A paper cut on my eyeball would have been preferable. Licking clean the bottom of an week-old ferret cage? Woulda done it in a second. I would have even welcomed the thought of twitchy junkie giving me a full-body shave with a dull razor and ice-cold water rather than go…
…but alas, I couldn’t avoid it.
I had to play in the tournament, poisoned as it was.
I say "poisoned" simply because the tournament trickled a new element into our usual friendly multiplayer games: Prizes. Whoever won would get free booster packs. In other words, we had introduced the concept of "outright competition" into our friendly little games…
…and like a slit wrist trickling blood into salt water, I knew the prizes would bring out the sharkish combos, who would destroy all that was wholesome and good about multiplayer.
Multiplayer isn’t about winning.
It’s the elephant in the room that all good multiplayers tiptoe around, kind of like America pretending that it really hates drugs when we’re all hopped up on booze and caffeine and cigarettes. Nobody really wants to admit it, but we all know that we could all create a multiplayer deck that wins consistently by turn 5. And there’s only one type of deck that can do that:
AGGRO can’t put out enough creatures to deal out, say, a hundred points of damage by turn 5;
CONTROL can’t counter all of the threats that will be sailing out of the hands of seven players;
That leaves one evil little choice: COMBO.
And they’re so easy!
Jon Chabot’s documented his success with his modified "21" deck, where he adds Furnaces to the usual Pandemonium/Saproling Burst/Replenish combo, so whenever a Saproling Burst token comes into play it deals two or three times as much damage – for 168 points to be distributed across the table. He also has a Sunder deck that wins on turn three. I myself designed a modified Necro/Bargain deck that could kill on turn five consistently in test draws.
I then took that deck list, dropped it into the bottom of a very big hole, and buried it under a big sign that said "Radioactive Waste — Guaranteed Crotch Cancer!"
Because once you start down the combo path, you never have fun again.
Next thing you know, everyone is playing combos because THEY want to win, and then you have eight-person solitaire, or you have people playing ANTI-combo decks, which is no fun either.* Combos ARE efficient. They DO work. And especially under the slack "play with the cards you have" formats encouraged in casual play, combined with the fact that people aren’t watching you as closely in a five-player game, means that you can get them off more often than not.
There is an unspoken compact in most successful multiplayer groups: Keep it down. Win in strange ways. Take the road less travelled. But for God’s sake, don’t let on that you KNOW.
So naturally, the idea of playing in an environment that encouraged the most efficient and least enjoyable method of winning was like drinking lukewarm battery acid with a chaser of cyanide.
But what could I do? There were going to be two fellow columnists there, and you bet your butt they would have written about "Mister Multiplayer" here cowarding his way out of the tourney. My attendance WAS mandatory. And now I had the choice:
Did I go combo or not?
It wasn’t a comfortable question. In my mind, it meant winning or not. I KNEW I could win with a combo deck – heck, the "21" deck would have hosed everybody.
But did I want to be the jerk?
I could be a jerk in single-player tourneys, where the stakes were high and everybody understood. I could even play a combo deck. But suddenly unleashing really nasty, deadly decks into our friendly little support group? I felt like cowboys putting out poxed blankets for the Indians.
Sheldon said, and I quote, "Don’t worry about combos. Do everything you can to break the format." I don’t WANT to break the format. I LIKE the format.
But could I afford to lose?
After a LOT of soul searching, I decided that I could. It would be better to lose and keep some of the fun in the game, rather than to amp it up to full power, set my deck to "eleven," and possibly introduce an unwarranted element into my games.
So I decided that I would NOT play combo.
My soul felt lighter.
So what, then, would I play? And here’s where the strategy part of this article comes in: Rather than giving you a dull tourney report, I am instead going to break down HOW I ARRIVED AT MY DECK. Why I thought it was a good choice. How I judged the metagame. What tweaks I made. In other words, this is a "start to finish" article that shows you how I purposely looked at the field, decided what to play, and how I did.
So here were Unca Sheldie’s rules for the tourney:
1) We operated on a "bounty" system as opposed to a "last man standing" system. In most games, the last person to die is the winner. In a bounty system, you get points for each player you kill, and it’s entirely possible to be killed and still win… IF you took enough players down with you.
