Hey everyone! I’ve got some more lovely words about Commander for you this week. I play a lot of different games other than Magic in my spare time, and those games have a surprising amount to tell us. I’ve always been of the opinion that games can teach us things about real life; but today, I want to talk about how games can teach us things about other games—specifically, about Commander. As a budding game designer myself (and I promise not to talk about that too much), I am intrigued by the concept of games as teachers. Let’s jump right in!
Blue Shell Theory
If you’ve played Mario Kart for the Wii, you know that blue shells are just the worst thing that ever existed. The blue shell, for those of you who don’t play Mario Kart, is a weapon players can use to attack only the player currently in first place. When the blue shell hits, the player in first is stunned for a good three seconds. I’ve always been a reasonable Mario Kart player, and I never noticed the blue shell being quite as oppressive as it is in Wii Mario Kart. I can be miles ahead of the player (or computer) in second and still get passed by three karts after being hit with the blue shell. This leads to a different strategy than previous Mario Kart games—instead of blasting off as fast as possible and getting a huge lead, the strategy seems to be to sit in second place and bide one’s time until an opportunity arises.
This is an important strategy in Commander, and multiplayer Magic in general. The player that is perceived to be “winning” at any given time is always the target of aggression in the form of crippling spells and attacks. I’m certainly not the first person to talk about this, and I won’t be the last, but I think this seemingly trite observation has value—people learn best when concepts and facts are repeated. Players, no matter how intelligent, have a tendency to want to assert their superiority in the form of amassing a commanding force or taking the lead in some way. It’s just human nature, really. When a player does so, however, he or she is often blasted into oblivion by the rest of the table.
So what are we to do? Well, I think I can properly illustrate with a story:
I used to play a lot of 60-card casual multiplayer, and when I did, I played with very strange decks. I had an Iridescent Drake combo deck (which was temporarily neutered by power-level errata, oddly); an Enduring Ideal deck which played cards like Glarecaster and Gerrard Capashen; a coin-flip deck featuring Chance Encounter, Krark’s Thumb, and Fiery Gambit; and many other weird concoctions. I used to win a large portion of our multiplayer games. This was not because I was the best player or had the best decks, but because I knew how to position myself at the table. In the early game, I would usually do little to nothing at all. I would simply keep pace with the other players—making sure I wasn’t out in front. After a while, my hand would be just about perfect, and once a few players had been eliminated, I would explode onto the scene, combo out or whatever, and win unopposed. Why? Because everyone had already fired their “blue shells.” Of course, eventually people just started killing me first regardless. Mercilessly. So, I guess you should use this strategy in moderation.
Yes, I Killed You
Back in college, we used to play a lot of Munchkin. Munchkin is a card game where you are a character in a kind of fantasy dungeon crawl (or you’re a spy, or a wild west cowboy, or a martial artist, or someone in space… there are lots of different varieties of Munchkin) trying to level up. You start at level 1, and when you hit level 10, you win. Hooray! As you play, you accumulate treasures that make you stronger and cards you can use to screw your friends over to prevent them from winning. Screwing your friends over is pretty much the most important part of Munchkin, and it’s something the game encourages almost to a fault.
Munchkin can get heated very quickly. When you screw someone over, usually they understand that they deserve it. Sometimes, however, they don’t think they deserve it—and sometimes, they actually don’t deserve it. This happens in Commander as well. Sometimes you’ll kill someone’s creature or attack someone and they’ll get mad at you. This can lead to very awkward moments in friendships or even the dissolution of said friendships. This is not good, and it’s definitely not the point of Commander. So how can we avoid this? I think it’s pretty simple. There are three steps you can take to avoid this:
1) Don’t Make it Personal.
Let’s say you’re mad at your friend. What did he or she do? Maybe he’s dating your ex. Maybe she said something mean about your sister. Maybe he said something callous and insensitive when you were feeling like crap. Maybe she stole your car and ran you over. Of course, your inclination is to turn your Titans sideways and beat this friend of yours into the ground as a form of revenge. I can tell you from experience that this is not a good way to play games. When you choose to play a game with someone—and with Commander, you should be choosing who you play with—getting personal only makes things awkward for you, your target, and everyone else at the table. (Of course, soundly defeating someone you don’t like at FNM or another tournament isn’t making it personal—it’s justice.)
