The Kitchen Table #182 — Advanced Multiplayer Strategies
Hello all, and welcome to another entry in that most casual of columns, here at the Kitchen Table! I am your host of all things happy. Today I intend to explore a few more complex strategies in multiplayer. There is a solid amount of multiplayer material on the Net, from strategy to formats to theory. Today I am going to give you some advanced theory.
Before we begin that, however, I would like to take a look at a post from my multiplayer group's personal forum:
On Sunday I was talking with my friend Larry (a.k.a. Crazy K). Crazy K''s younger brother, Sinbad, plays Magic now. Sinbad and his friends were sitting around playing and Crazy K happened to be observing. Apparently they were discussing this mythical all-knowing magical figure named Abe. Abe is considered to be the ultimate rules guru. He even writes magic articles for a website!! He is akin to a legend to them.
Crazy K chuckled and inquired a bit more. It turns out one of this younger crowd named Isaac has an older brother. I'm told Isaac's brother has come to play with us and then filled Isaac's head with awe-inspiring tales.
I have no idea which of our group is Isaac's older brother. However, I did find it amusing that the legend of Abe is spreading to other Magic groups all around the state.
I changed the names in the post for all except me. Okay, so here's the deal. First off, just about everybody is welcome to come to my place on Friday nights and play Magic. Over the course of my tenure here in SE Michigan, we've probably had 100 Magic players and friends playing here at one time or another. It's really cool! You are seeing the evolution of that.
Second, I am nobody. I'm the same as you, reading this article. I may have a large number after my column title, but I'm not that great a writer, I don't draw that many users to StarCityGames.com compared to the big guys, and I'm not that creative. I'm just a casual guy who gets a lot of ideas from playing the game, just like you. The only difference is that I write those ideas down, and then I send them off as articles.
Want to know why I started writing? I was just a normal reader, a long time ago. I was the same as every other reader. Then Rizzo stopped writing and retired. The Ferrett, in a fairly big rage, wrote an article where he chided the reading public for not writing and sending in articles. It was the first time I had ever read that I could be a writer. So I stepped up to the challenge… and here I am.
The only reason that I am a writer today is because I wrote down what we all talk and think about. I took the initiative and did something. What's stopping you from doing the same? Maybe you could be the next big writer?
As proof, today's article came to me while I was bathing on Saturday night. Yes, bathing. I like taking baths. We can call them man-baths, if you want me to retain my testosterone.
I consider this article a sequel of sorts to a previous article, The Standstill Dilemma from January. That was a highly detailed article that investigated the multiplayer theory of a single card – Standstill. Seeing that one card and how it operated was enough for me to write an entire article, with a lot of in-depth analysis.
Today I expect to look at a couple of issues with equal amounts of exploration. So, without further ado, let's talk about the first.
Don't Get Greedy
Jimmy and Stacey are dueling. Jimmy has his Red/Green No-Holds-Barred Aggro deck and Stacey is playing with a Green/Blue Controlling the Board deck. Stacey has out several lands, a Sylvan Library, a Signet, and a couple of defensive creatures. Jimmy has several lands and three creatures in play. He draws a Hull Breach. Jimmy, being a smart player, realizes the threat the Sylvan Library is, so he plays the Hull Breach. Since he is playing it anyway, he also targets Stacey's Signet. This way, he destroys both the Signet and the Library.
Jimmy made the right play to add the Signet as a target to the Hull Breach. One of the basic theories of Magic is the concept of card advantage. By taking out two cards with just one, Jimmy created card advantage. Everybody would recognize this to be the correct play. Now, let's take a look at this same scenario in multiplayer.
Jimmy, Stacey, and Steve are playing a three way free-for-all. Stacey has out a Blue/Green deck with a Sylvan Library, Steve has out a Black/Blue deck with a Dimir Signet and Jimmy is once again with Red/Green. Jimmy draws a Hull Breach and wants to take out the Sylvan Library. He targets the Sylvan Library. Wanting to get card advantage, he also targets Steve's Signet.
