Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published on January 5, 2015. We’re flashing back to some of our best from the past several years every Friday, because what’s old is new again. It’s always worth thinking about how to “play your opponents,” even if you happen to believe that “all politics is really just managing and distorting threat assessment.” So what do you think?
Have you ever met a person who wins most of their Commander games? And by ‘most’, I mean they win more than 50% of their games, despite playing at four-person tables, where, given a roughly even distribution of wins among participants they should only win around 25% of the time. Some people chalk this kind of win ratio up to having a more complete collection or having built technically superior decks with stronger win mechanisms. Or, more likely, they’re actually just a blowhard and don’t really win 50% of their games. Perhaps they count “wins” in terms of their personal body count instead of as “technical victories” (which is being the last player standing). Some people even count kingmaking as winning, but there’s no accounting for another’s ambitions.
But, okay, some people DO win most of their games, and they don’t necessarily have superior collections or unflinchingly use ungentlemanly tactics and stratagems. Rather, these players not only know how to play Magic, but also know how to play their opponents.
What I’m getting at is table politics. Strong Commander players understand why players make the decisions they do, and subtly push their opponents into damaging others and not themselves. Damage is not limited to combat damage, but includes the use of removal, or otherwise expending resources. There is an art to crafting a position of perceived inferiority. It’s not just playing nothing or gauchely pointing at another player saying “get ‘em”. So, how do politics in Commander work? What might make a card political, instead of just being a card?
Why Are You Attacking Me?
To understand how you would alter another person’s decisions, you must first understand a typical Commander player’s default position in detail. Players want to win, so that means everyone at the table is an enemy, but people prioritize those whom they deem to be the greatest threat against their victory. We all call it threat assessment, and there has been digital gallons of internet ink spilled over it, but it’s still difficult to pin down. Part of it is board position, but there are other layers, like what colours a player is playing, how many cards they’ve drawn, and how many they are still holding.
Further, assessing a threat is still more complex than in-game factors. At my dining room table, I am frequently attacked (especially by my wife) because I am perceived to win a lot of the games, even if I do not have a particularly great board position. Couple this with players trying to obfuscate, verbally or otherwise, their objective potential to win the game. Suffice to say even Commander veterans are not extremely accurate threat assessors.
There is another layer of complexity on who gets the bad end of an attack or damage. The basic core of it is opportunity cost. You’ve probably experienced it when it’s the start of the game, and someone with an early creature attacks each player in rotation that’s not capable of effectively blocking–something like a Nezumi Graverobber, or perhaps Shadowmage Infiltrator. If you ask them about it, they might say “Well, you’re open.”
It’s not that they see you as a primary threat. It’s that they can get away with it, and you (probably) won’t hold a grudge for a couple of damage. This sort of behaviour extends beyond the early game as well; if you’re open for an attack, you might be the victim of a Sun Titan or a Grave Titan, because that kind of value is hard to pass up for no good reason. The idea is that it doesn’t cost the attacker anything in the short term (such as needing a blocker, or losing creatures to unfavourable blocks), but it does put you closer to losing the game (and thus, them winning the game).
An extreme example might be a tribal Snakes Seshiro the Anointed player who will swing at the player least able to defend themselves in order to muster resources for more dangerous players. Ultimately, making attacks with a low opportunity cost is about efficiency for them and stretching your resources that tiny bit more.
Finally, a player might opt not to dish out any damage to someone they perceive to be an ally, even if there is little or no other opportunity cost to do so. Once a single player has become a clear and overwhelming threat, it behooves you to leave players with unexpended resources alive. After all, their life totals are a resource to you if a table is polarized against a single player, as is removal and damage they have in potential.
So, we know that players are motivated to prioritize targets based on some combination of how close they are to winning the game, the efficiency of how their resources are spent, and how the potential victim might spend their future resources. One part of my view on what makes a political card is one that provides opponents with a meaningful choice that they were not presented with before. What do I mean by a meaningful choice? I mean that the choice isn’t like the one Diabolic Edict furnishes, where you’re always worse off no matter how you choose (and you are, in fact, forced to choose). Additionally, I don’t include cards that essentially ask for ‘your money or your life’, like Choice of Damnations, which is more of a skill testing question. To discover what I’m talking about, let’s take a look at a few of the cards across Wizards’ Commander products that were intended to be explicitly intended to be political.
The Join Forces cards from the original Commander set printed in 2011 have often been derided as not especially political. Shared Trauma has the dubious honour of offering other players an opportunity to pay into your game plan. Alliance of Arms is most frequently used to make a victim of other players with a follow-up Massacre Wurm. Minds Aglow and Collective Voyage most often make the player whose turn it is next win the game. These are not political; the choice isn’t meaningful. If you’re the player to the left of someone casting Minds Aglow or Collective Voyage you pay into it. If you aren’t, you don’t. If someone plays Shared Trauma and you’re able to exploit it, you’d pay into it, otherwise, you wouldn’t. These are non-decisions; they are very simple binary all-or-nothing opportunities, and they aren’t especially interesting.
The only card from this cycle that I consider political is Mana-Charged Dragon. Mana-Charged Dragon allows players to decide how much (if at all) they want to use potentially idle resources to hurt another player. Got a player who looks like they might win? Mana-Charged Dragon will take your relatively low-opportunity cost resources and make use of them. Not feeling it? No one is twisting your arm to pay in; maybe the Dragon’s controller should choose better next time.
This decision is meaningful because it’s provides an avenue to create damage at a low opportunity cost, and is granular; you don’t have to spend all your mana doing it (but it might be fun if you do). The only string attached here is that it’s the controller of Mana-Charged Dragon who picks the targets; they’re always in the driver’s seat and the capacity to spend resources to damage a particular player is entirely at their discretion.
Let’s check out the Vow cycle. The Vows (and Snowblind from Ice Age, incidentally) are essentially a way of saying ‘not it, called it!’ This is not, in itself exciting or political; in a naive sense, they actually reduce the options in existing meaningful decisions (i.e. the controller of the vow-ed creature can attack one less person). Rather, the Vows create a scenario in which your opponents can only damage people who aren’t you, encouraging them to do so by making their attacking creature safer. Vow of Malice, Vow of Flight, and Vow of Wildness all allow a player to do damage to others that they may not have been able to before, due to evasion or through increased capacity in combat. Vow of Lightning does the same, just less so because it can still be chump blocked. Each of these provides a greater opportunity to damage opponents, but a narrower range of people they can do it to.
The oft-maligned Vow of Duty – my favourite of the cycle – allows players to make attacks with a lower opportunity cost, because the creature can still block or use activated abilities involving tapping. In a game where you might take lumps because you’re open, Vow of Duty allows an opponent to leverage their resources (with a creature that is harder to kill in combat) without making themselves a potential victim at the same time (because, Vigilance).
One aspect of political cards is that they enable players to leverage their resources to do damage to their perceived enemies, with a few strings attached. Mana-Charged Dragon and the Vow cycle provide a vehicle for players to make meaningful decisions about harming other players. Political cards are not merely about leveraging opponent’s resources in a direction that you are interested in (or at least, at someone other than you), or cards like Ray of Command would fall in that category. Like all really complicated things, I couldn’t really sum up the entirety of what makes a political card in a single article (or, perhaps, many articles).
So, you understand Commander politics? This was already all old hat to you? We’ve solved all the problems here and can go on and expertly destroy tables of our own! Well, not quite. This is just the tip of the iceberg. There are a lot of ways you can handle a table and play your cards. Next time, we’ll talk about a different kind of dilemma, incentive programs and free stuff. And cards, because that’s what we do.