SCG Talent Search – The Right (Multi)Play: Understanding the 3 Levels of Multiplayer

Thursday, December 9th – Daryl Bockett brings you more scenarios for you to Figure Out the Right Play! Think out this situation and see how high you score on Daryl’s test!

Welcome to the last week of the SCG Casual Talent Search! As part of my ongoing quest to become the next Anthony Alongi, I’m going to talk about what I see as the three main elements (or levels) of multiplayer Magic and how they interact. Don’t get scared if this sounds a little too theoretical; it’s all about how you can win more games and have more fun doing it, and just like in my previous articles, I’m going to use a real-game example to keep things from getting abstract. The challenge for you (whether casual beginner or Top-8 regular) is simple: figure out what is the right play.

Here’s the scene: a four-player chaos game with (clockwise) Rie, Pete, Stephen, and me. It was around the eighth turn or so, giving us enough time to see what everyone had brought to the table.

  • Pete

    was playing a Standard-legal Threaten deck. That meant at least sixteen Threaten variants (not including Threaten itself, which rotated out of
    Standard — go figure!), as well as Magmaw to sacrifice stolen critters and plenty of burn, making Pete the most chaotic force at the table.
    Current Board:

    Conquering Manticore.

  • Stephen

    was playing an R/g Eldrazi Ramp deck, using Spawn tokens to accelerate into the Eldrazi titans. Story so far: Rapacious One into

    , as well as a Chandra Ablaze to blow up my weenies.
    Current Board:

    Bupkus, having just lost the aforementioned Kozilek to one of the aforementioned Terminates.

  • I was playing the oldest deck at the table, an almost-mono-black multiplayer deck called Black and Proud (or “Sweetness.” Or “Babykins.” I love this deck so much my wife is jealous, but that’s a story for another day). I’d opened with

    Vampire Nighthawks, and a Graveborn Muse, and got in some early beats before my stuff got blown up.
    Current Board:

    Volrath’s Stronghold, a 6/6 Mortivore, and a Nighthawk


Pete and I were at the most life, at about eighteen each; I had gained life from my Vampire Nighthawks, and Pete had gained life from… my Vampire Nighthawks. Rie was at fifteen, and Stephen was sucking hind tit at twelve life.

It was my first main phase, and my hand contained Sorin Markov, Mortify, and the Kokusho, the Evening Star that was in my opening hand and which I planned to use to win the game. My graveyard included two more Nighthawks, the Muse, and a Demigod of Revenge. I had just hit seven mana, enough to
play something beefy and still regenerate the ‘Vore. It was time to
make my move,

what is the right play?

Level One

If you said “windmill-slam the
Big K

,” then you get a C. I can’t play Kokusho without Pete stealing and probably saccing him (he has more sac outlets than me, and you can’t discount the possibility that he has a Fling in hand). If Pete sacs Kokusho, then Rie will

him out of my graveyard before I have a chance to recur him, and I’m going to have to draw into a new win-con.

You also get a C if you said “kick Stephen in the teeth while he’s down.” Stephen isn’t a threat at the moment, and while he could play Kozilek again (which is why I kept the Mortify in hand), Pete’s hasty thievery shenanigans amplify the threat of any of his big critters. Also, as my dear old granny used to say, “Never kill today someone that you can beat up tomorrow.” Let someone else take a swing at the weakest player; they can be opportunistic while you focus on what really matters.

If you said “Use Sorin to knock Pete down to ten life and beat the crap out of him”, then you earn a B from Professor Bockett. Pete is clearly the biggest threat to my long-term plan of winning with Kokusho. Rie’s ability to attack my graveyard only prevents me from recurring Kokusho, while Pete would basically make it impossible for me to play him in the first place. Once Pete is dead, Kokusho is enough to kill Stephen, and probably Rie as well, and neither of them is likely to have any removal that won’t activate his life-draining ability. Taking out Pete is clearly the right play.

So why is that answer only worth a B? Because it only addresses one level of multiplayer: the strategic level. Alongi and the Ferrett have taught us that the best multiplayer strategy involves identifying the biggest threats to you — defined not just in terms of how their board position or hand looks compared to yours but also in terms of how their deck could stop you from following through on your game plan. This is the element of multiplayer that I love the most — the unique, multilayered chess game — and why I feel duels are actually less challenging and less stimulating than a free-for-all (FFA). However, making the right

decision is not always enough; you also need to consider the second level of multiplayer: politics.

