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Deck of Wild Cards

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There's always that one person in most groups who clamors for power above all else, and will stab you in the back the moment they get the chance so they can rise to the position they believe they so richly deserve. They don't actually want the responsibility; they just want the prestige that comes with the position, and will happily flaunt their own ego until they inevitably goof up. That is The Starscream in a nutshell.

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But what if everyone in the group was like that?

This is the Deck of Wild Cards, where most, if not all, members of a group or organization are going to play Starscream and try to kill you so they can seize power for themselves, even if it means going over each other to make it happen. Because damn any friendships they might have made; they want their supervisor's corner office, and will kill anyone that stands in their way to get it. Expect constant Et Tu, Brute? moments, lots of Xanatos Gambits piling on top of one another to see who can outsmart whom, and someone inevitably being killed or thrown to the wolves along the way—especially if one of these Starscreams acts like a False Friend so they can thin the herd on their way to the top.

Like with most Starscreams, everyone in the organization has their reasons. The boss may have a 100% Adoration Rating and they want that kind of attention for themselves. It could be that the boss has a 0% Approval Rating, and they're trying to pull this to keep the group from falling apart. Or, in rarer cases, the entire group may try this because it's expected; after all, who deserves to rule an Evil Empire if they can't stop themselves from being betrayed?

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Compare Chronic Backstabbing Disorder, where a lot of these characters pull this on everyone. Contrast Undying Loyalty and True Companions. See Fire-Forged Friends for those that may have been trying to fight each other for the same position, but grew closer as a result of the experience. Compare and contrast Anarcho-Tyranny, in which an entire government does this, but on a level of total lawlessness they control. Similar to Flock of Wolves.


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Examples:

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    Comics Books 
  • DC Comics likes this trope quite a bit, to the point of having various supervillain teams whose members try to betray or kill each other with varying degrees of success. On occasion, the villains will put aside their differences for a common goal and sometimes even become genuine friends. Teams like the Suicide Squad, the Secret Six and even the Red Lantern Corps are representative of this trope. Salvation Run is an exaggerated version of the Deck of Wild Cards trope, with all villains exiled on a lonely planet and needing to stay together to survive and come back to Earth. Considering that The Joker and Lex Luthor are the "rulers" of this new planet, this trope gets exaggerated with the rest of the villains here.
  • Sonic the Hedgehog (IDW): The "Bad Guys" miniseries revolves around an alliance of Dr. Starline, Zavok, Mimic, Rough and Tumble. Starline only assembled the team as part of his own bid to get back in Eggman's graces, and when Zavok and Mimic learn of his deception, they naturally turn on him. The only members of the team with any true loyalty to each other are Rough and Tumble.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Star Wars:
    • The Empire is built upon the backs of the fallen Republic, and is made up entirely of ambitious individuals willing to screw each other over to gain favor with Palpatine. Grand Moff Tarkin, for example, used his personal connections to Palpatine to rise to a prominent position, subsequently hijacked Orson Krennic's Death Star project and then killed him with his own weapon, and was that respected enough he was able to keep Darth Vader himself on a leash.
    • The First Order, the Empire's successor, is no better in this regard. Kylo Ren rose to Supreme Leader by killing Snoke, General Hux was willing to betray the First Order and sell out information to the resistance to spite Kylo, and Captain Phasma betrayed her own mentor so she could have it cozier in the organization.
    • The Sith "Rule of Two", as detailed in both the Star Wars Expanded Universe and its predecessor Star Wars Legends, was specifically created to prevent this. The Sith encourage Klingon Promotions; the Sith master embodies power while the Sith apprentice craves it. However, Darth Revan refused to take more than one apprentice because he realized that it was likely they would team up to kill him before either of them were strong enough, negating the entire point. Darth Bane later heeded Revan's advice and created the "Rule of Two" that the Sith would follow from then on, barring a few exceptions. Note that Darth Bane did what he did as much out of disgust with the Brotherhood of Darkness having partly abandoned this tendency as anything else: Lord Kaan demanded greater cooperation of the Sith in order to more effectively fight the Jedi and Republic, even eschewing the use of the title "Darth" as an attractive nuisance, which Bane viewed as having abandoned the essence of being Sith.

