Last week, Mike “Twinblaze” Cannon wrote a great article about the importance of building your decks with the goal of having fun. I’d already been thinking about writing this article, outlining how to fight optimization in casual formats (and of course Commander specifically), but it’s a big topic. Luckily, Mike has taken care of the deck building part, so today I’m going to talk about fighting optimization in game.
The bane of most casual Commander players’ existences is starting a game with a bunch of random people only to find that one of them has decided to play a completely unfair deck and spoil everyone else’s enjoyment. It makes your blood boil, but there’s nothing you can do (during the game). If your deck was strong enough to fight them off you would be a similar menace if they weren’t around, and it’s not as if you can switch decks in the middle of a game.
Unless, of course, you could.
What if every card in your deck could play nice or could turn into a precision strike against the person playing unfairly? There are nowhere near enough powerful modal spells (Esper Charm) or split cards (Crime // Punishment) to do that, and five Exarchs certainly aren’t enough creatures. By this point, those of you who are devotees of the Un sets may know where I’m going: how can one card be both Commandeer and Eye of the Storm? Both Ancestral Recall and Moonlace? Both Mindslaver and Knowledge Pool? Luckily for us, Magic’s creator discreetly gave us the tool we need: Richard Garfield, Ph.D. himself.
If played optimally, Mr. Garfield is ridiculously powerful. Azami, Lady of Scrolls is a pretty strong five mana play in blue, but the Doctor blows her out of the water. If you know your stuff, you’ll be hard pressed not to have an answer for any situation: after all, your spells are 40-part split cards, and perhaps more importantly your lands are ridiculous.
How does it feel to assemble the Urzatron(Urza's Tower, Urza's Mine, and Urza's Power Plant) in Commander without a tutor? Or put together Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth + Cabal Coffers + Vesuva (as a second Coffers) + Deserted Temple in a mono blue deck? Or just to plop down a Library of Alexandria if you need more cards? Or a Maze of Ith to protect you? Heck, after you drop Coalition Relic as Fist of Suns, and Caged Sun as a Mycosynth Lattice, you can even cast your lands as Ancestral Vision, Restore Balance, and friends. While a lot of casual groups are cool with Un cards, nobody’s going to appreciate that level of brokenness.
Then again, the good Doctor has other uses. All you have to do is make the wrong play. Remember, no matter how much of a Spike you are you’re not here to win; you’re here to have fun. Even if you enjoy winning a lot, you won’t have fun while everyone else is not only miserable, but berating you for making them miserable. With encyclopedic knowledge you could hold a Counterspell at any mana cost, but you also have the opportunity to pull off ridiculous feats that no other deck can accomplish consistently:
- What other deck will constantly put together the requisite number of Mana Flares and draw spells to Mind's Desire for 40, and then cast each of the revealed cards as a mill spell?
- What other deck could Trapmaker's Snare for Rite of Replication, then cast it kicked on a Sphinx of Lost Truths that they found using Eerie Procession?
- What other deck could successfully play Camarid tribal?
Surely your playgroup will appreciate the oddities, right? They won’t.
I’ve been running a Richard Garfield, Ph.D. list for a few months now, and I’ve set rules for myself on how I play in an attempt to make it fun:
1. I can’t stop a spell from resolving as it was intended to. This means no Counterspells, no Deflections, and no granting things Shroud in response to a spell.
2. I can’t combo off. This applies both to the Grim Monolith + Power Artifact + Goblin Cannon variety and that of Stasis + Mycosynth Lattice + Ghost Town.
3. Every play I make has to further the aim of making something ridiculous occur. No giving an opponent’s creature Narcolepsy etc.
4. Even if Richard reenters the battlefield as a new object, I can’t use him to play a card I’ve already named this game.
These rules are somewhat arbitrary, but more important is the principle underlying framework. These rules are in place to help ensure that I won’t overpower the rest of the table, but why couldn’t I just decide not to? For a player with any semblance of a Spike streak, it is excruciatingly difficult to knowingly make the "wrong" play, and with the vague instruction to "play fair" you’re going to have a hard time in the heat of the moment determining what does or doesn’t overstep the boundaries.
