EDH Political Science - Safety Valve

(Steam Vents | Art by Rob Alexander)

Safety Valve

Welcome to EDH Political Science! This series is where politics, warfare, history, and the data of EDHREC all inform us how to adjust our deck design and gameplay decisions to fit this multiplayer format.

The government sits within a sealed capsule on top of a growing inferno of political pressure. Every day we see headlines featuring grave failure by the hands of leaders that we expected to help. Regardless of political leaning or geographic location, you are undoubtedly frustrated by something happening in the political landscape. We either need to quell the fire or we will split at the seams, breaking the whole system.

There is a solution. Closed systems are designed to not split at the seams. Pressurized boilers and governments have Steam Vents or, more accurately, “safety valves”. These devices are built-in insurance to prevent system collapse. A system without these cannot function properly without serious risk. One of the best parts about multiplayer games, like EDH, is that they too have Steam Vents.

The late political scientist Lucius Barker developed the idea that the United States Supreme Court is a political safety valve for the government. They can handle sensitive minutiae that Congress cannot. This safety valve analogy has been attributed to a great number of systems within government. Organizations that provide outlets of resistance are safety valves, like the Better Business Bureau’s ability to resolve conflict between consumers and companies. Also, the First Amendment does plenty for granting pressure releases when other places cannot. In the words of Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, “[F]ear breeds hate… hate menaces stable government… the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies; and the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones.” Sounds an awful lot like George Lucas was a Supreme Court buff. I wouldn’t doubt it if Brandeis hid a lightsaber under his robe, too.

Safety valves are placed throughout the game of Magic: the Gathering to give players a chance to battle against what otherwise could be oppressive mechanics or playstyles. A seven-card hand limit is a safety valve against heavy control or combo strategies. Cards like Boil and Acid Rain were placed into the game to ensure that there were ways to fight oppressive playstyles in enemy segments of the color pie. These safety valves didn’t always work well, but early Magic sets printed these in such quantity that it became easy to find a way to fight back against anything, but not everything at once.

Multiplayer, itself, is a safety valve. The more players at the table, the less likely it is that any one person can take over the game. EDH also has a safety valve card: your commander. You almost always have access to play your commander. What’s most fun about EDH is that eventually everyone will either peter out or succumb to the pressure of the game and burst at the seams. Let’s talk a bit about the best ways to utilize these safety valves.

Playing to Safety Valve Tactics

Games of EDH may often stagnate at some point. They can reach a standstill with few spells cast and fewer attacks made. Often, players are worried about crackback or future retaliation, and for good reason. After being disadvantaged by targeted removal, clawing your way back can feel insurmountable. You want to keep on top of managing the pressure, but retribution is menacing. Three ways you can adjust your play to take advantage of these safety valves include using your right to free speech, maintaining your defenses, and knowing when to switch gears.

Facing down political pressure can be difficult, but you have your voice and your actions. Attacks and removal speak louder than words, but you need balance. No one thing can solve all the problems. You have to have multiple tools available at your disposal. Normalize in-game banter and logical decision-making. When you’re attacking in with an early Goblin Electromancer into an empty board, make sure your voice is heard. Tell them you’re keeping the Erebos, God of the Dead player from using their life as resource later. If the others at the table understand your logic early in the game, it will keep them from questioning you later in the game. You can feel like you have more room to speak up about Skullclamp as a problem across the table. Giving yourself the freedom to talk and convince others of your rationale is, like the First Amendment, the most important safety valve. Your word is sacred. The more you cultivate your voice as one of reason and honesty, the more you can use it to make thoughtful observations for others.

Defense is better than offense. Now, dedicated readers may notice that this is the part of the article where I mention how you should be attacking more. However, due to the mechanics of the game, defenders get to choose where damage is dealt, and, assuming that your defenders survive, you’re dealing that damage without leaving yourself vulnerable to others. That is a huge advantage. Know when to use it. If the table is getting heated, please stay back. Move against the grain. You’re not going to be doing yourself any favors by throwing gas on the fire of a pressurized situation.

