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A House Divided


Oil Study of Cotopax by Frederic Edwin Church (1861).

Stormbreath Dragon by Slawomir Maniak

I run a Commander league built around a scoring system that tries to balance fun, good play and competitive aspects of the game. We have points that are given to you by other players. We have points you get from killing other players. We have points you get by out-living players, by getting the first combat damage at the table, by having the biggest army, and for lots of other things. There is no pay-in and no cash prize. The winner gets bragging rights and can make requests for what cookies I bake for the league in the following month. Its genesis was in our desire to have a fun day of Commander games with something extra to play for beyond just the current game.

Our league isn't a cEDH league, but it also isn't explicitly a casual league. We've tried to encourage players to play whatever decks they feel like playing. We don't have a cEDH night at the game store, so it's a way to direct our more competitive players away from just "pubstomping" us on the night we gather to play more casual games.

Our scoring system is complex enough that you can't just crush tables with a fast deck and automatically do well in the league rankings. Our best players put effort into tuning their decks not just to win but to play our point system and rack up as many points as possible. Our system is a puzzle to solve and our best and brightest are just as adept at solving the point system as they are at building and playing Commander decks.

A few years ago the league was in a pretty great place. I'd estimate that most games lasted between a half hour and an hour, with some games dragging well into the second hour allotted for each round of play. With nothing on the line, most players got that winning was fun, but having games everyone enjoyed was also important.

The format of EDH is much wider than the decks we were seeing in the early years of our league and it was only a matter of time before we attracted more competitive players. You can build and play decks that win or lock out the table by or before turn five. In the past year we've had some great new folks become regulars in our league. Some are relatively casual players, but a few are regularly playing decks which win so early, nobody else feels like they had much of a Commander game.

I wouldn't say that cEDH and casual players are like oil and water.

Vorinclex, Voice of Hunger

I wouldn't even say they're like Vorinclex, Voice of Hunger and Phelddagrif. They can coexist. They can even get along and the outcome of a mixed game isn't always certain.

Casual decks can beat cEDH decks. I've seen it happen. It just doesn't happen very often and mixing the two dramatically changes the experience of the game. The cEDH players win an outsized percentage of games because most casual decks aren't built to be able to interact on the level that is required to stop a top tier deck.

The Problem

For the past few years I viewed my role as league organizer in a pretty straightforward way. I wanted to provide a consistent time and place for folks to play Commander. I wanted everyone to have fun, but that's not an easy thing to ensure so I wound up leaning on the side of being impartial. I wanted to make sure no cards, decks, or strategies would get banned and folks could play whatever deck they wanted to play.

A player might hate your Elves deck with the fiery passion of a thousand goblins all hit with a Chandra's Ignition (cough... Zada... cough...), but you've still got the right to play those Elves. If we can't stop them, shame on us.

To further ensure that nobody could complain about the system being unfair, I set up our table generation app to split players up randomly for each round, with the caveat that in round two, you would have no more than one player from a previous table in your round two table.

For years this system worked. On some level it still works, but with the increased presence of cEDH decks I've felt like things are changing.

We've got players who want to play decks that win on or well before turn five. They get paired with good players, but they also get paired with players who are pretty much just speed bumps on their path to a quick and somewhat inevitable victory. Frequently you'll have a cEDH deck at a table with only one semi-competitive deck and all the pressure to stop the top tier deck falls on that player.

Most casual players don't run enough removal. They are learning the format and are months or even years from properly assessing how to build a deck that can reliably compete with other semi-competitive decks. They might never get to the point where they're able to reliably interact with cEDH decks. They want to have fun and feel like they have a shot at winning even if they aren't cEDH players.

I know some of my players really well, and I feel like I have a good understanding of how they approach the game. I believe many of them are somewhat unhappy with how league has been going since we've had our incursion of cEDH decks. I know for a fact that I'm unhappy with how league has been going. I want to be able to play semi-competitive decks and not dread getting matched up with turn five juggernauts. It's just not fun for me. If I'm not having fun, I have to assume other less competitively minded players are in the same position, even if they're too proud to say so.

