Baghdad Bazaar: Metagaming Your FFA



In keeping with tradition, my newest article will again be about my play group here in Baghdad, plus the unique situations that arise in our... unique... situation. Today's topic: local metagaming in a casual free-for-all (FFA) play group!

You may have seen articles by "resident geniuses" (e.g. Mike Flores, etc.) who finished new deck synopses with "be sure to adjust this deck for your local metagame." Sadly, half their readers probably have no solid idea of what that even means. We'll try to correct that issue today, or, failing that, at least leave you with a few solid fundamentals.

I think the best way to teach metagaming is to show exactly how I would do it with one of my own decks, in our own play group. There's one pile that my friends like to call "the newbie deck." It was the first deck I put together with the cards donated from kind friends back home. I've since moved on to other decks more to my personal tastes; but the "Tramplator" has survived, passed from newcomer to newcomer like a Christmas Fruitcake Elemental. Let's take a look at the card list:

Our Deck, Take 1: TramplatorMagic OnlineOCTGN2ApprenticeBuy These Cards
Creatures (23)
4 Carven Caryatid
4 Civic Wayfinder
3 Silhana Ledgewalker
3 Siege Wurm
2 Iwamori of the Open Fist
2 Nantuko Vigilante
2 Stampeding Serow
1 Krosan Tusker
1 Gruul Guildmage
1 Sakura-Tribe Elder

Non-Creature Spells (14)
4 Wildsize
3 Evolution Charm
3 Rancor
2 Savage Twister
2 Flowstone Slide

Lands (23)
15 Forest
3 Mountain
3 Skarrg, the Rage Pits
2 Gruul Signet




I CAME HERE TO STOMP FACE
AND CHEW BUBBLEGUM, AND
I'M FRESH OUT OF...what?
Oblivion Stone? I hate you.

As you can probably guess, this deck was built in a rather forgiving environment, when proxies of expensive cards were banned, and whoever won was whoever played the largest creature. The Iwamoris and Siege Wurms are tramplers that can be accelerated out, Silhana Ledgewalker+Rancor is always a strong option, and the Savage Twisters and Flowstone Slides take out smaller creatures, letting this deck's larger ones swing through.

But nearly four months have passed since this deck's inception, and our metagame has shifted notably. Half of our current decks might contain proxies of Trickbind or Exalted Angel. (After all, it's best to test out new ideas before committing one's wallets to the fray.) Fliers soar easily over the few defenders this deck can sport. Wrath of Gods periodically sweep the board, killing the same Siege Wurm we might have just paid 5GG to resolve. Almost everyone now plays with legendary creatures, diminishing the value of poor little Iwamori. And aside from the cute little Stampeding Serow/Carven Caryatid engine, there is pathetically little card draw. This deck wins now only on chance, and not often even then. It is clearly time for an update.

For this article, I decided to do more than simply toss in a few Groundbreakers or Stonewood Invocations to boost the power curve. I felt it was high time to sit down, actually study the metagame of our tiny group, and specifically build a deck to beat it.




Let's begin by stating what metagaming is not. Metagaming one's play group should be more than just adding four Krosan Grips to a sideboard. Deck designers like Mike Flores regularly study the current Standard Constructed metagame; they'll begin with cards like Detrivore, knowing most Standard decks won't be able to handle losing half their mana base. At the very least, metagaming is shoring up one's deck's weaknesses. At its best, it's taking advantage of a chink in the format's armor, then designing a strategy to beat it.

Metagaming takes very different forms, depending on what format you're taking part in and what decks you're playing to beat. In the current Constructed environment, it might mean including Sudden Deaths to deal with troublesome Teferis, or including something like Destructive Flow in Extended. In a casual free-for-all format like mine, on the other hand, it could mean... well, let's just take it one step at a time.


