CASUAL FRIDAYS #85: You Are The Weakest Link. Goodbye.

It’s been a while since I said this, and you really need to hear it: in the long run, political games get you nowhere in multiplayer.

One Thursday night about a year ago, our group was playing at Mirkwood Games. It was early, and so only three or four of us were there. To get a really good game going, we sought out two or three people who looked like they weren’t doing much else.

Among these recruits was a younger player, maybe thirteen or fourteen years old. High skills for his age, and no need to go over rules or any such nonsense with him. His decks were a little lumpy, but certainly above average for anyone barely in high school.

Of course it was a friendly chaos game, with lots of banter and laughing among people who had just met. Strategic advice flew back and forth, and I suppose some of it could be called "table-talk". Most of it was coming from those not within our group. We didn’t mind; most of the players in our group are perfectly capable of detecting and outmaneuvering this kind of silliness.

I noticed that the younger guy was asking one of the older Mirkwood regulars in the game what to do: Do I attack this person or that, do I kill that creature or this, are you going to take care of that wall? Blah blah blah…

I was playing a red deck. Four turns later, his mentor (a perfectly good player, but not prepared for my rather rabid onslaught) was dead. I took some damage as a result of my recklessness, but survived into the midgame and stabilized for long enough to make this kid nervous.

So at one point, I’m about to go into my attack phase. I have a large red creature. I couldn’t begin to tell you what it was, so let’s just call it a Crater Hellion. After I announce intention to attack, the kid – with no blockers to speak of – plays Giant Growth on the Hellion.

I look at him, and he smiles at me. I turn the Hellion sideways and say, "Smash you."

He is shocked, absolutely shocked. "Hey, I just played Giant Growth on that!"

"Yes, you did. I hate suck-ups."

The other players started roaring. I was smiling broadly when I said it, and I really meant it kindly. Fortunately, the kid was made of tough stuff, and he took it with a grin. He knew what he had been trying to do. And he knew he blew it. (I’ve since played several games with him and I enjoy watching his mind work; he’s learning at a great pace.)

There’s been revived talk on the net, by very capable writers and players who should know better, that "politics" is how you survive in multiplayer. This issue – specifically, the reverse of that assertion – is a cornerstone of the ancient Alongi School of Magic. (The school is ancient; not Alongi.)

There are no politics in multiplayer.

There are no politics in multiplayer.


I did up a little ditty on this topic for the Dojo right before its first expiration. No doubt my electrifying arguments on this topic played into the virtual heart attack. I have not reread that article in preparation for writing this one. This argument should come from my heart, not my memory. Where you see contradictions with anything I have written in the past, you may assume that the person writing in the past was an imposter with inferior knowledge to the man writing these words now. That said, let’s work through the argument.

Politics means different things to different people. I have a Master’s Degree in Public Policy, so I theoretically have my own very clear definition in mind. Let’s find out if that’s true. Politics, in the broad context, is the way people and their institutions relate to each other as they draw up the rules for civilization. If you speak this generally, then of course there are politics in multiplayer. People have to play against each other, they have to not be drawing guns, they have to follow established rules of the game, yada yada yada.

But that’s not useful; let’s keep digging. There’s a coarser definition of politics, usually meant when one Senator accuses another of "playing politics." In this specific sense, the accusation is one of crass (and fairly obvious) pandering to a person or people who can help the accused out in some way.

That’s pretty good, if narrow. Hang on to that one; we’ll need it later.

There’s a third, slightly more refined definition of politics that tends to be more complimentary. Someone with a "keen mind for politics" is adept at advancing her own interests, and getting other people to work toward them as well.

That’ll do, too. It will need further refinement later; but it’s different enough from the previous one to get some conversations going.

When put in the context of Magic, the "crass politics" amounts to the kind of favor-currying that the young man above tried with his Giant Growth. I find this sort of action distasteful, and not a little insulting. When a member of Congress does it, it is distantly possible that there’s no money or votes attached (and even if there is, we can have an endless discussion about whether that’s the process failing or working). When an opponent you didn’t elect does it, there is no other reason beyond transparent toadying.

