Good players should go for the threats. Anthony Alongi preached that good threat analysis was the key to succeeding in multiplayer Magic, and The Ferrett taught us to identify those players or decks that can stop us from carrying out our game plan. But most play groups contain at least one player who doesn’t play that way, or doesn’t necessarily recognize the greatest threats in a multiplayer environment, and every player makes rational calculations through a filter of their own personalities, perceptions and pet peeves. If you have someone in your group who seems to be playing ‘irrationally’, it might be worth asking what drives them. Game theory teaches us that everyone can be assumed to be ‘rational’, but only, as Terry Pratchett would say, “for a given value of rational.”
In other words, even the most unpredictable of your opponents is trying to get something out of their play experience, and they make their decisions with an eye towards achieving these goals. That’s not to say that even the flakiest weirdo you’ve ever sat down with is actually a cold, calculating, killing machine, but it does mean that their randomness may conceal a pattern that you can perceive, understand and perhaps even manipulate. In my experience, there are three types of players who don’t seem to be using the same definition of ‘rationality’ as the rest of the table. These players make decisions that consistently confound your expectations and get in the way of executing your strategy: the Butter, the Batter and the Bitter. I’m going to explain what these personality types mean and how you can play with/around them.
First is the Butter, the type of person who loves to spread the beats around evenly. I once had a friend get out a fourth turn Spirit of the Night, and then take turns attacking everyone. To be fair, he did show some threat assessment by swinging at the most dangerous opponent first (which was unfortunately me), but rather than pressing his advantage, he attacked both other players before having a second go at me, giving me time to find my one and only out against a pro-black trampling flier. I won that game because he established himself as a threat to the whole table and drew a lot of heat for his explosive start, but he could have killed any one of us completely unopposed, and might well have been able to take the whole table if he’d shown more focus.
Was he playing rationally? Sure: he was playing in a way that was carefully calculated to maximize his own fun. The Butter wants to enjoy the process of playing the game, and doesn’t really care about the outcome. They want to involve everyone, and because they are enjoying themselves they will be reluctant to end the fun by ousting anyone. Moreover, someone like this may not care about how well they do as long as they are actively involved in the game.
You can play around this in a couple of ways. Firstly, don’t overreact to an attack! In fact, if you have a chance to be the first person they attack, so much the better. If you see someone rolling a dice to decide targets, or asking ‘Who wants a kiss from Mr. Sengir?’, then you should probably just volunteer. Next turn, when they have more stuff on the board, you can be sure that their creatures will look elsewhere, and you can let someone else escalate things. Also, you’ll be at less life than everyone else, which is often a good thing, because I think most casual players have got a little bit of Butter in them.
Secondly, beware of teaming up with the Butter if you need someone killed; they may prefer to leave a threat on low life and then have a go at you rather than eliminate someone outright, no matter how much of a threat that person represents. The Butteriest player I’ve ever met sometimes even got offended when other players tried to manipulate him; it was like “you’re getting in the way of my fun with all of your ‘strategy’ and ‘winning.’ I don’t think I want to play with you anymore. Have 27 points of Wombat damage.”
In short, the Butter is not your primary threat in the early game, because they aren’t trying to kill anyone; in fact if they have fun playing with you, there’s a good chance they’ll want to keep the party going by leaving you alive. On the other hand, they could easily become someone else’s primary threat, which is great for you—I always enjoy watching people overreact to an innocent little attack from the Butter, leaving themselves open to me a savage shellacking from me.
The Batter is the opposite of the Butter; they’re the person whose strategic decisions are motivated by one simple fact: there are too many players at this table. Their default setting is to target one player for elimination and keep battering at them until they’re dead. It might be the person playing the aggressive Netdeck, or the person playing the Shadow or Bloodthirst deck, in which case anyone could be the Batter in any given game depending on their deck type and the strategy they adopt for that deck (Urabrask is a classic Batter deck). However, there are some people who just want to oust others from the game as fast as they can. The person who plays their Clerics tribal deck like it was a Legacy goblins deck is likely to be a Batter.
