ive weeks ago, I wrote the preview article for Flame-Wreathed Phoenix. In that article, I laid out why tribute is such an interesting mechanic.
Tribute, on the other hand, makes a card actively worse in one-on-one matches than it is in multiplayer games. When there is only one opponent, that player is going to give you the version of the card that you want the least. With multiple opponents, you can pick the opponent who is most likely to give you what you want.... tribute makes a card worse in one on one but better in multiplayer.
After the article came out, I had several people write to me, explaining how their group is different. No one in their group would give them the side of the tribute creature that they wanted. There was no way that a player in their group would ever not pay the tribute on a Nessian Demolok or Oracle of Bones.
I was more than a little incredulous.
I started to reconsider my position on tribute. Is tribute the uniformly bad ability that some people would have me believe, or one of the better abilities seen on a card in multiplayer games?
You Can't Always Get What You Want
There are definitely situations where you won't get what you want. Let's say you are having trouble dealing with Heather's Baneslayer Angel, so you want to fight it with your Nessian Wilds Ravager. If Heather has only attacked you with the Baneslayer Angel, and it is clear that you will be the target of the Angel until you are dead, it is unlikely that Helene or Natasha are going to refuse to pay the tribute.
If everyone else in the game agrees that you are the biggest threat, it is unlikely any of them are going to pay the tribute on Pharagax Giant.1
The mechanic has limitations. Don't expect that as soon as you have the mana to cast a creature with tribute, that you should cast the creature. This is true of pretty much every card you want to cast, but tribute definitely forces you to play to that limitation more than most cards.
No You Can't Always Get What You Want
There are definitely creatures with tribute where you will be hard-pressed to get what you want. Several of the tribute creatures are very similar, whether the tribute is paid or not, so many players will look at the small differences and never give you what you want. Ornitharch is going to hit your opponents with 5 points of damage, no matter what. You may want a 5/5 creature, since nothing will be able to block it, or you may want the 1/1 Bird creature tokens because you have Intangible Virtue in your hand and want to be able to pump them up next turn. With a small difference, your opponents may just opt for whatever they think is worse for you.
When this is true, either you don't care which version of the creature you are getting, or you want to try harder to get the opposing players to pick the version you want them too. If you really want the 3/3 and the two 1/1s, don't put Intangible Virtue into play first. Choose the opponent with the 4/4 flier who probably would prefer that you not have a 5/5 flier that can handle that player's own threat.
You Just Might Find, You Get What You Need
Tribute really shines when you have the right situation with the right creature. Nessian Demolok lets you destroy a noncreature permanent when another opponent also wants it gone. Generally, these situations shouldn't be too difficult to find or manufacture. If you are trying to get rid of Chewie's Akroma's Memorial, convincing Brian that everyone would be better off without it should not be too difficult.
Another way to get what you want with tribute creatures is to focus on what your opponents don't want. If you want a 3/3 and two 1/1 Birds from your Ornitharch, choose the opponent with a 4/4 flying creature to make the decision. The odds are good that player doesn't want you to have a 5/5 flying creature, and will give you the option you want, even if it is unintentional.
Even in situations where you will be the only one to benefit, tribute creatures can still work. In these scenarios, there are a variety of ways to convince someone to give you what you want. If Mike is the kind of player who just wants to see cool stuff happen, he may agree to something not in his best interests, just to see what happens next. Perhaps Dirk will give you what you want, as long as it is clear that he will not be suffering the consequences. He will be happy not to pay the tribute on your Shrike Harpy, so I will be forced to sacrifice a creature.
You Cain't Get No Satisfaction with Your Tribute Creatures?
You have determined that it is in both our best interests for you to fight with your Nessian Wilds Ravager. One of our opponents has a creature that neither of us can deal with and it has been wreaking havoc on each of us for several turns. You drop the Ravager and choose me as the opponent to choose whether or not tribute will be paid. I am looking at other things or just straight up making the bad decision and pay the tribute. The creature is wasted and the opportunity is lost. It could also be because I view the threats on the board differently than you do, but the information that you have invalidates mine.
