Defending the Commander Social Contract

Category: Planechase

Flashback – A School Bus Filled With Cats, And Twenty-Two Other Things About Planechase – Mr. P

Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published on June 2, 2012. We’re flashing back to some of our best from the past several years every Friday, because what’s old is new again, and because none of us could be expected to produce anything meaningful today because politics and stuff. I can’t quite tell why I think the agony of wanting to like Planechase feels really appropriate on Purge Day, I mean inauguration day, but it does. Enjoy and never make your group play PlanchaseEDH.

So it was Saturday.  I went to the Planechase release event, which I organized at my local game store because I knew that Planechase was coming out, and I knew there was a promo card, and I know that no one would do anything, so I talked my guy into calling his distributor to get the promo card, because I knew that Wizards wasn’t going to promote this since they’ve only got like three more weeks of promoting Avacyn Restored before M13 comes out, and I knew that was a silly idea, but I don’t work for them, right?

This article is not starting well.  Let’s try a different approach.
Planechase the first one came out in September 2009.  I was really excited about it, because I like new things and because I will buy anything and because I have a tiny brain.  On the day it streeted, I walked into every game store in the area looking for it, and not one of them had the first clue what I was talking about, or that such a product even existed.
Planechase the first one had 4 preconstructed decks which I opened, took the rares out of, and never played once not ever.  We played a bunch of games of EDH with it, because it was new and shiny and we have tiny brains.  In one game this dude went: turn one roll Chaos, WUBRG, roll Chaos, WUBRG, Sliver Overlord">Sliver Overlord, activate, tutor, Crystalline Sliver">Crystalline Sliver, go.  In another one we were stuck on the Nothing Untaps Plane for like five turns until someone went land, roll, Planeswalk to the All Creatures Get Coat of Arms">Coat of Arms Plane, pass to the player who untaps and crushes everyone.  These were two of many.
One time we played Archenemy Planechase EDH.  That was the worst game of Magic (or anything, really) that I’ve ever played in my entire life.
I have a box containing all 45 of the original planes (and now the 41 new ones) sitting on the table next to my computer.  I used to bring it with me to Mondays at Off the Wall or to Wednesdays at Worlds Apart, and eventually I just stopped because nobody ever wanted to play with it.  When we did ever play a game with it, afterwards everyone was always like, “This format sucks, let’s play normal EDH!”
(That box also contains about 100 Archenemy schemes.  That format is an abomination.)
Here’s the thing about Planechase; it’s an awesome concept.  I’m not one of those people who is primarily into Magic because of the fantasy flavor of putting on your robe and wizard hat and dueling against a rival wizard, but I am a sucker for cool pictures and some of the planar artwork is just dynamite.  Likewise, there’s something to the idea that different planes have different properties and characteristics that effect how magic spells work there…OK, so maybe I am one of those people who does want to put on his robe and wizard hat.  I really truly want to love this format.
The problem with this is that, like many things, Planechase tends to be great in theory and pretty terrible in practice.  As far as I can tell, the ultimate reason for this is that once you stop to think about it, you realize that the only thing that Planechase can bring to the game is increased randomness.  And more randomness is not a good thing.
I have like 45 EDH decks.  I like to try to build decks that have a concept behind them, as opposed to just picking a color or set of colors, and then playing all the best cards of those colors (I find this profoundly boring.)  ANYWAY, I have a deck that I think of as “5-Color Friendship.”  I like to tell myself that 5-Color Friendship is a helpful deck, but really it just makes the game more random and swingy.  It gives the one player who is sitting to my left a tremendous advantage, because when I play Mana Flare">Mana Flare and Rites of Flourishing and Helm of Awakening">Helm of Awakening and then pass the turn, he’s the one who gets to benefit from my altruism, which usually means he just wins right there.  This is not a good way to endear yourself to people.
EDH games are like a school bus balanced on a pillar of crumbly rock, not unlike the beginning of A Nightmare On Elm St Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge (or perhaps EXACTLY like the beginning of A Nightmare On Elm St Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge.) In any game, there is already the potential at any time for someone to do something that completely swings the game out of nowhere. Every color has at least one of these spells (Green has like 15). Insurrection">Insurrection Tooth and Nail">Tooth and Nail Time Stretch">Time Stretch Living Death">Living Death Armageddon">Armageddon. At any point in the game, there is the lingering possibility that someone will do something that is just. broken. Sometimes that person is you.
This is part of why people like EDH.
This is also part of why people hate EDH. EDH games are a commitment; I’ve been in EDH games that lasted the same amount of time it would take to do a draft. Other than the ones that we remember for how utterly terrible they were, most of the games we remember are the epic, multi-hour ones where power shifts back and forth, alliances are made and broken, and everyone ends the game feeling like they walked all the way from the Shire to Mordor, and possibly some of the way back as well. Games like this are the reason you quit playing 60-card formats, and to have a game that is shaping up to be legendary suddenly just end because someone played one card and won out of nowhere is pretty gosh darn frustrating.
This brings us back to the randomness. A little bit of randomness can be fun; Cascading into another Cascade card is fairly awesome, and Gamble is always entertaining. Sometimes you roll dice to help you decide who to attack, or you activate Temporal Aperture">Temporal Apertureand think happy thoughts. A little randomness keeps the games interesting. On the other hand, a lot of randomness is exhausting. Try playing a full game with Grip of Chaos">Grip of Chaosin play; it’s miserable and confusing and awful. When you play Acidic Slime and have to roll 12 dice to choose a target, that’s when you know the game sucks. I’ve seen an entire table scoop to a Thieves’ Auction">Thieves’ Auction, just because they didn’t want to spend the next 25 minutes resolving it. Despite this, some people will continue to play these effects, usually with the justification that “It’s for the LOLZ”. If you’re talking about “the LOLZ,” you’re a douchebag. Just sayin’.
