Commander Rules Committee Half Moon Table, Part 2

Be sure not to miss the conclusion of a conversation that Sheldon transcribed between Scott Larabee, Toby Elliott, and him about Commander!

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.

Last week in Part 1, Toby, Scott, and I talked about some of our preferences for playing the format. In Part 2, we talk about some bigger-picture things, including how you might position yourself to someday become a member of the RC.   

Me: Let’s get to one of the things readers are tuning in to hear about. One of the criticisms of the format is that if you’re not playing green, you’re behind. Thoughts? Comments?

Scott: There have certainly been games that I’ve been in—even this weekend—where I felt that that was true. Green being able to ramp up to eight or nine mana by turn 5 or 6 is something that green does—it’s in the color pie. It seems like every new set there’s something new—oh, here’s another way for green to ramp. I know that I’ve fallen into the trap of just ramping into stuff to kill everyone very quickly, and I’ve just as quickly abandoned the deck. We have in the last year through bannings tried to address the more egregious problems. When we banned Primeval Titan, some people thought it came out of nowhere. It wasn’t even on our agenda for that meeting. But someone brought it up, and we ended up banning it.

Me: Each of us realized that it was more of a problem than we had thought.

Scott: Right. I don’t often have people come to my desk at Wizards, tap me on the shoulder, and want to talk about the banned list for Commander, but that was one that did it. People who know that I’m on the RC came up to me and asked me what we were doing, so I took them through the philosophy and explained it. After about three months, I noticed that people didn’t miss it. They told me "you guys were right; our games are more fun."

Whenever Primeval Titan hit the table, everybody groaned, and then it became all about stealing it and copying it to get a piece of the action. Not having to worry about that kind of freed everybody up to play their decks. I’m not disappointed where we landed with that. I wish we could do a little more. I think green even without ramping up is still a powerful color, but the speed of it is the problem. If I were to play in competitive Commander tournament, I’d think about using it . . .

Toby: Or just get Hermit Druid.

Scott: Right. There’s no reason not to. Everyone else would do the same, and it wouldn’t be very much fun.

Toby: The problem is obviously social. There’s no way that we as a group could possibly do anything to kill ramp. There are so many options.

Scott: Well, we could, but we’re not going to.

Me: Because the solutions are worse.

Toby: We could do things like you can’t drop more than one land a turn . . .

Scott: Or ban all the ramp cards.

Toby: That’d be awful because there are a million of them. That’d be very difficult. One of the things I think isn’t clear to people is in regard to the whole "land destruction is against the spirit of the format" argument, and that’s not true. What’s against the spirit of the format is making it so that people can’t play the game. That means mass land destruction in particular because the mana cost is much higher in these decks than "what should be correct" by Magic theory standards.

We want big splashy games. That means you have to run out more land than you would in a conventional environment, in a more traditional tournament. It means you’re more vulnerable to mass land destruction, and it means that if you’re reset to zero lands, it takes that much longer to rebuild. That’s awful, but that’s not necessarily true in the case of the green ramp deck because that deck is then brought back to earth. That’s reasonable.

Pinpoint land destruction is an absolutely essential part of the format. Everyone should be running the Wastelands of the world and other ways to take out lands. There are some really problematic lands in the format, so you should always have those as a basic defense. No one is allowed to complain when their Cabal Coffers gets Strip Mined. They’re absolutely allowed to complain if their entire land base is getting Crucible Worlds / Strip Mine / Oracle of Mul Daya or something ridiculous every turn because then it’s not that they’ve been taken back down from the lead position into the scrum; it’s that they’ve been taken down from the lead position to "I’m not going to do anything for ten turns."

I think that people need to understand that pinpoint land destruction or some modicum of land destruction is a perfectly reasonable thing in the format. We aren’t opposed to all forms of land destruction; we’re opposed to the kind that takes people out of the game.

Me: The kind that makes miserable games.

Scott: It’s funny. You see a lot of people complain about mass land destruction but not a lot complain about ramp. I look at them as the exact same problem. I don’t think that one guy at twelve lands when everyone else is at five is all that great.

Toby: Getting him back to five is good; getting him to zero is problematic.

Scott: What I’m saying is that building a deck around land destruction is putting you at an advantage, and I think that building a deck around ramp is the same thing.

