I’m exactly one week out from pulling back into my house after a marathon overnight return car trip from GenCon 2015. Trying to get re-accustomed to things after being in vacation mode in gamer paradise is not easy, and I’ve taken the entire week just recalibrating things – sleep habits, diet, regular schedules, and so on. The list is long and I know I’m missing a ton of things.

I’ve tried to sit down and write a wrap-up article a few different times and a few different ways since returning, and I think the only way it ends up making sense is to piece it out. There’s just so much to say, and so many awesome stories to tell. I decided that I would start with the part most of you have been waiting for…

The Metagame Breaker Deck – R.I.P. (2011-2015)

One of the biggest things I learned from this whole trip is something I think I knew all along, but I was simply trying to believe to the contrary hard enough that it would become true.

Simply put, there is no ‘policing’ for-prizes Commander. And thus, the “Metagame Breaker” deck meets its final resting place in the hallowed halls of the Indianapolis Convention Center. Time of death: after round two of the Friday Commander Cabana event.

Backing up for a second, I had the Grand Arbiter Augustin IV deck ready to roll going into the trip, as documented here. It was tuned, tweaked, and ready to stave off combo decks in the Cabana events – the official three-round swiss Commander events played for tickets that purchased things from the prize wall. For reference, these were no-holds-barred events – kill an opponent, win 20 tickets.

After trying multiple times in years past, I was sure that the fourth time was the charm. In theory, this was at least partially true; as proven over the years, I’ve had some success in dealing with various combo decks, and I figured that this would be no different – except that I was now packing a deck that was tuned with the sole purpose of stopping the bad things that happen when prizes are on the line. This was going to be foolproof.

Instead, I ultimately learned that you just can’t police a multi-player format. It simply can’t be done. You pick up a win here and there when you beat up the Arcanis the Omnipotent deck in a counter war over resolving Mind Over Matter, or you have redundant graveyard hate online by the time the Hermit Druid player is set to combo off. What you can’t do is force everyone to play correctly and properly assess the board…and by properly, of course I mean “Assess it the same way I currently am.”

Hopefully, you can see the logic failure here. Let’s look at how things went down to hopefully explain this a little better.

THURSDAY – The First Cabana Event, 10:30am.

On Thursday, I was the sole representative from Team GDC in the Commander Cabana event. It was not well-attended – I believe the final head count was just over twenty or so. In typical fashion, the rules seemed to be a bit of a moving target – the judge initially had no solid answer on how to resolve mulligans (eventually, it was announced that “table rules” would work, and each pod could choose. Partial Free Paris was widely accepted), and the ticket system for winning was a little up in the air. (“You each get a ticket! You give your ticket to the person who kills you. Wait…no. Give those back. Three tickets on the table, take one if you kill someone? Hold on…I’ll be right back…”) Eventually, though, things were sorted enough that the first pods got rolling.

My initial pod featured me sitting opposite Trostani, Selesnya’s Voice with Hazezon Tamar to my left and Rafiq of the Many sitting diagonally across. My mental notes:

  • Sleep on Selesnya
  • Awesome! Old-school general represent!
  • Rafiq is the problem, right?

Here’s the one I missed:

There’s one important note here: I didn’t play Grand Arbiter. As the game looked relaxed and fun, I switched it out for Mishra, Artificer Prodigy. I know, I know…

We all set up for a bit, with no-one doing much of anything. I was simply trying to get some artifact-based control shell in place and be able to deal with Rafiq when it went active. I was pretty vocal about this as well; however, the Trostani player was doing a great job of channeling removal at me; this is ostensibly because of the Mishra Effect – when people see Mishra, they expect shenanigans.

So I wasted countermagic protecting my board state, and may have wasted a retaliatory enchantment removal spell as well at some point. Meanwhile, I was totally misreading Hazezon, who had a sacrifice outlet and had tabled Academy Rector. I was expecting Doubling Season and drooling over the Contagion Engine in my hand. Rafiq seemed to be having issues getting going, and I figured I had time.

Hazezon came down. Fine, I said. (Hinder in hand, no less…)

The next turn, the Hazezon trigger hit. Hinder doesn’t really stop that. It also doesn’t stop a sacrificed Rector getting Purphuros in response. 34 damage later, and I was out. He turned to look at me.

“I had to do that because you’ve got the combo.”

?!?!?!?!

“What combo is that?” I responded.

He looked confused. “That lock combo thing.”

Me – “Er…no clue what you’re referring to. Sorry…it’s not that deck.”

All in all, this was not a terrible loss. I’m a little worn out on the Purphuros tokens win at this point, but all things considered, this was fine. It wasn’t quite a combo, and the game was pretty shill otherwise.

(Takeaway – Manage your game better. Stop worrying about the little things and assess the board once in a while.)

