Beyond Rule Zero: You're Not Going to Like Every Game of Commander

Amanda Stevens • January 16, 2023

"Untap, Upkeep, Draw. I'll cast High Tide, then I'll cast Dark Ritual. Three black floating. I'll tap to cast Preordain, one floating. I'll cast Frantic Search, I'll draw two and discard two. I'll have four black floating and three blue floating. I cast Turnabout. I have one black mana left. I'll cast Mind's Desire -." A player at my table looks at me and says one phrase "turn economy."

Lately I've seen a lot of discourse on EDH Twitter about a clash in what makes a deck casual versus what makes a deck competitive. This is largely an extension of some of the other topics we've talked about here in Beyond Rule Zero like power levels and how competitive isn't bad.

An Understanding of Time

One of the things I've noticed is that oftentimes I am not seeing a clash of hard and fast criteria for what differentiates a deck from being competitive or casual. Instead, I am seeing a fundamental difference in play philosophies. In what makes a game fun. In how you should play in order for the rest of your pod to have a good time.

One of the ways I've seen people talk about keeping a game fun for everyone is the concept of turn economy. The basic premise is that turns shouldn't take too long so that the rest of the table is able to spend more time playing Magic instead of watching you play the game, And to be honest, I don't completely disagree with this.

Something that I miss from being a competitive player is the round clock which encourages players to play with more pace. In casual games there is no clock, so there is no pressure for people to take their turns expediently. From that perspective, I am down with the concept of turn economy. What I disagree with, is the idea that turns with multiple game actions are a sign of not respecting the pod's time.

Some players don't want to play control, aggro, or midrange decks. Some players enjoy combo decks or decks that rely on high synergy to win games. These kinds of decks rely on turns with multiple game actions in order to win the pod or at least set up for the win. If we equate taking multiple game actions to not respecting the pod's time we are limiting the decks we view as acceptable to be played at the table.

Not Yucking Other People's Yum

Another thing I've noticed about the EDH community is falling into the trap of absolutism. I often see people talk about the format, both as a whole and how they experience it, in the narrow view of their own gameplay experience. So, when you hear people talk about cards like Drannith Magistrate or how they experience combo decks it is rarely thought about from a big picture.

For someone like me, I don't build decks that rely on my commander too heavily and the ones that do rely on my commander also run a lot of single target removal. A card like Drannith Magistrate doesn't impact my decks too heavily. But I understand that not everyone builds their decks this way. Which leads me to not run Drannith Magistrate in a lot of decks and definitely not in decks that can defend it too well.

What I've run into is that because people don't like an aspect of EDH they think it is toxic to the game. I have run into this a lot as I have worked to improve my Rona, Sheoldred's Faithful storm list. One of the advantages of playing a Dimir storm list is that you don't need to be as honest as the Izzet lists. You can often storm off without having a lot of board presence - as evident by the opening of this article. This has led to two very different interpretations of my deck.

On the one hand, I have opponents who do not appreciate feeling like they lost the game out of nowhere; whether it be turn five or turn ten. They feel like the fun of the game was stolen from them. On the other hand, I've had opponents tell me that even though they lost they had a good experience. This is either because they've never seen a deck do what mine does before or because they've never seen a player play a storm line so quickly or efficiently. Neither perspective is wrong. You can dislike losing to storm, but you also can't say that people who play storm are the antithesis to having fun.

Getting to an Understanding

Where is this conversation going? I've been talking about this with friends and at my local Commander Night. I think people forget that EDH is not a 1v1v1v1 format. Or, at least, I don't think it is. I think EDH is more akin to a board game. A multiplayer experience where you bring your own board pieces and are agreeing to share a gaming experience with three other individuals.

I don't know about other people, but when I sit down to play a board game with a group of people I get very chatty. Politics of a game aside, I like to talk to people about what they like about the game, Or how new to the game they are. I want to know more about the people I am playing with because I believe that will enrich my gaming experience.

I've been paying attention to the way players talk before, during, and after a game since I started writing this series. What I've noticed is that players don't often spend too much time on the pregame conversation. A lot of the conversation during the game is spent mostly on politicking and jokes. And the post game conversation is often centered around "well, if I drew this" scenarios. I think, a starting point, is trying to encourage better post game conversations. I understand that pregame conversations tend to get truncated because people just want to play.

But post game conversations should be more of a thing. I want people to try talking about things that they enjoyed and didn't like about the game. And not just "you destroyed my thing and I didn't like that." But more talk about the flow of the game; was it too fast or too slow? Talk about the thing that was really unique or point out a line of play you were expecting but didn't materialize.

I think having these conversations more frequently, especially with people you play with with some regularity, will lead to shaping better overall gameplay experiences. And even if it doesn't, maybe you'll find out something cool about your deck that you didn't even realize.