This entry is part 3 of 10 in the series Strategy

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By Aaron D. AKA Uncle Landdrops

 

April has been dubbed Red Month here on CommanderCast, and even though I’ve got a backlog of articles about why we shouldn’t be playing Pheldagriff Group Hug to how to use our life as a resource, this week I’m going to indulge my writer A.D.D. and re-ignite a classic Commander multiplayer conversation about combat. It’s anarchistic, impulsive, turn-sideways confrontational – all of the makings of a topic that feels very, very Red.

 

COMPETING COMBAT TACTICS

Star Wars CC Joke

 

In that conversation, Andy and the crew came to the consensus that in multiplayer settings, the notion of “Spreading Damage,” i.e. attacking everyone with some equal or regimented distribution, was not conducive to marginal winning strategy. Though there was no clear-cut conclusion, they left an impression that in order to succeed, “Focused Damage,” i.e. concentrating combat on a specific player, was preferred. Not only did it contribute to the recognition of a player as a threat, but it also reinforced the attempt to move the game forward by eliminating a player, keeping people, deck designs, and the games that involved this combination, from being durdle-y, too political, and/or boring.

Having collectively experienced more combat steps, I’m not underestimating anyone’s opinion or ability to formulate ideas about how to navigate a game. Still, this is something I continue to think about, because it’s important for shaping and understanding the balancing act that’s required in Commander.

I’m taking another stab at the discussion, mostly because I think we need to rediscover and redefine the terms of this original conversation if we are going to come away with a clearer vision for the format. Even though Spreading and Focused Damage approaches are practical and logical concepts, I believe that we need to examine them as a game plan, not a turn-by-turn examination. If we do, I’m certain that what we see is a logical, incentive-driven case for Spreading Damage, not Focused.

 

EVOLVING OUR THINKING

The transition from Multiplayer can challenge, even frustrate players – especially ones that defect from competitive levels of Magic. Not only are there more questions that need to be answered, but also more opponents with answers for us – neither of which are concepts we have to consider for a single opponent. And that’s even before we count the amount of damage we now have to deal to win the game.

Again, Focused and Spreading Damage are strategies, but the reason we choose one or the other isn’t for the sake of making a decision. This is something that they didn’t dive into in the original podcast, and I think it’s worth mentioning to refresh and reestablish some fundamentals of decision-making. We need to account for the reasons we engage in a behavior, not the behavior itself. This is because an action is not reasonably justified by itself. Underlying factors, like time in the game, opportunity, probability of success, threat assessment, even (bleh!) politics are motives justified for navigating the risks associated with both strategies. This is easy enough to understand. All things logical, we are motivated by our perception of backlash, i.e. bad things that could happen, and our need to avoid them. We do this for any of number reasons, like wanting to win, or not looking like a noob, but what this effectively does is create actions reinforced by some compelling factors in the board state. Fundamentally, this is the origin of our decision – to Focus, or to Spread our damage.

 

THE EARLY BIRD SPREADS THE DAMAGE

Spreading Damage isn’t just about swinging Broodmate Dragon and its 4/4 companion at two different people – that’s the classic, rigid understanding per the roundtable discussion, but it’s not the whole picture. Spreading Damage, at its core, is about creating a pattern of behavior that demonstrates an intention to focus your resources on what card or cards are a threat, regardless of the player who controls them. Although one turn, one combat phase can change a game, Spreading Damage is not an individual phase-based action, but part of a larger, game-based strategy (of course, we’re still assuming that we’re playing to win the game).

The concept of Spreading Damage is tricky. Establishing a precedent isn’t limited to just a single combat step. In fact, the most prevalent, overlooked example of Spreading Damage occurs early on in games. Decks with aggressive Commanders like Thada Adel, for example, are going full Sonic, looking to snap up as many Sol Rings as they can.

 

 

Skullbriar, the Walking “New Money” Card, starts getting +1/+1 counter strong by hitting anyone and everyone. This is because most people aren’t going to point a removal spell at a Commander who is basically impervious to every kind of shenanigans that can be thrown at it (#stillsalty), as long as they aren’t repeatedly attacking the same person each turn. In order to avoid getting too far ahead, to avoid durdling, and also to ensure that no one is immediately throwing fits, just about every incentive we have compels a player to act this way.

This is important because it’s where Andy and co.’s definition differs from mine. It didn’t examine this context outside of an individual combat step, so it would’ve been considered Focused Damage, as there were no other creatures among which to spread the damage. However, defining terms this way was never going to translate well. With both being overarching game plans, not just maneuvers for one phase of one turn of one game, each strategy has more room to argue its case while also being weighed against the tangible result of winning. Without the restructure, Focused Damage would be a monopolizing and superior strategy, which was the way Andy and the rest of the team were leaning. This is because there are very few moments or reasons we would have to consistently split up combat, which I’ve outlined in the graph below:

 

Funny Spread Damage Graph
While there is a high opportunity cost if we waste a turn attacking someone who never becomes a threat, Spreading Damage is an effective way to create decent investments in the game. Not only does knocking each life total down a few points contribute to the bottom line, it also begins to create challenges and resistance in a game, giving you clues to what your opponents may or may not have in their hands, ultimately ensuring that you don’t commit too hard or too early to one player. Additionally, it doesn’t draw the ire and Hellfire of one person, or the illusion of the archenemy, and it doesn’t cause the balance of power to shift dramatically before the game has even started. Making these choices of where and when to commit in this environment, also come with a high level of gratification. Especially if you’re able to get it right, and get the W.