Me: But people thinking that mass land destruction is the answer to ramp have it wrong. It’s not because the ramp player has more lands than you but because he also has put more stuff into play. If you just Armageddon, he has Verdant Force smashing you and bringing friends along. It’s not an answer.

Toby: You have to be a little more creative. The ramp decks have a smaller density of big threats. There’s certainly an optimally built ramp deck. The kind that ramps up into, I don’t know, Ivy Elemental, is a fine deck. That’s easily fought by things with things like Portcullis. But if your ramp deck is running just the absolute pinnacle creatures—Avenger of Zendikar, Woodfall Primus, and stuff—you’re probably in a lot of trouble. It’s not any different than any of the other combo decks; it’s just seen as less egregious because it’s green and green has historically been the downtrodden color in Magic.

It’s not that you can’t build a ramp deck that’s fun and interesting; it’s that you can build it with the thinnest margins and it’s going to suck unless everyone else in the group is building similarly. It boils down to the same problem as it ever was. It’s just that ramp is the Timmyest of approaches, so tends to get a little more of a pass.

Me: Fair enough. So let’s talk about what we see as the biggest threats facing the format. Are there any? It’s enjoying unprecedented popularity, drawing people back into the game. The message boards are full of stories of people saying they were drifting away from Magic and learned Commander and now are coming back. They got tired of competitive Magic, and this format still lets them play.

Scott: They can play nostalgic cards. That’s how we got (poker star) David Williams back. He sat and watched us play at Gen Con that one year, saw all these great cards, and was like "ooh, I’m going to build a deck with that, and that, and that!" I’ve noticed more pro players playing. Guys in R&D are playing and having fun with it. I’ve seen Luis Scott-Vargas play. They build these decks and have fun, exploring the format in their own way.

Me: Yeah, but we still can’t let Sam Black loose.

Toby: Well, you can—just not with us.

(Laughs all around.)

Scott: I’ve seen people come into Commander because they’re board gamers and it’s the format most like a Magic board game that exists. If you have that board gamer mentality of playing a diplomatic game, which is one of things I personally love about the format, you get people in that way. I see all kinds of people picking up the format as a way to express themselves in Magic. Or it’s as simple as "hey, I want to play Magic differently." Some people are Constructed players, and some people are Limited players. It’s a completely different way to play Magic. It’s still Magic, but it’s different enough.

Me: Let’s get back to the question of the challenges that you might individually see facing the format.

Scott: Communicating to groups about the social contract has been a bit of a problem from the beginning. If you’re not having fun with the format because of your group, you have to find a new one. The continued communication of the philosophy has always been a difficulty.

Me: People think that social contract means "play a certain way" when it actually means "agree to play a certain way." It’s the idea that we’d like to impress on you, not the particular style.

Scott: I think that if we keep doing it, it will eventually sink in. We’ll get there. If you don’t opt out and keep with it, you’ll find the right group for you. The trick is getting people to not opt out before that happens.

Toby: Obviously we’ve seen unprecedented growth. We’ve seen that across all the demographics and psychographics, so there are a lot of Spikes coming in. A lot of the Spikes in particular believe that means the format itself has become more Spikey. That’s not entirely true; it’s also become more Timmy and more Johnny. We’ve seen growth in all areas. There’s no problem if Spikes want to join and play their style of game; that’s fine. They probably shouldn’t mix with the others, but if they find their group and are having fun, that’s awesome.

Where it becomes an interesting problem is that the Spike mentality on how to handle situations is "this is a challenge for me to improve myself" and "this is a challenge for me to help other people get better to become more like me." That’s actually amazing in tournament Magic because that’s how tournaments work well in that everyone sort of rises up the group by challenging each other and feeding off each other, but it actually turns out that that doesn’t work well for the other demographics.

A Timmy or a Johnny can actually be a very good Magic player and not need to get better, but that’s not what they’re looking for. That’s something that I’ve found that a lot of people have a hard time wrapping their head around. "I can make you better at Magic by beating you repeatedly." I’m actually pretty good at Magic and don’t need to get that much better; it’s just that if I want to do that, I’m going to go draft.

Me: Okay, just to be clear, Toby Elliott says if you want to beat him, draft with him.

