Yawgmoth’s Whimsy #89: Politics and the Multiplayer Dilemma

In more advanced game theory, you study problems where the payouts are uncertain, or where guarantees are available, or where other factors can influence the payout matrix. Multiplayer is like that. In multiplayer games, you have an ability that you can use without spending cards or mana. It’s an ability you can use even when you don’t have priority. Used properly, it can counter anything – even concessions.

It’s the verbal equivalent of what I put in these articles. No, not bulls**t. At least, not all bulls**t…

Abe Sergeant recently wrote a piece on the Prisoners’ Dilemma in multiplayer. Like Abe, I studied game theory in college – but we economists applied more math to game theory than the philosophers do. (Don’t worry – I won’t go there. LaGrangian transformations aren’t that exciting, even for econometricians.)

Basic game theory is pretty simple, if you avoid the math. Game theory attempts to determine what a person’s best expected outcome is when the outcome depends on the actions of others. It’s similar to probability theory, which attempts to predict likely outcomes when the outcome depends on random events. Probability is also a lot less interesting when you add the math, but I digress.

Game theory has a lot of standard examples, but one classic is the prisoners’ dilemma. Put simply: Two crooks are identified, but the evidence is weak. If both deny their involvement, both probably get a few months on a lesser charge. If one incriminates the other and the other clams up, the squealer can turn state’s evidence and walk while the buddy gets fifteen years. If both incriminate each other, both will get ten years. The dilemma – are they better off squealing or hoping they can trust their partner?

Abe expanded this basic game to three players and created a triangle in which each player could kill one opponent, but would lose to the other opponent. The solution was for each player to aid the opponent that they could kill in taking out the other player. Abe’s analysis was pretty good, and it clearly applies in situation where one player perceives the situation correctly and the others don’t. But I think you can go beyond that.

In more advanced game theory, you study problems where the payouts are uncertain, or where guarantees are available, or where other factors can influence the payout matrix.

Multiplayer is like that.

In multiplayer games, you have an ability that you can use without spending cards or mana. It’s an ability you can use even when you don’t have priority. Used properly, it can counter anything – even concessions.

It’s the verbal equivalent of what I put in these articles.

No, not bulls**t. At least, not all bulls**t.

I’m talking about persuasive speaking. Politics. Willbending. It’s part bull, part coercion, part flattery, part sympathy, part deception, part advice and part blather. It’s how you manipulate your opponent’s perception of the game – of the relative value of each player’s board position, of their skills, their decks, and how likely they are to kill any given player.

Persuasion is probably my best skill.

True story.

During college, I had a summer job as a door-to-door fundraiser for a non-profit I believed in. You know, knock on the door, introduce yourself, ask for money. One person”greeted” me at the door with a 12-gauge. He started off yelling about how he was sick of solicitors, and was going to blow my head off.

I not only talked my way out of that mess, but he donated $5.00.*

Absolutely true.

I’m pretty good at persuasion.

So, yes, there are politics in multiplayer games. At least, in the games I’m in.

Remember the classic prisoners’ dilemma: are you better off taking a medium penalty, or trusting the others? As someone involved in a multiplayer game, do you think you can manipulate how people see the likely outcomes, or how much they trust each other?


At one level, it’s simple: “I promise not to attack you.” “Remember who killed your Howling Mine during your upkeep? It wasn’t me.” Or the most basic”Why are you looking at me – he’s the threat!” You are trying to move attacks to your opponents. You want your opponents to see each other as bigger threats than you are. That way, opponents attack each other, not you.

I have a simple rule that I live by** in multiplayer – don’t piss off the table until you win.

I don’t want to play a serious, obvious threat until it wins me the game. Here’s a great example – my build of a Megrim / Underworld Dreams deck, versus others I have seen around town.

Other versions: Megrim, Dreams, Anvil of Bogardan, Howling Mine, Scepters and Specters. These decks drop painful and obvious threats, then annoy people with little bits of damage and loss of cards. All the opponents get pissed, and the table attacks the deck’s player. These decks tend to lose.

My version: U/B with card drawing, Shadowmage Infiltrators, Wall of Souls, etc. I develop slowly, do little, draw a few cards off an Infiltrator then let it get killed by an FTK or something, look innocuous, drop Megrim, complain that I can’t find discard, do nothing, drop Dreams – warn them that once I draw the Specters, they are in trouble, but I’m still screwed. No one is pissed at me yet, so the table beats up on someone who actually has threats, or has pissed them off. They beat on each other.

