Raging Levine – Paradigm Shift

A while back, at GP Atlantic City, I talked to another judge about Commander. He said something that made me very sad, which was something like this:

“I really like Commander, but I can’t get into it. I don’t have a lot of cards, so I just play with my precon and my friends crush me with their thousand-dollar decks.”

Obviously this is a systemic “problem” with Magic. I put the word “problem” in quotes because if this “problem” didn’t exist, then I would have a four-and-a-half year gap in my work experience. So what do we do about this? Pauper’s not the solution—it’s a variant format you play on purpose, and it’s very different, as you lose a lot of the craziness of Commander. I don’t think it’s the “Commander budget solution.” So what is?

This judge paused, about to say something else. It was a short pause, not more than one or two seconds. It was long enough for me to breathe in and be about to say something, but he jumped in first. Before he jumped in, though, I had one of those weird moments where you think for what seems like forever in a short time.

I used to work at a summer camp in Massachusetts called Mazemakers. (It was great then and it probably still is. I recommend it.) Mazemakers is where I learned to play Magic and met some of my best friends while doing so. Eventually, I became a counselor and then an Assistant Director. Mazemakers is all about community and cooperation, so Magic was a little bit weird because of the card availability gap. I have always had access to lots of cards, whereas some people were just playing with precons or piles of cards. This apparently frustrated some parents and irked some of the staff members, even though it seemed to me like people were having fun. I think the main argument was that young people who didn’t have cards but wanted to play should be given the opportunity.

What was the solution? Well, the initial solution proposed was “ban Magic.” I think this would have been totally the wrong solution, but I can see the reasons behind it. From the perspective of those supporting this solution, Magic was causing problems and creating more strife than the happiness it generated. Getting rid of it would be a net gain. Because these people were just listening to complaints, they had an inaccurate picture of things. Had they gone to see what was going on with some games of Magic, they would have known the learning opportunities Magic creates—cooperation, community, communication, strategy, math, and more that are all supported by playing Magic. I hoped to keep Magic play unfettered while promoting community and helping find ways to include people who didn’t have decks.

It was an unfortunate situation where there were clear “sides.” Suddenly we weren’t cooperating—we were trying to coerce each other into agreeing with what we believed was right. Anyone who has any work experience where they have any decision rights knows what happens next. In a situation like this, there’s only one real option: compromise.

Compromise is an ugly beast.

What we created was monstrous and simply dissatisfying to everyone involved. I may be exaggerating (this was around ten years ago and I’ve undoubtedly got many of the details wrong), but I think I speak for everyone who actually played Magic when I say it didn’t work very well.

We created the “Realm of Games,” a community storage space for everyone’s decks that they brought to camp. In the morning, you’d drop your deck off in the Realm. Come free time, you could select any deck out of the Realm you liked. The idea was to equalize the playing field for everyone. It failed, however, in the following ways:

1.) Decks are super-personal in the world of casual Magic. Who wants to play someone else’s deck if they have their own? Sure, if you don’t have a deck, basically anything will do, and the Realm succeeded there, but otherwise, you don’t usually want to use someone else’s.

2.) Did I mention decks are super-personal? Etiquette sprang up quickly, where it was considered impolite to take someone else’s deck out of the Realm, defeating the purpose of “everybody share everything.”

3.) When decks were used by people other than their owners, cards got damaged or went missing more often.

So what’s the point of this story? Well, I guess it’s twofold. One: I like to tell pointless stories, and two: compromise often creates more problems than it solves, especially when each side doesn’t understand the other side’s point of view and is just trying to end conflict. I feel like it’s easy to try to compromise in the situation I described at the start of the article: “Let’s not play rares,” or “You can’t play that card,” or whatever. Pauper Commander is its own format and really a different thing; if you want the full wacky Commander experience, you need the big splashy cards that do goofy stuff. Instead, I think imposing a creative restriction on everyone that allows them to mostly play the cards they want to play, while allowing people to participate on the same level and not feel like they got “bought out” of their commander table is the way to go.

