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What Matters in Multiplayer Commander?

Over the past few years, Commander (a casual, multiplayer format) has emerged as one of the most popular ways Magic is currently played. Multiplayer games have always been a big part of the Magic experience and today, I’d like to touch upon some basic strategy that will help players navigate the immeasurable chaos and complexity that arises in a four (or more) player game.

I’ve broken today’s multiplayer strategy article down into four categories that I believe are useful to be thinking about in a game of multiplayer (especially, when the game becomes incomprehensibly complicated) to guide and inform cohesive, productive game moves:

  1. Using Basic Game Theory to Inform Your Strategy 
  2. Where’s the Beatdown? 
  3. Mana (And Nothing Else Matters)
  4. Play the Table – Not the Cards
  5. Fortune Favors the Bold 

I tend to think about Magic as a gaming system and different formats, platforms and rules sets as informing different versions of the game where some rules overlap across formats but variants also have their own unique rules and tendencies to be explored: 

Multiplayer Commander is clearly a different game than a one-on-one duel so let’s discuss how a player can adapt their play for the game being played. 

 

 

Header - Using Basic Game Theory

“Game theory” is a way of thinking about the strategy of playing games. For the purpose of today’s multiplayer-centric strategy article, I want to touch upon a guiding principle of game theory that I find not only useful but easily applied to games and life in general. 

The aspect of game theory I’d like to highlight is approaching one’s game play from the perspective of trying to understand the lines of play that are available, attractive or beneficial to our opponent (or, in this case opponents) and using that information to guide our own play. 

Here’s a practical example: 

When I goldfish my Commander deck to see how fast I can make it go off, there are no opponents to interact with me and so I can always take the most direct sequence, even if it means dumping all my cards on the board and passing the turn. In a multiplayer game with multiple opponents who can all use their turns to change the board (and thus the game), it’s likely I’d want to take a more conservative, less “all-in” line of play (not only because I don’t want to over-commit to the board and get badly punished by a sweeper but also because I may want to leave mana open to interact with an opponent). 

The point is, when there are a bunch of players all making plays that change the game in dynamic ways, it makes things so much simpler to navigate if we’re assessing how each player wants to change the game and how changing the game will benefit each player’s strategy. 

Be aware of how various plays and sequences benefit or impede the progress of the different strategies at the table. 

 

Header - Where's the Beatdown?

Michael Flores’ 22 year old article Who’s the Beatdown? Lays out some extremely useful game theory as it pertains to one-on-one Magic dueling. To me, the most important tenant expressed in Flores’ landmark article is: misassignment of role = game loss. 

In order to win games of Magic, we need to make assessments about our opponent’s intentions, for instance whether a player should be proactive or reactive in a control versus aggro matchup. It’s one-on-one game theory applied to duels as a determiner of what role each player ought to take relative to the other in order to amplify their chances of winning the game. 

The context of a four-player highlander melee game where each player starts with 40 life and a commander in the command zone is not the same game as a 60-card one-on-one duel. For starters, if we are thinking about Who’s the Beatdown? In a traditional beatdown sense, a player would need to deal ~120 damage to overcome all three opponents. 

It’s actually much easier given the card pool to assemble an infinite combo than it is to deal 120 damage spread across three opponents (all of whom will interact with your cards to stay alive). 

From a game theory perspective, it’s much easier for the “real beatdown” (a deck that can win the game with a combo or runaway sequence) to disguise its intentions. I think this is really important for playing the best Magic we can in multiplayer – the value of threats (and what is or isn’t a threat to our strategy) is relative. It is also true that some decks at the table may present bigger challenges for an opponent to overcome than others:

Moat

If an opponent plays a Moat and I’m playing a deck that doesn’t plan to attack with creatures, despite the fact it isn’t my Moat, it might as well be since it helps my strategy. On the other hand, if I’m playing a deck that wants to attack with a horde, Moat may well be the biggest threat to my strategy in the game. It’s an example of why assessing threats in multiplayer is both important and variable: strategically speaking, we can use game theory to assess which deck is most likely to present us the biggest challenges and work toward getting them out of the game before they can take us out. 

 

Header - Mana

As I’ve already stated, strategically speaking I find trying to beat three opponents down for 120 damage to be a fool’s errand. It’s simply not effective to play beatdown in a traditional sense. 

I tend to believe the best strategies in Commander are the ones that can interact to stay alive and have the ability to present a victory condition that wins the game outright the turn it is cast, i.e. a “combo kill.” 

The only resource that actually matters in multiplayer is access to mana because a generous amount of mana is typically requisite to facilitate “win the game” sequences. If we don’t have enough mana to facilitate a sequence that’s “equal to or better than 120 damage,” we typically cannot win the game right now and must rely on interacting to stay alive for another turn cycle. 

Obviously, players are free to assess threats and adjust their sequencing as they choose, but in my personal experience, I always perceive the player with access to the most mana as the biggest threat. 

I have no issue countering or blowing up a Sol Ring or other mana rocks because I know how impactful it is to my strategy when players deny me the requisite mana to do things powerful enough to be impactful in multiplayer. I tend to view the mana available to each player as an indicative marker of how big of a threat they present in terms of winning the game. 

