My friends and I played a great game of multiplayer a few days ago, and it brought to the forefront of my mind one of the essential rules for multiplayer success.
The game started with five of us playing a Chaos game. The initial turns involved a lot of board set up. I was able to see that Jesse was playing Goblins, Eric was playing Big Green Dudes, John was playing Slivers, and Josh was playing Soldiers. Yes, there are far too many theme decks in my group. We are all aware of it and moving away from it.
At the mid-game, Josh played Martial Coup twice over four turns. I barely noticed the first one, since I was playing my Polymorph deck. I only ever put out a few token creatures at a time with that deck, and there are enough other cards that make tokens that I can usually recover fairly quickly. I barely noticed the second Coup since I was busy getting a couple slices of pizza out of the kitchen when it took place.
Side note: food and strategy is an entire article in and of itself. While I’m not nearly that devious, the distraction of food enables you to get a lot of spells through that might not normally get through. I’m not saying that Josh would not have got both Martial Coups cast if I had not been eating pizza (I had no counters in hand), just that it is often a good time to cast your big spells.
The double Martial Coup crippled most of the board and eventually left Jesse and John open to the kill that Josh was only too happy to provide. By the time the second player was killed (I don’t recall who was taken out first), Eric and I knew we were “in deep.” This game had turned into a two on one game without either of us saying a thing. This meant that neither of us were worried about the other attacking him if he tapped out. Everything was focused on Josh.
Fairly quickly the game reached a stalemate. The ground was completely locked down. Josh had huge solders (Field Marshals will do that), I also had 5 soldiers (a kicked Rite of Replication targeting one of Josh’s Field Marshals) and Eric had a number of sizeable ground pounders. The only creatures capable of doing any damage were Eric’s River Boa and my Celestial Colonnade. As Josh’s life totals started to fall, he started to get anxious. He tried to play Commander Eesha, but I Counterspelled it, since I didn’t want him getting free damage on me, and I didn’t want him to sit behind the Commander until he drew more soldiers. I was pretty sure that the longer this game went on, the more likely it would be that Eric and I would be dead.
When Eric attacked with the River Boa, threatening to put Josh’s life into single digits, Josh stopped for a moment and thought long and hard, then took the two damage. On Josh’s turn he played another soldier pumper and attacked Eric with his hordes of “huger” soldiers. After all the blocks, Eric was down to just the Boa and a few blockers, and Josh had lost a couple of soldiers. Josh was still protected, Eric would be dead on the next turn and still only the Boa and Colonnade could do damage to Josh. On my turn I drew my card, played a pointless spell, and passed the turn.
Did you see it? I made it pretty obvious for all of you reading along, but for those of us around the table who were chatting and conversing through the attack phase, I was the only one who caught it. “Josh thought long and hard.”
[Yes, I’m aware that this is screaming out for some low-brow humor. I’m not one to pass up that kind of opportunity, but I’m about to make an important point here. Quickly insert your favorite phallic image Magic card here and let’s move on]
“Big deal,” you say, “I think long and hard thoughts carefully at various points while playing Magic too. Why is that such a big deal?” It is important because I know Josh. Josh is the type of player who moves quickly through his turns. He figures out what he wants to do before his turn even starts. He has his outs all predetermined, then he plays his turn quickly, confident in what he wants to do and what he can do. Josh likes our multiplayer games to move as quickly as possible, so he makes every effort to ensure that when it is his turn, he is ready and moves through his entire turn quickly and efficiently.
But here he stopped and thought.
Josh does not slow roll the board or stop and consider non-existent options as a way to try and bluff. If he is thinking then he is definitely weighing his options. He had to have something that could stuff the River Boa. Eric had regeneration mana available so it wasn’t direct damage or something like that. It had to be a bounce spell or something that could kill a creature with regeneration. Josh likely did not have a bounce spell, since he rarely plays bounce. Besides, he’d already played two Martial Coups. Josh would not put bounce in a deck that aims to just kill off creatures. Better to leave them on the board to die. So what white card could kill a creature? Josh likes Wing Shards since it forces a sacrifice that gets around regeneration, indestructibility and stops evasion dudes cold. Josh had a Wing Shards in his hand. It was only taking him this long to figure out what to do because he didn’t know if he should take out the Boa or save it for my Colonnade! Since he took the damage from the Boa, I knew he was saving it for my Colonnade. Thus, I passed the turn.
