By Russell Tassicker
Ah, multiplayer. Whether the chaos of free for all, attack left, two headed giant or any of the many other variants, it is a very different game to a duel and should be approached as such. For those of you who have only regularly played duels, my multiplayer decks may look poorly designed and unbalanced. There are several different factors that change the way multiplayer games are played and therefore the way decks are designed, and I’ll try to cover them in this article, an attempt at a primer for multiplayer deck planning. I’ll leave discussion of two headed giant to another article, as it’s a particular favourite of mine and deserves my full attention. This article will be concerned with highlighting the peculiarities of free for all multiplayer, and though it may be basic for those experienced with the format I hope it will make sure we’re all on the same page, and bring newcomers up to speed.
‘By way of for instance, I killed three men tonight.’
The number of players in a multiplayer game is, by definition, more than 2. This is the most obvious and significant difference between a multiplayer game and a duel, and it has many consequences, some of which are not so obvious. Firstly, to win you have to defeat more than one other player. This means you’ll have to do more than 20 damage in the course of the game, or survive while the damage is dealt to those around you. This follows on to the next point, is that there are maybe 5 other players who need you to lose the game in order for them to win, so fogging on one opponent’s turn does not guarantee that you’ll see your next upkeep. Equally this quintet of foes need each other to lose as well, so one of the key skills in multiplayer is convincing your opponents that they would be better off swinging their Serra Avatar at somebody other than you. Having so many players in a Mexican standoff leads to much longer games than usual, meaning bigger and swingier spells and effects are at their best in multiplayer – as are reusable effects like Imperious Perfect.
‘This is blood for blood and by the gallon… And I’m ready for war.’
Dealing 100 damage or more is no easy feat for most tournament decks, or even for casual duel decks. This is why cards like Spark Elemental, which are very impressive at taking someone from 20-0 as fast as possible, are not often useful in multiplayer. You hit an opponent for 3, use a few burn spells on him, then you are out of cards and there are still several other players on 20 life who are dropping Woolly Thoctars and other such nasties. (I’ll interject at this point to say that i win combos are frowned upon in my multiplayer group and I assume many groups. When someone Gigadrowses all the islands on the board at end of turn, then untaps and says “I win,” it is no fun for any of the other players.) Every card in a multiplayer deck should be able to improve your position against multiple opponents at once, including your creatures, whether by playing a fat creature that can block or discourage attacks by threat of reprisals, getting card draw or sift, token generation, reusable effects, etc. Similarly, spells like Thoughtseize which can cripple a single opponent are near to useless in multiplayer. Your target is likely to have time to draw out of the temporary disadvantage, you will have made an enemy by screwing up his early game plan, and you will still have other opponents with a full grip while you and your unfortunate victim are both down one. Rotting Rats and Cunning Lethemancer are much stronger examples of discard effects, as they affect everyone equally and repeatedly. Some examples of cards which are advantaged by the numerous players are fan favourite Urborg Syphon-Mage who becomes a ludicrous bomb, Browbeat which can do a huge amount of damage, and Rhystic Study which is seemingly innocuous but will often draw a silly amount of cards. The applications of Seedborn Muse I leave as an exercise for the reader.
‘Dozens of them. Armed to the teeth. I’m outnumbered. Outgunned.’
In addition to being able to win against several opponents, you have to be able to stop them from killing you. This is why board sweepers like Wrath of God and other global effects are so popular in multiplayer. Path to Exile is still a good spell, but it is less so when you have many opponents dropping many threats that could all be taken care of with Akroma’s Vengeance. In a similar vein Orim’s Chant can stop one opponent from attacking you, but Blazing Archon or Propaganda will protect you from every opponent at once – until someone tries to kill it. We’ll look at ways to deflect them elsewhere with words in the discussion of multiplayer politics below. For now we’ll look at how your creatures and spells can discourage your enemies from attacking you. The most obvious type of card that discourages this is walls, such as Wall of Reverence, or other defensive creatures. Making attacks against you seem futile is an easy way to direct attention elsewhere, but if an opponent does swing at you anyway be wary of combat tricks. Similarly, token generation can discourage non-trampling attacks, as if you can replace your 1/1 next turn then what’s the point? Aggressive creatures can also help: Primalcrux discourages attacks on you because of the threat of reprisal attacks, unless your opponents think they can kill you before your 20/20 trampler kills them, they are likely to avoid provoking you until they find some removal. Meglonoth from Conflux is a perfect combination of both, and I can’t wait to try it out in a multiplayer game. As mentioned above there are several spells like Propaganda that say “it’s too difficult to attack me, so why don’t you take the easy option and attack the guy to the left of me?” These are effective at making your defence seem stronger, but they have to be just one part of a plan that is building towards a win. One other point I’d like to make quickly before moving on, is the exceptional power of Control Magic effects in multiplayer. Their strength should be obvious, as not only are you probably removing the greatest threat to yourself, but you are also gaining that threat as your own with (usually) less resource expenditure than its owner spent, whether it be a defensive powerhouse or a monster that can threaten significant reprisals.
