The Art of War and Magic: Tactical Dispositions (4/13)

Thus far, we've talked about the philosophy of EDH, the timing of a game, the importance of politics, and some pop culture. Today, I'd like to talk about how we think about thinking about multiplayer.

Some players take a relentlessly optimistic approach to gaming: when they sit down, when they shuffle up, there is no force on earth that can stop them from achieving victory. Counterspells, Removal, Board Wipes, Other Players; all are discounted as "not really being that much of an issue."

Some players take a relentlessly pessimistic approach to gaming: it doesn't matter what you do. All your creatures will just die to removal, your combo is great but it only takes one guy to counter you, your counterspells are useless because you can't counter everything, your graveyard will probably get removed, and your cards are all terrible.

Some players will talk about facts – this card has been popular in multiplayer for this long. So-and-so recommends it. Databases such as the Top 50 Cards are created by such individuals.

Some players will talk about ideas – this card could combine with that card for massive damage, and this card will let you draw a ton of cards while you do it!

You may recognise some of these viewpoints as mirroring Edward DeBono's thinking hats. If you're not familiar with the theory of the "thinking hats", it is simply this: the idea that the human mind will typically adopt any one of six viewpoints when analysing a given topic. Hats aren't "multi-coloured", but people will tend to cycle through two or three while problem solving.

This article is about adopting a blue hat: thinking about thinking. How do we plan for the strategic decisions we'll need to make during a game of Magic? What can we do to ensure that our decks are well-oiled machines? Thus, today's article will include a theory of deck-building that is Bryndon-tested, Sun-Tzu-approved, and tailor-made to your individual specifications. The important thing to take away is this: deck-building is a skill that needs practising, an art that can be enjoyable in itself and an organic process that continually develops as your metagame progresses.

1. Sun Tzu said: The good fighters of old first put themselves beyond the possibility of defeat, and then waited for an opportunity of defeating the enemy.

The Alongi School of Magic taught us that the thing that you need in Magic is permanents. In the early game, it's all well and good to talk about how you're keeping open mana for Terror. Everyone who ever misunderstood the concept of bluffing has left 1B open in the early games, confident that they're playing 'the right way' by stunting their mana and board presence in favour of an easily-called bluff. I do it myself. It's a disease. But you know what does a way better job of stopping your opponents dead in their tracks? Any number of the following things:

There are more cheap, useful deterrents in all colours. Post them in the comments section and add to the knowledge base! (Creatures should top out at 3 mana, non-creature answers should stop at about five)

A cheap wall isn't a bluff, it's a promise. It makes you trustworthy. It means you don't attract people looking to get 'a little bit of early damage in'. It means you don't need to sadden those poor souls by terroring their dude. You just make it clear that you'll block it and something less-than-awesome for them will happen as a result.

It's quotes like this that support the foundation of the three phases of multiplayer: in the first phase, make sure you're not one of the people being preyed upon by the scavengers and early beats. After you can't be defeated, you can wait for the perfect opportunity to attack / kick your Rite of Replication on their biggest dude.

2. To secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.

If I build a deck, I put in ways to get lands. This protects me against mana-screw. If I don't do this, I can't play my biggest spells. When this happens, I provide my opponent the opportunity to outstrip me in Phase 3.

If I build a deck, I put in ways to deal with different permanent types. This wards me against artifacts, enchantments, and planeswalkers. If I don't do this, I can't stop my opponent's permanents and I will be defeated by a permanent that I can't destroy.

If I build a deck, I put in cards that all work together. This means that there is never a situation where I can't play a new card because it would clash with a card I've already played. If I don't do this, I will stall when an opponent's more synergistic deck is able to play their spells without tripping over themselves.

If I build a deck that relies on combos, I achieve my combo as efficiently as I can and I execute it without gloating or hesitation. If I don't do this, I cannot count on my opponents to recognise my victory or allow me another chance to demonstrate my deck.

If I build a deck that does not rely on combos, I include a way to deal with combos. If I don't do this, I cannot count on my ability to conclude the game before a combo concludes it for me.

If I build a deck, I'm a responsible Magic player. If I'm not, another responsible player will be entitled to beat me.

3. Thus the good fighter is able to secure himself against defeat, but cannot make certain of defeating the enemy.

Once you have a deck that can reliably defend itself in Phase 1, you're unlikely to be 'that guy' who gets knocked out of the game before the real action begins. Of course, in Magic, you need to actually kill your opponents to win. We'll get to that! But for now, the above tactics are pointed primarily at a person who has become aware that they're picked on so often in the early game that they don't get to experience the rest of the game.

