The Art of War and Magic: Attacking by Stratagem (3/13)



Shalom, my readers! Today's article is all about stratagem and positioning yourself to make the best attacks, be they creature-based or spell-based.

On the subject of positioning, I'm learning more about how to make the pretty pictures in these articles be even prettier, which means learning how to position them in such a way that they don't bisect paragraphs, knock quote boxes out of the way and generally break up flow. I'm expecting to have mastered all aspects of article-writing a few weeks after I type up the last piece of this series.

Sun Tzu said: In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy's country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good. So, too, it is better to recapture an army entire than to destroy it, to capture a regiment, a detachment or a company entire than to destroy them.

Real-life war and Magic are zero-sum. Magic has a number of resources which are finite in nature: your library, your life total (barring a combo), the amount of damage you can take from a general. The number of turns remaining in any game is always decreasing, as are the number of cards you can play within those turns. If you read Sheldon Menery's articles, you'll note that games end between turn 10 and turn 15. This means that the people get to see about 17-22 of the cards in their deck. If you play Harmonize, you get to make that into 20-25 cards. If you Mind Twist your opponent for four, they have to find the goods necessary to kill everyone using only 13-18 cards.

This is also why its good practice to get as much out of your cards as possible - Wraths kill more creatures than spot removal, Living Death gets more creatures back than Reanimate and Blatant Thievery/ Insurrection are amazing while Threaten is only so-so. So, play big and capture the empire in one go.

This is as good a point as any to note a fundamental weakness of The Art of War and every other article spawned by it – mine included. Sun Tzu was an author of high calibre, but he was still an author, a mortal man and a member of an oligarchic Chinese patriarchy long before the dawn of trading card games. But if he was around today, he would have played combo - not just any combo, but hideously unfair combos. He may have had a lot to say about card advantage. He would also have been okay with the concept of playing all his cards in a different language to you and then refusing to tell you what they were. In short, Sun Tzu has preferences. He plays favourites. He discards some tactics because they don't work for him. You should, too, because some tactics just don't work for people. When you discard a tactic that doesn't work for you, remember this: Sun Tzu doesn't recognise Aggro. It's a blind spot for him. If you find Sun Tzu in the modern age, rest assured that if you play Aggro, you will win and he will blog about how crappy and underdeveloped your tactics were. If you find out that you have preferences, you have a blind spot too.

Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting.

If you favour combo, this is a quote to justify your approach. You achieve supreme excellence at the table without ever entering the red zone.
If you're anti-combo or at least trying to disrupt an opponent's combo, pack disruption and get into the red zone early and hard.

Thus the highest form of generalship is to balk the enemy's plans; the next best is to prevent the junction of the enemy's forces; the next in order is to attack the enemy's army in the field; and the worst policy of all is to besiege walled cities.

The best early play in EDH is Mind Twist, followed by a Wrath, followed by a counterspell or spot removal, followed by actually fighting and then distantly followed by attacking into blockers or dudes who can trade with you. Attacking a player who has blockers or lands untapped in numbers greater than zero is how you lose games.

Mind Twist:
For when you absolutely
have to deal with the problem,
before it's a problem.


The rule is, not to besiege walled cities if it can possibly be avoided. The preparation of mantlets, movable shelters, and various implements of war, will take up three whole months; and the piling up of mounds over against the walls will take three months more.

My notes replaced the text of this quote with "Besieging is Bad, mmkay?" Let us scale this down: It doesn't take three months to do anything in Magic, but it can easily take a turn. If you're looking to take an opponent from 40 life and no general damage (and in this post-SOM world that we find ourselves in, no poison counters) to Dead, it will take some effort on your part. You're looking at sending in attackers or casting spells to get rid of his blockers. Then you'll likely waste a turn and a few cards drawing out (or running headlong into) his combat tricks. At last, on the third turn, you can actually deal real damage, potentially even enough to kill him. But while you've spent your three turns on doing this, all of your opponents have drawn three more cards and presumably haven't been butting heads all this time.

The general, unable to control his irritation, will launch his men to the assault like swarming ants, with the result that one-third of his men are slain, while the town still remains untaken. Such are the disastrous effects of a siege.

If you get impatient and start convincing yourself that you're somehow specially gifted with ability to ignore the three-turn rule of thumb for actually taking a competitor out of the game, look at your board and then mentally divide by 3. You will lose one-third of your creatures and potentially waste an artifact or enchantment as well. Your planeswalkers are definitely heading to the yard, so just put them all there now. That's where rushing into things gets you.

Therefore the skillful leader subdues the enemy's troops without any fighting; he captures their cities without laying siege to them; he overthrows their kingdom without lengthy operations in the field.

