On Monday, Star City Games published a piece by one of their Commander writers arguing that Commander politics were broken. At the same time, a companion piece ran on GeneralDamageControl.com, defending the shady politics that SCG’s article decried. They both made some good points and some bad ones, but they also felt like a very gender-specific way to look at the political context of Commander games, in that subtle implicit sense. In both articles winning is presented as zero-sum. The assumption is that the only use politics have is to win games. I disagree with that perspective. In my opinion, they both miss the most important aspect of political play: reputation management.

The five points they lay out are as follows:

The Art of Misdirection
The Art of Deception
The Art of Influencing Perception
The Art of Power
The Art of Persuasion

And don’t get me wrong, if you are just trying to manipulate people, those are some good things to consider. But, reading both articles, I was left with the realization that I wouldn’t want to play against either of those players. They both came off as too Spikey. The focus on winning the instant game led to the anti-political writer defending plays like a turn three Godo, Bandit Warlord with Argentum Armor, blowing up lands. Similarly, despite the (wise and totally true) point of “don’t lie” in the pro-political player’s article, one of his suggestions involved lying about when you drew a card. It doesn’t stop being a lie when your opponents can’t prove it false.

When I was a young egg, I read Last Call by Tim Powers. Powers writes occult alternate history novels, that specific one focusing on the magickal properties of Poker, vis-a-vis the secret history of Vegas. It’s a great book, for what it’s worth, but it takes place from the point of view of a Poker sharp, and it contains this assessment of one of the Poker games that Scarecrow Smith (said protagonist) set up years ago and then let lay dormant:

“He had set up this game a quarter of a century ago, out of the remains of a Tuesday night game that had begun to draw too many genuinely good players to be profitable, and he had fine-tuned it to seem loose and sociable to the good losers while actually producing a steady income for himself.”

As I see it, that’s the ideal construction of a regular gaming experience. The fact of the matter is that vicious games of Commander are high variance. Sometimes you will feel on the top of the world, sure, but the competitive nature of those games means that some folks are going to get shut down before they do anything interesting. And sitting around, waiting for everyone else to finish a game, with nothing to occupy your time? That is not a recipe to keep people coming back. A major component of creating a positive play experience is recognizing that Magic is a community, and the consequences of your behavior stretch beyond a single game. Even if you’re at a store, people talk, and you don’t want to get a reputation as a Wormtongue-type character.

But! If you can create a situation in which someone enjoys doing what you want, giving you an advantage while also having a good time doing it, that is a recipe to have them listen to you again in the future. And that’s less true of straight manipulation tactics. So here are my five points to keep in mind when using Commander politics to influence a table. While the five points of the other authors may be more effective in an individual match, mine offer a better long-term outlook.

Manage Your Reputation

Word is bond, yo. If your word cannot be trusted, then you cannot be trusted. If you cannot be trusted, it becomes that much harder to get the game moving in your direction. It becomes easier for people to take advantage of your bad reputation to set the table in your direction. If you pull a dickish play out of your hat, expect people to respond in the future to you presenting a hat with fire, whether or there’s a rabbit in it. You want to be perceived as being straightforward and honest, and that’s hard when you’re trying to use manipulation to shoot angles.

Show Your Math

The most effective style of manipulation in an ongoing series of games is open manipulation. This is when you are not sneaky about your political plays but people still listen to you because you offer the best path forward. There’s this great Prisoner’s Dilemma example from a game show, though which one is irrelevant and has passed from my memory. But the situation is thus. Two contestants ended a day’s gameplay with a Prisoner’s Dilemma, so that if one of them voted Greed and the other voted Charity the one who voted greed would win all the money. If they both vote Greed, though, they would both get nothing. Anyway, going into the final round one of the contestants announced to the other, “I am voting Greed no matter what. If you vote Charity I will give you a portion of my winnings; if you vote Greed as well neither of us will get anything.” That sort of play doesn’t require any sort of sneaky behavior, and in fact will bolster your reputation as a truth-teller.

Minimize Your Threat Profile

I have talked about threat management on many occasions. A major part of making sure you see the endgame is mere survival, and that’s harder to do when the full ire of a table is turned against you. Some people like Archenemy, but there’s a reason they’re bringing back Planechase and not Archenemy. The few who loved it are outweighed by the many who liked neither having three people combining to beat them up nor getting their ass handed to them by a single player with a strong deck and environmental bonus. This is especially true if you want people to listen to you; no one is going to do what the person in the lead says because it would only cement that person’s advance. Playing politics requires sensitivity to this.

Make Some Queens

You’re not going to win every game of Commander. This is good! Winning every single game would be boring. But even when you lose, you can have a profound influence on the shape of the game. “Kingmaking”, which I will henceforth refer to as “queening” because I’d far rather have queens than kings, is on the most basic level just using your resources to advantage another player heading into the endgame.

One of the writers decried alliances as the province of the weak, not seeing why a player in the lead would ally with a less advantaged player. But let’s say there are three players left. You’re in the lead, someone is biting at your heels, and there’s a third player still hanging in there. It is to your advantage to get the third-place player to help you eliminate the second-place player! You get them to do it because it’s their best chance of seeing the endgame, and they agree to it with the hope that getting you into open combat with the second-place player will harm you enough so that they have a shot of winning when they do make it there. And if you’re the second place player and you’re facing this, you can do as much damage to the dominant player as you can on the way out, putting the third-place player in the best situation to take out the dominant threat when it comes down to the final showdown.

Keep an Eye on the Happiness of Others

It comes down to is this: politics means inspiring emotions in people to get them to make suboptimal plays viewed solely through a lens of self-interest. We live in an era in which the default emotions associated with political manipulation are fear, rage, confusion, and hatred. That can make it seem like those are the only pathways to interpersonal politics. But happiness, love, elation… these emotions can do work too. And if you make sure that they people around you are having a good time whether they win or lose, the value of that win declines. And the less valuable the win, the more likely someone else is to give it to you, instead of taking it for themselves.

So are politics in Commander broken, or futile, or unpleasant? Like anything, they certainly can be. But approached through a lens that allows for non-zero sum outcomes and recognizes the degree to which your relationship to the rest of the Magic community is cumulative, politics can not only ensure a better chance of victory, but they can also make for a better play experience around the table. And that’s the best type of outcome: win-win.

Jess Stirba is an amateur ethicist.

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