[MTGS Classics] Psychology in Multiplayer

[This article first appeared in August of '05, and here it is again - have fun playing in groups with your friends and possibly family over your winter vacation! -ed.]

So, Magic's Comprehensive Rules have finally acknowledged the existence of multiplayer Magic. The world will never be the same again and I'm looking forward to the first pro-level Two-Headed Giant games with a level of anticipation that would put Pavlov's dog to shame.

However, it's not true to say that prior to the appearance of multiplayer in the Comprehensive Rules all multiplayer games were casual. The DCI may not have recognised such games, but when there's enough at stake mere rating ceases to matter. I am referring, of course, to Errol's Holiday Challenge.

Each summer, sometime around the end of July, my friend Errol goes on holiday to some exotic location. Each summer, he returns with presents for his friends. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say he returns with a present for his friends. The problem is not that Errol's a cheapskate (although he is). The problem is that he has a fondness for foreign girls. They generally aren't too keen on him... until they discover that he will buy unlimited drinks for them just so long as they are hanging out with him, smiling at him a lot and occasionally giggling when they suspect he may have made a joke. As a result of this he always ends his holidays with no money. It is at this point that he remembers his plan to buy presents for everyone.

Sarcasm isn't the lowest form of wit.
That would be puns.
This first happened three years ago. Fortunately, Errol had a brilliant idea. Because there were five of us and only one present, we would play a game of chaos multiplayer with the winner receiving the present. What was it? He wouldn't say. It turned out to be a six foot long inflatable banana, which was duly claimed by Raging Keith. It hangs on his wall to this day, a mute testament to his shocking lack of taste.

This year was the fourth year of Errol's Holiday Challenge and everyone was taking it pretty seriously. Last year's prize was a bottle of overproof rum which I won myself thanks to a well-timed Cabal Conditioning. Would this year's prize be even better?

Before we get down to a detailed analysis of the game, and certainly before we get to the bit where someone accidentally threw four and a half curious moist pink things on a trajectory likely to cause collision with a Beta Time Walk, I would like to introduce you to the five competitors:

Dom: Uh, that's me. A quiet, thoughtful player known for losing games due to a total inability to perform simple tasks correctly.

Sweet Dan: Named for his tendency to use the word "sweet" roughly every other sentence, Dan is the weakest player of the five. Almost every play by someone other than him is likely to impress him. Half the time, it's simply because he can't remember what the cards do and manages to misread one.

Raging Keith: So named because he looks exactly like Raging Goblin. No, not the modern one, the one that appeared in Portal - Second Age. Pointy face and spiky hair. Keith also plays Goblins whenever he's not playing White Weenie or Affinity or other decks that like to smash face.

Emily: My cat. The prize was very unlikely to interest her, but the chances were good that she'd be able to trade it for a fair quantity of tuna fish. My cat is a cold-blooded killer and she plays Magic in a similar style.

Half-cut Linda: Linda is Dan's boyfriend, who got into Magic when she discovered she was way better at it than he was. Indeed, she might be the best player in our group if she was sober. One day, maybe, we'll find out.

This year, Errol (who was head judge for the event) unveiled a special new set of deck construction rules. Using the Type 1 banned list, we had to build Singleton (Highlander) decks, except that we were allowed up to 4 copies of any card legal in Standard. We would have sideboards solely for use with Wishes. Errol assured us this was a well known format called "Twist Singleton", but this bluff was so utterly unconvincing that not even Dan believed him. It didn't help that Errol's goldfish is called "Twist". He's really going to have to work on those subtle tells if he wants to make it as a poker player (and he really does want to, but that's a story for another time).

No proxies were allowed, which seriously limited my deckbuilding options. The fact that I play mostly online means I own few physical cards. Normally I'd drop in my decklist at this point, but this time I'm deliberately not going to. One of the things I want to talk about in the article is the importance of working out the contents of people's decks. Might as well keep you in the dark about my deck along with the rest.

PART 1 - The Early Game

I won the die roll and elected to draw, which meant Dan was playing first. "Sweet," he commented, playing a Forest. Keith followed with a Mountain and a Bonesplitter. Emily played a Plains. Linda played a Mirrodin's Core. I played a Polluted Delta.

