This is Dr. X's plan in the last two episodes of Action Man (2000). He kidnaps Alex's friends, and puts them in deadly situations that will force Alex to use his AMP factor. If Alex succeeds in rescuing them by using his AMP abilities, then X will gain enough insight into it that he can replicate it on himself and become superhuman, and further his plans to create neo-humanity. If Alex fails in rescuing them, X will have killed Alex's friends. This doesn't help his body issue but it is personally gratifying.
Hama, when teaching Katara to bloodbend, made it so that Katara had to use the skill to stop her from hurting Aang and Sokka. So, either she wins the battle, or Katara learns the forbidden art. With the latter outcome, the knowledge was passed on, which is what she wanted. This may not seem like a big deal until The Legend of Korra, where three of the main antagonists are bloodbenders, and damn good ones too!
Azula pulls one at the beginning of Season 3. After (temporarily) killing Aang, Azula invites Zuko to return from his exile, which he accepts. She does this knowing that the avatar was probably not actually dead for good. If he comes back, Zuko has implicitly taken the credit and, therefore, the responsibility for killing the Avatar and is the one to receive the backlash for failure. If Aang really is dead, Azula has coerced loyalty out of her brother, robbing the good guys of an important ally; Zuko also gives her leverage to keep Iroh imprisoned. Unfortunately, she doesn't count on Iroh escaping during the eclipse and Zuko growing a spine, and the failure of her plot (a first for the series) sends her down her Villainous Breakdown.
During an episode of The Avengers: United They Stand cartoon, newly introduced villains the Zodiac hijack a series of nuclear weapons satellites, which our heroes believe are being used to hold the world hostage and promptly destroy. Turns out, they wanted the satellites destroyed, as they were obstructing their view of a celestial convergence needed to turn their giant astronomical key and bring them one step closer to universal domination.
Beast Machines inverts this trope near the finale, when the Maximals take over Megatron's base. The base's shield cuts Botanica off from the planet's organic core, causing her to wilt. If they drop the shield, Megatron's drones will overrun them. If they don't drop the shield, Botanica will die. Either way they lose.
Ben in the Grand Finale of Ben 10: Alien Force. After Vilgax finally steals the Omnitrix and uses it to create his army of alien biods, Ben sets the Omnitrix to 30 seconds self-destructnote In the original series, the self-destruct was charged up for several days which is the reason why it would destroy the universe, whereas 30 seconds is a less deadly self-destruct. Vilgax either removes the Omnitrix for Ben to shut off the self-destruct or lets the Omnitrix be destroyed. Vilgax chooses the second option and the Omnitrix explodes destroying his arm. He gets better.
Furthermore the destruction of the Omnitrix gives Ben evidence to convince Albedo not to call his bluff when he pulls the same gambit with Albedo's Ultimatrix, giving Ben a new, more powerful Omnitrix to fight Vilgax with.
The Care Bears of all people try to pull one of these in their second movie. After Dark Heart has kidnapped most of the Care Bear Family, the remaining free members attempt a rescue mission... expecting Dark Heart to capture them, and put them in the same place as all the others, figuring that they are at their strongest when they are together.
While its writing seemed to be aimed at preschoolers, Challenge of the Superfriends attempted a few of these. In one episode, the Legion of Doom pretended to shrink the U.N. building down to briefcase size and hide it on an island surrounded by lava and guarded by a lava monster at the center of the Earth. This was only to trick the Superfriends into defeating the lava monster so that the Legion could abscond with the monolith that was really on the island.
In Code Lyoko, the majority of XANA's attacks, especially in the first season, are this. If the Lyoko Warriors fail to deactivate his tower, then that would mean his attack succeeds. If they do, their use of the supercomputer's Return to the Past feature to undo the damage actually makes him more powerful. Upon learning this in the second season, the team is forced to limit their use of RttP to only the most dire of emergencies.
In the second season, Father sends Cree to attack Sector V's treehouse. They defeat her and send her to the Moonbase Prison. When Number 5 next runs into her, she reveals that this was the intended result. Once she was on the Moonbase, she could escape from jail and execute her plan to send the whole base drifting into the sun.
The above plan at first seems to have backfired when the prison transport breaks down, leading to Number 5 seemingly beating Cree in a battle, trapping her in a garbage pod, and shooting her into space. Cree's shown in the end to have done this on purpose; she hacked into the pod's controls, slowly driving it towards the Moonbase to continue with the first gambit.
Sector V retrieves the stolen KND Code Module from Father at the beginning of "Operation GRADUATES." Later, Tommy realizes he let them take it back because they would hook it back up to the KND Super Big Computermabob. Father had already linked the Code Module to his Involuntary Transformation ray, which could now affect every Kids Next Door operative in the computer's database.