4. Hence the saying: One may know how to conquer without being able to do it.

There's a strong cliché that there are people who know how to play the game (of Magic) instinctively but don't 'get' theory. Don't listen to what they're saying, but watch what they're doing... and team up with them. There's also a strong cliché of people who 'know' how the game is played but can't quite translate that into victory – listen to what they're saying, but don't team up with them. Get them on someone else's team.

5. Security against defeat implies defensive tactics; ability to defeat the enemy means taking the offensive.

Remember that EDH requires fluid deck lists. Thus, as you start to dissuade people from attacking you in the early game, you can start subbing out your Wall of Omens and Seal of Dooms for flying beat-sticks. So, if you're being beaten up, put in walls to not-lose. Once you've successfully not-lost a few games, you can improve your odds of winning by replacing your walls with more aggressive critters.
In this way, we learn that different cards will be good in your deck at different times, depending on where you are on the totem pole.

6. Standing on the defensive indicates insufficient strength; attacking, a superabundance of strength.

If you don't have sufficient strength, you can bluff that you're totally holding a fog by attacking. Or, you can play the 'sane' way and just hold back. If you don't have an abundance of Dragons, Elementals and big tramply monsters, raid your boxes for deathtouch creatures and tough blockers. Dish out the money it takes to get an infinite combo going, no matter how lurid and unwieldy, as long as you could conceivably win a game. As time goes by and you become a more confident player, start looking for aggressive, synergistic creatures to give you the 'honest' win that your opponents will demand of you.

7. The general who is skilled in defense hides in the most secret recesses of the earth; he who is skilled in attack flashes forth from the topmost heights of heaven. Thus on the one hand we have ability to protect ourselves; on the other, a victory that is complete.

Picture Unrelated.
Cards that contain the word 'flash' in their text box are groovy, as are mass-pump spells. (Overwhelming Stampede is great in general and Berserk is great on your general. Do you see what I did, there? It's why they pay me the big bucks.) Ideally, your opponent shouldn't have any idea what your attack phase is going to be until you actually attack.

It's worth having your trapdoor-spider type cards hiding away in your hand, but it's when they're part of a balanced diet (…a balanced diet of rattlesnakes and spiders. I'm advocating food that could very well kill my audience. How did I reach this point in my life, again?) that they truly shine. I'm not advocating the inclusion of Leyline of Anticipation in every deck that runs blue mana. The Leyline is groovy, but it's not the be-all, end-all of the 'Tactical Disposition' we're trying to impart here. Now, if you could get the text "nonland cards in your hand have flash" on an emblem, it might be a different story.

The cards I recommend for defending yourself are: rattlesnake cards (Seal of Doom), a fog – preferably one that recurs itself (Moment's Peace is groovy anywhere, Constant Mists might be good if you have Crucible of Worlds or Groundskeeper to keep you well supplied, Snag makes me so curious). Removal should also recur itself for best effect: people will know that you have removal in hand because you just finished using it on them last turn.

8. To see victory only when it is within the ken of the common herd is not the acme of excellence.

A good combo is something that can hide away. If your opponents pack removal, keep it in your hand. If your opponents pack discard, keep the pieces ready on the top few cards of your deck and be ready to yank them all into your hand with a Brainstorm when the moment is right. You don't want everyone at the table knowing what you're up to by just slamming combo pieces down on the table.

Similarly, having a million tokens and playing Overrun doesn't make you a genius, nor does it make you 'excellent'. It makes you the favourite to win the game, sure. Excellence means that you can go from second place (or worse) to winning the game in such a way that people can't predict it, nor can they recognise the warning signs during the next game.

9. Neither is it the acme of excellence if you fight and conquer and the whole Empire says, "Well done!"

There's a few ways to take this: if everyone declares you the winner and golf-claps ( "Oh. Ah. Well Done. We'll play for second now"), have you really won? Some groups have adopted a fairly unsportsmanlike policy of declaring combo players the 'winner' and proceeding without them. If you're in this situation, you're getting the diet version of victory. (We'll talk about remedying this in a moment)

In a normal group, you still haven't reached the acme of excellence if you win a game ( "Well Done, dude! Let's play another, with everyone playing their competitive deck and focusing on you first! Yeah!").

Anyone can win a game. It takes careful planning and playing to do it twice in a row, for instance.

The acme of excellence is winning games in a way that is non-fluked, doesn't kill sacred cows without justification, is 'undeniable', and is done in such a way that people are willing to play again, even if they feel the need to up the ante during the next game.

