Sam Black's picture
By: Sam Black, Sam Black
Sep 16 2008 1:24pm
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For those who don't know me, I'm often called a "Pro Player" but I think of myself as an aspiring pro.  I'm a member of the US National Team this year, and I've played in 5 Pro Tours.  I won $20,000 at Worlds last year, and I've won a lot of other tournaments.  I expect a lot of readers to know some of that already.  I'd like to introduce myself as a casual player.

I've been playing Magic since 1994, before The Dark was released, when I was 11.  My first games were 4 player games, and I grew up with Magic existing largely as a multiplayer game.  I've always been interested in playing as well as I could, and I started playing in tournaments when I was 12, maybe even when I was still 11.  At the time, I thought I was very good, and it was just that I was a kid and couldn't afford good cards that was holding me back.  Now I think I was probably a little kid at the time.  Regardless, as I continued to play Magic, I still always loved casual and multiplayer formats.  I played 5 color for years, but my friends and I didn't like the format, so we always played Highlander.  I have a cube, and I've put a tremendous amount of time into looking over stacks of cards trying to figure out exactly what should be in, modifying it as I draft with it and tracking what cards people like and don't like.  I'm very proud of my cube.  I was one of the only people at Pro Tour San Diego who was delighted to be playing 2HG.  Multiplayer Magic Online is a guilty pleasure of mine, because I always feel like I should be working on a competitive format.


Even as a casual player, I always play to win.  I can't really understand the game other ways.  If someone isn't playing to win, to me, it throws off the game for people who are, and Magic is most fun when everyone understands the goal.  This article is going to explain how I approach Elder Dragon Highlander (EDH) as a multiplayer Free For All (FFA) format, and the reasoning for the choices I make when building a deck for that format, through the lens of my favorite and best EDH deck, Sygg, River Guide.

The deck is a combo deck that disguises itself as a bad aggro-control deck.  In multiplayer, aggro-control is a terrible strategy.  There are too many opponents and they have too much life for aggro to work, and control can't really happen because there's too much stuff going on.  I can play a lot of creatures, but they will inevitably die.  Everyone understands this.  When I play a Tideshaper Mystic on turn one and Sygg, River Guide on turn two, no one cares the plays I've made.  The only way anyone has any reason to kill my creatures is if I attack them.  When someone does nothing, everyone wonders what their plan is, and when someone accelerates, everyone wonders what they're accelerating to.  When I play bad creatures, everyone knows my game, and no one really cares.  The goal is to be written off as soon as possible.

Early creatures serve another function.  They give you a board presence.  Life totals matter very little, and the difference between attacking for one and three with a creature in a four player game when everyone starts at forty is relatively meaningless.  But people don't like to take damage, so they won't attack you if you have creatures, because they know that you'll attack back.  In this way, even evasive creatures can be held off by 1/1s that don't really do anything.  The creatures give you a powerful diplomatic tool.  You cannot attack, indicating that you don't want to pick a fight, or you can attack someone, indicating that you think that person is a threat and that they are your target so that other people are less afraid of you.  When you attack one opponent you make yourself useful to the other opponents.  For this reason, I like to attack decks that look like they have little spot removal when there are decks with a lot of spot removal, to make sure the people with a lot of spot removal don't get bored and start killing my guys.

Sygg himself is an ideal general.  I play him on turn two every game, and no one really cares to kill him because I can just play him again and he doesn't really matter to them.  Once he's in play he's difficult to kill if someone decides they want to for some reason, and me protects my other creatures.  This means people don't use their removal spells on me, which is important because it means they have them to use on other people.  I don't have to play as much removal because I can count on my opponents to trade with each other.  He serves another important, but somewhat counterintuitive function.  He eats two mana a turn.  I don't want to tap out when I have Sygg in play and people understand that.  This means I can develop more slowly or hold mana up for other things without causing any suspicion.  Developing slowly is important to avoid overextending into the inevitable Wrath effect.

The creatures I play are as follows:


These creatures serve all kinds of purposes.  In general, they're reactive, defensive cards that aren't threatening and keep me alive, they replace themselves or help me get through my library in some way, or they have powerful, game ending effects.

