Off Topic: Threat Assessment in Commander

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A big pet peeve of mine in a game of Commander is a player's lack of threat assessment. With that said, I feel I must disclaimer such a statement. I don't mind being attacked when I am the alpha at the table. I don't mind being attacked when I have the superior board state. What drives me crazy is when I am clearly not the threat at the table. It reminds me of Pinky and the Brain from Animaniacs. For those not familiar with the cartoon by Steven Spielberg, Pinky and Brain are genetically enhanced laboratory mice who reside in a cage in the Acme Labs research facility. Brain is self-centered and scheming; Pinky is good-natured but feebleminded. In each episode, Brain devises a new plan to take over the world, which ultimately ends in failure, usually due to Pinky's idiocy, the impossibility of Brain's plan, Brain's own arrogance, or just circumstances beyond their control. When a player makes an incorrect assessment at the table and ends my chances of victory forever, I can't help but relate to that cartoon.

It's a Hard Knock Life

I have been playing the following deck on MTGO a lot lately.

*Yes, the awesome Archangel of Thune will quickly be finding a home here alongside Angelic Accord. Thank you, Wizards of the Coast.

One thing I have quickly realized with this deck is just how much players over-value life gain. A resolved Essence Warden sends everyone into a tizzy. Certainly, life gain has its advantages. It is hardly a super strong mechanic, though. I can attest to this by the numerous times I have lost with this deck. I have lost to being milled, Gates, and just good old combat damage. A Genesis Wave into Craterhoof Behemoth and a dozen friends have knocked me down from 120 to zero in on quick swoop. Sometimes I just run out of gas and it doesn't take long for a couple of big creatures on the board to take me out of the game. This is Commander. The game state and who is the alpha at the table can change quickly. Unless you are putting the final nail in someone's coffin, life doesn't matter. There are much bigger fish to fry.

Blue Sun's Zenith for 50 Alex

A person's hand size should always set off an opposing player's Spidey senses. In general, the person with the most cards usually wins the game. It should be obvious. Cards means more plays, options, and sheer resources. However, time and time again, I will see a player attack the player with a single card in hand when someone else has a fistful of cards. Oh, Pinky, what are you doing? Don't give me such and such has what as a board state. An Evacuation, Planar Cleansing, etc. can quickly remedy those problems. I guarantee in those 17 cards that there is an answer to the petty woes on the table.

Am I really saying to ignore the board state? Well, it depends. Context is everything in Magic. There will be a corner case for everything. It is one of those things that strains the writing of Magic articles. I, or any other author for that matter, have to be very, very careful to not paint myself into a corner. However, players continue to freak out about what they can see. What they should worry about is what they can't see. Somebody's superior position can quickly go poof in a blink of an eye. The blue mage's new favorite toy, Cyclonic Rift, has proven that time and time again.

I would really like to beat this subject to death and then some. It is simply the most egregious error that I see again and again. Some player top decks an Avacyn, Angel of Hope and everybody freaks. It may be the only thing they have on the board with no cards in hand. The lynch mob ensues until the threat has been negated. All the while, the alpha at the table has quietly been letting the other players do his or her dirty work. A spell or two later, everyone else is also dead.

Mana Dorks

Enemy number one should always be Mr. Happy Card Draw. A very close second should be Mr. Happy Mana Pants. I don't have problem with Ramp style decks, but they are subtly dangerous. More mana equals more spells and bigger spells. You would think this would be obvious. It's not. Let's say I have been stumbling on mana and only have four lands out. Say I play something good for four mana like Thrun, the Last Troll or whatever you find a good threat. It's a threat. It's hard to deal with. I get it. However, this suddenly sends an army at me. This wouldn't irritate me if it weren't for the alpha at the table having already having eight lands on the board. Sigh.

Let me ask you a question. Who is going to play more scary spells: the player with four lands or the player with eight lands?

What was that? Your answer is the player with eight lands. Your answer was eight. Just checking. So… why are you attacking me? Oh, Thrun. Right…

Next turn Mana Ramp Guy drops Amulet of Vigor and then casts Boundless Realms, followed by a Time Warp. The very next turn is followed by Avenger of Zendikar, Eternal Witness on a Boundless Realms that is abruptly cast again, and topped off with Akroma's Memorial for the win.

Yup, good thing you were worried about that Thrun, the Last Troll. Sigh.

