When I wrote my article on The Top Ten Strategy Articles I Wish I’d Written, I never expected that an article I didn’t include would generate the most buzz, but here we are. Shoe’s mention of an article by Abe Sargent sparked a lot of interest on the question of Best Player Syndrome (BPS), and Bruce and I both wanted to address it; hence his article on Friday and mine today. Bruce covered the topic well, so I’m going to look at it from a more theoretical angle and try to sneak in the last word (plus: a special announcement at the end!).
Before I begin, let me clear up two points. Firstly, I have a lot of respect for Abe Sargent as a player and a writer, but I didn’t include any of his articles because I never really thought of him as a theorist/strategist in the same way that Alongi and The Ferrett are. That’s no knock on him: Kenneth Waltz is a great IR theorist, but nobody outside academia has ever heard of him, whereas Henry Kissinger was a successful practitioner who is so famous that Monty Python wrote a song about him. Abe is the successful Kissinger to my aspiring Waltz.
Secondly, a lot has been made of the difference between The Alongi School of multiplayer strategy and The Ferrett School; in fact, I’ve made a big deal of it! In particular, Bruce and I seem to embody this dichotomy—his nickname is ‘The Quiet Guy’ and my handle online is Defenestrator, which kind of sums it up. However, the bottom line is that it’s easy to exaggerate these theoretical distinctions , when in fact Bruce and I are going to agree on the right play in any given situation at least 80-90% of the time.
Breaking Down Best Player Syndrome
Everyone plays, thinks and writes primarily from their own perspective and experience; Bruce started playing at time when everyone else in his group had a lot more cards than him, and he plays with some pretty scary dudes now, which helps explain his tendency for lying low. On the other hand, I started playing back when everyone was starting out and there wasn’t too much difference between power levels, and even today, the most regular players in my playgroup are at a similarly high level, and have reached a fairly stable equilibrium. As a result, nobody gets too bent out of shape when you make your move. That’s why Abe’s article—which I read, as I have read most of Abe’s stuff—didn’t impress me as much as it impressed Shoe; it just seemed too limited to Abe’s immediate experience.
That being said, I have heard a lot of people saying—or even occasionally whining—about something similar, so it is clear that Abe’s idea of BPS captures something that is happening out there at the Kitchen Table.TM
What we need to do first of all is separate the actual behavior from the motive. Rightly or wrongly, calling it BPS both describes how people were treating Abe and ascribes a motive to it, which is jumping the gun. Bruce was right to distinguish between the best player, which your group may or may not have, and the person who is experiencing something that seems like Best Player Syndrome. The dynamics of your playgroup are the behavior that we’re trying to understand, but the idea that it’s happening purely because you are the best player at your table is a very flattering—and probably horribly biased—assessment of why this behavior is recurring.
Don’t get me wrong, if you’ve been playing for years and have a number of finely tuned killer decks that you play against the precons that the rest of the rookies in your group are still playing with, then you really will be the best player in your group, and you will deserve all of the hatred that their Runeclaw Bears can send at you. My problem with Abe’s interpretation of BPS is that these situations are relatively rare, whereas people experiencing something that feels like BPS is extremely common.
Let me run you through a quick diagnostic test to see where we’re at. Please check all that apply:
- You aren’t winning as many games as you thought you would
- You’re only winning 1/4 of your four-player games (or a similar ratio for different group sizes)
- Your opponents are trying to kill you
- Your opponents are ganging up on you
- Your opponents are ganging up on you as soon as you play a threat
- Your opponents are ganging up on you as soon as they realize that you are playing a certain deck or decks
- Your opponents are ganging up on you all the time, no matter what deck you play
- No really, your opponents are ganging up on you literally all the time, absolutely regardless of what deck you play
The doctor will see you now.
- You aren’t winning as many games as you thought you would?
- Suck it up!
- You’re only winning 1/4 of your four-player games (or similar ratio for different group sizes)?
- Your opponents are trying to kill you?
- They’re supposed to—that’s what “opponents” means. Suck it up!
