Serious_Fun

Applying a few lessons from programming to cracking those tough multiplayer bugs.

The Bug Report Blues

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The letter I!n case you haven't heard, I am the webmaster for StarCityGames.com—an independent site that discusses Magic strategy and sells Magic cards. Almost everything you see on SCG, from the shopping cart to the deck database, is something I have programmed myself.

The bane of my existence is, of course, The Bug.

Swarmyard See, when you program something, you fall a little in love with it at first. You have just brought a working thing into existence, using nothing more than your mind and your hands, and the first time you fire it up it's a little like watching your toddler take his first tentative steps across the room. You have created something useful.

In that moment, what you have created is pristine. You've squeezed all of the errors that you were aware of out of it – after all, if you knew it was broken, you would fix this sweet child! So you let your lovely little creation free into the world....

...to be set upon by the filthy users, who arrive in zombie-like hordes to show you just what an idiot you are.

"This doesn't work," they cry, coming to you... And by God, it doesn't! They've discovered something you weren't aware of, some subtle issue that you hadn't considered. They have discovered a glitch that makes everything else go bad.

You cringe as your co-workers file The Bug Report.

The Bug Report tells you what isn't working. Someone submits the form to tell you exactly, "Hey, this went wrong." And the only response to a good Bug Report is to issue a patch—something that fixes the problem at hand.

Simple glitches require simple patches. Complex issues may require a complete rewrite from the ground up. And some problems, you may not even be able to fix. But you have to try, or the entire program loses functionality.

"So why, Ferrett," you ask, "are you talking about programming? Isn't this a Magic site?"

Indeed it is! And a functional multiplayer group is like a program in some ways. Getting people to play at your house not only involves a lot of scheduling, but everyone there has to have fun. After all, there are no prizes for winning at your kitchen table aside from the joy involved in doing so... And if everyone starts playing decks that make it Not Fun to play, then your group dissolves.

Those decks that nobody can beat are the Bug.

The Bug makes it impossible to play a certain way for awhile. Someone will bring a deck that nobody's equipped to beat, and for some time that deck will be so annoyingly omnipresent that it makes it really kind of a pain in the ass to play Magic.

Note that unfortunately, hot-fixing a bug often involves using older cards that newer players may not have available. Since these patches may involve actually buying cards from an outside source, I’ll also tell you what your level of investment is: Once you spend your hard-earned cash (or trade stock) on these cards to break up a stall in your multiplayer group, will you ever play with them again?

In the interests of full disclosure, yes, I do work for a site that sells Magic singles individually. But this isn’t some crazy scheme to get you to purchase cards from us; I just think that sometimes buying singles instead of cracking packs is the most efficient way to build a deck. Your mileage may vary.
Worse, sometimes everyone decides spontaneously to play a certain kind of deck because Phil won with it last week, and then suddenly everyone's playing four copies of Kokusho and the table degenerates into a constant stream of "Who can get the Evening Star out first?"

When nobody's having fun any more because some strategy is dominant, it's time to file a Bug Report.

You have problems? I may have the solution—a solution that comes in the form of a single card or two that can break open a stalemate or punish someone for a given style. I don't promise that any of these patches are going to work, but they might help to jar that ugly little obstruction loose.

BUG REPORT: Too Much Lifegain

BUG DESCRIPTION:
Your group has gone nuts with the lifegain recently; someone's discovered the magic of Kokusho, and someone else has discovered Beacon of Immortality, and still someone else is playing Essence Warden and Essence Sliver and Armadillo Cloak.

Regardless of the source, now people are gaining upwards of 40 life in each game, and you can't attack through. What's a simple mage to do?

Suggested Patch #1: False Cure
One of the most satisfying plays I've had in recent memory was this:

"Diabolic Edict you."

"All right, I'll sacrifice my Kokusho."

"False Cure. Instead of gaining 25 life, you lose 25. GG for you."

The other people at the table applauded. Kokusho had been running a little rampant lately, and everyone who could afford one had him in their deck. False Cure suddenly made Kokusho into an ugly liability, turning its advantage into a deathtrap—if I had the Cure, you died instead.

INVESTMENT POTENTIAL:
Low. The problem with False Cure is that it really only works for the big-shot lifegain effects like Congregate, Beacon of Immortality, Martyr of Sands, and Kokusho. If someone's gaining a little life at a time, then False Cure is nearly useless. Plus, False Cure does nothing useful aside from hosing massive lifegain strategies, so you only want to play it when your group's gone completely wonky.

Fortunately, as a little-used rare, it shouldn't be too hard to pick up.

