The Art of War and Magic - Chapter 10A: Terrain
By Bryndon on June 4th, 2012 · Filed in Art of War and Magic · Comments not available just now
I have a treat for you - brevity. This will be one of the most unified and focused chapters in the series so far. Chapter Ten has two halves: the first is devoted to understanding board positions, identifying what factors are important in multiplayer and how to achieve or escape each. There's a thematically-related card image for each passage, because that's the kind of thing you can do with a more defined scope.
There is usually such a long lapse between articles that I have developed a neurosis over taking up too much real estate in introductory paragraphs. Let's begin:
Given that Magic's terrain is explicitly malleable and destructible, we'll pay very little attention to Land cards, mana bases and land destruction effects. This article is about understanding situations, manipulating them to your advantage and understanding how they move from one to the other.
1. Sun Tzu said: We may distinguish six kinds of terrain, to wit:
positions at a great distance from the enemy.
Please note: where possible, I am using the iconic $100+ reserved list cards that will never be reprinted to give examples. For a picture of theory painted in broad strokes, they're invaluable. I don't play with the Abyss, I play with Magus of the Abyss and Call to the Grave and I have a wonderful time. But tomorrow, Magus of the Abyss will be outclassed by a new card from a new set, but the Abyss will hopefully retain its iconic nature.
2. Ground which can be freely traversed by both sides is called accessible.
Tabula Rasa.Commander begins as a blank slate. It will likely get returned to this state at least once during a game, via the wrath rule.
Accessible ground means that there are no 'rules-setting' cards, no player has overwhelming board presence, and that no-one has a large attacker, or a large defender.
Accessible ground is reached by removing all permanents from play, or by removing locks on the board.
To leave accessible ground, play a large threat, or play a rules-setting card.
3. With regard to ground of this nature, be before the enemy in occupying the raised and sunny spots, and carefully guard your line of supplies. Then you will be able to fight with advantage.
Phase one is the best time to While you're in accessible ground you can play threats, you can lay defences, you can tutor, you can ramp or you can draw cards. Anything is possible during these formative stages, but the longer you're content to wait in accessible ground the more likely it is that someone will pull out ahead of you, which changes the terrain. Thus, accelerate out of accessible ground as quickly as possible.
long term plans, and the best time to cast
Wrathing is wasted while you're in accessible ground. Pulling ahead will bring you to precipitous ground, using a rules-setting card will place you in entangling ground, establishing a strong defence allows you to occupy a narrow pass, and allowing everyone to continue tutoring, drawing and ramping will temporise the field. We'll learn more about these terms in the following verses.
4. Ground which can be abandoned but is hard to re-occupy is called entangling.
You won't always see this mechanic, Commander doesn't always get entangled. If a game does, it's a good indicator that you're playing for higher stakes than a normal kitchen-table game.
but be prepared for the day you do.
Cards which drag everyone down together are the cause of entanglement. Burning Sands, The Abyss, Lethal Vapors, Contamination, Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale mass land destruction all cause this sort of downwards sinking motion.
Entangled ground means that most players cannot afford to build up their resources – either their creatures can't be relied upon to stay on the field, or cards can't be kept in hand, or creatures can't attack while still leaving defenders at home. One player (the person who played the entangling card) might not be affected as badly by this card, which moves the game into precipitous ground.
If you want to get to Entangling ground, you need to make sure that you're adequately prepared to deal with the results. If you have to sacrifice a creature, have something that reanimates itself. If you have to discard a card, play Squee. This is overly simplified – my understanding of decks like Stax is that they're less “they have this one card that makes it more worthwhile” and more “the entire deck conspires with the rules of the game to do unfair thing to the opponent”.
To leave entangling ground, you more often than not need to Naturalize a problematic artifact or enchantment.
