There are three elements to the play of any game of Magic: Strategic, Tactical, and Social. They exist in different proportions based on the event that you’re attending, and the format you’re playing. I’d like to talk about the differences between them in competitive events versus EDH events.
To emotionally prepare for this article, I listened to the album “Troublegum” by the Welsh group Therapy? If you like angry, thrashy goodness, listen to Therapy? I then brought myself back around by listening to the 10,000 Maniacs cut “Verdi Cries” from “In My Tribe.” It has a great soothing effect.
Simply put, Strategy is the plan. It’s choosing a deck to play and then building it. Or choosing your deck by what you build (which is more likely to happen in EDH than it is in Standard).
When it comes to competitive play, it’s deciding whether you’re going to play an existing deck/archetype or go rogue. If you’re playing an existing deck, you have to decide which version you’re playing, or if you’re going to tweak it a bit. For example, I’ve piloted Marijn Lybaert Worlds Jund deck into the Top 8 the last two Friday nights (not as easy as it soundsâ€”FNM at Armada Games draws a number of really good players; Top 8 is never a given). This past week, I took out the Putrid Leech altogether and went with the Borderland Rangers instead, since they seemed a little better in the environment. They were good, but I think that I like the idea of Gatekeeper of Malakir in the deck as well. It changes the dynamic of when you Cascade (like never tapping out to do so), but also makes things a little more aggressive, which I like.
With EDH, your strategic choices are legion. You still have a local environment, but you likely also play with a broader group sometimes as well. Obviously, the things you’re likely to see are culled from a wider card pool than in most other Constructed formats, and you have to consider the types of decks you’re going to face (plus considerations like if you’re going to play with Planechase). You’re also going to have to consider the type of environment you’re in (cutthroat or casual)â€”although that may come down more on the society side than strategy.
There are two major considerations in EDH (as well as other multiplayer games). First, you’re going to be facing more than one opponent at a time. Second, you’re not going to be facing any single opponent alone (obviously until there are only the two of you left in the game). This means you need a radically different strategic plan than you do in 1-on-1 games. I know there is some 1v1 EDH, but for the purposes of this discussion, I’m only talking about the format as intended.
Facing more than one opponent at a time means that you’re likely going to be looking down the barrel of a higher ratio of threats than you would in 1v1. In a 1v1 game, if you have one creature and your opponent has two, the ratio is 1 to 2â€”you’re behind, but not terribly so. In a five-player game where each of your opponents has two creatures to your one, the ratio is 1 to 8, far worse for you, so you have to plan for it.
Additionally, two, three, or four other players are going to get turns before you do. If you expend your resources on the third player’s turn, you’re not going to have them around for the fourth and fifth’s. This can leave you hurting. This is also why mass destruction is at a great premium in EDH games, especially as an Instant, like with cycling Decree of Pain or paying the extra mana for Rout.
This also makes Seedborn Muse so powerful. In fact, it’s more powerful the greater number of players in the game, since it basically grants you a turn for each of them (although it’s minus the attack step). If you can do everything as an Instant, such as with the very powerful Vedalken Orrery, even better.
The flip side is that you’ll have more help dealing with those threats. It’s not a good idea to completely cede control or responsibility to other players for whatever nastiness shows up on the battlefield, but you have to go in realizing that you can’t do it all yourself. If the folks you play with demonstrate that they’re likely to be packing lots of specific removal or board sweepers, then you can think about narrowing what you carry. I’ve noticed that in my local group, everyone playing Black is playing Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth. It’s led me to drop it from all my decks except those that really, really need it, and dedicate the slot to something else. It’s also led me to at least consider playing Karma in some of my White decks that have a fair amount of life gain in them.
Of course, if you see that others aren’t helping with specific kinds of threat removal, then it gives you a leg up. For example, if the only enchantment removal they’re playing is Disk effects, then it tells you two things. First, you can afford to invest more in the enchantments that you want (although you obviously have to be careful since you’ll lose them all in one shot). Second, if there are enchantments that will really wreck you, you’ll have to make sure that you have your Disenchants handy.