Done a few times in Cyberchase by Hacker. One particularly weird example was the episode where Hacker was bidding on the Encryptor Chip at an auction, while the kids tried to raise enough money to outbid him. Hacker knew that the kids would beat him anyway, so he just kept bidding to keep everyone else from getting it. Turns out the Encryptor Chip would infect Mother Board instead of curing her and replace her personality with a copy of the Hacker's.
Vlad — a.k.a. Plasmius — of Danny Phantom is satisfied even when Danny defeats him because a) he sees the boy as his apprentice, and b) it further proves how they're Not So Different.
Plasmius: Using your opponent's weaknesses against him... I am teaching you something after all.
Plasmius: Sneak attack — very good, Daniel. You're getting more like me with every battle.
One of the above quotes is made after Danny pulls one off in the first episode Vlad appears in; either a) he stops attacking everyone and leaves the Fentons alone or b) Danny exposes both of them as half-ghosts to everyone, including two ghost hunters (one of them being the woman Vlad is in love with).
Vlad's plan in "The Million Dollar Ghost" is a classic — he tries to steal the Fentons' ghost portal so he can get to the Ghost Zone to retrieve a key. He fails, but when he loses the fight, Jack and Danny... send him into the Ghost Zone, allowing him to get the key anyway.
Vlad: Oh, Jack Fenton, even in success, you fail!
Another classic example occurs during Reign Storm: After an immensely draining battle, Danny is saved in the nick of time by the entire cast of his ghostly enemies, led by Vlad, who steals the main villain's source of power.
Technus pulls an impressive one in "Flirting With Disaster" when he took control of Valerie's suit and sends it after Danny: either the suit defeats Danny, or Danny destroys the suit in front of Valerie and demoralizes her.
Venger forms such a plan in the Dungeons & Dragons episode "Prison Without Walls": He learns that the heroes have gone searching for Lukyon, a gnome wizard he imprisoned in a magic swamp for refusing to tell him where he hid a powerful gem called the Dragon's Heart. Instead of sending his army in to stop the kids, he lets them search, sending only Shadow-Demon to spy on them. He explains why: either the kids will succeed and find Lukyon, who will then trust them enough to tell them where he hid the Dragon's Heart (which means he'll know, as well); or they'll fail, and the swamp will kill them (meaning he'll finally get their weapons) — either way, Venger will get something he's wanted. (It works, as the first scenario is what happens — he just loses the battle that follows.)
One of the best examples is in the episode "Leader of the Pack", where Xanatos sends a robot double of himself to break the Pack out of prison (except for Fox, who refuses), and sends them against the gargoyles. The gargoyles destroy the robot and defeat the Pack, but Xanatos' plan all along was to get an early parole for Fox; her refusal to escape with the others made a big impression on the parole board. In addition, Xanatos was also able to test his new tech project (the robot double), who made recurring appearances throughout the series. This was all brilliantly disguised as a bog-standard revenge plot; as Xanatos reveals at the end, he cares little for revenge, calling it a sucker's game.
The first appearance of the Pack is also a Xanatos Gambit. Xanatos arranges for the Pack to be made aware of the Gargoyles' existence and for the Gargoyles themselves to be made aware of the Pack's existence. If the two sides destroy each other or the Pack wins, then Xanatos no longer has to deal with the Gargoyles. If the Pack loses (which they do), then Xanatos gains valuable information about the Gargoyles' skills, as the only thing he had previously known for sure was that they were physically formidable. Even better, neither side will retaliate against him because there's no way to trace the events to him.
This was done in the series premiere, where Xanatos uses the clan to steal some tech. When they find out that he's a Chessmaster, he then utilizes the opportunity to test out his new robots, using the tech they stole. Even though it winds up in defeat, he considered it a victory because...
A) He got the new technology.
B) He apparently has a photographic memory of said technology.
C) He gave his new toys a field-test against the most physically powerful beings out there, so he'll be able to make adjustments for down the line.
"Eye of the Beholder" is a Zig-Zag on this trope. Xanatos' plan to save Fox is made of interlinking gambits where the failure of one triggers the activation of the next. Once he determines that Fox might be the werewolf creature, his first two plans involve getting the Eye of Odin away from her, Plan A just by asking and then Plan B by forcefully trying to take it from her. Goliath and Elisa witness Plan B, deducing that the werewolf must have been human and that Xanatos is after the "jewel" that it had. Returning back to Castle Wyvern, Xanatos admits that Plan B has failed but now, Plan C was in effect, which is letting the Gargoyles' hatred of him fuel their desire to get the Eye from Fox before he does, and then he'll steal it from them. Unfortunately, they anticipated this and stuck around for the exposition. "I don't suppose you have a plan D?" As it turns out, he does; explain everything and ask nicely, banking on Goliath's natural empathy to save Fox. Goliath initially flies off in a huff, but after cooling off he begrudgingly decides to help out. At the end, Xanatos gets what he wants (as expected), but self-pityingly announces that the heroes have discovered his weakness; he cares about Fox enough to submit to his enemies to save her. Goliath notes that that just means he's not as amoral as he thinks he is, meaning perhaps they don't have to be enemies at all.
