When playing commander at my local game store, I am surprised at how often I hear the words. “I don’t do politics” or some version similar. Commander by it’s casual multiplayer free for all nature is a social game. It has many moving parts and decision points to be made by each player. The board state is important to determining what a player should do. Unfortunately, people can impact the board state and what decisions will be made in the game. How you interact with the people at the table can go a long way with how they will treat you. It also from time to time affect the outcome of the game. In reality we all need to be as cunning as Sheev Palpatine if we are to reach our winning goals.
Who is Sheev?
Palpatine or Darth Sidious not only was a sith but he was involved in the Galactic Republic in Star Wars. He was at first just a public servant. He manipulated situations and moved the dark side’s chess pieces to rise in power. First he manipulated a naive Queen Amidala to call for a vote of no confidence on Chancellor Valorum. He used sympathy from the invasion of his home world, Naboo, to win the Chancellorship of the Galactic Senate. He manipulated the Jedi and events for years to hold onto that chancellorship. He then secretly removed later Senator Amidala as a deciding vote from his opposition. Then he manipulated her replacement, Jar Jar Binks, into proposing emergency executive powers to him. He did this for a clone army. Realistically he wanted war so that he could cement his power post what Republic laws would allow.
He also manipulated Anakin Skywalker to distrust the jedi and very subtly maneuver him into vulnerability to the dark side. He accomplished this posing as a mentor and friend. Eventually he revealed himself as a Sith. He was able to cause enough conflict in Anakin for him to turn on Jedi Master Windu. This was just enough of an advantage that he could destroy Windu. He then used that attack politically to avoid losing his special powers granted to him. In that session of the galactic senate he declared himself Emperor of the First Galactic Empire. He held that position for 19 years. Sheev Palpatine used politics to his advantage and as a commander player we need to do exactly the same. This does not make us an evil emperor. It will help us win.
Politics in EDH
Too often commander players think of politics as in the in game dynamic of making deals and forming an alliances. It is true that alliances and deals are a form of politics. There are times you can make a deal not to attack someone. In return for they deal with some threat on the battlefield that you can not deal with. However, politics is far more than these type of deals. What commander players need to grow into is an understanding that politics is any action that is social in nature that affects the game play at the table. It can be just verbal in nature or it can be reinforced by game play. Politics can be acting, alliances, gifts, neutrality and threats.
Acting is how you present yourself at the table. If you are a spike this can be hard as you often are playing your best to win. I have some Spike in me and it is difficult for me to lighten up at times. By presenting a more likable demeanor at the table by cracking some jokes. It relaxes the table. When a player has a choice between attacking someone they like versus someone else, they are more predisposed to not attack the player they like.
Acting also includes how you respond to in game situations. If you comment that you are either mana screwed or flooded in a natural way this is politics as well. Some players between how you are acting and your weak board state will pass you over. They will deal with more pressing situations they can see. They don’t know you have two of the three pieces you need to win out of nowhere in your hand. Your opponents are unaware you just need a couple more turns to destroy them all. While we need to be likable, we can’t act so agreeable that we will not respond to people. We can’t allow them to play cards on us without worry of reprisal. Even if you understand why they did what they did you do not need to let them know that.
Alliances can be long term or short term. Often alliances are banding together for a common goal to stop a player. That player has a significant material advantage on the battlefield. This can be what people think of when they consider politics. It is the classic I will attack player A if you do not attack me next turn. It’s also I wont counter your spell if you don’t block my Broodbirth Viper and let me draw a card. Alliances are often beneficial to both parties.
Wording of alliances is important. Always keep your alliance so that people will trust you. You can hold the letter of the law. For example, you have agreed to let him draw a card with Broodirth Viper. This doesn’t mean you will not remove it with a Swords to Plowshares afterwards. Likewise, you may have promised not to attack but you didn’t agree to not cast a Fireball and kill him. It’s important to point out the loophole that you exploit but not make a big deal about it. In these situations you are still trustworthy and the reputation should remain intact. You do not want to focus on it too much that they learn from their mistake. You want to exploit loopholes in the future.
Gifts is giving something in game without asking for anything back. A gift increases your likability with the player in question or to lessen his response to a play you make. If your deck is troublesome and strong a gift also could be not playing a win con to early. You may need to point it out you are letting the game and fun continue. Again This politic prevents people at the table from targeting you.
An example of a gift happened recently. I was playing a commander game I had Defense of the Heart out on turn four. I was playing against a Shadowborn Apostle deck that already had three Apostles out when I played the card. It was inevitable that Defense of the Heart would trigger. I had the cards to go infinite in mana in my deck and win the game on the spot. I pointed out I could do it. Then mentioned it was early in the game. I wanted us to have fun and instead grabbed two utility creatures.
When I play the deck again they may remember it can be devastating and can win fast. My opponents learned I am not playing competitively and will be less likely to target me right away. You do not have to be too nice. I did search for an Eternal Witness pulled Defense of the Heart from my graveyard and replayed it.
Neutrality is the tactic of trying to stay neutral. It is an attempt that when you do things you will not acquire the wrath of anybody at the table. When you interact with the table you want play in such a way that it’s perceived someone else is responsible for the interaction.
Examples of this sort of tactic is to randomly decide who to attack by rolling a die. It is not your fault you attacked them it is the fault of the die. Another example of neutrality is if a large threat is on the board. Ask if anybody can deal with the threat. In this scenario, you are instigating the removal of the threat but it is actually someone else who removes. It’s someone else that deserves the wrath as they actually took care of the threat not you. Such plays can be sneaky. You may have a card that will deal with the threat mentioned. Cunningly you have maneuvered someone else to use a resource instead. This allows you to save the resource for later,
Threats are the simplest of politics to execute. It is the idea that if you do something to me I will have my revenge. It may have been reasonable that they remove your Seedborn Muse or Eldrazi, but you never admit it. You hold the other player accountable. In future games players will think twice before doing such a thing again.
Holding mana up and saying just before combat phase with some strong beatstick creatures. “Wait a second before combat, Spike, don’t attack me I have a response. OK you may continue. Often this will give them pause and cause the aggressor to look elsewhere to attack. This it devastating if you have one white open to threaten Path to Exile or Swords to Plowshares. Or if you count seven mana and one of them is blue to insinuate a Cyclonic Rift. You start by saying these things whenever you have a response in hand. You are consistent doing it for a while. This builds up the knowledge you do have a response. Then over time you can occasionally bluff when you don’t have a response.
Be like George HW Bush when he was campaigning for president. He clearly communicated with the public when he said “Read my lips, no new taxes.” It does not matter that he raised taxes later. He was clear in communicating the message he wanted to get out and you need to do the same. I do encourage you to be better than Bush 41. Keep your word even if it has to wait a couple of games for it to happen. Then when you do retaliate, point it out but not in a salty way. This behavior helps convince the table to leave you alone when you threaten in the future.
They won’t always leave you alone. When a player is threatening sometimes you just have to neuter them and do it anyway. Any one player can’t be left alone all the time. This tactic is to buy time so that you are in a stronger position when it happens.
These are some different ways to use politics in your commander games. It is tempting for people to say “they don’t do politics.” and avoid mastering this part of the game. It does take effort, but the social is a part of the evening that you are playing commander. By all means leave all politics at the commander table. Politics is a subtle way you can influence people and help you have an advantage in a commander game. All things being equal, every player has a one in four chance of winning a commander game. Using politics can help preserve your resources, influence your opponents to attack elsewhere or paint a target on another players back. It improves your chances to win. That alone, that is reason enough for you to enter the Galactic Senate and begin your rise to emperor.