This entry is part 16 of 37 in the series Generally Speaking

By Imshan AKA Sinis

There is a class of card in Magic I like to think of as ‘extortion’ cards.  These cards give opponents a choice, usually between two negative outcomes of differing varieties.  Perhaps the most famous extortion card is Browbeat.  Browbeat gives an opponent the option of losing 5 life.  If they decline, the Browbeat player draws 3 cards.  It should be noted that either of these effects are powerful for Browbeat’s inexpensive mana cost; in a duel, a burn player would be happy to gain significant ground on their opponent’s life total, or to draw more cards to find more burn cards.

Extortion cards are interesting for two reasons.  The first is that they tend to be cheap for the effects they provide.  The second is that the multiplayer dynamic entirely changes how extortion cards play out.

Before setting out to talk about extortion effects, I want to be clear that the kind of extortion effect that produces an interesting new behaviour in a multiplayer environment is rather narrow.  Browbeat is a perfect example because the ‘failure to pay’ penalty is not harmful to anyone specifically and because the ‘payment’ is non-trivial.  So, the Browbeat player drawing three cards is not immediately harmful to opponents, and the payment of five life is not something a player will typically do ‘just because’.  These two features are essential; if the extortion card is immediately harmful to one of the players at a multiplayer table, their behaviour will be dictated by the explicit threatening effects of the card, and if the card has a trivial ‘payment’, players will pay it simply because it costs them nothing to do so while harming an enemy.

To put Browbeat in contrast with an extortion effect that will not cause a new behaviour because of the directedness of the effects, Dash Hopes will not create new behaviour in a multiplayer environment.  The reasons should be fairly obvious: only the victim typically has an incentive to pay the five life.  The other players are functionally absent from consideration, because they probably do not care one way or another, and not paying is easier than paying.  Similarly, when casting Rhystic Tutor, any player who can afford the two mana will pay it simply because two mana on another player’s turn is worth almost nothing, and there is no reason not to pay.

Some examples of some extortion cards that are similar to Browbeat are Argothian Wurm/Shivan Wumpus and my personal favourite, Temporal Extortion.  Others may provide a more blanket effect ended by a ‘payment’, like Lethal Vapors or Worms of the Earth.

In a duel scenario, players will choose the option they think will be least threatening to their chances of winning; an opponent of a Browbeat player will choose cards if they feel they’re at too low a life total, or life if the Browbeat player looks like they might run out of steam.  The choice presented by Browbeat demands calculation with assumptions about how the Browbeat player is going to win the game the quickest, and whether they will be bottlenecked by tempo or by cards.

In a multiplayer environment, as is usual of Commander games, players will typically choose the option that causes the least amount of personal suffering.  This means that a player casting Browbeat will likely draw three cards.  The relatively simple calculation from the duel has a new variable: the likelihood of having resources directed at you.  In a duel, you can be certain any result from an extortion card will be spent to your detriment.  In a multiplayer environment, the base likelihood you will be a target becomes lower with every additional player at the table, absent other considerations such as board presence.

With Browbeat, a player who opts to take the five damage is, in a perverse way, volunteering to suffer everything from that Browbeat.  The player who does not take that damage is gambling that whatever mechanical advantage the Browbeat player gains through three new cards is going to at least be not distributed wholly at them.  Similarly, when a player casts an Argothian Wurm, it seems unlikely that one of the players will sacrifice a land, just because they might be the target of an attack including it.

What’s the effect of all this?  You can very frequently get away with playing extortion effects for their ‘failure to pay’ option, and these effects are often powerful for the cost you pay.  I have eliminated players with Temporal Extortion when they would have otherwise been able to stay in the game by paying half a diminished life total.  The reasoning they offered after the game?  “I was hoping you wouldn’t attack me.”  If your red deck is suffering for want of card draw, try Browbeat and see whether players at your table are willing to spite you to the tune of five life, or if you want some cheap beaters, try Argothian Wurm or Shivan Wumpus and see if players will personally set themselves back a land to simply stop you from having a stronger board presence.

The other style of extortion card, the global effect with a ‘pay to free everyone’ clause, such as Lethal Vapors also bears witness to the switch to multiplayer environment behaviour.  In the presence of Lethal Vapors, most players will not skip a turn, even if they are being terribly stymied by being unable to play creatures.  Rather, players typically bide their time, waiting for another person to shoulder the penalty, or hoping for a different way out, such as enchantment destruction.

Of course, exceptions to all this exist.  With the aforementioned Dash Hopes, a third party may have an interest (in a Wrath of God-effect, perhaps) while the Wrath player thinks they can get by without it.  Similarly, a player with a great deal of life gain in their deck may feel like they have little to lose when someone plays Browbeat.  The surest way for a player to stop treating extortion cards differently in multiplayer is when they become the focus of an attack from the extortion player.  If you repeatedly swing at a player, you reinforce a duel mentality, and they will begin to manage extortion cards as though they expect they will be on the receiving end of any of it.

How far does any of this go?  While Browbeat is almost always card draw in mono-red, it is a balance; Worms of the Earth will often deal five damage to the first person who really wants to play a land.  There is an incentive to escaping that prison first, and getting a land ahead of your peers.

Some cards I have yet to witness at a multiplayer table, but it might be interesting to see how readers respond in this article.  Thus far, I have not mentioned the most recent extortion card, Vexing Devil.  So, I question you, the reader: If someone plays a Vexing Devil at a three person table, absent other considerations (like having an aberrantly high or low life total, or an overwhelmingly superior board position), would you pay the four life to stop it?  If you would, how many players would need to be at a table before you were unwilling to pay the life?

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