It’s all well and good to understand how players’ identify threats. But do you have any chance to influence that process?
Welcome back to politics in Commander. If you’re new to GDC, or missed my last post, check it out here.

Last time, I hashed out some of the factors that contribute to players prioritizing each other as threats in Commander, and it basically came down to how threatened a player feels and how much it will cost them to blacken their neighbour’s eye. We also talked about some characteristics that make cards political, including that they offer meaningful choices, about the Join Forces cycle and the Vow cycle from the original Commander 2011 set, and about whether these cards were political or not.

This time, we’ll talk about other kinds of decisions players might be confronted with, free resources, and about the cards that change player’s priorities, because we’re still talking about Magic.

Decisions, decisions…

Last time, we saw that many of the Join Forces cards offer non-decisions; they are inelegant, binary choices whose correct use should be fairly obvious depending on your seating order, the kind of deck you’re playing, or whether some dork is playing Minds Aglow in their Nekusar, the Mindrazer deck. In contrast, Mana-Charged Dragon allowed players to use renewable, low-opportunity-cost resources to deal significant and cumulative damage to a player, so long as that player was chosen by the Dragon’s controller.

These kinds of decisions are pretty simple. They have an answer, and it’s pretty easy to find. Thankfully, not all decisions are quite so easy (read: boring). A common “hard” decision in game theory is the Prisoner’s Dilemma. A Prisoner’s Dilemma is where two or more players are given the symmetric opportunity to betray their fellows for profit (or not) or to do nothing. The catch is that if all parties to the dilemma betray each other, the result is worse than if all did nothing.

Tempt with Vengeance is probably the Magic card with the clearest example of this. A player to the left of the Tempt player could opt to get tokens with the idea that they could trade their tokens against the Tempt player’s attack, and be no worse off than before. The other players? They can get hit with double the tokens for all we care.

If you choose to reject the free tokens, you’re that much more open when your fellows betray you. Unfortunately, when all players have this mindset, the Tempt player has a ton of 1/1 tokens with haste, and each non-Tempt-casting individual is much worse off than if none had taken the free tokens in the first place. Almost universally, players take the tokens, even though they could suffer much less if they didn’t.

There are no good solutions to prisoners dilemmas. To put things in perspective, another card representing the prisoner’s dilemma is Bitter Feud, from Commander 2014. In short terms, the caster chooses two players to deal double damage against each other. At a table where everyone regards each other as equally important opponents, the players affected by Bitter Feud might immediately see each other as highly threatening. They are presented with the same dilemma of options. They can:

  • attack the Feud caster, hoping their Feud partner will do the same, and if successful they will be rid of the swingy dangerousness of Bitter Feud;
  • or betray the Feud partner and be the first to destroy their enemy (and maybe suffer the same if they fail).

The answer isn’t easy; if you attack the Feud caster, you might be quickly eliminated by your Feud partner. If you attack your Feud partner, you’ll have lost resources and perhaps suffered losses of your own, all at the Feud caster’s behest.

If You Hit Him, Candy Will Come Out

The quickest ways I’ve seen people turn on player are when there are significant incentives involved. I’ve been knocked out of a game for having Curse of Stalked Prey played on me. It’s not that I was the biggest threat, or was closer to winning, or that people felt I might eliminate them. It’s because there was a good reason to attack me. Their creatures would get bigger (and better everyone else’s!) if they did.

Initially, I was rather salty that the Kresh player had knocked me out of the game for one card and two mana, and that it felt as though I had been conspired against. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was a little thing that made me the preferred target of opportunity, and I had simply not been able to create an environment where attacking me was less preferable than attacking anyone else.

The opposite, disincentives, everyone has played with before: tax cards like Propaganda, potential blockers with deathtouch, and blockers in general all make it so people are less likely to want to attack you. All these things tie into opportunity cost; if you have cards you want to play, you can’t also pay into Propaganda. If you have creatures that can do damage to some other player instead of being blocked (or worse, killed), it’s acceptable to do damage elsewhere. It’s all about efficient use of resources.

It’s worth noting that blanket ‘anybody but me’ incentives won’t necessarily work, because players can perceive non-opponent specific incentives as a threat. Take Gahiji, Honored One. You could attack the Gahiji player, but you could do much more damage to someone else. However, it’s worth noting that other people (using the same logic) may be more disposed to attack you. This creates a weird sort of tension: you might end up attacking the Gahiji player anyway, because they are actively providing a reason to attack you (even if they are doing the same for everyone else at the table).

The Worst Things in Life Are Also Free

Free resources are often derided as tools of kingmakers and trolls, but they do truly have a place in the spectrum of political cards, and can alter player priorities, perhaps most subtly of all. The first question is, “Why play with free stuff at all?” The usual answer is that cards that give others free resources are mana- efficient; there is more effect per mana and card than would otherwise be possible. Phelddagrif? Many, many hippo tokens, cards, and/or life.

Hunted Dragon? That’s twelve power worth of creatures for five mana. Granted, it’s not all yours, but that’s how it’s efficient. The most important aspect of playing with the these ‘freebie’ cards is what you expect to happen after you give away those hippo tokens. Where a gift is an expression of trust and affection in real life, in Commander, it’s putting a weapon in the hand of someone who does not have your best interests at heart.

That said, when you spawn a herd of hippos for an opponent with a Phelddagrif, you’re basically giving them free reign to do whatever they want with it, and you can’t really complain when it bites you in the ass. The ‘gift’ cards in Commander 2014 are the Offering cycle. Most of these cards offer very little in terms of providing a meaningful choice for the other players who share in the bargain. In fact, they encourage the caster to target players who will get the least possible benefit (such as choosing a player with no creatures for the life gain portion of Benevolent Offering).

But, check out Sylvan Offering. There’s some real subtlety going on in that card. Let’s say you choose player A to receive a pile of 1/1 elves and Player B to get a huge treefolk. Player C gets left out in the cold, and we all have a merry laugh about it; naively, we can say that Player C got nothing when everyone else got something. But there’s a highly political aspect to this. In this scenario Player B can only reasonably attack Player C with the huge treefolk, because you and Player A have chump blockers that will last until the next board wipe. It is less that Player C didn’t get anything, and more that he’s the player most likely to be attacked by the Treefolk spawned by Sylvan Offering.

Some free stuff is better than other free stuff. There is a hierarchy of free stuff, if you will. At the top of the list of free stuff you’ll want to give away are the effects of cards like Volcanic Offering. Volcanic Offering’s free stuff is the pinnacle, because it is almost impossible for anyone to hurt the caster with it. It also might have less of an impact than something like Sylvan Offering, but that’s the price of narrow gifts. Cards like Sylvan Offering are in the middle, because their effects could backfire if thing don’t go as you anticipate.

The very bottom of the free stuff hierarchy is card draw from something like Intellectual Offering. Why is giving away free drawn cards bad? Those cards represent the aspect of the game that you have the least control over. Look at Volcanic Offering again: When you cast it, targets must be announced as it is being cast. All the options for what could get destroyed are all on the table, and your partner in crime cannot (except in very, very bizarre circumstances) leverage your gift against you. What can an unknown card in your opponent’s hand do? Well, that’s just it, you don’t know.

What’s next?

Overwhelmed? Underwhelmed? Whelming Waved? We’ve talked a lot about the theory of how other players might act at Commander table, and in theory, players are purely rational actors. Next time, we’ll talk about a little bit more theory in the form of player information, and a lot about player psychology.