As for game ending effects, I've mentioned that the creatures are just a distraction, so what is the real win condition?  Well, you may have noticed that the (Revillark), Body Double, Mirror Entity combo is in the deck, and I have a lot of card draw to help set it up.  I also have Wanderwine Prophets, who I can protect with Sygg, who can realistically let me take infinite turns.  The real kill is in the following cards: Opposition, Tunnel Vision, Death or Glory, Mindslaver, Academy Ruins.

Opposition can easily lock one opponent and sometimes two or three out of the game.  Tunnel Vision is a powerful tutor that can find Mindslaver/Academy Ruins or find Death or Glory while putting about half of my creatures into the Graveyard.  Resolved Death or Glory will draw a lot of cards and give me something like many creatures backed by Voidmage Prodigy or Aphetto Grifter and (Glen_Elandra Archmage).  Often at the end of the game I can cast it and make one pile the Reveillark combo and the other pile every other creature.

Mindslaver is the best win condition in the format and I strongly believe it should be banned.  It doesn't really matter what's going on in a game, if you Mindslaver the person who's winning and you have Academy Ruins, it's very hard to lose, since you can recklessly attack the other players using the resources of whoever has the most.  Even without Academy Ruins, the effect is often completely game breaking.

Tunnel Vision has an alternate use as a player removal spell.  If someone clashes and puts something on the bottom, or if you Condemn or Spin into Myth someone, you can just kill them later.

The rest of the deck is: Condemn, Disrupt, Telepathy, Sensei's Divining Top, Skullclamp, Springleaf Drum, Dream Fracture, Sage's Dousing, Summon the School, Cryptic Command, Spin into Myth, Austere Command, and lands.

The only one for one spells in the deck are the completely unfair in the format Condemn and Spin into Myth, with Hinder existing as a reasonable card that I'm not playing at the moment that does something similar.

Some small number of counterspells is extremely important in protecting a winning play, but all the counters in this deck can be used earlier and will draw cards.

Summon the School is basically just another creature, but it helps enable the Wanderwine Prophets, Opposition, and Mirror Entity wins.

Telepathy is a card I added after laughing at someone who played it in a game I was in, and then realizing exactly what it did.  When it's in play you know everything that's going on.  You know who you need to worry about and when it's safe to try to win.  No one else has this information, because they don't know what you have.  This should make you the obvious threat, but it doesn't because people play very powerful cards in this format.  When everyone's tricks are exposed, inevitably someone's hand will make them extremely threatening.  It's easy for people to ignore your unknown hand.  They have more obvious threats to deal with.

Sensei's Divining Top and Skullclamp are upsettingly powerful cards that should probably be banned in the format, especially Sensei's Divining Top given how boring it is for everyone else in multiplayer.  They're in because of their power level, but the deck honestly might be better without them.  When you play them, people generally notice that you've done something that makes you a threat, and for that reason it's possible that these cards will lose you more games than they win you.  This is the reason I'm not played Umezawa's Jitte.  At the moment, I feel it's safe to play these as long as I don't cast them until someone else has done something even scarier.

Springleaf Drum is an awesome accelerator because it lets me justify not doing anything with a creature.

I'm playing 42 lands, and I think that number is on the low side.  I can "get away with it" because my cards cost very little and draw more cards.  In general, I think you never want to miss a land drop in this format, and playing more lands is almost always better than playing fewer.  Lands are also extremely powerful because people almost never play land destruction.  I'm running basic lands, dual lands, fetch lands, (Azorious Chancery), Calciform Pools, and the following lands with non mana producing abilities: (Mikikoro, Center of the Sea), Minamo, School at Water's Edge, Mishra's Factory, Mutavault, Riptide Laboratory, Shelldock Isle, which is a little ambitious, but it comes at very little cost, Thawing Glaciers, Tolaria West, Urza's Factory, Vesuva, and Windbrisk Heights.  I should possibly be playing Prahv, Spires of Order.

If you’re interested in this kind of treatment of EDH and you’d like to see more articles like this, please stop by the forums and send a link on to your friends, as both reader feedback and hits are likely to influence whether there are more articles like this.  Also, I’m always more than happy to answer any questions you might have about the article, so please ask in the forums, and you can expect a quick reply.  I sincerely hope I’ve been able to offer and interesting perspective on the format.