    Literature 
  • The Wheel of Time: The thirteen Forsaken are the Dark One's most ancient, powerful, and experienced servants, each with abilities unheard of in the current Age. Fortunately for the Light, they're only in it for themselves and will happily double-cross each other for a chance at power unless ordered not to (and sometimes even then). The Dark One seeks out that kind of selfishness in his minions because he can't comprehend more positive qualities, never mind appreciate them.
  • Most thieving crews in Mistborn: The Original Trilogy tend to be these, which makes Kelsier's crew all the more shocking to Vin. Best exemplified when Vin suspects that something went wrong on their last outing and warns her Only Friend to run away with her; he reports her and the crewleader almost beats her to death.
  • The Denarians of The Dresden Files are capable of cooperation with each other as long as their respective agendas align, but being a group of Fallen Angels treachery and backstabbing is in their blood.

    Live-Action TV 
  • It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia: The Gang are each other's only friends. That doesn't stop them from constantly backstabbing each other in their various schemes, sometimes for no reason at all.
    • In "Frank Retires," Charlie squabbles with Dennis and Dee over who will inherit Paddy's Pub from Frank. Mac loudly announces every time he switches sides, Dee betrays Dennis and joins Charlie, and Dennis tries using a fake heir as a bid to take everything for himself.
    • "Paddy's Pub: Home Of The Original Kitten Mittens": Charlie and Dee, Mac and Dennis, and Frank separately try to come up with merchandising ideas for the bar, constantly trying to one-up each other and stealing ideas back and forth. It ends up All for Nothing when the Lawyer they've been irritating tricks them into signing all the merchandising profits over to him.
  • Kamen Rider Dragon Knight: The only one of Xaviax's Riders who is both loyal and competent is James. Drew is a Smug Snake and The Starscream, Brad was a Token Good Teammate who Xaviax ultimately had to vent because he was a potential liability, Chris turned on Xaviax once he realized who the heroes truly were and the Cho brothers ultimately cared more about each other than Xaviax's goals as seen when Kit vented Albert causing Danny to defy Xaviax.
  • In the Loki (2021) episode "Journey into Mystery", Loki meets various incarnations of himself that have formed a group for survival in the Nexus. Shortly after Loki is brought to their lair, they are invaded by a different gang of Lokis led by President Loki. It is revealed that Boisterous Loki was working for President Loki, betraying Kid Loki for a deal, only for President Loki to pull an "I Lied" and betrays him... and then his gang to suddenly betray him. It soon devolves into a free-for-all as Loki, Kid Loki, Classic Loki and Alligator Loki all leave in exasperation.
  • Oz: Pretty much all of the Homeboys have engaged in some kind of backstabbing and betrayal. The entire gang ousts Jefferson Keane after he has a Heel–Face Turn, Paul Markstrom and Johnny Basil are undercover cops trying to bring the gang down, Adebisi murders Markstrom and takes over once this comes out, Wangler and Pierce turn on Adebisi so they can take over which leads to him orchestrating their deaths, and Poet's loyalty is always shifting depending on who he thinks has the better chance at success. The treachery mostly stops after Burr Redding takes over, mainly because he sets an example by crushing a would-be traitor's throat with his bare hands in front of the rest of the gang.
  • Power Rangers:
