Diabolic Cows: The Schematics Of Multiplayer And Bovine Influence

Up until now, you may not have realized that demonically-possessed cows play a vital role in multiplayer design. I don’t blame you for not having figured this out before… Mainly because they don’t. Which begs the question: "So why in hell did you call this column ‘Diabolic Cows?’ " The answer is, as with most…

Up until now, you may not have realized that demonically-possessed cows play a vital role in multiplayer design. I don’t blame you for not having figured this out before… Mainly because they don’t.

Which begs the question: "So why in hell did you call this column ‘Diabolic Cows?’ "

The answer is, as with most things, absurdly simple. My friend Neil, who frequently emails to tell me what he thought of my latest column and gives me column ideas, has sent me about seven or eight potential topics… but I’ve never written about a one of them. So when I began to write THIS particular article, I shot him an email that said, "Hey, your idea sparked a pretty good strategy piece!"

He wrote back, asking, "Which one?" and feigning diabolical laughter, I attempted to write – and I quote – "Mwoo hah hah!"


Except that bozoboy here actually wrote, "MOO hah hah," at which point Neil replied, "What, you’re writing about Diabolic Cows?"

Yes, I am, smartass. So there.

What this column is REALLY about is how multiplayer really isn’t just one game. I have long said that multiplayer is a different format, as different from regular Magic as Sealed is different from Type I… but what I have come to realize lately is that multiplayer is actually two or three different games in one guise.

Because my Bouncing Weasels deck, which routinely smashes through three-player games with a near 100% victory record, routinely gives up the ghost in five-player. (I picture a very religious Thorn Elemental cringing at the back of my deck, great racking spasms of fear crackling along its wooden spine as it quavers, "Wrath of God! Swords to Plowshares! GOD WANTS ME TO BE A PACIFIST, FERRETT!")

But my Angelic Processor deck, which has a horrible time in a three-player duel, is the first thing I break out for a six-player group session, because it really works. I may not always win, but I’m never the first to lose.

And I’ve noticed that other people have begun to break out different decks, depending on how many people plop their flabby butts (or anorexic – have you noticed that there are practically no people of normal weight in Magic today?) down at the javahouse where we play. "This is a good six-player deck," they’ll say, or "This is a fine three-player deck," or, "Hey, this is the same deck I’ve played with for the last seven weeks and I’ve never won with it once!"

Well, technically THEY don’t say that. We kinda say it for them. But hey, somebody has to.

So I got to thinking: What breakpoints are there for multiplayer? And I decided that there are basically three:
* Three-player
* Four to five-player
* Six players and up

So, you may ask, what are the basic things you can expect in the three types of multiplayer?

Three-Player Multiplayer Characteristics:

Average Game Length:
Eight to Thirteen Rounds.

Extremely Duel-Like.
The difference between two-player and three-player Magic is not all that significant. Threats are spread a little thinner, but with only two fronts to defend against, most tourney-quality Magic decks can be ported to this format with little difficulty.

First-Turn Plays Are A Necessity.
With relatively quick games and two players eager to knock you out, leaving yourself open is sheer suicide. If you don’t have a solid early defense and your opponent does, your pals are going to get a couple of quick kicks in while you’re down. And with a lot of threats out there, do you really want to go through the rest of the game light on life?

Offense Is Priority.
I have said in the past that "In multiplayer, offense does not substitute for defense." In most duels, offense is momentum – the faster you smash someone in the face, the less likely they are to hit back. If the guy’s forced to chump-block your Blastoderm with three successive creatures, who the hell cares about leaving anybody behind to guard the home front?

In larger multiplayer games, there is a split between offense and defense. You don’t have the resources to smash each player in the face every round – and if you’re only smashing one guy, the other one is either building up HIS defenses or preparing to smash YOU in the face. So normally, you can’t afford a rush-style attack.

This is slightly less true in three-player. You still have to spread your fire, true, but it’s entirely possible that you can assault the toughest player and throw him off-balance while keeping only minimal defense at home – say, a tiny chump blocker. Basically, you’re saying, "You know, I’m gonna throw everything I have at Mister Howdy over here until he’s dead. But I’m gonna keep juuuuust enough behind to save me from an all-out assault if you decide to get in my way – and if that happens, I start pounding you."