Goliath: Only you would regard love as a weakness.
A "consolation prize" version was when he donated the Eye Of Odin to a museum, then sent out his team of robot gargoyles (the Steel Clan) to accompany him in a Powered Armor to steal it back. Goliath and company intervene and it ends with the entire Steel Clan destroyed, but Xanatos explained that he still improved public relations with the city, retrieved the priceless magical Eye of Odin, successfully tested his battle armor, and was able to fight Goliath toe-to-toe, helping his own self-esteem. "I'd say I've still got the edge."
He gets so good at this, that it eventually comes back to bite him when Thailog is introduced in the episode "Double Jeopardy". Thailog escapes by hiring Sevarius to kidnap him via communication supposedly from Xanatos. Sevarius had no problem believing that Xanatos would arrange a kidnapping of his own experiment/son/partner in a convoluted, Machiavellian scheme to achieve some unseen goal. Thailog continued to outmaneuver everyone for the rest of the episode. When his plan to steal $20 million dollars, and kill Xanatos, Goliath, and Sevarius went belly up, Thailog moved to his backup plan: make it appear that he and the money were destroyed in an explosion. However, Xanatos is aware of this possibility, as that is what HE would do.
Owen: You mean, that creature is still out there. It has the money. It's as powerful as Goliath. And it's smarter than you? Xanatos: Owen, I think I created a monster. Thailog: Hahahahahahahaha!
The essence of a Xanatos Gambit, at least when Xanatos himself is performing one, is that defeating the heroes isn't usually his most preferred outcome (since that takes away a potential Unwitting Pawn for a later plan). The true goal is usually independent of the big fight and sometimes resolved before the fight even happens. For example, in the episode Legion. Xanatos uses the cyborg gargoyle Coldstone to break into a military installation and try to hack an advanced computer system. The military machine immediately uploads a computer virus into Coldstone, who is then confronted by a police experimental robot that tazes him. The heroes show up to confront Coldstone, there is a police chase, etc.; but none of this matters to the Xanatos Gambit since Xanatos manufactured and donated the police robot: it was programmed to use its "taser" to download the virus from Coldstone's computer systemnote which itself was a case of Xanatos Speed Chess as he was initially after the files on the computer Coldstone tried to hack, but felt the virus was more valuable since it took out Coldstone's programming. The rest of the episode may appear as though it was spoiling Xanatos's scheme, but in reality it was completely irrelevant to his actual goals.
Titania, Fox's mother, displays this in "The Gathering". When she manipulates Oberon to attempt to abduct Alexander, she has set herself to win either way: if Oberon managed to get the baby, he could be raised in the magical nurturing environment of Avalon, and if the fight went against him, it would probably be because Fox's latent magic power came to the surface in Mama Bear fashion, showing that Alex could be adequately trained on Earth after all.
Demona's first attempt at a Xanatos Gambit was a failed one. In "A Long Way Till Morning". Demona confronts Elisa in her apartment and shoots her with a poison dart. She tells her that if she wants the antidote, have Goliath meet her at a certain location. Goliath takes the bait, but brings Hudson along with him. Once he arrives, Demona attacks, planning to kill the gargoyle leader so she can take over. She even gives Hudson a chance to side with her, but Hudson is able to protect Goliath until sunrise. The following night, once it's clear Demona's plan to kill Goliath has failed, she reminds them of the supposed reason they showed up in the first place — to save Elisa from a poison that has NO antidote, and would've killed her by now. What Demona didn't realize, however, is that the dart never hit Elisa's skin, only her police badge.
Demona had improved her tactics by the time of "The Mirror" — while she's trying to steal the eponymous artifact from a museum, Goliath and Elisa find her and chase her outside of the building. Once all three are gone, some hired Mooks of Demona's break in and steal the mirror for her.
Demona and Macbeth steal a comatose Coldstone from the Gargoyles' lair and bring forth the Iago persona. The heroes are so focused on the reasons for this unlikely triple threat that they don't even notice the real purpose of the 'abduction': the Weird Sisters, using mind control on Macbeth and Demona, also had them steal three magic objects the gargoyles had stored in their tower. The heroes don't even notice until the trail is cold.