When you commit to an attack during a complicated part of the game – say, an active Grave Pact means that you can't be sure if anyone will have attackers or blockers after one rotation of the board – you can destroy an opponent outright by reducing their life to zero, or you can virtually defeat him by destroying his board position. In addition, Magic players can always be trusted to smell blood in the water. But if your attack doesn't go as well as you expected and you're both left bleeding, can you trust them not to smell your blood?
5. From a position of this sort, if the enemy is unprepared, you may sally forth and defeat him. But if the enemy is prepared for your coming, and you fail to defeat him, then, return being impossible, disaster will ensue.
If you're defending in entangling ground, focus on keeping your rattlesnake cards active and prominent in the eyes of your opponents.
Stalemate feels like an inherent weakness of multiplayer. Multiplayer probably owes its existence to Alice, Bob and Charlie not being able to decide who should sit out of a game of chess. From that impasse, both Multiplayer and the greatest weakness of Multiplayer hatched.
6. When the position is such that neither side will gain by making the first move, it is called temporizing ground.
But what causes stalemate?
One cause is an elongated 'phase one'. If everyone is given free rein of accessible ground (see 1), no one becomes a logical target for the mob mentality.
Another probable factor in stalemating is a lack of wrath effects or an insistence on playing nice. An effective strategy kills opponents. Any house-rule is generally made on the basis of “this strategy is too good at killing opponents”. If games at your table reach a convoluted Mexican stand-off meets the Cuban missile crisis with faint echoes of Clarissa's long and tawdry web of feuding ex-lovers, re-examine your unofficial house rules to see if they're contributing to overly long games.
Lastly, it's possible you're not packing enough threats. Cut your ramp, then cut your tutors, then cut your answers, and then cut your draw. Add in threats.
To leave temporising ground, play a one-sided wrath effect or a Lavalanche-esque card, or pull ahead with a strong threat (this moves the game towards precipitous heights).
Baits include Planeswalkers, combo pieces, Luminarch Ascension, draw engines and Suspend spells. All give you a reason to want to move the game along, but few of them will win the game outright. It's better to disenchant most of these cards than attack to stop them from working, for example.
7. In a position of this sort, even though the enemy should offer us an attractive bait, it will be advisable not to stir forth, but rather to retreat, thus enticing the enemy in his turn; then, when part of his army has come out, we may deliver our attack with advantage.
Disarming temporising game-states is a fine reason to run a cards like Sorin Markov, Magister Sphinx, Fumiko, the Lowblood, and Mindslaver. All of these force someone else into making the first move, or turn someone who isn't you into a juicy target.
A wrath turns temporising ground in to accessible ground.
A taxation effect will turn temporising ground into entangled ground, but it will do so sloooowly (people will by definition have an excess of resources in this state). Also, they'll be in a position to gang up on you for taxing them.
I will now indulge in my time-honoured tradition of reaching a simple point by means of a lengthy dissertation on some other, non-Magic game.
8. With regard to narrow passes, if you can occupy them first, let them be strongly garrisoned and await the advent of the enemy.
In Honor of the Samurai, a fine multiplayer game that can be played with your non-Magic playing friends, your goal is to build up a supply of 300 'honour' points, which you receive in small amounts each turn from your loyal subjects. You can send Ninjas to assassinate other characters, but you can't attack other players unless that player plays a Castle, or declares themselves Shogun. Both the castle and the position of Shogun confer additional honour points upon the player and accelerate them towards victory, at the cost of making themselves Public Enemy #1. Thus, no-one declares themselves Shogun or the lord of a Castle unless someone is about to do the same, or they're able to deal with the extra attention.
In Magic, how does one find and occupy a narrow pass? By laying down defensive cards like Moat and Fog Bank and Privileged Position and only placing down the Felidar Sovereign or the Planeswalker with a ridiculous ultimate ability after that. It's been forever and a day since I saw a good Fortress deck in Commander. We'll explore why in a moment.
(A narrow pass can also mean that someone is 'winning', in the sense that they have a far superior board position compared to everyone else on the board. The same logic applies.)