If EDH games are a balancing schoolbus, EDH Planechase is like releasing a herd of 50 cats onto the schoolbus, and filling the bus with PCP.
Planechase gives you the opportunity to play a game of Magic through a shifting world of effects, most of which either drastically accelerate the game, or drastically prevent the game from going anywhere.  Generally speaking, this is good when it is your turn, and absolutely the worst experience of all time when it is not.  Some of the planes are fairly symmetrical (the Doubling Season one and the Furnace of Rath one, for example), some are really not (the “Play all your lands” one), and some seem symmetrical but clearly benefit the active player (the “all creatures have +1/+1 and haste” one, the “creatures cost 2 less” one).  All of them have “chaos” abilities that range from kinda bad (free Goat!) to insanely good (free turn!).  Theoretically you choose some number of planes that compliment your deck (your “planar deck,” as it is), and each player in the game does the same.  We’ve never played this way; our strategy was always to shuffle up all 45 (or 86, I suppose) planes and see what happens, in order to screw everyone over equally.
What we found when we played a bunch of games of Planechase EDH was that invariably there was a moment early in the game where one player hit a plane that was substantially more helpful for them than it was for any other player, or rolled a chaos ability that gave them some huge benefit.  The game would then degenerate into everyone trying desperately to deal with that player, and/or trying to get us the fuck off the stupid plane we were on.  This would invariably lead us to another plane that gave a different player a huge lead, forcing everyone else to now deal with them instead (or as well).  Eventually, one of the players who had gotten the boost would inevitably win, and everyone would swear that the format sucked and they never wanted to play it again.
When the rules committee banned Emrakul, the reasoning behind the ban was partially that as soon as he (she? it?) hit the table, the entire game became completely focused on trying to deal with it.  This describes every game of Planechase I have ever played.
The new Planechase product is clearly marketed directly to the EDH crowd.  That’s awesome.  I love getting shiny new things with which to play.  Between this, and the creation of the “Join Forces” mechanic as the flagship “EDH mechanic” from last year’s release, it’s not that big of a jump to infer that someone at Wizards thinks that EDH players love big random “group hug” effects, which is to say that someone at Wizards thinks that EDH players like bad games.  Other than the Join Forces Dragon, I’ve never seen one of the Join Forces cards do anything good in a game ever.
If I ever start updating my blog regularly again, I will write more about this.
I had hoped that the Planechase release event would be different, with the idea that the relative underpoweredness of the precons would create a game that was less prone to big swings.  Wrong.  The fact that the decks were all lower powered just meant that when one player hit the devour 5 plane and summoned a 17/17 on turn 5, no one had answers.  Other than the bad decks, the game was exactly the same as every other one.
So now what?  I suppose the obvious answer is to put the box of planes back on my computer table, and leave it there until Planechase 2016 comes out.  However, despite all the evidence to the contrary, I am still not ready (or willing) to give up on Planechase.  One theoretical solution is to try to actually play the format the “correct” way, with each player bring their own planar deck that corresponds to the particular nuances of their deck.  Off the top of my head, I can think of about 4,000,000,000 reasons why this is a bad idea, chief among them that this does nothing to address the issue of the format being swingy and broken, and in fact substantially amplifies it.  Creating a situation where the player who comes to the table with a Sharuum combo deck now has a supplemental deck of 20 additional combo cards…where do I not sign up?
A better solution might be to play with one of the existent variants for the format, most likely the “Eternity Map” variant.  Full details of this format can be found here; I’m not going to go into it fully, but suffice to say the main difference is that instead of just rawdogging planes off the top of the deck, players can “navigate” which planes they go to (somewhat).  This decreases the randomness somewhat, and adds a more strategic element to the planar die rolling instead of just being “get us the fuck out of here!”
I’ve played a few games of “Eternities Map” that were actually pretty awesome.  The caveat here is that there are three notable downsides of this format, and all are fairly substantial.  The first downside is that it takes up a considerable amount of extra space: when we played it at out LGS, we had a separate card table for the Eternities Map.  This led to the second downside: players who were not highly familiar with both the static and Chaos abilities of each plane spent an awful lot of time shuffling over to the other table, reading the plane cards, shuffling back, etc; this probably added at least another hour to the game.  I would only suggest this variant for players who are all fairly familiar with the planar deck.
The third problem with the Eternities Map circles back to one of the other issues with Planechase in general; it adds additional considerations to the board state.  Let’s face it, EDH board states are fucking complicated.  The ability to evaluate a board state and know what everything does, which things are problems, and how to deal with them are skills that take a lot of work to develop, and asking players to process even more information is often intimidating and frustrating for them.  If you’re going to play Planechase at all, do so with people who are ready and willing to accept challenges.
So it was Saturday.  I went to the Planechase release event which I organized at my local game store, played the deck that nobody else wanted and won by being the second most threatening player at the table.  After the game everyone was like, “this format sucks, let’s play EDH!”  The end is the beginning is the end.
I will continue to try to trick people into playing Planechase with me.  I continue to feel highly ambivalent about the format, because I still want so much to love it and still have absolutely no reason to actually do so.  I do sincerely appreciate that Wizards wants so much to give us nice things to play with, and look forward to endlessly pontificating on this until the release of Archenemy 2k13.
In the meantime, would you like to play with my herd of 50 PCP-addicted cats?
Everything you have heard about Mr. P is probably true.

