It took awhile to get your Memnarch and a Seedborn Muse out at the same time – but fortunately, your opponents were wasting their removal on all the wrong targets, and now you’re in the clear. You’ve spent each of the last three turns untapping, stealing the best items on the table, and preparing for the slam-dunk move of an all-out attack.
They are helpless. You have counterspells in hand to prevent any Fog effects. It’s difficult to prevent the maniacal cackling gurgling up from the back of your throat, since the game is yours…
…Or it would be. If this were normal Magic.
Instead, you enter your upkeep and cross your fingers. You roll that six-sider, and it spins down, and lands…
Six pips. You feel the oily wriggle of victory in your hands as it begins to struggle for freedom.
Praying further, you flip over the top card of the chaos deck. Cringing, you see it’s Red. What card would be Red?
Before you can respond with any cutesy fast effects, you know what it is: Thieves’ Auction. Smiling, Joe – who is sitting in the catbird seat to your left – plucks Memnarch, and then Sally takes her Darksteel Colossus back, and Phil nabs the Seedborn Muse. You take the best cards, pathetically trying to regain control, but everyone else agrees to take lands in your colors so you’re not only weakened, you’re manascrewed.
You pass your turn, and they pound the tar out of you.
That’s chaos, baby.
Chaos multiplayer is a strange variant, because it requires both more and less skill. At the beginning of every player’s turn, before their upkeep, you roll a six-sider. A six means chaos, at which point you flip over a card from the top of the chaos deck. You do not get to respond to the chaos deck’s effect; much like morph, it simply happens. You can’t destroy the chaos effect, either.
Depending on your outlook, you’re either gonna love or hate Chaos Magic. A lot of hard-core players hate Chaos Magic because they despise any random element. These are the people who hate the mulligan, who can’t stand losing to a lucky topdeck. And frankly, if you’re that kind of hidebound twerp, you’re better off playing a game like Puerto Rico or Go, where everything is under your direct control.
(I mean, seriously. If you’re that bent out of shape by a random event, why are you playing Magic? The game has a lot of strategy, sure – but damn, people. It’s a game with sixty shuffled cards. If you can’t sweat Lady Luck squatting the big one on your face every once in awhile, just stay home and watch Home Star Runner cartoons.)
You can also hate Chaos Magic because it’s too random. I’ve seen Chaos Magic variants that do everything they can to ensure that every turn is a wacky adventure! Every time you draw a card, some crazy event happens! Hoo hoo!
Random weird effects are fun in moderation. It’s funny when Wile E. Coyote gets flattened, but the fun is not knowing when it’s going to happen. Sometimes, the coyote gets smashed before his plans even get started, sometimes it’s at the tail end of a crazy Rube Goldbergian series of events.
But the Coyote got his comeuppance every twenty seconds like clockwork, nobody would laugh.
When you’re dealing with some zany effect every single upkeep, it gets tedious, like repeatedly getting hit in the face with a pie. True Chaos – or at least the fun kind – involves stretches of just regular play, overshadowed by the threat that something is going to upset the status quo on the next turn.
You’re not playing cards with Henny Youngman. Predictability, even unpredictable predictability, is not fun.
So what makes for a fun Chaos Magic?
Rules For Xaositects
The proper building of a chaos deck is a matter of some debate. Generally, you want mana-free global effects that target everyone: Stuff like Noetic Scales, Dimensional Breach, Kavu Lair, Sphere of Resistance, and Cowardice.
What you put in a chaos deck is largely a question of what you have on-hand. This is a great place to stuff all of the junk rares with cool effects that weren’t quite strong enough to build a deck around. You can Google up a hundred sites with chaos decklists that claim to be authentic. But as far as I’m concerned, the following guidelines apply:
- Keep it simple, stupid . A lot of chaos Magic rules involve rolling on one table, then rolling on another table to see what the sub-result is, and that’s a huge pain. Flipping over cards from a deck is easier, and in this case I’d say it’s fine to use proxies.
- No one-shot wins . Nobody should be able to win or lose entirely on the basis of a chaos flip. Sure, a Manabarbs is going to hose you if you’re low on life, and a Living Death will screw someone who’s got a dominating board position, but no single card should put a healthy player into a no-outs lock. Humility good, Biorhythm bad.
- No player-specific cards . Giving someone a Cursed Scroll just because he rolled a six is a little powerful. Likewise, having someone’s army Fade Away thanks to a bad roll is a little punishing. The idea is to have effects that hit everyone equally, even if some players are affected by a particular effect more than others. For example, the person playing a creatureless deck is going to get screwed by Grip of Chaos a lot more than the all-creature deck… But Jimmy All-Critters will still have to deal with the fact that his Prodigal Sorceror is now a loose cannon, hitting people randomly. But if Jimmy All-Critters flips over an Angelic Chorus and zips to a million life, dominating the table with a powerful effect that only helps him and can’t be removed, that’s no fun.
