Who do I attack? You’re (probably) doing it wrong

31 Oct

Disclaimer before I start: I’m no expert on this either, and there’s a better than even chance I’m doing it wrong as well!

Threat Assessment in EDH

Over the last few months there have been numerous threads on numerous forums about how Person X’s playgroup is always attacking the wrong person (usually because they attacked Person X), and Person X – let’s call them Steve – thinks that everyone else has some kind of personal vendetta, or something.

That sort of thing does happen (check out this post in DJ Catchem’s blog for an excellent example of it), but I personally subscribe to the theory “never assign to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity” (you’d be surprised how correct that statement is!). It’s entirely possible that Steve is being attacked because he is perceived to be the biggest threat, or he’s the nearest person, or has the least complicated board, or talked last (<— yes, really. “I always attack the first person to talk” is a strategy – and I use the word loosely – that has been used in our playgroup.)

What I hope to achieve in this article is to give you an idea of my thought processes, and more importantly, why I think that, when it comes to who I target in any given situation. I’m not saying this is the One True Way of threat assessment, but I like to think that I’ve got a pretty good system going on and one that has served me well, and results in the kind of EDH games that I want to play.

Note that these points apply to free-for-all games; for alternative formats (Star, Emperor, and so on) the theories are subtly different.

Attack the player in the strongest position, most of the time

So straight off the bat this one’s going to cause some disagreement. There is a school of thought that says “if everyone attacks the strongest player, all the time, all that happens is everyone is dragged back together, and games last forever”. In my opinion, this is the desired result. You get to play more, you get to see more of your deck, everyone is involved for longer… Quite frankly I don’t see the downside to playing more Magic.

I have a couple of reasons for playing this way:

  • If you don’t attack the strongest player, but attack someone else, you are effectively making the strongest player even stronger than they already are, by weakening one of their opponents.
  • If you do attack the strong player, you are sending a message to the rest of the table that perhaps they need to think a bit about who they should be attacking.

Who is the strongest player, anyway?

This is the $64,000 question. The method I use to determine the strongest player is something like this:

Very Early Game (Turns 1-3): No one, really. Concentrate on getting your own gameplan into action.

Early Game: Whoever is on the most life gets a few early beats, if it doesn’t leave me too exposed.

Mid Game: This part of the game lasts the longest and is also the hardest to figure out who the actual threat is. Is it the guy with 30 2/3 plant tokens? Usually, yes… but maybe you have a Lightmine Field or Ghostly Prison stopping him from attacking you. Is it the guy with 15 Mountains, a full grip of cards, and Kiki-Jiki in his Command Zone? In our group the answer is definitely yes, but it may not be in yours. I usually try and assess (sometimes without much success) to determine who the biggest threat is by using the following, in this order:

  • Capability of killing the whole table in the next turn or two (e.g. Warp World, Combo)
  • Capability of killing me in the next turn or two
  • Capability of wrathing the board, if I care about such things.  (Which I usually do… I tend to play creature decks)
  • The highest life total, if I can attack without being attacked back for lethal in return

If no one meets these criteria, then usually I don’t attack. As always there are exceptions though; if I have a Nether Traitor, I may as well attack someone with it, because it’s not going to do any good on defence.

Late Game:  In the late game, my priorities change a little. If someone can be taken out, I usually do it. The late game is where the true haymakers start flying, and someone on 2 life can just as easily kill everyone that’s left out of nowhere as someone on 30 life.

All of these things can change, depending on the game state. Sometimes (say in Mono-White Sliver Equipment) a particular permanent will be bad for you, and no one else cares about it (Aura Shards) and if you have no answers in your hand (or worse, deck) you have to take that player out.

The idea here is to be flexible. You want to make the plays that result in you having the best chance to win the game, but at the same time, you (in theory…) also want everyone else involved in the game and having fun – after all, EDH is a social/fun format, not a win-at-all-costs, always-make-the-tight-play competitive one. (Yes, this is merely my opinion. It is, however, also the opinion of the creators of the format, and more importantly, the vast majority of the players of the format as well.)

As an illustration of that difference; in competitive, sanctioned magic, it’s always the correct play to take a player out, if you are able to. One less competitor means one less thing to worry about, and you can concentrate on the next victim. In EDH, there are very few things more frustrating than getting taken out early and then watching for another hour while everyone else dances around each other, especially if you were taken out because you were the easy target. If you were the easy target, it’s usually because your deck is misfiring. If you’re sitting across the table from some guy who has 4 land, missed his last 3 land drops, and has done literally nothing the last 2 turns, chances are it’s not because he’s sandbagging a strong position – it’s because his deck is screwing him over. Leave the poor sap alone!

Likewise, I’ve seen that people overuse their removal, firing it off on the first available target, even if something bigger is just around the corner. If you have your Swords to Plowshares in your hand, don’t waste it on an opposing general (unless that general is about to do something stupid!), wait for the Indestructible Killing Machine of Death, or the Infinitely Recurring Card Advantage Engine. The same applies for wraths (and wrath variants) – sure, they’re usually sorcery speed, but wrathing simply because there are creatures on the board is short-sighted and a waste. Timing is everything in this game, and it’s important to get “value” (as much as I hate that use of that word) out of every spell you play.


