Greetings friend or enemy, for the purposes of this article it makes no difference. During your Commander games, it's essential to not only build a great deck and play your hand strategically but also to play the table. In a word, diplomacy! Many games are won or lost based purely on the whims of players at the table. How do you seize upon these whims and turn them into wins? First some general multiplayer theory and then some specific cards with unique diplomatic applications for inspiration.
The Only Thing That Matters in Multiplayer, Threat Recognition
This is a bit of an oversimplification but only a little bit. Every turn you need to be able to point to the card that is the single biggest threat to the boardstate. That one card represents the momentum of a game. When a player accumulates too much momentum they are going to win and you need to stop that—unless it's you who has the momentum, of course. If you cannot stop what is going on you need to either appeal to the table to get the other players to recognize the threat or if you're the threat, to downplay your own dangerousness. Games are won or lost based on how close player perception is to the reality of the current boardstate. Diplomacy helps you bend that reality to your advantage.
So how do you use diplomacy to achieve this? I'm glad you asked!
Magic has a lot of Snake cards but not any rattlesnakes, right? Well, not exactly. Seal of Doom and Soul Snare are some classic examples of what have become known as rattlesnake cards. They essentially show the ability to retaliate. The logic is don't provide a reason to get bit. Posturing with these types of cards can save you from being attacked and you can hang on to your answers longer.
If the board is at parity and you start attacking a player it's completely fair and natural for that player to retaliate. If you remove one of their permanents they are almost certainly going to remove one of yours in return. However, when another player plays into a card they saw coming they tend to accept it as their own mistake and are less likely to turn a game into a tit-for-tat grudge match.
When a Cat Is a Snake
Recently I built and played a Falthis, Shadowcat Familiar graveyard-based deck. Surprisingly, Falthis acted as a super rattler. Regularly on turn two or turn three I would put down a 2/2 deathtouch creature and then not be attacked on the ground for the rest of the game. There are lots of clickbait article titles possible. Why was it so effective though? In a word—value—or rather, a lack thereof. You lose your attacker. On my end? I just resummon my commander if I feel like it.
Falthis makes attacking me not worth it because I lose effectively nothing. Players quickly realize that trading an expensive Creature for an Ogre is bad. To me, this shows that rattlesnake theory is still in effect, however, what qualifies as a rattler has changed. The EDREC top 100, top 100 Enchantments, and even top 100 Creatures have nothing that would be considered rattlesnakes.
This may or may not be accurate, but it seems like If a player has removal in their hand, they are actively looking to use that removal on anything rather than saving it for a considerable threat when it matters. This, I believe, is the potential reason a card like Soul Snare, once a frequently played card in the early days of Commander, is now in a lot fewer decks. "You played something? Kill it." Sounds familiar? If opponents are going to fire off removal at anything that hits the board, the value of rattlesnakes diminishes.
This ties back to why Falthis was so effective. Putting Swords to Plowshares down on the table triggers threat recognition and retaliation. A Gray Ogre with deathtouch? Not so much. Falthis is effectively a Gray Ogre, but one with a mean bite. Rattlesnakes like Falthis give a deck non-threatening answers.
A King, Kingmaker or a Kingslayer?
During your games, you are one of three things: the king, a kingslayer, or a kingmaker. These roles are fairly obvious. While, of course, it's good to be the king, that does tend to be the most problematic role because the other players also want to be king. The single safest strategy in a multiplayer game is to keep the board somewhat even, never letting any one player hold on to too big of a lead for too long. That way, there is no king. If a player does manage to take a big enough lead, the other players act as kingslayers and bring that player down. However, when a player is hopelessly behind, sometimes they take on the role of a kingmaker, that is, actively helping another player win rather than try to win themself.
In my experience, if you cannot keep the board at parity, the next safest option is to become a kingmaker, not a kingslayer. Getting the most powerful player to ignore you is simply worth more than fighting other players. I'm not suggesting you do not play to win, far from it. What I am saying is that if the board did not work together to keep the game even you need to pick a side and the king is the right side. As the kingslayers drop you will have more chances at surviving long enough to potentially change the boardstate.
It's clear that threat recognition plays a huge role here. If you end up siding with the weaker faction you, too, will likely fall.
It’s Also About the Cards, Duh!