On Invader Zim,Zim actually manages to pull one of these off in the unfinished episode "Simon Sez Doom." He volunteers at an orphanage for some unknown reason, so Dib volunteers to to find out why. Dib abandons his job (watching a volatile diaper-changing machine) to investigate Zim's plan, which turns out to be brainwashing all the kids to serve him through Simon Says. Dib manages to stop that, only to find out the real plan was to distract Dib so the machine would blow up. Dib manages to stop that, but the machine has to be turned off, and Dib has to change the kids' diapers himself now. Andthatwas Zim'srealplan all along.
In the Season 4 finale of Jackie Chan Adventures, Tarakudo reveals that he's been running a gambit for the entire season. If his minions get ahold of the Oni masks and gain control of their respective Shadowkhan armies, that's great. If the heroes get them all instead, that's fine too, seeing as having all nine masks in the same place causes them to shatter and release the demons inside anyway.
The Joker managed to pull this off in the Justice League episode "Wild Cards". He sets up a series of hidden bombs all around the Las Vegas strip, daring the League to defuse them all within 25 minutes. In addition, he's seized control of several TV feeds and sent his own superpowered team against the League (the Royal Flush Gang) to make their job harder. The League defuses all the bombs, but then the Joker reveals that his real plan was to get enough people watching his show so that they would all be turned insane by the Gang's most powerful member, Ace (a Tyke-Bomb who can alter perception by looking at someone).
Lex Luthor also pulls one off in Justice League Unlimited when he hacks the Justice League's Kill Sat: Cadmus could be completely wiped out, removing a threat to himself. Heavy hitters in the Justice League could turn themselves in to the government, removing a threat to himself. Justice League and Cadmus could go into all-out war, destroying one side and almost certainly weakening the other, and removing a threat to himself. If all that is somehow avoided, he still buys time to complete his Amazo clone and become a god. Batmanunfortunately ruins it.
Luthor pulls off another gambit in the episode "Clash": he built a beautiful low-income housing project/neighborhood for families in need, inviting Superman to the charity fundraiser marking the opening. Understandably suspicious, Superman uses his X-ray vision to discover a device deep in the sub-basements, assumes it's a bomb, and prepares to destroy it. Luthor claims that the device is an experimental fusion generator to provide free power to the community. Superman doesn't believe Luthor and has to be restrained by Captain Marvel, leading to a brutal fight between the two heroes that destroys not only the device, but the entire community that Luthor had constructed. Afterwords, the League determines that the device was exactly what Luthor had claimed. Luthor's plan was doubly brilliant because everything he had said was true: if Superman had done nothing, Luthor would have improved his tarnished public image. If Superman simply destroyed the generator, he would make himself look bad and improve Luthor's image even more. By fighting Marvel and wrecking the new community, (which Luthor hadn't been expecting, saying it turned out better than he could have hoped) Superman made the League look so bad that Captain Marvel quits in disgust, and Luthor comes off looking far better than Superman does along with creating a schism among the superheroes.
He had captured Kim's father and lured her into a trap. Even if she managed to escape, he had already gotten the knowledge of the cybertronic technology he wanted from James' mind.
Allowing her to find and disable the first of his Diablo generators to allow his dragon to capture her boyfriend and demand her surrender. He correctly predicts that she'll try and rescue him and allows her to do so, safe in the knowledge that Eric is a synthodrone allowing Kim to be captured.
Amon goes over the radio and demands that Republic City's council shut down the pro-bending tournament and close the stadium. If they do it, he wins a symbolic victory, showing that he can intimidate them into doing what he wants. If they don't do it, he gets to start exactly what he's wanted all along, a war between benders and non-benders.
Tarrlok also does one against Korra. After she refuses to join his Anti-Equalist task-force, he convinces the council of Republic City to pass harsh non-bender laws, creating a police state for those civilians. He also has Korra's friends arrested after they tried to help the non-benders. Knowing Korra's personality, he waits until she confronts him. He gives her one last chance to join the task-force, knowing that if she says yes, he wins. If she says no, he has a trump card that can remove her as a threat to his plans. She says no and is shocked when Tarrlok reveals he can bloodbend, even without a full moon.
In the Legion Of Superheroes, Imperiex carries out a preemptive strike against the Legion to pave the way for the bigger invasion to come. With his friends on the ropes, Brainiac 5 gives in to his Enemy Within and uses his hidden powers to single-handedly defeat Imperiex's forces, forcing them to retreat. However, Imperiex then informs his Dragon that this was the outcome that he preferred all along, as it further molded Brainiac 5 into being an ideal ally.