What would multiplayer theory say about that? Traditionally, multiplayer theory would say that was the correct move as well. Here's why:
Foundational Multiplayer Theory #1: In a multiplayer game (free-for-all), during each turn, your opponents will naturally outdraw you by a ratio of X-1 to 1, where X is the total number of players at the table. Therefore, you need to get a large amount of card advantage in order to overcome the natural card disadvantage of the format.
Foundational Multiplayer Theory #2: You need to steer clear of relying solely on traditional methods of control in multiplayer. For example, countermagic counters one spell for one spell. Therefore, in a duel, you have used one draw step to counter one draw step. Equilibrium is achieved. However, in a multiplayer setting, your one Counterspell just takes out one spell. Your one draw step only countered one other draw step. What about all of the others? A one-for-one trade in multiplayer is card disadvantage.
Therefore, you should use cards like Dark Banishing, Disenchant, and Counterspell only as an adjunct to other methods of removing permanents that do not cause card disadvantage. Hull Breach is better than Disenchant despite not being an instant because you can take out two permanents. Other examples include Orim's Thunder or Aura Mutation. From the original set, Tranquility is arguably better than Disenchant because it does not necessarily cause card disadvantage.
For example, pretend that Wizards printed this card:
Pact of Blue Mage Love
Counter target spell.
A deck can have any number of cards named Pact of Blue Mage Love
You could build a deck with 36 of those, 20 Islands and 4 Morphlings, and you'd still lose every single game in multiplayer because of the innate card disadvantage. Countermagic, although useful, needs to be used only sparingly. It does not have the same versatility that it has in duels.
Okay, with that being two of the foundational theories of multiplayer, then they would agree with Jimmy. Play the Hull Breach on the Library of Stacey's and hit Steve's Signet too. Jimmy might as well get an extra card for his trouble.
However, there are two major problems with that:
Steve's Immediate Response – Steve's immediate response may not be friendly. By introducing him as a target for the Hull Breach, Jimmy made two enemies instead of one. In multiplayer, if you decide to pop a problematic permanent, the number of people who dislike the act is equal to 1+X, where X is equal to the number of players directly benefited from said permanent. The number of people who are happy to se it go is 1+Y+Z, where Y is equal to the number of players that are hurt by said permanent, and Z is equal to the number of players neither hurt nor benefited by said permanent but still want to see it gone.
If an opponent has out a Crusade, then all of the White decks are happy. Try to Disenchant the Crusade, and a Blue/White Rebel-Control deck may counter it. On the other hand, a Blue/Red Counterburn deck may be on the receiving end of some recent attacks by small pro-Red creatures. That person will back up your play and counter the Blue/White's counter. This is how multiplayer games work.
Occasionally a person plays what I consider to be a Tier 1 multiplayer artifact (or enchantment or creature). This is something that will tip the favor significantly over to the person, like Mirari's Wake, or Mind's Eye, or Bringer of the Blue Dawn. When this happens, it is incumbent on the entire table to try to take out the offending permanent as quickly as possible.
If you play a Hull Breach to take out a Mirari's Wake, everybody who is not a target is a likely ally. If you add an artifact to your Hull Breach – say, a Sol Ring - now suddenly you gave the Wake person an ally. If the person with the Sol Ring is not happy losing it, then they may counter your Hull Breach, despite the fact that taking out the Wake is in Sol Ring Boy's best interests.
Remember the formulas. 1+X people don't like you targeting their permanent, but 1+Y+Z do like it. That means the odds are often in you favor (depending on how those numbers break down). If you add a target, even for something small like a Sol Ring, then you convert a Y or a Z to an X.
In our initial example of Steve and Jimmy and Stacey, Jimmy might guarantee him a dead Sylvan Library if he didn't target the Signet. Now, on the other hand he endangers the spell.
What if Stacey counters the Hull Breach? Steve is probably not going to counter back. However, had his Signet not been targeted, Steve might have been happy to have backed Jimmy's play and countered Stacey's counter.
What if Steve is so upset that he counters it himself? This scenario certainly wouldn't happen if Jimmy had just targeted the Signet.
