I love the Commander format. It was meant as a casual and “fun” format. It has proven itself overtime to not only be fun, but popular as well. This statement is overly romantic. The format has a few problems. Many advocates don’t talk about these problems much due to the nature of them promoting the format. It is only logical that proponents only talk about the positives. However, I feel some of these issues need discussing. This article isn’t meant to air out some dirty laundry to shame anyone. It is meant as a way to discover, discuss and to clean up some stains.
Even the most well-meaning of play groups can degenerate into a clash of power as fun takes a backseat. Frankly, it is human nature and the natural flow of gaming. The common practice is to build a deck and sometimes it is built just with the cards we have at hand. As time goes on, we buy more cards. Often those cards are upgrades. Many players didn’t mean to go out and buy an Avacyn, Angel of Hope. It was just in one of the packs that was cracked at FNM. Since it is now part of a collection, it finds its way into a deck. Over time, the meager power level of a deck creeps upwards and upwards. This doesn’t even include the pressure to win. Every play group is different, but there will always be one player who surpasses everyone at the table in terms of power or deck construction. Again, the natural inclination is to keep up and we all like to win. If somebody is beating us, players will adapt. Often, this adaptation slowly increases the power level of those decks.
The big problem with drift is that it can tear apart play groups. I’ve seen it. Many of the best games are when a play group first forms. There is no baggage or pressure. People generally bring what they consider fun or what they can afford. As time progresses, this changes as the majority of players up the power level to compensate. I will admit that sometimes this is warranted. I’ve built decks that are just too weak (by any standard) to bring to the table. With that statement, I am almost making my own point. After a night of very bad beats, I guarantee most people go home to revamp their decks and only return the following week to show off their new and improved deck. Sometimes, with gusto.
Power drift is a problem that is hard to combat and I will reiterate that is simply a natural inclination of most players. The problem will persist as long as winning is the only goal. Arguments will be made that this is the sole reason to play games. True, but if that is the only goal, the adaptation will always push towards power level. Let’s talk simple natural selection and evolution. In it, we know that organisms adapt to the environment. That is key. Organisms don’t choose the selective pressure. The environment dictates the selective pressure. If winning is the only pressure, decks will always gravitate towards power level.
The solution is to change or shift those goals or the environmental pressure. Sheldon Menery once wrote often about a point system. This helps to shift the goals of the group. It also helps to prevent stagnation among players. If a point system is included, it too should shift to change the different pressures upon its player base. An alternative is to include Schemes in multiplayer games. Another option is to include picking out of the hat in which players previous put effects on pieces of paper before the game. These can be randomly drawn before the game or during. Lastly, switch decks by randomly assigning the decks people brought to battle to another player (of course this is if everyone feels comfortable doing so). Some of my best games was playing some else’s deck.
I’ll dive into more solutions later, but the point I am trying to make that if winning itself is the only goal, power drift will always happen. At a certain level, this is fine. However, people’s decks will degenerate. When that happens, don’t be surprised if people begin having less fun. Maybe the point I am trying to make is that any play group needs to be cognizant of this trend. Simply ignoring it will not make the problem go away.
An often heated argument in Commander is the battle over the romanticized notion of the perfect Commander game. Everyone has an opinion on this matter. Those opinions become quite vocal when some experience the opposite of what they consider fun during game play. I’ve seen the nerd rage. Admittedly, I too may have ranted at an opponent or two in the past. We all have this fantasy of the perfect game. Every time we sit down, we yearn for that perfect game. This is especially true of our nature. When we take time for down time, we expect nothing but the best. Our time is precious. When our high expectations meet disappointment, we become upset or angry.
I feel there is this abnormally, ultra-high expectation for every game of Commander to be epic. I get it. We all seek those epic games. They are memorable and fun. We tell stories about those games. However, this just isn’t realistic. There are so, so many reasons. Sometimes it all depends on the other decks at the table. My Thraximundar deck is incredible in some games, but horrible in others. It depends on the people at that table and politics. Sometimes, one player gets an explosive hand and nobody at the table can catch up. In other games, somebody lands a hay-maker and nobody has an answer; then the game just ends.
