Don’t Play Your Hand, Play the Situation

This article will discuss a problem unique to muliplayer Magic.  To borrow a phrase from hockey, it’s like skating through the neutral zone with your head down — you gotta watch the play, not watch the puck, or you’re going to get leveled.  In Magic terms, you have to play the situation, not play your hand!

It’s not necessary in two-player Magic to do what the multiplayer crowd calls “threat assessment”.  Threat assessment is understanding who is the biggest threat at the table.  In a two player game, you only have one threat — your opponent.  100% of their resources are devoted to stopping you from winning, killing your shit, and winning the game.  Multiplayer Magic is infinitely more complex — temporary alliances can form and fall apart, the most powerful player at the table varies sometimes by the turn, and occasionally it’s better to leave people alive than it is to kill them. 

Consequently, multiplayer Magic is significantly different from two-player Magic in how one should evaluate their lines of play and pick when to play their cards.  Multiplayer Magic forces us to understand the dynamics of many players all trying to win the game at the same time.  There are many more threats on the table and potential threats in players’ hands, and you simultaneously must not lose to all players, all the time.  Meanwhile, they’re trying not to lose to you as well.  Remember: the single most important factor in winning games of Commander is not losing games of Commander.  Not losing is really hard — everybody is out to kill you!

The potential problem that arises when confronted with this much information is to stop looking for lines of play and evaluating the dynamics of the game, and instead just play out your hand as though you’re goldfishing.  This, in my opinion, is not only a bad play strategy, but it also is the single most important factor informing why people hate combo and land destruction.  Because players are not reading the table and instead are just trying to play the cards they see in their hands, when somebody comes along and stops what it is they think they’re trying to do, they get upset.  And rightfully so, given this mindset — games of Commander can take hours, and when your strategy gets disrupted by somebody suddenly winning or you having all your lands destroyed by an Armageddon, it’s a big kick in the nuts.

But, had you been paying attention, you could have seen this coming and avoided it — or, at least, mentally and Magically prepared yourself for the eventuality.  Here’s how to do that.  But first, a quick scenario on how important this is.

Ensnaring Bridge
Sometimes the card directly in your way is actually your best friend.

I’m playing Marton Stromgald against Karador, Ghost Chieftain, Karn, Silver Golem, and Darien, King of Kjeldor.  Karn is topdecking, and basically doing nothing.  I’m more or less useless at this point, but I have an Ensnaring Bridge on the table with two cards in my hand that I can’t get rid of.  Darien has an enormous team of huge soldiers, being pumped by various Crusade effects and Lords.  Luckily, my Ensaring Bridge is holding off Darien’s rather certain victory.  Karador is hamstrung at this point because they’re unable to attack with anything but a couple of 2/2s, and apparently only drawing creatures.  Unfortunately, I’m below 20 life, and Karador is trying to kill me.

“What are you doing?” I keep asking, utterly incredulous.  “I’m the only thing stopping us being completely overrun by soldiers.”

“I can’t do anything with your Ensnaring Bridge on the board!  I have to kill you to do anything.”

“Look, you’re not going to be able to do anything when you’re fucking dead!

“Doesn’t matter, you have to die.”

So Karador eventually kills me, drops their Commander, and passes to Darien.  Darien drops Coat of Arms and proceeds to win right there on the spot.

While this is a rather extreme example of otherworldly stubbornness, it’s also an example of trying to play the cards in your hand and not playing the table itself.  Karador should have been happy to sit behind the Bridge and find a way to knock Darien down a couple of pegs, but instead, they were too focused on what they thought they were trying to do simply based on the cards they had in their hand.  It was a huge mistake, and it cost them the game in as unsubtle a way as one could dream up.  I’m pretty sure I didn’t contain my smugness even a little.

To be fair to that player, I’ve probably cried wolf one too many times that killing me is not in somebody’s best interests and then went on to win the game.  I’ve been told that killing me is always in everybody’s best interests, so I get it, but in this case, playing mono red with obviously dead cards in my hand I should have been an obvious non-threat.  After all, if I could have emptied my hand, nothing could have attacked me, so that I wasn’t (couldn’t) play my cards should have been a big clue.  There was no chance this information was lost on anybody, since I kept pointing it out, loudly and often.

The only cards that should have mattered to Karador were cards that killed a bunch of soldiers.  I have no doubt that had Karador had an artifact removal spell for my Bridge, they would have used it as soon as it was ripped off the top.  And this makes absolutely zero fucking sense.  What you do is dig for answers to the real threat that somebody else is doing all the work to hold at bay, and sit on the removal spell until Darien is dead.  Then get rid of the Bridge and beat the limp-wristed mono-red deck into submission.

In games of Commander, you’re almost always going to have dead cards in your hand.  You don’t have to play every card you draw, and you don’t have to play cards as soon as you can.  You need to be evaluating the power structures that are existing within the game and figure out which, if any at all, of your cards allow you to win the game.  If those cards aren’t in your hand, which of your cards prevent you from losing the game?  What cards are on the table that are (a) making your win conditions impotent, or (b) contributing to your opponents’ strangleholds?

Next, remember that everybody else at the table might be losing to the same thing, and are looking for answers themselves.  Can you help them in doing so?  Do you need to position yourself to pounce on whomever deals with the biggest threat that’s on the table right now?  If there’s somebody who’s obviously the weakest link at the table, do you need them to survive in order to have a chance to win or can you let the strongest players take them out while you bide your time?

That last is particularly important.  If you’re playing mono-Green or mono-Red, and in order to win this game you’re going to need a creature sweep to go off, you should probably keep that Black or White player around long enough for them to fire one off.  You aren’t going to be able to do it.  So instead of worrying about what’s in your hand and whether or not Genesis Wave is awesome, what can you be doing to ensure that player lives long enough to Wrath and furthermore wants to do it?