You can't have true diplomacy without playing a few highly interactive cards. It's not just about a "group hug" style deck where everyone is getting free resources whether they play along or not, it's about rewarding the table for working together to keep the game fair. While there are many diplomatic cards one of the overwhelmingly best examples is Eye of Doom.
At a full table, the Eye helps to balance the board by destroying the four largest threats, at least, theoretically. If one player is massively ahead, however, they should be losing three cards from Eye. This can backfire though. The table could collectively gang up on you for playing the Eye and make you lose three things. Or they can choose not to interact at all and simply pile all the counters on one permanent or put them on the Eye itself. Furthermore, threat assessment at the table may be a bit poor and the "wrong" things end up doomed.
But Diplomacy Exists!
This is key. Yes, Eye could be used poorly or not at all. However, you have cards like Eye in your deck for a reason. Before you play Eye, engage in some table talk, get threat assessment sorted, and if you cannot agree on what needs to go there's a diplomatic solution for that also.
NOT Doing Something Is a Diplomacy All Its Own
Sometimes getting the table to agree with your vision of the game is impossible. In those cases let the world burn. Once the world is on fire threat assessment should become a lot more obvious. In that situation, Eye of Doom can likely still "fix" things. If not, well, you have diplomatic capital for the next game. Feel free to remind the table that you pointed out the problem and wanted to fix it if only the rest of the table agreed. Losing a game now can sometimes be worth a few wins in the future.
Why Play Cards With Uncertain Results?
Simple. Playing highly interactive cards makes games far more memorable than the alternative. Remember that game where another player countered every spell or destroyed all lands and no one else could even play? If you do remember that game well, it was because it was so boring, right? We all have better memories of games where we needed to creatively use what we had to solve a problem. But beyond improving the quality of our games there is a strategic element to be exploited as well.
What Happens When YOU Are the Archenemy?
The beauty of a card like Eye is that if you can convince even one of the other players that something else is more of a threat than you, they can agree even if it seems obvious that you are the threat. Cards like All Is Dust or Wrath of God don't allow players to make any choice at all and are dead draws when you are ahead by a little or a lot. Giving players choices provides you with more outs in more situations. You never want the entire board against you unless you are light years ahead or are actually playing Archenemy.
A Couple of Other Examples
Diviner Spirit is another good example of a diplomatic card. You need to play ball to get and give the benefits of this card. Unlike Howling Mine the Spirit requires cooperation. Getting into a situation where everyone wants you to attack them shows off the strength of the card. There's an additional element that bears mentioning. Since the Spirit is drawing cards for your opponents they tend to feel like it is theirs. This works well because each other player feels like they lost a card of their own if it ever gets removed. Meanwhile, you are actually in charge of the Spirit 100% of the time. Other players defending your resources is powerful.
Siren of the Fanged Coast is a special case card. If at first glance you think "This is a bad Control Magic because my opponent can just say no thanks and then it's merely an Air Elemental" then I believe you have misjudged it. You get to choose player A and let them make the tribute decision for, say, player B's commander. This is devious because, firstly, the duration is not temporary. Secondly, the Siren can die and the trigger still resolves. Third, it's almost like you didn't steal player B's stuff, it's more like player A did. Just like the Spirit above, certain cards can reduce the ire coming at you and redirect it at other players.
What About Bob?
I've played with a player who will be referred to as "Bob". Bob is immune to diplomacy. When Bob is in my games Bob's only goal is to defeat me. Nothing else matters to Bob. Occasionally, you will run into a Bob. You have three options when confronted with Bob. Option number one is to ignore Bob and try to play Magic. Number two is to engage Bob in a 1v1 to the death. Both of these options are suboptimal, particularly option two. Option three is to engage in diplomacy with the other players and try to hedge Bob out of the game. Here's where you can take it to the next level and simply make Bob the most attractive target. Do they need to attack to get a trigger? Tell them to attack Bob and you will clear the way. If they cast "target opponent has a really bad day"? Plead your case that Bob has signed up for the bad day. I love you, Bob, but I also hate you.
There's a Lot More
Diplomacy is a complex subject. Beyond threat recognition, rattlesnakes, kings, kingmakers, kingslayers, and of course Bob, there are more topics than a single article can ever hope to cover. Remember that every action has an equal and opposite reaction and it is up to you to pass off everything you do as necessary to balance the game. If you do it right no one should see you coming for the throne.