We’ve grown up being told to be in the front of the pack. Whether in sports, school, or work: leading the race is most important. But what if you don’t want to take the lead? Can being “tactically mediocre” pay off in Commander? Absolutely.

Commander is a format where the balance of power can tilt back and forth several times over the course of a four-way game. The leader at any given time tends to draw the most attention—and aggression—from the rest of the table. What does it mean to be in second place? You’re the best-positioned player that doesn’t have a target on their back. Keeping this position can allow you to wait until the time is right, and then go for the win when the leader falters.

Let’s define each of the “places” in a game of Commander. It’s worth mentioning that playgroups vary, and second place might not mean as much in faster, more competitive environments. This article aims to look at it through a more broad, medium-power lens.

First place is easy to define: the player who looks closest to winning at that given moment. This could result from a powerful combo on board, an impenetrable lock, commanding the most threatening creatures, or even having tutored the most. Second and third place are often one or two steps behind the player in first, making them less imposing in the current flow of the game. Fourth place is for the player who might be missing land drops, or is simply the least threatening at the time.

As a first step to landing in the sweet spot, let’s take a look at the turn order and how it relates to the dynamics of the game. The starting player always has some semblance of a target on them in the early game. Unless they miss a land drop, their position allows them to start impacting the game first. If the starting player has strong initial turns, then it’s easy for the rest of the table to fall in line by developing just below them. But the more the first player fumbles in relation to the others, the less and less that first turn advantage matters.

So where in the turn order are you? If you started first, it’s an exercise in not looking too threatening to others. If you develop too fast, you run the risk of being hit by up to three different players as they try to trim you back down to size. If you’re starting in a lower spot, you get a bit more breathing room. While starting first has a distinct advantage, the later players have the benefit of receiving more information before they choose what to play. These factors can help you navigate the game to stay in the middle, until the moment is right.

Now that we have turn order in consideration, let’s take a look at how you choose to react to the flow of the game. For instance, if someone plays a problematic artifact and you have a removal spell; then it is quite tempting to get rid of that artifact as soon as you can. Being later in the turn order gives others the chance to clean up the mess before it gets to you. That fortunate event can open your turn to doing other things while you keep that removal spell in your back pocket. Often you can wait an extra turn, hoping to induce another player to use the removal spell. If the threat isn’t going to end the game, I personally prefer waiting an extra turn to see what the other players do. The owner of that permanent might end up playing something scarier, or your other opponents might get impatient and divert their strategy even more.

Say you’re in second place now, and you’re sizing up your opponents as you move into the later stages of the game. First place has three people watching them. Second place tends to be less relevant. First is watching you as their biggest threat. Third will focus on making sure that the first place player doesn’t get too out of hand. Meanwhile, the fourth place player only cares about the leader, because that player could end the game before the last-place deck gets a chance to do anything at all. Because of this, being in close second often gives you a clearer shot at victory than being in first.

So when is the best time to go for it all? That can vary quite a bit, based on your deck’s win condition and what the board state looks like. Generally speaking, I prefer to set myself up to go for it after the first major board wipe. Not every game sees the likes of Damnation, Vandalblast, or Austere Command; but with four players at the table, the odds are good that your game will. It’s best to plan your mid-game strategy for what the game will look like after that, instead of what the game looks like in the moment. You want to be best positioned to climb out of the rubble and go for the win.

Winning may still take a few more turns, but your efforts to position yourself will only help you achieve that goal. Buckle up, play your cards, and go turn that participation trophy into a gold medal.

Travis is a Connecticut-based player and writer, who has been turning things sideways since Starter 1999. He primarily plays Commander, Pauper, and Modern, and has a passion for introducing new players to the game. When he isn’t attacking with red creatures, he can be found mountain biking or playing the guitar. You can follow his exploits here on Twitter and Instagram.

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