SCG Talent Search – Why Dan Shouldn’t Quit

Thursday, October 28th – Ben was miffed; he said that he couldn’t win from this position and threatened to scoop. We can learn a lot from Ben’s story, given that he went on to win the whole game.

There are so many differences between duels and multiplayer Magic that they sometimes seem like entirely different games. On some levels, Magic is Magic, but the factors that you have to consider in order to understand “the right play” proliferate as more players are added to the game.

The biggest misunderstanding that I’ve seen when duel-experienced players go into their first multiplayer games is that they tend not to see the distinction between winning or losing a duel, and winning or losing
at multiplayer

. In particular, the decision about when to scoop when the game state tilts against you is often a clear indicator of whether a player is used to duels or multiplayer. Failing to recognize when you still have paths to victory leads to behavior that might seem inexplicable to the rest of the table, often ruffles feathers within the playgroup, and reduces both fun and win percentages.

Let me give you an example of what I mean from a recent game. I’ll discuss what this concession means in terms of multiplayer strategy, and then talk about how you can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, both when building decks and then in actual game play.

About a month ago, I found myself in a six-way EDH game with my friend Brent (playing Rayne, Academy Chancellor) and four other people that I had never met before. We were in the mid-game when Brent cast Bribery on the used-to-be-Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary deck and pulled out Emrakul, the Aeons Torn. It was brown trousers time.

I tried to coordinate the resistance because, as it turned out, five of the decks at the table were mine. I pointed out to a guy called Ben that I could kill Brent’s only other creature — which would allow Ben to cast his general, Thraximundar, attack Brent, and kill Emrakul. Ben agreed with the plan and swung with Thrax, only to see Brent activate a Faerie Conclave and sac that instead. Brent naturally responded by attacking Ben in retribution, knocking him down to less than twenty and annihilating him down to four lands.

Ben was miffed, to say the least; he said that he couldn’t win from this position and threatened to scoop. I talked him out of it, but he remained
upset — at me for giving him bad advice. For a good many turns after that he was in full-blown vendetta mode, coming after me with
reckless abandon

. It soon became obvious that even though he was still in the game, he didn’t think he had a chance to win, and was just trying to do as much damage to me as possible before what he regarded as his inevitable defeat.

We can learn a lot from Ben’s story, given that he went on to kill me and win the whole game. Obviously, if he’d followed his instinct — honed from years of duels — to scoop, he would have missed out on this opportunity. But why did he think scooping was his best option? Quite simply, he looked at the board, saw that he couldn’t beat the rest of the table, and probably couldn’t even beat anyone else’s board positions head-to-head, and gave up; in other words, he couldn’t beat his opponents, so he assumed that he’d lost.

This illustrates the key difference between duel and multiplayer: in a duel, if you can’t beat your opponent (and they can beat you), then it’s over. You might play it out to see more of their deck, but most of the time you scoop. However, in multiplayer, there is a world of difference between “I can’t beat any of these guys” and “I’ve lost,” simply because of the strategic nature of a group game.

A position that would be untenable in a duel is often much more tenable in multiplayer because killing a player, even one on the brink of death, is a decision that must be made within the overall framework of the game. Killing someone, no matter how weak, almost always involves some opportunity cost in terms of the scarce resources that the remaining players can use to finish each other off, which is why these decisions are often difficult to make.

For example, if you’re at three life and I have a Lightning Bolt in hand, the correct play in a duel is to Bolt you. In multiplayer, I’ve got to deal with at least one other player too. If I lose because I couldn’t do the final three damage to my last opponent, then killing you would have cost me the match. Moreover, keeping a weak opponent alive may give me an advantage over the other players at the table. This may be in terms of the weak player’s board position (keeping one or more of their permanents on the table as long as possible), their spell-casting potential (if only they can get rid of a particularly troubling permanent or counter a threatening spell, for example) or simply to force an opponent to use up their resources instead (much like a planeswalker can soak up an attack that would otherwise be directed at you, leaving a weak opponent alone can often prevent damage to you).

