Well hi there.
You know that feeling? You’ve been hammering on one player all game long, answering their threats, wiping their board, countering their spells. You just know they were the frontrunner. If things got out of hand with that player you simply had no way to get out from under their stranglehold and you were going to lose.
Then the player to his right drops a card and wins. It didn’t look like there was anything going on there. In fact he was down to 10 life and looked like he was dead to the world.
What just happened?
You were the victim of not properly assessing the threat level of all the players in the game. Don’t worry, it happens. With a format as diverse and unpredictable as Commander is, it’s impossible to be 100% at it and it’s actually part of the challenge, and therefore, part of the fun. Nonetheless, there are some things to keep in mind that will help you in your threat assessment and avoid situations like the above.
What is threat assessment?
It’s pretty simple: threat assessment is figuring out how much you are at risk from both the other players in the game and the cards they have in play or could play. A threat is something that will either win the game if not answered or prevents you from winning the game if not removed. A good threat assessment strategy is constantly updated for every other player in the game based on three things:
1) What they have in play
2) What they might play next
3) How that player wins the game
Evaluating Threats in Play
The first category is the easy one, since it relies on a game theory concept called “perfect information”. Games like Chess are perfect information games — you know everything your opponent does. The wrinkle is, of course, that in Magic, #2 and #3 make it anything but a perfect information game. Nonetheless, a proper appraisal of the information you do have available is really important. (An interesting twist in Commander is the extra “perfect information” you get by knowing their Commander card.)
This should be easy, right? You can, assuming perfect information about the rules of the game, figure out exactly what people’s cards do.
Of course, few of us have perfect information about the rules of the game, but that’s not the real hiccup here. The real problem is that many people don’t take the time to actually investigate what is going on with their opponents cards. Many people are lazy when it comes to reading and understanding cards they haven’t seen before, or are too preoccupied with their own strategy to bother. This is, of course, a mistake. On the one hand, you don’t want to slow the game to a crawl and pore over every card that hits the table, scrutinizing them for every possible interaction with that player’s other permanents. However, you should at least glance at the card and familiarize yourself with what it does on a general basis. Is it a spell that allows the player to draw cards? Produce token creatures? Counter spells? Produce mana? Destroy permanents? The very last thing you want is to not read a Knight-Captain of Eos and send a lethal alpha strike in that player’s direction. Oops.
Once you’ve categorized what each card does on that general basis, you can use this inform your idea of what this player is trying to accomplish by playing that card. It’s best to assume, unless there is evidence to the contrary, that everything a player does is carefully calculated to help them advance toward establishing their stranglehold and thus winning the game. If players are playing aggro-ish cards, it’s better, more often than not, to assume they’re “going for it” in the red zone. If they drop a Stax card like Nether Void or a defensive card like Collective Restraint, it’s safe to assume they want to wall up and let everybody else fight it out. If they drop a piece of their combo, be concerned. And so on.
Of course, sometimes players play throwaway spells because they have nothing better to do, and the card they play won’t help you in this analysis. Further, crafty and experienced players will play red herrings to mislead you as to what their strategy really is and mislead you as to the strength or weakness of their current position. The only remedy to this is to develop an understanding of how to read players’ mannerisms and fit this into your reasonable expectations of their deck, their playstyle, and the stranglehold analysis of what’s going on at any given point. This is some high-level stuff and it’s impossible to be mistake-free at it. Even those who are best at it get caught with their heads down, being too self-involved in their own strategies, and miss something important. But you can’t get better unless you know what direction you’re supposed to move in, right?
With all that said, the job of understanding the “perfect information” of the game is to understand what interactions are available to any particular player. The point of this overall is to ensure you don’t really screw up, like playing out your hand into a Planar Collapse because you didn’t bother reading it. However, even players who know a metric shit ton of cards are going to miss interactions from time to time. Don’t expect not to make mistakes. However, do minimize your mistakes in this way by using the categorization method to help understand what each card does.
What are they going to play next?
This is more difficult than understanding what it is they actually have in play at some specific time, because it relies on imperfect information. You can narrow the number of potential plays down in four ways:
(a) how much mana the player has available
(b) what colours they’re using
(c) what cards are likely to fit into a deck featuring that commander
(d) how that player’s current position fits in the stranglehold analysis
This still leaves thousands of cards available, but it can give us some general guidelines. Knowing the general rules about the colour pie and how spells are distributed along the mana curve will give you a lot of help here. It’s pretty unlikely the mono-green deck you’re playing against is going to destroy all creatures. It’s pretty unlikely the red deck is going to blow up your enchantment. It’s unlikely the white deck is going to re-fill its hand. However, there are always exceptions to the colour pie, particularly since we’re dealing with cards that were printed before the colour pie really crystallized into what we have today. Further, every deck has access to lands and artifacts which can fill gaps in the deficiencies of their colors.
