Social contract theory is a philosophical supposition developed over time by many professional thinkers, including John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and John Rawls. The concept, simplified, is that individuals have consented to give up certain powers and freedoms in order to enjoy the benefits of society. Kitchen table Magic players very quickly develop their own social contracts, in order to maximize players’ enjoyment of the game. Newer players will quickly agree upon rules such as “no blue,” which is an agreement that “I forfeit my freedom to play blue cards in order to enjoy the benefits of not having my spells countered.”
Obviously, the rules at the kitchen table change drastically over time as play skill improves and card inventories grow. This works for the kitchen table because there generally isn’t a great deal of players joining and leaving that particular group.
Commander is a different beast, because the format is essentially kitchen table magic played at the game store. While there certainly exist closed groups that play Commander only with other players in the group that have their own established rules, the majority of players who will partake in this format will often find themselves playing with those whom they haven’t played with before. Magic’s tournament rules and ban lists are created with competitive magic in mind, and their purpose is to ensure a fair game. The implied social contract with competitive magic is that if it’s not in the rules, then it’s acceptable.
But Commander is different – while the purpose of playing competitive magic is to win, the purpose of playing Commander is solely to have fun. Decks capable of countering every spell played in Standard format may irritate many opponents, but they’re perfectly acceptable. A limited metagame and sideboards help to counteract strategies that stop your opponent from playing their deck. Commander has no such built-in safeguards – the only ‘strategy’ that Commander players can employ against a player that is ruining their fun is to not invite that player back for the next game.
So how then can one avoid being “that guy?” How can someone reasonably ensure they’re not making an un-fun game for the other players at the table, when everyone at that table has a different definition of fun? Well, you can’t. Not a hundred percent, anyway. However, over the years that EDH and Commander have been played, there are some pretty universal rules that one can follow and be perfectly okay to play at pretty much any table. So, let’s go over these Rules of Engagement.
SECTION ONE: THE GOLDEN RULES
I cannot express enough that, with the exception of a small group of people who play Commander competitively (sorry guys, this blog will never be for you) – there is only one purpose for playing Commander: to have fun. Anything that gets in the way of that is bad. It’s just that simple.
While everyone defines fun differently, there is a short list of things that are universally NOT fun, and the subsequent sections of this article will go into them for detail. In the meantime, here are three golden rules that define Commander philosophy:
1) If players don’t get to play their decks, they aren’t going to have fun. Strategies that rely upon non-interaction are bad, and strategies which require 20 minute turns are horrible. Every player at the table should have the opportunity throughout the game to have just as much time on their turns as everyone else, and equal opportunities to interact with the rest of the table.
2) Games should neither be too short, or too long. Yeah, on occasion it’s cool to watch a turn 3 Mimeoplasm faceroll an entire table – on a RARE occasion. Players can say “wow, that was cool,” and shuffle up for the next game. But if you do it more than once, the novelty is gone and it’s just not fun. Likewise, if a game has stalled because everyone’s board is full of creatures and no one wants to commit to an attack, and you counter a Day of Judgment just because you had the mana open, you are not going to be very popular. Don’t try to cheat victories before other players can react, and don’t heavily interfere when a stalled game wants to progress.
3) It doesn’t matter if you win or lose, as long as you look awesome doing it. Style points are huge in this format. Winning a game with a combo of Exquisite Blood and Sanguine Bond? Meh, anyone can do that. Rolling up with Kemba, Kha Regent decked out in all three pieces of Kaldra’s legendary gear, and a Sword of Fire and Ice, riding a Batterskull with an army of 2/2 kittens in his wake? Now that’s awesome. Every deck should be able to win games, but if that’s the sole focus of the deck, then you (and the rest of the table) are not going to have a good time.
