Have you ever won a four-player on turn four without playing combo, or even attacking? I have—here’s how!
Last week, I wrote about one of the most common mistakes in multiplayer: The Vengeance Play™. I thought I was done with the topic, although unfortunately not done with my own vengeful tendencies. But I played a game this week that was such a clear example of the Vengeance Dynamic spiraling out of control that I just had to come back to it. It all began, as these things so often do, with idle threats…
We’ve had a couple of great new players join our merry little band at Shakey’s Pizza in Tokyo. One of them, Simon, sat down with Nick, Brent and me and borrowed Nick’s Animar deck. The game then started off with me (Vorosh), Nick (Vish Kal), Simon (Animar) and Brent (Oros). On turn two, Simon dropped a Ravnica bounceland, followed by Brent dropping a Strip Mine. This is where it gets interesting: Brent then made a comment, intended as a joke, about being able to wreck Simon by stripping his only land.
Next turn, Simon played Animar, Brent tapped out for a Darksteel Ingot and everyone else developed a little bit, but on turn four, Simon cast a Ravenous Baboons (go on, look it up—it’s a good card) to take out Brent’s tapped Strip Mine. Then, in the moment that decided the course of the whole game, he decided that since he had earned Brent’s wrath with that play, he might as well go all in, and smacked him for two with Animar.
Some of you have seen this movie before and can guess the rest. Brent was all “Bring it on!” and Simon kept going, soon finding a way to bounce the Baboons and destroy most of Brent’s mana base. Brent swore “You will not win this game!” and showed me a Sorin Markov with a manic grin. While Simon was busy overextending and Brent was struggling to get up to six mana to drop his bomb, Nick and I just lightly sparred with each other and watched the show. We only intervened in the feud when Simon looked like he might totally overwhelm Brent (I stole his Ulamog twice and sent it against Nick), and neither of them did much to affect either of us. When Brent was finally eliminated, Simon was on three life and I had the momentum to take him out and cripple Nick, and that was the end of it.
But as I said at the beginning, I really won the game on Simon’s fourth turn, when he made the mistake of committing himself to eliminating Brent. At that point it was clear that neither he nor Brent was likely to win, and whoever did better out of Nick and I would likely win the whole thing.
Symptoms of Insanity
The root of the problem was that Simon had set up a self-fulfilling prophecy. He said, “I know Brent’s going to kill me for this, so I have to get him first,” but in fact he didn’t know anything of the sort. Usually, in fact, we don’t know what any of our opponents are really thinking, so embarking on prevenge against someone on the basis of a hunch is usually a mistake. Do you really know they’re going to kill you? Do they really have a strong enough reason to come after you with both barrels, or are you about to give them a reason? Because the basis of a strategic game is that our opponents’ plans are shaped by our actions. That means we can force them to do the thing that we fear, the thing that we most don’t want them to do, by trying to preempt it.
It is wise to act on the basis of what your opponents have—their capabilities—because we don’t know what their intentions really are. If they have a scary creature we should hold back a blocker or keep mana open for removal. But going into a feud with someone usually assumes more about their intentions than you can actually know, so you really should wait for some clear sign of their intentions first—perhaps at the same time that you give them a sign that your intentions aren’t particularly hostile.
The second thing that separates the normal back-and-forth of multiplayer from a full-blown vengeance dynamic is tunnel vision. No, not Tunnel Vision; I mean, getting obsessed with one opponent to the point where you don’t notice, or deal with, the rest of the board. Several times in that game, Nick and I pointed out a threat that the other had played, but Simon and Brent just said, “I don’t care” or “That’s not my problem.” The fact is that they should have cared: Nick was very close to recurring an Archon of Justice that would have cleared the board for a massive Vish Kal to kill us all, and I was sitting on Oona, Queen of the Fae with a boatload of mana at one stage, but they couldn’t take their eyes off each other. I think the only time either of them did anything to someone else was when Brent destroyed Nick’s Sword of Wreck and Face, and that was only because he was using Rack and Ruin against Simon’s only artifact, and he needed a second target. That is a sure sign that you’re in too deep.
Thirdly, when you go from playing threat to saying threats, you’re asking for trouble. I’m no advocate of flying under the radar, but even I know that keeping your threat profile lower than it really is makes sense in most situations. If you don’t have any threats on the board and you’re still promising to take someone down or make sure they lose the game or they’ll rue the day they crossed you or blah blah blah, then you’ve lost the plot. In Brent’s case it was especially strange, because he’s usually such a master of pointing out O.P.T. He really didn’t seem to gain anything from stoking the fires of the feud, but he did anyway. And sure, he was right—Simon lost because of the damage that Brent did to him—but that point could have been better made at the end of the game, when a victorious Brent saves Simon for last, and then reminds him, “I told you I’d kill you.” Making the game all about carrying out a threat to another person doesn’t make much sense because you winning is more important than them losing.
Going Off the Rails
Where did it all go wrong? Well, it started with the concept I talked about last week: prevenge. Brent has a bit of a reputation for making the vengeance play; in fact, Simon had earlier heard him and another guy talking about how they’d gotten all vendett-ey less than a week before. Being new to the group, Simon may have taken that a little too much to heart, and once he destroyed Brent’s Strip Mine, he thought that Brent would automatically come after him, so his attacks against Brent were a form of preemptive self-defense.
Would Brent have singled him out just for blowing up a colorless land? No, definitely not. Would two points of Animar damage, adding a small injury to the insult, be enough to set him off? Probably not, although like I said, Brent has a minor reputation for that sort of thing. However, two points of damage, combined with being set back on mana and the very clear threat that Simon would keep coming after him made Brent see red.
It’s important to remember that what happened wasn’t actually Simon’s fault. The vengeance dynamic is always driven by at least two players; even if Simon started the ball rolling, Brent gave it a good push when he could easily have slowed it down. Granted, from a purely strategic point of view, Brent would have been wise to devote more of his resources to dealing with the threat from Simon. However, on the political level, it is really a bad idea to meet challenge with challenge in this situation. Instead of saying some version of “Bring it on, bitch!” Brent had the option to downplay it.
If you find yourself in that situation, I recommend a whiny version of the rope-a-dope strategy: emphasize that they are picking on you, you haven’t done anything against them (or if you did, there was a good reason; it wasn’t personal), you aren’t out to get them, and everyone else at the table is a bigger threat. It really does take two to tango, and the best way to defuse a spiraling vengeance dynamic is to step back. Grovel a little if you have to; the important thing is to make it to the endgame, when you can make crush all of your enemies beneath your heel, rather than struggle to kill just one of them in the midgame, where the most you can hope for is a Pyrrhic victory.
Of course, Nick and I could have intervened at any point to take the wind out of their sails by presenting threats that Simon had to answer, but frankly we were both smart enough to know that those two were handing us the game on a silver platter. And there’s nothing wrong with taking advantage of that, but I would like to leave you with a warning: if you see a vengeance dynamic like this carrying over across multiple games, then you should probably step in to make sure things don’t escalate into a social problem with those two players. Maintaining a harmonious playgroup is more important over the long term than sneaking in the occasional devious win.
 Other People’s Threats.
 To be fair, I’m told that I do too, but I swear I’m working on it!
 Of course, that can justify Simon’s belief that Brent is out to get him, thereby furthering the spiral. This is called the Security Dilemma, and the world’s greatest statesmen routinely make the same mistake, so we shouldn’t feel too bad if we get caught up in it once in a while too!