Magic may be a game in constant mechanical flux, but thankfully its most constant aspect is also its most important characteristic. Regardless of the marketing, power balance and ban lists, the community for Magic is a strong one, and chances are more than likely that wherever you go to get your game on you’ll probably bump into another player.
Commander naturally follows this game-wide trend, and wouldn’t exist were it not for the grass roots campaign of its devotees and creators alike. Commander has gone from the bottom of the casual play bucket to the top like a bullet, and it’s all thanks to playgroups around the world bonding together and willing it so. If that’s not a sign of brotherhood and community, I don’t know what is.
While what defines a playgroup is dependent upon how you play, the glue holding those participating together usually consists of a subtle mixture of healthy competition, honesty, mutual respect and most importantly, friendship. These ingredients all coalesce into evenings around a kitchen table sharing beers and dirty jokes, and showing off with smiles abounding as you collectively storm side events at Grand Prix’s.
These fleeting moments full of bragging rights and glory are what the spirit of the format is all about: good times with even better company. Though with even one of these elements missing, the glue fails, and the community falls apart. It’s important every so often to take an inventory of these qualities, and assess their balance and harmony with one another and with the participants, but finding the correct moment to do so can be incredibly awkward. Nobody wants to be the villain or doubting member of the group, but failing to, doesn’t restrict the conflict just to the group, but to ourselves as well. Playgroups can be locked in a power struggle for a dominant voice, when in theory every member should have an equal say.
For those of you unaware, I’m currently majoring in the communications field. When I’m not arguing with scrubs and fans on Twitter or answering hate mail, I spend time studying the effects that open dialogue has on small groups (typically four to eight people, or the size of an average playgroup), and the conflicts that arise when we fail to communicate our thoughts and ideas effectively.
Groups tend to construct their own social realities through shared ideas and social norms, which are in constant flux as the group continues to maintain dialogue and communication with one another. While the social reality constructed within the group is a very volatile thing and every shifting, expansion (especially with new concepts or group members) can have disastrous results if executed ineffectively, or too suddenly, as it may challenge a refined set of standards within the reality.
Yes, I’m proposing exactly what you think, I am-bringing in a new person, suggestion for a ban list, or even a new general can hurt your playgroup directly if the decision isn’t carefully brought up with your friends and crafted in a way that doesn’t directly challenge or contradict the equality present with each respective member, especially if doing so affects any of the previous qualities mentioned. To illustrate this further, I’m going to share with you a few of my own mistakes from over the years, as well as the consequences that followed. Grab a cold one, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
As they immediately folded after beating me, it dawned on me our weekly Commander nights weren’t fun anymore, but merely arms races that nobody was enjoying.
Considering I had introduced the format as a fun alternative to constructed play and was using a combo deck that was deliberately built to win by a certain turn, I suppose it was bound to happen. But that doesn’t mean I was particularly enjoying it, especially since the same exact thing had happened for three games in a row, regardless of how many spells I played, if any. Sure, left unchecked, I could easily have taken out everyone else in the game by myself, but playing against three people working together to wreck your day is a lot harder than playing the politics of the table to your advantage.
Again, it was bound to happen.
I had always been the guy to show up with new decks or new lists for critique. I had the deepest understanding of the rules, and through my own knowledge of the game brought my peers up to my level play by play. But the one thing I had never been able to shake from their heads regardless of how much I harked on proper board assessment was the notion that because I had such fore-thought and knowledge of the format, I was the biggest threat at the table. Building a combo deck certainly didn’t help matters, but I had been forced into a corner without a chance of survival.
They claimed that without dealing with me first, the game would be unalterably swayed into my favour without a chance of recovery, which was a statement I found a great deal of irony in considering their solution was to gang up on me collectively, squander their resources and then take each other out in a circular weakest-man-goes first fashion. Regardless of whom was at fault, our games had escalated past socially acceptable levels of competition, becoming grudge matches full of temporary truths and betrayal, and it was all because everyone involved would rather scrap than talk about the issue as gentlemen.
Since this playgroup in particular was one that focused on fun and a good time over the win, the behaviour shocked me, and called for an equally disturbing solution. So one night before we began, I gathered the boys together and politely told them I was playing with a new deck, and it was a “social experiment” to see how they would react-Here’s the list, if you’re curious:
GeneralAshling, the Pilgrim
The infamous Ashling deck had been making waves around this time due to its unique construction and evasion of almost everything that made Commander-well, Commander and as I laid land after land, I almost smirked as I watched my friends scramble to come up with whom to assault first. I lent my help when I could, played politics and experienced the first normal game I’d had in months. Realizing that the political imbalances were ruining competition and sportsmanship, I took the initiative to remedy the situation before it escalated any further, returning our games to friendly, good-natured rounds. All it took was realizing that there was no one at fault with the way things had gotten, but that if someone didn’t speak up, they would continue.