So, let’s analyze the application of our three golden rules in detail…
SECTION TWO: DECK CONSTRUCTION
Banned Cards: Always assume that any card on the offical banned list is disallowed. Do not take this to mean, however, that if the card isn’t on the list it’s totally okay – more on this later. However, don’t assume these are absolute bans either. While certain cards are never acceptable to play in Commander, there is a great deal of leeway. Primeval Titan is a much different card in a 5-color Giant Tribal deck than he is in a mono-green Ramp/Landfall deck. Always ASK BEFORE THE GAME if you have such a card in your deck. “Hey, guys, I’m playing some Unglued cards in this deck – is that okay?” “I’m running Recurring Nightmare in my nightmare-themed deck, but I don’t have any infinite combos with it – is that cool?” Most players are going to be okay with these sorts of things, but be prepared in the event someone says no. The official ban list is the community standard, and you are the one who wants to deviate from it – if that makes another player uncomfortable, then you need to be prepared to either play a different deck, or swap that card out for one that isn’t banned. If a banned card is crucial to the functioning of your deck, then you probably shouldn’t have built that deck in the first place.
Land Destruction: This is a little tricky, and is probably the most hotly-contested aspect of Commander deckbuilding. To that end, more specificity is needed.
Single-target land destruction is always okay. There are some very powerful lands in the game, and land destruction keeps them in check. No one wants to play a format where the presence of Academy Ruins means a Nevinyrral’s Disk standing upon the face of humanity forever.
Recurring land destruction is on very shaky ground. This is the reason Sundering Titan was banned. If you are playing Strip Mine every turn (or multiple times a turn) with the aid of Crucible of Worlds in order to keep the rest of the table unable to play spells, then you’re probably crossing the line.
Mass land destruction is horrible. What Obliterate usually means is that the table is going to spend the next ten (or greater) turns in topdeck mode, waiting for someone to get lucky and win the game. That’s not fun. If you are going to use mass land destruction spells, then you will be expected to win the game very shortly after using them. If you don’t, then you’re the reason Golden Rule #2 has been violated.
In summary, land destruction is a powerful and necessary tool that should be used to keep the game fair, not to lock a person out of playing their deck. To that end, it should NEVER be the primary focus of your deck.
Lockdown Cards: As big a fan as I am of the art on Stasis, no one ever wants to see it played in a Commander game. It is entirely okay to employ a “prison” strategy, limiting players’ options in a game – but what is not okay is locking them out completely. Smoke is perfectly acceptable, because it still gives players options. This card will annoy the bajeezus out of a token swarm deck, but it won’t lock down the opposing player’s mana so they can’t fight back and destroy it. Smokestack is fair because it gives players time to react, and gives them the choice of what permanents get sacrificed. Winter Orb, just like Stasis, is not a fair card – it slows down the game to the point of violating Golden Rule #2, and means that players will have hands full of cards they can’t play (violating Golden Rule #1). Fortunately, evaluating a prison/lockdown deck is fairly easy if you’re honest with yourself – just ask, “would I still have fun if I were to play against this deck?” If the answer is not yes, then do not bring that deck to the table.
Resetting the Game: Golden Rule #4 might as well be, “Don’t play Shahrazad.” Restarting a game isn’t fun for anyone (except maybe the person who restarted it). It creates a negative play experience, and no one should ever ask, “so why did we just waste 20 minutes playing?” Same deal goes with Obliterate mentioned above. This is not to say that resetting the game is never an option; it takes Karn Liberated a good deal of time to get enough loyalty to use his -14 ability. But you should NEVER restart the game out of nowhere (like Shahrazad does for 2 mana) – or the players at your table will be starting a new game without you.
Countermagic: Even though the common wisdom says that casual players hate counterspells, they’re almost 100% okay in Commander. This format has some pretty degenerate spells that, once they hit the battlefield, are almost impossible to get rid of. Hitting these spells on that stack is perfectly acceptable. It’s healthy to have a nice dose of countermagic at the table, but what isn’t healthy is concentrating that countermagic power on a single player so that he or she never gets to cast a spell or interact with the table in any meaningful way.
Discard: You had better have a damn good reason to play Identity Crisis. Discard in itself is fine, and discard in a strategy involving cards like Megrim is perfectly acceptable. When discard is used to put single players in topdeck mode (violating Golden Rule #1) or putting the entire table in topdeck mode (violating Golden Rule #2), then there is a problem. As with lockdown decks, ask yourself if you would still have fun playing against your deck.
