The New Rules Of Multiplayer, Part II: The Balkanized Metagame

Scoping out the individual metagame is critical to winning in multiplayer — but it’s even more crucial for enjoying it. Coming to the table with the wrong style of deck can result in hurt feelings and group breakups that make Jessica and Nick look tame. Thus, let us examine the types of metagames that tend to appear in multiplayer groups, and the best decks to sweep the each kind of group.

After I wrote my last article on The New Rules Of Multiplayer, JackSquat had this to say in the forums:

“I think you are underestimating how hated (and dumb) combo is in multiplayer, and therefore overestimating how easy it is to ‘hide in plain sight’ while playing it. In my mind, the combo deck is always the biggest threat. Darksteel Colossus and Akroma, Angel of Wrath are powerful threats — but they can’t kill eight players at once without warning. In the presence of Combo decks, the Aggro decks hide in plain sight.”

To which I replied, “That’s if they’re playing obvious combos.” To which JackSquat replied, quite reasonably, “What’s an obvious combo?”

Therein lies the whole problem with multiplayer.

You see, the Internet has welded together a very coherent metagame for Constructed decks. Everyone who wins tournaments reads StarCityGames.com (don’t tell me otherwise, it would break my heart); the best decks are almost invariably known, and if some guy in Albuquerque develops an OMG AMAZING DECK THAT NOBODY’S EVER SEEN BEFORE, people all over the world will be playing it the next week.

This is why Constructed tournaments are, to put it bluntly, boring as dog doo.

The only question is, “What’s [notable player] piloting today?” Anyone who knows what they’re doing has played against your deck a zillion times before; the only question is if he’ll win this time, and he already has a good idea of how likely that will be. If someone turns up with a new and actually good deck — which hardly ever happens at a PTQ — players congregate around it like hobos around an oilcan fire, hoping to see some card they haven’t seen a million times before.

The reason multiplayer is exciting is because it’s so Balkanized. As I said before, the goal of many multiplayers is not efficiency, but interactivity. They don’t want to win; they want to do a lot of things, and preferably different ones. Some people play multiplayer in blissfully ignorance of the Internet, not knowing that there’s a better way to play, happily dealing out cards like those crazy isolated Japanese soldiers in the South Pacific who never got told that Japan lost World War II.

(They’re still on duty, you know. They’re pushing ninety, but they sweep the horizon with their binoculars, waiting for the Allied soldiers to arrive, and when they do they’ll shoot ’em dead.)

Therefore, you never can be quite sure what you’ll get when you sit down to play the multigame. Could be a fierce, interesting game between equals,, or it could be some guy with a Preconstructed Eighth Edition deck spiced up with a few Leviathans his brother gave him.

But the truth is, multiplayer has a metagame; it just differs wildly from table to table. When I sat down in Anchorage, people knew that Mox Diamond inevitably signalled my annoying Limited Resources deck. Thus, to them, Mox Diamond was an obvious card. You probably wouldn’t think twice about it, and I would pound you so hard you’d think you were a Realdoll.

Thus, an “obvious” combo is “one your group recognizes, or thinks it does.” No more, no less. (It doesn’t matter if you’re not playing combo if everyone thinks that Grim Monolith means death. You can be taken down by friendly fire, and they’ll stand over your body afterwards and apologize.)

But the metagame is useful for more than figuring out what decks you can get away with. Scoping out the individual metagame is critical to winning in multiplayer — but it’s even more crucial for enjoying it. Coming to the table with the wrong style of deck can result in hurt feelings and group breakups that make Jessica and Nick look tame.*

Thus, let us examine the types of metagames that tend to appear in multiplayer groups, and the best decks to sweep the table.

The No Metagame.
This is slang for “There is a metagame, but I have no clue what it is.” This is usually a first-timer thing, as in “I saw some guys in the student lounge playing, so I’m bringing a deck. I hope they like me.”

(As an aside, I should add that I don’t play as much Magic as I should because I hate that “walking in the door” feeling. I’ll go if I can drag a friend along to keep me company — but I can’t stand stepping into a room with nothing more than a wan smile and a deck of cards, looking around pathetically in the hopes that maybe I’ll find a friend who’ll play with me! I feel like I’m right back at Kindergarten.

(Truth is, one of the best and most competitive stores in the nation is within walking distance of my house. The Compendium, which launched the career of one Mister Timothy Aten, is just three blocks away. But I don’t know anybody there, and for me that loser between-rounds feeling of staring at the table and goldfishing my deck, trying to make eye contact so maybe someone will talk to me… Well, it’s like chewing tin foil. I can’t. So I go to the coffee shop on Friday nights instead.)