"Second turn, go go GO !" Errol announced, trying desperately to inject some excitement. Dan tapped two Forests for Sakura-Tribe Elder. Keith tapped two for the feared Umezawa's Jitte. Emily played a Tundra, then Standstill. Linda added another counter to the Core and a Grand Coliseum to her board. I played a Swamp, thought for a bit, then passed.

This is where we stop. No, not the article - we've only just started that. Not the game either, obviously. We're going to stop because, before I can talk about the psychology of the game in a way that will make sense, I first have to make sure we have a shared understanding about what's going on. What do we know about each player's deck? Who is in a strong position? What's going to happen next?

Dan first: Dan's position is really quite good. He has the only creature in play, so there's a good chance he won't be the one to break the Standstill. Also, we know that his deck runs mana acceleration and mana fixing (because we can see some). He's already found his first fixer, so he's probably off to a decent start. Then again, this is Dan, so everyone was well aware he might have kept a five-lander.

Keith: Nobody wants to see that Jitte go active, but with four other players around the table nobody wants to be the one who has to waste their artifact destruction. He clearly has a creature-based deck but it's surprising that he's played no one-drop or two-drop creature.

The Cat: Only turn two and already a big play. The color combination and the appearance of Standstill hint at some kind of control deck. The big question is, why play Standstill before it has a threat on the board? Decide what you think on that question, because the answer will be revealed shortly.

Linda: Clearly running something color intensive. In fact, it's probably 5-color given the appearance of two such lands in the first two turns. Because her second turn was after the Standstill, we can't tell if she had a play available or not.

Me: Probably B/U. Can't tell much because again the Standstill is likely to put me off my turn two play.

Hopefully you're actually thinking about your own analysis of the situation. Then I'll tell you what happened next...

Play continued until the cat's fifth turn. All players had four lands in play by this point except for Keith, who had missed his fourth land twice. Dan was still mono-Green and had hit the cat for a total of three points of mana-snake beatdown. He'd also been making all the usual crude snake jokes, which Linda had been laughing at. This may sound as though it reflects badly on her taste in humour, but in fact a surprising variety of jokes become funny after half a bottle of Zinfandel. Keith was still mono-Red, though one of his lands was a Forgotten Cave. Linda had added an Elfhame Palace and a Shivan Oasis. I'd played two more Swamps, the second after cycling a Twisted Abomination.

The cat laid a fifth land (giving Plains, Tundra, Island, Island, Quicksand) and broke its own Standstill to cast a Ghostly Prison! Notably, the cat had left the two Islands untapped.

At the time, this play seemed pretty crazy. However, it actually achieved a number of things. First, the Standstill had been at the forefront of everyone's mind and they'd mentally notched it up as an advantage to the cat (which it never was, of course). Now that it was gone, the cat seemed weakened. Second, everyone now had lots of cards in hand and was all set to develop their position. Why was this good for the cat? In many ways it wasn't good at all, but it did mean that other players would look more like threats.

In the Mallorcan resort of Magaluf,
Errol is out of luck.
Lastly, the Ghostly Prison would discourage people from exploiting the cat's position of weakness by attacking it.

Now certainly it was a risky gambit the cat played. The question was: Good play, or not? I'll come back to that question later.

"Whooooaa, and fur-face pops her own Standstill, blowing the game wiiiide open!" Errol declared in his best announcer voice. Although when I say best, I don't wish to imply that it was any good. There are hamsters with more charisma than Errol. They probably pull more girls when they're on holiday too.

"Sweet," remarked Dan, drawing three cards.

PART 2 - The Midgame

There are two things which commonly happen in the midgame of a chaos multiplayer game. One is that a player displays sufficent weakness that the others decide they can be efficiently eliminated, improving the odds for all the survivors. The other frequent occurrence is that a threat appears which clearly needs to be countered or removed, at which point the remaining players play chicken to see who is going to waste resources doing so.