Combos: Oooh boy. Here’s another hotly-debated point of contention in the format. There’s certainly room for combos at the game store Commander table. What there isn’t room for, however, is non-interactive combos. I would recommend against using any 2-card combos. Any game-ending combo that can be tutored up with Tooth and Nail is just going to cause negative play experiences. No one wants to have a fun, interactive game of magic end abruptly simply because the blue mage was tapped out. If your combos are 3 or more cards, or take at least a full turn to go off, then you’re probably okay. Otherwise, it’s probably not worth risking killing everyone’s fun.
Unfair Generals: Let me preface by saying that, other than the generals on the banned list, there are no unfair generals. However, if you play Commander long enough, you will encounter a Jhoira of the Ghitu player who suspends an Obliterate followed by an Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre. Certain commanders, like Jhoira, Sharuum the Hegemon, and Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker are simply known for non-interactive wins and abusive combos. Every one of these generals is okay to play in the format, but unless you let them know otherwise, experienced players at your table will assume you’re playing the “unfair” versions of them and gang up on you before you can ruin their play experience, which will in turn ruin yours. It pays to know what other players are building with your general before you take it to the game store.
SECTION THREE: TABLE ETIQUETTE
So now that we’ve covered what to do before showing up at the table, let’s discuss what you should do once you’re there.
Communicate. The table should never have to wonder whose turn it is, because players should be clearly announcing the end of their own turn, and players shouldn’t be taking too long on their own turns. Clearly announce all targets of spells, because there’s multiple players who may wish to respond. Be prepared to tell the table what the card you just played does, because with a pool of over 12,000 cards available, chances are eventually you’ll play a card someone hasn’t seen before. Also, don’t be afraid of small talk. Commander is a social game, and should be enjoyed socially. However, always…
Pay attention to the game. If you’re trading while a game is going on, texting someone on your phone, or playing a game on your DS, the game state is progressing without you. In this instance, every time your turn comes around, you have to catch up to everyone else before you can make your plays. This unfairly slows down the game (in violation of Golden Rule #2).
Don’t take forever using tutors and search effects. For cards like Evolving Wilds, always use its ability at the end of your turn so that play can continue around the table while you’re searching for that land. It’s understandable, however, to use that ability at another time ONLY IF you have a very good reason for doing it (Landfall, a creature that cares how many forests you have in play, etc.). Whenever you’re searching your library (or an opponent’s library), try to minimize the amount of time other players are waiting on you. A certain amount is understandable and unavoidable, but if players are constantly waiting for you to finish your turn, they’re not having fun. For cards like Worldly Tutor, established playgroups will allow players to say something like, “I cast this card on this player’s end step,” pointing to the player on their right. This allows the player to search for the creature without making other people wait for him, but reserves the right to have that creature on the top of his/her library at the start of their turn, in case card draw or library shuffling happens. NEVER assume this is okay with a new group, however. Always ask first.
If you have multiple decks, assess the “power level” of the table. If 3 players in the pod are playing preconstructed decks, don’t bring out your most expensive, finely-tuned deck and run everyone over with it. They’re not going to enjoy the experience, and chances are you’re not going to enjoy it much either.
Don’t be a rules lawyer. Don’t leverage the rules to your advantage to the detriment of fun, or try to make a player cast a spell that they didn’t fully understand. When the inevitable happens and someone casts Warp World, then five minutes later there’s 30 enters-the-battlefield triggers to resolve, don’t bog down the game and insist that each trigger resolve one at a time. Go in counter-clockwise order (starting with the player to the right of the active player) and let each player resolve all their triggers in the order they choose, allowing for other players to react to those triggers when they come up.
Above all, have fun. There’s no point to it otherwise. There are no prizes or titles on the line here. Appreciate the flavor and themes of the decks at the table. Enjoy the narrative that the progressing board state creates. Express yourself creatively through your decks and your play. The more fun you allow yourself to have, the more fun everyone has, and you are certain to receive invites back to the Commander table.