatures and win; taken to the extreme, one can run an opponent out of creatures.
In a group game, an Idol gets passed around quickly and humorously, just as it was intended. A player with creatures to spare (or nasty effects upon losing them) pitches an Idol out there, and the thing easily does ten to twenty damage spread across three or four players before someone decides it’s easier to Disenchant the pest. In the meantime, the player with a creature advantage has reinforced that advantage (since other players with fewer have lost a greater share, proportionally), and chances are the Idol cruelly ended up with someone who couldn’t even play – the guy with the creatureless deck.
As you can see, we’ve parted ways a bit from the Pro Tour set with this card; I’m not aware of a Price-generated Sligh deck using the Idol to solidify his goblin advantage. But we can easily envision tournament-worthy cards with the "hot potato" mechanic. They might look something like this:
(a) Seismic Berserker. 2RR Creature (Giant). 5/3. When you tap a permanent for mana, sacrifice that permanent. 3: Target player gains control of Seismic Berserker.
Red doesn’t care much for its own permanents; and a 5/3 finisher at four mana should be a valuable, but not broken, commodity in an aggressive block deck. In a red control deck, passing this fellow on will reinforce a land destruction theme, at a drawback of course: you’ll have to deal with a 5/3 under an opponent’s control. The exchange is only likely to happen in group, but it’s conceivable in duel. (By the way, long-shot scenario here: If they ever make anything like this, pay attention to those situations where you can tap lands to pay the three before casting it!)
(b) Wandering Ghoul. B Creature (Ghoul). 2/2. At the beginning of your upkeep, lose one life. Pay five life: target player gains control of Wandering Ghoul.
Carnophage was considered an acceptable two-power one-drop, back in the day. This time it would come with a "drawback" that encourages you to play chicken with any number of opponents. Once a player is down to five life, you have a guaranteed clock on them – of course, you have to be able to block this thing yourself, if your own life is low.
(c) Spark Golem. 3cc Artifact Creature (Golem). 3/3. Whenever Spark Golem is dealt damage, it deals one damage to its controller for each source that dealt it damage. 4, Tap: Target player gains control of Spark Golem.
Tournament players will love the combat tricks! Group players will…Er…love the combat tricks! Like the Ghoul and Berserker, the key here is making a creature that people would want to begin with, then tweaking it a bit. All of these creatures would see play at least in Limited tournaments, and would not be immediately discounted for Constructed.
It may also help if we play with the reverse of the mechanic: Instead of an undesirable mechanic that we can pay a cost to pass on, how about a desirable mechanic from which we can extract a benefit to pass on? We would have to go a step or two beyond Rainbow Vale, of course:
(a) Lightning Angel. 2WW Creature (Angel). 3/3. Flying. Whenever a source would deal damage to you or one of your creatures, it deals that much damage minus one. 2, put a -1/-1 counter on Lightning Angel: target opponent gains control of Lightning Angel and you gain five life.
Yeah, white life gain. But it won’t last forever, and you’re giving the opportunity to your opponent as well. In a group game, you can have the Lightning Angel intervene in the most intriguing combat situations, all the while gaining yourself life. Costed nice, and cheap to tempt Constructed tournament decks.
MECHANIC FOUR: VETERAN STATUS
As I’ve said, some of the most powerful multiplayer cards are those that look good in duel, but increase in power with each additional player. Think of Verdant Force. Think of Syphon Soul. These are the cards that use the word "each" in ways that are just plain nasty.
I’ve been thinking, since Los Angeles, of a mechanic that Wizards might employ to reward longevity in permanents. It would build off of a history of mechanics such as "growing enchantments" (e.g. Legacy’s Allure) and trick cards such as Celestial Convergence… But it would tick off EVERY turn, rather than just your own.
Fortification [X]. At the beginning of each upkeep phase, put X fortification counters on this permanent.
Depending on the card, Fortification counters would take on different meaning. They could give a creature +1/+1 for each counter (the card would probably be green), or -1/-1 (if black). Or the counters could tap lands, or do even more interesting things:
(a) Double Agent. UU Creature (Soldier). 1/2. Fortification 1. If there are three or more fortification counters on Double Agent, you may remove two fortification counters to exchange it for control of target creature.
Whether a fortification mechanic (never mind this specific card!) would play well in duel is an open question. Chances are, to make it good in duel, it would have to go absolutely nuts in multiplayer… Or be a fat green creature like, oh, I don’t know:
(b) Emerald Power. 5GGG Creature (Treefolk). 7/7. Fortification 1. Every time you put a fortification counter on Emerald Power, put green 1/1 saproling token into play under your control…
Oh, wait. I guess done right, fortification ALREADY works in both environments!
