hen you get five guys around a table to play a little Magic together, there's gonna be a lot of talking. Oh, I suppose you could have a table full of silent men, their eyes as cold and hard as chunks of ice, grimly flipping the cards as they angle their way towards victory….
…but what fun is that? You're here to enjoy yourself. You want conversation-free games, go play on Magic Online.
This is casual play, dangit, and when we game, we game loud. You make a great play? We'll cheer and clap you on the back. Do you make a grab for power and blow it? Expect some good-natured catcalls. And in between, we'll talk about whatever comes to mind, whether that's the latest uproar in the Ultimate Fighting Championship or musings on movies or how we're going to integrate characters into our upcoming Planescape campaign.
My poor wife. She's trying to get some sleep in our bedroom down the hall, and at least once a night she has to thump on the wall - BANG BANG BANG - to shut us up.
But you know what? Even if you are the sort of person who plays wreathed in a muffled absence of noise, there's still talking.
Because your decks talk. Oh yes they do.
"I'm full of threats," one deck says. "You'd better squish me now, before I blossom into my full power."
"I'm nothing," another deck says. "Pay no attention to me. Look, I haven't done anything. And I promise you, I promise you, I won't…."
"LOOK AT ME!" another deck says. "I EXIST SOLELY TO SCREW WITH YOUR HEAD! I WON'T WIN, BUT I'LL ANNOY YOU!"
"I will eat your soul."
That last comment is the one that will burn you. Because it's why some people lose before they've begun. You hear them grousing after the game, sullen and angry, crying into their (root) beer.
"I didn't do anything," they mutter. "But everyone ganged up on me for no reason!" And then they walk away, convinced that multiplayer is purely about luck and randomness as opposed to skill and knowing how to read a table.
But it's not no reason, my friend. (Note the clever, and correct, use of a double-negative here.) Sure, you were silent… But your deck? Oh, your deck was trash-talkin' like no tomorrow. So learning to speak deckese and knowing what messages your pile o'cards is sending out to the people is a skill worth gathering.
What? You want examples? Sure. Let's teach you the first lesson in speaking Deckese. Because my pal Josh sure as heck learned it.
We were all at my kitchen table, as usual, and we were piloting our usual decks. I was playing an old favorite, and Ian was playing something we'd all seen before, but Josh? Josh was playing a deck we'd never seen before.
Lesson #1: New Decks Speak Loudly
If you're unveiling some new creation to your local playgroup, remember that people fear the unknown. Until they have adequately scoped out the nature of your deck's strategy, they are going to assume the worst with every single card that hits the table.
Your deck is a newborn babe, squalling loudly as it tumbles fresh to the OR table; people pay attention to newborns. And like newborns, new decks grow up before you know it - in fact, often the only sign you'll get that Little Katie Kardpile is a woman now (she used to be just three cards tall!) is the fact that you've just lost to her. Her stratagems have exploded into a beautifully-executed victory, and there she is, flush with the scent of a new dawn.
Nobody likes losing to something they didn't foresee - as you know if you've ever been to a tournament where someone's tearing up the room with a rogue deck. The guy who's winning with his new deck is happy, of course, but the players who have sadly left that deck out of their testing gauntlet? They're enraged. They knew they had a chance of losing to Popular Deck X, and were prepared for bad beats from Popular Deck Y… But losing to something completely out of left field?
Thus, if you say, "Hey, I've got a new deck," people will watch you warily. It's not that they're opposed to you piloting something fresh; oh, they like seeing new stuff, but they don't like losing to it.
So when you lay your new cards, they will judge each individual spell much more harshly than they would an old tried-and-true classic. An early Fireball from a deck that everyone knows is packing Goblins isn't a big threat, but an early Fireball from an unknown? You may ramp into some crazy infinite-mana loop and kill us all!
It's not that you'll be the target of choice, mind you; if your friend is playing The Deck That Everyone Hates (and almost every group of players has A Deck That Everyone Hates - ours is Josh's near-creatureless Mono-Blue Vedalken Shackles/Blatant Thievery/Propaganda/Bribery deck), they won't suddenly break ranks to pound you for no good reason. But they will break ranks a lot sooner, because in the absence of more information, they have to assume the worst.
Parlez-Vous Deckese? Exercise #1
The lesson here is that if you're unveiling a new deck and want every edge possible to win with it, don't mention it's a new deck. Just bring it out and start playing that sucker, and let your table figure out it's a new deck.
