Today’s discussion is based on something that a regular reader, Razjah, posted in the comments. It shows, of course, that I love and cherish all of you and value your feedback, but also illustrates some important aspects of threat assessment and balancing, as well as being an important part of the social level of multiplayer.
Razjah explained that he tried to avoid the inevitable balancing against him by encouraging his group to break into smaller groups and have the winners of each table play together in the next game, the first to die playing together at a separate table, and so on. Unfortunately, he said, instead of encouraging competition,
“the less experienced players stagnate. They create alliances and vendettas that run through weeks. They attack Suzie because five weeks ago she won a single game. She has not won since, and even though most have backed down, one still attacks here every single game. She has no chance because Timmy decided to kill her every game.
“We have found that when there are not more experienced players at a table, the group tends to stagnate and not learn. They do not improve deckbuilding, threat assessment, or other strategies. Randomizing the tables helps educate the newer players, in my experience at least.”
There are a lot of things to consider here, but the main problem is between Timmy and Suzie. Of course, I hesitate to believe that a person “always” does the same thing in “every” game, so it is important to reserve judgment until we hear both sides of the story, but it looks from the outside like Timmy is picking on Suzie, which certainly seems unfair. Also, if he really is doing this because he thinks she is the best player or the biggest threat at the table, then his threat assessment is horrendous. Whatever is in her deck, the fact that she loses every game suggests that she doesn’t warrant the early attention that Timmy is giving her. This conclusion is supported by the fact that the rest of the group has apparently stopped balancing against her and she still loses.
Because of how important balancing and threat assessment are, I replied to Razjah: “The important question to ask about that dynamic…is not ‘Does Timmy always kill Suzie?’ but rather ‘Does Timmy always win the games in which he goes after Suzie first?’” As I expected, he confirmed that Timmy’s poor threat assessment is costing him games. In other words, by focusing all of his limited resources on Suzie when either another threat is preparing to pounce, or no true threat has emerged yet, he’s leaving himself open to whatever those threats may turn out to be. Before he’s even finished killing poor Suzie, he’s hobbled his own ability to survive into the long game.
On the surface, this is all about bad threat assessment and, therefore, balancing against the wrong player. If he is a rational person who is sincerely motivated to win games, then he will, eventually, knock that off and improve his threat assessment. However, if he keeps it up in the face of Suzie’s (and his own) continuous defeats, then we have to look for a new reason for his behavior, because his reason for going after her basically boils down to “I don’t like losing. That’s why I’m pissing away all of these games by chasing someone who isn’t a threat to me.” That’s a pretty stupid thing to say, and I don’t believe that people give answers that stupid without some ulterior motive.
Most of us aren’t so much cold calculating killer cyborgs as we are angry, inattentive sacks of hunger and hormones. Rather than clearly defining our goals and analyzing the situation to determine the most efficient way to achieve them, people often just have a feeling about what they want to do and then dream up a set of reasons that seem to justify that course of action. If going after Suzie is clearly not improving his chances of winning, then we need to look at other possible motivations.
If you find yourself in this situation in the future, here are some questions that you should ask:
- Is she playing blue, or some other color/strategy that he hates?
- Does he consider her deck to be unfun or unfair in some way?
- Did that particular loss hurt him in some way?
- Is he very close friends with the other players at that table?
- Does he just not like Suzie for some reason?
- Is he a Batter and Susie never makes any early defensive plays?
- Do the other decks in your group have a particular advantage against his deck(s) that Susie’s doesn’t (e.g. dirty white mages with protection from Timmy’s black deck)?
- Does he feel that he can’t win the whole game, so killing one player is the best result he can hope for?
These are all entirely common and at least pseudo-reasonable explanations for Timmy’s behavior. If something like this is his real motive, then obviously arguing that Suzie doesn’t deserve to be attacked won’t do anything, because it only addresses his justification, not his real reason for going after her. Figuring out the real reason is the key to solving the problem.
However, it seems to me that an important factor here is the fact that Timmy is a guy and Suzie is not. He might just feel uncomfortable playing with ‘girls,’ which is more common than you might think. For all we know, he actually has a crush on her and is trying to get her attention! Young guys do stupid things like that to girls they like; I know whereof I speak (sorry Pippa!). After they both die, see if he approaches her for a 1-on-1 game. Something like this is a much more reasonable explanation, whether he admits it or not, for what otherwise seems to be inexcusably irrational decision making.
Normally I would suggest a defensive deck of some kind for Suzie, or a counter-Batter strategy from the rest of the group, although as I said these will only be effective if Timmy is acting out of a misguided belief that she really is the biggest threat at the table.
Defensive decks can take many forms, and I’m reluctant to give specific advice to Suzie without knowing her card pool, budget and so on—and for that matter, Suzie may not even care as long as she gets to spend an evening playing cards with friends—but for anyone who wants to stop one person from always taking them out before they get started, here are some tips.
