Politics in multiplayer is a lot like pornography, in the sense that everyone assumes they know it when they see it. The fact is that there is no clear and comprehensive definition of politics in Magic, which means that any time two people talk about whether politics is good, bad or ugly, they are almost certainly talking about different things. This confusion over what ‘politics’ actually means can cause friction in a casual group, but it also has the more serious effect of driving a wedge between the casual and competitive communities. Magic is a strategy game, and people of all stripes enjoy the challenge of figuring out how to pilot their decks to victory. If someone believes that politics replaces strategy in determining the outcome of a multiplayer game – that it doesn’t matter what they do or how well they play – then they are never going to play multiplayer, which is a loss to them but also to the multiplayer community more broadly. But without a clear understanding of where strategy ends and politics begins, we can’t do anything to counter that argument or persuade them to give multiplayer a try.
Let me give you two examples that sum up the “multiplayer sucks because it’s all about politics” school of thought. The first is from an email a friend of mine sent me after he got crushed in a four-player game:
“All the politics in FFA just seem to make things unfun. But that’s me. I’d rather play where the best player wins.”
The second comes from no less then Aaron Forsythe, Head of R&D at WotC, who summed up his negative experiences with multiplayer in a Dojo article in 2000:
“The cards in your deck have very little to do with how this plays out; in fact, you stand a better chance of lasting until the game’s end by bringing a six-pack of Dr. Pepper for the gang than worrying about building a tight little deck [and] rarely does multi-player Magic reward you for making the ‘right’ play.”
I’m not going to start an argument with Aaron “Hip-Hop” Forsythe, a man who has done more for Magic than almost anyone in the history of the game (and a guy who apparently loves Sheldon-approved EDH with a passion), but rather than erecting a man of straw, I’m going to take Aaron’s comments as representative of the misgivings and misapprehensions that a lot of non-casual players have about multiplayer Magic and try to clear them up.
In my previous articles I was happy enough to explain what I thought politics wasn’t, ignoring the massive grey area between what most people would call strategy and what is clearly politics. Starting today I’m going to clarify where the line is between the two and what separates them. Fair warning: I’m going to challenge the orthodoxy of what most people seem to regard as politics. To my way of thinking, any meaningful definition of politics only describes a small part of what happens in multiplayer; the rest is all strategy. In fact, I don’t even think that politics must necessarily be part of the multiplayer experience.
Assuming that Pro players are unlikely to read this, what’s the benefit to my casual audience? Firstly, being able to explain to tournament players why their conception of multiplayer is either wrong will make you a better advocate for casual play and might help you to bring some new blood into your playgroup. Secondly, understanding exactly the differences between politics and multiplayer strategy will make you better at both.
Separating Strategy from Politics
Throughout the history of the game, or at least the history of online commentary about the game, the question of politics has been problematic. Not only have many tournament players criticized multiplayer because of the role that they feel politics plays, but Anthony Alongi and The Ferrett, still the best multiplayer strategy writers ever in my opinion, argued forcibly for different views on politics. They couldn’t even agree on a common definition of politics, so I’m probably biting off more than I can chew here, but Muse Vessel is the multiplayer site, so we won’t shy away from tackling the tough questions.
The first thing we should be able to agree on is that whatever ‘politics’ means, it must be a unique feature of multiplayer – after all, I’ve never heard the complaint that someone won a Pro Tour, or even an FNM, through politics. Secondly, we need to decide whether politics is part of strategy or distinct from it. In international relations,[i] politics and war are understand as separate things, and the difference between them is well understood: “War [strategy] is the continuation of politics by other means.”[ii] Of course, Magic is essentially a war game, so our definition should be reversed. In Magic, I believe that politics is the continuation of strategy by other means. Magic strategy is about playing cards to further your interests, and politics is about furthering your interests through other means.
These assumptions let us take out all of the characteristics of a duel and agree that they are strategic, not political. These include:
- Playing cards
- Assessing threats
- Choosing targets
- Hidden information
- ‘Reading’ your opponent
These are some of the many elements of Magic strategy. We play cards, assess which of their creatures are worth spending removal spells on and which of our creatures should attack or block, try to figure out what spells they have, use untapped mana to represent spells that we don’t have, and so on. Some information is hidden (i.e. the cards in their hand and deck), and we try to uncover what they have while concealing our own. Ultimately, it is all about furthering our own interests, which primarily means trying to win, through the cards. I don’t think there can be any doubt that these activities are strategic, not political. And when you look at it like this, it becomes obvious that multiplayer Magic is still primarily a strategy game; these same elements are the core of playing and winning at multiplayer. Many of them become more complicated in a multiplayer environment, but their strategic nature remains unchanged.
