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Lights, Camera, Commander


I'm an optimistic guy by nature. But all the optimism in the world won't change our reality - for most of us here in the states, it's going to be quite some time before we're back to playing paper Magic with real-life friends or strangers at our local game stores. Large events like Magic Fests are even farther off.

Does that mean we still can't play paper Commander? No, it absolutely does not.

I'd been playing webcam Commander on a regular basis before the COVID-19 pandemic and I've continued that over the past few months (which have felt like approximately 72 years). I know it can seem like an intimidating proposition for those who haven't done it before, but the good news is that if you're able to read this article, you have what you need to put your paper Commander decks to work in some webcam games.

Let's look at what to do - and not to do - as you venture into the world of paper webcam Commander.

Don't Sweat the Technical Details

Even calling it "webcam Commander" can be a bit deceptive, as you don't really need a dedicated webcam. Many laptops have built-in webcams as do all of our smartphones. The same is true for microphones, and we all have lights in our homes. That's it. You're there.

A common fallacy I see is that in order to jam some Commander games online you must have an expensive and fancy top of the line setup. You do not. I've played many games with my laptop wedged in between some boxes, the camera pointing down at my playmat. It's quite literally that simple. The only reason you would need to invest in more professional equipment is if you plan to stream your games, and even then it's not absolutely necessary.

Perhaps the biggest thing to keep in mind is lighting. Again, no need to go all out with hundreds of dollars in lighting equipment. It's more about just manipulating the lights you have already. As a rule, we want to avoid bright lights pointing straight down at our playmats, as that will cause glare. We want lights washing over the whole surface - sticking a lamp a few feet away and level with the table we're using will generally do the trick.

Once you have this all figured out, there are numerous ways to get your friends together. Discord is an ever popular option, but I'm also a huge fan of SpellTable, which was developed by Magic players during the pandemic and features handy life counters, turn indicators and other really useful features.

Oh, Think Twice

Once you figure out the logistics, you'll need to determine whether your decks are webcam-friendly. There are many mechanics and cards that just don't work well when you're playing remotely.

Rise of the Dark Realms

Emrakul, the Promised End
Fact or Fiction
Blatant Thievery

Now, I understand that in some cases the cards we're describing as webcam-unfriendly are going to be key pieces or even win conditions in decks. I get that. But using just the cards above as examples, the issue becomes clear.

Rise of the Dark Realms is fantastic card, one that often ends games when it's successfully cast. When you're sitting at an actual table with your opponents, pulling all the creatures out of everyone's graveyards is no problem; when you're in four different physical locations it becomes a very real problem.

The same is true for Mindslaver - a card I generally despise in Commander anyway, but that's just me - and Emrakul, the Promised End. You can take control of an opponent's turn remotely, but it's far more trouble than it's worth. It generally means either showing the entire table that player's hand or going to private messages and speaking in code ("OK, you're going to cast that third land from the left... no your OTHER left"). It's a massive pain and grinds the game to a halt for the other players.

We've already discussed how Fact or Fiction and cards with similar effects are problematic when playing over webcam. As rough as this is, cards that steal opponent's permanents or allow you to hunt through their libraries are even worse. Blatant Thievery is one of the most egregious examples because it steals things en masse. Now, taking one permanent here or there generally isn't too big of a problem; that's why Soul Seizer has remained in my Sun Quan, Lord of Wu (HORSEYMAN) deck through quarantine. But taking multiple things at once, multiple times per game, generally slows things down and makes things miserable for the table.

Now, all of this having been said - if your playgroup is OK with making things weird and awkward so cards like these can still be played, then go for it!

Patience Rewarded

More than anything else, more than the cards you play and the camera you use, the most important thing to bring to your first webcam Commander game is patience. Whether it's a new experience for the entire "table", or you're the only new one, playing paper Magic online is always going to be a bit weird. That makes sense! This was a game meant to be played by people sitting three feet from one another.

We take a lot for granted. When we're sitting down together in real life and someone plays a card we don't know, we can just... look at it. Or, if they allow us, we can pick it up and read it. We can physically move our creatures to indicate which ones are blocking which attackers. None of that is quite so simple when we're playing via webcam.

So, if this is a new arena (cough) for you, understand going in that you'll have to have patience with the way the games will unfold, and that you're implicitly asking the rest of the group to have patience with you as well. "What does that card do" will be one of the most common things you hear and say during a webcam Commander game, followed closely by "remind me what that card does" and "how big is that creature again". Don't get frustrated with your opponents or with yourself. Just take care of each other as best you can.

And isn't that what we always talk about when it comes to Commander? We all have fun by making sure we all have fun. This isn't quite Magic as Richard Garfield intended because I don't think Garfield had a global pandemic in mind. We were - and are - meant to play this game in close proximity to one another. We're meant to see each other's smiles and laughs and salt-crusted grimaces in real time. But we can't do that right now.

It doesn't mean we can't play Magic, it doesn't mean we can't play Commander, and it doesn't mean we can't have fun doing it. We just have to get creative and be mindful of the reality of the situation.

Speaking of...

Since we mentioned my beloved Horseyman deck a bit earlier, this seemed like a good time to check back in on it and see how it's evolved over the past few months.

We've made quite a few changes, indeed! Explorer's Scope, Nyx Lotus, and Gauntlet of Power have proven extremely helpful in helping this deck ramp more quickly, which it desperately needs with a commander that costs six mana to cast. Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths gave us quite a few fun new toys in Sea-Dasher Octopus, Voracious Greatshark, Ominous Seas, and Reconnaissance Mission. But perhaps the most fun new card I've added lately is Sublime Epiphany. Look at this card!

Sublime Epiphany

It comes with a hefty casting cost, but it can rearrange a game in ways many other spells cannot. I recently used it to counter an opponent's Nissa, Who Shakes the World and bounce an artifact that was about to help kill the entire table in conjunction with that Nissa and got a copy of one of my creatures and drew a card for good measure. It felt so satisfying! I really do love this card and I look forward to it becoming a Commander staple in the years to come.

And boy, does that Maze of Ith ever save my butt... when I remember that I have a Maze of Ith. Which I usually do not.

Vintage Davie.

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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