23, Jul, 23

Why MTG Players Aren't Conceding Properly

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Article at a Glance

In a typical one versus one game of Magic, there are compelling reasons to concede, especially in a tournament environment. Imagine the following scenario. It’s game one, you’re on the draw and you look at your opening seven. Your hand is not strong enough and you have to take a mulligan. After another seven you happen to get zero lands and you cannot keep. Trying again and it’s a one lander into nothing. Whether you mulligan or not from this point, your chance of winning has decreased a tremendous amount.

Next, your opponent has a crushing turn one play. Furthermore, cards like Surgical Extraction could give your opponent an early look through your entire deck. With that extra information games two and three would be a lot easier to win…for them.

At a certain point, the question must be posed. Is continuing to play in this game helping your chances to win this match? Once it’s more harmful to continue than to scoop a good player concedes and heads to the next game.

Here it’s extremely clear that conceding, before giving up vital information, can be a match winning decision. But that’s in a duel. What about in a multiplayer format like Commander? Can conceding be equally as powerful? Is it a viable and legitimate move? Or is conceding “in response” to deny a player a benefit just bad manners? What about in cases of diplomacy or bluffing?

The Myth of “Free” Plays

A huge issue with the perception of “optimal” plays is the idea that something is “free.” Sure, in a one versus one if your opponent has nothing in play and you want to attack, that’s definitely free. However, in multiplayer, that situation might look the same but it certainly is not the same. Every game action increases win percentage of one or more players while decreasing others. This is a completely different calculus than a one versus one game.

According to EDHREC there are several very commonly played commanders that have attack or combat damage triggers. Take Lathril, Blade of the Elves for example. Lathril can easily spiral out of control with just one or two connections. Each Elf you create can represent mana, card draw or a win condition. Going from two or three elves to ten or twenty is very possible in just a couple of turns. The deck goes out of control easily through combat and that relies on hitting another player.

Given a board state where one player has nothing and the others have blockers, someone piloting Lathril has an obvious incentive to make the easiest play and attack someone who can’t block. There are consequences for any given play for the entire table, though, and since Commander is a multi-player format, the table must live with these consequences. This is where diplomacy comes into play. Should the entire table allow one player to gain an advantage? How much of an advantage is too much?

What would make the Lathril player not take the easy attack? What if you know the other player is vindictive and they will fight you all night for this one move. Is it still worth it now? A fact like this should change your valuation of this play. Human beings are not ultra rational thinkers and many players do whatever they like regardless of the board state. In cases like these, having the backing of the table versus their ire is helpful.

So knowing this, what is the optimal move from the perspective of the defending player? If you and the table cannot or will not deal with Lathril, you are losing the game for the entire table and putting one player wildly ahead. A lot is said about optimal decision making when it comes to which spells to counter or what permanents to remove, but far less is said about giving another player value for nothing in return. So how do we fix this?

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Walk Softly, Carry a HUGE Stick

Swords to Plowshares is undoubtedly the best removal spell ever printed in Magic: The Gathering. Premium removal is just that, though. In Commander, you only get one and it’s not always available. So, what about a resource that you always have at your disposal that can deal with any situation? Diplomacy is all about the carrot or the stick and removal is the stick. What does this have to do with concessions? In the right situation, the threat of concession can be the stick. Take our Lathril example. If you’re the player who is getting hit every turn it’s on you to try and get something for your pain. Have the Lathril player attack the other players with their Elf tokens, have them remove something else on the table, anything, so that you’re not just providing them an advantage for free.

The problem is when you cannot do anything about it, your board state is a losing one, and the opponent won’t work with you. Can you still win this game? Maybe it’s time to buy some good will for the next game instead. There’s nothing that says you need to stay and be a punching bag. If you continue to sit there and get hit for nothing in return, you’re effectively on that player’s team which, from a certain perspective, can be extremely unfair to the other players involved. On the other hand, conceding to deny that player value can also be considered bad manners. It depends on the table.

