For as long as people have been thinking about multiplayer Magic strategy, there have been two main schools of thought. Some folks, including the great Anthony Alongi and the mediocre me, will tell you that the best way to win is to put strong cards in a strong deck and come out swinging. Others, most notably The Ferrett and Bruce “The Quiet Guy” Richard (aka Windborn Muse) have emphasized the need to stay under the radar to avoid incurring the wrath of your playgroup.
Interestingly, this is similar to one of the most enduring debates in international relations (IR) theory; all we have to do is call the Alongi school ‘power maximizers/offensive realists’ and the The Ferrett school ‘security maximizers/defensive realists’ and we’re pretty much wrestling with the same problems as Henry Kissinger (ask your dad).
The reason I bring this up is that I recently read an article in an IR journal that goes a long way towards resolving the debate—and not in a dry theoretical way that excites the suede elbow-patches and puts everyone else to sleep, but in a way that is going to help you win more multiplayer games
Don’t sweat the theory; I’m going to ease into it today and finish it off in the next week or two. By the end of this series of articles, you’ll have a better handle on what’s happening at the kitchen table and how to take advantage of it.
A Balanced Approach
I expect that all of us have experienced games where one player became way too powerful, and the rest of the table joined forces and slapped them down. In IR jargon, that’s called balancing. Balancing, as a verb, refers to the process of reducing someone else’s share of the total power, known in multiplayer parlance as “get him!!” The purpose of balancing is to stop someone who is clearly the strongest player at the table (let’s call them The Threat—and yes, the capitals are important) from running away with the game, and either weaken them to the point where they are no longer the most powerful, or kill them (which is, I suppose, the same thing).
But we can also remember times when one person was so strong that we couldn’t touch them. Have you ever had a game when you knew what the best target for your removal spell was, but you didn’t use it because you were afraid the controller of that permanent—The Threat—would have kicked your ass? Or worse, did you use that spell against another player, making them even more vulnerable to The Threat? Either example could be referred to as bandwagoning, which is when you join with The Threat in order to prevent getting beaten up.
There are arguments for and against both behaviors. I believe that balancing is the best and most common strategy, but I know that there are those who think bandwagoning is the smart play in most cases. Talking to Andy from CommanderCast I gave the example of Terroring an opponent’s sole blocker so that The Threat can take them out (perhaps instead of attacking you). I told him that I thought of that as a mistake, but Andy replied it was a great play: you got to use a single spell to take out a player, which has to be the very definition of card advantage!
That’s the best thing about bandwagoning: The Threat is going to see you as less of a priority and focus on taking out the rest of the table first, hopefully giving you time to draw the answers you need to stab them in the back. You may only need to expend a small amount of resources to show your support for The Threat, thereby sending them at the rest of the table. Ideally, everyone else will be too busy dealing with the strongest player to seek retribution against you.
There are a couple of dangers though, which suggest that balancing might be the better strategy. Firstly, jumping on the bandwagon of The Threat doesn’t actually help you to win; it only helps you not to lose as quickly as you otherwise might. Unless your group plays in a format where there’s a difference between coming in second and coming in last, bandwagoning is at best a delaying tactic. That means that if your deck doesn’t contain some way of beating your temporary ally, then you usually can’t hope for more than second place—unless the other players can successfully balance against them, in which case you will find yourself on the losing side anyway.
Secondly, the difference between IR and multiplayer Magic is that your opponents are actually trying to kill you, whereas in IR, even the worst dictators are normally happy with a bit of looting and pillaging. Actually eliminating an enemy country is usually unnecessary when you’ve kicked them in the fork hard enough, but in Magic, eliminating your enemies is the whole point. This has important consequences for bandwagoning because, no matter how much you help them, The Threat still has to kill you in order to win.
