Destroying your playgroup is really not all that difficult. Just do nothing.
On Monday, Daryl ended his article 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.
While Daryl’s article was focused on the vengeance dynamic, I want to focus on the warning. A harmonious playgroup takes primacy and a failure to heed the message can only lead to problems.
My playgroup is a great blend of guys. While most are recent college graduates, the age, Magic experience, background, economic situation, and personalities are all over the place. It makes for fun evenings. Most discussions are about Magic, but our talk runs the gamut of topics. This is our “poker night” and we treat it as such.
A wide variety of characters will lead to various personality clashes, but for the most part, it isn’t an issue. Whether they let things simmer down on their own, ignore the issue or deal with it, our group has only had one real problem. Let me introduce the main characters of this story:
Eric is a tall, lanky guy with long hair and an easy smile. While Eric does have a tendency to look on the negative side of things, it isn’t that Debbie Downer attitude. Eric is a realist who understands that good things happen in life when you make them happen. He is quick to laugh and when the conversation turns political, you can expect Eric to sit on the left side of the spectrum.
In things Magical, when Eric first joined the group, his decks were, well, not very good. The cards in the decks were predictable and the deck was predictable. We encouraged variety and suggested he consider what others are playing and try to build accordingly. This has happened and the wins have come more frequently than they did in the early days. Eric still likes to build decks where each card relies on another. His decks have a gradual buildup into situations where it becomes very difficult to shut it down. In other words, just leave him alone for a while, then before the master stroke comes into play, knock his house of cards down. This produces some level of frustration for Eric. He looks around the table and sees many other players that are more vulnerable, and players who are greater threats, so he doesn’t understand why you are attacking him. This results in the occasional outburst. Matt is the big guy in your group that quotes The Family Guy and South Park, ad nauseum. Matt is the youngest guy in the group at 20. He can be crass at times, but nothing is said with malice, as he is always going for the laugh. When the conversation turns away from Magic, you can expect biting satire from Matt.
In things Magical, Matt plays a very specific style of play: as long as you don’t attack me, I won’t attack you. There are times when Matt has had overwhelming board presence but refused to attack, since no one had attacked him. Unless there is only one player left, Matt will wait for provocation before joining in. There have been times in games when I left myself completely vulnerable to Matt’s board position because I knew he would not be attacking me that turn, no matter how beneficial it would be for him to do it.
The flip side is that if you do attack him, he attacks you back. The only time this doesn’t happen, is if someone else also attacks him. With two or more opponents to choose from, Matt’s game opens up. When only one person attacks him, Matt will attack only that one person, and he will attack him until one of them is dead. Attacks on Matt include creatures attacking him, countering his spells, killing everyone’s creatures or lands when Matt has a solid board position, etc. Matt builds solid decks, so he wins games, just not as many as he could.
Bruce (that’s me) is the organizer of the group. I send out the weekly email and provide pizzas each week for the games that are at my house. I tell bad puns and hold up games trying to balance hosting and playing.
In things Magical, I have been playing longer than anyone in the group and my collection is amongst the largest in the group (Jesse is the big winner there). I have an ego and an expectation of winning more games than I do. My decks are somewhat predictable and my threat assessment is often poor. I sulk like an infant when I play badly and I tend to take far too long on my turns, holding up our games for far too long. I am the guy in your group that makes you want to scream, “You aren’t going to do anything! Just say GO!” I can be very frustrating.
I’d like to be able to pinpoint exactly when the problem between Matt and Eric began to fester, but I’m not completely sure. I expect it went something like this:
(insert squiggly flashback imagery here)
Eric had a Grixis Grimblade on the battlefield in the early game. At this point it was the only creature, so there was no real downside to attacking with it, since he wasn’t leaving himself open to anyone else’s creatures. Eric decided to attack me with it. I don’t know why he picked me, but I expect it was because I was sitting on his left. Not a particularly good reason, but it was done. I had no creatures to defend, so I took two points of damage. While I had a Path to Exile in my hand, I was not going to waste it on that little wimp when I know much more dangerous targets will be coming. After his turn we each lay a third land (except for Josh who was landscrewed), and Eric takes his next turn. With still no creatures on the board, Eric looks across the table at Matt (who was sitting to my left) and decides it is his turn to take the hit and attacks him for 2. Before Matt takes any damage he warns Eric, “Are you sure you want to do that?” It is clear that Matt is warning of repercussions, but he isn’t saying what those repercussions might be. I don’t like the idea of letting Eric back out of his declared attack. I think you should be bound to do what you declared, but we’ve let people change their attacks before, and I know if Eric decides to change his mind, we are going to let him.