2) There would be eight players at a table.
3) There was a long list of banned and restricted cards, which were roughly equivalent to the Extended list – but it also included all color hosers (as elegantly defined by Sheldon), Wash Out, and any cards that harmed nonbasic lands like Price of Progress. It did, however, allow Dark Ritual and Necropotence.
4) One game, one win. It was all for The Big Chalupa.
5) The player who would go first would be determined randomly.
6) There was no mulligan rule. We could mulligan as many times as we liked. Hmm.
So here’s the metagame as I saw it:
OUT FOR BLOOD. Since we’ll be playing in a tourney, the kid gloves will be off and I can assume that people will be playing ugly combos. I would, if I wasn’t making a stupid stand. Therefore, the threat level will be high.
NOBODY EVER PLAYS PERMISSION. Our group is a smart one, and basically they all know that playing blue is a losing proposition; you don’t have enough counterspells to match everyone’s threats. Besides, I have never SEEN a group that hated blue as much as this one does.
There was one game where I saw a guy counter a Blastoderm – a BLASTODERM? It’s going AWAY in four turns, you sillyface! – and the entire group immediately turned and pounded him into the dirt before he hit his next turn. The guy yelped afterwards: "But I wasn’t the threat!" We all gave the same answer:
"But you COULD have interfered with us. Eventually."
Boy, we hate blue.
METAGAME CHECK: MONOBLUE?
It MIGHT be a metagame choice to go with a monoblue deck at this point, or at least a U/W deck with heavy counter ability – always holding back just enough mana to counter or Force the final card in someone’s evil little combo and then allow everyone else to mop the floor with them.
1) Nobody would expect it. They would really be quite shocked.
2) I would gain much love from the table when I countered someone’s combo JUST at the last minute, JUST when they were about to go off — and then everyone would shower me with gratitude.
1) I didn’t know who the combo player WAS. It wasn’t like they’d be jumping about with signs that said, "DIRTY COMBO PLAYER" on their head.
2) My group would be playing with weird stuff so they didn’t tip their hand. They might catch me off guard with some loony creation – and when you’re playing against combo, countering the RIGHT card is important. It’s a shoo-in to get rid of "Goblin Bombardment," but what do you do when someone says, "Carnival of Souls"? And even if I DID counter it, could I successfully convince them that I had saved them all from destruction?
3) The scrubbier players would be playing creatures and attacking randomly. If I was going to be selective about countering, then I needed to have solid creatures out for early-game defense. Blue didn’t have them.
4) If I was going to counter, I had to leave mana open. How the hell would I cast creatures then?
So as tempting as it was, blue wouldn’t work.
THANKS TO THE BOUNTY SYSTEM, WINNING ISN’T NECESSARY. All I have to do is take out the top two or three players, and I’ll be a shoo-in for the win on points. Therefore, I could get away with destroying a couple of players.
METAGAME CHECK: BOUNCING WEASELS?
It’s very tempting to just say "screw it" and go with my ever-popular (and signature) deck, the Bouncing Weasels. Bouncing Weasels is a modified Stompy deck that centers around Stampeding Wildebeests (5/4 tramplers) and Thorn Elementals (7/7 unblockables), and bringing them out very quickly. It runs the house in three-player games. It might be possible to get it out, smash through a player or three, and then leave in style.
But alas, it wouldn’t work. The guys I COULD pick on would be the weakest threats, and I feared combo and lifegain. Combo would have some way to deal with creatures, while lifegain would have Swords to Plowshares. No good. No good.
THE OTHER PLAYERS. Here’s what I knew about the decks of the other guys at the table:
- Sheldon prefers slower decks that take awhile, then explode (his Wildfire/Multani deck was the best example).
- Joseph prefers decks with lots of resets – ‘Haups, et cetera – and weird combos, preferring to sit back and appear to do nothing until he finally takes control in one greedy sweep.
- Sheldon and Joseph are, traditionally, the players to beat.**
- David will show up with his Pox deck or his Oathing Serra deck, which is a modified Oath of Druids deck. Scary. But he’s been touting Pox lately and had some success with it, so I bet he’ll be playing that.
- At least one annoying lifegain mage will show up with four Ivory Towers. They always do.
