Graveborn Musings—The Top Ten Strategy Articles I Wish I’d Written Myself

The university semester has just started here in Japan, and that means one thing: I get to start giving out homework! Like all experienced teachers, I’ve learned that the best homework is that which makes the students do all the work, exposes them to the ideas of people who are smarter than me, and doesn’t require me to do any actual grading. Please note that there may be a test next week, and I certainly expect to use some of these as the basis for future articles, so it’ll help if you’ve read them. Plus, of course, great strategy articles help you to do more in your casual games, so a little bit of time spent reading here will definitely pay off for you in the future.

1)    The Renovated Alongi School of Multiplayer Magic by Anthony Alongi (natch)

I could just as easily give you several top ten lists of columns from Alongi, but that would be cheating. Suffice it to say that I believe Alongi is the best strategy writer in the history of multiplayer Magic, and this is the single article that best explains his approach to the game. If you look at everything he’s ever written you’ll see that he’s written hundreds of articles and his theories were changed and refined over time,[1] but this article is the most self-contained explanation I’ve found. You might also enjoy stuff like What We Learn from the Angry Lady, which almost made the cut on its own.

2)    You Have To Retire To Get The Hall Of Fame Right by Anthony Alongi

What is theory? Theory involves abstracting out a lot of the details that we see in the world and focusing only on those elements that are the most relevant. A lot of people misunderstand these and criticize theories for missing out the details, but that’s the whole point; theories work because of what they leave out, not despite it. Just like a map isn’t going to show a pothole on the road, or the homeless guy who tries to wash your windows on the corner of Where and Ever, a theory can only work because it misses out the details of a specific case in order to tell you something about all cases.

For card selection, I don’t think there has ever been a finer, more useful theory than Alongi’s animal elements. This is the article where he nails them down to their final form. As you know, the animal elements are…what are you doing? Just read the damn article!

3) What’s the Big Idea? by Anthony Alongi

This is a good introduction to the different facets of evaluation in multiplayer. It was also part of a kind of philosophical three-part series he did towards the end of his stint on the mothership (that’s the official website, magicthegathering.com. I’m not claiming that he stopped writing because he was abducted by aliens, although I’m not denying it either), where he gives advice on applying the same lessons to life, which may or may not be useful to you. Actually, they almost certainly will be useful to you, but you may or may not realize it yet.

4) Why are you Attacking Me? by The Ferrett

The Ferrett deserves at least as much credit as Alongi for the development of multiplayer theory. After all, he wrote some of the finest strategy articles ever, developed a clear alternative to Alongi’s school and fostered constructive debate on the subject, and brought Bruce, Brandon and I together for the SCG Talent Search and pointed us in the right direction. Who’s to say which of those will turn out to be his greatest achievement?

Realistically, I suspect it will be the former, but a man can dream. The Ferrett would probably describe himself as the master of sneakiness, but I think of him as the master of threat assessment. In this article, he provides us with a template for threat assessment and an introduction to his Second-Place Sucker Syndrome, which is related to balancing/bandwagoning and is usually the fate that awaits those who a) assess threats badly and b) bandwagon when they should balance, or vice versa.

5) Diabolic Cows: The Schematics Of Multiplayer And Bovine Influence by The Ferrett

This is the article I am most tempted to crib, and not just because going through The Ferrett’s massive archive at Star City just to find the multiplayer strategy articles is such a chore that I figure most of you haven’t read this. This brilliant analysis is actually quite similar to an aspect of IR theory called structural realism. The basic gist of it is that a world with two great powers (i.e. the Cold War) will be more stable than a world with three or four great powers (i.e. Europe before the Cold War). It is also the basis of the security curve theory, which tries to explain what will happen when there’s only one great power and folks are wondering whether to balance or bandwagon with them. In this article, The Ferrett introduces the same variable into multiplayer theory for the first time.

At the most basic level, Magic players can benefit from this article simply by choosing the right deck for the right “schematic.” My monoblue Arcanis deck has an embarrassingly high win percentage, but I won’t play it in a three-way game any more, because if both of my opponents come against me at the same time then it doesn’t have a prayer. A deck like that needs a larger number of opponents to play off against each other while you accumulate card advantage, whereas a straight-forward aggro deck like Kresh can often run out of steam with five or more opponents. I’d much rather play Kresh in a ménage à trois because all you need to win is for one opponent to stumble while you crush the other one and you can walk away with the game in a few turns.

At a deeper level, it is important to understand that adding more players isn’t just a quantitative change but a qualitative one. We can see this most clearly in the difference between a duel and a three-way, but as The Ferrett point out here, there are other changes to be aware of as the table adds or loses more players.

