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I Am an EDH DB – Commander Edition

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Sometimes, it’s a bit strange to look backward. While understanding the past can lend insight to current events, there is much information that’s simply transitory or immediate; the past is full of things that are utterly irrelevant.

The concept I’m dredging back up is not one of those things.

It was in late June 2010 that the #youmightbeanedhdbif (You Might Be an EDH Douchebag If) tag erupted on Twitter. There were a few articles addressing this, including my own here. It was a topic on several podcasts. It lived a surprising long life in the Magic topic arena, pushing several days of Tweet tagging. Then, like most other “issues” that pop up, it died.

Or did it?

A lot has changed in the past year, both within and outside the format. At the time, I had suggested that we all were EDH douchebags. Does that stand today?

A Year in Review

The format formerly known as “Elder Dragon Highlander” is now Commander. More precisely, Wizards worked with the Rules Committee to align the format’s name between paper Magic and Magic Online. There were a lot of good reasons to do this (it was already Commander in MTGO), but that’s not the point here. What this allowed was the release of five paper decks for the format, all of which included brand-new Magic cards.

Aside from the release of new cards in preconstructed decks, the Rules Committee made the decisions to ban Emrakul, the Aeons Torn and to unban Worldgorger Dragon. The former met with modest, though largely positive, discussion; the latter seemed to slide through mostly unnoticed.

It’s been a wild year for our favored format, and it’s grown to ever higher heights. But with attention and popularity comes ever more ways to play it. I had high hopes that the banning of Emrakul and the release of preconstructed decks would help align the perceptions of everyone playing the format.

I’ve been disappointed with the overall experiences I’ve had, though I can say that I’ve been surprised. Players like to play games, but almost every player (at every skill level) plays games to win. Commander, as a whole, is meant to allow activity. You should be able to cast the spells you want. You should be able to create interesting situations. You should be free to explore Commanders and the decks you can build around them.

That openness is dangerous. Like any freedom, it requires responsibility. Here, in the United States, we have freedom to speak virtually however we choose. But the same freedom that lets me share my thoughts is the same freedom that protects speech of ignorance, hate, and bigotry. The dangerous line of black humor lies precisely between the extremes of good and evil. And what is considered good or evil varies over time.

Anyone who has played a lot of Commander knows that, like speech, there are very good and bad things still happening in the community. The question I keep coming back to is this:

Is approaching the game to win opposed to encouraging fun in Commander?

The culture of gameplay in Commander is stretched across a broad spectrum, and the answers for unifying it aren’t any clearer today.

Panel Shop

Last weekend at GenCon, a Commander panel was held that featured many of the top names: Sheldon Menery, Ken Nagle, Mark Gottleib, and Scott Larabee. They answered a few questions, and that short reading is required to understand the next section.

The most important question asked, in my opinion, was this:

Are you planning on keeping the format more of a casual format?

The simple answer was one of reassurance that the format would not become a sanctioned format for tournament. But that isn’t the end of it. The word “casual” comes with a lot of baggage in the Magic community. There’s a lot that’s implied by it, some good things:

  • A gaming focus not immediately and precisely on winning each game
  • Players can expect different, unique cards and interactions to occur
  • Players expect to “do well” by their own measure

But, some not-so-good things are implied as well:

  • Casual players are “worse” players than competitive players
  • Competitive and casual are in opposition to each other
  • If you are playing one way, you cannot play another

These implications aren’t hard-and-fast; that’s the problem with descriptions like “casual” anyway. Since “casual” isn’t in the Comprehensive Rules, unlike the actual rules for the Commander format, there isn’t one way to truly define it.

Yet the entire panel was able to answer an emphatic “Yes!” to the question. Why?

Level 5 judge (and one of the progenitors of the format) Sheldon Menery clarified:

One of the big secrets to keeping things at the level you want them is finding people of the same mindsets as you. If four Spikes want to get together and see who can combo off first, they are more than happy to. It’s what they all want to do. There’s this precarious balance where you have to understand that players are going to play cards that wreck another strategy, but still allow them to play. There is going to be graveyard hate. There is going to be enchantment removal and the like. But there is always a chance to play in those games despite the hate. A good thing to check is body language. If the people you are playing with are clearly not having fun, why would they continue to play?

There’s a lot being said here, and it’s important to break it down:

  • You should find people with the same mindset.
  • There is a balance between things that wreck a strategy in games and allowing all strategies.
  • Players can play despite the hate.
  • How others perceive the game is important.

It seems simple enough to apply these ideas, but even with concerted effort, there are still going to be significant issues.

1. Similar Players

Finding players like you is normally simple: Look around and see who you play with. Your friends and fellow gamers with whom you spend all your time likely agree on, or have significantly similar opinions about, how to play. Creatures and battles, or tutors and synergy? A mix of each? You and your friends have answered all the essential questions of playing together.

