Cassidy McAuliffe is a forum regular (where he goes by DJ Catchem) and a real fan of the format. When I mentioned that due to an unusually busy schedule in September that I could use some help, he jumped at the chance. Since last Friday was my 50th birthday, it’s also a nice present.
The guy across the table is wide-eyed, grinning, and fidgeting so much you’d think he’d mistakenly placed his chair atop a nest of fire ants. He’d won the die roll and elected giddily to keep his hand.
To butcher a quote from Ferris Bueller:
“Here’s where Cass goes berserk.”
. . . . .
Let’s start at the beginning. I’m your typical mid-30’s casual Magic player; I started playing in high school around the time of Revised. Al Gore hadn’t gotten around to inventing the internet quite yet, and Scrye Magazine was the only window into the world of the game beyond our small-town microcosm. The local game store offered a “2-for1” trade policy where you could pawn off a pair of Lifelace for a Demonic Hordes in return. (At the time, it was more like, “Can I trade you these stupid Tundra for that Shivan Dragon?” Let that one sink in for a minute…)
We slowly started to figure things out; when I finally came across an older player willing to part with a Black Lotus at a local weekly tournament, I did whatever was necessary to make the trade. I slid it straight into my deck and promptly windmill-slammed it onto the table the next day in a pick-up game in order to cheat in my Water Elemental on turn two.
Hey…kids do stupid things sometimes.
Anyway, fast-forward through the standard Magic player career trajectory; I discovered Vintage, sold my collection and quit, re-discovered the game, discovered Legacy, sold my collection and quit again, discovered Friday Night Magic, played some Standard, re-sold my collection, discovered the Prereleases, started playing Limited, sold my collection…you know, the usual. Somewhere in there, I was introduced to this thing called â€˜EDH,’ and the casual gamer in me came alive again. This was the Magic I always wanted to play. I hadn’t been so excited about the prospects of big creatures and splashy spells since I won a local tournament in 1994 by enchanting Colossus of Sardia with Instill Energy.
Getting back to the present, to celebrate the impending nuptials of my good friend Chad, co-groomsman Patrick and I were busy deciding what the bachelor party concept would be. It just seemed fitting that the three of us should take a trip to Gen Con 2011. After all, we were the cool kids in high school that were grinding all-night HeroQuest campaigns while the other kids were discovering alcohol and partying. (As an aside, my wife thinks it’s a miracle that we even have a son at all.)
I bought the plane tickets, and we set the planning in motion. Â
TRAVEL NOTES, PART 1:
Don’t fly Delta. Distance between Indy and Bradley International Airport in Connecticut: 834 miles. Distance between Bradley and Atlanta, where they decided to re-route our return connector: 967 miles. And when I asked about an upgrade or compensation for the multiple delays and the cancelled flight, the clerk at the gate punched me in the face and stole my wallet.
Gen Con or Bust(ed)!
Since Patrick and I (and Chad to a lesser degree) are primarily Commander players, we started looking into the events being offered. We had heard the horror stories from the forums; the “EDH Mafia” descends onto the burgeoning Gen Con tournaments and collusion-bombs the casual-loving players out of every Commander tournament offered. Combos reign supreme. We feared the worst, to the point that Patrick had started contemplating packing a mono-red “Hate the Haters!” deck packed with Boil and Red Elemental Blast effects. I remained positive and upbeat and refused to break down in the face of fear.
“It’s going to be fine!” I said. (I realize that I may as well have said, “What could possibly go wrong?” or “We should split up and look around!”) I decided that I was going to use Gen Con as a barometer to feel out the format on a wider scale. I was going to experience Commander on the biggest stage possible and learn once and for all if it could successfully mesh with competitive play.
As it turns out, Patrick’s goal of “Drink some whiskey!” would have been way better.
INDY PRO-TIP #1:
The bartender at P.F. Chang’s mixes the best Long Island Iced Tea ever. Between me and Patrick, we had five (Patrick was responsible for four and was feeling no pain).Â
Oh, and order the orange chicken over vegetable fried rice. Best meal of the trip.
(Obviously, they didn’t go to Harry & Izzy’s â€”Sheldon)
The Competitive Conundrum
Commander players are a jaded bunch. We want to play our big, splashy spells without fear of someone countering them. We want to live in a world free of Armageddon and of Mindslaver recursion. We’re casual players, and we’ll defend our rights to the death. Browse any of the Commander-specific forums out there, and the argument plays out a million times over. It’s been beaten to death, with every new “I played in a tournament and someone Palinchron-High Tide-ed me out!” post met with the usual replies of “You played in a tournament…there’s your problem.” The overwhelming belief is that, as a casual format, Commander is simply not compatible with competition. Once you introduce prizes, you ruin the heart of what the format is, and it can’t be recovered.