Off-Topic Monday – The Planechase 2012 Release Event Experience

Happy Monday, everyone.  I was able to get out for a Planechase 2012 release event this past weekend, and I figured that I’d break from the mold a bit and talk about my experiences and reaction to the event.  This is going to be the start of an unofficial “Planechase Week” here at GDC, as my partner-in-crime Mr. P will be chiming in Thursday with a look at Planechase as it applies to EDH.  
Stay tuned – those of you who’ve read his blog entries know what you’re in for.  It’ll be a good time.
The “Dear Azami” article is up on StarCity for the day.  Instead of a ‘Deck Doctor’ piece, I took a break from the norm to paint a bit of a picture of my progression through the format from my first exposure to current day.  If you haven’t seen it yet, please hop over to check it out!
For now, though, my thoughts on the Planechase 2012 format as it arrives fresh out of the box.  Without further ado, I give you…
The “Well, At Least I Got Some Valuable Cards, Right?” Award – Night of the Ninja
This was the deck I chose to play, based mostly on the fact that I have (or had) EDH decks that cover all of the themes from the other decks, and there were a few cards in this one I wanted to slide into my Intet and Kuon lists.
If I could sum up this deck in two words, they would be “Hopelessly Outclassed.”  Thematically. I’d give the deck an A+, but it just can’t handle the other strategies – 
-“Oh…a beater that’s larger than my entire team?  Cool…I’ll just trade my only creature and an Assassinate with it.  Oh, it’s got an Umbra on it?  Yeah…I’ll take seven.”
-“Baleful Strix and Mistblade Shinobi!  Deal with that!  What’s that?  Er, yeah…Enlisted Wurm into Bituminous Blast into Bloodbraid Elf into Arc Trail seems good.  Yes…that was way more value than I got.  Choke on your pizza, jerk.  Pass.”
-“Turn one…Island.  Turn two…swamp, Sai of the Shinobi.  Turn three…Island, Augury Owl, auto-equip the Sai.  Wait…how the hell do you already have a 17/18 trampler?”
It was like that all day lone for me.  A few pieces of situational removal and a counterspell don’t make up for a very linear and honest creature progression.  The unblockable options this deck has can threaten to break open the game, but who’s attacking into any of the other decks?  Every creature I drew could’ve received errata to read “Creature – Chump Blocker.” 
Your mileage may vary, but damn…
The “I’m That Guy!” Award – Primordial Hunger
This deck had the dubious distinction of being the one to jump out to a huge lead (either on purpose, or just as likely, completely by mistake) really early on, guaranteeing that the rest of the table would have to bend over backward to shut it down, leaving a board state of two depleted decks and a third that could eke out a win after the person playing the deck was quickly killed off.
Our first game was effectively over on turn three in this exact fashion when this deck played a turn two Nest Invader and then planeswalked into Jund and dropped a turn three 17/17 Thunder-Thrash Elder with Skaarg, the Rage Pits on the table.  The player running this deck was gang-piled hopelessly out of the game after taking the Cascade player down to low double-digits, leaving that player nearly depleted, me with nothing but one-to-one answers in an Assassinate and a Dark Hatchling, and the Savage Auras player on nearly full life and about eight or nine giant tokens (thanks to an Umbra-ed up Dreampod Druid) and a Ghostly Prison to hide behind. 
Guesses on how that played out? 
Speaking of…
The “Hope This Event Has Prize Support!” Award – Savage Auras
