Whenever I play Magic, there are three main types of skills I utilize in order to defeat my opponent during the game: A) Psychological Skills, B) Strategic Skills, and C) Technical Skills. I consider all three to be very important, but, of the three, I consider Psychological skills to be both the most relevant and the most fascinating when navigating my way through a game of multiplayer Commander. In today’s article, I’m going to offer my perspectives on why I think these skills are particularly important in Commander, and also offer some suggestions as to how you can adopt some nuance in your play. Ultimately, this should help you to have a more interesting and successful experience at the table.
First, a quick definition of the three skill types.
A) Psychological skills
So what do I mean by ‘Psychological skills’ in the context of games of Magic?
In essence, Psychological skills are used to persuade your opponent to do what you want them to do – or dissuade them from doing something you don’t want them to do.
The deployment of these kind of skills can end up unfolding as more of an art than a science. In addition, they don’t always strictly involve fixed components bound by the rules of the game (i.e. the cards). For example, some of you may have heard of the Pen Trick, which is an age-old example of using a psychological skill.
The opponent is considering how to attack with their creatures. In doing so, they are likely wondering whether I’ll block one way or another or if I have any combat tricks. To help make their decision easier, I pick up my pen as if to readily alter my life total on my lifepad. This body language suggests I’m not going to block and I’m just going to take all the damage. The opponent decides that if this is the case, they may as well attack with all of their creatures to deal the most damage, so they do. I put the pen down and cast Settle the Wreckage.
I wanted them to attack with all their creatures so I could cast Settle the Wreckage for the maximum possible value. It might have been the case that, on a technical front, the only attack worth doing was an attack with all creatures and the ‘pen trick’ made no difference. However it cost nothing and could have been the influencing factor.
N.B. The ‘pen trick’ is pretty much the oldest trick in the book and very well known – this may reduce the chances of the opponent falling for it in your next game of Magic!
B) Strategic skills
This is about having a game-plan, that is, a plan to ultimately win the game. This is largely determined by the components of your deck. For example, does your deck aim to:
- Win quickly by dealing too much damage for the opponent to handle before they can set up.
- Grind the opponent’s resources down to oblivion over time and secure an inevitable win?
- Cast cards A (e.g. Felidar Guardian) and B (e.g. Saheeli Rai) for an instant win.
Sometimes it’s very difficult to fully envisage precisely how a specific game will be won when you know you victory will be a indeterminate number of turns in the future. However, in understanding how your deck is supposed to work, you can break down your strategy based on the various stages of the game. For example:
- In the early turns, I want to get as much mana into play through ‘ramp’ spells and ‘mana rocks.’
- After the mana is set up (let’s say turns five to eight) I want to be playing large creatures and powerful enchantments ahead of curve to enable me to launch devastating attacks on my opponent.
- Now it’s time to stomp all over the opponent in combat where I will most likely have the advantage through bigger creatures and more powerful enchantments. If that doesn’t succeed, in the late-game I have ways to return my permanents from my graveyard to try and set up additional waves of attack.
C) Technical skills
This embodies the skills you apply to two things:
- The execution of any part of your overall strategy.
- Responding appropriately to your opponent’s execution of their overall strategy.
Here is a non-exhaustive list of the kinds of things I would consider technical skills.
- Optimally sequencing spells…
- …and lands.
- Remembering to use activated abilities.
- Remembering all triggers.
- Targeting the right things with spells and abilities…
- …and stacking triggers in the right order if you have multiple.
- Knowing the possible outcomes of your opponent’s resolved effects…
- …and choosing the optimal response where possible.
The finer details of these could make up another article altogether. I know I’ve been brief here, but the aim of these mini-sections is more to establish why I see each one very differently.
Skills by format
Technical and Strategic skills are much more important (at least to me) when I play competitive Magic, or indeed in any 1 vs.1 situation. They front the first 95% of what I will use to try and win a match. In tough spots, I may be able to get an edge by using psychological skills to my advantage, but it’s much more important to ensure I implement my plan and do this optimally on a technical front.
In Constructed, you get a bit of a leg-up with the strategic skills as there are a number of decks that are built in a way which allows the primary strategy of the deck to almost ‘play itself,’ assuming you are well-versed in good technical play.
Limited more often requires the use of strategic skills to support technical play as it’s unlikely (but possible) that you’ve been able to build a deck with a level of power and consistency that facilitates the deck ‘playing itself.’
In Commander, I make use of psychological skills so much more than the other formats, and now it’s time to explore why.
