We’ve all been there before: you get to your local game store on Commander night and scour the room for people to join. Eventually, you realize that only two people are free at that moment, so that means a three-player game is on the agenda. In the vast landscape of Commander content out there, strategy and tactics are generally laid out in the four-player lens. However, three-player games can be a totally different animal. Today, we’ll get into what makes these games different from the usual four-player structure, and how to handle those differences in gameplay.

I’ll admit, though I prefer four-player games, three-player games have somewhat of a soft spot in my heart. I grew up playing Magic with my two older brothers, and our format was three-player free-for-all with 20 life each. We played our terribly-built decks that were essentially the best cards we had of a given color. Thundering Giant crashed into Simian Grunts, while Terminate never could get rid of Weatherseed Treefolk for good. An Inquest Gamer magazine would be somewhere in the bedroom, with an ad for Invasion that was coming out later that summer. Tactics were simpler then; but when you get down to it, they weren’t far off from what we do now in three-player games of Commander.

Going down to three players means quite a lot. Most of what we know about political gameplay gets thrown out the window, because there is one less player to make deals with, or one less player to have the answer for a problematic card. You have to be careful in the beginning, because if you burn a bridge too early, then you only have one other player to turn to when the going gets rough.

In my article about playing in second place, I argued that being in second place gives a player the best chance to win as the game develops. However, in three-player games, aggression is rewarded much more. With one less opponent to cut you back down to size, a player can develop their board state faster and take a wider lead if left unchecked. It’s on the other two players to manage the leader, while simultaneously watching each other to see who comes out on top after that. That split focus can help the person who is in the lead, since the other two will be partially distracted.

The roles of first, second, and third place will be clearly defined in a three-player game, more than four-way games. When it’s only three players, the lower two will spend their time clamoring over each other to get on top. However, in four-player games, you’re more likely to see some more careful, tactical moves around places second through fourth. Those are moves to position themselves for what the game state will look like when the player in first gets trimmed down. With three-player games, it’s much more of an all-out slugfest.

When we’re talking combat, a three-player game has a combined starting life total of 120, instead of 160. That’s a lot less ground to cover, and so your game will likely end quicker. Additionally, your chip damage means just that much more. Less life means less time, and so your decisions will hold much more weight.

In three-player games, there are certain cards that will have a completely different feel than when they’re played with four players. Fans of Conspiracy will know that the Will of the Council cards can sometimes lead to tied voting. However, in three-player games, voting is much more streamlined. If you’re in the lead when casting one of these cards, you can count on the vote always going against you. Custodi Squire and Magister of Worth will act like Pokemon that are too high of a level for you to command, in spite of what your older brother told you when trading them. Council’s Judgment will exile either one or three permanents, but never two. If someone casts a spell with the Tempting Offer mechanic, like Tempt with Discovery, then they’re going to get less of a payoff if the table succumbs to that temptation. Mechanics like Melee, Undaunted, and Myriad also experience a drop in power for three-player games.

However, Goad gets a lot better, since the goaded player is forced to attack your only other opponent. That kind of control is a good thing, since you’re essentially holding the puppet strings on the battlefield. Marisi, Breaker of the Coil can really shine here, since you’re guaranteeing that the receiving opponent will swing out at the other, instead of launching a counterattack on you. That power itself could easily warp a three-player game.

So you’re in a three-player game, now what? A fair amount of your strategy will depend on what deck you bring to the table. You’ll find that the creature-based aggro decks get a boost, because it’s just that much easier to take out all of your opponents. Slower, more lumbering decks are challenged, because they have less time to stabilize.

Chances are, when you sit down for a three-player game, it’s not with a deck that is optimized for three-player. It pays to think about how you can speed up the early turns, since the gaps between players can and will get exacerbated in the shorter time frame. But let’s face it, the game might be over in a flash if someone has a fast mana start with things like Mana Crypt and Chrome Mox. With the shortened run time, you’re looking at making one, maybe two deals throughout the course of the game. That means you can play politics for a bit, but you have to be ready for when the gloves come off.

If you’re thinking about making a risky play, just go for it. Like we covered earlier, your odds are better that your risky play sticks, since there is one less player that might have an answer. This habit takes some getting used to, though, since four-player games favor a more calculated, cautious approach. Engaging in a three-player game is definitely an exercise in “risk it for the biscuit.” But that can be a positive thing as well, since it might make you more likely to mix things up in a regular four-player game. And who knows, by the time one player wins, maybe you have a fourth that can join you.

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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