Remember the last time you played some Commander? Did you sit down and think to yourself, “Thraximundar again. Keep a close eye on that.” [No – I was playing Thraximundar, natch. GBM] Congratulations, you are already doing a basic threat assessment. Just don’t get too cocky, so is everyone else. The real question is whether your assessment is accurate or not.
The first step to an accurate threat assessment is determining the right question to ask. Simply determining the most explosive deck as the biggest threat is a start, but that may or may not be accurate when considering your play style and deck choice. The better question to ask is to think in far more simplistic terms: Who is the greatest threat to you winning the game? Oftentimes, the Explosive Deck is the greatest threat to winning the game. However, there are other considerations. What if Howard is playing Frank’s Explosive Deck? You know that Howard is a fine player, but he doesn’t know the ins and outs of the deck and generally plays far more cautiously. What if Gloria is playing this game? You were merciless towards her in the last game and you know she hasn’t forgotten that. What if you are playing a control deck this game, so the Explosive Deck isn’t the threat that it is when you are playing a deck that slowly builds through the course of the game?
So how do you determine who is the real threat to you winning the game? The first thing to consider is at what point are you making your threat assessment.
When I say “pre-game” I mean that time between when you have chosen your deck and know who your opponents are going to be for the game, and when you actually start playing.
Your pre-game threat assessment is completely dependent on the limited information you have available to you. Everything you know at this point is: your deck choice, your opponents, and if you are lucky enough to be playing Commander, your opponents’ generals. I won’t try to tell you which piece of information is most important. That is something that is group dependent and you need to figure it out. In many groups, knowing that someone is playing a Zur deck is the primary piece of information. In other groups, it is completely dependent on the player. Let’s look at each variable in turn (in no particular order):
If you are playing regularly with the same group of players, you have probably already predetermined who the “best player” in the group is. You may have even gone a step further and ranked each player in order of perceived play skill. Just remember that there is more to the player than their play skill. Is there a player who is the most talented player, but is easily thrown off his game by someone who makes the play they perceive to be the “bad play?” Is there someone whose playstyle says that they must attack the first person to attack them until that person is dead?
Irrelevant of the talent of the players involved in your game, is someone carrying a grudge? If you just finished a game with the same group of players, is it clear that someone will be attacking someone else due to some play or series of plays that was deemed inappropriate or unacceptable?
Do the players in your group immediately attack the winner of the last game? This will vary your threat assessment, particularly if you were the winner of the last game. My group will generally get first blood on the winner of the last game, all else being equal, then it is forgotten. I played in another group in the past where if someone slipped in and stole a win in a long, protracted game, then they were treated equally in the next game. However, if they built up a lock or forced a long game of inevitability on the board to win or a game, they would be attacked mercilessly. Even if they didn’t win the game, they were still attacked with the idea being that they used up valuable gaming time with a game that was unexciting.
Are you seen as the primary threat? It may be in your group, you are viewed as the most dangerous player at the table. Whether that is accurate or not is really irrelevant when determining the threat assessment. Either way, you can expect to be attacked early and often when the opportunity presents itself to any of your opponents.
My gaming group is a little different, in that there is no consensus “best player.” All things being equal, Josh tends to target me first. Eric tends to target Josh first. Jesse is a little more variable, but lately he seems to be hitting John first. I often fail to follow my own advice and tend to target the winner of the last game early on.
There are times when you won’t know your opponents at all. Try and take your cues from the other players. When I play with a different play group, I try to read who the primary threats are. I listen to the discussions and table talk and try to glean information accordingly.
To a great extent, your deck determines what the real threats are to you winning the game. Let me try to explain this with an example. For a long time I was running a Captain Sisay deck, loaded down with all kinds of legends. If I was left alone long enough to get the Captain on the board through my untap step, then things were probably going to go well for me. The deck was very resilient and could handle pretty much anything that was thrown at it.
When I was running this deck, I didn’t worry about the players who I knew relied on creature kill spells to clear the board. I focused on the players I knew who were more likely to run counterspells. More particularly, I focused on the players who would immediately turn their entire focus against the deck as soon as they knew what I was playing. I knew they were the primary threat for me, since other players were not nearly as concerned about the deck. Once I could eliminate the primary threat, I could grow slowly into an unstoppable position.
Another deck I run is my Birds deck. Everyone at the table knows this is a cute little deck that runs a bunch of tiny birds and relies completely on Soulcatchers’ Aerie to win games. Without the Aerie, I have a bunch of wimpy little flyers. When I play this deck, the focus has to be on players who likely have enchantment removal. While we are talking about pre-game threat assessment and I can’t know at that point who is running what colors or cards, I do know which players have a tendency to run enchantment removal. It is also important that I am aware of my deck’s weaknesses before the game starts, even if I won’t know who to target before a single card is drawn.
