There’s a very real learning curve that most Commander players will follow as they become acclimated with the format. It’s safe to assume that most everyone reading this will be somewhere on this timeline right now; put simply, everyone starts with a preconceived notion of what Commander is, and that view then changes the longer they play the game.

Usually, this vision is most affected by what is and isn’t acceptable to those people a player shares a metagame with; put simply, the longer you play Commander, the more you develop a feel for what you want out of a game, and that should shine through your communication, deck construction, and actions, until everyone in your metagame reaches a rough parity. This is the Social Contract at work.

That said, what happens when a new school of players enters into an older metagame? Well, it can often be problematic. (Ask me how I know.)

THE STANDARD PROGRESSION OF A COMMANDER PLAYER

First, let’s take a rough look at how most people approach Commander, and how their views typically change as time goes on. (NOTE: This is taking the approach intended of the format’s creators – that is, the Rules Committee view of “Build Casually, Play Competitively” and “Social Contract” and “It’s The Journey, Not The Destination” and all those other tag lines that describe non-competitive games. Competitive play is a discussion for another time.)

The New Guy

This is the person who is buying in for the first time; maybe they’re picking up a Pre-Con, or their friends at the shop have lent them a deck to play a few games, and now they’re hooked and building their own. They probably come from other formats, and value winning over all.

The Overall Format View

Anything is possible. “Battlecruiser” Magic. The place where big, splashy cards are right at home. Epic plays!

Where The Line Is Drawn

There isn’t one. Infinite combos rule. Master of Cruelties can be played off of Kaalia of the Vast! Check it out…first, I play Jhoira of the Ghitu, then I suspend Obliterate! And on and on. Basically, anything goes.

The “Settled In” Guy

This is the person who has now played for a while and is starting to understand what flies and what doesn’t fly in the format. They’re probably still into jamming “staples” and big, flashy spells, but the big no-nos – mass land-destruction, infinite turns and combos – are probably not things they play anymore. Winning is usually still king, but these players are starting to understand how much fun a full game of Commander can be.

The Overall Format View

Cautiously optimistic. They’ve realized that there are boundaries, but the definitions are still a bit fuzzy, and are still easily over-ridden by the remaining “New Guy” blinders. Tooth and Nail isn’t getting Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker and Pestermite anymore, but it’s still grabbing Avenger of Zendikar and some land-grabbing guy or a pair of Eldrazi. Still, there’s a feeling that there’s some sense of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ floating around, and that will take some figuring out.

Where The Line Is Drawn

Recurring Time Stretch over and over or Mycosynth Lattice and Nevinyrral’s Disk are a bit too much, but Academy Ruins into Mindslaver or blinking Magister Sphinx is still okay.

The “Social Contract WarriorGuy

This person has been playing for a reasonably long time at this point. They know the major archetypes, because they play with multiple groups and read StarCityGames or GatheringMagic or ChannelFireball. They stay up on the night that the Banned List is updated each set release to be in on the Twitter discussions immediately, and they have very strong opinions on “Right” and “Wrong”. They build for synergy and strategy. Value is important. These players love Grave Pact and Aura Shards because they’re repeatable effects that are easy to get good use out of, and hard to deal with.

The Overall Format View

They’re very protective of Commander, to the point that they will argue for and against just about anything involving it. They aren’t afraid to call out other players for playing “goodstuff” cards and “net-decks” and making bad plays that break the spirit of the game. They don’t play Kaalia of the Vast because there’s no Kaalia deck other than “The Kaalia Deck”.

Where The Line Is Drawn

Insurrection is too cheap. Tutors are bad. Tooth and Nail is played out. Sol Ring is terrible because everyone thinks it’s a staple. There are way too many hidden gems printed back in Mirage and Nemesis to be bothered to run 5-Color Dragons just because of Tarkir block.

The “Grumpy Old Bastard” Guy

This guy is too frigging tired to think about all of that previous stuff – he just wants to play. He’s been playing Commander forever, and is searching for things no one has really ever seen. He’s likely brewing decks while at work to multitask. He’s more mindful of the overall experience than he is of ever really winning a game. Still, he has a hard time shutting off the pieces of his former self, so he tends to get frustrated with stale metagames, or ramping power-levels, or decks that fall flat, or games that go really wrong, or annoying table habits, or a few-dozen other things.

He also likely started a blog just to complain about these things…

WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE

To get personal, I’ve been dealing with handling a changing metagame. The shop that I play regularly at has long used a ‘league play’ environment that my GDC co-writer Mr.P and I developed years back. We did this largely to try to develop a certain type of game that would at least slightly be self-serving (read: rules to encourage the type of play that we enjoy) while encouraging a wide variety of fun angles to approach the format. We use a ‘points’ system to discourage infinite combos, quick wins and mass land-and-hand-disruption, and try to encourage fun lines of play and off-the wall choices that make for interesting and memorable games. We initially got rid of commander damage to prevent the inevitable Rafiq of the Many-style Voltron blowouts that end games quickly.

And we have spent years cultivating this environment. We have – and have had – dozens upon dozens of regular players over the years, and I’d like to think this is because so many people have enjoyed the types of games that our system has created.

It has certainly changed the way that I build decks too. I’m not saying that I’m the most casual builder out there, but I’ve certainly gotten way more comfortable with the relaxed pace of things, and I’ve “de-fanged” the decks that I used to have as a result. It really has been about just experiencing awesome games over the last year or two.

