Last week I talked about how politics plays a much smaller role in multiplayer Magic than many people think, examining what makes a duel strategic and then looking at how all of those elements of strategy are at the core of multiplayer – sometimes a little bit different, but no less strategic. As we saw, the obvious distinction between duels and multiplayer (i.e. the number of opponents) leads to many changes in the strategic environment. The main points were:
- More targets for each spell
- More targets for each attack
- More threats
- More answers
- Scaling effects
- More damage to deal
- Greater variance in board positions
- More hidden information
- Greater variance in cards played
- More uncertainty
- More complex decisions
- More factors in the decision making process
The upshot of it all is that deciding on the so-called ‘right play’ can become more difficult, or even downright impossible, as more players sit down with you. But making good plays, or even the right play doesn’t need to have anything to do with politics. Let’s continue to nail down exactly where strategy ends and politics begins.
Anthony Alongi and The Ferrett, who remain the two greatest multiplayer strategy writers of all time as far as I’m concerned, have defined politics in various ways, and I think they came close to the truth, but with our deeper understanding of the different dimensions of strategy, we can see that neither definition really separates the two. This isn’t helped by the fact that Anthony’s writing minimized or even denied the existence of politics and The’s writing maximized it. Finally forced to lay his cards on the table, Anthony said:
“If politics is defined as the advancement of one’s own self-interest, or the collective advancement of each individual’s self-interest, well then yeah, there are politics in multiplayer. Politics, defined like that, will encourage lean decks that seek to weed out the Weakest Link. Such decks will have multiple paths to victory, will play the best cards to get the job done, and will be ready for countermeasures. They will collectively gravitate to the largest threat and knock it down, continually seeking equilibrium on the playing field…until one can establish supremacy. But if politics is defined more conventionally – making bargains, suggesting attacks elsewhere, and then pouncing on the fools that trusted you – then I just don’t see it as a viable strategy. It’s not a viable short-term strategy against anyone who has played in group for longer than six months; and it’s not a viable long-term strategy against anyone, period. And if anyone tells you differently, they’re just softening you up for the next time you sit down with them for a nice game of cards and politics.”[i]
On the other hand, The Ferrett said:
“I read Anthony way back when he was writing for seminal Magic theory site The Dojo (the progenitor of all Magic websites, including this one), and what he was talking about never matched my reality of it. What happened in my groups was that all other things being equal, the strongest player usually lost…In my games, dropping the elbow put The Fear into the rest of the table. “Holy Crap!” they’d say. “Ferrett just dropped a Phyrexian Processor with Angelic Chorus! We’d better gang up on him!” And thus, the strongest play was often the one that lost you the game, since everyone would form emergency alliances to pound the crap out of you.
I eventually decided that in multiplayer, politics matter. Learning what your friends and co-players will react to can help you design a deck that will win…To your Mom, not having a clean house would destroy her whole way of life. You may not have agreed with her… But if you were smart, you soon learned to treat her housekeeping mania as if it was important, because otherwise she would refuse to drive you to the movies.
So think of your multiplayer group as a bunch of very mean mothers. (I know I do.) Just as your Mom mistakenly thought that dirty dishes in the sink would destroy the feng shui of her house, each player thinks of some strategy as being so overwhelmingly dangerous that they have to deal with it right now.
It doesn’t matter how dangerous those spells actually are; they only act based on how dangerous they think the spells are…Learning what your group fears allows you to develop your strategy in blissful isolation, while the dude who has just inadvertently terrified everyone wastes time and cards dealing with his opponents. You might even try to steer people in someone else’s direction: “Hey, Phil – you do realize that Tim’s deck has a card that destroys the Elves you have on the table, right?”[ii]
Anthony’s first definition, the part that he says works, is really pure strategy; people acting in ways that serve their interests is the essence of strategic interaction! The second part is the unquestioned definition of politics, the sort of obvious table-talk and negotiation that we can all agree is political, but Anthony makes two mistakes. First, he calls politics a bad strategy, as if it was the same as, or replaced, strategy; in reality, politics is at most a form of tactics. Strategy is about building a deck and playing the cards to achieve a certain path to victory. Politics is more reactive and situational, along the lines of “how can I get the WG mage to disenchant that Stasis.” Only if you built a deck with the intention of manipulating the rest of the table into killing each other, and the only wincon you included was an Urza’s Rage to deal the last few points of damage to a single weakened foe, would politics potentially begin to replace strategy (and even then it’s far from an open-and-shut case). Secondly, Anthony assumes that politics is always negative, as if everyone is either the perpetrator or the victim of politics. We can’t really make a claim like that without a clearer understanding of what politics means.
