he first time I thought there might be something special about blue was when I saw my first counterspell. No, not Counterspell with a capital "C," but the first type of spell that stopped another spell. It was amazing, a true breakthrough card, one that would change my life forever.
Was it Dissipate, you ask? Or Power Sink? Certainly it must be Force of Will – no? Okay, maybe Exclude, or even Memory Lapse?
No, my friend. Remember, I came in through Portal. The extraordinary, over-powered counterspell of which I speak was Mystic Denial.
About a year later, I had the hang of blue at instant speed, which is far more satisfying than the bulk of what Portal provides. Blue became second nature to me. I loved its trickiness, its capacity to respond, its seeming answer to every problem. I was the "blue mage" of our play group, dazzling my friends with my Tradewind Rider – Gilded Drake deck. I even began work on a Stasis deck that might be able to handle 3-4 opponents in chaos format...
Then a real blue mage showed up in our group, and played Land Equilibrium with Armageddon – and Equilibrium with Aluren, and about three other decks that all used overpowered blue cards to absolutely control the board.
Suddenly understanding why my friends hated my decks so much, I conducted a small tactical retreat from the color for a while. Black was always my second favorite color; and it provided me a comfortable refuge from which I could lash out – with discard, recursion, and a few other strategies blue doesn't exactly care for.
But over time, blue and I came to a reconciliation, and I'm using the color nowadays as much as any other (except possibly green, which has simply gotten too good to ignore). With hundreds, if not a couple of thousand, of multiplayer games under my belt either facing or being the blue mage, I think I have some insights to share. I'm adding to this expertise the collected wisdom of the countless readers who have written to me with their frustrations, victories, and insights from both sides of the beach.
Consider this a primer on what to do – and what not to do – when you're in a multiplayer game and salty air begins to waft about.
WHAT DOESN'T WORK WITH BLUE
If you're the one playing blue, you have to realize one thing: as powerful as blue has historically been in duels, it loses more than just about any other color when you add that third player.
Most of this is because blue's two primary strategies – countering and bouncing – are nearly overwhelmingly focused on one target at a time. Hitting one card with one card isn't enough in multiplayer – you need to be able to deal with two, three, or more cards at a time. And if you take away blue's rares (e.g., Evacuation), you don't have very much at your disposal.
Countermagic has a particular problem. While the occasional well-timed Force of Will can stop an awful board-crushing combo and win you a few friends, the odds are against you. Not only are you struggling against a heavy burden of threats that increases with each opponent – but you often have to counter a big spell, such as Spirit of the Night, that you're not sure will head your way. But you can't take that chance, can you? Because you can't counter a spell in response to declaration of attackers. So you will annoy someone because you can't afford to let their best creature hit the board, even though they weren't even thinking about you until you stopped their spell. And now they hate you.
So in general (and we can all come up with specific situations where this isn't true, so hold your tongues), you want to limit the countermagic and bounce in your multiplayer deck to a bare minimum – enough countermagic to force through a combo, or a bit of bounce to supplement some comes-into-play abilities your creatures may have.
WHAT DOES WORK WITH BLUE
This sounds odd, but blue's creatures tend to be a real strength in multiplayer. They tend to float in the air like Fog Bank and Wall of Air – or they're really expensive closers that you can afford to run in a casual atmosphere, like Mahamoti Djinn or Benthic Behemoth. I'll see casual players at local stores who are playing blue and yet give short shrift to the creatures in their deck, because they think they need a color like green to give them what they need. If you're in blue, don't be afraid to make use of the monster arsenal – it's out there!
More strategically, blue's stealing mechanic is a strong aid in group games. Instant speed theft like Dominate is particularly useful, and at the rare levels you can swing games with stuff like Reins of Power and (splash black) Spinal Embrace. Casual gaming brings out massive creatures such as Verdant Force and Rorix Bladewing – even blue mages like to play with toys like these! So indulge and enjoy, though some sort of backlash is inevitable if you're too obnoxious.
The mechanic I'm highest on for blue in multiplayer is the "Deflection" mechanic. Misdirection is one of my favorite multiplayer cards, since tapping out baits out all sorts of nasty stuff that you can throw back at the caster. Deflection-style spells like Divert or Rebound don't just trade a card for a card – they give you the spell to use as you see fit, and then leave the entire board with the distinct impression that opponents ought to go bother someone else. That's golden in group play. Wizards has continued to support this aspect of blue's color wheel over the years, finally giving us a usable non-rare in Willbender. Here's hoping that we'll see more such cards in the common and uncommon slots, in years to come.
WHAT DOESN'T WORK AGAINST BLUE
Let's say you're not the one playing blue. What do you do when you're in a game and someone thumps down an island?
