Graveborn Musings—Security, Theory and Stuff

Last week I introduced the Security Curve as a way of understanding the difference between balancing and bandwagoning. Either can be a good strategy depending on the situation, but misreading the situation and zigging when you ought to zag is likely to get your ass kicked. The main thing to pay attention to is the relative power—how much of the total share of the capabilities at the table does each player have? Once you understand which way the tide is flowing, you can figure out which way to point your boat.

But unfortunately, as helpful as all of that theory is, there are a lot of variables that can complicate things. Just like any theory, there are limits; global warming theory predicts that releasing carbon into the atmosphere is going to mess with the climate and increase the overall global temperature, but that doesn’t mean it can tell us what the temperature is going to be in your hometown tomorrow. That doesn’t make it a bad theory; that’s just how theories work.

Let’s look at some of the things that make applying the Security Curve theory to multiplayer Magic tricky, and see if we can’t figure out exactly what the temperature will be in your playgroup this week.

But first, a quick recap (skip ahead to the next paragraph if you remember last week’s article): the security curve is a graph of relative power vs. security, and it theorizes that there are three distinct phases that states go through as they acquire more power (relative to the power of the table as a whole). In the first phase, as states build power they find that they increase their security until they reach the Security Threshold. Then in the second phase, their security decreases from this peak, as other states have incentives to balance against them. In the third phase they achieve a certain level of power, called the Absolute Security Threshold, after which their increasing power leads to increasing security as they become too strong to balance against.

In the first and third phases, other states will either leave them alone or will actively help them out (bandwagoning), but in the second phase, other states want to keep them from getting any more power, so they will work against them (balancing).

It Takes Two…or More

‘Classic’ balancing occurs when someone becomes The Threat and the rest of the table balances against them. However, a lot of balancing situations begin with one person making a move against The Threat and others joining in (you can read more about starting this process here). What happens when nobody else joins in, for whatever reason? Is it still balancing when you’re staring down a stronger opponent and nobody has your back?

In IR, the answer is yes; when one state starts mobilizing its resources against another state (such as by spending more on weapons), that is called internal balancing. Internal balancing is something we can identify in Magic sometimes, but it isn’t quite so easy, because multiplayer Magic is a little more cut-throat, meaning that you start the game planning to use all of your resources against your opponents anyway. Unlike IR, where countries are more or less happy to live and let live, everyone knows that everyone else really is out to kill them.

Figuring out when business as usual ends and internal balancing begins is fuzzy at best, but it can be important because it tells you a lot about your opponent’s perceptions and intentions, and also tells you that they’re open to forming an alliance with anyone who will help them with that threat. When someone starts burning spells that they would have preferred to save for later, or when their attacks are a little less calm and collected and a little more kamikaze, always with the same target, then you’re witnessing internal balancing.

I tend to assume that the average player will begin the game dividing their attention more or less evenly between the other players, and when one target starts to get more than 50% of a player’s attention (in a four-player game), then you can reasonably assume that it is on, but the number isn’t as important as specific context. In addition to how many of players’ resources they’re expending on a single player, look for other factors, like a weak player that they might’ve decided to ignore, a defense that makes it impossible to spread their attacks evenly, personal factors that make them more or less likely to target a particular person, and of course, the chance that they could be a Batter.


Believing is Seeing

Once the rest of the table (all or maybe just some of them) goes along with your internal balancing, then that becomes external balancing. But it takes a lot more than you saying “Look how powerful Brent is—let’s get him!!” to make that happen. You need at least one person to agree about who is the most powerful player, and then you need them to believe that balancing is the best way to address the power imbalance. Neither of those is a given, for a whole host of reasons, so let’s take them in order.

Firstly, figuring out who has how much power is never simple. Even with all of the talk of power in IR, it is far from a well-defined concept. The thing is, theories work with abstract concepts, not concrete, definable stuff, so power is a concept that’s easy to grok but impossible to pin down. For example, during the ’80s and ’90s, nobody was sure whether Japan was a great power or not, because it was never clear how much Japan’s economic power offset its lack of military muscle.

In Magic, there are so many things that look like “power” that it’s hard to be sure what to look for, and that’s the first complication. If something looks powerful to someone, they’re going to react like it’s powerful, and balance or bandwagon accordingly, regardless of how the rest of the table perceives it. What that means is that the theory of balance of power really becomes what we call “balance of threat” in practice. If a deck looks like it’s going to be a threat that can be dealt with, then the Security Curve tells us to expect people to balance against it, whether it is actually powerful, in any kind of objective sense.

For example, if you play Light of Day at my table, the chances are you’re going to be the biggest threat to me, even if the card is worthless against every other deck at the table. If I can only win with black creatures and your deck doesn’t allow me to attack, then I know that I have to take you out, even if that means getting someone else to cooperate with me and Naturalize the horrible thing. In that situation, I know I have no chance of winning if the game comes down to a duel between us, so I need you to be one of the first to die—which spells balancing. On the other hand, if you have Light of Day and a horde of pro-black weenies that could kill me quickly, but I have an answer somewhere in my deck, then I might just go along with you, moan about the fact that I can’t do anything against your deck, and start attacking the player who’s the biggest threat to you—in other words, bandwagoning.