(Unless, of course, you rejoice in the idea of taking on all comers. Many do. I myself admit that I tend to mention my new deck offhandedly just to watch everyone gang up on it. If my deck can't withstand a solid beating, then what's the use?)
Failing that - and this is a tried-and-true method, if you have a lot of decks in your arsenal - you can never bring a new deck to the table.
"Is that a new deck?" they ask.
"Nah. I just made a few tweaks to an old deck."
Those tweaks may consist of "Swapping out half the spells in it," but if you're really concerned with eking out every possible advantage, then it's something to consider. I myself have a Mono-Green deck that transformed over the course of three months from a Weasel deck (utilizing Joven's Ferrets and Repopulate in a pathetic attempt to swell a two-card cluster into a Weasel theme) into a full-fledged Senor Stompy deck (using the bounce power of Wall of Blossoms and Stampeding Wildebeests to create a card-drawing, face-trampling engine of doom). And yet, though the concept had completely morphed, everyone still called it "The Weasel Deck" and acted as though it was still a harmless little weenie thing.
Not that I always encourage this. Anyway. Josh made his second mistake when he played…. Searing Meditation.
Lesson #2: Some Cards Are Up To No Good
Now, Searing Meditation seems like it would be a harmless card… But it's not. Because it's a card with plans.
You see, if you lay down a card like, say, Mirri the Cursed - a card which I intend to start playing with Real Soon Now, mind you - it's powerful, but it doesn't need any help to do what it needs to. The Cat stands alone, and when she hits the board, your deck could be anything.
But Searing Meditation? It needs help. In fact, Searing Meditation is absolute crap unless you combine it with cool lifegain and extra mana to start killing stuff. It's a card that says, "My entire deck revolves around this card, because otherwise why would I have it in there?"
It's a combo piece.
And if there's a more hated word in deckese than "combo," I don't know it. Combo is the spring-loaded death, the kind of crazy insta-kill that you can't protect against. Combo doesn't ramp - you have one turn, and then you're dead, dead as you or anyone. And remember what people said about losing to the unknown?
"It's not a combo deck," Josh said… And, as future games showed, he was absolutely right. It was combo-like, since he was combining Searing Meditation with Sun Droplet to do a lot of damage every turn, and it certainly was a controlling bit of love, but it wasn't going to overwhelm us instantly.
But at the time, he had The New Deck. And we didn't know what it did, and that one card told us all that it involved a lot of damage and lifegain. So we all ganged up on him and killed him, because he played the wrong card.
Better to be safe than sorry. We played it safe…. And Josh was sorry, because his deck mouthed off a little too much.
Interestingly enough, had it been a combo card we'd known about, we would have felt more at ease. If he'd played, say, Mind Over Matter - which would have been difficult in a Red/White deck, but bear with me - then we would have been very familiar with the old Mind Over Matter "draw-and-untap" decks, and we would have known what to hit. We had the experience to know that Tolarian Academy was Bad News and a Curiosity on an active Prodigal Sorcerer was certain death.
But we didn't know what was in his deck aside from Searing Meditation. We didn't know where his deck was vulnerable. And so rather than try to dope out where to strike with surgical precision in order to hamstring him, we just took him out of the game altogether.
Sprechen Sie Deckese? Exercise #2
When you're building a deck, you want to avoid permanents that look like combo pieces. Creatures are usually safe, artifacts less so, but enchantments that trigger off of something will almost automatically draw fire.
This hurts the Johnnies of the world. It's unfair, I know - you wanna come up with your cool crazy deck that does something absolutely amazing! But the stranger and more foreign it appears, the madder people will get, and thus it gets harder to pull it off.
Each group has a different set of cards that they recognize as threats. But there is a subset of cards that scream, "YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT I DO, BUT JUST WAIT UNTIL MY BIG BROTHER ARRIVES!" And their option may be to, well, not wait.
A personal example: at my table, Slivers have been running rampant. You don't have to have a good Sliver deck at this point for everyone to join forces and pound you. They know what Slivers can do, and they're not about to let you get there.
Lesson #3: Every Deck Tells A Story
How could Josh have saved this strange little deck? Simple. Note the order in which he played his cards.
He played the Searing Meditation. We had no context in which to place Searing Meditation… So when he said, "No, this isn't a really good deck!" we didn't know whether to believe him. But if he had played the Sun Droplet first, and then the Searing Meditation, we would have gone, "Oh, that's the combo" and felt more comfortable. We'd have known that if you axed the Droplet, the rest of the deck would fall apart….
