The Multiplayer Threat Spiral

It's the summer of multiplayer, according to the folks at Wizards of the Coast, and it's nice to see my favorite version of Magic: the Gathering finally get some attention for what it is.

A long time ago, back when planeswalkers were immortal, super-powerful beings that could not be summoned like mere creatures, many of us battled amongst the planes in Eastfield Community College. We gathered in the pit, drew our hands, and did battle with each other without the senselessly pompous duels that the game was typically known for.

I learned many gaming strategies from my time there and quickly became known as the guy to beat, not because I was the strongest or scariest adversary, but because of something I'll teach you today.

You see in a multiplayer game you don't have the luxury of simply making sure your deck of cards uses every resource at its disposal to hammer out as much damage as possible fast or gets to its game-winning combo before everyone else. If you play that way you'll quickly find yourself in situations where you're facing off against a united group of enemies who are far more deadly than one person could ever hope to be.

It may sound scary but there are ways to re-orient yourself to the game so you'll understand how best to approach the situation.

We'll start with something simple.

It's a fact that human beings have limited brainpower. There are limits to how many things we can be aware of at any given moment. If you're swamped with work, the slightest request can set you off and make you react irrationally to a request, for example, to go get someone a drink, or to pick something up off the floor, or whatever.

The best estimate I've seen is 7. I have no idea who came up with the number but it works okay. Seven things are supposedly the maximum number of things that a single person can worry about at any given time, which is by no means going to be appropriate for everyone you run across, but let's roll with it.

Picture the following scenario:
You are playing a green deck in a multiplayer game with 4 other players.
In front of you are a few forests, untapped, and a wall of wood.
The other players each also have only one creature:
a 2/2 White Knight (with First Strike), a 2/2 Suq'Ata Lancer(with Flanking), a 3/4 Scragnoth(with Protection from Blue), and a 4/4 Air Elemental(with Flying).

It's easy for us to identify the player on the board that seems the most threatening. That's the guy with the Air Elemental. He's right now in a bad situation, because while his guy may be bigger than everyone else's, he's not in a situation where he can attack. it will leave him open to take far more damage than he'd be dishing out.

Visualizing these creatures we can easily put them into a sort of totem pole of threat, with Air Elemental on top and Wall of Wood at the bottom. But that's wrong. You see, we human beings innately only worry about the top threats. Sometimes as things get complicated we lump things together, which is good, especially if they act in unison. But this is a special case.

Here's where I'll introduce a new concept to you: the Multiplayer Threat Spiral. The creatures we've mentioned tend to spiral inwards, with the 7 most threatening things on the outside. Anything that finds its way on the inside of that spiral tends to disappear from our collective consciousness, and gains a very valuable trait for multiplayer gaming. It's invisible.

So let's look at our guys and arrange them in a spiral pattern based on how threatening they are.

Air Elemental
White Knight
Suq'Ata Lancer
Untapped Mountains
Untapped Islands
Untapped Plains
Untapped Forests (owned by player with bigger creature in play)
Untapped Forests (owned by player with Wall of Wood)
Wall of Wood

Unexpected? Not to worry, it gets everyone the first time around. Notice that the untapped mountains and islands are (of course!) more threatening than an 0/3 wall. Even the Forests around him are more threatening, because without them, he's nothing more than a speedbump. A terrain feature. An Obstacle. (why did I capitalize that word? FORESHADOWING!) It's also worth mentioning that the threat value of those untapped lands is multiplied somewhat for each card in the opponent's hand plus the cards they'll be drawing the next turn.

Note that in this case we're in a situation where there's a very high chance that someone may attack you, not expecting that you have something up your sleeve for that wall.

So you may be thinking of whether this "threat" is actually going to be useful, or if it's just some random thing to watch for while you're playing. Well it can work in your favor, but there are things to worry about.

You do NOT want to be the most threatening guy on the table. This isn't a game where the guy that held the top spot longest wins. It's about the last guy standing. And you don't want to be the least threatening guy on the table either, because players that just want something to shoot will gun for the first easy target they see. The best position, from experience, is the second most threatening guy in the group.

This does take some work though.

* Whenever anyone else is the top dog, mention it. Get as many people as you can to look their way, and take advantage of the fact that they may skip over you as a target in an opportune moment.

* keep track of whether the cards in your deck are "problems" or "answers". a "problem" is something that your opponents have to deal with. something that becomes a threat. An "answer" is something that CAN deal with a threat. Some cards don't fit the categories, but this will really help your game. Nothing worse than walking through a 45-minute stalemate because you forgot that you don't have any more cards that can get rid of a Platinum Angel. At that point it's best to move on to the next game.

* Be sure to remember to hold cards in your hand based on what you think other players will do. If you have Scragnoth, by all means play him and force your blue-playing opponent to play something bigger (which leads to the example above). He knows if he doesn't play his big guy, he's toast, and playing it makes him the aggro magnet while you can build up your forces under the disguise of doing so defensively. But for the most part, cards in hand are less threatening than when in play.

* Play with cards that "hose" certain colors or strategies. Scragnoth is a good example for the reasons mentioned but there are others. Light of Day can eliminate a player outright, but better, it can eliminate two, if you just need someone to swing in with their guys to a helpless opponent, while you come in for the kill once his guys are tapped. Fog can eliminate a player in much the same way, by drawing in a massive alpha strike and then letting the others take him down when it fails. Sleep can do double duty, both eliminating potential attackers AND forcing that player to play more threatening cards, setting him up for an atrocious downward spiral where he's trying in vain to rebuild his defense over one turn, and inevitably finds himself staring down the barrels of everyone's guns.

* Walls don't block, they deflect. If you have Wall of Wood and the only other creature out there is a white knight, you're not getting attacked! Even if the white knight player has a spell to pump up his guy in combat it would be wasted to kill a Wall of Wood. Wall of Wood is one of those very rare cards that actually becomes less threatening when you dedicate it to the board. Don't waste that power.

* Don't get caught in a duel. In a multiplayer game where you have 5 players, and 2 guys inevitably have some sort of out-of-game score to settle, they might get caught up in a fight with each other. If you walk away from that with 3 life and a handful of creatures everyone else wants dead, you become the easiest target and the most threatening.

* Playing with high-threat cards and just playing fewer cards doesn't work. It only takes a couple of spells cast that attract everyone's attention before they look to you as the guy to kill and immediately assume that every card in your hand is "one of THOSE cards." And that's even if you're only using them to take out big threats other people play.

* Playing with low-threat cards exclusively doesn't work all that well either. If you have lower-threat cards in your deck you have the luxury of dedicating more cards to the board and still looking less threatening. But you can - and will - run out of cards in hand and when that happens, you're toast. You can fix that by putting obstacles in your opponents' way, be they walls or other things, but it won't be foolproof.

* Talk. Talk a lot. In fact, at times, don't stop talking. It's not that it bothers your opponents, it gives you insight into what they're thinking. You can tell easily which person they find most threatening, just by speaking to them and gauging their response. You can guess whether their hand is full of problems or answers, you can tell if they've got a fistful of forests, you can guess if they've run out of creatures in their deck! And it helps to keep the mood lighter. In the end, Just talk.

There are other tricks to multiplayer that are just as important but this will help the most. The second thing to keep in mind, which is called Strike Range, I'll go into later with my next post. In the meantime have fun building multiplayer-friendly decks.