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Social Contracts and Magic - A Fantastic Mess


A Fantastic Mess

There are a lot of things that are awesome about Magic.  While I'm sure our lists will differ, or be completely devoid of overlap, we can all agree Magic is amazing.  I'm not sure if you've stopped to think about it but part of what makes Magic so good is that all of the views and perspectives on the game  continue to shape an influence the overall product.

While Feedback Week this week at DailyMTG.com is showing how the individual is heard, it's the broader culture behind Magic that makes the big shifts happen.  Like social movements in the world of politics and nations, some of these shifts are awkward, rough, or unrefined.  When Magic discussion on Usenet dumped the world of individual deck builders and secret deck lists for the playing ground of known variables and constantly updating information the cry of “net decking” started.

That division, one of principles versus practicality, primal activity versus prescient preparation, still carries on today well over a decade later.

It's clear that the “correct” answer for some beliefs is merely choosing the value you desire.  Building original decks isn't tough, building original decks that consistently perform well competitively at the local level is much more difficult, and building original decks that perform well competitively at the highest levels is extremely challenging.  Starting with a vetted baseline is often the result of smart planning rather than more mundane or sinister approaches.

But I'm not here today to jump into those murky waters but to trudge into a similarly muddy realm: the “social contract” and Magic gameplay.

An Obligatory Shout Out

In case you've missed it thus far, Yo! MTG Taps is a pretty awesome Magic podcast.  While you may be quick to judge me biased (and I am a little) Magic luminaries such as Mike Flores and Patrick Chapin have voiced similar appreciation.

I recently had a quick interview with Joe where we discussed EDH and the social contract aspect of gaming.  If you've taken to moment to listen to that there's a follow up that's also worth reading: Alexander Shearer's unofficial liner notes for that episode.  Which brings me today: talking about how awesome Alex is.

Well, not exactly, but close enough.  I really enjoy reading opinions and views that are pretty disparate from mine: it helps me both understand my own view better as well as challenges me to reconsider things I may be taking for granted.  While it's clear that I'm not competitive in a real sense of the word, Alex admits that he loves the structured world of competitive environments.  We're from polar opposites of the Magic spectrum but find a surprising amount of common ground.

Good communication, as a player and Magic community member, naturally results in clarity: you actually slow down and explain what you see going on.  Most Magic sites on the internet are devoted quite well to this type of review through the prism of improving competition and better understanding the min/max of a particular environment.  If you're reading this I would bet you play more competitively than I do – it's the nature of your level of investment in the game that brings your focus to reading articles online.

It's the fact that the casual players at your local game store aren't reading articles online, aren't actively exploring the boundaries of their competitive tolerance, and aren't always searching for the path to maximum power for their decks that put them at odds with those invested in the competitive realms.  When I write I'm speaking to the invested players who, I'm betting, aren't necessarily in agreement with me or share my perspective on things: I'm challenging you to think and make a more informed choice.

Alex makes his choices clear and punctuates them with examples.  But I don't believe his examples are entirely descriptive of circumstances.

The Long and the Short of It

Alex played off two of my statements (You DID listen to the podcast and read his stuff, right?), the first being an example of social rules:

The accepted social rules in competitive play - such as the idea that you're likely to concede to an opponent if a win keeps them in contention but a win does nothing for you - are similar to the "don't eat food and touch my cards" social rules in casual play.

In contrast, the other social rules of casual play, such as "Don't counter too many of my spells" or "Don't play cards that let you take extra turns" are like an unspoken version of the Tournament Rules. In fact, running afoul of these invisible rules of casual play often has a first-blush similarity to running afoul of a tournament rule:


Player A - "Judge!"

Player B - "What?"

Player A - "My opponent missed her Dark Confidant trigger."


Player A - "Dude! That's so uncool. I didn't know you were like that."

Player B - "What?"

Player A - "We don't do land destruction here, 'cause it sucks."

The chief difference is that the Magic Tournament Rules are written down, so there's a unified place everyone can go to learn about them before they ever go to a competitive event (and recall that you're really talking about PTQs or higher before this will really, really be an issue).

I think this mischaracterizes what I meant: specifically, tournament rules are analogous to format restrictions.  Playing Damnation in Standard is like a rare in a Pauper deck, or playing Ancestral Recall in Legacy is like Tolarian Academy in Elder Dragon Highlander: the format specifically excludes cards based on a characteristic of that card or has made a determination that specific cards are to be excluded.

