Serious_Fun

The Ferrett takes a look at one of Time Spiral’s new keywords. Can suspend do the trick in multiplayer?

The Suspend is Killing Me

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The letter A! few weeks ago, I got this email from Scott Johns, editor-in-chief of magicthegathering.com:

Hey Ferrett,

As you know, magicthegathering.com has “Theme weeks.” You are on deck to write about the Suspend mechanic on October 17th. Make it good.

Sincerely,
Scott Johns

And I wrote this back:

Oh Editor, My Editor,

Here’s my article for October 17th:

This is a suspended article. You know it’s coming, but the article itself will arrive on November 6th. We thank you for your patience.

Seriously, though, I’ll take the Suspend mechanic for a spin around my multiplayer group… But what if it doesn’t work? Can I actually say, “Wow, this mechanic isn’t very good in group play” on the official Magic site during a Magic theme week?

Sincerely,
That Ferrett Boy

Because frankly, suspend made me worry. Generally, multiplayer works best if you can surprise your opponent – you have to hit him where he’s not looking. But my gut instincts said that whatever sort of mana costs you saved on the suspend cost would be eaten alive by the fact that your opponents could not help but see it coming.

I imagined Winston Churchill calling up Adolph Hitler. “Just an FYI,” he’d say. “In about a week, on June 6th, I am going to completely swamp the beaches of Normandy with an overwhelming attack. We’re sending in everyone by boat, tens of thousands of men. It’s gonna be awe-inspiring.”

“Wow,” Hitler says, as he gestures to his generals to get more soldiers to the beaches. “So why are you telling me this now?”

“I’m suspending it!” Churchill says happily. “D-Day on the stack, baby! Winston out.”

Thus, it was with trepidation that I awaited Scott’s email. What if I had to lie to you, gentle readers? I would not be able to sleep at night. Fortunately, Scott’s reply sprang back like an arrow from a saproling bow.

Silly Rodent,

Do what you can and see where it takes you. We’re not a big heartless corporation, and just because it's on mtg.com doesn't mean it has to be a puff piece for the latest set. Give it your best shot, and tell us what you feel. This column is about having fun. If suspend is fun in multiplayer, that's important. If it isn't, that's important too. :)

Sincerely,
Scott

P.S. – Mark Rosewater already tried that “suspended article” joke. I wouldn’t let him do it, either.

And I breathed a sigh of relief. I was terrified that I might have to quit Wizards due to oppressive editorial censorship…. But now I know that in future columns, I can easily write about ______________, ___________________________, _____________, and especially the time that ________________ _______________ed on the photocopy machine at Wizards headquarters.

With my mind freed, I started to think about the suspend mechanic with regards to multiplayer. Anthony Alongi had a way of rating a multiplayer card that he called the “Rattlesnake Factor” – there were cards so incredibly dangerous that they’d get people thinking, “Wow, I really don’t want to have that happen to me.” And after they looked around the table, they’d see that there were easier targets out there, and they’d go bother someone else.

StampedeUnfortunately, suspend cards have a kind of reverse Rattlesnake effect – they’re like a big cattle call for everyone to come stomp your face before they take effect. If you die before a suspend spell goes off, they don’t have to worry about it resolving. Thus, any multiplayer deck design needs to compensate for that lack of surprise by providing either surprise or disruption.

In the end, I came up with two ways to do it:

  • Make it matter. This was the simplest one: Suspend everything, and then blow up the world before it can arrive. There are plenty of “Remove lands from the game” cards, and if any of them resolve the turn before your suspended guys come back, you’ll be left with an undercosted dude that will hopefully take a few folks down with it before they recover.
  • Pay the man, Clarice. You could also make all spells more expensive, turning the suspend price into the only one that people can reasonably afford.

Let’s look at the last strategy first:

A Blast From The Past: Sphere Theory

A classic deck in the Vintage format is called “Stax” (or sometimes “UbaStax”), which uses two key cards – Trinisphere and Sphere of Resistance – to make all other spells really expensive to cast, then uses the ludicrously-overpowered Mishra’s Workshop to give you the mana to force things through. (It also adds the nasty Smokestack to force your opponent to sacrifice permanents, Tangle Wire to lock them down, and Crucible of Worlds to make your own lands replayable after a sacrifice.)

Now, Smokestack is an incredibly potent card in multiplayer, and I’ve seen some very nasty decks utilizing it. But if you have the cards to play Stax in multiplayer, you’re probably not only a lot richer than I am, but you also don’t need a new multiplayer deck.

On the other hand, what we can do is use the more affordable old, broken cards to create a deck that makes it a lot harder for your opponents to cast stuff. Sphere of Resistance makes every spell cost one more mana to play, which is surprisingly backbreaking in a format where most people are playing too little mana to begin with… But the good news is that suspend costs aren’t affected by the Sphere, because you’re not playing a spell….

