Recently, several writers have been debating the best cards for multiplayer. Any best card list like that is going to be difficult, and will be missing a bunch of cards due to brain farts, but those lists do stimulate discussion.
They also get dull after a few iterations. I’ve written mine already, but I want to weigh in on the debate, so I’ll take a different approach. I want to talk about the best mechanics and effects for multiplayer – with a few cards thrown in. I’ll also intersperse a few comments on individual cards – like Howling Mine.
A quick apology on this article: I know I promised the sequel to Going Rogue, but I need more time to playtest. The initial build cannot consistently beat both Goblins and Wake – or even come close enough to squeak by. I have some untested changes, but I have a sixty-hour a week job, plus I live on a farm and it is harvest time. I have vegetables coming out of my ears – which is every bit as uncomfortable as it sounds. But I’ll have part II done Real Soon Now.
Some quick comments on card choices beforehand.
First of all, don’t dismiss a card because it only works in a combo deck. That alone is insignificant – you build Constructed decks, and you build them to accomplish your goal. That goal can be to pull off combos. In that case, the real is whether the combo is consistent, and whether you can pull it off a second time once your opponents know what is coming.
Second, politics do matter. Cards like Underworld Dreams or Subversion are very good in multiplayer…From a technical perspective. Politically, they are horrible. Cards like these annoy everyone at the table, while not doing anything to prevent them from killing you. That is a real drawback in multiplayer, and one which people have to work hard to overcome. That’s why Underworld Dreams is a combo card – without the combo, it gets you killed long before your opponents die.
The flip side of politics are cards that try to help everyone, like Howling Mine. The concept is that everyone benefits, and no one will kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. But remember the Schwarzenegger film where Arnold says”I like you. I’ll kill you last?” Halfway through he says,”I lied” and offs the guy. Most players do the same: Fill their hand, then kill the Mine or the Miner.
Third, options are great. I have always loved the Mirage block Charms in multiplayer because the cards are almost never dead. Having options, even cycling to replace it, is generally worth an additional point or two in mana cost, because multiplayer is generally slower than duels.
Finally, I’ll try to avoid talking about cards that are obviously intended for multiplayer. Blatant Thievery is obviously good in multiplayer and was obviously intended for multiplayer. It is really just Confiscate with a higher cost, and expanded to Confiscate something from each player.
I’ll break this down into sections, where each section covers a mechanic or set of similar abilities. Generally, I’ll limit the discussions to mechanics that are better in multiplayer than in duels.
Here’s a simple example of a set of cards that are much better in multiplayer than most duels. In multiplayer, everyone is going to be able to develop, and creatures are going to hit the board. Many players will have small creatures, and will send those creatures somewhere. Having a fast Wall often means that the creatures will go elsewhere, saving you a few points of damage. Walls that have some other advantages are better. Wall of Roots is mana acceleration and defense (and much better than Vine Trellis, which is acceleration or defense.) Wall of Blossoms is a cantrip. Pitchstone Wall can be okay. Wall of Souls is amazing for sending attackers elsewhere. Tinder Wall isn’t bad. Wall of Essence is playable.
As a general rule, I don’t want to pay more than two mana for a wall, and don’t want to have a toughness of less than four. The purpose of the walls is to send early attackers elsewhere, and that only happens if the wall appears quickly and is big enough to survive an early attacker.
Cycling lands are okay in duels, but since they come into play tapped, they can be too slow. In multiplayer, which is generally slower, that is less of a hindrance. Later in the game, they can be cycled for something useful. I always hate dead land draws late in a multiplayer game, so this helps.
Cycling lands are nearly as effective in getting rid of dead land draws as a Trade Routes, but the politics are better. Trade Routes is a continuing source of cards, but it can get opponents worried; a cycling land is just a single draw, and generally nothing that opponents will be too worried about. Nonetheless, for every land you cycle, you get to see one more card than your opponents do. That wins games.
Multiple-target cards are those that hit more than one target when cast. For example, Dust to Dust removes two target artifacts from the game. In duels where an opponent may not have two artifacts, the card is often dead, since these cards generally cannot be cast unless enough targets are present – but in multiplayer, there are often targets to spare. Hull Breach, for example, is a very solid multiplayer card. Jilt is even better in multiplayer than in duels, although it was pretty good in duels as well. Orim’s Thunder is great. Decimate is probably the ultimate example – if it isn’t dead in your hand, it can nail four cards when cast.