Creatures Still Rule.
Mass creature rushes can still work wonders, especially backed by a nice Overrun. Depending on your deck, and especially if you’re playing some Hermit/Stompy combo, you might even be able to spread your forces evenly among two targets and STILL win.

Mass-Kill Is A Mistake.
Unless you are in an immediate position to gain board advantage, global resets like Armageddon, Jokulhaups, or Wrath of God are major blunders.


Because two people recover faster than one. And after you’ve destroyed all of their creatures OR lands OR enchantments OR hands OR whatever, their attention will shift to you. You’ve just told them, "Hey! Know what? As long as I’m around, nothing you have is safe! I can make it ALL go away with a wave of my hand! But what are you gonna do, KILL me? HAH!"

Yes. They will. Every creature they put down will then be rotated to attack you, because YOU have to be eliminated before THEY can win. Both of them will gang up. Unless you can recover REALLY fast or have defenses that don’t require whatever resource you’ve eliminated, you’re going to be tossed out.

But there is a converse to this lesson….

A Little Overextention Doesn’t Hurt.
Don’t empty your hand totally, but throwing a bit more out than you would in a duel isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Either you can commit all of your forces and smash through somebody – or they play a global reset, and you can make a play for the other guy.

However, don’t be a moron. If you put out an unstoppable army of marching Ant tokens before someone casts Rout, then both of them see YOU as the threat. Don’t overwhelm unless you’re prepared to reap the whirlwind.

Lock Decks Are A Possibility.
Generally with a lower life pool to drain, you can whip out a decent lock – even a soft one – and it’ll have a chance. The odds of someone being able to break out are doubled, of course, since both players are fighting their way out of it like cats in a bag. But conversely, the timeframe you have to kill someone is also much shorter – and, of course, you can always attempt to re-establish the lock. However, locks that target one player (Mishra’s Helix, et cetera) are a Bad Thing.

Plan On Stalemates.
Smaller games tend to cluster. Generally you’ll wind up with players with equal defenses facing off against each other, and the player who wins is the one who finds a way to break through. You can almost count on all-out attacks to try to bust through at some point, so having vital combat tricks is almost a necessity for the small game – whether that’s combat removal (Capsize), creature protection (Lin-Sivvi’s Ruse), or creature amplification (Vitalizing Wind) is up to you.

Utility Is A Must.
You have no guarantee that the one other guy will be properly gruntled by whatever’s honking YOU off. Therefore, you should pack an answer for everything in a three-player deck, or be prepared for the occasional autoloss. And is anyone ever REALLY prepared for an autoloss?

Four to Five Multiplayer Characteristics:

Average Game Length:
Ten to Twenty-Five Turns.

Differing Strategies Emerge.
This is where you really have to start building different decks, or tweaking established Net decks to accommodate the altered game. Lock decks are almost right out. Creature rushes need to be backed with something else. Global resets are still a risk, but viewed with more acceptance. Playing Draw-Go or Land Destruction becomes an exercise in stupidity.

The Game Slows As The Schism Becomes Obvious.
As stated, the distinction between defense and attack, often blurred in duels, blossoms in multiplayer. As such, building a credible defense BEFORE you assault everyone becomes critical.

As such, the first-turn "I attack YOU, Pikachu!" becomes far less common as people begin to become concerned not getting pulped, rather than focusing on pulping. First-turn defense is not necessarily a concern, and very often you can get to your fourth turn sans critters before anyone starts realizing you’re easy pickins. (However, you are indeed a dope of Presidential proportions if you actually PLAN your deck around getting to your fourth turn unmolested.)

Border Wars Occur, With Risk.
You’ve always seen it happen; somebody casts a spell that some other body doesn’t like, so said other player decides to smash the other one. A catfight erupts, and both players assault each other, seemingly heedless of the larger fight going on now.

So what happens?

Sometimes a clear winner will emerge, and the other player will come out bloodied but unbowed – slightly weaker for the effort, but victorious. Sometimes one guy wins at the expense of grinding his own life total down into the under-five life totals, and another player mops him up. And then there’s the third option.

So what do you need to know? For one thing, most infights don’t end happily – the "victorious" player is almost always injured enough that they can’t recover quickly enough, and lose. (And as Sheldon Menery once said, "There’s no points for coming in second place.") So unless it’s strategically necessary for you – as in, "Unless I kill this guy with the Tormod’s Crypt, my Living Death deck is never going to work" – always try to avoid getting into a fight like that.

