During spring break, two of my closest friends, Scott Larabee and Toby Elliott, made a week-long visit. What’s important to you isn’t a week lounging poolside, eating, drinking, gaming, and debauching, but that the two of them also happen to be on the Commander Rules Committee. We thought it’d be interesting to record one of our conversations as we talked about the format.
Except for pauses, ums, and you knows, I haven’t edited the conversation except for a few instances of clarity. What follows is a faithful transcript of what went on.
Me: The purpose of this roundtable is to get half the RC, who happens to be sitting poolside enjoying the good Florida weather, to talk about the format. It’s not a complete round table since everybody’s not here. Let’s call it a half-moon table.
Toby, how much opportunity have you had to play recently?
Toby: That’s largely correlated to the events I’ve been going to, so it’s been a pretty busy time recently. Also a group at Stanford has started up, so I show up there occasionally to see how it’s going.
Scott: What kind of opportunities do you even have since you’re doing so many events?
Toby: Enough. There’s a great Commander crew there that have the right attitude. They’re a little powerful but not overwhelming. All in all, you’ll always get a pretty solid game. The Pro Tour and the GP circuit is largely the same as it’s always been; the judges get the format, and many players are coming around. We’ve had some pretty good games there. The most memorable games I’ve had recently have been with Stanford players who’ve pulled out some pretty interesting stuff. This past year has been when I’ve brought Skullbriar, the Walking Grave, my new go-to Timmy deck, not a terribly powerful deck but does fun things and interacts well, which is sort of what I want to do to show off the format. On the whole, a pretty good year.
Me: This week we probably played eight, ten, twelve games plus all day during the Armada Games League. How does that stack up to a normal week for you?
Toby: Games here are always awesome. We played as many games this weekend as I usually play in a month. It’s weeks like this where I feel like I should build more decks.
Scott: Right. I feel like I didn’t bring enough decks.
Toby: For the record, I brought three. It’s not like I just brought one deck and tried to play it all week. I’ve played mostly Skullbriar and Zedruu the Greathearted, but I could have used a couple of extra decks for variety.
Scott: I only brought a couple, and the decks I have haven’t been updated in a while. I had some time to update them right before I came. There were some interesting choices.
Me: Scott, is your experience like Toby’s—you get some time to play at events and not as much at home?
Scott: No, actually at the events it’s become more difficult to play. I can’t remember the last time I played at an event. Maybe San Diego last year? Maybe in Amsterdam.
Me: Yeah, we did get one in Amsterdam with Gis.
Scott: I’ve been playing online a lot lately with Trick Jarrett, fellow WotC employee. We’ve gotten a group together that we gather up through social media. Trick or someone will blast out a "hey, game in three hours." It gives folks time to get together and plan. We’ve been having a really good time. It’s a closed group right now, probably eight or ten people on the list from all over the place. It’s a group that we’ve kept small on purpose. We only add people once they’ve demonstrated they’re going to play within our social contract—fun games with plenty of banter. Nobody’s trying to be cutthroat. There have been times when people have retired decks because they’re just too good. They lost interest in playing them and moved on to something else because they realized people weren’t having a good time.
Me: So it seems like cultivating an online group is pretty much the same as cultivating an in-person group.
Scott: Yeah, if anyone has gone on Magic Online and just jumped into the queue, they may have had mixed results (myself included). That’s what led to getting together a small group of four people and slowly adding people. Some people who know who we are have asked to join. Trick asks a few quick questions like "what are you going to play?" When they say "Rafiq of the Many," we reply "what kind of Rafiq deck are you going to play that we haven’t seen before and will result in a fun time for everybody?" They come back with "it’s like a Class C Rafiq deck and is fun." And then we’re all dead before turn 7, and that’s the problem. We’ll try people out from time to time and add people in. We’re trying to keep the group small, but we’re open. We’ve had some success, and it’s a good example of what to do with a paper group.
If you play Commander with a group of people you know and trust, the games are going to be fun (however you collectively decide that’s going to be). Even if you’re not winning, at least you’re having a good time, and that’s what we try to foster with playing online. I think that if someone’s frustrated with their online experience, they need to use whatever means they can, such as social media, to find the right group. Tells folks what kind of game you want to play and then figure out a time to meet. You can either schedule a time, or if you have a bigger group like we do, you can just go "I feel like a game." Sometimes at four in the afternoon, someone will randomly tweet "Commander tonight?" and we get enough people who want to do it and set up a time. It’s worked out really well.
