I’ve been meaning to do an article on threat assessment in casual multiplayer ever since I saw someone that only rolled dice to attack, regardless of anything else happening during the game. If you rolling dice for attacking and are not playing Ruhan of the Famori or rolling dice for targeting and are not playing Grip of Chaos, please, please stop. Just because we are playing casually does not mean threat assessment isn’t a requisite skill for everyone to learn. Good threat assessment makes for better and more fun games for the players who aren’t the threat. Bad threat assessment often leads to the player who least deserves winning winning because no one targeted or attacked them when they should have, and everyone else having something less than a good time. So even if you are a casual player, don’t think that threat assessment isn’t something you need to think about in games. Give this a read. And if you know players who don’t consider it as often as they should, consider gently letting them know some of the points I’ll illustrate below on how proper threat assessment can actually make their games more fun for almost everyone involved.
I know a lot of players feel strongly against threat assessment in casual multiplayer - that it’s not needed, that even if it is you shouldn’t fault players for their poor threat assessment or complete lack of it (i.e., they use a random method to make their decisions even when not running the aforementioned Ruhan or Grip of Chaos), that you should only focus on your own play and not everyone else’s. These are all valid points, and certainly there s a thin line between trying to teach players correct threat assessment and talking down to them or between explaining to players the negative results of their poor or no threat assessment and yelling at them in your frustration. I’ve seen and done mostly the latter of those, unfortunately. But even though players who care about threat assessment and try to be good at it are often poor at talking to everyone else without being rude, it doesn’t change the fact that it is pretty important to learn it. As I hope my explanations and examples will illustrate, poor or lack of threat assessment can lead to unfun games for yourself and the other players who didn’t win because of your actions. Of course, the player who wins because of that threat assessment won’t mind at all.
Consider this: In the first group I ever played with, we rarely played with more than 5 players. Of those 5, 3 of us were relatively new to the game (my fiance had played once, I think, but was still new to it). Thus clearly the other two players are obvious contenders for threats. Of the three newer players, I was catching on to the game the most, so occasionally I was a valid threat as well. Occasionally the games involved players picking one or both of the experienced players as the main threat(s) and attacking them, but often this would happen even when they weren’t the threat. The biggest issue was that threat assessment is tied up in politics, and part of politics are relationships. We were all friends, but one of the players was my fiance, and two of the other players were in a relationship. Those two players would often seem to never attack each other, regardless of if the other was the main threat, until everyone else was out of the game. This was particularly annoying for myself and my fiance, because she would tend to get targeted and attacked by one or both of those other two because she had the weakest board position out of the people that weren’t their significant other. And often what would happen is that one of those two would win, and my fiance and I would sit by wondering why the other seemed to have teamed up with them the whole time instead of using threat assessment and actually attacking the person who was obviously going to win. I guess they were okay with second place as long as it was their significant other who won.
My point is this: I don’t know about Player #5, but this sort of action made the game much less fun for myself and my fiance. Their bad threat assessment was the culprit here; they occasionally refused to consider their significant other as a potential threat, even when that player was a shoe-in to win and they’d be setting themselves up for second place at best if they did anything but rally other players against them.
Since I started playing Commander, I’ve noticed a really dumb play mistake I often make in games: I ignore the player with a poor board position and don’t pay attention to their hand, mana drops, and discards. A person’s board position may be poor because they got mana screwed, and in that case they will be discarding a lot and probably be very upset. A person who is not upset and is making most of their land drops is probably a combo player trying to look like anything but the threat until they have the mana in play and combo pieces in hand to combo off all at once, without giving players a chance for sorcery-speed disruption of that combo unless they were proactively targeting them. This was extremely poor threat assessment on my part, but the sad thing is is that myself and other players continue to do this even as 2 of the 4ish combo players continue to win from these mistakes. And each time everyone gets pissed that the person is playing combo, and the combo player doesn’t care because they care more about winning than about helping everyone else have fun.
Well, you know what, everyone else? If you knew they were playing a combo deck, why didn’t you do something about it?
The point of this post isn’t to hate on combo players, but to remind players to actively attempt to make the correct threat assessments, and that by not doing so you could be passively helping the game be less fun for yourself and others. I hate losing to the type of combo players that admit they prefer the game when their opponents can’t do anything and treat Commander like it’s a Starcity Games Legacy tournament (and 2-3 of the combo players where I play are like this), so I certainly don’t like the games where they might not have won if I hadn’t ignored them all game.
