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26 Decks in a Year, Week 27 — Social Contract


Surprise! It’s the twenty-seventh article in a twenty-six-article series. Way back at the beginning, some people suggested I do a twenty-seventh—colorless—deck for $75, so I present that deck today. But, as Jason Alt says, it’s my column, and I’d like to talk about some things I’ve learned over the past year.

Commander players like to talk about the “social contract” of the format. Sheldon Menery, Rules Committee member and a godfather of Commander, wrote a well-known article about the subject. Our own managing editor—and the Mothership’s Command Tower author—Adam Styborski has written extensively about it as well.

Collective Restraint
Before we continue, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page about what a “social contract” is; then, I’d like to share some thoughts I’ve had while working on this series.

Basically, a social contract is an agreement among some group of people to give up some rights in order to protect other rights. I give up the right to kill you, you do, too, and we don’t kill each other. Less macabre, I give up the right to cut in front of you in line at the bank, and so do you. The rich history to the social contract is worth a read if you’re curious.

The social contract of Commander, as stated by most folks who talk about it, has four major points:

  • Intend to play friendly. Don’t hate people out, pick, or be degenerate.
  • Allow everyone to play. Don’t shut people out of the game or not let them do anything.
  • Don’t take things personally. If someone counters your spell, let it roll off your back. Don’t carry things outside of this game, and don’t get mad about it.
  • Look at the game from a third-person point of view. Consider what it would be like for anyone sitting across the table from you. Would you be having fun playing against you right now?

Sheldon describes Commander as being “all-welcoming but not all-inclusive.” He concludes anyone is welcome to try, but super-Spikes, griefers, and jerks should find another format.

I disagree.

I think Commander can be all-inclusive. Every type of player can find a deck she loves and play it, and everyone can find a group to play with. I think people whose idea of a good time is to lock down the board with Trinisphere and Moat and protect an imprinted Mana Drain on Isochron Scepter should be allowed to play Commander, and they shouldn’t be told they’re doing it wrong.

Isochron Scepter
Not to mention, the social contract isn’t working. If it were, we wouldn’t all have stories about miserable games in which we wind up watching someone take thiry-minute turns. A lot of people still play Commander who enjoy locking others out of the game, reliably comboing off on turn five, running Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur, or any number of other sins that break the social contract. Sure, we say the social contract doesn’t mean don’t win or don’t play good cards, but then we turn around and tell people not to play good cards that win.

There’s a lot of discussion about how every group will do it differently, and we have to communicate to set accurate expectations. If you’re visiting a shop in an unfamiliar town and you’re used to someone saying on turn-one, “Sol Ring, Sensei's Divining Top, activate Top, go,” tell people that’s the kind of deck you play against normally so you don’t wind up crushing a group of strangers who are used to doing nothing until turn five. Similarly, if your idea of fun is to resolve Titanic Ultimatum with one hundred Plant tokens on the battlefield sometime around hour three, let people know so you don’t get locked out by Sharuum the Hegemon on turn two and spend the rest of the hour watching the artifact player combo off. Absolutely, talk to each other. Set those expectations. Do your best.

But that sometimes doesn’t happen. Sometimes, you’re about to start a three-player game when someone you’ve only met once—at a Draft—shows up at your LGS for Commander Night. He asks to join, he’s polite, and you like him, so you say sure. Maybe you have to read Rasputin Dreamweaver when he reveals his commander, but how bad could it be? Then it turns out this person has been playing nonstop since 1993, has a collection worth well over $50,000 and every card in existence, and has built a freight train of a control deck that beats everyone with a 1/1 flyer over the course of one hundred twenty turns, each of which he’ll make you take.

Rasputin Dreamweaver
This player isn’t doing anything wrong. This is how he wants to play. He’s having a blast making his deck do exactly what he built it to do. He’s having fun, so let him! It might not be fun for you. Okay. Let the fact that someone else is getting to have fun be the good thing you’re doing today. You lose an hour or two of your life to make someone else’s day. I can think of worse uses of an hour. When the game is over, stick out your hand, tell him the deck is amazing (it probably is), tell him you loved seeing it work and that you never want to play against it again. Say it with a smile, and let him know it’s okay once. If he wants to join again, he can bring a new deck more in line with what your group normally does.