- Your opponents are ganging up on you?
- They’re supposed to—that’s what “multiplayer” means. You have multiple opponents, and none of them can win unless they kill you. In fact, stop saying “ganging up,” because it doesn’t mean anything.
- Your opponents are ganging up on you as soon as you play a threat?
- Didn’t I tell you to stop saying “ganging up”? This is the real BPS: Balance of Power Syndrome. Balancing is one of the most natural and predictable behaviors in any strategic game. Suck it up!
- Your opponents are ganging up on you as soon as they realize that you are playing a certain deck or decks?
- Interesting! This is called BDS, or Bastard Deck Syndrome. Your deck is obviously perceived as overpowered and/or unfun to play against. This is usually cured with a topical cream, but you could also consider changing the deck, asking your opponents why they hate that deck so much, apologizing for playing it, or some combination of the above.
- Your opponents are ganging up on you all the time, no matter what deck you play?
- Really? I suspect that to be a lie of sorts, Baldrick. You may be suffering from DQS, or Drama Queen Syndrome.
- No really, you opponents are ganging up on you literally all the time, absolutely no matter what deck you play?
- Ah, now this is interesting. In this case, and only this case, you might have been previously diagnosed with a genuine case of so-called Best Player Syndrome. This is an outdated term, and modern clinical research now suggests that this condition was actually a misnomer. The collection of symptoms previously associated with this disorder are now correctly understood to be a condition called BTS: Balance of Threat Syndrome.
Take off your pants and I’ll explain the course of treatment for this malady.
Balance of Threat Syndrome
When I talked about balancing (here, here and here), I explained that it is normally/theoretically a response to one player having a disproportionate share of the total power at your table, but I also mentioned that power is almost impossible to clearly define. What happens in the real world is that players look at the information available to them, process it through a highly subjective filter, and decide who is the most powerful player. If you’re suffering from BTS, it’s this filter that is causing your problems. In short, the fact that you are you is outweighing the fact that your board position is crap, or that someone else is actually a bigger threat. On the surface, that looks like exactly the same thing that Abe was talking about, but actually it’s quite different and—most importantly for you—much easier to solve.
Look at it this way: if you really were the best player in your group, with a huge advantage in terms of experience, cards and deckbuilding skill, and your opponents really were kicking your ass for this reason and no other, then there is no cure. Your best hope is that over the very long term your opponents would catch up and start kicking your ass individually, rather than collectively. In other words, a diagnosis of Best Player Syndrome was usually considered fatal.
However, because the problem is that you are perceived as the greatest threat, and you know that this is a combination of objective factors (e.g. board position, what your deck is known to do, cards in hand) and subjective factors (e.g. your reputation), then you can address the problem on multiple levels. Bruce already dealt with these really well—I told you that there is less space between our approaches than there appears to be—but let me emphasize some of his best points:
- Be prepared to lose! The belief in your awesomeness/dangerousness/whatever can only last so long in the face of the reality of your suckage. Tank a game on purpose, or challenge yourself to play with preconstructed decks, block decks, pauper decks or the janky piles of crap that the noobs who are beating you play. Nothing succeeds like failure!
- Leverage your reputation to point out the real threat. You may not be trusted, but if you’re consistently accurate and honest, then you will eventually be successful. And because I’m not as nice a guy as Bruce, I actually would recommend saying “I told you so” if the schmuck who killed you gets wiped out next turn by a threat that you had warned them about, but say it with a smile rather than a vengeful grimace.
- Group-building. Especially if you are the most experienced player, you have a duty to mentor newer and/or weaker players. By helping others to become better players you will give them the confidence and skill to deal with threatening cards and the wisdom to assess the board more objectively.
Beyond that, just play more decks. More decks mean more variety for everyone, more choices for you to adapt to the power level of the rest of your playgroup and less dread from them. Additionally, if you’re suffering from BDS, the solution is simple: don’t build Bastard Decks! Honestly, it’s like the old joke where a man walks into a doctor’s office and says, “Doctor, doctor, it hurts when I do this!” The doctor of course replies, “Then stop doing that.” If you like playing a deck then you have the right to play it, but if your opponents don’t like playing against it then they have the right to kill it on sight. And if Bastard Decks are the only decks that you know how to make and the only decks that you enjoy playing, then you may be a sociopath; seek help. My advice is to find another way to get the same enjoyment without aggravating your playgroup.
