There is more than just strategy to multiplayer Magic (and multiplayer games in general), there is an art. There are multiple layers of politics and evaluations. Not only must you figure out what you need to do vs-a-vs more opponents, you need to figure out what more opponents are going to do regarding you. Then, adding to that you, need to figure out what all those opponents are going to do when it comes to each other. Navigating any multiplayer game is more than just setting your deck on cruise control and powering through. Your hands have to be on the rudder the entire time, and in addition to understanding the seas you're in, you also have to pay attention to the way the wind is blowing—plus, at any time, Liam Neeson might unleash the Kraken.
People have asked me why I seem to win more than a fair percentage of the games I play. This probably isn't actually true—the games I win are somewhat over-represented in the reports I do. I'm unlikely to report a game in which I'm eliminated early since any number of factors might leave me not paying attention to it, making it no good for a report. Obviously if someone just combos out early, it's not worth reporting (unless we have the super-unlikely case of someone doing something new and unique). Games worth reporting are those that go many turns (not too many—I'm sure you might get bored with “Turn 30: We all play a land and say go”) and have interesting interactions. I'd much rather report a game where stuff happened, even if I'm not a major factor in it. I don't mind reporting games that I don't win. I'd prefer to report games that had depth and interesting stuff happening.
Speaking of interesting games, I'll tell you briefly about one from this past week, which even provides a small peek into the Philosophy of Second Best (albeit completely unintentionally). My friend Justin from Virginia, a member of my original EDH playgroup, was visiting. We had descended on Armada Games for some pick-up games. We ended up in a three-player with Jesse, one of the Armada regulars. Justin and I weren't paying attention to each other as we pulled out decks, and we both plopped The Mimeoplasm out onto the table. Then Jesse said “Let's run this!” and grabbed his own for some hot Mimeo-on-Mimeo-on-Mimeo action.
Although Mimeoplasm itself doesn't run into Legend-rule issues (obviously unless it copies a legendary creature), we decided to play under M14 rules because that's what we'll be playing with when the new League starts (tomorrow, in fact). It was an interesting peek into one of the differences in how games will play out. The first crazy change was both Justin and Jesse copying my Damia, Sage of Stone (which I had just put into the deck because I realized I wasn't playing it anywhere). Jesse resolved a middling turn (six-ish) Undead Alchemist, then did some milling. At one point, he milled both of us for about ten each, nearly completely whiffing. He got zero creatures from me and only one from Justin. That didn't slow him down too much as he was getting through in combat with the Alchemist, creating the odd zombie here and there. The insanity took off when Justin, who already had Altar of Dementia on the battlefield (as did I), cast Progenitor Mimic, copying Undead Alchemist.
The race was now on. Jesse was trying to get deep through Justin's library, seeing the problem that multiple Alchemists could create for him. The two of them started milling each other, creating larger zombie armies. I simply go into survival mode, hoping to not get swarmed. When Justin creates his second Alchemist and then casts Mesmeric Orb, it gets pretty silly. Jesse starts attacks him with enough zombies to put him into single digits in cards—and realizes that he's going to die on his draw step when he has to untap ten cards. He then realizes he may have been able to kill Jesse the same way had he milled Jesse with Altar of Dementia before his turn. Remember, every creature Jesse hits means two zombies for Justin, creating a multiplying army. He tries to mount some defense by discarding Consuming Aberration and then using it to put counters on Mimeoplasm, but it's not going to be enough. On my turn, I cast a few big creatures, but they're nothing special—just bodies to mill in case I need to. Realizing he's going to die, Justin takes his retribution on us by sacrificing Zombies until neither has cards left in the library. Unfortunately for Jesse, his turn comes next, so he dies, leaving me as the last man standing. It's the only game I've ever seen where there were zero cards in all libraries. Chaos Embraced.
We can see where being second best—meaning not being the primary threat—kept me in that game, leaving me to be the last one left (although in this case, it wasn't engineered, it was happenstance). Jesse and Justin were—correctly—so worried about each other that they spent their resources in a direction other than mine. In this particular game, I was simply left standing among the rubble. Most of the time, the idea is to give yourself an opportunity to do something without getting focused on.
I consider there to be five elements to being second best, also called “flying under the radar.” First is the reasonable start. Second is the quiet build of forces. Third is avoiding ire. Fourth is encouraging attrition (or destruction). Fifth is the negotiation.
Before we go further, I'll say that this philosophy only applies to “normal” games of Commander. If your group is “uber-cutthroat/win as fast as possible,” then there's no time for politics, and this simply doesn't apply. Since I think groups like those are the exception, we'll talk about how the philosophy applies across a wider cross-section of games. This isn't intended to start the horse-beaten play style debate, it's intended to set the parameters for the particular kind of game I'm talking about.
The Reasonable Start
This is actually the most significant element. You simply can't come out of the gate too fast. You don't want your first and second turn to set up a situation where all the other players are thinking about keeping you from getting out of hand. First of all, they'll do what they can to slow you down. Second, they'll remember it the entire game. I've seen situations where there were equally good choices to make when it comes to destroying something, and the tie-breaker has been “yeah, but you played [cardname] turn one, so I'm blowing up yours.”
