The Best Player Syndrome

I don’t remember who said it, but someone claimed that a multiplayer group with varying levels of players will invariably find itself being held down by the poor players or being dominated by the good players. A rift will be created and the group will suffer. I’m here to put that theory to rest.

I love multiplayer. The various facets and intriguing diplomacy make for some of the most memorable Magic moments that I have ever had.

Not all multiplayer groups are created equal. Some multiplayer groups have a bunch of good players in them. Peter Jahn has told us about his group with several judges and players of worth. I call this multiplayer group A. Group A’s can often have high-powered cards and definitely have a multiplayer metagame.

Other multiplayer groups are composed of new players or players with poor skill. These groups can have a very stagnant metagame, with very predictable decks. Called group B, these groups are rarely represented on the internet by enthusiasts and writers, and as such, information about group B play is sparse.

Group C represents the random selection of players that you get at conventions and store gaming rooms. You never know who is going to saddle up and play. Group C is characterized by very few known decks, and there is virtually no metagame. The decks and players vary widely in skill, and there is no predicting what a particular session will have.

Finally, we have group D. Our last group is the regular mixed group; the group that entails poor players and good players. Some card collections can be vast, while others are tiny. It is into this final group that today’s article sojourns.

Multiplayer theory is harder to write and understand than regular Magic. It is very easy to understand metagame theory, for example, like Type Two. There are a certain number of proven decks, and you know the cardpool. Knowing the metagame, therefore, is a relatively simple chore. Those random decks that you face in the first few rounds are ignored, because they will rarely have a factor on the day.

However, in multiplayer, those random decks almost always have an impact on play. Therefore, understanding any given multiplayer metagame is tremendously more difficult than a normal sanctioned environment. Add to that difficulty the four multiplayer groups and you have different analyses. Words written for one multiplayer group can have little to no bearing on another group. I suspect that is why Anthony Alongi major contribution to multiplayer theory has been the evaluation of individual cards. Individual card evaluations can be used by any player, great or small, new or veteran, good or bad, rich or poor.

I cannot remember whether it was The Ferrett or Anthony Alongi who originally wrote that group D cannot long survive. Of course, they didn’t actually use”group D” language, that’s my simplified classification. I read all of Alongi’s and The Ferrett works a long time ago when I wanted to absorb all of the multiplayer theory that I could (same with Peter Jahn, Bennie Smith casual stuff, and so forth. You should really read the multiplayer masters if you haven’t – all have written for StarCityGames.) [Here’s the writer’s archive for those who are looking to catch up. – Knut]

I don’t remember who said it, but their claim was basically that a multiplayer group with varying levels of players will invariably find itself being held down by the poor players or being dominated by the good players. A rift will be created and the group will suffer.

I’m sure whichever actually said that will let me know, and then let me know that I quoted him out of context. I spent about thirty minutes doing searches of StarCityGames article to find the exact quote and author, but my search was fruitless. Anyway, it doesn’t matter in the end, because I have heard that claim multiple times by multiple writers, players, and forum posters (who may be neither writers nor players, you know).

I am here to put that theory to rest. For almost two years, I have been a member of a multiplayer group that includes players whose skills are lacking. When I came to the group, I was the best player with the best decks. After a short while, several players in the group rose in skill considerably. At the same time, a few players’ abilities have actually seemed to deteriorate while many others have remained relatively stagnant.

Our group is this montage of players. Some have never played in a tournament, ever. A few have a significant level of tournament experience, many have small card pools to use while others of us are buying a whole case (each) of Champions of Kamigawa. Some have just one deck and have been playing that deck for over a year. We even have a Magic writer. Others have boxes of decks, ready to choose a different deck at a moment’s notice.

Welcome to a typical group D experience. Today, I am still viewed as the best player in our group, although I believe that our second best player is right behind me. Being viewed as the best player, however, does have advantages and disadvantages. I call this, The Best Player Syndrome.

Before we head into discussing the finer points of the BPS, I wanted to give a big thanks to Anthony Alongi, who hooked me up with my casual gaming group. In December of 2002, Alongi published the decks of various entries into his Animal Magnetism contest. He also published my entry, and in doing so, named it”Who says that they are from Ypsilanti in their bios?” One of the future members of my group read that I was from Ypsilanti, and checked out my bio here on SCG. Lo and behold, I had written that I was new to the area and looking for a casual gaming group in my bio, so he sent me an e-mail and invited me to come play with them.