The problem isn’t when you have friends to turn to, but when you don’t. Magic Online is notorious for players who seem binary: Either they play wacky, fun, cool, interesting cards, or they have powerful, tuned decks that kill with machine efficiency. That dynamic is all too familiar at larger local game stores (such as the one I frequent) as well.

You don’t always get the choice about who to play with, especially if you want to play right now instead of waiting. Thanks to Internet anonymity, it’s easier than ever before to jump into a game featuring one, or more, of “that guy.”

2. Balance of Hate

One of the most fascinating things that I hear consistently is that players “need” to change their decks to fight something. Too many artifacts or enchantments? Add Disenchant effects. Too many creatures? Add Wrath of God effects. Too many spells? Try Cancel and friends. It sounds so simple for competitive types: If A doesn’t work, add some B that does.

This “need-to-change” approach is wrong. No one in casual Magic should be forced to do anything, and that’s what Sheldon shared. Yes, you may want to have something on hand to handle whatever your opponents throw at you, but it shouldn’t be so stifling that others can’t play what they want.

It’s a very fine, but ambiguous, line between oppression and potential. The ninety-nine-card deck of Commander is meant to facilitate more moments of “I guess that worked this time!” than “My deck stopped yours, as usual.” Having answers isn’t the means; having a theme is.

The problem is that many players instinctively look to maximize a deck’s power. Can I get more value out of these creatures? Can I take out more permanents with these spells? Instead of celebrating the randomness of a deck, players will fight it through and through. Doing this is the first thing drilled into us by competitive players and discussions. While Commander isn’t competitive, our habits are shaped by competitive formats and information-dominance.

3. Play What You Want

Having a theme is vital to exploring Magic: Random cards usually aren’t very exciting. Tribes of creatures, types of spells and effects, or different abilities and functions of permanents can coalesce into a vision of Magic unique to that player. Following what you find fun and different is exactly what Commander is all about.

Yet Commander, as a format, isn’t for everyone. It’s not meant for the ultracompetitive. It’s not meant for those who enjoy the most consistent deck. It’s not meant for those who only care about their own experience when playing. Too often, the idea that “anything goes” is applied to Commander.

That idea is wrong.

The Banned List, in existing, bears this out. Emrakul was an exciting creature who always played a big part in any game she came into. She was also soundly unpleasant to experience if you didn’t cast her. The final decision resulted in that experience being unavailable.

The vision of Commander isn’t purely “play anything” but “play anything without crushing other players.” You can certainly bring the elements of things you enjoy, even land-destruction and mass removal, but you shouldn’t use it to overwhelmingly dominate opponents who will resist but never fully stop you.

4. Others’ Perceptions

Commander isn’t a duel, and it isn’t meant to be played as such. You should have multiple opponents, and their experience matters as much as yours. There’s no dancing around exactly what Sheldon said in the quote above. The answer to a follow-up question on one-on-one play sealed it explicitly.

Despite what Commander is set up to be, there are those who insist on things their way. Unfortunately, that “my way” path is born of the “play what you want” principle above. Detangling the two concepts is impossible, and it’s this gray area where most of the trouble lies.

“Those who don’t care about how others perceive the games of Commander they play” and “those who bring the most powerful and painful decks to inflict upon opponents” may not always be the same players, but they all too often are. If you don’t care about opponents, why would you carefully construct a deck with them in mind?

Systemic Failure

The growth of Commander has permitted it to become an accepted and consistent part of Magic diets. You can expect decks and games at every event, and players are willing to play. There’s a lot of goodwill to be found.

But the issues that caused the community to erupt a year ago are not only still there, but more intense than before. As the popularity increases, so does discussion. When players discuss Magic, it’s more often strategy than entertainment. Magic is a smart game full of decisions; to say that we shouldn’t talk about them is silly, and I wouldn’t propose that.

But being an “EDH douchebag” is easier, and I’d argue more common, than ever before. The format is built to be reasonably accommodating, so it’s no wonder there aren’t any stop points for those who would break things for others. Even more confusing is that what those break points are can vary from player to player.

“Finding people of the same mindset as you” is possible at the local level, but trying to do that at larger events full of random players is a fool’s errand. If you attend an event where Commander is an event that can be played for prize, such as a Star City Games Open, take some time to observe the Commander played there. Turn-four kills are common, generally expected, and completely unrepresentative of the experience expressed through local play and the Commander decks released.

The opportunity lies for the community to push back and better define what’s acceptable. But to actually do so would destroy that open-ended feeling of Commander. We can’t have our cake and eat it too; there’s just too much strength in Commander for that to happen. It’s a social contract, and that’s not something that can be “fixed” as we see it.

I’ve taken active steps to stop being an “EDH douchebag,” but Commander players on the whole have taken steps to have “better” decks, “better” cards, and “better” answers. There’s been a lot of good movement, and there are certainly more fun players to engage than ever before. But the same issues and players that were causing trouble before are still here. The changes haven’t deterred or changed the minds of others.

Players are out there who approach Commander with the primary goal of winning, and the longer we accept this, the harder it’s going to be to stop.

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