The Kingmaking Nuance: Social Complications in Tournament Multiplayer Magic
Pact of Negation | Illustrated by Jason Chan
Welcome to a game of Competitive Commander. I want to introduce you to our four players, Andrew, Bridget, Charlie, and Diana. Andrew is in seat one, Bridget in seat two, Charlie in seat three, and Diana in seat four. As we join our players, Andrew has just placed Thassa's Oracle on the stack with zero cards in his library. Bridget and Charlie reveal their hands, identifying that they have no way to stop Andrew from winning the game. Diana reveals a Pact of Negation, but voices that she has no conceivable way of avoiding losing the game upon her upkeep.
In a game of 1v1 Magic, Diana's decision to cast Pact of Negation is irrelevant. If she does, she loses, and if she does not, she loses. In our game of multiplayer Magic, Diana's decision is relevant. Both Bridget and Charlie possess the ability to win the game, and if Diana decides to cast Pact of Negation, the winner of the game is not yet determined. Our first three social concepts can be extracted from this example.
- If Diana casts Pact of Negation because she doesn't want Andrew to win, it's spite play.
- If Diana casts Pact of Negation because she knows Bridget will win if she does, it's kingmaking.
- If Diana casts Pact of Negation because she agreed ahead of time to help Charlie win, it's collusion.
If you're thinking to yourself 'wow, that's messed up,' then you'd be right. We're examining how Diana might determine the winner of a game of Magic based entirely on how she feels about the players at the table.
Welcome to the thunderdome.
Kingmaking, Spite Plays, Collusion, and Mana Bullying
We'll be diving into kingmaking, spite play, collusion, and mana bullying in depth. The way we approach these concepts as a judge, tournament organizer, and player will differ, and of course will influence how we want to handle them in our games. cEDH is the focal point of our examples, but these philosophies will extend to any other multiplayer Magic experience, such as Conspiracy or Commander Legends Limited. It's also important to remember that the application of these concepts in tournaments will differ from how you handle them in your local playgroup.
The assessment of these four concepts differs between social and tournament play. In social play, there are two realistic outcomes of the game for each player, a win or a loss. In tournament play, there's a third option, which is that the match ends as a draw. The impact of draws on these social concepts is important, and I'll be noting this as a distinction throughout this article. The MSTR offers that each player in a game receives a point when a game ends in a draw, even if a player has lost. The scope of this reasoning is outside this article, but it is highly elegant in resolving some of the social problems I discuss in this article. You can read more in the MSTR itself.
In layman's terms, spite play is the concept that a player is taking a game action because of a grievance rather than out of some strategic benefit. In a casual game of Commander, this happens constantly. The statement "I'll attack Nick because he won last game" is technically spite play, although I certainly wouldn't bat an eye at it. Oftentimes, spite play comes from a place of strong emotion such as frustration or anger. It can feel good to lash out and be 'spiteful' when a game has not gone your way, especially if you believe that the opponent's decision was wrong.
Let's take a look at some scenarios to build out frameworks to assess spite play.
- Andrew attacks Bridget with three 1/1 Warriors. Bridget has two life and a single 1/2 blocker. Bridget blocks one Warrior. Is Bridget's decision to block a spite play?
- Andrew attacks Bridget with three 1/1 Warriors. Bridget has two life. After attackers are declared, Bridget casts Abrupt Decay on one of the attacking Warriors. Is Bridget's decision to cast Abrupt Decay a spite play?
- Andrew attacks Bridget with three 1/1 Warriors. Bridget has two life. After attackers are declared, Bridget casts Abrupt Decay on Andrew's commander. Is Bridget's decision to cast Abrupt Decay a spite play?
- In Andrew's upkeep, Bridget states that if Andrew attacks Bridget, that Bridget would cast Abrupt Decay on Andrew's commander. Andrew attacks Bridget with three 1/1 Warriors. Bridget casts Abrupt Decay on Andrew's commander. Is Bridget's decision to cast Abrupt Decay a spite play?