Mind games in Commander
Mind over Matter
I’m going to push my premise even further. For a rewarding experience at the table, the effective use of psychological skills can sometimes be more important than what cards you even put in your deck! This is because I’m a believer in the fact that ‘politics’ is the strongest factor influencing the events which occur during a game of Commander. The choices of the players in what spell to play, who to attack, what to target with spells, when to wipe the board, etc. can go in a number of directions which favour you (i.e. your current position in the game and/or your overall plan) or not. Assuming a four player game, the opponents will (on average) be making many more choices than you, so it’s safe to assume that, by default, you will come off worse as a result of your opponent’s choices (especially given that you are an opponent of each of them). Player choices (in games involving multiple opponents) are so powerful that they can undermine the tightest of technical play, the strongest of Magic cards, and even the most watertight game-plan. Therefore it’s important for you and your game-plan that, where possible, you try and keep the outcomes of your opponent’s choices as favourable as possible.
Factors influencing player choices
In this section, I’ve picked out five distinct things that are most likely to influence the choices of your opponents. These are in no particular order – I find each to have its own merits.
1. Who is the threat?
Let’s start with a classic. One of the more obvious factors which influence players’ choices (i.e. who players attack or target with effects) is threat assessment. If one player is deemed to be further ahead than the others, plays are normally made in the name of neutralising (or crushing) the threatening player.
The less threatening you look, the less likely your opponents will be to make choices with any real negative consequences for you. This isn’t guaranteed – players can still either incorrectly assess you as a threat or ‘see through your disguise.’ Therefore, I believe that ‘being defenceless’ and ‘not looking threatening’ need to be seen as separate things.
This is my biggest reason for not playing the card Sol Ring. Sol Ring gives you the fastest mana possible, and while it allows you to set up the most threatening board the quickest, this isn’t usually a good thing. It’s true that you can choose to hold back on playing spells, but if you do that, you may as well have not played that 1 mana Ur-Golem’s Eye in the first place! As an addendum to this, you’ll still potentially look threatening to some players simply by having access to 2 mana more than them in the early game.
2. …because I can/might as well… (splash damage)
This is about being an unfortunate victim when players are trying to get value out of their cards. You might not be the threat or the primary target, but sometimes you just get caught in the crossfire. For example, consider the following scenario:
Player A has Aura Shards in play and decides that a great way of getting rid of some troublesome enchantments that Player B controls would be to cast Cloudgoat Ranger. The giant summons three more Kithkin and all three of Player B’s enchantments are destroyed with Aura Shards triggers. There’s a spare trigger for Aura Shards to target and you are the only one with an artifact or enchantment. As non-threatening as your Journeyer’s Kite is, it bites the dust in the name of ‘maximizng value.’
Sometimes, upon drawing a card at the beginning of the turn a player might ask ‘are there any creatures/artifacts/enchantments in play?’ This may indicate an intention to play a removal spell for the appropriate permanent type. Whether casting this spell positively benefits anyone, as opposed to simply depriving you of your permanent, may or may not be relevant. Sometimes players just cast spells because they can.
The moral of the story is not to ‘never play permanents’ but sometimes you might want to consider limiting possible splash damage to you. For example, I’ve really taken to playing a number of the cards from Ixalan that transform into lands (e.g. Treasure Map and Thaumatic Compass), or permanents with ‘enters the battlefield’ triggers that get their value immediately so that by they get caught in the crossfire, it’s less devastating to your game-plan.
‘You destroyed my stuff earlier, so I’m going to destroy yours now!’
‘You attacked me earlier, so I’m going to attack you now!’
Players enacting ‘an eye for an eye’ is not uncommon in Commander multiplayer games. Sometimes there’s strategy behind it, but at other times it can be a purely emotive response.
It’s true that if you never remove your opponents’ stuff, counter their spells, attack them, etc. then this significantly removes them from having good grounds for making a Revenge play on you. However, that’s a bit extreme. Commander is fun and interesting when it’s interactive, and simply not interacting because you don’t want to be the victim of Revenge is like never going outside because you might get struck by lightning! The way I tend to focus on minimising Revenge plays against me is by not making attacks that aren’t impactful, even though they might seem like ‘free damage’. In the early turns of the game, I actually attack very little, unless one of my opponents control Planeswalkers. In the same vein, I’m usually quite tolerant of individual permanents that appear on the battlefield, saving cards like Return to Dust or Ravenous Chupacabra for when they are needed most, rather than for ‘marginal gain’. This way, there’s an increased chance that the opponent might stop and empathise with the fact that, in fairness, you probably needed to remove their permanent otherwise they might have won the game, and you weren’t just ‘picking on them.’ Then again, stopping someone winning the game might be offence enough anyway, so you can probably never win with some opponents. All you can do is try and give the opponent as little incentive for ‘Revenge’ as possible.
