Going Commander – How to Grow the Game

It’s coming.

This summer we will get the single-biggest release for Commander players since…well, ever. The Commander decks that Wizards is releasing will bring 5 ready-made decks, new generals, new cards, reprints and, perhaps most important, a massive focus on our favourite format. New players who never knew that Commander existed will be picking these decks up at the local hobby store or on MTGO and will be looking to dive in to this “amazing social experience” that we have been touting.

Think about it. Why did you start playing Commander? For me it was because there were a ton of cards in my collection that did cool things but were just too expensive to play in any competitive format. Even in the “Casual” room in MTGO they just weren’t cutting it. Commander gave me the chance to play these cards in a format where everyone else was trying to play their expensive bombs. Other players love the social interaction and the craziness that can happen during any given Commander game.

Unfortunately, some just want another format in which they can assert their alpha male status. These players are the ones who build the Hermit Druid decks, the Erayo decks and the Sharuum decks. They are the ones who will play infinite turn combos, combos that kill everyone on the spot and decks that just make the came incredibly boring for everyone else. It goes without saying that a new player who meets up with one of these guys is not going to have the “optimal” experience (sorry, I promise that’s the last Spike buzzword I’ll use) with the format and may not come back. If we want the format to grow and if we want more cool people sitting across the table from us, we need to avoid this sort of thing.

Of course there’s a second problem. Even if our theoretical new player sits down with these players, gets stomped and doesn’t quit the format, there’s a high chance that he thinks he has to build a faster, more degenerate deck in order to compete…and another Commandouche is born. This is what we need to avoid. So the question becomes “How do we avoid killing the format?”

No Tournaments

One of the major selling points for some people has been that Commander is inherently a casual format. It’s not DCI-sanctioned, play is supposed to be governed by social contracts and the “banned” list (which is just a suggested list) is specifically designed to remove from the format any cards that would be played in a tournament-quality deck. Magic started as a game to play while waiting in line at conventions or when you wanted downtime during a marathon D&D session. Now that Magic has developed a following on a par with D&D, Commander has become the format you play when you want a break from testing a new deck or grinding at a PTQ.

Recently the sanctioned Extended format has been coming under heavy fire, ever since Wizards decided to change the sets that were legal in that format. All sorts of alternatives have been discussed, from reverting to the previous rotation to making it “Legacy minus cards on the reserved list” to…getting rid of it and making Commander a sanctioned format.

This is quite possibly the WORST thing that could happen to Commander as we know it. Even if the current banned list were to be officially adopted, there would still be a whole load of Spike-oriented decks that could and would be played. Then you’d have people copying lists from pros, no longer playing for the fun and creativity options but instead to try and “live the dream” of making it to the Pro Tour. Erayo, Azusa, Barrin, Zur…pick your degenerate general, everyone! This is absolutely the wrong thing for the format and, although it will undoubtedly bring more players in, it will bring in players with an attitude that is contrary to the spirit of Commander. If you play this format for something more casual, then why would you want pros coming in and Spike-ing it up?

As a community we should absolutely be fighting against the format ever becoming sanctioned. I’m all for Wizards supporting it (and to be honest, they have been unofficially doing so since at least Alara block…just look at some of the cards that were clearly designed for Commander) but that’s where it should end. It’s bad enough that there are side tournaments at major events for Commander, but let’s try and limit the damage shall we?

Bring down the BanHammer

The “banned” list for Commander is, as I mentioned above, a suggested one. From what I understand (bearing in mind I play 99% MTGO) most playgroups modify the list slightly to add some of the more annoying cards and take off others that may not be so abusive. Episode 2 of the Horde of Notions podcast (starring an incredibly talented guy who writes for ManaDeprived…no, not KYT) did a grand job of discussing these cards in detail, so I’ll touch briefly on it here.

If you’re as tired of reading “Commander is a fun format” as I am of typing it, then much of this should resonate with you. Any card that lowers that fun level significantly should probably be banned. Now I’m not suggesting you always need to write up a concrete ban list, but have an unwritten agreement that, for example, [card]Arcane Laboratory[/card] and [card]Rule of Law[/card] should not be played. If someone new shows up and plays said card, wait until after the game and explain why it’s generally not played in your group. A reasonable person will understand and remove it while playing with your group. If they don’t…congratulations! You found a Commandouche.

The best thing about maintaining your own banned list is that you can change it at will. Sheldon Menery and his crew are humans with inconvenient things like lives and other commitments, and cannot spend all their time modifying the Commander banned list. If someone in your group thinks he can play [card=”Kokusho, the Evening Star”]Kokusho[/card] without abusing it, try it out. If it doesn’t work, back on the list he goes. Or is Kokusho a she? I ain’t getting close enough to check. Irrelevant. The point remains valid: don’t be afraid to experiment. If you want a cut-throat environment with ultra-quick kills and combo decks aplenty, then cut the banned list in half. If you want a slower, more social and more newbie-friendly environment, then maybe you should expand that list.

Be Part of the Solution

Because otherwise, you’re part of the problem. Whether or not there are tournaments, whether or not you have an official banned list, what you play and how you play it is your choice entirely. I’ve been playing close attention to some of the plays I’ve seen in Commander recently and I have to say, there are some real Commandouches out there. The line between being an aggressive player and being an ass is a fine one, but really it comes down to the environment in which you’re playing. We’ll get deeper into that in the next segment, but first I want to tackle this from a metatopic point of view.