    • Power Rangers in Space: Among Dark Spectre's main subordinates, Astronema and Ecliptor were unshakably loyal to him while Darkonda had his own agendas. When Astronema pulled a Heel–Face Turn upon discovering her true origins, Ecliptor's parental love for Astronema proved greater than his loyalty to Dark Spectre and he turned on his master to protect. Sadly, this was for nothing as both he and Astronema were brainwashed and programmed to be truly evil. Unfortunately for Dark Spectre, this also caused Astronema to develop her own ambitions for intergalactic dominance while Darkonda began making his own moves to kill Dark Spectre and become ruler of the universe. He succeeded in the first but died in the process, while Astronema would be purified by Zordon's sacrifice.
    • Power Rangers Ninja Storm: Zurgane and Motodrone were the only two among Lothor's generals who were both consistently competent and loyal to him to the end. Choobo once tried to get revenge on Lothor for banishing him but was ultimately welcomed back into his ranks. Vexacus and Shimazu initially worked together to take over Lothor's army but turned on each other. The latter then teamed up with Marah and Kapri who turned out to be a lot more dangerous than appeared to be and killed him as part of Lothor's plan. Lothor then imprisons Marah and Kapri having grown paranoid about their potential lack of loyalty after seeing their true colors. This plays a part in their High-Heel–Face Turn.
  • In Star Trek, the Mirror Universe actually expects this of their underlings... up to a point. Here, in a reality where the Federation is actually the twisted and xenophobic Terran Empire, every officer who rises in stature has to kill their predecessor in order to get where they want to be. Should they succeed, they are rewarded for their strength; fail, and they will be subject to the most horrid of Cold-Blooded Torture they can imagine. The Original Series shows that Mirror Kirk rose to captaincy of the Enterprise by killing Christopher Pike, while Discovery reveals that a coup was staged against the Terran Emperor Phillipa Georgiou because her followers thought she was being too soft on alien species by enslaving them instead of killing them.
  • Super Sentai:
    • Choujin Sentai Jetman: The high command of the Vyram, composed of Empress Juuza, Count Radiguet, Tran, Maria and Grey are barely what you could call a team with the latter four all being interested in taking over the leadership of their faction by force. Radiguet actively plots against all his fellow commanders and only plans to spare Maria to force her to become his servant, Tran shows little more than disdain for everyone else, wanting to also overthrow them all to install himself as the leader and Maria has her own plans for dominance like her aforementioned teammates; Grey is the only member that has anything resembling actual loyalty to the cause and even then he still participates with his teammates in deposing Empress Juuza and helping the Jetman kill her when she returns to reclaim her position as the leader.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Warhammer 40,000:
    • Chaos followers will happily turn on each other at a moment's notice, since killing a powerful champion is just as likely to attract the gods' favor as killing a non-believer. This means that Chaos warbands and armies only stick together as long as their leader is able to beat down threats to his authority. There's a reason the symbol of Chaos is eight arrows pulling in different directions.
    • The Chaos gods are opposed in pairs, with followers of one god actively trying to kill servants of the opposing god. One Ciaphas Cain novel had a Khornate warband interrupt a Slaaneshi ritual that would have turned the planet into a daemon world solely to deny Slaanesh the victory despite it strengthening Chaos overall.
    • The dominant character trait of Tzeentchian cultists, seeing as they worship a god of sorcery and backstabbing.

