The Kitchen Table #339 – Multiplayer Theory: Subtlety

Read Abe Sargent every week... at StarCityGames.com!
Tuesday, May 25th – When you play Magic, you want to win. You can certainly hamstring your deck by playing bad cards or a 2000 card highlander deck or whatever. Still, the very playing of a game implies trying to win. It may not be the goal of playing – I’ve long talked about the goal of playing Magic is to socialize with others and spend times with your friends. You are playing a game, though, and that means you should at least put some effort into trying to win.

Hello all, and a happy day to you! I hope your week has been excellent and joyful.

When writing last week’s article, I noticed that I had never written a full blown article on this subject, and yet I’ve talked about it a lot when assessing cards and play. It seems I should spend a week just talking about this strategy in multiplayer.

When you play Magic, you want to win. You can certainly hamstring your deck by playing bad cards or a 2000 card highlander deck or whatever. Still, the very playing of a game implies trying to win. It may not be the goal of playing — I’ve long talked about the goal of playing Magic is to socialize with others and spend times with your friends. You are playing a game, though, and that means you should at least put some effort into trying to win.

Since you want to win, and you are in a multiplayer environment, things work very differently. In a duel, every permanent you play is analyzed by your opponent and subject to removal. Sometimes the powerful can get axed, like Skullclamp, and sometimes the minor gets handled, like Umbral Mantle. Your opponent is going to assume that everything you play will advance your winning state significantly, and react accordingly. An extreme example is Animate Wall on a Wall of Swords. Your opponent will Naturalize it, because she kills an attacker, even though 3WW for a 3/5 French vanilla flyer is hardly powerful.

In multiplayer, everything changes. The most powerful thing gets axed, and that Animate Wall is hardly the right target. Jay’s Skullclamp is much more likely to get hammered.

The best multiplayer permanents give you the maximum amount of power, while usually flying under the radar of opponents, because they are focusing on things more powerful and flashy.

A classic example of a permanent at just the right power level is Sylvan Library. When people are dropping Mind’s Eye and Future Sight and Mirari’s Wake, Sylvan Library looks downright tame, and often can sneak by. The same is true of things like Mirri’s Guile, Cream of the Crop, etc.

With this basic principle established, let’s look at one of the traps and dangers of multiplayer, in regards to this topic.

The Subjective Evaluation of Cards

It’s a basic fact that my view of a card and your view of a card may be different. Your entire playgroup’s view of a card, and mine, may be very different as well. Beyond that, there are a lot of factors that will change how opponents view your card. Many will get your subtle card killed, so you need to watch for them. What are these factors, and how can you tell when one may be in play? Let’s look.

It Takes too Long — Multiplayer games are slow by their very nature. Some people hate it when you take too long, and if you are resolving Mirri’s Guile every upkeep, someone may off it because they are annoyed at how long it takes. Also, you are bringing attention to it every single time you use it, and everybody looks at you, waiting. This can bring down cards like Sylvan Library. My solution is to get permission to do this early . If you are allowed to Mirri’s Guile in your last opponent’s turn before yours, while she is doing stuff, then not only do you make the game faster and help everybody out, but you are also making the effect less noticeable.

There’s a Combo Piece Out — Umbral Mantle sucks — it’s not that great. But if I just played Ley Druid and have out a Gaea’s Cradle with 6 creatures, it is about to get broken very quickly. A smart player sees you are about to go off, and stops it if possible. If you have a combo or a synergy that is making a card a lot stronger, then expect it to draw some significant attention.

I Just Saw That Card Do X — Similar to above, if you saw a deck last week at a different table with different players go off with Umbral Mantle, you are going to be more suspicious of the next one you see, even if it’s only being used to pump an attacker and untap it for blocking.

You Have a Crazy Reputation — If you have developed a reputation as someone who plays a lot of powerful combos, especially with jank cards, then when you play that Umbral Mantle, everyone will look suspiciously at it, because they know you.

It May Not Hurt Many People, But it Hurts Me — One thing you need to understand is that every card does not mean the same thing to every opponent. One opponent may love your Moat, because all they have is flyers. Another may love it because they are playing a combo deck. Another may hate it because all they have is ground creatures. You might think that your Ghostly Prison may fly under the table, but an opponent with a Decree of Justice in hand may think very differently.

It Doesn’t Hurt Anyone — A corollary to the above principle is when it doesn’t actively hurt anyone, a card can often get away with being on the board. Mirri’s Guile is card disadvantage. There are no crazy Sylvan Library tricks with it and Words of War and you can’t draw extra cards for life. Mirri’s Guile doesn’t hurt anyone. On the other hand, The Abyss does. The Abyss will not fly under the radar, the Guile will.

It’s Broken in X Format — One thing you’ll have to learn to deal with is people who use the biases of their favorite format in multiplayer. You’ll sit down at the card shop, play a nice multiplayer friendly deck that has Elspeth in it, and suddenly she’s getting super-axe-killed. Why? A 1/1 every one of your turns is very minor, and so is Angelic Blessing a creature as a sorcery. Now, if she was close to ultimate level, that might be something, but suddenly Vindicate comes over and you are scratching you head. Why did your Elspeth get killed when your mutual opponent has out Mind’s Eye and is drawing a lot more cards because of it? It happened because Elspeth rocks Standard, and that person saw Elspeth and assumed it was a threat, when it wasn’t one right then and there.