…Whether it actually did or not.
The thing is that decks are revealed in stages. You see one card, then a pair of cards, and then a set of cards. And everyone wants to put a deck into a category, to go, "Oh, that's a Rebel deck" or "That's a Sliver deck" or "That's a burn deck." They want to slot your deck away as soon as possible so they can get back to their game.
Knowing how to play this is important. The cards you lay down, and the order in which you lay them down, matter.
Technically speaking, it wasn't a bad play to put down the Searing Meditation so early; after all, you're going to want to use it when it arrives, so why not cast it now? But he told the story wrong, leaping straight to the climax without setting up the protagonists. Had he done nothing, instead waiting to draw a Sun Droplet - which was the correct play from a psychological perspective - then we would have let him live.
Sun Droplet? That's just defense. Searing Meditation? That's the kill. But jump straight to the kill without setting up the motive, and your playgroup will flip to the end of the book.
Habla Deckese? Exercise #3
You can - and should - use this to disabuse people when you see fit. If you're playing a deck with Llanowar Elves for acceleration and your table doesn't mind Elves, you can convince 'em it's a modified Elf deck for a surprisingly long time.
I'm not saying that you should throw random cards in your deck to throw people off the scent; that'd be stupid. You want your deck to work. But almost every deck has a few cards that serve duty in some other deck, and if you can play those cards first people will cheerfully think that your B/G deck is packing Pernicious Deeds and Shambling Shells - and, more importantly, play against you as if it did - until you reveal the truth of your Deck's Insidious Plan.
People want to categorize your decks. If you can encourage them to categorize wrong, go for it.
For example: My W/G Slivers deck has Loxodon Hierarch in it (mainly because it has Ghostway). Everyone knows that I pack the Hierarch now, but in the beginning when I got a slow start, some folks thought that I was playing a different deck entirely. In truth, I was holding my Slivers back and laying down my Soul Wardens and Loxodons first, so that when the inevitable Wrath of God came I would suddenly bust out with a handful of Slivers from nowhere.
The longer you can mislead your table, the better, so sometimes it's best to sandbag cards until you absolutely have to play them, even if it might tactically be better to bust out with them ASAP.
As Josh learned.
Lesson #4: Wrap Up Your Story Quickly (And Speak More Than One Language)
It's not that combo decks are bad. It's that bad combo decks are bad. I once knew a guy who loved to play combo decks no matter what - he was a great player. But you could see his combos coming from a mile away, because they were slow, and had such narrow themes that pretty much every card in his deck involved getting to the combo or making the combo go off.
Every last deck of his was, "Beat me or die." They all screamed about how they were going to go off, since they were well-known combo pieces that we, as players, recognized as the cards that people had tried to break in Standard back when said cards were legal.
So we beat him. A lot. And he got frustrated, because he never won.
What he never realized was that his decks were talking quite loudly. They said, "I'm going to kill you as soon as I draw thesetwo cards." And, as I said, if you say something like that people don't want to wait.
It's not that we hated combo decks overmuch. But a good assassin doesn't drop you a note and say, "Next Wednesday? Be prepared. I'm totally going to drop you like a sack of potatoes." No, he just strikes from nowhere, coming from nothingness to send you spiraling into the void.
So if you play combo, play fast combo. Drop the elbow, and follow it up with the backbreaker on the next turn. Or be prepared to take a lot of beatings.
Chu vi parolas Deckese? Lesson #5
I should also add that fragile combo decks are bad. If you might as well pack up your cards if someone Cranial Extracts all four copies of Door to Nothingness from your deck, then your decks aren't resilient enough to win.
You need more than one path to victory. If your deck has just one thing to say, it's like an author with one story - but this is Hollywood, baby. The studios reject stories all the time.
Make sure your deck's got another pitch.
NOTE: "Hey!" you think. "Planar Chaos was this weekend! Where's my Planar Chaos Multiplayer stuff? And by golly, I will write about that.
But my deadline for this article is Thursday. And I do not spoil myself on cards. Thus, by the time I discover the delight of these cards, it will be too late to submit. And so I must save it for later.
Incidentally, if the winners of the previous two Time Spiral contests - fun and power - could contact me privately, I lost their address in a laptop crash. I will send you your cards. Forgive me!