If you're intent on winning via slogging it in the red zone, play with big, smashy-face creatures. Not just "it is pretty big", but "Lord of Extinction with trample" big. If you've got access to red, play with Fireballs. A deck with green is naturally going to run some mana ramping, so why not put it towards using one card to kill an opponent?

With his forces intact he will dispute the mastery of the Empire, and thus, without losing a man, his triumph will be complete. This is the method of attacking by stratagem.

If you revel in the use of big creatures, don't just throw them down on the board. Run a big hasty dragon or two so you can capitalise on other players' wrath effects. Run Terra Stomper, because it's mana-efficient, anti-blue tech. Creatures that generate card advantage – Sun Titan, Mulldrifter, Bogardan Hellkite, Woodfall Primus - are just stupidly useful. How can you cheat your monsters onto the battlefield or out of the graveyard? (Defense of the Heart, Tooth and Nail, Sneak Attack, Nezumi Graverobber, Cheatyface, Lurking Predators are all good choices. Cards like Elvish Piper are fragile options because they force your opponents to use up a wrath or a piece of removal instead of allowing you to play cool things cheaply).

The problems come not from just understanding which creatures are at their best in a big multiplayer setting, but from when you play them. Once you have enough creatures, you can kill someone! But who do you go for first? We'll get there.

It is the rule in war, if our forces are ten to the enemy's one, to surround him; if five to one, to attack him; if twice as numerous, to divide our army into two.

If you outnumber someone else's troops ten-to-one: 'surround' doesn't mean 'attack'. You're officially in a winning position. You can't necessarily afford to gloat or toy with anyone (because if you do, you'll go to live in the ninth circle of Hell and some mischievous imp like Rout will stoke the coals underneath your naked rear end for all of eternity). What you can afford to do is bully someone into doing something for you – attacking a mutual enemy, burning some spells the way that you choose, etc.

(Please note – Sun Tzu picked these numbers. When he did, he was referring to tens of thousands of men. In Magic, there's no really good way to get 10:1 unless your opponent has graciously agreed to have a lobotomy and only play basic lands. I'd have picked something like three big creatures to their one big creature, or five tokens to their one big creature. If it's your big creatures versus their tokens, you need a situation where they can't chump block, and can't take the damage in order to get a retaliatory strike in).

If you outnumber someone else's troops five-to-one (or let's say you have two worthwhile attackers to their one worthwhile blocker and you're about to play removal or play an Overrun-esque combat trick): You can afford to attack. Bear in mind, if you have two-to-one odds when attacking and then you take those odds, it means that you're tapping your creatures, so you can't defend with them. Have a back-up plan for your defense this turn.

If you outnumber someone 2:1, (or more realistically, you have a tapped attacker or two and an appropriate blocker for each kind of attacker your opponent can throw at you): you can develop your board to get lined up for an alpha strike. You can point out that your opponents shouldn't attack you. That's all you've got, though.

If equally matched, we can offer battle; if slightly inferior in numbers, we can avoid the enemy; if quite unequal in every way, we can flee from him.

Every so often, some jackass gets it into his head that he's a politician. He looks at his cards and asks "Hmm. Who should I attack?" One idea continually pops into everyone's head:
Blustering.
"I have this card in my hand, which is pretty awesome. If I use it, things are gonna get pre-tty ugly in here for whoever I target, let me tell you. And if you think you can attack me, well, my removal is top-notch." I used this in one game and won mostly out of sheer force of personality. All of a sudden, blustering was my go-to tactic! Every game, I practised even more melodramatic responses to being the target of anything. I had to stop doing it the second somebody realised my default response to any attack was to threaten to cast a Fireball on them so powerful their dog would catch on fire. Sure, I might be able to back up my first threat of retaliation, but it turned out the second threat was pretty strained and when the third person joined in on the pile-up I was reduced to hoarse whispers promising that once I got out of top-deck mode, I would rebuild, and in fifty turns, by Jove, they would be sorry!

The other option is truthfully describing what you'll do. If you don't overpower your opponent, give them a blunt assessment: you will block to trade, not chump block. Emphasise that you'll lose a little by 'taking one for the team', but you'll be hoping that there will be some blood in the water. Maybe you've got some removal, maybe you'll use up a Fog because he'll be tapped out. The point is to be entirely truthful, but it's also to give your opponent plenty of chances to experience doubt.

If you're clearly out of luck – your creatures are gone and your hand is empty – offer to help out whoever can get you out of your current troubles. If someone responds, remember it. Don't backstab them in this game and don't necessarily backstab them in the next. To quote entry #68 on the Evil Overlord list: "I will spare someone who saved my life sometime in the past. This is only reasonable as it encourages others to do so. However, the offer is good one time only. If they want me to spare them again, they'd better save my life again."