Used by the Twins in Lolirock episode "Heavy Metal" where they stole a bunch of instruments to create a musical monster that could absorb the girls' magic and grow larger. Even if the girls defeated the monster, it was part of a Batman Gambit in which the girls would restore and return all the stolen instruments and earn an Oracle Gem, which the Twins would then steal, which is what happens.
Miraculous Ladybug: In the Season 2 premiere, Hawk Moth realizes that Ladybug and Cat Noir have found a major clue to his Secret Identity, which would be disastrous to him since hispowers are much less suited to direct confrontation than those of the heroes. In response, he comes up with by far his cleverest plan to date: creating a new akuma withhimselfas the target, via temporarily renouncing his butterfly Miraculous. This means no matter what happens, he comes out ahead. Either his akumatized self captures the heroes' Miraculous (his ultimate goal), or the heroes purify the akuma as usual and his immediate goal of concealing his identity is achieved, since Ladybug and Cat Noir would never suspect one of Hawk Moth's victims of being Hawk Moth.
In the third season premiere, KingSombra's booby-traps to prevent ponies from reaching the Crystal Heart. They keep them out? Good, the one thing that can stop him is out of reach. They reach it? It sets off a trap allowing him to begin growing his dark crystals inside the castle itself, even if he himself can't enter, as well as trapping the pony who found it.
In the final season, when Celestia and Luna announced they were retiring and intended for Twilight to take their place, Twilight was unsure she was ready, so Discord, in his own way, tried to help her by running one the whole season. Posing as the ancient monster, Grogar, Discord gathered together the Mane Six's defeated villains who had not reformed to convince them to work together as a team. If the villains failed and were defeated again by the Mane Six, it would help give Twilight the confidence she needed to rule Equestria. If the villains learned the value of teamwork, they would be on their way to being reformed. Unfortunately, his plan backfired when he instead created a team of villains who learned to work together totake over Equestria.
Santa Claus in the Phineas and Ferb Christmas special has a impressive one because it incorporates Doofenschmirtz's Evil Plan of the day to make itself work. He gives Doofenschmirtz a machine that brands the Tri-State Area as 'naughty' so the presents won't be delivered. This motivates Phineas into taking on Santa's role for the day, which was his Christmas Wish. Since Santa knew the city wasn't actually naughty he could step in at anytime.
Megabyte from ReBoot returned in real style and with a few dangerous new upgrades. First he pretended to be a copy of Bob and that threw everyone off guard, especially Dot (who almost married him). But even when he was discovered, he then tricked everyone into capturing a copy of himself (an alias) which was simply a distraction as he got inside the Principle Office and took over within moments, infecting a half-dozen new soldiers and ending with a Psychotic Smirkfor the series.
Gerald Broflofski pulls this off in the Season 3 episode "Sexual Harassment Panda", in which he becomes everyone's lawyer, and is both the prosecution and the defense in the case of "Everyone v. Everyone". If everyone wins, he makes money. If everyone loses, he still makes money. If he loses to himself, he's just giving himself his money back. If the case is taken out of court, he still gets the legal fees from their time in court. Even at the end of the episode, after the return of the eponymous panda, he seems to pull a Karma Houdini and still keep all his earnings, at least until the next episode.
Cartman pulls one off in the Season 3 episode "The Red Badge of Gayness" (The one with "S'more-flavored Schnapps") — He makes a bet with the others that he can make it so the South won the civil war, and the agreed stake in the bet is that the loser(s) must act as the winners' slaves. When he loses the bet, he (successfully) argues that he can't be a slave because the South losing the civil war resulted in the abolition of slavery.
In "About Last Night", Obama and McCain have a plot that requires one of them to get elected president, without needing to care which one. McCain jokes that it would have sucked if they somehow tied.
The 90s Spider-Man: The Animated Series establishes Wilson Fisk, aka Kingpin, using this trope. He blackmails his "business partner" Osborn into building him robots to fight Spider-Man — either Osborn ends up even further in his debt, or he's rid of a formidable enemy. "That's why I'm the Kingpin."
In an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants Mr. Krabs manages to pull off an uncharacteristically complex Xanatos Gambit with SpongeBob and Patrick. He tasks the two to prevent Plankton from stealing the Krabby Patty Formula from its safe place in his vault in a James BondAffectionate Parody type of clandestine operation. Ultimately, they fail and Plankton actually makes off with the formula, but it doesn't really matter — the Plankton SpongeBob and Patrick were trying to foil was, in fact, Mr. Krabs in disguise, and the entire thing was the result of a bet between the real Plankton and Krabs to see if Krabs could beat Plankton at his own game. If he succeeds, then he wins. If he fails, it still means the real Plankton can't get in either.
