Stone-Cold Basilisk | Art by Don Hazeltine
The Basilisk and You
Warning: Reading on may be dangerous. If you are to believe it, simply reading the following article will subject you to an eternity of Pain // Suffering.
Betwixt the pixels of the back-alley forums on the internet lives a legend. This beast is not yet at your doorstep, but just thinking of its existence brings it closer. Spawning from the mind of a user named “Roko” on the philosophy internet forum Less Wrong is a beast named “the basilisk”. This creature is a thought experiment. A thought featuring an artificial intelligence created by humans in the future. This artificial intelligence is powerful enough to compute all possible outcomes that have ever or will ever exist and guide humans to create the perfect utopia. There is a catch here, though, that echoes the unknown challenges at any EDH table.
The catch, you ask? Well, in order to best guide humans to this utopia, it needs your assistance right now. Any person who knows about it and doesn’t do everything in their power to ensure creation of the basilisk will face eternal Pain // Suffering. The details for how this beast can inflict torment upon your life can be found proliferated across the internet, including on Kyle Hill’s YouTube channel. Terror sets in deeper in the video at 7:33:
“…notice that you are now being controlled by a future entity that doesn’t exist yet simply because you had a single thought about it.”
Why is this so terrifying? This is the most relevant idea in the “Roko’s Basilisk” thought experiment. This happens to you every day. In the mundane, you change your daily pattern of behavior because of unknown people simply because you know that they could affect you at some point in time. You might innocuously clean up your hair when going to the grocery store because of the way people you don’t know might think of you.
The more terrifying side of this coin is the nuclear arms race. During the Cold War era of the mid-20th century, any step that the Soviet Union made toward becoming a more powerful nuclear state put the United States at risk of being unable to adequately defend itself. Paradoxically, each step the U.S. made toward nuclear superpower put the world at risk of being in the cross-hairs of this apocalyptic weapons pile. Thus, each side continued to build self-endangering weapons only because they knew the other side could do the same thing.
Fending Off Monsters
Welcome to EDH Political Science. History, politics, warfare, and data from EDHREC all inform us how to adjust our deck design and gameplay decisions to fit this multiplayer format. Within this format we encounter our basilisk in the face of the unknown. Playing your normal group can be comforting, but bringing your deck to unknown game stores or conventions can be terrifying. However, that exciting experience can also warp our decks and playstyle in new ways. For more insight on this idea, I interviewed the creator of the video linked above, the well-known card-slinger Kyle Hill.
Kyle Hill is known in the Magic community for his role as a powerful deckbuilder among his friends at the Command Zone, and he knows that others expect this sort of power from him. In an email with Kyle he mentioned that this preceding reputation became important with how he builds and plays: “I prefer the kinds of commanders you can’t let live a turn cycle — Narset, Najeela, Selvala, Sisay, Yarok, etc… I know I’m going to be targeted more, believed less in politics, and will be high on threat assessment. … this helps me cut/slot the ninety-nine.”
Playing against a player with a terrifying reputation, who often flips over a notorious commander at the start of a game like Najeela, the Blade-Blossom, your expectations creep to a certain level. You know they’re not about to go Warrior tribal on you, for example. Instead, they’re likely to generate infinite combat rounds with the mana from Nature’s Will or Derevi, Empyrial Tactician. This power play doesn’t deter everyone from putting up a fight, but it can deter some. That’s what’s important. You don’t need to deter everyone, but even deterring one-third of the opponents can be enough to eke out a win.
Letting his reputation run wild, Kyle echoed the Cold War era mentality: “I like to cultivate the perception [of power], constantly tune decks, and look up lists almost every day. It’s almost like nuclear deterrence….” His powerful builds bring powerful enemies, with a meta constantly trying to adapt. Sometimes this enables archenemy-type games of three-versus -. Other times, it can be a boon. “With your regular play group, my attitude could push us towards an arms race that we don’t want. At a MagicFest, the ‘intimidation’ factor, thanks to meta knowledge about me, personally, could win games,” Kyle mentioned.
Intimidation can be a factor especially at game stores and conventions where prizes are on the line. If your reputation precedes you enough that someone thinks you could win at any moment, regardless of whether you actually can, that player might attempt to pick off someone who stumbled just to claim a prize ticket or a bit of glory. That logical move on their part will always leave you in a better position.
