So the Commander Rules Committee changed the rules about “tucking”1 commanders, and then the Internet exploded . . .
I have long advocated a change like this, so if you bear with me for a couple of minutes, I’ll explain why they did it, what it means for your Commander experience, and where we can go from here. But let me first say:
It’s Not the End of the World
My playgroup in Seoul has been playing for three years with basically the same tuck rules that the RC just introduced. In that time, we have not been swamped by broken commanders, nor have we seen our metagame devolve. And my playgroup isn't a cozy collection of casual crybabies; it basically consists of anyone in Seoul who wants to play Commander.2 What we’ve found is that there are better tools than tucking for controlling degenerate decks, and the lack of tucking made games more enjoyable for people with non-degenerate decks.
Long Time Coming
The first thing to understand is that this is not a sudden decision. At least as far back as Lorwyn block, tucking has been a contentious subject among Commander players, and the online forums are full of arguments for and against tucking. The status quo was that commanders could be tucked, but there are thousands of players all over the world who hated the rule and wished it would change. The sudden announcement by the RC does not mean that the problem was new or the decision was rash.
(There were a ton of tweets and posts last week saying that tucking was never a problem, but what these folks actually meant is that it was never a problem for them.)
I saw a lot of people on Twitter saying, “Oh, Sheldon must have got tucked last week, and now he’s changing the rules because he’s butthurt.” In fact, Sheldon and other members of the RC have consistently said that they felt a need to balance widespread hatred of tucking with the need to tuck broken commanders. In August 2011, I wrote my most controversial article on the Muse Vessel, arguing for these new changes, and a week later, StarCityGames published a piece by Sheldon about how great Proteus Staff is in Commander. In other words, they have been defending the status quo for a couple of years.3
What that means is both that this wasn’t a personal decision by Sheldon, or anyone on the RC, and that their thinking about the balance between controlling brokenness and letting people play their commanders has changed over time. That’s all.
What Is the Problem?
Games are supposed to be fun. Commander is a format that began with a vision of a particular kind of fun—and part of that was having an Elder Dragon as your avatars. The game has grown a lot since those early days in Alaska, and the player base has expanded to include a bunch of people who are drawn to less “casual” forms of Commander. But for many of us, this is still the format in which we are able to build around our favorite legends and go, “RAAAAARRRRWWH!!!!!” as we swing with a huge, yet inefficient beater. For us, having our commanders tucked so that we can’t play them again is the biggest boner-kill in the game.
On the other hand, some commanders are inherently unfun, or at least very easy to abuse. Being on the receiving end of a commander like Zur the Enchanter, Child of Alara, or Derevi, Empyrial Tactician can be a horrible experience, and it sometimes feels that your only hope is to get rid of that card permanently. That is why fans of tucking have long argued that unfun commanders would quickly spiral out of control without tucking.
This is the dilemma that the RC has faced for years: Having your commander tucked isn't fun, but being blown away by someone else’s unkillable commander is also unfun, and they have to make a tucking policy that balances these considerations and maximizes fun for the greatest number of people. I think they finally made the right call, for the following reasons.
Sledgehammer or Scalpel?
If tucking is tolerated because it keeps a lid on overpowered commanders (let’s use Zur to represent these guys), why does it keep hitting weak/fair commanders (represented today by Lady Orca)? The tragedy of tucking is that it hits weak and strong alike . . . maybe it hits Zur more than Lady Orca, but tuck has proven to be a very indiscriminate solution. One of my readers at Muse Vessel put it better than I could: “[tuck effects] are the nuclear option when things get out of control. But if things never get out of control, you are still left holding a nuclear missile in your hand . . . and everything starts looking like a good target.”4
Think about it: If you have other answers in hand and you top-deck Terminus, are you going to cast it for its miracle cost and then use your extra mana to take control of the empty board? Of course you are—and usually, it won’t matter if it’s Zur or Lady Orca on the table. Obviously, it depends on the board state, but very few of the people I’ve played against would say, “I know the smart play is to miracle out this Terminus, but I won’t do it because I don’t want to tuck Lady Orca.” No; most of the time, it’s, “Sorry, Lady Orca, but there’s just too much value from casting Terminus now. See you next game!”
Some people will point out that they wouldn’t tuck Lady Orca; they’d wait for Zur. But if Lady Orca is attacking you for a significant amount of damage and your only answer is to tuck her, you're probably going to tuck her and try to draw a different answer to Zur . . .
. . . if there even is a Zur!
The biggest hole in the tucking argument is that, under the old rules, every game had tucking, but only a few games had unfun commanders, making the problem of tucking very real, while the advantages were much more hypothetical.
This bears repeating. Just as tournament players are the minority, and casual players are the majority, so the cutthroat Commander decks are the minority, and the durdly, janky, fun piles are the majority. Take it from someone who has spent a lot of time trying to reach out to the casual player base: Most casual Magic players just don’t even care enough to maximize the power of their decks, follow online content, or anything of that nature, and so their decks are far more likely to look like the Rebel Alliance fleet than the Death Star.