STEP 1. IDENTIFY YOUR FORMAT

First of all, we need to know what we're building for. In the case of this article, we're studying our casual free-for-all play group here in Iraq. Yes, we still play with 60 cards and start out with 20 life, but there the similarities with Standard vanish. In Standard, each player concerns himself with dealing 20 damage first, preventing the other player from doing the same thing, and then sideboarding for games two and three. In casual multiplayer, on the other hand, games usually won't finish in under ten turns. (At least, ours don't.) There may be four or five other people also trying to win, also dealing damage to you or allying with you against a common enemy. And it's all in one single, hectic showdown.

Here's a list of unique considerations for the FFA format, just off the top of my head:


A solid card in casual FFA.

a. Lack of a sideboard
This is a big point I've mentioned already. Sideboards are usually where tournament decks keep their answers for decks they're likely to face. In multiplayer, there is only one game and no access to cards outside the game (Wishes aside). All our answers (anti-creature, anti-enchantment, etc.) have to be in our mainboarded 60 cards or we won't see them at all.

That being said, it would help if answers weren't dead cards the rest of the time. True, a single Naturalize is more likely to find a target in multiplayer than in single player, but it might still be an enchantment controlled by a temporary ally. To prevent your answer cards from being "blank" cards, it helps if they're something like Nantuko Vigilante/Indrik Stomphowler that can swing for damage on the side.

b. Cheap blockers
In Standard, a Wall of Roots is perhaps the only cheap blocker that you'll see, and mostly for its mana acceleration. In FFA, however, even a Steel Wall is a very solid first drop. Benevolent Bodyguards and Sakura-Tribe Elders may not seem very intimidating - that is, until 4 other people are slapping you around with them every turn. If you feel like surviving to the mid-game (especially if your deck is "the one to beat"), you might want to think about dropping fast creatures that can hold off a few attacks.

c. Cheap politics
Interactions may vary from group to group, but they're always present. Here's a very interesting article about the psychology of multiplayer, written by Dom Camus (my favorite author here, besides myself). It's well worth reading and gives insights into what you might personally encounter.

There's one comment I'd like to address. In his article, Dom declares: "[Sometimes] a player displays sufficient weakness that the others decide they can be efficiently eliminated, improving the odds for all the survivors." This is completely opposite for my group. Even if we could easily kill a compatriot on our turn, we'll often enlist their aide in taking down the largest threat. After all, it's very easy to bully someone whose life is in your instant-speed hands. Additionally, since they're seen as "weak," they're also seen as "little threat," meaning you team up to take out the big guy, then wipe the board with him as an afterthought.

I won't presuppose what mechanics exist in your casual group. Just keep in mind that unless you're playing a very rigid format like "Attack Left," expect some peoples to gang up on some other peoples.

d. Longer games
As I mentioned earlier, it takes more than a few turns for a five-person group to decide a winner. As such, the FFA format tends itself more towards control or combo-style decks than towards aggro decks. After all, if one has spent all their resources killing off a single player, they're wide open for the two or three others who've spent time building their defenses. (This does not mean, however, that aggro decks are impossible to build in FFA, just that they take a special skill to play.)


Each commander looked at the others
and wondered who would be first to
take a Blaze to the dome.

e. Effects that trigger for all players
Cards with text like "all players" or "each opponent" suddenly come into their own in multiplayer. Barter in Blood, rarely used in one-on-one duels, suddenly lets you remove a veritable armada of enemy creatures. A single Soul Warden might be just the life gain you need to survive. Earthquakes let you clear the board and dispose of weaker opponents, while Words of Wisdom might turn former enemies into temporary friends. And don't even get me started on Blatant Thievery! There are plenty of cards that become more powerful with each additional player; keep an eye out for them.

f. Effects that can target another player besides yourself
Compulsive Research and Spring of Life are splendid cards in and of themselves. In multiplayer, when temporary alliances can spell the difference between ultimate victory and a quick defeat, such cards can become key. Casting a well-timed Early Harvest can buy you a friend for life. Or at least until the end of the game.

All right, let's pretend that we've gathered a decent understanding of our format and several of its special considerations. Now we need to understand what we're specifically up against.