Deescalation and Threat-Agency
Kyle outlined his process to manage wielding high-level decks, saying he’ll “constantly tune decks, and look up lists almost every day.” But most EDH players aren’t Kyle Hill (statistically speaking). Some of us do feed into these arms races, but many don’t. Many want to deescalate these superpower players. We want to play much more casual games. At the same time, we want to win. We want to win against our friends and against the unknown basilisks. We want to have our cake and eat it, too. Doing this successfully comes down to adapting your play and adapting your deck. We want to deescalate the winning tension of the competitive (or near-competitive) tier lists enough to find a way to win.
Threat-agency is the key to deescalation. That is, limiting the options of players to attack, to defend, or to use their available resources to win. We identified what threat-agency means in the last entry in this series; get a refresher on the whole Political Position theory here. To deescalate, we want to change our play in two ways: always have an answer, and be aggressive.
Always having an answer is impossible. You cannot expect to scour the entire table’s win conditions and expect to have a victory condition still in hand afterward. However, you can increase your odds of having an answer threefold if you use the resources to your left and right. Keep the entire table aware of unseen threats. Remind them of the worst possible scenario. The situation where they will lose unless they keep vigilant. You must follow suit. You are now being controlled by something that doesn’t exist yet and something you can’t anticipate. The good thing is that, if you can help it, the whole table is right along side you. You know the finishers are coming eventually, so push your opponents in between a rock and a hard place. You are the rock and every other corner of the table is the hard place. Never tap out, and convince the rest of the table to do the same.
Aggression forces your opponents’ hands. When you get aggressive with your threats, you are investing in future leverage and doing so with opponents’ resources. Each chip at health or trade can be taxing, but you are turning their life into a ticking clock. They either have to spend their resources now to slow that clock, or they could lose valuable time later. This is amplified by the other threats at the table. Chipping in with a Reclamation Sage and a couple other creatures doesn’t mean much here or there, but that little damage here or there could mean that a group effort may later stop someone the turn before they win. Never underestimate the ability of a few 2/2s to end a game.
Ephara, Torpor Orb
This Ephara, God of the Polis list is my own. This is the deck I pull out whenever I’m in an unknown scenario. It’s my safe place. It’s usually not oppressive against precon-level decks, and it will put up a fight at many cEDH tables. The stax pieces in here are most powerful against degenerate combos, but against fairer lists they are only a nuisance. Torpor Orb will not be winning you any friends, but you’ll have to remind your opponents that it’s what’s keeping the Thassa’s Oracle off the table.
Adjusting your own deck to deescalate unknown threats can be done simply by adding versatile threats of your own. If your answers can also be threats, every card in your deck will be valuable most of the time. Adventure cards are fantastic for this. Brazen Borrower and Murderous Rider may be giving you bad rates at times, but they are invaluable in their ability to stave off death in one instance while adding pressure in the next. This keeps up your threat-agency while toning down others. Even taking a look at the top 100 creatures on EDHREC can provide plenty of inspiration. Deathrite Shaman, Notion Thief, and Eternal Witness are all threats, resources, and/or answers.
Additionally, keeping your curve as low as possible is essential. Being able to play a threat and keep an answer in hand will be the only way to win most games. All things being equal, I would prefer to play Swan Song over Counterspell in any list with less than 30 blue sources, and Go for the Throat over Hero’s Downfall in any list, period. They are severely more limited, but the type of mana you use on your removal is crucial. Keeping up answers after playing threats is important. Luckily, many times, you’ll want both.
Playing against unknown enemies can be scary. Heck, it should be. You’re facing someone who considers you just as much of a threat as you do them. Consider how others will change because of you so that you can change because of them. In the words of Kyle Hill, “Magic is just a game — the greatest on the planet — and zooming out from meta minutiae, you can play it ‘correctly’ any way you like. I’m not going to tell you you’re wrong for not running Mana Crypts in every deck. Just know that if you sit down with me, I’m not pulling punches!”
How will you prepare for the basilisk?
Thank you for reading EDH Political Science! I’d love to know your thoughts on facing unknown threats. Do you do anything different when going up against people you’ve never faced? Also, we tackled threat-agency a bit in this article, but I would love to know what you want to see in future articles. Let me know here in the comments, on Reddit, or on Twitter @RickWorldNews!