We’ve all read missives by The Ferrett, and members of his group, relating his sneaky, backstabbing tactics. Apparently this behavior has been going on for some time, and is at least moderately successful, if the stories we hear are true. Sweet mother of pearl, how na?ve are these good people? I’ve spoken with several of The Ferrett colleagues over email and in person, and there’s no way these clever, intelligent players are the same hapless fools that listen to The Ferrett say "Look! Over there! The REAL threat!" and respond, "Duh, tanks, Buttercup." I think we’re seeing early evidence of cloning and it’s a disastrous failure (or a smashing success, depending on who the clones are). It’s the only explanation I can come up with.

Among younger players, I guess I can see crass politics having some kind of influence. Youth is full of idealism; we WANT to believe that our best friend would never betray us with a Draco that we just put a Rancor on. But I put this kind of naivete in the same category with "I really need 85 cards for my combo to work" and "24 lands?…my constructed deck runs just fine with 16!" As people get older, we should know better.

Or should we? Just last Tuesday, in a 5-color three-player with Gary and Bill, I played a Rancor on Bill’s 2/2 Knight. Later in the game, I played the same Rancor on Gary’s Silver Drake. I had a Wall of Blossoms (0/4) out. Why, when I said what I just said, did I do this?

Enter the third definition of politics: Advancing your own interests, and getting people to work toward them as well.

This is still too broad, as we get down into gritty details. You can get people to work with you in one of two ways: Obviously, or subtly.

Our group is not a big believer in explicit agreements. You will not hear people saying, "if you get rid of X, I’ll take care of Y." (Sometimes we allow this in team play; but we’d just as soon not have it at all.) You will, on very rare occasions, see someone flash a card to the group. We do this far less than we used to, and it is frowned upon. (Nowadays, about the only time someone flashes or hints at their hand is when they’re color-shafted and want to show it, for humor’s sake. For some reason, we all still get giddy about that.)

But our group IS a big believer in assessing threats, and acting implicitly to counter those threats. It is a quieter, more satisfying approach to the game for us. Personally, I think once you are at this level of "politics," it isn’t politics any more. It’s correct threat assessment, and clear action. No bargaining, or even talking, is really necessary.

Back to the Rancor example. It begs strategic assessment when I play Rancor on another player’s creature. I do this ONLY when I have a blocker (or two) capable of handling the threat, and/or when I have removal mana untapped in plain view. (In the case at hand, I had two removal spells and plenty of mana.) This, people, is not politics. When I Rancor someone else’s creature, I am not flattering them or hoping they won’t attack me. I am, if anything, insulting them.

"Look at that creature," I am saying (and sometimes I actually say this, or something like it), "What a pathetic piece of garbage. Is there anyone here at this table scared of this creature? Of course not. Why, that thing could have, say, two more power and trample, and I still wouldn’t be afraid of it. Here, I’ll prove it."

So the controller of this creature now sees me put a Rancor on his Grizzly Bears (or Hill Giant, or Shivan Dragon). What do you think she is thinking?

a) That Anthony, whadda swell guy! He must have my best interests in mind. I don’t think I’ll ever attack him.
b) That Anthony, whadda clever fellow! He is trying to make me think he is my friend. But he is not, because the rules of this game tell me there cannot be two winners. I will attack him.
c) That Anthony, whadda jerk! He wants me to think he has removal. He put that Rancor there so I’ll do more damage to someone else. He wants me to be his puppet. Heck with the consequences; I’m going after him.
d) That Anthony, whadda genius! He wants me to think he has removal He put that Rancor there so I’ll do more damage to someone else. He wants me to be his puppet. Fortunately for him, my interests are the same as his. I’ll attack the third player for now; but we’ll see how long this lasts.

Personally, I don’t care if she thinks (b), (c), or (d). Just as long as she doesn’t think (a).

I said earlier that "even talking isn’t necessary" for this kind of approach to work. Of course, I’m not suggesting you all sit around the table wordlessly while thumping down cards. Magic is a social game; talking is almost as much a part of the game as tapping.

But the way you talk can be different. Often, my group will pause before a player’s attack phase (or upon announcement of a removal spell) and talk a bit about who/what the most serious threat is. Is it the Stalking Assassin, the Serra Angel, or the eight saprolings? If you’ve got a Rolling Thunder where X = 4, it’s an interesting question. Do you spend it all on the Angel; or do you hit the Assassin and three saprolings, or do you hit the Assassin and Angel and hope the red mage next to you sacks the Seal of Fire?

