Politics: When to Slow Roll, and When to Go For It

I said in Friday’s article that this would be about how much and what type of mass removal to include, but while I’ll address that somewhat, the main subject of the article is going to be about gauging the commitment level of other players at the table and how to know when to commit yourself.  By commitment I’m not talking about going steady, but committing to the board.  What this means is, you start committing to the board when you extend somewhat to secure a position.  The commitment aspect really means something like, “commitment with risk” — you have to extend somewhat to secure a position, but you also have to be wary not to extend too much such that mass removal sets you really far behind.  As such, it’s a Balancing Act, and requires some amount of skill, a lot of guesswork, and more than a little luck.

Balancing Act
Winning games always involves a balancing act, but never involves casting this spell.

I shuffled up with some of my usual play group last Thursday, and it was the first time I’d played my Worldfire deck against anybody.  Normally, an Oros, the Avenger deck that does what this one does might catch some people by surprise.  One player at the table had read my article and had been talking to me a bit about Worldfire combos, so he knew what was up.  The other two players were in Ignorant Bliss about what I was about to go to war with.  I’m playing against, in play order, my own Olivia Voldaren deck on loan, a Brion Stoutarm deck, and a Kresh, the Bloodbraided deck.

Things start relatively predictably for the other players at the table.  It’s an arms race between a bunch of B/R/x decks and they start to amass some serious threats.  Olivia has a Blade of the Bloodchief online and is growing large fast.  Brion is Threatening and throwing anything he can get his hands on and swinging for large with a Serra Ascendant.  Kresh has accelerated like mad but is a bit light on actual threats, but seems to be setting up for something nasty, provided he can survive the beats long enough to get it out there.  And there’s me, not doing much of anything.  Brion and Olivia seem happy enough to beat down on the two players without much in the way of defense and largely ignore each other.

I happened to have the Worldfire in my opening hand, so I just needed to stay alive long enough to put a kill condition on the board and then remove it from the game.  I managed to suspend a Nihilith around turn 5 when I was confident I’d have enough land to get to the magical number 9 and not miss a turn while my suspend dude comes in early.  The problem is, my playgroup doesn’t really like to give me a long leash, especially with decks they’ve never seen before, and so they’ve been whittling my life total down.  I’m at 20 or so when I make my critical mistake.  I laid a Pulse Tracker and put an Oblivion Ring on it.  The two players who had no idea what I was up to were understandably mystified by the play, but the third — the Kresh player, who was falling behind as it was — knew exactly what was up, having read the article, and told the table that it’s part of my combo which is sure to come out any minute.

As it happens, he was right — I was two land drops away from the magic number 9.  It was two turns until I would be assured victory, since there was no blue at the table.  Of course, when there’s an 8/8 Olivia Voldaren on one side, a Brion Stoutarm, Serra Ascendant, and Balefire Liege on the other, and a third player who is desperate to deflect attention away from his steadily growing mana base, I didn’t have two turns to live.  Sure enough, I’m dead before the turn gets back to me.

So what was my mistake?

Well, there were three.  (1) If you’re going to make an obscure combo deck with a win condition that comes out of left field, either don’t post it on the intarwebs for everyone to see, or don’t be surprised when somebody knows what’s up.  (2) The deck I built is much too single-minded and is going to need to add a lot of (creature) sweepers to get where it wants to go.  It’s not going to be able to do what it wants very often without playing some defense.  Lastly, and most importantly, I over-extended and tipped my hand before I needed to.

I already had the suspended Nihilith.  While it’s not as stylish as Oblivion Ringing your own permanent and killing everybody in one swell foop with a Pulse Tracker, it still wins.  Why put another completely redundant win condition on the table, especially when it alerts the table to what I’m up to?  Bad Magic.  Very Bad Magic.  (In my defense, it was my first time playing the deck and I got excited.)

When is the right time to exert your influence?

One of the great aspects of Commander that gives it its variability and its replay factor is the multiplayer format.  There is an impossibly high number of possibilities in any one game, even given the same decks, of what might go down.  As such, there is no clear answer to this question and it must be answered by supplying general principles.  They can be stated thus:

(1) How far is anybody ahead or behind?
(2) How likely are the players who are behind to equalize the playing field?
(3) How likely is the player who’s ahead to stay ahead?
(4) How does my deck fit in?

If we can make sense of these principles, we can better understand our position and whether or not to extend out and try to secure our stranglehold.  We’re going to assume for this analysis that everyone at the table has perfect threat assessment and no one is going to make an error in knowing who is ahead or behind.

1. How far is anybody ahead or behind?

Wrath of God
It's coming ... oh yes.

The key to evaluating the game state here is recognizing whether some players are pulling away from the field.  In a 3+ player game, the likelihood that anybody has a mass removal spell is pretty good, but they’re only going to want to use it if they feel like that, if they don’t, they’re probably going to lose.  The simplest way to understand this is if 3 players are at 5 life and the fourth player has three 5/5 unblockable, shroud creatures, there’s a very good chance that one of the players at 5 life is going to want to use a Wrath of God.  They can’t wait until they see which one is coming at them and use a Path to Exile, and they can’t rely on not being attacked.  Simply, if they don’t destroy all creatures, they’re going to lose.  The player with the 5/5s is definitely in the lead, and by a pretty good margin.  If the turn gets back to him and nothing changes, he’s going to take the game.  So in this scenario, everybody at the table should be expecting a sweeper, including the guy in the lead.

