Graveborn Musings – When Bombs Bomb

I am famously cheap, and when it comes to Magic cards my lovely wife is cheaper still. As a result, I tend not to spend too much money on single cards, and desperately wait for the good stuff to rotate out of Standard before I make a bid for them.[1] As a result, I only own two Titans: a Frost Titan that I opened in an otherwise dismal draft, and a Primeval Titan that I splurged (feel free to add inverted commas) and paid $30 for. So I was thrilled when I was able to play Prime Time – a card I have a total man-crush on – in a recent game. It had a huge effect on the game, fetching up a total of ten lands – four for me and six for my opponents (You get a land! You get a land! You get a land!). At moments like that, it’s natural to wonder if it is really worth it to play such powerful cards in multiplayer, or if it is better to cut them from your decks so that they don’t get used against you.

The Alongi School of multiplayer strategy advocates playing big spells, putting together the strongest decks you can, and cackling maniacally as you grind your opponents to death beneath your heel. And don’t get me wrong, I’m in favor of that style of play, especially the last part.[2] However, all of us have had experiences with our best spells turning into powerful weapons that our opponents use to kick us in the metaphorical nadgers. Does this mean that there’s a fundamental problem with the strategy, is it a question of politics, or a metagame issue. And more importantly, how do you protect your wedding tackle from further damage?

Firstly, in the immortal words of Obi-Wan Kenobi, many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view. It’s easy to focus on a situation that ends up with your opponent beating you about the head and shoulders with your favorite creature, but we can’t see exactly how worried they are by our threats before they draw the answers. Forcing them to respond to you and putting them in situations where they either find the answers or you kill them is exactly where you want to be, and you can’t do that unless you’re playing with power. It’s also easy to ignore the fact that those spells would have been used on something, and if they didn’t hurt you with your creature they would have hurt you with something else.

Your opponents are going to have cards that play off of your cards, and sometimes that means they’re going to get more of an advantage from particularly powerful cards in your deck. That might involve putting your Titan in their Mimic Vat and getting more lands from it than you, or Wild Ricocheting your 20-point Exsanguinate or nailing your huge Vulturous Zombie with a Phthisis that kills you. But what are the options –do you really think your chances of winning would be better if your top-end creature was a Craw Wurm or a Will-o’-the-Wisp, or your most copiable spell was a Lightning Blast? For the most part, your chances of winning are going to be higher with more powerful spells. For every huge creature that deserts or gets nailed by Phthisis, hundreds more get killed by regular common-or-garden removal spells that don’t have any of that kind of down side for you – and for that matter, you’re going to be able to take advantage of your creature’s size or special abilities with cards like Fling, Momentous Fall or Corpse Dance far more often than your opponents can punish you for it.

More importantly, with the exception of something like Insurrection or Liliana’s ultimate ability, cards that take advantage of the power in someone else’s deck tend to be targeted, meaning that your other opponents’ creatures are fair game too. If you lower the power level of your deck then you’re probably going to get beaten up by those opponents and suffer then their creatures get Bribed or Vatted by someone else. Plus, if someone steals your cards then they have an incentive to keep you alive, because when you die you take all of your toys home with you.

There are some exceptions, which I’ll talk about later, but in the vast majority of cases you will find that the benefits of playing strong cards greatly outweigh the dangers, and there are ways you can play around the cards and strategies you’re worried about.

Finding Answers

There are answers to any kinds of threats in Magic, and what will work for you will depend very much on your threat environment. For example Mimic Vat is in the process of running rampant in my meta, and that can be answered either with artifact removal or with patience – when a better critter comes along, it’ll go into the Vat and you’ll get your critter back. In the game in question, a black mage cast Beacon of Unrest on my Titan and got two lands from it, then I hit my own Titan with Terminate in response to him casting the Vat, in order to minimize his gains from it.

Blue and red mages tend to be annoying when they steal your critters. The card and tempo advantage can be huge, and in multiplayer these are often worth the cost of playing with inherently reactive cards – although the reactive nature of the cards is something you can play around (try swinging with a Raging Ravine until they’re forced to waste a Control Magic on a weaker chump-blocker, then cast your bomb). One important way to deal with this is to have plenty of sacrifice outlets, such as Claws of Gix, High Market or, in an artifact-heavy deck, Phyrexia’s Core. One untapped mana and a Claws in play means that your opponent’s Control Magic just became a very subpar removal spell, and only the Split Second spells (Sudden Seizing and Take Possession) can get around that. Instant-speed removal is the other way to deal with it – most of the time there is an enchantment or a creature that you can kill to get your critter back.

