I’m an activist by happenstance. While I was heading that direction from my early years, thanks to childhood membership on the Peace and Social Concerns committee in my Quaker Meeting, there is a path I could have walked which would have turned away from the fight. I was looking pretty “master of the universe” as high school graduation started to roll around, before the trans caused my life course to skip to a different groove. I can say with some degree of certainty that were it not for the trans, I would be a significantly less enlightened person, solely because I wouldn’t have to be better than I was.


But I am trans, and I have an immense capacity for love, and hiding my trans felt like sabotaging any love I might profess. Because I’d be living a lie, no matter how real my love might be. That seemed abhorrent, so I came out, ended up being the first out trans person at my college, had to push for housing policies and the support of my school’s LGBTQ groups, and so on and so forth. From there it’s been fight fight fight, with a couple of periods of downtime in which I got swallowed by the depression that came with losing the amount of privilege I have seen dissolve over my lifetime.


I mean, these days I don’t even have the privilege of going to the bathroom legally in every state! My trajectory has been incredibly positive in many ways, but privilege isn’t really one of them.


Anyway, Magic is a game that develops and rewards strategic thinking. It helped me be a better activist, and being a better activist has made me better at the politics of multiplayer games. Here are a few lessons on Magic I learned from my activism.


1. Ask for reasonable things.


This one came up in light of the Wizards of the Coast statement on North Carolina’s HB2 law, the one that basically says trans people at GP Charlotte have to engage in civil disobedience if you ever need to pee during the event. Someone on Twitter, a well-meaning, well-respected, cis chap, was frustrated by the anemia of this response. Wizards basically said “this is a fucked up situation,” but they didn’t go the splashy boycott route, and that was what he wanted to see.


That wasn’t what I was calling for, though, and its omission was not an oversight. There was never a chance in hell that Wizards was going to cancel that Grand Prix event, and it’s even a little questionable whether or not they’d have the ability to do so at this point. Contracts have been signed, space has been reserved, and logistics have been set up. Someone would be taking a huge hit from that decision, and both Hasbro and StarCityGames are for-profit organizations. Neither is going to support a policy that makes them take such a huge hit out of pocket, especially when it still means North Carolina is already getting the benefit of all those sunk costs without giving the competitive play people anything in return.


And that’s not even getting into the outcry it would cause among the players signed up for GP Charlotte if Wizards cancelled the East Coast Modern Grand Prix. As we’ve seen in the last couple of weeks, Magic players are good at making noise when we’re dissatisfied. Ruining the plans of all those people sheds allies. When you’re talking about something like a secondary strike against an unjust law, angering those people comes with little benefit.


How is this relevant to multiplayer? You have to offer up reasonable, concrete suggestions when you try to manipulate people. For example, “hey, I need you to not block here so I can kill you,” is not a reasonable suggestion. Who would do that? Outside of the rarest of corner cases, it would be easier to just scoop, and asking a person in a casual multiplayer game to scoop to you for reasons other than a time consideration is uncouth. What is the benefit?


That person is not going to take you seriously because you’re offering something patently ridiculous.


On the other side of the spectrum, a request like “hey, can you hold off on Bojuka Bog-ging me for a single turn so I don’t get crippled for the rest of the game,” is far more reasonable. You’re asking for a player to make a concrete decision over which they have control, it is a minor play, and you’re asking for an abatement with a clear time period. Not only that, you’re explaining why that play matters to you. In many games, one player being prematurely maimed but not killed can throw off the balance, allowing a more threatening player to rise without the combined power of the table looming to balance them out.


So those are the type of factors: ask for something within a person or organization’s power, offer a justification for your request, pay attention to the temporal boundaries of the request, and consider any externalities your demand might impose. Plays that meet these factors are significantly more likely to succeed than plays that don’t.


2. Find a win-win outcome.


In effect, the most important thing is being able to show a person or organization how submitting to your influence is a victory for all parties. While some people like to lie or use subterfuge to make it appear that zero sum situations are somehow win-win, I am not a fan of that practice for reasons discussed in the next point. What that means, though, is that you actually have to spend the time to figure out a path that includes progression for both parties.


And it’s important to realize this is all about progression. My main complaint with the “win-win” terminology is that win implies a finality that is never truly achievable in this world. While Magic games end, the relationships you forge with other players don’t, and they will evaluate your words not just in light of your actions in that specific game, but your actions in every game they’ve played with you memorable enough to stick in their memories. So you have to be careful about that, again for reasons to be discussed below.