We’re also stubborn, though, and that’s why we keep trying. Someone has to fuel these tournament complaint threads, after all. To that end, I was determined that I would head to Gen Con with my decks unchanged, and I would somehow magically experience the perfect Commander experience. When the trip finally rolled around, I tossed Kresh the Bloodbraided, Progenitus, Intet, the Dreamer, and Teysa, Orzhov Scion into my backpack and headed for points South…west-ish.
Stumbling Out Of The Gate
After waking up at 4 am in Massachusetts in order to catch our flight out, we arrived in Indianapolis just after noon on Thursday. The plan was to get settled into the hotel, get downtown, pick up our badges and event tickets, and meet some fellow MTGCommander forum members for dinner. I was highly anticipating the 11:00 pm Commander Constructed Swiss tournament. The format was three rounds of four-man pods. Winning a pod nets five points; second is worth three; third two; and last one point. Pairings would be determined based on record, with the final total point standings determining prizes.
I sat down with Kresh, and the first pod played out incredibly well. No one at the table was particularly interested in making any quick moves, and there were some big, swingy moments from each player. I ended the game in second place, losing to Merieke Ri Beret after sending in a Berserk-ed Vulturous Zombie to take out Rafiq of the Many. Everyone at our table was happy and enjoyed the game.
As it turned out, we were lucky.
It turns out that one of the pods was taken down very quickly by a player piloting Erayo, Soratami Ascendant. He was able to flip Erayo in the first few turns and then play Arcane Laboratory to hard-lock the rest of the table; this resulted in slow-motion death-by-Memnite-beats for the other three players over the course of the next eighty turns or so. What was even worse was that there was another player using Erayo as their general in the tourney as well. We headed over to where the majority of the players had collected at the end of one table and were already loudly discussing the offending players.
Thinly veiled threats were being tossed out. Some guys were nearly to the point of threatening violence if they were forced to endure what had just happened. People were complaining about how these guys were ruining the format. Word was that one of the two had been confronted, and said that in years past, he was subject to the collusion and hard combos that had been talked about online, and this year, he wasn’t going to be a victim. That logic wasn’t settling anyone down.
I caught Patrick, who had won his pod playing Stonebrow, Krosan Hero. He was allowed to untap with an active Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker, Sarkhan Vol, and Garruk Wildspeaker and promptly attacked for 100 points of damage when he took control of a Hydra Omnivore. He said, “If I get that matchup, I just lose.” Before long, pairings went up.
Round two saw Patrick scoop to dueling Zur the Enchanter decks and head off towards the hotel at about 3 am with a bleary-eyed Chad (who elected to chain a few M12 drafts together instead of subjecting himself to what he predicted would be a miserable experience in our event).
I weathered the storm and sat down to play with a father and his two sons. This was another all-around fun game; again, Vulturous Zombie hit the table and got huge, but ultimately I was on the wrong end of Zedruu the Greathearted, who played Reins of Power to steal his brother’s horde of Wort, Boggart Auntie-led Goblins and swung them at my head. We were laughing and having a great time, but when we were done, we learned again that one table had been wiped out quickly at the hands of one of the Erayo players. The writing was on the wall at this point.
Final round pairings went up, and I was at the top table.
With Merieke. And Erayo.
And the other Erayo.
Things played out mostly as expected, with one Erayo player locking the table on turn one. This was the guy who made the “victim” statement. For the record, judging by the gleam in his eye and his sheer glee goldfishing his deck, I’d put his statement at about 50% true at best; this guy loved his deck.
Somehow the second Erayo player was able to get his own copy into play and flipped it, destroying the first player’s Erayo’s Essence. The first player assembled the pieces to replay his general again literally the next turn but was countered by the second player. That guy then proceeded to untap, drop Future Sight and Sensei’s Divining Top to add to his Etherium Sculptor, and draw his deck and mill the rest of us out with Stroke of Genius. It was kind of interesting, in a “The general anesthetic didn’t quite kick in, and I’m kind of able to feel the doctors removing my gall bladder…” sort of way. I had tabled some lands and my general at that point, but I hadn’t done a thing and never expected to.
The best part was that the winner then got to decide who was taken out in what order. The exchange was classic:
Erayo Guy: “So, to be fair, I’ll assign each one of you a card from my deck to represent you. I’ll pick at random; first pick goes out first, and so on.”
