Windborn Muse, or Bruce, as the good folks at Witness Protection dubbed him, wrote an excellent article about threat assessment recently, and I thought I’d add my two yen to that. I don’t think I disagree with anything he wrote, but since it is one of the broadest areas of multiplayer strategy, there’s lots of room to look at some of the areas that he didn’t touch on. I want to think about what to do when you get caught with your threat assessments down—when your initial idea of who to go for was wrong, or things have changed so much that you need a new plan.
In an ideal world, the way to win a multiplayer game is to identify the biggest threat to you, beat them down ‘til they’re no longer a threat, then find the next biggest threat and repeat until bathed in glory/the entrails of the defeated. However, my opponents sometimes have the unbridled testiclâge to threaten me simultaneously—as if me eviscerating them one by one like the hero of a slasher flick wasn’t enjoyable for them! The question then becomes, how do you deal with the greatest threat when there are too many threats to choose from?
Dilemma 1—The Switch
Imagine you’re in a four-player game against Alex, Bobby and Chris. To make matters simpler we can also assume that all four of you are trying to win on the basic Red Zone axis. Alex emerged as the greatest threat to you on the basis of board position, perhaps by accelerating into their fatties faster than anyone else. You use a removal spell and then attack with your creatures, either to weaken them or to force them to block with their mana elves, and commence to beat them down from 20 to around eight life. While you’re doing that, Bobby casts something nasty, like whatever green creature is biggest in this block. (See the comments section for the list of what those are. – Seedb. Muse) Alex has no board position at this stage, but it will still take you two more turns to kill them given the current game state. In other words, the first threat is no longer the biggest threat, but is still in the game. What do you do?
The essence of the dilemma here is how can you take down Bobby when a) your board and hand are probably depleted, and b) Alex is likely to come gunning for you when they get back in the game? Not an easy task, but it can be done. Your main options are:
Option 1: Convince Alex that Bobby is the biggest threat to both of you.
Option 2: Convince Chris that Bobby is the biggest threat to both of you.
Option 3: Finish Alex and hope that Bobby looks elsewhere until you’re finished.
Option 4: Ignore Alex and hope that you can finish Bobby before Alex recovers.
Whichever option is best in that particular situation, your success is far from guaranteed, and will depend on a range of factors, both political and strategic.
However, there are some things you could have done to avoid getting in that situation in the first place. For starters, you could have gone a little bit easier on Alex until a qualitatively different threat appeared. If you treat someone like they’re the only threat that matters just because they play the same types of threats as the rest of your opponents, but faster, then you’re going to be facing more of the same pretty soon—maybe sooner than you can handle. For example, if all of your opponents have roughly equal decks and one of them plays a Sol Ring early, they will be able to play their threats sooner, but two turns later everyone else will be playing the same kind of stuff and you’ll be in a world of hurt. In other words, sometimes threat assessment means realizing that the real threat hasn’t emerged yet, and biding your time.
If you keep finding yourself in those situations, then work the rattlesnakes to deter Bobby, and have access to two or three surprise finishers for when you’ve got Alex on the ropes. I’ve been playing Commander so much recently that I’ve almost forgotten the value of cards like Might of Oaks, but if you sling the 60s then you should absolutely keep it in mind. If you can’t disengage from someone, or you can’t afford to leave them alive, then having cards that allow you to sneak/force/burn through those last few points of damage are a must.
More generally, spread the love around—in fact, develop a reputation for spreading the love around—and stock up on instant speed answers for the people who actually point their threats at you. In that way you’ll weaken all of your opponents without drawing fire from anyone in particular, and you’ll conserve your resources so that you can unload them when someone who really is the clear and present danger.
Dilemma 2—Target Rich Environment
Let’s look at something a little bit more complicated. Now Alex, Bobby and Chris are playing their pet Commander decks, each of which has a beatdown plan but also a few curveballs, like an alternative wincon or a combo that you really don’t want to see. Plus, the 40 life and the singleton format mean that you can’t rely on being able to take anyone out quickly. It’s the worst of all possible worlds, where you can’t win the game or oust anyone early but you can use your first few turns to piss someone off and start a feud that gets you killed.
To start with, you and the frontrunner this game (let’s say it’s still Alex) get into it a little bit; they overreact to your first couple of pokes and then kill your general, so you cast it again and send it back to them, and in the fog of war you don’t really notice that Bobby’s Lurking Predators has netted four straight creatures and they’re about to go nuts with a token engine and a Gaea’s Cradle, while Chris’s previously harmless fliers now look like an impenetrable wall to protect their Planeswalkers and Kismet/Winter Orb combo. You’ve got a real dilemma on your hands now—anyone at the table could get a win from their current position, and you don’t have nearly enough answers.
Your options are…limitless. Basically, they run the gamut from hoping Alex can sweep it all away, to trying to find an ally, to continue focusing on Alex so much that Bobby and Chris gravitate towards beating each other up, to taking on everyone at once. The right move will depend so much on the unique combination of in-game factors that it’s impossible to guess what it might be in theory—I’ve won games like this using all of those options. More importantly, I’ve lost a ton of games from either sticking with Alex purely because I’ve almost killed them, or moving from Alex to Bobby to Chris and back again simply on the basis of what board position scares me most this turn.
It all comes down to threat assessment, but here you have to do the much harder trick of assessing who is the greatest threat for each player. The obvious stuff is whose creatures can deal with whose, and who is best able to deal with a particular class of permanents that someone else is relying on, but the really important stuff is different: when the game gets complex, different players will present threats on different axes, and at that point good threat assessment is going to involve identifying those qualitatively different threats and figuring out which type of threat is the biggest obstacle to each player. No matter how deep in it you are, this type of comprehensive threat assessment will usually help you to dig your way out.