If one or more players goes along with your threat assessment, and perceives them to be their main threat, they still may not go along with your balancing attempt.[1] Firstly, balancing carries more immediate risks than bandwagoning, or just plain burying your head in the sand,[2] so folks might be prepared to let you bear those costs while they sit it out. Secondly, they may not believe that balancing will be successful. There are many possible reasons for this, but it is especially likely because of hidden information—if you know you have a way to deal with The Threat in your hand, then their position won’t seem as overwhelming to you and you’ll happily balance against them. But someone who doesn’t know what you’ve got may lose hope, which entails bandwagoning. Thirdly, they may not want the balance to be resolved on your terms, either because they would then have to deal with you, or because they are waiting for a solution that will leave them on top. If I have seven mana and a Decree of Pain or Insurrection in hand, I’d rather wait to draw a land than help someone else to kill all of The Threat’s lovely creatures. Similarly, if The Threat scares everyone, but they’re the only one holding another player (who is uniquely scary for me) in check, then bandwagoning is the right strategy for me, even if balancing is a no-brainer for everyone else.

This makes politics very tricky indeed. Most of the people I play with routinely exaggerate the threats that other people play, to the point where it’s almost comical. But if you need someone to join you in balancing against that threat, then you have to consider the possibility of bandwagoning. This means that at a certain point you have to stop saying how scary The Threat is and start reassuring your potential allies that the balancing coalition is going to be the winning side. It’s a delicate balance: let them ignore a threat and you’ll have to deal with it on your own, but make them think that The Threat is unbeatable and they will give up trying to beat it and bandwagon (against you).

If you understand that bandwagoning is a delaying strategy that weaker players use to find answers, then you can dissuade someone from bandwagoning by pointing out that you have more/better answers than they do, or even challenging them to say what their answers are, if you don’t think they have any. If they have a single possible answer to an imminent threat, and you have several possible answers and a tutor in hand, then you can persuade them that their best bet is to keep you alive long enough to deal with it.

One of the most useful things I’ve ever learned is: “a fact is something that another person believes.” I’ll let the philosophers work out how true that actually is, but it is important for us to bear in mind when we’re dealing with other people: they perceive what they perceive, and are going to act on that basis. Don’t try to force someone to agree that your perception of the world is correct without taking the time to understand how they see it. In multiplayer Magic, their perceptions of who is powerful, what is threatening and what is the best way to respond to the current distribution of power can all differ wildly from yours. Be aware of that, accept it, and use it to bend them to your will like puppets. Mwaaaahahahaaah!


Absolute Power

Bandwagoning is much more temporary in Magic than it is in IR. I mean, you can argue that Canada has been bandwagoning with the United States since its independence, and that seems unlikely to change. The US is number one and I can’t think of any realistic scenario in which Canada ever becomes more powerful than its noisy southern neighbor, so it’s bandwagoning for the foreseeable future.

On the other hand, power in Magic is usually much more fluid. There are some board positions that are truly insurmountable, but they are the exception rather than the rule. This means that The Threat can expect bandwagoning when they have most of the power, but they can’t expect it to last—your puppets will stab you in the back if they draw the right cards.

It would have been impossible for Finland to stab the Soviet Union in the back, or Canada to suddenly take out the US, but in multiplayer, it is essential to remember that a single card can often change everything—in IR, nuclear weapons are the only thing approaching a board sweeper, and they are limited by deterrence.

This means that the first thing to do when you are in the driver’s seat is figure out what can wreck you and who is most likely to draw it, and then kill them first. It also means that it won’t last, so the second thing you should do is develop some kind of backup plan. The Threat can be neutered by an Akroma’s Vengeance, but it only takes a well-timed Patriarch’s Bidding or Creeping Renaissance for them to clamber back to the top.


Power Play

The perils of balancing and the fluid nature of power in multiplayer Magic lead to a very interesting strategic conclusion. Rather than climbing slowly up the first part of the curve and going down the slope, risking death as the rest of the table conspires against us, can’t we climb quickly up the first slope, and then leap over the chasm of balancing to the unassailable hegemon portion of the security curve? Of course—combo decks do it all the time, but even a decent aggro, control or mid-range deck can do it. I’ve done it twice recently, and I honestly think that being aware of the security curve helped me to see the possibilities.

