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Deal or No Deal?
Wednesday, 3 June, 2020
Today, @MagicalHacker investigates some of the politics inherent in multiplayer games.
The Burden of Power
You’ve heard the terms: Jank, cEDH, casual, pub stomping, focused. This seemingly arbitrary assortment of words is tied together by the shared associated with a concept which is at the heart of many discussions about Commander: Power level.
But what is ‘power’ in the context of Commander? What are the problems that power can lead to? What does power do to games; how does it impact players and how can we all achieve a greater understanding of it and its dynamics that can help us make games we play in more enjoyable for us and our fellow players?
Power is commonly used to describe the relative strength of a Commander deck when compared to other Commander decks. I would declare something as more powerful than something else if it has a higher win percentage over a large sample size of arbitrary matchups than the deck it is compared to. Power can also be used to describe a game of Commander, in which case it relates to the average power of the decks present in this game. A deck’s power is determined by how effectively its game plan can lead to victory, how fast it can get there, how good it is at preventing other decks from executing their plan, and how resilient it is when others are trying to stop it in its tracks.
The power of the decks present in a game of Commander and the resulting power of this game has a huge impact on how the game plays out and in my opinion, this is most visible in the pacing of the game.
The higher the power, the higher the pacing. With increased pacing, every single game action one takes needs to be more meaningful and efficient. Expensive cards can become liabilities. Taking a turn off by not doing anything impactful is devastating. Not having multiple pieces of cheap interaction as early as the first few turns of the game can become one’s downfall when others are executing game-winning combos with protection backup. Stack-based interaction matters more with increased pacing to stop things before they resolve and every single pass of priority becomes increasingly significant. The game gets tighter, seemingly small things can be huge factors with more cards becoming too inefficient and too slow to be ‘viable’ choices if one wants to have a decent chance of winning. The variety of reliable strategies, cards and game plans decreases, as does the time one has in the game to set-up before trying to convert one’s resources into a victory.
The consequence of this increased pacing is that an increasing number of decks and playstyles are denied their ability to meaningfully participate in the game and do their thing before the game ends. It becomes a necessity to ensure that the decks present in a game are very close in power to ensure that everyone’s chance of participation is as equal as possible.
One of the greatest strengths of the Commander environment is its openness to all kinds of play styles and ideas of ‘fun’ ways to play magic. One can find decks and players at all points of the power spectrum, ranging from decks without any coherent game plan built around an aesthetic theme to highly competitive decks that make up the cEDH metagame which could easily stand their ground against competitive decks from tournament magic formats.
All of these are great ways to enjoy magic and it is incredibly unhelpful and antagonistic behavior to vilify playstyles that one doesn’t enjoy. Just because a thing is not for you doesn’t make it wrong to enjoy it; your perspective is not universal and being able to respect other opinions and preferences is something we should all strive to learn. No playstyle is here to push another playstyle out of the format, we all just want to enjoy the game of magic in this environment. We are one group with the same overall needs. One part of the community should stay away from unnecessary divisions inside this part of the game of magic. Respect others’ needs and take care of each other so we can grow and thrive together.
Nevertheless, as the title of this piece suggested, power is also a burden. The quote with great power comes great responsibility rings true for Commander players and the power dynamics in our games, precisely because there is such a huge range of potential decks to encounter.
When we sit down to play a game of Commander, we all have our own motivations to play, our own expectations of the game to come, and our own needs in this game to reach the desired outcome resulting from our motivations. I went in-depth describing players’ motivations on my blog and encourage anyone interested to read through my extensive thoughts there (https://allhailbolas.tumblr.com/post/187550392754/what-are-you-looking-for) but in the end, it boils down to three simple things for me:
Players want to have fun, they want to be involved and they want a certain level of competition. The power of the game people are playing can detract from all of these aspects; I see it as an imperative that players try to minimize the negative impact that the game’s power has on the participants’ motivations and goals.
