Now that I’m certain most of you are back from Spring Break, it’s time to go back to school. MY school, where there are no lovely co-eds, lenient professors, or beer bong parties.
A while back, I made an effort to establish a brief set of multiplayer deckbuilding and play principles. While feedback was quite positive, I never felt entirely happy with the effort since it seemed to drag on so. Really, I wanted to distill everything into a few short sentences that people could follow more easily.
Since I’ve had many more columns to hash out various ideas of mine, and months to hear back from all the readers out there who play in assorted ways and have certain situations arise, I think I can do this now. So I’m setting aside (most of) my silly humor, as I do occasionally, to re-establish the Alongi School of Multiplayer Magic.
A couple of disclaimers, to keep the lawyers happy. First, these pertain largely to chaos and similar independent-player formats, though I think now I’ve got the principles to the point where team play is well covered, too. If I had to add another principle for team play, it would be an obvious "don’t hose your own friends" kind of rule — nothing folks couldn’t figure out on their own.
Second, as I’ve said before, the idea of an Alongi School of Magic is put forth in a rather self-mocking sort of way. I do hope people will find it useful, but the whole idea of an "expert" casual player is rather silly. There are certainly casual players with more experience than others, and I’ve been around a while, but the variation in each group’s play style, the preferences of color and card type within that group, etc. are just too numerous for anyone to proclaim themselves as somehow "ahead of the pack". I dispense advice based on my own experiences and what I hear my readers tell me. If your own spirit guide has you eating a different flavor of cactus, good for you.
You can catch an earlier version of the Alongi School of Multiplayer Magic over on the Dojo-in-Stasis, here. By revising this school, I am not throwing away anything from the old article, really. What I’ve done is blended the two "wings" (deck building and deck playing) and focused them into four general principles. What I hope I’ve come up with is a set of guidelines that should infuse your style in group play, whether we’re talking about deck-building, playing, or victory dances. It should be easier to remember and, more importantly, take less time to hammer into stone tablets.
There are four principles in the Alongi School of Multiplayer Magic. I’ve associated each with a pretty creature so you can employ mnemonic devices if helpful. The acronym of these four creatures spells out CHEW, which can be short in your mind for "chew on this", "Chewbacca", or "chew-chew train". Whatever helps.
1) BE THE COBRA: Strike with your best cards.
2) BE THE HYDRA: Be ready with and for multiple threats.
3) BE THE EGGMAN: Have fun.
4) BE THE WALRUS: Ku-ku-kachoo, baby. There is no diplomacy.
PRINCIPLE #1: PLAY WITH YOUR BEST CARDS. This is an old tenet of mine, one I’ve hammered upon many times in past columns. I won’t delve too deeply again here.
The critical thing to remember is that there are a good many players out there who play very well without using obvious hammers. These folks usually have a slippery combo in the works (the cards they use aren’t exactly slouches, either) and they have a perfect right to win games, too, if they’re clever enough to fool the rest of us. But my personal experience, and hearing from many people in many different types of play groups, leads me to believe that the best strategy in multiplayer is honest, controlled aggression. Put out cards that maximize your ability to do damage, mill cards, whatever. Play them as soon as you can safely do so — you gain less than you think in waiting for the control or combo players to draw more pieces of their puzzles. And keep good low-cost safety cards, like Misdirection, Seal of Fire, and Swords to Plowshares, ready in your hand or in play for when the first few opponents try to "teach you a lesson."
HOMEWORK: Yes, that’s right, homework. What’s a school without homework, after all? Each of these principles will come with three things for each of you readers to try over the coming few weeks. There’s a basic, intermediate, and advanced assignment for each:
* Basic: Theo made a really cool deck once (for a very specific format: this isn’t usually advisable) that contained 40 non-land cards. (And 20 land, of course.) These forty were split into two groups of twenty: the first twenty were cards like Mons Goblin Raiders, Gray Ogre, and Firebreathing. The second twenty were exact mirrors of the first twenty, but they were all superior versions: Mogg Maniac, Suq’ata Lancer, Crown of Flames. It was a great demonstration of what optimal cards really are. Those of you beginners who might need a little practice in identifying "good" vs. "not-as-good" cards should try this exercise, though not necessarily by building a deck: just pick fifteen random cards out of your collection, without looking hard at them. Note the casting cost, the power/toughness for creatures, etc. Now choose five of those cards and find superior versions (in your collection, or just your memory) of them. If that takes you less than half an hour, try to do ten.