When he contacted me, there were only two or four players in their regular gaming group. Now we average over eight a week and frequently have something along the lines of ten, twelve, or more. And now, the Best Player Syndrome is in full force.

The Best Player Syndrome

I am going to assume that you are familiar with Alongi-isms. If not, read just about any Alongi article here on SCG or on the Wizards site.

(His SCG stuff is better, in my opinion. Visit his archive at http://www.starcitygames.com/php/news/archive.php?Article=Anthony%20Alongi There is a veritable gold mine of information there. If you need exposure to his dictionary, check out this article http://www.starcitygames.com/php/news/expandnews.php?Article=3891)

As a player of group games, I must admit that I hold a special endearing attitude towards Spider cards. In a mixed group, not everybody is turned away by Rattlesnakes. I play enough Spiders that people have learned to rely on Abe having Spiders. I’ll play Rout, Vengeful Dreams, Order/Chaos, Firestorm, Starstorm, Evacuation, whatever it takes to keep them from killing me.

This is where the Best Player Syndrome comes in. Since I regularly have an answer for a variety of things, people begin to assume that I always have an answer.

Now, you could make a reasonable assumption based on probabilities -“Abe typically has more answers available to him than Player X has, so Player X is the safer target.” This is a reasonable assumption based on empirical data. The BPS doesn’t work that way, however. Other players often think that I have to have an answer, because I’m the Best Player. Not because of data, but because of who I am.

That part of the Best Player Syndrome is good. The other two aspects are not as good. The second aspect of the BPS is the fact that killing you is a status symbol. The shout,”I killed The Abe,” while carrying your head back like some war trophy. Really, this disadvantage and the first advantage negate each other. It means that people are always looking to gun for you, but they are very leery of actually doing anything about it. One scent of blood I the water, however, and the table will crawl over itself in order to attack like a school of piranha.

The third, and most critical aspect of the BPS is that players will never give you a break. Last Friday, I played the most innocent deck ever. See, I am normally chided for playing”cutthroat” decks. In reality, I’m not. Most of my decks are very casual, many are oversized, watered down, and relatively downgraded. Still, I am assaulted by people who claim that my decks are mean. Therefore, I decided to build the uber-casual deck (although I still wanted a path to victory). Here was the deck I built:

3 Rolling Stones

4 Grand Melee

4 Howling Mine

2 Island Sanctuary

2 Uphill Battle

4 Wall of Diffusion

4 Wall of Glare

4 Ageless Sentinels

4 Shifting Wall

4 Wall of Swords

4 Wall of Razors

1 Wall of Essence

2 Orim’s Thunder

2 Vengeful Dreams

2 Order/Chaos

2 Wave of Reckoning

1 Maze of Ith

13 Mountains

13 Plains

For a grand total of 75 cards. I built a Wall deck, and not even a good Wall deck. The deck is relatively innocent, except for people who are worried about Grand Melee. Grand Melee is custom made for Wall decks, as players attack each other, while you are the only player with blockers. You are simultaneously making other players the path of least resistance while making them attack. This deck doesn’t even include a Hammerheim, Kor Haven, Karakas, and other essentials. There are no card advantage engines, mana producing machines, or ways of abusing silly cards. This deck has no fearsome creatures, just a bunch of Walls. This is an innocent little deck.

With all of my love in the form of Howling Mines and Walls, why was I the first to die? My walls were formidable, so I wasn’t the easiest to kill. My deck represented virtually no threat, so I could easily be left for later. Why was I targeted, and why was I killed?

Are you ready for the irony of the situation? The very person who killed me was one of those who commented and complained that I sometimes play my decks too cutthroat. The one time I build and play a very innocuous deck, I die first because of it. You never get a break as the BPS.

Here is the ultimate lesson of the BPS. That game, the one where I played an overly-casual Wall deck with little designs on victory, lasted for four hours. We watched both Revenge of the Nerds and Revenge of the Nerds, part II during that time frame and still kept playing after Part II ended. Four freakin’ hours of multiplayer hell.

Do you know what I learned? I learned that it is incumbent upon me as the Best Player to winnow the chaff. I have to play a decent deck designed to kill people and keep the game moving, or else the game stagnates and it takes four hours to play. It wasn’t even a four hour Epic Struggle, it was an anticlimactic life-gaining, card-drawing fest. I am the grim-reaper of the table.

For I have learned that the most important aspect of the Best Player Syndrome is the responsibility that I have to take on in order to further the group itself. I have to provide a foil and a reason to keep playing.

After all, somebody has to be the Best Player.

Until Later,

Abe Sargent