The Art of War and Magic: Manoeuvring (7/13)

You're halfway through the manuscript when you set it down with a heavy thump. The room is as you remember it being when you first sat down, only for some reason you're buried up to your elbows in dust. From somewhere in the dust particles, your familiar raises a quizzical eyebrow. How long have you been reading, anyway? That's something to look into when you get the time...

1. Sun Tzu said: In war, the general receives his commands from the sovereign.

A deck derives its raison d'etre from the commander. In particular, the Tier-S commanders you loathe have reached that position because they naturally lend themselves to being built around. A commander's perceived power level affects what it is your deck needs to do to survive. Compare Tobias Andrion to Grand Arbiter Augustin IV, or Tibor and Lumia to Jhoira of the Ghitu or Niv-Mizzet. Tobias is a legendary vanilla - he provides no information to your opponent beyond "I've chosen a subpar commander". In contrast, the Arbiter is despised for his pro-taxation policies. Tibor and Lumia is a commander best chosen to signal "I just wanted to play UR! Don't hate me!", while Jhoira and Niv-Mizzet are powerful enough to draw aggro just by being face up on the table - you need to combo out, establish a defence or even prove your innocence before someone else at the table spearheads a unified strike against you. Sadly, despite Commander having been out for over a month, I can't comment on Nin, the Pain Artist, but she reeks of shenanigans. It's not easy to classify the political cost of choosing to play with a certain commander as a bug or a feature, but it needs to impact your deck-building.

2. Having collected an army and concentrated his forces, he must blend and harmonize the different elements thereof before pitching his camp.

There are two main points to consider in light of this verse: synergy and continual deck building.

In terms of synergy, it's vital to emphasise a singular game plan. For example: Rafiq gains almost no benefit from Overrun. Sharuum shouldn't run an Imi Statue "just in case someone else is playing artifacts". Azami doesn't need a Leviathan "because there aren't enough strong beaters in my deck". In contrast, Dueling Grounds and Silent Arbiter work well in an Exalted deck. Sharuum with Sculpting Steel is a well-documented success story. Following on from that, Teneb can work well with a Plague Wind/Debtor's Knell. Intet and Jhoira love big spells. Kresh and Sek'Kuar love The Abyss effects. When you start building with those synergies in mind, write out your deck list. Next to the really synergistic stuff, make an asterisk. Once you've reached a place where you have forty or so asterisks, you're ready to move on to the next paragraph.

Continual deck building requires organisation and adaptability. If you have a large collection, you can't afford to search the entire thing every time you're thinking about making a change. Keep your playables, your new rares, and the cards that you're hoping to test separated from your main collection. Either a fat pack box or a few pages in your trade binder are good places to put these cards. Consult this folder first whenever you're planning to make a change to your deck. This ensures that you always know where your potential replacement cards are. It also allows you to compare potential new cards against all the other cards that could possibly take up one of your 99 slots. (This is not my original idea:

3. After that, comes tactical manoeuvring, than which there is nothing more difficult. The difficulty of tactical manoeuvring consists in turning the devious into the direct, and misfortune into gain.

It's all well and good to say to yourself, "I have taken this deck and I've built it such that it has a pro-active game plan and disruption to help safeguard all my most important cards". It is another thing to say, "I have tested this deck against a variety of opponents and I can safely say that every card fulfils its intended purpose and consequently I now win my share of multiplayer games". It is another thing to be able to say that even after a new set gets released or one of your play group members comes into a sum of money and revamps their deck from head to toe. It's unlikely that you will ever perfect your Commander deck. Thus, we practise continual deck building so that whenever the metagame changes, we can manoeuvre our deck to take advantage of it.

4. Thus, to take a long and circuitous route, after enticing the enemy out of the way, and though starting after him, to contrive to reach the goal before him, shows knowledge of the artifice of DEVIATION.

This is what good tempo looks like.
One of the things that gets bandied about in Magic theory is this concept of "tempo" (see here and here): in some ways, Flores says we can measure tempo cards as being a "fraction of a Time Walk", where a single turn is worth the actions of "draw a card, play a land". Thus, in the Jund decks of 2009/10, a Rampant Growth was described as "half of a Time Walk". In the Caw Blade decks of 2011, connecting with Sword of Feast and Famine is worth untapping all your lands and your opponent discards a card (so you get an extra turn's worth of mana and you're one card up).

What does it mean to do that in Commander?

Let's talk first principles: Time Walk is the yardstick for understanding tempo in tournament Magic. Time Walk isn't legal in Commander, nor is it legal in most tournaments. We need to ask ourselves, is drawing a card and playing a land worth all that much in multiplayer? I think it is only consistent to say that you need to scale up a little bit. Yes, one new card and one extra land is good in single player, because you've undone the benefit of playing first or drawing for that player. But everyone draws a card and plays a land on the first turn in multiplayer! Getting an extra of both against one player is fundamentally unfair, but what you really need is for you to receive an extra card and an extra land for every other player at the table. Lighthouse Chronologist is the only card that does in multiplayer what Time Walk is 'supposed' to do, at a cost of 1UUUUUUUU.

