What's In It For Me? - Deals in cEDH
Dark Deal | Illustrated by Scott Murphy
Collaboration, from a strategic perspective, is a peculiar concept to really understand in Commander, especially in cEDH. Yes, we're all sitting down and playing to win, but the path to ending the game is a winding one along which many players will find themselves in varying positions. As opposed to one-versus-one games, the multiplayer aspect of Commander necessarily induces a complex social phenomenon unlike that of any other format.
While there will certainly be moments of teamwork in Commander that make it feel like a one-versus-one (albeit against an opponent with three times the available resources and number of turns), a little digging will show that this is never truly the case.
Collaboration neither fully collapses multiple players into a single entity nor is it ever wholly mutualistic, and understanding the role that collaboration plays in competition is incredibly important to advancing any and every strategy.
Making Deals in cEDH
Let's talk about deals, something no other competitive format incentivizes. Commander's multiplayer structure means that a simple player-to-player interaction doesn't necessarily include all possible actors, meaning that a multitude of non-competitive interactions frequently arise between a subset of players. Let's use a cEDH all-star, Collector Ouphe, as a simple example. Here's the layout:
Each player has seven cards in hand, no Companion, an equivalent number of lands in play, and all commanders are in the Command Zone. In short, we're at a state of absolute parity (this makes the base interaction simpler to understand, as we don't have to think about card advantage quite yet).
As for nonland permanents in play, each player has one nonland mana-producing permanent in play: Player A has a Llanowar Elves, Players B and C each have a Signet of some sort, and Player D has an Elvish Mystic. Player B is one turn (and one mana) away from a potential combo win, and Player C cast a Demonic Tutor the turn prior.
Next comes Collector Ouphe and a two-player deal. Player A proposes to player D that "I can help stall for a bit if you can protect this next spell." A bit of a vague deal, but that's not the primary point here. What matters is that A has offered to buy time to share with Player D so that they don't lose to Players B or C just yet. Player D accepts, Player A casts Collector Ouphe, player B attempts to counter, and Player D honors the deal by countering Player B's interaction.
It took us a bit of legwork to get there, but at the end of the day a deal was made and executed. So, what happened as a result?
Player's A and D are both effectively up in mana, as the Collector Ouphe has shut off the resources for Players B and C. Player A deployed the initial threat (or stax piece, in this case), meaning that further interaction from players B and C are likely going to be pointed at A, as opposed to D. This cost Player D a card from hand (the defensive interaction), so no one advanced without some sort of cost, which is crucial. Nothing was gained for free.
Additionally, Player A directly advanced their gameplan, while Player D provided supportive interaction due to the indirect benefits provided from the explicit steps taken by Player D. As opposed to Player A casting a spell that directly provided a benefit to Player D (allowing them to draw cards, for example), the threat presented by Player A via Collector Ouphe simply did not apply to Player D, but rather their opponents.
This was an example of a partial deal, essentially one in which two teams were formed and the game briefly operated in a manner akin to one-versus-one, albeit with only two players expressively operating in support of one another (hence the "partial"). Critically, however, even though resources are balanced under this kind of deal, it's important to understand why something like this - although beneficial to Players A and D - isn't mutualistic.
Play To Win
At the end of the day, cEDH is about playing to win; that's the competition. A deal in cEDH may briefly cause goals to collapse into a shared one, but the intent behind this isn't purely benevolent. Player A isn't looking to "help" D, nor is D looking to "help" A. Both players are looking to survive, hopefully long enough to take out the other one. Mutualism is defined by long-term support in the shared pursuit of a single goal, which is quite the contrary to a short-term team-up spurred by immediate pressures.
Collector Ouphe aided in understanding this because it created a clear distinction between those who were subject to the lockout of mana production and those who weren't, which is why a deal was feasible. The threat - and the response - created a unified defensive front. In short, Players A and D operated cooperatively because there was a greater threat presented, not because either wanted to advance the other's gameplan.
Let's try another example, this time something a bit more familiar: Mystic Remora and the ever-present question of "Do I feed the fish?"
Similar setup as before: absolute parity as a base starting point is assumed. It is turn one, and Player A goes first. Land, Mystic Remora, pass. We'll assume Players B and C each have a turn-one noncreature play in hand, but Player D doesn't. Here's the deal this time:
Player B proposes to Players C and D that "I won't cast a noncreature spell until either Mystic Remora is gone or I absolutely have to interact with something." Players C and D accept, turns pass, and the Mystic Remora goes away.