It’s a Lot Stronger in my Mind — As mentioned before, some cards are graded differently by different people. Someone might think Sylvan Library is just too much and take it down, because they think Sylvan Library is a lot more powerful than most. This can happen a lot. I think Honden of Seeing Winds is too much, but maybe you don’t. I’ve had one out for 10 turns in a row and had no one bother with it before, but I’d regularly kill others I see.

It’s the Most Powerful One Out — This happens a lot. If people don’t have Mirari’s Wake power cards in play, then your Sylvan Library might be the most powerful card out at that time. Someone casts a Disenchant from their hand before the Memory Jar cards do, or pops a Seal of Cleansing before casting Replenish, or plays a Hull Breach for an artifact and says, “Might as well get an Enchantment too.” Then your subtle enchantment goes because they only other option is a Rancor. It happens.

Because I Can See It — I hate this with a burning passion, but we have all seen this happen. Someone kills something at the multiplayer table from a person right beside them, when there was a much better target over there. You explain how that other target was much better, and then the person tries to lie their way out. “Why did you kill my Beloved Chaplain when he has out Visara?!” “Well… uh… now Visara can attack you without being blocked…” “Visara flies, you idiot!” People don’t always make the best plays.

I Fear You, Not the Card — Just because someone kills your card doesn’t always mean they are coming after the card. Sometimes, they are coming after you. This can happen especially if you are the Best Player at the table. I’ve had someone take out my Cream of the Crop which an active Survival of the Fittest was in play elsewhere. Someone people fear you, and not the card, and thus you are not allowed to have cards with as much power as someone else.

It Was Burning My Hand! — How many times have you seen a good player draw removal and then immediately use it, because they had it? I drew a Mortify, what can I get? I can get a Sylvan Library? Screw waiting for better target later, let’ use this now! It just happens sometimes.

So, as you can see, there is a lot of room for subjective evaluation of a card’s power and impact on the board. However, one of the things you will notice is despite all of these subjective factors, you have a lot of influence. Play that Honden of Seeing Winds when there is a Future Sight already out somewhere else, because it may fly under the radar. Playing cards that don’t hurt people is better. For example, Propaganda prevents people from attacking you with a lot of creatures, but they can still attack everybody else. It doesn’t hurt as much as a Moat does.

You need to use that subtlety in order to keep your cards in play. Let’s take a look at this principle in action. A quick look at the Underused Hall of Fame helps to demonstrate this.

You have enchantments like Cream of the Crop, Gate to Phyrexia, Tortured Existence, Homarid Spawning Bed, Carpet of Flowers, Night Soil, Lashknife Barrier, and Elemental Augury. All of these cards will sit on the table, almost always under the radar, and keep your opponents from killing it. They will give you some impressive abilities, and yet usually don’t get offed by removal.

I think Lashknife Barrier is a particularly good example of this principle. It draws you a card when you play it, so even if it gets destroyed, you don’t lose a card. Then you can sit with it out and prevent a damage here and prevent a damage there. Pretty soon, you’ve prevented a lot of damage to your creatures, and no one cares enough about it to destroy it, but it gives you a nice little bit of power for free. It’s very subtle.

There are also subtle creatures too. Patron of the Kitsune can jack up your life total quickly while giving you a pertinent but often outclassed 5/6 ground body for 6 mana. Soul Sculptor is another. He turns a creature into a non-creature enchantment, but only until the net creature is played by anyone, so that’s not too annoying, but it is highly valuable. Similarly, Vodalian Illusionist doesn’t screw people over too much. My favorite subtle creature from the Hall is probably Starke of Rath.

No one kills him, because as soon as you use him, he’s gone to someone else. However, he can easily get Rainbow Valed around the board and impact many board positions by having their stuff axed. He’s powerful, and yet he is subtle.

I realize now that subtlety is likely another factor in the success of the Baton of Morale Syndrome, documented in this article.

Although every card mentioned in that article has some degree of subtlety except for Task Mage Assembly, and perhaps Puffer Extract, the one that strikes me the most is Armistice.

Yeah, I know… Armistice sucks. It also will never get Disenchanted. You have a great way to draw cards while also bumping other life totals. It’s like a reverse Necropotence. But get this: in a duel, you activate it five times, and your opponents have averaged 3 life per card draw. You activate it five times in a 6 player multiplayer game and target everybody once, and your opponents have averaged 3 life gain for 5 cards for you. That doesn’t sound too bad. The more players you are facing, the better and better Armistice looks. The ability to give life is a massively powerful one in any diplomatic game. People might keep you alive, so you can give them life. They’ll certainly not want to piss you off by killing your stuff.

Another example is Spirit Mirror, which nobody ever cares to Aura Mutation, giving you a permanent 2/2 on the board. There are a lot of examples out there.

The problem with every card in your deck being one of Multiplayer’s Greatest Hits is that people will grow tired very quickly, and just kill your stuff (and you) with alacrity. You need to have cards that don’t have giant bulls-eyes on them. And yet, you want to win.

You need to find the most powerful cards you can find that don’t get auto-killed. I mentioned earlier that a lot of factors go into when someone kills your stuff. Each table is going to have a different metagame. Each multiplayer group is going to have their own line in the sand. Cross it, and you enter auto-kill territory. Of course, the line is more of a guideline, and it’s pretty fuzzy.

You need to suss out where that line is. Once you have generally figured it out, you can get really close, without going over.

I hope you enjoyed this week’s look at some multiplayer theory. See you next week!

Until later…

Abe Sargent