More interesting is The Ferrett’s definition. By my count, he’s looking at four different things and lumping them all together as politics: how threats are subjective, rather than objective; how your cards can trigger a backlash that gets you killed; how avoiding ‘stronger’ plays can actually improve your chances of winning; and how you can alter your opponents’ perceptions to manipulate their actions. But once again, a lot of this stuff is obviously strategy, not politics.
Complex Strategy is Still Strategy
As we know, having more decisions to make means that different factors will figure into each player’s decisions and perceptions, which is the essence of the subjectivity that The Ferrett talked about. For example, if you had a bunch of Pros working together to play the perfect game in a duel, they would probably agree on the “right play” at least 95% of the time, because there are fewer variables to consider (especially in an established metagame). However, getting people to agree on the best plays (or even the right deck to bring to the table) in a five-way Chaos game is much tougher, because of the enormous variance. Do you attack the deck that won the last game, or the player who switched to a different deck after a poor showing last game? Do you attack the player without blockers, to get in cheap damage, or the one with blockers so that they’ll lose their critter chump-blocking? Is the blue mage the target because they have counters, or the white mage because they have sweepers, or the black mage because they’re so infuriatingly cool and good-looking? Or do you just attack Dave because he’s that guy? There is often no objective “right play” to make in multiplayer, and so whatever decision you make is going to depend on subjective factors, or at least a subjective ranking of objective criteria.
Good Play is Bad?
Let me tell you a little story about why strong cards can get you killed without any politics at all. The friend I wrote about last week, Todd, gave up on multiplayer because he said the best player didn’t usually win. He made that decision after a four-way game in which he made so many of the classic blunders that he might as well have been playing against Sicilians while fighting a land war in Asia. His three opponents were: BG beatdown, RDW War Elemental, and Black and Proud. The first two players had creature-centric strategies and two critters each in play, while my monoblack deck had nothing on the board, when he played The Abyss. Now, what do you think the Red deck did? The Red player was forced to “use it or lose it” – either lose all of his creatures to The Abyss and hope it all worked out somehow, or commit more creatures to the board and try to kill Todd. Predictably, he attacked Todd with his one surviving creature and something hasty he’d just played. The BG player reached the same conclusion independently, and without a word to the Red mage he put a Rancor on his surviving creature and swung at Todd. Two turns later, they’d ousted him without even the slightest coordination, simply because The Abyss was the greatest threat to their chances of winning.
What else could Todd have expected them to do? When they only have one play that gives them a chance of winning, you’d have to be a total dumbass to say that they made that decision because of politics. What Todd should have done is play a blocker or two first and then get The Abyss out after he had some way to deal with the inevitable wave of critters coming his way. If one of those blockers had been an Abyss-proof Stuffy Doll, then so much the better. Because he wasn’t ready for the predictable steps that his opponents would take to win in response, he died. In a duel, you do everything you can to kill your opponent and they do everything they can to stop you; in multiplayer you do everything you can to kill your opponents, and each of them will devote a fraction of their resources to killing you. How much of their resources they devote to you is based on how they perceive the threat you pose to their interests; this decision is based on strategy, not politics.
When the Right Play is only the Second-Best Play?
There’s another play that created a schism in my playgroup because of a misunderstanding about what is politics and what is merely good strategy. We were playing a five-way EDH Planechase game, with the following decks in turn order:
- Me, with my famously hit-or-miss Kresh deck
- Fiendish combo-guy playing Sen Triplets
- 99 mountain Ashling
- Vorosh, the Hunter, with so many Persist critters it was almost a Lorwyn-Time Spiral standard deck
- Intet, the Mana-Screwed
The Triplets had out an Ethersworn Adjudicator with five +1/+1 counters on it and I had a Kresh with about a dozen of the same, but I just knew that Kresh would be mortified as soon as I even looked sideways at the Triplets. The best I could hope for was that I could get in one good attack with Kresh against someone else before he was killed during my End Step. But surprise, surprise, Vorosh had a different plan: before my attack phase he cast Krosan Grip on the Adjudicator! The dead flier put enough counters on Kresh to put him above 21, meaning instant death from general damage. I saw the opportunity to take out the player that I considered to be most inherently dangerous and swung at the suddenly vulnerable Triplets. With all of their eggs in the Ethersworn basket, they couldn’t do anything about it and died, but they didn’t go quietly. There was a prolonged argument about whether Vorosh had made a stupid play and whether the outcome had been decided by politics rather than good old-fashioned strategy.
