Cryptic Commander: Knowing Your Enemy in EDH by Andrew Pemberton

Cryptic Commander: Knowing Your Enemy in EDH by Andrew Pemberton

Greetings all, and welcome to the newly-named, rebranded (but still awesome!) article series! This week, I figured I’d take a few minutes to discuss one of the finer points of the format: Politics. Now, I’m not going to spew on about Marxism or David Cameron or anything akin to that. I’d like to talk about Politics in the sense of Magic in general, but also tie it in to your Commander games.

What is Politics?:

Politics is what we refer to in terms of Magic as the act of playing off of positions of power in order to either;

  1. Further one’s aims inside of the game.
  2. Maintaining your own game state in order to set up for a victory in due course.

Politics can arise at any time, and it is usually in response to something that changes the board state significantly, i.e. when a Wrath effect is about to be cast, and players are scrambling to justify or condemn the action, usually to protect their own positions. This type of diplomacy can also come around from Duels as well, albeit not as frequently. Democracy is key in a game of politics – To come out on top, you need to justify your plays enough to let your fellow Planeswalkers allow such actions, but not go too far so that the decision is almost always going to go against you. In order to win, you need the favour of your other players on your side. There’s a couple of ways to do this, certainly in the case of the Commander format:

  1. Try to coerce players to go for a ‘larger’ threat instead of you:- This can become easier or more difficult depending on the state of play. Obviously, you have more chance of keeping your permanents if you have less of them, and a Vindicate-style effect may look better suited targeting a player with more resources, to keep the game level.
  2. Justify your plays:- If you’re casting something deadly, try to justify it against the rest of the field, e.g. “I’m casting it to defend against Player B’s assault next turn, in order to survive”
  3. Make and break ‘alliances’:- If you know one player is getting ahead, you can make deals with other players in order to take out the larger threat, under the guise of developing a winning strategy yourself.

Simply put, the more you join in the collective and the less heat you keep off of yourself, the more likely chance you have of winning a match.

Knowing your Playgroup and their ‘styles’:

I have always found that the success of one’s multiplayer games depends on who you decide to play with. If we compare players to the themes brought forth by MaRo;

  • Timmy is a lover of big creatures. He wants to cast massive, fat creatures and do tons of damage to his opponents. He likes his cards to be impressive.
  • Johnny is the creative gamer, a lover of intricate interactions. He wants to win in style, either through a combo, or an alternative win condition such as milling.
  • Spike is the tournament gamer. He doesn’t care how he wins, so long as he does. These are the sort of players who build 5 colour decks just to have the most powerful spells, with very little interaction other than their power level.

To balance your playgroup out, you should know who your facing. If your playgroup is very new, expect to play a lot of ‘Timmy’ style players, whereas players playing with seasoned veterans may find themselves playing against more Johnny and Spike players. Knowing who you play against can make the difference between having fun, and just sitting bored for an hour. e.g.;

Player A is playing his 5-Colour Sliver Queen deck. He’s spent most of the game sitting back, ramping up on mana, countering the odd threat here and there. Player B has been using Omnath, Locus of Mana, and has spent his turns fast-ramping into plenty of threats in order to deal the quick 40 to his opponents. Unfortunately, Wrath of God spoiled his fun a few turns previous, and he’s been spending time trying to rebuild on card advantage. Player C is playing with Teysa, Orzhov Scion, and has had a slow, but steady game. Lacking the ramp of the other two, his turns have been quite uneventful, attemtping a combo earlier on that Player A quickly stopped.

Suddenly, Player A makes his move: He casts Time Stretch, and using a combo with Eternal Witness and Crystal Shards, takes an infinite number of turns, with enough mana back to counter any attempt to stop his plans. Player B and C both sigh, and with little more action, decide to scoop rather than sit through enough turns for Player A to kill them both.

Now, I’ve had situations happen like this all the time. My playgroup, for example, is built up of a mixture of Spikes and Johnnys. When I first started, my deck was Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary. Explosive, yes, but very susceptible to Wraths, and with little card advantage, I could never get back into a game. Perhaps this was down to my deck building, but I lost some of my love for the game during these matches, and found myself more and more disillusioned with Magic in general, until I figured out the problem…

I didn’t pick my moments correctly.

