Before reading this article, I highly recommend reading a classic article by Mike Flores called”Who’s the Beatdown?” which outlines the role you should play – and moreover, recognizing that the way you play should change depending on how the game and the matchup is going.
One of the most important keys to succeeding at Magic is knowing how your deck should play. Throwing the best spells together into a pile very rarely makes for a good deck; you’ll find that most of the competitive Type 1 tournament decks don’t use all the cards on the restricted list. Are you trying to kill someone (or someones) quickly? Are you trying to deck opponents? Are you waiting to combo someone to death?* Are you trying to amass a huge army and kill everyone?
Let’s examine Mike’s theory, condensed:
- For simplicity’s sake, there are two ways to play a deck in a match: Control, and Beatdown.
- The one with the most damage, and the opportunity to use it, is the beatdown deck.
- The deck with more removal should take the role of the control deck.
- The deck that would be able to weather a longer game, with permission or card-drawing, is the control deck.
- If you are the beatdown deck, you need to take out your opponent as soon as possible before he or she can regain their footing.
- If you are the control deck, you must survive until the point that card advantage can take over and overcome the initial rush.
- Pay attention, as this is the important part – if you assign your deck the wrong role in a match, you will lose.
Now that’s all well and good in a duel, where there are fewer variables to consider and it is easier to get a gauge of what your opponent is playing. And not to insult tournament players – but given a narrowed metagame with more-easily predictable opposition based on decks in the card pool, one can plan even further ahead. In multiplayer games, you won’t know what your opponents will be playing, and you won’t be able to guess at the contents of their decks, either. (Untrue, as I’ve written about how to break multiplayer metagames in the past… But it is more difficult – The Ferrett)
But regardless of whether it is in a duel or a multiplayer match, the proper assignment of roles to your deck is crucial; let’s look at some decks that typify this behavior in one-on-one games.
Keep in mind that the big difference between duels and multiplayer is the number of targets you have, and the number of people targeting you. Generally speaking, the larger the game, the larger these numbers are.
The trend in tournament-level Constructed is more along the mentality of black cards – sacrifice resources now for your own good later. You give up resources for an advantage, be it versatility or card selection, because all that matters is one opponent.
The other thing that multiplayer decks experience is a generally longer game. Many lethal combos, such as Illusions of Grandeur–Donate, which are particularly lethal against one opponent simply don’t work against three or more, because you may never find the time to repeat the combo more than once!
The political and peer pressure-based influences of multiplayer also dictate that anyone who presents himself too much as a threat must be eliminated – but if no one puts a threat down, then the game’s not going anywhere. Someone’s got to make the move sometime. The question you need to ask yourself is, are you the one who should be making that move? Should you be defending? When should you make your move?
One can never really know what the contents of a deck are, so one needs to make the guess based on what’s already been seen. Multiplayer games are very different from duels in that duels come down to this: Disrupt your opponent before your opponent can get set up. Disrupting usually stalls him long enough that you can kill him, and that disrupting comes by damage, counterspells, or discard. Group games, on the other hand, take these steps: Set up, set up, protect self, set up, attack.
Given the number of spells one has available in their deck (a little fewer than forty spells in most decks), how many can you use to kill your opponents? Moreover, how many can you devote to defending yourself? I must again reiterate the basic difference between multiplayer and dueling in that your opponents are all working against you, meaning that you effectively have an opponent that has X turns and 20X life, where X is the number of opponents. It’s quite simple – in a multiplayer game, a single opponent will have more time to set up than you can kill him, assuming that you leave back the proper resources to defend yourself.
In Real Time Strategy games like Warcraft and Starcraft, there’s a strategy called”rushing,” where instead of building up resources and having a stable stream of income, steadily pumping out both workers and offensive forces, they instead”rush” to get to the very first available attackers. Once available, they are sent immediately to attack. A successful rush will leave an opponent severely crippled or dead, whereas a failed one means that the rusher is as good as dead if his opponent is any good.
Magic works very much the same way, if the rusher is playing a deck like Sligh (heavy red burn) or Stompy (quick, cheap green creatures). In Magic, resources are life, cards, and mana. The problem with trying to rush an opponent is that you are using your resources (cards and mana) to deplete an opponent’s resource. If you only have one, that’s fine and dandy – but in a group, all the while, your other opponents are accumulating their resources while you’re depleting yours. By choosing a fast deck with fast cards, you deny yourself access to higher mana cost (and usually, more powerful) cards. By choosing a single opponent, other players will either 1) prey on your exposed vulnerability or 2) start looking for other targets, knowing that you will either decimate an opponent and be left nursing whatever combat wounds result, or your target will be able to turn the tide and leave both of you either dead or extremely weak.
