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Why Commander Works

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Every year around Thanksgiving, I tend to pick out a book to sit and read. There’re very few times in the year when I can pick up a book and get involved in it (just several times a summer and around the major holidays). I’ve read a book on my iPad before, and I enjoyed my experience (my wife still prefers the feel of paper, which I completely understand). I was reading through io9.com’s list of science books that will blow your mind (hey, I’m a geek, and I want my mind blown when I read) when I came across a book printed at the beginning of this year:

Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, by Jane McGonigal

I’m a gamer—I do think reality is broken. This topic is relevant to me. Before you hit the back button, stay with me here for a moment. This is neither a book report nor an essay about why you should buy the book (though you should), but it’s a collection of reasons we should pay attention to this concept. What’s outlined in this book can help tremendously with Magic from all angles—from designing the game to selling it and to fixing the Planeswalker Points system. All we have to do is game.

I always believed that gaming was a means of escapism; it allows you, for just a small time, to get sucked into a world in which you have control of something. This is an easy assumption to make since (no offense) most of the people who play games are considered social outcasts. This has changed over the years, but when someone says that you play Magic, that person tends to get an image in his or her head (à la Jon Finkel’s wild ride). But that’s changed as games have come to have more of an influence in the real world. Video games have taken the bigger leap with everyone playing Halo and Call of Duty and Madden, but take a look at your smartphone. How many games do you have on there? You ever play Words with Friends with your mother?

Nowadays, pretty much everyone is a gamer in some way. While the video game world is different than the tabletop world, games all tie together. McGonigal uses philosopher Bernard Suits’s definition of a game in the book:

Playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary objects.

We’re not playing games to escape reality; we’re playing games because reality isn’t hard enough. Of course, take that on a person by person basis, but we live in a culture in which we’re not hunted down by animals. We play games to pass the time, to better ourselves, or to engage with the world more. There’s a reason that the most popular games today are not solitaire variants. We’re being raised as children to be quiet during class, to study by ourselves, and to show our personal worth and knowledge through tests and exams before finally being shoved out into the real world. It’s no surprise that people spend so much time on WoW in guilds, playing D&D with friends, or shouting over Xbox live during a Call of Duty fight. We want interaction with others, and gaming allows us to do that in a positive way.

Which brings us to Magic and Commander.

McGonigal explains that there are four defining traits to a game (which are different than Mark Rosewater’s ten things every game needs series [part 2 here]) and what they achieve:

  • A goal (a sense of purpose)
  • Rules (to unleash creativity and a sense of purpose)
  • A feedback system (a promise that the goal is achievable and motivation to keep playing)
  • Voluntary participation (to establish common ground and a way to experience a safe and pleasurable activity)

Magic is a game in which you try to “kill” all of your opponents (the goal). Of course, this goal is hindered by your opponents trying to do the same thing. You all agree to play a deck that controls its pace by a resource management system known as the mana system (the attempt to overcome any unnecessary object). You have learned what you can and can’t do in the game (the rules). By keeping life totals and by counting the cards in your libraries, you can tell who’s winning (the feedback system). While you can play it in tournaments for money and prizes, people can play this game anytime and anywhere they please (voluntary participation).

As you can see, Magic certainly does meet these requirements. But some of you might have noticed that one piece of what makes a game is missing:

  • A way to win

Games are not defined by their routes to victory. Let me quote from the book:

The popularity of an unwinnable game like Tetris completely upends the stereotype that gamers are highly competitive people who care more about winning than anything else. Competition and winning are not defining traits of games—nor are they defining interests of the people who love to play them. Many gamers would rather keep playing than win—thereby ending the game. In high-feedback games, the state of being intensely engaged may ultimately be more pleasurable than even the satisfaction of winning.

That is basically Commander in a nutshell. Well, what Commander tries to be in its semi-organized style. Tournament players sometimes become too caught up in trying to win every game possible, and to play a game in which you’re not really looking to win doesn’t make sense to them. “Then why play the game?”