Plankton almost pulls this off himself in "Krabs v. Plankton", when he trips on a wet floor at the Krusty Krab and feigns serious injuries to sue for negligence. In this case, he tells Krabs he'll drop the charges on the condition that he gets the Krabby Patty secret formula, which Krabs would never hand over if his life depended on it. So, by dragging him to court and presenting a very clear cut case of negligence, he not only could sue Krabs for everything he's got, but he'd get to walk away with the formula, the restaurant, and Krabs' vast fortune. Either way, Krabs loses. Or he would have if SpongeBob didn't cleverly expose the ruse with a well-timed Krabby Patty placement while Plankton was on the witness stand.
Throughout the series, Sidious/Palpatine pulls dozens of small ones all the time. Almost every single multi-episode arc is a Xanatos Gambit by Palpatine, in one way or another (though some of them are very subtle.) Either way the episode resolves, whether the heroes succeed or fail, the plans of Palpatine are ultimately advanced either way.
Used by the Nightsisters in S3.E12. "Nightsisters". Ventress is sent to assassinate Dooku. If she succeeds, Dooku is dead. If she fails, Dooku realizes his vulnerability and returns to the Nightsisters for a new apprentice, furthering their plans.
In Season 6's Banking Clan arc, Sidious and Dooku set up Rush Clovis in making it seem like he had a Batman Gambit for giving control of the banks to the Separatists. If the Republic does nothing, then Dooku has Clovis under his thumb and control of the banks. But when the Republic does step in and win, Palpatine is able to claim that a Separatist plot has been foiled, while at the same time taking control of the banks himself, which is what he really wanted all along.
The Anaxes arc in Season 7 is Grievous' big one: given Anaxes' historical and practical role as the undefeatable defender of the Core, if the planet falls the Republic will soon follow out of sheer despair; but the planet holds and Trench, Grievous' best subordinate, dies... But to achieve that the Republic had to pull forces away from both the rest of the Core and the Outer Rim sieges, thus improving the Separatists' ability to hold its besieged worlds, and Trench having landed a massive invasion force means the troops from the Core will stay there, keeping Coruscant weakened for his impending attack on Coruscant itself.
This one deserves some special attention — Thrawn had at least four potential scenarios here. Either the droid finds the Rebel base and destroys it (he wins), the droid is disabled by the Rebels and self-destructs there (he still wins), the droid is disabled and otherwise fails to return (not an immediate win, but it does make Thrawn's job of finding the Rebels much easier), or the scenario that happens in the episode. It might've even helped him to fish out a Mole.
In the Superman: The Animated Series 2-part finale "Legacy", Darkseid finally makes good on his promise to Superman that "if he won't be [his] knight, he will be [his] pawn", by having the Man of Steel kidnapped, brainwashed by Granny Goodness into believing he is Darkseid's son, and sent to lead a campaign on Earth. When Superman breaks out of the brainwashing, he is captured by the army, and he is facing execution for treason. He manages to escape and make his way to Apokolips, and personally challenge Darkseid, which he barely wins, and overthrows him. But the Lowlies try to help Darkseid, and nurse him to recovery. Ultimately, in the end, the damage was done: The trust of the people of Earth had been severely damaged, with the Man of Steel wondering if he can ever fully earn it back again. Whether he took over the Earth, or was executed, or personally defeated by Darkseid, or even defeats him and returns to Earth, either way, Darkseid wins! That said, he truly never considered the possibility that Superman could actually defeat him; he was enraged that Superman even so much as punched him. This plan was very nearly ruined as Superman won by turning Darkseid's own Omega Beams against him which nearly killed both of them — Darkseid only survived because his slaves spared his life. Had Superman known that, he might well have opted to kill Darkseid with his own bare hands. Once Superman faces Darkseid again in Justice League, he doesn't take any chances and makes sure Darkseid actually dies this time.
In "The Pit of Doom", despite the destruction of his elevator monster, he succeeded in having Shogozom's populous dig out the pit enough for him.
Even though the Hyperforce managed to defeat Flytor, the creature's real purpose was to get a scan of Chiro for Skeleton King's future plans.
When Skeleton King had an ice giant unleash a blizzard on Shogozom, even though the Hyperforce stopped the blizzard, the ice giant was left weakened enough for Skeleton King to capture and use its magic as his own.
It's eventually revealed that everything Skeleton King had done was all part of a Master Plan to awaken a Dark One within the core of Shogozom.
In H.I.V.E. offers Slade their three top-students, Gizmo, Mammoth, and Jinx, to eliminate the Teen Titans. But, as anyone could predict, they get beaten. At the end of the episode, while the H.I.V.E. operative is apologizing to Slade for the failure, Slade says that he knew it would end this way. His true purpose was to get the Titans' attention, which he accomplished when one of the students blabbed they were hired by Slade. From this moment on, he starts his Mind Screwing Games with Robin.