But if you DO start a border war, be aware of the less-considered third option: One of the other players may want to keep the other guy alive simply because it’s advantageous to HIM. The guy holding three Congregates and the Rout may WANT the Infinite Hermit deck to stay in play, and thus defend him. The guy who realizes his Tradewind Rider deck has no chance against that Living Death deck might well be rootin’ for the other guy to knock you out first. That "White Knight" player will rarely commit to an attack, but you’ll hear him say, casually, "I’ll prevent that damage," or, "I’ll kill THAT creature before blockers are declared."

If you’re about to start a war, then look around to see who else benefits from having your opponent on the table. If it’s anyone notable, then think again. And if you’re IN a war you don’t want to fight, which is most of them, then look around for someone who benefits from your cards – and remind him what’s going to happen when you leave. Sometimes, all it takes is one unexpected Giant Growth to win a war.

Global Resets Are Less Risky, But Can Set Off A Border War.
You can play them without guaranteeing an automatic influx of angry co-players, as at least one other person (the current loser) is guaranteed to be happy about it. However, one OTHER person will be hosed, and it’s him you have to watch out for. If you can handle him, you’re okay.

Creatures Decrease In Stature.
As the importance of global resets arise, the value of creatures diminishes. Creatures are of vital importance, don’t get me wrong, but they’re generally not the only way to win a game UNLESS said creatures provide defense or offense in some way OUTSIDE of combat. A straight swarm deck won’t get past anybody, but a swarm deck backed up by Aura Shards or Angelic Chorus might.

Lifegain Becomes Strong.
As more players hit the table, three factors combine to make threats lessen:

1) Each player has to spread their damage across four or five players, effectively fractioning their threat potential, and:
2) With more global resets out, they won’t be able to truly commit their full firepower to the table. They’ll either be preparing for a reset, or recovering from one.
3) Years of dueling have taught most people that high life totals don’t mean jack.

As such, you can freely gain lots of life (up to fifty, in some cases) and not have to worry at all about serious repercussion. (Triple-digit scores, however, are invariably considered an autotarget.) In return, that life IS defense; with fifty life, you can usually take everything a player has to give in a single turn AND hit him back without coming close to losing. And if you hit him, he generally dies. And you are NO worse off. In other words, LIFEGAIN ENABLES YOU TO ELIMINATE OR CRIPPLE PLAYERS AT NO COST TO YOU.

This is, perhaps, one of the single most potent abilities in multiplayer Magic. And as such, it only gets worse the higher you get.

Lock Decks Are Useless.
Three or four players will find a way around you, if their decks have any enchantment or artifact destruction at all. You can’t guard it all the time. If you have a lock condition for a large-scale deck, then you need to make sure you have a backup plan – or you’re dead.

Hiding Becomes A Possibility.
It now becomes possible to lay back, not do anything, and watch other folks duke it out. This is considerably more difficult to do in a four-player game than it is in a five-player game, but there is a much greater chance of laying back and doing nothing while bullets whiz past your head. This is a positive thing.

Six-Plus Player Games:

Average Game Length:
Ten to thirty turns, although sometimes the first player can get wiped out on turn five if he really peeves someone.

We Have Now Left Cleveland.
Practically no net deck works unaltered in this environment (Living Death sometimes does, as do certain combos). This is a strange and unassaultable arena, where the most bizarre plays crop up. Be prepared for anything and everything, from absolute suck decks that win because everyone underestimated them, to worrisome and infinite combos that must… be… stopped.

Global Destruction Becomes A Clock.
You’d think that people would be MORE pissed about having their army swept away in this environment, but no. It’s what I call the "Rath-and-Caltrops" rule, for this simple reason:

When I came up with my incredibly annoying "Death Pits of Rath/Caltrops" deck, which basically eliminates creature attacks altogether, I thought for sure that everyone would gang up on me immediately. "Take him down!" I imagined they’d say… but I was still thinking about three-player.

What actually happened was that about half of the table was always willing to gun for me… but the other half was actually kind of happy. Because the happy half had no real answer for the UNhappy half, and they were perfectly content to sit back and let me be the target.

