Elephant in the Room: The Casual-Competitive Schism

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I've been playing Commander for a long time at this point, upwards of six years. In all that time, I’ve heard a ton of complaints about things that would "destroy the format," be they Primeval Titan, the banning of Tolarian Academy, or the refusal to take Kokusho, the Evening Star off the banned list. Whenever something threatens to affect the format there's an explosion of discussion on various internet media like Twitter, Podcasts and forums, and ultimately everything turns out to be fine.

What I've seen drive more players away from Commander than every [card Sharuum, the Hegemon]Sharuum[/card] and Hermit Druid combo deck put together is people's inability to agree on what "fun" is and their insistence that they are correct. The topic is very polarizing for those who care about it. To be fair, there aren't that many people who are that invested in what fun means; most of us just want to play the game. That said, I've seen more than one group drift apart because one or two members couldn't resolve this issue.

In general, people fall into two camps. There are those who believe that if a card is legal, it's their job to break it in half; that it's their prerogative to build the most obscene deck they can, and other people should build and play up to their expectations. The other camp believes that if something isn't "fun" they should be able to house-ban it because it's not enjoyable for them.

The problem is that the people on either extreme of this issue are actually of the same mindset. Instead of just playing the game, they're interested in making other people play the game their way, because theirs is the "correct' way.

If you're part of a group that has one of these personalities, it's usually not hard to deal with them comboing off once in awhile or complaining about how a game ended.

The real problem comes when both of these personalities are in a group, and there's conflict between them. When that happens, people may refuse to play with others, tension runs high, and sometimes the neutral parties have to start choosing who they want to play with. In short, things can get ugly pretty quickly if the situation isn't defused.

What I want to do with the rest of this article is share some of my experiences from both sides, so that hopefully we can avoid more situations like this in the future. I've got three stories to share which are reasonably representative of the conflict in question, and which demonstrate the right (and wrong) ways to approach the issue.

On Being "That Guy"

One of the first Commander decks I ever built was an Azami, Lady of Scrolls High Tide deck. For someone who has mostly played fundamentally fair formats, there's certainly a draw to some of the unfair things you can do in Commander. I'd never had a real chance to play with stupidly unfair mana rocks like Sol Ring and Mana Crypt and had never played any kind of storm- or High Tide-based combo deck.

Let's be honest, there are few things more enjoyable than cantripping through your deck, finding more wizards to cast and turning them into more cantrips. The only thing more fun than that is using those cards to find a soft lock like Voidmage Prodigy plus a ton of creatures and Glen Elendra Archmage and Sage of Fables, or finding one of your two-card combos like Mind Over Matter plus Temple Bell or Hide Tide plus Palinchron.

As I got more proficient with the ins and outs of dynamic combo decks, my turns started getting longer and I started going off earlier. The problem is that this was fun for me, but no one else. I learned this when my college friends started to grab a baking timer and pass my turn for me once five minutes was up. Everything was all in good fun, of course, but at the time it was kind of frustrating. I was having fun comboing off, the cards I was playing were legal; why was I getting singled out?

The most exciting part of the game is the untap-upkeep-draw sequence. What's this turn going to bring? Am I going to hit my one-of answer or some bomby threat? People get agitated when it takes too long between their turns because that's the part of the game that's most interesting to them. It's when they get to be the most interactive and when they are the most important politcally, since their spells and creatures are more relevant and they get to attack.

The difference between a dynamic combo like Azami as opposed to a linear combo like Hermit Druid is that it actively takes time away from other players while you're going off. You don't just end the game so everyone can shuffle up and play more, they have to watch you do your own thing instead.

The moral of the story is that people want a chance to play, and anything you do that prevents that is going to generate bad feelings. Whether you like it or not, you have to engender good feelings if you want to have people to play with on a regular basis. Because of that, it's a good idea to keep track of how long your turns are and how interactive your deck is. If your answers are "pretty long" and "not very," then you might want to think about building something different.

On Playing Their Game

People who play these linear, non-interactive decks love to tell other people to add answers to combat them. It doesn't matter if they're playing Melira, Sylvok Outcast persist combo as their top end, or any number of other shenanigans, all they want to do is tell you to stop complaining and add graveyard hate, or artifact hate, or whatever it is to your deck.

Loathe as I am to admit it, oftentimes they're right. We all love to cut cards our decks need for more cards that do cool things, and sometimes that's not correct. Sometimes you have to cut the nth bomby creature for a Relic of Progenitus or a Shattering Pulse. If the axis along which players in our group are interacting is different than the one that we've identified, we have to be willing to tweak our decks to interact better.

That said, what many of these players don’t understand is that there's a fundamental difference between tweaking your deck and radically altering it to ensure you have combo hate online by turn five. All too often a more effective solution is to decide not to play against combo decks at all, and then it won’t matter whether or not they've adjusted to beat yours.

Two similar situations came up at one of my local stores not too long ago. One person played a graveyard-based combo deck to death. Every game ended on turn seven or so with some kind of infinite combo out of the graveyard, and people weren't enjoying it. Some of them repeatedly tried to talk him into building something different, or removing some combo pieces, but he insisted that they just add some hate.

So they did. One person built a mono-black graveyard hate deck with Withered Wretch, Nezumi Graverobber // Nighteyes the Desecrator and Leyline of the Void. One person built a mono-green graveyard hate deck with Scavenging Ooze, Night Soil and Krosan Reclamation. Yet another person built a mono-white deck with Stonecloaker and Salvaging Station/Auriok Salvagers plus Scrabbling Claws effects.

For about two weeks, the combo player's deck never got to do anything. Every card that hit the graveyard was exiled. All of his creatures were exiled instead of destroyed. His combo pieces were [card Sadistic Sacrament]Sadistic Sacramented[/card]. He wasn't really happy with how things played out, but he got the point and built a new deck. Now people enjoy their games a little more.