In other words, Jimmy has to know when to be greedy and when not to be greedy.
Steve's Later Response – Another problem with targeted Steve's signet is more political. Even if it resolves, and neither person counters the Hull Breach, Jimmy has now upset Steve and Stacey. How will Steve respond to that over successive turns.
Some people simply do not take kindly to having their mana targeted, and Steve might hold a grudge for the entire game. However, the more likely response is that Steve now spends more time looking over at Jimmy instead of Stacey.
Who knows what Steve had been thinking prior to the casting of the Hull Breach. For all Jimmy knew, Steve might have assessed the game as coming down between him and Stacey, so he may have been focusing on ways to defeat Stacey, and now Jimmy comes in nipping at his heels. With the added attention, it is possible that Jimmy now gets more attacks, more permanents destroyed, and so forth. It is possible that casting that Hull Breach and targeting a Dimir Signet with it caused him to lose the game!
As long as we are talking about possibilities, let's acknowledge that it's also possible that Steve won't care about his Signet that much and it doesn't change the game at all, except for a dead Library.
Here is how I would ultimately weigh in. Jimmy doesn't know what targeting the Signet will do, and it is likely to at least make his spell less likely to resolve and possibly to make Jimmy more visible or make Steve more antagonistic in the long run. Since he doesn't know, how beneficial is it to target and take out the Dimir Signet? If Steve has plenty of mana of each color, then what benefit is it to Jimmy? Sure, it might be a better play from a fundamental card theory standpoint, but this is a real game with real players. What disadvantage does Jimmy get from not taking out the Signet? In return, Jimmy gets a higher chance for his spell to resolve and take out the Sylvan Library, and a guarantee not to annoy Steve.
It may not track with foundational multiplayer theory, but it does adhere, in my opinion, to a higher multiplayer theory:
Higher Multiplayer Theory: If any action creates or sustains enemies at the table, then reconsider the action. If you cannot win without taking that action, then do so. However, if you can win without it, then skip it.
If Jimmy never targets any of his opponents' nasty permanents, he will lose. Taking out the Sylvan Library is a good move. However, the Signet is nothing major. Now, if it screwed up Steve's manabase and cut off his Blue mana, it has a greater impact on the game, and Jimmy should do that. Otherwise, just skip it.
One corollary to that is if you are going to piss off one person already, you might as well piss them off more. Suppose that in our scenario, Steve had a solid artifact. Maybe he had a Emmessi Tome. Further suppose that Stacey had a Signet out. Now, Jimmy plays Hull Breach. Should he take out the Emmessi Tome or the Signet? If he goes for just the Signet, then he doesn't antagonize Steve and may turn him into an ally. On the other hand, a Tome might be good enough to try for a two-fer. This is more nebulous, and I think you could go either way and be safe on this one.
Another card similar to Hull Breach is Decimate. Target just one person with all four Decimate targets and you will annihilate their board position. On the other hand, if you target multiple people, then you could turn the table against you. One player once had an Etched Oracle, Volrath's Stronghold, Future Sight, and Bringer of the Blue Dawn in play at once. He was doing stupid Oracle / Stronghold tricks and then drawing bunches with the Bringer and the Future Sight. I drew a tutor and grabbed Decimate, hitting all four of his permanents at once. It was a serious step back in power for him, but rarely does a Decimate have the ability to hit all of one player's permanents at such a high power level. Normally, if you want to keep your Decimate at one, you have to get chaff like a Swamp, an artifact land, or some things like that. I'd only spread out a Decimate if there are multiple must-kill permanents on the board. Yeah, you'll hurt just one, maybe two people, but then the whole table won't be looking at you with red eyes.
Alright, with that out of the way, let's move on the next strategy.
Eliminating Random Factors
This next example happened just last week. Three friends and I had drafted out of the Abedraft box and then started playing some multiplayer with our draft decks. A guy piloting a control deck got stomped on pretty early and then whined about how we were ganging up on him. We laid off him, partly because we wanted to focus on others, not solely because of the whine. About five turns later, we looked over and realized that he now had a Windreaver and a Steel Golem with two +1/+1 counters on it. We gave the control player a great field position because we let him lie around for a while.