Players need to find common ground for how competitive they want their game to be. No one should have to feel like they had no chance nor should anyone have to feel like they’d have inevitably dominated the game no matter what they did. The obvious conclusion from this is that everyone should operate at roughly the same power level to ensure balanced competition. Some players don’t particularly care about this aspect and will be happy after the game no matter how strong of a contender they were in the game, so an imbalance in power can still lead to a collectively enjoyable game on this axis, as long as all parties’ needs for competition are satisfied.
Players’ involvement is strongly impacted by the game’s pacing in the ways I explained in the beginning. If someone’s game plan is too slow and/or too inefficient to keep up with the pace, they will not feel like they could meaningfully participate in the game and their need for involvement will not be satisfied. In contrast to competition, where I think some players don’t have strong needs, involvement is something that everyone at the table needs to experience an enjoyable game. We all want to feel like we were part of the game and not just a spectator; we want to feel like our game actions mattered and had an impact on its outcome.
Fun is an elusive thing to grasp and define because it is incredibly varied and totally subjective but we can describe the impact that power has on players’ fun in the game. For some players, the game is not enjoyable if it lacks a level of variety that is necessary for them to not feel bored. The narrowing of viable strategies, game plans, and win conditions that occurs with increasing power level is something that can lead to them feeling like the game had nothing new and interesting to offer and all the encountered plays and cards were known quantities which took away from their fun. Additionally, some players’ favorite cards simply stop being relevant and useful after a certain threshold of power is crossed, which can also take away from these players’ fun. Another potential consequence of increasing power is that the resulting pacing can be too tense for some so they feel pressured to perform in the game which can be stressful rather than fun. Different preferred power levels have different intensities of impact on the goals of other players and therefore different responsibilities associated with them.
For the highest levels of power, there is usually an unspoken agreement that players are fine with their opponents doing whatever it takes to try to win the game. The social contract at this end of the spectrum is that everything is allowed and everyone agrees to go all out in the game to create a highly competitive setting in which players can enjoy the tough competition.
What’s important to understand here is that the Commander environment has an intended target audience that needs the format as a safe space to protect them from this style of play. In Magic formats which are used for tournament magic, everybody expects people to act consistently with how I described the highest levels of power in Commander; people will try to win and everything legal will be a tool that people use to beat you. Commander is the environment where this is not the main expectation and other goals than winning are as (or even more) important than the usual goal of winning the game. If players don’t like tournament formats’ competition, they can switch to Commander to play more relaxed games where their goals are respected and understood. These players need Commander and its normally casual atmosphere to enable their preferred style of play. High power players have to understand that they have more options to experience their preferred way to play Magic than low power players do. The format will take lower-powered players’ needs more seriously than those of higher-power players, simply because the lower-power players are the ones that rely on this format the most. This does in no way mean that high power play has no place in the format. I love that players enjoy the combination of tough competition and Commander’s weird and quirky rules, but I think it is important to raise awareness for this difference in needs of opposite ends of the power spectrum.
Another related aspect is that the higher one’s power, the higher one’s potential negative impact on others’ goals; the relationship between differently powered decks in a game is not a symmetrical one.
The pacing of the game is not determined by the average power of decks at the table, but by the highest power present, because that deck’s threats dictate how fast the game can end and how efficient answers have to be to deal with its plan.. A lower-powered deck has a much harder time preventing the higher-powered deck from enacting its game plan than the other way around. Therefore, the higher power your deck the higher the chance that you can deny other players their necessary level of involvement in the game, which brings us full circle to our Peter Parker quote. The higher your deck’s power, the higher your responsibility to ensure that it is at an adequate level for the game you are about to play.
Nevertheless, players from all parts of the spectrum have the responsibility to cooperate before the game to ensure that power levels align and everyone has the highest possible chance of playing an enjoyable game, because playing something that is too low-powered for the group can also create an unfun game for the other players. Although I see the relationship between power levels as an asymmetrical one, the responsibilities before the game are shared between players and no one gets a pass because of their deck’s power.