Defender: Shockingly, cards with ‘defender’ on them are a good way to defend yourself against early aggression. Some of the classics include Wall of Shadows, Wall of Souls, Wall of Essence and Fog Bank. Rise of the Eldrazi had a small defender sub-theme, so there are lots of good options from recent sets: Wall of Omens is awesome, Guard Gomazoa is fantastic budget Fog Bank, Perimeter Captain can be strong and Overgrown Battlement is a must for any green deck that is facing too much early pressure.
Protection: If you and your attacker are both playing creature decks, but they’re pushing the tempo of the game by rushing you, you can regain control by having creatures that survive combat. The most basic way is to have critters with high toughness, but you can also consider abilities like regenerate, indestructible and protection from the colors your main opponent is playing with. Be aware that, unlike defender, some of these strategies might increase your threat profile (if I’m playing monoblack and half your creature are pro-black, then I’m going to be consistently thinking of ways to kill you, even if I’m attacking an easier target this turn). Regeneration can be a little bit mana-intensive, so it’s important to have more mana in your deck than usual, and you have to pay a premium for indestructible creatures (Creepy Doll and Manor Gargoyle are budget rares, but they cost five mana, which is a bit steep if you’re under attack from turn two), so a higher land count is important there too.
Removal: Maybe you just aren’t packing enough ways to deal with attackers. Did I mention that black is a great color for killing their stuff? Unless your attacker is also playing black, you can probably change the game dynamic completely just by adding a playset each of Doom Blade and Terror. In white, there are a lot of instants that only work on attacking creatures (Condemn and Exile are the classics, but there seems to be one in every set), which sends a strong signal that you can’t hurt them unless they try to hurt you. In red, you might find that four copies of Pyroclasm will solve all of your problems. An aggressive opponent will soon run out of steam when you can wipe out three or four of their weenies with one of your spells, especially if your own creatures are tough enough to survive.
Lifegain: Not my favorite strategy, but it is possible to outrace a single attacker, gaining more life than they can deal damage. Blocking with a lifelinking creature is a good start, and there’s plenty of removal that kills one of their creatures while increasing your life total: Tendrils of Corruption, Corrupt, Consume Soul and Tribute to Hunger are just some of the options available to you. Notice that these cards, combined with the high number of vampires with lifelink (starting from Zendikar), makes monoblack a great way to run a lifegain strategy. However, white has always been the king of straight-up lifegain, so look at cards like Moment of Heroism, Shattered Angel and Timely Reinforcements. Finally, only of my favorite lifegain cards recently is Blunt the Assault from Scars of Mirrodin. There’s nothing quite like gaining a dozen life from an attack that you can’t even block!
Be the Beatdown: Sometimes the best defense really is a good offense. Play a deck with more creatures than normal, play an aggressive mana curve (e.g. eight one-drops, six two-drops, four three-drops and two four-drops), and choose creatures with the highest power-to-mana-cost ratios that you can find. Then you can give them a taste of their own medicine.
Take some time to figure out how to use the Gatherer search engine and find the cards that are most interesting and useful to you, and re-engineer your decks to take your attacker to the cleaners.
Group Strategy: I’ve never been interested in letting someone get picked on unless there’s a particularly good in-game reason for it, and I know a lot of people feel the same way. Barring some extra element in the group (like Suzie suffering from BDS, or being a neo-Nazi, or making fun of Timmy’s glass eye, or something), I tend to think that the group should work to discourage this type of behavior by shifting the tide of battle in Suzie’s favor a bit. But even if they don’t feel that it’s the right thing to do or the best way to maintain group cohesion, they can still be persuaded to do it because it’s in their best interests. Point out how scary Timmy is, or how if they keep you alive you might be able to deal with another threat on the board. Most importantly, make it clear that as soon as Timmy has killed you he’ll be looking to get revenge on whoever won the last game; on the other hand, the longer Timmy is slugging it out with you, the longer everyone else has to do their thing, build up card advantage and so on. That will make it clear that slowing Timmy’s blitzkrieg down can actually serve their interests.
Getting killed early is usually not much fun, and it’s even less fun if it happened because of someone else’s bad attitude or bad strategy. Over the long term, there is no strategic factor that justifies that unless the target’s deck is really strong—it’s just going to reduce the group’s overall fun. As such, this kind of ‘bullying’ is just one more thing that casual players need to look out for and eliminate if they can. If someone is picking on a player at your group, suggest that they try some of the ideas from this article. It is usually very difficult to oust someone in the first few turns, which means that there are lots of ways for the Suzie in your group to turn things around. Once you survive the initial onslaught, you can either ignore or eliminate that mean old Timmy!
 Names have been changed to protect the innocent and/or foolish.
 For better or worse, this is what my group normally does too.
 I myself only became truly confident about talking to women when I was…hmmm…let me get back to you on that!
 Assuming that anyone who needs this advice is a relatively new player, you should know that Blunt the Assault is a variant of one of the oldest cards in Magic: Fog. Found mostly in green, with the occasional variant in white or black (or even blue in a sense), Fogs are a great way to deal with an overenthusiastic attacker. There are countless variants available, each with their own little twist, so search your collection and the green commons box at your local game store (LGS) and see what you can find.