The answer to the question of who uses resources to remove a threat ought to be the person who most fears it. Oddly, this is seldom the case in practice. Why not? Because frequently the reason a particular player fears a threat is because they are unable to adequately deal with it!

In this particular game, a threat did indeed appear. Linda played a Bringer of the Black Dawn. Owing to its color, I had no way to kill it in hand. I assessed the chances for each of the other players. The cat might be able to kill it if it attacked, but almost certainly not if it just sat there. Mono-Green is not known for its creature kill, though it would be just like Dan to run Desert Twister. That left Keith. There would be burn in his deck somewhere, but was it in his hand? A horrible thought began to occur to me - what if nobody could deal with it?

Whether they could or not, nobody did. Three turns later, after my turn the board looked like this:

Life: 14
Cards in hand: 7
Cabal Interrogator
Lightning Greaves (equipping Interrogator)
Graveborn Muse
6 Swamp
1 Cabal Coffers
Notable graveyard: Withered Wretch (Firebolted by Keith), Noxious Ghoul

Sweet Dan
Life: 10
Cards in hand: 4
Wild Mongrel
Rancor (attached to Wild Mongrel)
Venomspout Brackus
Notable graveyard: Centaur Glade (countered by the cat's Counterspell)

Raging Keith
Life: 20
Cards in hand: 5
Jeska, Warrior Adept equipped with Bonesplitter
Notable graveyard: Umezawa's Jitte (c/o Dan's Naturalize)

Life: 12
Cards in hand: 7
Ghostly Prison
A Morphed Creature (unknown)
Notable graveyard: Form of the Dragon (discarded)

Half-cut Linda
Life: 14
Cards in hand: 7
Bringer of the Black Dawn
Seal of Removal
Notable graveyard: Clearwater Goblet (hit by the cat's Ray of Distortion)

On the face of it, all very strange. Players were for the most part holding their cards and playing cautiously. The continued presence of the Bringer was nothing short of bizarre. The life totals were a bit curious too. With very little in the way of aggro play going on, nobody was in serious danger. Dan was hurting a bit after a hit from Linda and one from Keith.

The strangest thing of all, though, was the curious bowl of snackfood that Errol presented to us. It was at this point that Keith made a critical error. As soon as he heard the word "bacon" he picked one up and bit into it. Had he been more alert, he would have realised that the cat would have been able to detect any bacon product the instant the packaging was opened. An expression of shock crossed Keith's face and he dropped the rest of the snack and rushed off to the bathroom. He returned in time to see Dan examining the packet. "Tasty vegetarian snack...", Dan read, "bacon flavoured soy protein". Keith scowled at Errol, who looked apologetic. Thing is, Errol's vegetarian. Now for some vegetarians it's really just a moral thing and they'd love to eat meat if it wasn't a by-product of mass murder. Errol, however, doesn't actually like the taste either. So when his mum kindly went shopping for him, he just assumed the pink stuff was revolting because it tasted of bacon. An innocent mistake.

Speaking of innocent things, that's exactly the look my cat was attempting to project at this point. I wasn't the slightest bit fooled. Someone playing a U/W deck discards Form of the Dragon. What's your first thought? Replenish! But in an odd way this made me feel calm and confident. Now I knew the cat's gameplan. There could only be one copy of Replenish in its deck. I just had to time things right with my discard and I'd sink the cat's plan.

Question is, what were the others up to? Linda must have an incredible hand by now. What had she been choosing from her deck? What was she setting up for? I kept expecting Legacy Weapon, but on reflection that wouldn't be particularly good. With four other players still in, someone would be bound to remove it.

Keith's basic plan was pretty clear, but he couldn't be playing a typical aggro deck - he was hardly playing any threats. My suspicion was that his deck was packed with burn and he was waiting for vulnerable targets.

Dan's deck seemed to be an attempt at Green aggro, but either he'd got a bad draw or wasn't thinking very hard about his game plan when he built the deck.

My own deck had a plan too, which was going reasonably well. The only thing I wasn't happy about was the amount of mana everyone was accumulating.