Most importantly, you’ll be able to identify who is the greatest threat to you and focus your resources accordingly. One time I was playing against blue-white control, blue stealy, artifact combo and Grixis beatdown with my big dumb green deck. Who did I go after? The beatdown deck, just because he played the first big critter, even though I had a better beatdown plan than him. Eventually I realized that the brown mage could combo out no matter how many critters I had, so I started beating on him, until blue stealy took all of his combo pieces, so I started beating on him. In the end, all three of them were beating me down, and I couldn’t do anything because the blue-white mage had cast Teferi’s Moat for green and I’d used all my enchantment removal on my other feuds. Don’t play Archenemy unless you have the deck for it—save your resources for when the real threats emerge.
Secondly, you’ll be able to see which threats actually serve your interests by hurting others more. I had a three-player game recently where the guy who was annoying me the most was actually crippling my other opponent. Brent’s Oros deck was all about the chaos, and he had been causing all kinds of headaches for my Thrax deck and Daisuke’s Nath Token deck with a Spreading Plague. One the one hand, you could argue that Brent was the biggest threat to me because he was slowing me down, limiting me to one creature, and occasionally casting Oros just to destroy any black or red creature I had kept alive. Also, he was trying to win through artifacts and enchantments, which my deck was weak against. On the other hand, Daisuke was playing a serious token build, and Thrax does not like tokens. If I only considered how my deck faired against either of them, it would be a toss-up, but the relative balance of threats between the three of us meant that I needed to keep Brent and his token-killing enchantment alive while I whittled down both of them. I had a Crosis’s Charm to bounce the Plague, but I held it and waited for the moment when I could kill Daisuke then bounce the Plague and kill Brent before he could replay it. It took a while but I won that game by letting the others expend their resources against each other as well as me, instead of devoting all of my resources against one of them. The bottom line is that treating multiplayer like a series of duels is a mistake—just because your opponents are trying to kill you doesn’t mean they can’t help you win!
Third, you need to know who threatens whom and what everyone’s vulnerabilities are if you’re going to politick your way out of this kind of situation. There is was a series of comments on the message boards after my politics and strategy series, where a reader named Estel gave some brilliant ideas about how successfully using politics requires weaving a narrative. Before you can spin a yarn that folks are actually going to believe, you need to know what they’re afraid of, and that’s all about threat assessment. Like a good lie, every good narrative begins with a core of truth. If people believe that you’ll analyze the game well, leave people alone if they aren’t threatening you, and keep your word, then the story you tell about Chris being the biggest threat to the whole table, or Bobby being the only one who could wreck Alex’s board position so Alex should kill Bobby first, will start to sound really persuasive.
Beyond Threat Assessment
Considering how much hidden information is involved in a game of multiplayer Magic, nobody is ever going to get it right every time. That’s why there are a lot of things you should try to do to either avoid getting mixed up with someone too much if they aren’t really a priority, establish a reputation as someone who will disengage from a fight easily if a bigger threat comes along, and pack the kind of cards that will help you in these situations. Something that will finish of a single opponent quickly, like the aforementioned Might of Oaks, is a nice card to draw in a messy multiplayer mid-game. A singleton Hatred can also work wonders (pro tip: target the lifelinker!), and in some cases a Drain Life that eliminates one opponent and frees you to deal with another can be more valuable than an Exsanguinate that eliminates one opponent and pisses off everyone else. That kind of spell can also help you to lower the life total of someone who recently emerged as a threat, perhaps The Quiet Guy who was just sitting there and is still at 20 life. Perhaps if you spill a little of their blood in the water it will encourage the rest of the table to have a go at them.
Of course, killing your opponents is the point of the game, so I’m sure you’ve all got various ways of doing that, but what about the other situations we often see when your threat assessment falls through? Even if your deck aims to be aggressive, do you have cards that tell your opponents that attacking you is more trouble than it’s worth, like a Wall of Souls or a Stuffy Doll or a glimpse of a Fog? Do you have cards that can help one opponent to defend themselves against a shared threat, like Gerrard’s Command or Life Burst? One of the new MTG: Commander cards, Death By Dragons, looks like a great way to deal with situations where on opponent has become The Threat, as well as signal to someone that you want to disengage from them (“Dude, I just gave you a dragon, of course I’m not trying to kill you!”). I tend to favor cards that are strong against multiple opponents, but for all of those times when you’re locked in a struggle with one opponent while the rest of the table is getting out of control, then a good old-fashioned ‘kill one guy’ spell is just what you need.
If getting yourself into these kinds of situations is as common for you as it is for me, then learn to take your time before anointing one of your opponents as the OMGgottakillthatguy guy, and start building your decks with an eye towards dealing with threat assessment problems when they occur. Maybe Bobby will jump on Alex next turn if you don’t rush in first, and maybe spending a card or two to disengage from a Mexican Standoff will give you more resources in the long game.
I’ll be back later in the week with an exclusive MTG: Commander preview card (get the feeling I’m excited about it?) that could actually go a long way towards solving some of the problems I’ve talked about today. Until then, keep it casual!
 As a Black mage, I assume that the hero of the slasher flick is in fact the slasher—otherwise why would they name the movie after them?
 That’s right, I said Commander; they’re giving us a preview card (stay tuned for the article later this week), purely on the condition that I stop calling it EDH. I’ve always been a big fan of bribery and coercion, so that’s fine by me!