Toby: (Laughs.) Absolutely. Go for it. It’s very hard for that group of players to see the Commander world outside of that lens. That’s not compatible with a large number of people playing the format, even though it sounds to them like absolutely it is.

Me: I’ve said before that the secret to this format is in not breaking it.

Toby: Absolutely.

Me: If you want to improve yourself, you’re improving a different skill set. You’re doing yoga, not bench presses. You’re finding ways to play decks that you enjoy and create a positive play experience for the people you’re with. That’s really what we’re looking for here.

Toby: For the mindset where the positive experience involves self or other improvement, as long as everyone else is like that, that’s actually fantastic, but if you mix and match, it’s not what you’re looking for or the direction you’re going.

Scott: That’s the challenge our online group has. You don’t know what people’s motivations are until you play with them.

Me: Even if you ask, a true Spike is going to say "I’m a Timmy."

(Laughs all around)

Toby: And a true Timmy is going to go "I’M A TIMMY!!!"

Scott: Gamers gonna game.

Me: In the spirit of the article I wrote a few weeks ago, Ten Cards I’d Ban, give us a card that you’re tired of seeing.

Scott: After this weekend, Gaea’s Cradle. I played a game over at Armada the other night with good friend (and Monday Night Gamer) Todd Palmer where he was playing Rith, the Awakener, and got all the pieces to go off. He said that his deck rarely does this, but he couldn’t help himself. He got the Saproling tokens in play, dropped the Cradle, had the Garruk Wildspeaker to untap it, and made like 47 mana to Overrun us out of the game around turn 8. He said he topdecked the Cradle and couldn’t help himself; he had to play it. I get it—sometimes you gotta go for it.

That’s a card that I know we discussed when we first talked about the legendary rule change. It was definitely the card that concerned me. There were more ways to take it out of the game. I could Vesuva it or play my own Cradle, and those tools aren’t there anymore. So right now if I decided, it would be Gaea’s Cradle.

Toby: I think I’m a little sick of Animar, Soul of Elements right now. I’ve played quite a few Animar decks recently, and everybody builds one because they’re easy and splashy. But they’re very linear. They look quite similar. If I’m running Ghost Council, it’s an easy win since I’m blowing up the creatures every few turns, but if I’m playing a deck that doesn’t play heavy sweeper components, because of the protection from white and black I kind of know where it’s going to go. There’s a certain sameness to the games.

I borrowed a friend’s Animar deck; it wasn’t broken, but Animar had such an insane effect on the deck that after a couple of turns I wondered if I could just kill everyone on a single turn. The card was powerful enough without the protections. It would have led to more interesting gameplay. It’s a card that looks like it should be fun and turns out just to be boring.

Me: I’ve seen that with my own Animar. I want to make sure that it does something without the commander. When it has the Animar, sure, a couple of morphs and a Cloudstone Curio and we’re off to the races, but when it doesn’t, it won’t simply roll over. Paying five or seven for Animar sucks.

Scott: I agree with Toby. The Animar decks all just seem to play the same way. They’re uninteresting. I know what’s going to happen, and it happens every time. I never see something different.

Toby: Yeah, I either have the tools to crush it or just roll over to it. That’s not a good time either way.

Me: There’s always a polarizing game. To be fair, there are other generals that determine the pace of play of a game. Your Skullbriar, the Walking Grave shows that. Krenko, Mob Boss is another.

Scott: Kill it quick!

Me: Somebody better have a sweeper pretty soon.

Toby: At least with Krenko pinpoint removal will work. Kill it as soon as it comes out.

Me: So long as he doesn’t have haste.

Toby: Sure.

Scott: So what’s your card, Sheldon?

Me: I said Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker a few weeks ago. That wasn’t me hating the card; that was just fatigue.

Scott: I have a fatigue card from our group: Rite of Replication. It’s an interesting card and can do cool splashy things. Lately every time it’s been copying the same guys. I told you guys earlier the story about playing at Card Kingdom with Aaron Forsythe and Mark Globus where I Rite of Replicationed someone’s Crypt Ghast and had five of them. At that point I was just casting any spell. "Don’t draw a land, don’t draw a land." I could extort for five every time. That one was really interesting, but like in the days of Primeval Titan, as soon as one hits table you see the blue players licking their chops.

