Graveborn Musings—Vengeance is Mine!

Ah, sweet revenge. Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord! Gotta get some payback! It seems that our culture places a premium on vengeance, from the classic westerns where Clint Eastwood hunts down the sumbitch who killed his horse, to the modern action films where Bruce Willis hunts down the douchebag who killed his partner. And there’s no doubt that this love of revenge carries over into Magic. If someone attacks you, you attack them back; if someone kills one of your critters, you spend a removal spell to kill their biggest critter, and so on. It’s so natural, I’ve seen it time and time again—and truth be told, I may have done it myself on occasion. The only problem is, it makes for terrible strategy!

A couple of weeks ago I was up against a Child of Alara land-based deck and a monored Bosh/artifact deck that had Bosh out and equipped with a Grafted Exoskeleton. I had Glissa and a Sylvok Replica out, which meant that I could kill an artifact creature before the end of my turn, get the Replica back to hand, recast it and keep it as a rattlesnake. So that’s what I did…I hit the Exoskeleton to kill Bosh, not realizing that Bosh had decided that Child was his biggest threat. However, when I hit his artifacts, he blasted me instead. This led to me going after him with everything I could, because I was now on eight poison and he was the only one who could put me over the top[1] (and he could do it in a heartbeat—if there’s a way to get an artifact back from the graveyard, that deck has probably got it). Not surprisingly, we both did so much damage to each other that the Child won easily, even though Bosh knew the Angry Baby was the greater threat to him.

In another game against the same deck, I was getting into full beatdown mode with Kresh—apparently Lurking Predators is quite good in a five-player game when nobody can remove it. I cast a Victimize, bringing back an Indrik Stomphowler for the 4/4 body, and the only thing worth targeting was Bosh. As usual, he had a bunch of artifacts out and a shitload of land, so I was really just planning to slow him down by making him recast his commander while I beat up on a couple of more immediate threats, but he said, “I have 17 damage on the board and it’s all coming at you if you kill Bosh.”

All of this was before my attack phase, so I told him that I wouldn’t attack him if he didn’t target me, but he wasn’t interested. I even pointed out that with Kessig Wolf Run in play I could actually take him out this turn if forced me to, but he wasn’t interested at all; if I killed his commander he was determined to use all of his available resources to do as much damage to me as he could, even if it meant losing the game.

In the event, I killed Bosh and he smashed me for 17 of my 22 life. I spent the turn killing him, at the cost of more resources than I could afford to commit, and was dead in two turns. At 22 life, I’m fairly certain I could have taken the table eventually, but the damage he did to me made it impossible.

Focus Beats Fury

These are examples of vengeance plays; as you can see, the Bosh player reflexively struck back at a player who hurt him and lost as a direct result. In both cases, he made the vengeance play instead of the smart play, and it cost him the game. Making decisions on the basis of vengeance is counterproductive: your game plan has to be made on the basis of who is the greatest threat to you, not who hurt you most recently.

Unless they actually killed your father, getting revenge is a lower priority than winning the game.

The person who is the greatest threat to you is relatively consistent from turn to turn, and focusing on that player allows you to spend your resources more efficiently.[2] On the other hand, anyone at the table can hurt you at any time, and the last person to damage you is so completely arbitrary that it is likely to change each turn—the weakest player who cast an Innocent Blood to deal with someone else’s attacker, the person who hit you for one with a Finkelmage because they just needed to draw a card, or the person who shattered your Akroma’s Memorial because, let’s face it, that card deserves to be destroyed.

By lashing out angrily at whoever hurt you last, instead of who will hurt you most, you dilute your resources and achieve very little. At most you kill someone who was an annoyance but not a threat; at worst you hit (and annoy!) a bunch of people, but leave them all alive and able to hurt you more. Don’t let a couple of points of damage or a spot of removal distract you from your real target.

The Vengeance Dynamic

I wanted to make the point that Bosh was hurting himself by making the vengeance play, but in fact vengeance isn’t so much a single play by one player as a spiral that can envelop the whole group. It’s bad enough that a lot of us tend to take an isolated incident—like someone killing our stuff—and overreact to it, ignoring our own best interests. It’s worse when we see that isolated incident as part of a larger pattern and assume that someone has it in for us. If you go down that road then you can say goodbye to good threat assessment, because you’ll never be able to see past your feud to analyze what the rest of the table is doing.