Toby: I think trust is an essential component there. That sort of underlies everything that you can come to the table with. If you show up with something that looks like a really broken deck at a table with people that are unfamiliar with you, such as if I come with Zedruu, a lot of them might be skeptical. The people who’ve played with me know that I’m not just going to whip out Celestial Dawn and Thoughtlash and all the rest.
Scott: I get the same thing when I drop down my Oona, Queen of the Fae deck. People are like "oh, Oona" but I tell them it’s not like what they’ve seen before. I almost wish there was a label you could put on your commander when you drop it down, something like "not the deck you’re thinking this is." I built a U/G deck during our downtime this weekend with Krakens and Leviathans and Octopuses, a Serpent deck, one that I’ve wanted to build for a long time. I think with Theros block there have been plenty of those guys added so I could finally build the deck. The problem is that I needed a commander for that deck and there are only so many U/G legendary creatures, so right now it’s Momir Vig, Simic Visionary. I know that if I drop Momir Vig, I’m going to get that reaction. I almost want to tell them I’m not even playing the commander; I just want the colors.
Toby: Is Momir is really the best one for that?
Scott: I don’t know. Maybe the answer is to play the most innocuous U/G commander and just never play it.
Me: Hey, Momir will be able to fetch up those big guys so you can cast them.
Scott: Getting back to trust, I think it’s really important. We tweet that we’re going to play, and a lot of people follow some of us so they ask. We’ve gotten a lot of interest, and when we have space, we try someone out.
Me: The best way to join this group is to demonstrate that you’re not the turn 3 kill guy.
Scott: We’re sometimes extremely hesitant when we don’t know someone. We only get to play one or two games a night once or twice a week. We’re giving up a lot of time, and we want to have a good experience, so you can understand that we’re hesitant to let an untrusted person jump on in because we could be stuck with a miserable game.
Me: It’s important to underscore the point that we’re talking about groups. It doesn’t matter what style of game comes about; it’s that the people who are playing in the game are enjoying themselves.
Scott: If everyone’s in agreement about what you’re doing, that’s fine.
Me: If three guys with Hermit Druid decks grab me as the fourth and I’m just durdling around, I’m going to lessen their enjoyment of the game because I’m not presenting a challenge to them. I’m not putting up resistance to what they’re doing, and that’s no fun for them. I’m not the right guy for their group. It’s not that they’re not the right ones for me; it’s the other way around. You’re right, Toby. Trust is the right word. You have to get people who think in a similar fashion. I want to be careful here though. It’s not all mindless "one of us, one of us." There’s validity to the different styles of play, but I think the heartstrings of the format are agreeing on the style of play. We love big splashy games where stuff happens and momentum shifts. OMG, Scott’s getting out of hand, so let’s deal with him. Wait, now it’s Toby, and so forth.
Toby: Everybody gets to be a supervillain.
Me: We did have a particularly interesting game this week involving Puca’s Mischief.
Toby: Yay, Puca’s Mischief!
Me: Someone pointed out in the forums after that article that you exchange anything; you don’t have to exchange Puca’s Mischief.
Toby: I just never had anything else but Zedruu for you to take.
Me: That’s a fun card. When people talk about the spirit of the format, that’s the kind of card that comes to mind. That’s the kind of thing we love to see—things that create game states that you haven’t seen before. In competitive Magic, creating the game state that you’ve seen a million times before is desirable. You want repeatability and consistency from your decks. In Commander, we like variance. That’s why there are 100-card decks and why some of us have chosen to go nearly tutorless. We want the wacky. We want Possibility Storm.
Toby: Did we even cast any tutors this week?
Me: Yeah, Scott cast Beseech the Queen that one time but couldn’t find an answer.
Scott: The number of tutors I run in my decks has gone down over the years. I have a Vampire deck that you guys have played against for years, and it’s down to a single Demonic Tutor.
Toby: I think I play Academy Rector in one deck.