The other situation involved a mono-blue combo player, who wouldn't adjust his deck and insisted that other people play blue decks to interact with the stack more effectively. After a few weeks of trying to talk them into changing their deck, multiple people built red decks with Bloodboil Sorcerer, Boiling Seas, Curse of Marit Lage and all kinds of Pyroblast shenanigans. They hated the blue deck off the table by preventing him from doing anything relevant.

This player took it much more poorly, and now refuses to play Commander at that store.

I guess whether or not things turned out well depends on who you ask, but the lesson to take away here is that there are reasonable steps to take before taking extreme measures to get someone to change their ways. You can talk to them about it. You can tweak your deck. But if all else fails and your group really can't stand it, it may be necessary to use a more "forceful" demonstration of your joint displeasure with a particular deck.

On Walking the Line

The players on either side of this issue have very polarized views of the other. Competitive players think that the casual players are just ramming [card Craw Wurms]Craw Wurm[/card] into on another, whereas casual players think that all the competitive games end on turn three. In reality, neither of these things are true and most players fall somewhere between these two extremes.

That said, it can be very difficult to walk the line. At any given time you may find yourself on one side or the other, depending on who you're playing with. One of the most frustrating things about a format based on a social contract rather than a hard and fast banned list is that it can make playing with new people awkward. Sometimes it takes a few games to figure out if your deck is too good, not good enough or simply not interacting appropriately.

I've played with a lot of people at this point in a ton of different places: two colleges, three Grand Prix and all manner of local events. Each of these scenes presented decks with different power levels, different methods of interacting and all manner of other differences.

There are three solutions that I think are the best ways to prepare for this situation. The simplest is to have different decks at different power levels, which is the solution I've taken to. At the moment, I will regularly carry around my Child of Alara Lands, Kemba, Kha Regent, Grimgrin, Corpse-Born and Horde of Notions Planeswalkers when I expect to be Commandering.

Of those, Child of Alara is the only one that's overpowered for most playgroups, and it only gets broken out for other competitive decks or when people ask to see the deck in action. Kemba and Horde of Notions are more moderately powered, but each interacts differently. Last, my Grimgrin deck is mostly commons and uncommons and is designed for "underpowered" playgroups, so I'll usually play a game with Kemba and then adjust accordingly. I've also usually got a fifth deck floating around depending on where I'm going and what kind of players I'm expecting.

Another solution that sounds promising is the idea of an "extra deck" (not to be confused with a sideboard.) You can carry around your 99 card deck, and then however may other cards you may need to tweak it on the fly. More artifact removal, more enchantment removal, sweet cards that you can't always fit into your main deck. If you can take your deck home and tweak it, why not just bring the rest of the cards with you and do that between games? As long as you're not oversideboarding to neuter other people's decks and are just giving yourself ways to interact, this is an elegant solution for someone wants to avoid carrying around a suitcase of decks.

The last solution that I would advocate is one that Adam Styborski introduced me to at Pro Tour Philadelphia last year. Adam has a Commander Box, in which he has one copy of each card that he typically wants to play in Commander. From this box of 500ish cards, he can build just about any deck he wants in about ten minutes. It has the added upside of requiring only one of any given foil or artist-signed card to be used across various decks. This solution gives you near infinite flexibility when it comes to adjusting for a particular playgroup's level of competition.

Remaining Flexible

We all need to learn to be more moderate and flexible. Bad outcomes occur when one or more parties refuse to be flexible. As long as everyone respects the social obligation of trying to make the game fun for everyone, and as long as we can have mature conversations and meet somewhere in the middle, everything will turn out just fine.

This week's topic was a little more abstract, and may be irrelevant for some people, but it's something that's come up repeatedly in my experiences with the format. I'd be glad to hear what anyone else has to share in the comments, since I want to know how best to address an issue like this in the future.

Next week we'll see more of a return to form. I've gotten a lot of questions about the Kemba deck I've been running at Grand Prix and other large events, so I figure it's about time to share that list. If you share my obsession with mono-white decks and grindy attrition, be sure to check it out!

Carlos Gutierrez

5 thoughts on “Elephant in the Room: The Casual-Competitive Schism

  1. (This is one post, but is was too long for a single comment).

    I very much agree this issue is something people should seriously consider when sitting down for a game. Well written.

    I believe competitive players are most likely aware that they are in fact competitive players, given the nature of competition they are likely on online forums discussing the formats they play, reading articles, etc., they are like aware there is a distinction and on which side they fall. I think they have a duty when they sit down for a game to inform the other players about them being competitive players. I would expect the same of a casual player if they would be aware, but I feel the likelihood is smaller that they are.

    Of course in reality people don't do this :-(.

  2. Within my own group I am certainly one of the bigger fish. I win a lot, but rarely are there any complaints*. It doesn't matter what I play either, I even play the precons every now and then and still win more often than I lose (I can't seem to win with Kaalia at all though). I know how to play multiplayer games, especially very long ones. I know how to play them, but… I know how to play them with casual players. Having fun, letting people do their thing, playing politics here and there, joking around.

    So far almost every time I've sat down with unknown players I faced a situation where I would choose to do or not do something where my choice would make perfect sense in a casual setting. Every one of those times they proceeded to combo shortly after in a way that I would have stopped had I assumed competitive players.

    Now for example I don't want to be the guy who follows somebody's turn 4 Niv Mizzet with a Hallowed Burial because I assume they also came to have fun and would like to play with their toys for a bit, not combo ASAP. Unfortunately, that's exactly what I should have done in one of those cases and a play that I absolutely would have made had I known I was facing competitive players.

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