To be honest, though, none of this was really occupying my attention at the time. What I was thinking about was politics and psychology. There was a lot of potential for players to start dying soon. Target selection might very likely decide the winner of the game. So the real question was who should I target?

Think about the position yourself and... Oh, wait, I haven't told you what I was playing. That's not going to work. OK, let's start with you guessing what's going on with my deck. Bearing in mind the odd format we were playing, I'd be curious to know what you'd expect.

Obviously it's some kind of zombie deck. And yes, I have included a rough skeleton (ho ho) of an Onslaught-era Zombie Bidding deck - the clue to that being the presence of Noxious Ghoul in my graveyard. But really, that's a kind of bluff. Sure, the deck can and does hurt people with zombies and threaten Bidding, but the real core strategy is four copies of Consume Spirit and four copies of Death Cloud. I don't want anyone to see those until it's much too late. The idea is to keep my life total high, then eliminate as many players at once as I can with a massive Death Cloud, hopefully using cards like Vengeful Dead, Rotlung Reanimator and AEther Vial to ensure that my board position is favourable after the Cloud.
So now that you know what I'm playing, who should I target? Have a think before reading on. Uh oh, I'm starting to sound like some kind of awful lecturer on TV now. All I need is a lime-green kipper tie and huge sideburns and I'm there. "Open your course notes to page 3..." Actually maybe not page 3, that has unfortunate connotations here in the UK. Certain tabloid newspapers habitually print full-page photos on that particular page, featuring young ladies wearing very little. Although come to think of it most of the academic courses I've seen could do with a bit more of that sort of thing. I suppose the trouble is that it's hard to do it in a gender-neutral way. Can't go around presenting images of scantily-clad women as acceptable unless one does the same for men. Which is a tricky problem actually, because scantily-clad men do have an alarming tendency to look silly or just outright scary more than sexy. The sideburns are the least of it.

As trading in spoiler tags is suspended,
a trader from Goldman-Sachs
falls back on pretending to
be an aeroplane.
Ha! See what I did there? I cleverly used up some space so that you wouldn't inadvertently read the discussion while you were still pondering. Really. If you're thinking I could have just used another spoiler tag I'm afraid you're dead wrong. The meteoric success of this site means we're now running short of them, so all the writers have been asked to use them sparingly.

My first thought was: I should definitely target the cat. The ungrateful furry little sodpot costs a fortune in catfood and vet bills, in return for which she sheds hair on all my black clothing (and I own a lot of black clothing). No, wait, that wasn't the reason. I should definitely target the cat, I felt, because I didn't want inconvenient counterspells messing up my Death Cloud. Linda was a possible target for the same reason just because she was running Islands, but I rather doubted she was really packing counters. My third priority target would be Dan simply because Green meant mana acceleration and Death Cloud can be dangerous if someone else has way more mana.

PART 3 - The Endgame

I won't go through a turn by turn account of how the game unfolded. Just the key plays will be enough to illustrate the important ideas.

The cat played a Mind's Eye, leaving two Blue up. Linda dropped her eighth land and cast a Door to Nothingness and the cat thought for a long time before letting it resolve. Then she cast Time Walk. The cat thought for a long time again, but still didn't counter. It likely soon wished it had, however. Linda began her second turn with Orim's Chant, targetting the cat. Belatedly, it became clear to me what she'd been tutoring for and why she'd been waiting. She cast Mirari's Wake, then Early Harvest. This left her with enough mana to kill anyone she wanted to, so she ended her turn there. This is why it's a really bad idea to leave a Bringer of the Black Dawn on the board like that.

"First person to do something I don't like," Linda smiled, "gets [beep]ed into nothingness!" She poured herself a measure of orange juice and then started deliberating between gin and vodka to use as a mixer.

I decided now would be a very good time to pretend to be a harmless Zombie deck. I played out a Festering Goblin and Nantuko Husk. The latter was quite important right now - I didn't want to risk being killed by Muse damage.

Speaking of muses, Dan played a Seedborn Muse then attacked me with his Mongrel, discarding a Genesis to make it Black. The damage was really annoying, but there's not a lot anyone can do about Mongrels... I would have to Consume Spirit next turn.

