Maybe it’s the Pandemic. Maybe it’s the fact that I haven’t had a play group in over two years and the games I have gotten in have run the gamut from extremely laid back to “how did I just die?” The vast majority of my time spent with Commander these days is trying to build decks so that when I feel comfortable going back out into the world, maybe at a CommandFest soon, that I have a decent variety of decks ready for the games in which I elect to participate.
This has filled me with near existential dread.
Even before the Pandemic, I had a tough time going into new situations and being comfortable. My spouse constantly reminds me that, when we started dating, her friends all thought I was weird the first time they met me and far more at ease the second. But even if I walked into a CommandFest and knew everyone at the tables, I would still feel ill at ease because of one of the underlying truisms about Commander.
I am not the only person out there who enjoys the 100-card format because it feels like a way to express yourself through the building of a deck. I can look at my entire history with Magic and pinpoint specific experiences I want to relive and craft a deck that allows me to have my very own cardboard Groundhog Day. And I can do that for each and every series of events I want to wade through time and time again. But Commander is not Solitaire and regardless of what I may enjoy doing, it does not matter unless I find a group of folks who agree with me – and each other – on what constitutes fun.
Now if you are lucky enough to have a consistent playgroup, this is somewhat easier. Over time, you can learn what different folks enjoy and what causes them to recoil. And like any relationship, it requires compromise where maybe you don’t break out the Stax deck all the time. But when it’s your turn to pick the playing field, folks best be ready for Winter Orb. Building a group like this can take time and even then, it does little for when you attend an open play event.
Even in established parties, things can get tense. I remember a game, quite vividly, where I used Elenda, the Dusk Rose and Ashnod’s Altar to cycle through with Nim Deathmantle. Though I lost the game, my friend and opponent looked me dead in the eye and bemoaned “looping game states.” This is someone I felt I understood their band of fun but that game forced me to reevaluate.
At the local game store I used to frequent before the pandemic, there was one player who had decks that were highly optimized for social play. They were redundant and if left unbothered, would consistently go off and win the game. People who knew this player’s reputation in these games would often go after them first which earned a certain amount of eye rolling from said player, who would regularly go on to win these games regardless. Even though these decks won in ways I enjoyed winning – there was a sweet combo involving a creature, Mikaeus, the Unhallowed and Tatterkite – the general vibe at the store was one where such refined lines of play were over the line. Another time at that store, I locked several more casual players out of a game with Constant Mists and Crucible of Worlds out of a Lands deck. In both these instances, these games took place in a community that encompassed multiple styles of play and tried to bring them all under one roof for a night of cardboard.
I still plan on venturing out into the world to play Commander with people old and new, but now I have a notion of what I want to be asking when I sit down with a group of players.
Are you looking to Play the Game or Do the Thing?
Now obviously every deck wants to try and Play the Game and most decks are trying to do something, if not the Thing. To me, playing the game involves just that: sitting down with a desire to jockey for position and eke out edges that may or may not end in victory. This involves rolling with the punches and dealing with interaction. It is about the social aspect of Magic. Doing the Thing is not mutually exclusive, but it is more about executing the plan. Are you trying to go off with Bonus Round or trample people to death with big green monsters? Are you optimized to Do the Thing or is it something that happens naturally?
I won’t lie – I fall on the side of Doing the Thing. My decks are all trying to execute their plan, often in a convoluted multilayered puzzle that would put Rube Goldberg to shame. But I have those layers because even though I want to drain out my opponents with endless Zulaport Cutthroat triggers I still expect to be disrupted – I know that people will try to stop me. And I have some builds that are much better at Playing the Game like my Ishkanah, Grafwidow deck.
Commander is an incredibly popular way to play Magic for so many reasons. It is one of the best ways to express yourself through deckbuilding and leads to some of the most social experiences. But like any interaction, a good game is going to be based on trust and communication – something that has come up time and time again over the past few years. Using a number scale might help but I think being honest with people about what you came to do – Play the Game or Do the Thing – will go a long way towards improving the experience for everyone involved.