What DOESN’T happen (at least in my memory) is having that red mage sack the Seal in response to the spell, before targets are announed. What DOESN’T happen is having the red mage say "if you do at least two damage to that Angel, I’ll finish her off."

Instead, you might hear something like this:

THUNDER MAGE: I’ll play Rolling Thunder with X=4. What a pain that I haven’t gotten that extra land I need! But it can’t wait. Let’s see…targets…
ANGEL MAGE: Some interesting targets out there. My angel and that Assassin are the two most tempting single targets.
ASSASSIN MAGE: You’ve also got a field of saprolings out there. None tap to destroy target tapped creature, of course. But if you’ve got three extra damage, you could put it there.
SAPROLING MAGE: Sure, and let you play a pump spell in response?
ASSASSIN MAGE: Forgetting for the moment that I have absolutely no access to white or green mana, yeah, I suppose I could play a pump spell. Or maybe you’ll be a doll and pump my Stalking Assassin FOR me.
ANGEL MAGE: My angel looks tempting, doesn’t it? The Stalking Assassin is the only creature on the board that can deal with it right now. Maybe you should keep it around. Maybe it’s your friend.

(At this point, whoever controls the Assassin will do something silly like stand it up and make it sing the "I Love You" song in a Barney voice, or whatever. I’m getting too dry here, and I don’t mean to make it sound like every game’s a clinic! Anyway, let’s continue…)

THUNDER MAGE: Hmph. (Glances over at Seal Mage’s Seal of Fire.) Hmph.
SEAL OF FIRE MAGE: [Recognizes that anything Magic-related HE says could be construed as table talk]: Anyone want pizza? I’m getting up anyway.
ASSASSIN MAGE: Yeah, I could use a slice. Hey, you got any Sprite?
SEAL OF FIRE MAGE: [From the refrigerator:] One left. Anyone want a Coke?
THUNDER MAGE: Yeah, me too. Okay, I’ll do one to the Stalking, one to a Saproling, and two to the Angel.
SEAL OF FIRE MAGE: [Head still stuck in the fridge:] Okay. No response.
ANGEL MAGE: Woo hoo!
SEAL OF FIRE MAGE: Hey, I’ve got other priorities. Maybe the angel doesn’t scare me that much.

Of course, after a spell is announced, there may be plenty of "What?!?" and "You’ve got to be kidding." People have honest reactions to events, and there’s no sense in restraining that. But if a group makes an effort to avoid open bargaining when a threatening situation arises, what will most likely happen is an honest assessment of the board that will actually help people get better at identifying threats. This, in turn, will make for a better game.

So politics in multiplayer, if it exists at all, exists on a level where it is more like something else: Good threat assessment, and an often unpredictable interaction of how different people assess and react to different threats.

Sounds Utopian, doesn’t it? We’re not perfect at it. Sometimes, a little editorializing slips in. It’s rebuffed pretty quickly: Blatant self-interest is pretty easy to spot in our group. The point is not that you should never point out another strong player; the point is that you should not blindly ignore your own power.

When you’re powerless, of course, you should stay as quiet as possible. And that brings up a particular phenomenon: The Sneak.


It’s a popular technique for "Sneaks" in many groups to lay as low as humanly possible, let more aggressive players deal with some early threats, and then snap down two or three pieces to a combo that causes headaches for the whole board. A turn or two later (or perhaps immediately), it’s obvious you’ve won the game, and so everyone concedes. No one saw it coming. You nifty Sneak, you!

Is this politics? Well, if you shut up the whole time, it’s hard to accuse you of being cloy or disingenuous. It’s also hard to bless you with praise about your awesome negotiating skills. So no, "sneaking" is technically not politics.

Sneaking also comes in degrees. If you’re being quiet because all you have is an 0/2 wall and you’re drawing ten consecutive lands, you’re not exactly deftly maneuvering through the minefield of multiplayer politics. If you’re being quiet because you’re one turn away from yet another Enduring Renewal combo (folks, it’s old… let it die…), you’re being a bit more intentional.

Where sneaking meets politics, however, is where the Sneak takes offense when someone pounds him. "Why are you attacking ME?" they whine. "I don’t have anything out yet!"

Well, duh.