Beatdown now has the added task to keep up a defense, or at least being able to turn away possible jackals while the beatdown deck is doing its thing – which is not an easy task! A few too many expensive spells sinks the speed of the deck.
Likewise, pure Control is weakened because it has more threats that it must answer. Cards like Wrath of God and the like become more powerful, because of the increased numbers of threats… But there are fewer untap phases available to be able to cast things like Counterspells, end-of-turn Fact or Fictions, or to use creature kill or burn spells.
The question”Who’s the Beatdown?” is still essential to making the proper choices in multiplayer, but instead of just Beatdown and Control, there comes a third role in Multiplayer games – Scavenger. This category comes from the fact that splitting one’s attacks and defenses usually leaves holes. People will defend, others will attack… But some will just sit back, maybe put out a deterrent or two, or maybe being beneficial to everyone with a Mana Flare or Howling Mine out. When the Beatdown decks have run out of gas and the Control decks have lost control, the Scavengers will come out to pick at what’s left.
The roles of multiplayer are then broken down as follows: Beatdown, Control, and Scavenger. The speed of each deck will vary, with some Scavengers hurrying more than others – but the bottom line is, every deck will take one of these three roles. Like dueling, the selecting your deck’s will be the key to its victory or failure… But there is more reliance on being able to judge what roles other decks are playing, because the interaction is much deeper.
Beatdown retains its features of quick damage sources being the defining factors. If you’re playing against a deck with a lot of bounce, damage prevention, or some countering, you’ve got to keep the pressure going until whoever is trying to defend can’t defend anymore. How can you tell if you’re playing a beatdown deck?
You might be playing a beatdown deck if:
- You have many low casting cost creatures
- You have tons of mana acceleration to power out a quick fattie
- You find yourself asking your opponents,”Can you deal with this/these?”
- You are playing lots and lots of burn spells.
If you are the beatdown deck, you need to worry about:
- Overextension . If you have too much out on the board or invest too much in too little, then a board sweeper like Nevinyrral’s Disk or Obliterate will completely ruin you.
- Gas . In other words, do you have a way to refill your hand or recoup used resources? Can you last to the later game?
- Politics . Are you attacking someone who isn’t a threat to you right now, making other people nervous? While you’re poking away at that combo player that everyone is attacking, is someone digging for the appropriate Circle of Protection or deciding you’re too much of a loose cannon?
How do you decide if you should take the beatdown role in a multiplayer game? Other players may start laying down early defense or mana sources. Yet others wait until the end of turn before casting spells, playing cards two lands later than they usually could. The first few turns are generally a good time to test the waters if you can take advantage of them; weak retaliation within one or two turns is usually a good sign. Beatdown is the role one should take when the game is relatively passive – but the problem with starting is that you need to finish, because no one is going to like being attacked.
As the game continues on, be sure to build up some sort of defense, whether that means saving burn spells or removal for potential creatures, or even just a chump blocker. Goblin Goon is an excellent card for this purpose. It lasts longer than Blistering Firecat, and requires less maintenance than Clickslither. If you hit someone and they lay down defenses, make sure to let other people pick at the injured animal, too. Again, test the waters by laying off for a turn and see if someone else will finish the job. There are no points for killing multiple players – the only one that counts is the last one. Remember not to hit too many people, and finish any job you start if no one picks it up.
Let’s look at an Enchantress-Auratog deck, whose typical modus operandi is to cast many, many cheap and useful enchantments, draw cards with Argothian Enchantress and/or Verduran Enchantress, and attack with a nice, big, fat Auratog. 90% of the time, this deck is going to play the Beatdown deck, drawing quickly, playing enchantments quickly and targeting opponents one by one.
If it sets itself up as a control deck, it’s going to get overrun by creature and burn spells. It can also set itself up as a Scavenger, but must be sure to survive early beatdown and control. However, the problem is that enchantments can be played only at sorcery speed, on your own main phase, leaving you almost helpless on other turns. One needs to act fast and keep the pressure on.
Control is less effective because of the nature of multiplayer increasing the number of threats, targets, and questions you need to be able to answer. Your answers are split amongst greater numbers of players, and have to deal with more questions.
You might be playing a control deck if:
- People look to you as if to ask,”Mother, may I?”
- You’re packing a lot of removal, be it creature, artifact or enchantment removal.