But the worst thing, the absolute dumbest thing, the thing that is most likely to get you killed every time, is when you get a reputation for making the vengeance play. As I write this, I can hear somebody thinking, “But I always crush the first guy who attacks me, and that deters everyone in my group,” but it really doesn’t work that way, as I’ll explain later. What is far more likely to happen, especially against smart opponents, is that they’ll start to factor in your revenge fetish and hit you harder.

Let me paint you a picture with my imagination brush: you have the biggest creature out, and another player drops a Nekrataal on the table. Because you foolishly chose not to play monoblack, they 187 your critter.

Scenario 1: If you’re good at this game, you’ll take it in stride and accept that they made the best decision from their perspective. You may or may not attack them, but it won’t be because they broke your toy.

Scenario 2: If you’re bad at this game, you’ll scream, “No, not the Craw Wurm! You shall be avenged, my scaly friend!!” and start a feud with the black mage, while the rest of the table smiles knowingly and sharpens their knives, ready to kill whichever one of you survives.

Scenario 3: You’re so bad at this game that everyone anticipates your vengeance play. The black mage then follows up the Nekrataal with a Doom Blade on your other creature and then swings at you with everything they have. Why? Because your reputation for revenge means that people will soon preempt it by hitting YOU harder than the situation warrants—what I like to call prevenge.

Vengeance is a loser’s game at the best of times, but if it builds up into a vengeance dynamic—a cycle of provocation, revenge and prevenge—that you can’t keep track of, then you just end up painting a bullseye on your own forehead.

For example, if you hit me for 10-15 damage early in a Commander game, I can often let that slide; in most groups I might even be prepared to leave myself open to the same attack next turn on the assumption that you’ll spread the butter around and hit someone else.[3] But, if you’re the vengeance guy, I have to wonder if you aren’t still steamed that I won the last game. Or maybe you’re trying to get payback for the Barter in Blood that killed two of your Saprolings five turns ago, but which I only cast to get rid of two copies of Prime Time that someone else had. No matter what your reasons, no matter what you say, I’m going to pay a lot more attention to you; once you become The Vengeance Guy, everything changes—invariably for the worst.

Vengeance vs. Deterrence

Revenge may have a place in game theory, but in a much more calculating way than the average aggrieved casual player. The threat of revenge is the essence of deterrence, of course, but the important thing to remember is that deterrence requires credibility and proportionality. If you try to alpha strike me out of the game, you’d damn well better kill me, because I will come right back and knock you out. That’s deterrence. But if you Disenchant my Spiteful Visions and I target you relentlessly for the rest of the game because you broke my toy? That’s not deterrence, that’s an anger management issue.

The point is, deterrence has to be proportional. Firstly, you can’t deter a big threat with a small one. Saying, “If you send your dragon tokens to kill me, I’m going to send this Seal of Fire RIGHT AT YOUR FACE!” is usually only going to deter a player hovering around three life.

Not as scary as you think it is.

Equally, you can’t deter a small threat with massive retaliation; “if you kill my Commander I will rain fire down upon you” is only a credible deterrent if a) killing your Commander will do a whole lot of damage to you, or b) you can rain fire down upon me at little or no cost to yourself.

A lot of people overlook the second part of the proportionality equation, but it is important. In general, retaliation involves paying some cost (cards, mana, or opportunity cost) in order to inflict a cost on an enemy. If retaliating against me is going to cost you a lot of cards, or otherwise hurt you more than it hurts me, then it generally isn’t credible, and you should avoid making empty threats or plotting revenge.[4]

This was where Bosh made his biggest mistake: I used artifact removal to kill his commander, which was by far the most threatening artifact on the table, and assured him that I was planning to attack somebody else (i.e. use my resources to weaken one of his enemies). His turn was right after mine and he had plenty of mana to recast Bosh then, and he had a couple of big powerful artifacts on the table to strengthen his board position. There was no reason for him to sacrifice those artifacts in order to throw them at my face. In fact, I assumed he was bluffing, because we both knew that I could do more damage to him than he could do to me.

Now, what I suspect he would say, and an argument that I have heard in various forms from various people, is that he wanted to deter anyone from targeting his commander. If I asked him, I expect he’d say that he was trying to teach the group a lesson: if you kill Bosh, you wear at least eight to the face. Lots of people say that they want to deter their opponents from ever touching their stuff, but that isn’t going to be an effective deterrent against smart players, because it isn’t proportional.