The problem is also a problem of pubstomping.

Spiteful Bully

I can't abide a bully, and seeing these cEDH players get matched up against relatively casual decks and choose not to switch down to a casual deck is pretty frustrating.

On some level I can't blame them. They want to play their favorite (or only) deck and league is the place where you should be able to play whatever you like. Ultimately it is my fault for setting up the league to allow for these tables to be generated. If I put together some finely tuned $5,000 monstrosity of a top tier deck that can win through interaction before turn five at an alarming rate, I'd probably want to be able to play it and I'd expect that a league setting would be the place to do so.

These cEDH players are NOT "bullies". The optics of how the games are playing out, with half of the table relatively hopeless and one player often (but not always) running away with it, brings that word to my mind. It's not their fault for staying with their best decks, but it still bothers me in a way that makes me feel like something has to change. Even if it's just because of the matchups, these players are pubstomping.

I do like that our casual players get to see the full range of decks in the format.

I hate that those mismatched tables often don't result in games everyone can enjoy.

The Solution

My solution may wind up being a band-aid. It might not really solve anything, but if there's a chance that things will improve, I have to try.

The app that I use to split up our tables is a little thing I threw together with javascript and html. It lets me enter the day's players and split them into tables, but it doesn't store anything in a database and isn't even online. It's just a few files that live on the laptop I bring to league each week. Because I wrote it, I'm in a good position to rework it to split tables in a different way than it currently splits tables.

What I wound up doing was reworking the system so that it would allow me to log players with one of three different "levels". Players will choose what slot their deck goes into, though I will do my best to help make sure those choices are appropriate to the actual power level of the deck. The cards used as examples below are just examples and the actual slotting of a deck would be determined by more than just which Commander they are using.

Level 0: Casual

You don't run infinite combos or cards with high levels of synergy. You probably don't run great / expensive cards. You're simply not playing a strong deck.

Axelrod Gunnarson
Jedit Ojanen of Efrava
Yargle, Glutton of Urborg

Your deck shouldn't be able to interact with a turn five cEDH deck in any meaningful way and would just be a speed bump if you were matched up with one. You don't have to be playing an actively bad deck to be in this category, but your deck should be so far below a top tier power level that there would be little point in having you play it against cEDH decks.

Level 1: Semi-Competitive

This is the default. You might get paired with cEDH decks, but you might not.

Brudiclad, Telchor Engineer
Tolsimir, Friend to Wolves
Zacama, Primal Calamity

You may run combos and expensive cards and should have some chance against a cEDH deck. You're not just a speed bump. You might even be able to win on turn five, but it should be a rare occurrence based upon luck and starting out with a "god hand".

Level 2: cEDH

These are decks that can consistently win or lock the game by turn five. The best of these decks can do it through interaction.

Urza, Lord High Artificer
Najeela, the Blade-Blossom
The First Sliver

This is also for players who want to be matched up against top tier decks. Anyone playing a known cEDH deck will be put in this category automatically.

The first tables will be filled up with cEDH players first and then with semi-competitive players, chosen at random. Casual players will ONLY be paired with a cEDH player if there is are no tables without cEDH players for them to be seated at.

Being slotted to a power level is a commitment to that power level regardless of the players you'll be playing against. You can always downgrade your deck when you know who you're playing with. I'm not sure if players should be allowed to upgrade. If a non-cEDH player gets stuck at a table with a cEDH deck I think it makes sense that they should be able to switch to a deck that can interact more so the cEDH player doesn't just win without a challenge.

After years of just randomly mixing all of our players, I am nervous about this change. I know there will be some backlash, but I keep coming back to something that I believe is true.

There is no honor or glory to be gained in playing a top tier cEDH deck against casual decks.

