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What is Fun? Mainly, Don't Hurt Me


Imagine this. You're sitting at home on a Friday night when a friend lets you know that a group of your buddies are going out for dinner, and asks if you'd like to join. You ask where they're going - a sushi place. Well, you like your friends just fine but you don't like sushi at all. You ask if there's any chance the group would consider getting pizza or Mexican food instead. Alas, everyone's got their heart set on sushi. Spending the evening with your friends does sound like fun, but watching everyone else eat a food you don't enjoy doesn't sound like very much fun at all.

Should your entire group of friends change their plans because a single person doesn't dig the choice of cuisine? Should you be upset if they don't? Should the group be upset with you for even asking? Should no one go to dinner at all because one person won't eat the food?

This is the essence of Rule 0 in Commander, and the nature of a recurring bugaboo that surrounds it. And lately I've seen much debate over the concept of what "fun" means in that context, namely, who gets to decide what's fun and what's not, and should one person's idea of what's fun and unfun dictate how an entire table plays?

Point: The Needs of the Many

Commander is a multiplayer social format. Whether you're playing highly tuned decks in an intensely competitive playgroup or shuffling up preconstructed decks right out of the box, there is a social contract that governs the experience.

Yes, there really is a social contract, despite what I hear all the time. Even and especially in cEDH, as we've explored here in the past, Commander provides for a social gaming experience in which all players understand and accept certain conditions and realities. If in your pods you insist that everyone draw seven cards until they have a keepable hand, you've just made an amendment to the social contract - throwing out the "standard" mulligan rules in favor of your own. The same goes if you treat certain banned cards as if they're not banned, and ban others that aren't on the official ban list. There is a social contract in place for every single game in order to try and ensure that everyone at the table has fun.

The term "social contract" has begun to take on a life of its own as Commander has continued to explode in popularity. Much like the word "casual", it's been suffused with a somewhat negative connotation. We can call it whatever we want, but in each and every game of Commander players share certain expectations and understandings about what they're about to do together. That's a social contract.

It's also the entire underpinning of Commander and has been since its infancy. So, when it comes to defining the scope and nature of the social contract and where the concept of fun and unfun fits into that, there's a strong argument to be made that we're firmly in Vulcan logic territory here, that the needs of the many do, indeed, outweigh the needs of the one. It's a multiplayer game, after all; if we can't guarantee that every single player will have maximum fun in every single game of Commander they ever play - which, I am sad to report, we cannot guarantee - then shouldn't the priority be to ensure that as many people as possible have fun, even if one person doesn't?

Let's go back to the dinner analogy. If I'm the person who doesn't love sushi and the group isn't willing to go somewhere else, the "needs of the many" argument would suggest that I should simply shrug my shoulders and continue on with my evening as if the sushi invitation had never come, or alternatively, that I meet everyone at the sushi place anyway and try to choke down a California roll or two despite knowing for sure I won't enjoy it. A larger group of people has decided it would be fun to get sushi. I, the outlier, don't find that fun. Do I go along with it and not rain on everyone's parade, or politely decline and do my own thing?

Counterpoint: It's My Life

On the other hand, many would argue that while, yes, Commander is a multiplayer format, we're all individuals and each person at the table is entitled to their share of fun - any way they can get it. It's hard to argue too strenuously against that, I'm finding, because Commander requires a significant investment of several precious resources - time, money, emotional energy and more.

If I'm asked to spend two or three hours (or more) playing Commander with people, why shouldn't I be able to have fun the way I want to? My time is just as valuable as everyone else's. I could be doing any number of other things with that time, I've already spent time building my fun decks and jeez, it sure would be nice to actually get to play them without the "fun police" getting in my way.

Yes, Commander is multiplayer. Yes, it's a social format - we chat and laugh and joke and it's all very delightful - but each individual player at a table is just that: an individual. It's a rare day when every member of Congress or every United Nations country agrees unanimously on something, and Commander players are no different. It's not often you'll find total universal consensus on anything about this format. So, then, why bother trying to find it when four unique personalities sit down around a table to play together?

So, what if player B doesn't like counter magic? Player A gets an absolute thrill from countering everything in sight. Player C giggles out loud every time they make their opponents discard their entire hand; never mind that player D hates mass discard more than anything else in Magic.

Tough circles to square, for sure. Everyone at the table has the right to have an enjoyable time - lest we forget, this is a game - and one person's fun shouldn't come at the expense of another's.

If this Davie jerk is right and Commander is really about making sure everyone at the table has fun, then why am I getting the stink eye when I pull out my Land Destruction Tribal deck? This *is* how I have fun!