Next, let’s look at the essential differences between a duel and a multiplayer game. Shifting to multiplayer must be, at its core, a change in the strategic environment, rather than a change from a strategy game to a political game (the added elements may enable politics, but they are primarily strategic). The differences between a duel and multiplayer are:
- More opponents
What, you were expecting another long list? It really is that simple: the only difference in the strategic environment between a duel and multiplayer is how many opponents have to die before you can win.
But most people underestimate how profoundly that simple change affects your strategic decision making. All of the following are extra dimensions of multiplayer strategy that follow from having multiple opponents:
- More targets for each spell
- More targets for each attack
- More threats
- More answers
- Scaling effects
- More damage to deal[iii]
- Greater variance in board positions
- Greater variance in cards played
- More hidden information
- More uncertainty
- More complex decisions
- More factors in the decision making process
Now that is a long list – and it’s only the highlights. When I talk about strategic complexity, that’s what I mean; all of these elements are essentially strategic, but are either quantitatively or qualitatively different from duels.
Right away, we can see that a key part of multiplayer strategy is going to be prioritizing. In a duel, if your opponent has two dangerous creatures and you have one removal spell, then you may have to prioritize between them; in multiplayer if each of your opponents has two creatures then you have to make the same decision, but it is much more complex. How you and others set (and adjust) your priorities is one of the key strategic elements that often gets confused with politics.
Bearing the Brunt
Imagine you’re playing a mirror match with a simple Standard deck and on average you get attacked 10 times, three of your critters get Doombladed, and two of your spells get countered each game. Now, what would happen in a four-player game if everyone was playing the same deck? You have three times as many opponents, but that doesn’t mean you’ll get three times the negative attention. The actual number of attacks is going to be closer to 10 than 30 (adjusted upwards for the fact that a four-way is likely to run longer than a duel), but that doesn’t mean that it’s going to be the same, and because each opponent has to prioritize their attacks, not every player is going to receive the same number of attacks. Almost inevitably, someone is going to get hit harder, hit sooner, or hit more often than another player. If this happens repeatedly, then they may start to feel that they are getting “ganged up on.”[iv] Again and again, I have heard strong players (especially the more tournament-oriented folks) equate this with politics and use it as an excuse to give up on multiplayer. However, in most cases a player receives more negative attention because of purely in-game strategic considerations; one or more other players decide that they are the highest priority, for whatever reason, and they die. It is inevitable in a strategy game that this will happen, which is not to say that that the best player doesn’t win or there is no reward for good deckbuilding and tight play. What it does mean is that your strategy has to change when you shift from one strategic environment to another. Just as you need to play (and perhaps build your deck) differently when you shift from a duel to a 2HG game, so you have to adjust your strategy when you move to a three-player game, or Star, or a six-player game, all of which represent different strategic environments.
Another common complaint in multiplayer goes something like this:
“Why did you attack me/kill me/blow up my stuff?! His stuff is much more of a threat, you should have attacked him/killed him/blown up his stuff, you $%&#ing retard!”
Admittedly that is the douchiest example of the archetype, but as I’ve heard almost exactly that argument twice in the last two weeks, I can assure you that it is, regrettably, far too common. In my experience, the sort of person who will say stuff like that will usually blame the ‘bad’ play on either the intelligence/play skill/parentage of their target or on politics.[v] However, the reality is that the play is usually motivated by a different but equally legitimate assessment of the strategic environment.
Recently I got an incredulous look from a friend when I blew up his Lux Cannon; he couldn’t understand why I did that, because he was using it to prune the forces of a mutual threat, who was churning out fearsome critters at a fearsome rate. However, I had just played my sixth land and would soon start dropping a series of powerful bombs that would take over the game, and was certain that I’d become The Threat on my next turn. He was certain that his cannon wasn’t a threat to me; I was certain that my next couple of plays would make it a threat to me, so I hurt my ‘ally.’
Earlier this week a friend of mine was playing the weakest deck at the table – a decent Sedris build, but neither strongly focused nor packing the kinds of bombs that the rest of the decks at the table had – when one guy took advantage of his weak board position and attacked him out of the game. I am convinced that it was a mistake to waste resources on a weak player when at least three of the other four opponents were more threatening, and I wondered if there might be some personal bias against my friend or in favor of two of the guys who were better targets, but the attacker sad that he would always kill the guy with the islands first. I don’t agree with that philosophy at all (not all blue decks are bastards and many bastards don’t play blue – I recommend hitting the bastards first) but I can’t deny that his thinking was based on a strategic way of prioritizing targets.