- There are a couple of regulars who aren’t that good and who just bring out critters and attack at random whoever looks weakest. They never win and they never learn, but unless you’re prepared for them they might beat you to death before you have a chance to play.
- Nobody, and I mean NOBODY, ever knows who the real threat is. I point it out to them. They always miss it. He always wins. *sigh*
And what do I know about my environment?
- Swords to Plowshares are everywhere. I expect to see them. They’re the only form of removal I truly fear.
- Heavy artifact mana will be in evidence. The field is enchantment-heavy, and an Oath of Druids could ruin my day right quick. Any deck I bring better have some way of getting rid of enchantments.
- People are crazy for regenerating blockers ever since I showed them how critical they are – if you have creatures, they’d better have some way to smash through, fly past or sneak around.
- There is always, ALWAYS, graveyard recursion. Usually from Sheldon.
…NOBODY EVER PLAYS PERMISSION. Like I said, we’re all too smart to do that. Sure, there might be the occasional newbie who splashes a Prohibit in or something, but nine times out of ten if you cast something, it will resolve. That means *I* can get away with whatever I want.
So here’s the deal: Sheldon and Joseph all take a long time to set up shop. They generally win if they can get to six mana uninterrupted. Same goes for most players – David loooves his Plague Winds. We are a mana-rich environment, and Joseph takes advantage of that by resetting us with regularity.
So you have two tiers of players; the newbies, who tend to swarm amuck in the early game, and the experienced scaries, who blow everything up and then seat themselves down in the driver’s seat in the late game.
So why not cut them both off?
I’ve always liked Limited Resources.
Let’s read that card, shall we?
W, Enchantment, Exodus Rare
When Limited Resources comes into play, each player chooses five lands he or she controls and sacrifices the rest.
As long as there are ten or more lands in play, players cannot play lands.
Now the benefit of playing is that, in an eight-player game, you can pretty much count on being able to lock everyone down to one land – which really sort of hoses people. Your only way around it is a Bird of Paradise, a Mox Diamond, or an Erase. I could do well.
The only problem was that *I* couldn’t operate on one land. What was I supposed to count on, the eighty-turn Jackal Pup beatdown? I needed land to cast my threats…
…and that’s when the bell went off.
For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, premiere Rogue deckbuilder (and fantastic writer) Jay Moldenhauer-Salazar did fairly well back in the Urza days with a deck called "Wood." The idea was to get out as many lands as humanly possible with an enchantment called "Exploration"…
G, Enchantment, Urza’s Saga Rare
You may play an additional land each turn.
…then cast fatties out the wazoo before your opponent could react. Sounded good to me. I had emailed Jay and asked him for his advice on a LR/Explorations deck awhile back, and here’s what he sent me:
"Let’s see… how to briefly explain this?," says Jay. "The core plan is to get a bunch of lands into play with Exploration and then play Limited Resources. Sterling Grove protects both enchantments and also lets you search for missing pieces. Since Sterling Grove is there, I also included a lot of other enchantments, including ones that help with Limited Resources out like Fertile Ground. Harrow also gets around Limited Resources, and can get the duals you need into play. There’s also Planar Collapse, which can be searched for and to which the deck is immune. Likewise, Impending Disaster lets you start over with the plan if you don’t get the lock early. Chimeric idol, Village, and Stalking Stones are the deck’s offense. I didn’t use things like Moxes, but you can easily throw those in too."
He admitted that this was off the top of his head and he hadn’t done a scrap of playtesting… fair enough.
And it’s not bad, but I really wanna get the lock earlier and most of the lands are nonbasics. If I wanted to get the lock around turn 4, this would be perfect, but the idea is to catch the group with their pants down. I liked the idea of a reset, though.
So I took some of the core and went off on my own. I came up with a VERY skeletal core to the deck, with the idea being to throw two or three lands out on turn one, then lock down with Limited Resources on either Turn 1 or Turn 2. With eight players, you might well deprive some people from playing land altogether.
The core of the deck:
After some debate, I decided I needed Land Grants, since they would thin out the deck like nobody’s business, allowing me to play with less lands and giving me more consistency. Given that Mox Diamonds were fairly common and I feared Oath of Druids, I threw in three Seals of Cleansing so I could Tutor up some instant destruction later in the game. Fine. Also, since I feared large creatures (and I WAS playing white), I opted for Swords to Plowshares as my only creature removal.