Now onto some more positive influencing factors.
Picture the following scenario:
Player A has the game at their mercy having just kicked a Jossu Vess, Lich Knight while Cathar’s Crusade is under their control. On their next turn – everyone else will be wiped out. Player B draws a card and slumps in their chair and passes to player C. Player C tries to at least go down fighting and launches an aerial assault on Player A, but it’s nowhere near enough to take him out. They then turn to you (Player D) asking if you have a board-wipe.
‘I got this!’ you reassure them confidently as you look at the All is Dust in your hand. During your turn Josu Vess and the zombie horde on a crusade turns to dust and you have saved the day!
The point of the heroics is not all about being able to tell ‘good beats’ stories like this (although some would say it’s quite fun). With any luck, players B and C have realised that there is apparently some positive value to keeping you in the game. Even player A may value your assistance at a later point in the game if they’re not too blinded by rage and out for Revenge.
Just remember that altruistically saving your opponents from certain death may come back to bite you later on, as they could survive to betray you. However, there is a real potential benefit to showing the other players that you can contribute to the game in a way that benefits them at times. This pays bigger dividends if you play regularly within the same playgroup. It’s possible that, over time, you make a name for yourself as someone who might help avert a crisis that, on balance, the table wants to avoid.
This is perhaps a finer point of gameplay psychology, and it may be difficult to measure when it’s paying off. For example, some players may still fail to see how some of your contributions to the game can possibly be of benefit to them and always betray you, ending with your defeat every time you save them.
Be very careful not to get to the stage where you start expecting that your opponents will reward your heroic efforts. Saving the table from certain death and expecting that nobody will attack you or make plays detrimental to your plan is unrealistic, and complaining about it with any degree of seriousness when it happens likely undermines your heroic efforts and outs you as more of a mercenary (in terms of social currency at least).
While tournament play is mostly about simply winning, Commander is a much more casual format. This means that there’s a lot more scope for appreciating moments where players are simply doing ‘cool things’ or making plays that make all the players at the table laugh in amusement.
I’m not advocating that going out of your way to captivate your opponents with plays that are made for entertainment reasons will lead to people treating you favourably in every game. What people consider ‘cool’ or ‘funny’ is a matter of taste after all! However, if you’re known for making cool stuff happen and making games interesting, there’s potentially an increased chance that players (who know and appreciate this) won’t wipe you out straight away. I would see this as the antithesis to being known as a savage spike who tries to destroy all opponents as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Card choices do matter, but the ceiling on how you can potentially influence the decisions of other players is much higher than the power level of any cards. My own estimation is that the first three influencing factors are slightly easier to capitalise on because they follow slightly more sound logic than the last two, which are entirely reliant turbulence of the tastes of your opponent! As I’ve hopefully made clear through the influencing factors above, Commander is a very social, expressive, and sometimes emotive format. Just remember that upping your psychological game shouldn’t come at the expense of your technical and strategic play, it just makes sense for it to compliment them more readily in this format.
I’m not actually a psychologist or formally qualified in any kind of human behavioural studies, but the social and psychological elements at play are what keep me coming back to the table to play Commander. I hope to have provoked some food for thought in sharing my observations on what I think plays a major part in Commander games.
Next week I have another Commander article planned focusing on implementing some of the ideas that Kristen Gregory has been suggesting in her weekly column. Although it has the word ‘Budget’ in it, I think some of the ideas are still things I would try regardless of the cash value of the deck I’m putting together. If anything, I may be able to demonstrate how they can still be great inclusions in any deck, and provide some reasons to play them even if you’re not on a budget. I’ll also have a few new Commander decks to show you next week!
With just over a week to go in the competitive season for MTGArena I’ll need to pull up my socks and get back to grinding if I’m going to get to Mythic (currently Platinum Tier 1 at the time of writing – I’m one of those weird people who quite enjoyed the switch into Rivals of Ixalan draft… he says having lost repeatedly to multiple opponents with Tetzimoc, Primal Death). I also won a Standard paper tournament the other week playing white cards so maybe I’ll provide some more in-depth analysis of that deck, it’s matchups, and why I do or don’t recommend it going forward before War of the Spark starts to take over!
You can find me on Facebook and Twitter @Chris54154, feel free to hit me up with any of your thoughts! I’ll also be at Magic Fest London in April, and some other large competitive events like Axion Now’s Mega Modern and Legacy Masters throughout the year in the UK.
As always, thanks for reading, good luck, and have fun in your next game of Commander!