One thing I’ve done in the past with some friends is to play ten ticket Commander on MTGO. Pick your favorite bot that prices everything and build a full deck with cards that, in total, cost 10 tickets or less. It’s not easy, but it’s a lot of fun, and you can actually do some pretty cool stuff. You can be control, you can be aggro, you might even be able to combo, and it’s a lot of fun. This restriction won’t let you play with many powerful cards and, indeed, resembles Pauper Commander in a lot of ways, but it’s pretty goofy. Weird tribes are pretty common: my fiancée Emily made a [card]Lorthos, the Tidemaker[/card] deck with a lot of goofy fish (no Merfolk!), someone had a [card]Marrow-Gnawer[/card] deck with a lot of different Rats, and I had [card]Seshiro the Anointed[/card]. I don’t know if the deck still qualifies as 10 tickets or less, but I assume it does. Here’s the list:

Commander:
[card]Seshiro the Anointed[/card]

Creatures:
[card]Ambush Viper[/card]
[card]Anaconda[/card]
[card]Blight Mamba[/card]
[card]Changeling Titan[/card]
[card]Coiled Tinviper[/card]
[card]Death-Hood Cobra[/card]
[card]Game-Trail Changeling[/card]
[card]Glass Asp[/card]
[card]Kashi-Tribe Elite[/card]
[card]Kashi-Tribe Reaver[/card]
[card]Kashi-Tribe Warrior[/card]
[card]Krosan Constrictor[/card]
[card]Matsu-Tribe Birdstalker[/card]
[card]Matsu-Tribe Decoy[/card]
[card]Matsu-Tribe Sniper[/card]
[card]Mire Boa[/card]
[card]Mold Adder[/card]
[card]Ohran Viper[/card]
[card]Orochi Eggwatcher[/card]
[card]Orochi Ranger[/card]
[card]Orochi Sustainer[/card]
[card]Patron of the Orochi[/card]
[card]River Boa[/card]
[card]Sabertooth Cobra[/card]
[card]Sachi, Daughter of Seshiro[/card]
[card]Sakiko, Mother of Summer[/card]
[card]Sakura-Tribe Elder[/card]
[card]Sakura-Tribe Scout[/card]
[card]Sakura-Tribe Springcaller[/card]
[card]Sasaya, Orochi Ascendant[/card]
[card]Shisato, Whispering Hunter[/card]
[card]Shizuko, Caller of Autumn[/card]
[card]Sosuke, Son of Seshiro[/card]
[card]Tangle Asp[/card]

Artifacts:
[card]Caged Sun[/card]
[card]Coat of Arms[/card]
[card]Gauntlet of Power[/card]
[card]Manriki-Gusari[/card]
[card]Orochi Hatchery[/card]
[card]Relic of Progenitus[/card]
[card]Snake Basket[/card]

Instants:
[card]Relic Crush[/card]
[card]Slice in Twain[/card]
[card]Tribute to the Wild[/card]

Sorceries:
[card]Beast Hunt[/card]
[card]Creeping Mold[/card]
[card]Cultivate[/card]
[card]Desert Twister[/card]
[card]Endless Swarm[/card]
[card]Explosive Vegetation[/card]
[card]Harmonize[/card]
[card]Kodama’s Reach[/card]
[card]Overrun[/card]
[card]Overwhelming Stampede[/card]
[card]Sosuke’s Summons[/card]
[card]Time of Need[/card]

Enchantments:
[card]Asceticism[/card]
[card]Mark of Sakiko[/card]
[card]Nature’s Will[/card]
[card]Night Soil[/card]
[card]Seal of Primordium[/card]
[card]Vernal Bloom[/card]

Lands:
36 [card]Forest[/card]
[card]Oran-Rief, the Vastwood[/card]

Digression: The deck is sweet. There aren’t a lot of wraths running around so on turn 5 you can be doing this:

That’s right, we’re swinging for 12 and drawing three cards if we hit our opponent. This is usually a pretty monstrous outcome, but sometimes you might encounter this sort of problem:

In case that’s really small and awful on your screen, I have about a jillion enormous Snakes, but Emily has [card]Stormtide Leviathan[/card] and I have two very unhappy Forests that are actually Islands.

Anyway, what’s the solution to our dilemma? I think imposing a monetary restriction on the deckbuilding process is more than fair. But what’s the right number? Ten seems too small—you can’t play very many cool cards with just ten dollars. So, is it $50? Is it $100?

While considering this, I began to think about analogous items and their prices. Or, at least, semi-analogous. The casual player unit of consumption is a deck. Want a new challenge or a new experience? Build a new deck. For the video game enthusiast, a new game is a pretty similar unit. A new video game from a triple-A studio costs $59.99—let’s use that figure. That can be our deckbuilding limit—just make sure everyone uses the same value standard. (ChannelFireball.com, for example!) Ignore basic lands, and always use the lowest value of the card (if it has multiple printings.) Use the normal condition value, not foil or played. Or don’t—do whatever your group agrees on!