How do we achieve the same kind of massive resource gain against every opponent in a multiplayer game? We need to increase our rate of play not just for one turn, but for each turn thereafter – Phyrexian Arena and Mind Unbound to get more cards funnelling through our hands, Oracle of Mul Daya to get more lands on the field so you can play your business spells, good creatures that replace themselves (the Titans, Sakura-Tribe Elder, Solemn Simulacrum). When it comes time to sculpt your deck towards a big phase-three play, you need to capitalise on the effect of a Wrath, an Armageddon, or a Living Death (this is Abe Sargent's WALD theory, for the clever pandas amongst you).

A Wrath simply means that you will equalise the board and rely on cards that you've stockpiled in your hand to take you to victory.

An Armageddon means playing a dangerous threat and then rebalancing the game state in such a way that everyone has zero new resources and zero threats, while you have zero resources and some positive number of threats. The newest, shiniest way to benefit from an Armageddon is right after you play Kaalia of the Vast, ideally with a hand full of big scary monsters that she can drop on to the field. Armageddons involve massive political fallout if they're not timed right because they alter everyone's ability to interact with the game. This is problematic. On the one hand an aggressive strategy needs a few turns of uninterrupted beating to be able to make its plan work, or you can't play true aggro in multiplayer. On the other, everyone came to play, not just the aggressive player. I take the view that aggro is good and Armageddon is good, but you really need to be winning off the back of it, not just waiting around.

Living Deaths are the trickiest to set up and generally imply some sort of self-milling, sacrificial game play and general shenanigans. Every action you take will lead to more resources dropping into your graveyard in order to set up a massive polarity shift. The best kind of Living Death brings back creatures with enters-the-battlefield effects that neutralise whatever gain your opponent may have made (Fleshbag Marauder, Duplicant, Massacre Wurm, Woodfall Primus, Man o' War, Avalanche Riders). Human error being what it is, Living Death stories sometimes end in "but then HE brought about HIS ludicrously big creature, and it was only after we'd packed up that we realised he couldn't possibly have reanimated his Progenitus, Eldrazi Titans, and both Colossi", or they end in "but I couldn't get into the right position to play Living Death". It's very much a finagling kind of card.

5. Manoeuvring with an army is advantageous; with an undisciplined multitude, most dangerous.

When you're starting out in Commander, I have a single point of advice for your first deck:

No answers.

I mean, no removal. No utility. Precious little ramp. Like the pre-release for a new block or the first few months of the "new Standard", you ignore all of these things. Don't try to play control - it's impossible to establish yourself with counterspells in multiplayer. Leave the combos at home - you don't have the tutors, the card draw, the knowledge of how to pilot your new deck. Pack your deck with threats, first and foremost. Pose one question, over and over: "Can you deal with this?" Make other people have the tuned decks with the variety of answers. You keep turning Moss Kami and every substitute you can lay your hands on sideways until something gives. It's a 5/5, it has trample and you can have one of mine for 10c + postage.

6. If you set a fully equipped army in march in order to snatch an advantage, the chances are that you will be too late. On the other hand, to detach a flying column for the purpose involves the sacrifice of its baggage and stores.

I've earlier referred to the phenomenon of a 'rule-setting' card that dictates how the rest of the game is going to play out. This can be something like the classic example card Lord of Extinction, which if you squint reads "Everyone has to keep a creature untapped or they lose the game". It can be an enchantment with a global effect – the Abyss, Moat, or the much more affordable Meishin, the Mind Cage, or some sort of lopsided faux-symmetrical effect that somebody broke in a clever way Teferi's Puzzle Box, comboed with Underworld Dreams, or Manabarbs while they're on infinite life or at least gaining finite amounts of life each turn. Each of these cards creates an unexpected gameplay shift for everyone else. This unexpected shift is the topic of our musings in this passage.

So, an opponent creates a shift, clearly intending to benefit from it. You can either simply stop attacking any third parties and focus your efforts on them, but if they're doing it right there's a chance nobody's really noticed them until now. You might be too late.

You might think that tutoring up an answer is an efficient strategy, but what that actions says is "I will spend my very powerful Demonic Tutor and one of my removal cards to rid you of your advantageous position", which is you spending the amazing power of Demonic Tutor and some other card, spent to get rid of your opponent's one card. (See, in a duel, Demonic Tutor can't be said to 'cost you a card', but there's a tempo loss in Multiplayer and the loss of the opportunity to tutor out your own crazy shenanigans).

So, what can we do? Disruption can answer the question before it's asked. In the spirit of the great military theoretician Callus Tacticus, we can endeavour to be the one asking the difficult questions and setting the rules.