This goes both ways though. There are multiple Commanders like Slicer, Hired Muscle which can quickly eliminate one player if the entire table gangs up on them. Imagine a game where you are the last player to act, have already taken multiple mulligans and have a bad opener. Player one plays Jeweled Lotus into a more than meets the eye Slicer and attacks you. The other two players do so as well. You’ve taken 15 Commander damage before your first play and just one more Slicer connection kills you. You can try to plead your case but we all know you’re already dead.

At the very least you have an option to take the bullet for one of the other players or concede pre-combat and make someone else get attacked instead. If a table knows you will sit there and take it, you will get bullied more often than not and you are buying turns for the other players at the table. Use these types of situations to show that you will negotiate moves, but if unlucky mulligans or bad draws have reduced your win percentage to near-zero, walk away and let someone else lose a turn earlier.

Your bark will have no bite if you are not willing to bluff, threaten and make good on those threats sometimes. The best time to do that? When you’re already very behind and going to lose anyways. This turns conceding into a potential carrot for the other remaining players since you have increased their chances of winning, hopefully at the expense of the dominant player.

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This Sounds like Bad Manners in Casual Games

Most games have moments that hinge on a sequence going just right. You have exactly enough mana to cast and equip a Sword of Feast and Famine and your next move will be to attack a player that cannot do anything about it. You’re going to untap all your lands and effectively get a second main phase with full mana. That player sizes up the board state and waits for you to get ready to move to combat when they ask you why they should allow you to get a free untap step off of them. You don’t care because they’re tapped out, have no blockers, and it looks like they can’t do anything about it. You attack them. They concede to spite you. Now you get nothing but a tapped creature and the other two players are the ones getting a free turn.

This may seem like a sour grapes situation, and sometimes it is. Other times, the other player evaluated their chances of winning and found it lacking. They then proposed to you a situation whereby they would be willing to help you out in exchange for helping them out, quid pro quo. You declined. They responded.

Being unwilling to negotiate cost you. It might seem like your win percentage would be higher now that there is one less player but if that player already determined they were going to lose, all they actually did was hurt your chances. Provided this player tried to be diplomatic, tried to increase their win percentage, and you didn’t go along with it they did make their most optimal move; making you pay a higher price. Since we’re talking about a casual situation, what’s the harm in extending the olive branch for the next game? Surely you are going to play together at some point in the future. But if you continuously won’t work with particular players or the table at large, then it makes sense that other players are looking to stick it to you, even in casual games, and that is the original source of poor sportsmanship.

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But Surely you won’t Concede in cEDH?

There are a surprisingly high number of extremely popular and powerful cards that are regularly played in cEDH decks that can dramatically fail if one player concedes. Look at such all stars as Jeska’s Will, Dockside Extortionist and Windfall as just a few examples. It is absolutely a valid strategy to secure something from the player on the winning end by threatening to take away their one sided effect. According to the comprehensive rules, you can concede at any time, even in the middle of an ability resolving, so you do not need priority, you don’t need to “trust” the other player – you simply need the ability to make good on your threat. There are plenty of strategic reasons in competitive events, for example league games where you’re playing for points, to quit early and not let a player go over the top.

It’s important enough to say again. Merely slapping the word “competitive” on a multiplayer sub-format does not remove the fact that there is more than one player involved in every single game decision. Therefore, the “optimal” play is almost never the same from the point of view of each of the players. That means that diplomacy carries a significant amount of weight because every game action is tilting the scales in a players favor or against it.

So You Can Do This, But Should You?

You should always be giving your best faith effort to attempt to win. Magic is a game that has a lot of comeback potential, however, sometimes the game is lost. If you do your best to talk your way back into the game and you’re still getting kicked while you’re down? You have no obligation to help those that keep kicking you. When the cards won’t help you and the table won’t help you, you are the only thing you can count on. Choosing how you exit the game, if done correctly, can help you in the next one. Additionally, conceding is, in my opinion, a far more neutral play than staying in a game as a spoiler. Actively attempting to king make with no intention of trying to win is far worse conduct.

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