If a missed trigger occurs in a casual game it can be handled in a variety of ways and it depends upon the circumstances and rules level of the group to determine that.  Surprisingly, it works the same way in tournament rules since the actual enforcement and application of penalties depends upon several vague factors:

  • Is this FNM, a PTQ, or day 2 at a GP?
  • What was the player's intent?
  • What was the opposing player's intent?
  • How have these situations been handled previously?

Yes, there are things that will result in automatically receiving the highest penalty (disqualification from the event or DCI suspension) outright, but many of these are the same in the casual world (kicked out of the game or refusal to play games in the future): blatant cheating, violence and threats, and grievous social infractions.

When I spoke about the unknown environment of the tournament scene, I was referring to things outside the tournament rules.  Conceding when you are dead but your opponent gets in.  Taking proper notes and marking life total changes.  Working collectively with a group to improve your team's skill.Maintaining respect and dignity, for both you and fellow players.

These are things that must be explained, demonstrated, and shared with those rising in levels in competition.  The reasoning behind such practices and expectations may seem obvious, but you're likely already familiar with logic.  If you've never considered the implications, applications, and information from documenting life changes and causes it's going to be an eye-opening experience.

The culture of Magic is myriad and clarity on the essence thereof keeps from pushing people away from the game.  Alex's example oversimplifies the general guidelines of casual groups into established yet hidden rules.  Whether it's demanding “to play it out” when you're dead or throwing Strip Mine + Crucible of World into every deck, the boundaries of reason aren't being followed.

Strip Mine is restricted in Vintage, the format where the most explosive mana accelerators in the game still live.  Why would reusing it turn after turn seem like a good idea?

Which brings me to my second point from Alex: it IS a good idea.  Recurring Strip Mine will win games, which is why it's restricted in Vintage (along with Ancestral Recall, Time Walk, and other powerful goodies): it's too good.

Alex points out that a social contract can be about anything.  This is empirically true.  The problem is that Alex glossed over that I wasn't picking my definition of social contract at random: I was pulling my terms directly from the public face of EDH, Sheldon Menery:

I think that one of the points that Bennie struggled to make is that DBAD doesn't mean "don't prevent other people from playing the stuff they want," it's "don't prevent other people from playing." There's a subtle but significant difference.

Sheldon goes on, as I don't need to, in agreement with Alex that social contracts are messy and sometimes a little unclear or idiosyncratic.  However, they aren't lacking for definition.  To claim that social contracts are vague is doing a disservice to the extremely orderly and consistently uniform social structure of the Japanese.

While I'll admit that pointing to the Japanese is a bit unfair but my point is that a high degree of consistency is possible with concerted social buy-in and effort.  But, as Alex points out:

The problem with this is that it means that someone who is in a position to dramatically outperform you - say by being a more experienced player, or simply owning more cards - has to then choose to suck by some ill-defined amount to give you that experience.

I own a lot of cards.  I have a slowly growing, but well-formed, pool of Magic playing experience.  My best friend, and fellow Magic player, has neither.  Magic is about as casual as it gets for him, aside from some modestly successful forays into drafting at an occasional FNM.  My EDH decks are often unintentionally a notch above his: dual lands, card access, and experience cause this.  It's unavoidable.

So while we will get our EDH and bring out our big guns I love the same structures Alex does: cube draft and Limited in general is often much more stable, leveling the inherent, unavoidable differences we have a players.  It helps my cube is a total riot to play.

And that's where my ultimate point lies.  Aside from a simultaneous push from every level and player of Magic organizing consistency for every group to have the same social contract, the real means for change is from individual players being introspective.  I used to advocate “playing down” but I know understand the problem: it's basically telling a Spike to not be Spike.  Asking other players to change is an exercise in futile social discourse (and can cause a difference of views to become something much more raw and polarizing that it ever should be).

But by changing your own perspective, rethinking your approach, and finding the solutions that bridge the gaps between the individual differences in players, you'll move closer to the best Magic you'll ever have the chance to play.

And, yes, my buddy has stomped the daylights out of me in Limited.  Sometimes it's the Inferno Titan he got to pick up in color, other times it's me misreading and incorrectly building my deck.  But it makes me happy when I know that, from time to time, my “best” hits a ceiling that isn't always higher than someone else's.  Losing sucks – for sure – but looking for the highlights elsewhere, including the smile sof your friends, isn't so dissimilar from trying to understand “What went wrong?” as you're making the most of things.

I'm a Social Timmy – and if you're a Spike let me tell you that it's a completely different world down here under the ceiling.  It's worth the trip down to places there it's naturally lower.

At least think about it – and make your own choice.

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