If your opponent has an untouchable combination of cards that in turn make them untouchable, and their win-condition is counting down, you can either cast Decree of Annihilation or you can concede that they've won fair and square. Get them next game.
9. Should the army forestall you in occupying a pass, do not go after him if the pass is fully garrisoned, but only if it is weakly garrisoned.
In general, attacking into a heavily-defended deck will end badly for you. Most of the six-mana wraths that get played in Commander will take out defensive enchantments as an added bonus.
If they have all the defensive enchantments they need in place but they aren't doing anything to win the game, ignore them and start mopping up the weaker players. If someone squeaks “Don't attack me, I'm the only guy who can take out so-and-so”, give them two turns while you kill off someone else. If someone has only one part of a fortress, attack them mercilessly.
A highly fortified pass can be left with a large wrath, which returns the game to an accessible state.
It can't be entangled – in the time it takes you to drag everyone else down, the Fortress player will win.
It can be temporised – you can build up your own defences and wait for a stalemate to set in.
Heights can mean either that “there is a group hug deck in action”, or “someone is pulling out ahead and can afford to start attacking”.
10. With regard to precipitous heights, if you are beforehand with your adversary, you should occupy the raised and sunny spots, and there wait for him to come up.
Precipitous ground begins when someone plays a flying/trample and haste/vigilance creature on to accessible ground, or every player gets to start drawing extra cards.
Howling Mines and Mana Flares gives everyone a chance to experience a bountiful game state. If you are one-hundred percent certain that the deck giving everyone new toys is GroupHug.dec and not ForcedFruition.dec, you should enjoy. If they're something more vicious and mean, you should ask yourself why they chose to hand out all these gifts? Build up in a way that keeps pace with your opponents, but hold back land and creatures for something nasty to follow the bounty of the harvest.
Whatever the situation, if you've got the only creatures and you're on precipitous ground, you should Armageddon.
Ok. Ok. You'll never play Armageddon. I wouldn't either. But you can play the biggest, meanest creature you can afford and try to kill someone with it. A Mind Twist will still be good even if your victim draws three cards next turn.
It's easiest to win the game from precipitous heights – the players are all spread out in different strata, and it's easy for the guy on top to rain boulders down on them until they're the only one left.
11. If the enemy has occupied them before you, do not follow him, but retreat and try to entice him away.
If you can't match your opponent's ability to occupy high ground, you should force them to put their cards to use, or lose them. Play the cards that force attacks, or use creature-stealing effects to topple someone from their lofty heights. This means you're still in a situation that involves precipitous heights, but it changes the pecking order.
Play cards that establish a defensive position for yourself. This might mean you're not climbing towards a victory, but you'll be settling into a narrow pass.
If you play cards that would ordinarily entangle your opponents, they'll work differently here. If you play Cunning Lethemancer from accessible ground, people will slowly stall out. If you play Cunning Lethemancer and Braids, Cabal Minion into a field that also contains Howling Mine and Rites of Flourishing, you'll find that players will still have amazing card quality, even if they don't have amazing card quantity.
If you can avoid being the target of more powerful players and grind out some card advantage, the game can stall into a temporised state.
If you wrath, you return to accessible ground, with the caveat that whoever lost the most from the wrath will hate you during the next build-up phase.
12. If you are situated at a great distance from the enemy, and the strength of the two armies is equal, it is not easy to provoke a battle, and fighting will be to your disadvantage.
I don't know what I was expecting,The last situation is 'distant ground'. Distant ground is the calm before the 'all hell breaks loose' moment of a game in phase three. Distant ground means that someone has just been taken out of the game for good and everyone is sizing each other up and replacing lost troops. It's not worth attacking in this situation – you'll lose something, and become the new target for the mob mentality.
but there are surprisingly few Magic cards that
capture the feel of 'nothing is happening',
outside of Stasis. (which would be cliche)
If you wrath to get away from this situation, its possible that no-one will recover and you'll grind out the game by trading attacks between a Sakura-Tribe Elder and a Weathered Wayfarer post recovery.