* Intermediate: Find a deck from StarCityCCG.com, New Wave, Sideboard, Dojo, etc. that you really like. (*Gasp!* He’s advocating looking at Net decks! Yes, people, that’s why they’re there. And we can use them without feeling dirty, if we’re creative.) This is a tournament deck, built for duels. Rip it apart and rebuild it so it works in multiplayer. Keep the $15 rares in there. (Use proxies, of course, until you think you’ve got something you really want to play with.)
Everyone, be careful interpreting my intent here. I am not saying that every good multiplayer deck has to have $15 rares in it. I am saying that taking acknowledged quality cards and learning to play well with them is a good thing. So is taking really bad, or just odd, cards, and learning to play with them — but that’s what Break this Card is for.
* Advanced: Take any seven cards from my Multiplayer Hall of Fame (*sigh*…I guess I’m going to have to redo this again, soon, on a live site, aren’t I?…ugh, the pain of it all…). Give preference to the rares you already have, or the commons and uncommons in the Hall that you almost certainly can get for a song. Build a new deck using at least two copies of each of the seven cards you use. Hint: the lands and artifacts can give you a great headstart here.
PRINCIPLE #2. YOU MUST HAVE AND EXPECT MULTIPLE THREATS. Hydras aren’t even exactly the right animal, here, but they come closest. The point is, with two to twenty opponents, one of your heads is likely to get chopped off. You should have another three ready to spring up in its place. When playing with an experienced group, you will see terrific and creative disruption like Portcullis, Voldalian Illusionist, Cataclysm, and Teferi’s Puzzle Box. You may not get your way in the early stages. What you need, even in the most aggressive multiplayer decks, is either (a) a way to remove or counter the disruption; (b) a way to recover from the disruption; or (c) an alternate path to victory.
A good example of such a deck might be one (hypothetical for now) that seeks to mill as a path to victory, using the typical Whetstones, Millstones, Grindstones, whatever. It probably is based in blue, so it’s using Prosperity to make everyone draw cards at once. Since it’s doing that, it might also want to put out an Iron Maiden or Viseling, so in case everyone’s playing with 100-card decks, there’s a better way to win. And the player may even want to consider Indentured Djinns, which under normal circumstances are highly questionable in multiplayer, to serve as both blockers and, if appropriate, attackers.
On the more aggressive side, a deck using high-powered damage engines like Furnace of Rath, Might of Oaks, and Laccoliths may want to make sure they’ve packed Splinter, Crumble, or Creeping Mold to get rid of the Bubble Matrix. Or perhaps lots of direct damage in case an Ensnaring Bridge hits the table.
* Basic: Build a sound multiplayer deck that has twelve slots reserved to stop or recover from any four of the following six board clearers: Wrath of God, Armageddon, Nevinnyral’s Disk, Jokulhaups, Tranquil Grove, Living Death. Do it in any combination of colors, but without using any of these cards (or obvious derivatives, like Catastrophe or Shatterstorm) themselves. Test it in a five+ player game, then abandon the twelve+ Counterspell method and try again.
* Intermediate: Build an "against-type" deck. That is, choose a color, and build a mono-deck that does not use the primary two mechanisms of that color to win. So: a mono-red without burn or land destruction, a black deck without creature removal or graveyard manipulation, a green deck without creatures with higher power than 3 or deck manipulation, a blue deck without countermagic or bounce, and a white deck without permanent removal or protection/life gain. No artifacts allowed! What this will do is increase your ability to innovate within a color, and come up with creative alternate solutions. Your best bet is to do this for your whole group, each person taking a different color if possible, and see what different people came up with for different colors.