Now, how do I apply the beatdown once everyone’s locked? I need to make something large and scary that’s low cost and can smash through defenders. Say, four mana. Well, considering that I use Stampeding Wildebeests in my infamous "Bouncing Weasels" deck and they had a nice synergy with the eternally-depleting Walls of Roots, I threw them in. And Rancors to power them up.
Now I wasn’t entirely happy with this build, because a) I had few real threats to smash through defenses, b) I had no way to get to said threats, and c) I had no way to protect them. Locking your opponents to a single mana generally is a game-ender, but I could easily see many single-mana Swords to Plowing all of my best threats. Ouch. I considered splashing blue so I could throw in Misdirection and maybe something else. I also debated throwing in a pair of Armageddons to reset in case I lost the lock and needed to reestablish it.
I then emailed Jon Chabot, perhaps the finest multiplayer deckbuilder I know, who emailed me back with the following comments:
1) WHY AREN’T YOU PLAYING MULTANI, YOU FOOL?!?
By God, I didn’t know why. Especially since I’d just bought two fresh from StarCity earlier that week. Sure, Multani, Maro-Sorceror was expensive, but if I could bring him out when everyone else was unable to cast spells, I’d have a nice 56/56 untargetable creature running amuck. Good call, Jon!
2) WHY AREN’T YOU PLAYING MULTANI?
I really felt stupid. I should be playing Multani. As Jon said, "If you have the disgrace to lock down the entire table and make them helpless, the least you can do is put them out of their misery quickly." Rightly so, sir!
3) WHY NO MULTANI?
I’m sorry… (cringes)
4) FORGET ABOUT ARMAGEDDON.
He was right. If I lost the lock, I lost.
5) LEAVE OUT THE ENHANCEMENTS.
Again, he was right. Rancor’s a great card, but what I want is HUGE creatures, not small creatures with bonuses. I can use better cards in those slots.
6) ADD DERANGED HERMIT AND SPIKE FEEDERS, THROWING IN A COUPLE OF GAEA’S CRADLES AND CROP ROTATIONS.
I disagreed here, and strongly. Deranged Hermit was five mana, which with only a few lands out wasn’t that great a deal – under normal circumstances, five critters for five mana was great, but immense swarms were Earthquake and Shock-vulnerable. I could get better for five, was my guess.
And Spike Feeders? Waste of a slot. If they’re beating me down enough that I need to get life, I’m losing. There have to be better out there.
Jon helped me focus, though. His deck was not a bad build, but if you were to look at it you’d see that his emphasis was on "last man standing" play. He was very concerned about making sure his deck worked even AFTER the lock got broken… and while that works in LMS play, in the bounty system that feature was a drawback.
I told Jon that the emphasis has to be on getting a quick lock and pound – I don’t care about the late game, I just want to destroy two or three players before the others kill me… as I now ASSUME they will. Much like a Sligh deck is totally small critters and damage and no defense at all, my deck has to be ALL about the lock and destruction. In other words, I will sacrifice the ultimate win for the short-term kills.
And that’s really what I need to do, anyway. I HAVE no late game. With each player I kill, Limited Resources gets far less effective, until finally I’m facing one player with five lands. This is a bad idea. Just kill as many as quickly as I can with the lockdown.
I will need to mulligan tres aggressively until I get a hand that will allow me to go off first or second turn with three lands. I refused to go a card over sixty cards, just for consistency.
So Jon shot back with this deck — here it is, complete, with his comments:
3x Savannahs (This was all I had available)
4x Land Grant
4x Crop Rotation
2x Mox Diamond (again, all I had at the time)
4x Llanowar Elves
2x Fyndhorn Elves
2x Quirion Rangers (They will allow you to bounce a land, if need be, to drop your Cradle if you draw it)
2x Wall of Roots (Since you asked so nicely, you need more than just four
Elves; you cannot rely on having two mana to cast these without them.)
"13 Lands this time, Plus 8 0-1 casting cost green ways of getting your white mana.
"10 Mana Critters, and the Mox Diamonds, since you lack the adepts, I would probably dump the Explorations plan, since it’s just not going to make much difference. A single Fastbond might be worth it, but that’s about it.
