Shut Up And Play

Some multiplayer groups don’t allow table talk between teammates. Communication in a team environment isn’t about taking away an advantage from the opponent – it’s about working together to make a solid team that can win based on better skills, not less mistakes. Would you rather watch two football teams continually fumble the ball…. or would you rather watch great teams make shoestring catches, stellar breaks, and diving tackles?

If you’ve ever played a team sport, you know that the basic tenet for a successful team is communication. Your teammate needs to know where you are positioned so he can throw the ball to you. You yell “Got it,” “I go,” or “Mine!” when you want another person to know you’ve got the ball. Communication isn’t always verbal, either. Catchers use fingers to signal to the pitcher what to throw. Hitters in volleyball show numbers behind their backs to the setter for which position they will be ready to spike. A hockey goalie will smack his stick on the ice to warn players when the penalty clock is about to expire.

One can argue whether or not Magic can be considered a sport – but for the sake of this article, I am going to define it as such. So if Magic is a sport, then any sort of multiplayer Magic that is comprised of teams, such as Two-Headed Giant and Emperor, must therefore be considered a team sport. If communication is vital to team sports, then it would naturally follow that communication would be key to playing an exciting game of team Magic.

You can easily envision situations where it would be beneficial to make your teammates aware of what you would like to do. You have an Otherworldly Journey in hand that would save your teammate’s creature and destroy the attacker – all you would need to say is “block.” You are about to block a Frost Giant with a Cruel Deceiver, and you happen to be holding a Hundred-Talon Strike. Your teammate has a Glacial Ray in hand (you know this because she spliced it last turn), but you don’t want her to waste it. You could simply say, “got it.” How about trying to let your teammate know to keep mana open to use his Soratami Savant? Saying “keep three open” should be enough to give him an idea of what he should do.

These suggestions may seem like obvious and mundane forms of communication for multiplayer, provided you are allowed such luxury. In our group, unfortunately, table talk such as this is a faux pas. When my general plays Kiki-Jiki, Mirror-Breaker and decides that it doesn’t matter whether or not he clones Lifespinner or Rootrunner, I cannot say, “Hello? Rootrunner will lock down the game if you sacrifice it each time!” I can’t even cough and say “Runner” under my breath, hoping he gets the hint. Instead, I have to take a deep breath and bite my tongue.

At least I can still get away with covering my face and shaking my head in disgust.

When the situations get more complicated, disallowing critical communication becomes even more frustrating. When two people on the same team want to respond to a spell from the opponents, it goes merely by priority order. If an opponent attempts to cast Terashi’s Verdict on my Okiba-Gang Shinobi and I happen to be sitting to the left of my teammate, there is no way for me to prevent him from using Veil of Secrecy even though I have Blessed Breath in my hand. He gets the chance to respond first, and I cannot tell him not to cast a spell. If my teammate is afraid to attack his creatures into a defense because a Split-Tail Miko will keep the opponent’s creatures alive, I can’t let him know to attack anyway – knowing full well I want to get the Split-Tail tapped so I can sacrifice my Frostling and finally get that annoying critter out of the way. I am allowed to say, “I’ll tell you later,” which, if you can imagine, goes over real well for the less patient in our group.

I am not trying to condemn the group I play with in the least – they are one of the best groups of Magic players I have gotten to know and love. I, however, like to challenge rules that feel like they cripple a game.

Imagine applying this “no table talk” example to team sports. When two outfielders have to decide who would catch a fly ball, they’d have to figure out who had priority to get it first, if they chose to get it. The ball would probably have hit the ground and the batter would be rounding second before they figured it out. Remember the volleyball players who signed their hitting positions? For the sake of argument, let’s extend the concept of no table talk to “no signaling whatsoever.” (Which isn’t that far of a stretch – The Ferrett) Without a mind-reading setter, those volleyball players would have to limit themselves to one position (instead of the typical two to three) in order to guarantee a good set. How many times do you think a catcher would miss an 80-mph curve ball if he didn’t know it was coming?

Communication in a team environment isn’t about taking away an advantage from the opponent – it’s about working together to make a solid team that can win based on better skills, not less mistakes. Would you rather watch two football teams continually fumble the ball…. or would you rather watch great teams make shoestring catches, stellar breaks, and diving tackles?

I’d prefer to watch spectacular plays, both in sports and in Magic. By allowing even the briefest of comments between team players, it no longer becomes a matter of who can out-blunder the other team, but who can actually outwit each other. Don’t you think it would be more fun to not have to sit by helplessly, cringing at the blatant mistakes that cost the game? If you think so, and you have the “no table talk” rule in your group, I recommend abolishing it right now.

Personally, I would be interested to know how other multiplayer groups handle the subject of communication. If you don’t have this unwritten rule to remain unspoken, say something on the message boards. If you’re a steadfast no-talker, let me know why. If you’ve even got the slightest opinion on the subject matter, the soapbox is all yours.

In the meantime, though, I am stuck with the rules that have been handed down from past generations. If you happen to be one of those unfortunate groups with the same limitation, there are ways to get around this handicap. Just because there is no table talk doesn’t necessarily infer that you can’t communicate – you just can’t do it verbally.