* Advanced: Build an all-artifact deck capable of these three completely different paths to victory: creature beatdown, direct damage, milling. Make it competitive within your group. (This is another good project for the whole group to tackle at once.)
PRINCIPLE #3. YOU ARE PLAYING THIS GAME FOR FUN. I originally had no idea how the image of an Eggman fits in here, but the Walrus is critical to #4, so it had to be Eggman for #3. If it helps, envision the Eggman not as a fragile man made of eggshell, but rather a fleshy man shopping for eggs in the supermarket. You are this Eggman. You love acquiring eggs. It is fun for you. The only reason you come to the store is to buy eggs, even though you have 489 of them already in your refrigerator at home. You like collecting uncommon and rare eggs, and balancing them in different formations and piles. You crazy Eggman, you.
There, does that help? Let’s move on.
Fun happens when people show their honest selves and respect each other for it. That means you build your own decks. You seek out the lonely guy (or gal) in the dark corner of the shop, and ask them if they want to join in. You avoid ganging up on one player unless there is a clear strategic reason for doing so. You figure out disputes without resorting to accusation. You play hard and fight to survive until you are officially out of the game. And you play as if there are no prizes waiting for you at the end — because usually, there aren’t.
Don’t mistake "fun" for "lack of desire to win". As I said, show your honest self. Humans are by nature rather competitive mammals, and Magic is one of millions of outlets we’ve created for ourselves to let that energy out. Competition, done honestly and respectfully, IS fun to most of us. And if you do it right, you get a bonus: over time, as each person in your group strives for new and creative ways to win, everybody gets to watch each other get better and better, and take some pride in that.
* Basic (this is for those of you who haven’t played casual Magic for months because you’ve been caught up in prep for the Pro Tour): Pull Team Clever Name together and instead of playtesting your decks for the upcoming Grand Prix, play chaos with whatever decks you have handy. (If you don’t have a deck handy, do a draft, and just remember Sizzle is a lot better, now.)
* Intermediate: While at your next Pro Tour Qualifier or Prerelease, pull together four or five strangers who are done with their matches but finished too late for the most recent side draft, and ask if they’d like to just do a quick chaos or team game. You don’t have to finish it, of course; the next round is coming up soon!
* Advanced: Figure out what time all the kids three to fifteen years younger than you play at the local shop. Go in there, start up a conversation by trading or whatever, and then ask if they’d like to play a group game. Play all-commons decks until they start to kick your ass.
PRINCIPLE #4: THERE IS NO DIPLOMACY. I just handled much of this point in a recent Dojo column; you can find it here. I mentioned then that I’d take a look at the interaction of tact and aggression at this time, so let’s do that.
Diplomacy, as I illustrated in that column, involves the explicit use of alliances, trades, "you-do-this-and-I’ll-do-that" sort of stuff. As I mentioned, my group very rarely uses it, and when we do we’re usually joking. On the other hand, there is quite often more implicit coordination in very specific situations:
At the end of his own turn, Pete activates the Squallmonger for two damage to all flyers and players. Dave sees this and has a choice: (a) use his open mana to complement Pete’s own squall and finish off the Serra Angel, or (b) let the moment pass and keep the mana open so he can play Emerald Charm during my turn if I decide to attack him with the Serra Angel.
Either choice is valid. If he whacks the angel right away, he’s telling Pete silently, "you’re right, that thing’s annoying, let’s neither of us take any chances." If he waits, he’s telling me, "I like that angel where it is." If he does the latter, no treaty has been made between us. No "understanding" has been arrived at. He may have that Emerald Charm, and I may have a Humble in my hand I’m dying to use on that Treefolk.