I am also fully aware of what Matt’s repercussions might be. While Matt may be able to kill the creature, it really doesn’t matter. Eric has attacked him and now Eric will pay. If he can kill the creature he will and more. If he can’t, he’ll take the damage then seek revenge when he can. For this there will be a heavy cost.
“Yes, Bruce took it last turn, you get it this turn and Josh will likely be getting it the next turn if nothing changes,” Eric replied. Eric may be aware of what is about to happen, or he may simply believe Matt is going to attack him back or kill his creature. Either way, he is not willing to give Matt a free pass because of his threats. Giving him a free pass will only encourage the behavior[i].
Matt nods and takes the two damage. On his next turn he starts playing out his creatures, looking for every opportunity to attack Eric. Josh and I can see this coming and we start watching each other, knowing that the two of them will be locked in on each other until one of them is dead. We are free to build up, knowing only the other is a threat. We are careful to stay out of the crossfire and not insert ourselves into the retribution. For us, this four-player game is now a one-on-one game that will start in a few turns.
After several turns of back and forth attacks, Matt finally kills off Eric. Not surprisingly, Josh easily sweeps Matt from the game and manages to get the win.
(insert squiggly flashback imagery here)
This likely happened a couple of times on different nights. Occasionally I would attack Matt as well, but I was generally able to get a wall of creatures up quickly and not take too much damage. Everything came to a head a couple of weeks later (insert squiggly flashback imagery here):
Eric had a few creatures back for defense but knew he didn’t need Zombie Outlander for defense so he was looking to attack someone. Jesse and I were pointless attacks since we could block and lose nothing. That left only Matt, so Eric attacked him.
“That was a mistake,” Matt warned.
“You are the only target,” Eric replied, trying to explain why he would attack him.
Matt was vulnerable to attack because he was playing a burn deck with minimal creatures. On his next turn, he killed one of Eric’s creatures and sent damage to Eric directly, bringing Eric to less life than anyone else, and leaving him vulnerable to either Jesse or I. Neither of us were getting into that game though. Why attack Eric when we know Matt is going to do it for us? It will also force Eric to try and take Matt out of the game as a way to stop his attacks. We get all of this and we don’t have to play a card? Deal!
The attacks go back and forth for a few turns, but eventually, Matt takes Eric out. Eric goes ballistic.
“Why the hell would you keep attacking me? I was the least threatening opponent on the table!”
“Why do you have to whine all the time when we play Magic?”
“I’m not whining, I just think you are stupid for attacking someone who is no threat to you.”
“You attacked me first! I was responding to you!”
(insert squiggly flashback imagery here)
I think you can see where this went. Both players were shouting at each other and Matt left soon after that. Unfortunately, it also meant that he didn’t come back.
So let’s play the blame game here. Who is to blame for this craziness?
Some of you will say Eric. He should have known what was going to happen and been better ready for it, or just not attacked Matt at all. He shouldn’t have blown up over a game of Magic. He needs to stop whining. You are wrong.
Some of you will say Matt. His vengeance style of play is earning him no friends. If he wants to make threats, he needs to limit their scope. He is issuing the death penalty for what essentially amounts to walking on the lawn. You are wrong.
To anyone who said I am to blame, well congratulations, you win the prize. I sat quietly by and let this go on repeatedly, earning wins in games while their feud festered. I knew Eric’s sense of fairness demanded that he attack Matt when it wasn’t necessarily a good idea. I knew that Matt’s play style would eventually clash and cause problems, but I did nothing. When does increasing your chance of winning trump everyone’s good time? If I want to win that badly, then why not just play some asshole combo deck that autowins in the early game, rather than allowing this situation to escalate to a point where one of the players will not come back?
Since this happened, efforts have been made by myself and Eric to have Matt come back. Matt has steadfastly refused, stating he will not change his style and expects the situation will simply repeat itself, irrelevant of what is said.
If you are using vengeance as your guiding strategic principle, just stop it. You aren’t winning games or friends by playing your overreactionary style. If you are watching this happen in your group and doing nothing about it, then I implore you to start doing something about it. Do you want a win right now or a play group for years to come?