Am I serious about banning it? No, I’m not. It’s just a fatigue card. I haven’t seen anyone do anything interesting with it in a long time. They’ll just pick the biggest and baddest thing on the board. I don’t see people set up a cool thing. Occasionally, yes.

Me: I’ve seen people target Solemn Simulacrum when there were definitely bigger and better targets. I guess having five Verdant Force would be cool.

If I was going to go off the list from a few weeks ago, I might think about Prophet of Kruphix. The effective extra turn creators like it and Seedborn Muse can create oppressive game states. I’ll tell you the card that got the most discussion . . .

Scott: At Armada, you mean?

Me: No, in general on the boards. It’s Deadeye Navigator. Yes, it can create something bad, like if has a Mystic Snake paired with it, sure. I just don’t think it’s all that bad in general. I’d take a look at Prophet. I think I agree with you, Scott, and would look at the big mana producers. We want big splashy things to happen; we just don’t want them to happen too fast. I’m sure regular readers are going to get tired of me saying "what happens on turn 13 is fine; it’s not fine on turn 3." That’s where we go from there.

Scott: I thought that article was excellent by the way. I enjoyed reading it and personally would have no problem with any of those cards going away. I don’t think they need to. For example, I run Cabal Coffers all the time, but it doesn’t mean if Cabal Coffers got banned any of my decks would collapse. It’s not critical to any of them. Sure, they might be a little slower, but I’d continue to play them and have a good time. The mana accelerators are the things that we have to keep an eye on. I wouldn’t miss any of the cards on that list. Half of them I don’t play anyway. If I did play them, I’d just find a replacement. I don’t think there’s any card in any of my decks that if it were banned I’d take the deck apart (with the obvious exception of a commander).

Toby: Hands off Zedruu the Greathearted!

Scott: Generals aside, sure.

Toby: Most generals are okay. When you have a general that’s there for the colors and some part of the theme, there are replacements. It’s when you have a unique general that that could be a problem.

Scott: You were talking about Kiki-Jiki; I remember reading that. I thought that six months ago KJ was a problem, but then it went away. But I think that’s a part of the group I’m in. When people realize that everyone else is having a bad time when they play a particular card, they take it out.

Toby: On the whole, red could really use some help. It’s horribly underrepresented in the format. If KJ cost 2UUU, we might well have a different conversation. I’m certainly willing to admit what color a card is does factor into banning discussion.

Me: Without a doubt.

Toby: It’s not like red is all that great. There are a few decks. There’s a Norin the Wary deck that’s pretty strong because it attacks the format from a slightly weird angle. There’s a Purphoros, God of the Forge deck out there that’s probably pretty good, but your options on the whole in red aren’t on the same par with green, blue, and black. White could use a little help but has enough stuff. Red is the one that could use new interesting things.

Scott: Magic has gotten away over the last fifteen years from being a spell-based game to a creature-based game. Red has kind of flipped, and green has found its place. Red can be scary though.

Me: To use a word that Toby used earlier, it’s linear. The scary red decks are Goblin decks. They either overwhelm you with numbers or suddenly are all huge with Coat of Arms, or there’s an infinite combo with Lightning Crafter and Kiki-Jiki. But mostly, red is limited.

Scott: Infinite combos with Kiki-Jiki? Go figure.

Toby: There are infinite combos in every color.

Scott: Red is a color I’ve explored, but I haven’t tried to build mono-red. I’ve looked at mono-red commanders, and there’s nothing that really interests me. There are like three themes, and you’re done.

Toby: I know if I built a red deck, it would be the Game of Chaos / Confusion in the Ranks deck. It would make Sheldon sad.

Scott: It would be the Nick Fang deck. God bless Nick. What I love about Nick is that he loves the format but recognizes that he doesn’t have that much time to play it. He has his thing, and whenever a new Chaos spell comes out, he works it in. Once a year he gets something new to put into his deck, and he has a blast with it. I have decks that are fun against his deck and others that aren’t. It’s like watching paint dry.

Toby: It’s produced some truly spectacular memories. I remember one game in Daytona Beach . . .

Scott: Yes, yes. That deck gave me a headache.

Me: Any time you’re rolling a d100 to determine which dice you’re going to roll to resolve an effect, things have gotten crazy.

