Serious_Fun

How much aggression is "right" in multiplayer?

Thinning Out Your Gruul

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The letter O!ne of the first lessons a Magic player learns when shifting (some would say evolving) from duels to group games is this: aggressive decks don't work in free-for-all games.

Aggressive decks certainly include those decks well-known to tournament jockeys who specialize in doing a quick 20 to the dome – witness mono-Black "Hatred" decks of a few years ago, as well as goblins and other mono-Red strategies that end in Fireblasts or some other move involving significant sacrifice to wipe out the enemy. They also include a lot of quick, creature-based decks that might appear more conservative – old-school White Weenie decks, or simple Green fattie decks, or even mono-Blue "Fish" decks featuring a variety of merfolk.

Also included: quick mana builds to a 20-point Fireball. Or a 20-point Drain Life. Or heck, a 60-point Stroke of Genius.

The rap against aggressive decks is simple: they polish off one opponent quickly, and then die. If you're playing aggro, you're either (a) not prepared for a night of multiplayer games or (b) trying to tick a single individual off (which presents its own problems not covered here today). To play group, you need decks with staying power! With repeatable, and preferably large, effects! With, whaddya call it... moxie!

This reasoning arrives at the right conclusion, but takes the wrong path. The problem isn't exactly aggression. It's something else.

The Myth Of Aggressive Decks

Let's look at two different cards normally associated with aggressive decks. The first is Goblin War Buggy. The second is Albino Troll.

The War Buggy comes out and hits for two. Then, if you pay its echo cost the following turn, you've got yourself a Red Grizzly Bear for the rest of the game. It's fast, but after the first turn, it adds no further value beyond its vanilla statistics. A deck full of Goblin War Buggies would almost certainly fall victim to the criticisms above – a single Lightning Rift, or Infest is usually enough to hobble the controller.

The Troll is another story. Not only are its stats bigger (which would not be enough for this analysis), but it offers a dimension of staying power that many creatures don't have: regeneration. Creatures with regeneration have a much better chance of surviving early game states and affecting the board in the mid-to-late game. If and when they do die, they pull specialized removal (e.g. a Terminate, or a large enough –X/-X effect, or a Wrath of God) that may have hit another creature, or come at a later and more devastating time.

Whatever else you hear, aggressive decks don't generally die in multiplayer because they "run out of gas". Aggressive decks often die in multiplayer because too many don't burn anyone else's fuel.

Goblin War Buggy burns your fuel. Albino Troll burns your fuel, and your opponents' fuel.

Some of this is semantics, and some is not. You need to think differently as a predator, when there's more than one prey you'd like to take down. You'll get partway by letting some of your opponents fight each other, and partway by taking advantage of lucky situations where the board breaks your way – but most of the distance, you have to cover by being smart. You're posing threats. People are going to have answers. You're all going to draw roughly the same number of cards per game. What do you plan to do about that?

The key to a good aggressive deck in multiplayer is to find cheap fat with repeatable effects. It needs to be cheap, because you're using creatures and creatures die. It needs to be fat, because, well, you're aggressive and last time I checked, 4 > 3 > 2. And it needs to have repeatable effects because you need to keep burning off opponents' solutions. Yes, you want to attract attention. There's no point in denying it. Aggressive decks can't "lay low" – by definition, they want to move and hurt. You can't throw a Skizzik out there and expect to convince people you don't really mean to do any damage. So let the fantasy go.

As good as Albino Troll is, it's not nearly good enough to be considered a "champion" in a good multiplayer aggro deck. It's a staple card, a footsoldier. You get it out there, let it swing, and act sad when someone burns an Incinerate on it. Your path to victory will be more impressive. And it will still be fairly cheap, and it will be fat, and it will do its job over and over again. Consider: Forgotten Ancient; Tahngarth, Talruum Hero; Genesis; War Elemental. None of these cost more than five mana. All of them can break games wide open. Most (not all) are fairly cheap to acquire now, even though they're rares.

