This entry is part 21 of 41 in the series In General

Grandpa (Eric)

By Eric, AKA Grandpa Growth


I concluded 2015 by reading a flurry of interesting books, one of which–The 48 Laws of Power, by Robert Greene–contains many lessons that could be applied to the politics of multiplayer Magic. The book is an extended list of the thought patterns and behaviors which powerful people employ, complete with historical examples. It’s even been said that these behaviors are the deciding factors that distinguish the weak from the powerful (although the people who say that are confusing correlation with causation).


This week, I present to you my own adapted version: The 48 Laws of Commander Power: A list of things to do and not to do if you want to excel at multiplayer, heavily based on completely stolen from the aforementioned book, and presented in the same order given in that book. For better or worse, I’ve done my best to preserve the intent and dictatorial tone of the author.


  1. Never Outshine The MasterAttracting attention to yourself is a key part of promoting your power, but it’s extremely important that you don’t always make yourself the center of attention. Indeed, you may attract the wrong sort of attention. If the other players feel threatened, they’ll redeploy resources to stop you from claiming victory.


  1. Don’t Put Too Much Trust In Friends: To win, sometimes you’ll have to rely on other players’ cooperation, or, at the very least, their inattention. Don’t be quick to assume that others will continue to act the way they have in the past. Understand that other players are competing against you and if they realize that your plan doesn’t suit their interests, they’ll turn on you.  Remember the mantra: if you want something done right, do it yourself. Putting your fate in someone else’s hands should be a calculated risk.


  1. Conceal Your Intentions: When the game first begins, each player intends to win the game and you should understand that while this concern can become less salient as the game unfolds, the purpose of the game never changes. You should always be trying to win, but you should never act like that is what you’re doing or else you’ll face an adversarial response. Play in such a way that allows you to win, but doesn’t put up a neon sign declaring your imminent victory. Subtlety is key.


  1. Always Say Less Than Necessary: This will aid you in accomplishing number three above. You don’t need to explain your masterstroke. The less your opponents understand about your plan, the less able they’ll be able to react to it. You may not be able to satisfactorily justify the reasons for some action that you’re taking. Fully explaining your rationale exposes your intentions and creates a clear distinction between your interests and everyone else’s. If you say less than necessary to fully explain yourself, you’re implying that the justification is self-evident or that anyone who isn’t on board with you isn’t sophisticated enough to understand the justification (that you’ll never give).


  1. Much Depends Upon Reputation: If people remember that you tricked them, they’ll view you as a trickster. Whenever and wherever possible, cultivate a reputation of honesty and fairness. Additionally, getting labeled as a cutthroat, a “Blue Player,” or any other stereotype, can often be the consequence of just one first impression, so make sure that a person’s early memories of you are positive.


  1. Court Sympathy: As stated, you’ll often need to rely on others to win. When doing so, you should clear any suspicion about why you want their help. If a player aids you because they feel sorry for you or because it’s genuinely in their self-interest, they’ll be less likely to turn on you at an inopportune moment. Courting sympathy will allow you to build alliances and foster a sense of cooperation between yourself and the players who could potentially cause you to lose. Epic comebacks make for great stories and this format is all about telling good stories. People won’t hold a grudge against you for winning as the underdog, but they’ll be irritated by constant dominance throughout a game or play session.


  1. Make Others Work For You: Magic is a battle of scarce resources. Often, the player who has the most resources at a certain critical stage in the game wins. Conserving your resources and applying them wisely is imperative for victory. To this end, use the cooperation you’re fostering to get others to do things that will help you win. Using their resources doesn’t cost you anything.


  1. Who Has Control, Has Power: Control the situation. Control your emotions. Control the game. Force others to react to your moves and lure them into unfavorable situations. Don’t waste energy or resources relying on a strategy of brute force. Bide your time and act in the moment that favors your victory.


  1. Win Through Action, Not Through Argument: It’s very difficult to conclusively win an argument. Even if you out think or out debate someone, they may not give up their point of view. All you have done is create a social divide between you and them. Instead, prove your point through action. This is particularly applicable when a player’s behavior does not conform to the community standards. Rather than trying to convince them that their Armageddon theme deck isn’t in the spirit of the format, react to them strategically. Create a metagame that is actively hostile to land destruction.


  1. Avoid The Unhappy: You can’t make everyone happy all of the time. Don’t abide people who have a toxic influence in your play group. Get rid of them. You just don’t need that negativity in your life and, often times, no amount of effort on your part will make them more empathetic or less of a sore loser.


  1. Keep People Dependent On You: Even better than being in a position of sympathy is being in a situation to behave sympathetically. When people are dependent on you for their own success they subconsciously align your interests with their own. After all, they can’t get help from you if you aren’t in a position to give it. Additionally, people who need you won’t turn on you unless they can get what they need from somewhere else. Keep focused on fulfilling the needs of others and you’ll be amazed how quickly this cooperation fosters your own power.