In all of these situations, at least one of your opponents may be unwilling or unable to kill you without hurting themselves, and in some cases may have significant incentive to keep you alive — rendering your scooping unnecessary for the moment.

These dynamics often persist long enough for players in Ben’s position to get back into the game. As the stronger players decide for various strategic reasons not to kill you, and instead focus on killing others, they weaken each other. This means that your relative power increases without you having to do anything. Depending on how long this lasts and how aggressively they use their resources against each other, you may have time to recover your board position, draw your game-changing cards and (perhaps most importantly) continue to have fun playing Magic.

In Ben’s case, he was stuck on four lands for a little while, but was able to play, in rapid succession, Mana Drain,

, Crucible of Worlds, Sorin Markov, Cruel Ultimatum, and Nucklavee. As you can imagine, it wasn’t long before killing him became a priority, but by that stage nobody had the resources to do it. Soon he was able to cast Cruel Ultimatum, Mana Drain, and regrow them both with Nucklavee, every other turn, and eventually every turn. Along the way he crushed me, dropped Bojuka Bog twice against a reanimator deck, and cackled maniacally several times.

Anyone can come back from the brink, but you can maximize your chances of doing so when building your deck. With a tip of the hat to Messrs. Ferrett
and Alongi, it’s all about, resources,
, and

. In a nutshell, resource management involves getting more resources than your opponents (preferably at their expense) and getting the most use out of yours. Rebound means the ability to bounce back from a weak position to a strong one, and Cockroach refers to cards that can provide effects repeatedly. The Thraximundar build that Ben piloted to victory has some good examples of these elements, so let’s look at a decklist and identify some of the key cards.

THRAXIMUNDAR: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle

Creatures (22)

Balthor the Defiled
Bone Shredder
Crypt Angel
Defiler of Souls
Djinn Illuminatus
Fleshbag Marauder
Garza Zol, Plague Queen
Izzet Chronarch
Mnemonic Wall
Nezumi Graverobber
Nicol Bolas
Nightscape Apprentice
Prince of Thralls
River Kelpie
Sedris, the Traitor King
Sol’Kanar the Swamp King
Tetsuo Umezawa
Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre

Artifacts (10)

Crucible of Worlds


Dimir Signet

Izzet Signet

Journeyer’s Kite

Mana Crypt


Nim Deathmantle

Rakdos Signet

Veilstone Amulet

Enchantments (2)

Leyline of Anticipation

Rhystic Study

Planeswalkers (3)

Liliana Vess

Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker

Sorin Markov

Instants (8)

Bituminous Blast

Cauldron Dance

Crosis’s Charm

Dark Ritual

Mana Drain



Wild Ricochet

Sorceries (18)

All is Dust
Barter in Blood
Beacon of Tomorrows
Beacon of Unrest
Consuming Vapors
Cruel Ultimatum
Decree of Pain
Demonic Collusion
Demonic Tutor
Diabolic Tutor
Innocent Blood
Overwhelming Forces
Syphon Mind
Slave of Bolas
Torrent of Souls

Lands (37)

Akoum Refuge


Blood Crypt

Bloodstained Mire

Bojuka Bog

Crosis’s Catacombs

Crumbling Necropolis

Crypt of Agadeem

Dimir Aqueduct

Dragonskull Summit

Drowned Catacomb

Halimar Depths

2 Islands

Izzet Boilerworks

Jwar Isle Refuge

Molten Slagheap

3 Mountains

Polluted Delta

Rakdos Carnarium

Rupture Spire

Scalding Tarn

Steam Vents

6 Swamps

Tainted Isle

Tainted Peak

Terramorphic Expanse

Underground Sea

Volcanic Island

Watery Grave

A deck like this is all about playing powerful spells that give you a big advantage over your opponents, recurring them and doing it all over again. The all-stars are:

  • Cruel Ultimatum

    : Make Magic a zero-sum game! Kill a threat, strip their hand and set yourself up with four extra cards.