And as a result, I survived for a surprisingly long time. Hence, the "Rath-and-Caltrops" rule:

For every player that is screwed and angry by your global ruin, there is an equal and opposing player who WAS in danger and can now relax.

As such, people tend to blow things up all over the place, and in general it works out. By the time someone rebuilds his army enough to smash the guy who played Jokulhaups, there’s someone else who is knocking on his doors. He can no longer afford to commit resources to you. So feel free to whip out them Armageddons… just make sure you benefit from them.

Creature Attacks Become Useless.
Well, not entirely, but they’re probably not going to be your main path to victory, mein freund. They’ll get in their share of points, but if anyone in your group plays with any global resets, then they ALL will… and eventually, your darlin’ little min-yuns’ll be swept aside. You can reasonably expect any creature to attack two, maybe three times before something happens to it UNLESS you’ve got some really good trick to protect it. But swarm decks don’t work.

Defense Becomes More Important Than Offense.
Seven people. One threat. Someone is going to try to take it down, and quite frequently two or three of them will. As such, offense transforms into a tricky thing at best and is generally unreliable; you’re lucky to get four or five shots out with your best bazooka before it gets taken away.

What becomes important is being able to defend yourself, both in remaining undamaged and in protecting your own resources. Simply by virtue of remaining untouched while death is raining down on everyone around you, you can win. Which is why people hate white mages: They are WELL-prepared to do so.

Lifegain Becomes Insane.
See the previous point. Of course, having 1,000 life with no defense and seven players after your hot stinky blood doesn’t mean you won’t eventually be borne under… but moderate defenses and a ton of life means, more often than not, that you’ll win. You may win by attrition, meaning that everyone gets bored. You may also win by default, meaning that everyone gets up and slugs you. And unlike Anthony Alongi, I do not advocate just bruising Mister Fantastic Lifegain Boy.

Utility Is Not A Problem.
See the "Rath-and-Caltrops" rule. If it annoys you, in a six-player game it’s sure to annoy someone else… and there’s a better-than-good probability that they’ll deal with it. Therefore, being able to handle enchantments, big creatures, small creatures, lots of creatures, global resets, artifacts, graveyard recursion and lifegain is NOT necessarily vital. You can, at this point, choose to sacrifice utility for focus, and have a decent shot at pulling it off. Leave the Disenchants at home and let someone else do it.

However, there are two dangers to this calculated risk that should be considered before you leap into the void:
1) It may be possible that the other player who is annoyed may think exactly the same as YOU do – or be a less-experienced player who didn’t even understand the concept of "utility" in the first place – and there you’ll be, left holding the bag, with neither of you having any answer.
2) Remember that all games shrink. Eventually you’ll be down to a three-player game again, and then a duel. What happens then?

Border Wars Erupt Sans Consequences.
Because defense has now become everyone’s focal point, and there are enough players out there that SOMEONE will take care of it, you can now get into a border war with practically no risk of having anyone else interfere. They’ll be HAPPY to see one of you go. Which means that if you really need to take someone out before they win, you can generally do it without a hitch.

Just make sure you ONLY do it when you can emerge unbloodied. No sense dyin’ for nothin’.

Hiding Can Happen.
Yes, you can get lost in the fog and emerge at the end… but only if you can convince people that you’re genuinely screwed or genuinely incompetent. Be careful out there, Danno.

Mistakes Will Happen.
With six or more players on the table – and it is, by necessity, a LARGE table – people will frequently forget about things. Important things. Things that other people control that they didn’t even notice.

Now me? I say "screw it." You snooze, you lose, and if you forgot about that Aether Flash before you paid the twenty-point kicker on your Verdeloth, well… too bad. Other groups are nicer, which frustrates me. HOWEVER, I do make it a practice in a large group game that everyone who plays a card needs to call it out, and clearly. "NETHER SHADOW," David should say, just so nobody misses it. There is a difference between NOT NOTICING something and NOT BEING MADE AWARE OF IT. If they said it out loud, then you have no excuses. The only exceptions should be basic land.

Now how does this affect strategy? Because QUITE frequently, someone will finish off an opponent and then foolishly attack you without considering what you have in place. I’ve had the lovely opportunity to Cursed Scroll maniacal Hermits in response to an attack. D’oh! So when you play something, announce it, but sometimes it’s a valid strategy not to use a card for a long time so people forget it exists. They will.