Hence, though an obstinate fight may be made by a small force, in the end it must be captured by the larger force.

The only fate for a weakest player who insists on 'going it alone' is to suffer and then die. If you're weak, be parasitic. Follow up a much stronger player's attacks with your own. If you're able, find another player weak enough to accept you on their team. The two of you should be able to get someone a little bit stronger than you to join up. Now you're a triumvirate who can do their best to drag down a strong player who nonetheless can't stand up to all three of you at once. This is a valid and powerful strategy. I've seen a 10-player game finish with a victory by the guy who'd built his first ever EDH deck on the way over to the game. Why? The best players ignored the other half of the table. That half formed a team and they hacked the 'veteran' players to shreds. I was on the losing side. I'm very slowly learning my lessons.

Now the general is the bulwark of the State; if the bulwark is complete at all points; the State will be strong; if the bulwark is defective, the State will be weak.

How do you play this game? What strategy are you best at (valid answers include but aren't limited to "aggro", "control", "combo", "midrange", "combo-control")? What are your weaknesses? (Blue, combo, recursion, randomness, prison, broken cards, 'n00b decks that just work somehow', tribal, slivers, land destruction and so on). If you have an archetype that makes you groan inwardly when it rears its head, the awful sound escaping your lips is the sound of your own weakness. The biggest development you can make as a player is to admit that other player's strategies are valid. Valid is a word that means 'non-douchey' and 'non-stupid'. Once you understand their reasons for making their decks the way they do, the step towards taking their strategies, subverting them and then throwing them back in their big dumb faces is a comparatively small step to take.

There are three ways in which a ruler can bring misfortune upon his army:--
(1) By commanding the army to advance or to retreat, being ignorant of the fact that it cannot obey. This is called hobbling the army.

Sometimes, you may think 'ooh! It's the declare attackers phase! That means I attack!'

This is foolish. Will it deal damage? Is he packing removal? A fog? Are you tapping out? Is it safe? Does he have a counter? Is he drawing out your attackers and your removal so that his buddy can deal quad damage? Has he overlooked the threat that you pose because he's perceived a bigger threat? Is that a threat to you as well, or is it something that will wipe him out even if you ignore him now?

(2) By attempting to govern an army in the same way as he administers a kingdom, being ignorant of the conditions which obtain in an army. This causes restlessness in the soldier's minds.

Given the stupid and ridiculous number of variables in multiplayer, it's tempting to look at it through another lens. This can help you to grasp some piece of theory that just didn't make sense, but it is a bad thing if you're using the knowledge you picked up from countless duels to make all of your decisions. (Admittedly, this particular verse doesn't sit well with me. Lambaste me in the comments section and we'll find a better answer!)

(3) By employing the officers of his army without discrimination, through ignorance of the military principle of adaptation to circumstances. This shakes the confidence of the soldiers.

Don't commit your general to the field just because you've reached X mana. Don't throw out your removal just because someone has played a boom tube – there's a chance that someone else is going to be on the receiving end of that beastie. There's a chance that someone else is even twitchier than you with their removal.

But when the army is restless and distrustful, trouble is sure to come from the other feudal princes. This is simply bringing anarchy into the army, and flinging victory away.

What are your opponents doing? What do they need to succeed? What is the cost of letting them succeed? Are they ignoring attacks and refusing to trade creatures? Are they chump blocking like a mad fiend? Do they keep glancing at their hand?

To help your opponents think along the proper and approved channels, do you have strategic aides for them to look at? Imposing blockers to discourage attackers: use a good sturdy Wall of Denial, Vampire Nighthawk (anything with deathtouch), or the impenetrable Traproot Kami. Ivory Mask and variants are also just as good as a Dawn Charm if you're afraid of Fireballs and Mind Twists.

Thus we may know that there are five essentials for victory:
He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.


Based on my observations so far, I would advise that the absolute best time to fight is whenever is worst for your enemy. If your opponent is in a good defensive position, don't antagonise them. If your opponent is in a weak position but you feel that attacking would be 'mean' or 'jerkish', start aggressive negotiations with them to get them on your side.

He will win who knows how to handle both superior and inferior forces.

Superior forces can be defeated through trickery, misdirection and outright begging for your life. Inferior forces can be defeated through brute strength or diplomacy.

He will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks.

