An Evening in Arcadia by Thomas Cole (1843). Memorial to Unity by Cliff Childs.
This week I’ve got a break from my series of articles about the decks I’ve been building to talk about what I believe is an underappreciated portion of the Commander playerbase.
The inspiration for today’s column was a reddit post by redditor Viege99. On June 29th he kicked off a discussion with a post entitled “Issues with Winning”. In it he talked about the frustration of wanting to build Commander decks with a casual, non-competitive approach and how he got salty when other players would combo off to win the game. When he built and won with a combo deck he felt guilty, like he ruined the game for the other players at the table.
To some players that sounds crazy, but I’ve been there. I’ve felt that. I’ve played casual decks and had it feel like the combo player winning out of nowhere was basically walking into the room, taking a dump on the table and walking out again. I’ve also played combo decks and sheepishly asked the table if they had any answers, because I had game in hand.
Spike the Birdie
Like many Reddit discussions, it was wide-ranging and went in lots of different directions. The difference between players who play for the enjoyment of winning and players who play for the enjoyment of the game with less of a focus on winning is well-trodden territory. Many hundreds of players have written thousands of words about this issue.
In this particular discussion there were a number of redditors who really hit the nail on the head. One of the comments that was really well received was from domfig75.
The idea that neither hyper-competitive nor super durdly playstyles are “wrong” is a really important concept. Even though the game, like any game, has a win condition, that does not mean that the only way to play the game is to drive as quickly, ruthlessly and efficiently as possible toward achieving that win condition.
The implication that it’s incredibly important to be civil and even friendly is also worth noting. Your cEDH opponents may not care that you would rather play a long durdly game, and they may not have any sympathy for your experience of the game, but if you are salty there is zero chance they’ll ever be convinced to see things from your point of view. Also, they’re as entitled to approach Commander in their way as you are to approach it in your way.
My favorite quote from the thread is one that perfectly encapsulates the approach of a “Spike”.
Some players like to spike the birdie. They go for the win. Some players like to see how long they can maintain a volley. For them, that is the whole point of the exercise, and the game is as collaborative as it is competitive. In Packrat1010’s example of a high school gym class, it seems highly unlikely that anyone was going to win anything meaningful if they played as competitively as possible, yet some players are just hard-wired to want to do that. For them trying to dominate an opponent is “fun”, while for others trying to create a shared experience that requires the cooperation of both players is where their enjoyment is found.
I think this pretty much sums up the difference between a “Spike” and . . . well . . . what is the opposite of a “Spike”? It isn’t “Birdie”, though Spikes might find that pretty amusing. Is there even a word for the flip side of the win-at-all-costs player we commonly think of as a “Spike” or is it like the old adage “nothing rhymes with orange”?
Let’s explore this concept and see if we can find a word to describe those of us who enjoy the volley as much as, if not more than, the carefully placed (or violently spiked) winning shot.
You might suggest that the competitive players are Spikes and everyone else is a Timmy/Tammy or a Johnny/Jenny. If those terms mean nothing to you, it might be worth reading up on psychographic profiles in Magic: The Gathering. Since then, another two profiles, Vorthos and Mel, have been added.
I think psychographic profiles are a fantastic way to look at and understand the minds of Magic players. I also think it’s possible there is a better way to describe players who are more focused on the enjoyment of the game than on the outcome.
If a “Spike” is someone whose primary objective when playing Commander is to win, and the spikiest Spikes want to win at all costs, does one of the psychographic profiles work as a term for the opposite end of that spectrum?
Timmy/Tammy might care about big, splashy effects and Johnny/Jenny might care about deck-building as a form of self-expression, but neither of those concepts match what I’m trying to wrap my arms around. Vorthos cares about lore and flavor and Mel cares about functionality and building synergy between cards, but that doesn’t quite cover it.
I think the reason psychographics are failing me here is that they were developed by the folks who make cards as a way to talk about who different cards might appeal to. I’m not interested in cards as much as I’m interested in the overall experience you get from a game of Commander.
I still think “Spike” is a perfectly good term for the players who care about winning more than anything else.
I just want to try to find a word for the flip side of that coin.
