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Why You’re Playing Commander Wrong

“Dave, I swear to god- if you counter my infinite combo, I’m bringing out Turn-Four Storm next game.”

Looking at the title, you may already be thinking to yourself,

“You don’t know my life. How can you assume that I’m playing incorrectly?”

And you know what, you may be right. But I refuse to believe so, because what’s celebrated in Commander- that being a fun experience for everybody involved- isn’t conducive to the traditional Magic playing experience. From the beginning you were more than likely introduced to this wonderful game via some sort of mentor that would either curb stomp you in to becoming a better player, or a companion that you slowly learned to enjoy the game with. Whether it be a family member, a friend, or the AI in Arena or Duels of the Planeswalkers, it has been embedded in your brain to make winning the main priority.

It can’t be helped- that’s the nature of this game. It’s either that, or you’d be locked in an awkward waltz until either player’s library is gone, and I’ve yet to see someone be that stubborn. Unless of course you’re playing Turbofog, and cultivating resentment is your kink. But how does wanting to attain the goal of a game make you wrong? I mean, you’re just doing what you should be, is there any other alternative?

Yes, and no. Nobody ever plays a game with the intention to lay down in front of their opponents, and let themselves get trampled under foot just for the sake of it. Unless you’re me, and you make more play mistakes than a blind paraplegic trying to pilot Four Horsemen, most players in a traditional pod of Commander are actively trying to be the last player standing.

However this is where the problem lies. The absolute greatest mistake that almost every EDH player makes is that they focus too much on the destination, rather than the journey. I remember a time where two-to-three hour games were lauded as some of the most entertaining experiences and memories that players would share with each other. But in the past five years or so, I’ve watched these conversations turn more into how quickly games pass now, with the same cards or combos being used, and how any attempts to drag a game further is mired with contempt and dissenting arguments.

Players would rather get through as many games as possible, than celebrate this format’s non-linearity, by constructing as consistent of a build as they can. Again, this line of thinking translates directly from previous constructed experiences, like Standard or Modern. Why would you ever build a crazy, weird deck that has no method to its madness, when your skill has been forged through the fires of smart deck construction, and card advantage?

Shine bright with skill and ignorance, you value-seeking moron.

This is one of the largest hurdles that many new and old Commander players have yet to get over. It’s difficult to unlearn the most fundamental aspects of Magic: the Gathering, in order to fully understand how to enjoy a different version of that same exact game. But it’s not. Commander is not to Magic as Magic is to Commander, meaning that they are both inherently different experiences, altogether.

Magic, at its core, is a social activity. Even if you barely speak a word with your opponent(s), having some sort of physical communication is vital to the experience of the game. (This is why I have a difficult time fully investing myself in Arena, but that’s for a different article.) If I can’t efficiently convey information with my opponents, then it makes playing feel hollow. As such, any player that’s receptive to the traditional way of conversing in a 1v1 game thinks that it can be mirrored in a 1v3 game, but that simply just isn’t the case.

It seems that over time, players have come to assume that Commander is a 1v3 format, when it should really be 1v1v1v1. Now yes, I’m sure you’re absolutely sick of hearing from other Commander content creators that “CoMmAnDeR iS a PoLiTiCaL gAmE“, and you know what? Screw you, they’re absolutely right. Your refusal to adhere to this notion is why we constantly have to repeat ourselves like we’re disappointed parents that don’t understand how to raise their petulant child. But I can’t simply beat these tendencies out of you- you’re too grown up. It’d be considered assault, and I can’t put anymore time into the slammer, so I’m just gonna have to break it down to you over two points:

 

1. Treat Commander as a friendly political experience

Whether or not you’ve noticed, every single choice you’ve made in a EDH game is comparable to Trump’s presidential career. Think about it- you’ve taken advantage of opponents dog piling on top of each other, by waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike. Or maybe you were able to use your coyness to avoid confrontation, only then to unleash when everybody else’s guards and resources are down. Or maybe you were an unchecked aggressor that never seemed to lose momentum, and rode those punches to victory. To maybe even stopping a game dead in its tracks, in order to gain an upper hand in the long-term, your actions mirror that of The Orange Man. Real life consequences be damned, to come out on top of a multiplayer game, you have to be both proficient and lucky when it comes to interacting with two, three, and sometimes even more opponents at a time.

You think it’s weird how nobody ever plays this? Seems fun.