Look at her example: Tetris is an unwinnable game. I have never heard of anyone beating the game to have a little Russian guy come out and dance for you. When you play Tetris, you cannot win—you just try to see how long you survive. Where’s the fun in that? The fun is to play as long as you can. You can brag all about high scores and feel a sense of achievement or just find the activity of playing to be fun enough to keep going.

There’s that feeling in Commander as well. You hear war stories about the largest token army someone created or someone lasting thirty turns and down to the final three cards in his library. Some people find the act of playing the game more pleasurable than winning, and that’s what Commander is trying to facilitate. The big spells, the large creatures, and the huge mana possibilities all fit into the plan of allowing a player to keep playing the game as long as possible. When someone played Erayo, Soratami Ascendant, he prevented the other players from playing the game. Most everything on the Commander banned list is there because it stops interaction between the players. This stops making the game fun for most of the people and turns it into a competition.

Who can kill the competitive person the quickest?

They aren’t playing Commander to win, they’re playing to play. And these people who are passionate about Commander and (sometimes) complain the most when something like this happens do have a reason. You might think they’re crazy, but it makes sense:

When we’re playing a good game—when we’re tackling unnecessary obstacles—we are actively moving ourselves toward the positive end of the emotional spectrum. We are intensely engaged, and this puts us in precisely the right frame of mind and physical condition to generate all kinds of positive emotions and experiences. All of the neurological and physiological systems that underlie happiness—our attention systems, our reward center, our motivation systems, our emotion and memory centers—are fully activated by gameplay.

That doesn’t sound like anyone who plays any game ever, does it?

It comes back to that whole we-play-games-because-we-feel-good mentality. When we get passionate about a game, we defend it because it can make us feel good like nothing else can. And when that possibility gets taken away from us, the fear that we’ll never feel that way becomes a possibility, and we flip out (case in point: the Planeswalker Points system). Sometimes, it manifests itself as complaining about something or even a player taking his cards and going home.

It’s this one term called “fiero” that keeps us coming back.

Fiero is the Italian word for pride, and it’s been adopted by game designers to describe an emotional high we don’t have a word for in English. Fiero is what we feel after we triumph over adversity. You know it when you feel it—and when you see it. That’s because we almost all express fiero in exactly the same way: We throw our arms over our head and yell.

I believe that Commander gives that emotion to us more readily than any other part of the game. It’s not good sportsmanship to do this in a competitive environment. You shake hands. “Good Game.” Even when Conley Woods totally could have double-punched the sky after his game in Top 8 of Worlds, and I’m sure that he gets that same feeling, but that physical expression is huge.

Since Commander is casual, you can get up and dance around your table. Do the Freddy Mercury. The physical release is huge when it comes to these types of plays and experiences. Moments like these, when you have fun, make the game more memorable. You tell these stories to your friends and experience that same rush again—it keeps you wanting to play the game.

Through making us feel good, challenging us, and helping us learn, Commander (and games in general) can benefit us. Commander is that area in our lives in which we can take chances and make mistakes without worrying about long-term effects. Whether it’s playing with friends we know, with that new kid in the store, or even at a large event like a Grand Prix, we all share a passion and have formed a community to spend time together and interact with other people. It’s that connection that we’re missing in our day-to-day lives, whether it’s from school or work. Humans are social creatures, and Commander gives us that outlet. McGonigal has this to say:

[Games] give us a highly structured way to spend time and build bonds with people we like. And if we play a game long enough, with a big enough network of players, we feel a part of something bigger than ourselves-part of an epic story, and important project, or a global community.

There’s more in this book that I believe Magic can benefit from, but it also explains how Magic (and games) work in general. If you guys want to hear more about it, let me know, and I’ll be glad to fit it in. I’m planning to write more about how it relates to Magic design on my own blog (MTGColorPie.com) in the next little bit.

Let me leave you with one final thought from the book:

We will play until we utterly exhaust our own abilities, or until we exhaust the challenge. And we will take the game seriously because there is nothing trivial about playing a good game. The game matters.

It’s okay to embrace Commander—it’s good for you.

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