Sometimes I see people talk about how win rates are necessarily lower in Commander/Multiplayer formats than they are in two player formats. Only a quarter of players win a four player game, while half of all players win a two player game.  While it’s definitionally true that half as many people win collectively, I believe the edge available is underestimated such that a particular player can win more above their “expected” rate in multiplayer, compared to two player games.

My claim is pretty simple.  Multiplayer games are far more complex than two player games.  There are always options available.  The more complex a game is, in general, the more room there is for an additional edge to come from better navigating those complexities.

To my mind, you’re almost never out of a multiplayer game.  You don’t need to have answers to whatever you’re losing to as long as the rest of the table does.  As long as you can get everyone ahead of you to keep trading resources long enough, you can recover from almost any position.  In a two player game, if you don’t have it, it’s over.

I think in general, this is likely more true in lower powered formats than in higher powered ones.  At many cEDH tables, there’s not a lot of room to maneuver. When a player goes for an immediate win and no one can stop them on the spot, the game’s over, it doesn’t matter how good you are at playing the table.  When the games are scrappier and involve more combat, and more turns, it’s easier to find edges over time.

A dining room full of nobles has erupted into a brawl. Tables of food are being overturned, people are crawling over each other, and a dinner fork is being used as a stabbing weapon.

Disrupt Decorum by Sidharth Chaturvedi

Do They Have It, Or Do I Need To Do Something?

One of the most compelling elements of multiplayer for me is the game of chicken regarding who’s going to stop the thing which needs to be stopped.  The best answer to any threat is the one someone else casts. Often the best threat is also the one someone else casts, as long as it’s not threatening you.

If there’s a permanent you want killed, and you have the ability to kill it, you want to double check before actually using your card.  Is there someone else who wants it killed also? Is there any chance that if you wait, they’ll do it for you?

It’s incredible to me how eager players often are to use an answer.  If you don’t use an answer and someone else does, not only have you kept your answer, but someone else has lost one of theirs, not to mention the mana involved.  Any removal spell cast on a thing you didn’t cast is incredible for you.  This means patience is the name of the game.

Related, there’s an exciting metagame around what information you should reveal–if you let players know you have an instant speed removal spell, that can dissuade them from attacking you because they don’t want you to kill their creature. But, this also means if someone threatens a creature combo which will kill the table, other players know you can answer it. They can leave it up to you for saving the table.  Sometimes you want other players to have information, sometimes you don’t.  This isn’t the kind of thing you need to dwell on in two player Magic.

Similarly, sometimes you want to represent strength, such as when you have counterspells in your hand but you don’t want to use them. So you suggest a combo player shouldn’t attempt to win because you’ll be able to stop them. Maybe you show them a counter to get them to pass the turn.  Other times you want to represent weakness, such as when another player is deciding who their biggest threats are when they’re going to attack someone or destroy something.  Sometimes, if my hand is really horrible, I’ll simply reveal it.  This both tells other players they shouldn’t treat me as an immediate threat, and also if someone plays something which needs to be answered, I can’t do it.  The risk it can tell other players is the coast is clear, or at least “I’m defenseless.”  Exactly how much information to reveal, and when, is extremely complex.

A male elf sits at a wooden desk, extending a hand out to you, in order to cut a deal. The office has various trinkets in it, such as a scroll with some gold beside it, as well as a painting of a rural, Tuscan-like countryside.

Leovold, Emissary of Trest by Magali Villeneuve

One thing I try to figure out quickly when I’m playing with a new group is what their tolerance for politics is.  Everything I’ve already talked about generally applies to any multiplayer game, but the role of explicit negotiation varies a lot from table to table in my experience.

When I was a kid (in the ‘90s, well before Commander was a thing), my friends and I played a lot of kitchen table multiplayer games. We played with a house rule where all agreements between players were strictly binding (obviously the game rules come first, and agreements only had to be maintained to the best of a player’s ability).  The table had an extremely high tolerance for negotiation, which led to a game with a different political aspect than I’ve seen in any other playgroup.

Things like:

Player A: I’ll Fireball Player C for lethal. 

Player B: I’ll counter that if you give me veto power over every action you take as long as Player A is still alive. 

Player C: That’s too much, how about I won’t target you or your permanents and all of my creatures will attack Player A every turn unless you tell me not to do that–I think it’s still better for you to have me in the game with that agreement. 

Players almost never made an attack or cast an interactive spell without some amount of negotiation first.  Most players, I think, don’t like this kind of game, because it takes quite a bit longer than if everyone plays their cards without talking. But, I enjoy the deep political games.  Still, I never try to subject people to that.