Anyway, the “no metagame” rule can also apply to highly-volatile groups — usually loose gatherings of people who appear in public places. When you have a twenty-plus group of people, each of whom show up occasionally for an average of a six-player game, it’s hard to know what you’ll be facing on a given evening.

The Best Deck:
Something with a lot of flexibility and answers, but not too much power. You want to pack a mulligan stew of a deck with a couple of routes to winning, and flexible answers for troublesome enchantments/artifacts/critters, and something that’s fun.

Bringing a deck that’s too focused can have three unwanted ramifications:

1) You get slammed by incidental hate. Bring a beatdown deck to a critter-hatin’ metagame, and you’re going to lose all night.

2) You get no feel for the metagame. Having a deck that does a little of everything allows you to see how people react — the difference between two metagames can often be divined by watching how the table reacts to you. If there are a lot of creatures and you play Wrath of God, the difference between “Stunned silence,” “How dare you kill my guys?” and “It’s good” will reveal what kind of people you’re playing with.

3) You kiss future games goodbye. You can bring a combo deck or something uber-powerful, of course, but the danger is that you won’t be invited back. Hold off on the total ass-whuppins until you’re sure your group can take it.

The “Grog Bash!” Metagame.
You can tell this metagame instantly because the players don’t seem to acknowledge the existence of the “end of turn” phase. And they don’t comprehend someone might want to react to a declared attack. They believe that Fugitive Wizard is high tech.

It’s not that these guys are dumb — though in terms of Magic skill, they’re definitely Cro-Magnon — but rather that they don’t play that often, and as such their decks tend to be very primitive, usually sporting a mishmash of whatever cards they’ve pulled from packs. You spend a lot of time patiently explaining rules to them. They’re pathetically easy to beat, even if you feel kind of bad when you do it because they barely understand how you beat them.

There are two types of Grog Bashers: the ones who can be evolved, and those who can’t. The ones who can be evolved will start climbing up the multiplayer ladder, learning the rules and building increasingly-complex decks. (Or at least most of them will; you may have a holdout or two.) The ones who can’t be evolved degenerate into one of the next two types of metagames.

The Best Deck:
Usually, a better beatdown will suffice. You don’t need anything fancy — and in fact a complex deck may prove frustrating for everyone since Grog players tend to assume that all spells hit the table, all attacks get through, and all end-of-turns pass by without comment. You may have to remind people that hey, I get a chance to react to that a lot. Extremely complex decks may not even win at all, since Grog players certainly won’t understand an infinite mana loop and may debate the basic rules like “If you can’t draw a card in your draw phase, you lose.” In a tourney, you’d call a judge and win, but at a casual table you may wind up being voted out of a perfectly good victory.

If you’re looking to evolve your group, play a creature deck with a hint of control. These guys don’t know about “a mana curve” or “redundancy” (as in “four of a card is good”), so when they bitch that you always get land or the right cards, explain why and offer to help them with their decks. A single Spiritmonger backed with a Drain Life or two can usually destroy a whole clan of cave-bears.

Or just smack the tar out of ’em. What the heck.

The “Meh”-tagame.
This is the first of two potential metagames that can evolve from “Grog Smash.” (Well, actually, I lie; there’s a third metagame, which is “No metagame at all, because they got tired of you whipping them and stopped playing.” But that is, depending on how you look at it, either a trivially easy game to beat or an impossible one.)

The “Meh”-tagame arises when you show up with your better decks, expose this group to the fresh air of Magic strategy and the Internet and, yes, StarCityGames.com — you are mentioning us, right? — only to discover that they couldn’t care less.

“This is just for fun,” they shrug, not caring whether they lose or not. They built a deck two years ago, and that was such a Herculean effort they don’t want to have to endure it again. Thus, they show up with the same decks over and over again, enjoying the company and the occasional long-distance win.

The Best Deck:
The same deck you’ve been playing. Once you find a deck that beats these guys, it’ll keep beating ’em because they’re not going to change that much — or if they do, it’s going to be a simple answer like “I put in a Naturalize for your Pandemonium.”

All you have to do is switch categories every once in awhile — change your Goblin Beatdown deck into an Elf-based Overrun deck, and hey! You win. Don’t go for the overwhelming smash; sit back, participate in the witty banter, and take pleasure in being the king of your local gameship.

