You sit at the table, peeking over the fan of cards in your hand at the faces of your opponents. You scan the battlefield, taking in the various permanents that make up each player’s board. You ask “Cards in hand?” to the other players. You consider all of this information, taking what you know of each opponent’s deck, personality and play-style into consideration. And then you pass the turn.
“Ugh! You took forever and didn’t do anything!” Johnny untaps his land, draws his card and almost immediately re-taps his land, casting a heavy beater. Franklin reacts instantly, looking at George’s board which is packed with creatures and, noting that your board is as empty as his says “looks like you and I are the only ones that will be hit by that thing, can you do anything about it?”
“…Maybe?” is your cautious answer.
“What do you mean maybe?!” Franklin asks, “you either do or you don’t, and that thing can take you out with a couple of hits!” He gestures to his board and empty hand. “I have no answers for it! If you don’t take care of it he’ll take both of us out of the game!”
“Meh, it doesn’t seem like much of a threat to me,” you reply, allowing the creature to resolve.
The game of Magic: the Gathering is all about threat assessment. Even in a two player game, you are constantly having to assess which cards are bigger threats than others. Do I remove that three-drop now? Or do I wait to see what else he casts? In a multi-player game of Commander, the task of assessing the threat in the game is exponentially greater.
Consider the game of Chess. In it, each of the players have a set number of pieces, each of which move in a defined manner. This is known as perfect information. Each player can come up with strategies for multiple scenarios spanning multiple turns because there isn’t anything that the opponent can hide, so long as you are observant enough. It is a pure strategy game. As such, the good player constantly knows which pieces and positions are the most threat to their own position at any given time.
Now, consider just one of your Commander decks. The deck consists of 99 cards apart from the Commander. At any given point in the game, there are some number of cards in your hand, on the battlefield, in the graveyard, in exile and in your deck. Depending on your hand size, there are a multitude of combinations of cards that you might be holding. You know what they are, but your opponents do not. Now… consider a four player game of Commander where each player has some combination of cards in hand, battlefield, graveyard, exile and deck. There are an insane number of potential combinations of who has which cards at any given time, and therefore it is insanely difficult to determine who is the biggest threat.
Even if we can deduce the greatest threat, what do we do about it? Do we constantly shift our target? Jumping from greatest threat to greatest threat as the game-state changes? Or do we focus on one player and pummel them into submission, thereby reducing the number of players we have to contend with for the rest of the game? I think that boils down to each individual player’s style with potential for the deck to determine what you do. Marchessa, the Black Rose for example, always wants you attacking the player with the most life. An aggro deck, on the other hand, probably wants you to hit the weakest player until they are gone.
In the end this all boils down to the individual players and is really hard to evaluate. However, I will try to give some pointers that will at least attempt to make sense of the vast pantheon of choices that a player has on any given turn. Note that I am writing based on games with three or more players. 1v1 Commander has very little draw for me, and on top of that, there is only one player that could even be the biggest threat, so very little to deduce on that front.
KNOW YOUR DECK
The first step to assessing threats is to know your own deck. You have to be as familiar as you can be with your own arsenal of spells to know what you can and can’t handle from your opponents. For example; it is late in the game and you have one of your eight removal spells in your hand with the rest still buried in the deck. In this case you know that you should have more coming soon, so maybe you use the one in your hand to get rid of something that is somewhat mediocre but has still provided some level of advantage to your opponent. On the other hand, if you have cast seven of your eight removal spells, and have just one left in your hand, you know that you can’t risk wasting it on that mediocre creature, but must wait until you are directly threatened by something significant.
KNOW YOUR OPPONENTS AND THEIR DECKS
The more you know about your opponents’ play styles and decks the more able you are to assess how much of a threat they are. In general though, a good rule of thumb would be to assume that the threat level of an opponent is inversely proportional to how much you know about them and their deck. In other words, because you can’t be sure, you have to assume the worst case scenario.
Even if you don’t know the specifics of your opponents or their decks, you can start to make general conclusions pretty quickly, and even assumptions based on “standard” deck building practices as well as what you see as you play. So, if you consider that Johnny is playing a Temur deck, you can make a reasonable assumption that it is a mid-range deck of which the majority is probably creatures. You can get a feel in the first few turns if they are ramping to something huge, you can make predictions on what spells they have that could mess with your plans… you can be nearly certain that at some point a Cyclonic Rift will screw you over because they are playing blue. If you have played enough you can even get a feel for what specific cards a player might need to pull off a win. Take my favorite sphinx, Sharuum. If you come up against a Sharuum deck you have to be on the lookout for specific cards because if they play those cards then the game will just end, so be sure to counter that Disciple of the Vault the second you see it.
DON’T LET TABLE TALK INFLUENCE YOUR ASSESSMENT
Whatever the “political” situation is at the table, you have the knowledge that you need to assess the threat levels at the table because you have been observant. Let Franklin talk you into using your removal on Johnny’s beater, but only if you already wanted to use your removal for that purpose. In the end, if Johnny wants to attack you, well, if your removal is sorcery speed, then maybe he gets one free hit. If your removal is instant speed, then he doesn’t. Maybe Johnny will hit Franklin instead. Maybe your table talk “Don’t swing that thing at me or it will die,” will be enough to dissuade him from attacking you.
KNOW HOW YOUR CARDS WORK
If you are running a card, then it should be on you to know how it works in most situations. Granted, corner cases could come up, but they are typically few and far between. What you don’t want is to think you know how something will work, and then try it and have it fail because you had an intricacy of the rules incorrect. The basics of this is to confirm that you have the most current wording of the card. I’ve used this example before, but take a look at the Unlimited Icy Manipulator vs. the Ice Age Icy Manipulator. The Unlimited Icy was vastly more powerful, actually stopping the effect of the tapped card, and it didn’t tap itself, so you could use it over and over again so long as you had the mana to activate it! WotC fixed it in Ice Age, and rightfully so. If you have only ever played with an Unlimited copy, then you wouldn’t know that it has errata to the printed text. The lesson is that if you have older cards in your deck, you should check them out on Gatherer to make sure that you know the most current errata.
KEEP IT FUN – THIS IS A GAME AFTER ALL
A few sub-points go into this one, but when playing Commander remember that this is a game and that it is supposed to be fun. Commander is more about spending time with your friends than about winning, at least if you are playing with friends. If you are playing with strangers, then it is about doing crazy plays that may or may not win you the game, but ideally you have fun in the process.
Bear in mind that each player is different. Each has a different play style, different personality, different deck, different level of experience, and so on and so on. As such, even though I am “clearly” not the biggest threat to anyone at the table, to someone else at the table, I may be. Perhaps I have a card that limits just one player at the table. For example, I was playing my Experiment Kraj deck one time and an opponent played Linvala, Keeper of Silence. Nobody else at the table much cared, but I did. She shuts down the entirety of the Kraj deck. To me that player was now the biggest threat to me, but to the other players, it was just a 3/4 flyer.
Remember that even if one player teams up with another, at some point one or the other will have to attack, because there can be only one winner in a game of Commander. It is each player’s job to eliminate all of the other players, so that is what we are all trying to do. But it is still, just a game and absolutely nothing to get worked up about.
Once again, above all, have fun trying to win the game, but have more fun interacting with the people you are playing with.