Obviously, if you are playing Commander, there is the general to consider. Some generals come with a reputation that precedes the game. If someone is running Teferi as their general, your threat assessment must clearly take that into account.
If you are playing with a regular playgroup, knowing the General may be just as good as seeing everyone’s decks even before you start. This can be a huge benefit to an accurate threat assessment, since you know that a slow start may not mean that player is not a threat, but is simply the way that deck plays out.
Even if the generals in your game are not particularly infamous, and don’t tell you everything about a player’s deck, they can tell you a lot. You know what colors each person is playing. While some players like Brandonlike to try to work with a color’s weakest characteristics when building a deck, most players will play to that color’s strengths. If you are playing against a Heartless Hidetsugu player, you can probably expect a lot of burn… and an inability to do anything to your enchantments.
Oftentimes you can even predict a playstyle with the general in question (Ashling, Phelddagrif, and Hanna all imply distinctive playstyles). While we are dealing in “general”ities here and you need to keep that in mind, you can take all of this into account when making your initial threat assessment.
Just remember that these variables are also interdependent. In my group for example, I usually consider Jesse a primary threat. However, this is dependent on his deck selection. Jesse enjoys some decks that are just nasty and other decks that are just funny. My threat assessment is constantly in flux depending upon which player is playing which deck.
The in-game threat assessment is something that goes on constantly, from the moment the game begins, right up until you make your final decision. There are plenty of obvious considerations that you don’t need me to discuss. Look at the permanents in play and actually consider whether they are a threat to you, keeping in mind what you can and can’t do. I’m going to highlight some of the misconceptions I’ve seen and done myself to encourage you to watch your step.
This has to be the most misunderstood threat assessment tool in the game. How often have you had a game where someone asked what the life totals were before using their pinger to hit someone for one damage? Really? You have decided that the best way to determine the greatest threat on the board is by looking at life totals. Forget cards in hand, permanents in play, or any of a hundred other cues for threat assessment, you have decided that a higher life total is the ultimate determiner of the most dangerous player.
Now, don’t get me wrong. If someone’s life total is significantly higher than everyone else’s, then life total needs to be considered when doing your threat assessment. With New Phyrexia out, life totals can be even more important, since someone with Moltensteel Dragon and a bunch of life is far more threatening than someone with Moltensteel Dragon and 8 life. However, if Walter is running a combo deck, why would you care that Jim has 14 life and Walter only has 9? You care about how close Walter is to comboing off and killing you! Remember, who is the real threat to you?
Cards in Hand
Cards in hand is far more important than a lot of people realize. Particularly as a game moves on, if someone is holding a card in hand, it is likely a trick they are waiting to use. That is exactly the sort of thing you are looking for when determining threat assessment. Look at their board and consider what you have seen up to this point. Assuming you don’t already know what their deck does, think about what they could have in their hand. Are they a combo deck waiting to go off? Are they manascrewed and just waiting for lands? Are they just slow-rolling the board into believing they have nothing while everyone else uses up their resources fighting each other?
Just a quick side-note here. Please don’t play out every land you draw! While some opponents will simply attack you irrelevant of cards in hand, others will actually take that into consideration. Why not hold that 12th Plains in your hand. Let them think you have something and throw off their threat assessment!
Everything I said in the pre-game section still applies, but that isn’t why I put this here as well. Just look at the players you are facing this game and watch their reactions as they draw cards. In this casual setting, many players do nothing to hide their emotions. When they draw a card they might as well be holding the card out for you to see. They desperately pull their card on the draw, then disgustedly throw it down with the rest of their lands. They look at their card then sit back with shoulders slumped, letting out a deflated sigh of defeat.
I love these guys.
These are the same guys who draw a card and don’t slump when they get a card that can do something for them. I may not know exactly what they drew when this happens, but it certainly affects my threat assessment.
Just remember that your opponents are probably doing the same thing to you. I’m not looking for you to play stone-faced; we are playing some fun casual Magic here, but do try and limit your actions to situations where it is obvious to everyone. When I am obviously manascrewed, I often tap the top of my deck and make a big show of it, grunting and straining as though through sheer force of will I can turn the top card into a land. It is usually good for a laugh when it turns out to be a land. Just take it easy when you are manaflooded. Your crestfallen look upon drawing that land is just making it so easy for your opponents.
In the end, don’t ridicule someone whose threat assessment is different from yours. Perhaps they made a mistake, or perhaps they see the threats on the board differently. Listen to why they played the way they did and keep it in mind for the next time. Your threat assessment will only get better when you understand how your opponents are seeing things.
 Any time before that is better described as metagaming. Your threat assessment is far more general since you don’t know exactly which opponents you’ll be playing and more importantly, you don’t even know what deck you are playing. It is awfully difficult to make any sort of valuable threat assessment when you don’t know what your deck is capable of handling and where you need to apply your diplomatic skills and try to get help.