Looking to play more Casual Commander, but you keep running out of friends?

It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game. 

Part 2

A Magictation by Mikeal Basile

“Magictating” is defined as getting into the zone with your Magic the Gathering collection–thinking, planning, organizing, reminiscing about past games, and imagining future games. It is a combination of hard thinking about the game and calm meditation, reveling in the joy it brings you.

Last time I spoke about the first two most common priorities for an antisocial gamer. The basic goals of Magic have always been to win by either reducing your opponent’s life total to zero or running them out of cards. However, when playing non-competitive Magic with friends or friends-to-be, you should pay close attention to how you plan on winning. How you build your deck matters, but perhaps not in the ways you might think. Your priorities when sitting down to play reveal an awful lot about you. Let’s quickly review the priorities that an antisocial player sets:

1.      Win at all costs.

2.      Spite those that defeat me.

3.      Optimize all cards.

4.      Consistent lines of play.

5.      Follow the rules.

To summarize what I covered in part 1 of this series the first two elements can be treated as such:

1.    Having fun comes first, and winning is an after effect.

2.    Every game is new, so don’t carry a grudge into the next game.

Shifting your focus away from winning and being spiteful means you’re well on your way to being a social player. So, please avoid being a soul-crushing fun killer, and embrace the social games offered by casual Commander.

Optimization vs Maximization

A long time ago, in a great local game store called, The Gamer’s Bazaar I was playing a friendly game of multi-player Magic. I remember I cast a Scaled Wurm, and the guy sitting across from me goes, “That’s sub-optimal. Why would you play that card?” I was perplexed. Why wouldn’t I play Scaled Wurm? It has an awesome picture, reminds me of the original Craw Wurm, which I love, and it has cool flavor text. He wasn’t asking me nicely either. He was mocking me for playing Scaled Wurm. So, I asked him, “Why shouldn’t I be playing with it?” He replied with, “It’s sub-optimal.” I shook my head and realized that I was about to get into an argument that I couldn’t win, and would only result in me walking away frustrated with my inability to convince this guy that playing Scaled Wurm is a great idea. Now, to be honest with you, non-casual players shouldn’t play with Scaled Wurm. I have nothing against pro-players or those of you that enjoy hyper-competitive play—but those people are wrong about Scaled Wurm. I’ve already mentioned several reasons to play with it, but the biggest and best reason is because I want to play with it. I want to cast that card, and no one is going to mock me for my Ice Age vanilla 7/6 with long flavor text. We had lengthy discussion which may have been heated at times, but the result was my friends and I later agreeing that we wouldn’t bother playing with that guy again, because he’s just no fun.

If you find yourself looking around the table and shaking your head in disbelief that your opponents are running so many sub-optimal cards, then perhaps casual Commander is a puzzle you are far from cracking. Stop trying to optimize. Yes, I said it, and I’m going to say it again in other ways. People cry out about Commander becoming an arms race, but that’s only the case when people are trying to optimize. Don’t optimize, and instead maximize. Maximize your fun, your flavor, and your nostalgia. Toss cards into your deck because you think it might be a neat play. Toss cards into your deck because you love quoting the flavor text from them. I love reading the flavor text for Deflection as I’m casting it. Don’t be a slave to optimization. Optimization is the easiest way to find yourself becoming the archenemy of the table, and then eventually without a table to play at all.

Consistency Sucks

I like to be consistent. I like to think that the students I teach, the friends I know, and my family all think of me as a consistently dependable person. However, if I were to carry over that consistency to Magic deck-building, then I might find myself a lonely antisocial player. Commander has its roots in being a format where you were traditionally forced to have a fairly inconsistent deck. Yet the format has developed significantly with products like Commander preconstructed decks, Brawl decks, and the huge influx of design choices in Commander Legends; the pool of cards ideal for the format just continues to grow. This leads to the aforementioned problem of optimization. However, it can also lead to incredibly consistent decks. When I look over cEDH decklists I find they seem to be like some sort of Legacy monstrosity. A cross between a Battle of Wits deck and a Legacy deck, which if that’s your jam, then great. Those decks are trying to be as consistent as possible. They lean into tutoring effects and redundancy. In friendly Commander, that is the sort of thing that will get you booed out of a pod or home game rather quickly. I know we are in the age-of-Covid, but when we do play in-person again, I think you’ll be happier if you get invited back to the kitchen table. Your invitation depends on you being social. You don’t have to build a group hug deck, but you shouldn’t be building hyper consistent decks either. You don’t need to do that at all. In contrast, you need to be sure that your deck doesn’t just consistently perform exactly the same every single time.