Turn one Sol Ring or Mana Crypt will nearly always be seen as threatening by the other players. They'll start focusing on you as soon as they can. It may lead you to dominating the early part of the game, but there's more to a multiplayer game than the first few turns.
Even if it's in my opening grip, I'll rarely play Sol Ring on turn one. My decks are built for mid-range and high end plays anyway, so unless I have a turn-two play that I absolutely want to make — which is mostly limited to Rampant Growth, Wall of Omens, or Elvish Visionary - that Sol Ring can wait.
Turn one Sol Ring into turn two Solemn Simulacrum on the surface looks like a really good idea. You'll be up to six mana on turn three and you can start doing whatever you want. The problem is that the thing that you're going to do with that six mana is going to be the first thing undone by the other players, sometimes working in concert with each other. They're going to want to keep you from getting too far ahead, so the first Swords to Plowshares or Go for the Throat is going to have your fatty's name stamped on it.
With the same cards in your hand, turn-two Sol Ring into turn-three Solemn Simulacrum is a more reasonable start. It still gets you ramping into some extra mana, but it does so with a lower likelihood of drawing so much attention. The big difference here is that if you're doing it T1/T2, there's a strong possibility that the other players are doing nothing but watching you launch off the pad. If you do it T2/T3, there's a strong possibility that they're doing things themselves, like playing a low-cost creature or a little ramp of their own, so it makes your play seem less dangerous by comparison.
If someone else gets off to a really fast start, then by all means do at least some of the same, just a little slower. If they're seen as the early front-runner, they'll get the focus, and you'll get the advantage.
The other thing you have to consider about the fast start is that players' attitudes aren't limited to single games. Magic players are smart and have good memories, so they'll remember from one game to the next or one month to the next when you went “ramp/ramp/vomit your hand.” Even if it's from their subconscious, they'll target you, they'll kill your creatures, they'll slow you down — whether or not it's even the same deck.
The Quiet Build of Forces
I'm not advocating just dropping lands and nothing else the first six turns. Even if everyone else isn't doing much, doing a little yourself won't draw too much attention your way. Do stuff, just don't do provocative stuff — assuming that no one else is doing provocative stuff — too early. If they are, they by all means follow suit. You can still blame them for being the first one to be a threat. You're expected to do provocative stuff later on, but finding the right point to start is key in keeping eyes elsewhere.
Otherwise, good early plays that don't seem like much early on but can provide bigger benefits later, like Masked Admirers or Oversold Cemetery, are the direction to go with early turns. If it's in my hand and I'm not doing anything to improve my mana situation, I'll cast that Altar of Dementia on turn two or that Crystal Shard on turn three, even if it's not going to get used for a while. Sure, you open yourself up to it getting blown up or taken out by a sweeper of some kind, but people are more likely to be holding their removal for the scarier stuff. Altar of Dementia with no creatures on the battlefield or Oversold Cemetery with no creatures in the yard aren't scary at all. Yes, good players will recognize the long-term threat, but they're going to be focused on the other guy who just went Rampant Growth/Solemn Simulacrum/Skyshroud Claim.
It's amazing how something seemingly insignificant will set people off. We've all seen it happen. They'll throw everything your way, even hurting themselves to do so, just because you attacked them with your two 1/1s on turn three. What you have to do is avoid doing things that don't have a place in your bigger game plan.
On an interesting side note showing us something about the irrationality of peoples' thought processes, if you attack them early with an entirely random creature you've dropped on turn three, it upsets them. If you attack them with a creature like Shadowmage Infiltrator or Thieving Magpie, they're okay with it. They'll be understanding, even. “Sure, I'll take one; I know you want to draw a card, and everyone else has black creatures to block with.” I'm not saying they should get angry, it's just weird that they tend to be so accepting.
You have to figurate out at your table/in your group how people will view the actions you take. One of the major aspects of multiplayer games is that different players assess actions differently. One person might see you attacking with that Spawnwrithe as shrug-worthy and another might see it as the apocalypse. If you're playing with the same folks all the time, you'll get a sense of how they react to things. It's much trickier with people you don't know; since you won't have the benefit of watching repeated actions, you'll have to pay closer attention to everything they do early on and make a judgment on how they'll react later. Facial expressions and body language can tell you a great deal—but that's a completely separate essay.
You can also avoid ire by being helpful—but remember that helping one person is probably hurting someone else. That's generally okay if the person you're hurting is in the strongest position at the moment. For one, unless the person is really petulant, they're not going to get upset when you kill their Seedborn Muse. They realize it's part of the game and an unanswered Seedborn Muse is good stuff. They'll be sad that they don't have their awesome card/combo available, but they won't get angry (there's a complete Can't Get Angry list!). Second, you gain some relationship capital with the other players because you “took one for the team.” Just don't think that the good karma you've built will let your Seedborn Muse go unchecked. Someone's going to kill that one, too.