Politics Becomes Key.
Remember all that stuff I said about being a sneaky weasel? The five or ten articles I’ve written on multiplayer politics? This is when it REALLY works. Even if Anthony Alongi doesn’t think it does, but I’ve noticed a couple of tacit admissions that he’s starting to come around to my way of thinking. Moo hah hah.


1) Stand next to your assigned seat and do not sit in it. Instead, start leaning over and whispering suggestions into an imaginary player’s ear, muttering to him and advising such things as, "No, it’s okay, LET him shuffle your deck. You did it before this round anyway." Don’t play any cards yourself; instead, either peek surreptitiously underneath your friend’s face-down hand, as if you were trying to get away with something, or use a clear plastic wand to move the cards around, as if attempting to convince your opponent that invisible hands were lifting and raising the cards. If he asks you what you’re doing, say, "Just watching!" and continue as if nothing else was happening.

Let him call the judge. When he calls, walk about three steps to your left and start pleading with an imaginary judge about how inexperienced your friend is.

2) When your opponent plays his third card or so, say enthusiastically, "Wow! Blastogeddon! You what the last guy who played Blastogeddon against me did?" When your opponent asks what, narrow your eyes to murderous slits and lean across the table to mutter, "Nothing. EVER AGAIN." Then play cheerfully.

3) Play with a mixture of foil and regular cards. Insist, repeatedly, that non-foil cards can’t target foil cards and vice versa.

4) Remark casually about how you’re glad to be playing against someone normal, because you’ve played so many grubby, fat slobs in various tourneys. Then take out a can of Comet cleanser and give the table a good scrubdown, citing germs. Windex his cards repeatedly. If you’re losing, Lysol him in the face and run.

5) Shuffle his deck using the "sixty-card pickup" method.

6) Before attending the tourney, get an ink pad and roll your fingertips in it. Get them nice, black, and sticky. Then, when your opponent plays his card, ask if you can take a look at it. When you’re done leaving black smudges all over his card and he asks what happened, say offhandedly, "Oh, yeah, well, I got cops outside. They agreed that if I win this thing, I can use the money to make bail." If he points out that there is no prize money for this tournament, look terrified and bolt out the back door. This also works very well with #2.

7) Show up dressed in a Star Trek uniform, complete with Spock ears and lavish makeup – preferably eyeshadow and whatnot. If anyone complains, explain to them kindly that this is an entirely legal thing to do ever since that Star Trek captain served on the jury in Arkansas – and hint that lawsuits might be in THEIR future were they to throw you out. Then play a blue bounce deck and scream, "BEAM ME UP, CAP’N!" repeatedly.

8) This only works in Type One, but it’s a good one. Play a five-color deck with all of the following cards:

Diminishing Returns
Gaea’s Blessing
Grinning Totem
Jester’s Cap
Jester’s Mask
Natural Selection
Noble Benefactor
Shahrazad (well, you could try)
Soldier of Fortune
Winds Of Change

This deck has absolutely no way to win, but about forty low-cost ways to force your opponent to shuffle his deck. Make him do it a lot. Ensure that he mixes up those $150 cards real good. Call a judge over to make sure that he shuffles properly. Then make him shuffle again. Mention casually how cool it is that a fifty-cent card can wear down a thousand-dollar deck, ay?

9) While looking at the matchups, place a phone call and hire a Strip-O-Gram for your opponent, timed so it’ll happen during the middle of the second match. Make sure it’s the kind of Strip-O-Gram that arrives as a beefy cop, who suddenly flings off his clothes and gyrates madly in your opponent’s face. (This works extremely well with #2 and #6, but I have a feeling that there are a lot of female players who’d quite enjoy this.)

10) Win the game.

NEXT WEEK: How To Become A Famous Writer, But It’s Not The Same Article That Tony Boydell Wrote A Few Weeks Back

Signing off,
The Ferrett
[email protected]
Visit The Ferrett Domain if you’re not easily offended. Matter of fact, stay away if you’re offended at all. Probably it’s best if you leave now, really….

* – This only really happens once in a blue moon, but when it does it is the absolute WORST thing that can happen to you. You MUST not let this happen to you at ANY cost, otherwise you will lose every game that night. Trust me. I know. GOD, how I know.