6) The Timmy Manifesto by Kelly Digges

Not a strategy article exactly, but I learned a lot about myself and my fellow gamers from this. As Kelly says, I used to be slightly embarrassed about identifying myself as a Timmy (“I’m a Timmy/Johnny” I would tell people, strongly emphasizing the second one, even though I knew in my heart of hearts that I was all about the big plays), but Kelly changed all of this with one article, for which I’m grateful. Also, identifying myself as a Diversity Gamer above all else has helped me to put some of my decisions, pet peeves and preferences into better perspective (this is also why Geoff Matteson’s brilliant article impressed me so much). Some people may not care about the whole Timmy/Johnny/Spike model, but for me it is interesting because it is continually relevant to the people I meet and how I interact with them, so I encourage those who aren’t already familiar with it to learn more by reading this article, as well as the articles by Mark Rosewater that Kelly links to.

7) Who’s the Beatdown?, by Mike Flores

Does Flores know a damn thing about multiplayer? Probably not, but he knows a hell of a lot about Magic, and has taught me a thing or two. This was the first time I realized how the ideas from the tournament crowd could help me to play casual better , and I have won a metric shitload of games due to this article.

As with Alongi, this article should lead you to a bunch of others, such as Flores’ famous The Philosophy of Fire and Understanding Reach. Check them out, and don’t make the mistake of assuming that we can’t learn anything from our Spikier brethren (and sistren, if we include the likes of Ashley Morway).

8 ) Magic Academy Series, by Ted Knutson

Learning to play Magic competitively is actually easier than learning to play casually, as counter-intuitive as that may seem. Basically, the decks to build and the plays to make in each matchup are all right there for you to find, whether at FNM or some other small tournament or online. At the same time, the pool of cards you’re going to run into is quite small, and therefore the number of interactions you need to be aware of is relatively limited. On the other hand, those of us who learned to play at the figurative kitchen table often had no idea about how to play, and were so isolated that we literally had to make it up as we went along. It is basically impossible to be isolated in the same way if you’re going to tournaments, which is why a casual player is probably more likely to have to teach/mentor/guide new players or correct common mistakes by experienced players than a tourney player.

That’s why I was thrilled when the mothership started its Magic Academy series, designed to teach the ropes to the new players. I had been playing for over a decade when the series started and considered myself pretty well versed in the rules and strategy, but I started reading along anyway.[2] Sure enough, even I learned something in each article, as well as being reminded what it was like to start at the very beginning. Keep it bookmarked and refer any new players to it, and check it out yourself if you find yourself teaching new players the ropes on a regular basis. If you enjoy that, then you should also be aware that Pro Tour heart-throb Jeff Cunningham wrote a similar series of articles, which you can find here.

9) Mulligans: A New Beginning, by Zvi Mowshowitz,

Zvi Mowshowitz—Hall of Famer, Pro Tour legend and unpronounceable first name—did an internship at WotC, one of the fruits of which was his very highbrow series on competitive Magic strategy. Basically, the only reason I feel I can get away with some of the theoretical stuff I’ve done is because Zvi really raised the bar for the depth of strategy writing.[3] Again, the casual player has to sift through carefully to find the relevant ideas, but it’s definitely worth it. I found his advice on mulliganing particularly useful.

He also follows it up with the imaginatively-titled, Mulligans, Part 2, which contains the absolute Golden Rule of mulligans: DON’T LOOK!! I remember playing in the finals of an M10 prerelease against the only other unbeaten deck. I was more than a little bit worried, because a) what the hell am I doing at a tournament, and b) my friend had just finished telling me how incredible this guy’s deck was. Round one, he agonized over a mulligan decision before eventually shipping it back, and then checked the top card! I knew then and there that I had a chance to beat this guy on play skill if he made such a rookie mistake, and sure enough, my aggro weenies overpowered his bombs 2-1. Never forget: the decision to mulligan has to be made on the basis of known information, and is right or wrong regardless of the cards on top of your library.

10) Mmmmmmmmmana…Five Rules For Avoiding Mana-Screw by Jay Moldenhauer-Salazar

Saving the best for last perhaps, Jay Moldy-Salad is the author who got me into online content, more even than Alongi and Rosewater—now you know who to blame. Back in the days when I was drawn by the coolness of the new cards (Kamigawa and Ravnica blocks) but discouraged by the lack of like-minded players in Tokyo, I was able to live vicariously through JMS’ excellent Building on a Budget series. Alongi is Da Man for what he did for multiplayer theory, but JMS was my first love, and his article on building mana bases is rightly regarded as a classic.

I still remember hearing the wild idea that decks should be 20 land, 20 creatures and 20 spells, back in 1995 or so, which was a heretical challenge to the orthodoxy of 20 land, 20 creatures, 20 spells, 20 artifacts and 20 gold spells.[4] Suffice it to say, I’ve built enough tragically unwieldy decks in my time to now appreciate the importance of a consistent mana base, even at the expense of the cards that you originally wanted to build the deck around, and JMS tells you how to get there.