There are several, non-abusive forms of signaling that can be accomplished to get your teammates to behave a certain way. Most of these types of situations happen around the combat phase, when you want a teammate to either attack or block. Fortunately, the combat phase has been neatly pieced apart such that as a teammate, you can respond at several intervals:

  • Before attackers are declared

  • After attackers are declared but before blockers are declared

  • After blockers are declared but before damage goes on the stack

  • After damage goes on the stack but before damage has resolved

If you want your teammate to either attack or block because you have a critical spell or ability that will assist in combat, the best method of signaling your intentions is to play the spell immediately before your teammate chooses to attack or block. In the case of blocking, cast the spell after attackers have been declared but before your teammate has declared blockers. For example, you’re in the middle of a Two-Headed Giant Sealed tournament. Your opponent attacks with a Samurai of the Pale Curtain equipped with Ronin Warclub. Your teammate has a Nezumi Ronin available to block. Since you have a Blessing of Leeches in your hand that would help, you want to get your teammate to block with the Nezumi Ronin to kill the Samurai of the Pale Curtain. After attackers have been declared, interrupt at this point to indicate you have an effect before blockers are declared. Cast Blessing of the Leeches on the Nezumi Ronin. Since it is now clear to your teammate that the Ronin will survive, she will know to block.

When you’re trying to get your opponent to attack, make sure you’re paying enough attention to interrupt the game before your teammate passes through the combat phase – since he may not want to attack. As your teammate progresses through his turn, announce that you would like to do something before attackers are declared. This is the opportunity to boost a creature or to remove a blocker. For example, if your teammate has four snake tokens in play but doesn’t want to sacrifice any of them into a Goblin Cohort, this is the time to use your removal. Before attackers are declared, use Glacial Ray to remove the Goblin Cohort so your teammate can attack with impunity.

The things I have mentioned above are obvious, above-the-board tricks you can use to at least maintain some advantage. What about the more difficult plays that you can’t merely cast at the correct moment? What if you happen to be holding a Strength of Cedars and all you need to win is for your teammate to attack her three creatures into two defenders? You can’t expect to cast Strength of Cedars on one of your teammate’s creatures and have it pass through unblocked. What if you are holding a Hideous Laughter while your teammate is holding the ground with a bunch of 2/2 creatures against an army of 3/3 creatures? How can you tell her to block with everything, put damage on the stack, and then cast the Laughter? Without some form of communication, it just isn’t possible…

…Unless you find some sneaky ways to get around the “no table talk” rule. I thought of a few suggestions of my own, mostly because it would be a fun exercise and maybe give you something to think about the next time you got together with your multiplayer friends.

The one we all miss that I want to assist my teammates with is remembering counters. With all the ki counters floating around Kamigawa and the charge counters running rampant in Mirrodin, it is easy to miss one here and there. If you’re a good team player, you can usually catch when one of your teammates is about to miss an opportunity to put a counter on one of his permanents. Instead of mentioning it to him, merely slide him a counter or pass him a die. That should be enough for him to recognize what to do with it.

I mentioned previously that you might find yourself in a situation where you would rather use your less-versatile spell on a creature than have a teammate use more valuable removal. To get around the issue with priority, add mana to your mana pool equal to the cost of the spell before going around the horn checking for priority. I should note that you can’t actually add mana to your mana pool until you have priority – but no one can prevent you from quickly tapping and then untapping your land, over even just touching your land to indicate that you would like to do something.

Let’s revisit the Hundred-Talon Strike example. Your Okiba-Gang Shinobi has just been targeted, and you want to respond with Blessed Breath. Before everyone starts deciding to respond to the spell, tap a Plains immediately to let your teammates know you are ready with a response. You’ll probably have to untap to allow the proper turn of priority, but at least you’ve sent a signal to the rest of your teammates.

Upkeep is another one of those annoying things that people tend to forget. You can help get a teammate to remember to pay upkeep on a card by playing one of your own abilities during that teammate’s upkeep. For example, your teammate has Kuro, Pitlord that will end the game if he can remember to pay its steep BBBB upkeep. You happen to have a Brutal Deceiver in play and plenty of land. Before your teammate begins to draw, declare that you are playing the Brutal Deceiver’s ability to look at the top card of your library during your teammate’s upkeep. Hopefully that will be enough of a memory trigger to remind him that he needs to pay the upkeep on Kuro.

Sidestepping forgetfulness about how a card operates is another large part of using non-verbal communication. When I expect a teammate to be doing something with a certain permanent and it appears she either doesn’t realize what the card can do or has stopped paying attention to the card, I request to pick it up and read it. This is usually enough of a trigger for my teammate to read the card and possibly understand what I might be seeing that she isn’t.

What about those real trick plays – the ones where you want your teammate to mass attack before casting a Strength of Cedars on the unblocked creature? How about getting your teammate to block such that you can cast Hideous Laughter and wipe the board? There are two ways to go about indicating you have a play up your sleeve, provided your teammate knows what is in your deck. The first is to activate some ability before you want your teammate to do something. The second is to tap your land for mana equivalent to the cost of the spell in your hand. In the Strength of Cedars example, if you have a Sensei’s Divining Top on the table, you can activate it before attackers are declared. This can indicate to your teammate that you want her to attack.

This may be a little confusing, however, because it doesn’t clearly indicate if you want her to attack with all her creatures or just a specific one. At the very least, it does provide a signal for her to watch. If you tapped five mana before attackers are declared, she would clearly know that you were casting something for five mana, which would narrow the field of what she should expect to happen. The downfall, though, is that if she does not respond as you desire, you can end up taking five mana burn at the end of her combat phase. The same goes for blocking when you need to get damage on the stack first, as in the Hideous Laughter example. After attackers are declared but before blockers, play an ability or tap the appropriate mana to indicate that you want your teammate to block.

These ideas may sound a bit sneaky and underhanded at first blush, but I just want to open up the world of multiplayer to more thinking, more strategy. It is bending and stretching the limits of rules that leads to understanding their purpose or discovering inherent flaws that need to be fixed. Sometimes, we uncover the need to remove them entirely. You can always choose to be gentlemanly (or womanly) and adhere to the strictest bylaw, but I think you lose a little bit of fun if you can’t experiment with seeing how far you can push the law. Admit it – even you drive faster than the speed limit when you don’t think anyone is watching.