Embracing The Chaos – The Social Contract

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Thursday, November 19th – I’ve been cruising the Mediterranean on my way to Worlds in Rome. Somewhere around Athens, I realized that it would only be fitting that I talked about philosophy while in the Greek isles, the birthplace of much of modern thought. With apologies to Rousseau, John Locke, and Thomas Hobbes (not to mention Socrates and Plato), here’s my shot at the Social Contract as it applies to EDH.

Sorry I missed you all last week. I’ve been cruising the Mediterranean on my way to Worlds in Rome. Somewhere around Athens, I realized that it would only be fitting that I talked about philosophy while in the Greek isles, the birthplace of much of modern thought. With apologies to Rousseau, John Locke, and Thomas Hobbes (not to mention Socrates and Plato), here’s my shot at the Social Contract as it applies to EDH.

In its most concise terms, the social contract explains the philosophy and methodology by which societies, or even subcultures, maintain social order, and this certainly applies to EDH (although we’re not going to go as far as Philip Pettit’s “consent of the governed”). Simply put, it’s an effort by the collective to in some fashion provide a set of agreed-upon rules for the benefit of the entirety of the group. Individuals gain civil rights in return for accepting the obligation to respect (and perhaps even defend) the rights of others, giving up some freedoms to do so. In our natural state, we would be little more than animals, simply taking from others what we wish when we want, but that would mean we’d be subject to having what is ours taken as well. We’d be in a constant state of what Hobbes called “Bellum omnium contra omnes ,” the war of all against all. Instead, civilized people, through their own power, establish civil societies, gaining further rights in exchange for subjecting themselves to the group’s authority. The contract a group chooses or develops isn’t the only way for that group to behave – clearly, it could choose many different ways – but it’s the one they’ve come to like the best.

In EDH, we already have the foundations of a contract, with deck construction rules and a banned list. That said, not all of the ‘rules’ need to be formalized. There’s no law that says you can’t butt up in line at the movie theater, or that you’re required to be courteous when addressing people, but we generally agree in polite society to take our turn and to say please and thank you.

The social contract that I propose (at least in this particular regard) isn’t one among all Magic players, but amongst the EDH subculture, a subtle but significant point which some of the forum responders from a few weeks ago may have missed. It’s a shared vision of rights and responsibilities between like-minded individuals on what is an enjoyable way to spend their leisure time. Note that there are no moral assignations here. “We’d rather not play with you because of the style of play you like” doesn’t equal “we think you’re a bad person.” Social contracts are rarely about right and wrong, despite what some might try to make you believe, but about the points which are important to the society, a path to walk towards the end that we desire, namely the benefit of all. In fact, there’s no legitimacy to elements of the contract that don’t forward the end goals. “Don’t play counterspells” isn’t a valid contractual obligation. “Don’t play counterspells just to annoy people” probably is.

The contract I’m suggesting isn’t “this is the way only true and valid way to play EDH,” so much as “this is the way we agree to play EDH.” I can speak with a distinct level of certitude about the format’s design and intention, but in the end, I might be Oppenheimer and the format the A-bomb. Certainly, there’s room for the most ruthless and cutthroat of environments, if that’s what a group agrees on, but I’m fairly sure that ruthless and cutthroat aren’t terms you’ll commonly hear when you ask people what attracts them to the format. What I’m suggesting as a broad vision for the larger EDH community is a friendlier, more social style of play.

The social group has no responsibility to be all-inclusive, and I’ve frequently said “EDH is not intended to be all things to all players.” I firmly believe that the society has the right to be exclusive and to protect itself against those that would violate the contract’s terms, again not as a moral statement but as an affirmation of the society’s agreed-upon values. Clearly, accepting the terms of the contract in order to gain their rights, individuals have the responsibility to not violate their obligations. When they do “commit crimes,” if you will, they abdicate some or all of their rights, and it makes sense for the society to defend itself against those that would continue to violate the contract. Note that there’s a discipline within social contract philosophy regarding the right of rebellion in the face of tyranny, but let’s assume EDH to be tyrant-free.

