Last week, while writing a letter to my friend Adam, I stumbled across the Unifying Theory of multiplayer politics: Potential Shaping. In a nutshell, Potential Shaping states that your opponents react to you based on how much of a threat they see you as being, and all multiplayer politics is an attempt to either raise or lower that level of potential threat-ness (both of you and the others) to cause your opponents to act in ways that benefit you.
One of the premiere methods of shaping potential is table talk. Some folks, like Anthony Alongi, hate it; others, like myself, love it. But if your table allows it, talking about people’s decks as the cards hit the table does allow you to change your fellow players’ perception of what is going on.
The one thing I didn’t mention — and it’s very relevant to table talk — is that there are two types of potential threatitude: your current potential and your composite potential.
Your current potential is what you have on the board right now, the style of deck you’re playing, and the number of cards in your hand. It is, essentially, a read of your board position combined with some knowledge of what your deck can do at this moment. This changes from game to game and turn to turn. It’s the primary potential you’re trying to manipulate in
Your composite potential is your overall image among the other players. Do you go for the throat every time? Do you keep your word? Do you lie? This changes slowly, over time, but once established it generally doesn’t change.
The current vs. composite is why, often, players will target better composite players even though their current position is low. If Timmy has twenty elf tokens out on the board but you know that he’s not terribly good and generally won’t attack thanks to the timidity of the novice, you can ignore him and go after Spike, whose current potential is low but whose composite potential in terms of “playing killer decks competently” is pretty high.
The reason I bring this up is that if you’re playing with the same crowd week after week, managing your composite potential is paramount. If they see you as a liar, your words will be useless. If they see you as someone who’s always trying to play them off against each other, they will ignore you.
The best lesson for building your composite potential is, “Don’t lie.” Everything that comes out of your mouth should be the truth. Maybe not all the truth, and certainly not the full story, but don’t claim that you have three Lightning Bolts in hand when you have lands. Don’t claim that you’re not a threat when you’re about to go off with your combo the next turn. Don’t claim that Jamie’s playing combo when he’s not.
Your composite potential means that the short-term victories associated with bluffing will often get paid off later on. So these techniques for affecting the board with table talk will not work if you’re sitting pretty with an active Sarkhan Vol and five Dragon tokens, and going, “Why are you attacking me?”
In any case, here are most of the common table talk gambits, and when to use them.
“One X spell and I’m done for.”
The goal on this is to convince people that if, say someone casts an X, then your threat level is immediately reduced. Generally, that spell’s either mass removal (one Wrath of God removes your army) or a Naturalize effect, which tells people that hey, commonly-played spells can make you a lot less threatening.
You’d think that this would work better if everyone knows that someone else at the table has the spell in question. Interestingly enough, that doesn’t happen. If everyone knows that Victoria packs four Akroma’s Vengeances and that stops you, then weirdly enough it elevates both of your threat profiles; it sets you up as the two titans clashing at the table, and sets everyone else on edge. Also, then Victoria knows that you’ll be coming for her, if she didn’t know already.
This is best used when it’s a spell that most people could have, but it’s yet to be confirmed that nobody does.
“One spell from you and I’m done for.”
This is stalling for time, and it’s generally done when you know someone has a Lightning Bolt and you’re at two life. The goal with this is to convince him that you’re in the bag, his victory is assured, and in the meantime he should be concentrating on another guy who he can’t handle.
(Incidentally, this doesn’t work with sorcery-speed spells. Most players understand that a lot can happen between their current main phrase and their next one, so “One Wrath of God and I’m finished!” doesn’t work. It has to be something at instant speed.)
Your best hope in such an event is that the guy who can kill you goes head-to-head with the other guy, and the other guy actually kills him. (Which is a warning to good players: if you can take someone out when they’re at two life, 80% of the time you should do it.) But what you’re often doing is bluffing; in truth, you have something that trumps their Lightning Bolt (like a Counterspell, or an Angel’s Grace, or a Congregate you can fire off in response), and you want them to get into a fight with someone else.