Keith began to look at my life total and do sums. I could tell because he can't count without using his fingers.

"If you try it, I'll sac Festering Goblin to kill Jeska!" I warned him. It was a weak threat. I was going to be on three life after my draw step. A simple Volcanic Hammer and it was over for me.

To my total astonishment, Keith attacked Linda.

"That's CRAZY. I'll..."

"Too late," Keith smiled, "I've passed priority now."

Linda was evidently quite annoyed that her deterrent hadn't deterred.

"Fine. Stupid people end up dead!" she declared, firing off the Door at Keith.

Now it was Keith's turn to be horrified. Once she fired off the Door her threat would be gone and the other players would tear her apart. Surely she understood that?

But whilst Keith and Linda had both catasrophically failed in their reading of the board, the cat was quite pleased that Keith had sprung his trap so perfectly.

I expect the better players amongst you saw this one coming a mile off. The cat tapped its two Islands and turned Willbender face up. Moments later, Linda was [beep]ed into nothingness.

She'd already started clearing up her cards when Keith finally understood he hadn't lost.

"Yeeeeeeaaaaaah!" he shouted, slamming his fist on the table. His watch strap caught the edge of the bowl of snackfood on the way down. They say that when you're in a car accident it feels as though everything is in slow motion. Well, I wouldn't know. But I can confirm that this effect occurs when non-meat bacon-flavoured snack food products are launched rapidly across the table at someone's card collection whilst they are in the process of de-sleeving it. The trouble with everything being in slow motion is that it includes you. Everyone at the table simultaneously tried to take heroic actions to save Linda's cards from greasy, bacon-flavoured death.

Plop. A moist, pink strip of soy protein landed on Linda's Beta Time Walk. The room became strangely cold for a moment. Everyone stayed very still. Then it slowly became apparent that disaster had been narrowly avoided. That particular card was still in its sleeve.

Linda smiled sweetly at Keith as she picked up the strip and held it in the air. I thought she was going to throw it, but she just said very slowly. "You actually ate some of this. There's some inside you."

Taking her cards, Linda retired to the sofa. This was partly for comfort reasons, but partly also to stop Errol from looking down her cleavage when he was supposed to be judging. Which he would never do, of course. A fine, upstanding fellow like Errol would never bring the noble sport of Magic into disrepute by... Hmm, maybe this is why there's only one girl in our Magic group?

Back to the game. In a world with barely any countermagic left, the cat liked the look of the position. It played an Ivory Mask, then passed the turn.

I dropped to three life, but my hand was looking good. I decided Keith's life was looking worryingly high, so I hit him with a 10 point Consume Spirit... Or at least that was the plan. He cast Shunt, redirecting my spell at the cat, who was forced to counter it using Mana Leak. No lifegain for me. I was in serious trouble.

On his turn, Dan dropped a Vedalken Orrery. That made a pretty nasty combo with his Seedborn Muse. On Keith's upkeep he dropped Upwelling and I began to regret using my Withered Wretch on the cat's Ray of Distortion earlier.

"Sweet," Dan observed as he began to stockpile mana.

Keith's not out of tricks himself, however. Using a couple of spare mana he stored up via the Upwelling, he casts Insurrection. I briefly contemplate saccing things in response, but I'm dead already if Keith wants me to be. Fortunately for me he targets Dan. Unfortunately for Keith, Dan has Moment's Peace.

Can you spot the odd one out?
The cat untaps and plays Aquamoeba. He discards Decree of Silence, Treasure Trove and another Ivory Mask, then plays Replenish. This looked like game over, but Dan played Oblivion Stone in response and the cat turned out to have no counters it had mana for. Dan blew the stone as soon as Form of the Dragon had triggered, leaving the cat in a very weak position.

I had few options now. My deck had no way to deal with whatever Dan was up to. I needed someone else to sort him out. Patriarch's Bidding would kill me (because I'd get my Muse back). So... I was going to use my other Consume Spirit on someone. I could probably take out anyone except Keith. The question was: who should I target?

Well? Who should I target?