Xanatos Gambit is more or less Slade's MO; another example is from part one of the Season 1 finale, in which the gang minus Robin finds and disables Slade's Chronoton Detonator, only to discover that it's a decoy, designed to lure them within range of a beam that infects them with explosive nanomachines that Slade controls. It's a ploy to force Robin to join him, under penalty of pushing the button and killing his friends.
Which leads up to a rather magnificent one from Robin himself, as he intentionally infects himself with the same nanites. Robin, knowing Slade still considers him to be a valuable...investment, leaves him with two choices: kill the entire team plus Robin, or let them all live. Robin either keeps his friends or deprives Slade of his victory, and more importantly, his control over Robin. Either way, Slade loses out.
Slade pulls off another successful gambit in "Titan Rising". He attacks the Tower with giant mechanical worms that form a massive drill. If the Titans failed at stopping the drill, the Tower would be destroyed and the heroes would have no place to live. If they succeeded at stopping the drill, no biggie, he's just successfully ingratiated his apprentice Terra into the Titans to act as a spy so he can take them down from the inside later. And indeed, the Titans officially take Terra in as a member after she "helps" them save their Tower.
Another episode has Slade show he planned for death, as a neural agent in his mask (in the form of dust) infected Robin and caused him to hallucinate, seeing Slade everywhere. Robin's non-stop fighting against phantom Slades would either lead to his death from overexertion or force the rest of the Titans to fight him if only to get him under control. Either way, Slade gets revenge for his defeat, weakens the team dynamic, torments Robin, and there's nothing anyone can do about it since he's dead.
And beyond that it turns out that Slade made another plan for his death: not only did become a servant of Trigon to enable his own resurrection, he plans out his betrayal of the verse's Satan equivalent so as to remove the consequences of that Deal with the Devil. A plan which is completely successful.
The Master of Games pulls one of these when he tricks Robin, Beast Boy, Cyborg, and a bunch of other heroes (and Gizmo) into fighting in a tournament. No matter who would win, the losers would be captured in his amulet enabling him to utilize their powers.
Shredder in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1987) used one well in the first part of the third season finale. With the Technodrome running on fumes and in need of power, Shredder knows that the Turtles will stop their attempts to get an energy source. So he uses the last of the Technodrome's power to take control of a lab housing a new energy source to lure the Turtles there, allowing Bebop and Rocksteady to break into another lab with a power source they can use. Even though the Turtles defeat Shredder, for once, Bebop and Rocksteady do their job right and get the energy source, leaving the Turtles shocked when they find out.
In Voltron: Legendary Defender, Prince Lotor allows Voltron to cross over into another dimension. When questioned on this, Lotor states that either Voltron will get the crystal in the other universe that would allow him to build a weapon just as powerful as Voltron itself, or Volron will get stuck in that other universe and will never be a problem for him again.
W.I.T.C.H. (a series whose second season was done by Greg Weisman, creator of Gargoyles) also uses and abuses this trope to no end, as it seems the villain always has one of these up their sleeve. Prince Phobos pulled two (one in the first season and one in the second), while Nerissa... well, let's just say she's a master at it, shall we?
"There is no Trill. There never was."
In an earlier episode, Prince Phobos used a particularly brilliant one: he spread a rumor that the lost Seal of Phobos had been found in order to lure Caleb into a living sandpit trap. Even though Caleb and the Guardians escape from the sandpit, Phobos' real goal was to weed out The Mole in his castle by finding out who leaked the rumor to Caleb.
Will pulls one late in the second season, as Nerissa is powered by two Hearts and is literally twice as powerful as the five Guardians together but the way she got said Hearts means Phobos could take it from her, and thus frees Phobos after making him swear on the Heart of Kandrakar that as soon as he gets them he will give Nerissa's Hearts up and return to his cell. If Phobos succeeds and keeps his word they've beaten Nerissa; if Phobos succeeds but turns against them he not only loses the loyalty of Raythor but also his oath on the Heart of Kandrakar means he'll lose the two Hearts the moment he sets foot on Kandrakar to invade it; and if he fails, Nerissa isn't invincible and she just killed an enemy potentially more dangerous than even herself. The only reason it didn't work is that she didn't expect Cedric to see through it and take advantage of Phobos' betrayal.
On Xiaolin ShowdownJack Spicer gets one in a Not-So-Harmless Villain moment: he creates the Chameleon Bot, a robot that can change shape and uses it to replace Kimiko. At that point, every outcome helps him. If the monks don't realize the switch, it can sow division within the Good Guy's ranks and help him win showdowns by sabotaging them. If the monks do realize the switch, the bot can try killing them. If they realize the switch and defeat the bot, Jack can use the diversion to steal all their Shen Gong Wu. The third option is what happens.