Thankfully, this is an easy problem to fix. Now that you know I am not so bright, you know you need to walk me through exactly what you plan to do with the Nessian Wilds Ravager. You probably even want to show me how this will benefit me, all in an effort to make things go your way.2
Nessian Wilds Ravager | Art by Richard Wright
For all the times the other players in your games have messed up your tribute opportunity, you have probably messed it up at least twice as much. The most common mistake each of us makes is determining the board state, or more accurately, determining how the other players in the game view the board state. You look at the board and the threats on the board, along with available mana and cards in hand, and based on all the information you have, you determine that Erin is the primary threat to everyone in the game. Even assuming that your assessment is accurate, for what you are trying to do, it is irrelevant. You aren't trying to determine who is the most dangerous player on the board. If you want to use the Nessian Wilds Ravager to eliminate Erin's nastiest creature, you want someone who also believes that particular creature is where the Nessian Wilds Ravager should be pointed. You aren't trying to determine the greatest threat, you are trying to determine what your opponents are thinking. Once you do that, choosing which opponent will get to decide whether tribute is paid or not should be child's play.
A second situation, closely related to the first, is when you, yourself, are the primary threat. I've seen so many players react with shock when no one will work with them, or players don't agree with their assessment of the game. Be aware of how your opponents see the battlefield, and understand that there are times when you are the threat. Continuing to argue your position can make you appear untrustworthy or just someone who doesn't know how to assess in-game threats.
In these situations, you can still use your tribute creatures, but some guile will be needed. Whether you are hiding your true intentions or you can successfully convince someone to view the threats in the game as you want them to, your tribute creatures still hold value.
A third reason you may be having a problem is if you are someone who oversells your deck. Before the game started, you were already bragging about how amazing this deck is, or that you've never lost a game with this deck yet. Your opponents are unlikely to ever want to help you, even when the choice will benefit them as well, if they think they are helping your "amazing" deck win yet another game.
Finally, another reason tribute creatures aren't working for you could be because of your efforts in past games. Tribute encourages a political aspect to the game. Some players take this to a different level, promising the moon, then stabbing the player in the back. While this sort of behavior is appropriate in some games (I love a good game of Diplomacy), it is the wrong play in multiplayer Magic. Lying that one time gets you what you want that one time. The problem is that no one will trust you after that. When you want others to work with you to take down a stronger opponent, it will be much harder to make that happen, since the trust is gone. Getting someone to choose the way you want that player to will be much harder, since all the cajoling in the world won't change the fact that the player knows you can't be trusted.
Tribute cards are not for every situation. They are best when you have built up a level of trust through previous games. Have you been willing to work with other players in the past? Was there a time when an opponent played Steam Augury, split the cards into piles of five and zero, then looked at you, hoping you'll let the player have all of them. There are times in games where that is the correct play, and players will remember that when you are looking to them to return the favor.
Siren of the Fanged Coast | Art by Michael C. Hayes
Tribute cards can add a level of gamesmanship to many groups and feed the strategy found in others. I'll wrap up with a deck that ties the subtitles and the article all together.
1: Some of you may not be able to think of any time when someone would be willing to take 5 damage. If a dangerous opponent could be eliminated from the game, or put at a life total where he or she could be easily killed off, it may make sense to take the damage. If you make it clear that you will attack that threat if the player pays the tribute, but won't attack the player if he or she doesn't, the player may also decide it is in his or her best interests, in the long run, to see everyone take 5 damage.
2: Be warned, though. Treating players as though they are stupid is rarely a good plan. You are just showing me exactly what you intend to do and what I need to do to make it all happen.
Bruce's games invariably involve a kitchen table, several opponents, crazy plays, and many laughs. Bruce believes that if anyone at your table isn't having fun playing Magic, then you are doing it wrong.