Thanks for Reading,

Sam Black




Needs more by walkerdog at Wed, 09/17/2008 - 20:00
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It was good, but I'd like to see more to it.  For example, a section of a game replay, some anecdotes, anything.  Just entertain me more :)  Otherwise, good stuff.

by Tarmotog at Thu, 09/18/2008 - 04:33
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Why don't u play Fact or Fiction, Gifts Ungiven, Merchant Scroll and Mystical Tutor? (or force of will?)
U can always gifts into a very powerful pile like:

breath of life, reveillark,body double, X
crucible of world, academy ruins, mindslaver, the land that returns dead lands (if you are insistent on getting the mindslaver lock)

I'm not very sure how it's like in multiplayer games but resolving a gifts ungiven is almost equal to a win in many cases in my opinion.

by runeliger at Thu, 09/18/2008 - 05:20
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All the commenters have a point, but most importantly, it was a balanced article.

by iceage4life at Thu, 09/18/2008 - 07:03
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Er CoW is banned tarmo.

by tempesteye at Wed, 09/17/2008 - 10:34
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I enjoyed the article. Very well written and your explanation of card choices and overall stratigy was very clear.
I know the title is"EDH for Tournament Players" but there was something in the article that I felt was incorrect. You say "Even as a casual player, I always play to win. I can't really understand the game other ways. If someone isn't playing to win, to me, it throws off the game for people who are, and Magic is most fun when everyone understands the goal." but I don't believe that's necessarily true.
People play Magic for different reasons (don't worry, I'm not going to get into the psychogenic R&D profiles) and winning, while it may factor into most players reasons, is not always the goal. And often time it is not even the primary goal. In fact, many of my most enjoyable games have been those where I knew the end result would be a loss for me because it ws the playing and interaction itself that was the most fun.
I think focusing on winning as the ultimate goal for tournament players is correct but for the majority of players it may not be the exclusive goal. I think that when Magic ceases to be fun that's when a player stops playing.

by Reaper9889 at Wed, 09/17/2008 - 12:28
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Ive played alot of EDH lately and got some suggestions if you are interrested. My strategy is to try to survive to the late game and then combo off (abit like you except that everybody I run into seames to have played me before so they try to take me out first ^^ - which might mean some of my suggestions aint true :/).

I would play ALL the blue/white Rav-block bounce lands. If you ever get to use them as accelration with Glacier you would be happy you incl them. If you ever need 1 more land you will be happy and so on. Their drawback is negliable in the format - I mean 1-2 mana in a turn out of 20 vs efficently playing 2 lands in 1 slot. That let me cheat something fierce on land count (36-37 - ok I do run quite abit of fetch instead but my curve(s) is/are way higher - 1 of the decks (the one with 37) needs 13 mana to really get going ^^).

Deserted Temple is pretty good too. Its acceleration with Glacier and colorfixing with bounce lands.

On a side note you are not playing white/blue artifact lands as a target for Trinket Mage?

Tithe is a pretty good land fetcher if you do need more lands.

If you want cheap defensive blue creatures nothing beats fatespinner (I havnt seen it atleast). Nearly everybody skips combat... :) For some wierd reasons it doesnt really generate any heat at all - I mean its not often the first thing to die after you play it, which is slightly wierd.

8½-tails is the best white cheap defensive creature (from my POW naturally) but it does generate a fearsome amount of heat.

Mystic Remora might be to scary but it does draw alot of cards for a relativ low investment (Compare it to mind's eye. It draws more cards per mana for the first 3-4 turns and you really do not need a mind's eye for longer anyway). On the other hand I would sooner take you out for having Mistmeadow witch then Remora - that might be just me tho.

Proteus Staff is pretty decent too - its abit like a multi use version of spin into myth - it naturally generate quite abit of "heat" tho but it does keep the fast generals off the table - remember its sorcery speed only tho :/

Sword of light and shadow is pretty good too. It doesnt do TOO much damage but gives you life (3 life is proberly better then a small blocker) and return a creature (which mean replacing the attacker) and ppl usually consider some of the other "super" equip better (clamp and jitte mainly) so it doesnt generate that much heat.

I would suggest Patron Wizard over Drowner of Secrets except it proberly generate far to much heat :/