I wait until end of my last opponent’s turn, then cast Wheel and Deal during the end step. Then I untap and cast another. The whole table is going to take at least twenty-eight damage, all at once, and before they have an opportunity to respond. The table wonders what hit them. The are pissed now, and want to hurt me real bad. Finally.

Too late.

“He can’t hurt me, if he’s dead!” – Stella, Silverado. (This is as close as I get to cheesecake.) [My eyes! My eeeeeeyes! – Knut, still a Silverado fan]

I don’t want to hurt anyone. I want to slaughter everyone. There’s a difference.

Simplest part of the prisoners’ dilemma – make sure everyone knows you are not the biggest threat. Multiplayer Magic isn’t a game show – you don’t get rid of the weakest link first. In multiplayer, weakest links are like small children – if they aren’t annoying you, they can stick around, because you can always send them for sodas or something later on.

There is an advantage in looking like the weakest link. There is no advantage in being the weakest link. Politics is the art of making something look to be what it isn’t.

The flip side of not pissing off the table is not pissing off any particular person. In general, I tend to play mainly utility creatures early, instead of threats. I like Walls, of the Soulful, Blossomy or Rooty type. If, however, I do have a little creature that can attack, I will often forgo the attack altogether. If I do attack, I make a point of attacking the person with the highest life total, or rolling randomly. I never want to anyone to be annoyed at me. I want their perception of the risk / reward for letting me live a bit longer to be as positive as possible. Remember, the heart of game theory is assessing the risks and rewards of various options. I want all my opponents to perceive the options where I stay alive as favorably as possible.

Downplaying your own threats is only half the battle. You want to inflate the perception of danger in opponent’s decks. Point out what their deck is doing. Remind everyone of what happens with Verdant or Megrim on the table. Choose the opponent that most scares you and describe, in graphic detail, just how bad it is when that player’s deck goes off. In other words, get the table to do your dirty work for you.

If the threat is obvious – and it isn’t you – then you really don’t have that much to do. You simply need to make sure the table stays focused on the threat. It’s not hard.

It gets a bit harder when you want the table to focus on a player who is not as obviously threatening. You need to inflate the other players’ perception of the threat. Point out what the deck can do. If you aren’t sure, or don’t think it can do much, point out what the deck could do if built right.

For example: “If he gets another land, he can drop Silvos and have the elves to regen!” is moderately scary. “If he drops Silvos, then next turn casts Armageddon, he’ll have elves for regen mana. I hope you have an answer for that – I don’t.” is scarier.

It is often enough to get players thinking about whether the opponent might have been smart enough to add that card. If they are thinking about an opponent, they are not thinking about you and your deck.

Here’s a little professional secret. As part of my job, I go into court as an expert witness and face cross examination. High-powered attorneys are going to try to shake my testimony, to further their case. They will try to walk me into contradictions and dig into the underlying assumptions of my models. They ask me technical questions. I answer. Then they put up their own technical witnesses to argue for alternative assumptions and models, and our attorneys cross-examine them.

Now, attorneys are taught never to ask a question if they don’t already know the answer. They expect you, based on your prefiled testimony, depositions, etc., to have a particular answer. They ask X, you answer Y, point for their side.

An economics professor gave the following advice to economists dumb enough testify:”Begin every response with ‘it all depends…’ That gives you time to figure out what it depends on, and elaborate on that.”

The secret is that you do not have to know everything about a subject – just more than the opponent. For example, when attorney asks me X, and I answer that depends on obscure factor Z, I’m returning the serve. We can volley, but if I can bring in one obscure factor that the attorney isn’t prepared for, I score.

The best answers are when the attorney fires a fastball, and you nail it. Attorney”You have to agree that A is true, right?” Me: “No, because item Q that you overlooked.”

Home run.

The best performance on the stand I ever saw was by a consultant named Joe Gillan, representing long distance companies against local telephone companies. A local telco attorney asked Joe a highly technical question, and Joe asked some”clarifying” questions about some obscure points related to the attorney’s question and got the attorney tangled up. The Joe answered the question with”I’m not sure exactly what you asked, but I think it was…” Then he restated the attorney’s question so Joe’s answer would reinforce his side’s case.

