Windborn Musings – Standing Up for Sitting Back

Lately there has been a trend towards “Proactive” play.  Anthony Alongi was among the first to suggest that playing the cards that scream out, “I’m going to win!  Try and stop me!” was the best way to maximize your win percentage.  That idea has percolated for quite some time.  Recently, I have noticed that the folks at Commandercast, and even the Muse Vessel’s own Graveborn Muse[i], have espoused this particular theory. 

They can’t be right all the time.

Proactive Play – Try and Stop Me!

The idea behind proactive play is that if you are proactive, you force everyone to respond to you.  You set the playing field and force others to play your game.  Naturally, you’ll play that game better than others since your deck is built to handle that particular playing field better than anyone else.  Besides, if others are left responding to you, they are spending their cards (and slots in their decks) on cards that do nothing to help them win, but only try to make you lose. 

I can completely understand the allure of that style of play.  Ramping into a creature or spell that redefines the game is just a blast.  It feels like the equivalent of the no-huddle offense in football, or the barbarian who challenges the entire room.  It really gets the blood going. 

The real problem is that multiplayer Magic is more like backroom dealings and dark alleyways.  My issue with any theory that recommends you take a proactive approach to the game lies with card advantage. 

The Danger of Proactive Play – All of You are Actually Trying to Stop Me!?

Most of us understand the value of card advantage in head to head games.  If an opponent uses two cards to deal with one of my cards, I earn card advantage.  If I play a card that lets me draw three cards, I earn card advantage.  Even virtual card advantage, where opponents do not play cards because of something I already have in play.  I have used one card to prevent them from playing other cards, earning virtual card advantage. I don’t really need to go through this again.  I have already discussed card advantage in relation to multiplayer Magic. 

The proactive player puts his card on the table and creates a position of strength.  By doing this, everyone else playing the game becomes focused on that player and what they are doing.  This means that the proactive player is getting one draw, while his opponents are getting three (assuming a four-player game).  Winning games while being outdrawn three to one generally means you are going to lose.  Even from a strength position, where your opponents are forced to play “your game,” it is difficult to win.  Your opponents can use two cards to stop every one of yours, and they still get an advantage, since they are drawing three cards to your one. 

Being the proactive player also means that threat assessment for the board is skewed against you. The proactive player is doing something that can presumably win the game.  This is an immediate, obvious threat to every player in the game.  The reactive player holds cards in hand, has lands and/or other mana sources in play, and likely has some cards in play that suggest he is not a threat, but would be a pain in the butt to go after.  How do you assess this threat level against the proactive player who is pushing, right now, for the win?  If you do nothing to the proactive player, they will win, and soon. If you do nothing to the reactive player right now they may win, or they may not.  Who do you attack?

Andy from Commandercast brought up an interesting point:  once you’ve played a few games with the reactive player, you know what they do and you realize it is a mistake to leave them alone and build up.  A group of intelligent players will remember the reactive player’s deck and go after them before they build up.  They will go after the player before he becomes a threat on the board, because they know he is a threat, even without anything currently on the battlefield. 

This is only true in certain circumstances however.  In a game with all reactive players, where they all know each others’ decks and what everyone is capable of, the threat assessment stops being about what the threat on the board is right now, and turns into what the biggest threat could be.  This will work as Andy describes.  Unless…

What if one of the reactive players in our example, one of the players who would not normally be seen as the threat, since their reactive deck tends to be the weakest, comes out a little faster than the others?  In a game with all reactive decks, the least reactive deck becomes the proactive deck.  If that deck shows that it could win in short order, it will be taken down, irrelevant of what The Threat could do, because when it comes down to it, there is the guaranteed threat now, and a possible threat.  You deal with the guaranteed threat and hope the possible threat doesn’t materialize, or that you have time to deal with him after the guaranteed threat.

Let’s take our Big Threat reactive player and put him in a game with proactive players.  Whether there is only one or there are three of them in our game is irrelevant.  As soon as someone is in a position to change the game’s dynamic (as every good proactive deck tries to do), that person becomes the primary threat that must be dealt with immediately, or you will lose the game. 

To be fair, I’m not saying you can’t win being proactive.  There are many situations that allow the proactive player to win games.

    • If your opponents aren’t as good a player as you, or have weaker decks than you, you can win.  Your play skill and/or better cards can give you the advantage you need to win games from an inherently weaker position. 
    • Everyone is proactive.  If every deck is proactive, then no one has the ability to deal with other proactive decks.  The deck that can swing the game dynamic in its favor first will likely limit the effectiveness of all the other decks, producing a win.  Besides, if every deck in a game is proactive, then a proactive deck must, by default, win.
    • Luck.  Magic is a game of variance.  There are times when you just defy the odds and win.  Being talented and loading your deck with good stuff improves your chances of lucking into a win.  There are times when even if you are outdrawn, you defy the odds and win. 
    • Instant combos and aggro LD decks. The proactive player running these style of decks can win games, and in fact, should be favored to win games over reactive players.  These types of decks either “go off” before any reactive player has a chance to stop it from happening, or the land destruction prevents the reactive player from having the mana needed to stop the proactive aggro player from killing them.  I’ll be discussing these scenarios in more detail below.