Level Two

Now, I know some of you are going to throw your hands up and say that politics is the worst part of multiplayer, and that’s why you hate it, and the best players always lose, and so on. I promise to explain why you’re wrong, or at least why this problem is hugely exaggerated and will even
take on the challenge of defining what the hell politics actually means (
“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means”

), if you give me the chance to write a future article. For now though, let’s just accept that politics is part of the game** and has a role in defining what’s the right play.

In this case, Rie was the secondary threat to me, but she couldn’t know that. In fact, she had to accept that she was probably the biggest threat to me because her Reaper blanked my

and there was every reason to expect that I was playing a strong recursion theme. Is there a way to use Sorin to reduce the threat from her, while still dealing with Pete? Yes, and if you said that, then you get an A. Let’s look at how that’s done.

I think everyone understands the concept of being deterrent (I use a threat to stop you doing something that I don’t want). Less well understood is the concept of being compellent (I use a threat to make you do something that you wouldn’t otherwise do). If I tell Rie that I’ll drop her to ten life if she reaps my graveyard, then that will deter her only as long as Sorin stays in play, but let’s face it, that probably won’t be long. If I use Sorin to kill her 2/2 Reaper, then I’ve lost my best way to deal with Pete. However, if I say “I can either drop you to ten or kill your Reaper
unless you agree not to target my graveyard

,” then I have at least increased the probability that she’ll leave my ‘yard alone while I focus on Pete, which is what I want. The difference is perhaps subtle, but still quite meaningful. Deterrence can often be left unsaid, as it’s any time someone plays a Seal of Doom or No Mercy to deter attackers, but being compellent requires clearer communication of exactly what you want and what they can do to avoid getting hurt. That is what I did in negotiating with Rie, and while you can never be sure that someone will keep their promises, extracting that promise from her has the potential to serve my interests long after Sorin has been axed.

However, whether she agrees or not, and whether she keeps her word or not, it’s important to notice that trying to get the agreement from her has no opportunity cost in terms of the strategic level of the game. I’m still going to hit Pete, but by thinking about the political level as well I have the potential to protect my graveyard from a threat that is otherwise difficult to deal with. Being aware of the political level simply allows me to get more use out of my resources and gives me another way to interact with my friends. So that’s the right play in terms of the strategic and political levels of multiplayer.

Level Three

However, in addition to playing Sorin and negotiating with Rie, you also have to consider the third level to get the top score (an A+, or for some reason an ‘S’ grade at my current university). The third level is Group Harmony. Specifically, by making such an overt bargain with Rie, I hit a nerve with Pete. He said that he really didn’t like that kind of deal-making and that it made him uncomfortable. We’ve been playing off and on for years, but this was the first time I’d heard him mention this (which tells you that I don’t usually make explicit long-term bargains like I did with Rie), but it was something that affected his enjoyment of the game.

Is this an important factor to consider? Absolutely! Not just because he was the host, not because I was planning to oust him in about two turns (which
I normally don’t like to do), or even because he’s my friend.
Group harmony is the least important element of multiplayer until things go very wrong, and then it becomes the most important.

Have you ever had a friend stop playing the game because of an abrasive personality? Ever had a regular game night dissolve because one or two people alienated the rest of the group? Ever had someone stop playing a particular format because of a bad experience they had playing it? I can say yes to every one of these, which has cost me a lot of opportunities to enjoy the game, and I know that my experience is far from unique. That’s why I consider keeping the rest of the players in your group happy to be one of the essential elements of multiplayer.

In this case, Pete told us how he felt in a very calm and reasonable way, rather than giving us an ultimatum or anything silly like that. Judging the level of his objection to be relatively low, I didn’t let that deter me from going through with this particular deal, but I definitely promised not to get carried away with politics. Moreover, when Rie went back on our deal and ate my Demigod next turn, I pointed out how all of my subtle
machinations had been cruelly thwarted. This is important because people who object to in-game deal making are, I think, afraid that the deals

the outcome of games. It’s essential to show them that politics is only a small part of the reason why you’re kicking their asses. Finally, when I killed him, I assured him that his deck would’ve wrecked me if I’d left him alive (it seems the least I could do since, after he died, he got up and served dinner for the rest of us — what a guy!).