Suggested Patch #2: Flames of the Blood Hand
Not nearly as useful as False Cure, because it doesn't kill the player who would be gaining life (unless they're at 4 life or less, of course), and it costs an extra mana to play (which is difficult against control players). The reason False Cure is a huge threat is because once that gigantic lifegain spell finishes, your target is D-E-A-D dead—whereas Flames of the Blood Hand leaves a standing opponent, who will probably be wanting a little revenge.

Still, it's an acceptable substitute if you can't find False Cure, or if you're playing a heavy burn deck.

INVESTMENT POTENTIAL:
Again, low. But it's an uncommon from a recent set, and so shouldn't be too hard to find.

Suggested Patch #3: Rain of Gore
Rain of Gore is a different kind of spell. It won't kill someone who plays a big life-gain spell; because Rain of Gore is a really obvious enchantment, they will simply choose not to play it. But this does work wonders on slow-trickle lifegain effects, turning Essence Warden's ability into a very hideous drawback.

The only problem is that since the two colors that most love to gain life, green and white, are also the ones that have access to the best enchantment destruction spells, you can't really count on this to carry the day. (Also, red-black decks are among the hardest to pull off in multiplayer, but that's a topic for another day.)

Still, if someone has a Kokusho on the table, this followed by a Rend Spirit is almost as funny as False Cure.

INVESTMENT POTENTIAL:
Low. Chances are you won't play it much, because if nobody's playing lifegain it's a dead slot. Then again, it's also fairly cheap; it's from Dissension, and even though it's a rare it was never heavily played in tournaments. You should be able to find it.

BUG REPORT: Constant Theft

BUG DESCRIPTION:
People are constantly stealing your stuff! Control Magics, Blatant Thieveries, Dominates, Treacheries, Enslaves, Persuasions... No matter what the cause, you can't get a big beefy guy out onto the table without some idiot yanking out of your hands to beat you over the head with it.

Suggested Patch #1: Brooding Saurian
The Saurian is pretty nicely priced body with a solid effect: at the end of your turn, you'll get your guy back. So will everyone else. Hopefully, they'll decide that Mister Blue Stealy Guy needs to get his dang head staved in before he can steal again.

The problem is, of course, that Mister Blue Stealy Guy may not let the Saurian resolve—which means that the Saurian is only good in the early game, when Mister Blue Stealy Guy has to tap out periodically to play his spells. Once Mister Blue Stealy Guy gets up to, say, ten mana, chances are pretty good this will get countered.

But if not—and remember that sometimes, they don't have the counter—then everything he's taken comes running back into your arms. Which is nice.

And yes, this does work with cards like Bribery and Dichotomancy. Why do you ask?

INVESTMENT POTENTIAL:
Medium. Unlike all of the other cards mentioned until now, even if nobody is stealing any creatures, you still have a cheap 4/4 guy. That's not bad, and it won't hurt to throw him into your decks at random if you're not sure what people are playing.

Again, it shouldn't be too hard to find this guy; he's from a spanking-new set, and he hasn't been played much. That makes it well worth picking up a four-of.

Suggested Patch #2: Brand
What? You're so locked down by those ugly blue mages that you can't even play a Saurian? Oh my Lord, you're fighting multiple Blue Stealy Guys, aren't you?

Well, in that case you might need to resort to a very ugly workaround: Brand. This little-known rare from Urza's Saga will get you back everything you own at instant speed, for a single mana. You can fire it off at any time, and suddenly all of those stolen items will return! Whee!

Unfortunately, that comes at a severe drawback: Brand does nothing else. If nobody's stolen anything, it's a dead card. No, wait, it's not entirely dead; yes, you can cycle it. But that means that unless your group has become more criminal than San Andreas when it comes to jacking creatures, 90% of the time this card will do nothing.

Still. Like False Cure, sometimes you have no choice.

INVESTMENT POTENTIAL:
Low. Not only is it from an old set that may be hard to find in some areas, as I've already noted it's going to be useless in all but the direst of circumstances. Only pick it up if you have to... but when you need it, boy, do you need it.

BUG REPORT: Over-Recycling of the Graveyard

BUG DESCRIPTION:
Thanks to the Golgari and dredge, everybody's reusing their graveyard... And the ones who aren't bringing Golgari Grave-Trolls back up are using old-time unfair spells like Exhume to drag Bladewing the Risen out of their yard, which brings along a Bladewing's Thrall and a Vampiric Dragon along with it. Then there are the other dragon players, endlessly recycling their Eternal Dragons to thin their decks of land....

Clearly, the graveyard has become the go-to place for reusing stuff. What's a man to do?

