Mechanical Engineering - Staple or Crutch? (or: Rhystic Study is a problem Part II)

Commander Mechanic • August 10, 2022

Rhystic Study illustrated by Paul Scott Canavan

Hey folks, I'm Chris and I'm YOUR Commander Mechanic. You may recognize me from my YouTube Channel or from guesting on major streams around the community. I'm a deckbuilder and brewer with a very analytical view of the format of Commander.

Some have said I take a competitive mindset and apply it to casual Commander, but I prefer to think of it as taking an efficient look at deckbuilding. More of the game is played before you ever sit down at a table with other players.

There's a lot to be said about other players' impact on play experience. Expectation mismatches, lack of communication, and differing opinions on what constitutes 'fun' can all play a part in how much you enjoy Commander.

Throughout this series I want to take a look at how you can improve play experience--your own and that of others--before you ever play a game. Avoid not being able to play the game due to deckbuilding issues, avoid imposing poor scenarios on others, and ensure you have concentrated efforts in mind when deckbuilding.

But, as always, Commander is about having fun YOUR WAY; don't let anyone tell you there's a right or wrong way to play this game.

Somebody to Lean On

Read part one.

I've been touring lately! What I mean by that is that I've hit a few of the recent CommandFests (Richmond and Montreal) and got to jam in-person Magic with a tonne of people, from other creators to fans and strangers. It's been an awesome experience and it has continued to broaden my horizons when it comes to this format of ours.

Commander truly is a wide-open format, and no two players approach it the exact same way. That's amazing, and it just shows how expressive the format is as a medium for creation. From theme decks to favorite cards to the stories behind the build, I've been able to sit down with players from all walks of life and levels of experience and talk to them about what Commander means to them. It continues to be eye-opening to see how people engage with Commander, what impressions people have of Commander, and the difference between the enfranchised player and the surface-level players.

With all of that being said, I've seen a lot of overlap in some areas. Part of this is the much-feared homogenization of the format; players are gravitating towards cards they feel they NEED to include in decks, either because they do something unique or because they are powerful enough that they warp the game around them. Let's explore that...

Singing the Same Tune

At these CommandFests, I've been taking time to sit down with players and talk to them about their decks. What works? What doesn't? What feels good or what feels bad while playing? Fans familiar with my channel will often come up and ask for live tune-ups, and I've even been able to connect with players whose decks I had previously tuned up and got to see changes they've made and jams games with them.

Something common cropped up when speaking with players, though. In one of my live panels with the Rules Committee's own Gavin Duggan, one player made it evidently clear. We were hosting the "What's my power level?" panel--extensive talks about how outdated the number-power-level system is--when a curious panelist asked us about their deck.

They had said they're uncertain how to present their deck's power level at new tables because sometimes their deck did NOTHING and sometimes it EXPLODED. Curious, I probed further--I asked, "What happens in games where your deck pops off?"

Their response? "Those are usually the games where I get a Rhystic Study out."

And the puzzle pieces fell into place instantly. I've made my feelings known in this article about Rhystic Study and how it warps games around it, but never the implications of how it can warp the pre-game discussion around it. No one ever says, "My deck's a 7 unless I get a Rhystic Study out, then it's a 9" or "My deck's a 5 if you pay for your Smothering Tithe triggers."

These cards, by their mere presence in a game, distort expectation and pre-game discussion.

And that is a problem.

Propping You Up

The deckbuilding implications here are deadly as well. A bad deck becomes a good deck when you get a game-warping card out. These 'staple' cards start to become the only reason your deck works, and that's A BAD THING. Games devolve into "who can get a Rhystic Study out first?" or "There's two Rhystic Studies out, so I'm not paying for either one", which this leads to situations where you just can't discuss what your deck is going to do pre-game because one of these "crutch" cards could change things entirely.

Which makes these kinds of wild, swingy cards bad for pre-game discussions, bad for deckbuilding, and bad for gameplay patterns.

A weak deck suddenly becomes STUPID STRONG when it doesn't need to worry about card advantage or mana generation any more. These are core tenants of the game--requirements in deckbuilding--that can often be completely negated with a single card. I've reviewed HUNDREDS of decks from equally as many players, and the number of times I ask about card generation and players point me to 'tutoring for Rhystic Study' as their only concession in deckbuilding because 'no one ever pays for Rhystic Study'... it's a problem.

