The “F” Word

(Editor’s Note-

If you haven’t had a chance to yet, check out the first installment of “The Situation Report” here.  It plays in heavily to what we’re talking about tonight, is a good read, and there’s an audience participation section!  You can’t go wrong.

—>Cass)

Is Commander Casual?

We’ve all heard the mantra by now. Or at least one of them.

“Commander is a casual format. “
“It’s the journey, not the destination. “
“If you’re playing to win, you’re missing the point. “
“Build casually, play competitively. “
“Build competitively, play casually. “
“No time for love, Dr. Jones!”

I certainly spout one or more of these off on a weekly basis, and it’s something that I’ve ingrained into my thinking. We play EDH because we want to have fun games.

Fun.

Enjoy.

We want to have a good time slinging cards. And so on and so forth, ad nauseam. (The literary one not Ad Nauseam. That’s clearly broken in this format.)

But do we really feel this way? Honestly?

VICIOUS LIES (WE TELL OURSELVES)

Show of hands here…how many of you:

1. Play at least one infinite combo in a deck?
2. Think Rofellos, Llanowar Visionary is an acceptably-powered card?
3. Have copied Pestermite with Kiki-Jiki?
4. Recurred Mindslaver with Academy Ruins?
5. Resolved Obliterate?
6. Slotted Myojin of Night’s Reach in a deck?
7. Targeted Time Stretch with Eternal Witness?
8. Eliminated another player with poison counters?
9. Run out the Sharuum the Hegemon/ Sculpting Steel/ Disciple of the Vault loop?

Don’t feel badly. I’ve done all of these. I don’t regret a thing, because each one taught me boundaries. I learned what was acceptable and what wasn’t in my playgroup. I grew as a player and a deck-builder. These are things that we all need to do in order to find our EDH identities.

Here’s a better series of questions in my opinion…how many of you have:

1. Made a snide comment to another player regarding a play he/she has made?
2. Gotten heated after being eliminated from a game?
3. Dismissed out loud a card or a general for being “bad” or “broken” or “unfun”?
4. Tried to correct a player’s “misplay” either in a game, or after one?
5. Looked around the table at other generals before picking a deck for the next game?
6. Made a “spite” play? (one that likely makes it harder for you to win, but exacts some level of vengeance against another player?)
7. Headed home after a game to add cards to your deck that will help it perform better against the decks you just played against?

This one is a little harder. And again, don’t worry…I’ve done all of these too. I’m not sure it taught me a damn thing, but it probably helped me feel better.

The question is simple, though…is this casual?

TRUTH SHINES THROUGH

I’ve heard many people say that Magic is a game that is meant to be played to win, and many of us either play other competitive formats or have in the past where this is the primary goal. How does this actually color us, though? How much of this drive, this desire to best an opponent and win a game, bleeds through into our Commander games?

I’ve talked at length about the concept of the “EDH Arms Race.” This is the idea that, in the beginning, we all settled in to the cozy spot that defines the format. We knew what was fun – playing – and what wasn’t – not playing. Over time, our groups evolved; we all found fun and obscure cards, and built around new generals. We really enjoyed the new things that came out at the table, and couldn’t wait to play again. We probably even started to eschew “staples” in order to make our decks more interesting and less “good-stuffy.”

Before long, though, the cream started to rise to the top. Certain players, through virtue of being stronger players to some extent, started to rack up wins more frequently than the rest. The likely didn’t win all the time, but percentages don’t typically lie, and it was a rare game that these players didn’t end up hanging in until the end. Suddenly, the seeds of discontent started to sprout in the rest of us. The EDH we loved was still in place, but not all was right with the metagame.

And so it was that we ran some subtle upgrades that would help our decks to handle the odds a bit better. Some choices or strategies that we may not have played a few months back were suddenly and quietly making an appearance here and there. We kept our metagames in mind when we built new decks. Our win percentages started to climb.

