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Commander is a great format in its emphasis on the fundamental qualities that make Magic a fun game. Interaction, themes, history, and variety are all aspects of The Heart of Commander, my own guide to the social contract of Commander. However, each group has their own take on exactly what makes a game special, social, fun, and sometimes competitive. This is where a Rule 0 Conversation is essential to ensuring the entire table is ready to have an enjoyable time. Let's go over some incredibly simple, easy steps that will quickly identify what players need from their Commander games, and, what else can be changed to allow for more fun.
One note is that if your entire table wants to play an ultra-competitive CEDH game, I generally refer to that as "tournament practice." Obviously, if that is what everyone wants, there's nothing else to discuss; winning is all that matters in such a scenario. I will continue to encourage players to change their terminology from "competitive" to "tournament practice" to emphasize the distinction between that type of game experience and all others (i.e. NOT tournament practice).
The Rule 0 of Rule 0
The absolute most important point that all players need to agree upon is not something amorphous like "power level" or how "casual" they consider their deck to be. Numerous Commander players have expressed how many Magic players tend to severely underestimate the capabilities of their own decks.
There's a relatively simple question with a very simple answer I find to be the single greatest determining factor for correct deck selection pre-game.
"What turn does the game end on?" No matter how competitive or casual your deck is, if you cannot win the game on turn four, you don't have a turn four deck. Further, if everyone has settled on turn six decks, if the game continues into turn seven, all players have an equal expectation that at any moment from this point on, the game might end. Expectations set are expectations met, leaving no one disappointed with their experience.
While you must still trust players to understand how their decks work and you must also trust players to give you truthful answers, there's very little to be gained by being anything other than honest. If a group of four all play decks that seek to combo out and win by turn six, no one should be disappointed if the game ends on turn five, six or seven. Meanwhile, another group can be playing significantly more competitive decks that all focus on turn four wins, with turn three potential wins. Each of these groups would have a significantly worse time if they swapped some players and/or decks with the other group.
Further, if someone claims their deck is a turn eight deck and then proceeds to win on turn four, everyone else at the table is likely to become suspicious. Now, there is room for circumstance. If it's obvious that a player ripped a series of perfect draws or that their deck cannot do what they did without help from the table, that's not on said player. Great luck and outside factors are part of the game. You chalk this off to variance and play another game. But if this continues to happen with the same player making the same poor estimation of their deck, then the table should change their decks to match what that player is doing.
What if I genuinely don't know when my deck wins? If your deck truly has no "win condition," then casting and attacking with your Commander can give you a baseline. A regular 5/5 Commander for, say, five mana can definitely win on turn ten without any help. So, typically, you are doing significantly better than that. Consider the same situation with several cards that grant double-strike or double damage or additional attack steps or a power increase, and you are looking at turn seven or eight. As you can see, very few Commander decks are going to take much longer than seven or eight turns before going for the win. If you can accurately evaluate when the game ends, it sets up very reasonable expectations for all the players to give them time to prepare their defenses or go for their own wins that line up with the table.
Still unsure? The solution lies in playing games to see. As you refine your deck, it should become clearer where you fall. Let the other players know that, for instance, you just built the deck, or it is experimental and you are trying to get a feel for it. Most of the time, groups won't mind even if the deck is too powerful, as long as you give everyone a heads up pre-match and offer to play a different deck instead.
Finally, what if your deck revolves around making the game impossible to play, such as a typical stax deck or a heavy control deck? I would suggest that decks that are devoted to these ideas are not right for the typical Commander table. This is *definitely* a Rule 0 conversation to be had.
Okay, We Know When The Game Can End. Now What?
With the hard part out of the way, the main things left to identify are what amplifies your enjoyment of a game and what sucks the fun right out.
First, the Bad
According to EDREC, these cards are some of the cards that many players find vastly frustrating to play against. You can see a clear theme for most of the saltiest cards in land/resource denial. There are also many extra turn cards and "free" counterspells, with the rest often ending games on the spot. If your deck contains one or many of the cards on this list, make it known to the table. You don't have to necessarily let the table know what the EXACT cards are, but the more of them you run, the more the impetus is on you to find out if you're going to make everyone miserable.
These cards also give you good guidelines for what types of cards are generally responsible for players having a bad time. Just because Zur's Weirding is not on the top 100 saltiest cards list does not mean it is a fair or fun card, and it's a severe resource denial card much of the time.
In the same vein, one Counterspell is likely a non-issue for the vast majority of players, but when a deck has twenty or more counters, many players tune out. If you know your deck has bothered other play groups due to any element that stops players from playing, make sure to caution your table ahead of time.
For every type of card restriction or unfun thing you don't want to see in your games, you should try and let the table know what you DO enjoy. Like tribal decks? Let the table know! Do you enjoy Rube Goldberg combo decks with five-card interactions? Let the table know! A lot of the time, Rule 0 conversations dwell on what not to play and what can't be allowed, but an equal amount of time should be spent encouraging players to choose decks you want to interact with! Did I mention that playing Commander for Points can oftentimes encourage a variety of different decks to see play by giving creative players a reason to include different strategies?
I love old cards that can have paragraphs of confusing text referencing old terms or abilities that might not even exist in modern Magic. Not every Commander player is like me. I have to accept that my deck full of cards exactly like that might not be fun for many other players. This is not a "power level" thing; it's purely an enjoyment thing. Many players don't want to have to read and re-read every single obscure card that hits the table and it's just a boring game for them. In that case, I try and play something else.
If you know that certain types of cards, effects, decks or Commanders make the game awful for you, let the table know. Tired of extra or infinite turns? Let the table know! Bored playing against Krenko, Mob Boss and Goblin tokens? Let the table know! Again, it's not necessarily a power thing, it can just be an enjoyment thing or a lack there of. Most Commander players have multiple decks and don't mind switching, so assert your preferences.
Practice Makes Perfect
No single Rule 0 discussion can address all of the potential fun or problem cards for a local group. Not everyone is seeking the exact same gameplay experience. The suggestions here are what I have found to be the absolute most important and baseline questions that establish clear and succinct guidelines to get to playing in just a few minutes with complete strangers. If the table has the time and desire to discuss everything in more detail that's great; by all means, discuss away. But if you want to play in just a few minutes, find common ground on when the game is supposed to end, if there are any problem cards or strategies to getting to that end, and if there's anything that's a fun eraser.
Don't forget, though, to mention what you like and could do with seeing more of especially after the game! If you encourage deck building in that direction you will see that, gradually, groups will build into much more interactive and interesting pods.
Are you used to having these conversations with new playgroups? What are your go-to questions for your Commander Rule 0 conversations? Let me know down below!