In international relations theory, countries can react to the emergence of a superpower in one of two ways – either go along with them, which is called bandwagoning, or work with others to bring them down, which is called balancing. I promised that I would talk about Balancing in a future article (although now that I’m writing it, it’s a present article; does that make me a liar?). Balancing is worth talking about because it’s an essential part of multiplayer strategy, is often the starting point for group politics, and if you do it wrong you’re going to get killed.
I made a spectacular misplay at the World Champs in Chiba last year – obviously not in the tournament itself, but in a much funner pick-up game of EDH with some friends. I was playing Thrax, Xin had been playing Venser until he had to leave early, Erek was playing his Karn deck and Ellen, one of the first women on the Pro Tour and recent Magic get-back-into-er, was playing my Teneb deck, getting close to full on reanimation and recursion shenanigans. One of the old-school Pros, Brian Kowal (sushi-lover and deckbuilder extraordinaire, most famous for his Boat Brew), had dropped by to catch up with Ellen and was kind of sitting in on the game and helping Ellen out with some of the cards she didn’t know.
Ellen clearly didn’t need Brian’s help, as she was kicking our asses just fine, but with a guy like that helping her out, Erek and I had even less of a chance. Erek’s Karn deck was playing a ton of artifacts and biding his time as usual but didn’t have much of a board presence, and I had a ton of acceleration and equipment but very little action, using my equipment as force multipliers to make up for my lack of meaningful critters. Erek and I were at the stage of mutual recognition that Ellen was The Threat and that she needed to be dealt with urgently, but there was no explicit deal between us.
And then I drew Cruel Ultimatum (a card best cast to the tune of Sade’s Smooth Operator, by the way). My first instinct was of course to hit Ellen, but as I was casting it Brian shot me a cold stare and said something along the lines of “If you hit us with that they’ll never find your body.” Then I looked at the Archon of Justice on Ellen’s board and remembered the Return to Dust that she’d regrown the turn before. I thought about all my lovely toys, and how they’d never come back if I hit her. And I blinked.
“Sorry Erek; Ellen can hurt me more than you can, have an Ultimatum,” I said, and blasted my potential ally.
Even as I cast it, I knew I was making a mistake, but I was so afraid of losing my stuff that I didn’t hit the person I should have hit. After Ellen used her scary removal stuff to hurt Erek some more, he joined me in trying to balance her (not because we promised not to attack each other until she was dea; just because we both saw the writing on the wall), but understandably he wasn’t able to do too much from such a weakened position. In the end, Ellen killed Erek and then we battled it out in classic EDH fashion, Thrax versus Teneb and Elspeth – until I forgot that Elspeth’s second ability cut a turn off the general damage clock, and died an ignoble death. Perhaps saving that Ultimatum might have made it easier to finish her off?
Is Brian Kowal better than me at politics? Did I get Jedi Mind-tricked? No, apparently I’m just a pussy. I made a mistake, it had a huge impact on the game and I probably lost because of it.[i] The lesson is, when one player is The Threat to the whole table, you can’t be afraid of taking a hit or making an enemy of them; you need to begin balancing against them immediately. In fact, if they weren’t in the strongest position, or otherwise able to hurt you, you wouldn’t need to balance against them, right? Balancing means taking risks.
Is there a risk-free option? How about bandwagoning? Well, in international relations it’s generally considered to be a suboptimal strategy – and that’s in a context in which the superpower isn’t required to kill you. In multiplayer Magic, you can help the strongest player to become stronger in the hope that they kill you last, but unless it is part of a specific plan to eventually stab them in the back and regain dominance then it’s a bad plan, because they have to kill you to win.
Remember the first rule of multiplayer strategy – you never know you’re dead until you’re dead.[ii] Just tonight I got saved from a Blightsteel Colossus because someone else needed to use his Sudden Spoiling to kill another attacking creature; as a nifty side-benefit, I was able to kill the One-Shot Robot with my Mulldrifter and avoid poisonous, proliferatey doom. In other words, just because you can’t deal with The Threat doesn’t mean they can’t be dealt with. It is so hard to take on multiple opponents that in most cases a concerted effort to balance against a common threat will succeed. That means that in most games you have a better chance of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat by committing to a balancing strategy than by ignoring or appeasing The Threat.
There are three main risks of following a balancing strategy: others may not join you, The Threat may crush you before you can take them down, or the balance of power may shift and someone you’ve been fighting with becomes powerful enough to stab you in the back and take control of the game. Each of these risks can be managed if you’re careful, but the first is the greatest. Let me repeat that: the greatest danger of a balancing strategy is that other players don’t join you. If that happens, then the other considerations usually become moot; The Threat will crush you and the rest of the table, and nobody else will have a chance to win. Of course, Magic is such a complex game that there will be occasional exceptions,[iii] but if someone is enough of a threat to warrant capital letters, then you’ve got to do whatever it takes to get the rest of the table to join you in balancing against them.