Reactive Play – Gathering Your Strength

So what exactly does the reactive player do?  To be an effective reactive player, several things must happen:

1.  You must not be the primary threat. 

If you are the primary threat, at least one player will be looking to attack you.  Realistically, it will be more than one player.  You cannot hope to defend yourself against the actions of other players and still expect to be able to react when someone else steps up and becomes the primary threat. 

The benefit of a reactive strategy is that you can stock up card advantage.  If you are wasting that card advantage defending yourself against other players who see you as the primary threat, then you might as well be the proactive player and be playing cards to alter the game’s dynamic.  

Also remember that multiplayer Magic is played from the perspective of several players.  Just because you do not view yourself as the primary threat, doesn’t mean others won’t.  If you have an opponent whose threat assessment revolves around life total, then don’t think that your weak board position and 45 life will prevent him from seeing you as the primary threat.  Find out what your opponents believe makes someone a threat and avoid being that person.

2. You must not be the weakest player on the board. 

This is the inverse of the first point, but just as valid.  Many groups happily attack the weakest link on the table, ignoring whether that individual is a threat to them personally, or if that person could help you later on.  This happens often enough that I discourage anyone from being in this role.  You want to be in the middle.  Set up a defensible position (not a complete lock[ii], but something solid).

3. Don’t just sit there!

Too many players assume that you are supposed to hide there and do nothing the entire time.  This is ridiculous and your complete lack of interaction with the board becomes very obvious. Just sitting there draws attention to you and your position.  It doesn’t take long for your opponents to notice that you have a full grip of cards and have done nothing.  Take part in the game!  Run a spare creature at the Primary Threat.  Throw away a burn spell occasionally.  Just as the proactive player is obvious by the cards he is playing, you will be obvious by everything you are not doing. 

4.  Take command!

At some point you have to assert dominance on the board.  This won’t be right away, but there will come a point in the game where your cards and the board state suggest that you have a good chance to win the game by stepping up.  Usually someone has been eliminated, or if you are lucky, it is down to just you and one opponent.  Take all that card advantage that you have been building and start using it.  Your opponent will be weakened and his threats will likely be evident.  Being the reactive player gets you to the point in the game where you can jump up and seize the game by the throat, throttling your opponents right out of the game. 

Reactive Player – The Benefits Package is Pretty Solid

I’ve mentioned earlier that the strength of the reactive position lies in card advantage, but it bears repeating.  In theory, the reactive player also faces the same number of opponents, but this is where the terminology breaks down.  The proactive player sees the other players in the game as opponents.  The reactive player sees the other players in the game as uncontrolled participants that you can influence.  Assuming the reactive player is playing his part well, his card advantage will be huge, since he will be drawing cards every turn with his allies in their efforts to take down a single threat.  Being reactive often means that you have to spend no cards to stop an opponent’s cards.  You save your assets for later turns when you absolutely must use them, and the proactive players have used up their assets.

Another strength of the reactive style is the difficulty other players have when making a threat assessment.  The proactive player gives everyone plenty of information on which to make their assessment.  The reactive player gives you a handful of cards, some land and a moderate board position. This lack of information makes it difficult for the players to say that the reactive player is the primary threat, especially when there is a proactive player out there, with obvious threats that can hit right now

Degenerate Combos and Aggro LD (Warning! Rant ahead!)

I mentioned earlier that a proactive player who plays degenerate combos or aggro land destruction has an advantage over the reactive player.  If your group does not ban or limit these deck types, I recommend you try them out.  Let me know how much fun your group has when games end in five minutes, or worse, when games go on for an hour and everyone is simply waiting for the aggro player to finally manage to kill everyone.  Let me know how your group enjoys a combo that can only kill one player at a time.  Ask the guy who is killed five minutes in how much he is enjoying watching the combo player try to assemble the combo pieces to take out the next opponent before everyone can finally take him out.  If your group truly enjoys that style of multiplayer Magic, I weep for you.  You might as well be at home alone goldfishing your deck, then bragging on Twitter how you consistently win on turn three.  I enjoy watching players attempt to build their combo, but I want a chance to be able to stop it from happening.  I don’t mind seeing my lands destroyed on occasion, but I wouldn’t want to face a deck that relies completely on that as a way to pin down opponents while they gradually try to kill everyone with a minimal offense. 

Reactive Players only Play Dull Decks

Playing a reactive style doesn’t mean playing with a particular deck either.  These players who sit behind huge walls and various forms of Propaganda are playing one deck that most players have a hate for right now, and is probably not a good option.  On Wednesday, I listed two decks that used Auratog as a win condition, and played them in a reactive manner.  Both decks had plenty of power to try and play as proactive decks, but invariably, I would be able to eliminate one opponent, then be overrun by the others.  It generally proved to be a better strategy to play the smaller spells and wait until the game reached a point where two or three large attacks would cripple my opponents to the point of an inevitable win.

