Threat assessment is generally regarded as the most important skill in multiplayer Magic, but it is as close to an exact science as astrology. Can any of us say that we don’t make at least one incorrect assessment each game? I know I can’t, and what I’ve come to realize recently is that those mistakes aren’t just random—my threat assessment has consistent biases that are costing me games and, frankly, pissing off my playgroup. Today I’m going to talk about the need to realign your threat assessment to reduce the impact of these recurring, systematic assessment mistakes.
When we look at a board state, or look at the players and decks at the table with us, we aren’t robots performing arithmetic—we’re sweaty sacks of hormones, grudges and misfiring neurons, engaged in a stressful contest of the most complicated game in the world. In other words, our threat assessments are automatically flavored by our emotions, our personal preferences and our limited ability to understand the million or so variables at play. Like the old fable about three blind men trying to describe an elephant, no two players see the threats in the same way. That makes it vital that we understand what subjective factors most commonly affect our decision making, and minimize the role that we allow them to play.
Take a couple of minutes to consider these questions; I promise it’ll be worth your time.
- Is there a certain player that you can never beat, or who always manages to seize a victory when you’d counted them out, or who just constantly annoys you?
- Do you react at the slightest sign of an infamous local deck, or a particular archetype, or your pet peeve mechanic—you know, the one that you always have trouble with?
- Have you developed a set of protocols for dealing with uncertainty, like “always get the player who won the last game,” or “always kill the blue mage first,” or “Bobby’s always the threat—let’s gettim!!”
I’m sure you’ve all either answered “yes” to one or more of these, or played with people who have. It’s perfectly normal, but it’s also completely wrong.
Take a look at the examples in that last paragraph; did you notice a lot of “always” and “never” or did you skip right over them? The first sign that your threat assessment is biased is when you use ideas like ‘always’ to make decisions. After all, there’s nothing simpler than ‘always,’ and there’s nothing more complex than Magic, so that alone should tell you that you’re doing something wrong.
Thinking about Buddy’s article from last month, I’ve realized that my play style makes me particularly sensitive to three common mechanics: graveyard removal and creature theft—especially in Commander, where I tend to have the most graveyard interaction and the biggest creatures—and milling. Thinking about how I’ve reacted to these things recently, it’s fair to say that I pretty much ‘always’ go after the person who mills me—even if I’m playing reanimator—and I ‘always’ go after anyone who exiles my graveyard—even if I’m playing a monored build with no recursion.
If I were to think objectively, I’d realize that graveyard removal and theft are simply reasonable adaptations to the meta that I have helped to create, but my subjective interpretation is less Spock-like and more along the lines of “Relic of Progenitus? Why do you hate me so much?! Die!!!” Similarly, I know rationally that having cards milled into your graveyard gives you a better chance to plan for what your next draw might be, but emotionally I tend to react to someone who milled my favorite cards in exactly the same way that I would react to the person who killed those cards. I think that’s because the Timmy in me looks forward to playing those big cards so much that getting my Lord of Extinction milled feels like I’m losing something—and of course the person who ‘hurts’ me like that becomes, in my eyes, a greater threat than the objective game state justifies.
We look at players in the same way, too. Sure, there are some players whose explicit goal is to have the strongest, most ‘efficient’ deck at the table, and if they play the same pimped-out tier one deck every time, then maybe you’re within your rights to think of them as The Threat™ in every game. But what about the person who normally plays killer decks, but is now playing their Standard-legal Spider tribal deck that they made in honor of the new Spiderman movie (Another reset? Seriously?!)—is it really fair to go after them as if they’re playing a three-turn combo deck? In threat assessment, we have to walk a fine line between seeing past the deck to the player (“Sure, it’s a mono-red Bird Maiden deck, but if Bobby’s playing it, there have to be a couple of Earthquake effects”), and looking at the deck itself (if Captain Counterspell is playing a RG Commander deck and you’re still playing around Hinder, then you’ve lost your objectivity).
Similarly, if someone beat you in the last game, you need to consider the constellation of factors that allowed them to take you down before you try to blitz them in game two. Did they home in on you from the get-go? Is there something in their build that makes you completely vulnerable to them (stupid Akroma’s Memorial!)? Or were you just open because you’d used up all of your resources dealing with a much more dangerous deck? Depending on the actual situation, the person who took you out last game may or may not be worthy of a second glance in this game—don’t let a lucky punch cloud your objectivity.
In my case, there are two local players that I have started thinking of in those overly-subjective “always” terms. One of them is just really good at Magic, to the point where I might still think he was a significant threat even if he got hit by Razia’s Purification and Curse of the Cabal in the same turn (“Holy crap, if he gets Barren Glory I’m screwed!”); the other one just has the uncanny ability to come back from the brink of death/irrelevance ‘every time’ I underestimate him, which often leads me to overestimate the threat he’s posing now. I’m not saying that I always go after these guys hard in every game (although they might think I go after them more consistently than I actually do—remember, subjective assessment cuts both ways), but sometimes it is hard for me to discern the line between what they can do in this game and what they have done in other games.
Thinking about the flip side will help us to understand how subjective factors affect our threat assessment. Have you ever been in a situation where you think you’re getting unfairly targeted? One of the most common mistakes in threat assessment is exaggerating the threat that something or someone represents, but the Always Fallacy can apply the other way too—“that guy ‘always’ tries to kill me even when I’m not the threat.” I heard this recently from an aggrieved friend of mine, but if you feel the same way, I’d recommend leaving the lid on that can of whup-ass for a little bit and taking a few deep breaths.
