Here’s the dirty little secret about EDH, and all of us who play the format:

It’s a spike format, and we’re all spikes.

Stop and think about it for a minute.  How do you feel when you’re the first person knocked out of a game?  How do you react when you’re threatened one way or the other in-game?  How often have you finished a night of games and headed home to start scouring Magiccards.info to come up with cards to answer some of the things you just lost to?

Okay…maybe ‘spike’ is a little extreme as a whole, but I guarantee that every single person reading this article right now has caved in and bumped up the power level of one of their decks to handle some element of their environment before, or has reacted in anger to losing a game.  It’s a natural reaction, but it is also one that typically applies to competetive formats.  EDH isn’t supposed to be one of those, but these reactions happen nonetheless.
And here’s the thing; taking that action has a snowball effect.  You can start with the best of intentions, but there’s a cause/effect relationship that exists in any metagame, and every move you make is going to cause something else to move as well.  More often than not, this isn’t a subtle downhill role, it’s a nuclear escalation in slow-motion. 

Welcome to power creep.

Death of a Metagame

This particular topic came to fruition due to correspondence from a few different people.  I received an email from a reader named John not long ago; he described the situation in which his original playgroup dissolved, leaving him to try to find new people to play with.  Failed attempts to bring other people who didn’t fully understand the whole ‘spirit of EDH’ thing, and equally-bad experiences at a local shop left him wondering if it was really he himself that should change the power levels of his own decks to cope.
At about the same time, I was having discussions with Imshan (of Commandercast) about my own metagame; specifically, what he felt was an unbalancing of the format due to the fact that we have never played with the ‘general damage’ rule.  He argued that this decision acts to stifle certain decks, generals and strategies from being viable.  This made sense to me, and it was punctuated with a Thanksgiving morning chat with Andrew, one of the other players local to our shop.

In so many words, we have done what we could to foster a game environment that was by and large enjoyable to the bulk of the players at the store.  I’ve detailed our use of a ‘points system’ to reward and penalize players for certain actions; it basically boils down to the fact that no one really enjoyed getting combo-killed or run over on turn four by a Voltron-style general deck, and nobody was really excited about mass land-destruction either, so we developed points that would address this.  By and large, these strategies have disappeared from the metagame.

What is starting to happen, however, is that certain strategies are becoming prevalent, and are encouraged because nothing really exists to keep them in check.  Ramp is first and foremost an issue.  With no way to keep green decks in check via land destruction, the ability to ramp into Boundless Realms/giant Genesis Wave is a pretty hard-to-deal-with strategy.  The only other organic way to manage ramp is to simply kill off the player doing the ramping first, but dealing forty damage is far harder than dealing a quick twenty-one, and with no combos in the metagame, mono-green ramp decks will simply overwhelm via mana advantage eventually.

This leads to a lot of grumbling and complaining in the parking lot on Wednesday nights…

Control strategies end up in a very uncomfortable place as well.  I’ve terrorized games at the shop with my Riku deck, and I’ll recognize that it’s a fairly strong control list.  But it’s also a reactive list, designed to stop and ultimately redirect the efforts of my opponents back at them.  Given the restrictions to the format, a strong counterspell is one of the only ways to handle a giant Genesis Wave or Primal Surge.

But no one likes control strategies either.  The result is often that everyone at the table will start sighing and asking permission to play their spells with clear irritation.  If the deck wins, it leaves bad tastes in other players mouths, and more than once I’ve had people get visibly angry after I’ve shut off a key card in their deck.  I honestly love the deck, and am nearly at the point where I feel bad to the point that I can’t play it anymore. 

So what’s the alternative?

You guessed it.  Green deck wins, and we all complain in the parking lot.

How To Fix Things

Our environment is a great one…don’t get me wrong.  But it is a bit stale, and the reason for that is unchecked power creep.  With nothing to keep certain strategies in check, some players are coming up with novel new ways to push the envelope on what is socially acceptable power-wise, leaving others to react in kind by tuning their decks to be more competitive.  The end result right now is a metagame that usually plays out every-single time with long, drawn-out games that reach a breaking point where someone ‘goes for it’ with a big haymaker win attempt.  Decks are nearly all similarly equipped to do this for the most part.  We have created an environment where decks either resemble an overpowered ‘question’ deck, or an overpowered ‘answer’ deck.  That’s less variance in the face of an attempt to make more variance. 
There are tens of thousands of different cards available to EDH players, yet things always seem to end up back with a few-hundred of the same options solely to keep up with one-another.

Is this better or worse than the alternative?  I’d say its still better at the moment, but moving rapidly towards crossing the line.  People love playing at the shop, but there is a growing frustration as well.

What can we do?  Great question.  John, in his letter to me, asked if it was inevitable that he would have to raise the power level of his decks in order to compete, and it was clear that he felt this was stifling to his appreciation of the format.  I would hope that this article serves as a reason why that method of coping is a zero-sum game. 

I think that ultimately it becomes a matter of variance.  The EDH Rules Committee is very vocal about the fact that the format is designed to be malleable on a local level for exactly this reason.  Hate the fact that Metalworker or Tolarian Academy is banned?  Unban them!  Hate losing to combo?  Make it harder to pull off by banning some offending cards or strategies. 

In a nutshell, make it fresh by making it yours.

This has spiraled slightly off topic, so I’m going to end it by heading back to where I started.  If it were up to me alone, to combat the problem at our shop I’d suggest making changes that were big enough to shake the foundations of the environment in order to force people to rethink their approaches completely.  Perhaps it is time to revisit the general damage rule again.  Maybe we need to revamp the points list completely, or think about a consensus on a localized shop ban list.  Maybe there’s a better avenue altogether than any of these.

In any case, power creep is the effect of an environment slipping into a state of relaxed comfort with itself, and if you find things heading in a similar direction, the answer is clear – shake things up.

Do you have issues like this in your groups?  Have you tried out some of these changes?  Have you come up with other ways to improve things?  Hit the ‘comments’ section to talk about it.

Thanks again,

—>Cass