Toby: Wizards obviously sees the demographic and produces one card a year for them, and that card every year is an interesting puzzle. Look at Possibility Storm. I guarantee you that it went into Nick’s deck right away. It’s an interesting cool card. If I was going to do something with red, it’d be the first card I’d pick. What’s a really fun Possibility Storm deck look like?

Me: The Monday Night Gamers and the regulars that we play with at Armada don’t even have to ask "good play or fun play?" It’s always fun play, and that frequently involves Possibility Storm. Sometimes it ends up really bad. One guy gets three huge fatties off of one-mana creatures, and no one else gets anything, so he just ROFL stomps people. For the most part, it’s always insane, like Christmas with every spell you cast. You never know what you’re going to get. Sometimes it’s socks.

Toby: That’s true about Magic.

Me: What advice would you offer to a big fan of the format who would like to eventually become a member of the Rules Committee?

Scott: This is a tough question for me to answer because I got on through non-traditional means.

Toby: We all got on through non-traditional means. There are no traditional means.

Me: I’d argue that making it up is pretty traditional.

Scott: I think Devon Rule got on through traditional means.

Toby: It’s not traditional until two people do it.

Scott: Fair. Then answer is that you want to intelligently discuss the format on the forums, have an open mind to other people’s ideas, and not be a dummy.

Toby: With the caveat that we add a new member every four years . . .

Scott: And I’d say that with the committee at six members right now, it’s perfect. It’d take someone really special to consider adding a seventh without dropping someone. If somebody leaves, that’s a different story. We’d look for a replacement, but we wouldn’t be in a hurry. We’d find the right person. We’d get along with five just fine.

Toby: You need to demonstrate that you understand the nature of Commander. You need to be able to articulate that vision very well, especially publicly.

Scott: If you’re going to become the advocate for the anti-social contract crowd, you’re not getting on.

Toby: You need to be able to argue calmly in print. You need a very thick skin to manage this format. There are plenty of people who think they could do it better, and could they do it better for themselves? Absolutely! We have a much bigger audience to consider.

Scott: I think Armada Games is a perfect example of those who have done it well for themselves.

Toby: Armada’s model is working. The points this league have gotten difficult, but I think I broke the format because when someone gains control of your general, you get a point. I have Zedruu!

Me: Yeah, but you can only get the point once.

Scott: But there’s that game we played with Todd where three people ended at zero and Todd was at negative three or something.

Toby: But what they’ve been doing is fostering a fantastic environment. It’s an example of demonstrating how you’ve thought deeply about the format and have a deep understanding of how it’s a different format than others. Then you have to clearly explain it many times online . . .

Me: Without losing your (expletive deleted) . . .

Toby: Without losing your (expletive deleted).

Scott: One of the non-traditional things I do is not comment on the boards. I read everything, but I leave the commenting to you guys.

Toby: I read nearly everything. At this point I don’t engage in too much conversation, just point out actual factual errors.

Me: Yeah, you guys leave me to be the whipping boy.

Scott: I relish my role as the conduit to Wizards on the committee. Even if you didn’t have me, you’d need a me in the building.

Toby: It’s always hilarious to me that people react to things like the banned list not getting updated in a timely fashion as a sign that Wizards disagrees with the direction and is taking over the format. They seem to forget we’re really good friends and have great working relationships with people in the building. If they weren’t happy with us, we’d be having discussions.

Scott: Wizards does not want to take over the running of this format.

Toby: The conspiracy theories that pop up every time Wizards takes a few days to update something are hilarious

Me: Like they printed Worldfire to give the finger to the RC.

Toby: No, that was Sylvan Primordial. We’re all bros.

Scott (to me): Do you get lots of requests to be on the committee?

Me: Enough that it’s a good question to answer here.

Scott: Huh.

Me: Before we wrap up, any final comments? Hopes, dreams, desires?

Scott: Form your own group. If you want to play competitively, god bless you. If you want to play more casually, just get your group together. And everybody just have fun.

Toby: Wizards is going to keep producing crazy cards, and people will keep exploring them. As long as you find the right people to play with, the amount of net fun that Commander generates is staggering. That’s thrilling to be part of.

Scott and Toby visit at least once yearly, so hopefully there will be future opportunities to do more of these. Maybe one of these days we’ll have a big Rules Committee event where everyone shows up for a week of fun and chats about the format. If we do, I’ll make sure you read all about it.