  1. Use Selective Honesty To Disarm: Concealing your intentions is important, but if someone already knows of your plans, attempting to hide it will undermine your position. Instead, be honest. This will help you in your efforts to cultivate a reputation for being an honest and open individual. This will bring you greater trust and cooperation from other players in the future. Other players will often be surprised that you aren’t trying to hide something and will always be more cooperative if they think they can trust you.


  1. Appeal to Others’ Self-Interest: When asking for help, don’t bother asking for help. Instead, always frame the situation in terms of how they stand to gain or lose from the current situation. Don’t bring up the past and don’t demand repayment for the things you have done to help them. Learn to think outside the confines of your own desires to understand what motivates the other players. Most importantly, never confuse your needs with the needs of your opponents.


  1. Pose As A Friend, Work As A Spy: Positioning yourself as a friend to others will help you excel at many of the previously mentioned laws, but it can have one other valuable benefit as well: gathering information. When you work together with people, you learn about their personality and motivations. You learn to read them and, through that, understand them. This information can be extremely valuable when you have to try and arrange an incentive for them to help you. You need to know what they want before you can give it to them.


  1. Crush Your Enemies: If you need to take direct action against a player early in the game, follow through and kill them. Don’t allow them to recover and threaten you again, especially if they could rally allies to their cause.


  1. Use Absence To Increase Respect: Once you have created the reputation you want, make sure you give it time to cement in the minds of other players. They’ll remember bold moves that you made, a strong deck that you built, or a friendly moment that you shared. Being over-involved will put you in many situations where you might damage your own reputation or say more than you should have. Use a simple “get ahead, stay ahead” strategy to social interaction.


  1. Be Unpredictable: This comes with the territory of concealing your intentions. If you always do what others expect, you’re not properly concealing your intentions.


  1. Isolation Can Be Dangerous: Using absence can sometimes be a double-edged sword. No one is powerful in isolation. To exert power is to have power. So, if your power isn’t being used, it is diminishing. If you isolate yourself, you’ll miss out on opportunities to gather information and foster relations with other players.


  1. Be Careful Not To Offend: Leaving strong negative impressions on people is not a way to get ahead in life. You’ll make plenty of enemies on the way to the top; don’t go out of your way to make more.


  1. Do Not Commit To AnyoneJust because you’ve helped someone, or vice versa, doesn’t mean you become beholden to them. If an alliance no longer benefits you, you should be the first person to walk away. Take special care not to violate law nineteen in pursuit of law twenty.


  1. Play A Scrub To Catch A Scrub: If someone is unsure of your intentions or your abilities, they’ll be wary of engaging you. This can work to your advantage if you’re weak, but a cagey opponent will be tougher to lead into a trap. Always try to appear weaker, slower, and dumber than the players you’re targeting. Make sure that they get the bulk of any threat responses and lure them into wasting resources attacking your secretly superior defenses. Winning in this way will often make it seem like you got lucky; rarely do scrubs correctly assign the blame for their strategic blunders.


  1. Surrender: When you’re weak, there is nothing to gain from futile resistance. Instead, surrender the current battle to gather strength for the ongoing war. Surrender conceals your unspent resources and will lull your enemy into thinking that you’re powerless. This can also be an opportunity to court sympathy and gather allies in preparation for taking on a stronger opponent. Do whatever you can to make your opponents violate law fifteen. In short, live to fight another day.


  1. Concentrate Your Resources: Put forth you maximum effort in the areas where you can best achieve victory. Don’t get distracted fighting smaller battles that don’t matter. Reread Decksplanations: Solidarity.” The only two exceptions to this are: don’t concentrate your resources in a battle where you can’t win and don’t commit to one ally. In either case, you risk too much of your own victory on an outcome that is outside your control and may not favor you.


  1. Be A Perfect Courtier: Don’t be the bearer of bad news. Don’t draw undue attention to yourself. Don’t criticize others. Don’t be “the cynical guy.” Become good at monitoring your own behavior and emotions and fit in with the spirit of the play group.


  1. Recreate Yourself: If you aren’t perfect, improve yourself. Don’t worry if being a perfect courtier doesn’t come naturally to you; it’s meant to be difficult. It separates the powerful from those who have less discipline and less resolve. There’s nothing natural about success. It takes monumental effort. Don’t be afraid to change and never think that you’re above changing to become successful.


  1. Keep Your Hands Clean: It’s unwise to be seen as the source of some negative outcome. There may not be such a thing as bad press, but it’s still not helping you in this context where our strategy is to generate sympathy, not antipathy.