‘I check the list. Rubber tubing, gas, saw, gloves, cuffs, razor wire, hatchet, Gladys – and my mitts.’
What with all these players trying to kill a bunch of opponents while defending themselves from the same opponents, you will need to get a lot more value out of your cards than you would in a duel. This leads people to play more expensive and swingy spells than they would normally, a tendency which has knock-on effects of its own. Spells like Darksteel Colossus and Tooth and Nail are regularly cast at full retail price in multiplayer, as the games go on long enough that you can build up the mana – or some people in an effort to speed the game up play things like Rites of Flourishing and Magus of the Vineyard. This leads most players to load the top end of their mana curve with awesome threats, at the expense of cheaper creatures who as already discussed won’t have much of an impact. The next link in this chain reaction is people hoarding their counters and removal to take out the big guys – you might like to take out that Boggart Ram Gang that’s attacking you, but if you only have one piece of removal in hand you might be better off encouraging the Ram Gang’s controller to attack someone else, and hold your removal for the Deus of Calamity that’s coming in a few turns. Keeping in mind all of this, you can see that it is definitely worthwhile including some great win conditions in your multiplayer decks as you will usually have plenty of time to ramp up your mana – and your opponents may even oblige you by helping you ramp. As yet another knock-on effect from this phenomenon, playing a Howling Mine in multiplayer can be a defensive measure – everyone likes drawing extra cards, and keeping you alive is giving them an extra one every turn!
‘I got you now, ya little bastard. Let’s see you hop around now.’
I’d like now to look at when your defences are not enough to deflect people elsewhere, when you have revealed your gameplan and dropped double Spiteful Visions or a Phage the Untouchable, when you make yourself a target. Ideally you won’t be the main target at the table until it is just yourself and one opponent who has expended most of his resources in beating the rest of your rivals. If you are the main target earlier in the game, you are almost certainly on the way to a loss unless your deck is overwhelmingly more powerful than your opponents’ decks. The easiest way to not seem like a big threat is to improve your position in inoffensive ways. Play counterspells like Arcane Denial, which few players will be upset about. Use lifegain to give yourself a buffer that will come in handy, but doesn’t obviously hurt your opponents. Land destruction and targeted discard are particularly offensive as they stop people playing the game they want to play. Build up your manabase and your hand while you defend yourself, but try not to piss anyone off until you’re well in the ascendancy. Being a target can carry between games, as well. If you are usually the winner, your group will tend to target you first to try and even things up. This is also a good reason not to play combo decks – killing the whole table out of the blue might work once, but the next time you play Mountain, Lotus Bloom on turn one expect not to live to go off again. You can deflect this by protesting you have a new deck, or a pauper/underpowered/generally crummy deck – but a word of warning, if you lie about this then your group are likely to remember and you’ll always be a target.
‘Once you got everybody agreeing with what they know in their hearts ain’t true, you’ve got em by the balls.’
…Which leads us neatly to a brief discussion of multiplayer politics. Many articles have been written on this subject before and I fully intend to write one myself. I also highly recommend a look at the Ferrett’s archives on the official magic site and on starcitygames.com. Kelly Digges just recently posted an article on the mothership on this very topic. Essentially it boils down to convincing your opponents to act in ways that are helpful to you – through your board position, your reputation, offers of friendship, threats, cajoling and outright bribery. This is where counterspells and spot removal spells become more useful than they might have seemed in the above discussions, as you can use them both to threaten people and to save them, which allows you influence. For example, Aaron is about to swing at Lionel for his life total with Akroma, Angel of Wrath. You show Lionel the Swords to Plowshares in your hand and offer to save him, if he will point his Ancestral Vision that is about to unsuspend at you. Alternatively, you might save him for no obvious immediate benefit, except that you could use the help against Aaron’s strong position. When people talk about “political” spells in multiplayer, they are talking about both cards like Howling Mine, that help every player and increase their goodwill towards you, and cards like Metamorphose or Arcane Denial that hinder an opponent, but gives them a benefit that mollifies them and makes them less likely to want revenge on you. Being everybody’s friend is a very good way to win at multiplayer, as long as you keep in mind that there can be only one, and eventually you’ll have to backstab your remaining allies.
So there we are, I’ve touched on all the major points of concern for multiplayer deckbuilders and players – beating a lot of opponents, not letting them beat you, the big spells that the length of games permits, avoiding becoming a target, and politicking. Each of these I hope to demonstrate in an article about my latest multiplayer deck, a conflux only deck featuring Blood Tyrant. This latest set has been *very* friendly to multiplayer. Lastly my apologies must go out to Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez for plagiarising the dialogue of Sin City. Once again I’d love to hear your comments on the article, and thanks for reading!