Let’s close with a real hand grenade of a mechanic…
MECHANIC FIVE: ALTERNATE WIN CONDITIONS
One of the things Mark, The Ferrett, and I discussed was the allure of alternate win conditions. Coalition Victory is a funny card, but one that probably won’t last long even in multiplayer. (Especially with a well-timed Tsabo’s Decree — The Ferrett, still cheerful) Are there other alternate win possibilities that might be worth investigating?
(a) Quest for Stability. 1WU Instant. Play this spell only during your upkeep phase, and only if you control exactly ten permanents. At the beginning of your next upkeep, if you control exactly ten permanents, you win the game.
Note "exactly." How sweet would it feel to mess up a Quest like this by bouncing a Swamp at the end of the last opponent’s turn? Or by pumping your Questing Pheldagriff and giving the guy a hippo token?
(b) Quest for Vengeance. 2BR Enchantment. Play this spell only during your second main phase, and only if a creature an opponent controls dealt lethal damage to a creature you controlled during your combat phase. During your next combat phase, if a creature you control deals combat damage to an opponent, you win the game.
I don’t have the wording right on that one yet; but these are just illustrations of an idea, not contest entries to R&D.
(c) Quest for Treasure. 4cc Artifact. Play only on your turn during a main phase, and only if you control eight or more artifacts. At the beginning of your next upkeep, if you control eight or more artifacts, you win the game.
Okay, now that I’ve done a few, here’s the problem with alternate win conditions: They are fierce, fierce combo magnets. The one-round "delay" built into the above cards is meant to destroy same-turn combos from sucking the life out of game after game; but that does two bad things: First, it makes the cards less effective the more opponents there are… Without really making it more attractive to tournament players. Second, it invites even more abusive combos. (Raise your hand if you were just now trying to figure out ways to get extra turns so you could have two uninterrupted upkeeps! Okay, put your hand down now; your computer thinks you look silly when you do that with no one around.)
In an effort to keep squeezing out the combo, you might instead try the line, "On your next upkeep, IF at least one other player has taken a turn since your last turn AND X is still met, you win the game…" But now there’s a bit much happening in the text, and there are still probably ways around it, and it’s all to create an alternate game-winning situation, which may or may not be good for Magic.
Coalition Victory is a funny card. (Funny "ha ha", not funny "mysterious"…I think we all managed to decode it.) It goes off once or twice, you get some laughs, maybe an occasional thanks for breaking a stalemate. After that, it begins to get lame. Interesting creature stand-offs and battles become moot because someone has two dragon legends out, or a Sliver Queen.
If alternate win conditions add to the game because they’re new and not overdone, they’re a blessing. If they get institutionalized – e.g., put on a Magic card – then perhaps they hurt more than they help. Coalition Victory won’t ever hurt the game too much – it costs a lot and it IS tricky to pull off – but I’m worried that the more different ways there are to win a Magic game, the further we’ll get from the original idea that made the game great: smash your opponent(s) for twenty and win.
So alternate win conditions are probably best left to groups who want to spend a single night in a loosey-goosey format. You’ll have just as much fun, and nobody will get angry at R&D all over again.
MORE UNGLUED CARDS?
I don’t remember what the official line is on the next Unglued set – or even if there will be one. Our group never plays with them, but we’ve laughed along with a few of them when we’ve looked at them or seen others play with them. I’ve got nothing against Unglued; and if an Unglued II comes out and some people enjoy it, that’s great. Maybe that’s the place to muck around with some of the above ideas. (It’s certainly the right place to put alternate win conditions, if they’re done at all.)
But I would much rather see good multiplayer cards released in tournament-legal sets, with real potential to be played in tournament decks. It has little to do with any hopes I have for making a Pro Tour, and more to do with my hopes that I’ll hear from more and more pros who are having fun with the game again. Ever since Masques came out, I’ve been hearing more and more of that. And Invasion has just made it so easy for pros to think in multiple colors, fun creatures, and somewhat impractical tricks. That means, to my narrow frame of reference, that Wizards is on the right track. If these ideas are helpful to them, or you, in thinking about what makes multiplayer fun, then perhaps we’ll all be on that same track for some time to come.
COMING SOON: I will blaspheme a good deal of the whole casual-pro synergy argument above by breaking a horrible, never-see-it-in-a-tournament card in slow motion, so that you can all have fun with it in group. Also, bear in mind that the deadline for Break this Card: Keldon Twilight is midnight of Thursday, March 8! We’re at about forty or so entries, from my very casual count. I need at least sixty more to give a Phyrexian Scooter out for a prize!