Now, astute readers (and those that follow me on twitter) note that I just said, ‘…the decks that I used to have…’ This is important, because up until last Tuesday, I was riding a streak of no decks at all for a good six weeks straight. I had a few consecutive games that went pretty frustratingly-poorly, and snapped one night.

Came home, took everything apart.

Why?

Because the winds are changing. The game isn’t the same. Because of the New Guy.

OIL AND WATER

It’s not one person in specific, but the guard has been changing. Many of the old school regulars have moved on, but attendance is booming. This is because there are tons of new players, and an entire new crowd that embraces the shop and EDH night. This is both awesome and exasperating. There are lots of great people, and the atmosphere is always really fun.

But the plays and the players…they’re going at a different pace.

Going back to the player breakdown above, there’s a very real separation between the different roles. I’ve been around long enough to have moved through them all, but many of the new guys and gals in the shop are really new to the format, and therein lies the issue.

Let me explain things with a few examples:

  • I’ve played consecutive weeks where I’ve ended up seated in games featuring multiple people playing Kaalia of the Vast. Yes – that Kaalia Deck. Times two.
  • I’ve been hit with an early-game Traumatize because “That’s what the deck does.”
  • I’ve overheard people extolling the virtues of the mythical Hermit Druid combo.
  • I’ve heard guys excitedly explaining the contents of an “awesome” Maelstrom Wanderer deck that is designed to lock the table down and combo off.
  • I watched a player excited to play his “total joke” deck drop Purphoros, God of the Forge and a ton of tokens, Sorin Markov, and boatloads of Fling effects.
  • I’ve seen games end in five turns.

It’s basically a throwback to the early days of the format, where anything went, and people played Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary and Erayo, Soratami Ascendant like they meant it. When people were discovering that it was possible to kill a player with Rafiq of the Many on turn four with the right hand, instead of just reading about how played out that is on the MTGSalvation forums.

When people replied to Jhoira of the Ghitu with groans, instead of asking to read the card.

It’s a whole new old world. And I’m getting lost in the shuffle. Now, let me be clear here – none of this is ”wrong”; people need to play the way they want. The problem is that this isn’t the way I want to play.

FRUSTRATION, INC

The reason my decks all came apart was because I no longer had a single one that stood up to the games that I’m playing anymore. My “best” deck was likely my Hanna, Ship’s Navigator deck, which was a very synergistic enchantment-based deck that could control the table fairly well, but whose signature win condition was Moat, Archetype of Imagination, Opalescense, and about fifteen turns of attacking with Ghostly Prison and Land Tax.

When you put that up against a dedicated Oona, Queen of the Fae mill deck or an archetypical Nekusar, the Mindrazer build, it doesn’t stand a chance.

This is the core of the issue I’m speaking to, and the worst part is that there’s not really a good answer to it. It’s kind of an “Evolve or Die” situation; Grave Pact might grind games to a halt, but it’s hard to compete with a free Rakdos, the Defiler on turn five or Xenagos, God of Revels and any of the creatures in the deck. It may be sour grapes (yeah, I know what the saying really means, but I’m using it in the “context the other 99.9% of people use and understand it” form, so deal with it.), but I am effectively the old man on the porch telling kids to get off my lawn.

I’ve helped to build something that worked to my liking when I was part of the controlling majority, but now that the tides have turned, I’m souring on the experience because there are too many new players that don’t play the game the same way.

And that’s rough for me. Mr. P actually built a Gaddock Teeg deck for me to try to get me back on the horse with, and the design was a Voltron/soft Stax build designed to beat down with Sword of Fire and Ice while rolling out Torpor Orb. It still took a few games to get going before I actually hung in a game and enjoyed it.

More recently, I built an Adun Oakenshield deck. I decided to throw caution to the wind and just build the deck that excited me, staples and broken cards be damned. It ran Tooth and Nail and Massacre Wurm and Survival of the Fittest and Sylvan Library and Eternal Witness and Phyrexian Reclamation and Sheoldred, Whispering One. And you know what? It was too fair. It got its ass handed to it by a really solid and synergistic Alesha, Who Smiles at Death deck, and then soaked up a huge Lord of Tresserhorn being Savage Beating-ed and Soul’s Fire-d and then Fling-ed.

I’m the old guard. I know this format inside and out. I own a blog dedicated to it that is nearly four years old and still going strong. I write Commander articles for StarCityGames.com.

And yet, I can’t compete anymore. Like I said, this is frustrating.

CLOSING TIME

This is the danger of mixing the old and the new guards, but realistically, it’s really the danger of playing outside of your Social Contract wheelhouse. After all, I’ve spent years on the greener side of things, so I shouldn’t complain.

Still, I enjoy Commander too much to throw in the towel. I love playing this format, and writing about it, and talking about it. Part of the frustration is knowing that things aren’t going as planned, and that it’s not all in my control to make changes.

Some of you will read this as whining. And that’s fine too…I probably am.

But that’s what I do best.

So…what’s the answer here, folks? How do I re-engage this game? Have any of you experienced similar shifts? How have you dealt with it?

Hit up the comments/Reddit/Twitter, and tell me what you think; I really want to hear it.

-Cass
@GDCCommander