10. To lift an autumn hair is no sign of great strength; to see the sun and moon is no sign of sharp sight; to hear the noise of thunder is no sign of a quick ear.

"Careful guys, he has an Akroma. That can deal six damage a turn".
"Guys, he has Sensei's Divining Top and Cloud Key out! If he gets a Future Sight, we're all doomed".
"Sundering Titan is mass-LD!"

All of these things are true. None of them are particularly useful. Everyone knows that a huge creature with abilities is going to come in handy. Most people will recognise a combo in the making (The Dave Price Rule: If you don't know what it does, it's a Weird Card. Kill it. ).

Step 1.5 of being perceptive:
"Everyone kill it!" = "I forgot to pack removal for this permanent type and require saving. I sincerely hope I can get this favour done for free."
"Is anyone holding a counter?"/"Any responses" = "I'm holding a counter but want to see if I can save my own cards. I really hope someone speaks up."
"He's the biggest threat at the table!" = "I'm the biggest threat at the table. Go for that guy, though."

11. What the ancients called a clever fighter is one who not only wins, but excels in winning with ease.

Sometimes, you have the opportunity to play a friendly game against a real n00b. Not a "person who is new to the game", but a "person who is really bad at the game, refuses to recognise it and also doesn't recognise a player with more experience and better cards". When this happens, you can predict their every move (possibly because they told you ahead of time exactly how they expected the game to go). You have the right removal sandbagged for the right turn, their unstoppable lock turns out to be vulnerable to the card you tutored for last turn and every move is choreographed to lead you one step closer to your inexorable victory. What do we learn from this?

"In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it's impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves. And then, in that very moment when I love them.... I destroy them."
- Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card.
I haven't read this series, but I do understand it's pretty good...

Rule 1: Nobody but you should know the full contents of your deck.
Rule 2: If you know how another person operates, you have empathy.
Rule 3: If you have empathy and you achieve victory, talk with the other guy about how they could improve their gameplay.

(Ask me why we have Rule 3!)

As further reading on the subject of understanding and beating people, I recommend reading more about the psychology of Flow.

Jenova Chen also created a pretty cool game to showcase "flow":

12. Hence his victories bring him neither reputation for wisdom nor credit for courage.

This article series is not about lengthening your ePeen. It's about getting better at multiplayer. It's also about me getting a book deal, research grant, beachside mansion, but one step at a time, yeah? Getting better at multiplayer doesn't mean that you develop a reputation for being the best player, because being the best at multiplayer means you need to NOT be the guy that everybody thinks of when they draw a Fireball and have to ask themselves "So… who should I target with this?"

13. He wins his battles by making no mistakes. Making no mistakes is what establishes the certainty of victory, for it means conquering an enemy that is already defeated.

This guy is amazing.
He chumps, he kills, he comes back for more.
Regardless of your stance on casual gaming or competitive gaming, mistakes are something we need to look into. Playing decks according to a budget isn't a mistake. Not playing 'douchebag' cards is also not a mistake, because douchebag cards have a real political drawback. A mistake isn't when two people gang up on you.

Mistakes are things like running The Rack and Black Vise in a deck, or assuming that 5CC/Super Friends EDH.dec is something that's easily done on a budget, cutting your 35th land because you want to run Emrakul, not considering how people will respond to your game breaking combos, and not thinking about how you build a deck.

In the early days of my Teneb deck, I achieved some small measure of success with the following curve: anything between 1 and 3 mana was cheap removal (StP), mana ramping (Kodama's Reach), a wall (Vampire Nighthawk, on defense), or something that recurred/had a graveyard trigger (Stinkweed Imp and Sakura Tribe Elder). I ran all the wraths between four and six mana (fun fact: only four-mana wraths cost real money). All my big creatures were between six and ten mana. This meant if I kept a hand, it was because I could survive the early game. When it got to the middle of the game, I was never in a position where I had to choose between "wipe the board" and "keep my dude". When the time came to win the game, I had my biggest and best spells waiting for me, uncast. The moral? It is possible to profitably plan the way you want your deck to play out, without necessarily relying on tutors and combos. (Alternatively, if you don't like the idea of everyone playing "15 minute no rush no zerg", mix things up for them - accelerate into Mindlock Orb, or Leonin Arbiter).

14. Hence the skillful fighter puts himself into a position which makes defeat impossible, and does not miss the moment for defeating the enemy.

Don't toy with your enemies! When it's time to go for the kill, KILL YOUR OPPONENT. They can't recover from their position if they're dead. You can't win the game if you're timid. I have fond memories of beating opponents who had a 48-point lead on me. He graciously gave me a turn to live after I bluffed having a fog. Three turns later, I laughed derisively atop his corpse. (I didn't actually win the game. I shot him during his upkeep.)

