Commander Controversy: Rule Zero

This week, we’re switching it up. We’re going to take a look at a topic that has been floating around the online Commander community a lot as of late: Rule Zero. But, what’s a Rule Zero, you ask? Why do we need it, you say? Let’s peel back some layers, first. We need to understand some of what’s happened over the past decade to understand just what Rule Zero is.

A brief History

Back in March of 2019, I traveled to MagicFest Calgary with a group of friends to partake in the Commander side events. We were there specifically for that purpose. Not to cash in the high stakes main event. Not the last chance qualifiers for Mythic Championship invites or what have you’s. No, we were there to jam Commander, meet like-minded people and have fun. After all, Commander is supposed to be the fun format, right? What had happened next though, was anything but.

We found ourselves queueing up in pods with random people, just as intended. Experienced players, like my friends and I. We were alongside kids, older players, players new to the format. All kinds of everyone you can imagine. People from all over Canada. The more games we played, the more we started to realize that a lot of the players that ported over to Commander really, didn’t have a good idea of what the format was about. They had extremely powerful decks that looked to crush the souls of the ten-year-old they were playing against so they could win a couple extra prize tickets. When I wanted to talk about their decks, because I was genuinely interested in what creative or expressive thing they wanted to showcase, they were uninterested in sharing information. And in several cases, players even lied to me about what their deck did. Not only did they lie about that, they also lied about the power level of their deck. None of this was very fun. Our play expectations were not met. It felt like our format was slipping away to these people who had no idea that Commander was supposed to be fun. An escape from the utter need to dominate, if you just wanted to play jank.

Insert my obligatory public service announcement of how high-level competitive, and high stakes, Commander is a fine way to play. Please read on, I’ll cover that a little later.

The happenings at MagicFest Calgary were the common types of scenarios prior to the introduction of what we now call “Rule Zero.” With a huge influx of Commander players, and Magic players in general, over the last two years, the original intent of the format was lost. The length of time someone has played the format of Commander, on average, is less than it used to be, despite the format being around for some time now. Players that have played since the good-old-days have come to learn the culture that is ingrained into the format. How games are supposed to leave lasting impressions. How your decks can be extensions of you as a player, or your personality. With so many new players, much of that aura about the format has diminished. New-to-the-format players haven’t learned it. They haven’t learned about the culture or, they haven’t been able to separate the Commander culture from the competitive format culture. The Commander format feels immature again. Like it did twelve or thirteen years ago when people were first discovering it. Years before the first Commander pre-cons were ever even released. Back when [Card]Craw Wurm[/Card] tribal was a legit deck you could run into. Back when some enemy color combinations only had two legendary creatures to build around. Back when creativity was king!

Rule Zero

Fast forward to May of 2019, the Commander Rules Committee introduces what they, then called “Rule Zero.” The idea that, as Commander players, we are to discuss play experience prior to actually starting a game. I’ll repeat, play experience. Not deck power levels. Not how optimized our decks are but, play experience. I bring this up because I believe, by and large, this isn’t happening. Granted, people are talking prior to games of Commander, but they’re talking about the wrong things. They might be asking the wrong questions. They might be angle shooting to try to gain some scumbag advantage, once the game begins. We’ll touch on those things, but first, some literature.

If you visit the official Commander website, there’s a philosophy page. It outlines that simply following the rules for Commander isn’t sufficient to ensure a good play experience. I recommend that all Commander players read the Philosophy of Commander. It’ll only take you a couple minutes.

Some people call it Rule Zero, like myself. Some, “the conversation” or, the pre-game discussion. Whatever you know this conversation by, it’s important to use it to get on the same page as your opponents. The same page as far as what type of fun you expect out of the game and how you intend to extract that fun when you sit down in a pod to jam. If there is a gross mismatch in deck power levels, it’s typically no fun for anyone. Even the player with a vastly over-powered deck. That player probably wishes they didn’t suck the life out of the pod. Or, that they were in a more powerful pod as to be challenged instead of steamrolling everyone.

The Ultimate Goal is to mature the player-base to a level that is consistent with that of the player-base right around the middle of 2011. Just prior to the first ever Commander pre-constructed decks. I feel that was one of the greatest times in the format’s life. Decks were interesting, funny, expressive, bad and all the many other things in between. The point is that people jammed Commander together to have fun. There wasn’t a ton of Wizards of the Coast influence, content creators, articles or anything about how to be the best Commander player. It was just about fun.