Of course, you can always find champions at the 6+ cost range like Rith, the Awakener; Tornado Elemental; or Shivan Hellkite. But I'm trying to push the gentle reader toward a certain conclusion: you don't even need to go there. If you got 'em, great. Throw a few in, especially if your deck has certain deficiencies. However, a deck that doesn't break five mana, plays aggressive, and still plays competitively against several opponents – that's a gem worth polishing.

Decks with fast, aggressive elements can succeed in multiplayer. They just need the right focus, and the right tools. And boy, did the Gruul clans just give them some whoppers.

Wipe That Gruul Off Your Face

There are at least six terrific cards that Guildpact offers the R/G aggressive deck. None of these cost more than five mana. And folks, remember: it's okay if they die – that means they're doing their job. If they survive – then oh goodness, are they really going to do their job!

Gruul Guildmage . We start with the obvious. All of the guildmages are going to be staples in decks using their colors, for years – and possibly the duration of the game. People who downplay the Guildmages in group play simply don't use them enough – or don't use them well.

Burning-Tree Bloodscale . One of the advantages aggressive decks automatically enjoy in multiplayer is the near-certainty that someone will be open early. But what happens later on, as more people get blockers out and your creatures have a harder time getting through? Why, you play the Bloodscale. Then you stop worrying.

Rumbling Slum . Do I even need to explain this one? Instead, I'll use this space to award Rumbling Slum the Best Card Title of the Set Award. Congratulations, Rumbling Slum! You're a slum that truly knows how to rumble. You Rumbling Slum, you. Rumble on! (Slum.)

Burning-Tree Shaman . Do me a favor. Before building your next R/G deck with Guildpact cards, observe your group for an evening. Without telling them what you're up to, quietly count the number of times someone uses an activated ability. Tally it up. Then go back to your card boxes and build that new R/G deck. Betcha you decide to put this 3/4 for three in there.

Ulasht, the Hate Seed . I mention him here to say that I do not think he belongs on this list. He can certainly work in an aggressive deck; but he feels more like a combo engine. Had I altogether ignored him, some readers may have wondered why.

Gruul War Plow . How many times have you stared at a card (*cough*Hunted Troll*cough*) and said to yourself, "I wish that had trample" – and in the same breath, told yourself that it's hard to find a good "gives trample" card that isn't otherwise useless? Finally, here's a card that gives your army trample – but can also serve as an efficient creature on its own.

Rumbling Slum . Yeah, I already mentioned it above. Isn't that name cool, though?

I've just covered the pretty gold cards here; there are plenty of other treats throughout Guildpact to help you push your army forward to victory. Anything from Wurmweaver Coil to Leyline of Lightning can reap big rewards in the late game for an aggressive deck. Don't be afraid to experiment.

Oh. And yes, Borborygmos is insane in group games – there's always someone out there who can't handle six trample damage, which pumps your entire army. But you already knew all that, right? And you also already know that he'll attract lots of attention. So, coming back to what I was saying earlier - If you want to play with Borby, you gotta make sure you burn the other opponents out of fuel. Those early plays are essential. Make them good, and make them count.

Overall Aggro Approach

I'll probably have more to say about aggressive decks in future articles – I do like them, especially those that can blend some control elements in there and play with tempo. What I want to say today regards broad strategy when you're playing aggro in multiplayer. After all the scheming and card selection and compensating for long games, success with aggro boils down to two rules:

Rule #1: Focus and kill, one at a time.

Even when everything breaks your way, an aggro deck still has a big uphill climb to victory in multiplayer. As any marathon runner will tell you, you can't take on the whole hill at once. Within the first two or three turns of a free-for-all, you must decide what player represents the best chance of both (a) standing in the way of your victory and (b) showing vulnerability.

Got him? Good. That's your first target. Push hard – you don't want to acquire another one until this one's gone, unless you have no choice.

The math is simple – any deck's chances increase with each additional dead opponent. There are fewer Blue mages to counter combos, less heat for the control mage to worry about, etc. The difference between your aggressive deck and other decks is, you have to go one at a time. You're not set up to kill everyone at once with an arbitrarily large combo, nor can you stall the universe while you pick off the players you choose. You need to line opponents up and ram them out, starting with the weakest and/or most worrying.

