I first came across this idea in my Psychology Seminar course in college. I was reading Our Inner Ape by Frans de Waal, a primatologist who focuses on chimps and bonobos; he discussed how strength can damage the ability to form alliances with those who are weaker. Many in the class struggled with this concept. They continually thought about how allying with the strong protects you. It does – when you are not playing to win. But it makes you a lackey, second in command, or an advisor. Not great. Not glorious. Not best for survival where you want the best choice of mates.
I looked at this through a gaming lens, and it made perfect sense! In a Magic game, I don’t ally with the stronger player, I ally with a weaker player to gang up on the big bad monster. You can always find the player who will argue “I won’t Bojuka Bog you if you don’t attack me next turn.” Kill them with fire. Maybe IRL… just saying- they’re bad people.
But the alliances that work are ones of mutual benefit.
This is a Game
The first thing to understand about an alliance, and something few people seem to remember in my experience, is that you are not political allies. The game exists until it ends – there is no “tomorrow” for the game. What I mean is that you need to eliminate everyone you see at the table. They know this, and need to eliminate you. Any alliance is merely a stalling action until you strike at each other.
The temporal nature of this alliance is what makes strength a liability. Alliances are formed to combat positions of strength. According to de Waal, strength is weakness (title drop!)
How can we apply this to EDH more? Easy! For the chimps, one in the position of strength has everything to lose. There is an example using the alpha Luit and Yoren. Yoren is an old chimp – he can’t challenge Luit. This puts him at the bottom of the barrel for seeking mates. But Yoren can get a younger chimp to take on Luit. Now, the new chimp owes Yoren. He gets to be the power behind the throne (so to speak); he gets choice mates because of his alliance AND the new chimp needs him to keep others from challenging for dominance.
In EDH games, you see this situation crop up more often than you think. We aren’t playing for mates (unless your group rolls that way- just keep it all consensual) but we are playing for wins. I’ll use my group for clarification- Anthony has a Daxos the Returned with a lot of enchantment control bordering on prison style; I’m playing Mizzix of the Izmagnus big spells style, Buro is playing Prossh, Skyraider of Kher and Pete is playing Oloro, Ageless Ascetic. Anthony is controlling the game. I have no shot of winning as long he is around; hexproof and tokens mess up my gameplan of killing with big X spells. Pete doesn’t care. Buro can remove the hexproof too. I can try to convince Buro that removing Leyline of Sanctity is in his best interest as I can remove Anthony; then we can gang up on Pete and then it is just the two of us.
Other scenarios in EDH have someone keeping a Bloodfire Colossus with the red mana up to wipe out someone’s life and/or board. Sure, you can combat them- but you will lose. Or you can work with them (and hope to find an answer *cough* Sudden Spoiling *cough*).
Types of Alliances
In general there are a handful of alliances:
- Ally for Advantage
- Ally with Someone You Can Beat Later
- Ally in the Face of Danger (see the Coalition from Invasion stuff)
- Ally for the Giggles
I’m going to jump around in order for this breakdown.
Ally for the Giggles- Don’t do this! Do not be that person who decides Mrs. White should win today or decide that Colonel Mustard should lose every game this evening. DO NOT BE THIS PERSON!
Included in this category are couple who ally all the time. Cool- I came to play EDH, not modified Two Headed Giant. Play how you want- but at least let us know you will never attack your girlfriend even when she is obliterating everyone at the table. There is a special place in hell for couples who turn FFA games into alliances no one else was aware of.
Ally for Advantage- If i’m playing Ghoulcaller Gisa and can’t touch enchantments, I probably want to buddy up with the W/G player who likely has some Disenchant effect or tow (or 3 or 6) in the deck. This alliance is the closest to a political alliance- “I’ve got your back, buddy. At least until it becomes a duel- then I’m going for your jugular.”
Ally with Someone You Can Beat Later- Sure, you can come across lots of situations where you want to ally for a reason. But to help take down someone in a position of power, you don’t want to ally with someone who doesn’t need you. They will beat you! Instead, ally with someone you think you can beat. Heck, you don’t even need to be able to beat them right now- but if your deck eats tokens for breakfast and you’re allying with the Hazezon Tamar deck- good job!
Ally in the Face of Danger- Sometimes we play archenemy. There are games where the Nin, the Pain Artist player drops Sol Ring, Mana Crypt, Izzet Signet, and Nin herself. And then draws a boatload of cards the next turn and no one catches up.
ALLY! When someone has a huge advantage you need to ally like the forces of Mordor are marching from the black gate.
So, what is the take away? Obviously be careful when forming alliances. Particularly about the people you ally with. You only ever ally with someone stronger than you when desperate (like when stopping Sauron) because your bigger “friend” still needs to eliminate you. Don’t carry alliances longer than necessary and do not carry them from game to game- trust me; you do not want a game beginning with three weeks of machinations when you sit down with a brand new deck and get crushed from nowhere because a player is still mad that you betrayed them two weeks ago in a failed gambit to win.
Another thing to remember is that if you are in a position of power, you have a greatly diminished ability to form alliances. Frans de Waal mentions a situation where political enemies joined forces because the U.S. stopped any real concession making. Learn from real life! If you are in a position of power and threatening everyone, everyone will band together. If you’re Superman and combatting a Zod, others will join you. If you’re Zod against Batman, Green Arrow, and Black Canary- no one is on your side.
Am I on the right page? A good page? The wrong page? The wrong book? Let me know what you think in the comments or the twitters.
Gunner for the Good Ship GDC
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de Waal, Frans. (2005). Our Inner Ape: A leading primatologist explains why we are who we are.
New York, NY: Penguin Group.