- You try to build in an answer for everything – enchantments, artifacts, creatures, and instants.
- You’re playing blue. (There are exceptions to this, but…)
- Your deck is methodical, but slow.
If you are the control deck, you need to worry about:
- Mana Development And Tempo . Are you slowing yourself down too much to keep UU open, or keep mana up for a Terror or similar spell?
- Resources . Your Counterspells are now split among many more players. Which threats do you need to counter? If you don’t counter a spell, do you have another plan?
- Threats . Gauge threats. That Visara may not be attacking you now, or killing your creatures, but when that creature’s controller is done over there, where is it going? How can you answer these threats once they’re cast?
- Politics . Who’s attacking you? What spells are you countering, or creatures are you removing? Countering and removal tend to be kept for your needs. Make sure that absolutely no one else is going to use a Counterspell or removal of their own before casting yours.
Control in multiplayer is similar to regular Control, albeit writ larger: Counter and destroy only the things that will truly harm you. Usually, control decks are like that to begin with, keeping a low profile. Take a hit every now and then, hopefully a small one, but try to avoid anything too dangerous. Remember, 3G open could mean something nasty like Might of Oaks.
The best advice is to have a way to return threats or deal with them later on when you don’t have the mana or the counter card to take them early, and take a chance and build up your mana and cards. Your kill condition should be something very sturdy, involving creatures like Visara the Dreadful or Morphling, or explosive combos like Underworld Dreams with Timetwister/Time Spiral/Wheel and Deal, where people will have little to no time to react.
Humbly consider Galina Control, a deck I posted a while back. Creature threats early on will hurt you, but eventually, any targetable creature is not going to be a problem. Counterspells leave you in peace, and a small amount of burn will take care of threats that slip by. Unnatural Selection and Empress Galina continue to be reusable damage. Artificial Evolution/Unnatural Selection acts as a War Tax of sorts, weaker but more versatile.
Scavenging is the role that most multiplayer mages want to be in – to lay back, relax, let other people do the work for you, while you eventually swoop in for the kill. You just need to set up a bit of deterrent, or at least be able to defend yourself… Because if there are no overt threats on the table, players are going to attack the weakest player in that table. In a multiplayer game, most combo decks tend to try to take the scavenger role, because of the inherent nature and time it takes to set up a combo. But this isn’t always the case – mass reanimation decks tend to be Scavengers, raising an army almost immediately.
You might be the scavenger deck if:
- You play mutually beneficial cards like Horn of Greed, Howling Mine, and the like.
- You play defense early in the game, and be more aggressive later.
- You hold threats in hand as long as you can, until you absolutely have to cast it.
- You try to minimize attention to yourself and try to build up resources.
If you are the scavenger deck, you have to worry about:
- Underextension . Even though you’re building up resources, you may not have enough to make your move when the opportunity arrives, or you may not deploy enough defenses to keep people’s attention away from you
- Being Noticed . When someone is relatively untouched in a multiplayer game, someone else always points it out. When this happens, you need a plan to keep attention on someone else – such as a reason for other players to keep you alive, or a mild show of force to deter enemies.
- A Solid Defense On Both Sides . You need to build one up for yourself, and you need a way to break through the weakened and the sick.
- Being Ready To Change Roles . The problem with being the scavenger is that once someone dies, then you might be seen as the next target, or you might see an opportunity that you will have to take advantage of. Your deck and planning need to be flexible. Being the scavenger is rewarding in that it may get you an easy kill, but also risky because people will eventually notice what’s going on and change targets.
Let’s put that theory to the test with a little bit of hypothetical gaming – we’ll look at a four-player game.
Next to him, there sits a green player using large, large creatures. Last game, his cheapest spell cost him five mana. Let’s call him Tommy.
And next to him, a blue counter deck. What does he use as a kill? You’ve got no idea. Let’s call him Billy.**
And then there’s you, with that horrid, horrid Angel deck I listed a few articles ago, trying to figure out how to tweak it, ending up with early white defense and a few high quality double purpose creatures. Hide behind some defense; keep your cool, wait for guys to make mistakes…
So the game goes by, with Jason laying out the quick Goblins. With your Walls of Hope out, you’re keeping the Goblins away, and after some rounds, Tommy finally has a creature to cast – a Weatherseed Treefolk that you Swords to Plowshares away, much to the relief of Billy and Jason. A few rounds later, Tommy is hurting from attacks by Jason, his really big spells being countered by Billy. You’ve taken a hit or two from Billy, who has down a Riptide Mangler with some fat power on it, but your Walls of Hope have kept you at a decent life total. Billy’s been taking hits too, from a couple of fatties that Tommy was able to resolve. You’ve got a couple of Serra Angels out, dealing minor beats to Billy and Tommy.