There’s a new game show coming to America; I understand our good friends in the United Kingdom have enjoyed it for some time. It’s called "The Weakest Link," and while I haven’t seen it yet, I’ve seen in previews the stern matron they have running the show. She’s a no-nonsense kind of gal, and when someone goofs up, she is brutal in her assessment. "You are the weakest link," she informs them briskly. "Good-bye!"

I have a feeling that line’s going to go around our group a lot in the coming months. It’s perfect for so many situations. Sneaks are one of them.

The problem with being a Sneak is that you often look weak. And while weak players can sometimes catch a break, they cannot push their luck. Take a view from the aggressive players’ camera lens. A player with relatively few permanents on the board, only a few moderate spells played, and plenty of cards in hand is either:

a) Getting glutted with lands, which they’re still laying down of course, which means that once they start pulling spells their position will rapidly improve;
b) Getting glutted with expensive spells, seven of which they’re still holding on to, which means that once they start pulling lands their position will rapidly improve;
c) Playing a combo, of which they have not found all of the pieces, which means that once they pull what’s left their position will rapidly improve.

See the common denominator? The player is weak now. No matter what, they will be stronger later. An aggressive mage sees all three of the above players… And sees the same player all three times. What is a predator later is now a tasty little snack.

So those of you with slow starts to your games, please don’t get upset when someone more quickly prepared takes you out. "You are the weakest link…Good-bye!"

The best example I can use here is my Punisher deck, which I brought with me to Los Angeles to play against The Ferrett, Randy Buehler, Chad Ellis, and other notables. (Go to my archives and seek the article "Punishment and Haiku" if you need to catch up. I also did a piece for the Sideboard that you’ll spot in its own archives from early February.) This deck was designed as a blend of sneak and aggression: Early plays are designed to send attention elsewhere, and to pose non-threatening solutions to potential problems (Glacial Wall, Metathran Transport, Seal of Doom). Every one of my late plays, on the other hand, is a disgusting show of excess: Crosis the Purger, Avatar of Woe, Tsabo’s Decree, Spinal Embrace, Urza’s Rage, Ghitu Fire. It’s a "who’s who" of obnoxiousness.

The L.A. group in general played against my deck just fine. The Ferrett and Sheldon both took an early mana stumble on my part as an opportunity to bring me down very low in life. I then got a slight reprieve, as players adjusted against more imminent threats. Then, tired of watching me flail about like a headless chicken, Randy attempted to put me out of my misery. I was, after all, the weakest link. "Good-bye!"

Chad’s decision to intervene came from a calculation of his own interests. He certainly didn’t think I should win or was going to win at the time; he had other, well-documented plans. He felt his board position was strong enough that I was more useful to him alive than dead. (And he was right… For exactly two more rounds.)

I bring this situation up not to relive the game, which after all could have had one million different endings. (Well, five. Six, if you count a timely, tie-generating Earthquake. But the point is, it could have ended differently.) I bring this up to illustrate the behavior of the parties involved:

Anthony does badly in the early game. Anthony openly notes his precarious position via soft swearing, but does not plead with people to save him. He does not attempt to curry favor or point out how mean Michelle is. (Michelle’s nastiness is, of course, self-evident.) When Randy comes to kill Anthony, Anthony puts his own head on the chopping block without whining. When Chad pulls the axe from Randy’s hands, Anthony smiles, says thank you to Chad, takes his head off the chopping block, and then quietly goes about the business of getting as far away from said axe and chopping block as possible. When he acquires a larger axe, Anthony comes back to fight again. (For the record, The Ferrett, proponent of all things sneaky, accepted his first-off-the-island fate with Alongi-acknowledged dignity – The Ferrett)

Do not bargain for your life. Your dignity is worth more than the whining or pleading you can generate.

If you are the weakest link, then you are the weakest link. GOOD-BYE!


Sneaks often employ a certain kind of deck that’s worth exploring, while we’re talking about politics.

Stijn van Dongen recently put forward, in his second excellent article, a control multiplayer deck that used lots of white cleverness. The white-blue control uses Ivory Mask, Peacekeeper, Fountain Watch, Spiritual Asylum, etc. Planar Portal got the piece(s) you needed, and your early game consists of playing Propaganda and being quiet.