As a deckbuilder I see this as an issue because it absolves players from thinking about their decks. Players fail to hedge towards the instances where they can't or don't get a Rhystic Study (or other crutch card) out, or it gets removed. Suddenly their gameplan is nil, and that leads to instances where they come to me saying their deck doesn't "do the thing".

The flip side of this are the instances where everyone sits down for a friendly game of Commander and one player gets a Rhystic Study that no one pays for and it turns into a game of Archenemy. That leads to just as many feel-bads in terms of play experience--"I can't play the game because one card made my deck too good".

The third scenario is where pre-game discussions happen, everyone agrees to what kind of game they're set to play, and these 'crutch' cards ratchet up expectations far too high. One or two players are performing on an entirely different level because a Smothering Tithe ensures one player never needs to be concerned about mana generation ever again.

Creating poor experiences at every level of the player journey: exactly what we all hope to avoid.

Making Things More Difficult

So let's imagine a world where these 'crutch' cards somehow get banned. What then? Players need to think more about how to cover core concepts of their decks like mana generation and card draw, first of all. Repeatable card draw is often at a premium, and never "risk-free" like a Rhystic Study is. One-time card draw sees an increase in play, especially pieces that may be used again, like Deep Analysis, for instance. Synergistic card draw becomes a much more crucial aspect of decks, though one that requires deck-by-deck consideration; more players will play Secrets of the Dead or Vega, the Watcher to supplement card draw, and that's just the first step.

White's mana catch-up mechanics become MUCH better when it's the only thing we have to work with. Knight of the White Orchid sees another resurgence in play, and Treasure-generators, like Master of Ceremonies, become far more viable, not to mention "punisher" draw effects, like on Mangara, the Diplomat, that help colors catch up to what 'crutch' cards do but in a far more visible, far more predictable, far more EVEN manner.

With deckbuilding adapting, how do we discuss our decks differently? Well, there aren't any more "unexpected spikes in performance" that need to be accounted for. We've all been at a table when one player pops off FAST thanks to these 'crutch' cards and says, "I didn't expect it to be this good," or, "It's never done this well before,"--those experiences create non-games, create poor experiences, and undermine the trust needed in discussing play pre-game.

But if those aren't a factor, then discussing what your deck does and can do becomes more linear and more predictable. One player's gains are no longer disproportionate and reliant on a single card, so there's no need to take into account the highs and lows in terms of performance. Speaking to a median of experience is much easier to do and can create games that are more evenly matched. Even if it's everyone saying their deck is a '7', at least now it's not "sometimes a 9".

Plus, in-game, there's no longer blame or finger-pointing to the first person that feeds into these effects. Everyone says, "Just pay the 1," until someone doesn't, and the first person to break that seal sends the game into a downward spiral. That's eliminated if there's no 'crutch' card to cascade an experience out of control any longer. Not to mention there's no need to persistently ask, "Do you pay the 1?", there's no need to track (or miss) as many triggers, and there's no need to 'be a problem' because of a single card snowballing resources.

In my opinion? A healthy change for the format. Many may disagree, but count how many people are leaning on these crutches.

No One Card Should Have All That Power

This is a format of tens of thousands of cards; there's NO NEED to rely on a single card in deckbuilding to make your deck playable. There's NEVER a need to have a card in any deck, though that's a thought many players can't wrap their heads around; they've seen the results or had the experience themselves of these 'crutch' cards turning a poorly-built deck into a supernova, and it's never an issue when you're on the positive end of the interaction either, as everyone loves being the Rhystic Study player with a mitt full of cards.

But being on the other end? Being the one player that pays your taxes while no one else does? You feel like your efforts don't matter. You feel like the game's not in your control and your agency has been removed. That alone is a reason to reconsider these 'crutch' cards.

I've ragged on these kinds of cards enough--two articles now--but my point stands. Ask yourself how many games you feel have been out of control because of these 'crutch' cards. Ask yourself whether you lean on them too heavily as well--have YOU snowballed out of control because of these crutches?

Then ask yourself what you'd do if you didn't have them any more. Ask how you'd change your deckbuilding, your game play, and your pre-game discussions.

Let me know in the comments below how you feel about these 'crutch' cards that completely warp a game, to be both the player and the opponent, and how you'd feel about them not being part of the format any longer. Always interested in YOUR feedback!

And of course, always folks, good luck & have fun!

"I'm Chris and I'm YOUR Commander Mechanic!" A die-hard Commander player, Chris is a brewer, deck builder, and player experience advocate. Check out YouTube for Tune-Ups, Twitter for hot takes, and catch him on streams all over the community!