You also have to factor in the higher life total and the recursive nature of the General. The higher life total is going to allow you more time (most of the time) to ramp up, set up, or get moving. It provides the same for your opponents. Hasty Generals like Razia can be especially difficult to handle.
If Strategy is the plan, then Tactics is the implementation. It’s how you play the deck, which is rarely as straightforward as it sounds.
In normal competitive formats, you have a certain amount of redundancy built in. Your construction is designed so that the deck plays nearly the same way every time. In fact, you want this consistency from your deck.
In EDH, unless you’re overloaded with Tutors, this isn’t going to happen. Additionally, the greater number of other players is going to add more unknown factors to the equation. Unless your strategy has been set up so that you’re the only one playing (something that we’ll handle in Social), then your ability to respond to the game that you’re currently in is at a greater premium than it would be 1v1.
Strategically you need to have given yourself weapons to deal with threats. Tactically, you’re going to need to know the right time and place to use those weapons. Do you Disenchant an opponent’s artifact that is his only source of Red mana so that he can’t play Vicious Shadows (at this point an indirect threat)? Or do you assume that he’s going to get Red some other way anyway, and hold back the Disenchant for the more direct threat of the VShad itself? The board situation is the major determinant here. If your hand is nearly empty, you might not care about Vicious Shadows at all (but be careful with thatâ€”the first time I saw the card, I shrugged because while there were many creatures on the board, I was empty. It was less amusing when Toby played Wheel of Fortune). If your life total is high enough, or you can kill the player controlling the Vicious Shadows, then you might not care.
Sometimes in 1v1, you can keep an opponent off of what he wants to do by some kind of resource denial (like keeping him to only one Red mana when you know he wants to cast Wildfire). This is far more difficult to do in EDH (unless you’re playing some complete lock, like infinite mana and Capsize), since you have to keep multiple people off multiple things. Your decision on what to deny has to be more laser-focused. You have to consider what is going to hurt you in the near future or what is hurting you currently. If all your dudes have toughness of 5+ or are indestructible, the only part of Wildfire you have to be worried about is the land destruction.
Deciding who to attack and with how much is probably the most important of tactical decisions, although it also has a Social element. Obviously, if you can kill someone, it’s an easy decision. You simply have to decide whether or not getting the kill is worth opening yourself up or giving up any protections the player in question has or might give you.
The difficult part is in assessing the value of the damage that you’re going to do. It’s clear that if you’re doing damage with Shadowmage Infiltrator or Ink-Eyes, it’s worth it, but vanilla damage, the simple lowering of an opponent’s life total, needs far more consideration. If all you’re doing is giving one of the other players a ripe opportunity to kill the player, then it’s probably not worth it, unless the player is otherwise a huge threat. Certainly it’s tactically sound to team up to kill the guy who is about to combo off or blow up the world. If attacking is part of a protracted plan to keep everyone’s life totals low, then head right into the Red Zone. Keeping your opponents always looking over their shoulder and on the defensive is a viable strategy, although as we’ll discuss in the Social portion, may have its downsides.
The social aspect of the game is where the differences between EDH and 1v1 play are the greatest, and the part of EDH play that I feel most players have the greatest misunderstanding, since they assume that there isn’t a difference between the two. Other than simple courtesy and sportsmanship, there isn’t much in the social end of 1v1 play. You shake hands, avoid being an ass, and play to win. Win fast, win slow, win early, win late, combo out, or creature beatdown, it doesn’t matter. Beating someone 1v1 carries no baggage, regardless of how you do it (assuming you aren’t cheating). It doesn’t matter if you have fun or not, and it doesn’t matter if your opponent does.
In EDH, what and how you play has a huge impact. I’m not going to go too far down the road of the Social Contract we talked about a few weeks back, but I do want to make passing mention. There are legal degenerate combos to play, and you’re well within your rights to play them. I just think it’s unreasonable to expect that there’s no social price to pay.