What is a player to do? For one, lower your expectations. Research has shown repeatedly that people are the happiest the closer their expectations are to reality. If a player enters every game expecting it to be epic, they will be disappointed. The same goes for winning. A player can’t expect to win every single game. It’s just not possible. If you are winning every game, you may find yourself without a play group. The second, appreciate those great games. They don’t happen often. Laugh and love those games. They are rare like unicorns. Appreciate those unicorns and patiently wait until you see the next one.
What is this thing? Well, the problem is that it is very contextual. Some say it is meant for people to abide by playing a set of fair decks. I rather like the 75% terminology pushed by some. However, it largely depends on a particular play group. It also depends on the person. Everyone will have a different interpretation of the gentleman’s agreement.
Who is correct?
It’s what is right at that time with that particular play group. Game play will always be a changing dynamic. One year it may not be okay. The next year it will change as maybe other players add to their collections. Although, I’ve seen players blow up to a play even though they had just made an equally ridiculous play. I’ve once been yelled at for playing Eldrazi Conscription on one of my creatures even though they just dropped an Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre into play. I’ve seen people use Rite of Replication on an opposing Avenger of Zendikar, drop a land and then get mad when their opponent cast Reins of Power. I call it the ridiculous argument. Why? It’s because everybody is doing something ridiculous in a game of Commander. His ridiculous decks is just as insane as her ridiculous deck.
A general guideline should be your win rate. If you are winning too often, there are things to consider. Either help the other players build better deck or power down your deck. Another guide is how much fun your play group is having. Who’s having fun? If it’s just you, I think it is time for some self-reflection. For example, I took Vorinclex, Voice of Hunger out of my Mayael deck after too many groans. Nobody asked. I just took it out. Better yet, maybe it is time to have a conversation with your group. I know, I know, nobody likes to talk about these uncomfortable things, but it needs to be done. It helps to clarify everybody’s expectations. It’s good to get it out there on the table.
The most important thing is fun. What research has shown over and over again is that people have the most fun when paired with somebody on equal ground. Therefore, it doesn’t matter to me if one play group wants to play ultra-competitively while another wants to play at a lower level. As long as everybody has a general understanding of what everybody’s expectations are in terms of power-level, that’s what is important.
Everybody gets caught up in a mob like mentality every time a card is banned in Commander. Some argue on the axis of power level. There are other arguments, but it doesn’t matter. It’s not the point. Well, somewhat. Like I said, humans are humans and will be drawn naturally to abusing certain cards. Those cards become ubiquitous and the fun of groups in the format suffer. Are there cards more powerful than Sylvan Primordial? Yes they are. However, those cards aren’t always seen frequently and don’t warp the format into series of degenerate games. Cards like Time Warp are seen, but not to where everybody is playing them. Remember, many play groups police themselves to a certain degree and can tolerate these cards in small doses. This is regardless to their power level. Everybody who was playing green was playing Sylvan Primordial. In contrast, not everyone playing blue is using control magic or Time Walk effects.
The Grand Prix Factor
I’ll get this right out. I’ll never play Commander again at a Grand Prix.
The reasons for this are many. The biggest is the fact that people are attending a Grand Prix. For many, this is a big deal. As such, players are human and will bring their best decks to these events. Sometimes, it is simply to show off their master pieces. Other times, they simply don’t want to lose and bring their most powerful decks to play in those events. Nobody brings a mediocre deck to a Grand Prix. Are you kidding? As such, the power level at those events are much higher than normal.