15. Thus it is that in war the victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won, whereas he who is destined to defeat first fights and afterwards looks for victory.

If you rush headfirst into an early attack and only start looking for a way to win after the game state stabilises, you're at a disadvantage. Yes, you've dealt several points of damage and maybe triggered your Ophidian or Baneslayer Angel a few times. On the other hand, maybe it'll turn out that the guy that you spent the first few turns attacking was your ticket to destroying a problematic permanent. Maybe the two of you could have teamed up and taken the rest of the table. Only, you can't now, because he thinks you're capricious.

In addition, this is a good reason to think carefully about how you go about playing aggro: you need to start attacking early, which means that you need to have a working plan for how you're going to win the game before that. That plan will ideally contain a way for dealing with board wipes and game-stalling shenanigans.

16. The consummate leader cultivates the moral law, and strictly adheres to method and discipline; thus it is in his power to control success.

Think of the moral law as being the animating spirit of your deck. Constantly improve your deck-building technique. Streamline threats, work on synergies, look for better mana fixing. Also, swap out your combat tricks. When someone else says "ah, don't waste your time on him, he's always, always got a fog", you can safely swap your fog out for a Reveillark.

Think of method and discipline as being it's primary 'focus' – what does your deck do? Move your deck closer to being able to do it's "thing". If you find that a subtheme is no longer pulling weight, cut it out – and then build a new deck using the subtheme as a main theme. This is EDH. Having lots of decks is really, really awesome. When you find it's time to swap between themes, do it all at once, like you're ripping a Band-Aid off quickly. If you want to swap between playing Vorosh-voltron to Vorosh-infect/proliferate, change all the important cards all at once. It doesn't help to take out a marginal piece of equipment to put in a Thrummingbird. Pick up the cards one at a time until you can change them all over in one fell swoop.

17. In respect of military method, we have, firstly, Measurement; secondly, Estimation of quantity; thirdly, Calculation; fourthly, Balancing of chances; fifthly, Victory.

18. Measurement owes its existence to Earth; Estimation of quantity to Measurement; Calculation to Estimation of quantity; Balancing of chances to Calculation; and Victory to Balancing of chances.

The method for measuring any given state is to ask the following questions: What's on the board and what can they do to me? What will my opponents play in their next turn? How will my threats match up? What are my chances of pulling off the thing-I-need-to-do-to-win unimpeded (regardless of whether or not it's a combo or a big attack)?

19. A victorious army opposed to a routed one, is as a pound's weight placed in the scale against a single grain.

When assessing a creature for its power, ask yourself this: Does it have trample? Cause Sun Tzu dug trample. It knocks down walls and breaks open stalemates. Ask yourself: if your opponent had a Bitterblossom and an Ajani's Mantra, could you win the game with that creature? If not, it's not really built for multiplayer. This is the reason why Lord of Extinction isn't 'the greatest thing ever made', because it requires shenanigans to truly shine. Any creature can be 'big'. A few can be 'sufficiently big' (my playgroup uses that as shorthand for 'I'm not going to count the number out for you. It might require scientific notation. It will kill you unless you deal with it'). You still need to connect.

20. The onrush of a conquering force is like the bursting of pent-up waters into a chasm a thousand fathoms deep.

I believe that Phase 2 of any multiplayer game ends with the death of a player. As soon as you've acquired the power to destroy a player and held it in your hand, it is time to launch it with great fury into the face of your opponents, otherwise it's an empty threat. I don't mean "you have a fattie", I mean, Phage has been equipped with a Whispersilk Cloak. I mean the combo is in your hand. I mean it's your main phase and the Planeswalker is ready to go Ultimate. I mean that Door to Nothingness has untapped and your chief aide has walked into the room and coughed quietly.

"Sir, the device is primed and ready to fire. We just need your permission to go ahead".

That's all I've got for you on this chapter. Remember: build your decks in such a way that each spell flows to the next - mana-ramp, wrath, big creatures is a decent way to do things; small creatures, wrathing them away, spending the rest of the game searching for land is not. Having answers is almost as important as cycling out them out after you've used them a few times. Be aware of people manipulating the game state by pointing out 'threats'. Always have a plan and never forget your toothbrush.

Next time we'll be talking on the finer points of "Energy" and how to maintain yours over marathon efforts.

Until then, may you have energy and [[an obstuse statement that refers to the next article and will hopefully make sense when you read it]].


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