4x Limited Resources
4x Enlightened Tutor
2x Sylvan Library
1x Fastbond (We were discussing a potential Type 1 environment, so Jon’s not insane here)
2x Regrowth (At the time we thought this was unrestricted, but Sheldie was ahead of me)
13 Oriented around control
"Eight for the kill. With the amount of small attackers in this deck, and the occassional regenerating wall to combat, Overrun looks to be a perfect fit. Keep in mind, this is secondary for the deck, but with all the dorky little elves (or the Force tokens) Overrun will probably take out two or three opponents for you, if you time it right.
"COVERING UP THE SPOTS ON THE FLOOR:
Any deck has some gaps; you need to kill Creatures and, occasionally, enchantments. Okay…
4x Swords to Plowshares
2x Seal of Cleansing (or Aura of Silence, which is brutal against a certain
"You should not need any more removal than that. Seals can be fetched with Enlighteneds, and your LRs should handle most of the dirty work; you can always Regrowth the seals if you need them again, too. The Force can be Sworded, which stinks, but on the other hand, gives you good defense against Pox and Edict, powers up the Cradle and Overrun, and is THE BEST FATTIE EVER PRINTEDtm. So there.
Once again, I disagreed; this was a fine deck for the right kind of circumstances, but I knew my group. It depends too heavily on getting mana creatures out to help you, and if I knew my group they’d all be smart enough to target the Elves and leave me helpless; I didn’t want to cast anything that was over four mana because of that. (As it turns out, Sheldon packed Earthquakes in both of his decks and proved me right.) I wanted four Wall of Roots, since they were also good for defense against the early-game weenie players.
And since I didn’t want to depend too heavily on creature mana sources, I needed to keep the Explorations in; I couldn’t afford to ditch them. Without the reliability of elf mana, I needed to be able to have two or three lands in play by the time I dropped an Exploration.
Plus, I was getting even sneakier; preliminary playtesting showed that the deck had wildly inconsistent draws, and getting a "good" hand that would allow one to throw down three lands by the second turn AND cast Limited Resources was truly tough. But remember rule #4?
There was no mulligan rule.
Oh, how I planned to abuse THIS loophole. You wanna break the environment, Sheldie?
So my plan was to take a less-than-optimal deck and shuffle repeatedly until I got the God Hand – two forests, a Savannah or a plains, two Explorations, a Limited Resources – and get a VERY nasty first-turn drop. Evil I am, am I evil?
Other changes I made was not adding the Quirions – if I was planning on using lots of creatures, then I’d be using the Cradles then I’d be using Quirions… but I’m not. I left out the Overruns to keep the mana curve low.
I feared enchantments more than Jon did, so I upped the Cleansings and lowered the Plowing. Aura of Silence was VERY tempting, but the mana mix worried me. If I was playing with Birds of Paradise, fine, but I wasn’t playing a darn thing I couldn’t attack with, and at a double-mana cost in my off color, they worried me.
And despite Jon’s urges, I just couldn’t drop my darling Wildebeests. They’re my darlings. They HAD to go in. Besides, they reset the Wall of Roots.
So here was my final, and perhaps ill-advised, build – I bought some cards at the last minute to put them in, and added some graveyard defense with the cards I had left:
1x Thran Foundry
So… how did it do?
Well, first of all, when I got there I discovered that there were three major differences:
1) IT WAS SIX PLAYER, NOT EIGHT PLAYER. Dammit. That meant even with a perfectly ideal draw, at least one or two players might get to two lands before I could drop the lock on turn 2. This made my deck drastically less effective.
2) SHELDON WAS AHEAD OF ME. He noticed that little "mulligan ad infinitum" loophole and closed it. Damn his eyes!
3) IT WAS SIGNIFICANTLY LESS IMPRESSIVE THAN I THOUGHT. It was supposed to be a big deal with boosters and prizes and whatnot flowing about, but as it turned out it was only for the usual set of crap rares. So the competition was far lessened. Only four out of the six players there had made decks specifically for the tourney, and one of the two layabouts was Joseph. One threat down!
So we played.