Looking at it from Vorosh’s point of view, he must have seen a couple of threats. Obviously Kresh was the biggest beater; on the other hand, Vorosh had way more blockers than anyone else and, as we later found out, a Mystical Teachings in hand that he could use to get a kill spell, so Kresh was much scarier to everyone else than it was to him. Next was the threat of the Adjudicator getting set up with nine mana and ruling the table. This is a different type of threat from Kresh, but very real nonetheless; you don’t want to give your opponents a chance to rule the table and dictate what you can and cannot play. On top of that, the probability that the Triplets would send Kresh at other people, including Vorosh, was low but not negligible (in which case, either Kresh or the Adjudicator would be considered an equal threat). Finally, while I was worried about the Triplets stealing artifacts and black spells from my hand, Vorosh knew that he was the best target for the Triplets’ ability, sharing two out of three colors with the Triplets. Over the long haul, the Triplets, and therefore the player of the Triplets deck, were the biggest threat.
Notice how this threat assessment was different for the Vorosh player than it was for the rest of the table. Kresh was not a threat to me and the Adjudicator was not a threat to the Triplets. We both felt that the other player was the biggest threat to us, and were probably projecting that threat assessment to the rest of the table (as most players usually do, I think). But another player will always perceive the threat environment differently from us, if for no other reason than because they will be considering the threat that we represent.
The Vorosh player realized that in one stroke he could eliminate one of the two biggest threats to him, while diverting a threat away from him (remember, the Triplets player was the only one safe from Kresh as long as the Adjudicator stayed on the table, while Vorosh was safe from Kresh no matter what). When you look at his other options (do nothing, kill Kresh himself, wait for the Adjudicator to kill Kresh and then kill the Adjudicator, which would seem on paper to be the ‘right play”), then using me as a tool to take out other players while he sat behind a wall of blockers with the answer in hand becomes the best play, even though in a duel the best play is pretty much always going to be “use your removal to kill their best creature.”
So if a lot of seemingly political plays are just good multiplayer strategy, what are we left with? Is politics simply talking? As someone who talks a lot during games, I certainly don’t want to think so, and I’ve already written an article that dealt with the role of signaling, in which I said I was reluctant to consider all table talk ‘politics.’ As I said then, we send signals with our actions all the time, so it seems weird that sending signals in one way is considered strategy (e.g. playing a Wall of Souls is a pretty strong “don’t mess with me” signal) while sending signals in another way is considered politics (e.g. fingering a card and saying “send that attack somewhere else” sends more or less the same signal). Have you ever chosen not to attack someone because of a spoken threat? How about someone who draws and passes the turn with a full hand, a ton of mana and a knowing smile? Which of those signals counts as politics?
On a deeper level, think about the example that The Ferrett gave: “Hey, Phil – you do realize that Tim’s deck has a card that destroys the Elves you have on the table, right?” Is this a political ploy to get Phil to attack Tim, or is it just the multiplayer equivalent of trash-talk? Does it make a difference if you’re referring to the Pestilence that Tim has in play, or the Tsabo’s Decree that Tim is famous for playing four of in every black deck, or the Extinction that you caught a glimpse of when he was shuffling his deck?
Finding the answer is going to mean returning to our original list of the key differences between multiplayer and duels. On the other hand, I’m at 2500 words already, and this topic is more theoretical than I like to be. On top of that, I’m writing this on a dodgy laptop with a tenuous Wi-Fi connection in my mother-in-law’s bedroom in Seoul, due to some last-minute vacation planning, so finding the answer will also mean waiting until next week. I hope you found the stories interesting and instructive, and can use them to your advantage when wheeling, dealing and, most importantly, strategizing in your next multiplayer game.
Finally, the university semester is getting off to a fresh, albeit shaky, start in Japan, and that means one thing: homework! That’s right, I want you to pay attention to every example of what is traditionally called ‘political’ table talk and ask yourselves how much of an effect it actually had on the game, and how much of it was just background noise, friendly interaction or ‘reminder text’ for something that was forgotten, but which would have been obvious in a duel. Some of you will find the answers surprising. Join me next week for the conclusion, and enjoy the upcoming NPH spoiler season!
 General+Player=Target is the closest thing to a formula I have for deciding who to take out if the decks themselves are an unknown quantity. My Sharuum deck is as weak as a kitten and my Rofellos deck studiously avoided infinite combos, but other players could turn those same generals into turn three killing machines.
 The color identity is a major way of controlling blue, by weakening the theft strategy. Sure, you can cast Volition Reins on my general, but if it’s a legend like Teneb, you can’t activate his ability no matter how many of my lands you steal. Sen Triplets has a similar weakness: you can play basic lands and mana rocks from their hand, but you can’t play their spells unless they’re black, blue or white.
[i] Alongi, Anthony “You are the Weakest Link. Goodbye.” Available online at: http://www.starcitygames.com/php/news/print.php?Article=1360
[ii] Ferrett, The “Political Beat.” http://www.wizards.com/Magic/Magazine/Article.aspx?x=mtgcom/daily/tf1