STEP 2. IDENTIFY OPPONENT DECKS

For the Standard metagame, you can turn to articles from MagicTheGathering.com, StarCityGames.com, or even this site right here! For your own personal FFA group, however, ask your friends or write down as much of their decklist as you can from memory. (Or, if you're like me, you can wait till the others aren't looking, pop open their deck boxes, and write the decklists down yourself!) As such, it wasn't hard for me to get an accurate list of cards for my daily opponents. My friends are constantly tinkering with their decks; but as of 24 August 07, here were the specific decklists I regularly faced:

Kyle's White/Black Clerics
Summary: Originally inspired by the "Ivory Doom" precon, Kyle's clerics deck locks down sources of damage with Master Apothecarys and Battlefield Medics until his Akroma the White, Doubtless Ones, or Some Such Win Condition can come out to play.

Themes: Damage prevention, heavy removal, "mid-range" creatures.



Oh yes, pain be a-coming.
Kyle's Blue Modular
Summary: This was specifically designed as an artifact-heavy deck that could survive in multiplayer. And it does so very well, as the modular creatures leave their power and toughness on the board, Myr Retrievers and Academy Ruins return artifacts from the graveyard, and Counterspells and Trickbinds control anything else the deck can't deal with (Wrath of Gods, a channeled Jiwari, a triggered Kokusho).

Themes: The Modular mechanic, key spell countering, and 24/4 fliers and such.


Tom's Black Spiritcraft
Summary: Astute readers will recognize this "Spiritcraft" deck as an evolution of the one Tom used in my July article. This version tries to support Kokusho. It's actually not that intimidating outside of that, as it has few early-game threats and no reliable way to draw the dragon legend.

Themes: Removal and... well, Kokusho.



Pretty much the theme
of Leander's deck.

Leander's White/Blue Fliers
Summary: This was the deck that prompted the shift towards fliers in our group. It can deny combat damage with blockers (Drift of Phantasms) or lockdown effects (Magus of the Moat, Windborn Muse), then swing in with whatever fliers it's resolved. There are plenty of combat tricks like Echoing Truth or Otherworldly Journey to clear the way and keep its own creatures alive. Pretty reliable, but could use a few more lands.

Themes: Fliers, combat lockdown, combat tricks.


Nicholas' Black Zombies
Summary: This deck hits hard with Vulturous Zombie or a Soulless One with swampwalk (thanks to Zombie Trailblazer). Board resets like Oblivion Stone matter little when a Soulless One gains power from all Zombies in all graveyards.

Themes: Evasive beatdown, removal.



A good card in multiplayer...
no one wants to kill him.

Seth's Red Groundpounder
Summary: (I originally used this deck myself but gave it to another soldier who's recently had more time to play.) This deck tries to use fairly aggressive damage/burn with some cheap global effects (e.g. Sulfurous Blast) to finish opponents off. To survive in multiplayer, it assumes a more control-like posture, using Ryusei and Earthshaker to clear away blockers first. (As a side note, Browbeat actually works very well in our group, as no one wants to be the one to take 5 cheap damage. More often than not, this deck will draw the three cards.)

Themes: Direct damage, cheap global damage.


My Annoying Grave Pact Deck
Summary: For a metagame devoid of token decks or non-creature win conditions, Grave Pact becomes particularly powerful. The deck's namesake (and its Savra backup) is just as effective in multiplayer as single player, as it triggers for "each other player." Small creatures sac themselves for various effects, Pacts trigger, and the way is cleared for combat damage. Certainly a great option in Black for removing Akroma.

Themes: Pact-powered removal.


STEP 3. IDENTIFY OPPONENT DECKS' STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES

Now it's time for the meat of our entire article: identifying the strengths and weaknesses of our individual format, then building a deck to take advantage of them! Thank goodness our group is easier to study than the current Standard. Here's what I noticed shows up more than once:


Flying.
Definitely flying. Our play group strategy has slowly evolved in the past few months from "have the biggest creature" to "have the biggest creature with flying." With the exception of the Grave Pact deck, which can straight-out remove whatever is blocking it, every deck here has a way to fly over pesky defenders. That is, except ours! Tsk tsk.