It’s easy to suggest that if you aren’t a Spike, you’re a “Casual” but to my mind casual implies a lack of focus. Players like myself and possibly Viege99 would take exception to the idea that the decks we spend hours building don’t have a plan and aren’t focused.
Our decks just aren’t solely focused on winning as quickly and efficiently as possible.
That doesn’t mean we don’t want or try to win. We like winning, but we also want to explore the format and what we can do within the confines of a game of Commander. We want to enjoy the game and want our opponents to have a chance to enjoy the game as well.
The other problem with “casual” is that it is sometimes used with a level of condescension that borders on insulting. I think “filthy casual” as a term is a response to that, but I’m not one to contribute to the use of a word that even a small portion of the community intentionally uses as a slur.
Maybe “Casual” is the best term, but let’s keep looking. I hate the attitude that non-Spikes are inferior and unworthy of being held in the same regard as competitive players.
We’re there for the journey as much as for the destination, and we wouldn’t sacrifice the length of the games we play for a higher winrate. For that reason, maybe we should look at “Journeyman” (or “Journeywoman” if you prefer) as the antithesis to Spike.
Here’s where it looks like this is an objectively terrible idea. We aren’t “reliable but not outstanding” and we aren’t “employed by someone else”.
Language is a funny thing.
It changes over time. Words evolve, gain new meanings and lose old ones. My recent and poorly-received article on “Midrange” Commander is a fantastic example of this. I felt the term could describe the playstyle between casual and competitive Commander, but the word is already so fixed in many players’ minds that I was mocked and ridiculed for the suggestion. Obvious trolls aside, they had a point, but the bottom line is still that language is fluid and ever-changing.
A Spike focuses on the destination. The game is about winning. You win at all costs and make no apologies for how — or how quickly — you get there.
A Journeyman focuses on the journey. The game is about what happens between the rolling of dice to see who goes first and the final determination that someone has won. The more varied and interesting things that happen during that time, the better.
While “Journeyman” isn’t perfect, it’s cute and clever enough that I like it. I also doubt it’s cute or clever enough to ever get picked up by the Commander community.
The best games are like great stories.
They have lots of twists and turns. They are long enough that everyone gets to have a chance to shine and maybe even threaten to win. They aren’t so long that players get bored and disinterested. Nobody is locked out and everyone has fun and feels like they are part of the action.
The problem with using “Storyteller” is that while it gets to the heart of what we’re trying to get out of our games, it is way too literal and way too obvious.
Also, it makes you think the player is going to stop playing and just tell a story in the middle of the game. We’re not. We’re gamers, not storytellers, and we want to participate in the story of the game, not “tell” it.
We just want it to be a long, compelling, interesting game that is the kind folks will tell stories about for months or years to come. We don’t personally get that kind of experience out of high-powered games that end really quickly.
It’s not true that “nothing rhymes with orange”, but there is only one perfect rhyme and it’s “sporange”. Look it up. It is safe to say that practically nothing rhymes with orange.
With the goal of finding a word to describe folks who play the game with a focus on the journey more than the destination, I may well have set myself an impossible task. “Casual” is inaccurate and somewhat insulting. “Journeyman” is cute and tempting, but I have a hard time believing that it would ever catch on. “Storyteller”, “Traveler”, “Explorer”, and other variations on that theme are just bad.
I think “Journeyman” has the benefit of allowing the Spikes to think of themselves as the “Masters” of the format, which is really fine with me. They’ll think that whether we encourage them to or not, as to them it’s about winning and they are better at that than us by a long shot. It also differentiates us from “Casuals”. We build serious decks with good cards, but we simply aren’t laser-focused on winning at all costs as quickly as possible.
My writing in this column is an exploration of the decks I build but also an exploration of ideas and concepts relating to Commander as a format. I would like to have found my way to the perfect term for those of us who love the journey as much as, if not more than, the destination. While on some level I feel like I’ve failed here, I think it’s a conversation worth having and an idea worth exploring.
Are we casuals?
Are we Journeyman Planeswalkers?
Does it even matter?
I hope today’s column was thought-provoking. I think there is a real divide in the Commander community and sometimes talking about it is a step toward finding ways to keep our differences from driving us apart. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
Thanks for reading and I’ll see you next week!