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.
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.
This Friday’s CotW is a bonus feature covering ALL the sweeper removal in Magic! Well, most of it, anyway. It’s a pretty broad category, and some cards can only be considered a sweeper if you stretch the definition somewhat. The definition I intend to use for this article is that a sweeper is a card that removes (destroys, exiles, bounces, etc.) all permanents of a certain type, even if there is a condition attached, and that does so by not targetting them or dealing damage. The condition is often based on converted mana cost (e.g. Pernicious Deed). As such, Mutilate is a sweeper, but Violent Ultimatum is not. The definition is pretty fuzzy, as Overwhelming Forces can either be a sweeper or not by these criteria, but you get the idea. It’s mostly a “feel” thing.
I’m going to go in categories based on what card type the sweeper removes. The goal is to give everybody an idea of all the options they have in certain colors to get rid of all kinds of permanents at the same time, which is obviously a great thing to do. Using one card to get rid of a whole bunch is just Good Magic. I’m also going to leave out Planeswalker ultimates, because, well, they never happen.
Monday’s column will be a strategy article on just how many of these type of cards to include, to tie in with this one. With that said, here we go!
I think there’s a pretty widely held conception that there are certain sorts of strategies that are unfun, annoying, unfair, or against the “spirit” of Commander. Unsurprisingly, these strategies also happen to coincide with the sorts of strategies WotC would rather not encourage in tournament play either. Most tournament players are “Spikes”, or the competitive sorts who will do whatever it takes to win, regardless of what their opponent thinks or how much fun they have in getting there. The fun is in winning. So if the strategy is a good one, it will get played.
This is not the same in “casual” Magic like Commander. Commander attracts some Spikes, but it also attracts many more players who care more about the route they’re on than whether they win or lose. Some players, like me, are blends of both. I want to win every game I play, but I want to do so in unique ways, and I don’t want to make the rest of the table angry. Well, not too angry.
The casual vs. competitive debate could be the subject of many posts, but it’s really only the background of this one. The point of this post is to spread some information about how to beat a lot of the strategies that are viable in Commander because the card pool stretches back into the mists of Magic’s past, when cards like Back to Basics, Stasis, Smokestack, and their ilk were commonplace. These remain good cards, and you will see them from time to time.
In general, I think the sorts of things that really annoy players, especially those trending toward the more casual side of the equation, can be grouped into two main categories:
- Lockdown — Not being able to play their spells
- Combo — Suddenly losing the game to infinite combos
Beating these strategies is really not that difficult if you prepare adequately. If you haven’t read the article The Art of Disruption, do so now, then come back. This is a specialized application of the strategy outlined in that article.