  1. Create A Cult (of personality): Be vague and simple when describing yourself or your intentions. Emphasize the mundane rather than the intellectual. People prefer concrete examples to metaphor. Organize the people in your playgroup by assigning them titles and responsibilities that underscore the value that you place in them. Ask them to contribute effort and resources to improving your community. Disguise your sources of power and influence. Make it seem like the rewards of your position come directly from your efforts to achieve that position. This way, others will emulate your methods and personality, spreading your influence. Create an adversarial dynamic with your enemies that reinforces the need for your group. An us-versus-them dynamic will create feelings of exclusivity and prestige for your group while keeping your own membership focused on promoting your interests instead of the interests of your enemies. (Interpret this information in whatever way makes you feel the most icky.)


  1. Be Bold: Hesitation creates additional obstacles for you; boldness eliminates them. Boldness hides your deficiencies, strikes fear in your enemies, and creates authority for you. Some will challenge you, but everyone who doesn’t is one less potential enemy.


  1. Plan All The Way To The End: It’s easier to commit to bold action if you’re confident in your plan. Make sure you have all the information necessary to anticipate your opponents’ moves and be prepared to react accordingly.


  1. Seem Effortless: Struggle is not a sign of power. Display aplomb when dealing with a tough situation. Downplay your failures, but also downplay your successes and what it takes to achieve them. No one likes a braggart, and advertising your power can often make you a target of those who seek to take the power from you.


  1. Control The Options: When people are faced with a choice, they often agonize over it while weighing the alternatives against each other. Rarely do they ever ask about choices that weren’t presented to them. These “missing options” help color the decision in peoples’ minds just as much when they aren’t there. Dr. Milton Erickson, an early experimenter in hypnosis therapy, was experiencing a recurring problem in his treatment plans. His patients would have a relapse, blame him for this failure, and then stop coming to therapy. To solve this, the doctor would actually instruct his patients to relapse. Then, when they experienced the satisfaction of giving into their withdrawals they would gain a richer understanding of the fact that they still needed the therapy. The patients would then avoid relapsing in the future, which was what Erickson wanted all along.  


  1. Inspire Fantasy: Change is a slow and disruptive process. Even reading that sentence was a little painful. You don’t want to engender these types of negative feelings in people when influencing them to transition into being your ally. Overemphasize the immediate positive effects that a change can have and downplay nuisances like switching costs or alienating old allies. Self-help gurus promise instantaneous and miraculous changes in your personal fitness or your financial wealth. Your higher conscience understands that they are appealing to your fantasies, but your subconscious still wants to live the dream anyway.


  1. Discover Each Man’s Thumbscrew: People are constantly trying to hide their weaknesses, even from themselves (some people didn’t read “Decksplanations: Solidarity” even after being asked several times… this is a weakness). This works, to some degree, but it inevitably fails, because we’re constantly trying to identify the weaknesses in others so that they may be exploited. Find out what will really make your opponent squirm and you’ll have found a path to victory.


  1. Act Like You Deserve Respect: In some ways, this is a list of things you can do to seem like you deserve greater respect. Law thirty-four more specifically addresses the idea of removing your own limitations. When you expect less from the world, you’re seldom disappointed. Demand more respect and you’ll likely get more, even from yourself.


  1. Timing Is Everything: Key to the execution of law number one is the application of proper timing. When you win, you’ll be proven to outshine the master, which is what you’re trying to avoid–on the way up. When you get out to an explosive start in a game, you attract more attention. Ramping hard early on will be greeted with a hostile reaction, but casting accelerators later in the game seldom draws the same reaction. This also has applications for the choice of when to “go for it” in a tight game. The best answer is to wait. The timing will never be perfect, sometimes you’ll have to be bold, but arriving too early is just as destructive for your chances of winning as arriving too late.


  1. Don’t Advertise Your Weaknesses By Focusing On What Others Have: Don’t dwell in the envy of another player’s fortune. Instead convince yourself and others that these things aren’t important and that you don’t need them. This will help you minimize the emotional gains and losses that can sweep players up in a frenzy and tip the scales of a multiplayer game.


  1. Create Spectacle: The “truth” is usually seen, not heard. Sight has a position of prominence among the senses. People will often believe what they hear, but they’ll never doubt what they see. Therefore, make sure to show your actions to others. Remember that you can’t have power in isolation. There is no way to transmit your influence through a vacuum. You have to work with and through other people, so if they want to see something: show them!


  1. Think As You Like, Behave Like Others: Proud nails get the hammer. You don’t have to agree with all the actions of the other players in the game, but you aren’t doing yourself any favors by outwardly controverting players who can hinder your victory. One of the most destructive pieces of advice I’ve ever heard is: “just be yourself.” Do not, under any circumstances, tie your sense of self-worth to your current identity. That is a trap that keeps people in mediocrity. Instead, be who you actually want to be. That will almost certainly require changing your ideas about just who you are. If you want to be a winner, do the things that winners do.