Here’s the trick, though; if you use this gambit, you must not have the trick in hand. Because if you say, “O NOES, I YAM HELPLESS” and in that same turn you then fend them off, you have just undermined every other claim of helplessness you’ll ever make. Yes, you may win that game. But your fellow players will remember you going, “Oh, no, you can totally kill me!” and then being caught flat-out lying.
If you use this gambit successfully and they come after you the next turn, that’s fine; you can pretend you drew it. In fact, you should. But I have died with an answer in hand, simply because I was trying to pull off a trick like this and didn’t want to deal with the consequences of winning that game.
Remember, it’s about your composite potential threat. You can win one game that loses you several games after that. (But if you’re playing with people you won’t see again, sure, do it.)
“I’m not interested in you.”
This is a risky gambit, for two reasons: First, it has to be used proactively. In general, if someone’s already turned their guys sideways or tapped the mana for the spell, you’re not going to be able to talk them out of it — even if your group allows for takebacks. For this to work, there has to be another clear and present danger, and you have to tell them before they have the opportunity to act.
Second, it only works if they can’t handle the other guy. I’ve often said, “I’m not interested in you” when I was going after someone else, and you know what? The guy who could kill me did, because he wasn’t afraid of the guy I was coming after. Sure, I was focusing on Ian because he had an Akroma, Angel of Wrath and a Hellkite Overlord out, which was a threat to me. But Josh had enough mana to cycle a Resounding Silence and R those threats F the G, so he really didn’t need my help — and hence executed me in short order.*
The problem is that you don’t know what’s in someone’s hand, and sometimes you just have to risk it if you have to take someone out now.
Also — and this should go without saying — if you say, “I’m not interested in you” and then you go after them without a significant change in board position, you have poisoned your reliability and then cannot use this tactic any more.
“Hit who you want. We’re all open.”
This isn’t so much of a gambit as an acknowledgement of the other person’s board position. They are in a position to kill you, and there is nothing we can do about it. But generally, by acknowledging that their own threat potential is superior, you’re currying favor and they’re slightly less likely to attack you. Not always, naturally; depends on the person. But if you’re in a bad situation like that, what do you have to lose?
“Point that at me, and you’ll lose that.”
You have to mean this one. By shaping your potential upwards, you’re telling people that if they don’t want to lose their precious creatures, they should not attack you. And you should have the removal spell in hand, even if they can trump it with a counter-trick; your goal here is to shape your composite potential so in future games that when you say you’re going to take someone out of the game, you’re going to at least come damn close.
This doesn’t work on all players — some folks get pissy when you threaten them and they will come after you, guaranteed, and good players will generally shrug and say, “Well, I’d rather see you with one fewer removal spell” and do it anyway. This is why it’s more of a composite goal. The idea is that you terrify other players, particularly novice ones, who then are loathe to attack you because when you call the home run to the outfield, they’ll think you have a home run in you every time.
If you’re in the lead and say nothing, people will notice. If you’re so far behind and say nothing, people will notice. But they will often overlook you when you’re in the running but not so far ahead to be noteworthy, and you’re looking to lay low for a couple of turns while you quietly stockpile a hand full of dynamite.
Sometimes, just laying the cards and being quiet is your best bet. (It also works well when two guys are in a grudge match; if that happens, don’t get in the middle of combat, don’t try to help. It’ll just blow up in your face.)
This happens when someone casts Gemhide Sliver and you nod sagely and say, “Ah. Slivers.” Or, as a subtler example, when you know what a Rakdos Carnarium from Josh means, and say, “Ah. Reanimator.”
It’s not necessarily shaping anyone’s potential — but it can, if they’re scared of the deck in question. And if they don’t know what the deck in question does, that’s frequently the lead-in you can use for novice players to feel free to ask.
“He has X, which does Y.”