2) Don’t Take it Personally.
For the same reasons that making it personal is a bad idea, so is taking it personally. Your anger at your friend for just screwing with you on purpose, when really you’ve won the last ten games and he thinks that targeting you is the best plan strategically, makes all of your friends feel awkward playing with you. They won’t want to keep playing with you if you do this! Stop it! (As you can tell, I’ve had extensive experience with this and #1.)
3) “Own Your Actions.”
Sheldon Menery, emeritus Magic judge and member of the Commander Rules Committee, said the above to one of our opponents during a game of Commander at Worlds 2011 in San Francisco. Said opponent was borrowing my Thraximundar deck. I was mana-screwed, and I was happy to have drawn a Simic Growth Chamber to finally get my [card momir vig, simic visionary]Momir Vig[/card] deck going. Momir is a big crazy toolbox full of fun with cards for every occasion, and while I wasn’t sure what I was going to tutor up, I knew it would be something awesome. At least, I knew this until my Simic Growth Chamber got blown up by the Thraximundar player.
I shrugged—everyone knew my Momir deck was powerful and I understood that this might indeed be the right play. Sheldon, however, took offense to this play, saying it wasn’t cool to blow up my Karoo there. (He may have been right.) Our opponent, instead of saying, “Well, I’m worried about him doing this, that, or the other thing,” said “It’s not me, it’s the deck,” to which Sheldon replied, “Rule #1: Own your actions.” If he had justified the play as a strategic one, I doubt Sheldon would have objected—but when he efused to take responsibility for what he had done, it made him seem pretty whiny. If you’re going to beat up on or eliminate someone, own it, and stick to your guns on why you did it. Not everyone will necessarily like it, but they’ll likely respect it.
The Sadness of Sameness
We were playing some Cards Against Humanity the other day at a friend’s house. Cards Against Humanity, for the uninitiated, is like Apples to Apples for horrible people. One person, the “judge” for the round, plays a card that asks a question or has a blank to be filled in. The rest of the players play cards with nouns on them, most of them somehow crude or vile. The judge examines the cards and declares a winner based on which one is funniest, most morally reprehensible, or whatever. Before we started, one of the players asked me if the cards were shuffled. I replied, “I don’t know, but does it really matter? I mean, this isn’t the Cube; there aren’t full decks in there or anything.” His response was, “Well, I just feel like it would suck if you had to play basically the same game of Cards Against Humanity again.”
Whoa! I hadn’t thought of it that way at all. If the cards were unshuffled, then hands would be similar to previous games, the cards would come up in essentially the same order, and the game would be, if not the same, then eerily similar. Sameness is not a desireable quality in most games, especially card games. When a game has a random element, like a shuffled deck, the purpose of that random element is to generate different game scenarios. In a competitive environment, of course, the goal is to minimize that random element’s effect in order to pursue a winning strategy, but Cards Against Humanity is not a competitive game.
Similarly, Commander is designed to promote social games of Magic. Don’t believe me? Go to mtgcommander.net, click on “Philosophy,” and see what it says. Yep, “Commander is designed to promote social games of Magic.” The point of Commander is not just the winning or the crushing of your enemies underfoot. It is certainly partially that, but it is also about sitting down and having a fun chat with your friends while waving cards at each other. Commander is a big, silly, crazy extravaganza. Many people play it to escape or even avoid competitive Magic, saying, “I hate how every deck in Standard is just the same thing all the time.” Some even bemoan netdecking and how it stifles creativity.
Then they Tooth and Nail for [card kiki-jiki, mirror breaker]Kiki-Jiki[/card] and Pestermite, just like they have for the last six games, and I groan, pick up my cards, and find other people to play with.