(He then grabbed three cards from the top of his deck, didn’t show them to us, and put them under the table to shuffle them.)
Erayo’s buddy, who was at another table, had shown up at this point.
“Aren’t you going to tell them which card is which?” he asked.
Erayo Guy ignored him and then looked down at the cards in his lap and pulled one up face-up.
Erayo Guy to me: “Oh…sorry dude. This one was yours.”
I kind of checked out after that. I was quietly sitting, contemplating whether it would be possible to time things correctly so that I could make the flight out of the state before the cops caught up to me and arrested me for aggravated assault, when the final standings were posted.
Erayo came in first and second.
The verdict is officially in, kids. My first question was answered; offer a prize based on standings and constructed Commander might as well be sanctioned Vintage. Oil and water all the way.
OBLIGATORY “PRICELESS” INTERLUDE:
-Ticket to “Conan the Barbarian” (The original 1982 version) at the local Cineplex: $5.50
-Popcorn, Diet Pepsi, and box of Hot Tamales: $12.50
-Witnessing two guys get into a fight in the theater (one of them was talking too loud) that somehow perfectly synchronizes itself with the scene where Conan gets busy with the witch in the hovel (who turns into a demon mid-fling) and ends with one of them being dragged out by security while loudly claiming racial discrimination at the same second that Conan tosses the demon-witch into the fire in a climax of psychedelic fireworks?
[Pause for breath…]
Worth every damn penny. I couldn’t make this stuff up if I wanted to, folks.Â
Pancakes Make Everything Better?
It was now 6 am local. I’d now been up for 26 hours straight, but I was wired. I decided to retire down the block to the Steak â€˜N Shake for breakfast and to recollect myself. Halfway into two terrible cups of coffee, a stack of decent blueberry pancakes, and surprisingly delicious hash browns, I was having my doubts on the format as a whole. Competitive support has always been the hallmark of Constructed Magic formats; without it, things just seem to eventually shrivel up and die. Granted, with the release of the Commander Pre-Cons, there seems to be a push by Wizards to support the format, but at what cost? If the core players hate where it’s going, what difference does it make in the long run? We’re essentially looking at a format that doesn’t promote tournament play and feeds its players primarily off of the secondary market. All of the recent rumblings about what finally did in 5 Color as a format started to make more sense to me.
I paid the waitress and headed up the street to catch a nap.
TRAVEL NOTES, PART 2:
If you’re not checking your baggage, put some thought into what goes into your carry-on luggage. Patrick had brought a set of poker chips (the kind that comes in one of those metal briefcase-style containers), and it ended up in Chad’s carry-on suitcase for the return flight. Before we went through the security checkpoint, he turned to me and said, “Over/under on me getting searched for those?”
Glad I didn’t take the bet. Chad now flinches visibly if he hears the sound of a rubber glove snapping.Â
The Sweet Spot
I think Wizards has a deeper understanding of things than they let on. Their first foray into Commander through the Pre-Cons not only infuses the format with new toys and has served to turn tons of new players on to the format, but it nails the best way to inject competition as far as I’m concerned.
On Saturday, after some much-needed sleep and the critical discovery by Patrick that the CVS on the corner was also a liquor store, we headed back to the Convention Center to do a Commander Sealed event. For reference, four players in a single-elimination pod are each given a Commander Pre-Con at random. Each person you eliminate gains you three packs of M12. The three of us put our names in, and a fourth player signed up right behind us, and we were off.
I was seated with The Mimeoplasm, versus Patrick with Kaalia of the Vast, Chad with Ghave, Guru of Spores, and our fourth player with Zedruu the Greathearted. We all immediately settled into a very low-key groove; back home, we play with unlimited mulligans, the idea being that we like everyone to actually take part in the game; the fourth player agreed, saying that was common where he came from too. We were joking and laughing immediately. Everyone slowly started ramping up and building board position. I was looking at my hand, when it started to dawn on me.
THIS is the place for competitive Commander!
Something about being handed a pre-constructed product and being in a balanced environment with other pre-cons levels the field. I found myself happily playing a role-reversal with my usual casual self. When Patrick tried to cast Kaalia on the fifth turn, I happily revealed a Spell Crumple. I dropped The Mimeoplasm after discarding Extractor Demon and Troll Ascetic. I beat Chad mercilessly with my general when he was unprotected. I was playing the primary threat, instead of flying under the radar as I usually do.