7. Thus, if you order your men to roll up their buff-coats, and make forced marches without halting day or night, covering double the usual distance at a stretch, doing a hundred li in order to wrest an advantage, the leaders of all your three divisions will fall into the hands of the enemy.
8. The stronger men will be in front, the jaded ones will fall behind, and on this plan only one-tenth of your army will reach its destination.
9. If you march fifty li in order to outmanoeuvre the enemy, you will lose the leader of your first division, and only half your force will reach the goal.
10. If you march thirty li with the same object, two-thirds of your army will arrive.

Oh, Sun Tzu! You and your crazy real-world examples. The clearest parallel I can use between real world travel and Magic is the concept of tempo. It's very possible to exhaust the contents of your deck in trying to outdo someone else's clever manoeuvrings. Remember, from what we've talked about so far a tutor is essentially card disadvantage on a grand scale in multiplayer – using pinpoint removal to get rid of an important threat leaves you a card down against everyone you didn't hit. If you had to use your tutor to fetch a spot removal card, that leaves you down two cards against the entire table: tutors replace themselves by definition, but your removal generally does not.

Similarly, consider that the route to victory for most decks is paved with turns that read "draw a card, play a land, use all of that mana in playing something that advances my game plan". In this model, the 'forced march' is any point where you have to deviate from your course in order to answer something that threatens your game plan. "Use all of that mana" becomes "keep land untapped so that I can cast a counterspell or Fog", or "advance my game plan" becomes "I have to use my removal now to stop someone else from winning". The longer you have to do this, the less likely you are to win. The more often you're forced to divert from your goal, the less likely you are to win.

This leaves us with a tricky question: is removal an answer to a question in multiplayer? Yes, but it's hardly ideal. Where possible, respond with a threat of your own. Tie your removal to creatures with enter-the-battlefield effects. Ante up with your own threats. Be aware of what constitutes a threat and what constitutes a creature that is merely 'very large' and be cautious of people asking you to destroy one card before it 'kills us all'. At worst, they're trying to affect your ability to trust your own threat assessment. Even at best, if the card is capable of winning the game single-handedly, they're still asking you to give up some of your precious cards to something that doesn't 'advance your game plan'. You don't want to be completely non-interactive, but you need to ask yourself whether you want to interact with player B's deck on player C's behalf. In general, you do not.

11. We may take it then that an army without its baggage-train is lost; without provisions it is lost; without bases of supply it is lost.

A fine and noble man on this very website by the name of Stefan Lindberg wrote about The Essence of Burn in his series Gathering the Magic (like Schubert before him, his great work is unfinished – the seventh and final article is missing, which is a loss to us).

I'll happily wait for you to familiarise yourself with the subject matter, because I don't have the space to paraphrase all of it here.

… good? Good. So, we know that a deck which has found its oxygen and its fuel will generate heat, and those three factors combine to generate the chemical reaction that pushes the game state from inert to the finish line. Once your opponent achieves their 'chemical reaction', they also achieve a state of inevitability: your turns will be less and less focused on achieving your own winning combination of cards and more and more focused on staving off defeat and the agonising death that follows. When you achieve your 'chemical reaction', you have a constant flow of cards and mana and your opponents can do naught but scatter before you like leaves on the wind.

The Philosophy of Burn is about hurtling towards your opponent's life totals as aggressively as you can in order to assure victory. It is about the maths necessary to achieve the most efficient methods of dealing 21 points of damage in four turns. Clearly, these numbers must be adjusted in Commander. But let's not think about numbers. Let's think about the structure of multiplayer. We are continually drawing cards, amassing more resources, and trying to use these two to grant us the chemical reaction we need to achieve our inevitable state of victory. While the weakness of a burn deck is its internal inability to achieve chemical reactions, we need to be more proactive when dealing with our enemies: we can't deal 40 damage quickly, but we can deny them of their explosive power. We need to deprive an opponent of either of those two truly crucial resources to be assured of victory. Either stop them from drawing cards (difficult) or deprive them of the benefit that drawing cards provide (much easier). Either destroy their lands (mean) or shape their options for playing spells in such a way that they can't possibly affect you (meaner, classier). Key cards to support this concept are: Chains of Mephistopheles, Rule of Law, Possessed Portal and Vorinclex, Voice of Hunger, Manabarbs, and Armageddon. Look for similar effects and make them one-sided.

12. We cannot enter into alliances until we are acquainted with the designs of our neighbours.

If you like The Rack and he likes Howling Mine, or you end the game with Rude Awakening and he chokes out the opposition with Winter Orb, maybe you should find other allies: you can't do your thing as long as your 'ally' is doing his.

13. We are not fit to lead an army on the march unless we are familiar with the face of the country--its mountains and forests, its pitfalls and precipices, its marshes and swamps.

How well do you know your play group? Are there cards that they respond to with frothing of the mouth and unthinking violence? Are those cards in your deck? How well do you know the capabilities of each colour in Magic and the commanders that your opponents have access to?

Are you able to sit down with any combination of colours and play a pick-up game? Can you play aggro as well as you play control?