Later that night we again let someone stick around after we beat them down. In that game, he came back to win the entire thing.
Do you play chess? I used to be in my Junior High's Chess Team. Anyway, I wasn't the best player in the team, but on a good day, I could beat anyone on the team, including those better than me. I used a fairly traditional strategy, one that certainly wasn't invented by me. I would actively trade pieces until the game board was down to a small enough number of pieces that I could more easily control the game. I was better at endgame scenarios than I was at the early and mid game, so I tried to speed us up to endgame. The fewer pieces there are on a chess board, the less likely I am to make a miscalculation, forget a piece, and the more likely I am to craft a winning strategy. I also knew what pieces I was more comfortable relying upon. I liked Rooks and Knights. I would trade Bishops and Queens any chance I got. Give me an endgame scenario with four pawns, a Rook, and both Knights against the same on the other side, and I felt very confident. Give me that same scenario with a Queen, two Bishops, and four pawns, and I would likely fall.
Magic is the same as chess. Even though Magic has an element of luck attached, we try to eliminate the random factors. When we build decks we use multiples of cards that we need. We keep our deck-size down to decrease the possibly of drawing into a bad section of the deck. We use a high land percentage to give us a higher chance of getting mana. We use mana adjuncts like artifacts, spells that get land, and creatures that tap for mana to give us even higher probabilities of getting the mana we need. We created the concept of a mana curve with numerous things to do on the first, second, and third turns to increase our duplication and reduce our reliance on luck. We run several different cards that all do the same thing to add redundancy to our decks. We love cards that tutor our deck for a specific card to reduce the random factor even more.
Magic is about trying to reduce the statistical anomalies. We want to shrink the chances of getting screwed by our deck. Eliminate random factors.
In any multiplayer game, there are a lot of random factors. In addition to the random factors of your deck and one opponent's deck, we now have the random factors of every deck around the table. We also have the random factors that those decks' pilots bring to the table.
At the kitchen table, chaos reigns supreme.
What I am about to say may not be a popular sentiment. A lot of casual players at the multiplayer table enjoy playing and play for pure fun. They don't want to kill players too soon, because it's not fun for them. This is the sort of player who includes Mind Twist in their deck because it's really good, and then never plays it because it makes them feel icky. (You know who you are, Aaron). A ton of casual players will not like the conclusion to my point drawn above for these reasons.
Here is the point. You have to eliminate random factors. I did it in chess. We all do it in deck construction every time we build a deck or take a mulligan. We cannot get away from it. I am merely saying that we should do it in play as well. In fact, I would argue that it is disingenuous to eliminate random factors in deck construction and play and then not to do it in this next step.
At a multiplayer table, if you have a chance to kill someone, don't let them linger. Take them out now. It may help create good vibes between you and them, and you may feel that you want the speed bumps, but too often have I seen someone linger and then recoup. When you have a chance to take out a player, do so quickly.
Now, you may think this strategy is good for the best players in your group, but surely I am not recommending that you take out Elf Boy who has played for just two months and has no good cards in his deck other than Coat of Arms and who loves Green and….
Yes, kill him too. I am referring to Elf Boy, and Goblin Girl, Haddix.dec, Best Player, and everybody else. Take them all out when they are down. Don't let that random factor continue. As you eliminate random factors, you bring the game under more and more control.
It may not be popular, it may not be nice, but it is the way to win the game. On the other hand, it might be really nice if you end the game and everybody gets to shuffle up and play again instead of waiting an extra half hour to an hour while everyone casts creatures and sits on them.
And that brings us to the close of yet another article of happiness. After reading this article, I want you to remember three things. First, that you need to eliminate random factors (read: opponents) at the multiplayer table when you get a chance. Second, that you should always play multiplayer keeping in mind the impact your decisions will have on others. And third, that you can be an Internet writer too, so what's keeping you from doing so?