- No global removal . The obvious thing is to put in Armageddon and Wrath of God, but that’s no fun. Enough people are going to be playing reset buttons as it is, and clearing the field isn’t adding anything particularly entertaining anyway. (Aside from the obvious”Ha! I didn’t die to your gigantor army!” entertainment, which is all-too-fleeting.) You want something like Wave of Reckoning, Meekstone, or Purging Scythe, which removes or neutralizes some resources, upsetting the current balance of power without putting everyone back at square one.
- Forget the rules when it’s fun . Break the rules if it serves. Karona, False Prophet can kill in one shot, but if she’s not killed instantly she goes around the table. Whee!
Winning When Nobody Knows What’s Coming Next
Now, I said earlier that Chaos Magic requires both more and less skill. It’s less skill because let’s be honest – occasionally, some effect comes along that hands you the game on a platter. If your deck is a creatureless burn deck and nobody can get in an attack under the Ensnaring Bridge, well then hell. You won. Nice game.
But it takes more skill because winning requires a flexibility and creativity, plus a healthy dose of anticipating. Obviously, figuring out when someone’s going to flip a six is impossible (unless you load the dice, which would admittedly be a larf), but you can play around the effects and plan.
And skill is involved, don’t get me wrong. When I went up to Ann Arbor for my Weekend o’Magic, I played at least eight games of Chaos Magic with two other pals. Neil and I won all the games, and Storn – the weakest player – didn’t win any. Part of that is deckbuilding, of course, but mostly it comes down to the fact that Neil and I were experienced enough to figure out how to play around all of these kooky effects.
So what are the best ways of dealing with Chaos?
Destroy it when you can.
The usual flow of Magic strategy is to hold everything until the last minute, thus maximizing your options. After all, it costs you nothing to hold your Shock until the end of someone’s turn, and who knows what might happen before then? A better target might come along, or maybe someone else will kill that annoying critter for you.
Except in Chaos Magic, holding onto a spell might cost you that spell. Remember, good Chaos Magic cards neutralize certain resources – and yours might be targeted. If you say,”Hey, that Slith Firewalker would screw me up big-time if it attacked, but no problem – I have this Shock!” then you’re going to be the one who’s shocked when a Dense Foliage turns up. By the time that Dense Foliage gets churned into some other effect, the Slith is a 4/4 and your Shock is now useless.
Thus, the lesson is to conserve as much as you can, but destroy the big threats immediately. If something has the capacity to wreck you, take your shot while you have it. A Teferi’s Puzzle Box might take your hand away, a Horn of Greed might give your opponent more options, a Cowardice might bounce it back to his hand.
Ask yourself the question: If I don’t stop this now, is it going to kill me? If the answer is yes, then don’t wait.
Play a deck that gives you options.
The deck that cleaned house surprised me, but it was a tried-and-true classic: Astral Slide. Common wisdom says that Slide isn’t particularly strong in multiplayer, but it worked quite well in Chaos because it could do everything solidly. If enchantments weren’t a viable option, it could cast creatures. If hand size was an issue, it could cycle into a good card. If a big creature hit the table, it could Slide it away.
And above all, cycling. Cycling like the deck was in the Tour de France. Always flipping through the deck for the good cards.
Which made me realize: In chaos, a deck with a high amount of options is always your best bet. Combo’s good, but it involves setting up a good hand – which is something you can’t count on. Same goes for Control, which also faces the demands of providing the answer to the threat its opponents are presenting. (I refuse to link to Michael Flores'”Who’s the Beatdown?” article, even though it’s relevant, since it gets referenced seventeen times a week. You should all know it by now. Look it up in our article archives, if you must.) And if you’re playing beatdown, creatures always get hosed.
If you’re relying on a single method of winning, like a huge Consume Spirit to the head or going infinite, then you may wanna think again. You want as many options as possible to get around the fact that some paths will be locked off at any given time.
As I said, since the whole point of Chaos is that avenues of access will be shut down, it’s not a bad idea to put a few more cards onto the table than you normally would.
Now, this is not to say that you should flop your hand onto the table whenever you have the mana. Storn did that during our Chaos Magic night, and it’s a part of the reason why he lost; even in Chaos, the rules of”Hold things until you need them” still apply.
But holding everything until you need it, rationing your resources out on a card-for-need basis, assumes a stability that is not present. Your mana may vanish for a few turns, your life may drop unexpectedly, your creatures may suddenly be neutered at some Chaos Magic veterinary clinic. In that case, it’s not a bad thing to have an extra creature out, guarding your six against the unpredictable rolls of the die.