People are going to play decks and combos and cards that aren’t social. They may accidentally include a combo in their decks (I’ve done it, and I don’t do cheese), they may not appreciate just how devastating or obnoxious a card is, or they might believe they’re just being aggressive. Whatever the case, there are three ways to respond. You can attack the person verbally, presuming the worst and labelling him right off the bat. This never does any good for anyone. Even if you’re accurate in your accusation, what good are you doing? A Commandouche isn’t going to stop being a Commandouche just because you called them on it. In fact, they are very likely to be WORSE as a result. Would you kick an angry bear in the nuts? Of course if you’re wrong and the person is innocently trying to win, chances are good that you just pushed them into full-on douche mode. Well done, that makes you part of the problem.

Second option is to ignore it and seethe quietly. This is OK in the short term and may even be preferable, as it allows you to see if a pattern emerges. However, in the long run this approach doesn’t help anyone. The innocent player never gets educated and the ass never gets called on his play. In fact, he feels like it’s accepted and will likely continue it or, worse yet…step it up. This too makes you part of the problem.

Finally, you can address the issue calmly. After the game, point out the plays that were less than socially optimal and why, and gauge the reaction. Sure the Commandouche is likely to ignore you at best, but I like to think that most players aren’t like that. Hopefully. Either way, you lose nothing.

Ethics? In MY Commander?

This is an issue that has penetrated our beloved game at every level. Jonathan Medina wrote an excellent column about the ethics of being a trader/prospector in the game, and took a large amount of flack for it. The whole Michael Pozsgay situation brought up the ethics of agreeing to scoop and the expectation of a reward for doing so. This shouldn’t be surprising; we live in a world where ethics are being called more and more into question. Politicians, sports icons and celebrities have all been in the spotlight for ethical dilemmas, and it’s increasing. Commander is hardly exempt. In fact the political nature of the game makes it more prevalent, if anything. There are all sorts of ethical questions that come up during a game of Commander, and how you answer them can easily determine whether or not the others at the table will want to play with you again. Or play the format at all, for that matter.

There are some things that, in my opinion at any rate, should just never see the light of day in the average Commander game. Now some play groups are absolutely fine with Spike decks that blow up lands or take infinite turns or counter every spell. However, most aren’t. It’s also very likely the worst possible way to introduce a new player to the game, as we mentioned before. It’s not always as cut and dry as “Don’t play [card]Erayo, Soratami Ascendant[/card] decks” or “don’t destroy land every turn.”

My own set of ethics for the format won’t allow me to play infect until the rules change, for example. Commander is a format that is meant to encourage longer games and allow more time to develop resources. That’s why you have twice as much life. Right now, we don’t have twice as much “poison life” to play with. I don’t see any fun in playing a game twice as fast as any of my opponents, to be honest. Well, it’s almost 4 times as fast really. Unfortunately there are a lot of people out there who think turn 2 [card]Master Transmuter[/card], turn 3 [card]Blightsteel Colossus[/card] with [card]Lightning Greaves[/card] is fun. Well, it isn’t. Not for anyone else in the game.

Then there are the mono-black control decks. Now virtually any mono deck has the ability to make the game unfun, but black wins this battle. Unlike some of the other things I will talk about here, mono-black decks actually have a place in the game when you’re not trying to indoctrinate a new player. But cards like [card]Lethal Vapors[/card], [card]Painful Quandary[/card], [card]The Abyss[/card] and their enabler [card]Xiahou Dun, the One-Eyed[/card] literally prevent anyone from playing their decks. Black also has the most tutor effects and some of the best mana multipliers in [card]Cabal Coffers[/card] and [card]Magus of the Coffers[/card]. The deck is more oppressive than mono-blue, has as many sweepers as mono-white and can match beef with mono-green and grief with mono-red. Any deck that punishes another for playing all parts of their deck is off my radar.

The final type of deck I want to highlight as one I avoid is the one that just makes it impossible for others to win. Now I’m not saying decks like the [card]Mycosynth Lattice[/card] – [card]Darksteel Forge[/card] decks are unbeatable, but they are annoying as all get out and really take away the interactivity and fun from the format. Unlike cards like [card]True Conviction[/card] and [card]Asceticism[/card], you can’t actually interact with that combo except with a handful of cards, mostly in two colours. I do have an artifact-heavy deck but I won’t run either of these cards.

It’s not all cut and dry though. It’s a very thin line we’re walking here. Aggressive decks in Commander are just fine, and in fact are good starter decks for neophytes. Some forms of control deck are tremendous fun to play against because they give the new player the feeling that he decides what stays and what dies. The key is interactivity. If your deck is designed to stop every other deck at the table from interacting with you at all, then you’re likely That Guy (as the guys at CommanderCast put it) who is ruining the fun for everyone else.

There is a world of difference between playing to win and playing to win at all costs. There’s nothing on the line in a game of Commander. If you lose, shuffle up and play again. If you get knocked out first you can still sit, watch, take part in the banter or, if you’re lucky, go start another game. Nobody wants to lose but when you’re playing for fun, it should be far easier to build a bridge and get over it. Losing because someone else doesn’t get this concept is the issue at hand, and that’s hopefully what I’ve helped you with today. Ask yourself: am I the only one with the problem? If so, am I the one that caused it? Am I tilted because I lost, or is that guy really playing an unfun deck? Before you try and fix the problem, make sure it’s not yours.

Go Forth and Multiply

If we can all keep these principles in mind where appropriate, we can exponentially grow the follower count for the Commander format. Remember that you’re playing this for fun, to pass the time, to enjoy some crazy card interactions and to take a break from the other side of Magic. When we start to see the format as anything other than that, we’re heading down a dangerous road.

You can check out more from me each week on the Horde of Notions podcast, where we talk a lot of off-kilter strategy and tech. Next time I will be bringing you the New Phyrexia set review from a Commander perspective. Stay Cool, Rock Hard.