Board resetters.
Wrath of God, Oblivion Stone, and even Grave Pact become especially valuable in free-for-all multiplayer, when anyone can find themselves on the receiving end of much pain. Resetting the board in multiplayer usually kills enough enemy creatures to be worth the personal loss. Plus, it can be the much-needed topdeck against a threat you can't deal with.

Lack of significant artifacts/enchantments.
Grave Pact is pretty much the only artifact/enchantment that is a significant threat on its own. Even with Kyle's Modular deck, Cranial Plating has to be attached. Fortunately, no one has yet started using Enduring Ideal decks.

Absence of the Unholy Trinity/Cheesy Combos.
The "Trinity" would be, namely, Counter, Land Destruction, and Discard. "Cheesy Combos" would be something like a Izzet Guildmage/Desperate Ritual/Lava Spike combo for infinite damage to kill everyone on the board. The major factor in their absence is the format: anyone who played one of these decks would be immediately attacked by everyone else at the table. And it's very hard to have fun in casual FFA when you're beaten every game by people who hate you. Or, at least, hate your deck.

So where do we go from here? Increasing our card-draw/graveyard-recursion should help against regular board clearers. And instead of jumping on the fliers bandwagon, we could use cards to combat it. Because, after all, Green is very good at hating fliers. In other words, instead of simply responding to the metagame, I think this deck could actively attack it. Which already gives me a few ideas...


STEP 4. MAKE, LIKE, A DECK AND STUFF

Here's the deck I came up with. It's pretty much every solid Green card I could fit into one deck. I'll list it first, then explain my thoughts behind it:

Our Deck, Take 2: Tramplette.Magic OnlineOCTGN2ApprenticeBuy These Cards
Creatures (24)
4 Sakura-Tribe Elder
4 Silhana Ledgewalker
4 Thornweald Archer
4 Carven Caryatid
4 Ohran Viper
4 Eternal Witness

Non-Creature Spells (13)
4 Rancor
4 Evolution Charm
3 Squall Line
2 Joyous Respite

Lands (23)
12 Snow-Covered Forest
4 Saltcrusted Steppe
4 Mouth of Ronom
3 Selesnya Sanctuary



Deck Mechanics.

The Win Condition.
At first glance, I'm a little concerned about the lack of large creatures, since that was our deck's original theme. However, investing in large creatures that get Routed even before the summoning sickness wears off is not good ju-ju. In fact, it is bad ju-ju.

Since the deck no longer needs to emphasize trample in our current metagame, Rancor is the only card I left in that supports that theme. (Just because it's that good; with it, even a Sakura-Tribe Elder can become a threat.) Consequently, the mana base can be simplified to one color, with some nonbasic lands for extra "oomph" - I originally tried Deserts to discourage attackers, then moved to Mouth of Ronoms for pinpoint removal. The Saltcrusted Steppes help collect any leftover mana for extra spells or even a juicy Squall Line. And Joyous Respites keep us ahead in life. I had originally considered Stream of Life, but that's only strictly better if we already have counters on our storage lands and if we completely tap out to cast it.


Why isn't this banned???
Card Advantage.
With a few of the cards pulling double duty, I have a total of eight cards that can rip basic land from my library, eight cards that can draw off the top of my library, and eight cards that can return a card from my graveyard. Hand refill should never be a problem with this deck, so long as we never completely exhaust our hand.

And although Rancor certainly combos well with any of the creatures, if there's a MVC of this deck, it has to be Evolution Charm. It's worth about $.20 in FNM; it's a veritable House in ours. (Yes, the one with the cane.) Besides smoothing this deck's initial land drops, it can pull back a crucial Eternal Witness or a Silhana Ledgewalker or give our Carven Caryatid pseudo-Reach to block a flier or let our Ohran Viper fly in for the last few points of damage or a card. With the decks our group plays, each mode is just as valuable as the others and is used just as often. Try to find solid cards like this for your own group!