Although this should go without saying, global removal spells are always good in multiplayer. Wrath of God, Armageddon, Akroma’s Vengeance, Pernicious Deed, Nevinyrral’s Disk and so forth are all solid cards. I can’t really say they are better in multiplayer, since they are (or were) all pretty good in duels – but they are strong. Any form of playable reset is decent in an emergency, if only to avoid losing. Global resets are going to be great cards when you’re behind, and dead cards only when you are already winning.
In decks built to recover faster, or to gain an advantage, global removal can be devastating. Living Death is very solid utility in multiplayer decks like the Rock, and amazing in decks like Buried Alive which are designed to abuse it.
The Right Kind of Lifegain
In duels, lifegain is often useless or bad. Renewed Faith may be an exception (instant speed, cycling or six life, etc.), but most lifegain is just bad in duels. In multiplayer, lifegain can be solid enough to be worth playing – but rarely. Congregate, because of the huge amount of life you can gain, is playable (or ban-worthy) in multiplayer. Teroh’s Faithful and Radiant’s Dragoons are solid, because they provide both life and solid blockers. Exile is okay because of the remove-from-game effect. Soul Warden is devastating dropped turn 1 – at the very least, it will suck out a Lightning Bolt or a Terror.
What isn’t playable is any lifegain that requires you to use up a card, plus mana close to (or equal to) the amount of lifegained. A great example of this is Stream of Life. If you have a little mana, it provides too little life. If you have a ton, then it almost always makes more sense to use the mana to kill people with an X spell like Fireball. Artifacts that require you to use mana turn after turn, like Fountain of Youth, are just a way of spending mana and cards for no real effect. Generally, even cards like Shield Sphere provide more benefit than Fountain of Youth (and Shield Sphere is bad to begin with.)
As a simple example, compare Sacred Nectar with Bottle Gnomes. Sacred Nectar will provide more life, but nothing else. Bottle Gnomes can block Grizzly Bears forever, or stop a Verdant Force for one turn. It also provides lifegain, as necessary, and becomes much better with any form of graveyard recursion. That’s why Bottle Gnomes are often playable in multiplayer, and Sacred Nectar is not.
187 Creatures and Creature Abilities
With the notable exception of Meddling Mage, nearly every creature with a comes-into-play ability is better in multiplayer than in duels, because there are generally more targets in multiplayer games. Flametongue Kavu can be a problem in duels against decks that have no creatures, but that is almost never a problem in multiplayer. Likewise, you should always find a target for Uktabi Orangutans, Cloudchaser Eagles, Nekrataals, and so on.
Combining a lot of these creatures with search or tutoring abilities, like Survival of the Fittest or even Citanul Flute, can allow you to build a”toolbox” deck with creatures that provide answer to any problem (except for Humility). Toolbox decks are very strong, especially if they include some graveyard recursion. The most important rule in playing these decks is to develop slowly, and use the toolbox to take care of problems that threaten everyone. It’s politics – and politics are critical because a toolbox deck can get run down if everyone attacks you early. If it is allowed time to fully set up, however, they can often control the game.
Sacrifice effects come in two flavors: Everyone sacrifices X, or you sacrifice something as a cost to do something. The first is generally strong in multiplayer, since the card or ability forcing everyone to sacrifice is usually a many-for-one effect (like Innocent Blood or Smokestack). Other strong multiplayer cards include The Abyss, Vile Consumption, and Call to the Grave, but these cards have both a strong impact on the game and a strong impact on the politics of the game. They are powerful – but not quite powerful enough to win. All too frequently, the rest of the table teams up to kill these effects before they win the game.
A card that can create an effect powerful enough to overcome its political effect – and the card that justifies this entire section – is Grave Pact. Grave Pact decks can control, and dominate, multiplayer games. Of course, you have to build your deck around the card, but a properly-built Grave Pact deck is amazingly powerful. Grave Pact has to be on any list of top multiplayer cards.
Does Not Tap to Attack
This ability is useful in Limited, marginal in duels, but it really shines in multiplayer. In multiplayer, all of your opponents get attack phases before you get an untap phase. Tapping an attacker gives up not just one chance to block, but many. Since a large creature may be the deciding factor in whether an opponent smashes you, or goes elsewhere, tapping that creature to attack may often be impossible. That’s what makes a monster like Akroma, Angel of Wrath so good in multiplayer – she both smashes face and defends.
In multiplayer games, Serra’s Blessing is at least playable. That was never true in Constructed duels.
Lhurgoyfs count the number of something in all graveyards, and set their power and toughness accordingly. In duels, these cards are occasionally powerful, if a deck is built to ensure that those cards are in the graveyards. For example, LD decks sometimes used Magnivore for the kill. However, the duel decks usually relied on putting their own cards into the graveyard; any contributions from an opponent’s deck were gravy.