14. We shall be unable to turn natural advantage to account unless we make use of local guides.

Take advantage of every angle, in every context, at every chance. If you're new to a group of players, make friends early or expect to be the first one out. If you want to know why someone keeps beating you, ask them, maybe they'll monologue or maybe they'll be your friend. Don't assume that there are no friends to be made in the middle of a game and never assume there is no worthwhile advice to be heard.

15. In war, practice dissimulation, and you will succeed.

Hypocrisy as a virtue? I'm a little bit annoyed that I've reached a point in my life where I'm neither grizzled nor grey-haired but still recommending hypocrisy to my audience as a valid strategy for success, but as I read this I'm painfully aware that people claiming that they're always honest and never tell a lie are horribly limited in their options and make it difficult for everyone else to do the right kind of combat maths.

To wit, if everyone is telling the truth to themselves and to others, the following things must be said: they would prefer to win the game and will play accordingly, unless they're really, really incensed by something someone else has done (in which case they'll kamikaze that person and then hopefully return to being a rational agent). It seems to me like being entirely truthful means that you either have to offer someone an alliance that makes heavy use of 'exact words' ("for three turns", "until this permanent gets destroyed", or "until so and so is out of the picture"), or offer an unbreakable alliance ("its you and me until the end"). When people offer an 'unbreakable' alliance, everyone needs to be aware that the idea of taking someone 'to the end' with them is very subjective – does it mean that they'll concede to their ally? Will they declare it a draw after they're the only two left? Does it mean that they'll give each other one turn to draw up the battle lines after the third player is killed? Does it mean that they'll attack you as soon as you leave yourself exposed in the act of killing off a mutual foe?

In addition, if you make it clear that you'll only make deals with honourable people, how would you expect a person without honour respond? They would assert, on their fabricated honour and good name, that they're worthy of the singular honour of being your ally until the end, all the way up to the point where they backstabbed you. How would you treat the next honourable person to offer you an alliance? By backstabbing them, curtly informing them that they were pretty clever, but you saw through their little ruse. Honour is one thing, practicality is another. Don't ally up with the guy who backstabbed you last game, don't backstab your current ally unless it's fatal.

In conclusion: lie about the current state of your 'honour'. Don't make heavy use of exact words – it's clever when it's done as a literary device, but in any situation where you're going to finish this game and then shuffle up to play a game with the same people, you owe it to your future self to be able to make an alliance in a hurry based mostly on the strength of your personality. Don't be too willing to commit to a lousy alliance – if it looked like your partner was going full steam ahead but he never hit his fifth land drop, don't keep thinking of him as the guy who's going to be there with you in the final three players at the table.

16. Whether to concentrate or to divide your troops, must be decided by circumstances.

As with so many concepts, there's no geometry in Magic, only time. There's no space between your troops that has a measurable impact on the game, but the time between playing your creature cards is of utmost importance - should you be extending, or holding them back?

When contemplating the act of playing a creature in the middle of the game, you need to ask yourself questions following this overly-simplified* matrix:

10. What kind of creature is this? If it's utility (smaller than a 5/3, has a useful activated or triggered ability), goto 20. If it's an attacker (larger than a 5/3, has evasion), goto 30. If it's neither, goto 50.
20. Will I be able to activate this creature's ability during or before my next turn? (How long ago was the last Wrath? Do I have the mana or other resources necessary to actually use this card?) If yes, goto 60. If no, goto 70.
30. Will I untap with this creature still in my possession? (How long ago was the last Wrath? Will someone use removal on my creature? Will someone steal my creature?) If yes, goto 40. If no, goto 70.
40. Will I be able to attack within three turns to kill an opponent if I attack with all of my creatures that are 5/3 or greater? (The opponent must have no creatures with deathtouch or a toughness greater than my creature's power or a power greater than my creature's toughness that can block my creature and must not have removal). If yes, go to 60. If no, go to 70.
50. Why am I playing this creature in my deck? END.
60. Because I can get use out of this creature, I will play this creature. Play creature and END.
70. Because I cannot get use out of this creature's abilities, I will not play this creature. END.

*No seriously. Other things you're considering without even realising it: are you in need of blockers because you're on a clock or need to dissuade other people from attacking you? Are you trying to provoke a Wrath? Are you trying to get some use out of your recursion?

17. Let your rapidity be that of the wind, your compactness that of the forest.

We've discussed in previous articles how things cost you a turn and how this has a cost to you as a player*. When you think to yourself, "Self, the combat phase is easily the most dynamic and exciting part of Magic, how can I best participate in it this turn?" the answer is always "Well, I should simply straight up kill one of the fine fellows seated at this table with me using the minimum of turns necessary to achieve my objective". Your opponents should not have anticipated this sudden shocking turn of events.