In my current house games, I play with a house rule where all agreements are binding for one turn cycle, and agreements with longer durations shouldn’t be made.  I like being able to negotiate and I hate betrayal as a game mechanic here (I won’t get into the extended rant about the long term game theory implications and social politics involved), but keeping agreements to one turn cycle removes tracking issues and keeps the amount of bargaining power players have somewhat limited.

A merchant stands next to a cart filled with goods, negotiating with guard who is holding a small book in their hand. They appear to be in a disagreement on whether to let the shipment through.

Embargo by Nelson DeCastro

The reason I bring up my history here is to say that I have a lot of experience playing intensely political games, which I think gives me an advantage in moderately political games.  I’ll always look for little spots where I can get some extra value from a deal–opponent casts Dockside Extortionist? Rather than immediately sacrificing a treasure I don’t need, ask another player who also has a treasure if they’ll sacrifice theirs if you sacrifice yours–maybe they wouldn’t sacrifice it to deny one treasure, but if they see it as denying two treasures and killing one of yours, then it might be worth it for them.  Thinking about attacking and only one other player has a creature, but it’s tapped? I’ll almost always suggest we agree not to attack each other before attacking someone else.

You might be thinking, “Ugh, that sounds so annoying to play against, I’d attack you out of spite”–some players at least do think that way.  It’s why I always try to gauge the players’ tolerance for explicit politics early.  I don’t want to play the game in a way which isn’t fun for people. I definitely don’t want to play the game in a way that’s going to draw ire.  If there’s no tolerance for the stuff, I’ll skip it. I’ll still be thinking about the passive politics, such as basic tit-for-tat actions players take and other players’ threat assessment.

The last part is extremely important, especially in mid to low power games–paying attention to what players see as the most threatening card or first target for a removal spell.  If you have  multiple cards you could cast to develop your board, and one of them would become the new top threat, there’s a good chance you want to play the one which wouldn’t die first. It’s a disaster if someone uses a removal spell on your card instead of someone else’s best card, which would potentially clear the way for your best card to survive.  This kind of thing happens in two player Magic–sometimes you play your second best creature because you think your opponent has a removal spell they’ll use on the first creature you play, but the stakes are much higher when it might be another player’s card getting hit instead of yours.

Four politicians stand in a dimly-lit room together, in front of a window. A white middle-aged man with short hair is standing with hand on hip, locked in a handshake with a middle-aged Black woman with greying braids, who is using an extra hand to clasp down in the gesture. The other people are looking on approvingly, but we can only speculate as to what is actually being agreed upon.

Cut a Deal by Jodie Muir

In Commander, you’re usually bottlenecked on mana rather than cards in hand, so you generally want to do something on your turn to avoid falling behind. There’s a very good chance that, unless you’re trying to put yourself in a position to take on the table, you want to play your weakest cards first rather than your strongest cards (unless you’re fairly confident that your strongest cards won’t be removed, either because they’re still not that threatening or you have some reason to believe an answer doesn’t exist).

Another major issue in commander, especially casual commander, is a large portion of players simply aren’t trying to win.  I mean, most people who play are theoretically attempting to win, but it’s often not their real focus.  A large portion of casual players are playing “for fun,” which, in this context, I think generally means their goal is something more relaxing and social. This is in contrast to something more taxing and intellectual–less puzzle, more social game.  I love the social aspect of Magic, but what makes Magic fun for me is trying to win. I’m happy to play low powered decks, but when I’m playing those decks, I’m going to have more fun trying to find any possible path to win the game. Incidentally, I also have more fun if my opponents are also approaching the game this way, but it’s not always something I can control.

Regardless, I feel like I should acknowledge when I talk about how to get political edges in multiplayer games, I should acknowledge this simply isn’t something a large number of players are interested in, and it’s fine. But for me, since I’m going to have the most fun trying to win, it’s valuable to identify the mindset of other players to know what to expect from them at the table.

Remember when you’re playing that multiplayer Commander is an extremely deep, complex game.  “Perfect play” is an idea one can fairly easily imagine in two player Magic, even if it seems pretty unattainable. It’s hard to imagine what it means in a long, heavily political game. Once negotiation comes in, there isn’t really a finite set of possible actions.  Factoring other players reactions to your plays, it’s very hard to identify when a play was correct or incorrect.  If improving at the skill of winning games of Commander matters to you, I’d encourage you to think more about how you can leverage the other players at the table before taking actions as often as possible, because you’re likely missing opportunities.

Sam Black (any) is a former professional Magic player, longtime Magic writer, host of the Drafting Archetypes podcast, and Twitch streamer. Sam is also a Commander Cube enthusiast, and you can find Sam’s cube list here. For anything else, find Sam on Twitter: @SamuelHBlack.

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