Consider this example: Earlier this year I played a game where there was clearly one of two threats. Threat 1 had a huge board position with some good enchantments and huge creatures (he was running Mayael, I believe, but it could have been Horde of Notions). Threat 2 was running Vorosh just for the colors, but that wasn’t clear yet; Threat 2 was scary because he had Sorin Markov out, but players ignored him because he had only 5-7 life left and they didn’t want to take him out of the game. We all let Sorin stick long enough for him to use the second ability on me so that Threat 1 could kill me with creatures. The thing is, Threat 1 continued to ignore Sorin after that, perhaps feeling in Threat 2’s debt. Eventually Threat 2 was able to use Sorin’s second ability again, this time on Threat 1 to take them out of the game and would go on to win that game. In this game, Threat 1 had a sweet board position and deserved to win that game. But our poor threat assessment with the clearly dangerous planeswalker in play helped Threat 2 become stronger. The worse part isn’t just my poor threat assessment that cost me the game - and clearly made that less fun for me, as I was the first or second player taken out - but the real disappointing threat assessment came afterward when everyone allowed Sorin to stay in the game and its controller to win out of nowhere. Certainly Threat 1 found that end to the game disappointing.
Poor or no threat assessment can also be very akin to Kingmaking - the act of teaming up with a player in a dominant or close-to-dominant board position to help them win a game, usually performed by players who feel they have no chance of winning themselves and wish to feel like winners vicariously through the player they helped win. Poor or no threat assessment could mean that a player in a strong position to win is not getting their proper share of being targeted and attacked. If a player likes to roll dice to determine who to attack, I’m going to be more aggressive in my plays because there’s a huge chance I won’t get attacked into. And if I’m the threat or one of the threats, you’re helping me by making my decision whether to attack a much easier one.
If your poor threat assessment means you don’t consider how often players draw cards, you’re helping the combo players find time for their combo. If you don’t attack the player with blockers, you’re helping him set up a large attack force. If you don’t attack the player with the highest life total, you’re letting them keep the cushion that could make it too hard to take them out of the game when you want to later on. If you don’t attack the player with planeswalkers, you’re letting them stay in play to use their -X abilities and potentially crush someone or everyone. When you choose not to use threat assessment or knowingly make a poor threat assessment (say, by deciding you’re too lazy to think hard even when you know correct threat assessment), you very well could be helping another player win. While someone always have to win, doing this can often make the player who least deserves it win. Like the jerk, or the player who didn’t really do anything the whole game and randomly comes out and wins at the end (surely a good strategy, but doesn’t make for a fun Magic companion).
So let’s talk about die rolling. Why is this so bad, even in casual play? It’s because there almost always is a correct move as to who to attack, if you even should attack. I may not know the correct move, because I don’t know what your deck can do and what each player other than me can do, but I do know leaving that choice up to a die roll is not a good way to decide who to attack, or who to make discard a card with Liliana Vess’ ability. I don’t care if you decide to attack someone so you can get through damage for a combat trigger, or attack planeswalkers, or attack the player running a specific color combination, or attack the guy who always runs a strategy you don’t like. Even if this turns out to be the wrong play, at least you’re thinking about it. Magic: The Gathering is about thinking after all, hence the vocabulary and math skills you’re working on, and for some of us, debate and influencing skills as well. If you really don’t want to have to make decisions, then MtG is not the game for you.
I’ve read someone say they roll the dice because they know threat assessment, and everyone is equal at that point. Unless everyone has played only basic lands and no other permanents at that point in the game, there really isn’t a basis for this argument even for players new to the group. For players who are veterans to the group, even when you’re the only one with permanents for some reason, you can probably find some legitimate reason someone is the better target, such as playing arguably the best deck or arguably being the best player or just having the commander you dislike the most. Even these subjective reasons are much better than just rolling dice.
I’ve also read on the mtgcommander.net forums that threat assessment is a signal to other players as to who your greatest threat is. This is only true if you tell them why you chose that player to attack or target. My biggest argument against this is that sometimes your biggest threat is someone else’s too, and the other player’s knowing they have an ally against a shared threat can encourage them to act as well, where otherwise they may not have had the courage to make a move against that threat. Sometimes that threat is legitimately the correct highest threat in the game, but you’re the only one who understand this, and pointing this out can inform the other players. And if there really is a player with a deck or permanent(s) that is clearly threatening to you, are you really better off attacking randomly, possibly attacking someone else and inadvertently helping the threat, rather than just not attacking (or, you know, attacking the threat)? I think too often players feel that they need to attack. In the same forum I read this great quote: “If I have to roll a dice to decide who needs an attack [or otherwise targeted], then no-one realistically does [need to be attacked or targeted] at the moment” (DJ Catchem).