Well, the biggest mistake you can make is to hold back reasonably powerful spells just because someone has two islands open. "I didn't want it to get countered" is the mantra of the losing player. First of all, good blue mages don't play that many counterspells; and they're sweating the fact that someone might have something even worse than what you have. Second, if someone's holding a counterspell, then holding cards in your hand is not going to handle the problem. Maybe you'll get lucky and someone else will bait it out – but waiting for other opponents to play really good spells is not a reliable path to victory, right?
Another big mistake people make against the blue mage is leaving her alone. Blue decks tend to start slow and present few threats in the early game – a Wall of Thunder here, an Aquamoeba there, no big deal. But just as when an ocean current pulls you from the beach, you may not realize how quickly the ground is slipping away below your feet, until it's too late.
All other things being equal, the blue mage is your largest threat. She is the one most likely to move at instant speed, most likely to have the reactive solution to your proactive problem, and most likely to want you to pick off the other opponents for her so that her job is easier at the end. If you're playing an aggressive deck, she wants to slow you down. If you're playing a combo, she wants to stop it. If you're playing control, she wants to out-control you.
She has to go. But how?
WHAT DOES WORK AGAINST BLUE
Short-term – in the heat of a game – if you are sitting to the blue mage's left, then (assuming play order goes clockwise) you have the very simple job of drawing out every Counterspell you can. After all, not every blue mage listens to my advice – some pack upwards of 12-16 counterspells in a deck, if they've got a deck they feel works in your environment.
You're the first player to test her, so you've got to test her. If you play a fairly strong threat and it doesn't get a counter, then the rest of the table knows one of two things: either (1) the blue mage is not running enough countermagic to stop good spells, or (2) she's holding out for something worse. If it's (1), you have your spell and the table's about to get theirs. If it's (2), then you still have your spell and you don't care if the rest of the table gets theirs or not. This is why it's far better to be to the immediate left of a counter-heavy deck than the immediate right. If no one does a darn thing all the way around the table, the poor sap to the blue mage's right doesn't have a chance, since there's far less risk to tapping all islands at that point.
Longer-term – when you have time to build your decks around a group that you know will play blue early and often – you want to construct your decks so that blue mages have a hard time staying on top of your game. Here are five principles to stick to – and they should keep your deck effective against other colors as well:
1) Build up early and often. Ignore the conventional wisdom that says you can play tons of expensive spells in a casual game. Play Wild Mongrel, Gaea's Skyfolk, Savannah Lions, Hypnotic Specter, and whatever other cheap creatures you can throw on the board as fast and early as you can. Use them to pick at the blue mage, until a better choice presents itself. By nicking the blue mage's life total down, you make her more nervous, which baits out more tricks at times when she'd rather hold onto them.
2) Think permanence. A threat that stays on the board can attack over and over again, unlike an Incinerate or Congregate. Threats with repetitive abilities like Masticore, Centaur Glade, and Chainflinger are even bigger nightmares to the blue mage. If you're losing too often to islands, consider switching out instants and sorceries for permanents. (Some instants are worth keeping in the deck, since you can cast them away from your turn to try to bait a response.)
3) Bring the magic back. Flashback is available to every color. Green, white, and black all have some level of recursion for their creatures or other threats, ranging from Gravedigger to Genesis to Miraculous Recovery. And artifacts like Bosium Strip can give even red and blue decks the tools they need to keep the pressure on. Don't forget enchantments like Dragon Scales that come back near-automatically.
4) Find uncounterable effects.
Root Sliver isn't exactly one of the Top Ten threats to blue mages...but I'm thinking more of the cycling effects in Onslaught, like Decree of Pain. You can also find nifty red and green spells like Kavu Chameleon and Obliterate – both perfectly usable even if there isn't an island to be found in the game.
5) If all else fails, sac. If you can sac your creatures at instant speed (like Bottle Gnomes), the blue mage cannot steal them, and some bounce (such as Repulse) becomes less appetizing. In addition, the right sacable permanents can do the damage that other avenues can't – with a Mogg Fanatic, Bloodfire Colossus, and Barbarian Ring (at threshold) on the board, the blue mage has virtually no way to survive having nine or less life.
Blue mages are an important part of any play group – they provide brakes to stop runaway decks, and tend to push players to consider all the possible outcomes of each action. I still love the color. But that doesn't mean I need to see it win every game. In your own group, no matter what color or role you play, pray for the overall health of the game as Wizards adjusts the color wheel – and build the decks you need to keep every color competitive.
You may reach Anthony at firstname.lastname@example.org. Unfortunately, he cannot help readers with their decks.