You’re smart. I know this because you can play chess blindfolded. With three people. Simultaneously. And win.
And after a year of getting back to Magic and getting used to not playing with Interrupts any more, you’ve done quite well. In absentia of your brother Josh (a.k.a. Vrax), you’ve become the default threat at our weekly multiplayer games. And it’s rare that you don’t get at least one win a night — no small feat when you’re battling at least three people. (Though this time, you’re doing it neither blindfolded nor drunk.)
But you still have some issues with common multiplayer strategies — I see you trying to use them, but failing, and sometimes you seem frustrated as to why everyone is picking on you for no good reason.
I also know that you can learn — you made a promise not to attack someone for two turns and then broke your word, which put you on the back foot for months afterwards. Now you keep your promises even when it’s inconvenient, because you’ve learned that the gains of one night’s treachery are offset by the weeks of future poundings to come.
So here’s a very big piece of advice that’s related to that. Take it as you will.
You used to overreact wildly to someone having a huge, unstoppable battalion of creatures out, pissing them off by picking away at their creatures before you’d drawn their attention.
Your emphasis on board position was understandable. Your background is in chess, where all the pieces are out where you can see them; in Chess, board position is everything. But in Magic, what’s just as important is what’s in someone’s deck — in other words, not just what they have now, but what they can do in the future.
Fortunately, you’ve learned that lesson — at least on a basic level. You now fathom that a person who’s put all of his creatures on the table to attack is leaving himself wide open to a Wrath of God. Everyone knows that the guy with Islands might counter or bounce. That’s part of their potential strategy — what their deck could do the next turn.
Smart players work around that potential, of course. If everyone knows you play with Disintegrates and Fireballs, they’re going to block to keep their life totals up. If everyone knows that you have Plains and own a set of Wrath of Gods, they’re going to hold back a guy or two.
But you know what?
You can affect “what everyone knows.” In fact, you do affect it with every game.
I once said that the fundamental skill of multiplayer is threat assessment. You have to know what’s likely to happen, who’s likely to harm you, what’s likely to harm you. But there’s another side of it that I haven’t discussed, and that is this:
I just created that term to frame the discussion, but don’t be fooled — though it’s fresh out of the box, “Shaping your potential” is the second-most valuable multiplayer skill you can learn, right on the heels of threat assessment.
Shaping your potential is the essential skill from whence all multiplayer politics flows. Once you understand the ramifications of what it means to shape the form of your potential threat as other people see it, the rest is easy. In fact, the reason people frequently attack you first is because of the way you’ve shaped that potential….
But I’m getting a little arcane. Let’s take a real-life example of how you use a good card to shape your potential in very ugly ways.
You play with Persecute in multiplayer, Adam. On the surface, Persecute is a very good card, stripping someone’s hand — and certainly you’ve slaughtered my mono-colored decks with it. It completely destroys people.
Here’s the thing: People know that it can destroy them. And once they are aware that you can cast Persecute and strip their hand, that becomes part of your potential.
The first time you play Persecute, people might think of it as a one-off. But the more times you scrap someone’s hand, the more it becomes ingrained knowledge that hey, Adam can take away every card I have right now.
In other words, White has Wrath of God, Blue has Counterspells, Adam has Persecute.
Now, Ray Romano has a theory: There is no situation that can’t be made worse by adding the phrase, “And a headache.” You have a cold? Now you have a cold and a headache. Your mother died? Your mother died and you have a headache. You’re hanging upside-down in the ninth pit of Hell, dunked head-first into moist alpaca dung while demons poke you with salted tridents?
…and a headache. See? Worse.
The moral of playing cards like Persecute is that you become the “…and a headache.”
That’s not a bad thing if they have countermeasures available for Persecute – like, say, a Counterspell in hand. But if they don’t, then every time they look at the board, they quietly add, “…And a potential Persecute from Adam.”
Sometimes that doesn’t matter. Sometimes they’re more concerned about the Nemata, Grove Guardian that Paul is combining in very ugly ways with Gaea’s Cradle. But the good players are silently adding, “And a potential Persecute from Adam” with every turn.
It doesn’t matter if you have only one Persecute in your deck. All that matters is that you’ve cast that Persecute enough times for people to get wrecked by it, and that it’s shown up often enough that there’s a reasonable chance they might have to eat a â€˜Cute to the face. You’ve played that card enough that it has to be considered when making decisions.
It also doesn’t matter if you claim you wouldn’t play the Persecute on them because you’re more worried about Nemata now. Eventually, Paul’s going to go away after they neutralize him, but you’ll still have the potential Persecute in hand.