Your defences need to be the compact, like unto a forest. There should be no easy line of sight where a person can stand and see a straight line from their position through to your delicate, exposed life total. In general, if you can block someone without losing your own creatures and killing one of theirs, you should be safe from being attacked by experienced players and at the very worst, you're safe from me. Why would I attack you if all that's going to happen is I lose a creature? Losing a creature to reduce some intangible number that doesn't stop you from retaliating is a terrible deal for me.

This goes out the window if someone feels like they no longer have enough resources to win the game. When there's blood in the water, people start acting funny. They say things like "Well, I've lost the game, but I think I can take someone with me", and they swing at you with everything. Kingmaker scenarios are the bane of multiplayer experiences for everyone except the kingmaker, and even then it's second to actually being the winner. Magic is no different – fight to stay out of kingmaker situations unless you have a charisma that can give charging bulls pause and turn starving piranhas into the meekest of vegetarians.

*It's the paragraph after the image of a Mind Twist. Apologies for the lack of numerical headings, I was experimenting with making it 'pretty'. When this text is up, maybe I can go back and spruce up some stuff and rewrite it all with bleeding-edge card references.

18. In raiding and plundering be like fire, in immovability like a mountain.

Your attacks are always at their best when they can be compared to a good burn spell: unblockable, unpreventable, uncounterable!

But what is Sun Tzu talking about when he talks about a mountain? To us, a mountain is the source of red mana, which signifies lightning fast strikes, the desperate mathematical equation trying to reach lethal damage in seven turns, but nothing of immutability, or of the immensity that the mountain represents when we're not basking in the comfortable glow of our widescreen monitor lapping up instant coffee. Mountains meant that someone was going to die. Not as a result of malice, just as a natural outcome of mountains being what they are: a large pile of uncivilised rocks being walked on by hundreds of tired men wearing armour that got heavier by the day and carrying everything they needed to survive on their backs. Someone was always going to slip up and die. Nowadays, we send people up the tallest mountain in the world for fun. They take with them a stack of modern gadgetry and some good sturdy equipment, get experienced guides to lead them to pre-determined stops on the way and at the top they take a picture before heading back down again.

Take all of that knowledge and contrast it to China of thousands of years ago, who would eventually give us the proverb: "Good iron doesn't make a good nail and good men don't make good soldiers." The really high quality gear we like to use now didn't exist and if it did, the cost of outfitting all of your men with the correct gear would have been so prohibitively expensive as to make war a thing of the past. Even if you were willing to go to those lengths to keep your soldiers safe when you're dealing with an inanimate lump of rock, how are you going to feel when you reach the field of battle and you have to tell them to run towards the other men with the pointy swords? This is the theme he's getting at: a general has to have the icy exterior and presumably the stony heart of a mountain. The approach alone should be terrifying to the ordinary man. Actually crossing the general should have the same sense of inevitability as crossing the mountain - someone is going to die.

19. Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.

Let us say, for a moment, that you and I have met at a Commander game night and we've chatted for a bit. When the time to play a game comes, you realise with a sudden chill that you've left your Veldrane of Sengir Werewolf tribal deck at home! You ask if you can borrow something off the classiest guy in the room. I offer you my GAAIV deck. It kills by assembling Power Artifact/Basalt Monolith and spending the resultant infinite mana on Braingeyser/Goblin Cannon/Blue Sun's Zenith.

The game state is thus:
Andy has three Swamps and a Forest, with a Creakwood Liege. He Beseeches the Queen for Mind Twist and passes the turn.
James has two Islands and three Forests, with three Saprolings. He plays Coastal Piracy. He swings at Scott (no permanents, 3 life), killing him. He draws enough cards to leave him with a full grip of seven cards before passing the turn.
You have Three plains, two Islands, and one Gemstone Array on the battlefield, with a Basalt Monolith, a Power Artifact, and two other Plains in your hand. You draw an Island. It is now your main phase.

What do you play? Assume that no-one is inclined to make an alliance with you and that although the combo that your deck uses might be a known quantity, neither player is sure about what you have in your hand. Everyone is on ten or less life.

I say play nothing.

Several game reports I've read include the phrase "he assembled infinite mana but was unable to find his finisher before we killed him". At this point, you're in a tense Mexican stand-off and each player could fire in any direction. Your deck is probably not going to gain a better board position than the other two decks, so to them you're less relevant over the next few turns. There is a chance that you'll be Mind Twisted next turn for three and if that happens the odds are decent that you'd lose one of your combo pieces, but if you play it out there's a certainty that you'll die after your next turn to ensure that you never do reach your infinite combo. If you keep the cards back, Andy can't be sure if you're relevant or if you're simply hanging on out of sheer doggedness and he does need to do something about the pirate-y Saprolings. James needs to deal with Andy's Creakwood Liege before the 3/3 Wurm tokens overwhelm his little card-advantage-stealing buccaneers.

There's an old puzzle based on a three-way gunfight which I've remembered since I was but a wee young child, for reasons that will become obvious.