As someone who really values diversity in games, I enjoy the fact that so many more cards are potentially good in multiplayer. Playing against one opponent, certain cards just aren’t effective, but when you combine games that go longer, cards that scale to become stronger with more opponents, and cards that are strong in specific game states, multiplayer simply offer more toys to play with than a duel. One of my favorite cards is Decree of Pain, but even something as simple as Blood Tithe can be quite powerful in a larger game. Another example is Augury Adept (go on, look it up…I’ll wait), a card that offers quite a lot, but never made the cut in Standard decks. However, in multiplayer you’re much more likely to find an open opponent to hit with a saboteur ability like this. I love cards like this, and I love being able to win with cards that my opponents never thought of using (I even kind of enjoy getting beaten with cards I never thought of, but not quite as much).[vi]
What I don’t like is the idea that certain cards are inherently ‘political.’ You’ll often hear someone say that cards like Propaganda or Trade Secrets are ‘political’ cards, but what does that mean? Propaganda does the same thing in multiplayer that it does in a duel – increases the opportunity cost of attacking you. The difference is that in multiplayer your opponents have more options, and so are more likely to attack each other and leave you alone, but that difference comes from the multiplayer environment, not the card or how you play it. A card like this affects your opponent’s decision making process, and as such, it becomes a better play – its strategic value increases – in multiplayer, but there is no reasonable basis for considering it to be a political card.
Trade Secrets is not that different. Every card in Magic is designed to give you an advantage over your opponent(s). Usually this means that you get something while your opponents don’t, such as a generic creature, or you take away something of theirs, such as a removal spell. However, there are some cards, such as Trade Secrets or the cycle of Hunted creatures from Ravnica, that give your opponent something but give you something more.[vii] What is supposed to make these cards different in multiplayer is that you can choose a weak player, or perhaps even an explicit ally, and share the advantages with them. But while these cards may be better in multiplayer, the choice of whether and when to play them is still a strategic one. You are still gaining in relative power, but now you face the risks associated with giving an advantage to an opponent. You are still trying to further your own interests through playing cards, which is the essence of strategy, but now you have an extra layer of complexity – which opponent will hurt you least when they use the cards you give them to further their interests? That is strategic complexity, not politics.[viii]
It is true that these cards can be used to negotiate an alliance, ceasefire, or similar if you’re into that kind of thing, but you don’t need a card like Trade Secrets to offer opportunities for wheeling and dealing; “I’ll attack you with my Craw Wurm unless you disenchant his Circle of Protection” is the first piece of unabashedly political maneuvering I can remember. More importantly, no amount of negotiation is going to change the fact that this person is your enemy and is likely to use any resources you give them to hasten your demise. There are no ‘political cards’, only political plays, and the sooner you remove that phrase from your vocabulary the better.
There is politics in multiplayer, but my purpose here has been to show just how much of what is commonly regarded (derided?) as politics is actually just strategy. The strategic interactions and decision making that defines duels is still at the heart of the multiplayer game, but they evolve, becoming richer and more complex. I listed 12 ways in which the strategic environment changes as you add more players, but that’s just the bare bones of it. There’s so much more I could say, and I’m still learning the lessons of what it means even now. I believe that the more you think about multiplayer strategy, the more you’ll realize how small the role of politics is. Next week I’ll continue to narrow it down and arrive at a definition of what can actually be considered politics, not strategy. How small that area is may surprise you, as it surprised me, but understanding it will help you to get a lot more metaphorical multiplayer mileage out of your strategy.
[i] Notice how I didn’t say “in the real world”; I’m so enmeshed in Magic at this point that when I say “the real world”, I’m normally talking about Dominaria.
[ii] Some dead German guy, well before any of you were born.
[iii] This doesn’t mean that you have to deal all of the damage yourself; it just means that, barring alternative win conditions such as milling or wit-battling, more damage must be dealt overall.
[iv] Despite what I said last week about balancing against the threat, I think the term “ganging up” is totally overused, although that’s probably best left for another article.
[v] Curiously, I’ve run into a number of these guys over the course of almost two decades of Magic and I have never once heard the opposite: “Why did you attack him/kill him/blow up his stuff?! My stuff is much more of a threat, you should have attacked me/killed me/blown up my stuff, you $%&#ing retard!” It seems pretty obvious that this kind of outburst is at least partly motivated by poor sportsmanship.
[vi] A lot of the criticism that casual players make bad decks or play with ‘jank’ cards comes from this feature of multiplayer strategy.
[viii] For example, if all of your creatures have been wiped out and you desperately need blockers to protect against an attack from someone else, then I should be able to cast Hunted Dragon, give you the Knight tokens, and be relatively safe from your counterattack. Of course, as clever as this sounds in theory, I might find that the opponent who can no longer attack into your knights attacks me instead, or five turns later you might equip your one remaining token with a Bonehoard and crush me. This shows how a lot of the conventional wisdom about multiplayer strategy and politics comes from people who don’t really understand the complex dynamics of the game.