A View of Fort Putnam by Thomas Cole (1825). Goblin War Drums by Wayne Reynolds.
I've been playing Commander twice a week for years, on Saturdays in our local Commander league and on Tuesday nights. The former is where we encourage players to play whatever deck they like, no matter how oppressive or strong it might be. The latter is what we offhandedly call "casual night".
Having a night devoted to playing Commander that is generally considered "casual" might seem really lame to some of you. One might assume we aggressively push back against anyone wanting to play a high tier deck, a combo, or maybe even a counterspell. The reality couldn't be further from the truth, but it also demands a certain amount of explanation.
Before I launch into how I approach and think about casual play, I should first include a caveat.
While I run our league, help to organize our Tuesday night games, and write on a weekly basis about this amazing format, my opinion doesn't hold any more weight in our meta than anyone else's opinion. Whatever influence I might have is generally based upon my ability to put forth persuasive, cogent arguments, but there are times when I'm wrong and times when I can even be wildly off base.
If my approach to casual play makes sense for you and your playgroup, I'd encourage you to share this column with your friends and see if it can help you find common ground. If not, so long as your group is having fun and you’re not losing players because of power level and competitiveness issues, that’s really what matters.
My Three Golden Rules of Casual Play
I tried to keep them pretty straightforward.
Simple stuff, right?
Let's dig into each of these rules and see if I really mean what I say.
Play Whatever You Want
Whatever I want?
Can I play Griselbrand?
Can I play Spike, Tournament Grinder?
Can I play a Yu-gi-oh deck or a Pokemon deck???
If your table has no objections, then yes - you should play whatever you like.
If they’re good sports, I’d hope they would let you have your fun, even if it’s only for one game.
I can’t think of anything more casual than having a salt shaker as your commander. It would have a zero CMC, would have no power, no toughness, no abilities, no supertype, no subtype, or even any color identity. It’s not a creature so it wouldn’t die while on the battlefield.
As there are no rules for casting a salt shaker I would assume you could move it from your command zone to the battlefield at sorcery speed unless you had a Vedalken Orrery or Leyline of Anticipation out. At this point we’re just making stuff up, and in a casual format if everyone is having fun, that’s all that really matters.
If a friend of mine wanted to play commander with a salt shaker as their Commander in a casual game, I can’t think of a single reason to say no.
It’s just a game, and if you can beat me with a salt shaker, you’ll certainly have my respect.
It’s worth noting that the more you depart from the rules set forth by the commander Rules Committee, the less you're actually playing Commander. Most Commander players do want to play Commander, even if that means settings aside that salt shaker and having a actual, lethal general at the helm of your deck.
Unless I’m sitting at your table, it really doesn't matter what I think or what some random strangers on the internet think about your plan to run Kamahl's Druidic Vow as your commander.
What matters is how your playgroup feels about it.
Want to play with silver-bordered, gold-bordered, proxied cards or even a salt shaker?
Go for it.
If you win, or if your friends just didn't enjoy the game and didn't appreciate you playing that deck, switch to a real, by-the-rules Commander deck for the rest of the night.
You had your fun, and it's not much to ask that you play by the same rules everyone else is playing by.
If You Win…
Most commander players do care about winning and losing - even the casual ones.
It feels bad to be on a long losing streak and it feels great to have a night where you win half (or more) of your games. We're usually all trying to win the game. In a competitive environment like a pay-in tournament or a league, you should play what you like and make no apologies.
In a causal environment, there is a social contract to play by.
The social contract is the simply understanding that everyone is there to have fun, and that having fun often has a lot to do with winning or at least having games that are competitive enough that most participants felt like they had a chance to win.
If you win and everyone is OK with you playing the same deck again, that's fantastic! Have at it! Play that deck all night long if nobody minds.
If you win and you can easily switch to something else that might not be quite as dominant, you probably should do so.
If you don't win, but your tablemates made it clear during the game that they hated your deck and wished you were playing something else, you should also probably switch decks.
If You Dominate Play…
You've been winning the lion's share of games in your meta.
Your friends talk behind your back about how they're going to find a way to slow you down. They actively tweak their decks with the sole purpose of finding ways to keep you from winning. Your games turn into Archenemy and they still have trouble out-racing you or squeezing as much value and as many victories out of a hundred pieces of cardboard as you've been able to squeeze.
You've done well, Padawan.
Just as a Dragon cannot eat the gold and treasure it hoards, you also cannot continue to win games if nobody will play with you.