It might help that this deck was piloted by the player in our group with arguably the highest skill-set, but Savage Auras seems like the type of deck that rewards a solid setup and asset management.  The downside is that it also seems to make a statement, and that statement is “Good luck attacking into me.” – which in effect means that it’s easy to set up shop behind a wall of tokens and prison effects and be fairly well-protected while you wait out the other players and swoop in for a finishing blow on whatever is left once the dust settles. 
The other downside is that the cards included in this deck add up to about $2.37 on the secondary market.  If you’re looking for the play experience, I’d start with this deck.  If you’re looking for value, look elsewhere, or beg your T.O. to offer prizes.  You will likely collect. 
The “Holy Hell!” Award – Chaos Reigns
And then there’s this guy.  It’s got removal, it’s got fatties, and it’s got crazy synergy on the back of the Cascade mechanic.  Throughout the day, no other deck elicited the “Jesus…look at what he just did!” reaction, followed by the entire room jumping out of their seats to run over and watch more than this deck did.  It’s just that potent.
Not that this is a surprise.
.   .   .   .   .
-I really get the impression that R&D put time and effort into the Planes themselves, and then tossed together some decks to throw in with the package before realizing that some of the strategies were just inherently weaker than the others.  At least in my particular neck of the woods, it seemed that the power level of the deck was directly proportionate to how much it was worth.  I can just hear the last-minute conversations in the WotC lab  now:
“Er…guys?  That ninja deck?”
“Cool, huh?”
“Well…yeah.  Has anyone won a game with it yet?”
“…Crap.  Er…is Ink-Eyes still going for five or six bucks on the secondary market?”
“Cool…no worries then.  Pull something so we can toss in Glen Elendra Liege, give the Clone a really cheap Ninjutsu cost, and ship it!”
-Two words – Board sweepers.  No, Norn’s Dominion doesn’t count.
-While we’re on topic, I can’t roll the stupid planar die to save my life.  I think my table got to experience my planes a grand total of about twice and about thirty-seven seconds the entire day.
-Coming from someone who has played nothing but EDH and draft in the last several years, it is very strange to see an opening hand that contains two of the same card.
-Didn’t get to play EDH with these new Planes over the weekend.  Looking forward to hearing about it from those who did.  Am assuming that it will probably echo the results from the original Planechase release, which is to say it is massively swingy and broken with EDH decks. 
-I won’t go so far as to say I hate the boxed format (to be totally fair, I might have a few times while I was at the event…), but I can safely say that I’m in the process of re-allocating GenCon funds that were ear-marked for the Planechase events into other things.  

-Overall, I just would like to see Wizards of the Coast not be afraid to make to tune the decks themselves a bit more, and not be afraid of making them more potent overall.  Even the Archenemy releases seemed stronger than this offering by a country mile.  Give the Ninjas deck Phyrexian Arena; it needs to be drawing more cards to keep up.  A bit of mass removal wouldn’t hurt any of the decks, nor would some artifact/enchantment hate; a Disaster Radius or Austere Command would go a long way.  If these things were just a bit more balanced out and could answer each-other in a stronger fashion, the playability would go through the roof.

.   .   .   .   .
How did it play out for those of you who got out for a Release event?  Did you get a chance to try out EDH Planechase?  Let me know your thoughts in the comments; I have a sneaking suspicion that my personal experience might be a bit different from the norm…


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