How can you be sure? The difference between a Batter and someone who just lives in the Red Zone is that once they smell blood in the water they’re going to focus all their energies on killing that one player, whether it ultimately serves their purposes or not. For example, when a new threat looms over the horizon, the Batter may be reluctant to divert attention from their current prey, and they hate to leave a weak player alive, even if that player could become a useful ally. In other words, the Batter thinks you should kick someone when they’re down, because that’s why you put them down in the first place.
Batters are tough to deal with, especially if they tend to build their decks to come out of the gates quickly. Anyone who plays Isamaru as their commander is likely to be a Batter, for example. To make sure that it isn’t you they batter, you should always have early defensive plays, instant speed removal and plenty of card advantage. With a Batter in your group, you may find yourself in a duel rather than multiplayer, at least in the early game, and if you don’t handle that well, then you’ll either be dead or too weak to fend off the other players at the mid to late game. On the other hand, I’ve seen games where a third turn Pilgrim’s Eye decided the whole game because there was a Batter at the table; that early blocker was enough to turn the Batter’s attention to another player, essentially causing the Batter and their target to pound away at each other until the Pilgrim’s Eye player was ready to swoop in and finish them both off with more substantial creatures.
In a four-player game, a Batter (and to a lesser extent, a Bitter), presents two of their three opponents with a choice: join the fight, either with or against the Batter, or start something with the other non-combatant. If a Batter (Player A) attacks Player B, then you (Player C) can attack the other noncombatant with relative impunity (Player D – confused yet?). Your other option is to save the victim (B) from a big attack or a killing blow, either by attacking the Batter directly or by using cards like Fog, Spinal Embrace or Wild Ricochet to gain something at the Batter’s expense. This can force the Batter to overextend or use up more resources against the original prey, give the prey time to recover, and hopefully give you an ally later on. But beware! Interfering with the Batter when you are not their target is likely to lead to friction, as they expect you to either join them in eliminating the weakest link, or go and find your own prey. As I discussed in The Save, Batters (Batterers?) think that ousting people is rational, and so any Good Samaritans appear to be either crazy or killjoys.
The Bitter refers to the occasional person who lets their negative emotions do their thinking for them. Maybe they don’t bother assessing threats in this game, because they remember who the threat was last game, and they’re still looking for revenge; maybe they will consider someone to be The Threat simply because they exile Bitter’s favorite creature; maybe they mindlessly attack the first opponent who targets or damages them. Most of us know what it is like to win the first game and become the default target in the second, or draw fire if we play a particular deck, and to a certain extent this may simply be good threat evaluation. On the other hand, the Bitter is looking to hurt someone who hurt them, and is likely to ignore certain pertinent factors, such as “But I’ve switched to my Happy Horses deck, and Stephen just played Replenish on his Pandemoniums!”, or “But that’s the first game I’ve won in ages; you killed me twice last week.” But the Bitter no Buts – they aren’t listening.
Are they playing rationally? Sure: perhaps they value their pride a little bit too highly, or overemphasize their own sense of justice, but in their eyes, these factors are just as important as the strategic, political or harmony factors that the rest of us are focused on.
It’s much harder to play around the Bitter, because their choice of who to hate this time often seems completely arbitrary. On one hand, if you know someone is particularly sensitive then you can really use that. Whether you go with the obvious (“Man, I can’t believe you attacked Bitter first, that’s so unfair!) or the subtle (“He didn’t even think of targeting you with that Mind Twist – I guess he doesn’t think you’re much of a threat, Bitter! Are you gonna take that lying down?”), then it is easier to steer the Bitter than anyone else.
On the other hand, if they’re gunning for you it can be very hard to turn them away. A Jedi Mind Trick may be your best bet in defusing bitterness (“That was a great game. If I didn’t kill you, I’m sure you would have won on the next turn”), and failing that, apologizing for whatever upset them may work (“I just thought you were the biggest threat last game…I should have listened to you and attacked Steve instead, sorry”). Like flopping in basketball, you can make so much drama about the damage they’ve done to you that they feel they’ve got their pound of flesh (“aw man, I can’t believe you killed both of my Ornithopters in that attack. Boy, you really showed me!”).
