Raging Levine – Conventional Wisdom

Hey folks! Sorry I missed you last week—I was at GenCon enjoying the fruits of my labor. Well, actually, mostly I was laboring. I was judging the World Magic Cup, so I didn’t get a lot of time to enjoy the convention, especially since I had to leave early on Sunday to finish packing and move across the country. So now, I live in Massachusetts, far from ChannelFireball headquarters. I can already feel my magic powers draining away.

But enough about that. At one point during the convention, a gentleman approached me and a few other judges and asked us if we were planning to play in the Commander tournament later that night. All of us sort of made funny faces and said, “Commander tournament?” Yes, indeed, there was a Commander tournament being run at GenCon. Uuuuugh.

Yes, I said “Uuuuugh.” You see, whenever the words “Commander tournament” come across my desk, I get both the hibblies and the jibblies. Remember that “gentleman’s agreement” we talked about last time? When the word “tournament” comes into play enters the battlefield, all bets are off and that agreement (which I much prefer to call the “social contract”) falls by the wayside. Before you know it, some [card]Vendilion Clique[/card] deck has locked the table out with [card]Arcane Laboratory[/card]/[card]Knowledge Pool[/card] and you and your Phyrexia-themed [card]Ertai, the Corrupted[/card] deck are halfway across the gaming hall watching someone play 7 Wonders.

Commander tournaments seem to be for the hyper-competitive players who have built decks that obey the banned list but disobey the cardinal rules of the format, ones that don’t get enforced in tournaments. Nor should they, in a tournament setting! When I go play a PTQ, I don’t expect my opponents to care if I’m having fun. (Of course, if they do, that’s fantastic; but really, in general, it’s a pipe dream.) That’s not the point. The point of the tournament is to have a fair competition to find out “who’s the best” or “who’s the luckiest” or whatever you personally think is the point. That’s not a semantic issue I want to delve into right now.

A Commander game, or really, any casual game at all, not just of Magic, has a different goal. When you and your friends sit down to play Commander, to Cube for fun, or to play 7 Wonders (seriously, if you play Magic and don’t play this game, you’re doing it wrong—the gameplay is entirely predicated on drafting), everyone is hopefully bringing something to the table: a willingness to have fun and help the other players have fun. (Also, hopefully, the drive to win and then gloat at your friends mercilessly is in there too, but that’s part of the fun.)

What happens to that willingness, you ask? Well, since it’s not a physical object, you’re asking me a pretty stupid question, but I’ll humor you. It all goes into a big bucket, let’s say, and it turns into fun that people have over the course of the game. The effort people put in to building cool decks, enjoying themselves, and not being jerks pays out as fun. From an accounting standpoint, everyone contributes equally to the Fun Equity fund, and if things go well, the game pays out Fun Dividends to everyone at the table! (Be glad I chose to go into wordplay mode about that and not my other summer course, Excel for Business Leaders. You see, tutors are like the VLOOKUP() function…)

You notice that I said that fun happens if everything goes well. There are lots of ways things can go wrong. Fun Dividends can be distributed unequally, or in a worst-case scenario, the company goes belly-up and no one gets paid any dividends at all! How terrible! The question is, how does this happen and how can we avoid it? Basically, how can we make sure we follow the social contract so that we all have fun?

Well, we can’t very well codify the social contract. Every group’s idea of fun is different. More to the point, every person’s idea of fun is different, and groups have to compromise so that everyone can enjoy themselves. I’m normally a positive reinforcement-focused person. I dislike defining rule sets by saying “don’t do this or that.” However, in this particular case, I feel it would be insufficient and inefficient (and probably impossible) to define my terms any other way, so I’ll have to do so. I suppose I’ll be framing it more as a “how things can go wrong” sort of document—a series of cautionary tales, if you will—and from that, you can draw your own conclusions. Let’s get to work!

Shout! Shout! Shout! Shout at the Scorching Devil

Oftentimes, there are disputes in Commander games. Rules disputes, disputes about what’s fun or fair, disputes about whether or not something is a jerk move, and so on. Rarely do I ever see these disputes resolved properly. What I always hope is that someone will either come up with a compelling argument or convince the other side to compromise, thereby alleviating the issue. Here’s what actually happens, depicted in beautiful MSPaint for all of you to enjoy:

See how that blue text bubble is blocking that person’s face? I’ve seen that happen in real life. It’s not pretty. So the question is, how do we avoid this problem? This is one of the ones that actually drains the fun equity account. To avoid this particular brand of fun embezzlement, take charge of the situation—but not by shouting. Speak softly, and carry a [card]Staff of Domination[/card], so to speak. (Actually, that sounds really creepy. Don’t do that.) I find that people are much more reasonable once you set out the issue in words. Then it seems really simple to everyone, and you can get them to agree on a decision. Making sure people talk one at a time is key—the talking over each other is what leads to Mr. or Mrs. McLoudyface shouting and thereby winning.

The Commander Thinks Aloud (Really, Really Slowly)

(Warning: This section contains the male pronoun “he/him/his/honkadoodle” used as a general pronoun for players of both genders. This is because I am a bad writer, or maybe because the example person I use in this section, who is a real person, is a man. Please ignore this.)

Some players take time to make their decisions, and some are more impulsive. That’s fine. Everyone has their own rhythm and so on. There are some people, however, who don’t think at all about what they’re going to do until it’s their turn, and then, when we get to their turn, they manage to take ten thousand years to figure out what they want to do. I call these people Darren, for obvious reasons.