The Goals

We have two goals this week. In accomplishing them, I believe it will help move the format in a direction that is more fun for everyone. To the best place it can be. The first goal, to raise awareness. Awareness that Commander is a fun and social format. A format for you and your friends. All of your friends. The tricky part is that fun can mean many different things to people. It can even mean different things to the same person given the particular group of people they’re playing with. Or, head to the next FNM, or Face to Face Games Open with. Our second goal is to examine some sound practices that can be used to assist with that Rule zero conversation. We will definitely explore some of the ways to have an effective conversation as well.

The first goal is easy. Have fun. Play cards that are fun for you. Build decks that you’ll like playing. You want to jam [Card]Scaled Wrum[/Card] like it’s 1995? Do it! You want to run [Card]Mistform Ultimus[/Card] every-creature-type tribal? Do it! This is your format to have fun in. The hard part comes when the cards you think are fun have an orb or sphere on their name line. Cards like [Card]Winter Orb[/Card] and [Card]Trinisphere[/Card] come to mind. While you might find locking your opponents out as fun as Saturday morning cartoons, they don’t. That is, unless you all decided that was the play experience you wanted to culture in that particular game. Enter, Rule Zero and our second goal of the day.

Prior to starting a game of Commander, players in the pod are best served if they decide what type of game they want. A janky, casual, tribal theme game is fine. A super spikey, first player to blink loses game is great too. As long as everyone is on the same page. I’d like to make everyone aware that both ends of the spectrum of power AND desired competition level are okay in Commander. The format is all about crafting the play experience that you’d like to have. That’s what’s fun. The key here is being able to communicate that to others. And, to be able to interpret how people are communicating that to you.

Let’s break that down a bit. When I use the term power level, what I mean is, the absolute power/speed/consistency of the deck, in a vacuum. These are your hyper-tuned, broken-strategy type decks. The ones that beat you on turn three, or sooner, every time with disruption or counter magic to back themselves up. These are the powerful decks in the format. The [Card]Thrasios, Triton Hero[/Card]/ [Card]Tymna the Weaver[/Card] decks. The [Card]Flash[/Card] [Card]Protean Hulk[/Card] varients. Things like that. When I use the term desired competition level, that’s a little harder to put one’s finger on. Your desired competition level is, essentially, your willingness and ability to be the one that dominates a game. The differences between these two phrases is commonly misunderstood amongst the Commander crowd. One is deck strength and can only be compared to other decks. The other, is our desire to win.

When these two phrases get mixed up, or miscommunicated, our format runs into trouble. So, here are a couple ways to make sure you’re doing a good job in communicating both terms effectively.

Power Level

To make sure all decks in a pod are on a similar power level, it’s important to both ask meaningful questions, and to give honest answers. The most common way Commander players do this is by asking ‘what power level is your deck’? While this seems like an easy and effective way of going about things, it’s slightly more nuanced than that. Just putting a number to your deck’s power level, on a ten-point scale won’t cut the mustard. It’s a shortcut for people that aren’t skilled at communicating Magic terms. Or, for people who aren’t as familiar with Commander culture. This ten-point power scale is ultimately designed for the newest-of-new players, or the lazy players that are unwilling to communicate more effectively. The players that don’t know how to articulate how their deck wins, how consistent it is, how many tutors it runs, etc. Or, the players that refuse to.

When you put a number grade on your deck, what you’re essentially doing is categorizing it. You’re making it fit into a box. A box that, on average, maybe it does fit into. The problem with this though, is that you might pop off and go ham on your opponent with the nut draw. You might make them feel as though you lied to them. For example, if you say your deck is a six on a ten-point power scale, but your opening hand had a couple of your fast mana artifacts and something that goes infinite with your Commander, you may have killed them on turn three. This is the type of thing that leaves opponents with a sour taste in their mouth. The kind of taste that makes them think you’re a lying scumbag, prize stealing, pub-stomper.

Instead, if you said something like, “My deck has several fast mana cards in it, and a couple ways to go infinite. If I draw them, I’d like to use them so I can fit more games into the day that I have here.” This second approach gives your opponents the heads up as to what to expect. Additionally, it gives them your reasoning for playing the type of combo that would kill them so quickly. From that information, they have a better idea of what to expect, which hands to keep or mulligan,  maybe they switch decks or ask to play in a different pod. All of those scenarios would make for a better experience, for everyone, rather than having three sour players and a fourth that nobody wants to play with again.