In the first game, a three-way with Thrax, Rafiq and Skullbriar, I drew a hand that included Blood Crypt, Pilgrim’s Eye, Mana Crypt, a tutor and Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker. I’m generally happy with any opener that includes Old Nick, because it gives me a very strong long game, and I can overcommit to the board to draw out a board sweeper, and then take control with him. So, thinking of the long game, I played my shockland tapped and passed the turn. But on my second turn I drew Solemn Simulacrum and realized that I had a unique opportunity. I dropped Mana Crypt and Jens, accelerating to five mana, and making noise about how I was just doing it to have a blocker against Skullbriar and I hoped the Crypt damage didn’t kill me. Third turn, I cast the Eye, dropped a fourth land and tutored for something nasty.

I still didn’t have anything other than accelerants in play, and Skullbriar was getting bigger by munching on the mana-screwed Rafiq player—in other words, I still looked like I was on the first part of the curve. On the fourth turn, though, I dropped land number five, cast Thrax and swung at Skullbriar, killing his commander and suddenly being too strong for them to balance against. I missed my next land drop, but played Mnemonic Wall, getting my tutor back, and on the sixth turn I dropped Old Nick and that was all she wrote.

The lesson here is not simply that Mana Crypt is ridiculously strong, but that explosiveness is important, as you want to minimize the damage you take from balancing. I could have played that hand much more slowly, and probably still would have won, although playing the same cards more slowly would have given my opponents more time to find answers. By taking a chance at the right time, I was able to move right up the security curve to victory.

In another case, a four-way began with turn two Stoneforge Mystic from the Kaalia player, fetching Sunforger, which scared the hell out of all of us. Hello balancing coalition! My own turn two Sylvan Library looked much weaker by comparison, which was helped by the fact that I quickly got myself down to 28 life from extra drawing. The Teneb deck was focused on Kaalia, the blue deck was reluctant to counter my stuff because Kaalia was sitting between us (to the right of the blue mage), and I didn’t have too many plays until turn five. I did hit Lurking Predators on turn six, but only got one creature from it during the first round, and the board was shaping up into a tussle between Kaalia and Teneb. At the start of my seventh turn I was thinking that I could afford to play something reasonably large in order to increase my security without triggering any kind of balancing backlash from the rest of the table, but then during my draw phase I saw the three cards on top of my library. They were: Ulamog, Silklash Spider and Moment’s Peace. Looking at how the board was developing, I realized I had another option; I drew the fog, put the Spider on top of my library and the Eldrazi underneath it, and passed the turn. As I predicted, Kaalia played just one spell (letting me put the spider into play—I’m stronger and more secure), the blue mage grumbled about needing more mana and passed the turn. In the moment of truth, Teneb attacked Kaalia and then cast his first spell of the turn, allowing me to put Ulamog into play just before the start of my turn. I love it when a plan comes together!

To make a long story short, I was able to use Ulamog to take out Kaalia and a Squall Line (best Hurricane ever!) to deal with Teneb’s fliers while I put the game away, drawing more critters off the top with Lurking Predators in order to keep up with the weak resistance that I encountered, before overwhelming everyone.

Sometimes a single card, like Ulamog, can shift the balance of power in your favor, and that gives you two choices. The conventional wisdom is to sit on that card until it doesn’t shake the board quite so much, but you can also use it to accelerate yourself towards the Absolute Security Threshold before your opponents have a chance to mobilize against you.


IR theory dates back at least as far as 1919, and some say that it goes back to Thucydides in the fifth century BC. Multiplayer Magic strategy is less than 20 years old, and some would say that it wasn’t until Alongi started writing for The Dojo in 1999 that it really started to develop. Still, applying the security curve to multiplayer means that we’ve caught up with the most recent IR scholarship. I guess my work here is done!

My erudition/unrepentant geekiness aside, balancing and bandwagoning are important strategies in multiplayer Magic, and we need to understand them in order to succeed. Most people have some intuitive grasp of the concepts, but in my experience you can get more out of the game if you think about strategy in a more rigorous and systematic way. The better you understand these concepts and how they fit together, the easier it will be to execute your game plan in a chaotic multiplayer environment, which is really what we’re all looking for.

[1] The reverse is also true: if you decide to bandwagon with The Threat, your other opponents might decide to balance against them, but this is good for you. The more the rest of the table is balancing against The Threat, the more likely they are to welcome your bandwagoning. It’s only when you want to balance and someone else decides to bandwagon that you find yourself in potential trouble. Suddenly, you’re the first target of the strongest player on the board. Good luck!

[2] Your head may not be regenerated.

About Graveborn Muse

Daryl Bockett has been an avid Magic addict since Legends/Revised. He lives and breathes deckbuilding and casual play. "The more the merrier" is his creed! In those brief moments when he isn't playing, reading or thinking about Magic, he teaches at Rikkyo University in Tokyo. He has a Ph.D. in International Relations, which is basically only useful for helping him to understand the strategic interactions at a multiplayer table.
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7 Responses to Graveborn Musings—Security, Theory and Stuff

  1. shmebula says:

    Another great article. I need to reread these before my games this Sat to try and use it to take a more laid back approach. I think I’m going to try to springboard past the 2nd phase of the curve, since that’s what always does me in.

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