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Magic: the Social Interaction-ing

So here we are, in the midst of a pandemic that keeps us from our preferred way to play – in person, with paper.

Friends and opponents both old and new are getting ready to sling some spells and collect good stories along the way. Just how do we approach Magic’s best and brightest format in these times?

Well, we do what Commander players do best – cobble together jank and make it work.

A Social Format, Not Necessarily a Casual One

It’s long been said that Commander is a ‘casual’ format. In one sense, that’s very true – there is no overarching tournament structure, games are generally played as a one-off, there’s no formal body that tracks wins/losses, and Commandfests don’t have Day 2s or a winner of the tournament at the end of the weekend.

However there is absolutely a high-powered, intensely technical, no-holds barred sub-format of Commander that is quite competitive in nature. There are additionally non-cEDH pods that value intense play, high interaction, and a more cutthroat approach than might belie calling the format “casual”. So while the format is casual as far as its structure and lack of formal OP tournaments, calling Commander a social format might be a better way to make the distinction.

Because of the inherently social aspect, and the likelihood that playing Commander will give you many chances to play with complete strangers, it’s helpful to assess what you want out of your EDH experiences. We learn how to communicate with our new or existing podmates, and no matter what group we find ourselves in, we have fun! Naturally we won’t always be in perfectly aligned groups or with our friends where we already have a rapport; so there are probably a few things you should ask before you play that first land for turn.

That Pesky Social Contract

Commander’s multiplayer nature gives it some additional issues that likely never rear their heads in the realm of competitive play. Mainly, the goal here is fun – with no win/loss record that follows you from one pod to the next, every game is an opportunity to have a good time. That being said, this generally means you need to quickly check in with your pod/playgroup and clear up what everyone’s expectations are – including yours. This isn’t something that comes up in the PTQs or Modern tournaments where the goal is straightforward winning.

It’s really important to be able to articulate what your idea of fun is in a game of Commander.  How do you feel about playing against aggro, enchantress, stax, control, tribal, or some weird amalgamation of all of those? Having an idea of what archetypes and playstyles you find challenging and engaging (or enraging) can help you make the most of your games. You can always challenge yourself to learn how best to play around the styles you don’t like to both give yourself versatility as a player and ensure that you can find fun with anything you face.

UGH Not The Power Level Talk AGAIN

To read about it on the internet, the default power level conversation seems to be people guessing the power level of their decks on a 1 to 10 scale where everyone says they’re a 7, and everyone is wrong. While it seems to be an easily understandable scale and framework, it’s unfortunately without context or a consistent baseline for players to use as a gauge of what any number on that scale actually means (though it seems that there is some consensus that 10 = cEDH.)

While that was of course intended to be tongue in cheek (of course you can trust everything you read on the internet!), blindly using a number system for power level can still leave much to be desired. There are some very good guides out from Command Zone & Commander’s Quarters on methods to evaluate your deck, use the numbered power tier system, or measure the cohesiveness of your decks. These are definitely helpful in establishing a frame of reference for everyone in the pod and at least bring everyone closer to a realistic assessment and clearer expectations. Additionally, if you have a playgroup you’re comfortable with, you can always ask what power level they might assign your deck to get some additional insight. Dave Kosin wrote an article here on ChannelFireball about a lot of the nuances within the concepts of power levels here in EDH, and it’s worth a read.

Personally, I find that asking your podmates who their Commander is, what archetype they’d assign their deck, and on what turn their deck can reliably go-off/become unstoppable (even with interaction) can give a little context to what you’ll be up against. This approach also gains you valuable information without making them spill their entire strategy, or guess at a number based on a system where a “it’s a 5” could mean any number of very different things.

Things to Consider in Our New Normal

This conversation is even more important in online webcam play, which has its own additional set of challenges. Commander has its share of impressive and difficult-to-track board states, and the challenge of keeping on top of everything on the board is exacerbated by camera resolution, screen sizes, and not being able to maintain encyclopedic knowledge of every card in Magic’s history.

Give people the same courtesy you would appreciate if you couldn’t read a card, needed an interaction explained, or had a rules question. Assume one another’s good faith and be ready to re-read cards. Ask for reminders and have a little extra patience with the other players at the table. Being nice can always go a long way – and maybe find you a new group to play with and learn new things from.

Especially in the time of playing games online, consider switching out decks with a lot of stealing, cloning, or taking control of other players’ turns. It can be really hard to keep tabs of who is in control of what, figuring how best to reveal cards to only one of the players at the table, and deal with cards “leaving” someone’s graveyard/being in exile with some of these effects. I’m not saying there’s no place for them, but check with your pod out of courtesy.  If you’re getting ready to play your Hapatra -1/-1 counters deck online, consider asking if your opponents have dice at the ready since you’ll be affecting their board state; it’ll be tough to keep track otherwise once the game is underway.

Playing online can take a little extra effort and patience, but at the same time the payoff can be incredible. You can find other players you might never have met, play from the comfort of your own home and probably cobble together four people online at probably any hour of the day. While it’s no substitute for sharing space with our friends and fellow players, Commander can help us make the best with what we have.

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