In multiplayer, you can often rely on having opponents with some of the appropriate cards. Nearly every multiplayer deck will have some creatures, so Lhurgoyf and Mortivore will find some extra power and toughness. Magnivore can work, and I wrote about a multiplayer deck using Terravore. Ingrid has had great success with a U/W/R Cognivore deck using lots of good instants in those colors – and there are lots of them: Swords to Plowshares, Lightning Bolts, Accumulated Knowledge, and so on.
Since multiplayer is generally slower than duels, and since creature removal is more common, graveyard recursion is a solid mid-game strategy. By graveyard recursion, I am thinking about Genesis, Recurring Nightmare, or Volrath’s Stronghold and not Living Death or the straight Reanimator strategies. Reanimator-style decks run individual cards that allow you to pull a fattie out of the graveyard and into play quickly – with the emphasis on into play. By graveyard recursion, I mean decks that can retrieve creature cards from the graveyard repeatedly, and play them again.
Reanimator decks are strong in duels – they pull out a fast win condition, then win. Recursion is more of a mid- to late- game strategy, ensuring that your threats stay strong. Reanimate or Zombify are the quintessential Reanimator-style cards, but Recurring Nightmare and Oversold Cemetery better define recursion decks. The problem with Reanimator in multiplayer is that your turn 2 Akroma is likely to fall to Sword to Plowshares, Diabolic Edict or – worse yet – Control Magic, leaving you defenseless against a table full of people worried that you will Reanimate again. Recursion, on the other hand, allows you to reuse moderately powerful utility creatures, like 187 creatures, Yavimaya Elders or Ravenous Baloths, without appearing unduly threatening.
Split Cards and Charms
Multiplayer games, more so than any other format, are likely to present a full range of threats in a single game. In a duel, it is unlikely that you will face a swarm of creatures, fatties, problem enchantments, land destruction, annoying artifacts, and hand destruction all at once – but that’s not impossible in a multiplayer game. Moreover, multiplayer games don’t involve sideboarding answers for games two and three. You want the sideboard card in your deck in advance, but in a useful form. That’s why I really like versatile cards, like Charms and Split Cards.
The original Charms were printed in Mirage block. Ebony Charm allows you to chose between a one-point Drain Life, graveyard removal, and giving a creature fear – all for one black mana. Emerald Charm kills Humility, or lets your Verdant Force block Akroma – which can be a nasty surprise. The Planeshift Charms were also good, if you could handle the mana requirements. The Onslaught charms are, unfortunately, much less versatile.
The Invasion block split cards are similar to charms, in that they offer versatility. I have found Wax / Wane very good, mainly because it complicates people’s combat math. Most people are lazy enough that instead of doing complex math, they simply attack elsewhere. The result is that Wax/Wane has killed an annoying enchantment, then prevented attacks against me for the rest of the game. Spite / Malice and Fire / Ice are also very good in multiplayer, at least in deck running those color combinations.
I’ve mentioned this before, but the Odyssey Block Advocates are actually pretty good in multiplayer. The reason is that you can target one player with the advocate’s ability, and return cards to another player’s hand. Done right, the political benefits are excellent.
I also have a list of really good multiplayer cards that don’t quite fit a category above, but are probably worth mentioning. Here they are. (I’m keeping the list short, to save the Ferrett a few links.)
Fellwar Stone: In most games, it becomes a Diamond that taps for any color of mana.
Aura of Silence: Making all opponents’ artifacts and enchantments cost more may not be politically correct, but it is effective.
Rhystic Study: I’m saving the best for last. This is my choice as a skill-tester. Against good players, this is a Sphere of Resistance that does not affect you. Against run-of-the-mill players, this is the best multiplayer card drawer yet printed. You pay one more mana or I draw a card – and so many people don’t understand that you never, ever let opponents draw cards. However, playing against people who are a bit mana tight, even the best players will often let you draw cards. Depending on your deck and opponents, this is at best equal to Curiosity, Shadowmage Infiltrator, or Coastal Piracy, and it may be a lot better. If you play with a really good multiplayer group, it is solid. If you play with some newer players, or play pickup games at the shop, Rhystic Study is gold.
Compare Rhystic Study to Howling Mine. In a six-player game, Rhystic Study will generally draw you two to six cards per turn. Howling Mine will give you one extra card a turn, and give your opponents five extra cards in the same period. You never want to give your opponents that kind of advantage, so find the extra blue mana for Rhystic Study.
Enough for now. I have to go back to playtesting for Going Rogue II.