A major point here is that in 1v1, you’re always playing alone. By definition, you can’t ever have an ally. That’s not true in EDH. What and how you played yesterday will have a significant impact on how your alliances are formed today.
In this casual/social format, where winning may be defined radically differently than it is in 1v1, your Strategic and Tactical choices are much more influenced by the Social aspect. Sure, you can build a Rofellos deck that combos out everyone on Turn 4 pretty reliably. The question is… should you? You might win the game, but what are you risking losing?
I’ll give you an example from real life, although a different game. My ex-wife and I hadn’t been married more than a year when we were playing Risk for the first time together. We both got half of Australia, and agreed to a non-aggression pact. When it was strategically advantageous, I without discussion broke the alliance, swept through Australia and Asia, and won the game. To her credit, she didn’t carry that into the marriage (we got along famously for 15 years), but she held the grudge. Whenever we played a multiplayer game of any kind, I was always her target. She would frequently either attack me or try to convince others to do so, and would bring up my Risk betrayal when she did. Worse yet for me was she would always be suspicious of me when I tried to make a deal, like in Settlers of Catan. My one-shot victory cost me a lot more in the long run.
In social formats, no one is forced to play with you. Demonstrate that you’re unwilling to cooperate with your group’s social contract, and odds are you won’t get invited back. It doesn’t matter whether part of that contract is “don’t build turn 3 combo decks” or “don’t call people names when you attack them.” If you set yourself up in an adversarial fashion, you will get treated as an adversary. This doesn’t matter in 1v1, where the first rung of your relationship ladder with the other players is “adversary.” They have to deal with it or get over it. In multiplayer environments, there’s more than one way to deal with it. One way is simple exclusion. The other way is to make you the target every time you sit down. Neither of these is pleasant.
One of your strategic choicesâ€”your Generalâ€”is immediately obvious to everyone at the table. Think about how this choice impacts the society of any particular game. Players make assumptions based on everyone’s General. Think about what would go through your mind if you didn’t know the three players you were sitting down with and the Generals were Rofellos, Sharuum, and Tolsimir. It would definitely impact your tactical implementation of the strategic plan.
How the social aspect of the game impacts the tactical is even more significant. I talk above about how you’re always facing more than one opponent, but you’re never doing it alone. Being more sensitive to the social interactions can assure that you get more external support, and I’m talking about more than just uniting to fight a common threat. It might be as simple as saving someone else’s creature from destruction or countering a spell that will actually hurt everyone else more than it hurts you, but there is a fair amount of quid pro quo going on in EDH games. Making some deposits into your social bank account is generally a pretty good idea. Think about how long players playing Group Hug decks last in games and you’ll see what I mean.
This quid pro quo is unfortunately more frequently retributive. I’ve seen players lose their minds when someone destroyed something of theirs or countered one of their spells, and launch into an all-out, full-scale, irrational war against whomever offended them so, and seen them carry this war over to subsequent games. Obviously, this might not be the person you want in your casual group, but if he is, you have to pay attention. Again, everything has a price.
I’ve also seen players got out of their way to avoid the social ramifications of their actions. Despite seeing it done frequently, it’s my opinion that it’s cowardly to randomly choose who you’re going to attack or target or kill. I’m a firm believer that you have to own your choices, for good or ill. The trick is making choices that don’t set yourself up as the villain of your group.
My best social advice for EDH (other than paying attention to the First Rule of EDH) is to master the art of appearing second best. If you come out of the box fast and set yourself up as the immediate threat, then you’re going to get deal with immediately. Conversely, if you’re too weak, you’re going to get picked on. Flying under the radar while building a defensible foundation will position you well for the long haul.
“Social” means more in EDH than simply designating it as a casual format. The impact of the society of playing EDH, whether it’s one game or with the same long-term group, is more significant on both your strategic and tactical choices than it is in 1v1. You have to Embrace the Chaos to truly maximize your EDH experience.