In its simplest form in the EDH community, this comes as a message like “look, if you’re going to play your kill-everyone-third-turn-combo-deck, you’re not welcome to play with us,” a message that I’m willing to go to great lengths to defend. That particular message, at least in broad terms, falls into what I want personally for the global format, but I certainly support the right of sub-groups to have a different message, even if it’s something like “if you play with more than 30 creatures, please play elsewhere.” Generally, the latter style of group enforces it values by making a hostile play environment for some strategies (such as killing you with their combo before you can get your second creature into play), passively chasing off proponents of a particular play style (which is, by the way, how competitive metagames develop). The former group has to be more active, and will police itself by specific exclusion. Sometimes that comes in the form of proactive prohibition (“we don’t really want to play with you”), and sometimes it comes in the form of negative reinforcement (“we’re going to ork-pile you for playing Mycosynth Lattice/March of the Machines”). It seems perfectly reasonable to me that players who want a Casual/Social environment actively discourage Competitive play.

Elements of the EDH Social Contract

So where’s all this going? I’m relatively comfortable with a pretty broad definition. For the most part, it’s “give your opponents some opportunity to play the game,” and “consider them less like opponents and more like group participants.” Disruption is fine, where complete debilitation isn’t (which reminds me that I somehow forgot to add the black Myojin to the 25 cards I hate list). Overwhelming power, such as Obliterating while having Liliana’s ultimate ready to go off, seems fine, since it ends the game relatively quickly, whereas the slow, annoying bleed of lock strategies, like Pickles or various Opposition, Capsize, and Tradewind Rider combos, don’t (and no, I don’t hate Blue, it’s just the only color that annoys people to death). I realize which particular strategies fit within the social contract are a matter of personal taste (I’ll stipulate to some folks believing there’s no difference between Obliterate/Liliana and Palinchron/Capsize), so I’ll suggest things in broader categories.

I see there being four basic principles of The EDH Social Contract:

Come in the Spirit of Friendly Play: This comes in two parts. First, bring a deck that is in keeping with the contract. It’s actually not much of a challenge to build a completely broken deck. The challenge is building a deck that strikes a balance between being capable of standing up to the other decks you’re playing with and not overdoing it. Your deck can be fun for you AND for everyone else at the same time (and it doesn’t need to be a Group Hug deck to do it). The second part of the spirit of friendly play is simple good sportsmanship. Take some interest and enjoyment in the wacky things everyone else is doing. And even if you’re smashing face, don’t be a jerk about it.

Give Everyone Else a Chance to Play: Again, a little disruption and self-preservation is fine, but completely taking the game away isn’t. A well-timed Disenchant or Counterspell that keeps someone from going insane or keeping you (and/or others) and the game alive makes sense. I actually find that players don’t play enough spot removal, but that’s getting away from philosophy and into strategy. If you’re completely robbing others of the ability to play the game, or you’re the only person enjoying yourself, then you’re in violation of this principle.

It’s Not Personal: When someone counters your spell, they should expect a little retribution, but spending the rest of the night doing things merely to harass them is over the top. I’ve seen too many games devolve into pissing contests over something not particularly significant. When someone with good reason does something to one of your cards, take it like an adult. I’d hardly consider it picking on me when you disenchant my Beastmaster Ascension when I swing your way with a legion of tokens.

Take in the Big Picture: Consider how your actions impact everyone and the environment around you. No single game happens in a vacuum. Think about how you might make the game more enjoyable for both yourself and others in the future. The most significant point here is to be the person that others actually want to play with again.

EDH is Magic unlike any other format, and intentionally so. The social contract I suggest here is the social contract I had in mind from the earliest days of the format’s development. By nature, the “rules” of a social contract are less hard and fast than laws or formalized rules sets, but they also grant a broader scope of freedoms – and more importantly, a framework for maximizing everyone’s enjoyment. I completely understand that this doesn’t resonate with some people, and that’s fine. I encourage those people to find a format and a contract that they enjoy, and let the rest of us Embrace the Chaos.