Sometimes you lose track of writers. This happens in the real world and the Magic world. It's often intentional. After R.A. Salvatore's eighteen thousandth book in the same world with the same characters, I put it down and moved on. The man who was once my favorite author became much less so. (Now it's either Michael Moorcock or H.P. Lovecraft, depending on the day and how I feel).
There are some Magic writers who have left us much richer for their many works. Giants such as Anthony Alongi have retired. There are others that I always enjoyed, like Talen Lee. But there are also a few writers who were really good but just never caught on. They didn't have something to keep it going. Maybe it was just that they had few articles in them and gave what they had. Perhaps life was too busy for Magic writing. Whatever the cause, our Magic world paid the price. Today I want to look at one such writer, who wrote for a while for StarCityGames.com and left behind a good injection of talent with his articles. Let's investigate some of his works and discuss some of his ideas in 2013.
Say hello to John Liu.
In 2003 while writing for SCG, he published roughly 26 articles, which is a solid amount of stuff. This was back before SCG had weekly articles, and writers were not required to keep to a strictly weekly schedule.
Liu opened up with an opinion article against people banning cards at their casual multiplayer Magic night. He prefers people to find solutions within the game of Magic rather than going outside of it. This was very common at the time in multiplayer groups, and I'm confident that many still do.
Let's look at the insights of John Liu briefly and discuss some things that we can still take with us today.
Liu created a simple combo deck idea for the multiplayer table was then shocked when he had no shot at actually winning with the deck. Here is the deck in question:
- 2 Goblin Chirurgeon
- 2 Goblin Matron
- 2 Goblin Ringleader
- 4 Mogg Fanatic
- 4 Mogg Flunkies
- 4 Skirk Fire Marshal
- 2 Squee, Goblin Nabob
What this deck tries to do is to have out Skirk Fire Marshal, Spirit Link it, and then tap it with the variety of Goblins in the deck. With so many creatures which are not major threats, the deck should lay low until it's about ready to blow up. After all, who really considers Goblin Chirurgeon a major threat, right?
When his deck keeps being stopped from going off easily, he realizes several major things. First, that having out five creatures, even small little Goblin dorks, is considered by many to be a threat. Secondly, the combo of Spirit Link and Skirk Fire Marshal is actually a lot more than that. You have to have more than ten life when you go off or else you die from the ability before the life gain from the enchantment. (I don't know if this rule is still true today.) You have to have out five creatures, not just one. Any mass removal, for example, messes you up. You have to have the Fire Marshal go uncountered. You run into many players with hosers for tribal decks that destroy you. You get the idea. In reality, this "simple little" combo deck is anything but.
So, Liu asks, is your multiplayer combo deck more complex than you think it is? Maybe you like a really intricate combo deck, and that's fine. But are you missing some complexities in your decks that keep you from establishing the combo?
On many occasions, I have tried to discuss the issues with countermagic at the multiplayer table. John Liu does a much better job and spends an entire article going over the weaknesses of counters and when they are necessary. This gives a valuable vantage point.
Instead of focusing on the loss of card advantage by writers such as The Ferrett (which he discusses briefly), he looks at other disadvantages of counters in multiplayer. They include:
Board Development: You slow down your development when you keep mana open for counters.
Cards in Hand: You have to keep cards in your hand to bluff counters even when you'd rather play those cards.
Board Position: Counters cannot change board position. If you are losing, you will continue to lose. If the board state is neutral, you cannot bring it to your advantage.
Right Moment: You have to know when you are being baited to pull a counter out of your hand and tap your mana. You have to know when to counter the right thing.
He has more in his article.
I would also add that you often don't know what a person would do with the card you countered. If you counter a big beef stick, would they have even attacked you? You have no idea, but if they weren't looking in your direction before you countered it, they certainly will be looking now! I've witnessed counters get a player killed because they made the wrong enemy at the table.
This is a great article because it talks about how to get the most use from your weakened counters.
Liu looks at the classic Mike Flores article "Who's the Beatdown?" from a multiplayer vantage point. After he discusses the roles of the beatdown and control players in multiplayer, he identifies a third archetype that needs to be identified and used.
What is the scavenger?
The basic idea for the scavenger is to lie back, let everyone else do the smashing, and then clean up at the end. How do you know if you are the scavenger?
Your deck may have a lot of cards that help everyone, such as Temple Bell or Mana Flare. If you are helping everyone, then no one will want you to die, right? That's the idea anyway—group hugs for everyone! Veteran Explorer, Prosperity, and more! Everybody joins in the fun!
You might also have enough defenses to keep from being walloped and then stay out of the bottom rungs on the ladder. People tend to attack either the major threats (those that will kill them) or the weakest links (those that are the path of least resistance). They tend not to attack those in the middle, particularly if they have a solid enough defense to make it difficult. He suggests some defensive cards like Kor Haven to help out.