So, if we can agree that $59.99 is a reasonable deck value where you get to play some cool cards but don’t have to worry about your friends stomping you with mono-ridiculousness, what can we build? Let’s try a new commander that might punish our opponents for doing stuff that’s not fun for us.

[draft]Ruric Thar, the Unbowed[/draft]

[card]Ruric Thar, the Unbowed[/card] – $1.49

GRUUL SMASH! YOU DIE! CAST NONCREATURE SPELL? GET PUNCHED! DON’T BLOCK? GET PUNCHED! GET PUNCHED A LOT!

So obviously we’ll need some sweet creature cards that do spell-type stuff but aren’t actually noncreature spells. Here are some winners:

[card]Acidic Slime[/card] – $0.10
[card]Deadwood Treefolk[/card] – $0.25
[card]Cinder Elemental[/card] – $0.10
[card]Flametongue Kavu[/card] – $0.99
[card]Wickerbough Elder[/card] – $0.10

Bloodrush creatures are similar in function:

[card]Skarrg Goliath[/card] – $0.25
[card]Wrecking Ogre[/card] – $0.49

Ramp doesn’t hurt, so let’s include some of that:

[card]Sakura-Tribe Elder[/card] – $0.99
[card]Farhaven Elf[/card] – $0.49
[card]Ondu Giant[/card] – $0.10
[card]Dawntreader Elk[/card] – $0.10
[card]Wood Elves[/card] – $0.25
[card]Zhur-Taa Druid[/card] – $0.25
[card]Devoted Druid[/card] – $0.49
[card]Fyndhorn Elder[/card] – $0.25

And of course, Ruric have to have smash help:

[card]Avatar of Slaughter[/card] – $0.99
[card]Terastodon[/card] – $0.99
[card]Borborygmos Enraged[/card] – $0.99
[card]Sylvan Primordial[/card] – $0.99

I chose to spend over $1 on a few cards:
[card]Eternal Witness[/card] – $3.99
I want stuff back and I don’t want to get hit for 6 in the process.

[card]Inferno Titan[/card] – $1.99
I mean, gosh, it’s a Titan. The only Titan from that cycle we can even play.

[card]Primordial Hydra[/card] – $5.99
This could have been [card]Savageborn Hydra[/card] for the same price, but I think this creature is much better. The growing is the thing that gets me here.

[card]Rampaging Baloths[/card] – $2.99 (the promo)
We have enough land-grabbers that this is sweet.

[card]Spellbreaker Behemoth[/card] – $1.49
Counterspells nothin’!

[card]Bogardan Hellkite[/card] – $1.99
A big boom boom that creates a big boom. How can I exclude it?

[card]Lightning Greaves[/card] – $2.99
[card]Swiftfoot Boots[/card] – $1.49
These two are really nice for keeping Ruric up and running.

[card]Insurrection[/card] – $1.49
[card]Genesis Wave[/card] – $1.99
Sometimes taking 6 is worth it (for winning the game).

[card]Stranglehold[/card] – $3.99
This just disallows stuff we don’t do (except for all that searching for land, but shhh. Thankfully, it’s asymmetrical). I like it.

[card]Bear Umbra[/card] – $1.49
Slap it on Ruric? Worth it? Not sure.

[card]Loxodon Warhammer[/card] – $1.49
Now slapping THIS on Ruric seems INSANE. Lifelink ahoy! [card]Basilisk Collar[/card] was $5.99…

[card]Gratuitous Violence[/card] – $1.99
IN GRUUL MATH, 6 = 12

[card]Kessig Wolf Run[/card] – $2.99
I think this card speaks for itself.

Here’s the full list in spreadsheet form with prices and such. If you’d like a template to do this yourself, it’s here.

Okay! I hope this is a fun and refreshing way for you to play with your friends and keep the playing field imbalances based on skill, both in deckbuilding and game play, rather than based on bank account. Of course, if you can’t afford to drop $60 on a deck, change the threshold! I’m off to play Surgeon Simulator 2013, potentially on a stream—check out www.twitch.tv/Psychatrog and watch my Twitter for stream announcements! I should be streaming Commander at some point for those of you who hate yourselves.

-Eric Levine
ericlevine@channelfireball.com
@RagingLevine on Twitter
www.facebook.com/RagingLevineMTG
www.twitch.tv/Psychatrog

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