But this should never be the main concern when thinking how to approach playing a casual game with multiple players. Well, not most of the time, at least. It’s important that you take everybody else’s experience into consideration, because accounting and catering towards a fun environment is crucial for maintaining an enjoyable gaming ecosystem. If you want to build a foundation of trust that can be both sustainable, and ever-evolving, you have to put your ego aside. While the point of a game is to win, if you dominate the opposition every single chance you’re given, you’ll eventually find yourself in a lonely disposition.

Take one for the team every now and then. Pick a bad starting hand, and play it for the meme. Choose a bad deck, just to see if you can use it as a white flag to try and build a crazy board state with. Or you could even make it a secret goal of yours to try and make the player to your left win- do anything you can to try and change up the fact that you’re a epic gamer who must pwn n00bs every chance that you can get. Because if you don’t, you may end up finding yourself in a situation with too much Mountain Dew Livewire, but not enough of your friends to butt-chug it with.

 

2. Unstaple your deck

This is the most important point that I’ll try and drive into that thick skull of yours. You don’t need a Sol Ring in every single Commander deck you build. You don’t need to resolve a Mirari’s Wake, or a Rhystic Study every single game. You don’t need to build your decks around the same 5-10 wincons, by having them streamlined to perform at peak efficiency. Winning before turn six shouldn’t be a consistent worry that goes through your head every single time you create a new godless abomination of boredom.

*Live footage of your opponents reacting to yet another end-of-turn Cyclonic Rift*

Wanna know why? Because Commander is a lot like food. While some brainlets are perfectly content with eating pepperoni pizza for every single meal, others embrace variety. When they don’t, and continue to consume the same foods incessantly like a picky six year old, they become insufferable to eat with. When you find yourself locked in a perpetual cycle of doing the same thing over and over again, you’re trapped in an echo chamber that nobody is willing to pull you out of. It becomes next to near-impossible to stop gorging yourself on the few things that satisfy you, because you’ve forced yourself to believe that there is no viable alternative.

Just like with your very boring diet, playing the same collection of staples in almost every deck you build eventually leads to a bland and lifeless existence. There’s no reason to keep humoring the Paradox Engine player, because you know that the game’s going to go down the exact same linear path you’ve come to recognize since the first time you witnessed that cancer in action. So why would you do the same to your friends, or potential play partners? Why would you not cut the same boring cards you always use, in favor for the really cool stuff that you’ve always wanted to play with? I’ll tell you why- convenience.

You see, deck building takes time and practice. Nobody these days are willing to go through the motions of picking throughout their entire collection, and fine tune a deck to be as synergistic or fun as it could be. Why would we, when there’s YouTubers and EDH articles constantly stating that Culivate and Kodama’s Reach should always be in all green decks, all of the time?

Every single year, Wizards of the Coast releases new Commander decks that explicitly state to you the strategy that these products play with, and nudge you to further build upon those ideas. But in this sea of suggestion, creativity has been left to the wayside. Sites like EDHREC further expand upon the lack of true identity with today’s deckbuilding, as people aren’t willing to read between the lines, and perceive that information as *the exact way you should always play with X general*.

“Did somebody just say netdeck?!”

How would you go about this? I mean, if you’ve put as much love into your pride and joy as I’m assuming, you probably have a healthy grip of cards that you’re partial towards. Throw those cards in the trash. We’re not playing by conventional methods anymore; we want to lose, and we want to lose with style. Replace some of your more reliable staples with cool, fun stuff that you’ve always wanted to try out. Find a use for that random foil you got from a booster pack that you’ve always suspected was playable. That’s how I found about about the glory of such hidden gems as Contested War Zone, Mindshrieker, and Isolation Cell. Trade out that trusty Gilded Lotus for a more explosive Coveted Jewel.

Trust me, your friends will always appreciate the spice- and nobody’s ever disappointed with a trip to Flavortown.

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In conclusion, if you want to create an environment that promotes having fun above everything else, the first step you have to take is with yourself. Choose different cards, different play styles, or different priorities. Because if you don’t, and continue to victimize yourself in an endless cycle of convenience, you’ll eventually grow weary of what you thought you had loved. The worst way to leave a game is to bore yourself to the point of never wanting to return, and in order to prevent that, you have to change how you approach an already repetitive activity. Stop being obtuse, and change how you approach Commander on a fundamental level, before you find yourself playing Solitaire.

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