That’s the baseball equivalent of catching the pitch, setting it on a T-ball stand and knocking it out of the park. And the attorney let him get away with it. Six times in a row. Finally the attorney just shut up.

The attorneys representing the other local companies, for all of whom shaking Joe’s testimony was a major goal, knew Joe was on that day. They all had”no questions.”

You don’t have to know everything about the topic – just one bit more than your opponents. And then you have to use what you know.

In multiplayer Magic, you want everyone thinking about your opponents’ threats and your opponents’ decks. Use your knowledge of Magic, and of the players. If someone just traded for Akroma, Angel of Wrath and is playing a White deck, you may want to mention that at a strategic time.

Make your opponents worry about each other. Change their perceptions of the threats and rewards coming out the multiplayer dilemma.

If all else fails, you may have to just shovel it. When, you have nothing else, and the opponent you are trying to get rid of plays something – anything – say,”Oh – that deck! I hate that deck! I’ve been pounded by that before. I’m screwed.” When the other players ask what’s going on, just tell them they”will find out in couple turns – if you don’t kill him fast, you are all so dead!”

You don’t want to lie about the deck – just make misleading statements, and let the opponents make assumptions about what they mean. Humans are genetically programmed to see shapes and patterns, whether they are there or not. In our deep, dark past, it didn’t matter if a primitive brain saw a random pattern and said”Lion! – flee!” It did matter if it saw a lion and said”random pattern – ignore.” We have evolved to spot patterns – it’s how we learn language, among other things, and humans are really, really good at it. Humans are also really good at seeing connections that aren’t really there, whether that is the guy standing in your closet at night, the Bigfoot in a forest picture, a face on Mars, a global conspiracy or a connection in the statements in quotes in the last paragraph.

From the above statements, opponents can – and, I hope, will – believe that the opponent’s deck will kill them. But they are, mentally, adding a few statements I never made. “It pounded me” sounds like it won, but the fact might be it”pounded” me down to five, then I crushed it, or that my deck beats it consistently. I am not going to mention that to my opponents. I’ll let them draw their own conclusions. (Of course – the opponent playing”that deck” might mention it. He probably should be telling them how my deck won, and why they should fear my deck. He should be doing to me what I’m doing to him. That’s how multiplayer is played.)

Lying is crude and, usually, counterproductive. Misleading people with true statements is much more refined, less likely to trash your credibility, and shows a bit more class and skill. The art of politics isn’t in telling lies, it’s the art of misleading people without lying. (As a side note: if politicians have to outright lie to achieve their policy goals, they are inept. In that vein, here’s a link.)

Moreover, if you get caught in a direct lie, your credibility crashes and your ability to influence opponent’s perceptions of the threats in future games is severely diminished. Bad plan.

Quick quiz – an opponent is playing a Black deck, and you want your opponents to continue trashing him even though they have killed most of his creatures and eliminated his threats. Which of these statements should you not use?

1) “So, the question is, did you manage to trade for those two Living Deaths last week, or didn’t you?”

2) “You have Living Death in your hand, I know it.”

3) “Living Death would be so bad right now…”

The point is, the other opponents are worrying about that Black deck again, and who knows, it might really contain a Living Death.

Maintaining credibility is important. And part of that is stroking the egos of those involved. Feed and reward your allies, and remember to thank them for their efforts. Seriously.

I once had the entire table concentrating on the kid with the eighty card, sixteen land Green deck with maindeck Turn to Dust. Why – well, the kid was targeting every Naturalize and Orangutan at my stuff, and every attack at me, and I wasn’t ready to piss off the table by revealing what my deck could do to stop him. So I got everyone else to kill the kid. And I thanked them. I painted them scenarios of what the kid’s deck could have done. Not necessarily true scenarios, but realistic ones.

Yes, I killed them all a few minutes later. But, until then, I had them congratulating each other on dealing with the threat, and looking at each other. I did not let them think about what was actually happening. After all, they had cooperated in taking out what not only appeared as, but actually was, the weakest link. The kid was only a threat to me, not to anyone else. Spending cards and effort to kill him was, for anyone else but me, a complete waste of resources. Had I let them think about that, they would have realized I was full of what we Wisconsinites spread on farm fields.

So I didn’t let them think about it.