Generally, this doesn’t work when you’re calling out a single card, but it does work when you’re calling out obscure combos. If someone’s got a Shaman en-Kor out and you’re pretty sure that he’s going to go off with the Life combo (Daru Spiritualist, target infinitely with the en-Kor to make it 1/1,000,000,000, sacrifice it to a Diamond Valley effect), mention how these cards combine to raise his potential threat level.
Now, keep in mind that it has to be on the down-low. If you shriek, “Oh my God, a c-c-combo deck!” then everyone will think you’re either overreacting or trying to play them. Point it out like you’d point out a sign on the freeway — “Hey, Tim Horton’s. Hey, a Cheesecake Factory. Hey, one-third of a combo that potentially spells certain death for all of us.”
“It’s just a stupid X deck.”
This is a counter-move to “Ah. X,” but it only works when they’re wrong. If you play an Essence Warden and someone goes, “Ah, the Elves combo deck,” you can respond with, “No, it’s just a stupid Shaman deck.”
It works, of course, only if it is a stupid Shaman deck — or some substandard deck in general. If you counter with, “It’s an Elves deck, but not a combo deck,” then people are still going to be scared. But in general, if you have dumb theme decks, letting people know that it is in fact not mechanically coherent is a good way of lowering your potential.
“I don’t have X in here.”
Another countermove to “Ah, X,” this is used when someone assumes something based on your deck’s colors and likely strategy, and you know they are wrong.
Now, this doesn’t work if you have similar effects. If someone’s going, “Man, he has Demonfire in there!” and you deny it because what you actually have is Rolling Thunder, shut the heck up. But if someone’s drastically misguessed your deck, it’s time to counter-talk. (Ideally, you can follow them up by telling them what it is, because if you say it in a vacuum, if you haven’t cultivated a potential of Total Honesty, they may not believe you without further information.)
“That’s my only X.”
A variant on the above, this works when you’ve cast your sole Loxodon Warhammer, everyone’s freaked out, and they’ve Naturalized it. Proactively reassuring them that they will not have to face this threat again is a way of lowering your overall potential… At least for this game.
“It’s all right. It’s vulnerable to….”
Generally, that’s done when someone squees about how great your deck is — generally when it’s a netdeck — and you in turn “Aw, shucks” the response and tell them its weaknesses. Telling people how to cut it off at the knees sounds magnanimous, but any competent player will dope it out, and it builds your overall potential as being an honest person.
“Jesus, is he gonna win again?”
A Hail Mary effort, it’s hard not to be a little grudge-tastic when you say this, but sometimes it really is the only way to point out, correctly, that someone’s threat level is elevated sufficiently above their perceptions of it.
“Yeah, it’s probably the right move to hit me.”
This does nothing. Nine times out of ten when you say this, it’s the signal that you’re about the lose, badly. But it also establishes you as someone who tells the truth — which costs you nothing now, but not whining about “OMG, WHY ARES YOU MEANIES HITTING ME, I ONLY HAVE THIRTY SLIVER TOKENS AND AN ESSENCE SLIVER?” will make you out as someone who’s reasonable and rational. Which means that when you do say, “By the way, Adam’s the big threat and I don’t have Wrath of God in this white-based Soldier theme deck,” they will believe you. Which, I assure you, helps.
“Hey, did you catch the results on Election night?”
Remember, if all your table talk is about Magic, you’re doing it wrong. When every word out of your mouth relates to the cards, you’re not only keeping everyone focused on the game — which is a bad idea — but you’re also making it crystal-clear that you’re politicking more often than Obama and McCain. They’ll know you’re trying to play them.
Plus, lighten the hell up. Magic’s supposed to be fun. Talk about fun stuff. For us, it’s politics. For others, it’s sports, or the World Series of Poker, or the latest YouTube video. In any case, lean back and have some fun conversation. It pays off in more ways than just Magic.
The Here Edits This Site Here Guy
* – Not really. Josh is out playing with his brand-new newborn and I haven’t played him in weeks. Congrats, Josh, on your fresh spawn! But I couldn’t come up with a recent, relevant, real-life example, and so I forged this one. Forgive me, Cleveland!