Spells like Bribery and Acquire – by which I mean Bribery and Acquire, as there aren’t many other cards in this family – can be harder to deal with, as they don’t rely on you casting good stuff and you can’t destroy the enchantment to get your creature back. However, the odds of you getting hit by these usually depend on a few key cards in your deck. If you are the only one at the table playing Eldrazi or Blightsteel Colossus, then you can reasonably expect to get Bribed early and often, and if you have 187 critters such as Woodfall Primus,[3] Acidic Slime or Duplicant then you may occasionally have your deck violated as the blue mage searches for an answer to an immediate threat.

You can answer these spells by killing the creature, which doesn’t entail any card disadvantage for you and can give you the opportunity to reanimate those creatures yourself for fun and profit. Given that there are only a few ways to draw critters out of libraries, you can often purge them all with an early Sadistic Sacrament or Jester’s Cap, especially in EDH, or a Cranial Extraction type of card if you’re playing sixties instead of hundreds. Bribery effects entail searching libraries, so there are some great answers in cards like Leonin Arbiter, Mindlock Orb, Shadow of Doubt and Aven Mindcensor. They also involve targeting, so cards that protect players from targeted effects (Seht’s Tiger, Dawn Charm) will neutralize a Bribery, and cards that redirect spells from one player to another (Divert, Imp’s Mischief or Rebound, for example) will at least ensure that you still have access to your own stuff.

Copying is perhaps more of a problem. Cards like Clone, Cryptoplasm and Phyrexian Metamorph can allow the blue mage to double up on your heavy hitters – I remember the first time I played Cryptoplasm, I got to shut down my friend’s Primeval Titan with a Wall of Frost and then get two copies of my own and smash face with them. Apparently, letting a blue mage put four lands into play each turn is not a sure path to victory. Like the Control Magic family, you can’t play most of these spells whenever you like, but once you find a good target for them you can keep dropping the bombs. Finding solutions to this is not easy, although having a good removal suite and playing with spells that make your critters better will always give you an edge – that can be anything from Door of Destinies to Glorious Anthem to Behemoth Sledge. Sometimes subtlety is no match for brute force. Maelstrom Pulse can also work wonders if the copies keep the same name as the original, and there are also spells like Ratchet Bomb and Crime//Punishment that let you hammer everything with the same converted mana cost and cards like Tsabo’s Decree that can take care of everything in the same tribe. With that sort of removal, the worst case scenario is that you’ll lose a couple of creatures yourself, but there’s also the chance that you’ll nail your opponent’s original as well as a bunch of copies.

Finally, any list of answers to theft would be incomplete without Brooding Saurian, one of the most elegantly designed color-hosers of all time. I tend to include it in any green EDH deck that doesn’t plan to play with other people’s toys.

Keep these answers and these principles in mind and you’ll be fine stuffing your decks with the biggest threats you can find, with the following exceptions.

The Jin-Gitaxias Exception

This is a bigger issue than I can deal with in this article, but there have always been those who refuse to play the very strongest cards because they are afraid of a preemptive backlash from the rest of the table. Jin-Gitaxias (how weird is it that I can spell that correctly before the set has even come out?) is the poster child for this line of thought, especially as it embodies the idea of a kill-on-sight general in EDH. In my experience, the presence of a specific card isn’t usually enough to get you ousted, although it is true that, when there are no other threats on the board, the presence of a particularly scary general or a particularly scary set of cards in your deck will draw some attention. But the paradox of strong cards and strong decks generally is that if it’s strong enough to take the table then it wins, and if it isn’t strong enough to take the table then it isn’t really such a strong deck, is it? In between those two states, there’s lots of room for a little thing I like to call PLAYING MAGIC. While playing Magic, the potential that you will play a decisive bomb like The Git has to be balanced out by the actual cards that other people play. That balancing act is kind of a double-edged sword – if nobody else plays any serious cards, then you should be able to win; if your opponents are dropping serious cards then they will become the higher priorities for the rest of the table than you.

All of this is theoretical, and the actual outcome depends on specific strategic, political and social factors, but the same goes for the argument that playing strong cards gets you killed. Generally speaking, you should play with power and make your opponents deal with you if they can. If your opponents are rational then they will probably be able to deal with a deck that can be balanced, meaning that the hate you draw over the long term will be proportional to the threat you actually represent. Only if one or more people at your table can’t stop seeing red at the sight of your general or the presence of other strong cards in your deck, and you enjoy playing with that person enough to put up with their pet peeves, should you consider retiring a strong card.

The Judo Exception

Stealing and reanimating stuff have always been popular strategies – even in the earliest days of the game, Control Magic, Animate Dead and to a lesser extent Steal Artifact were multiplayer staples. Decks built around those strategies are kind of generic and tend to work in most environments, but it is possible to build a deck like this in response to a metagame dominated by big creatures and/or big spells (I’d start with a set of Annex for mana and a set of Chancellor of the Spires for funnsies, but that’s probably just me). For example, the Dagobah Deck is one of the cuter multiplayer archetypes, designed to have no paths to victory other than those that you can take from other people’s decks. If a deck like that starts to dominate your metagame then a metagame response – i.e. a new deck – is in order.

