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There Is Only One Rule

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I’m back! Except I’ve been away for so long that most of you probably don’t remember me. So I guess . . . 

Hi, I’m the new casual writer on Gathering Magic! I haven't been slinging the cards much for the last year or so, but I couldn’t stay away. And it wasn’t the powerful new cards in Theros or the new Commander precons that brought me back, but a far more powerful reason: My Magic playgroup is the funnest group of people I've ever been lucky enough to hang out with. I missed the guys so much that I would go to the card shop on Magic night and talk to them while they played, and eventually, I picked up the cards again just so I could hang out more with my best friends.

Unfortunately, the only thing that is certain with an expat playgroup (I live in Seoul, for reasons that still aren't completely clear to me) is that the people you love will eventually leave, and at the moment, we are having a major exodus of some of our coolest people. That got me thinking about what it takes to sustain a strong Magic playgroup, and now I’m back to drop some hard-earned wisdom.

It’s in the Way That You Use It

Izzet Chronarch
Funny thing about the guys who are leaving: It’s going to be a lot easier for me to win games now that they’re gone, but I’m going to enjoy the games less. Ryan is, flat out, a deck-building mad scientist. He would tinker in his subterranean lair for weeks, perfecting some hellish engine of destruction, and then unleash it upon his unsuspecting victims and cackle maniacally as their blackened bones steamed and sizzled. But folks were literally lining up to play against him because he was the funniest dude in Korea. Just to give you one example of what playing with Ryan was like, he devised the single best Magic format ever: Pauper Bane Commander. Pauper is a well-known format, but have you ever played it in a game in which everyone is doing his or her best Bane impression? High-larious. My Bane voice is indistinguishable to my impression of Apu from the Simpsons, but it was still some of the most fun I’ve ever had playing Magic.

Chris, on the other hand, has the mind of a serial killer hidden behind a disarming smile and a slow Texas cool. All you need to know about Chris is this: If anyone else played one of his decks, you’d immediately ban that person from your group and consider giving up Magic, but with Chris, you just don’t care. When he wrecks your board, he does it with a smile and a hey-I-can't-believe-that-worked kind of shrug. When he combos off and kills the whole table, he makes it fun for everyone. When he steals your favorite toys, it kind of feels as though he’s just sharing them with you.

Shadowborn Apostle
Dorian came to casual from Standard because he was tired of the lack of variety and fun in the tournament scene. That might suggest that he is kind of competitive, and it’s true that I've never seen him build a weak deck, but I’ve also never seen him play broken. Dorian takes a strong concept, builds it well, and then dials it back so that it isn't too strong to be fun for his opponents. More importantly, he takes the bad just like he takes the good: with a big ol’ smile. I played against him in a Two-Headed Giant game just before he left town, and he was playing a brilliant Teysa, Orzhov Scion deck with twenty copies of Shadowborn Apostle. On turn six, he was hit by an Extirpate that basically crippled his deck, and he laughed and said it was a cool play. Then, when he and his partner were on the brink of destruction, he top-decked the only out they had left, and he snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. And he laughed while we said it was a cool play. I swear, I enjoyed watching him pull off the upset victory more than I would have enjoyed finishing him off on my next turn, and that is the mark of a great guy.1

These guys taught me that a fun play experience is about so much more than power levels. They weren’t trying to enforce some arbitrary standard of “casual” or imposing their vision of the format on the rest of the group; they were having fun and helping everyone else have fun, and if they just happened to win the game, that was just details. And they made “broken” fun. I don’t know where the line is—between putting cards in your deck because they're the most powerful options available and putting cards in your deck because you think they’ll do something cool—but these guys showed me that there is a line and that being on the right side of that line makes all the difference in the world.

The One Rule

In Magic, as in life, there is really only one rule you need to follow. Some call it the Golden Rule, or Wheaton’s Rule, but I call it Earl’s Law: Don’t be a dick; be a dude. Casual Magic should not be about the cards, it should be about the people. And to the extent it is about the cards, it should be about watching your friends do their things and then doing your thing while they watch and go, “Whoa. Cool!” If you can't do your thing when your friends do their thing, you might want to find a new thing—trying to stop your friends from doing their things so that you can do your thing better is usually a bad idea. Remember: Your friends came to play cards with you, not to watch you play cards. If you can't see that distinction, you are doing something very wrong.

Ad Nauseam
That’s one of the great things about the guys in my playgroup: When their decks go out of control, they dial it back. When the deck starts to do the same thing every game, they switch it up or take it apart and do something new. And even if you grow to hate the deck, you still love the player—because he brings the fun every game.

Bringing the fun means paying attention to how everyone is enjoying the game, not just you. It means benching an unfun deck or taking out the cards that leave the rest of the table checking their cell phones while you tutor three times, untap all your permanents, and take a bunch of turns in a row. It may mean being willing to take the second-best option in your deck-building or avoiding playing a card that will put a frown on someone else’s face. It almost certainly means building your decks with an eye toward variance, novelty, and shenaniganery (or, if your playgroup really enjoys third-turn kills, I suppose it means making sure your deck kills on the third turn every game—to each their own).

Above all, and I cannot stress this enough, it means being a good sport. Share the joy of your opponents’ victories with them, don’t mope when they beat you. The guys who are leaving my playgroup were all smart players with strong decks, and I often went at them pretty hard (do not give Thassa, God of the Sea a second chance . . . ever!). But whether I took a piece out of them or finished them off, these guys were always cool about it—they knew that the fun was in the game and the guys, not the winning or losing. And bringing that attitude made me a better player and a better person.

Conclusion

Coat of Arms
Writing about the social side of Magic is really Bruce Richard’s specialty more than mine, but when you get right down to it, the difference between competitive and casual Magic is this: In casual Magic, you are able to choose whom you play with. Ruminate on that for a second: You go to a tournament to win or earn prizes or whatever, but you are drawn to your casual playgroup to be with those people. That means two things: First, you should work on building a group of people you love hanging out and slinging spells with; and second, you need to do your best to be the kind of person whom other folks want to hang out and play cards with. The longevity of your playgroup is directly tied to how much fun everyone has playing with you, so remember: Don’t be a dick; be a dude.

And finally, to all the Brothers in Coats of Arms who have brightened up my life over the years and the miles: Thanks for the memories, and may the road ever rise up to meet you!




1 Of course, not all cool guys are guys—some cool guys are girls. I mean, women. And I've played with some supercool women, but unfortunately, we don’t have any in my playgroup at the moment. Here’s hoping that changes soon!


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