Six Zombie Whales Later…
Casting a Kederekt Leviathan once over the course of a game is normal. Twice is expected, especially with the unearth ability. But having it constantly played every single turn can get rather annoying, especially when the table has conspired against you to make it so.
I had been on a bit of a winning streak the last month, primarily due to having a streamlined mono-color Azami, Lady of Scrolls list in a meta of five color good stuff. My friends however thought that I was yet again abusing my own deep card pool and to teach me a lesson, agreed in private, to cheat their way through a match by having a constant cycle of Player A casting the Leviathan, Player B shuffling Player A’s graveyard back into their hand, with Player A subsequently finding the leviathan again and casting it.
While their plan died to its own inefficiency, I was a bit perturbed that they felt a need to lie and cheat their way into winning a casual game, as they ended up losing dignity as well as the match in doing so. I brought this up to them, but still bothered by their actions, did so in a way that made the matter personal, turning myself into an arse as well. Our social reality crumbling, we didn’t speak to each other for a week, and didn’t play Magic for even longer.
Honesty and trust are the bricks that communities are built upon, without it, we’re isolated vagrants whispering fetid thoughts into the night about our neighbours. It’s important that once trust is established in a playgroup it is maintained mutually and if it is broken, the matter is dealt with swiftly but civilly. Cheating is childish, and if dealt with in a mature fashion will likely abate depending on the group’s overall tolerance of such behaviours. But if we deal with it in likewise fashion or with anger, its necrotic touch will only spread further, like how I addressed my own instance. Regardless of what your playgroup may try to pull, stay calm, address the situation, and as always, carry on.
A Drink A Day
Friendly insults and lightly trolling your fellow pilots is common place at any kitchen table, but everyone has a line that shouldn’t be crossed. When you’ve a raging, drunken Slavic coming after you with a whiskey bottle for a crack you made about his mother and Phage, The Untouchable, it’s probably time to re-think how many verbal lashings you hand out in an evening.
We had been going at it all evening, exchanging increasingly offensive jokes towards one another, and at some point unbeknownst to yours truly things had escalated into a personal matter. Rather than address me individually or express his disgust at my use of evergreen keywords as sexual positions, Player X decided to deliver a lasting message that I would carry with me as one of my most painful MTG related memories, I’ve still got the scar on my forehead where the bottle broke.
As hilarious as this might sound considering the actual gravity of the situation, maintaining an acceptable amount of respect for your fellow players is vital. This means constantly checking not only the content of your message, but it’s delivery as well-what you say and how it leaves your mouth can have an enormous effect on people, sometimes adversely. Mind your tongue if you’re unsure, and always remind each other that you’re just a couple of people playing with cardboard dragons, or you might wind up with a cask of Jim Beam running over your head.
A Friend Indeed
Even with as much hate and bigotry that tends to spew out of the MTG community as of late, it’s hard not to notice the open bromance and friendliness that abounds between everyone, especially between playgroups. It’s not uncommon to hear of people traveling halfway across the country, sleeping in the house of a friend of a friend of a player they know, and then catching a car ride back up to their state with a group of people they played against. Being a part of MTGcast and Mana Deprived has allowed me just such opportunities, and I’m constantly surprised at the number of people I run into who are more than happy to help me make my way to events.
Obviously then, within a solitary playgroup, friendship can blossom into something truly beautiful if we allow it to do so, and can make those new ideas and concepts all the easier to bring into our social construct. Friendship is the grease on the rails, the necessary push that conversational topics, introductions, and necessary discussions occasionally need, and were it not for the element of friendship, the Commander community and MTG would cease to be. If you’re wilfully partaking in a hobby that encourages social interaction, making friends means growth of the self, and your playgroup.
Okay, so I didn’t have a story for that last one, but hopefully you guys get the picture. Playgroups across the country are founded upon these four pillars, and while they may appear to create a sturdy work when mixed together, occasionally checking the foundation of what you and others have constructed in your social circle through your actions and conversations isn’t weak, and if something seems off or imbalanced, it never hurts to read a bit deeper into what is going on. Until next time friends, play nice together, and stay classy!
The topic of this week was inspired by Grumpy Old Gamer, who wanted to hear more about my play stories. If you’ve got an idea for an article you want me to handle, hit me up in the comments below, or send me an email at Jack@mtgcast.com. You can always reach me(as well as read some of my other stuff) at my blog, The Bitter, Better Man: http://jackfromnc.tumblr.com/