This is such a simple thing that people can forget so often in multiplayer games. In analysing the games, I discovered that I was often just going for my fat men, with no regard for what might lay ahead. I would play guy after guy onto my board to get wrathed, destroy the wrong things on the field, and not working with my peers in order to secure the game. Had I worked with them, perhaps the Spike players could have been stopped much easily, or at least have been kept in check long enough for me to come out with something.

The main thing I can give you from this article that you can take away today? Multiplayer is not always one person’s effort against another three. There’s always strength in numbers, and even more fun once you get it right.

Going too far, or the ‘Douchebag Effect’:

Now, going from the first example, let’s see what happens in the next game.

Player A is frazzled. Player B’s Omnath deck has yet again gotten the fast start, and he has started pounding on Player A’s board of just lands and a small utility creature. In much the same vein, Player C’s Teysa deck has gotten its combo online early, and is Exiling creatures on the left, leaving Player B to ravage a downed Player A, knowing he can exile Player B’s Green fatties should he be the next target. In a fit of sighs and groans, Player A eventually picks up his cards, distraught at the merciless destruction of his life total, and stares on as Players B and C continue to duel with each other.

Now, obviously this is not what we expected from either Player B or C. Giving up on their previous gameplans, their only plan is to make sure Player A doesn’t win. This is the exact definition of going too far: When you focus on a player for no reason, you only seek to disrupt the harmony of your playgroup as a whole. Players will refuse to play, hold grudges, and may even quit Magic as an entirety. There is no excuse for Douchebagging it against one player who has done nothing aggressive. Every game is a new entity and should be treat as such. It’s all about we as players and a game community to figure out what is acceptable and fun in game terms, and what is worth removing.

Now, I won’t for a second let you think that I’m exempt from this. I have two examples of gameplay that I was involved with that symbolise both sets of play.

In the first, I was playing with Azusa, Lost but Seeking against Sharuum the Hegemon and Sliver Queen. Sharuum had boasted many of the power plays in the game, and had built up a formidable field, keeping me on defense for much of the battle. Sliver Queen quickly Wrathed the board, and then proceeded to rebuild his board quickly, putting a deadly beating upon Sharuum’s player. In an attempt at survival via fetching a Filigree Angel, Sliver Queen spent its next turn finishing off Sharuum, when the player had no visible threat on board. A Spike’s way of playing, yes, but one that fractures a playgroup. The player Playing with Sharuum did not play another game with the Sliver Queen player for a good couple of months, and it shows how hard a game can be if you play too aggressively. I have been in the wrong as many times as I have been wronged: I once dealt a player 36 Damage via two swings with a Terrastodon and three Elephant tokens… because the player had removed two cards from my graveyard with Stonecloaker. I was miffed, but it was no excuse for essentially taking a player out of the game… however, on the flip side;

I planned on indoctrinating my new housemate into Commander after he had shown an interest in playing it. Lending him Azusa, I once again played against the same Sharuum player, my deck being Intet, the Dreamer. We had all done some ridiculous amount of ramping: Azusa via lands, myself via ramp spells, and Sharuum through artifacts. Azusa got to cast fatties, Sharuum got up to some artifact shenanigans, and Intet did its usual with Free Spells. We battled for a good two hours before I asked the table if we should end due to work in the morning, flashing a Tooth and Nail that I had had in my hand from the beginning of the game, obviously fetching Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker and Pestermite. Why didn’t I cast it and win the game as soon as possible? It was too fun not to.

Commander is not a format of Cut-Throatedness like Standard, you can afford to hold back and have fun once in a while. The friend borrowing Azusa cast Kozilek, Ulamog and Blightsteel Colossus during the course of the game, and even though Sharuum and I removed the threat every time, he still loved the format, because he got a chance to play more and more without the intent for us to kill him off straight away. Balance your threats and responses, and you’ll have long games that your friends will talk about all the time, and keep you enjoying the formats for years to come.

This is where I’m gonna leave it this week folks. Do make sure to contact me if you have any questions on getting started, or just want to chat. Enjoy commanding your armies this week!

Andy P

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