(Stijn’s third article, incidentally, proposed a wonderfully nasty red-black deck using Corpse Dance and Bloodshot Cyclops…Real slick. This deck is so un-political I’d think I designed it, but I’m just not that smart. No matter what kind of deck Stijn writes about, anyone interested in intelligent and fun musings on multiplayer should be reading him. Remember that as I continue, here. I like Stijn. Stijn is value added. Stijn is, to borrow an expression from my early Casual Fridays days, "The Sh*t". Goooo, Stijn!)

Decks using so many pieces depend on the early good will of others. Propaganda makes people more inclined to show that good will, and that’s nice. After a while, if Propaganda has worked, the pieces of the combo should come down rapidly and you’ve surprised everyone to win the game. Great.

So what happens the next game with this crowd? Surprise is no longer a factor. Someone will certainly recognize they see the first piece of the combo come down that the end is coming. A correct assessment of threats will often lead them to pay two mana and attack through Propaganda.

I love Propaganda. Great multiplayer card. But it can’t play politics. Two (or four, or six) mana is a small price for opponents to pay to ensure a known combo deck doesn’t survive. Nobody in your group has to say a word: they see the beginning of the deck, and they know the end. They will coordinate without any negotiation at all. If your group plays it correctly, you’ll lose with a combo deck (and I’m not picking on Stijn here…Coalition Victory decks are the pinnacle of combo decks, and far more fragile than white-blue control) every time after the first. With due respect to the group Stijn plays with, they need to focus on the real threat combo decks represent. It’s got a timer on it, and they’re not listening to the ticking.

It’s fair at this point to say that my Punisher deck now gets a lot of attention when our group realizes I’m playing it. But the difference between a combo deck and a deck like Punisher is, my early game plan IS my threat back-up. Seals and walls don’t just ASK people to stay away, they TELL people to stay away. With Seals, you want to attack me, you don’t just pay two mana; you lose a creature. You are not the only decision-maker in my fate.

There’s another difference between Punisher and a combo deck: You can’t remove one path to victory and expect it to fall apart. Crosis, Crypt Angel, Spinal Embrace, the red burn, and even Metathran Transport all pose incredibly different threats to the field. All can be countered, sure: But the point is, you have to work at it. A single Scour or Lobotomy just won’t do it.

My problem with combo decks is that they typically attract unwanted attention, without having enough slots to back your threats up. They’re the worst of both worlds: An overpowered plan A with no plan B. I hate playing against them, because the plan A is so heavy-handed and complex that nobody else is playing. I never play them myself, because if I lose plan A, I have nowhere to go.

(I must admit I have had plenty of combo decks as Break this Card winners. Sometimes this is the nature of the card I’ve nominated, like Coalition Victory. Sometimes the card isn’t a combo card, but the deck is just too funny and deserves to be played…once. Don’t mistake my disdain for combo decks with a lack of appreciation for their occasional merits.)

Combo decks are political. You plead or pray until you can go off, and then you go off. If someone is about to stop you, your only recourse is to ask them nicely not to do that, please, thanks. In other words, the plan B for combo decks is politics.

They are the weakest link. GOOD-BYE!!!!


It is easy to fashion a definition of politics that makes untrue my assertion that "there are no politics in multiplayer." If politics is defined as the advancement of one’s own self-interest, or the collective advancement of each individual’s self-interest, well then yeah, there are politics in multiplayer.

Politics, defined like that, will encourage lean decks that seek to weed out the Weakest Link. Such decks will have multiple paths to victory, will play the best cards to get the job done, and will be ready for countermeasures. They will collectively gravitate to the largest threat and knock it down, continually seeking equilibrium on the playing field…until one can establish supremacy.

But if politics is defined more conventionally – making bargains, suggesting attacks elsewhere, and then pouncing on the fools that trusted you – then I just don’t see it as a viable strategy. It’s not a viable short-term strategy against anyone who has played in group for longer than six months; and it’s not a viable long-term strategy against anyone, period. And if anyone tells you differently, they’re just softening you up for the next time you sit down with them for a nice game of cards and politics.

Better make sure you’re not the weakest link at the table.

COMING SOON: Why I will be removing Noxious Vapors from my Noxious Vapors deck. (Really, it’s not just for the obvious reason.)

Anthony Alongi