Parity is any moment of relative peace. That peace is precarious and ethereal. It will burst at the seams suddenly and often without warning. If that parity is not clearly giving you the largest advantage at the table, then you need to be doing everything in your power to find your advantage in the situation. With Grismold, the Dreadsower, as we will detail more later, parity may come up plenty, but you're always looking for your way out. Use your available resources, including your opponents, to break up parity. Make a move with the resources that you have to disadvantage the person. Yes, attacks and removal may not be profitable, but if someone else is gaining from you not attacking, then you need to make a stink about it. If that’s not in your available resources, find out what you can do.

Building with Safety Valves

Back when I wrote about the Brawl format, one big point that I had was that you needed parity-breakers. These are the tools that you need to have at your disposal to keep a game from getting away from you. If you are at parity, like we discussed earlier, or if pressure is mounting, you have about a one-in-four chance of being the one to break the parity. Important parity-breakers include, but are certainly not limited to, the following: Overrun effects, planeswalkers, and mass removal.

Overrun can turn a bad situation into a great situation. However, sometimes I would rather see basic land ten turns into the game than [my el]Overrun[/el]. Building your deck with a couple of outs to bad situations is a good idea. Any list can run Crown of Doom, and most colors have something to pump the team. If you’re using card draw and removal with creatures attached, like Mulldrifter and Reclamation Sage (and you should be), then you can be setting yourself up to dominate with one lucky top deck.

Planeswalkers are contentious. Plenty of people denote the worst-case scenario when discussing Kiora, Behemoth Beckoner or Dack Fayden, and they should. You don’t want to play cards that sometimes fail. Worst-case scenarios are rare in my experience, and planeswalkers almost always break up gameplay. Of course, you want to be running the high-impact planeswalkers; almost every ‘walker that costs five or more does something huge on entering. Even in the case that they’re dealt with immediately, it still cost your opponent something to do so. An attack at your Elspeth, Sun's Champion in the air still leaves you with creatures on the ground and that opponent more vulnerable. Similar to Overrun effects, don’t play many, but play some planeswalkers and play the important ones.

Appropriate removal can be difficult to find, especially when it almost always leaves you at a disadvantage compared to three other players. For this reason, mass removal becomes important. This is not to say that you should always just run more Wrath of God-style removal spells. What can be just as important is running effects like Pyroclasm or Golden Demise. These partial mass removal spells can be used early to halt a quick start, and they can also be used later to make a powerful turn with removal followed by a threat. Higher-costed targeted mass removal, like Casualties of War, can be used to turn the tides of battle in a more significant way than anyone would have guessed. That is, if included sparingly.

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This Grismold list is unlike the standard one you'll find on EDHREC. You are looking to go tall, like normal, with options to go wide or drain the table with Bastion of Remembrance. However, it does not use enchantments like Virulent Plague to grow Grismold. It’s all about control. Granting the other players threat-means (see my previous articles for more information on Political Position Theory) buys you valuable time while granting you an important resource that you can pull the trigger on at any time. You will be pumping out more tokens than the other players with Doubling Season-effects while holding onto sorcery and instant removal, like Bile Blight, to shift positions at your whim.

This list gives plenty of safety valves. Our Overrun effects like Triumph of the Hordes and "tall" cards like Hatred are important to swinging a losing game in our favor. We get plenty of ways to remove threats big, small, and difficult-to-handle. We ideally can take on any situation and outlast any anyone with our card advantage engine of Seasons Past plus Dark Petition.

Lucius Barker's work within the civil rights community is as important today as it was thirty and fifty years ago. Understanding your right to protest is crucial to keeping that system from bursting at the seams. Support those who need your help the most, and continue to voice yourself when injustice is seen. This advice can be taken to the game table, the city streets, local town halls, and it's great advice for life generally.

Rick is a professional bookseller, writer and gamer. He could be battling international trade atrocities with his Bachelors Degree in International Studies, but he would rather be playing games of magic, running game night at the bookstore, playing an insidious dungeon master at a convention, or talking and writing about any of the above.