 

FOCUSED DAMAGE RE-ALIGNMENT

Focused Damage should include non-combat damage in multiplayer. I know this breaks the rules a little bit, for both conversation and context, but it’s reasonable, and does so in a healthy way. Our game has cards innately designed to point at a specific player, and at the game’s fixed mechanics. Focused non-combat damage should be grouped with Focus combat damage; that’s the only way this additional subset of cards are ever going to be played.

Combat-based Focused Damage, as a result, is definitely a smaller part of the multiplayer game. This is the result of two things. The first is that Focusing Damage is a very rigid strategy, predicated on committing to one player, concentrating all your resources in a direction, and subsequently knocking the player out of the game. While this definitely has its place in competitive spheres, potentially places where you have to play people you may not like, or play against decks or matchups that you don’t like, barring House Rules (like, “smack to the left”), Focusing Damage is usually pre-meditated, and usually a prejudice.

I know I used the “P” word, but I’m not talking about personal, identity-related issues. It is possible to play a Commander that is “frowned upon” by the greater part of the community, or even just a color (Yeah, I’m calling you out, Blue Haters!) and be attacked relentlessly for this very reason. Most of the Internet despises Zur decks. Several of us on the CommanderCast Staff find Kaalia decks to be “uninteresting.” While I don’t believe or engage in this behavior, I also don’t directly choose to play with people who like to play the kinds of decks that will get them pre-selected to be harassed, or at the very least, will throw a fit about it if they do.

Attacking someone repeatedly, with no attention or intention to interact with other players, with no care to what other players are doing on the board, is bullying, which doesn’t make for a healthy multiplayer game when there are multiple opponents’ actions to consider. Growing up, I can’t think of a time I went over to a friend’s house just to watch them eat pizza and play video games. Even if someone here does have that experience, I would imagine that you didn’t stay friends for long much after that, because it isn’t any fun. Hopefully, that metaphor makes sense translating to our Commander game. There’s plenty more targets for your Hex and Decimate, so interact! If not, you might as well be playing on Cockatrice at home with some dude who counters all your stuff, takes infinite turns with Mindslaver, and decides to humiliate you by attacking with Storm Crow for 40 turns.

My editor posed an argument about Focusing Damage which I should address – What happens if there is a player who is the biggest threat to you? No doubt there are some much more competitive metagames out there. Since I have unfortunately had very few interactions with any of you (It’s never too late! I’m social media/comment friendly!), I can’t attest to what people may have to do when faced with difficult players, difficult situations, etc.

However, if you want to put on your “WWULD?” (What Would Uncle Landdrops Do?) Bracelets, here’s my answer: be opportunistic. Don’t give them any reason to start focusing resources on you simply because you’ve deemed them a “threat” to your deck. A lot of times, better players will keep around opponents whom they have favorable matchups with for later in the game. That’s an advantage you can use, too. Not only has this person decided you aren’t the first to die, but also it means they’re interested in getting rid of a mutual threat to the two of you on the table, and that early partnership, though short-lived, means you can contribute to a game of high interactivity by doling damage when you can, taking the extra turns they’re giving you, and looking for the answers that you hopefully have to their matchup. Hopefully at this point, you’ve realized one important thing – this is clearly NOT a justification for Focused Damage.

While I’m sure there is some science to the preconceived information we have about various Commanders at the beginning of a game, the fact is most players still have to operate under regular game constraints for the first couple of turns.

 

Just like Bruce Dickinson, your opponents also have to put their pants on one leg at a time.

 

They draw their seven cards, and for a turn or two are usually restricted to playing one land a turn. Having a threat at the table is an inevitability, and that is still a role that someone takes by making a particular play on the board, whether knowingly or unknowingly. Learning how to create a sense of “Justice,” i.e. establishing an effective understanding by which a player responds and interacts to your resources within the game, will help you to avoid inviting active board hate, and therefore getting the brunt of a Focused Strategy.

 

THE UNDERLYING THEME

Ultimately, my re-structuring of these terms is to create a better, more accurate way of looking at these strategies in the game for the purpose of having a better debate. Much like Andy and the people whom discussed this before, I find an interesting and complex relationship when we transition to the re-defined terms. While it is more beneficial to Focus Damage in a single turn, it is highly beneficial to keep one’s self open to changing how we do this from turn-to-turn. If we are playing to win, the motivation should be to Spread Damage early, and let the backlash and momentum of the game drive the way we make our decisions as the game progresses.

 

That’s all I got. Let the debate re-begin!

 

 

 

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