I also described the switch from a proactive to a reactive deck when I looked at my Polymorph deck.  While I could consistently put out Emrakul, the Aeons Torn, or Progenitus  by turn 5, it rarely ever paid off.  I would eliminate one or two opponents, then be taken down by the others.  Once I switched to a reactive plan, I was able to survive behind token creatures and carefully played counterspells until the board state was better suited to winning with Progenitus

What happens if everyone becomes a Reactive Player?

The best part of an article like this is that I know everyone playing a proactive style, won’t stop.  Some know the style is inherently weaker, but it fits their personality better or they just find it more fun, so they won’t change.  Some players simply refuse to accept the obvious and continue to believe being proactive is the best option.  All this means is that there will always be proactive players out there, drawing attention away from me. 

Thank goodness for them all.

Bruce Richard
@manaburned
bnrichard<AT>hotmail<DOT>com   


[i] Graveborn Muse has suggested a different strategy of late which discusses the Security Curve and suggests that the proactive response (or the reactive response) is not always best.  I strongly recommend you read the first and second articles. 

[ii] Complete locks scream out combo or danger to most players.  Players tend to treat complete locks as a reverse proactive player, meaning the threat right now is as significant as anything else on the board. 

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About Windborn Muse

If you seek limited or constructed tournament knowledge, wrapped up with excellent comedic writing, you are in the wrong place. Planted firmly at the kitchen table, Bruce (the Windborn Muse) is all things casual, focusing primarily on strategies for multiplayer games wrapped up with horrific, train wreck attempts at humour. Bruce is married to an extremely tolerant woman and has three children who will not go near him in public. In real life Bruce works as an attorney and lives just outside Boston.
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7 Responses to Windborn Musings – Standing Up for Sitting Back

  1. Razjah says:

    I had a really long reply then I read your post again. I think I agree on your points made in the summary. If one player comes out of the gates with a huge lead then others will conspire to remove him or her. By building up more slowly, you increase your chances of lasting longer and winning more games.

    I agree the proactive deck vs reactive deck may be a bit misleading. Most people think proactive means “going nova” while reactive means “playing defense”. Dispelling this thinking will go a long way to helping more people understand reactive in the way you discuss.

    I think following threat assessment is the best way to win. When I play, I do my best to determine where the other players are planning to go with their strategies and then take out the ones most harmful to me first. Then I move down the line while evaluating threats every turn. Someone can always drop an Emrakul and become the biggest threat, but if I can remove that player from the game in response to Emrakul then I really don’t care. If someone drops something that I can’t handle then they may become my biggest threat and I go after them. Focused fire on my biggest threat seems to work very well with me, but then again, my group rarely plays wtih politics, alliances, and diplomatic bargains.

  2. sarroth says:

    “Some know the style is inherently weaker, but it fits their personality better or they just find it more fun, so they won’t change.”

    That’s me. The guy at the card shop Thursday one for the second time in a month after doing practically nothing all game. Both times he seemed bored out of his mind, and out of nowhere he wins. I don’t know if he was feigning boredom to seem like he didn’t have good cards in hand to craft good future plays, but it didn’t look fun to me. “+2 Jace, go” when you have enough mana to cast any of the cards in your deck just isn’t that interesting.

    Besides, with Kaalia and Rafiq as commanders, I can’t not be proactive… Maybe once I get my Glissa, the Traitor deck I can try a hand at some reactiveness.

    • Graveborn Muse says:

      Hmmm…my guess is that Glissa will push you towards the aggro. She’s a great defender, but for the same reasons she’s also REALLY HARD TO BLOCK, and BG are great smashmouth colors. My Glissa deck is still evolving, but she swings harder than anyone else at the table.

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  4. ntw3001 says:

    This comment is a little late, but here we go:
    In my experience, the problem with Commandercast’s theory is that while one might be aware that the reactive deck’s gameplan revolves around sitting back until its opponents deplete their resources, it doesn’t change the fact that unless resources are directed towards the proactive deck, that deck is going to win.

    In my group, we know that the Orzhov deck wins games by outlasting, but that doesn’t mean we can afford to use our removal on Agent of Masks rather than, say, Darksteel Colossus. Commandercast seem to be assuming that the reactive deck is using some kind of subtle mind games to trick its opponents into making incorrect threat evaluations, whereas what it’s actually doing is maintaining itself as objectively less threatening (as far as the word ‘objectively’ can apply here, of course). The opponents aren’t chasing the proactive player because the reactive player has fooled them; they’re doing it because stopping that player is a genuine, correctly-identified priority. However well a player may know how this situation tends to play out, the fact is that the opponents’ resources often do have more pressing targets.

  5. Graveborn Muse says:

    Reading this again it becomes even clearer how fompatible our playstyles are. I will work harder to be The Threat while you may actively work to avoid that role, but in most situations we would not be the threat and we would balance against whoever it is; perhaps I might lead a balancing coalition while you follow one, but the result wont be that different. and we both say that we would take charge at some point in the game, butneither of us would do that in a situation where we didnt have enough power to have a good chance of winning. the differences between our playstyles seem to be at the margins.
    I would add though that one of the reasons I dislike the proactive/reactive dichotomy is that proactive decks can deal with other proactive decks just fine. Whether i can smash your face at any given time depends on a particular mix of threats and answers rather than who has what ‘style’ of deck.

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