There is a time and a place for revenge in EDH. I consider that revenge is a dish best served red-hot, as brutally as possible, and then – and this is the important bit – moving on. To illustrate with an example that happened with me a few weeks ago; I’m playing Animar, and the person to my left is playing a very bad “prison” style Hanna (dubbed “the deck that doesn’t do anything… no, the deck that does nothing” by it’s creator). On turn 2 I suspend a Riftwing Cloudskate, then on turn 4 I cast Animar (the theory being that the Cloudskate comes in next turn, Animar gets a free counter and I get a hasty flier). Hanna Hinders Animar. Now, I have no particular hatred for “tuck” and I believe that any decent deck should either be able to function without its general, or have some way of getting it back (both of which are true in my Animar deck). However, at the time I considered that Hanna wasn’t my enemy and I said as much to the player multiple times. When he countered Animar however, he made himself my enemy. The next turn I bounced one of his lands with the Cloudskate, and then used Reap and Sow to destroy another one, setting him back two turns compared to the rest of the table. After that, however, I pretty much left him alone, focussing on what I did consider to be the real threats. The story DJ Catchem tells in the link at the top of this post however, is a completely different thing. To carry your revenge over from one game to the next game, to target a player simply because of what they did in that previous game – that is, in my opinion, uncalled for and unnecessary.

It’s a fact of the game that people will destroy your things, steal your things, or counter your things. By all means exact some revenge, but use your head and don’t do it for the rest of the game, or to the exclusion of the real threat at the table. If you were the real threat (see my Mayael game report from a couple of weeks ago), then you should not be surprised when the table comes after you!


In summary, I think it pays to think about who you attack/what you kill – you shouldn’t kill everything “because you can” as that will just invite hate from the rest of the group. Save your removal and counters for things that are truly important (i.e will take you out of the game), and attack those people who are the biggest threat to you, at whichever stage of the game you’re in. The most important thing to remember is this:

Everyone is there to have fun and everyone is there to play the game!


Posted by on October 31, 2011 in EDH/Commander


Tags: ,

7 responses to “Who do I attack? You’re (probably) doing it wrong

  1. DJ

    November 1, 2011 at 1:37 am

    Spot-on! Great post. I wish that more people subscribed to the tag line at the end.


  2. Brad Houston (@herodotusjr)

    November 1, 2011 at 5:27 am

    “This is the $64,000 question. The method I use to determine the strongest player is something like this:

    Very Early Game (Turns 1-3): No one, really. Concentrate on getting your own gameplan into action.

    Early Game: Whoever is on the most life gets a few early beats, if it doesn’t leave me too exposed.”

    To me this mode of threat assessment is missing something. All else being equal, sure, spread the love a bit, but even if you know nothing about the decks of the other players you can tell a lot about what your threat priorities are going to be from the generals that are laid down. I will almost always attack Zur before I attack Mimeoplasm, attack Mimeoplasm before I attack Kaervek, attack Kaervek before I attack Hazezon Tamar, etc. Obviously the chain is not always that simple, and if Mimeoplasm is struggling, sure, leave him alone to get stabilized for a bit, but ignoring your opponents’ generals when considering threat assessment is just asking to get Forge-Disk locked by Arcum.

    (The other possibility, of course, is that I play with a lot of EDHDBs, so I suppose if your particular meta does not have an abundance of the really broken generals this is a pretty good threat assessment guide… I have, unfortunately, been conditioned to see a blue-aligned general and respond with “KILL IT KILL IT WITH FIRE” before the game even starts much of the time.)

    • Viperion

      November 1, 2011 at 7:44 am

      Yeah, you’re absolutely right there – it does pay to take the decks you know will cause problems for you down a few notches. I guess that didn’t occur to me because I have enough decks (13 and counting) that I tend to pick one which will hang with the “big boys” of whichever group/decks I’m playing against. I’m kind of lucky in that our playgroup doesn’t have any real hardcore Spikes – or EDHDB’s 🙂 and so we don’t have any Zur, Arcum, or so on. There was a pretty good Uril deck floating around but I haven’t seen it for some time.

  3. Thaumaturge

    November 1, 2011 at 6:33 am

    Viperion, you and I have very similar lines of thought on threat assessment. I think there are some niche scenarios and situations where you and I would differ, but the our core philosophies are very much the same.

  4. Gene Taylor

    November 4, 2011 at 1:25 pm

    I have noticed that people in our play group take a guilty until proven innocent approach to new decks, if they are running a ‘good’ general then they get stomped till they prove they are not running sharuum combo etc.

    Did you ever get to see the tuned Zur deck that was floating around? It was probably the spikiest deck built in our playgroup

    • Viperion

      November 4, 2011 at 1:56 pm

      No I missed that one. There is always the fear of the unknown, though – although I tend to try and play according to what the deck has done instead what it could do, sometimes you just gotta smash the guy that you think is gonna smash you first 😉


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