My buddy Brent is a great example of a leopard who changed his spots and is now loving life on the casual side. Brent may actually be the best player in our group (he’s certainly the best at tournament play, although I think my aggro monstrosities beat his insidious control concoctions in our last three drafts), but he found himself losing a lot of multiplayer games simply because his first Commander deck was a monoblue abomination featuring every legal Time Walk variant, numerous tutors and Regrowth effects, and a cheesy High Tide combo that he could get every time. His deck was the most powerful, and we were all smart enough to realize it and smash his face, I mean, strategically balance against him, the second he dropped an Island. Since then, his decks have evolved greatly, and are now much more fun to play with and against.
Correctly identifying the problem of “Best Player Syndrome” as a matter of balancing makes it much easier to deal with. If you are the most powerful player in the game and your opponents “gang up” on you (seriously, stop using that phrase!), then you need to realize that it is normal, rational, strategic behavior. On the other hand, if your reputation is so warping the group’s threat perceptions that you are getting ousted when a bigger threat is clearly waiting in the wings, then this will naturally correct itself. Good threat assessment is one of the keys to success in multiplayer Magic, and those who assign resources to the wrong threats (i.e. you) for the wrong reasons (i.e. because you’re you) will tend to lose a lot. Give your opponents time to recalibrate their threat perceptions and realize that they are overbalancing against you, and the real problem of BTS will correct itself. And finally, remember that there are things you can do to reduce your own threat profile, whether you really are the best player or not.
I’ll be starting a new feature shortly: Graveborn Muse Premium Deck Advice! I’ve always wanted to do a deck doctor type column, and we’ve got enough readers to make it work well now, I think. Here’s how it will work:
- I’ll only deal with ‘sixties’ to start with, meaning non-Commander multiplayer decks, because Commander decklists are, frankly, a pain in the arse to read.
- This is deck advice, not deck bragging, so send in decks that aren’t firing the way you want.
- Send an email to gravebornmusings at gmail dotcom (with “Premium Deck Advice” in the subject line please) with a decklist as a word file (5 forest, 4 Llanowar Elf, etc) and a message explaining what you’re trying to do and what the problems are, along with any restrictions in terms of budget, card availability, color preferences and so on)
- I’ll get back to the owners of the selected decks individually, and then deal with a couple of decks together in a future article.
So, Graveborn Muse Premium Deck Advice: it’s going to be a thing! Don’t think of it as a shallow excuse to increase my hit-count on the back of WotC’s latest and shiniest product offering, but a way to harness the experience of a crusty old dude who has been playing since white-bordered cards were cool. I look forward to seeing what you guys are slinging!
 Alongi wrote a series of articles on ganging up during his run on the mothership—I think the title was “Alpha Dogs.” You can find it, but be warned: he has no sympathy for anyone claiming BPS, so expect harsh tones along with his usual sage advice.
 “Nicer legs than Hitler and bigger tits than Cher”; I can only hope that one day somebody will say that about me!
 Back in the Dark Ages, the cards that everyone was clamoring for were such powerhouses as Khabal Ghoul, Lord of the Pit and Rabid Wombat, and Icy Manipulator was probably the strongest card in the game. The difference between Thicket Basilisk and Force of Nature wasn’t nearly as great as the difference between Pelakka Wurm and Garruk, Primal Hunter today.
 I will respectfully disagree with Bruce on this one. As I see it, the best player is not necessarily the one who wins the most games over the long term, due primarily to the mechanic of balancing. Theoretically (not making allowances for such real-world conditions as slow adaptation, deck styles or someone mooching on pizza), I would expect that over the long term win percentages would reach a point of equilibrium in which everyone wins roughly the same number of games due to balancing.