The inverse might also be true, you may be used to stomping your friends into the dirt and think your deck is an eight or nine out of ten. Not only are you the biggest fish in your pond, you’re the only person with a nine-power deck! When you get yourself into deeper waters though, at a bigger event, you might find that you were not at all being honest with yourself.

Ditching the numbers also makes you take a look at how your deck usually wins. More importantly, it makes you take a look at when your deck usually wins. Or, how consistently it wins. Again, if you can articulate those things without using numbers to categorize what’s happening, its going to make for a better time by all.

For these reasons, we need to abandon the idea that a number scale is an effective or accurate way to present deck power level. Instead, we need to rely on communication to describe how and/or when the deck is able to win on a consistent basis. Or, for some control strategies, how a particular deck is going to keep other players from winning. You might describe your no-win-condition [Card]Armageddon[/Card] deck as a three out of ten. After all, it has no way to win… Your opponent might see mass land destruction as an extremely power control move, based on what they’re used to playing against. If you described how your deck aims to control the game, instead of putting a power level stamp on it, everyone is going to temper their expectations and have a better time. In reality, you’d probably admit to yourself that you were never supposed to be in the category that your ‘number’ said you should have been in. [Card]Armageddon[/Card] control strategies probably don’t belong at casual tables. That type of realization is an invaluable lesson for players. When you can truly be honest with yourself, there’s no better thing for the Commander format.

Desired Competition Level

This one can be a little easier to manage. Or a little trickier depending on one’s ability and willingness to communicate openly.

Simply put, this is how badly you want to win. Generally, everyone wants to be the winner, in which case, you revert back to the power level discussion above, to craft your play experience. If that isn’t the case, say, there’s a couple people in your pod of four, with fun theme decks that just want to see their deck ‘do it’s thing’. That needs to be communicated. Those people can sit down with others that are looking for a fun adventure, as opposed to sitting down and racing to the finish line.

The nature of the beast is cyclical, really. Desired competition level leads to people wanting to play higher powered decks. Higher powered decks drive people to seek games where other’s want to win, at all costs. That never-ending loop of finding the appropriate game experience is what makes it challenging for players that are new to the format, or attending their first non-kitchen-table-event. For these people, take special care to make sure they are situated correctly in a pod or, as the experienced player, that your deck selection is appropriate to promote a fun experience for them. Ideally, at these types of events, there are multiple pods and opportunities to play different types of Commander games.

Larger Events

Generally, at larger events, there is a spectrum of tables. What I mean, is that at one end of wherever Commander is happening, there is a super spikey, ultra-tuned, competitive environment. All the way at the other end, there is a casual, just-for-fun-type area. They even have banners to denote the casual and competitive ends of the spectrum. Players can slide anywhere along that spectrum to find where their deck construction, play experience and expectations allow them to best fit. That is an ideal environment for Commander games to happen in. It’s no wonder MagicFests, and CommandFests in particular, have grown so popular over the past year.

If any part of this is giving you trouble at a larger event, by all means, speak with a judge. They are there to help in whatever way they can. They can help find pods that will work for you. They can give some advice that might be more relevant to the particular setup of the event you’re attending. They can even jam games with you at the end of their shifts. Some of my fondest memories of games at larger events come from playing against judges.

Recently, at MagicFest Reno, a new deck power scale was released. While it isn’t perfect, it is a good start. I enourage people to check it our. If anyone was to ever follow one such power scale, I would strongly recommend that you do not use the numbering scale as a means to describe your deck. Look at the description in each category given in the scale and decide where your deck fits best. Be honest. Both with yourself and also the players you’re sitting down with. Particularly, if they’re new. Giving away what a couple of the cards in your deck are, as a means to describe what it does isn’t the end of the world. It’ll give you, and that new player across from you, a better overall experience.

Speaking of better experience, if you’d like to increase your overall podcast listening experience, make sure you tune into myself and Brando on Commander Cookout Podcast each week, right here on Face to Face Games. We discuss many topics like this. The ones that effect the great community and format of Commander. If you’d like to chime in on this topic or, let me know what you think is an effective way to communicate expectations prior to a game of Commander, hit me up on Twitter @CCOPodcast. Above and before all other things though, please practice and play Magic in an honest and communicative way that makes the game as enjoyable for as many people as possible.