Am I The Bolas? - Of Nice & Men
Harmless Offering | Illustrated by Howard Lyon
Hello, and welcome to Am I the Bolas?
This column is for all of you out there who have ever played some Magic and wondered if you were the bad guy. I'm here to take in your story with all of its nuances so I can bring some clarity to all those asking, "Am I the Bolas?" Whether it's because of a mean play or even just getting bored with your playgroup, I'm ready to hear you out and offer advice. All you have to do is email email@example.com!
I'm Mark Carbonza! I'm Ramirez DePietro's eyepatch guy.
I made him one with the Dimir insignia, and he was like, "What is this symbol?"
This week, a story of trying to meet your friends where they are.
(edited for clarity and brevity)
WHAT'S GOOD, MARK?
So, full front preface, I am not at all used to playing at lower-power-leveled tables. I am used to building decks with the goal of winning in mind; not cEDH-level, but I don't typically shy away from putting in cards people don't like. I still have pre-game talks about what people do and don't want to see, and "sideboards" for my decks have come in handy a lot, but usually, I'm not building with lower-powered tables in mind.
However, recently a group of my friends fell down the Magic rabbit hole, and after a month of them playing kitchen table, they started playing Commander. Naturally, I wanted to join them. I knew my decks were too powerful for them, though (they're still very much in the battlecruiser french vanilla style of play), so I got two precons to play at their table (Ranar the Ever-Watchful and Henzie "Toolbox" Torre), as well as offering to help tune up their decks or help them pick out a precon.
To be clear, I wasn't going to turn their kitchen table decks into cEDH-level stuff, more like going from 2s and 3s to 5s. They all declined, but I let them know the offer was up as long as they were playing still.
We all sit down to play, the games are going fine, the precons are holding up alright. They're a little more powerful than what they're running, but my friends are having fun. After a few games, they ask me why I'm not playing any of my other decks and I tell them I don't want to overpower the table. They start to insist they want to play against them, I insist back.
Eventually, I begrudgingly pull out one of my decks that won't be too oppressive to play against, a Lonis, Cryptozoologist list. The other decks I had on me were a powered Najeela, the Blade-Blossom casual deck and a pretty standard Obeka, Brute Chronologist list. It went about as you'd expect: I outramped, outvalued, outdrew the entire board from turn one. It was a long grindy game, I couldn't find my win conditions in the deck and even when I tried to steal from their decks using Lonis, I never got much out of it. The game ended up lasting a little under two hours, and my three friends weren't having much fun. After the game was over, we were all quiet, just packing up and leaving. I insisted on not playing a personal deck and offered to help tune up theirs, but I can't help but feel like I ruined their fun of the game, especially considering they're very new to the hobby. I don't really know how to go about talking to them about this, so am I the Bolas?
An Offer That Was Refused 🙁
IT'S ALL GOOD, BUBBA!
Thanks for sending in this story!
I understand your preference for higher-powered Commander and how that leads you to optimize your decks to nearly guaranteeing an unfair fight at a kitchen table lower-power game. Having "sideboards" to de-power your decks depending on the match-ups is great! Take out some tutors and fast mana for some pet cards that got the axe in favor of consistency.
First thing's first: I've mentioned this before, but precon decks have gotten really good. They can hang with higher-powered decks. I love the work that's been done with recent precons, especially the Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur's Gate decks. Incredible work there, gang.
My point is, the introductory products have always been better than a pile of 100 random cards someone might have if they're newer to the game, but now they're even better than they used to be. That gap has widened considerably. Even the Henzie deck, despite it needing to survive into the late game to be effective, has a great chance of making it to the late game because lower-powered decks aren't really pushing back so much.
Offering to lend decks, power-up their decks, helping them pick out precons - all of these options are very nice of you. They're not interested, which is a bit of a bummer, but ultimately it's their decision. It's hard to feel like you have your place in that pod when you're playing decks that outpace them. Have you tried borrowing one of their decks?
An important piece of this conversation is that the pilot brings a lot to the table. Even if you borrow one of their decks, you won't have a lot of the consistency or power you're used to, but what you won't be able to shake is your understanding and knowledge of the game. You're not as new to Magic as your friends are. You can see the Rube Goldberg machine moments that MtG can create. Being a deck pilot is a skill, and if you nurture that skill with time and effort, you get better at it. Once you hit certain thresholds, you don't look back, like when you realize that trading life for cards is pretty good, actually. *Cough* Necropotence *Cough*
I'm not saying you won't ever be able to play with this table properly, but I am saying that you have different things to be aware of when you do. You are a lion playing with cubs, and someday those cubs grow up and buy themselves Storm Herd and Impact Tremors.
I can already predict people thinking I'm being condescending about this. People have less experience at the game and want to learn it their own way, so sparring with more experienced players is a great way to do it. If they refuse any of the more direct methods of assistance, like it or not, having the safety gloves on for a bit improves confidence and understanding so you can gradually up the difficulty. The goal is to make sure that your friends are having fun and that you are also having fun. Keep an eye on that for yourself.
Okay, finally, Lonis, Cryptozoologist was an awful pick for a deck to make your point. Lonis has a theft strategy built in as a failsafe, but when you're playing against underpowered decks, it's hard to imagine you'll be pulling anything great. I think to prove your point, you could have selected a very powerful deck to show them what can be done. Give 'em turn 3 combo kill. Give 'em Infect and token swarm. Give 'em Thassa's Oracle before they can play their commanders. I don't think karate looks cool because I saw someone kind of do a thing; no, karate looks cool when a master is at work. If someone says they can kick my ass and cracks their knuckles, it's less threatening or interesting than if he stomped his foot and cratered the asphalt.
I don't think a slog is what they had in mind when you said that you'd be able to beat them handedly if you used one of your own decks. A Najeela deck at any power level can bulldoze over most tables and is cool to see go off, and Obeka, Brute Chronologist is one of the coolest commanders printed that can showcase different rules interactions. Lonis is very, very cool, but players - particularly ones who don't know the game so well - dislike having their stuff stolen, and if the stuff that they have to take isn't strong enough to close out a game, it's double bummer.
I don't think you're the Bolas. I think you're doing your best, and I would recommend asking them what they want from you. If you can do what they ask for, then you'll be on the right path to making the group work. I figure as someone who plays so high-powered, you must have other places to play and other groups to play with. Let this group be its own thing and get your different level of fun in these other spots.
Thanks for writing in! I appreciate it very much! Let me know if it all works out!