Scott: I used to run lots of tutors and fetch lands, but that slows things down. They’ve dwindled away over time. I’m just getting to the point where I don’t want to play with them anymore. Online takes care of that for you, so it’s less of a problem. The thing is that I like to play the same decks online that I have in paper, so generally I match them up. I have some online decks that I don’t have in paper.
In fact, one of the things that I really enjoy about online is the ability to make decks easier. I don’t have to drag out my 100,000-card collection in order to build a deck. I can build it in twenty minutes and try it out. If I don’t like it, I can just ditch. It’s how I’m building decks now. I think from now on I’ll probably build them and try them out online. When I really like them, I’ll build them in paper. There’s a deck that Sheldon and I built together a year ago here at the house, a planeswalker control deck, that I want to put together. And I have a true Orzhov deck that I want to run.
Me: The only guild.
Scott: The only true guild. The correct guild. I built the Kraken deck this weekend in a few hours and goldfished it online. Maybe it’ll be a deck that I bring to events.
Toby: For me, the process of building a deck is very different. I think it’s way more fun to give yourself a restriction, like every nonland card in the deck has to interact with +1/+1 counters. Suddenly you find you’re kind of light on flying removal and removal in general, but you figure it out. Even if I had Spikey tendencies, I don’t think I could build a deck where every card uses +1/+1 counters that wins every time.
Scott: I don’t know; it seems pretty strong.
Toby: I don’t think so.
Scott: For example, I noticed that in the deck you said is light on removal you don’t run Triskelion.
Toby: When I was first building, I don’t think it registered just how much I’d be able to add counters to things. I think that’s a card I should revisit.
Me: Don’t forget Forgotten Ancient (see what I did there?).
Toby: Oh, so good.
Scott: Just seems to me like the first card in the deck, and I don’t think that’s being particularly Spikey.
Scott: Or if someone steals it, you can just die.
Toby: Speaking of getting big, in one of my Armada games this week, I put Ring of Kalonia on Skullbriar, which is amazing, and attacked a guy who had Stuffy Doll set to me. Guy promptly blocked with Stuffy Doll, and I got ready to assign one to Stuffy Doll and the rest to him. Then he said "wait, Krosan Grip Kalonia." We gave him the point for awesome play.
Me: We all have different ideas on what’s appropriate and what’s not to go into a theme. In my Trostani, Selesnya’s Voice deck, for example, I won’t put in what could be a great card in Phyrexian Processor. It creates black tokens, and that’s not something that Trostani would put up with. I can’t justify to myself having the card in the deck, especially with all those Angels. It doesn’t fit with my idea of the theme of life and growth.
Toby: I don’t know; making 50/50 tokens kind of gets me going.
Scott: It’s funny. I think you two are more slavishly devoted to themes in your decks than I am. I’m probably the least likely to go all in on one. I have decks that have themes, like my Oona deck with just wants to do stuff with your stuff, but that’s about it. I have a Vampire deck that started off being a straight tribal deck that’s morphed over time to become a vampiric deck where everything drains you.
Toby: It’s pretty themey.
Scott: Still, I’m kind of a combo player, so I don’t want to give up whatever the combo elements I work into a deck are.
Toby: I think you’re actually more themey than you think. Your Vampire deck has nearly everything that drains. I also disagree that you’re a combo player. You don’t play combo in the way that a lot of Sheldon’s readers think of combo. You play strong synergies. You won’t play Bloodchief Ascension with Mind Crank; you’ll just play it with something that sets it off efficiently. You never kill out of nowhere by suddenly throwing down three cards that do this crazy thing. You have more of a "these cards work well together" sensibility.
Me: When you say combo deck, the implication is that it’s set up to assemble the pieces of the combo and nothing else, except maybe protect it.
Scott: I think maybe you’re right. I’m more of a puzzle solver. I like to put contraptions together and then show off what they do.
Me: You’re a Rigger.
Scott: (laughs) But that’s what I mean by combo. I’m not trying to go off by turn 7.
Me: I think that’s one of the things that people misinterpret when they hear it. It has two meanings. The first what we just discussed, and the second is cards that simply work well together. Combo decks are dedicated to doing a thing. Combos are just like Toby said: synergies. Flametongue Kavu and Furnace of Rath is a combo.
Toby: At no point this week did I ever get killed out of nowhere. Even when it’s what you call combos, it’s more like you drop card A one turn and card B the next that does a really nasty thing. But it’s not like 40-0 in no time.