    Video Games 
  • Most villains serving under Uka Uka have posed as this throughout the Crash Bandicoot series. Doctors Neo Cortex, Nitrus Brio, N Tropy, and N Trance have all betrayed him at some point (being a Mean Boss to them certainly helps). If not suffering this directly, then often by extension through one of his associates. Nearly all of Cortex's mutants have turned their back on him in the past as well, either out of ambition or to turn a new leaf (or both in cases like Dingodile), while Nitrus Brio has as much a bone to pick with him as he does Uka Uka. Even Cortex's own niece Nina was trained a little too well to be a devious evil-doer. Only N Gin and Tiny have remained loyal followers to Cortex, and even they have turned sides when their hands were forced before (N Gin's loyalty to Cortex also backfired on Uka when the latter tried to replace him with Nina, leading N Gin to help Crash overthrow her).
  • Mega Man Battle Network 6: Cybeast Gregar and Cybeast Falzar: Late in the game, most of the members of WWW (Blackbeard, Vic, Ito, Yuika, and Cain) eventually abandoned the organization to pursue their own agenda, hoping to acquire the Cybeasts for themselves, while Baryl and Mach stay loyal to Lord Wily, though they eventually help Lan and seek redemption.
  • Mortal Kombat: Outworld, especially the inner circle surrounding its ruler Shao Khan, heavily embraces an every-man-for-himself outlook, and even those most closely aligned with or fiercely loyal to Shao Kahn (such as Baraka, Sheeva and Sindel) are willing to betray him at the first sign of weakness or that Khan will have them replaced.
  • NEO: The World Ends with You: The Shinjuku reapers are revealed to be this over the course of the game. The Game Master, Shiba, effectively has Ayano commit suicide, and traps Tsugumi's heart and soul in a stuffed toy; Shoka is kicked out for helping the Wicked Twisters and eventually makes a full Heel–Face Turn; Hishima is willing to abandon Shiba and the city to their doom; Susukichi turns out to be Good All Along and was preparing to stab Shiba in the back and Kubo is actually an Angel knows as the Executor who manipulated Shiba and was plotting everything all along.
  • Star Wars Legends:
    • In Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords, if the Player Character says that Knights of the Old Republic had the dark-side ending, they discover the Sith Empire's capital Korriban abandoned. Log entries from Darth Bastila explain that Darth Revan left after a couple of years, and without them to dominate the lesser Sith, they began fighting among themselves for control of the Empire and the Star Forge, which none proved strong enough to control. This led to the Empire collapsing altogether.
    • In Star Wars: The Old Republic, the Sith Order is a mess of this during the class stories: the tenures of new Dark Council members sometimes last only weeks before an upstart (usually their apprentice) overthrows them. With the Sith Emperor in seclusion, this has the Surprisingly Realistic Outcome that the Sith Empire is woefully underprepared for the resumption of open war with the Republic—in part because Darth Baras intentionally provoked the Republic to war early to discredit his master Darth Vengean. The Ilum arc even has a full-on attempt at a Military Coup by Darth Malgus. Ultimately, Darth Marr and the Sith Inquisitor PC end up forcing a measure of reform, forming a Big Bad Duumvirate to take effective control of the Dark Council.
  • Street Fighter: All of Shadaloo, the criminal empire controlled by M. Bison, is full of Big Bad Wannabes who backstab and betray one-another, or even want to supplant the evil dictator himself. Bison, a card-carrying Social Darwinist, is usually amused by this and often even develops his plans around the expectation of betrayal, as seen in Street Fighter IV. During a noteworthy scene in Street Fighter V, Bison is pleased to see his Co-Dragons fighting amongst each other and muses that it might be fun to let them kill each other to see which one would win out.
  • Tales of Symphonia: Despite seeming like unified antagonists at first, the Desian Grand Cardinals all have their own agendas.
    • Botta and Yuan aren't Desians at all, but a splinter group called the Renegades.
    • Magnius was mostly concerned with extorting one city and its governor for money, and was being played by Rodyle. He was mostly unaware of his leader's true goals.
    • Kvar was making Exspheres (from humans) For Science!, and hoped to rise higher in the organization by providing this knowledge to his boss, to the point where some other Cardinals considered him a threat. (Or at least he thought they did)
    • Rodyle is The Starscream, aiming to use the Mana Cannon to destroy the Tower of Salvation and rule both worlds. To this end he manipulated Magnius and Kvar, but ended up Out-Gambitted by Pronyma, who swapped out the Exsphere he planned to use to go One-Winged Angel for one that would turn him into a mindless monster.
    • Pronyma is entirely loyal to her boss and is the one Grand Cardinal following his plan completely.
    • Forcystus bought into his boss' goals to end Fantastic Racism and views his actions as Pay Evil unto Evil for humans' oppression of half-elves.
  • The Enforcers of Ouroboros in the Trails Series are each allowed a degree of freedom to pursue their own agendas, whether they be Bleublanc's Phantom Thief antics and twisted obsession with "beauty", Walter's vendetta against Zin, Loewe putting Humanity on Trial or Arianrhod's loyalty to Dreichels' reincarnation. Their personal goals may come into conflict or jeopardise their missions, but to the Grandmaster everything is still going All According to Plan.
  • Next to every villain or monster Eggman has partnered with throughout the Sonic the Hedgehog ended up stabbing him in the back as soon as he had outlived his usefulness. In the rare cases it doesn't, it is Eggman himself manipulating or backstabbing them. Fellow recurring villains the Deadly Six have took turns partnering with Eggman or fighting for conquest since their debut, while even Eggman's right hand man Metal Sonic has disobeyed or betrayed him a few times so he could fight Sonic without his interference.