So there’s your homework. I hope you enjoy the reading—feel free to share your favorite strategy articles in the comments section. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to watch my beloved All Blacks crush the bodies and spirits of the French, who have dared to show their faces in my country for the finals of the Rugby World Cup!


[1] This raises the nasty possibility that I’m going to have to come back to what I’ve written three years from now and say, “Actually, that’s a load of shite; the way it really works is like this.” Nobody wants that, but on the other hand, if I can get it totally right in my first go, it probably isn’t worth writing about.

[2] I was in grad school at the time, and it was either that or work on my dissertation…an easy decision.

[3] Although the best article in Zvi’s “The Play’s the Thing” series was written by Anthony Alongi during swap week—check it out!

[4] This was itself the apex of deckbuilding technology, achieved by only a rare few. Everyone else just put every card they owned into one deck and started shuffling. A simpler time, but not a smarter one.

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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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16 Responses to Graveborn Musings—The Top Ten Strategy Articles I Wish I’d Written Myself

  1. Shoe says:

    geat article that should have made the list by Abe Sargent – The Best Player Syndrome
    http://www.starcitygames.com/magic/multiplayer/8106_The_Best_Player_Syndrome.html

    One of the best multiplayer articles I have ever read. There are tons of times that people are aggro-d just because they are considered to be the best player at the table. this article talks about how to handle being in the hotseat all the time. A GREAT read!

    • I agree it was a great article, but I had a problem with the premise itself. If you are considered the “Best Player” at your table, then you are already doing it wrong. Awfully hard to ever get below the radar if you are always the first person everyone looks at when doing their threat assessment.

  2. Graveborn Muse says:

    Although staying below the radar doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing it right 🙂
    I thought I’d already written about this topic in one of my SCG articles, but apparently not…I may return to BPS at some point. Thanks Shoe!

    • shoe says:

      No problem. I have been thought of as best player in A lot of my former groups simply because I was a shop employee/to/had a website. Bps isn’t always an in game problem. Luckily my new playgroup doesn’t have that problem!

  3. Razjah says:

    Excellent round up for articles. I ahve read all of these, but enjoyed going over most of them again. I would also like to say that I am really glad to have stumbled over this site about a week ago.

    I would love to see someone address the BPS. I am my group’s best player. I have the most decks, been playing the longest, and win the most. Actually, due to the increaseing number of new players I have been doing even better than previous years. But I am always The Threat. Once I topdecked an Exsanguinate to come back from a game and now I can never be left alone even when I am the only player with the answers to the table’s current threat.

    This is made worse by my group’s size. We often have 16 people and 12 at the minimum each week. To combat the large groups and the mismatched skills we randomize whoe sits at each table. Now the new players don’t belive me about playing a weak deck and do have a chance I always need to play a strong deck.

    • I’m taking dibs on the BPS issue! Expect to see this in the next couple of weeks.

      • Razjah says:

        That would be great. My current approach is to accept always being a target and play strong decks to try and win. If I am playing with a bunch of new players, it turns out less about them ganging up and more akin to wolf among the sheep. If I ease up on the decks then they are sheep with knives when I am not being a wolf.

  4. Pingback: Friday Flashback – October 28, 2011 « CommanderCast

  5. Razjah says:

    I really like Oh, Here are the People in My Neighborhood by The Ferrett. Link: http://www.wizards.com/magic/magazine/Article.aspx?x=mtgcom/daily/tf20 This looks at a deck and advice from each staple player in The Ferret’s group.

  6. Stefan says:

    Nice article

  7. Graveborn Muse says:

    Thanks for the comments folks. I’ll definitely look at the articles you suggested, and will address Best Player Syndrome in a future article, although Bruce has first dibs.

  8. shmebula says:

    This article kept me very busy for over a week. Great stuff. Glad to have the Magic Academy links. I wish I knew about that when I started – especially since I was very hungry for basic attack/block strategy. I’m going to keep that link for future new players.

  9. Graveborn Muse says:

    Glad to see you taking your homework seriously…you’re getting an A for sure!

  10. Pingback: Graveborn Musings—BPS, BTS and the Usual BS | Muse Vessel

  11. Kaarle says:

    Hello there, You have done an excellent job. I’ll definitely digg it and personally suggest to my friends. I’m sure they will be benefited from this web site.

    • Graveborn Muse says:

      Thanks Kaarle, and welcome! You can also find us on gatheringmagic.com (although Brandon and I aren’t writing weekly at the moment), and of course Windborn Muse/Bruce got called up to the majors and is writing at dailymtg.com, The Mothership.

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