The best part was that everyone else was playing along as well. For some reason, being cutthroat here was totally acceptable, and we were still having a blast in the process. No one felt picked on. No one felt unfairly treated. It was like the best parts of Limited Sealed were combined with Commander to create a place where you could still play giant creatures and splashy spells in a cohesive deck, yet not feel like you were breaking a social contract. The prizes didn’t even matter; I’m pretty sure none of us even remembered them until the event was done. It’s really a solid balance, and I can’t recommend highly enough that even devoted casual Commander players give straight pre-con matches a try at some point.
Some things don’t change, though. I came out of the gate really quickly, established myself as the big threat at the table, and then got my The Mimeoplasm removed and was knocked out in one giant alpha attack by a huge Ghave. Okay, so theory still applies. Five hours of sleep in two days will make you miss things the little things, like (for example) grossly overextending while cackling like a mad scientist. Pretty sure I deserved that.
INDY PRO TIP #2:
Skip the rental car. Literally everything Gen Con-related is happening within about a four-block radius, and there’s a shuttle that goes to and from the airport to downtown every twenty minutes for $8 a person. Pretty sure our taxi in was about $40 after tip. Or five Long Island Iced Teas’ worth.Â
Lessons Well Learned
On the return flight, nestled thoughtfully by Delta in an aisle seat right between the rear bathroom and one of the engines, I queued up Iron Maiden on my iPod, plugged my nose, and reflected on the weekend and what it meant. Â
-Commander is a casual format. There’s no way around it; the debate about what constitutes casual aside, the format is at its best when several players bring decks to the table that interact and allow interaction with each other, with the sole purpose of playing, not winning. I know some of you like cutthroat metagames and 1v1 tournaments, but I just don’t see the fun in being locked out of the game before you can play a single spell. That’s just not Commander for me, and the reactions from the Constructed Swiss event would lead me to believe this is a majority position.
-Prizes are pure, unadulterated evil 90% of the time. They’re the reason we can’t have nice things. Unless, of course, alternate win conditions (like a points system) or controlled environments (like all-Pre-Con games) are involved.Â
-The Rules Committee has it right for the most part. It was amazing to me that throughout the course of the extended weekend, almost none of the Commander players we spoke to play the game strictly to the letter of the official rules and ban list. I know some players chafe at some of the cards that are banned (or that they feel shouldn’t be), and there’s always a call for a change in rules one way or another. (Here’s looking at you, “tuck” rule!)
But the RC has done a great job at creating a great basic framework, giving it to the masses, and then saying, “Hey…it’s casual. If you want to do something different, by all means.” It’s a great balance. There are powerful cards that still allow for and push players to create some interesting interactions and synergies, and these are balanced by the folks who work equally hard to offset these with counter-strategies. Some people play with twenty poison counters; others don’t use general damage.
Really, Commander is flexible without being too unstructured. It just works.
But please…ban Erayo. He needs to go. (*Wink*)
A Gen Con EpilogueÂ
- Prepare to lose all sense of time and date. The Indianapolis Convention Center is open 24/7, and there are things happening around the clock. I was sleeping in the middle of the day and drafting M12 at 4 am.
- Preregister for Gen Con events and pre-buy generic tickets. There were horror stories of people missing events after waiting in the one line selling tickets for over two hours.
- Force yourself out of the TGG hall to see some of the other stuff happening. There are movies, concerts (we met the drummer of a band that plays the theme music to Ninja Gaiden while a guy does a speed run through the game on a big screen behind them), a board game hall, roving trivia events, the famous “True Dungeon”…even a “Rave” room with Rock Band, DJ Hero, and Dance Central going on big screens. (The lights are off; there are stage lights and loud music; and Rockstar serves energy drinks. Pretty cool.)
- Do the Battletech Simulator pods. You don’t have to be a fan, but a half-hour in an enclosed cockpit of a giant robot is pretty awesome. Bonus: the horrified looks you get from people who overhear you saying things like, “I was trying to shoot him in the head, but I missed and blew off his right arm instead.”
- Spend time admiring the costumes. Some are pretty cool, like WotC-er Ken Nagle’s Phyrexian outfit, or the movie-perfect Captain Jack Sparrow and Darth Vader roaming the hallways. And then there’s the lingerie. I’m not a huge anime fan, but god bless any IP that makes some of the sights we saw socially acceptable.Â
- The theft thing that people are talking about is the real deal. Leave every non-essential item, card, or binder in your hotel room, and have the rest surgically attached to your hand.
Lastly, thanks much to Sheldon for the guest opportunity!