The cat seemed to me to be probably my worst target. It simply wasn't an immediate threat. I could target Dan, but I couldn't quite do enough to kill him. Either he would combo out on his own turn or Keith would finish him with ease then probably spend the rest of his turn killing me. Or would he do better going for Emily?

Thinking that, I suddenly saw what I needed to do. The important thing wasn't just to let my life up, it was to minimise the chance of a combo going off for the win. Targetting Keith for eight life, bringing me up to eleven, I left the rest of my mana open to bluff a counter.

On his turn, Dan played Heartbeat of Spring. I paused for a bit, pretending to think, then "let" it resolve. Then Dan played Xantid Swarm.

Then Dan played Biorhythm for the win.

"Sweet!" Dan declared triumphantly.

"Aaaaand the gaaaame goes to Daaaaan!" Errol announced, waving his arms around like Stan from Monkey Island. He shook Dan's hand enthusiastically. Linda rushed up and kissed Dan, though whether because he was her boyfriend or because he'd won wasn't clear. By that point in the evening, nothing was likely to be safe from her affections.

The ceremony was a lot like the end of Star Wars (except without the wookie, the droids, the ranks of troops, the medals or Luke Skywalker... and Leia was somewhat the worse for drink). Errol presented Dan with a large plastic bag. Dan looked cautiously inside and pulled out... a Gizmo Furby! Dan expressed the view that Errol was taking the [peace]. Linda, however, fell instantly in love with it. See my earlier comment about the category of things safe from her affections.

So another year's contest had drawn to a close. Whilst obviously this game is the most important in the annual Magic calendar (another MTGSalvation exclusive!) I had a secondary motive for writing about it.

Back towards the end of last month, a multiplayer article appeared on this very site. Written by Mohan, it was a discussion of casual multiplayer. For someone like me, it was an enjoyable read - a grab bag of chat about the format, affordable ideas for basic decks and general advocacy of multiplayer. But a chap named Trevor Childs (generatrix) found the article less to his tastes and fortunately took the time to put together a pretty well argued outline of his position in the forums.

In fact, I found little to disagree with on either side. Mohan is playing a casual game, whilst Trevor is clearly correct to point out that multiplayer need not be casual. But the point which caught my attention specfically was Trevor's suggestion that "politics" (as Mohan put it) has no place in multiplayer. Interesting. Now I have no intention of trying to put words in the man's mouth by attempting to argue against the statement directly. The question I did want to take a look at was this:

Is politics the same as psychology in multiplayer?

Normally I'd kick off an article with a question like that, but I wanted to make sure you read the account of the game with an unbiased eye. To start with, what was the role of psychology in this match?

The assessment of the motives behind another player's actions does not have to involve psychology per se. One could (in the most theoretical sense only) analyze such problems mathematically as games between perfect players. But should we play as though our opponents are perfect?

The answer might surprise you. Rather than considering Magic, consider that question in the context of poker. Poker - particularly Internet poker - is a fast growing phenomenon at the moment. Hardly surprising then that lots of effort is going into analysing the game. But talk to the very best players in the game and they'll tell you that while playing perfectly by the numbers will get you a long way at the very highest level you have to use psychology.

Now if you ask me, that sounds backwards. I'd expect psychology to matter most at the level of rubbish players. But... millions of dollars say otherwise.

In fact, if you think enough about it the whole thing starts to make sense. It's about signal-to-noise ratio. A weak player will make so many errors, think so many bizarre thoughts and play so erratically that trying to use psychology on them is really hard. Which is probably OK, because there are other ways to beat them. A good player, however, can be relied upon to notice the best play. That means that the tiniest detail of the way they do things can be subjected to analysis. Which mana has your opponent left open? Most people pay attention to that. Your opponent tapped his mana in an unusual order? Well spotted. Maybe that tells you something.

Psychology in multiplayer specifically (as opposed to Magic in general) is all about who is the biggest threat to you. This is a question you almost never know the answer to, so you have to guess. It's in the interests of at least one of the other players to help you guess wrongly.