Keep in mind that I am not trying to be snarky and just picking on green mages here. This also includes those blue mages and their artifact stones. More mana equals a bigger Mind Spring. Did you think those artifacts were just there to be shiny? A good Thada Adel, Acquisitor will search out Sol Ring and other artifacts stones the first few hits. More mana equals bigger and better steals. Mana equals danger.

Big, Bad Bullies

I love politics in a game of Commander. A game of Commander without politics is like poker without bluffing. Alliances are important, however superficial or temporary they may be. What I frown upon though is a Free for All that begins with a duo already in cahoots. I don't mind if that is what players enjoy playing as a format. However, this puts the other two players immediately at an unfair disadvantage. If team play is what you like, you should play in teams. Don't come to a free for all with a buddy unless you plan on sharing the beats.

What have astounded me about this subject are the players who don't watch for this subterfuge. I've seen a player wide open, but their opponent just doesn't attack. Why? The player is wide open. There is no disadvantage for attacking him or her. If a play seems fishy, a player should always consider that there is an unholy alliance at the table. At the same time, an alliance should be formed with the other unpaired player.

Again, I am not against team play. But I feel it should be part of a gentleman's agreement at a Commander free for all. When a player sits down at the beginning of a game, everyone should be treated as friend or foe equally. I'll confess that I have been guilty of this in the past. I'd hop online with a friend and give him/her an unfair advantage at the table. It should not be surprising that we won the majority of those games. It also took me a while to realize the error of my ways. Sure, bring friends to a game, but be cognizant of this and be fair to the other players at the table. Commander is a format for fun, not for a bunch of bullies.

The End Game

Smell that? I smell something fishy. I smell combo. I am surprised at players who fail to smell a combo coming. I have often targeted these players and ignored when other players start attacking me. I focus my resources on that player. Is it cause I hate combo? Not at all, but I don't want to lose sixth turn to the Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker combo. The style of cards that player casts are just as important as what is on the battlefield. Are they playing a grindy, good stuff, or a mill deck? Part of being good at Magic is being able to respond to the present state of the game. A great Magic player should be able to speculate on the future. Is a Wrath of God or Damnation likely? Do the cards in their deck indicate an eventual Warp World? An unassuming board state of an opponent can turn into a monstrous advantage with a successful Warp World.

I've been accused of being a bully on more than one occasion for attacking an opponent with a poor presence on the battlefield. Usually, it is followed by some name-calling. There are also times when other players will gang up on me because I come off as a jerk. Many times my actions are warranted. A few turns later that same player has suddenly spawned a daunting game state for everyone involved. However, it is too late as many have wasted their resources elsewhere or on me. The game is over with nobody learning a valuable lesson. I wasn't picking on that player. I was launching a strategic preemptive attack for future plays and spell casting by that opponent. I didn't care that he had only a Solemn Simulacrum in play while other players had much more pressing matters on the board. It was the eventual Basilisk Collar plus Tibor and Lumia combo that I was worried about.

Stop living the moment and prepare for the end game.

Don't Pull that Trigger

Repeatable effects are a topic I have been meaning to write about for Commander. Inclusion of repeatable abilities is one of the best things for any deck. Baneslayer Angel or Kitchen Finks are great cards. However, they cannot dominate a game by themselves. Admonition Angel can continue to impact the board without any further assistance besides a land drop. Okay, Sheoldred, Whispering One would have been a better example. It would seem obvious Titan effects are often the bigger threat on the table. No additional resources are necessary. Thus, it confuses me when my Exalted Angel gets hit with a Swords to Plowshares. I will admit that it is a good card, but it isn't a dominating card. Toss a big fat flyer in front of it and I am forced to expend additional resources.

I think one of the skills to master as a planeswalker for Commander and competitive Magic is learning restraint. Many players will drop mass removal any time the board state is not in their favor. Sometimes, letting the game evolve naturally is the best course of action. Don't react to what is going on in the moment. React to what will happen. Baneslayer Angel isn't doing any more damage than it currently is doing. I have won many games where I never played that Wrath of God I had since the beginning of the game. Save that Path to Exile for something that really dominates the game. If Battlegrace Angel threatens you, I think you have bigger problems.

Context is Everything

While I stand by the above, there will often be games where my advice is meaningless. Isn't that the great thing about Magic? It is always different. It is never the same game. I do plead that my words be heeded. It is often more true that not. Extra cards matter. Mana matters. The future matters. Don't get caught up with insignificant threats and be patient. Follow this advice and you will improve your games greatly.

Now if you excuse me, I have a world to take over.


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