Killing Commanders is a clear example, so let me get that out of the way first. Commanders are such an important part of the game that you usually can’t win without killing a few commanders; in other words, killing commanders is a natural part of the game. If I need to do something, like killing your commander, in order to win the game, then I can’t be deterred from doing that (except in the short term), because nothing you threaten me with is going to be worse than the cost of not doing it. If I kill your commander, you’ll try to kill me? I just said that if I don’t kill your commander, I’ll lose anyway, so that threat is meaningless. You can’t deter people from playing the game.

Now, there are other areas of the game where we might try to impose our will on the game by deterring a specific aspect of play. For example, my hatred of tuck effects is well documented, and my policy is: “If you tuck my commander, I will do everything in my power to see that you lose this game.” I’ve been trying to deter this particular mechanic in my meta for a couple of years now. Is it possible to deter your playgroup from doing something mechanically that you hate? The answer is maybe.

The most important thing is that you have to offer them a heavy cost that they can easily avoid. If you hate spot removal, you’re shit out of luck, because most decks can’t win without it. If you hate Control Magic effects, that’s a bit easier, but some blue decks can only deal with a strong commander by stealing it. You probably can’t deter blue decks from stealing your stuff, and you almost certainly can’t deter people from playing blue, but you can probably persuade a friend not to use their Helm of Possession on your commander except as a last resort. If that’s as far as deterrence will take you, then you have to be happy with that.

“Vengeance is Mine!” Sayeth the Dumbass

The vengeance play is based on the idea that you need to hurt someone who hurt you, for whatever reason. But once again, we ignore the basic point of multiplayer Magic: your goal is to kill everyone! What’s the point of rushing to kill one player if it reduces your chances of actually winning the game, when winning the game involves them being dead anyway? We need to evolve better ways of thinking about the relationship between revenge and winning. We could start with the ancient Chinese proverb[5] that plotting revenge is like drinking poison and hoping that the other person dies, or we could just remember that winning really is the best revenge. However you think about it, if you can avoid being distracted by vengeance and stick to your gameplan, you’re going to win a lot more games and have better relations with the rest of your group. Revenge is a loser’s game.

[1] This, by the way, is the biggest problem with playing poison: once I have a significant number of poison counters, any creature with infect becomes a clear and present danger. If, as is usually the case, only one person at the table is running poison, then that person must become my top priority. In this case, I had eight poison, and I was 90% sure that Bosh was the only one who could give me two more. With him alive, I was dead to Grafted Exoskeleton; with Bosh dead, the eight damage that I’d taken would magically disappear. That is the strategic reason why I don’t run poison in Commander—the social reason is because I think those kinds of one-shot kills are janky and unfun (unless Kresh is doing it).

[2] I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: Magic is fundamentally a game of resource management.

[3] A bit of a Mea Culpa is in order here. I’d actually gone at him with 19 points of Kresh damage after he smashed me for 14 out of the blue. It was, I’ll admit, a vengeance play, although I could have quite easily pumped Kresh up past 21 points of damage and killed him that turn, so I wasn’t exactly consumed with unbridled furious vengeance. To some extent I was thinking “if he knows Kresh can kill him in one shot then he might back off,” but I was also thinking, “Is he still pissed at me for the last game? How far is he going to take this?” and “I can’t believe he hit me for 14! Gotta get some PAYBACK!”

I have admitted to some issues with revenge-seeking myself, which is why I am so qualified to write this article. I’m not putting myself on any kind of pedestal here; I’m just writing because my therapist says it’ll be cathartic…

[4] Of course, if you can destroy all of my creatures with a single card, without hurting your own board position, then threatening to do that is a credible deterrent. On the other hand, if you could wreck me that easily, you were probably going to do it sooner or later anyway, in which case your promise not to hurt me if I back off is less credible.

[5] I’m not sure if it is old, or even Chinese, but most clever-sounding adages are presented as ancient Chinese proverbs. Apparently westerners don’t care about traditional European wisdom—or modern Chinese thinking, for that matter.


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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3 Responses to Graveborn Musings—Vengeance is Mine!

  1. Razjah says:

    Good advice. I’ll encourage my group to check out this article. It should help cut down on the vendettas. Although I do love moping up a 4-man game because 2 players got into a blood feud and I can swipe everyone with a few well placed spells and an attack phase.

  2. Dominik says:

    That’s really one of the biggest rules you have to learn in a Mulitplayer game, to win. It’s not about hiting the guy you don’t like. It’s allways about damaging the one guy who is closest to winning…. even if that is not represented in a boardstate.

  3. Pingback: Friday Flashback – December 2, 2011 « CommanderCast

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