Everyone who’s played a lot of EDH knows that occasionally three player standoffs occur after one player has been eliminated from the game. Let’s take a look at three different theories players can choose to deploy in their decision making. This entire article assumes that all players are working their hardest to make choices that lead to them winning the game.
The perception that players have of the other players’ boardstates is huge for determining the future order of who initiates first. People will look at how many creatures players have, how many cards are in players’ hands, how much mana players have open, and different artifacts and enchantments that effect how players can initiate conflict. Sometimes there are planeswalkers that are threatening to ult if not disrupted.
In a true Mexican Standoff each player has full capability to kill at least one player – note that sometimes scenarios are actually Mexican Standoffs even when not all players are aware of it being a Mexican Standoff (a player might not understand that each player has the capacity to eliminate players when everyone actually can).
Sometimes game knowledge can dramatically influence who chooses to initiate first. For example; if I’m playing a goblin aggro deck and I have about ten goblins in play with a lord or a haste enabler with plenty of cards in hand it could be safe to assume that I have multiple paths to creating lethal damage onto at least one opponent. This might make people feel compelled to initiate out of fear of dying before their next turn.
Hidden information matters the most when considering combo decks – decks where their boardstate is not lethal until they deploy a spell (or a series of spells) from their hand that create a combination of cards that creates a lethal gamestate. Sometimes in Mexican Standoffs the initiating player will direct their plays against the combo deck first in fear that they can’t survive whatever the combo deck has to deploy later.
The speed at which players can cast spells also effects how players will choose when they will initiate. If players have effects in play similar to Vedalken Orrery or Leyline of Anticipation they could make them seem more threatening or too difficult to attack.
The first school of thought is that the first player to initiate will lose because they will initiate, trade resources with or kill the second player, then die to the third player. They feel compelled to initiate because they think that they are forced into making a move because of impending combos/lethal synergy that they might not be able to interact with. The third player will never know that they are the third player until the first player initiates and another player (the second player) responds. The third player has the greatest chance to win in these scenarios. This is also the most common theory to be true when there is little to no hidden information in the gamestate.
Sometimes the second player to initiate interaction has the greatest advantage. This is because they have two different types of leverage versus the other players. Versus the first player, they have gained information. The second player sees what the first player is committing to and can make more educated choices on how to proceed. Versus the third player, they have timing on their side – the second player responds before the third player does. In reactive Mexican Standoff games where players have access to a lot of combat tricks, counterspells, or access to flash, players should try to be the second player in order to maximize gamestate knowledge and their opportunity of being able to do things before the third player.
This third theory is most effective when you are playing against players who have extensive experience with Mexican Standoffs and all players understand the benefits and disadvantages of when to initiate. According to this theory you want to initiate first. This is because when you initiate you understand that you will probably be denied or blocked from winning the game. This theory only works because of the experience of the other two players – both know that there are advantages of being the third player. So when one of them choose to be the second player (one of them has to eventually choose to be the second player or else the first player wins anyway) the second player will position their plays to best cover both the lethal plays that the first player made and the plays that the third player will possibly take.
The first player will be blocked, the second player will survive but also anticipate the third player to take advantage of their positioning according to the first theory. Because of this the first player has a decent shot at winning because of the careful consideration of the second player – the third player should also be blocked and the first player will regain the ability to be the first player in the next turn cycle and be given the opportunity end the game because the second and third players will be resource exhausted.
This third theory is the rarest and usually requires the first player to be able to reinitialize a lethal gamestate the following turn after players have tried to resolve a Mexican Standoff.
Bringing the Theories Together:
These theories feed into one another and further solidify how each one can be true. The second theory benefits from the first because players understand that there are disadvantages to moving first. This plays into the third theory because players can understand the benefits of being the second and third player and outplay them by forcing a engagement, getting blocked, then hopefully surviving to the next turn and reengaging. The third theory spurs the first theory because it gives another reason beyond natural perception of the gamestate that a player might feel compelled to be the initiating first player – even if being the first player is not to that player’s benefit.
Because all three theories are rationalized there is never a best theory to always follow. All of them are possible as long as the game is in a true state of a Mexican Standoff.