The Most Critical Skill in Multiplayer is Threat Assessment
There are skills that you need to either have innate or need to develop quite quickly in order to appreciate multiplayer Magic. Things like good cards and bad cards come quite quickly, either alone or through some helpful advice. How to build a multiplayer deck is another that comes up quite often but none of those are anywhere near as important as the Critical Skill posited by multiplayer genius, The Ferret: Threat Assessment. I won't be able to go into the depth that the Ferret could in his articles (click the links for some happy hours reading up on multiplayer!) but I can share a coulpe of ideas on this topic with you. Here we go:
Why is this even on a list of ideas to do with threat assessment? It seems to have very little to do with threat assessment. Well, it's probably one of the biggest red-flags you can get that someone doesn't know how to evaluate threats correctly. Oftentimes it will be "Who do I attack?" rather than "Who's going get to my Curse of the Cabal?" While there can be a thrill of having a loose cannon, or a permanent Grip of Chaos, at your table, more often than not it's going to be hideously annoying to see someone who could solve the current game-state problem fail utterly by simply choosing incorrect targets, fail to put pressure on someone who needs to be pressured or simply fail to do anything at all. There's always a best play, a risky play with potential to be swingy and a long list of sub-optimal plays. Incorrect threat assessment generally means that you either make a sub-optimal play or are forced to make a risky play. Failure to make the correct play this turn may force you to make a risky or incorrect call next turn when you are forced to choose between plays. Had you nipped the threat in the bud the previous turn, you'd be in a much better place coming into this turn. If someone at your table is randomly choosing who to attack or target, it means they are unable to correctly assess who, if anyone, should be the subject of their attention and force the rest of the table to scramble.
Who's about to make a move? Who needs to be stopped this turn? Who is slowly building up a dangerous board position? Who can stop player X or Y and will they? What is the board telling me? What resources are available to that player: Hand, Graveyard, Mana, Creatures, etc.?
All of this is fine during the current turn however one of the key elements to threat assessment is that it's fluid, always changing. Failure to re-asses the game state each turn is as much an error as initially reading the game-state incorrectly. The threat on turns 1-5 will not necessarily be the same as the threat on turns 5-10 and most assuredly not the same as the threat from turn 10 onwards. Each turn shifts the balance of the game towards and away from different players and those assessors who get stuck on one player as the biggest threat may find that some else has snuck up behind them.
A lot goes into the construction of an EDH deck and it always helps to know what strategy someone is playing. Part of the threat assessment is asking "What can player X do in the next turn?" The Sam Black Azusa deck we saw last week loves an early Primeval Titan because it allows for an early Eldrazi legend. The potential formed by a turn 2 or 3 Titan is hugely explosive and the game must revolve around killing it before it gets the 2-mana lands and Eye of Ugin into play.
Poison is another strategy that hasn't been explored much in EDH yet and the format will be sorely tested. A player attacks you with a 4/4 in the early game and has access to BG or GG. Any of your creatures would die in combat to it so you're probably just going to take the 4 damage, especially in the early game, right? And if your Nath of the Gilt Leaf opponent shows Tainted Strike and Berserk (as happened in our game at lunch today) you're already out of the game unless you have removal or a counterspell. You can never rule out the possibility that a deck previously dedicated to playing lots of little Elves won't suddenly put a Grafted Exoskeleton onto his Vulturous Zombie and kill you.
On the other side of the coin is the fear of big plays. You've seen a deck make the big play again and again, of course you're going to do what you can to stop it but is stopping it now to the exclusion of the rest of the table the correct threat assessment for this turn? Most likely not. A player puts a Darksteel Forge onto an otherwise unimpressive table, you'd be disinclined to waste a counterspell on it. Unfortunatly, the following turn Cloud Key meets Etherium Sculptor meets another host of discounted artifacts and suddenly the Counterspell you held in hand when you let the Forge through is insufficient to stem the tide and your Nevinyrral's Disk isn't cleaning up the table like is should.
You can't account for everything. In EDH the format allows for too many possibilities however good sense can usually dictate that certain plays are traps and you should be careful.
Emotion is an extremely powerful motivator. It's also excellent at helping us hide things from ourselves we don't want to accept or helping us overlook things that we should be seeing but can't because we're intent on another target. We aren't Spock. We aren't exclusively logical beings. We ceed to our emotions and act upon those impulses. However, if we're looking for the best play and attempting a correct threat assessment we need to take a step back and distance ourselves from Tit-for-Tat retaliation or prejudice be it against a player, a deck or a game action. How many times have you heard the following:
"You attacked me so I'm attacking you back!"
"You're playing Islands. 'Nuff said!"
"You always win, Sheldon, I'm taking you out!" [Yeah right! Get with it Armada Games guys!]
This is all incorrect threat assessment. Ok, you may luck out that it's the right play but, if it's for the wrong reasons, it will be the wrong play more often than not. You don't need to be Spock, but you do need to rise above these impulses and kill the right person before you can give in and indulge in some smashy-smashy.
5.) What to do?
Right, you or one of your group suffers from poor Threat Assessment, what can you do? Start with a checklist, list out the things that need to be considered and run down through them quickly. It's not fool-proof but it should help you check-down without missing anythign major (accepting that you can't know your opponent's cards in hand. Here's one I found on the EDH boards and changed up to suit my group:
2. Your opponent's generals
3. What deck-style are they & cards you've seen them play before
4. Cards in hand
5. Life totals/general damage accumulated
6. Contents of graveyards
7. Current board positions
You should be able to fly through the first three during mulliganing & while the early game is happening so that, when things start moving, you already have certain facts fixed in your head and you can concentrate on numbers 4-7 as they develop throughout the game never forgetting to drop back to #1 and start the check regularly. That shoud help avoid any "Duh!" moments as your opponent plays his forgotten Rafiq of the Many to make his dangerous dude lethal.
That's about it for my brief overview of Threat Assessment. Have a read of the articles linked above and I highly recommend that you read through these on the same topic, again all by the Ferret:
Attacking the Right Guy
How to Speak Deckese
Why Are You Attacking Me?
And when you've done all that, maybe it'll be time to talk about the Second Most Fundamental Skill In Multiplayer!