I think most of you would look at scenario 1 in any social setting and conclude "this is not spite play." Setting aside any possible outs (like one of the other players in the game deciding to interact with the Warriors), it feels "right" to have blocked. This comes from a social concept I like to call the 'cost of doing business.'
The cost of doing business is the idea that through both spoken or unspoken cues, players understand that you will enforce consequences for their game actions. It is unspoken, but Bridget's actions in scenarios 1 and 2 probably feel like an unspoken cost of doing business (the business being Bridget's defeat).
Scenario 3 is a bit trickier. Most of us have been in a game of EDH where we've gone to kill someone and in response, they explode at us, destroying something unrelated before losing the game. This is the emotional type of spite play that cEDH players usually hope to avoid in their game. The amount that this feels like spite play correlates strongly to how Bridget expresses her line of play. If she is spiteful, it's probably a spite play.
Scenario 4 is not spite play. Bridget created incentive for Andrew not to attack her and followed through on her threat when he did. As a player, this is good tactical cEDH. However, this will only work if your opponents respond to threats with purely rational decision-making. It is common enough that Andrew responds to Bridget by "swinging all out" that you have to be cautious when employing a tactic like this.
In a tournament, the way we assess scenario 3 changes. A player may reasonably feel that Andrew is "running away with the game", and by removing his commander, it increases the probability of the game ending in a draw. Noting that draws are something that players are incentivized to achieve, it is possibly still 'tournament-optimal' for Bridget to remove Andrew's commander despite immediately losing the game.
Judges do not enforce spite plays within a game of Magic. We absolutely do require players to be kind to one another, though, and it is valuable to remember the philosophies behind Unsporting Conduct if spite play is happening within a game. Spite play is an in-game action that is often an extension of an out-of-game player experience. If a player is so upset as a result of their game that they are choosing to make irrational 'spite-based' gameplay actions, it may be worth a gentle investigation. Use your best judgment.
As a Tournament Organizer, we can choose to enforce spite plays. However, you probably shouldn't. Unlike a judge, which is bound to adhere to the rules outlined in the MTR and IPG, you can do almost anything you want. In theory, you could make up some ruleset for your tournaments that bans spite plays, but almost all spite plays in tournament settings fall under the two cases of "I am playing for a draw" or simply "I am practicing the cost of doing business for future matches." In both scenarios, players are making tactical decisions that benefit them either in this game, or in future ones (due to reputation), and that isn't spite play. Spend your energy being a community leader instead, and allow players the space to express their emotions out-of-game in a healthy manner. Magic players aren't always the most well-adjusted individuals, and working to create healthy and warm environments in your events will reduce spite plays indirectly.
The following example is left as an exercise to the reader:
Andrew controls Witherbloom Apprentice and casts Chain of Smog, targeting themselves. Bridget states to Charlie "If you target me with Chain of Smog, I will copy it and target Andrew" and immediately casts Deflecting Swat, changing the target of Chain of Smog to Charlie. Charlie expresses their frustration and copies Chain of Smog, targeting Bridget. Bridget copies Chain of Smog targeting Andrew. Andrew wins the game.
Did any spite play occur in this game? Do you think Bridget and Charlie made rational decisions during this game?
In game theory, a kingmaker is a player who lacks sufficient resources or position to win at a given game, but possesses enough remaining resources to decide which of the remaining viable players will eventually win.
Unlike spite play, textbook kingmaking is quite rare. Players, broadly speaking, rarely end up in a scenario where they are both a non-viable player and are faced with the absolute decision to determine the winner. Oftentimes, players make decisions that inadvertently advantage one player in a game; this can feel like kingmaking to other players, but it just isn't.