Now that we have an idea of how the deck works on its own, let's see how it specifically interacts with our metagame:

Versus the Metagame.

Vs. Flying.
Few players will want to attack into a Thornweald Archer with their Exalted Angel, regardless of how large their angel is. In addition, our three Squall Lines can clear the skies and hit an opponent for their last few life points. Joyous Respite helps us keep ahead in life for this win condition, or just in general. And Evolution Charm we've already mentioned. If it's one thing this deck can do, it's punish those who play with fliers. Which is pretty much everyone else at my table.

Vs. Board Resetters.
This deck has proven an incredible resilience in playtesting. As we've mentioned, the deck is filled with cards that can refill our hand or improve our topdeck at the same time. Rancor makes the Ohran Viper even better, and it combos with two Eternal Witnesses in a most sinister fashion. (Basically, you'll never be hurting for an attacker again.) Don't ever spend all your options, and you'll never be left high and dry when the WoGs hit.

Vs. Artifacts/Enchantments.
As explained, Grave Pact is pretty much the only artifact/enchantment that's a threat on its own. With any luck, we can leave enchantment removal out of our decklist entirely and just let the other players deal with it first. It's a gamble, and we'll just have to see how it turns out.

Obviously, the key to winning with this deck is attacking the biggest threat first. If Seth's global damage deck will prevent you from keeping creatures on the board, aim your Rancored Elves at him. If Tom's Kokusho isn't afraid of your Thornweald Archers, then perhaps you'd better kill him before he gets his Dragon legend online.

But how will our little pet deck actually fare in our play group? Will it hold its own? Will it crumble under the pressure? It's time to find out!




BONUS SECTION: MATCHUP RESULTS!

I didn't do a best-out-of-three against each of the seven decks above. That would have defeated the purpose of metagaming for casual free-for-all. Instead, I played FFAs until I'd been in at least one game with each of the seven decks. Here's what I learned, complete with tips on how to take each one down individually, should it come to that.


Eli Shiffrin's cat is a lazy thing.

Kyle's White/Black Clerics:
Your chances with this deck chances are much higher if Kyle never resolves a Master Apothecary. Even Akroma doesn't have protection from green, and your impressive graveyard recursion can help you bounce back from all the removal. The two enchantments (Pillory of the Sleepless) should hardly slow your creatures down, and his one artifact (Akroma's Memorial) only makes his creatures easier to kill.

Him vs. You: Your trample and deathtouch should slowly pick his army apart. Never completely empty your hand, and you stand a much better chance surviving all the board wipes and creature destruction.

Kyle's Blue Modular:
This is the toughest matchup of the lot, as Kyle's deck also packs resilience and reliable card draw/return to boot (even if it isn't as extensive as our deck's). Watch out for Arcbound Ravagers; these make your Thornweald Archers and Squall Line far less neutering. Also, expect everyone else at the table to party up against either him or you. Hopefully, they pick him.

Him vs. You: Hit him fast and hard; he has no board-clearers, so don't be afraid to empty your hand. If he has more than a few creatures out at any one time, it'll be an uphill battle. Expect a lot of key spells (Rancor, Squall Line) countered; use your card advantage to play through them.

Tom's Black Spiritcraft:
As stated earlier, Tom's current spirit deck is much weaker than the one he used to win the Legacy tournament. His only real threat are his "Kokopuffs," but resolving one makes him an instant target for everyone else at the table.

Him vs. You: Race his life-gain with damage, then Squall-Line before he offs his Kokusho. Remember, it doesn't matter if the life-gain trigger is on the stack if he's already dead.

Leander's White/Blue Fliers:
The Magus of the Moat can be a bummer; not being able to attack really puts a crimp in Green's style. Consequently, this is where your Mouth of Ronoms really shine. Everything else in the deck is easily dealt with by Squall Lines and Thornweald Archers, and the Otherworldly Journeys often are nothing more than a one-for-one trade. And as Leander's deck has no card draw, this is never in his favor.