Thus, as a general rule, put out about 50% more than you normally would. [Sounds like college. – Knut, unabashedly smirking] If you’d drop two creatures, put out three. If you’d play seven land and hold the rest, play eleven. You want a buffer zone to ward against The Danger Of The Unexpected.
Normally, your biggest goal in multiplayer politics is to get someone else to attack your enemy for you, getting one player to use up his resources in destroying another player’s resources, while you stay back and cherish that gloriously full hand of yours. This is a difficult task in normal Magic, because good players will wait it out. You can’t point at something and say,”That’s going to wreck you,” and then expect a competent player to do it on command. Like you, he’s going to wait.
But in Chaos Magic, like I said, good strategy is taking your shot when you have it. Thus, it’s easier to panic someone and cause them to prematurely e-spell-ulate.
Furthermore, politics is easier than it is in normal Magic, because there’s more to keep track of and more that can go wrong. The focus tends to be on The Big Card in the center of the table: What is the Chaos Effect? How can I turn that to my advantage? If you can get someone focused on the Effect – and, not coincidentally, get their attention off whatever strategy it is that you’re pursuing – then you’re halfway to winning.
Let’s give a real-life example: Neil is a fairly solid player, who builds pretty darned good decks. But he is vindictive. If you go after him for what he perceives as no good reason, he will strike back whenever it’s convenient for him to do so. He’s smart enough not to overcommit his forces, but every spare point of damage he can spare is going to go to your head.
I didn’t realize the rules we were playing by, and with a Chaosed Mana Barbs out I played a Death Cloud for three, which brought me down to a measly four life. Neil Shocked me twice in response, at which point I was very surprised to find that my Death Cloud was now off the stack.
“What?” I said, amazed.”When did that happen?”
“You die, your spell never goes off,” Neil said.”We started playing that way a while back.” At which point I realized that that accursed hack Anthony Alongi had wormed his way into my group, even though he lives in Minneapolis: Anthony’s long said that the best rules are the”dead player’s spells fizzle” variety.
Anthony is – as usual – dead wrong. The best part of the game is the”From Hell’s heart, I stab at thee” endgame, when you risk the outgoing ire of every PC you target. A spell on the stack stays on the stack, no matter what happens to the player in between start and resolution. Otherwise, you wind up with the depressingly-common”Two-life bitch” situation, wherein the guy with the Mountain can order the guy with two life to do whatever Mountain Dude wants.
“Attack him or I Shock you.”
The Two-Life Bitch cannot cast spells, or interact with the game in any meaningful way, since his only hope is for Mountain Man to tap out. Otherwise, he’ll be tossing Mountain Man’s salad. And since it’s late in the game, Mountain Man is going to have seven or eight mana and is never going to tap out, since as long as he has Two-Life Bitch in tow he is effectively controlling the resources of two players.
Oh yeah, that’s a lot of fun. Yes, I would like to spend the last six turns of my game Mindslavered, thankyouverymuch!
Alas, Anthony has a lot of strange rules. We’ve disagreed on multiplayer from the beginning – Anthony thinks there is no such thing as politics in multiplayer, I do, yadda yadda – and we’ll disagree again. But it was extremely disagreeable to find out that one of the Alongish rules had infiltrated my home turf. It was like waking up to find that Howard Stern was suddenly an anchorman for Fox News.
In any case, I squawked.”If I had known you were using that rule,” I said,”I wouldn’t have tapped that low. You have three Mountains out, for Cripe’s sake!”
After some debate, they let me take it back and I just passed the turn. The Mana Barbs became a real threat, and none of us could cast anything for fear or dying to it. And it wouldn’t go away. Nobody rolled a six. We laughed nervously, waiting for its time to go.
Eventually, it did. We all burst forth into our respective strategies, thrilled to be free. Knowing that Neil was vindictive – and betting that he was focused too much on the Chaos Card – I then went for it, aiming a random Consume Spirit to his dome.
“Huh?” Neil said, angrily, and fired off three Shocks to my dome in retaliation… Then realized his mistake. In planning out his post-Manabarb strategy, he’d forgotten about my Death Cloud. The next turn I Clouded for three, putting me in the catbird seat.
Now – and here’s the funny bit – I stalled on land after that, and the Chaos Cards fell strongly in Neil’s direction, and he pulled out the win after all in a huge flurry of Decree of Justice tokens.
But that was luck. In my world of strategy, I won. And that’s what I’m talking about: Theoretical wins. You can’t win every game, but you can theoretically win every game – and go home feeling good about it, because every topdeck was just random luck. On a brain-to-brain battlefield you beat your opponent soundly, even if he drew the one card out of forty-five that could save him on the turn he needed it.
The best thing is, you can go home after somebody whipped you and explain to others how good your losing strategy is. Because after all, just because it lost doesn’t mean it’s not good.