The One-Opponent Metagame.
This is the second of two metagames that can evolve from “Grog Smash,” and it can destroy a group wholesale. The One-Opponent Metagame is what happens when you arrive with your magnificent suitcase fulla tech, and only one person really bothers to step up to the plate.

Thus, you’re often sitting at the table with two or three clueless people, chugging along with substandard decks, and That Guy, who’s the only person worth noting. (The other players would be “Meh”-tagamers.) Games in the one-opponent metagame boil down to one of three sadly predictable outcomes:

1) You win.
2) He wins.
3) One of you bashes the other down to two or three life before he finally loses, then someone else Lightning Bolts the survivor for the win.

If it’s an established situation where Old Dude was mopping the floor with everyone and then you, New Dude, are suddenly providing him with competition, the group may actually be excited to see you. You’ll probably get a lot of cheap wins initially, because the group will be so happy to see Old Dude going down in flames that they’ll assist you wherever they can.

But if it’s a new situation, where one older player suddenly “gets it,” acquiring the spirit of no-holds-barred competition while the rest of them just want to play for fun, the One-Opponent Metagame can destroy your group. You and your opponent are engaged in an arms race to see who can build the best deck — and if the guys who play “for fun” feel like they’re being left behind, they may leave.

This is a tricky situation that involves finesse. Either you dumb down your deck and lose more, or you hold your ground and watch them go. Unfortunately, this can be one of those situations where your criteria for having fun are different from your buddies, and you may need to call it off.

The Best Deck:
A deck for the One-Opponent Metagame has to do one of two things:

1) It needs to encourage other players to look elsewhere, and:

2) Smash the Guy To Beat without taking too much damage yourself.

Generally, the way to do this is to build a modified control deck with heavy rattlesnake elements and a tricky nature. See, wins in the One-Opponent Metagame are largely based on convincing everyone else that Mister Threat needs to be smashed now, or else he’s going to win! Thus, you need a very political deck that makes it difficult for people to attack you, handing out severe punishments to those who would kick you when you’re down. Ideally, you want to be tapped out with no creatures, with your opponents saying, “I dunno…. He probably has something… I’d better do nothing.”

This means a lot of ugly, creature-destroying instants. Instants not only can save you from unexpected betrayals, but you can spring them on Mister Threat at his end-of-turn phase to leave him defenseless for a turn. “Quick, everyone, get him now! Before he wins!”

As for beating Mister Threat, he is half of your metagame. Winning will involve anticipating his next deck. Study him well, grasshopper.

The Anti-Life Equation Metagame.
After a while of enduring beatdown, someone inevitably has A Good Idea:

“Hey! If I combine Propaganda and Peacekeeper, no one can attack me!”

It may not be quite that combination of enchantments — it could be Caltrops and Death Pits of Rath, or Powerstone Minefield and Humility — but eventually, someone’s going to create a deck that involves nullifying the attack phase. Others will follow suit, guaranteeing you that your beatdown deck cannot consistently win.

The Anti-Life Equation Metagame is not fully formed. Nobody’s discovered combo, and nobody’s tried serious control. It’s mostly creature decks, with a smattering of “Hey, let’s make sure no one can touch me!”

The Best Deck:
Playing the Anti-Life Equation deck is not the best method to win, strangely enough. You see, after a week or two of this, people will begin to pack enchantment removal… And there will come a moment where the shields fall on this fully-operational battle station, at which point everyone will pound the crap out of Mister No Creatures while they can.

Thus, your best bet is a flexible beatdown deck with a touch of enchantment/artifact removal — perhaps on a stick, like Kami of Ancient Law. (Be warned, however, that one of the classic things that players inevitably discover is Aether Flash, so keep that in mind.) Still better, if you know that other players are prepared, is a pure beatdown deck, leaving the enchantment-destroying to other players. It’s a risky proposition, but it often pays off in gullible — I mean, hard-working — groups.

That, or if you’re willing to unlock Pandora’s Box, you can introduce combo into your metagame. And may God have mercy on your soul.

The “No” Metagame.
You know how Everyone Loves Raymond? Well, the “No” Metagame can be summed up as Everyone Loves Pernicious Deed. Now that the Anti-Life Equation Phase has passed, people have figured out that the way to win is to deny everyone else their resources. Thus, the table becomes a sweeping war of attrition — Wrath of God follows Armageddon follows Nevinyrral’s Disk, with occasional showers of spot removal.

The table is now little more than a battle for control over resources. A Wild Mongrel can go all the way if you can protect it, because there are no other creatures to block it; they’ve all been lost to the Great Lodoss War.