Sure, you can play a Voltron-style deck, and it will win by attacking with your Commander. However, if you are tutoring up the same enchantments and artifacts, and you do it in the same fashion each time, well, people are going to be bored. This is why Zur, the Enchanter decks are so reviled in friendly pods. Those decks win the same way every single time. That sucks for everyone. I contend that it sucks for the player winning too, because it won’t be long before you’re not invited back. Consistency leads to antisocial behaviors in friendly Magic. So, avoid it by building inconsistency into your deck. Eschew tutors, and instead toss in some spicy or sub-optimal cards. Experiment with new haymakers, or sub-optimal cards and you’ll find that you and your friends have more fun.

Rules Lawyering

Every group needs a judge. No, you don’t have to have someone that is an actual judge, though it is nice. Instead, you simply need a player or two that has a deep understanding of most of the rules. However, a phone and a quick gatherer search will often suffice as well. A good rules lawyer tries to find ways to legally bend rules or exploit them to do ridiculous stuff. That’s OK too. However, if you are the one who is always questioning the play and trying to negate people’s spells by calling everything into question, then you become the annoying rules lawyer. That person is an anti-social jerk. I don’t mean that you are a jerk for keeping up the rules of the game. I mean you are a jerk for instigating fights over rules, you grumble about missed rulings, you begrudge mistakes, and you cast doubt on other people for trying new things. The antisocial rules lawyer also feels the need to belittle others for their inferior knowledge of Magic’s comprehensive rulings concerning rules 508.1e and 702.21j-m.

Magic is full of stumbles, and stumbling in multiplayer Magic is normal. Forgetting upkeep triggers or missing activations is normal. You can decide if you are doing to be a stickler on these or not. I would suggest finding balance between allowing a little, but not allowing it all. You really do get better by punishing yourself for missing triggers and upkeeps and activations. If people allow you to take everything back, then you end up cultivating sloppy habits. Those habits usually aren’t a problem, but can cause real issues when it’s time to resolve game-ending spells or combats. Again, it’s fine to give some leeway, and I’m more apt to punish myself than let myself play loose, but don’t force people to be punished every time. That’s just mean. Yes, it’s the rules, but when you’re playing multiplayer and you’re playing for fun, then the rules are actually secondary. The cardinal rule is the social element, and the social element decides if you were an opponent who added to the experience. In the world of givers and takers, you want to be a social giver, and not a party pooper.

What’s the social thing to do?

So, rather than leave you with a list of what not to do, let’s focus on the  top five thoughts you should be having when playing casual Commander:

1.    Have fun with friends.

2.    Each game offers new variety.

3.    Play sub-optimal cards because they are fun.

4.    Mix up your gameplay approach.

5.    Mistakes will happen, so laugh about them.

6.    Maybe win some games? If not, then check back with step one for the real sense of winning.

Playing Happily Ever After

Gaming environments are fragile, so treat them carefully, and they will blossom. You don’t have to win at all costs, optimize your deck, play hyper consistent builds, and make certain no one is allowed a misplay in order to win friends and influence people. Actually, that’s exactly how not to gain friends and influence social gamers. I’m not saying there isn’t a place for these styles of play. It’s just not at the kitchen table (or kitchen spell table). Not every playgroup is the same, and not every group will groan about all of these behaviors. You need to be aware of these things, scope them out, and if you enjoy the style of play a group engages in, then by all means have fun! The key to having fun is allowing each other to live your dreams, but also to do so with agreement that we are playing for fun. Does that mean winning is fun? Sure, it absolutely can be, and it’s even better when it’s fun for the losers too. It’s fun when you have epic games, and interesting interactions. The more you pay attention to the tenor of the table, and the ebb and flow of play—both mechanically and socially—then the more fun, friends, and games you will be able to enjoy. Until next time, I hope you get invited back to your new social playgroups for some casual Commander games!

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