Similarly, if you look up after agonizing over how to make your combo work for twenty minutes and see bored, frustrated, even angry faces, take note and acknowledge it. Don’t apologize for being who you are, but own your choices—you built the deck, after all. Saying, “Man, guys, I didn’t realize this deck wasn’t going to work with this group like this! Tell you what. Let’s finish up this game—I hope you’ll like seeing what this does because I worked on it for a long time—and next time, I’ll have a different deck where the turns don’t take nearly so long. Cool?” goes a long way.

Because, ultimately, as a social format, Commander is about being with your friends. Big tournaments, even Friday Night Magic Drafts, are more about winning than anything else. Sure, some people play them just for fun, and we absolutely can make friends during tournament play, but it’s mostly about winning. Commander, on the other hand, is mostly about being with friends or making new ones. And if friendship is the goal, let’s be good friends. Sometimes, being a friend means doing things that aren’t immediately fun for us—we help our friends move, we talk them through it when they have break ups or lose someone important, and we give them rides when their cars break down. So why wouldn’t we let them play decks we’d rather not play against all the time?

Sol Ring
I’m not advocating never having any fun for the sake of others. You may give them rides, but you don’t drop out of school to become their chauffer. They have fun comboing out with Doubling Season or whatever. You tell them it’s awesome and to play something else next time. They do it because you’re their friend, too, or you go on being friends but you don’t play Commander together anymore, each finding a group with a compatible play style.

Do I want everyone to play with the intent of being friendly? Yes! We can all strive to be good people—polite, positive, good losers, and humble winners. I’ve regularly tried to make the decks in this column fun for the whole table. But I don’t think we have to tell a big percentage of the Magic-playing community they should just go find a different format. Some people want to play Hythonia the Cruel. Others want to add Sol Ring and Solemn Simulacrum to our Brago, King Eternal deck just to make it that much more powerful. Let’s embrace our differences, act like adults, and let everyone have fun the way they want to. Celebrate your best buddy’s finally getting Thragtusk on a Mimic Vat, your new friend’s mill deck actually getting there for the first time, and your pulling a game out of the fire with a lucky top-deck of Sever the Bloodline.

I also strongly suggest trying new things. We’re with friends, and friends are who we get to try things out with, so do it! If you like big, rampy green decks, have your control player friend help you build a Grixis control deck and play it. If you’re an ueber-Spike who only plays the most optimized version of everything, give yourself a strict theme or a severe budget for deck-building or build around a terrible legend. Build decks designed for different levels and styles, and play them all. Take amazing cards out of your decks intentionally, and tweak your decks all the time. You’ll learn more about why people like different things, and you’ll have more options when you sit down with a group. Rather than placing the responsibility on someone else to make your experience good, take that responsibility yourself.

So I propose a new “social contract.”

Contract from Below

  • Be honest with others and yourself about your intentions. Talk about those intentions before the game starts whenever possible.
  • Be respectful and polite in every game, even if it is miserable for you. Remember someone else is enjoying herself, and be glad to let her. Afterward, tell her you’re happy she had fun and if she wants to play with you again, ask her to bring a different deck more in line with your style.
  • Play every game of Commander as if you’re playing against your friends, and prioritize that. If someone is making you miserable, remember he’s having fun, and helping a friend have fun is a good way to spend time. If you’re making your friends miserable, own that, and let them know you didn’t mean to and won’t do it again, whether that means building or bringing a different deck or finding a different playgroup.
  • Try new things! Build decks outside of your comfort zone. Change your decks around frequently, and not just to up the power level. Consider swapping decks with a friend for a game.
  • Don’t take things personally. If someone counters your spell, let it roll off your back. Don’t carry things outside of this game, and don’t get mad about it. (I stole this one from the original, but it seems good.)

If all you want to do is Tooth and Nail for Mike and Trike, get down with your bad self. You’re not going against the spirit of the format. Just do me a favor and play a different deck when you play against me, okay?

Thoughts? Disagreements? Stories? Please share them in the comments. I’m very curious what people think about this proposal.

And lest you worried I forgot, here’s that colorless deck. One could do a $75 deck with Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre or even Kozilek, Butcher of Truth (since their reprintings in Modern Masters (2015 Edition)), but it’d be tough to have them have a plan other than, “Ramp to Eldrazi. Play Eldrazi. Repeat.” That seems like less fun than a deck in which machines come alive.

Karn, Silver Golem ? Commander | Mark Wischkaemper

  • Commander (0)

Total cost: $74.90

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