Sure, a casual deck can "pull a rabbit out of a hat" and play the right interaction at the right time to stop the top tier deck. A bunch of semi-competitive decks can also successfully gang up against a top tier deck. I've seen these things happen. I keep coming back to the idea that the fun in cEDH isn't about crushing a table of underpowered decks. The fun in cEDH is in going toe to toe with the other best decks in the format to see who can battle their way through interaction to nail down their wincon first.

My solution, as I see it, will accomplish a number of goals.

Anyone can "opt-in" to the higher power decks by having themselves slotted as a cEDH player.

The cEDH players will largely be able to play against other cEDH decks, so there should be fewer unbalanced games.

The casual players should get the longer, slower games that they tend to enjoy more. They won't feel like they have to pull out a dozen "fun" cards and add a dozen pieces of interaction (removal/counters) just to have a shot at ever winning a game. As they learn the format they will learn to add interaction at their own pace. Someday they will probably step up out of the "casual" slot and start facing some of these top decks.

My Own Bias

It's worth remembering that I have a bias in all of this. I have tried to build up cEDH decks and generally haven't enjoyed them that much. I don't own the lands to set up a proper mana base for a top tier deck. I don't even own a Pact of Negation of Mana Drain yet. That doesn't mean I haven't tried. I threw together a relatively budget Food Chain Sliver deck but it couldn't keep up with the bona fide cEDH decks we've been seeing in league lately.

Should I just "man up" and buy all those lands and expensive cards and throw together at least one "real" cEDH deck?

Maybe, but to be honest - I really enjoy long casual games with lots of back-and-forth power swings and less fear that someone will drop a turd in the punch bowl by ending the game with some two card combo. That's my jam. I love the table politics and the twists and turns you get in a long, casual game of Commander. Games with cEDH decks often have twists and turns, but it's just not the same.

I'm banking on the idea that I'm not alone in my feelings about having to play against cEDH decks.

What Comes Next

I know we've lost players because of past waves of highly competitive players joining our meta. I also suspect that we've lost players who were competitive because they didn't enjoy playing cEDH decks against decks that weren't strong enough to put up much of a fight.

I don't know if we'll see any of our old players come back. I wouldn't be surprised if we see players leave. Folks dislike change and some of these cEDH players may have enjoyed those easy wins. Winning is fun, and easy wins can be a bit of a guilty pleasure. You know you shouldn't have enjoyed it, but seeing your deck do everything it wants to do with no real concern for anyone trying to stop you can be kind of fun every once in a while.

To me the big question is what this will do to our point system.

My first thought is that it won't change much. The cEDH players often don't bother to switch decks to be on theme for a month, so they have often missed out on points from just sticking with their best deck.

For my part, I'm considering no longer including my own points in the monthly and yearly totals. I'm always there (as I run the league) and have a huge built-in advantage so the competition for raw point total isn't really fair. At the end of this year I will have won three out of the four years' raw point totals. As they say - showing up is half the battle.

I don't want anyone thinking that my desire to shake up our point system is self-serving so no longer including my own points would probably help with that. I'm going to need to think about it, as I enjoy trying to go for the month's top total and I'm never in the running for the top average. Dropping my name from the year-end totals might be enough.

Final Thoughts

If you've also struggled to find a way to get casual and competitive players to coexist in peace and harmony, I would love to hear your thoughts on today's column. I consider myself lucky to have been able to get the league running for as long as it ran without a separation between cEDH and non-cEDH players.

I'll soon have my hands full with players who are and aren't happy with where their decks get "slotted". I do have the support of the store owners and they're willing to help evaluate decks. The bottom line is that we aren't playing for anything but bragging rights, so nobody really has any good reason to try to push a deck into a category it doesn't belong in.

In other news, I'm headed down to Washington DC for next weekend's CommandFest DC. If any of you can find me I'd love to get in a game with you. Look for my Ramos, Dragon Engine or Cherubs (with Hovermyr) playmat. I'm going to be taking notes all weekend and hope to have a column about how it went later this month.

That's all I've got for today. Thanks for reading and I'll see you next week!

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