Firstly, the best answer to this situation is probably not to start some kind of arms race. Let’s pretend for just a second that you can assign a numerical ranking (1-10) to the threat that a deck poses to the rest of the table. In that case, the problem you’re experiencing is something like: “my deck is only a five, but he attacks me even when the other decks are sixes and sevens.” In other words, you feel that your deck isn’t strong enough to justify the attention you’re getting; do you really think the problem is going to be solved by making your deck an eight? I guarantee you’re going to create situation where you get attacked more, by the whole table, and you won’t be able argue that the beats aren’t justified any more.
Secondly, remember that you can be the threat to someone without realizing it; it might be the kind of subjective decision making that I talked about earlier, but you might have a card in your hand or your deck that wrecks someone, like being the only person who plays graveyard removal when one of your opponents believes that the only way they can win is to play a big Living Death, or being Captain Counterspell when someone has been sitting on Insurrection from the start of the game. In situations like this, their best chance of winning will be to take you out first, but you won’t even realize it until after the game is over (and if someone else thwarts their plan after they oust you, you’d probably just assume they didn’t have a good reason for killing you). Part of the complexity of multiplayer Magic is that it is very difficult to judge who is the greatest threat to another player.
Thirdly, there are a lot of actions an opponent can take that look like they have it in for you, but can be motivated by completely different considerations. Let’s look at a couple of examples. “It isn’t fair that they always…
- …attack me first”
- …attack me with something ‘small’ every turn”
- …attack me with something ‘big’”
- …destroy my stuff”
- …counter my stuff”
The fact that we can’t define what ‘big’ and ‘small’ mean is a great example of subjectivity in action; to a creatureless blue deck, a Leatherback Baloth might be ‘big’, but to the pilot of a Beasts tribal deck it might be the smallest weapon in their arsenal. That means that two swings with the Baloth might be casus belli to the control mage, but the beasts player was just trying to spread the love, and doesn’t understand why the blue mage is starting a feud. Similarly, someone might attack you because they think it’s your turn (don’t fear the Butter!), or they want to prune your life total to a more manageable level for when they’ve finished off their main target, or because they fear the explosiveness of your deck.
Especially if nobody’s taking the game too seriously, you might get smacked around a bit just because you’re open, or you don’t have any counterattack potential on the board. My friend plays with a lot of spider cards, but very few creatures or other rattlesnakes; even though he’s established a reputation for never making idle threats, his cards in hand are usually less effective deterrents than someone else’s critters, and so he takes a lot of hits just for being open.
The bottom line is that you may think that someone has it out for you when they don’t. The best solution to the perception that you’re ‘always’ being targeted by someone is to talk to them about it. Don’t threaten; ask questions. Maybe they’ll tell you why they’re attacking you this time and it will make sense. Maybe they’ll point out that most of their attention is going somewhere else and you aren’t being singled out. Maybe they’ll admit that they made a mistake (like last week when I sent lethal damage at someone I didn’t want to kill, just because I didn’t realize how low his life was). Maybe they’ll reveal some kind of bias against you or your deck, in which case you can talk about it and try to resolve the problem with no hard feelings. Whatever the outcome is, talking it over with your friend is preferable to starting a vendetta for purely subjective reasons.
Bad threat assessment is a problem because it will cost you games; hammering away at a weaker player while someone stronger builds up their forces is a recipe for disaster. Over the long term, though, consistent biases in your threat assessment can be even worse. You’ll still lose a lot of games—just like with regular threat assessment screw-ups—but the thing about these systematic problems is that you’ll lose extra games because you’re so predictable, you’ll end up stuck in a bunch of duels while the real multiplayer goodness unfolds around you, and you can even potentially alienate your friends. That means you need to take stock occasionally to see if you’re letting subjective factors take over your threat assessment, and if you are, then adjust your decisions accordingly. The good news is that your consistent biases, once you’ve identified them, are easier to correct than the case-by-case threats that you have to deal with every game. I can’t tell you whether to attack the dude with the Lightning Greaves or the dude with the Sensei’s Divining Top first, but I can tell you that making that decision without considering any in-game context—“dudes who play Top are ‘always’ too dangerous to live”—is a great way to lose a game.
 The first blind man touched the elephant’s trunk and said, “The elephant is like a snake.” The second touched its leg and said, “The elephant is like a tree.” The third man stepped in a pile of elephant shit and said, “Oh my god, it’s the Golgotha Demon! Get it off!!”
 One local player always attacks anyone with any blue in their deck out of the game first—not because he hates blue mages, but because he loves playing monoblue control, but gets killed whenever he tries. His solution is apparently a firm policy of “if I can’t play blue, no one can,” but he’s lost so many games from just throwing all his resources at bad decks with X/X/u generals that it can’t possibly be worth it to him.
 Anthony Alongi’s system of animal characteristics; chime up in the comments section if you don’t know what it means and I’ll explain it. All of the Muses use this terminology, so it’s important to understand. Also, Alongi is a god!
 It’s just an inevitable fact of life that people pay more attention to actions that hurt them than to other actions. If you’ve ever cast a sweeper to kill one opponent’s goblin hordes, only to be attacked by another opponent because their Ornithopter got caught in the blast, then you’ve seen this dynamic in action.