Demonic Tutor
The worst turn-two play in Commander.

Another symptom of this problem is the syndrome I call “Demonic Tutor on turn two”.  Unless the only reason you kept your hand is because you could Demonic Tutor for Cultivate or whatever so you can actually curve out at all, you shouldn’t just be going to get the best card in your deck.  Why?  Because you don’t know what the best card in your deck is yet!  You’re trying not to lose, unless you happen to have the nuts combo draw.  If you do, by all means, go for it so everyone can shuffle up quickly.  But I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen somebody blow a great tutor early and then have no way to find an answer later for something that ends up killing them.  They’re playing their hand, not playing the situation.

Unless you can guarantee that your deck is faster and more consistent than all the other decks at the table in every game you play — which you can’t — you shouldn’t be trying to just go for it all the time.  Statistically speaking, you will have the best hand at a 4-person table 25% of the time.  Those are not very good odds.  It gets worse when you factor in that somebody at the table probably has an answer to whatever it is you’re trying to do.

So what’s the solution?

You need to be comfortable to let the game develop.  Play smart defense, don’t allow yourself to be really victimized by sudden power shifts, and try to grind some card advantage or out-curve your opponents while being careful not to be too threatening.  But you don’t have to go for the throat until you’re sure you can do it.  Let somebody else fall victim to the early leader syndrome, let the table burn some resources cutting down the tallest tree, and bide your time.  Once you are reasonably certain what the power structures are in any given situation, then you can actually formulate a reasonable picture of what the lines of play will be that allow you to win.

Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary
Kill it with fire, as fast as fucking possible.

Let’s say you’re playing RUG and you’ve been ramping and tutoring all game for the pieces you need.  Turn 5, you cast a Boundless Realms for 5 more lands and put yourself to 12 mana once you untap.  You’ve got the Tooth and Nail and you’ve got a Mana Drain to back it up.  You can go get Kiki-Jiki, Mirror-Breaker and Pestermite and win next turn, and you can barely contain your excitement.  Then, right before you untap, the guy to your right plays a Winter Orb with Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary up.  Now all the power structures have changed.  You’ve only got your Sol Ring and one land up next turn.  Who has more?  To make matters worse, before his next turn, the guy with Winter Orb plays Dramatic Entrance off Rofellos and dumps a Gaea’s Revenge on the board.

Now the table has a problem.  You can go on tilt because the Winter Orb screwed your certain victory if you want, but if you’re smart, you can bide your time and realize the game is still yours to be won if you play it right.  First off, everyone at the table ticks up their misplay die by one for leaving Rofellos alive.  You get a second tick for that Mystical Tutor you burned to go get Tooth and Nail that maybe should have been saved, as it could get you Into the Core now for the Orb, or better yet, put Devastation Tide on top and get a little miracle on your side.  

Everyone has to deal with a creature that can’t be targetted by anything relevant save Beast Within.  Granted, Gaea’s Revenge is probably not enough to win the game by itself before somebody untaps enough land to deal with it, but with Rofellos still online and everybody’s mana in trouble, that green player is looking pretty sweet.  So what do we do?  It’s always better to let other people deal with the problem, but that can’t always be done.  You’ll have to gauge politically how to deal with Mr. Green’s Revenge.  The person that is getting beat down by it first will probably feel the greatest sense of urgency.  If the green player is smart, his first target will be the player most likely able to answer the current stranglehold.

Cabal Conditioning
The Cabal has the best-looking hair around town.

You need to start thinking about how your deck will get out of this situation, and better yet, how you can get out of this situation best positioned to be in the lead once the stranglehold is abated.  If you keep the Drain and the Nail around, all you need is for the Winter Orb to be destroyed and you can probably win.  Your goal now is to make sure that, in answering the current problem, somebody else doesn’t get too far ahead — or, of course, that the stranglehold doesn’t get worse.  Use the distraction, bide your time, and just file the excitement of your two-card, game-winning combo away for now.  Maybe you’ll get lucky and topdeck Deglamer.  Maybe the B/W player offs the Orb and follows it up with Cabal Conditioning, and suddenly there’s a whole new problem.

Keep a level head and be willing to re-evaluate where the game goes.  Once you get good at this kind of thinking, you can be flexible enough to continually be updating your line of play to accomodate what everybody else is doing.  Sometimes that line of play includes an indefinite period of “wait it out and let the two leaders duke it out”.  Sometimes it changes completely and on a dime.  Sometimes it vanishes and it turns out you just can’t win that game with any of the cards you have, and your line of play is “topdeck something awesome”.

The key to enjoying the format and not getting embroiled in the whole “land destruction is unfun and ruins the game!” line of thinking is to play the long game, not the short game.  Don’t just play the cards in your hand.  Play the situation, keep calm, and carry on.

2 comments

  1. shmebula

    This was one of the best strategy articles I’ve read in a long time. Looking forward to reason the rest of the site.

  2. Aaron Smith

    wise words from a seasoned player for sure 🙂 this was definitely worth reading and i highly appreciate the advice given here. my games of commander will surely be more rewarding after applying this way of thinking to each game.
    im currently running rith the awakener and find myself wanting to start causing problems early on but the last few games i have really succeded in were involving creating a small problem letting someone take care of it and acting like i was out of ideas in order to make the other players believe i was low priority, then turned around with a genesis wave for 29 and killing 7 players instantly hahaha.
    i look forward to more helpful information in the future especially involving the diplomatic strategys of larger edh free for all. i have been playing alot of 8-10 player games and learn alot every game even after 4 plus years of commander 🙂 keep up the good work and long live naya!

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