To distill this down, the more someone is ahead, the more likely it is that a player who is behind is going to try to reset the game state to some extent to Restore Balance.  Conversely, if a player believes that he is in second place or might be close to pulling ahead, he’s going to be less keen on having the game state reset — unless he’s on the verge of losing to #1, of course!  So, similarly, it’s important how much someone is in behind as it is how much someone is ahead.

If it’s you yourself that is in the lead, at this point you’re trying to balance between ensuring your victory by anticipating and thwarting disruption aimed your way, and not extending too much so that a sweeper seriously hurts your chances of coming back due to the number of resources you’ll have exhausted in your attempt.  Sometimes you just have to win faster, meaning your best chance at victory is to over-extend and hope you outpace the disruption.

2. How likely are the players who are behind to equalize the playing field?

This principle is largely guesswork, but there’s some light we can shed on it.  In order to reset the playing field, a player must have access to the resources to do so.  That is, they have to have the mana to cast it, and more critically, they have to have the right spell in hand.  (Also, it needs to not be countered should the player in the lead happen to be a blue mage, or otherwise disrupted by a Ghostway or the like.)  What does this mean for us?

Well, a good understanding of the kinds of sweepers available to particular colors and how much they cost will go a long way here.  A mono-green deck in behind to a creature-based stranglehold is going to have a far tougher time finding an answer than any of the other colors, because they have to rely on artifact-based resets like Oblivion Stone.  Incidentally, since Nevinyrral’s Disk comes into play tapped, unless they have some tricks, O-Stone is probably their only out.  Mono-green also has no way to tutor for artifacts outside of Planar Portal.  So what do we know?  The mono-green player is very unlikely to find an out to this particular problem.  If they don’t already have it or draw it before they lose, No Sweeps For You.

On the other hand, a mono-green deck behind to an enchantment-based stranglehold like Honden of Seeing Winds / Solitary Confinement / Greater Auramancy is going to have a lot more luck, provided of course that they’re packing one of the multitude of enchantment sweepers available.  Of course, most people don’t run those.  Similarly, a mono-white player behind to a creature-based stranglehold stands a good chance of having an out.  While it’s unlikely the white player can go find one he or she needs, the chance of drawing one is relatively high.

Can the deck tutor?  Have you seen any mass removal from them yet?  Have you seen them use a tutor while falling behind without a good indication that they’ve already played what they tutored?  What you’re trying to gauge here is the likelihood that they (a) already have a mass removal spell, or (b) can draw or search for one when necessary.  The more likely it is that the player(s) falling behind will attempt to reset, the less appealing it is to extend yourself or continue to extend.

3. How likely is the player who’s ahead to stay ahead?

Avacyn, Angel of Hope
And this is why Hallowed Burial is good.

This is more or less a simple analysis of the leader’s stranglehold position, whether that be you or another player.  A creature-based stranglehold with Avacyn, Angel of Hope on the board is much more likely to stay ahead than one without her.  A blue deck packing Capsize or Spell Burst with lots of mana or Forbid with lots of cards is more likely to stay ahead than one without.  This is a two-part analysis both of the resilience of the stranglehold condition and how much counter-disruption the leader is packing.  While a stranglehold might be vulnerable to an O-Stone, it is certainly less so if that player can flash in a Pithing Needle, Phyrexian Revoker, or Voidstone Gargoyle naming O-Stone in response.  Are they running Zur’s Weirding to pre-emptively knock out mass removal before it becomes a problem?

Assuming that the leader is not you and is somebody else, understanding the resiliency of their win condition is important because if the leader is doing everything they can to back up their position, this can sometimes mean that sweepers will fail — countered, Pithing Needled, and so forth.  Two consequences flow from this.  (1) You had better come up with a clever way not to lose to this player yourself, and (2) you might be able to slip in the back door and win instead.  That’s because the further player A is ahead of everybody else, the less everyone is going to be paying attention to you.  While the chances a mass removal spell goes off increase and you need to be wary of that, on the plus side, spot removal and other disruption will most likely be directed toward them.  This is good — players using resources against people other than you is good for you.  Also, if your stranglehold uses a different permanent type than the leader, there’s less chance you’ll be hurt by an attempted reset — a Wrath of God aimed at the leader isn’t going to mess up your artifact combo, for example.  Just don’t forget that a lot of the best sweepers hit everything.

4. How does my deck fit in?

We’ve touched on this already in the points above, but generally, what you’re trying to do is, if you’re the leader, walk the tightrope between not extending too much and extending just enough to ensure your victory.  If you’re behind, what you’re trying to do is, (a) most importantly, not lose to the leader, (b) let other players waste their attention and resources cutting down player in front, (c) make sure you don’t over-extend yourself into an inevitable board wipe, and lastly, (d) sneak in the back door and steal victory.

At all times, you want to minimize your use of resources and make your opponents expend as much as possible.  You want to be hurt minimally by sweepers and resets, and that requires a careful analysis of what everyone is trying to do and what they can do.  Don’t forget that some table talk can go along way to helping you achieve all this, too.  There are generally two ways to win: (1) win faster than anybody can disrupt — that is, just win, and (2) let everybody else exhaust their resources preventing each other from winning and you come in and mop up the tired and resource-poor who are still left.  Either way, understanding the color pie, what sweepers are available, and how powerful anybody is at any given time is essential.

Hope this helps!


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