…yet.

Suspending a card isn’t playing a spell. Unfortunately, when the last counter comes off a Suspend card, that is playing a spell, and you’ll have to pay any extra costs associated with it. Which means that if you have two Spheres of Resistance out, that Greater Gargadon will now cost you two colorless mana when it drops into play.

Oh, what a shame! Especially when your opponents are locked out of their high-end spells! Especially when they kept a hand that seemed a little mana-light and discovered that OMG, EVERYTHING COSTS TWICE AS MUCH!

Thus, you could try a Tinker- and Tangle-based build like this:

The deck’s name involves “Squeeze” not just because it squeezes the opponents out, but because after the whole “make things harder for people to cast and beat with suspend” theme, I can’t squeeze anything else in! This deck needs some Wrath of God effects and some pinpoint removal and some counterspells, but where do you pack it in?

But that’s Vintage for you. When every card is über-powerful, you start wanting for space.

In any case, this still-overexpensive deck is pretty simple: You go for the throat with a bunch of early-game acceleration, either by Tinkering for an early one-of Darksteel Colossus if you feel like it (and who doesn’t feel like it?) or by dropping a bunch of suspended critters and then throwing out Spheres while everyone’s still trying to readjust their mana curves. Tangle Wires will slow all your opponents down, and don’t forget to use the trick of stacking the upkeep trigger: you can remove the counter from the Wire first, then tap permanents, allowing you to tap effectively one less than everyone else (and two less, if you count tapping the Tangle Wire to its own effect). Alas, you can’t tap the suspended critters!

(You can, however, allow the suspended spells to resolve first, tap mana to pay for them, and then tap to pay any costs for the Tangle Wires. You’ll almost certainly be tapped out after that, of course, but at least your spell will resolve.)

Alternatively, you could go blue/red and try for the über-cool Wildfire decks that all the kids are talking about these days, and add in that neat-o Wheel of Fate.

I’ll be honest and say that I played this deck all of once. I mulliganed down to six, and still managed to cast three Tangle Wires and a Sphere to annoy my entire table before dying because I could not draw a creature to save my life. This is a powerful deck, but not a particularly fun one to play against; with elbow-dropping moves like this, you’re either going to win in a walk or you will lose first as everyone limps over to kill you so they can cast spells in peace.

Feeling guilty, I nerfed the theme on the spot to throw together a friendlier version of the deck out of the spare blue cards I had handy:

You know what this deck really needs? Wrath of God. Alas, the Wraths were in my binders somewhere, and I was already proxying enough cards in this deck to feel guilty about what was going on elsewhere. (It also really needed me to take out the Darksteel Colossus, which I forgot to do. Oops.)

This deck performed pretty decently, harnessing the power of suspend to effect, controlling the board with Propaganda and such until the time came to start smashing face. It had a huge Wrath of God–sized hole in its strategy in that once a creature hit the table I could do precious little about it aside from “steal it,” but if you’ve never seen the power of Reins of Power at work, then you haven’t played blue in multiplayer to its fullest.

I came this close to making this play:

“In response to the last counter going off my Errant Ephemeron, I will Reins of Power to take that army of untargetable Slivers you have built up over there. Oh, they’re mine now! And you have nothing, because I had no creatures! As my hasted Ephemeron hits the board, I’ll fly over to smack you in the face for fifteen and kill you.”

Unfortunately, someone killed Vrax the turn before I got to pull that off. (I did, however, steal an army of 6/6 Relentless Rats to turn them against their controller, which was both entertaining and cinematic. “Noooo! I gave you life! You cannot – aagh!”)

Fun Fact: It’s a cheap psychological trick, but if you put your suspended creatures in the place where your creatures would normally go, sometimes people will look at the suspended cards and go, “Oh, he’s got something to block me.” Then they’ll move on. I saw it happen, and it never ceased to make me giggle quietly to myself.

Ah, but how did the suspend cards do? Well, Deep-Sea Kraken (despite being the clear favorite among you fine folks as judging from last week’s contest) was decent, but not quite as good as advertised; at a four-player game, he usually came down on turn 3 and hit on turn 5 – by which time he was still formidable, but not overwhelming. Then, too, there was the problem that it took four hits from a Deep-Sea Kraken to kill an unbloodied opponent, during which you may or may not have had any other defense in place.

I was certainly competitive. But the effectiveness of Deep-Sea Kraken depends heavily on how much your table fears a 6/6 mostly-vanilla creature that can’t protect itself. There are certainly games where it would dominate, but at my table (where Swords to Plowshares and Chainer’s Edicts run amuck), low-cost answers to big fat fatties are just a matter of course.

Would You Like To Play A Game?