More important than what certain colours and mana curves can’t play are what they are likely to play. Is that white deck falling behind to a creature-based arms race? I’d be betting on a Wrath of God-style effect. Is that green deck closing in on 9+ mana? Be ready for some disgusting green bombs like Tooth and Nail. Is that blue deck seemingly not doing much but has a full hand? It’s likely they’re sitting on counter-magic or other instant-speed dream-crushing. This is a very basic analysis of what decks can do in particular colours, and expanding your knowledge in this area can only be done by playing game after game. It helps, though, to keep it in the back of your mind, particularly when you’re caught unawares by things which are very much in character for certain colours at certain points in the mana curve. Again, you don’t want to misplay by misreading such “obvious” information.
More complicated, of course, is trying to discern what the deck does based on its Commander and based on the stranglehold analysis of the game at that time. Everybody builds decks differently and plays them differently. Two Skithiryx, the Blight Dragon decks might be vastly different in their execution. If you’ve never played against that player, or even if you have but have never played against that deck, the best you can do is guess. However, it’s not totally impossible to figure out their plan based on how aggressive they’re being.
Some players will run out threats as a matter of course, just to do something. This is, in my opinion, a dumb idea, and should only be done as a product of boredom or if you think the game is a lost cause anyway. Most, however, will play at least somewhat conservatively and will play their threats when they have some way to back them up or when they’re “going for it”. Let’s say a wrath-effect has been played pretty recently, and a mono-green deck plays Spontaneous Generation, casts Regrowth to return it, and casts it again. What does this tell you? It could be one of several things. It probably means that they’re fairly confident there are no more wraths to be had around the table, or if there are, they don’t care. It probably means there’s something they intend to do with their horde of 1/1 tokens next turn. Is an Overrun coming? Triumph of the Hordes? Just how threatening is this horde of tokens? What if they’re just protecting themselves from somebody else’s potential alpha strike and they had no better way to do it?
How do we figure this out? The first clue is the commitment displayed. Casting one Spontaneous Generation could be a throwaway move, and it could be a red herring. Burning a powerful card in Regrowth makes this much less likely and we should lean toward the assumption that the player is going for something. (Or the rest of his hand is completely useless!) Our assumptions can be backed up by evaluating not only that player by himself but by what other players are doing. This is the all-important stranglehold analysis I keep talking about. In the same scenario, figuring out what that green player had in mind has more involved than simply considering the information on his board alone. What have the other players been doing? What have you been doing? Whether or not he’s protecting himself or setting himself up for an alpha strike has a lot to do with what that player is expecting from his opponents. Was the wrath a last-ditch attempt to stay in the game from another player? That makes it more likely the token army is preparing for a game-winning assault. What about if the player who wrathed has been sitting behind a full grip all game, refilling their hand, removing serious threats as they arise? Maybe the token army is a threat, but I’d be more worried about that player.
How does that player win the game?
This is the final analysis to be done and is likely the hardest step unless you have an intimate knowledge of what your opponent’s deck is (a) built to do and (b) doing at that particular time. This skill is largely a matter of experience and knowing thousands of cards, but again, we’ve got to start somewhere. A finely tuned threat assessment strategy is concerned with figuring this out at all times. Remember that what a specific deck is doing within a specific game can and often does change. Few decks, save some combo decks and voltron decks, are totally single-minded in what they’re trying to accomplish. A 100-card singleton format all but necessitates that decks be flexible to in-game fluctuations and events. However, a player’s Commander can lend some insight into their overall strategy, in addition to the “sorts of things” they’ve been playing all game long. It should become obvious, at some point, that player A is running a token-based strategy, player B is running some kind of artifact combo, and player C is playing “Voltron” aggro (making one threat into a huge/huge flying indestructible trample lifelink, etc. by continually adding to one creature permanent). Some of this can be gleaned directly from the Commander, some from what the deck has actually been playing, and the rest only by playing against that deck many times.
The interesting part about threat assessment here is that what might be the most threatening thing on the board at that time may not, in fact, be the most threatening thing. Yeah, maybe player A has a 15/15 flying lifelink trample dude on the board, but the Riku of Two Reflections player is about to untap with 12 mana and his Commander on the board. Dude’s just a 2/2, right? Maybe, but that won’t be the only thing in play after Riku Time Stretches twice. You’ve got one kill spell, what do you hit?