Eric and the guys who were out of the game chided me for missing an opportunity to hit Josh for 4 with the Colonnade and bring him to 4. I played along as though I had missed it. I knew that if I had attacked Josh with the Colonnade and one of my soldiers to sacrifice to the Wing Shards, I would not have enough defenders to survive the return attack.
Eric drew and went in with the Boa unblocked to bring Josh to 6. Josh finished Eric and off with his vigilant soldiers attacking and playing defense, then passed the turn to me with three lands untapped that could give him either 2 blue and a white or 2 white and a blue mana.
I knew I could not get around the creature kill that was likely a Wing Shards if I came in with only one creature, so I needed an out; either another flyer that could attack or a counter for his Wing Shards. I was playing Polymorph, so I hoped for the best and drew nothing. I calculated the defenders that I had, and what Josh could attack with and figured if I sat back, I could survive another turn, so I did not attack again. Another round of boos from the others.
Josh played his turn and attacked in again as expected. I played my defense and knew I had only one more draw phase to find a winner. I drew into another land. I knew if I attacked with the Colonnade, trying to bluff something in my hand, that he would use the Wing Shards since he would die otherwise, irrelevant of how good my bluff might be. I was dead and died the next turn.
So what is the lesson? What can you learn from my slow and painful death?
Multiplayer Rule: Know your opponents
I gained at least 3 extra draw steps that I wouldn’t have if I had walked into the Wing Shards. I had three more opportunities to draw the counter or creature that I needed to win the game. It is a product of luck and/or poor deckbuilding that I did not draw the card I needed and lost. The important thing is that I maximized my options and gave myself every chance to get the win. This happened because I knew my opponent.
For tournaments, you need to know the metagame. This will let you determine if your deck is appropriate for that tournament, what answers your opponent is likely to be playing with, or if you need to tune it to beat the currently powerful decks. In casual, this is also true. Knowing what your friends play and tuning your deck accordingly is a solid move.
With casual play though, you can go a step further. Know your opponents. I know Josh’s playstyle and his preferred cards. He isn’t leaving Wing Shards mana open to sucker me into not attacking, he is leaving it open in case he needs to use it.
Eric is a completely different player. Eric doesn’t use white cards as a way to kill your creatures. If Eric is showing a single white mana, it isn’t that he is going to Path to Exile your creature, but he may play Holy Day and shut down your entire attack for the turn. Know your opponent.
The corollary to the rule is the obvious: Don’t let your opponents know you. Be the Chameleon.
The moment you become predictable is the moment you lose a significant edge. I was playing a deck in a game that I’d played several times before. Jesse played a spell and asked if anyone was going to respond. He worked his way around the table, looking for any responses. When he got to me he said, “Bruce… oh never mind, your Bird deck has no responses.” My opponent knew me and already I was well behind. If your opponents know you, any advantage you gain by knowing your opponents is lost. At that point you are just struggling to keep up.
Don’t hesitate to change your decks so you are not so predictable. It is an easy first step to limiting the knowledge your opponents have about your play. Subtle changes to your utility cards, or even changing a few cards in the deck to shift the deck from a multiplayer aggro deck into a control deck is often enough to throw off your opponents. My Bird deck is a good example of shifting a few cards to turn a moderately aggro deck into something unexpected.
4 Stormscape Familiar
4 Suntail Hawk
1 Raven Familiar
1 Coast Watcher
2 Duskrider Falcon
1 Soraya the Falconer
1 Freewind Falcon
1 Beacon Hawk
1 Keeper of the Nine Gales
1 Spire Owl
1 Sage Owl
4 Seaside Haven
20 Islands and Plains and various dual lands
Shifting to the Seedborn Muse’s Bird deck is just enough of a change to make my opponents initially believe I am playing the same deck, but as the game progresses, I’ll have some surprises in store.
Birds 2.0 (thanks to Brandon for his list!)
4 Soulcatchers’ Aerie
3 Seaside Haven
18 Islands and Plains
The real change necessary though is to change your style of play. If you regularly play slowly, speed things up to a breakneck pace. If your decks are predominantly theme decks, try running a control deck. Switch up cards in your decks so your opponents think they know all of your outs, when in fact, you have a new suite of options. If your collection allows, build enough decks so that you never play the same deck from week to week. Your friends know you and the decks you prefer to build. By being the chameleon in your group, you are never typecast or predictable.