 

Header - Play the Table

Magic content has done a really good job of selling players on the idea it would be beneficial to their play to be non-feeling, card-playing robots. Even in my article today, I’ve discussed inputting data about the game, assessing it and formulating a response. There is a clear connection between observing data, computing, devising a coherent strategy and favorable outcomes. 

With that said, the concept of playing like a robot is much more useful when applied to playing online and especially in one-on-one duels (as opposed to multiplayer melee) because there’s only one opponent working against you as opposed to three. With three players ready and willing to throw a monkey wrench into your sequence, it’s fundamental to be adaptive and flexible as the game ebbs and flows. 

To me, competitive or casual is a largely false dichotomy that perpetuates a lot of stereotypes that simply are not true about how people enjoy playing Magic. Competitive implies a player is playing to win money or opportunities to make money, whereas casual implies playing for little or no stakes. Competitive versus casual has nothing to do with trying to play our best and wanting to win the game in front of us. Casual players like to win just as much as competitive players, the difference is emphasis is upon personal enjoyment as opposed to playing to win a prize. 

One of my all-time favorite gaming moments occurred after the completion of a Magic Pro Tour weekend. A ton of attendees (including like every Hall of Famer I can name) all ended up gathering at the top floor of a really swanky hotel with a pool, hot tub and tiki bar and we played a 30+ player game of “Are You A Werewolf?” with a bunch of crazy made up roles that I’d never even heard of before (Cedric Phillips was “The Devil” and he killed me in the night. I’m still salty). 

It comes back to game theory and multiplayer for me. The interactions, complexity and unknown information created by so many players taking so many actions actually creates a matrix where reading people (and using game theory to detect the intention behind a move) is more reliable than the information itself. 

In any game where bluffing is a part of strategy, the act of disguising our own intentions and uncovering our opponent’s intentions is an important skill. There’s a blurry line about what can or can’t be lied or bluffed about in Magic. Since I’m a casual player and I’m not invested in winning a prize, I’m always super clear about what my cards are and what they do at the table (especially, when I’m playing with less experienced players who may not know as much about my cards as I do). I don’t find it fun, interesting or enjoyable to beatdown on players who don’t know what’s going on. 

I’m super clear about what my cards are and how they work and interact – I love being a villain at the table and see lying about my intentions as a fun and necessary facet of game play. I love to make deals and break them. I also love to use the flavor of my cards as a narrative justification for deceitful game moves: 

Mikaeus, the Unhallowed

“Did you really think there was going to be a Human and Zombie alliance? That’s what you get for making an alliance with a horde of undead!” 

In almost every game of Magic I will ever play for the rest of my life, it’s fair to me to assume I’m the elder statesman at the table because I’ve been playing MTG since 1995 and writing a weekly column about the game for 16 years. I want to set a good example and make sure everybody knows that bluffing is encouraged and no matter how comfortable a player’s position feels at the table they shouldn’t feel too comfortable as long as I have a hit point left to play. 

I really enjoy the dynamic of multiplayer games where reading people, bluffing and making and breaking alliances is part of game play. For instance, I’m also a fan of reality strategy game shows like Survivor and Big Brother where players need to work cooperatively in order to progress individual goals. One of the most chaotic and strategic Big Brother champions once succinctly said: “This is Big Brother, you can bounce cheques.” In a multiplayer game, your ability to disguise your true strategic intentions in order to progress a strategy is a primary mechanism of game play; in a lot of cases, the outcome of a multiplayer game is determined based upon who uses how many resources against which other player more so than the cards themselves. Three players can team up to defeat a more powerful deck, etc. 

 

Header - Fortune Favors the Bold

I’m all about creating chaos in a multiplayer game for a couple of reasons. First, I think it shakes up the monotony of the play patterns of typically rampy combo-control decks that want to sit around and build up mana. Second, I enjoy being the one who makes the plays that push the game forward because I trust my ability to find ways to thrive in a chaotic game.

One observation I’ve made from playing a lot of pick-up EDH at the LGS is that for a multitude of reasons, a disproportionately high number of random opponents tend to be very timid with regard to their strategy: the EDH player who just plays their cards, never attacks anyone and hopes to win by being left alone. It’s not a bad strategy, especially for a player who isn’t as comfortable with assessing and taking action against so many opponents. 

It’s true that if you’re able to “not die” and continue playing there’s still a chance to win down the road. People tend to be risk-averse in most situations, even when taking risks tends to be a strong strategic sequence. For instance, making an aggressive attack and not leaving back creatures to block with. While it’s true that not leaving back blockers might be risky, it’s also true that by taking that risk we can significantly weaken another player’s position to entice other players to finish them off rather than coming after you (especially if you’re attacking the position of another player who had a powerful position in the game). 

The only thing to be learned from the mistake of inaction is that next time the opportunity to act arises to be mindful to seize and run with it. We learn from taking risks and making mistakes, not from being apprehensive to try and fail.

One element of today’s article that I personally find fascinating is that not only do these multiplayer specific ways of thinking about playing Commander make an individual a better overall multiplayer player but also a better multiplayer opponent because such a player is more engaged in making plays that shape and progress the game as opposed to waiting for the game to come to them. There’s a time and a place in strategy to be patient, but there’s also opportunities to act in a manner that improves your position in the game and the likelihood you’ll be able to win the game. Versatile multiplayer fans know not only how to play both ways (proactively and reactively) but are also good at identifying when to switch things up.

 

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