    Webcomics 
  • Exterminatus Now:
    • Just about everyone in the Patterner (read: Tzeentchian wannabes) cult is plotting to overthrow and betray their comrades, to the point where when keeping prisoners secure, the guards face each other instead of the prisoners.
    • Morth and his Number Two Janus have a extended "gotcha!" sequence where each reveals that the means of removing each other had already been discovered and neutralized. Morth wins.
  • Kill Six Billion Demons: When devils form a group to execute The Caper, it's a given that they'll stab each other in the back for profit or simple pleasure — the only question is when they'll seize the moment.
    Allison: Holy shit, she... just tried to kill me back there. I killed her! Is nobody else concerned about this?
    Charon: Hm. It is a little early, yes.
    Xand: One less share to worry about!

    Western Animation 
  • He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (2021): The Dark Masters qualify. Evelyn and Kronis clearly don't like each other and Keldor makes it clear he doesn't trust either of them. When Evelyn, Kronis and R'Qazz attempt to take Skeletor's power for themselves, he reveals he planned for this and enslaves them to his will.
  • Star Wars: The Clone Wars:
    • The entire Separatist Alliance was made up of this trope, as there wasn't a single member whose ambitions to rise to power didn't play a part in their eventual downfall. Dooku was planning to eventually betray Sidious, Asajj would eventually decide to betray Dooku (though thanks to Sidious, this was forced on her earlier than expected), General Grievous hated Dooku enough that he was planning on removing him from the picture, and so on and so forth.
    • Discussed in a conversation between Yoda and the spirit of Darth Bane, the creator of the Rule of Two. It's mentioned that the Sith fell thousands of years ago because their ambitions got the better of them, and they wouldn't stop fighting amongst themselves to seize power. Thus, Bane streamlined the process by deeming that there could only be one Master and one Apprentice at a time — one to have power, and one to crave it — to preserve their way of life and ensure the Jedi would eventually fall.
  • The Transformers: Both the Decepticons and their descendants, the Predacons, have established their regimes based around this philosophy. Only those who are strong and cunning deserve to rule, and being deposed of by a weak underling is a sign they were never meant to rule to begin with. Of course, the franchise has tended to depict this haphazardly, so it's not always consistent in this regard.
    • The Transformers shows that, with the exception of Soundwave and Shockwave, nearly every Decepticon tried to backstab or remove Megatron aside from Starscream himself, as a consequence of their ambitions getting the better of themselves. Notably, Astrotrain and Blitzwing worked with Starscream to depose Megatron, then backstabbed the both of them so they could jointly rule. The Combaticons were also once a band of Starscreams before the series, having been melted down and left as just personality components for trying to overthrow Megatron long ago, and falling right back onto old habits the moment the Trope Namer himself brings them out of storage for his own ends. By the third season, even Galvatron's most loyal subjects—Scourge and Cyclonus—were not above doing this, as a consequence of Drunk On Power and committing his insane leader to therapy respectively.
    • Beast Megatron didn't have it much better. Aside from Inferno and Scorponok, every other Predacon starting with Dinobot and ending with Dinobot II tried to betray, kill, or otherwise defect from his ranks. Terrorsaur was very much like the Trope Namer, Waspinator got tired of getting blown up and decided enough was enough, Blackarachnia and Tarantulus were far more ambitious than they were skilled, Rampage was forced into servitude, and Quickstrike was an easily manipulated idiot who just wanted to shoot things. Tellingly, none of them succeeded, as Megatron was too good of a Manipulative Bastard and The Chessmaster to fall for it.
    • The Unicron Trilogy mostly averted this, as nearly all the Decepticons under Megatron/Galvatron's ranks respected him enough to fall in line, aside from Starscream himself and Thrust. Well, at least until Transformers: Cybertron, when Galvatron became so Ax-Crazy and decided to remake the universe in his own image that his troops hightailed it out of there and betrayed him.
    • Transformers: Animated: This is taken literarily when Starscream cloned himself to create an army of Seekers he could use to depose Megatron. It almost worked until Megatron trounced his treacherous underling, at which point his clones Subverted this trope and joined Megatron instead. If anything, the Decepticon forces avert this trope entirely, since they are all loyal to Megatron's cause to a fault.
    • The Micromaster Air Strike Patrol are all out to replace their leader, Whisper. Fortunately for Whisper, Nightflight and Storm Cloud are unable to make an effective move against him (one is a coward, while the other is stupid), meaning he only has to worry about Tailwind.

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