Maybe Riku doesn’t have Time Stretch. Maybe he’s got 5 forests and a Cultivate. Is aiming the Terminate you’ve got at Riku instead of the 15/15 the wrong play? Does this change if you’re at 12 life versus 25 life?
In most cases, it’s probably still the right play to axe the Riku. It’s all about potential. Passing the turn to the guy with the 15/15 when you’re at 12 is risky. Maybe it means you die. But passing the turn to a Riku deck with a bunch of mana in play will mean all of you die more often than not. Remember: the most important factor in winning games of Commander is not losing games of Commander. Letting Riku untap with that mana and holding the Terminate for the 15/15 might let you stay alive for 1 turn if Riku does nothing and the 15/15 swings at you, or it might mean the whole table shuffles up.
Threat Assessment and Politics
Be crafty about your threat assessment. Remember that most games of Commander aren’t played in a vacuum and allies and enemies come and go many times over the course of a game. Sometimes you’re going to want to keep your threat assessment to yourself (particularly when you’re the biggest threat and nobody knows it!) Watching someone burn a removal spell on an unimportant permanent is great if you want to drop your Rings of Brighthearth and make infinite mana. Watching someone Counterspell a relatively meaningless card is great when you’re about to Living Death with Akroma’s Memorial on the board and win. Other times, you’re going to want to be as vocal as possible about how you perceive the threats on the board. And you, of course, don’t always have to tell the whole truth.
Let’s continue on with the Riku example. You’re in a vulnerable position. There are two players you could lose to. It’s probably wise to let the table know that they are all at risk of potentially losing to Riku, so, being the altruistic soul that you are, you’re going to do something for everyone’s benefit and kill the pesky 2/2. Maybe you do this as a deal with the player with the 15/15 to ensure they don’t attack you for that turn. Maybe, before you even burn your own Terminate, you loudly express your concern about passing the turn to Riku to let them untap and maybe somebody else has a way to deal with the problem, saving your Terminate for threats to your person.
Make the threats to your well-being threats to everyone’s well being. Not everyone will see what player X has up their sleeve. A lot of players are immersed in their own strategies and aren’t paying attention to the fact that they might suddenly lose the game. I play decks that suddenly win the game and it seems like almost invariably there is at least one player going “how the hell did that just happen?” not realizing it’s been in the works for many turns. Most instant combos require some set up time while their seemingly low-threat permanents are allowed to accumulate while 15/15 flying lifelinkers are getting burned off the board. Maybe you’re wrong about player X being the biggest threat, but it’s probably in the table’s best interest to make sure they don’t get the opportunity to do whatever diabolical thing they have planned. At least, you should attempt to convince the table that it’s in their best interest.
Similarly, downplay your own threats. Eventually people will catch on to “I have nothing else to do” being an excuse for laying something gross down, but it doesn’t hurt to try. Try explaining your own weaknesses to the table. There’s a chance they didn’t see it and use the opportunity to burn you. Or maybe drawing their attention to your weak spots makes you seem a little less threatening. Remember that each other player is, at least to some extent, also continually updating their threat assessments all the time and making play decisions based on this analysis. They are, or should be, asking themselves: “should I disrupt the biggest threat or play a card and become the biggest threat?” Disrupting a player’s threat assessment can be almost as effective as disrupting their actual card-based resources. If you can induce a sub-optimal play, or even a straight up bad play, by messing with your opponents’ threat assessments, it puts you that much further ahead.
Take for example game between you, a Skithiryx, the Blight Dragon deck, and a G/W deck that has Saffi Eriksdotter and Melira, Sylvok Outcast on the board. Who do you have to be concerned about? Clearly, Skithiryx is going to be swinging at you, if it’s swinging at all, since it can’t do anything relevant to the G/W player. Should he be? Your first concern should be talking to the Skithiryx player about how it’s going to be really hard for him to win unless you stick around to deal with his problem. Maybe he listens, maybe he doesn’t, but an attempt to persuade the dragon to stay home while you both search for an answer to the player who has a very unassuming but very effective stranglehold on the game is certainly worth the low cost of a bit of persuasive politics.
The principle is to remember that your opponents can be resources too. Most people aren’t crazy about being used to do your dirty work, so you’re going to have to be clever about it, or make the plain and simple case that you’re in this together because player X is about to win. But hey, don’t take it from me … just don’t complain when we’re shuffling up in 30 seconds. Up to you.