Do I have time for a quick digression? Back in 1994 I was a member of a large gaming group which its members called simply "The Society". Once a week we had a boardgames night. And from the moment the doors opened at the start until the moment they closed at the end, one game would always be running: Family Business. The game, for those who don't know it, is very simple. Each player controls nine mobsters. You have a hand of cards, all drawn from the same deck. Some cards attack, others defend, others are tricks of one kind or another. The aim is to control the last surviving mob. There's not a lot of skill in it, but there's a huge amount of table talk and politics.

Mr Capone loves a bit of it.
For at least six months, I won a third or more of the six player games I played in. Then I wrote an article in the Society's magazine about how it was done. Then I didn't win more than one game in twenty for the next six months. That's the price of smugness.

The winning strategy? Simple: play your attacking cards and hold your defensive cards in hand.

I'll pause while you figure out how that wins.

Got it? The reason it works is because players tend to assess the game state in terms of how many mobsters each player has alive. You reach an endgame in which maybe four of the six players remain and each has only two or three mobsters. However, whilst the other players have a mix of cards, you have a full grip of defensive dynamite. It looks to the untrained eye as though you're the luckiest topdecker alive. A lot of the time, you're the last man standing.

Why bother with that digression? Because that's the connection between politics and psychology. It goes both ways:

Politics is what happens when you start trying to communicate your psychological insights to other players.

Psychology is the skill you need to assess other players' political moves.

So when playing Family Business, I was employing psychology to manipulate the politics at the table to my own service.

And back with Magic, the analogous error to assessing someone's position by the number of mobsters they have left would be to assess someone's position solely in terms of their life total. When Keith still had 20 life, Dan went to some lengths trying to persuade everyone that this meant he was the number one target. In this case nobody went for it, but whether that was because they were wise to the fallacy or just ignored Dan on principle was not clear.

When the cat broke its own Standstill it visibly put everyone else ahead. Therefore it was no real disadvantage in some senses, because it guessed correctly that the other players would compensate, seeing each other as more of a threat. (And it almost worked. It only lost in the end because Keith targetting it since he wanted my Consume Spirit countered. That wasted its critical counter.)

This is the viewpoint I wanted to put forward: that politics does matter in multiplayer, because every player's game is critically dependent on their assessment of everyone else's position, both seen and unseen. Not everyone's assessments are perfect - if they were then poker would be a much easier game - so we can gain things from listening to other players' attempts to negotiate and also from playing politics ourselves.

In short: politics is a part of multiplayer Magic.

Some people don't like it, of course. Just like some people don't like land destruction or countermagic. That doesn't mean it's not part of the game. Indeed, the boardgame Diplomacy was for a long time played as a serious tournament game (although it's dying out now). There, players developed reputations across their entire careers.


On the walk back home from Errol's house, I chatted about psychology and multiplayer to my cat. It listened to my various theories about the game and about which of the various decks had the advantage and how things might have played out. Then I stopped. I couldn't help noticing my cat seemed very pleased with itself given that it had lost. I asked what was up.

"The thing about psychology," the cat explained, "is that once everyone involved understands that a particular matter requires analysis, it becomes a mostly mathematical exercise. Trying to improve your poker face is all very well, but the real trick is to make sure everyone's watching the wrong cup."

"What do you mean?" I asked, still reeling from the mixed metaphor.

"You said it yourself, the one player you were watching at that table was me. But who was least likely to win?"

"Either Keith or Dan."

"Be honest."


"Right," the cat nodded, "So I could either try to win with everyone gunning for me, then try to trade the prize for something I wanted, assuming anyone wanted the prize. Or..."

I still couldn't see what it was getting at, so I just looked blank.

"...I could do a deal with Dan."

"What was the deal?"

"He buys me four cans of tuna in advance of the match. In exchange for this, I design a deck for him and tell him how to play it. Just so there's no temptation for me to collaborate with him during the match, which would be unfair, the deal is that I keep the tuna even if he loses."

I had to admit, it was flawless. But was it cheating?

I phoned Errol the next morning to ask what he thought.

"Dude!" he exclaimed, "After you left we made the furby say 'tits'!"

I guess some people just aren't interested in moral issues.


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