If you think rolling the dice saves you from players getting mad, then you’re just using another poor excuse. Most players who don’t feel they deserve to get attacked aren’t going to dislike you any less just because they randomly got selected. Especially if they randomly get selected multiple times in a row. Go ahead and say “but it wasn’t my fault, it was the die roll!” Again, unless you’re running Ruhan of the Famori and/or there’s a Grip of Chaos in play, nothing tells you that you have to choose randomly, so if you pick up a dice to roll for your target / defending player, you’re choosing to roll a dice. You are a human being who has made a choice. The player who feels unfairly attacked or targeted is justified, because you just as easily could have thought about it. And “you had the highest life, so I attacked you to lower it,” “you had the largest hand size, so you’d have more options as what to discard / have a scarier hand going on and needed to lose a (some) card(s),” etc. are all valid arguments. “The dice told me to” is not one.
I will also see players rule out people when it comes to the die roll. Say, for attacking someone, because that player has a blocker, a No Mercy effect, or low life. If you’re pointing to the other 3 players and telling them you’re randomly deciding between attacking those 3 but not the 4th person, you might have a valid excuse for doing so, but you’re already thinking a little bit with your decision, so why not just go 100% and really think about it? Once you start not doing it completely randomly you don’t really have an excuse not to use proper threat assessment.
Earlier I mentioned a ton of things to consider when deciding threats. I said you could be an incidental Kingmaker if you didn’t consider some of these things. I don’t expect everyone to be perfect at threat assessment, as I’m often terrible at it. But I do expect everyone to try. To wrap this really, really long post up, I would like to provide a list of things to consider when assessing threats. These include my own thoughts as well as thoughts from outside sources (two episodes of Commandercast and an mtgcommander.net forum thread). They emphasize how personal threat assessment really is - each player will have different things they prioritize - as well as how conditional it is - it depends on what your deck can do as well as what the other players and their decks can do, in addition to hand size, cards in graveyard, and permanents in play. But just because it’s specific to the person doesn’t mean you don’t owe it to yourself - and those you play with - to consider this list and how you would prioritize it yourself. When it says player(s) or deck(s), note that I mean attacking that/those player(s) / owner(s) of that/those deck(s) or targeting that/those player(s) / owner(s) of that/those deck(s) or permanent(s) they control.
- Players that can destroy your chance of winning (e.g., the counterspell player if you’re combo, the Iona if they selected a color that stops you from casting most of your cards)
- Decks your deck can’t defeat in a long game (e.g., aggro decks against ramp)
- Players running power cards (e.g., Mind Over Matter, Mindslaver)
- Players running powerful generals (e.g., Zur, Uril, Sharuum, Sisay, Jhoira, Niv-Mizzet)
- Players running powerful tribes (e.g., Slivers, Elves)
- Infinite combo decks
- Prison lock decks
- Players who are really good at the game (some signs of this are: players with a lot of decks, players with intense knowledge of cards and the game’s rules, players that tutor a lot, players that draw a ton of cards, players that use library manipulation like Ponder, players that do a ton of things on their turn, players that do a ton of things on other peoples’ turns, players who keep looking through their graveyard)
- Players who run specific color combinations (most players name “Blue” as their most hated color, but a token deck but really hate the White player)
- Players with huge board positions (permanents in play)
- Players with little board position but a ton of mana and cards in hand (this is a format of Rite of Replication, Insurrection, Tooth and Nail, Exsanguinate, Storm Herd, etc., after all)
- Players who haven’t attacked in a while (similar to the previous one, they may be setting something up in their hand or in play and trying not to draw attention)
- Players who are just socially annoying
- Players who damage your chance of having fun in other ways
- Player most likely to take you out of the dominant position
- Player with the most life
- Player with the least life
- Artifact decks
- Enchantment decks
- Graveyard recursion decks
- Ramp decks
- Players who win the most in previous games
- The player who attacks / destroys your stuff first
- Players who run mass land destruction
Feel free to suggest some more!