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Community Choice: Threat Assessment

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A few weeks ago I spent an afternoon talking with some of the Commander crowd on Twitter about what kinds of articles people wanted to see more of. Almost universally the topic people wanted to hear about was threat assessment, one of the most controversial and misunderstood concepts in the online Commander community. Now, it's much harder to evaluate what threats are important in casual formats than in competitive formats, because the format is broader, and the key lessons to be learned are much more vague, and less likely to be applicable across all different playgroups.

"What's the Biggest Threat" is the vaguest, most nebulous, and most important question that you can ask during any given game of Commander. Coincidentally, it's also the question that's likely to get the widest range of answers from other players and spectators. It's also unfortunately one of the phrases that's picked up a derisive connotation, like "the spirit of the format" and "EDH Spike" where people complain about other players being bad at identifying the real threat at the table, usually without thinking about what they might have done to affect the outcome of the game.

As loathe as I am to give the topic any kind of credence, I do feel like it's a topic that could be developed upon and turned into something more useful. The problem is that the way that any given person is going to think about the threats at the table is going to depend on their own experiences, both with Magic as a whole, and with the Commander format. Consider also that you're also playing a political sub-game with multiple other players, and that there is exponentially more unknown information than in a one-on-one format. In Commander, I start to have trouble thinking about my next turn, much less three or four turns from now.

The ability to "correctly" evaluate the threats at a given table is going to rely on an encyclopedic knowledge of Magic, and knowing your deck like the back of your hand. It also depends on your knowledge of the format and your opponents; are you able to guess what's in their decks? Their hands? How other players are going to react as the game-state changes? These are all complex questions that need to be constantly reevaluated to decide who and what you need to be afraid of.

What I like to do is break things down into simpler, more familiar terms. There are three things that I like to think about when I'm considering what players and cards I'm most concerned about in a given gamestate. At the beginning of the game, as soon as generals are revealed, I think about Match-up Threats. During the developmental turns, I like to evaluate the archetypal role of each deck at the table relative to one another. This allows you to determine which decks are Archetypal Threats. Finally, at every point in the game, you have to think about which decks are problems now, and which decks will be problems later, in a different game-state, or Circumstantial Threats.

Match-Up Threats

As someone who has built and critiqued a lot of decks, I tend to be reasonably adept at guessing what cards are in people's decks. And really, that's what this is all about: you need to know what decks are and aren't problematic for you, and under what circumstances. Typically, there are three ways I categorize decks here: non-threats, contingent threats, and threats.

Quite simply, non-threats are things that I don't think I really have to worry about at all. Say I'm playing mono-white Wrath of God the deck; I don't think I have to be very concerned about creature decks. The key point here is that you have to know the mechanics of your deck. What does your deck do, and what stops you from doing it? If there are any decks at the table that either can't deal with what you're trying to accomplish, or can't prevent you from doing what you want, those are probably non-threats, and you don't need to concern yourself with them barring game-state-specific considerations.

Threats are just the opposite; decks whose primary strategy is a good foil to yours, and which you will have difficulty fighting through. Whether you're afraid of Counterspells, Wrath of Gods or Avenger of Zendikar, you have to know what kind of threats and answers you have trouble dealing with, and identify the players who have access to those kinds of cards quickly. Once you've identified the players you have to be afraid of, you have to work out how you're going to deal with the threat. Maybe it's holding back lands against the guy playing Obliterate, or maybe it's leaving the mono-white control player in to Wrath the board for you. Regardless, you have to recognize your weaknesses, and use that knowledge to avoid situations where you are disadvantaged.

Finally, there are contingent threats. These are the hardest to categorize, and are also unfortunately the most common type of threat. These are the decks that aren't typically threatening, but can be contingent on their board position, or on specific cards. For example, the Avenger of Zendikar decks become much better against the Wrath of God decks when they have access to something like Eldrazi Monument or [/card]Genesis[/card].

These are the threats you have to think ahead to deal with, and this is where you get rewarded for knowing the format and the decks of the regular players in your group. You should have a pretty good idea of what kinds of targets you should hold you Swords to Plowshares for. You should know how risky it is to Morality Shift, or to tap out against Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind. These are the matchups where you're rewarded for identifying ahead of time which cards and interactions are important.