  1. Stir Up Waters To Catch Fish: Emotion is an obstacle to rational thinking. Rational thinking is a core component of strategic thinking. Strategy is the plan you’re using to win the game. So, in many ways, emotions can be obstacles to winning. Stay calm and objective and you’ll prosper in every situation. If you can unnerve your opponents while staying calm yourself, you gain an advantage proportional to their loss in sound strategic decision making. It’s easier to “never let them see you sweat” if you are, in fact, not sweating.


  1. Be Suspicious Of A Free Lunch: Because there just ain’t no such thing. A healthy suspicion will help you avoid tricks and unnecessary entanglements. An unsolicited offer of help is rarely genuine. By being liberal with your aid and assistance you can bind people to you through guilt and gratitude, helping to assemble the allies and resources you need to achieve victory.


  1. Don’t Put On A Great Man’s Shoes: Be merciless when confronting the past; both yours and others’. Remember not to publicize your past successes or depend too heavily on your past allies. You might be aware that you shouldn’t outshine the master, but what if the most powerful person above you is eliminated? You could suddenly find yourself a target because another person was too hasty in trying to achieve victory.


  1. Strike The Shepherd: …and the sheep will scatter. Most problems can be traced back to a single source. If a problem looms large and confounds you with its complexity, you probably missed an earlier opportunity to solve it more easily. This goes hand-in-hand with law ten: avoid the unhappy. Take a hard line early on with problem individuals and you’ll save yourself the trouble and prevent others from catching their malcontent.


  1. Work On Hearts And Minds: Remember that the other players are people too, subject to all the same emotions that you are. They react negatively to criticism and stress. They like to be around people who are complimentary and easy to talk to. Ignoring people and their social needs is a surefire way to make yourself a target both in and outside the game.


  1. Mirroring Effects: If an opponent’s strategy depends on you reacting in a certain way to their actions, don’t. Instead, act as they act. Stay out of conflicts that they are unwilling to commit to. Attack the targets that they see as important. This behavior will confuse and frustrate them if they’re secretly targeting you. If not, they’ll see your actions as cooperation. Make sure you choose the correct opponent to mirror, though; following the actions of an unskilled or bumbling player can be disastrous.


  1. Be An Advocate For Change, But Change Slowly: Change makes people uncomfortable. If things change too quickly, other will turn these negative feelings towards you. You want to ride the wave of revolution up, but remember that the people who start revolutions don’t always end up in power. If you want to change the situation to be more favorable for you, don’t make changes so quickly that it your intent becomes obvious.


  1. Never Appear Too Perfect: A corollary to the first law, sometimes appearing too humble or too nice can have the opposite effect. Be moderate in your actions or else people will see through them to your true intentions, which may not always be so noble.


  1. In Victory, Learn When To Stop: Success can play tricks on the mind and inflate the ego. Where bad luck teaches lessons about timing and preparation, good luck makes you a high value target without giving you the corresponding wisdom of having earned your success. Even in victory be rational and act like a good courtier. The game isn’t over ‘til it’s over… and even then, sometimes it isn’t over.


  1. Be Formless: Employ all the strategic principles Sun Tzu espouses in The Art of War. Don’t stand and fight in a battle you can’t win. Instead, retract your soft targets. Don’t barge in the front, attack where your opponent is weakest, or expects you the least.


Bobby Fischer was, straight up, a worse technical chess player than Boris Spassky. How did he beat him? By playing a different game. An emotional game. He literally drove Spassky insane. When Spassky retired from the tournament from emotional stress, Fischer was crowned world champion.


Muhammed Ali could hit like a freight train, but he didn’t win because he could punch harder than his opponents. He was a defensive mastermind. He used the ropes to absorb the impact of incoming punches allowing him to survive longer and use his energy against an opponent whose stamina was depleted. It’s easy to knock out a boxer who is too tired to defend himself. His motto, “float like a butterfly sting like a bee,” is an inspired interpretation of Sun Tzu’s strategy. These are just a couple examples, but there are more everywhere you look. If you want to be a competitor in any arena, Sun Tzu is required reading.


There you have it. A modern literary classic reinterpreted and transplanted into a completely different context. PERFECT! Make sure to leave your feedback in the comments below. If you haven’t already, I encourage you to support CommanderCast on Patreon. I’ll be back next week to conclude my month long multiplayer tour! ‘Til then…



“In General” is the place where I share my ideas on unconventional topics that are often only tangentially related to Magic. This column is a mixed bag where I collect and present ideas that don’t have a home anywhere else. If you want a column about strategy, psychology, design, economics, philosophy, internet culture, and referential humor, you have come to the right place.

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