You've woken up in the Old West and found out that last night you broke up a brawl in the saloon between the two best gunfighters in town, only to challenge them both to a duel at dawn. Your first opponent, Andy the Varmint, hits 19 shots out of 20 dead between the eyes, while your second opponent, James the Kid, claims that of the hundred men he's killed, eighty of them were killed with a single bullet behind the ears before they even knew he was there. You, on the other hand, have only fired a gun a few times in your life and with sudden clarity realise you have maybe a one-in-ten chance of actually hitting your target. Each of you will take turns to shoot until only one gunman is left standing. The guns are old-timey and only fit one bullet apiece. They generously allow you to fire the first shot and get a head start on reloading before they decide where they're firing. You do not want either of these seasoned killers firing on you, so you need to think quickly. Where do you fire to increase your chances of survival, knowing that if you fire at a gunman and miss they'll fire at you but if you do kill someone, the other gunman will only have you left to kill?

Straight up in the air, where you can't hit either gunman. Each gunman wants to come out of this alive as well, so James and Andy will fire at each other, knowing that they can take you on more easily without the threat of each other's much more deadly skills in subsequent rounds.

I loved this puzzle because it combines my two great loves: taking a third option, and downer endings, because even if you survive to the second round, you're still probably not walking out of this maths puzzle alive…

20. When you plunder a countryside, let the spoil be divided amongst your men; when you capture new territory, cut it up into allotments for the benefit of the soldiery.

Your allies need to feel like you're a worthwhile chap to have on the team. A Reward the Faithful isn't a powerful card, but some sort of targeted lifegain effect at the end of a successful team up, or if you're generous, some actual, useful card draw can go a long way towards keeping your friends willing to team up with you in the future.

21. Ponder and deliberate before you make a move.

As he says, with no alterations.

22. He will conquer who has learnt the artifice of deviation. Such is the art of manoeuvring.

It's important to understand whether or not your deck is capable of changing tacks in the middle of a difficult game, and how best to achieve it. The toolbox deck type from Finding the Tinker most fits this notion of 'manoeuvring'. You can switch from aggression to control with the tap of a Sisay.

Some decks cannot manoeuvre without radically changing their structure, and this is equally important to know. It's not bad to have a deck that has a plan B which is 'the same as plan A, only harder'.

23. The Book of Army Management says: On the field of battle, the spoken word does not carry far enough: hence the institution of gongs and drums. Nor can ordinary objects be seen clearly enough: hence the institution of banners and flags.

A few weeks ago, I was introduced to a party game called "Rebels and Imperials", which is very similar in feel to the Mafia games played on this forum. I've played it a few times since and it seems that every time I finish off a game, a beleaguered Imperial player says "Man, it would be so much easier if we had a secret signal or some kind of phrase that only the Imperial players knew while we were playing this game", to which the only response is "Sure, but what about during the next round if you get a rebel card?"

There's very little you can do in the ever-changing politics of Commander to institute signals for regular use. For example, once you tell one ally "me rubbing my nose is the sign for a sneak attack", during the next game in which they haven't teamed up with you, they'll see you rubbing your nose and instantly warn their new allies what's going down. What you can look into is the signals that an opponent sends out without being able to help it - do their cards point to Mana Screw? Do they suggest an Armageddon? A Wrath? A Living Death? A combo? Voltron deck?

24. Gongs and drums, banners and flags, are means whereby the ears and eyes of the host may be focused on one particular point.

If your allies know that as soon as you play a big fat creature it's time to attack all out without question, it becomes harder for any individual player to hold back and be indecisive. If you're blessed with one or two allies with whom you regularly team up in large games, there's nothing to be lost in stating explicitly what you want from each player when you team up together. When they know what you need from them and you know what they expect from you, you'll go together like... HK-47 and an Aratech Sniper Rifle (my first choice of imagery was 'Peaches and Cream', but the one time I tried that I didn't like the taste. Also, I expect my audience to know HK-47 better than they know the old-timey choices for dessert that my grandparents favoured).

25. The host thus forming a single united body, is it impossible either for the brave to advance alone, or for the cowardly to retreat alone. This is the art of handling large masses of men.

Alliances need an objective common to all players. If you're allied with a player who needs an enemy's Rites of Flourishing dead, but that enchantment is just barely helping you stay in the game, you need to break off that alliance and get in good with the guy who has Rites of Flourishing.

When you yourself try to unite a band of unlikely misfits and ragtag warriors into a supreme fighting force, start with yourself. Who do you need dead and in what order? State upfront that it's what you need and probe them for resistance. If they're okay with your plan, welcome them aboard. If they're not okay with the plan, see if you can change the plan to accommodate them, or thank them for their time. (If they hesitate over one step but then regain their composure and smoothly agree to the plan in its entirety, abandon your alliance with them before you reach the step they hesitated over. They're most likely planning to backstab you after the parts of the plan they do agree with are finished.)

26. In night-fighting, then, make much use of signal-fires and drums, and in fighting by day, of flags and banners, as a means of influencing the ears and eyes of your army.

