Commanding at the Innistrad Prerelease

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Tomorrow is the Innistrad Prerelease, at least for us here in the US. You're going to have lots of great options for playing with the new cards, and your local game store will undoubtedly be running a main sealed deck event where you'll get to try out all sorts of new toys. They may also have a draft or two for you to get a head start on the format with.

Prerelease has always been a time to meet new people, but this time's going to be a bit more than that for me. By the time this article goes up I'll have just moved three hundred and fifty miles south from my native San Francisco to sunny Los Angeles. This Prerelease is going to be a golden opportunity for me to meet some new friends and integrate into a new Magic community. Let me tell you, it's going to take some adjusting after playing at the same shop for the past five years. While I love Limited, in my experience it's easier to get to know people when things are a bit more laid back in, say, a game of Commander.

The Issue

You may not be moving right before Prerelease, but it's nonetheless a golden opportunity to meet a new group of people to play with. More opportunities to play Magic are always welcome. There's just one hurdle between me or you and a happy future of friends and Commander games: communication. A big part of what makes Commander great is the fact that your playgroup can adjust the format to fit their level of play. Sure, there's an official (and newly updated) banned list, but I'd guess that you and your friends have 'banned' at least a couple of cards that aren't on there. Is your group okay with Armageddon? Time Stretch? Power Artifact? But if somebody new were to walk into your group, how would they know what is and isn't allowed? If somebody sat down in my old playgroup and started killing the table on turn three with Hermit Druid and Necrotic Ooze repeatedly, you can be sure they'd get some attitude.

Of course, individual cards are just the tip of the iceberg. Does your playgroup consider [card Sadistic Hypnotist]mass discard[/card] unfun? What about [card Avalanche Riders]land destruction[/card]? Counterspells? [card Oblation]Tuck effects[/card]? The list goes on. Hell, I might even get a bit upset if you spend too much time using Sensei's Divining Top or Mirri's Guile, and I know people who would be unhappy to see an Underground Sea across the way.

The long and short of it is that it's pretty much impossible to predict ahead of time what taboos people you've never played Commander with before hold, and even if you asked before building a deck to play they probably wouldn't think to mention half of the things that upset them! Playing with new people is bound to entail stepping on some toes, but all of us, both entering new groups and receiving new players, ought to do our best to mitigate this eventuality; not only to make our first few games more fun, but to avoid turning people away or making ourselves unwelcome.

Entering without Breaking

So I'm about to start up my first round of a new Commander scene, and as much as possible, I want to ensure that nobody is going to have second thoughts about letting me into the game. The easiest way to upset your new would-be-friends is to crush them. Please, for the love of [card Karona, False God]Karona[/card], don't bring your strongest deck to an unknown table. Being outgunned isn't a whole lot of fun, but I'd rather start with a couple of games that are less exciting than they could be to avoid the chance of losing out on a lot of future friends because a new group perceives my decks to be broken.

But the thing that's so upsetting about a broken deck isn't that you're unlikely to win against it, it's that you feel like you never really had a chance. You know what else makes people feel that way? Everything else on that list.

  • [card Cabal Conditioning]Mass Discard[/card]: “I had no cards to play”
  • [card Strip Mine]Land Destruction[/card]: “I never had enough mana to cast my spells”
  • [card Decree of Silence]Countermagic[/card]: “I couldn't resolve any of my spells”
  • [card Spin Into Myth]Tuck Effects[/card]: “I never even got to use my Commander”

As I've stated numerous times, people came to Commander to play Magic. Not every group considers each of the above effects unfun, but they are all inherently unfun. Only through reacting with our heads instead of our guts do any of us forgive an opponent from disrupting our game plan. As I said above, it's better to be safe than sorry, so I'm planning to bring a very proactive deck to Prerelease. The extent of my answer suite will probably be about eight cards, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Being a Doormat

But most of you probably aren't entering a new gaming scene. Nonetheless, you'll be dealing with the same issues: people you've never met (like me) will come waltzing into your Prerelease venue eager to get in on some Commander action. Some of them may integrate flawlessly, but more likely than not, somebody's going to play something you're not cool with.

Stay cool.

You're not doing yourself any favors by getting passive-aggressive when a new face combo kills the table. Sure, they might be a jerk, but more likely than not they've just come out of a more competitive playgroup than yours. That's not to say that you should ignore things that aren't fun for you, just calmly explain that your group has more fun in games where 'X' isn't involved, and please, present some reasoning beyond “we don't like it.” People might get defensive, but once it becomes obvious that your groups' decks aren't playing at the same level most people will take the hint.

Competing for Fun

Then again, you may run into somebody who has only played hyper-competitive Commander games and isn't even interacting with your group's decks. Should that come to pass you'll probably need to go a bit further than addressing specific cards or effects. Having initially come to the format with a competitive mindset myself, I can say that adding constraints is nothing more than adding a new set of rules to a competitive game. To truly integrate a competitive player into a casual playgroup, you need to get them to stop evaluating things based on power and focus on enjoyability instead.

It's tough. I still struggle with adding cards to decks because they interact powerfully rather than enjoyably, and at some level I believe it goes against human nature to do otherwise in a game that has a victor. The first step, and the only one you can really take with somebody you don't know very well, is to encourage them to play with cards they like. If you hear a comment like “I wish I could play Shivan Dragon in here, but it's just so bad,” pounce. Reassure your inductee that the format is casual, that not only do they not have to worry about optimizing their decks, but that they can win plenty of games regardless of how bad the cards they play are. The rest is basically out of your hands, but the hope is that they will enjoy bashing with Shivan Dragon much more than they enjoy naming a commander with Declaration of Naught. Awareness will start to impact their card choices.

Wrapping Up

I hope some of this advice has been helpful in preparing for you local Prerelease, but here's the most important bit: don't metagame.

I'm not talking about building your deck to beat those in your playgroup, I'm talking about turning this advice into a game. Yes, people are somewhat predictable, but they nonetheless deserve a shot. Don't start espousing your group's preferences to everyone who joins a game, just play and have a good time because it's awfully hard to min-max human interaction.

Jules Robins
@JulesRobins on twitter

3 thoughts on “Commanding at the Innistrad Prerelease

    1. Sorry I didn't see this earlier! If you're planning to go to a Sunday prerelease, I'll be at All Star Baseball Cards on Robertson. If you're there make sure to say hi; I love to hear from readers and I'm not exactly opposed to playing Commander either…

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