Others noticed, and followed suit. Before long, the new benchmark was the old benchmark once again. The cycle self-propagates, and decks are stronger and better across the board. Some people start to take advantage of the fact that other people run decks with balanced answers, and cut down on their own to open up more slots to push their strategies.

Some of the cards that used to be off-limits are now not as maligned as they used to be.

…you can see where this is going. It might take months or years, but the path is clear.

Is this casual?

YOU CAN NEVER GO HOME AGAIN

I’d be lying if I said that this wasn’t a thing in my current metagame. I’d also be lying if I said that I didn’t personally feed it myself. Things go in cycles, and at this point in my EDH life-cycle, I’ve seen a lot of things and done a lot of things, and the truth is that I don’t want to be that idealistic young player that I used to be. My justification is simple; life has a way of getting in the way of living. I don’t have the time to devote to playing anymore, so I want my games to count. Quality is more important than quantity. I don’t want to waste a second with a bad game or a bad experience, so I proof my decks to stand up to the things I plan to encounter, rather than just creating from a fresh, new place and seeing how it unfolds.

It’s now, “Build casual-ish, play competitive”, because the alternative is way worse.

And there are new players that color things. EDH is a big deal now, and all sorts of players with all sorts of goals are converging on the game expecting their individual visions of the format to be the one that holds true. Just last week, I overheard a young player, possibly all of twelve or thirteen, say, “Boy, I don’t like the long, drawn-out games at all. I like the ones where I win quickly.” This was both horrifying and affirming at the same time; our little boy has grown up into a man, and he wants different things than he used to.

Is it possible that we’ve gotten to a point where the idealism that fed a young EDH format is dead and buried, never to see the light of day ever again? Is it possible that we’ve all evolved, and the format has come along for the ride? Is the line between “good” and “too good” so blurry that it’s hard to see clearly? Do we all just want better games, whatever that means?

And is any of this casual anymore? I don’t honestly have a clue.

WHAT IT IS

One thing hasn’t changed. EDH is fun. Commander is a good time. Call it what you will, it’s still awesome. Personally, if the definition of “casual” starts and ends with “Isn’t played sanctioned/for prizes”, that’s totally fine by me. I still love playing the format, and I still love building decks and talking about the format, and I still love writing about the format.

Here’s what I think:

Just have fun. Forget about words. Don’t think about “good-stuff” or “staple” or “broken” or “spirit of the format”. Make a busted deck that combos out on turn two through disruption because you feel like it’s an awesome thing to make. Play Insurrection or Time Stretch or Memnarch because you want to. When someone calls you out for it, own it. There’s no reason to be ashamed if you’re having fun.

The only responsibility you still have is to communicate. Don’t spring that combo deck on other people if they’re expecting a fun, drawn-out swingy game or a lower power level. Instead of sitting down at the table and trying to second-guess other players and their intentions, instead just ask them. The “Social Contract” is nothing more than protecting the fun for everyone involved, so make sure that you do that.
If you catch a storm combo player with Trinisphere in Legacy, it’s probably awesome on both accounts. If you know what might happen in a game of EDH, it’ll likely be the same awesome. Don’t be sneaky, and don’t try to “catch” other players. Do that through your play, not subterfuge.

Just have fun. That’s what will keep this thing as fresh as it was when you started playing. It’s a game; you shouldn’t ever get pissed off while playing it, plain and simple.

You heard it here first, folks. Casual is dead. It died a while ago, and no-one noticed.

But that doesn’t matter, because EDH isn’t a casual format to begin with. It’s a fun one.

-Cass
-@GDCCommander

4 thoughts on “The “F” Word

  1. Green Guilt says:

    Eh, I disagree a bit.

    Casual and fun aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, casual and competitive aren’t either. Casual and formal are. The format is not formal and the format, if fun, should not be so seriously competitive that we must ask ourselves these questions either.

    I agree with you that some of the ideology has changed, but only because we let it. I will not build a deck that contains Rector / Omniscience. I will not build a Sharuum infinite deck. I will not run Stasis / Winter Orb / Armageddon type stuff. I will not play masturbationy decks and I will encourage other people not to do so as well.