The most important thing here is signaling. In game theory, as in life, this means putting your money where your mouth is. In the game at Worlds, I was far too risk averse, terrified at the thought of losing my permanents (including a Deathrender and a Nim Deathmantle, two awesome cards that can really help you get back in the game). The right play was to be Cruel to Ellen, but I was only thinking about the consequences of doing that in terms of my own board position. However, when you think of the play in terms of the signal that it would have sent to Erek, then that loss of board position could have been a good thing. If I’d willingly put myself in that position, drawing the full Wrath of Brian, then Erek would have been totally convinced of my commitment to balancing against the dynamic duo, and he would have been much more likely to commit all of his resources to the fight. From Erek’s point of view, all three of the potential dangers of balancing would have been eliminated by my action, at least temporarily: I’m already committed; I’ve done more to draw fire from The Threat than him, so he’s safe from Ellen’s counterattack for a while; and my high level of commitment strongly indicates that I’m in no position to walk away with the game any time soon (I’d probably be more likely to stall rather than risk confrontation if my victory was imminent).
The second danger is that you can get hammered by The Threat, and how badly that happens is really a factor of the specific game state, but the short answer is that the sooner and stronger the rest of the table joins you the less damage you’ll have to bear yourself, so once again, commitment is important. Getting beaten down by The Threat also gives you two ways of influencing others, either through table talk or, hopefully, through them being smart enough to appreciate it themselves. The first is that, if you die, the Threat will then turn their attention to someone else, which makes it exceptionally stupid for someone else to attack you. As long as you are The Threat’s primary target, you are also a buffer protecting the rest of the table from their attention. Secondly, the more committed The Threat is to taking you out, the less likely they are to punish other members for balancing against them. A number of times I’ve persuaded people to attack The Threat by pointing out that they can attack with impunity because he or she is committed to killing me. The usual dynamic then is that the balancing weakens The Threat to the point where they can’t pound on me anymore, because they have to devote resources to protecting themselves from other threats. Eventually, the person that I persuaded to join me in balancing against The Threat may become their primary target, taking the heat off of me, but by that time they are in far too deep to back off.
The third danger is that while you’re knocking the threat off of their pedestal, someone else will take advantage of the shift in relative power and win. The trick here is to keep your perspective. What exactly makes The Threat so threatening? How exactly will they take the table, and what needs to be done to prevent that from happening? Remember: you aren’t balancing against the threat because of who they are or even what deck they’re playing; you’re balancing against them because they are the greatest obstacle to your winning the game. The moment that stops being true, you should stop and figure out who The Threat is now.
The ideal outcome of a balancing strategy is that you are able to neutralize the threat that they pose with a minimum of resources and take over the game (whether that means killing them or not); the worst case scenario is that you exhaust yourself pummeling an opponent long past the point where they can harm you, and lose to another player who wasn’t even on your radar. The difference between a surgical strike and a feeding frenzy is that you remember why you were balancing against them in the first place.
Recently I managed to turn an entire table against me in a four-player 20-life game, just by virtue of suiting up a 4/4 with an Elehammer. A Standard Vampire deck was around 18 life and had the rest of us hovering around seven or eight life when I swung at her, trampling her down to 12 or so and going up to 14. The challenge for everyone else was figuring out how far to push in taking me down. The Vampire player could have done 14 damage to me with Highborn tricksiness, but it would have meant leaving herself open to Brian, the non-Kowal red mage who was goading her on. In fact, all she needed to do was whittle me down to a manageable life total and get rid of my second critter so that I couldn’t attack freely and gain lots of life with the Warhammer. Fortunately for her, she realized that I only looked like The Threat because of a little bit of lifegain, and took a measured response. As a result she took the table, but if she’d overreacted then she would have lost to Brian.
Another way to manage the inevitable betrayal of a successful balancing strategy is to avoid dealing the killing blow yourself. Playing clockwise, this is easier to do when The Threat is on your right and your allies get to attack after you. If you tap out to attack The Threat for lethal damage, then you’re wide open and your allies will probably attack you, but if you leave a couple of blockers up and leave The Threat alive, low on life, but still able to rebound if given a reprieve, then your allies will probably use their attack step to take out The Threat instead of you, at which point you’re free to make your own bid for control.
There will be some times when attempting to balance against The Threat gets you killed and killed quick, but you need to sack up and take the risk if you’re going to actually overcome them. Remember that there are strong strategic dynamics in your favor for exactly as long as one player remains an imminent existential threat to everyone else – but once this situation changes, it’s back to a free-for-all.
[i] Of course, shortly before he died Erek said “I could have comboed off if you hadn’t hit me with that damn Ultimatum,” so it’s possible that the game would have been taken from me no matter what I did, rather than me just giving it away.
[ii] Or at least one of the top three. Or five. Definitely in the top dozen rules of multiplayer – and also the subject of my first article, just in case you’re one of the few casual players who hasn’t read it, memorized it and tattooed the highlights of it across your back.
[iii] And in fact, I wrote about one such case, when I was the only one at the table who wasn’t convinced that a certain player was that much of a threat to me. My strategy for that game was somewhere between balancing and bandwagoning. However, this time I’m only talking about those unambiguous cases where everyone agrees on who The Threat is and how urgently they need to be dealt with.