If you entangle, you'll be taken out by the combined ire of the other players before it has any effect.
If you team up with another player, you can reach a precipitous height together.
If you settle in and focus on defending your life total, you can settle into a narrow pass – you'll have more life points than anyone else and more creatures left on the board.
If you temporise in this phase, the game will end in a draw.
Any situation can be returned to open ground via a wrath and open ground is the default state of 'phase one'.
13. These six are the principles connected with Earth. The general who has attained a responsible post must be careful to study them.
Entangling is usually super-effective, but I don't think they're very popular among most players who still have a soul.
Temporising is common among timid players and new players who don't have game-ending bombs and game-preserving wraths to put in all of their decks. Temporising will not last beyond the combat step of the player with the shortest attention span. “Eh,” they say, inadvertently loosing the dogs of war, “Let's see what happens.”
Decks designed to build a fortress and then wait out the war are rare, because they're jaw-clenchingly irritating to play against. If you build one, it will be the first one your playgroup has seen, or they will fix you with tired eyes and say “No, person X used to play them and they are banned now.”
Preciptious ground is the mythical environment that the Commander rules strive to create. The plays made in precipitous ground are the ones that start with “... and then I kicked Rite of Replication” or “I Twincasted Genesis Wave”. They win the game or lead to epic back-and forth moves (“I cast Wild Ricochet on his Twincast so I could have a bajillion Genesis Waves”). Precipitous ground is the assumed state of phase 3. When you end the game, it is most likely in precipitous ground.
Distance is just like accessible ground, only it happens in phase 3 and involves non-renewable resources being exhausted.
A typical game loops between accessible and temporised ground before going to precipitous ground.
Any pile of 99 cards should be able to wait out the temporised ground and play a bomb that will have an effect in precipitous ground.
A real Commander deck can survive one or more of the other states mentioned in this list, where a pile of 99 cards would fold.
A successful Commander deck can move the game from one state to another and thrives where another deck might only survive.
The super-tier decks can ignore these states or lock the game into just one of these states at will.
14. Now an army is exposed to six several calamities, not arising from natural causes, but from faults for which the general is responsible. These are:
O, Calamity!This is a transitional passage, it sets the theme for the next few passages. They're great for breaking up an ordinary reading of the Art of War and slowing down the pace, but they're a pain when your format is "I'm breaking up the ordinary reading of the Art of War, which necessarily slows down the pace". I'm going to take a quick breather here and have a look at how suntzusaid.com has treated this chapter so far.
"It is hardly necessary to point out the faultiness of this classification. A strange lack of logical perception is shown in the Chinaman's unquestioning acceptance of glaring cross divisions such as the above."
I found this comment strange, because I wrote this chapter fragment in a single sitting, without pause.
If you're suffering from writer's block, don't be jealous – it's well documented that I have dry spells lasting months at a time. Because of that, its worth commenting whenever a segment translates really well into the logical flow of a political multiplayer game. It more than makes up for the parts that have involved reaching to find something relevant to say, or required a sudden change of topic.
There is also some mention of accessible ground referring to the ease with which generals could receive communications from their advance scouts. I find that in Commander, there's a lot less 'secret' communication, which means that there is never a point where your enemy can't hear or guess what you're saying.
The rest of the chapter is devoted to a different theme and makes little reference to this half of the chapter. Thus, we fall into the attitude of the knife.
Originally Posted by "Collected sayings of Muad'Dib" by Princess Irulan
Arrakis teaches the attitude of the knife-chopping off what's incomplete and saying: "now, it's complete because it's ended here."
I'll see you again, and sooner than you think. In the mean time, how did you feel about the shorter format? Was the structure easier to follow? Let me know!
This seemed a good place to finish.
By Bryndon on June 4th, 2012 · Filed in Art of War and Magic · Comments not available just now