The life totals stand as follows:
You’ve got some mana out, just as Jason makes his move. He casts a Lightning Bolt at Billy, who taps out to hard-cast Misdirection to you! At twelve, Jason leaves a couple of blockers to deal with Tommy’s non-trampling fat, and finishes off Billy with the rest of his goblins. Tommy’s turn, and he also taps out, and deftly casts and flashes back a Sylvan Might on his two 5/5 Ivy Elementals. An”Oh, crap!” comes from Jason as he’s flattened by two big, big elementals.
Tapped Elementals. Non-flying Elementals.
Your turn, your untap phase. So here’s the kicker – everyone’s worn out, exhausted from attacking, or just plain dead. If Tommy gets to untap, who knows what other ugly spells he might have? No problem. Swing with two Serras, he’s down to one, laughing as he realizes that you don’t have any pump, eagerly asking if you’re done.
Now sure, that was a bit of a fantasy, but the point’s the same – some people play back, keeping a low profile. Surprise plays, large spells, or a buttload of damage, or generally, something designed to take care of stragglers and fellow scavengers.
Of course, I’m not about to leave you without a scavenger deck; you remember that pathetic angel deck I built? With a few tricks, it gives you a little bit of room to build solid defense and an even better offense, especially later in the game.
Holy Army (Angels Phase 2)
4 Wall of Hope
3 Voice of All
3 Serra Angel
2 Blinding Angel
4 Exalted Angel
4 Windborn Muse
1 Akroma, Angel of Wrath
1 Devout Witness
2 Glory or Wrath of God (see below)
4 Swords to Plowshares
3 Parallax Wave
2 Story Circle
1 Sol Ring
1 Kor Haven
1 Strip Mine
4 Secluded Steppe
In this deck, you have some early defense, mid-game defense, and finally, late-game damage in the form of a single Akroma and hopefully your accumulation of angels. Walls of Hope do their best when blocking weenies, with the damage prevention from blocking and the life gain keeping you alive. Chastise and Swords to Plowshares are currently some of the best creature removal that Mono-White has right now. Save those for things attacking you… But Parallax Waves are your finishers. They’ll clear out any targetable blocker except for Crypt Angel, opposing Voice of Alls and Voice of Truths, and other flying Protection from White creatures. That’s a pretty small selection when it comes down to it.
The most noticeable change from Angels phase one is the loss of creature pumpers altogether, which tended to draw unwanted attention. This makes more room for game-enders like Parallax Wave. Finishers have been dropped for the sake of some protection and just a little more removal, making the deck a little less dependent on the mere four Swords to Plowshares.
Note also that I didn’t make the fancy Wrath of God/Parallax Wave combo (Wave out your creatures, then Wrath) mandatory here – because while it’s still pretty devastating, a move like that tends to finish people off. Glory tends to do something similar anyway. Before casting Serra Angels, cast Glories first, and do everything you can to get them killed.
This deck has no aggressive tendencies at all, which may be this deck’s biggest weakness, followed by the sparse answers to opposing artifacts or enchantments (all you have is Devout Witness). On the other hand, it’s got quite a few deterrents in the relatively early game, which should set you up perfectly for the Scavenger role. Just remember what I talked about earlier about Scavenging: Get ready to respond in kind to fast beatdown decks, and draw out counters with lesser threats (like casting Serra Angel before Akroma if you suspect counters). The Exalted Angels, Wraths of God, and Akroma mark hard-to-get rares, though you can consider more Blinding Angels, Serra Angels, and other cheap Wrath-style effects such as Wave of Reckoning, Rout, or Kirtar’s Wrath.
The whole scavenger theory is still relatively fresh in my mind, and I’d like to flesh it out a little more eventually. Right now, though, I’d like to think that this is the start of analysis with multiplayer games comparable to the essential”Who’s the Beatdown” article. Because of the nature of multiplayer, it’s impossible to have a very defined metagame… But as groups get formed, it’s very easy to start reading opponents. This is a great skill to pick up, and I wish you the best in getting to play the role your deck was born to play.
John A. Liu
“It’s funny to see all these fat guys making ‘Akroma, Angel of Boobs’ jokes when they probably have bigger real boobs than she has painted breasts.”
* – A hearty congratulations to anyone who gets the dinky reference to an old kid’s show on Fox.