(Incidentally, if you ever get on the witness stand, don’t try these tricks. A real attorney is trained in spotting and countering this type of thing.)

I am also not suggesting that you lie or cheat in any game, multiplayer magic or anything else. It’s dishonest, cowardly and craven to lie or cheat in any aspect of life, and to do so in a game, played for enjoyment, is all of the above plus cheap and petty to boot. Why would you cheat your friends (or acquaintances) just to win a game?

So, never lie or mislead people about things they have a right to know – like cards in hand, life totals and so forth. I also have problems with”mind games” designed to annoy opponents, or make them unable to concentrate. However, I don’t object to someone trying to downplay their own tactical position, or emphasize the power or position of other opponents.

I may even have done that myself.

In short, you cannot mislead someone about the facts of the game. Influence their assessment of what those facts mean is a whole other thing. The multiplayer dilemma is in deciding when you need to devote resources to killing an opponent, to destroying an opponent’s advantage, or if you should simply hoard those resources. In the simple prisoners’ dilemma, the payouts are defined in advance. In more complex versions, they are unclear, and/or can be influenced by the players’ assurances and prior actions. That what multiplayer is like – so commence with the influencing.

Presenting misleading information can be done in a number of way. Some are verbal, some not. Misleading information can even be built into deck design. For example, one of my favorite multiplayer decks is a mono-green deck that plays out walls and mana creatures, then drops fatties – but actually wins with infinite mana from Maze of Ith and Argothian Elder flowing into Rocket Launcher or Whetstone. The fatties in the deck are a mixture of Silvos and Gargantuan Gorillas. Originally, I had some Verdant Forces in there, but they proved too good. People feared the”best fattie ever printed.” That was a problem, because the fatties were not supposed to draw serious attention, just random removal spells. They were like a magician’s right hand flourish while the left hand does the trick – a distraction. People feel good when they kill the fatties – they feel they have pulled my teeth. That leaves me free to kill them at my leisure.

I want to take one last look at game theory. Game theory also addresses the extent to which players make rational decisions, and the extent to which a player can influence the opponents’ perception of their rationality. In some games, the ability to influence your opponents’ impression of your decision-making processes can be as important as the payout, or the opponents’ perception of the payout.

Clear as mud, right. An example helps.

The chicken game: drive straight at each other, first one to swerve loses.

(Incidentally, do I need to say that anyone that actually considers playing the chicken game is a complete and total bird brain? And, no, the chicks don’t dig it.)

It makes a decent thought experiment, though.

The chicken playing the game is balancing his desire to live through the game against his desire for the”fame” of not being the first to flinch, and comparing that to his assessment of the same choice made by his opponent. You are trying to guess who has a higher risk tolerance. And, of course, if you both guess wrong, you die.

Now, the example of influencing the perceptions: one driver get in the car, rips out the steering wheel and throws it out the window. Then starts the car.

That changes the equation. Without a steering wheel, the driver has no real choice – win or die are the only options. The other drive also faces a different set of choices: the choice between losing or dying – or not playing against that frickin’ lunatic.

In the weird combination of game theory / political science / economics I studied, that was called impaired or influenced rational thinking. It lead to all kinds of interesting discussions (e.g. why people paid real money for”Pet Rocks”), and frightening ones (e.g. how well does mutual assured destruction work if leaders’ egos are a significant factor.)

In multiplayer Magic, you frequently find players that have – or pretend to have – impaired rationality. Some players simply play to kill one certain person, regardless of the state of the game. Others always kill whomever hit them first. Still others are unreasonably defensive, or overly offensive. For some, the entire goal of the session is to get their miraculous combo to go off just once. For others, the goal is to prolong the game as much as possible.

Player personalities and motivations is the stuff of a whole ‘nother article, but it is enough to say that these people exist and you need to take that into account. Part of multiplayer politics is pushing other people’s buttons, and that only works if the buttons are connected to something. Pushing Player A’s”but player B will win” button has no effect if all Player A cares about is that Player C loses.

So, are you thoroughly confused now? You are? Good. I’ll play first.


* No, I didn’t try to raise it to $10. I may be dumb enough to play Enchantress, but I’m not stupid.

** I mean live by in both sense. I try to keep the rule, and, at the end of many, many games, that rule has meant that I am alive when all around me are dead.