GAME ONE: I lost, thanks to me ignoring my own game plan. "Mulligan aggressively," I told myself. "You can still actually do well with five cards in hand." And yet, when it came to the clutch, I choked. I kept a hand with the perfect lock but no creatures, and dropped it on turn 2 after three opponents had two lands out.
It was a long battle, but they eventually burned through my defenses over the course of twenty turns, and I couldn’t mount a significant enough offense, since I never was able to draw what I needed.
Placing: Last. Players taken: None.
LESSON LEARNED: Mulligan until you are happy. Period. An early lockdown is key; it’s better to go off early and count on an Elf/Root combo than it is to wait until players can cast, say, the 2/2 Protection Zombies and beat you in the head with them.
GAME TWO: The second game went off perfectly after a six-card mulligan. Lockdown came the first turn with three lands, and actually left some players without ANY lands to play. A fourth-turn Natural Order for a Multani left things over, quick. WHAM. WHAM. WHAM.
Placing: First. Players taken: All.
LESSON LEARNED: When it works, it works, but there were some subtleties of play I missed – I could well have lost because I forgot to lay a land after I killed someone, letting David get up to two lands and a Bird, which he then Harrowed to give him four mana total. When you kill someone, play that land to keep those total lands up to ten and keep everyone locked out!
The final battle could probably have been won by David if he’d really aggressively attacked me, but he played defensive. As a result, I found the time to Plowshare a couple of his defending creatures, which allowed me to Multani smash.
GAME THREE: It’s a near-perfect hand, and I’m going first, which allows me the luxury of a two-turn setup. I lay out the perfect hand with two plains, Limited Resources, Exploration, Wall of Roots, Natural Order, and a Land Grant. I play out my first plains, say "go," everybody plays a land.
Triumphantly, I show everyone my hand and say "LAND GRANT! FEAR IT! MOO HAH HAH!" I pick up my library to fetch that critical Savannah…
And that’s when David says, in a quiet voice, "You need to have no lands in your hand to play Land Grant."
Damn rules lawyers. Damn, DAMN judges.
I try to convince them that I’ll be really grateful if they ignore that ruling, but alas, the table is very Grinchian.
So there I have that happy plains – which I can then play, and have NO GREEN MANA SOURCES TO CAST EXPLORATION! Dammit. Everyone has now seen my hand, I have no threats, and I get to sit there like an idiot.
Next turn I cast the Land Grant, but by then everyone has three lands in play. What use is my Limited Resources? I switch to beatdown mode and don’t do badly, bringing out a Multani around turn seven, but by then there are enough threats that I need to keep him back on defense most of the time. I eventually die.
Placing: Third out. Players Taken: One.
So how was it?
Not bad. In game terms, it was a 1-1-0 showing, which could well have been better had I been smart enough to really look at my hand. As far as the metagame goes, it worked perfectly: Joseph eventually switched to a white weenie deck just to beat me, and frankly it was a threat. I consider it to be a successful night.
So what would I change?
First of all, even eighteen lands seems a little high, and one of the things about Jon Chabot’s final build is that the Limited Resources deck is much closer to a nine-land Stompy than anything else. After the first two lands, every one after that is kind of an annoyance, so I may well choose to bring the land count down to sixteen.
The second observation is that it’s low on beef. Multani is great, but I want something better to Natural Order for after I get him out – and, since I’ve had draws where I’ve drawn both Multanis before I can Natural Order, I may not even be able to count on Naturaling a Multani. It’s simply not enough. I think I’m going to take out some lands and put in a couple of Verdant Forces, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I like channelling Wakefield.
The third observation is that, with a bit more beef, it CAN actually hold its own in the late game. A couple of Thorn Elementals and a Multani are still a threat to anyone, and if all goes wrong I still might be able to pick on the weaker players and pick up some cheap wins.
But I didn’t resort to combo. And I won.
I could do worse.
NEXT WEEK: A Very Special Moment For Team AWAJALOOM
* – One person playing combos? Easily rectified. Two people? Possibly self-correcting. Everyone giving it their shot? Fuggedaboudit.
** – From MY perspective. Maybe Sheldon thinks I’m a Player To Beat. It could be that David wakes up in a cold sweat, screaming my name. And I’m not saying that David’s a bad player, either, I’m just saying that his decks don’t fire QUITE as consistently. His Oath and DPO decks scare me.