Let’s make this a little less theoretical for a second. As I mentioned in my initial North Carolina response article, some “gay rights” organizations chose to disband after they “won” by getting the Supreme Court to make marriage equality the law of the land. In that article I mention it in order to throw shade at the idea that gay marriage has solved all the challenges facing LGBTQ people; I bring it up here to point it out as bad tactics. As we’ve seen in this country with regards to desegregation, voting rights, and Roe vs Wade, when one side wins and the other side loses, the winners stop paying attention while the losers simmer. And then, the next time they have a chance, they’ll strike. Because for them, it’s not over. A loss doesn’t end the battle, it just means you’ve lost a skirmish.


So take the long view. Find a way that both parties can feel good about the path you are pushing, else it will come back to bite you in the ass in the long run.


3. Don’t lie.


One of the easiest ways to take the short view is to promise something and then not live up to your word. Now, I will admit that I am somewhat biased when it comes to the seriousness of this particular sin; as a Quaker, telling the truth is tied up in all sorts of dogma about the value of a person’s word and the need to let your light shine true. But even beyond my hangups, lying corrodes trust. And that’s bad in a community where, even if you don’t play that person again, they may tell their friends.


If an opponent can’t trust you to do what you’re saying, why in god’s name would they ever listen to you? And it’s not just about doing the opposite, since most good liars weave truth into their artful webs. When confronted with a manipulative liar, the best course is to discount everything they say utterly; even when they are deploying the truth, it is in order to influence your course of action.


And the most dangerous thing for a multiplayer Magic player or an activist is to put yourself in a position where the incentives cut towards your irrelevance.


Now, this is not to say that you can’t be slippery. I make a point to never lie in a Commander game, and yet there are plenty of times where the precise truth that I state is not necessarily reflective of the whole picture. When pushed I’ll usually show my proverbial cards, or at least admit that I am hiding some of them. To take a Magic example, telling an opponent “the best thing on the board for you to kill is [powerful card X],” can be true, but if you want them to take that step so they can’t disrupt your next play… well, it leaves intact your reputation for honesty while still giving you leeway to push a person towards a better outcome for you personally.


I mean, it was probably a good thing for your opponent to eliminate [powerful card X] no matter what; it is a powerful card, after all, and it still gives that opponent value for their removal spell. Just because it plays into your long game doesn’t mean you’ve taken anything away from them.


In politics and activism, this is most relevant to long-term relationships with institutions. For example, if you’re a lobbyist or doing campus activism, you want your contacts to know that you’re on the level. As soon as the powerful have grounds to dismiss the disruptive, they will, with second chances being rare. So don’t lie. It’s just bad for your proverbial game.


4. Sometimes you have to lose to win.


In Magic, there are going to be matches in which you’re obviously the big threat at the table. That particular designation bops around the table in the best of times, and sometimes you just can’t reasonably minimize your aggro profile. In those cases, it does not help your cause to protest that you’re not the big threat (unless you can make an honest argument for why it should be someone else instead). What does help your cause, though, is to give your opponents an honest appraisal of your board state.


For example. Say I am in danger of going off with Grimgrin, Corpse-Born. I have Gravecrawler in my graveyard, Grimgrin in the Command Zone, and Rooftop Storm on the battlefield, but mana constraints mean that I can’t pay Grimgrin’s commander tax that turn. If someone drops an Acidic Slime, I can’t reasonably argue against blowing up the Rooftop Storm. So you take the bull by the horns and look at your board position dispassionately, sharing your assessment with your friend/enemy.


You lose nothing for doing this. Chances are they’re going to come to the right play eventually, so helping them get there speeds up the game. In addition, should they not be on track to come to the right play, your temporary disadvantage is balanced out by the fact you’ve helped a friend get a little better at the game. By being open and honest when it cuts against your immediate interests, you’ll be better positioned down the line to make a tough speech check when attempting to influence that player, and potentially anyone else who was at that table as well.


Winning isn’t everything. What’s important is that, when you lose, you do so in a way to leave yourself better positioned for future skirmishes, whether they be Magical or political in nature.




I recognize at this point I’ve likely made myself seem a bit of a sociopath. It is a pitfall of writing an article focused on manipulation strategies. And frankly I’d be lying if I claimed no connection to the psychopathic lens; you can pick that one up when one of your parents is so diseased. But this power is a skill, and a neat thing about skills is that you can internalize the basic steps with repetition. Basically? I don’t even think about this stuff any more, outside of my moments of self-reflection.


I just try to get people to make the best play. Making change is about making things better, and in multiplayer Magic that means helping to better your friends. That way, the game evolves as you do. And that’s the best type of growth there is.


Jess Stirba is an empath, and it’s often unpleasant.

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