Constantly seen in Young Justice. Even after almost every defeat of their operatives, "The Light" manages some sort of victory and one step closer towards their endgame. This show is run by the man who created David Xanatos, after all.
The team went to Bialya, disrupted their scientists' experiments, and went home with a metallic sphere that is some kind of advanced technology. It's not a big loss for The Light. They'll get more technology down the road. The main goal was to test their new partner's transportation system: a Boom-Tube.
The team stops Black Manta from stealing Starro's body from Atlantis. We later find out that Black Manta resorted to Plan B and destroyed the Starro, leaving only a small sample which would be sent to the surface world and can be obtained later.
There is a gambit that is put into action since the pilot episode and culminates in episode 11. The ice-based villains were quickly defeated in episode 1. This is part of their plan as each of them manage to get sent to Belle Reve, before carrying out their plan: Break every supervillain out of there.
What's impressive is that this itself was part of another Xanatos Gambit. The team stops the supervillains from breaking out. However, this attempted escape causes Amanda Waller, the warden, to lose her job to Hugo Strange, who is an agent of The Light. Now they have control over what is practically an army of supervillains.
In "Revelation", the Injustice League launched an attack on various cities using mutated giant plants, but were ultimately captured by the team and Justice League. The Injustice League's mutant plants were actually provided by The Light, who was able to monitor their effectiveness as a weapon. More importantly, the Justice League mistakenly believed the Injustice League to be the secret society who were working behind the scenes. Now The Light can continue to work their schemes more easily.
On a smaller scale, Bane pulled one by stampeding Young Justice towards his enemies in KOBRA. Either they destroy KOBRA (and Bane wins) or KOBRA kills them and the Justice League destroys KOBRA to avenge them (and Bane wins).
The Team Beat Them at Their Own Game in "Summit". They'd taken so many steps that no matter what the Light and Reach did, they were screwed. Summit continues? They're recording everything for an Engineered Public Confession to wreck the Reach's Villain with Good Publicity act. Artemis and Kaldur's Fake Defector act is uncovered? Miss Martian already replaced Deathstroke and fakes their deaths, Kaldur triggering what seems to be a Dead Man's Switch that reveals the Light was playing the Reach and shatters their alliance. Vandal Savage calls in an army of Mooks to kill them? The rest of the Team has already disguised themselves as mooks and turns the tables. The end result is the Ambassador, Black Manta, and the Brain captured, their alliance obliterated, the Reach exposed as the invaders they really are, and Vandal Savage having a Villainous Breakdown.
But even here the Light manage to pull a Xanatos Gambit. Lex Luthor, Queen Bee, Vandal Savage, and Klarion manage to get away, and Ras al Ghul will inevitably be resurrected with a Lazurus Pit. Then The Light steals the War World from under the Justice League's nose, threatens the rest of the universe should they invade Earth, and then reveals that they are in league with freakin Darkseid. It ends with Vandal Savage commenting, "Business as usual." Even when the heroes win they lose!
These gambits continue even into the revival seasons. The third season finale sees the Team and Outsiders return to Markovia when Baron Bedlam escapes prison and performs a coup d'etat. When they get in, Terra, performing her usual The Mole role, is ordered to assassinate the Outsiders' leader Beast Boy at a critical moment with the hopes that the Light can use it to set up registration rules for future metahumans to traffic. Instead, the heroes knew she had been a mole, and use their kindness towards her to convince her to fully side with them instead. As her brother Geo-Force had been Locked Out of the Loop, he executes Baron Bedlam, their Evil Uncle, in rage, and takes over the throne from his older brother Gregor instead. Because he was another member of the Outsiders, the Light banked on substituting Terra's attempted murder of Beast Boy with Geo-Force's violation of Thou Shalt Not Kill against Bedlam to set up their law, except Black Lightning accessed the communicator that Terra threw to the ground, catching Luthor red-handed, and works with Cyborg, Superboy, and Superman to successfully oust him from the United Nations, with Troia now the secretary-general of the United Nations.
However, the Light had other plans that enabled them to survive this. Luthor wasn't the only criminal inside the United Nations, so was Zviad Baazovi, Markovia's ambassador. He used psychic manipulation to enable Geo-Force's takeover from internal impulses he felt deep down, but were nudged to the surface, rendering him a Puppet King to the Light, and securing their control of Markovia, and the now disgraced Luthor retreats to Markovia with his Infinity, Inc. serving the country, while the heroes benefited from the now lifted sanctions and the merging of the Justice League factions.