The other problem is that the prize pay-out is medieval. Commander is its own entity. We can’t treat it like other constructed play. Paying out packs only to the winners only incentivizes bad behavior. Every time I’ve played in a Grand Prix event, it has always been the same. It starts out fun for the first couple of turns and then suddenly one of the players throws down their combo that annihilates everybody at the table. It is very off putting. New players always look especially depressed. Here they are at a big event to play a fun game and it just ends in such an anticlimactic faction. No one had fun. Even the combo player didn’t look like there was much fun to be had. They quickly grab their prize packs and disappear.
That was a waste ten minutes and five dollars.
I do believe this can be fixed. In the past, I wouldn’t have had a solution. Today, there is the ever popular and growing prize walls and Grand Prix. The solution is to give out prize points instead of packs. Those prize points should also be given out for things other than winning. You get one prize point for winning. If you are that combo player, here is your one point for winning. Thanks for playing.
In reality, Commander events at Grand Prix should be structured after launch parties. They are events, parties, and celebrations of the format. It should be a party and the focus should be fun. I will digress and admit there are certain logistical issues with this layout. It will consist of more judges or staff dedicated to the event. It will take planning. It will take time to grow these events to where Commander is a legitimate reason to attend a Grand Prix.
I believe all these issues are solvable. For one, I’d gladly pay $20 dollars for an awesome event rather than pay $5 dollars for a mediocre event. Finding the proper price point is simply a matter testing it out. Heck, I’d pay $50 for a super awesome event. To me, it is all about entertainment value. If that $50 dollars creates long and lasting memories of awesomeness, it is well worth it. Staffing is simply logistics. I will also guarantee that if those Commander events were awesome, I’m more than willing to bet that judges would be fighting over who gets to watch over those events. Everybody wants to be where the fun is at. Whether it is playing or simply overseeing the matter.
The key to all this is how those events are structured, how those prize points are awarded, and maybe even some comical prizes. Such prizes could be something silly, but a memento of that event. Maybe the prize is getting to throw a pie in the head judges face. Even raising money for charity would make it fun. It’s a crazy idea, but bounties could be involved to raise money for charity. For example, I place a $10 bounty on one of my opponents. If that player is knocked out of the game before me by another player, the bounty is collected. It’s not collected by a player, but by the staff. Essentially, people place bounties up for grabs which if obtained are then donated to charity. If people don’t like my said bounty, they could up it by offering up $20. I get knocked out first and thus $20 gets donated to said charity.
Anyway, the whole reason I’m on this soapbox is because I really, really believe that Commander at Grand Prix events can be so, so, so much more. The only reason Commander circles the drain at these events is because we treat it like a second class citizen. Commander players aren’t given their proper due. This hidden player base spent years in the dark. Suddenly there is now a format and full blown product line dedicated to us. However, we don’t get the respect we deserve at these large events. We spend ridiculous amounts of money on foils and other cards to bling our decks. We pay good money for cards that Spike won’t even touch. You event coordinators out their listening. If you want our money, give us a reason. You do that, we’ll open our wallets for you.
Stages of Life
I want to briefly cover that each player at the table can be at a different spot in their lives compared to the rest of the group. For some, this can be simply a career, money, and family. Money can be a big thing. When some players start rolling in some cash from a good job, this can have a drastic shift in the power level of their decks. They finally have the money to get some of those cards they yearned to have all those years. Other players may be at a different stage in exploring the format. In general, most players begin by trying to push the envelope. Those players are still exploring. The natural inclination is to try to break the format. This may conflict with veterans of the format who have already been there.
I’m not trying to preach anything here except maybe tolerance and patience. It is easy to forget that we all have been there. Maybe, some of us are still there and that is okay. I simply wanted to remind people not to get worked up simply because of these factors. Let player X go crazy exploring the boundaries of the format. It is only natural. Sometimes, us veterans simply need to be patient while some players explore their teenage years in the format. Yes, they may get into trouble. Yes, they may create havoc. Sometimes, we simply need to wait while some players outgrow that stage. With that thought, sometimes they may only need a little guidance.
Trackback from your site.