The scavenger needs to beware of some things in order to win. For example, if the scavenger deck builds up a decent defense, it also needs to be able to break through someone else's defense. I'd recommend cards like Whispersilk Cloak, Order / Chaos, and Sun Quan, Lord of Wu. You also need to ensure you have built up enough resources to take advantage of opportunity when it strikes. You cannot lie back too much. I'd also point out that if someone is staying out of the fray overly much, many savvy multiplayer players will push into that person and force them to start playing the game. In case someone notices you are hanging back, Liu recommends having a plan to place pressure on another player to force them to get attacked.
Finally, you need to be prepared to switch to beatdown or control if the game suggests it or you have misidentified your role. If another deck is better prepared to be the scavenger, then you need a new role.
One of the things I like about John Liu's articles is that even in an article about a certain deck, he takes time to explain the multiplayer theory behind how the deck wins and what it means. He not only writes about a multiplayer Reanimation deck but discusses Reanimation generally as well.
For example, he built the following deck for multiplayer shenanigans.
The deck wants to Reanimate Hypnox and then use it as a beater. But why Hypnox? After all, it was hardly the biggest or best body available at that time. Sure, it's an 8/8 flyer, but there were a lot of better choices rocking the streets. For example, Verdant Force provides protection against Edicts by making Saprolings. It doesn't have trample to smash through a defense. You get the idea. Remember that if Hypnox is animated from the graveyard, it does not trigger and pull out cards from someone's hand. Why is it here?
So that you can Clone or Doppelganger it, get the Mind Twist effect, and then get a second beater. So ideally, you play Entomb, Exhume, then Clone and have out two 8/8 flying beaters while someone is missing a hand.
Liu doesn't stop there, though. He continues to discuss Reanimation theory generally. For example, he point out that people tend to gang up on the player with the big fat threat. Reanimation decks become the threat very early. With this in mind, how do you deal with all of the attention on you?
He discusses three ways to handle the player with the threat in order of how often they are seen. Answer the threat, kill the player, or block the threat. A simple Path to Exile will answer a Reanimation creature. You are also vulnerable to bounce since you cannot immediately replay the creature animated, and you lost your set up (Reanimation spell and fodder spells, such as Entomb or Buried Alive).
Expect random burn spells at your head and your stuff to be under a harsh counter-lock once you get out the big guys if they cannot immediately deal with the Reanimated beats. He mentions several political ways to deal with it.
What I like about the Clone / Hypnox idea is that you can target the player most likely to clean out your guys with the loss of a hand of cards. If someone looks as though they are packing Wrath of God, Swords to Plowshares, and more, take out their hand. Other good options include Terminate Boy and Control Magic Girl.
Let's look at one final John Liu article.
In this article, Liu discusses a crazy fun deck he built just to see what would happen. Sometimes when you Johnny, you want to win, and sometimes you just want to see how far you can push a combo. Let's look at the deck first and then some thoughts about it.
The goal of this four-color deck is to play Insurrection followed by Day of Dragons. With a grand total of zero creatures, that combo is the only way it is winning. (This violates some of the principles he espouses earlier, such as always have a backup plan, but that's the genius of a deck like this—you play it a few times, make a few stories, and then tear it down again). He admits that it "[i]s more fun than competitive." Sometimes, you want to shuffle up a deck like that.
The first way it gets to the combo stage is by lots of stall. Moment's Peace, for example, can Fog twice. Chant + Abeyance also slows peoples down. Note that the Chant and Abeyance will also help to force the combo off by smashing the guy with the counters. To speed you up, you have Mirari's Wake. You also have the cool Sylvan Library and Abundance combo, which will net you three cards a turn.
Liu points out that after going off once, you will have a giant bull's eye on you. So it's basically got one use per group. This deck has "[w]orn out its welcome" already. Again, these are important points for many combo deckbuilders in multiplayer. The Ferrett made them frequently as well. If you are going to build a combo deck like this, that's fine. But understand that once you get it to go off, people will know it, and it will be massively harder to do so in the future. It's also not as much fun.
(If I were to build it today, I'd look strongly at Rites of Flourishing to replace the Wake. It makes friends and gets you both mana and card acceleration in one card. I'd pull out white to enable this and instead run cards that could get my spells past potential counters in my blue slots.)
I hope that you enjoyed today's slightly different way of looking at articles from the past. Considering that his first article was published more than ten years ago, John Liu is a name many may not recall. But he did a lot of good stuff in his time as a writer here. If you want to check out his whole archive of articles, a quick link is here.
If you like this article concept, I'd be happy to do it with other writers. There are a lot of writers that may not be well known to today's audience that could use a day in the sun. I think I'll do this for at least one or two more writers. If you are interested in the idea or have thoughts as to who you'd like to see me pull out of the SCG coffers, give me some feedback in the comments.