I remember casting Bribery in a three-way game, targeting my friend Stephen and his monoblack deck and finding myself faced with a whatever-is-the-opposite-of-a-cornucopia of choice: Nightmare (DOA), Phage, the Untouchable (I’d be DOA), Frozen Shade (are you freaking kidding me!?) or Sengir Autocrat (the best item on a crappy menu). If you can present the judo deck with that kind of choice, then you’re going to win that game, and eventually encourage them to put that deck away. Cards like Nightmare or Dauntless Dourbark are swingy as hell in a deck of those colors, and virtually useless to other players, but they’re far from the only types of threats you can play. Nantuko Shade, pumpknights and so on can give you a quick win but are terrible cards for someone who isn’t playing those colors, and every color has at least a few cards like that (although a deck full of waterbreathing creatures is unlikely to deter the blue mage). Creatures that get bigger based on something you do or control are great ways to thwart theft. Also, virtually every steal spell ever made is cast at sorcery speed, meaning that creatures with flash, creatures with haste (especially Ball Lightning, Viashino Cutthroat, etc), and man-lands all present different challenges for the master thief.

For more ideas, The Ferrett wrote a great article about the power of theft that included some tips on beating them. Once you’ve convinced them to abandon that strategy, you can go back to playing your best stuff.

The Power-Gamer Exception

Like I said, I’m not normally the guy who buys the hottest power in Standard, but I have my share of rares, especially in my main EDH decks. Most of the guys I play with have at least one deck that matches or exceeds the budget of anything I can bring to the table, and one of them is a professional card dealer. However, everyone has a different budget for cards, and once in a while I’ll clean up a three- or four-player game in the first few turns by dropping a series of expensive cards before any of my opponents have played their first rare. When you start to think that maybe you just bought a victory,[4] it’s time to change decks. Consider setting the power aside and building a Standard, Block or even a Pauper deck.

The Cheese Exception

We are well into the grey area with this one, but if some of your powerful cards are so powerful that they end the game in an unfun way for your opponents, I would at least consider taking them out, or taking out some of the support cards that allow them to take folks out of the game so quickly. The obvious example that comes to mind for me is Blightsteel Colossus – I don’t imagine I would ever run that in a deck, but he has shown up in a disproportionate number of EDH decks hereabouts. To the extent that a deck can tutor up Lightning Greaves and Kuldotha Forgemaster and drop the big fella by turn five or six every game, this may overlap with the Jin-Gitaxias Exception, but it isn’t necessarily about one particularly scary card. If a single card or combo is responsible for the vast majority of your victories, whether that is Dragon Tyrant, Rings of Brighthearth or Tainted Strike, then it might be time to retire that card. Again, this is just a suggestion and you may enjoy winning in the same way on the same turn every single game, but most people, including your opponents, would enjoy games with a little bit more variety.

Conclusion

Sometimes your opponents will be able to turn your cards to their advantage. That’s just part of the game, and there are lots of ways you can turn things back around and take advantage of their attempts to take advantage. What you shouldn’t do is take out powerful spells just because your opponents are occasionally able to benefit from that power. Multiplayer is far too complex for that – if you reduce your power level in order to avoid having your creatures stolen, for example, you’re just going to find yourself hurting in other ways. That doesn’t mean that you should sell your little sister’s organs just to pimp out your decks (although I know I guy who can get you the best price for kidneys), and it certainly doesn’t mean that you should ignore the concerns of the rest of your playgroup about your cards or your decks; it just means that the strategic benefits of playing with those powerful, flashy cards that make you happy will almost always outweigh the downside.


[1] Case in point: there’s a chance that Jace the Mind Sculptor could drop as low as $70 when it rotates later this year. Great news for the budget deck-builder!

[3] If you’re lucky they’ll take your Primus; the way persist works is that after the creature dies the first time, the owner will get it back.

[4] Hint: when I Mana Drain your kicked fifth-turn Rite of Replication that you cast with mana from your own Mana Drain, as happened last Friday, that’s extraordinarily funny; when I Mana Drain the best card in your deck, which just happens to be Quilled Slagwurm, that represents that’s bad times all around.

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About Graveborn Muse

Daryl Bockett has been an avid Magic addict since Legends/Revised. He lives and breathes deckbuilding and casual play. "The more the merrier" is his creed! In those brief moments when he isn't playing, reading or thinking about Magic, he teaches at Rikkyo University in Tokyo. He has a Ph.D. in International Relations, which is basically only useful for helping him to understand the strategic interactions at a multiplayer table.
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