One of the things that distinguishes Commander from other formats is that it’s designed to be multiplayer. In two-player formats, the strategy is obvious: try to kill your opponent without getting killed yourself. If your opponent is tapped out with no creatures, you attack.
Commander is different. Attacking one player might leave you open to attack from another player. Or perhaps you know the one player is holding onto a boardwipe, so you attack another player instead, in the hopes of keeping your creatures. At the far end of the spectrum, you might even team up with another player in order to take out the rest of the table, increasing both your chances of winning above the expected twenty-five percent.
Table politics is something unique to multiplayer, and something more competitive players can have a hard time understanding. In a two-player game, it doesn’t make sense to make bargains with your opponent. “If you don’t attack me this turn, I won’t attack you next turn” is going to be of net benefit to one of you and net loss to the other. You’re playing a zero-sum game. In multiplayer, that same offer can be a net benefit to the two players entering the agreement while being a net loss to the others at the table.
Understanding table politics can increase both your enjoyment of the game and your chance at winning. When you sit down at a four-player game, the best deck isn’t necessarily the one that’s going to win. In fact, sitting down with a deck that’s clearly more powerful than anything else at the table almost guarantees that the other players will gang up on you in order to eliminate the threat. Often the level of threat is determined by the commander. Decks like Kaalia, Zur, Sharuum, and Narset tend to be extremely powerful and difficult to stop once they get going; the best strategy in dealing with them is often to get rid of them before they have that opportunity. Other times it’s a matter of knowing the players and how they tend to build their decks. I have a Selvala deck that helps everyone at the table by allowing them to draw cards and get extra mana. While the deck does contain threats like Colossus of Akros that benefit from a surplus of mana, such things are obvious threats and aren’t going to end the game in a single turn. On the other hand, there’s a regular at the gaming store I played at back in Georgia who plays a Selvala deck designed to combo off and win. Playing against my Selvala deck is fun; it allows my opponents to do some pretty crazy stuff while still providing a challenge. Playing against his Selvala deck, not so much. Either the rest of us remove him before he reaches critical mass, or he wins the game over the course of a single drawn-out turn before we’ve even had a chance to get going. A few months ago we had a game that consisted of that player, another player known for his degenerate combo decks (in this case playing an Azami deck), an inexperienced player borrowing my Krenko deck, and myself playing Nekusar. The Azami player, knowing what was coming, directed his effort toward countering Selvala every time she was cast, since he knew she was a necessary piece of the combo. Eventually the Selvala player simply conceded. In the meantime, the Krenko player had built up quite a boardstate of 1/1 Goblins, and was able kill the two remaining players. If he hadn’t scooped, the Azami player would have been able to survive for another turn, giving him the chance to combo off for the win.
In this scenario, table politics came close to allowing the Azami player to win against a deck that should by rights have beaten him. By agreeing not to attack the Azami player until Selvala was eliminate, since Azami was helping him out, the Krenko player was actually able to win the game, despite being the least experienced player at the table. Part of this was because he was piloting a well-built deck, but a lot of it was the fact that he wasn’t the most immediate threat. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, Krenko is somewhat fragile, because without its commander its pace slows significantly. But despite the presence of two decks at the table with access to blue and therefore counter-magic, neither of us wanted to waste those spells countering Krenko, especially when goblin-ball seemed the most expedient way to deal with Selvala’s threat.
So how do you take advantage of table politics?
Well, it starts in deck construction. If you have a deck that’s non-interactive and is only interested in comboing off, you have nothing to offer the other players in exchange for not attacking. You could simply include cards like No Mercy and Dictate of Erebos which will make your opponents hesitate to attack, but that may make them team up in an effort to get rid of those cards.
Another method is to make yourself useful. Edric, Spymaster of Trest is a great card for this. It encourages your opponents to attack each other rather than you, because it rewards them for doing so. Cards like Font of Mythos and Heartbeat of Spring can turn you from an opponent to a valuable resource. Unequal boons like those granted by Zedruu can take this a step further. If I’m playing Zedruu and you’ve been helping me, I’ll happily give you some of my permanents to help you out as well. If you haven’t been helping me, no gifts for you. If you’ve been actively working against me, I can temporarily steal one of your creatures with something like Dominus of Fealty and permanently give it away to whomever I want.
If you don’t want to build your deck to help others, you can instead build it to stop threats. People generally don’t enjoy playing against blue decks because they don’t like having their things countered; but if you’re countering their opponents’ combo pieces, they’ll probably be a lot happier with you. I have a Talrand deck that’s basically just a bunch of counter-spells. In one-on-one, this is brutal, since every time I counter my opponent’s spell I get a drake, and he isn’t able to resolve anything at all. In multiplayer, if I counter everything, I’ll quickly run out of spells, so instead I counter huge threats and combo pieces. I even turn it into a democracy; “Hey guys, that boardwipe he just cast, do you wan that to resolve?” (In this case, no, they didn’t want it to resolve, and although it was uncounterable I was able to exile it from the stack, leaving me with several grateful opponents.) A kill-spell, or even just the threat of one, can keep them from pointing their creatures your way. In one game I played, I had a Deep-Sea Kraken, while my brother had a Seal of Doom on the battlefield. Naturally I attacked the other players instead of him, since if I pointed the kraken his way, he’d just kill it.
The next part of politics is communication. In real life, two countries might be natural allies, but if they never talk with one another, neither is likely to take the initiative to help the other. In some cases, as with Seal of Doom, verbalization is unnecessary. I could look at the board-state and know what would happen if I were to attack my brother. That’s like a third-world country knowing better than to attack the United States. But I took it a step further, and offered him a true alliance: the two of us would team up against the two other players and attempt to eliminate them. I turned a disinclination to attack into a mutually beneficial proposition. As it turned out, my brother won that game, although if he hadn’t had a particular combination of cards, I was going to win the next turn. So by allying together, we increased both our chances of winning.
Other times, politicking can be as simple as pointing out a threat you can’t handle by yourself. “Dude, I’m clean out of counterspells and if that Stormtide Leviathan resolves we’re both boned,” or, “If you can Naturalize the Swiftfoot Boots I can kill the Malignus it’s equipped to.” Alliances don’t have to be formal, or enduring. Part of the joy in Commander can be in stabbing each other in the back. Just be wary of going back on your word—once you’ve been labeled as untrustworthy, other players are less likely to ally with you, and you may find yourself the odd man out. (I have personally experienced this, when I had an agreement with a friend who had also, unbeknownst to me, allied with another friend. Once I’ve discovered that someone is willing to go back on their word, I’m not going to ally with them in the future. Besides, it makes the game a lot less fun for everyone involved.)
Basically, just talk to each other. It’s a social game. You’re probably at home with your buddies, drinking beer around the kitchen table and discussing how many miles you walked today hatching eggs for Pokemon Go; it’s no great effort to throw in, “Hey, that Falkenrath Exterminator needs to go, anyone have a kill-spell handy?” To which the reply might be, “I do, so Falkenrath player, tell you what, you don’t point it at me and I won’t kill it.” It’s not something that comes naturally to everyone, but with a little bit of practice anyone can start learning how to navigate the murky waters of shifting alliances that make Commander the fun format it is.