The Tour de France is one of my favorite sporting events. Every July, cyclists race for three weeks all throughout France to determine a winner. Many of those years have seen the event come down to the wire, with the winner being decided by mere seconds. I love watching the riders put themselves through hell, climbing ridiculous mountains and descending mountains on narrow roads at speeds up to 50 miles per hour. A rider who struggles one day can come back and dominate the next. Add the strategy over three weeks with the athleticism and you get an event that is unique in sports.
"That's great Bruce, but what does this have to do with Magic?"
I'm glad you asked! Something that is often overlooked by someone who is new to cycling or new to multiplayer Magic is that both are team games. When first watching the Tour, the entire focus is on individual riders. The commentators watch where the team leaders are throughout the course of the race. They are looking to see how the leaders perform each day. At the end of the day, the standings are determined by which individual rider is leading, and how far behind each other rider is to the leader. Only the leader of the Tour wears the yellow jersey and only the leader raises the trophy at the end. However, teams sign up for the Tour and choose eight of their riders to represent the team during the Tour. While only one rider actually wins, the winner has relied heavily on their team to get them there.
In a Commander game or other version of multiplayer Magic, the player who wins has likely relied on others to do much of the heavy lifting to get them to the position to win the game. Admittedly, Magic players generally only engage in short-term alliances or simply share some of the same goals through the course of a game, but in the end both the cyclist and Magic player are relying on others to help them win games. Too many Magic players see the other players in the game as the opponents, but that isn't the best way to look at it – it's better to see the other players in the game as potential allies. Every game of Magic involves some level of asset management. You want to use your mana, life total, cards in hand, and permanents to their maximum effectiveness as this will optimize your chance of winning. Failing to recognize the other players in the game as potential assets will only limit the number of games you win. If you ignore the value of drawing more cards than other players, your asset management will be weaker and your likelihood of winning will be reduced.
I want to look at three ways in particular that this "team" strategy pays off in both the Tour de France and Commander.
The team aspect plays out through each stage. For the Tour de France, the goal of the team is to get your leader into a position where they can use their particular strength to gain time on opponents, while mitigating that leader's weakness. Most team leaders are really good in the mountains, since that is generally where a great rider can most hurt their opponents. His teammates help pace him through the flat stages, and often try to set a pace in a particularly mountainous stage so opposing riders have no teammates to help them when the stage reaches its most difficult moments.
This sort of strategy allows the leader of the team to stay right behind his teammates. He can tell them how fast he can manage to go and they set that pace. This means that he is paced up the mountain by his teammates and it forces everyone else to keep pace. This is a great strategy for strong teams to reduce the other riders who can attack to a small group. Since attacking takes up more energy, fewer riders means fewer attacks and an easier time up the mountain.
The same is true for Commander games. In the early stages, you'll see some players attempt to deal with every threat that hits the battlefield. While that is great when your deck provides you with responses to a variety of threats, it is better when others do the work for you. If another player uses a resource to deal with another player's resource, each of them have used up a resource while you have used up nothing. In this way, you are looking for Player A to run out an early threat that Player B reacts to. This means there will be fewer threats from Player A later in the game and fewer answers from Player B later in the game. All the while, you are tucked into the pack conserving your resources as much as possible.
When I play, I try to limit my resource use as much as possible in the early stages. I prefer not to run Counterspells since I'm forced to use them against threats before I know who the threat would target or if someone else would be willing to stop it. I try to avoid sorcery-speed responses for the same reason. If I have an instant-speed removal spell, I don't have to use it on a threat until it actually comes after me. If it is attacking someone else, I can simply wait and leave it to someone else to stop the threat. Just as a team leader sits and leaves it to his teammates to expend their energy dealing with early threats, I try and leave it to others to deal with early threats.
This can hold true later in the game as well. If one opponent is dominating and I know I can't defeat them alone, I'll expend energy to help keep someone else alive in the hopes that both of us together can take out the single player.
For many of the riders, the Tour de France is all about "The Move." Riders are looking for that pivotal moment. It is the point in the race where one rider takes a measure of the other and decides if they have it or not. My most memorable moment from the Tour de France was from 1990's between Lance Armstrong and his main rival, Jan Ullrich. They had battled back and forth throughout the Tour. On a particularly tough stage, they had managed to drop everyone else and only the two of them remained. Armstrong turned and stared at Ullrich, then gave a burst and took off. Ullrich had used everything he had just to stay with Armstrong to that point and Armstrong saw that and took off. That move decided the winner of the Tour that year, as Armstrong took an insurmountable lead that day.
While it made for great TV, what most clips don't show you was all the work Armstrong's team had put in to get their leader to that point. They were the strongest team and set a pace that was too much for the other riders. Armstrong had to do very little extra as his team set a pace he could maintain, but forced others to try and keep up. It made trying to attack very difficult and eventually left Ullrich without any teammates. By the time they reached that pivotal moment, Ullrich had been forced to follow a pace other than his own, which left him vulnerable at just the right time. Armstrong's team set up the move, and Armstrong made it happen.
Magic is often the same way. While you don't have a teammate who is setting the pace, there are other players who are using their assets to attack and still others using assets to keep those players under control. Ideally, all of this will be setting up for the moment when you are ready to strike and no one will be able to handle what you are doing. Whether it is the decisive Wrath or perfect combination of cards that give you the win, the timing of the play is as important as the play itself. Having others use assets help to keep opponents under control, all while weakening them for just the right moment. I have lost too many games because I was forced to respond to too many early plays and simply didn't have the resources available when the moment was right for me to strike. Using the other players as assets so you can reduce your efforts is key to winning more games.
Finally, both the Tour and Commander are deceiving. You'll often see a team leader laboring hard. They will make it appear they are having a bad day or perhaps something happened the day before, and they appear to be showing the effects of it the next day. If a rider made a big effort the day before or crashed and suffered some injury, you will often see them suffer the next day. Or at least appear to suffer. They manage to stay with the group but stay at the back and don't do any of the work leading the group or trying to chase down attacks, encouraging everyone to believe they don't have the energy or just aren't capable of doing it. Then when they think everyone else has been softened up attacking or chasing down attacks, they will take off themselves!
This "playing possum" is commonly seen in Commander games. Players will display a board state with minimal threats or appear mana-screwed. Others will play lands and minimal defenses, acting disgusted that they aren't finding anything interesting in their deck, while they build up cards and prepare for an alpha strike. Other players have the choice of attacking this weak player or going after a player that will likely win the game if left unchecked. Not surprisingly, they go after the strong player to stop them from winning, with the expectation that they can mop up the weaker player quickly at the end.
This sort of acting is all part of the game in both events. Some team leaders know that their team isn't strong enough to take control of the Tour, so they use other methods to save their team for a single moment. Other times it is just solid strategy to not lead, as it forces other teams to use up their assets to try and keep the lead while the team leader and the rest of the team can save itself for other days. This is no different than choosing not to play a game-changing spell early, knowing it will make you a target early on and force you to defend against everyone attacking you. It will force you to expend your assets while someone else is accumulating theirs!
I love the team strategies at the Tour de France and applying them to my Commander games. If we remember that we are playing Magic with other players who aren't always opponents, the assets at our disposal increase and our opportunities for uninterrupted, big, game-winning moments, goes way up!