    That said, if you want to build something degenerate and unfun to play against, and in all likelihood unfun to play, have at it. I won’t shun you, but I don’t have to ask you to be part of my foursome a second time either, and here’s why. There’s two reasons, really.

    First thing is – in my experience, there’s a difference between playing a good competitive, solid, strong deck and playing a “dick” deck. Most often it’s the person behind the deck that makes it so, and the decisions they make which give it one distinction vs. another. I’m sure you know the difference as well. In a format with such a broadly sweeping reach, as you mention, “dick” decks don’t have a place unless you want to distinguish yourself as someone who is, infact, missing the point. When you sit down across from a kid with your Sharuum infinity deck, do you feel like a big man? Even when you sit down with three other guys who’ve got the money to pour into their decks like you do, do you feel good? If you do, and your own fun is more important than the fun of the group, maybe there are things you’re better suited for than multiplayer EDH – where the group’s fun should be paramount.

    Second – and it’s really just 1A, and that is, this isn’t the format for it. This IS the casual format. This IS the fun format. Magic has formats for you to funnel complex strategy and number crunching and broken and raw competitive fervor into. Though you can certainly spend a couple Gs on EDH and countless hours honing your Sphinx Tribal Top Control deck, and that’s all well and fine, lord knows I do, this is not the place to unleash your inner Michael Jordan, unless that is, you take pleasure in causing others annoyance and mental anguish.

    While philosophy and nostalgia may vary among EDH players, I can’t imagine many would argue that decks and players like that do have a place. On the other hand, you can do most any thing, objective, win con, etc., without having a “dick” deck or being overly WWE competetive.

    Again. I’m not saying you can’t, I’m just saying you shouldn’t. You’ll still have plenty of fun, and maybe, just maybe, so will everyone else.

    • Andrew Abreu says:

      I have to disagree with the overall point of this response. The reason being is that, by and large, it misses the point of Cass’s article.

      You started off by saying that casual and fun aren’t mutually exclusive, and I’ll agree with you there. Cass’s end statements are more to stir up debate, but the overarching message, as far as I could tell, is that what helps to keep EDH fun is to have balanced games. If you’re running cutthroat combo, let other players know so they can show up to a gun fight appropriately armed. That way there’s a challenge, there’s back and forth, and it’s not just about you stomping on the other players. If you want quick games of stomping, then yes, there are competitive formats for that.

      As an example, people in my meta have started building busted decks because they want that experience. They play their busted decks against each other, but against the less competitive players they have decks that are appropriately powered, and they happily bring those decks to bear.

      There is a place for broken decks in EDH, AND for the players who want to pilot them. What matters is that the people who face them should know what to expect so that they can adjust expectations and or change decks accordingly.

      • Green Guilt says:

        Can’t get behind broken decks. Period. Some folks at the stores I frequent only have a single EDH deck. Some folks simply don’t have the means to creature said broken decks. Sure, if you’re part of a consistent circle jerk with the same 5 dudes, then I can understand – you guys can pretty much play whatever the group allows or tolerates. That just doesn’t apply to get togethers with people you don’t know that well. Expecting people to have multiple decks of different power levels is unrealistic.

        Here’s (http://www.gatheringmagic.com/jasonalt-021314-building-a-75-commander-deck/) a good article from reddit about 75% decks. That means 75% optimized with scaling power levels. I think the 75% approach is much more universal than say building one deck to play with your broken buddies and one deck to play against the scrubs.

        • Shawn M says:

          There was almost an entire GDC podcast discussing that Jason Alt article. It’s a good listen. I believe busted decks have a place in a hundred-card singleton format, whether you believe that format is EDH/Commander is entirely up to oneself. I know more people that build decks of varying power levels than those that shoot for “75%”, I don’t think it’s as universal as the all-mighty reddit would have you believe.

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