To be honest, I made at least one mistake myself — I should’ve actually shown him Kokusho, so that he could see exactly how badly his deck could’ve hurt me. From your opponents’ perspective, there’s a huge difference between thinking “I got crushed! I didn’t do anything in that game” and realizing “I was the second-biggest threat in that game — I had a huge impact on that game even though I got ousted quickly.” Helping them to see that difference will increase their enjoyment of the game. I could’ve gained a lot just by letting Pete cackle to himself about how the Act of Treason and Fling in his hand would’ve won the game.

The End?

There you have it: The Three Levels of Multiplayer Magic┢. I would’ve drawn a cute little triangle with three sections: Strategy at the bottom as the base, Politics on top of that, and Group Harmony in the tip, but apparently Microsoft hates me and refuses to produce any useful graphics. I hope that this model of the game makes sense without the visual aid and that it helps you to put some of the different concepts of multiplayer into perspective. Each of these levels is an important part of making the right play; understanding all of the cards, the decks, and the paths to victory at the table is the most important thing, but understanding the people cannot be ignored.

At a tournament, the interactions are much simpler (although the stakes, the pressure, and the strength of your opponent relative to you may well be higher). You have to decide how to beat them, but you don’t have to decide which player to beat first; there’s little or no politics, and you probably don’t care much whether they have a good time playing you, as long as you beat them. At an FNM, it’s still a duel, and while you might have to play against friends (or at least people that you see on a regular basis), your goal is usually to do as well as you can with the deck you bought. It’s only in a multiplayer game that these various levels really start to come alive, and that’s a big part of what makes this game so great!

But Wait: There’s More!!!

This article is going live on December 9, which as you know is the beginning of the Magic World Championship in Chiba, Japan. For me, there are many disadvantages to living in Japan, but the fact that WotC holds at least one major event near me every year makes up for a lot of them (they’re still waiting for PT: Palmerston North back home). Worlds was in nearby Yokohama in 2005 (that’s Ravnica Block to you), and it kind of marked my return to regular play after a couple of years off, and you can bet that I’ll be at Worlds by the time you read this. If you’re going to be there and want to try some multiplayer, look for me: I’ll be the unshaven guy in the black t-shirt with the picture of an out-of-print comic on it (or, considering who else will be there, I’ll be one of the unshaven guys in the comic book t-shirt), and I’m waiting to talk to

If you can’t make it to Worlds but want to get a casual-eye view of the event, complete with three brand new

Commander*** decks and more multiplayer than you can shake a stick at, then all you have to do is vote for me, and I’ll be back to talk about it in my next article.

On the other hand, if the competition is just too tough, and I don’t make it through this round of the Talent Search (it’s safe to say I’m the best multiplayer strategist left in this competition, although possibly the worst player in a Constructed duel and not even one of the three best writers), let me just say that it has been an honor — and an absolute blast! — to have made it this far. Thanks for reading!


Keep it Casual,


* Modifying a precon is a great way to take your table by surprise. I had played that deck myself at the Archenemy release and immediately recognized the lands, so I assumed she was playing the stock deck. This led me to underestimate her until I realized how significantly she’d beefed it up.

** I agree with The Ferrett that
politics only accounts for about 5-10%

of the outcome of the average game, but that’s not to be sneezed at. A good night’s sleep probably only accounts for 5% of your exam performance, but you’re still a Muppet if you stay up all night playing cards before a big test. Plus, if you end up bringing the wrong deck to the table or you aren’t such a good player, then understanding the political level becomes one of the best ways that you can affect the outcome of the game you’re playing right now.

***Unfortunately, I’d written this article before the news broke about the official change to Commander. Awesome news, and it’s tempting to write a whole article about it; however, Sheldon will probably have discussed it before you read this, and we’re still six months away from the actual release, so anything I say is likely to be just wild speculation. As someone whose first EDH deck was Teneb, the Harvester, and who has a deck for every wedge Dragon except Oros, let me just say that this news is incredibly exciting, and Ken Nagle is getting a big sloppy kiss if I see him at Worlds.