Scott: My Vampire deck can kind of do that, but it’s the occasional Cabal Coffers, Wound Reflection, Exsanguinate that’ll do it. It certainly never came up this weekend. Wound Reflection is a card that I’m considering taking out of the deck because every time I drop it people seem to stop having fun. I don’t really need it. I don’t want me to enjoy playing the deck alone; I want everyone else to enjoy playing with it too.
Me: That’s a huge thing. It’s not necessarily that easy to find a place where your deck can still be part of the game and be functional. We want to win some percentage of the games that we’re in, but I think the mindset of folks like us is that we don’t need to win all of them.
Scott: If I’m playing with four people, I expect that my decks will win about one of the four games I’m in. I’m happy with that.
Toby: Me too.
Scott: A deck that’s winning three out of four games, like my old Arcum Dagsson used to do, isn’t fun. People would ask to borrow it, and I’d say no. Then I started thinking about the fact that if I don’t want to play against it, I don’t want my friends to play against it either. I took it apart. This is not what I intended it to be.
Toby: That’s a good guideline. You should always want to lend your decks out to other people. If you aren’t willing to play against your own decks, that’s a sign that there’s a problem.
Me: I think we’re all reasonable fans of taking the gloves off when you play. It’s the whole build casually/play competitively mindset. I’m not a big fan of holding back once the game has started.
Toby: I don’t think that’s quite right. In our situation, we tend to spread out who we’re hitting, who we’re doing stuff to. We don’t want to eliminate one person too early and then get into a heads-up game that takes a long time. If I attack you one turn with Skullbriar, the correct play is to attack you again next turn, but instead I attack Scott. It’s more about trying to bring everyone down together. The correct play is almost always to pile on the weak guy. We very rarely ever do that. We pile on the guy who looks threatening. I don’t think we’re playing optimally from a winning standpoint; I still think we’re optimizing group fun.
Me: When you do any social activity with your friends, you want to be having fun. If we were getting together to go to the movies, we wouldn’t go watch a film that only Toby wanted to see. We’d find common ground for the three of us.
Scott: Toby talked about holding back. I do hold back occasionally. Sometimes I have an auto win and don’t play it. I tend to save those for someone who’s clearly ahead and take them out. Like with Wound Reflection. I’m perfectly happy to sit there behind it and have people attack everybody but me. That’s what the original intention was. I won’t use the combos unless it’s obvious that the guy playing true combo is about to go off.
Me: There are a lot of players who actively dislike the idea of holding back. If you put the cards in your deck, you should play them.
Scott: I won’t hold back from winning the game, but I will hold back from doing lots of stuff that doesn’t win outright. I have that board gamer mentality that I always want to be in second place.
Toby: That’s not holding back.
Scott: Yeah, I guess that’s holding back strategically.
Me: What I’m talking about is if people see that you have the win con on the board and don’t use it, you’re just kind of holding a gun to everyone’s head, and they understandably bristle.
Toby: Scott, what you’re doing is basic gamer theory. Being the strongest power isn’t necessarily the place you want to be. Learning to not project the power you have hidden is very much a skill in Commander. It’s correct multiplayer theory.
Scott: Right. If I can kill everyone, I do. If I can only kill one guy and then be spent, I won’t. I don’t want to get piled on after that.
Me: That’s kind of it for the games we’ve been playing. Toby, what deck have you wanted to build that you haven’t built yet?
Toby: To me, deckbuilding is an inspiration process. It’s not like I have a list and the next deck is . . . It’s very much when something tickles my fancy or there’s a theme I want to explore. I don’t have any "I need to build this deck next" decks. The new commanders are kind of interesting though. If I get the itch to build a new deck, I’m going to look there. I don’t like to build decks that have already been built; I want to explore new stuff. Remember, I built the original bounce and confuse deck with Barrin, Master Wizard.
Me: Oh, way back in the day.
Toby: It’s the most difficult deck that I’ve ever built, and I’m sure I never came close to maximizing it. If you gave that deck to Luis Scott-Vargas or somebody, it might have been close to unbeatable, but in my hands it ended up with big decision trees and me deciding that I’d go for the fun one. I just try to look for things that are underexplored. When generals like Zedruu come out, they interest me. The design on that card is amazing. Nobody’s ever thought of this kind of thing. It just opens this enormous space for deckbuilding that looks like nothing else.