The Best Deck:
Usually, you win after everyone else has run out of removal. Some of the most embarrassing losses come from the “No” metagame — I’ve known people who lost to fourteen straight attacks from a Mogg Fanatic after they burned all of their mass destruction on the other players. Basically, whatever sticks to the table wins.

Thus, your secret weapon must be reusability. Card advantage is always critical in multiplayer, but never more so than in this area, where cards like Ashen Ghoul, recursed Triskelions, and unfair Patriarch’s Biddings can force opponents to burn their one-use cards to battle your multiple men. You’re Madrox to their Cyclops, baby, the Agent Smith to their Neo…

…Wait, bad comparison. Those guys always lose. But you won’t, as long as you can design a deck that recovers quickly from setbacks and can wring several effects out of one piece of cardboard.

The Combo Metagame.
It’s not your fault. Someone else discovered that a combo can take seven people down handily, and look completely innocent right until the moment it goes off in your face.

It’s not just one guy, busting out with the loopy combination when he can assemble his team of five cards; no, these guys are looking for the efficient, three-card combos that kill everyone. They’ve become addicted to the heady rush of the infinite loop.

The Best Deck:
There’s one of three ways to approach this:

1) The Faster Combo. Root through the decks of yore to find a combo that goes off a turn faster than everyone else. Adapt it for multiplayer. Buy the cards from StarCityGames.com store. Lather, rinse, repeat, until you get to some ludicrous Tendrils of Agony.dec conclusion.

2) The Less Obvious Combo. The other players may be packing enough hate to destroy the deck that everyone understands. Play a deck that they don’t see coming. The trick is finding some deck that won’t be immediately apparent to anyone with a sense of Magic history, and playing without the power cards that signify “DEADLY COMBO DECK” to anyone who knows the game. (Frequently heard at the more advanced tables: “Chrome Mox? Nobody plays that in multiplayer unless they have to win by turn 4! Die, combo deck!”)

3) The Armistice. Agree that you’re all Very Potent Men with hoonanners the size of an overfed anaconda… But you don’t need to show off your big decks all the time. You can win by turn 3. Now that that’s proved, let’s step away from this ugly “gun” thing and move back to killing each other with civilized less-efficient swords.

The Political Metagame.

Ideally, after you’ve gone through the iterations, you’ll have settled into a healthy environment with a diversity of decks. Your best method to winning, then, is a combination of “pure power” and “getting the other guy to do your dirty work for you.”

As I said earlier, reusability is one of the key factors in a multiplayer deck. If you can squeeze seven or eight uses out of a single card, you’re way ahead of the game. And getting huge effects without using any of your own cards is obviously way better.

This is politics: convincing Jimmy that it’s in his best interest to reduce both his resources and someone else’s.

Many people do not like politics, in particular a man called Anthony Alongi. They think it is unfair to point out who’s winning, and make table rules to say that you cannot give advice, or even try to sway another person to your side.

But then again, you have to consider the source of this argument. Anthony Alongi is a duly-elected member of the city council of Hastings, Minnesota. Everyone knows that Minnesota is a hotbed of dirty, backstabbing politics, where only the fittest survive. Doubtlessly, Anthony has to spend several days a week just digging up dirt on his opponents, sitting outside of sleazy motels with a camera and a telephoto lens for hours at a time, waiting for his opportunity to blackmail some helpless sap just so he can survive in Minnesota politics for another week.

With all that under poor Anthony’s belt, is it any wonder that he doesn’t want politics at his multiplayer table? The poor guy. After fending off his seventieth hostile takeover of the day, Anthony probably shrieks like a timid girl at the thought of indulging in more filthy politics to survive. And I can’t say I blame him. He’s a nice guy. It’s hard being the only clean politician in the fetid cesspool that is Hasting politics.

But for the rest of us, who don’t have to spend our days wondering who’s spreading illicit and plainly false rumors about us in an attempt to undermine our core constituency, politics is fun. Thus, you should have as much table talk as possible.

The Best Deck:
At this point, it’s all down to strength. There are a variety of decks, and almost any one of them can work. Choose something strong and flexible (you don’t want that Peacekeeper or Presence of the Master to shut down your deck), and give it your best shot.

Signing off,
The Ferrett
The Here Edits This Here Site Here Guy
[email protected]

* – The advantage of writing an article at the last minute is that I can squeeze in references that happened an hour ago. See how topical I am?**

** – …or not.