Another part of avoiding ire is not playing cards that people hate (which is different from cards they fear, which are fine to play). The best example here is Mindslaver, although there are group-specific cards which might include Armageddon, Obliterate, Magister Sphinx, or even Memnarch. People remember you doing stuff to them that they don't like.
Encouraging Attrition (or Destruction)
Attrition in this sense is when two players spend roughly equal resources to move toward a state of equilibrium. The simplest form is a one-on-one creature combat where both creatures die. Playing Terror on Rith, the Awakener is also a one-for-one trade. Attrition between two other players is a net positive for you because your total opponents are now down two cards. Encouraging this attrition can be as simple as pointing out the obvious, on board situation: “If Rith hits any of us, he's getting a bunch of Saprolings. Somebody needs to do something about it.” It can also be a little more complex. “If Rith hits any of us, he's getting a bunch of Saprolings, and we all know that he's playing Titanic Ultimatum/Beastmaster Ascension/Craterhoof Behemoth. If we don't do something about it now, we're all dead.”
Since destruction is likely to hurt you as well, you need to figure out how badly it's going to hurt. If it creates some kind of parity or advantage for you, you need to go for it. The classic example of encouraging destruction is when someone has developed a powerful board state and someone else has an on-board sweeper like Pernicious Deed or Oblivion Stone. Especially if you're behind the curve with no immediate prospects for improving your position relative to the front-runner, the play is to swing all out on the person who has the sweeper. This is not likely to garner you any blowback from the person you're attacking or the person with the big board position, because they both understand it has to be done.
In the arena of multiplayer Magic, politics is all about negotiation, and I'm going to give you the single most immutable rule: never lie. When you lie, even once, you erode your credibility. If you've lied before, people will assume that you're lying now. There's no real good reason to do it. Withholding information is fine. Saying nothing is fine. Even saying “You'll just have to find out” is acceptable. Just be sure that when you say something, it's the truth. When other players know that you're telling the truth, they trust your assessment of a situation. You're not saying “Someone should Wrath” because you have Faith's Reward in your hand, you're saying “Someone should Wrath” because the board state has become untenable for the rest of you.
Not lying also means never going back on a deal or your word. “Kill him and I won't attack you next turn” is a reasonable deal. You should under no circumstances violate it — even if it means that you'll lose the game. In the negotiation, no single game is more important than the bigger picture. You'll get a great deal more mileage out of the truth than you will from any lie. You'll also never suffer from “you lied to me, so now I have it out for you.” When I was much younger, I once made a deal during a game of Risk: a non-aggression pact with the other person building forces in Australia. I concentrated on gaining an advantage there, and when the time was right for me, I broke the pact, swept through Asia, and won the game. The problem is that for the next fifteen years that person attacked me first in every other game we played, whether it was a board game, Magic, or whatever. The retribution for breaking my word in that one game cost me orders of magnitude more down the line. The point is that people have long memories. Even if they're not particularly spiteful or vindictive, it becomes a factor. All other things being strategically equal or nearly equal, they'll remember when you screwed them and take it out on you.
Not lying also means not trying to misrepresent things on a technicality. “I said I wouldn't attack you, I didn't say I wouldn't Fireball your head.” You need a fair amount of trust with the other person to bring a negotiation to an amenable conclusion, and if they're constantly wondering how you're going to subvert your own word, you're not going to have that trust. When people have faith that there will be mutual win—or at the worst, shared pain—in a negotiation, they'll be more disposed to go along with it.
Note that the negotiation has nothing to do with bluffing. For one, you can bluff without lying. For example, you can bluff having a Fog in your hand by attacking with all your creatures and leaving yourself open to a counterattack. A more subtle no-lie-bluff would be attacking with your fliers and leaving yourself only ground defense when the major part of the counterattack will be coming in the air. You can bluff by saying things like “Remember that I'm running Spell Crumple,” or “I have six Wrath effects in my deck.” Bluffing is about helping people draw their own conclusions — it's just about helping them draw the wrong ones. Additionally, lying during a bluff won't generate the same blowback that other lies might. “You should attack him because I have Tangle” is reasonable, even if you don't, although I prefer “You should attack him because it's likely that I have Tangle” is better because 1) you're not lying, and 2) it creates more doubt, both in this situation and in situations down the road.
In the end, I'm not suggesting that you should tell the truth during your multiplayer games because it's the right moral choice, I'm suggesting it because it's going to give you more advantages in the long run. Call it enlightened self-interest.
There are two major pillars to the Philosophy of Second Best. The first revolves around not being the earliest threat (or the most significant early threat). The second is never creating situations where people will focus on you for reasons that have nothing to do with the board state in the current game. I'm not suggesting that it's the only philosophy to take into multiplayer games, but from my experience, marrying those two ideas together will put you in a position to take down more than your fair share of games while playing with a sense of dignity, honor, and integrity. I'm pretty happy playing under the philosophy, and I think you will be too.
Embracing the Chaos,
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