Scott: Props to Ryan Miller for that one.
Toby: Give him a high five for me. That card is a work of genius because it makes you change how you think about all your card choices. I have all these cards that I might not ever want to use, and now I’m playing them.
Scott: There are like 40 cards in that deck that I’ve never seen in anybody run. That’s what I like about it; I have to pick up and read every one.
Me: Even if you’re not playing the nasty Celestial Dawn / Delusions of Grandeur, you’re just playing the normal ones that are good for the deck and can create outstanding situations. That’s the deck with Puca’s Mischief and Jinxed Choker.
Toby: Jinxed Choker is the best card in the deck, and people don’t even know what it does. That’s fantastic.
Scott: People think they know how to get around it, and they don’t.
Me: The only way to get around it is to destroy it.
Toby: Yes, you have to kill it.
Scott: You try to keep playing the game of "give it back to Toby," and it never works out.
Toby: I love whipping out a card like Emberwild Djinn and making the whole table go "what the heck does that do?" because they’ve never seen the card before. So for me, it’s a process where a card comes out that tickles my fancy, I get inspired, and then I build a deck.
Scott: Same for me. I take different inspirations. I think when we were here a few years back to go to Grand Prix Daytona, everyone else was working the show, and I was here on vacation just kind of wandering around. While everyone else was working, I figured I’d build a new deck. My first question was "what colors don’t I have decks in?" I landed on R/W, found Brion Stoutarm, and then found Serra Avatar. That’s a deck; all I need is 98 more. Another way was getting inspired a year or more ago by Quest for Ula’s Temple. I thought that did something different, but there wasn’t enough stuff to build the deck with. Now that Theros block has come out, we have big blue stuff, so we’re on. Theros alone has four or five Krakens and Leviathans; Kiora, the Crashing Wave jumped out of Born of the Gods; and there we were. Often it’s single cards that inspire me.
Toby: If there’s ever a time I’d let someone run a planeswalker as commander, I’d let Kiora be in charge.
Scott: The deck that I want to make now is Oloro, Ageless Ascetic because I designed that card and built the Esper deck. It went through a lot of changes, but many of the original ideas are still there. During brainstorming, I really wanted to build a Commander deck with a theme that I’d never seen, even in broad strokes. I didn’t want a tribal deck or a big creature deck; I wanted to build a deck that uses life as a resource. Not just as a way to delay the game, but to actively do things. That was a direction that I went in.
Now that that deck is out, I want to build the "real" version of it. Those decks are intentionally built so that players can customize them and to give them paths to go down, but in my perfect version of the deck, there will be differences. We’ll see what I can do. I agree with Toby; I think the new commanders that have come out since I’ve last built a deck are an interesting way to go.
I also like to use the less obvious commanders. I remember when Theros came out that everybody and their mother was trying to build a Daxos of Meletis deck. I didn’t want to do that.
Me: Daxos is the tiramisu of Commander. Everyone does it; no one does it well.
Toby: You made an interesting point in there. Talking about building that Oloro deck, you describe what I see as the ur-Commander player; the sort of deck we’re targeting when we think about the format is the precon that someone has taken out the crappy cards with the splashy rares from their binders. When I think of power levels of decks, that’s where I go.
Me: That’s perfectly reasonable. As long as everyone’s on the same page, that’s great.
Toby: Those decks are surprisingly strong out of the box. At Grand Prix Vancouver, Level 3 judge Tasha Jamison wanted to play with us, so she just cracked open the Marath, Will of the Wild deck. She won the first game and would have won the second except for an unfortunate sequence of plays that went against her on the Warp World level.
Me: Nick Fang must have been playing.
Toby: Hey wait, I play Warp World all the time!
Me: Okay, let’s change directions here a little bit and talk about the format from the 10,000 foot view . . .
Which is where we’re going to stop this week. I hope you enjoyed this look into the minds of a few of the members of the RC. Tune in next week for Part 2, as we talk more about the direction of the format and our visions for the future.
If you want to follow the adventures of my Monday Night RPG group (in a campaign that’s been alive since 1987), ask for an invitation to the Facebook group "Sheldon Menery’s Monday Night Gamers."