Some people in multiplayer don't like to see an aggressive player turn on a single player from the start and drive him out of the game. Well, hey. Some people also don't like to see a control player clear the board of creatures. And some people also don't like to see a clever combo deck win out of the blue. Guess what: "some people" is shorthand for everyone who's currently on the short end of whatever stick happens to be poking them. (Wow, two metaphors just had a really nasty crash there. How Gruul of me not to clean up the mess.)

My point is, "some people" are going to be annoyed that they lost, no matter how they lost. You cannot control their reaction. You can, however, control how you play the game. Play your game, be polite (or funny, or whatever other adjectives your group responds to), and reasonably explain your approach at the end of the game. It's all about threat assessment.

Rule #2: Know when to ease off.

There will be times when it's obvious additional attacking will only grind gears and get you nowhere. That's okay – even in duels, an aggressive deck needs to know when to bide its time and find the right opening.

More so than in duels, an aggro deck in group often needs to have a "Plan B", in case something horrific like a Blazing Archon or Portcullis shows up. The Plan B can be targeted removal of the offending card(s), or it can be an alternate path to victory. (HINT: Rumbling Slum – O, Ye Slum that Doth Rumble! – has two paths to victory contained within the same, well-titled, rumble-to-the-x-to-the-slum-to-the-y card.)

So what do you do against that nasty control player with six different permanents stopping your lovely creatures from swinging? In a Red/Green deck, your Plan B is usually direct damage. Use it to take out the controller of the offending card(s). No player, no player's permanents. Very Gruul logic.

That's it. Two steps to success. What, you thought this would be more complicated?

Lingering Concerns About R/G Aggro In Group

Even with my simple road-map to success with your aggressive G/R deck, you may run into glitches from time to time. It happens to the best of us. Here are some pitfalls to keep an eye out for:

Pacing and overextension. Perhaps the largest problem an aggressive deck faces is the issue of pacing. Of course, you want to play out enough creatures to get damage through – but you also don't want a single Mutilate to ruin your plans.

Part of the answer here is in finding that correct balance of time and resources – and in enjoying a bit of luck. (Do you really think control or combo decks are that much different?) Another part of the answer is in having one or two "recovery" options in your deck. Red's not too swell at this; but Green excels. Caller of the Claw is a fine example. Genesis is another. Heck, even Night Soil is pretty darn swell.

Targeting. Yes, an aggressive deck will attract attention. (In an experienced group, it shouldn't attract nearly as much attention as a proven combo or control deck, but some people still err horribly in their threat analyses.) You should expect to see spells come at you and your creatures.

The Green half of your R/G deck can offer the occasional "invulnerable" creature – say, a Petrified Wood-kin. The Red half of your deck can offer redirection effects like Shunt. (I'm still waiting for the Red creature that's as efficient as Willbender. Like all of you, I have a wish list, and Wizards ain't always the perfect Santa.)

Utility. You'll have to place a bit more emphasis on removing permanents that aren't creatures. On average, you'll come across far more devastating enchantments and artifacts in a night of group play than you'll see at your average Standard tournament – and this time, you won't have a sideboard (or even a game two!) to deal with them.

Fortunately, virtually no color combination is as well equipped to deal with this sort of thing as RG. To wit: Decimate. Hull Breach. Artifact Mutation. And I haven't even started with the mono-colored cards.

Identity. In the midst of all this strategic advice, it's easy to lose sight of what you're trying to do with your deck. Yes, you want to be careful not to overextend and you want to protect your creatures and you want to get rid of that annoying Confusion in the Ranks – but remember, you started with a deck that wasn't afraid to pound a little. Before weighing down your beautiful deck with lots of bells and whistles, try a pure variant a few times. Then tweak it to solve the problems that actually exist. The Rumbling Slum and I both agree: we think you'll be pleased with the results.


Anthony Alongi has played various Magic formats for over seven years, and has been writing for much longer than that. His latest book, Jennifer Scales and the Messenger of Light, will be in stores June 2006.

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