Embracing the Chaos – Vision for the Format… and Previews!

Grand Prix GP Columbus July 30-August 1, 2010
Tuesday, June 29th – We see an EDH game as a group effort, and this is a mindset that I understand might be completely alien to otherwise competitive players. Our intention is to make things so that the primary goal isn’t ‘winning,’ as it’s traditionally defined, it’s ‘having a great time together.’ Again, I get the idea that “I came to win” is deeply engrained in the way we compete.

Let’s get something straight right away: I’m totally in EDH-love for Bennie Smith. But before we get to my 100-card man-crush, we have M11 previews!

Although this little guy may see some play in Standard, I don’t see many applications for him in EDH. He might make it into Goblin decks that Recruiter up everyone and vomit them out, but other than that, he’s unexciting for the format.

This guy, on the other hand, will likely see a fair amount of EDH play. His ability is the obvious part, but it’s not what I think is the most significant. The thing that really catches me about this guy is his creature types: Merfolk and Rogue. Sygg, River Guide is a relatively popular General, and Scroll Thief goes right into the deck. Add to that Prowl shenanigans, like with Knowledge Exploitation (didn’t remember that had Prowl, did you?) or Notorious Throng, and you have the beginnings of a strategy. Is he Shadowmage Infiltrator? Not quite. Is he good enough to play? Without a doubt.

I admit loving the name of this card. Sounds like it should be a big, beefy guy that smites the unholy. His ability is killing an enchantment, which people don’t do enough of in EDH, so there’s that. He is an immensely better version of Monk Realist (note that Monk Realist has the additional creature type of Monk). You’ll see him played for his utility, especially at the cost, and for the guys just getting into the game. I’m sure Tory, who in the Armada EDH League has built a Wild Pair deck with a bunch of 2/2s, will play him.

First things first: Let’s talk about the banned list update. Someone mentioned that there are lots of folks who play EDH that don’t get over to the official message boards that often, and it’d be useful to post the updates here. Here is the official statement:

Rofellos as a General
Tolarian Academy
Staff of Domination

It’s clear that especially in the post-Eldrazi world, super-fast, super-reliable early mana production is dangerous to the format. Rofellos, Channel, and Tolarian Academy have all demonstrated they can do this with quite a bit of ease.

Unbanning Rofellos as a General was a year-long experiment that didn’t pan out. We had hoped it would lead to a spate of fun-and-full-of-fat decks, but that wasn’t the case. First- or second-turn Channel into Emrakul or similar things are simply negatively format-warping. Tolarian Academy, while not quite as explosive as the Rofellos and Channel, fuels easy early-game super-production of mana.

We’ve had our eyes on Staff of Domination for a long, long time, and were hoping that someone would find uses for it that didn’t include the term ‘degenerate.’ That hope proved fruitless. Strangely enough, it’s the first and cheapest activation that has proved the most troublesome.

The watchword of the Rule’s Committee’s vision of the format is ‘interactive.’ We’d like to foster an environment where ridiculous things happen, but that everyone playing has a chance to do them. Early, reliable, hyper-production of mana often leads to a single player playing by himself and others watching, and that’s not what we want for EDH.

Like it or not, agree with it or not, there is a vision for this format. The foundation for that vision was predominantly mine, but there are five other people on the Rules Committee, and we’ve created a broad shared mindset. It was intentionally developed the way it was to be different from other kinds of Magic, which is the giant linchpin to this whole discussion. There are things we want and things we don’t want for this format. One of the major things we don’t want is games devolving into one player being the only one playing, which is why there is a notable anti-combo deck bias.

Note that I said “anti-combo deck.” It’s not combos that we find problematic (although there are some exceptions), since technically the way any two or more cards interact is a combo; it’s decks focused on putting together a single combo—and it doesn’t matter if that combo is Pickles Lock, Fruity Pebbles, or Woodfall Primus/Mighty Emergence. We could probably write thousands of words trying to define a combo deck, but you’re all pretty smart, and you know it when you see it.

As I say above, the watchword for our vision for the format “interactive,” and one player putting Ophidian Eye on his Niv-Mizzet isn’t interactive. We want to develop and encourage (both socially and administratively) a format where everyone is having fun and doing stuff. An action with a half dozen responses is pure EDH gold. Sitting and watching someone else play by themselves is rarely fun, although I’ll concede it might to some of you sometimes be interesting.

As formats go, this one is simply broken, and that’s one of the things you accept when you play it. It is little to no challenge to make an insane, fast, outlandishly good deck that kills everyone quickly. The challenge of this format is to build a deck that does interesting things and plays mostly nicely with others. In that, it’s radically different from other Magic formats.

We see an EDH game as a group effort, and this is a mindset that I understand might be completely alien to otherwise competitive players. Our intention is to make things so that the primary goal isn’t ‘winning,’ as it’s traditionally defined, it’s ‘having a great time together.’ Again, I get the idea that “I came to win” is deeply engrained in the way we compete. I think what folks need to do then is redefine what the real competition is here. The supreme challenge is finding a way to be competitive while ensuring that you’re helping create great memories. Everyone might remember the guy that turn 3 combo’d out, but trust me, that memory is rarely fond (and makes Bennie cranky). They’ll remember with advantages the time when three different people cast Storm Herd and the fourth guy cast Mogg Maniac + Chain Reaction or when the blind Gather Specimens in response to a Lurking Predators trigger snatched Emrakul.