I’m pretty sure that this is what ultimately led the RC to change the tucking rule: They have just talked to so many players all across the world, and they judged that tucking was doing more harm than good. That’s why the angry backlash on Twitter was, to my mind, not representative of the actual player base. People like me, and probably you, and most of the people who use social media to keep their fingers on the pulse of the Magic community, are the vocal minority of Commander players, not the silent (largely tuck-fearing) majority.
Of course, I don’t have the data to know for sure—and neither do you. The people who are most likely to have access to the broadest sample of the Commander community are the Rules Committee, and I certainly trust them to do what they think is in the best interests of the largest number of players.
What about Zur?
So far, I've argued that the old tuck rule was disproportionately unfun for the casual majority of Commander players, but I admit there is a slight danger that the rules change will swing the pendulum too far in the other direction.
However, there are a number of ways to solve the problem of degenerate commanders and decks without the collateral damage of tucking.
By far, the best way to deal with problems in multiplayer is balancing—if one deck is threatening the whole table, the whole table should focus its attention on that deck. If you have to, you can say, “Hey, guys, let’s get him!” but we are playing a strategy game, and most people should realize that “Let’s get him!” is the best strategy.
For every commander except Derevi,5 consistently balancing against it and killing it over and over again can eventually increase the cost of casting a problem commander past the point at which it makes sense to cast it.
If your metagame is plagued by one or two “Zur” decks, consider what you can do to make your decks stronger against them. For example, maybe the player is ramping so much that he or she can always pay the commander tax, no matter how many times you kill “Zur,” so why not run Ankh of Mishra, Zo-Zu the Punisher, Acidic Soil, or Price of Progress? There are a ton of answers to whatever the problem may be, whether it’s combos, ramp, or any kind of permanent.
It’s confession time. I have almost forty different Commander decks, so I realize that I don’t represent the community here, but everyone should be able to bring a couple of decks, which means three things: If your deck is too strong for the rest of the table, you can tone it down, and if someone else’s deck is too strong, you can challenge him or her with a stronger deck or offer to loan that player something more appropriate.
As I said, my group has been playing without tucking for years now without any problems, but if your group has a different dynamic, you can always reinstitute the old rules for your group (although I urge you to give the new rules a try for a couple of months). That extends to house rules banning commanders who need to be tucked—or allowing tuck to apply to a small list of overpowered commanders.
You can even play with the new rules, but reserve the right to tuck the commanders of new people, especially if you play somewhere like a local game store and can't control the influx of new people.
For the sake of argument, let’s say we’re all grownups here. It turns out the grownup solution to most problems is talking about it, and that applies to your “Zur” problem. If you really don’t enjoy playing against a particular deck, or a particular person’s decks, talk to other players and see what they think. If there is a consensus (as there often is), take that person aside and tell the player privately and politely that the rest of the group has a problem with the deck, and ask that player if he or she is willing to consider some changes. I've had to do this myself, and you might be surprised at the results.
Tenth Avenue Freeze Out
In extreme cases, you can stop playing with the problem child. After all, in tournaments, they tell you whom to play with, but in casual, it’s our choice, and it’s embarrassingly simple: If you don’t enjoy playing against someone, and you play for fun, stop playing against that person.
I had a situation in Tokyo when this was necessary. We had one guy who was like a tumor in our group, scaring off new players and making older players reluctant to make the trip into town for game night.6 Eventually, having established that almost everyone felt the same way, I said, “Look, I never enjoy playing against you, so I'm not going to do it anymore. You guys can come and join me or play with him; it’s up to you.” It was awkward for about two weeks, but then he stopped showing up, our games became more fun, and the group was able to grow again. This method had the added advantage of making me the lightning rod for this guy’s hate, which was a small price to pay for building a strong playgroup.
The Rules Committee made a reasoned decision about tucking. You might disagree with it, or it may ultimately turn out to be the wrong decision, but we should respect their reasons and their right to make that decision. Beyond that, my experience strongly suggests that if you give it a try, it’ll turn out to be the right decision for your group. Good luck, and let me know in the comments about your experience with the new rules.
1 “Tucking” means putting a commander into a library without being returned to the command zone. The new rules also include “bouncing” (returning cards to hand), and if you’ve ever seen Teferi's Puzzle Box in action, you'll understand why.
2 Seriously, they don’t even have to be able to speak English well . . . we even had a guy from Mississippi once!
3 I'm not going to say, “I told you so,” but if Sheldon or anyone else want advice on casual Magic, they are welcome to contact me. I can't promise to be four years ahead on everything . . . I just show up and let the Lord work through me!
4 Shout out to Minotaur Illusionist on Wordpress.
5 If ever there were a card that justified tucking, it is Derevi, Empyrial Tactician, which I consider to be one of the worst-designed cards of all time. However, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to warp the entire format around one stupid card.
6 If you were ever part of the Magic scene in Tokyo, you probably know whom I'm talking about. If not, count yourself lucky.