A side note on dealing with the Bitter: you can’t let someone use Bitter-ness as a strategy to deter damage. Some people just establish a policy of going after the first person who attacks them, usually hoping that people won’t attack them, because the inevitable vendetta isn’t worth it, but to my mind that is basically an excuse not to play multiplayer strategically. It’s important to break people of that habit sharpish. Over the long term, you might be able to wean an inexperienced player off of their Bitter tendencies by intervening on behalf of their prey. This might draw their fire and get them to pay more attention to the whole board. As a whole, it is important for the play group to work together to prevent the Bitter from actually creating long-term schisms in the group (cf. The Legend of Chuck). Magic is a social game, and so emotions are essential to enjoyment, but we must always beware the dark side.
A Bitter Confession
I’ve noticed something in my recent Commander games that makes me more than a little bit uncomfortable: I think I might be a closet Bitter. Now, I’m no stranger to savage, hate-filled tirades in the rest of my life—ask me about the 2000 Election some time—but I play Magic to relax. Yet somehow I seem to be developing a finely-honed sense of righteous vengeance. Someone will destroy a particularly valuable permanent, or single me out for consecutive attacks despite the presence of superior decks and scarier board positions. I might let someone live and attack a mutual foe instead, and they stab me in the back and then lose to the aforementioned mutual foe. And when that happens, I see a red haze (maybe Urabrask still has a hold on me?) and start swearing revenge against them.
Here’s the problem: rationality trumps rage. You can start vendettas until the Sicilians come home, but it isn’t gonna help you win. In fact, it’s going to weaken you against whoever the real threat might be, and probably hand them the game. In addition, you lose the element of surprise and uncertainty, which can be an important part of your arsenal. Even if the player you single out for retribution is the person you should be going for, you’re not going to get any support in balancing against them, because “he stole my Commander!!” isn’t as convincing as “he’s going to win unless we can stop him together.” More than likely you’ll be so committed to finishing your sworn enemy that someone else will be able to take out your stuff—or threaten to take you out directly—and you can’t do anything about it. Even worse, what if someone else stabs you in the back when you’re beating on the first backstabber? As Strategic Blunders go, simultaneous feuds on two fronts is only a couple of steps below ‘suicide.’
From now on, I vow to eliminate my Bitter tendencies, and if any of you are in the same boat, I hope you’ll join me in adopting a new motto:
Killing them ALL and dancing on the graves of the entire table is the best revenge!!
Oh yeah, I’ve really got a handle on those anger management issues.
Understanding these differences between players can help you to win more games, but also make your games more harmonious. Play styles are like cultures, and the potential for cross-cultural misunderstanding should not be underestimated. In fact, I only started thinking about this because I was playing with a guy who was always gunning for someone, and usually seemed to be gunning for me. Sometimes it was clear who the weakest person was, and he went for them, but often as not he’d just look at me and turn his critters sideways. I really took it personally for a while, before I realized that this was how he enjoyed the game; he was a classic Batter. When I realized that the ‘friction’ between us was due to a philosophical difference rather than a personal one, and that I was his de facto target because he respected my decks, it really helped me to enjoy our games more.
At the end of the day, rationality is the norm in multiplayer decision making, but it is important to understand that the differences between players and the increased complexity of multiplayer games complicate this, to the point where you are going to see people make decisions that seem irrational to you. More importantly, a lot of these decisions are going to affect you, and some of them will cost you games. Some players only have one response to this: cursing out the offending player for making bad decisions and/or being a dumbass. Sometimes that’s fair, but usually the truth lies elsewhere—that there is more than one value of ‘rationality’, and that you can take advantage of supposed irrationality in your playgroup. Understanding what makes the Bitter, the Batter and the Butter tick will make you Better.
PS: Like Jules Winfield I ain’t got no partners in 818, but a good friend of mine—and hands down one of the three funnest people I’ve ever slung cards with—is starting grad school at Stanford soon (Yes he is that smart; no I never did win that many games against him). If you’re looking for good people to play with in that area, let me know and I’ll put you in touch with him. He will almost certainly kick your ass, but you’ll have fun while he’s doing it!
 Snag is a particularly useful Fog variant if you’re going to get involved in other players’ combat steps. Attackers and blockers still kill to each other, but the defending player won’t usually take any damage, prolonging the war on that front and delaying the point when the winner of that little feud inevitably turns their attention towards you.
 I wish I could say that it improved my win percentage against him…the jury’s still out on that.