  • Decree of Pain

    Overwhelming Forces

    : The definition of card advantage, Decree may kill some of your critters too, but you almost guarantee that you’ll be better able to rebuild afterwards.

  • Slave of Bolas

    : What’s better than killing their creatures? Killing them with their critters before killing them! Slave of Bolas is particularly good if you can equip their creature with Deathrender before you sacrifice it. See also: Spinal Embrace.

  • Mirari

    : Get double duty from all of your most powerful spells? Sign me up!

  • Nucklavee

    and Friends: The cockroach value of these cards is undeniable letting you grind out even more advantage from your key spells, especially when you’re returning a spell like Ultimatum or Victimize that will allow you to recur those creatures. It’s nice when you have a 4/4 beater that your opponent is afraid to kill! Crypt Angel belongs in the same category.

  • Journeyer’s Kite

    : I know it only fetches basic lands — but an extra card is an extra card! Guaranteeing your land drops, thinning your deck, and protecting yourself against cards that hit non-basic lands are just three reasons why the Kite is the first card I put into every EDH deck.

  • Planeswalkers

    : I know that some folks don’t like to play them for fear of becoming a target, but the power and reusability of these cards is just too great to ignore — especially in a metagame with a lot of Wrath of God effects. I’ve only ever used the ultimate abilities for these three ‘walkers in duels, but it doesn’t matter when their other abilities are so tasty, and the effort of keeping them off the ultimate distracts people from knocking me around. I also recommend mourning the loss of a Planeswalkers the same way you’d mourn the loss of a close friend, so that your opponents think that they’ve done enough damage to you by killing the ‘walker.

Every color has options for turning things around, whether it’s one of green’s instant army cards such as Beacon of Creation or Genesis Wave, blue’s tricks such as Reins of Power and Gather Specimens, or red’s ability to burn faces, steal creatures and scorch the earth. Just make sure your deck includes enough ways to get your plan back on track when it is derailed.

Finally, there is something of the psychological to surviving when you are in Ben’s position. If you feel that you can’t win, make sure people know about it. They may not believe you, or they may want to oust you anyway, but the key to multiplayer strategy is basically to identify the biggest threats to you and deal with them; a player guided by this principle isn’t necessarily going to kill a player when the

which that player represents has been neutralized, especially if other players are now posing more urgent threats. Don’t whine, but remind everyone that you are no longer a clear and present danger (“And, oh my god,

almost has enough mana to cast Craw Wurm! Who will save us!?”). I’ve seen people respond to a near-death experience with a comment like “You guys are so lucky, because I would have totally owned you all next turn.” This kind of attitude gains you nothing, and is a sure-fire way to ensure that your opponents kick you when you’re down.

If you are granted some breathing room, play it smart. Sandbag your removal, keep everyone else thinking that you aren’t a threat for as long as possible, and try to make yourself marginally useful to at least one of the big guns at the table. As a hypothetical example, if I Disenchant player A’s inactive Luminarch Ascension when I’m weak, they might oust me, either out of spite or just to remove a complication from the game, but if I Disenchant the Oblivion Ring they put on player B’s big creature, then player B has the incentive to swing at player A (to keep counters off the Ascension), and player A may have their hands too full with them to oust me.

In other words, the obvious play when you are a contender may not be the best move when you’re in intensive care.

Above all, be aware that it is possible to overplay your hand, create a strong perception of threat and paint a target on your head — so don’t cross that threshold until you’re ready to deal with the renewed attentions of the rest of the table.

Giving up on a game, while sometimes worth it, is a much more complex issue in multiplayer than in a duel, for a whole host of reasons. My advice (and Ben’s too, I’m sure) when you find yourself unable to beat any of the titans at your table is to be patient and stay in the game long enough to see how the situation unfolds. Like countless players at kitchen tables since time immemorial, you might just be pleasantly surprised at the way complex strategic factors interact in your favor.