The Answer: Stuck in the Middle

It shouldn't come as a galloping shock that the answer here is, as it so often is, somewhere in the middle.

First, let me address the notion of "fun police", because I've been hearing that more and more. There is no such thing - or at least there shouldn't be. We're not meant to be kindergarten teachers, wagging our fingers in disappointment at each other. "Now, Billy, you know you weren't supposed to bring that stax deck. Give it to me. You'll get it back in June."

That ain't it.

Rule 0 does not empower anyone to police each other's fun. Rule 0 does not empower anyone to stand up, slap the table and make sweeping declarations about how the game is going to go, about what's allowed and what's not. Rule 0 does not empower anyone to have any kind of power over anyone else. Players who behave that way while invoking Rule 0 have completely missed the point.

What the social contract does provide for is an avenue for discussion and a means to reach a compromise among a group of people who do not necessarily share a single, unified definition of what it means for a Commander game to be fun. We tend to deal in absolutes - a game must include this and must not include that. We should stop that.

I've been guilty of this on many occasions. I don't like stax or mill or mass land destruction, among other things. In the past, I'd thoughtlessly say, "no stax at my tables". The key word there is "thoughtlessly", because when you do stop and think about it, "stax" means different things to different people in different contexts. When I stopped and thought about it lately, I realized that I don't really have as much of a problem with taxing effects as I do with resource denial; I don't mind paying more for stuff as much as I mind not having the ability to pay for anything at all. So, it isn't as simple as "no stax".

By the same token, there's nothing inherently wrong with a player saying they have a specific deck they really want to play. We do spend a lot of time and expend quite a bit of thought putting our decks together and continue to do so whenever new cards arrive that may have a place in them. It doesn't feel good to find out that this deck I'm proud of and excited about doesn't have a place at the table.

That's why we have to talk. That's why we have to be willing to compromise. Quite often we declare things to be unfun without really knowing for sure because we don't allow ourselves to find out. Not too long ago, I talked about a game in which I might have been tempted to throw up my hands and scream, "THIS IS NOT FUN I QUIT!" But I didn't. I hung in there, played the game that was in front of me - which wasn't necessarily the one I expected coming in - and ended up having a lot of fun.

We need to draw fewer lines in the sand, because sand can be manipulated. No two sand dunes are the same. Mass land destruction is a great example. Long considered a prime example of a strategy that's patently unfun in Commander, the reality is that it isn't always that way. If mass land destruction leads directly to that player winning the game, what's the problem? That's just as fair and valid a win condition as anything else, despite what we've been conditioned to believe. The same is true for mill and stax and infect and combos and everything else - there is, almost universally, a place for anything at any given Commander table so long as we talk about it.

But what happens when the discussion yields no compromise and we find ourselves in that sushi scenario, where one person absolutely refuses to play a certain way and the rest absolutely refuse not to? If no one is willing to give and compromise, then this particular assemblage of players was never meant to be. Sure, the non-sushi-lover could grit their teeth and just go with the flow. Maybe they'd end up having fun, maybe they wouldn't.

They don't have to.

Each of us is perfectly within our rights to say, "You know what, this just isn't gonna work for me. Thanks for the invite, but I'm gonna step out." There doesn't need to be any hard feelings or personal attacks associated with that - we don't need to start ranting about fun police and all that - and the rest of the group shouldn't have to go on the defensive and start firing back. Commander is a multiplayer format predicated on everyone at the table having as much fun as possible. Sometimes, a given group of players won't be able to reach a consensus or compromise on a way for them all to have fun. That's not fun policing, it's just how it goes sometimes.

However - and this is a big however - the social contract and Rule 0 are not instruments of gatekeeping and exclusion and shouldn't be used as such. Having a discussion and deciding that someone, or something, doesn't fit at the table is one thing; weaponizing the social nature of the format to turn Commander tables into high school cafeteria tables is another. If your Rule 0 talk is three seconds long and consists of, "Mill? Get out," you're doing Rule 0 wrong. Those "eww, you can't sit with us" moments should stay in high school where they belong.

In 51 weeks of writing about Commander here, I've written about the concept of fun in Commander a lot. I think that's because, with so many of us spending more time online consuming content and interacting with the community these days, it feels like enjoying this game sometimes becomes an afterthought. We spend more time trying to prove that we're right and someone else is wrong, or pontificating about how our social contract is better than your social contract, or that something is definitively, universally, irredeemably unfun while another thing that a lot of people dislike is just fine.

I'll keep writing about fun in Commander for as long as it takes. This is a game. Let's all, myself included, try to remember that.

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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