That’s the advantage of balancing: in theory at least, working with others should allow you to take out The Threat so that you don’t find yourself locked into an endgame situation with an insurmountable opponent. It is entirely possible to have the weakest deck at the table and still win by being the ‘junior partner’ in a series of balances until you are the last man standing. Unless you’re a woman, of course.
On the other hand, if balancing is the best strategy and/or the most common behavior in your group (and hopefully the best strategy is the most common behavior, otherwise you’re doing something wrong) then that really limits what you can do in game, and may place restrictions on how you build your decks and even what cards you can get away with using. If your group is extremely (overly?) sensitive to shifts in power, then it doesn’t take much to become The Threat, but people will be reluctant to take them out, because that would automatically make another person The Threat. Groups like this tend to have drawn-out, indecisive and sometimes dull games.
That is the disadvantage of balancing and, naturally, the advantage of bandwagoning. Bandwagoning rewards players for taking control of the game where balancing punishes them for it. If bandwagoning was the dominant strategy then deck design and game play would both be oriented towards seizing control of the game as quickly as possible, secure in the knowledge that once you were in the driver’s seat, the rest of the table would bow down before you.
Balancing and bandwagoning are different ways that players (individually or as a group) can respond to The Threat (which is different from threat assessment; assessment comes before response). I’ve seen examples of both behaviors in multiplayer, and I have a clear preference for balancing myself, but that doesn’t help me to answer three important questions:
- What is the most common strategy?
- What is the best strategy?
- When should I expect my opponents to balance, and when are they likely to bandwagon?
This is where IR theory comes to the rescue. Enter: the Security Curve!
The Security Curve
So along comes this article about how to resolve the power maximizer/security maximizer debate, and the first thing I thought was, “Hey, this totally applies to Magic too!” This is why I am bad at my job.
Proponents of balancing believe that there is an inverse linear relationship between relative power and security—or in layman’s terms, the more you threaten the table, the more likely you are to get beaten up. On the other hand, proponents of bandwagoning believe that there is a positive linear relationship between relative power and security—the stronger you are, the easier it is to bend your opponents to your will (insert evil laugh here).
The Security Curve theory suggests that both ideas are right, but each only sees half of the picture. The relationship between relative power and security is much more complex, and the best response to another player depends on how far along this twisty little curve they are.
This twisty little curve shows your relative power on the x—axis and your security (which in multiplayer may be analogous to your chance of winning) on the y—axis. Notice how the graph divides the pursuit of power into three stages: sloping up as more power increases your security, then sloping down as more power decreases your security, then sloping up again, as more power increases your security. At the first stage of the curve, increasing your power also increases in security, and your opponents are more likely to work with you (bandwagoning, in a sense). For example, if you play on-curve creatures on turns two and three, that doesn’t normally scream “threat” to the rest of the table—i.e. it doesn’t provoke them to balance against you—but it does deter aggression and if someone else is becoming a threat then those creatures make you a useful ally. For deckbuilding, that tells us that having early plays is a Good Thing.™
However, once you get to the second part of the curve, increasing your power leads to a backlash from the rest of the table that ultimately reduces your security. If your on-curve plays (e.g. turn four Solemn Simulacrum) turn into ridonkulous acceleration (e.g. turn five Tinker, sacrifice Simulacrum, Darksteel Colossus, go”), then your relative power is likely to be quite a lot higher than the rest of the table, and you’ll begin descending back down the curve. This means that the extra power provided by a really strong play is going to decrease your security rather than increase it, as the whole table moves to balance against you.
The point where increasing your power begins to work against you is called the Security Threshold (marked as ST in the diagram). It is the point where the rest of the table starts to think, “This board position scares the crap out of me; I’m not going to use my resources against the rest of the table until that is dealt with,” even if they don’t actually say, “Let’s have a truce until this player is no longer scary.”
However, if your relative power increases enough, you start to climb back up the curve and more power gives you more security. Once you get past the second turning point, called the Absolute Security Threshold (marked as AST in the diagram), your opponents start to think, “There’s no way anyone can beat that board position at the moment. I hope they kill the others first while I frantically dig for answers.”
