The bystander effect is a fascinating and horrifying psychological phenomenon. The bystander effect, or ‘bystander apathy’, is an effect where people are far less likely to offer help to an individual when others are nearby. In crowds and groups, responsibility is diffused across the group; this leads to each individual feeling like someone else is going to offer help or offer better help. The bystander effect can be especially threatening when someone is in danger.
Fortunately, you can beat the bystander effect. Providing information about why you need help works to mitigate the effect. You can also call people out directly – “You call 911. You go get a first aid kit!” Remember this in case of an emergency. Also, the bystander effect is greatly reduced during actual emergencies. Humans identify emergencies quickly and tend to act even with bystanders around, although this is usually in the case where the emergency affects more than one a single person.
Uses in Magic
The bystander effect is dangerous in real life, but in an EDH pod, it can be useful. When something is threatening to the table – but not overwhelmingly – the whole table usually assumes that someone else will take care of the problem.
Jane plays a threat. Johnny thinks that it will hurt Timmy more so Timmy’ll take care of it, but Timmy thinks the card hurts Johnny more and that he’ll take care of it. The result is that the threat survives for much longer than it should have, and Jane gained an advantage in the process.
In multiplayer games (not just EDH – 60-card and boardgames too) the bystander effect ruins threat assessment. This can easily lead to a situation like this:
Bob is playing Selesnya, where he’s known to run plenty of Disenchant effects; everyone assumes that he’ll take care of the Akroma’s Memorial, and they destroy other artifacts and enchantments. But this time, Bob doesn’t have enchantment removal ready (or in the deck). The Memorial runs rampant.
The diffusion of responsibility enables players to advance their board. You can push your strategy with reasonable threats and keep your board intact; as long as players are impacted, the bystander effect will protect your board. Everyone thinks another player is going to deal with your threat. Everyone. This usually lets your threat keep living and doing its thing. However, if you make an emergency situation for the table, it will force people to act. This is also why EDH players espouse the “second best” strategy; they are trying to use the bystander effect for their gain.
But you don’t need to be the second best. You can be in the best position, and still avoid being targeted by being less threatening to each individual player.
How does Vial Smasher the Fierce fit into this discussion? Her effect is random. This is a massive advantage that was grossly underrated when previews happened. I thought her effect was just “nice to have” – I seriously underestimated her game impact. I should have spent half an article convincing people that she was the best partner available – “There is always something worse on the table.” Or “Her random damage doesn’t target so your opponents don’t feel targeted – Sorry Timmy, you take four damage this turn!
Then Timmy never blames you! You Lighting Blast-ed an opponent, who then just shrugs off the damage because of a die roll. It’s amazing!”
Vial Smasher the Fierce is always threatening, but she is never terrifying. The random damage convinces most players that they can handle the little bit of damage that comes their way. She just sits on the table and provides incremental advantage all game long. It is becoming increasingly popular to partner her with Kydele, Chosen of Kruphix for a tutor-filled combo deck that abuses Wheel of Fortune and friends to cast Eldrazi, or untap effects to Fireball the whole table. In this deck, Vial Smasher is not the problem. She adds some value, but the combo and Kydele are the scary parts. With everyone focused on the big scary pieces, Vial Smasher lives for more turns than she should and gives the deck more reach than anticipated.
The big reason that Vial Smasher the Fierce lives is because she only may hurt an opponent – she isn’t guaranteed to damage any particular opponent. Meanwhile, that Avenger of Zendikar or Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger is definitely going to hurt. You can predict the attack coming for you, bur Vial Smasher is just going throw some vials at people. Your opponents will hope that the damage goes somewhere else.
Besides, she’s only a 2/3 creature, and she can be dealt with at any time. Why should you do the work to remove her?
Taking Advantage of Vial Smasher and Bystander Effect
When Vial Smasher is partnered, the other commander is assuredly viewed as more threatening. If she is alone, the other opposing decks are more threatening. Here is my solo Vial Smasher the Fierce list.
1 Vial Smasher the Fierce
1 Blood Crypt
1 Dragonskull Summit
1 Command Tower
1 Molten Slagheap
1 Reliquary Tower
1 Shadowblood Ridge
1 Smoldering Marsh
1 Sulfurous Springs
1 Tainted Peak
1 Temple of the False God
1 Terrain Generator
1 Coldsteel Heart
1 Commander’s Sphere
1 Darksteel Ingot
1 Dreamstone Hedron
1 Everflowing Chalice
1 Fellwar Stone
1 Gilded Lotus
1 Hedron Archive
1 Mind Stone
1 Prismatic Lens
1 Pyromancer’s Goggles
1 Rakdos Signet
1 Sol Ring
1 Veinfire Borderpost
1 Wayfarer’s Bauble
There is a lot of potential damage in this deck, but it always looks like it is behind. Usually the only creature out is Vial Smasher. Sometimes, I get lucky and can keep Bitterblossom for some faerie support. This is beneficial, even if it seems like a weakness. Everything the deck does is powerful, but not really scary to the table. Playing this, you get to be aggressive without attracting anyone’s ire. A Rakdos’s Return against the person who has the most cards when you have Vial Smasher out does one of two things; the targeted person gets blasted for double the damage plus two, or two opponents take a beating and only one was targeted by you.
Vial Smasher uses the bystander effect to mess with threat assessment. How do you predict or evaluate a random effect? It is much more difficult. Since it impacts everyone, each opponent expects someone else to act. The responsibility gets diffused and no one takes the necessary action. This leaves you free to continue advancing your game plan. Whenever you can, take advantage of the opportunities your opponents provide. The bystander effect is one example. But any lapse in threat assessment is a gain for you.
Do you find the bystander effect in your games? How do you take advantage of it? And what are your thoughts on Vial Smasher?