And so I turned to the other option: surprising them with, as they said in War Games, “Thermonuclear War.” Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as it looks.

The card that springs to mind with such a strategy is Greater Gargadon, but it has the potential to create real Daffy Duck moments thanks to – once again – that mysterious beast we call priority. The ideal situation is that we cast some sort of red sorcery that destroys everything, and in response we sacrifice all of our lands and creatures, leaving but a single counter on the Gargadon so it comes into play the next turn.

(NOTE: If you sacrifice all of your lands and creatures to the Gargadon and it comes into play immediately, it will then die to the creature-killing sorcery that is still on the stack. That’s no good.)

But there is a hidden danger there. And that danger is this:

“I will Jokulhaups! And in response, I will sacrifice all of my lands and creatures! MWAH HAH HAH!”

“I counter your Jokulhaups.”

(Looks around despairingly at his now-empty playfield.)

Nothing like getting caught with your pants down. Problem is, that deuced priority makes it really, really hard to judge when to sacrifice everything, because priority works like this:

  • You cast a spell. You get first priority to respond to it.
  • If you pass priority – as in, you do nothing – priority then passes to the next opponent, and the next opponent in turn.
  • If all your remaining opponents pass priority, then the spell goes off immediately before you get priority to do anything else. Which means that if you pass priority and everyone else does, you get no chance to yoink some counters off of Mister Gargadon before Missus Jokulhaups arrives.

This puts you in an ugly bind: If your opponents do nothing, then you will have no ability to sacrifice in response to make the Gargadon come out sooner – but if you sacrifice immediately, then a timely Counterspell could completely undo your nefarious plans!

The trick, of course, is to have an uncounterable destruction spell, so you can sacrifice without fear. Can someone say…

Obliterate!

I tried out this deck in a six-way Chaos multiplayer game… And it worked almost like a dream (after they allowed me a nice free seven-card mulligan because they wanted to see how it worked). I put land after land into play, suspended the Gargadon, and Obliterated. My group is particularly Counterspell-happy, so this was a bone-breaking strategy. (If your guys don’t play Counterspells, the Obliterates are sub-par.)

The problem was that a 9/7, even as huge as it was, wasn’t enough to take out six players before they recovered.

The problem was that a 9/7, even as huge as it was, wasn’t enough to take out six players before they recovered. I bashed one guy down to two life before he got out a blocker. Then I unleashed my monstrous red guy at the blue mage.... But just as I got him down to two life, he laid his fourth Island and cast Control Magic to steal my mighty Gargadon. He hit me once, but I pointed out that if he hit me again he would kill me – and the mighty Gargadon would leave the game along with its owner. Since the blue mage was down to two life, he decided to keep me in the game, which would keep his freshly stolen 9/7 wall in the game, which would keep him safe. But since the Gargadon has no trample, a measly 1/1 stood in its way and barred the door in very ugly ways. I could smash, but I could not finish. (I did briefly consider adding Brawn to give it some graveyard oomph, and perhaps should have.)

The lesson here? Kill the blue mages the moment they’re caught with their pants down. If I’d spent my first three Gargadon-tastic turns bashing the blue mage, he would have died before he’d had the chance to steal my guy. Those stinking tricksters!

The other issue was that I’d put so much effort into getting that first Obliterate out that I could barely recover. Having played some more games with this (and winning a few of them), I can tell you that the key to this deck is the trusty Yavimaya Elder: if you don’t have the Elder (or a Suspended Search for Tomorrow), you’re going to be in a good post-Jokulhaups position for about three or four turns, and then lose it quickly. You need the Elder to die so that you can get those precious, precious lands and start your comeback stronger.

This deck’s surprisingly good in a blue-free group, since Counterspells alter the way you have to play it so much that it almost kills it – the difference between six mana and eight mana when you’re trying to bank land cards for a post-apocalyptic world is huge. But in a game where there’s not much to do in response to a Jokulhaups, this works….

Once.

The more serious problem with this deck is that it’s a one-trick pony. It can blow up your lands and follow up with a body blow – so I’d recommend it in a small group of three or four players – but when they know it’s coming, everyone will gang up to kill you before you go off. And good players play with a lot of one- or two-mana creature removal/neutralizing spells (as I mentioneded earlier), so if they bank a spell or two for just such an occasion, the Greater Gargadon may not be enough.

There was talk of improving the deck by adding Terravore, which is a consideration – it would have gone very well with the strategy. And the whole suspend mechanic was fun, even if it often left me defenseless – you can’t go with an all-suspend deck, or you’re just going to watch people sail past your waiting guys into your face.

But can it work? Sure. And so the integrity of magicthegathering.com is kept safe for another day. That said, if you’ve got a cool suspend deck that you think breaks the multiplayer format wide open…. Share in the forums! We all want to hear about it!

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