It may seem unimportant to take the time to think about these things: how much of a difference can the little things make when so many things have such a profound impact on how the game shakes out, right? Does it make a difference when I fizzle you Capsize by leaving up Crop Rotation into Diamond Valley? Or when I bait Control Magic, Wrath of God AND Puppeteer Clique with Primeval Titan when Sun Titan is the one that matters? When particular cards or effects are pivotal in your match-up with another deck at the table, paying attention to small details and giving yourself the ability to play around their trumps makes all the difference in the world, and is a huge edge for the people who take the time to think that far ahead.

Now, thinking about match-up threats is all about identifying which things can be threats, and why they can be threats. Archetypal threats and circumstantial threats are all about determining how decks will threaten you and when they will threaten you, so that you can adapt your interpretations with a dynamic game-state.

Archetypal Threats

The big question that defines an archetypal threat is how something threatens you. I tend to prefer to define these as active threats and passive threats, since that covers a spectrum of archetypes and speeds. It also doesn't attach a priority to the threat, but rather defines the mode by which you are threatened. In the most simple terms, this is defining which decks at the table are control decks, and which are beatdown decks.

By this logic, if you're sitting down across from a Godo, Bandit Warlord deck and a Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir deck, [card Godo, Bandit Warlord]Godo[/card] is clearly the active threat early in the game, and [card Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir]Teferi[/card] is more passive, right? Well...not necessarily. Active threats are need to be dealt with quickly and proactively. [card Godo, Bandit Warlord]Godo[/card] is clearly an active threat, since he demands removal or a wrath, or threatens to kill you very quickly.

So what is a passive threat? It's something that you're going to lose to eventually. These are the [card Teneb, the Harvester]Tenb[/card] decks that grind you out with infinite recursion, the Child of Alara control decks that will start wrathing you every turn. These decks require that you either kill them before they start doing their thing, or that you have adequate disruption to keep them under control, otherwise they become very difficult to contain, and can often end up comfortably playing the Archenemy of the table.

Most decks don't fall into one of these extremes, but somewhere in the middle, and it's important to identify which role they're playing at any given time, so you know when to drop threats and when to hold up answers, and so you can identify which cards are important at a given point in the game.

Circumstantial Threats

Finally, these are the threats that depend on the game-state. Who or what is a threat now and what's going to be a problem later. Conveniently, the way I've chosen to split these up is this: immediate threats and long-term threats. Immediate threats do things now, and long-term threats do things later but transition into an immediate threat. Simple, right?

For example, Avenger of Zendikar is an immediate threat. It must be answered right away, or it will end the game for one or more players on the next turn. Conversely, something like Capsize is a long-term threat. It clearly needs to be dealt with at some point, but odds are that it can wait until the more immediate threats have been dealt with.

Deciding whether something is an immediate threat or a long-term threat requires, once again, that you be able to identify what resources are important at a specific point in the game. If you're playing an attrition-based control game, then the life you lose taking hits from random 2/2's is much less important than leaving removal up and getting your own card advantage engine online. If the other decks are more aggressive, then casting blockers and setting up your Oblivion Stone is more important than drawing more cards.

Really, what this all comes down to is that you have to know what your deck is capable of, and what it's weak against. You want to know enough about the players and decks you're playing against to identify which decks have a good or bad match-up against your deck, so that you can prioritize your resources, play around answers, and choose who to kill first. You want to be aware of where you fall on the archetypcal spectrum of decks at the table, so you know when you hold back, and when to apply the pressure. Finally, you want to know which things are threats that have to be answered right away, and which can wait until later.

The thing is, there's so much unknown information that it's near impossible to "correctly" assess threats. You don't know what people have in their decks, or in their hands. You don't know how they prioritize the threats at the table, or who they're going to point their creatures at. There's always going to be a human element to threat assessment, and you're never going to make absolutely perfect choices. Sometimes people cast spells just to cast them, and sometimes you forget to play around something important. Regardless, I think there are just too many elements in to keep track of for anyone to be truly good at threat assessment in this format.

Carlos Gutierrez
cag5383@gmail.com
@cag5383 on Twitter

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