It's fine to dominate play, but it's incredibly important to have good people skills and be a good tablemate. Try to be the kind of player other people will want to share a table with, especially if you tend to dominate play.
You don't owe your opponents anything.
Your opponents don't owe you anything either, and that includes letting you play with them.
In casual play, nobody has any obligation to agree to play a game with you, so hoard your victories carefully and make sure you prioritize the enjoyment of the entire playgroup as much as your own fun.
Would it be petty for anyone to stop playing with you because they just don't want to deal with how hyper-competitive you are?
Maybe, but the bottom line is that it doesn't matter if that kind of reaction would be petty or childish. If they no longer want to play with you, that’s probably not a good outcome for you.
Some players love a challenge and will enjoy trying to end your win streaks, but some will find it discouraging and may even drift out of your meta if you are constantly crushing tables. Don't win your way out of a good situation, don't be greedy, and don't stop caring about everyone else's enjoyment of the games you play.
What This All Means
It doesn’t mean that I want you all to go out and build Griselbrand, Spike, Pikachu, or Salt Shaker decks. I write about and play Commander and I play by the rules, but in a casual format I think it’s important to let your opponents have fun. Sometimes that means letting them play things you don’t like even if it’s got infect, is loaded with combos, or breaks some of the rules. It’s just a game - don’t take it too seriously.
If you take my advice and follow my casual rules, you might have some work ahead of you.
If you only have one deck…
You should probably think about making a second one if your main deck is strong enough that a casual table might have trouble against it. That doesn’t mean you have to build a bad deck. There are lots of ways you can challenge yourself and give yourself deck-building restrictions that will push your skills but also throttle back the power level on your “beater” deck.
If you can’t stand combo / infect / control / etc...
I could tell you to put your “big boy” pants on, and deal with the many perfectly legal spells and strategies that are allowed in commander, but your fun matters too.
It’s really OK to ask your group for a game or two in which you don’t have to deal with the constant vigilance required from combo decks or the constant frustration that comes from playing against control decks.
The key is not to ban things you don’t like, but to ask for an occasional break from those things.
Your friend who loves playing infect should be allowed to play his infect deck sometimes. You should also get the chance to occasionally not have to worry about how many poison counters you’ve got.
In the long run I would hope that you could get used to dealing with things you don’t like. If the competitive player in your group lands a turn three win, you haven’t really lost that much of your evening. Congratulate them and shuffle up to have another game. It’s just one game, no matter how little you might have enjoyed it.
If you can’t stand playing weak decks…
If you can’t stand to play bad cards… if you can’t bear to not play as competitively as possible… if you hate losing so much that anything short of a 50% win rate is going to leave you unhappy… if you are such a Spike that you genuinely don’t care about anyone else’s enjoyment of your commander evenings and really, truly want to do everything you can to win every single game you ever play…
I’ve got nothing for you, mate.
I could tell you to go play Modern or Standard because you belong in a more traditional competitive format, but you might LOVE 100 card singleton, and that’s great. So do I, and so do all the casual commander players who just don’t understand your single-minded obsession with winning.
I’d urge you to find other players who share your approach to the game.
They are out there. If for some reason you have to find a way to fit in with a playgroup that isn’t sufficiently competitive, you might need to suck it up and deal with occasionally playing a deck that doesn’t meet your high standards.
If your friends have to deal with your brutal top-tier decklists some of the time, you should also be able to handle playing “down to their level” some of the time. If that’s unthinkable, then go find a regular league or competitive group where you’ll be happy. A hyper-competitive player can be absolutely toxic to a casual playgroup if they’re not willing to at least occasionally take one for the team and play a deck that’s appropriate for the meta.
There are lots more things I could say about how to play and how not to play casual Commander, but to my mind they apply equally to casual and competitive play. Bluff, but don’t lie. Don’t scoop. If you get salty, apologize later on when you’ve regained your senses. Be a good tablemate. None of this should be a revelation to those of you who are all grown up and have learned how to interact with other people in a LGS setting.
If you’ve gotten this far I hope this week’s column has given you something to think about.
If you struggle with your playgroup and need help bringing them around to allowing more powerful strategies and cards in a casual setting, I hope I’ve given you something to help you open their minds to what should be acceptable on casual night. If you’re an unapologetic Spike and you can’t bear to not go all out for every possible victory, I hope you’ve got a meta where that’s embraced and you’re not sowing the seeds of your playgroup’s dissolution.
That’s all I’ve got for you today. Please share your thoughts in comments and whether you agree or disagree with my “casual rules”, I hope your playgroup is healthy and your games are fun.
Thanks for reading!