A deck built to abuse synergies will do much better than a deck built to have 'good stuff' from a number of different colours, which will in turn tread on a themed deck.
A good example of synergy is slivers. Everyone takes one look at Sliver Overlord/Queen/Legion and says "so, if I make a five-colour deck filled with just a whole bunch of slivers… I AM THE GREATEST DECK BUILDER EVER TO PUT ALL MY CARDS OF THE SAME CREATURE TYPE TOGETHER". It's not the best form of synergy (I'm going with 'storm combo decks' for 'most powerful synergistic archetype'), but it's a deck where every card makes each other card that you play better. Other examples include a Rafiq deck, where every other card is focused on increasing exalted triggers and giving Rafiq evasion. Even subthemes like Silent Arbiter, Cold-Eyed Selkie, Cephalid Constable really only make the cut because they all interact in some way with Rafiq.


He will win who, prepared himself,
waits to take the enemy unprepared.

It's not easy to kill everyone before turn four using only some hyper-efficient creatures. The idea is always to hang back, avoid attracting negative attention and wait until two people start fighting. When the time comes, kill the strongest one and finish off the weakest while they're still reeling. Even better, get a third party to spend their turn doing that part and then wipe them out while their attackers are still tapped.

Or even better, get a fourth guy to…

Ha! Sun Tzu quote means relevance!

He will win who has military capacity and is not interfered with by the sovereign.

The person who wins EDH is generally someone who flew under the radar for the first phase of the game, really started taking off after whatever memorable experience happened mid-game (a board wipe, someone almost combo-ing out, a Fog that got the attacking player killed next turn) and had the ability to recover from attacks once they pulled out in front.

There are other important factors – did they have the most efficient combo? (two cards, infinite opponents, one turn) Did they take advantage of the fact that nobody ran disenchant in their deck? Did they change the rules of the game with an Abyss/No Mercy/Howling Mine? Did they realise that your playgroup banned the cards that would answer their strategy?

Hence the saying: If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

Know yourself. What are your strengths? Most of you will have said "Well, I'm definitely the best player out of my friends." Some of you may have added "except for that one guy, who does things I don't like (and is thus disqualified from being the best by reason of not being me)." Your brain is a rationalising machine and it will make you fall into that trap.
What are your weaknesses? Here, your objectivity breaks down. As a rule of thumb for casual players, your weakness could easily be any deck archetype that you can't put together out of your own collection.

I don't have a lot of strong aggro pieces, because I don't have very many aggro-based decks. (I'm working on fixing this.)
I think recursion is the best thing ever made. If you can get rid of my graveyard, I'm at a disadvantage.
I think I'm clever and I think I know strategy. I also forget to count my wife as a potential threat during free-for-alls, which has caused more than a few surprise defeats. (On a completely tangential an unrelated note, ban Master Warcraft. It's not clever and people shouldn't be allowed to play that in friendly games, especially if they're using it to wipe out their husband.)

Everyone who plays Magic can improve their game by recognising and adapting to their own weaknesses. Weaknesses can be technical (countering the wrong spell) or emotional (countering the wrong person). If you can't think of any weaknesses in your game play, insult a friend and then ask him if he can think of any. I guarantee he'll oblige.

After you've gone through the process of learning who you truly are, finding your spirit animal, and confronting your inner demons, you need to take a look at your friends. How deep is their collection? Are they willing to order a few $1 answer cards off the internet to round out a deck? What's their favourite general? What does the MTGSalvation Deck Database* have on that general? Once you know what the most common kinds of cards in that deck are, start playing as though they will throw their best card at the worst time for you. If you're sure the information won't become completely invalid next week, take notes.

*(Free! Thousands of decklists, with more each week! Check it out, today!)

In conclusion: attacking is not just combat math, its combat math cubed. If you want something done, try to trick someone else into doing it for you. If you want to be unassailable, don't just play Fog Bank, have a Seal of Removal and a No Mercy. If you want to attack, don't just swing with Akroma – use Insurrection and Radiate it to target several other games*, then cast Titanic Ultimatum along with Fork and Reverberate.

Just make sure to keep enough mana open to deal with a fog.

*If I don't clarify what I mean right here, right now, either myself of the CI folks will get letters about this from people who aren't up to date on the latest batch of revisions to the rulebook. 204.1b of the Comprehensive Rules covers the interaction between Radiate (and other mass-copy effects) and non-targeted spells. The gist of it is, as long as you're playing in a room less than 100m x 100m in size (which is the minimum allowable size for a venue being used for a sanctioned tournament, so it clearly won't work at the Pro Tour), a mass copy effect (not a Twincast - that would only affect subgames) on a non-targeted spell will cause that spell to be added to the stack in every instance of Magic inside that building, unless the card would be illegal in that format. There's a few more bylaws which I'm sure the rules gurus in the comments section will happily expand upon, but you should probably at least be aware of this rule in case someone in a game near you Radiates an Armageddon.

See you next time in Chapter 4: Tact and Tactical Dispositions!

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