Explore the vast world outside of table-talk, especially during the later parts of the game when everyone's been sitting in one place for just slightly too long. Agree that when one friendly player makes an aggressive move, everyone makes an aggressive move. Play some games of Mafia in real life and train yourself up on nonverbal cues.

27. A whole army may be robbed of its spirit; a commander-in-chief may be robbed of his presence of mind.

You can achieve both of your aims with the right spell: against a voltron deck, it's a Spin into Myth – with no commander, they have no Uril to enchant, no Kaalia to discount their Angels, no Kemba to equip. Against a control deck, a Mind Twist while they're tapped out robs them of whatever it was they were planning to do to you. Against a combo deck, Jester's Cap rids them of their errant combo piece. Against aggro/midrange, a good Wrath or Leyline of the Void will take the wind out of their sails and stop their recursion engines. Against almost anyone, an Armageddon when you're in front or a Living death when you're behind is generally accepted to be a game ender.

28. Now a soldier's spirit is keenest in the morning; by noonday it has begun to flag; and in the evening, his mind is bent only on returning to camp.

Not the reason to play aggro decks.

Rather than focus on 'spirit' as being an issue of morale, let's treat spirit as referring to 'energy'. Holding the word 'soldier' in my hands, I tip it back and forth, seeking some kind of word association. Soldier -> War, War -> Aggression, Aggression -> Aggro! We should talk about aggro decks now!

Consider the aggressive deck and the theories laid out in Finding the Tinker. If we want to take aggro/burn into multiplayer and come out ahead, we need the right ingredients. Those ingredients are, of course, efficient beaters – but midrange does that too! The differentiation comes from a willingness to use mana denial (Winter Orb, Armageddon, Ruination), disruption (Discard, Syphon effects), selective colour hosing, anything that improves your 'reach' – and even so, in any decently-sized game by the end I'd expect you to be in Taking You With Me territory.

Lastly, there's this whole concept of phases to deal with, which I've discussed in previous articles. For the ordinary deck, the mana curve looks like "Phase 1, Advance to Phase 2, Advance to Phase 3". For you, the hopeful aggressor, that needs to be "Phase 1, Reset to Phase 1, Reset to Phase 1" and you somehow need to keep doing that because it's going to take a few turns to actually beat your opponents into the ground like you're hoping to do. Your opponents have to pay dearly for even thinking about getting up to phase 2 and you can't afford to allow your opponents full agency while you're trying to press you're advantage. If you have to keep being aggressive during the second phase, you'll be flagging, by the third phase of the game all you'll be able to do is curl up into a ball and make pathetic mewling noises.

This might all seem like 'unfun tactics', and let's be fair: if you're just blowing up lands on the fourth turn and don't go on to win the game or use that move as a very deliberate stepping stone towards your victory, that's a justified label. But aggressive decks have never been about playing a mana-efficient creature each turn and then turning them sideways. It starts the game that way and finishes the game that way, but they're still not the most important cards in the deck. Wizards reprinted Erhnam Djinn in Judgment at a time when a 4/5 for 3G was legendarily good for its mana cost and had spent some time on a banned list, but it didn't bring back Erhnamgeddon decks. Erhnam Djinn isn't even particularly above the curve anymore: Wickerbough Shaman has the same power... after it kills someone else's artifact/enchantment. It doesn't make aggro-stompy decks viable. Wizards printed Garruk's Companion and Leatherback Baloth, but that didn't enable mono-green stompy decks to compete in serious tournaments. Aggro uses efficient beaters, but that's just because they're the only things they can get out before the all-important massive land destruction.

People think of aggressive decks as being 'stupid' because all they do is attack, but that's not true. A good aggressive strategy is like a heist movie – the very start of the movie is about the cocky guy with the goatee acquiring a group of mismatched criminals, all of whom turn out to be very good at stealing large amounts of money. At the very end of the movie, the majority of those criminals will have acquired very large amounts of money. But in between, you see all the tiny little steps they do to get the combination for the vault, the access codes for the advanced security system, the bus full of clowns to be released into the lobby at exactly the wrong moment, the guy who trips and injures himself and it looks like the whole plan is going downhill, but he's really just trying to distract the security guards so that he can knock them both out and steal their uniforms. Finally, there's screaming chaos and you see a few hardened criminals stroll down the hall, announce that they have 79 seconds to steal everything and then they escape in the fake police car sent to pick them up. Cut to the bank manager complaining to the police: "Yeah, a couple of random guys just walked right in to my vault and stole all my stuff. I still can't believe it."

29. A clever general, therefore, avoids an army when its spirit is keen, but attacks it when it is sluggish and inclined to return. This is the art of studying moods.

From the perspective of playing to win, the only truly good time to attack is when your opponent has disgustedly revealed to the table that they've topdecked another land. A really, truly demoralised opponent might even scoop in response to being attacked. On the flipside, no one sees the point in attacking a guy who's curving out while playing a Dragon deck. It's a ridiculous prospect and if he's still curving out, his next card after your attack will likely have haste.