Now that we know all of this, how should we go about and ensure that people’s power levels match and the game can be an enjoyable experience for everyone?
The secret is one of the most useful yet also often underappreciated tools available to us:
How to approach Rule 0 conversations is another topic I cover on my blog, so again, if you want to know more about my thoughts on this please check out the corresponding post (https://allhailbolas.tumblr.com/post/187875234669/how-to-approach-pre-game-communication).
Most people like to talk about their deck’s power by using a numerical scale from 1-10 and provide an estimate of how they think their deck compares to other decks in the format. This looks like a useful tool, but I disdain it because of multiple issues I see in people’s usage of it.
If this is the only thing people use for their Rule 0 conversation, it’s insufficient in leading to an enjoyable game for all participants because power is not enough to provide others with useful information for all three axes we determined (fun, involvement, competition). It is very useful to adjust competition, but only correlated to involvement. The conversation needs to contain additional information about players’ goals and their decks’ plans to help everyone to precisely choose a fitting deck for the game.
A numerical scale is a good idea in theory but problematic in execution. A scale relies on everyone having the same context to determine what kind of decks are at either end of the scale, where commonly known decks (e.g. preconstructed Commander decks) end up and which factors others use to determine where their specific deck ends up. All of these are subjective things which have no agreed-upon solution and therefore all of this information needs to be provided in Rule 0 talk as well, to make the scale useful.
Consequently, everyone has to communicate all of their assessments and involved factors to give enough context to the number they provided, which I see as unnecessary and complicated steps. If I need to explain the whole reasoning behind why I assigned a certain number to my deck, I’d rather explain what my deck is trying to do and have them make their own assessment about how this stacks up against what they have in mind for the game. This also eliminates the need to evaluate one’s power when compared to the whole spectrum but narrows it down to a deck’s power when compared to the other decks that could potentially be part of the game. In the end, we want all decks’ relative power to be as close to each other as possible, and the absolute power level we are playing at doesn’t matter, so long as everything is close enough to create a compelling game.
A different aspect of Rule 0 conversations which cannot be ignored is to talk about the problematic cards/effects that one is playing. These are the topic of another blog post of mine (see https://allhailbolas.tumblr.com/post/187705427949/which-cards-are-problematic for additional context). This term describes cards that are related in functionality to cards on the banned list or often seen as an unfun things to play against. This may include mass land destruction, stax, eminence Commanders, extra turn spells, single-card win conditions, infinite combos,, tutors, chaos cards or auto includes. All of these are effects that each have a significantly large number of players which don’t enjoy playing against them. It’s a necessity to make sure that others are aware of me bringing any of these to the table so that they can voice their dislikes before the game and there will be no bad blood if one of these shows up unexpectedly.
My preferred approach for these conversations is to begin by giving a brief explanation of what the decks I am considering are generally doing, then I give a rough estimate on how many turns they take on average until they can try to end the game. I then list the problematic cards/effects these decks include. I also explain which pacing I feel most comfortable with and what my dislikes in problematic cards/effects are.
Everything we’ve discussed here provides others with the necessary information to more accurately assess how my decks stack up against theirs so that we can cooperate on trying to match the other players’ preferred game experience to the best of our abilities.
As I understand it, the pre-game discussion shouldn’t be used as a balancing tool to adjust players’ win-percentage, but rather be understood as a talk about consent for the kind of experience the players will collectively share in their next game.
Honesty, empathy and consideration of others’ needs are the main values to focus on whenever you are having these conversations. We all love this game and this format. As long as we treat each other and everyone’s preferences with respect and are willing to put the collective enjoyment of our games before conflicting personal needs, we will have a great time.
Be excellent to each other and be responsible with the power you wield.
Anton is a passionate commander addict from Germany. He tells us that he cares deeply about the format’s social aspects and how to focus on empathy, consent, and communication to enable everyone’s fun. He likes to build weird theme decks, hoping games will provide participants with new memorable stories. He’s on record thinking most people should probably play 2 more lands than they usually do.