I’ve recently started going to a new shop. I’m trying to get a regular Commander crowd going there, but I’m having some trouble.

Normally I like to write about specific decks I’m building and playing, or specific generals and how to make them work. Even specific cards that I feel get underrepresented in the format. Today, though, I want to talk about something else.

While the owner of my new(to-me) LGS is doing what he can to help promote a Commander crowd—it’s a new shop, and he has a small group of regulars, but obviously he wants to grow—he can only do so much. Ultimately, it’s up to the players to form a group, and I want to spearhead that, if I can.

I showed up last night to try to get a few games going, and managed to find one person willing to play. We had a few one-on-one games, and it was fun, but they were over quickly. I was running some tuned decks geared toward controlling a board of three opponents, and he was running Relentless Rats under Patron of the Nezuki. A fun deck, and one that can be powerful, but kind of got run over by Thraximundar stax and Basandra, Battle Seraph aggro in 1v1.

I brought a thrax to a water balloon fight.

Yes, Thraximundar stax. I’m that player. Moving on.

So I got to thinking, after five very quick games, four of which I won, and a handshake. How do I get this metagame together? How do I get other players interested, and wanting to come around? This is what I’ve come up with, so far.

1. Work with the shop owner.

Nobody is better at promoting a shop than its owner- and no one has more of an incentive to do so. He knows the players that come in, and knows what they like. He knows who plays Standard but is getting tired of it, and he knows who is playing Pokemon and wants to upgrade to something a little more complex. He knows the general tastes of all of his regulars, and can match them up accordingly.

He is also the one in charge of schedules in his shop, slotting in formats so there is room and enough people. He has already started to think about using that ability. He’s looking to set up a $5 buy-in for a weekly tournament setting, and I am not sure how that will go. But it’s his choice, and I have a few ideas to make the approach work that I want to run by him.
This is a casual format, and a lot of the time we talk about that in terms of power-level and deck design, but casual also describes how we should behave and interact with each other at the table.

2. Play interesting decks.

When you sit down with a new group of players, it’s important to make a good impression. I feel I may have failed in that already, at least with some people. But you can always try again. The best way to do this in a Commander game is with your deck. If it’s interesting, and fun to play with and against, people will have a good time. You shouldn’t have to build a “fun” deck at the expense of power or whatever else you find fun, of course But trying to get new people engaged by running stax in their first games against you is probably not the best idea.

But something like Grenzo, Dungeon Warden or Chandler (The one time I lost last night was with this deck. It’s janky and no good at all, but kind of fun.) are often entertaining. And that’s why we’re here. As a married man and a father of two, my free time is limited, to say the least. When I do get to go out and play cards, I want to have fun, not get frustrated by over-powered plays and being locked out of games. And most people feel the same way. By all means, keep your version of my Thraximundar deck together; but I’m only going to play it rarely, and only in games where I know the players involved will appreciate the deck.

3. Be consistent.

The shop owner is setting his Commander time to Saturday afternoons. I was pushing for Thursday evenings, but it doesn’t always work for him. He has other events going on, and other crowds, so not many people were showing up to play Commander. Saturday afternoon works better for him and his customer base, so Saturday afternoon it is. The most important thing I can do to help grow this scene in regards to this is to show up. Every week, be there on time and ready to play. Have multiple decks, and be willing to lend them out to people. Have a trade binder available, and engage with the crowd. But most importantly, be there.

4. Be welcoming.

This is important. So very important. And it’s something that a lot of us miss, especially when we have an established group. I don’t mean just saying hello to new players and making sure they have a seat. I mean being genuinely glad to see new people sit down at a Commander table for the first time. I mean loaning decks to people who want to try it out, but don’t have their own card pools to work with.

It means answering questions, and even sitting out a game or two so you can help a table full of new people get the hang of things. It means handing out copies of bulk rares that you have a dozen of to kids who need them for their decks. This is a casual format, and a lot of the time we talk about that in terms of power-level and deck design, but casual also describes how we should behave and interact with each other at the table. Look at a high-level competitive tournament for Standard or Modern. Sure, the players talk to each other, but it’s short sentences, and their eyes are always on the table. Now look at the way players interact in an established group during a Commander game.

In my experience, the cards on the table are less important than the players around it, and the interactions between players reflects that. People look at each other, and talk to each other while doing so. People tell stories, and jokes, and laugh with each other between plays. It’s this sort of thing that makes this my favourite format, and it’s something we all need to work at sometimes, especially in new groups.

5. Have fun.

Even when your decks aren’t working, and you can top-deck nothing but land, make sure you have fun. This is, in the end, just a game. And while you’re seriously contemplating casting Demonic Tutor to go find a basic land just so you can then cast Cultivate and start to get back into the game, the kid across from you is hitting the nuts and dropping four Eldrazi a turn, having an absolute blast.

It’s frustrating, I know. We’ve all been there. But in Commander, you have to swallow that frustration and realise that while you got the shaft this game, somebody else is loving it. That kid is going to be back next week, eager to play. If she wins again next week, or even sticks around long enough to make things interesting, she’ll be hooked for life. And she’ll remember how you reacted to her wins. If you got sour and blamed your own deck, she’ll think you’re a jerk. But if you were genuinely happy for her win, and congratulated her play, she’ll be back for sure.

These all seem like fairly common-sense things, but I really had to examine my own behaviour to see them. I looked at how I play when I sit down at a table, and how other players would see me. And then I looked back at how I saw other players when I first sat down at a Commander table, and how I reacted to each of them. Reading this over, I’m struck by the fact that maintaining these behaviours is difficult to do naturally. As a group, Magic players tend to be introverted and competitive; none of the behaviours that encourage a local scene – in my experience, anyway – come naturally. They are all things we need to work at, and I’m trying to do that.

This list isn’t exhaustive, and I am probably missing a few things that seem glaringly obvious to you. But these are the five things I’m going to work on, to try to build Commander at this shop. Getting a group together is hard, but very rewarding. Once it’s established, there are other challenges of course, and others have discussed those at length here.

But starting one is the challenge I have in front of me today, and it’s one that I am looking forward to.