Him vs. You: This is the most straight-forward matchup of them all, and well in your favor. Just keep an eye out for an untapped Prahv, Spires of Orders before you cast a game-deciding Squall Line.

Nicholas' Black Zombies:
One important consideration is how each deck is actually piloted. For example, Nicholas will never block an Ohran Viper, fearing the loss of his creature over our own card advantage. Thanks to our flying hatred, his only real threat is a swampwalking Soulless One backed up by life-gain. Our deck should be able to hit him for lethal before he gets them both online.

Him vs. You: As with Kyle's modular, empty your hand and race on damage and card draw. Even if Nicholas plays and activates a Oblivion Stone, your deck can bounce back much faster.


Those poor Ledgewalkers!
And Ohran Vipers...
and Thornweald Archers...
and Eternal Witnesses...

Seth's Red Groundpounder:
Global damage like Earthshakers and Sulfurous Blasts are the biggest threats, as most of your creatures are land-bound and tiny. Save a Ronom to hit Earthshakers on top of their trigger. Any other creatures can usually be traded for, and the red deck sports no graveyard return. Our card advantage should easily bring itself to bear.

Him vs. You: Keep a few creatures/graveyard-recursions in hand, then force bad trades from him. Take the damage from Browbeats to maintain card advantage, but stay out of Flames of the Blood Hand range! It smarts.

My Annoying Grave Pact Deck:
This matchup was the most interesting and far better for the green deck than I had judged. Yes, technically, our deck can't remove a Grave Pact and has trouble even dealing with a Savra if she doesn't attack or block. At the same time, both decks are played in a group where everyone fears Grave Pact and immediately allies against it. In our group, this is "the deck to beat," and our green deck can usually count on help in doing so.

In addition, our green deck technically can win, one-on-one, versus Grave Pact, if it draws the proper cards. My roommate (who'd only played Magic a total of two nights previously) won in three consecutive multiplayer games that included my Grave Pact deck. Two of the games involved a beefy Squall Line for the last few points; and in the third, my roommate always kept a few creatures sitting back in his hand. With no creatures left to sac to the two Grave Pacts I had on the board, he finished me off in short order. (It's hard to be my roommate, suffering through three hours a night of people playing Magic in the same room, and not pick up on a few basics of the game.)

Needless to say, I was very pleased to lose with my Grave Pact deck. It meant I'd done my job with "Tramplette."

Him vs. You: Make as many 1-for-1 trades as possible, then use your card draw/return to control the empty board. As with the red deck, don't over-extend into a pseudo-WoG. Finally, the Grave Pact deck spends life quickly for its mana base or to activate Savra, making a win with your green Earthquake that much easier.




As you can tell, the overall price of the deck has rocketed from about $18 to $80 (using AdventuresOn.com as a price guide). The Ohran Vipers actually make up for about half of it themselves, being still solid, tournament-legal cards. Then again, our play group is much more comfortable spending money on their decks these days for solid, dependable options. If I consider this deck "worth it," I might slowly funnel money into it as well.


There's whole websites devoted to this kind of thing.
Can you believe that?

If I had to further improve on this deck, I might include more cards that become strong in a multiplayer game, perhaps splashing black for Syphon Souls instead of the Joyous Respites, for example, to complement the Squall Lines better. As it is, I'm sure the metagame will shift anyway, perhaps away from fliers to more spell-orientated decks. Only time will tell. For now, however, this deck is a reliable, mono-colored deck that makes a definite impact in our multiplayer group. (More than one of my friends has already commented how annoying it is to play FFA with the "new" green deck in the mix. Ah well, the price of success...)

And there you have it. Hopefully you have a better idea of how to metagame your casual games, or even your local Friday Night Magic. Perhaps you'll be prompted to do more than just toss in a few Ivory Masks or Sudden Shocks and actively seek ways to break your group's metagame wide open. Your friends will thank you. Well, maybe not, but at least it'll be fun.

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