This is a deal which was executed through inaction, as opposed to the support as seen in the Collector Ouphe example. No one gained anything other than time, but no resources were spent, either. It's a bit trickier to evaluate since no cards other than Mystic Remora changed zones, but this is still a case of nothing being gained for free...or was it?
The full front of inaction from Players B, C, and D stymied the Mystic Remora's effect, at the overall cost of stalling the overall game. Remember: Players B and C could have cast a spell turn one but chose not to do so. This was their "opportunity cost" for executing a deal. Player D, however, didn't have such an option. Rather, by simply agreeing to the deal but not admitting to being without a play either way, Player D was able to operate in a parasitic nature. With the information available, Player D didn't even participate in a deal; they simply operated under the restrictions inherit to their game state, yet nonetheless benefited due to the way social information was directed.
Both the Collector Ouphe and Mystic Remora examples highlight the most common kind of collaboration: responsive fronts emergent due to asymmetric threats. In the first case, it was the potential threat from Players B and C which formed the pressure necessary for a shared response from Players A and D, while in the latter example it was the explosive card advantage engine which caused a parasitized collaboration to emerge between Players B, C, and D.
However, as can be seen in the parasitism aspect discussed in the Mystic Remora example, it is important to take a moment and evaluate social modality in dealmaking.
The Roles at Play
A quick note here; not every role is going to pop up in every deal. The degree of social complexity in a deal increases alongside the number of participants, so there will necessarily be a ceiling on what can go on in any given interaction - something capped, in part, by the number of players. We saw this in the Collector Ouphe example: the two-player team-up involved optional participation from each player, and as such parasitism was kept to a minimal level. Yes, one player advanced a threat using the defensive resources of another, but this was all in relatively good faith.
Okay, with that out of the way, on to the roles themselves. These can be best summed up into four main umbrella categories, with the distinction between deal proposer and deal recipient being applicable to the first three categories. They are active participant (proposer/recipient), passive participant (proposer/recipient), parasite (proposer/recipient), and deal antagonist.
Each deal is necessarily comprised of the player who proposes collaboration, and any other number of players who agree to it. This is the proposer/recipient designation, and understanding why it is important is key to evaluating just about everything else which we are about to get into.
Brokering a deal typically involves being prepared for two things: a temporary concession and starting high with negotiations but expecting to meet in the middle. As such, the person proposing a deal holds a great deal of sway in that they hold agency in brokering an agreement, but they are also subject to the whims of a table. In short: the proposer is best understood as the person asking something.
Compare to the recipients, who hold the leverage in negotiating a more suitable arrangement for themselves, and an important power dynamic emerges, one in which the people with the most to gain are actually those who wait for deals to come to them, not those who propose the most. That's not say that deals aren't worthwhile in cEDH. As we've seen in the earlier examples, leading the conversation on how to respond is key to navigating the social complexities of a multiplayer format.
If no deals were proposed in the first example, the game may have ended on the next turn. Similarly, the Mystic Remora player likely would have drawn an insurmountable number of cards. Both crises were averted by a collaborative response, albeit one with its own internal power dynamics.
Finally, let's talk about participation. This splits into the three main roles of players once a deal has been reached: those who take an active role, those who take a passive role, and those who parasitize the agreement. In the Collector Ouphe deal, there was only one type of participation on display: active. Each player involved in the collaborative effort took some game actions (other than passing priority), and each player spent some form of resources. In this case, one player cast a stax piece, and another player cast defensive interaction. They each actively furthered the game state in a collaborative measure.
Looking to the Mystic Remora example, we can see that the other two kinds of participants were on display here. No actions were taken, which is exactly what was needed to advance the deal. Inaction served as action here, and this moment in the timeline of the game was a sequence of passive collaboration.
However, one such player did not have the opportunity to divert from this pathway, as they lacked any noncreature plays and as such had no means of disrupting the deal. In short, this player gained from the interaction, but did not directly change their play pattern to suit the goals of the deal. This was the parasite of the deal.
Understanding the many different roles for players in deals and the goals which they seek to accomplish is crucial for advancing in cEDH, because doing so opens up a world over over-the-board talk, which is among the most flexible pieces of interaction we have access to. If we are the ones making deals, now we can consider: who benefits the most from this; am I being parasitized? Or can I use the results of this to leverage my position going forward? On the other end, if someone proposes a deal to us, we can ask: how can I leverage my position as the proposed to maximize my benefit? Is there a way for me to extract additional advantage; can I be the player who does nothing, and benefits just the same? Who here is an active participant, and who is passive?
Good luck in your games going forward, and may you always make your deals count.
More cEDH content from Harvey McGuinness.