How to Win Friends and Influence Games

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Commander is a multiplayer-oriented format defined by a balance between etiquette and strategy. You might be the strongest player at the table, but without some knowledge of the social aspects of the game you may find yourself making a quicker exit from a game than you anticipated. Whether you're sitting down with friends or shuffling up with new acquaintances, social interaction is an important part of multiplayer Commander and remembering your triggers is just as important as reading other players' boards and intentions.

The social aspect of Commander goes far beyond just card choice, and it will be an experiment for me to write about the more social side of the format. I am by no means a manipulative Machiavelli at Commander for two reasons:

  1. I am not nearly cunning enough, and
  2. I do not want to be taken out early in a Commander game, should such a cutthroat reputation follow me from Quiet Speculation back to my local store!

But, through experience, I've learned a few things about multiplayer Commander that are equally strategic and social. Some of these you may hear for the first time; if you are an old hand at the game these may just reinforce the concepts you may already be aware of. Stay conscious of these ideas when you play and they may help you become the King of the Hill in your next Commander free-for-all.

Pace Yourself

In the first round of Shane Carwin's bout against Brock Lesnar for the UFC heavyweight title last year, Carwin lay an utter beating on the ex-wrestler. Known for his incredible punching power, Carwin sent a bloody Lesnar reeling across the cage from an onslaught of blows. By some gift of a higher power, Lesnar survived the round, and Carwin had completely punched himself out, leaving himself completely exhausted and defenseless in the second round, where he let himself get submitted via triangle choke.

Even if you're not a mixed martial arts fan, there is a lesson to take away here. Carwin made a judgment call to expend all his energy trying to finish Lesnar early in the fight, and in hindsight, it was an unwise decision.

Commander is not a game of speed, but rather a game of timing. Aggressive, damage-based strategies are at a distinct disadvantage in this format as you have to get through 40 life, multiplied by the number of opponents, in order to win. Dropping your entire hand to blitz another player is a strategy that is only remotely justifiable if that player won a previous game in a particularly unappealing fashion, or if a grudge exists (we'll get to grudges later). And even then, it's not a durable strategy, as you leave yourself open to a board sweeper.

By holding back cards and threats, you ensure that you'll always have gas, which means you'll be better prepared for the inevitable twists and swings that Commander games can bring. Don't be like Shane Carwin and blame your loss on Lactic Acidosis; blame your game plan.

Table Talk Is Allowed

Talk to other players. Strike up idle chit-chat. Comment on a signed card or a hard-to-find foil in someone's deck. Chatting is just a friendly thing to do but in many multiplayer games the quiet players are usually the most suspicious. I've been guilty of falling silent for long stretches, trying to plan ahead the next couple turns. But that only makes other players think you're up to no good and will make them more likely to put a wrench in your plans. In my experience, a greater amount of social interaction makes the game more fun.

Time Your Turns

Combo decks are the least fun to play against in Commander not because of their consistency or mechanical non-interaction, but because of the disproportionate amount of time the combo player eats up in each game trying to assemble and fire off the combo. With all the mana math and tutoring even a seasoned player can still spend a significant amount of time calculating a variety of factors and potential plays. In multiplayer that can seem like an eternity. When everyone else at the table is taking turns much quicker than yours, and you are the one everyone is waiting for, it may be time to reflect on some of your card choices. People sat down at the table to play and when they are watching another player taking an excruciatingly long turn they having anything but fun.

If you are playing with tutors make sure you know what card you need before you cast the spell. The other players won't have to wait until you sift through your entire deck and can get to their turns faster. Sensei's Divining Top is often cited as a big time-eater but I usually haven't found much of an issue with it unless the player is traditionally methodical.

Tilts and Grudges

We are only human and as a result tilt exists even in Commander. I can't tell you how many times I've punted a win and gotten angry at myself because I miscalculated my mana or forgot about a card on another player's board that completely ruins my strategy. As a game develops, the number of potential card interactions balloons exponentially. There is no harm in taking a little extra time to examine the game state when things get ridiculous. A while back Alexander Shearer wrote about applying the OODA loop to Magic gameplay and if you find yourself missing triggers or taking mental shortcuts through cards it may be a helpful read.

So if you get a little frustrated just take a deep breath and relax. And remember your triggers!

In a similar vein to tilt, grudges can arise across several games as well. Maybe someone kicked a Rite of Replication on your own Woodfall Primus, destroying five of your own lands (this happened to me once), or someone stole your Vigor and started beating you with it (also happened to me). You exact an eye for an eye, as they say, and before you know it you're both committing a ridiculous amount of resources to destroy each other while the one of the players in the background quietly cleans up the remnants and wins.

At some point you just need to swallow your pride, draw the line, and continue playing the game to win unless you want to see a grudge match to its bitter end; that's fine as well because you're entitled to play how you like. But in my experience the deeper you dive into a grudge the less likely you are to win.

Let The Rookie Win

In a recent four-player game, one of the regular Constructed players borrowed a friend's Stonebrow deck to try out the format. Unfortunately, he gassed early on (See "Pacing Yourself") and spent much of the game without a hand. Meanwhile, the mono-black ramp player spent a good portion of the game sweeping the board, tutoring for multiple cards, and building up man. While he was doing this he used Geth, Lord of the Vault on the helpless newbie multiple times. I could tell this person wasn't having that much fun. I wasn't having the best game, either, being stuck on too few lands thanks to Death Cloud.

So, I thought I'd give us both something to smile about: I cast Living Death, letting him bring back a couple dozen creatures from his graveyard. Jaws dropped as he gleefully rearranged his new board. Although the mono-black player just swept the board again on his turn, I thought it would have been a great way to finish the game. Instead, the game dragged out even longer, and the mono-black player eventually won in some way.

Aside from just venting a little bit, the point of this anecdote is that it's important to remember that people should be having fun. Unfortunately, I now know of at least two Magic players who now avoid Commander because they played against degenerate decks when they first started. When your desire to win takes the fun away from the other players, that's when the competitive aspect of the game oversteps its boundaries.

Commander is a tricky game in that there is more than gameplay to keep in mind. Yes, the goal of most gaming is to win, and there are many non-gameplay strategies that you can exercise to come out on top. But if you can win while helping make sure everyone is having fun that makes a victory just that much sweeter.

David Lee
@derfington on Twitter

One thought on “How to Win Friends and Influence Games

  1. A great article, which seems at least somewhat applicable to all 3-4-player formats. I’ve only rarely done anything besides competitive 2-player duels, but your advice seems like it will be useful for making the games more friendly. 🙂

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