A couple of weeks ago, there was a situation in a local EDH game that caused a lot of friction and raised an important question that affects all of the three levels of multiplayer. Today, I’m going to offer my take on the strategic, political and group harmony implications of saving another player from imminent death in multiplayer.
The way I heard the story, Player A was known to be holding a Death Cloud, Player B had accelerated into their general, equipped it with something awesome (Fireshrieker? I don’t remember) and swung for lethal damage against Player A (the Kaervek deck from last week’s article). The point is, “equipped general=lethal damage; unequipped general=big ouchie but still alive.” Player C, playing Karn, Silver Golem, decided to save the Death Cloud guy by animating the Fireshrieker (?) with Karn’s ability, causing the equipment to ‘fall off’ the attacking general (it was Akroma, and yes, that trick with the equipment really works!). The Akroma player was seriously upset by that; words were exchanged and feelings were hurt. What’s really happening here? Did the Karn player make a mistake; did he make a play based on personal feelings; or did he display keen insight into the strategic complexity of multiplayer?
The First Level: Strategy
Magic is a strategy game, and what that means, at its essence, is that everyone is trying to do something (usually win) and one or more other players are trying to stop you from doing it. As a general rule, then, you should expect other players to try to stop you from doing what you want to do; in other words, don’t act surprised when somebody else messes with you.
However, we would usually expect our opponents to mess with us primarily when it helps them to achieve their goals. If I want to oust another player, especially if I have reason to believe that that player is the biggest threat either to me or to the table as a whole, what rational strategic reasons could another player have for stopping me?
Last week I talked about some of the unique questions that we have to answer in a typical multiplayer game, along the lines of who should I kill and what should I fear. Another related question is, “Is Player A worth more to me alive or dead?” Just to make it clear, I’m looking at this as a purely strategic issue, not a question of “which player do I like most?” There are many situations where your chances of winning the game actually increase if a particular player stays alive a little longer.
One obvious reason for this is when one deck is clearly stronger than yours and is likely to dominate the table. Sometimes the strongest deck can only be controlled when the rest of the table attacks it together (this is called “balancing,” and will be the subject of another article in the future). So when the dominant deck is trying to pick off the rest of the table one by one, like the bad guy in a Wes Craven flick, the rest of the table may be best served by helping each other to survive the onslaught.
I had a fantastic three-way last week (we’re still talking about Magic) with Nick and Brian, in which Nick ended up with Brian’s Kozilek on his Mimic Vat. The problem for Nick was that Brian had a Predator, Flagship and the mana to activate it, so he could kill K-Bot any time he wanted. I, on the other hand, had nothing. Brian could have left me to Nick’s tender mercies, but soon realized that a single swing of Annihilate 4 would leave me with almost no options, and two swings would put me on one land – virtually out of the game. Brian rightly chose to protect me with the Predator rather than face Nick on his own.
The second way that you can improve your own position through a save is by delaying the aggressive player. There is some danger that they may become so angry at you for thwarting their plans that you become their number one target, but most players are unlikely to do that. Rather, as we discussed last week, game theory leads us to expect that if Akroma decides that Kaervek is the biggest threat to them, their judgment is unlikely to change just because I played an annoying combat trick. In other words, the same strategic logic that led Akroma to try and kill Kaervek this turn will almost certainly lead them to attack Kaervek next turn. Once again, understanding your opponent’s decision making process allows you to develop better ways to achieve your own goals.
Perhaps you’ve heard this before: “Why are you killing my creature? I’m not attacking you!” Sound familiar? That is the plaintive cry of the frustrated aggro player, but it always seems to be missing something: “…yet.” They aren’t trying to kill you yet, but you know they will. Therefore, slowing down a player who is going to come gunning for you when they’re finished tends to make good strategic sense.
There are two further advantages of this. Firstly, the player you save can reasonably conclude that the person who tried to kill them is their biggest threat. They are then likely to mobilize their resources against them, not you. As a big part of Magic is resource management, any time two of your opponents use their resources against each other and not against you, you’re that much closer to winning. With a little bit of luck, Kaervek could have killed Akroma (e.g. Death Cloud for one), which would have bought him at least a turn, forcing Akroma to use up even more resources to kill Kaervek, and making them even less of a threat to you.
Secondly, the fact that Kaervek is so much closer to death by general damage may provide the Akroma player with an extra incentive to attack him again. Notice that in this example, The Save involved removing Double Strike from Akroma – regular damage still got through. If Akroma is trying for a quick kill, then the accumulated general damage makes Kaervek an even more attractive target next turn. Sure, they could turn their attention to Karn, but they would have to start over and climb back up to 21 damage while the player that they recognized as the biggest threat (Kaervek) gains breathing room to become even more dangerous. It is clear that, at least in this game, the Akroma player was very unlikely to attack Karn in retribution until after they’d killed Kaervek.
The third reason why it may be in your interest to keep another player alive is when they have the specific cards that you want to stay in the game. This could include permanents in play or the possibility that they can draw answers to a threat or threats that you can’t deal with. I remember one game that ended with my Kresh deck and a friend’s monoblue deck facing down a five-color goodstuff deck that had in play Mana Reflection, Debtor’s Knell and Greater Good. I had a Tranquil Grove in play, but only one green mana, and so the blue player saved me in the hopes that I could draw the mana I needed and wipe out all of those evil enchantments (I didn’t and I died, but it was still the right play for the blue mage to use his resources to help me, because it furthered his aims).
The fourth reason is the flip-side of the third: what if they just aren’t that scary to you? Maybe everyone else is playing creature-heavy decks and they pile on the player with eight copies of Wrath of God, but if you are playing creatureless yourself, or reanimation, or you have a bunch of Indestructible creatures, you really don’t have that much to worry about. Even if the player you save could hurt you, the relevant question that you have to ask is “How much more could they hurt my opponents?”