How can Commander be the escape from sameness if it has become sameness? Back when I started playing EDH—yes, EDH, not Commander—in 2008, I had no idea what I was doing. I knew EDH was part of being a judge at large events, so I threw together a pile of cards and called it a Brion Stoutarm deck. When I started, there was no list of “staples.” There were no EDH articles. There was one forum, and it was the official EDH forum which has now become mtgcommander.net, but it just had a few decklists, some rules discussion, and a list of which judge had claimed which general for the Pro Tour League. Deckbuilding was just you, your cards, and your harebrained ideas.
And, you know what? EDH was more fun in those days. It was a wild wasteland of wackiness. Anything might come out of someone’s deck. People were more concerned with fun and the “gentleman’s agreement,” as the mtgcommander.net philosophy page calls it, than they seem to be now. Every deck was unique, and no two games were the same. How did we get so far away from this? I think, for one, that as the format grew in popularity, more minds got at it—including the competitive ones. With more discussion online, things got homogenous, much like they did when Star City introduced the Open Series and revolutionized Legacy, turning a huge profit in the process on their Legacy inventory.
So how can we make things fun again? How do we get back to that innocent place before people like me started writing about the format? (We are such jerks!) I really think it’s rather easy. It’s only a three-step process, in fact. Let’s break it down:
1) Put Away Your Tutors.
The spirit of a 100-card singleton format is that games are all different and you don’t get the same hand every time. Tutors are one of the ways Magic has of minimizing the randomness inherent in the game, and many are good in competitive Magic for this reason. Packing your Commander deck with tutors, therefore, is, in my opinion, against the spirit of things. You draw a tutor, and you get the most powerful card in your deck, and you hit people over the head with it.
Now, “put away your tutors” implies that you actually have to take them all out. That’s not really what I mean, but it might work for some of you. What I really mean is that if you’re using your tutors to do the same thing every game, you’re doing it wrong. Tooth and Nailing for [card kiki-jiki, mirror-breaker]Kiki[/card]-[card pestermite]Mite[/card] every game, as mentioned above, is not cool. Using a few tutors to access the awesome toolbox that is your Commander deck, however, and getting different things with those tutors for different situations, is very much in the spirit and can help you gain a strategic advantage without homogenizing your Commander experience.
2) Cast Aside Your Staples.
Another thing that makes Commander frustrating is that I see the same Commanders, and the same cards in those decks, every day. People say things like, “Oh, if you’re playing this color, you have to be playing these cards.” No, you don’t! Yesterday, Toby Elliott, Level 5 Magic judge and Commander Rules Committee member, showed me a sweet Skullbriar list that played almost nothing I would consider a “staple” in green/black. I won’t spoil Toby’s tech in this article, although I will try to interview him about this deck and his deckbuilding process in the future, but I will simply say that I think the deck could tangle with decks playing the so-called “must-plays.” I’m willing to bet that, with some thought, some trips through your collection, and perhaps a few purchases, you, too, could build such a deck.
3) Build it Yourself.
The Commander product is a great starting point for players new to the format, and even at the prices the decks fetch these days, they’re still a good deal. Once you get a feel for the format, though, it’s a good idea to grab onto the individuality that is supposed to define Commander. Start modifying that Commander precon, or take it apart and build something new! I’ve actually seen players build Commander decks from lists they saw online, and I always think that’s a bit weird. Sure, it’s fine to take ideas from the internet or from your friends, but even if you’re going to copy a large portion of a list, put your own personal spin on it! Put your favorite cards in, or cards that you think improve on the theme or the synergies. Otherwise, you might as well be playing Standard. I have nothing against Standard. In fact, I rather enjoy competitive Magic. When I play Commander, though, that’s not what I’ve signed up for.
I hope you’ve learned something about Commander, or games, or life over the course of this article. If nothing else, I hope you’ve learned that Cards Against Humanity is a really cool game, even if you do have to put aside your sense of morality and politesse to properly play it. If you’ve got something you want me to talk about, send me an email at email@example.com or let me know on Twitter @RagingLevine. Otherwise, I’ll just have to do a whole article on cards I altered with permanent markers, and I’m a truly horrible artist. See you next week!