Round two was red-flag heaven; Narset, Enlightened Master, Arcum Dagsson, and Sharuum the Hegemon – incidentally a deck and player I had played against in years past at these events. I knew exactly what to expect.

And that’s exactly what I got. Oh yeah…apparently, my brain totally shut down and I grabbed Gaddock Teeg instead of Grand Arbiter. No clue what the hell I was thinking.

Either way, as it turns out one deck can’t stop three other decks throwing instantaneous haymakers at each-other. I tried to do that. I ran immediately out of gas, and then got to sit and watch the Sharuum player take a 10-minute combo turn that was protected by infinite counter-spells.

(Takeaway – I’m starting to detect a pattern here…)

I had decided I had enough, and skipped round three to go shopping and demo some new games in the vendor hall with Dave. (This was absolutely the correct play. We had a blast, and I bought a ton of cards. More on both next time.)

Net total – zero wins, zero tickets.

FRIDAY – The Second Cabana Event, 11:00am.

On Friday, things were looking way up. The Commander gods decided to smile on the Cabana event when the judge announced that, as this is a “fun format”, we should seat ourselves any way we wanted to. Dave, Erik and I obliged and got rolling with a random fourth player. I opted for Mogis, God of Slaughter, and finally got my one ticket win of the weekend somewhere in the middle of the game when the turn passed to Dave, who was at at two life, with both my general and a copy of Dingus Staff in play. Dave had Prahv, Spires of Order to deal with one damage source, but not both. (I’ll let Dave or Erik explain further, as I think they’re both preparing wrap-ups.)

I died not long after to a giant Sword of Fire and Ice/ Loxodon Warhammer-equipped general beatdown served by Erik. It was massive and brutal and satisfying.

Contrast that with the next round. I was seated with Niv-Mizzet, The Firemind (who readily admitted his deck was a focused combo deck) and Reaper King. Reaper King was legitimately a scarecrow tribal deck, not a puppet general Hermit Druid combo deck.

This time, I grabbed Grand Arbiter. I was ready. I pointed out what I was going to try to do to keep Niv in check. I played my general. The Niv player remarked that he couldn’t make the play he wanted to the following turn as a result, and just played his general.

The Reaper King player then untapped…and tried to blow up my Grand Arbiter. All three of us at the table stared at him incredulously.

(Sigh…)

So I had to burn my counter-magic to keep Grand Arbiter on the table, and when Niv went for Ophidian Eye, I didn’t have anything to stop the Remand that he played in response to my Voidmage Husher. Game over. (The Reaper King player actually started to untap for his next turn, prompting the rest of us to explain what just happened.

I promptly skipped round three to go get fish tacos and a Jack and Coke at Spoke & Steele. My GenCon 2015 Commander Cabana experience was over, and I did nothing but play tons of fun casual Commander games for the rest of the weekend. (As with game demos and shopping with Dave, this was also the right call.)

Takeaway? Glad you asked. In a nutshell, you just can’t fight the good fight. People, when presented with prize support, will usually just go for the path of least resistance to be rewarded. That’s fine, because that’s what is supposed to happen. There’s no misconception of the intentions of the event or any of the players in it. My mistake was in trying to first believe that the majority of the players in these events are poor, down-trodden “fair” Commander players trying to just have fun, and then second that I could somehow protect them from the atrocities that were soon to come.

As it turns out, I was trying for years to answer a question that just wasn’t being asked. No-one in those events is expecting anything but what they get – people trying to win. They either bring a casual deck and just experience the consequences along the way, or bring a competitive deck and try to grab the brass ring along with everyone else.

It turns out you can’t save people who don’t need saving.

Ultimately, this whole “Metagame Breaker” project was blind to its core-purpose – defending the social contract. What I managed to miss all these years is that for-prize events are completely in step with that contract. The intent of the game is clear to all playing in it, and no-one is expecting anything differently. The only difference is that instead of a conversation before the game about what kind of a game we’re going to have, we’re agreeing to the tone of the competition as described by the published rules instead.

It’s the same net effect – no surprises to anyone, and no feelings to be hurt. I was at odds with my mission statement from the get-go.

So with that, I’m officially retiring the “Metagame Breaker” project. I’ll keep a competitive deck, but it won’t be something designed to force people to play in the constraints of a casual agreement. I like playing competitive Commander once in a while – not often, but occasionally, the Legacy player in my comes out and I enjoy the challenge. I’m sure I’ll pull Luminarch Ascension and Cathars’ Crusade for Laboratory Maniac and Helm of Obedience, and I’ll pull it out and play it when I’m in a group of others that want this kind of game. Fire with fire, and all that.

For the 99% of the rest of the games I’ll play, it’s going to business as usual – I’ll build a fun deck, sit down, and ask the usual question before I get started :

“What kind of a game are we playing here?”

Because it turns out you don’t need to spend three years and come up with four different versions of a deck to defend the social contract – you only need to ask one simple question.

-Cass
@GDCCommander