A good example may be Andrew attempting to win the game by casting ten spells into Bridget's Rhystic Study, drawing her ten cards. Eventually, Andrew is stopped and cannot continue. This is not kingmaking. Charlie and Diana may argue that Andrew's line of play is kingmaking, in that Bridget is likely to win the game following Andrew's line of play; however, it is likely more fair to state that Andrew is unlucky, bad at Magic, or is "throwing." Andrew is still a viable player, albeit a less viable one. He may have made a mistake, but he is not a kingmaker.
Even in our Pact of Negation example from the beginning of the article, Diana is not kingmaking unless it is certain that one of the other two players will win the game. Simply making herself a non-viable player to the hindrance of another player is not kingmaking. Most of the time, a player casting Pact of Negation is playing for a draw. When they are not playing for a draw, they are usually playing to their outs, and as unlikely as those outs might be, they are usually non-zero.
In fact, the only example of kingmaking I have ever seen occurred in the semifinals of Tier1Con 2022. I wrote in depth about it in my Tier1Con TO Report, but I'll simplify it here:
Diana has lost the game. Andrew has Thassa's Oracle in hand and an empty library. Bridget has enough Warriors to kill both Andrew and Charlie. Charlie has a counterspell in hand, and nothing else. If Andrew goes for a win with Thassa's Oracle, Charlie has to decide if he will counter Thassa's Oracle and lose to Bridget, or if he will let Thassa's Oracle resolve, and lose to Andrew. In either scenario, Charlie is incapable of winning the game. He has perfect information that he will lose and he also must decide who wins.
In social games, each playgroup and individual may come to their own personal moral stance to resolve these scenarios. A common refrain is that "since I cannot win the game, I will not impact the game." I have played many games where players are holding Pact of Negations they cannot pay for, and of their own volition, elect to not interact when their personal outcome is predetermined. If Charlie believes in this, he would choose not to interact with Andrew and let Andrew win the game. A less popular position, but also reasonable, is to "survive as long as possible." In this scenario, Charlie should interact with Andrew and allow Bridget to win the game.
The outcome of this scenario in a social game would be determined by Charlie's values. Oftentimes, cEDH playgroups end up forming social norms that resolve situations like this the same way each time. Iterated over many games, it is expected that it will be "fair" and that players are treated equally (by the situation being resolved the same) every time.
More elegant, however, is the outcome available to tournament players (and indeed the one that these players navigated themselves to during this game). They chose to intentionally draw the game. If you want the full story and reasoning, I'd point you towards the original report.
As a judge and TO, this "third option" actually mitigates almost all possible kingmaking scenarios. In a textbook kingmaking example, the kingmaker must choose the lesser of two evils via some method external to the game itself (perhaps standings, friendliness with one player, etc.). The draw provides a kingmaker with a third option, an option they can play for, and one they can compel the other players at the table to agree to. This is another example where players being allowed to play for draws provides elegant solutions to an otherwise complex in-game social issue.
Collusion & Throwing
Collusion is probably the simplest concept we've discussed thus far, albeit the hardest to detect. Collusion, simply put, is two or more players working together to reach a predetermined outcome.
Let's look at some examples of what collusion could look like. Throughout the course of the game, Andrew could make sure that Bridget will always be able to attack Andrew to draw a card with Tymna. Andrew might choose not to pay for Bridget's Rhystic Study, whereas he always pays for Charlie's. Andrew might use his Swan Song on Charlie instead of Bridget. Andrew might use table-talk to persuade Charlie to attack Diana instead of Bridget. Andrew might mulligan to a hand that offers plenty of interaction to use on Charlie and Diana, but no proactive game plan for himself.
Collusion, when done properly, leaves no trace. Two skilled players colluding will be both impossible to detect and highly effective. 2v1v1 is an extremely unfair game to play. In social games, collusion is virtually nonexistent. The lack of incentive to win a single game makes the time and energy spent colluding worthless.