And if he does wax the angel, neither he nor Pete has agreed to anything. Pete may have activated the Squallmonger since he’s at 15 life and Dave and I are each at 5. Or he might have a Defense of the Heart out/ready and be just as glad not to see that angel go; he’s just trying to make the Squallmonger annoying enough for Dave to want to kill it. Or he may have an Emerald Charm himself and a willingness to chump block. In any case, he’s not necessarily looking for friends.
What each of us is ultimately saying, at each decision point, is: "I can improve my chances of winning the game if I do this. Bully for you if you go along with it."
That sentiment is blended with an honest desire to see as many of our group stay in the game for as long as possible. The ideal game for every person in our group is a moderately-paced chaos with life totals all slowly dwindling together, leaving every person a potential winner until everyone’s around ten life, when a furious end game forces tricky calculations on the last few to survive. None of us have ever signed any document saying so, or even said much about it openly, but in general, the fire is concentrated on anyone who breaks that equilibrium — the guy who Congregates up to 60 life, the burner who’s been focusing on only one opponent, etc. We all believe this creates the tightest, most interesting games.
That doesn’t mean our games don’t have early exits, or never have decks that break out early and stay ahead all game long. But with pretty regular frequency, our matches feature amazing mid- to late-games that are honestly not decided until the last turn or two. This, to us, is fun. And that brings us back to principle #1.
The balance between tact and aggression is a little harder to strike when you’re playing against strangers. You usually need to move about two or three turns more slowly (which everyone else is probably doing since they don’t know you either), and make certain that others share the same vision of game culture that you do. There are players and groups that prefer a much slower approach to the game, and whether your style wins you the game or not, you don’t want to be offensive in doing so. But I’ve found very few strangers or group settings where folks don’t appreciate a nice, close game for as long as possible. Very few people seriously freak out at a turn four Furnace of Rath or turn seven Palinchron. (Two or three of them on top of each other, though, gets a bit alarming.) If there’s a player who has a problem with it, usually that player has the presence of mind to counter it or disenchant it, or use it to feed Multani’s Decree, without too much fanfare.
* Basic: Have your group practice the "high life" format, where ONLY the player with the most life (or his/her permanents) may be the target of attack phases, spells, or abilities. (You might make an exception for spells or abilities that a player is casting to benefit himself, like Invigorate or Congregate.) That high-life player may nail anyone. If there’s a tie for high life, players have their option of hitting any of the leaders. This will get your group into the culture of hitting the person who typically has the advantage. Note that milling, discard, and land destruction decks truly wither and die in this format, since the effort gets diffused so continually.
* Intermediate: Make alliances painful. If your group lapses into habits of open alliances too easily, squelch the behavior with penalties. Every time one player tries to cut a deal (and this is admittedly subjective interpretation, at times, so err on the nasty side and everyone will be sure to behave), penalize them two life. Every time a player voluntarily shows another player a card in his hand or library, penalize them five life. Please, do be *careful* if you take this on: your group has to exhibit a certain level of maturity for this to work. Your purpose is not to start arguments as to whether or not so-and-so was trying to build an alliance, but to make people think twice about even looking like they’re trying. If someone insists a specific accusation is all a big mistake, back off and trust that they’re aware they’re being watched, now. If everyone seems to be miserable as the night progresses, lessen the penalties to one and two life. If friction continues over a couple of weeks and one or two players can ever seem to admit they’re messing around, drop the idea; your group is simply addicted to political maneuvering, and there are worse afflictions in the universe.
* Advanced: One night, start all games at ten life per player. This will, generally, remove the pleasant phase of the game where everyone is poking about here and there looking for buddies, and get everyone focused on survival. This format is unpleasant for white and blue mages, which is all the more reason to like it; but if the Defensive Corps whines too much, perhaps you can disallow targeting players with direct damage, or promise them you’ll all play with 30 life next time.
In closing, I’d like to suggest that folks take it easy before sending me emails with all the homework done! We know I enjoy email, but the primary purpose of the "homework" is for readers to do and reflect on their own, and with their own groups. I’m always happy to hear of people’s success stories, but actually try some of these things out in play situations before reporting back. You’ll be glad you did. (And so will I.)