Don’t lie: No matter how you try to wriggle out of it, the fact is that you would aim it at them if it’s strategically advantageous to you… And we all know that multiplayer Magic has huge swings in position. People move from the pole position to back of the bus in the course of a single turn. You may want to target Paul now, but after the Wrath of God hits, maybe you do want to strip their hand. You can’t weasel out of it and pretend that we’re all just folks.
In fact, it’s harder to get rid of that potential Persecute than it is to get rid of an actual Persecute. Because that potential Persecute shows up every time you play a deck with Swamps. It doesn’t matter that you’re not playing Persecute at all in this deck — you are the type of person who plays Persecute, and that is now written into your potential. If you lay a Swamp? The cry goes up:
…and a Persecute.
Persecute’s a weird thing, because barring a Counterspell or the rarely-seen Ivory Mask effects, it’s hard to deal with. Likewise, your well-placed adoration for life-doubling effects that force us to have to pound you for another fifty points before you find your Test of Endurance. And it explains your deep affection for stealing creatures.
We find all those strategies annoying because they’re hard to deal with. This is why you like them.
“Why should I play with bad cards?” you ask. It’s a fair question. And the answer is this:
“If you play with enough of those good cards, your potential becomes all good cards.”
In other words, no matter what you’re playing, “what we all know” becomes the fact that you’ll be playing some hard-to-deal-with strategy that’s going to come at us sideways. Your tendencies have become constant enough that smart players have to anticipate that when factoring in potential plays.
Let’s compare: When folks are sizing up the board and looking at everyone’s potential positions, my potential when they look at me is “Ferrett likes big, stompy creatures and hoarding instants for one big assault.” Can they deal with that? Probably.
Your potential position, on the other hand, has been built over the course of months of experience into “He’s going to do something really difficult.” Hence, the default position is “Stomp Adam.”
One of the questions you’ve been asking lately is, “Why are you attacking me? I don’t have anything.” In fact, you’ve been sulking over the fact that people are ganging up on you, and it seems unfair. But now you know why! After months of playing nothing but “Hi, I want to strip your hand and gain seven billion life and steal all your guys,” your potential is now enough that it’s affecting other people’s plays.
White has Wrath of God. Blue has bounce and Counterspells. Adam has annoying strategies. And how do we deal with annoying strategies? By removing its player from the game.
“Fine,” you say. “I only have one Beacon of Immortality in my deck. I’ll just buy three more of them at StarCityGames.com for the low, low price of $3.00 apiece, and then you’ll have to deal with that!”
Except we won’t. When you play four Beacon of Immortality, then that just distorts your potential even further. From your perspective, you’re playing with better cards… But from our perspective, every white deck you play from then on will have 4x Beacon, and we will shape our plays based on that assumption. You may think you’re fixing the problem by going all-out, but in practice we’ll just stomp down on you even harder.
Is that fair? Yes. Because you can shape your potential by playing with different strategies.
Take your brother Josh. He’s a far better player than you are, with stronger decks and a much bigger card collection. But he also minimizes his potential by being a changeling. He’s got his Dragon Reanimator deck that’s very strong and a mono-Blue stealy deck that puts yours to shame…. But he also plays a lot of dumb decks with silly themes, like his “Rocker” deck featuring R/B guys who look like they’re rocking out.
Josh can be strong, but by continually oscillating between intensely competitive decks and stupid ones, he avoids shaping his potential into the all-competition channel. We don’t know what Josh is going to play — so even though on average he’s a stronger player than you are, he doesn’t always go for the throat.
You, on the other hand, do. Or try to. Currently, you’re paying a price for that approach — one that can either get worse or better.
The lesson is this: All multiplayer politics boils down to shaping your potential threat. Your goal in any politicking is to make it so what when people are looking at the board and asking, “Hmm, what is this player likely to do aside from what I see right now?” the answer is, “Something I can handle.”
You wouldn’t sit down at a group of strangers to shuffle up for some Chaos Multiplayer action, then unroll your Pro Tour playmate studded with Top 8 pins. Why? Because that’s distorting your potential unnecessarily. People will see that you’re skilled, and people in multiplayer games generally act to remove the greatest threat.
(Though admittedly, it’s a lot more fun when they don’t always. I love playing with Metal Jack, who will frequently reward the ballsiest plays even when it’s to his disadvantage.)
Likewise, when you’re playing with the same people over and over again, as we do, managing your potential becomes vital for long-term consistency. You need to consider: “Am I doing this often enough that people should, legitimately, assume that I could do it in the course of a game?”
If the answer is yes? Then you may want to reshape that potential before it begins.
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