The reason that I have such EDH man-love for Bennie Smith is his unwavering stance on the DBAD idea. The lengths he goes to defending the point demonstrate that he truly cares. While I think he has stretched (and maybe even missed) the point a little at times, I’m pretty sure his heart is in the right place. The format needs more Bennie Smith, more people whose love is for the format itself, more people whose evangelism is for the grand shared experience of EDH, because that grand experience is what we have been trying to create. What we have been trying to avoid is EDH being just another format where a player wins a game of Magic. In regular Magic, results (so long as you come by them legally) are what matters. In EDH, style is everything.

What the format doesn’t need is a bunch of infighting, polarization, dichotomy, or self-righteousness. I will confess to having been guilty of some of the latter in the past, but that ends here. EDH was developed as a social activity, and taking any kind of moralistic stance, even against those who are actively working against what you set out to accomplish (I don’t think anyone is actively trying to ruin the format, but I do think that some folks are particularly insensitive to collateral damage), seems counterproductive. It is, after all, a game, not a universal truth. In the end, bringing more and more willing participants into our crazy little society is our goal, so I’d much rather convince folks that the way we’re doing it is cool instead of creating some kind of battleground.

That doesn’t mean I’m still not going to aggressively assert our vision. The message “This is the way we want EDH to be” is simply that—our desire, and as managers of the format, it’s not an unreasonable stance to take. We’re not going to tell you that you can’t play EDH a certain way. First, it’d be silly to try to enforce it. Second, we have no right. If a group of super-Spikes wants to get together and play to see who can win fastest, good for them. I say that with no sarcasm. If they’re all happy with the way they’re playing, that’s great. And with the advent of four-man-for-cash-or-credit pods at large scale events, it may be an inevitable conclusion (it’s a bittersweet thing for me—more folks playing EDH, but many of those folks missing out on what we think is the great joy). It’s just not the way we want things. We want a more social environment, where everyone else’s fun is nearly as important as your own. Again, a radical departure from what most folks are used to.

I get that this kind of social contract doesn’t resonate with some people, and they take the ‘ban it or shut up about it’ stance. I get that it’s easier and more comfortable to grasp things in black and white, but quite honestly, we live in a world with way more gray area. Social contracts are the norm, not the exception. The edges of these contracts may be a little fuzzy, for sure. They’re not laws—there is no legislature charged with creating them or police force charged with upholding them—but they’re ways people agree to behave together. Societies and subcultures are rife with them, and sometimes, you just have to know or be instructed in the particulars.

A great example of a social contract is in Magic is the commonly agreed-upon idea that if in the last round of Swiss, if you get paired up, you have no chance for Top 8, but you can scoop your opponent in, you do it. Does everyone subscribe to this idea? No. It is written down anywhere? Of course not. But I bet if you ask ten PTQ regulars, seven or eight of them will tell you “that’s what you do (unless the guy’s a real jerk).” It’s the same if you’re already in and you get paired down—you scoop the guy in.

Another great example of the social contract comes from soccer (or football, depending on where you’re from). Watching the World Cup, I’ve seen teams intentionally give up possession of the ball when a man on the other side goes down. In order to give the guy a little time to recover, they fire the ball down the other end of the field or out of bounds. Strategically it has no advantage (it’s actually a disadvantage), but it’s what the culture has determined is the thing to do.

Am I saying that it’s “right?*” No, I’m simply saying that it is, and it’s a sometimes somewhat unclear, unwritten code of behavior. The main point is that social contracts exist as part of the way human beings exist in societies. And “EDH players” is a society. If you’d like to be part of that society, great. If not, that’s okay too. No one is trying to force you to play a particular way, but they might be asking that don’t play a particular way as well.

I kind of liken ‘social’ versus ‘competitive’ EDH to baseball with wooden versus aluminum bats. Sure aluminum bats are better. They help you hit the ball harder and farther, but purists think that wood is the way the game is intended to be played, so that’s what they’ll use. Aluminum bat guy has competitive advantage over wood bat guy. “I came to win” guy plays with aluminum. “I came to play baseball” guy goes with wood. It’s perfectly reasonable for the “I came to play baseball” guys to say “you’re welcome to play with us, but you have to use a wooden bat.”

That may trigger the thought “well, you should just ban all the cards you hate,” but that’s a path to failure (see the history of 5-color). For most of the cards that remain unbanned, there are colorful and interesting uses as well as powerful strategic ones. Some cards that can be used in mean-spirited ways also provide defense from some strategies getting out of hand. While Magister Sphinx might be nasty, it’s pretty good at keeping crazy life gain guy in check. Judicious application of such things is the secret to the balance.

I think that one of the points that Bennie struggled to make is that DBAD doesn’t mean “don’t prevent other people from playing the stuff they want,” it’s “don’t prevent other people from playing.” There’s a subtle but significant difference. Yes, when the guy playing a bunch of token generators casts Titanic Ultimatum, you should counter it. Yes, you should Wrath away his guys (despite my love for them, I accept the argument someone made in the forums that ‘creatures exist to be killed’). But cheating out Mycosynth Lattice turn 3 then playing March of the Machines so that no one can get any land into play has gone over the line. Again, if you’re the only person doing anything or the only person enjoying himself, then you’ve missed the point of what we’re trying to do. I really think it’s just that simple.

The bottom line is, despite what I might have tried to say (mostly for entertainment purposes) in the past, there is no morally right or wrong way to play EDH. There is, however, a vision for how the people that manage the format would like to see it played, and we’re going to do everything we can to institute that vision. We really hope you like it. If not, that’s fine, because there are a number of other great Magic formats for you to enjoy instead and we can still stay friends.

* Side point, which I’m happy to debate: Inalienable rights are a myth. You have no rights save for those you can defend.