In tournaments, there is definitely incentive to collude. Prize pools in cEDH have reached the thousands. Top tables featuring two friends and two randoms will have advantage provided to the friends playing together. Many of us will sit back and hope that we would not choose to collude when given the opportunity; however, I don't know how certain I would be when that decision represents multiple thousands of dollars.
Judges do not have the ability to write into policy something that prevents collusion with the accuracy necessary to offer that promise to the players. A cheater with thousands of hours practicing cheating is still doing something that can be detected with a camera. The nearly irrefutable defense for collusion is a player stating "I made a bad play."
I am confident that a future cEDH tournament will be decided by collusion, although I wouldn't be surprised if one has already. As a player, you should be aware that your opponents may be colluding during the course of your games in any tournament. If you don't like that this is a possibility, I'd kindly suggest that tournament EDH may not be the Magic format for you.
Throwing is most applicable to 1v1 tournaments, where you intentionally lose a game to make sure someone else wins. Magic already has plenty of precedent of pro players conceding to one another in final swiss rounds or in brackets. When two players of the same team face each other in a top-8 match, the player with the better matchups in future rounds will often win through concession. These types of issues plague all competitive sports, where two teams from the same region are incentivized to give one team a significant advantage in future matchups via any means necessary.
There's not a lot we can do about this. It's a problem that extends past cEDH, past Magic, and into competitive sports as a whole. Teams and players have been getting in trouble for match-fixing for decades, and I suspect that if multi-billion dollar professional sports leagues haven't figured it out, we won't be able to either.
Mana bullying is the only concept in this article that actually involves existing rules. When a player activates a mana ability (such as tapping a land), they create a new round of priority. Specifically, to resolve a spell or ability on the stack you have to have "passed the turn without taking any actions." Tapping a land is an action. To illustrate:
Andrew casts Thassa's Oracle. Bridget has no response, and passes priority. Charlie thinks Diana has a response, and passes, Diana does not have any response, but taps a Forest, floating one green mana. Andrew passes, Bridget passes, and Charlie has an opportunity to cast Counterspell, countering Thassa's Oracle.
Before you get in the comments and tell me "mana abilities don't use the stack," I will assure you that you are correct, and also that the above sequencing is how the game works. You can read more here.
Charlie, in this scenario, could say to Diana "I am going to pass priority. I have a counterspell. I want you to tap your Forest and reset priority back to me. Otherwise, we both lose." Charlie could go even further, and request that Diana taps all of her lands, resulting in Charlie untapping with Diana entirely tapped out. This is mana bullying.
Diana is faced with an interesting dilemma. In a single tournament game, it is in her best interest to allow the mana bullying to happen and tap out. Her outcome is losing the game to Andrew right now, or potentially losing the game to Charlie on his turn. In an iterative game, like in most social games, Diana should never allow Charlie to bully her, and instead choose to lose to Andrew right now to prove a point.
Diana does not want to accumulate a reputation that she is vulnerable to mana bullying, because otherwise it will always be used against her. At the same time, it is optimal in this specific instance to acquiesce to it, because it secures her a higher probability of winning this individual game. You will have to decide for yourself whether it is wiser to aim for long-run strategic advantage or to win a single match in this tournament.
As a judge, just be aware that this is actually how the rules work and be prepared to explain it to players if it ever comes up.
Social play is a core component of cEDH and tEDH. Whether we like it or not, games of multiplayer Magic will sometimes be determined by one's own ethics and how much players like each other. Judges and tournament organizers simply cannot prevent this component of play. For all involved in cEDH and tEDH, I recommend you look at these multiplayer complications and accept them as integral to the format as 100-card singleton or the Command Zone.
If you want a game of pure mechanical skill, do not look to cEDH as a bastion of skill-testing gameplay. cEDH is closer to a game of high-stakes poker than it is to a game of Magic, where playing your opponents can be more important than the cards in your hand. If this is something that intrigues or excites you, you're in the right place. This thunderdome is one of my favorite places to be.