Surprisingly, the answer is not Tormod's Crypt... At least not in multiplayer. Tormod's Crypt will nuke a graveyard, but it only hits one, and it does nothing else. Multiplayer games often involve three or four people bringing different decks, so there's a chance that you might wind up with a card that does absolutely nothing to hurt anyone's strategy or further your own.

You could also use Leyline of the Void or Planar Void.... But again, those cards do nothing if your opponents aren't recycling, making them a risky inclusion. Why not try....

Suggested Patch #1: Night Soil
This long-forgotten enchantment from Fallen Empires is readily available, since it was printed not once, but four times with four different artworks. You can get it for a song. And the nice thing is that once it's out, it not only scours your opponents' graveyards free of all creatures, but you get little 1/1 Saprolings for doing it! All at instant speed! And clearly there's no shortage of uses for Saproling tokens these days....

There is one slight problem, though; you have to remove two creature cards in a single graveyard from the game, meaning that clever players can sometimes manipulate their graveyard to keep only one guy in at a time. But usually, in the late game, you can pound this down and empty the catacombs in no time flat.

INVESTMENT POTENTIAL:
Medium. It's hard to find in physical stores, but they go cheaply on-line, and you'd be surprised how many decks you can squeeze these into. You won't play Night Soil in every green deck, but you won't regret spending a couple of bucks to pick them up, either.

Suggested Patch #2: Honor the Fallen
Again, a card that few people think about, which is good; it's kind of like the Spanish Inquisition that way. When someone is deciding whether he should fire off a Patriarch's Bidding, they rarely think, "Gosh, what if my friend is packing some obscure two-mana instant from Mercadian Masques?"

But no. I've crushed people with this, simply because—to quote Mal Reynolds— "They're not gonna see this coming." You don't get your guy back, and depending on how long this game has gone on and how many people have fallen to be honored, I get something like 15 life. (As long as no one casts False Cure on me. Which would be mega-ironic. Heh.)

That said, again—it's narrow. This is the emergency patch, something to be dragged out when the graveyards have become more like a shopping mall. But when that time comes, aren't you happy to know it's there?

INVESTMENT POTENTIAL:
Low. It's hard to find, nobody's heard of it, and you only want it in specific circumstances; thus, if you can get it on the cheap, fine, but only go out of your way to find it if you're really plagued by Recurring Nightmares.

BUG REPORT: Creature Stand-Offs and Angry Players

BUG DESCRIPTION:
All of your players like summoning huge armies. And they play them. And then nobody can get through enough damage to kill anyone, so they wait.

Then the combo player kills them.

"Ah ha!" you say. "I know that fix! Wrath of God and Damnation!" Except you play Wrath of God to reset the board, and your friends don't see how you've just stopped the crazy combo guy from going infinite with Ambassador Laquatus: they see that you've hurt their men. So they take their revenge out by tapdancing with dragons upon your face, and once again you lose and Crazy Combo Guy reigns supreme.

How can you open up the field without leaving yourself open? The answer's not pretty, but....

Suggested Patch: Pernicious Deed
Anthony Alongi once called this "The greatest multiplayer card of all time," and he may well be right. Barring some ugly Krosan Grip action, this is pretty much unstoppable once it hits the table, serving the multi-purposes of warning off silly players ("Attack me, and everything dies"), pinpoint destruction ("I'll Deed for three, killing your Laquatus—then play another Deed"), and global thermonuclear warfare.

It's not a perfect patch, since it doesn't quite stop Crazy Combo Guy, but in combination with some pinpoint Cranial Extractions, Extirpates, and Mind Twists to stall Comboman, it can dissect Combo Guy as you start to break up your group's reliance on massive armies of men to win.

Plus, the strange thing is that once you have a Deed out, weaker players will look to attack someone else, and you can often point them at Crazy Combo Guy.

You'd better hope they didn't read my article on how to play against Pernicious Deed, though.

INVESTMENT POTENTIAL:
Massive. They're ludicrously expensive these days (particularly online), but a Deed is worth every penny you'll sink into it. Unless you're the type who gets sick of playing the same cards over and over again, you'll use this in every black-green deck you have. It's that good.

FURTHER BUG REPORTS

Looking for other patches? Want some further hints? Well, drop me a line at theferrett@theferrett.com, and I may use your idea in a future article. Or if you think you have a better patch, sound off in the forums!

NOTE: "Hey!" you think. "Future Sight was this weekend! Where's my 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 I am especially not going to spoil myself when the whole set involves crazy future mechanics. And so I must save it for later.

Incidentally, if the winners of the previous two Planar Chaos contests—fun and power—could contact me privately, I lost their address in my second laptop crash. Yes, my hard drives have been horrendously glitchy lately. But I have a set of four Pongifies and a Wild Pair just waiting for you, if only you'll forgive me....

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