I remember a classic four-player Commander game where bandwagoning—using my resources against weaker players when some else was The Threat—got me the win. Player one had opened on turn one Dark Depths, turn two Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth and Vampire Hexmage, so at the start of his third turn he had a flying indestructible 20/20.
Player two had opened with a turn one “this is a new deck, I hope it works,” into turn two “I should have mulliganed this hand, ” and player two had turn one Sol Ring, turn two Pilgrim’s Eye, and on turn three decided that chump blockers were good and cast Sculpting Steel, copying his own Pilgrim’s Eye. Fortunately, I was playing Teneb and had Evangelize in hand, so I was pretty sure that if I could survive to turn five, I could get control of that Marit Lage token and probably win. Unfortunately, I took the first hit and was at 20 life on my fourth turn, facing a one-turn clock.
I drew a Return to Dust and knew what I had to do: I blasted both of those Pilgrims out of the sky, so that Marit Lage would have a greater chance of hitting someone else. If The Threat had been ruthlessly calculating, he would have taken me out on his next turn, because I was the most likely to be playing an Edict effect or a Swords to Plowshares, which was the greatest threat to his dominant board position. However, for whatever reason, he chose to spread the love around, giving me an extra two turns to dig for mana, and I needed both of those turns.
In this case, knowing whether balancing or bandwagoning was the best approach, including knowing whether my other opponents would join me in a balancing coalition, was essential to victory. Balancing would have been impossible here, because The Threat was too powerful relative to the rest of us, and nobody else could see a clear path to victory through Marit Lage. If I’d tried to rally them by revealing that I had an answer in hand, I would have been dead on The Threat’s next attack. The only way to survive was to overcome my normal tendency to balance and help The Threat to get past those Pilgrims.
I hope that makes sense (as always, feel free to ask questions in the Comments section). I know this kind of thing is deeper than most Magic articles, but trust me; I’ve been thinking about this for a couple of months and I think it is an incredibly useful tool for multiplayer strategy. The Security Curve gives us a way to understand both balancing and bandwagoning as the best strategic response to The Threat in different situations, as well as giving us a tool for predicting how others will deal with it. Like all theories, it tells us something but doesn’t tell us everything, so I’ll return next week and investigate what it means in more detail.
 “Balance of power” is a pretty common phrase, and it refers to the distribution of power between countries, or, in multiplayer, the distribution of power between players. A multiplayer game starts out with the forces of every player perfectly balanced—seven cards, no permanents—and then proceeds to shift each turn as each player tries to move the balance in their favor. Of course, that means that the balance of power (noun) is hardly ever ‘balanced’ (adjective), meaning equal, no matter how hard everyone tries to balance against each other (verb), which causes confusion in IR too.
 And also, if everyone is vulnerable to the same general strategies. I’ve said before that a player may be a threat to one or more players without being The Threat to the entire table, but the point bears repeating. If a player is threatening the rest of the table with an army of 1/1 tokens, but you’re sitting behind several copies of Propaganda, then they aren’t a threat to you. As such, it doesn’t count as bandwagoning if you help them to deal with your other opponents.
 The article in question is: Davide Fiammenghi, “The Security Curve and the Structure of International Politics: A Neorealist Synthesis.” International Security, Vol. 35, No. 4 (Spring 2011), pp. 126–154. In terms of some of the fine points of neorealist theory it has more holes than a block of Swiss cheese, but the basic idea of the Security Curve is brilliant and revolutionary.
 Ibid, reprinted without permission, I’m a bad person, etc.
 As Evan Erwin might say, “Nice casual deck, bra!”
 And also because it was extraordinarily funny. The Pilgrim player had made kind of a big deal about being safe for two turns with the only fliers, so everyone laughed when I got rid of them. Or at least, three of us laughed, which is all you can really ask for.