In the example of the game that I started with, the key justification for going after Kaervek was Death Cloud, a card that can set everyone back in the early game, or take everyone out in the late game. However, if you found yourself with a Thran Dynamo in play and a Crucible of Worlds in hand, don’t you think an early Death Cloud might be good for you? Sure, you’d get hurt a little bit, but you’d soon be able to get your land back from the graveyard while others would struggle, and your artifact mana might allow you to recover faster than anyone else. If that spell would hurt you much less relative to the rest of the table, then the best strategy for you might be to save that player and give them a chance to cast the spell that your other opponents are so worried about.
The Second Level: Politics
However you define politics, it basically has the same purpose as strategy, which means that it is about achieving your own goals. The obvious way to gain politically from saving someone is to get them to agree to do something for you in exchange. This could be as simple as “If I save you, will you promise not to attack me next turn?” or it could be as complex as “If I save you, will you promise not to attack me or touch my graveyard for 17 turns?”
Also notice that there is no requirement that the saver has to make an offer to the savee; in the game with Nick and Brian, I had to explicitly ask Brian for help and spell out how it was in his interests to prevent K-Bot from crippling me. I didn’t offer him anything specific, (although I was able to destroy the Mimic Vat eventually) but that still counts as politics to my mind: “If you save me, I will promise to be more useful to you than if I’m dead.”
I personally would find at least two of those political maneuvers distasteful, and one of them to be largely irrelevant (in most cases, they are more likely to attack the player who just tried to kill them rather than attack you). In fact, in my experience a lot of novice players use political negotiations to make up for their poor grasp of strategy. However, the fact remains that this kind of bargaining does happen, and if both players agree, then they have an interest in carrying out their agreement.
Making deals like this can upset people, so make sure you know the other players before you start signing Infernal Contracts. On top of that, there are at least two problems in making political bargains like this, just in terms of your relationship with the savee.
The first is when you find yourself overly committed to the savee; if you find yourself dependent on them to deal with a common threat, then you could end up on the losing end of the deal. For example, if you agree to save me on the condition that I destroy a threatening enchantment when I draw a Naturalize, I might have an incentive to sandbag the removal and let you use up your resources protecting me. I might even wait until I draw a fifth land so that I can cast Relic Crush instead, nailing the enchantment that you were worried about and also poking you in your Mind’s Eye.
The second complication that can be caused by making explicit deals is when you set conditions that are too onerous for the savee to handle. If your bargains tend towards the “If I save you, will you promise to give me mana with your Spectral Searchlight and not attack me in any game for the rest of the night and wait until I have a full graveyard before you cast Living Death and make me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with the crusts cut off?” then eventually someone is going to stab you in the back like your name was Caesar. That’s why the golden rule of making deals is that you can plan for your opponents to keep their end of the bargain, but you should never rely on it.
Please bear in mind that, of the two problems I just described, the first one helped to cause World War One, and the second was a major contributor to WWII, so be careful out there, and try to leave politics to the professionals!
The Third Level: Group Harmony
Finally, there are two reasons why you might want to save someone in order to maintain group harmony. The first involves setting the standards for your playgroup, and the second is about protecting a particular player.
As I mentioned in an earlier article, my playgroup isn’t exactly on the same page in terms of how explosive decks should be and how quickly folks should start dying. Against a killer deck, you might want to save someone in order to slow down the faster player, as mentioned in the strategic level, but you might also save someone just to send a message that you don’t want games to end that quickly. Similarly, you might want to encourage particular styles of play, such as good old-fashioned creature combat, by saving people from other styles of play, such as Coffers–Drain or Elf–Ball decks. As an example, a lot of players in my meta are using Infect to get around the 40 starting life in EDH, which I find a little bit disturbing. I am much more likely to save someone from an attacking creature if that creature has Infect than if it is just dealing regular damage.
Secondly, there are times when you want to spare a particular person a quick exit. For starters, it can be a good idea to cut a new player some slack. There’s one guy I’ve noticed in Tokyo who has a tendency to attack someone they don’t know first, presumably because they are wary of the unknown. Purely on the strategic level, that makes sense, but in terms of making a new player feel welcome, it could be a costly mistake. That’s why I try to never kill the new player first. Also, depending on what is happening in someone’s personal life, it might be nice to let them hang on in order to take their minds of their troubles. “Turn five, attack with my unblockable general and cast Hatred for 21 damage. By the way, I’m sorry about your Mom” – don’t be that guy.
There are many reasons why someone might interfere with your attempts to oust another player. Most of those reasons are strategic, although there are also perfectly valid political or harmony-related reasons to do so. That means that you shouldn’t get bent out of shape if someone stops you from getting a kill, especially in the early game. If someone is regularly messing with you, then the smart third-level play is to ask them, calmly, why they are doing so, and listen respectfully to their reasons. On the other hand, if you find yourself regularly playing the Good Samaritan during other people’s attack steps, especially if your actions tend to prolong games past the point of endurance for some of your fellow gamers, then you need to ask yourself why you are doing that, and does it really serve your interests.
 I heard about the game secondhand, although I did talk to folks on both sides of the ensuing argument. However, as Bruce and Brandon are both lawyers, pretend that I added “allegedly” to all of the descriptions of the alleged game.
 Imminent Death is this week’s entry in the “why isn’t this the name of a Magic card?” list.
 These are not their real names.
 In my opinion, if you’re making decisions based on purely personal feelings against another player then you are probably doing something wrong. If you would rather mess with someone than win the game, then maybe you shouldn’t be playing with them in the first place.
 Shakespeare jokes! How funny am I?!