But rules? Those are easy. You already know that you can’t draw an extra card for your draw step, or attack with that creature you just played; if you clearly define whiich spells you can’t counter, then tell your group so that they can hold you accountable, you won’t have any problems.
Part of the Un issue with Richard is that he simply offers too many options. To adequately restrict his power level, you would need some set of additional rules, like:
1. You can cast spells and activate abilities only any time you could cast a sorcery.
2. You must play lands as themselves.
3. You can only cast creature spells.
4. Even if Richard reenters the battlefield as a new object, you can’t use him to play a card you’ve already named this game.
But even then, the abundance of options haunts you. When you’re still trying to play optimally within this set of rules, it takes a while to figure out what to play your cards as, and nobody likes waiting.
That said, building and playing this deck still wasn’t a total failure. Just as you can improve the skills that help you win in Magic by looking back at your defeats, you can learn to make Commander more fun by scrutinizing your failed attempts. Though Richard has his own problems, we can nonetheless apply his lesson in rule setting to other decks. And if you only have one deck, and often need to play in a competitive environment, I would recommend you build a strong deck, but come up with limitations for yourself for when you play with a more casual crowd. For instance, if you play Azami, Lady of Scrolls, you’re going to use a lot of Time Walks, Counterspells, and at least one game winning combo to compete, so playing casually you might want a rule set like:
1. No countering spells.
2. No taking extra turns.
3. No combo kills.
That will give you a whole lot of dead cards, but with the number of cards Azami draws that shouldn’t really be an issue. Of course, it may be difficult to properly evaluate how much you need to limit your deck, so just like in creating your own Commander it’s best to err on the side of caution. It's much better to sit feeling powerless one game, then tweak the rules you set for yourself, than to dominate a table and then struggle to convince your angry playgroup that your new, more stringent, rules will fix the problem.
Those of us with multiple Commander decks can do even better; we can build decks to different levels. Why not have an Arcum Dagsson deck for the cutthroat games you play, an Uril, the Miststalker list for the semi-competitive group, an Experiment Kraj list to play in your casual group, and a Boris Devilboon stack to play with new recruits? Of course, unless you build thirty decks, you’ll miss some levels of competition, so it’s nonetheless important to police yourself in game. You always want people to have fun.
There is one rule that we should impose on all of our decks unless we’re playing at the most cutthroat of tables, one rule that more than any other will keep things fun.
Don’t keep another player from playing Magic.
This is the intent of the format’s social contract, but that can only go so far. We all know it’s not generally accepted to play Armageddon or Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir + Knowledge Pool: nobody can cast their spells. Likewise, Myojin of Night's Reach ensures that nobody has any spells to cast, and Forbid + Consecrated Sphinx isn’t going to let anything meaningful resolve.
But in addition to these, there are less obvious ways of keeping people out of the game. On the next level down from these hard locks, Grave Pact makes trying to build a board useless as does, to a lesser degree, Avatar of Woe. Darksteel Forge invalidates your opponents’ removal, Tower of the Magistrate devalues equipment, and Aura Shards makes metalcraft unreachable. But even below this level, you can still stop your opponents from playing, and you can do it with cards you wouldn’t want to cut from your deck. Enough card draw in a deck full of counters is as good as Forbid, and Erratic Portal with Acidic Slime can play a brutal Aura Shards or even a slow Armageddon. Genesis with Duplicant is awfully similar to Avatar of Woe, and Tidespout Tyrant, Mnemonic Wall, and Spin into Myth combine to form a Declaration of Naught for each of your opponents.
The best thing you can do to ensure that your casual Commander games stay fun for everyone is to make sure that you aren’t taking away anyone’s opportunity to play, and to talk to your playgroup about doing the same. That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t answer threats, but rather, it should be worth your opponents’ while to make them, rather than leaving all of their efforts futile. Until next week, may all your games be back and forth.
@JulesRobins on twitter