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Thieves of Commander Joy


Magic is a game. Commander is a format within Magic and, in many ways, a game unto itself. We play games to have fun. To experience joy. That, of course, takes a different form for everyone. But universally, when our joy is less than full, our experience is less than ideal.

In a game with so many variables - the players at the table, the commanders and their decks just scratch the surface - it's inevitable that not every game is going to be perfect for every player. When that happens, it calls for some self-reflection. Why didn't I have as much fun as I wanted? What didn't go according to plan?

What - or who - stole my joy?

I have my own thieves of Commander joy, to be sure. But I was curious how other people saw it so I threw the question out to the Twitter world. Almost 200 replies and retweets later I'm seeing exactly what I suspected I'd see - an almost impossibly large variety of things that ruin Commander players' fun.

Just My Luck

We rely on luck quite a bit in Commander. Even the most optimized decks, filled with tutors and ramp and mana fixing, can sputter if the right pieces don't end up in our hands at the right times. So, I wasn't shocked to see numerous people say that getting mana screwed was the thief of their joy.

I was, however, pleasantly surprised to see a few people respond that their opponents getting mana screwed was a bummer. That warms my heart so much. As much as it gets me down to miss my land drops and have to discard to hand size while everyone else is happily on curve, it always makes me sad to see an opponent struggling while I'm prospering. That's why I always, without reservation or hesitation, have an opponent go tutor for a basic land when it's clear they've fallen deeply behind the rest of the table.

I do that because, as I've said and will say until my dying breath, Commander is a format in which the goal is for everyone to have fun. Watching an opponent - very likely a friend - spin their wheels because the luck of the draw isn't in their favor isn't fun for me, and I know for sure it's not fun for them. Little things like allowing opponents to go get a land so they can climb back onto the right path are easy ways to help foster the kind of experience every game of Commander can and should be.

Hell is Other People

This leads me to the next set of reactions I got, citing players and their actions as thieves of joy. There's no small irony in the fact that someone said "people playing stax" right around the same time someone else said "people not letting me play stax". I even saw one that decried people acting as "fun police".

This is a more complicated issue than it needs to be, frankly. Rule 0 exists for this exactly. It's there to help push players to communicate with each other so that everyone at a given table knows what to expect out of the experience and, importantly, to consent to the kind of game that's about to be played. To me, there isn't a whole lot of difference between classic pubstomping - when someone drops an oppressive deck on three unsuspecting opponents - and a player deciding to use a deck anyway, even when the rest of the table said it's not what they're looking for.

Rule 0 is not, I'm confident, meant to empower anyone to be any kind of "fun police". More to the point, if you tell your opponents you want to play your hard stax or mass discard or turn three infinite combo deck and the opponents say they'd rather you not, they're not policing your fun, they're doing exactly what Commander wants us all to do - talk to each other and work together to craft a Magic experience that everyone can enjoy. There's a pod for you to play that stax deck you love so much - but it might not be my pod. It's not personal, it's not prejudicial, it's not malevolent.

There are some Magic formats where players don't actually play with each other, they race against the clock or RNG. Commander isn't one of them. Commander isn't just four-player Legacy by design. It is multiplayer in the truest sense of the word. That means everyone has the right to have a good time - and, therefore, that it's ok if any given assemblage of four random players aren't necessarily compatible with one another.

And ultimately, it's better for everyone if a Rule 0 discussion determines that one or more players aren't a fit for that pod ahead of time. Playing a game that I know won't be fun for me and/or for the others at the table is far more likely to ruin my day.

Hell is Also Sometimes Cards

I wasn't the slightest bit surprised to see specific cards named as thieves of Commander joy, and even less surprised to see them named multiple times each. You can guess some of them off the top of your head, I'm quite sure.

Opposition Agent
Cyclonic Rift

See? You were right!

Cyclonic Rift has long been at or near the top of many Commander players' naughty lists. I'd have dropped dead if it hadn't shown up at least once as an answer to my question.

Hullbreacher and Opposition Agent, though, are both just a couple of months old, having been thrust upon us in Commander Legends. The salt was real with this pair, and it remains real. While certainly each of these cards can be played in not-terrible ways, they all have the potential to very easily create unfun play patterns that can absolutely ruin someone's day.

I can't fathom how many tens of thousands of words have been spilled by Magic content creators about Cyclonic Rift, so I'll keep my thoughts brief. It's powerful, it's asymmetrical and it's easy to use in a way that irritates the hell out of the table while not actually helping its controller all that much. It shouldn't be banned.

Opposition Agent and Hullbreacher, meanwhile, sparked my ire the moment each was spoiled. It's not so much the cards themselves that bother me - though they do bother me quite a bit - it's what they represent: A fundamental misunderstanding of what the bulk of Commander players want out of this format. Most of us aren't cEDH players. Most of us don't play to win at all costs. Most of us aren't able or willing to fully optimize every card in every deck to ensure that every card drawn and played on every turn is the optimal play.

And yet over the past few years we've seen Wizards of the Coast print cards like Hullbreacher and Opposition Agent that feel to me like not so much a nudge but a forceful shove in the direction of highly tuned, highly competitive zero sum Commander play. There's an audience for that, to be sure; I'm not it and I know an awful lot of players aren't it, either.

But the cards exist and, for the moment, they're not banned - I'm not even sure they should be - so we have to coexist with them. That's where good old Rule 0 comes in again. These are the kinds of cards worth discussing with a pod before starting a game. Some players won't want to play a game with certain cards they find unfun. In other cases, players are creative enough to use them in ways that don't create prohibitively unfun play patterns - making that clear before the game begins will go a long way toward avoiding those bad feelings we all want to avoid.

I'd also like to point out something here. Last week, I took Smothering Tithe to Judge Davie's Court and heard from numerous players who'd love nothing more than to sentence that card to eternal torment on the Klingon prison planet of Rura Penthe. But the funny thing is, just three days later, not a single person named Smothering Tithe as a thief of Commander joy.

I'm not sure what that means. I just found it interesting.

No Shortage of Joy

Magic is a game. Commander is a game within that game. Games are meant to be fun, and for all the things that bug us there are so many more things that bring us joy when we play Commander.

It's not a perfect format; Magic is far, far from a perfect game. Perfection, as has so often been said, is the enemy of good. There is no format in Magic more conducive to fun than Commander.

In the end, while I have no problem pointing out flaws and leveling criticism when it's called for, when it comes time to actually sit down and play Commander I choose to focus my energy in a positive direction. Even if my deck doesn't perform, if I do get mana screwed or flooded or my engine never gets running, I can almost always find joy in what someone else is doing - some unique interaction I've never seen, or a hilarious play no one saw coming.

Even if a Hullbreacher shows up and rains salt water on me, the table talk will surely bring me joy. A good "what is THAT card" moment always makes me smile. Good-natured joking and smartypants remarks at each other's expense help create memories that last beyond the game itself. And maybe, just maybe, my deck will DO THE THING in the coolest, best possible way and I'll have something to brag about on Twitter.

There's joy around every corner in Commander - far more than any one thief could ever steal. We just have to be looking for it, even when thieves are on the prowl.

Dave is a Commander player currently residing in Reno, NV. When he's not badly misplaying his decks, he works as a personal trainer. You can bother him on Twitter and check out his Twitch channel.

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