30. Disciplined and calm, to await the appearance of disorder and hubbub amongst the enemy:--this is the art of retaining self-possession.

"It profits a man nothing to give his sole chance at winning for the whole world ... but for a tribal deck of Whales, Richard?"
- Sir Thomas More to Richard Rich, A Man For All Seasons.

Whenever you say you want to do something "just for the sake of doing something", be aware that you're going to lose the game. Do as the brilliant Chinese scholar says, and await the signs that say that you're good to attack. When they start to miss land drops, or they're making land drops but not curving out, or they're chump blocking, or they're keeping Angels and Dragons back for the defence, or drawing a card without looking and passing the turn - this is the time to attack.

31. To be near the goal while the enemy is still far from it, to wait at ease while the enemy is toiling and struggling, to be well-fed while the enemy is famished:--this is the art of husbanding one's strength.

In Commander, it can generally be said that if you have a full hand of cards, comfortable life total, no one is closer to achieving their win condition than you are, you're winning. When you reach this stage, remember that you don't get to keep this lofty position by throwing away your advantage in fights that don't gain you anything.

32. To refrain from intercepting an enemy whose banners are in perfect order, to refrain from attacking an army drawn up in calm and confident array:--this is the art of studying circumstances.

If you're considering combat, remember that if your opponent's blockers would survive against or kill so much as one of your attackers, you're losing cards in a way that benefits the rest of the table without their having to lift a finger. Once you do that, are you now vulnerable against someone else's attack? Will you no longer be able to attack another player with impunity? The studying of circumstances involves the whole of the table, not just the player you're eyeing off.

33. It is a military axiom not to advance uphill against the enemy, nor to oppose him when he comes downhill.

Don't attack into deathtouchers. If you're on 40 life and you've got Weathered Wayfarer untapped and your opponent is attacking you with a 20-point Lord of Extinction, do you chump block, or do you take the 20 damage on the chin? 1 card is worth more than 1 life, so how is the repeatable card advantage of the Wayfarer worth less than 20?

If the Wayfarer is too esoteric, try swapping in cards like Royal Assassin or Lighthouse Chronologist until you find the card that convinces you.

34. Do not pursue an enemy who simulates flight; do not attack soldiers whose temper is keen.

I try to get my opponents into the spirit of asking themselves "I can see that he's tapped out... but is he tapped out?". I run Snuff Out, Slaughter Pact, and the white/black Shoals. It's just good business.

If it seems like your opponent should be on tilt, ask yourself: is he a person blessed with the knowledge that Magic is just a game, not to be taken so seriously that you feel the need to write a 50,000 word treatise on how to play it with more than two players, or does he have some kind of card in his hand that would get him out of this predicament?

In terms of making sure that an opponent is truly on tilt and not just feigning, make a checklist: have you decimated his hand, his board, his hand again, and then dramatically reduced his life total or attacked with an unblockable shrouded double-striking infecter? If not, he's not sufficiently tilted.

35. Do not swallow bait offered by the enemy. Do not interfere with an army that is returning home.

- Hogwarts official school motto.

If there's an enemy that seems like they're just hanging around and chillaxing, don't go prod them with a stick just to find out if they're hanging around because they're deflated or because somewhere in their ranks is a superweapon. Instead, assume that if you did, you'd both lose some guys and a third player would capitalise on that weakness. Attack that third player, and punish him for the horrible things he might have done to you!

36. When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard.

This is a social responsibility thing as much as a strategic thing. When you mess with people in such a way that there was nothing they could have done to prevent it, you're just bullying. If you can win in such a way that people feel like they had a sporting chance, regardless of the reality of the situation, you'll avoid cries of "Unfair! Stop playing that deck!" and you can reduce (not eliminate) the chances of people ganging up against you from the start in subsequent games.

If you ignore this and put a person in a position where they feel like they're totally without power, weird things will happen. They'll get this bizarre fire in their eyes and look through their cards with newfound zeal before looking up and saying to mutual opponent "Hey, you attack with your guy and I will pump him so full of juice that Winner McWinnerface over there will have to change his name". Kingmaker scenarios are bad for anyone who has 'best player' syndrome. Don't let it happen to you.

37. Such is the art of warfare.

In conclusion, this very lengthy article has covered several important points, which I hope I've communicated well and you've absorbed:

1) The most powerful decks are built around the commander.
2) The most powerful decks use cards that are synergistic with the commander and with each other.
3) Build your decks to have threats first, answers second.
4) There are no good answers, only adequate answers.
5) Aggressive decks aren't about 'fighting fairly'. They have a concrete game plan, like any other worthwhile archetype.

That's all for this article. The next article will be prepared by September at the latest and will cover the text of Chapter 8: Variation in Tactics. Until then, go forth, be aggressive, win games!


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