Okay, that makes no sense to most of you, but those of you who lived with or near me in college are jumping out of your chairs and shouting epithets at Darren for some game-related wrong years ago. Perhaps it was the time Darren threw a game of Settlers of Catan in exchange for a dollar. Perhaps it was the 12-hour game of Twilight Imperium we played. Perhaps it was our Axis and Allies game that I “accidentally” knocked over when it was placed on a box in the hallway. Wait, that was just my fault, and it was an accident.

Don’t get me wrong, we really liked Darren. He was, and probably still is, a very nice guy. We loved hanging out with him. He was wacky and silly. The only problem was that he played every game very slowly. It wasn’t for lack of intelligence. On the contrary, in fact, it was because he saw so many different lines of play that it paralyzed him, and he wasn’t quite game-savvy enough to make a decision quickly. (I’m of the opinion that he could have been a fantastic Magic player with some practice.) You might have a Darren in your group. If you do, your group probably looks like this in the mid-game:

As you can see, the rest of the table has died of dysentery, and the fun equity account has been zeroed out. How do we deal with a Darren? The best way is to talk to him after the game. As you might surmise, trying to address it mid-game by talking calmly or shouting at him or whatever will only slow the game down further. Just explain that he needs to make decisions a little faster. Okay, a lot faster. But be nice about it, unless you want to lose a friend. And even if your friend is a Darren, he’s still your friend.

Stackin’ Dough (And, Uh, Just Really Broken Stuff)

Casual Magic often has a problem where the player with the most money, and therefore, the most and best cards, is the ultimate winner for all time forever. We used to deal with this problem at our summer camp by forcing the young’uns to allow others to use their decks. The system had its own problems, but I like to think it allowed the campers who had maybe just a starter deck, or no cards at all, to enjoy the game more. (Many young people were destroyed by whatever kid showed up with no cards but wanted to play and had me and my decks on their side. Casualties were acceptable.)

In the real world, however, not only do we not share decks often, but usually, people want to build their own decks because Commander decks are part of our identities as Magic players. In many ways, I am [card]Momir Vig, Simic Visionary[/card]. Uh, or something. Taking it a little bit too far aside, this means that the person with all the cards is often going to build a broken deck full of expensive cards because they are the guy/gal with all the cards. When that happens, this ensues:

Okay, maybe that’s a little bit of a sideline to my point, but imagine there’s a second comic panel where this person wins every game and no one else has any fun. Basically, this person and their ridiculous [card zur the enchanter]Zur[/card] deck win every game and no one has any fun. This person is embezzling from the Fun Equity account! How do we get them to stop? Again, the solution is simple but difficult: just ask them to! Tell them that their deck is awesome—praise is the key to this situation, honestly—and that they have cool cards, but maybe they should try restricting their deckbuilding in some cool and interesting way in order to play more nicely with the less fortunate.

Okay! That’s all the time and energy I have today, since my Truck Fulla Stuff™ arrives in about fifteen minutes. I’ll see you all again next week, when I talk about the connections between Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant TV series “The West Wing” and your Commander group! Or maybe I just watch “The West Wing” and forget. It could pretty much go either way.

-Eric Levine
Send me your suggestions or questions!

Postscript: The Levine Trench

At GenCon, Glenn Goddard told me that if I didn’t write about The Levine Trench, he would. I promised him that I would work it into an article ASAP. He told me I had two weeks. Glenn, here’s the payoff. A while ago, I wrote a Facebook post about how players who were approaching “good” were the most prone to jerkish behavior. Toby Elliott calls this phenomenon “The Levine Trench.” Where’s the trench? Why, it’s in this diagram that I certainly did not draw while on the clock working at Superstars one day! (ChannelFireball’s brick-and-mortar store.) This was in response to one of our regular customers being treated very rudely by a PTQ grinder at a weekday event at our shop one time, when I was trying to explain to her that there wasn’t a correlation between “good player” and “jerkbag.” Truth be told, she knew this, as she said at the time, because she had played against Luis and Wrapter and so on, and had plenty of fun. Anyway, here’s the MSPaint goodness:

I wrote, at the time: “Again, this is a huge generalization. New players are in a new environment and often are extra nice to compensate for not knowing what’s going on. The mediocre learn quickly to hate mana screw, mana flood, and anything out of the ordinary that their opponents do. The truly good have generally seen everything and are liable to be quite nice to you if you are nice to them. The ‘almost good,’ however, is where all of the anger lies, probably due to the Dunning-Krueger effect making them unhappy with their results because they are ‘better than’ whatever it is that is happening to them. This causes some ordinarily friendly people to become horrible misanthropes during games of Magic.”

I drew this in four minutes, and I want to address two things:

1) If you are concerned that this applies to you and are thinking critically about it, it probably doesn’t apply to you, or at least, not any more.
2) My definition of “good” is unlikely to match yours. Luis Scott-Vargas is good at Magic. You and I are not. Unless you are Luis Scott-Vargas, in which case, withdrawn.

What are your experiences with this phenomenon in your region? I’m told this differs greatly regionally and internationally. One of my friends mentioned that his time in Japan showed him just how nice everyone could be all the time always, basically. Which is awesome. I guess we suck here in the US or something. I know that sometimes competition turns me into a jerk too, and I only fall into “mediocre” on this scale!

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