This advice is most applicable to people who play at local card shops or at side events for a Grand Prix or on the SCG Tour®, but it never hurts to be courteous to your friends when playing at someone’s kitchen table.
Commander was built on the social contract, the idea that playgroups, stores, and other venues can create a culture for the game that works best for them. As I said in my first article for StarCityGames.com, my preferred way to begin a game is to ask about everyone’s expectations for the game. The question I use most often is, “What kind of game does everyone want to play?”
Even if people are confused (I still think that is a bad sign), it begins a discussion about what everyone is seeking from the game. If a dialogue is not forming, I encourage you to begin it. Saying, “I’m looking to test out my tuned Zur the Enchanter Deck” is different from “I just finished my tribal Elephant deck.” I don’t want to play Ramirez Di Pietro against my friend’s Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind combo deck. That game won’t be fun for either of us.
Think about everyone, please, and don’t be a jerk. If someone is looking for a game that is basically 100-card Vintage, they can have a blast. But if that isn’t the game for you, explain that upfront and save yourself the misery and save your opponents’ hearing your bellyaching. Instead, excuse yourself and find a game you are looking for. Another solution is to lend or borrow a deck to match the game expectations*. Trade off, borrow a cutthroat deck, and after that game, lend them something more casual like G/W Functional Reprints commanded by Sigarda, Host of Herons while you bust out Pirates and Sea Monsters helmed by Ramirez DePietro.
* Lend the deck to someone you know and trust. At your local game store, you can usually have people help keep an eye out, but at a big event you need to be more careful.
Be upfront about your wants. Commander games work like a relationship; if you don’t tell your partner what you want or need, nothing good happens. People cannot read your mind, so be clear and everyone can enjoy a game where everyone is participating.
The social contract also enables things that some players really love. “Hey, can I play Dune-Brood Nephilim this game?” “Is it cool if I play Frankie Peanuts?” Start the conversations so that you can see the things you want and your group can create a dialogue that opens up the option for everyone to do the things they enjoy.
I know I just said “Don’t be a jerk.” But don’t be a jerk.
Trash-talking is fun. I do it too. But if your trash-talking is making someone uncomfortable, you should rethink what you are saying. You should always have respect for your opponents. You may not like Armageddon (I don’t in Commander), but at the end of the game, your opponent is a person.
Since you are surrounded by people when playing, be aware of the environment your actions and your items create. A playmat that has a highly sexualized image when you are playing against a twelve-year-old is not cool. It’s not good for you, for that player, for our format, or for Magic. This follows into your sleeves, alters, and tokens. I am not interested in your Saproling tokens that are all altered to be anime characters in various panty-shots or your pictures of naked women you use for your Elemental tokens. Nope. Be reasonable.
Our environment goes beyond the cards and the items we bring. Our attitudes and actions matter. One of the ways this occurs more in Commander than other formats is through the use of non-English cards. If you play them and lie to people about what the card does, you deserve all the hate coming your way.
With that out of the way, people should not panic at a card they cannot read; however, it is still possible for someone to not know the card. This is fine; no one should be required to learn every card in this format in every possible language. Even staples. Even Sol Ring. Do not complain when someone needs the card repeated or they need to ask throughout the game. Many players develop an encyclopedic knowledge of Magic cards, but we should never demand that of anyone else. Play skill matters, not memorization skill.
There are a few easy workarounds. Have a cheat sheet nearby. “Oh, this is Bloodfire Colossus, here is what it does.” Then hand them an index card or something with it written out. If you are playing at the local game store or somewhere that is okay with a slip of paper inside the sleeve, you can translate the card so no one has to worry. The easiest method I have found is the smart phone. Go to StarCityGames.com and boom, done. Oracle text and associated rulings for the card are available on Gatherer. Easy peasy.
Cleanliness is also part of the environment we create. Wash your hands or carry hand sanitizer if you play somewhere with limited access to a bathroom. I have never complained or seen anyone else complain about waiting a minute or two for someone to go wash their hands so that they can cut my deck. If you clean up beforehand, your sleeves last longer too!
This is a huge problem in our games. In a tournament, you call a judge to watch slow play, and there is a clock to encourage players to play quickly. But when there is no clock, things… slow… down. Play at a reasonable pace, for all our sakes.
The biggest time sinks come from small things that just make everyone wait. In a duel I want to wait until your end step to activate Sensei’s Divining Top so that I know when to best crack my Scalding Tarn while I keep mana up for counters and removal. But in Commander, it is often best to activate the Top and then pass the turn while you stack your cards. This way no one is waiting on you.
If you have a lot of interaction, then fine, play like it’s a tournament. But for those players who run the Top because it is good and don’t have many or even any answers in their deck, just pass the turn. I know you aren’t digging for an answer and you know it. Let the next player go so we can all move forward.
Sensei’s Divining Top and its brethren are huge time sinks, but shuffling is the true killer of hours in Commander. (Cue Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel.”) Every time a player pointlessly waits to crack a fetchland or makes the table wait for Kodama’s Reach to resolve on turn 3, a dual land is thrown away after a garage sale. But seriously, who are you impressing? You are wasting everyone’s time when you could have found your land and shuffled in the time it takes the three other players to finish their turns.
Many players do not think this is a big deal, but do you make your coworkers wait unnecessarily while you set something up? I’m going to guess not. Do you waste your friends’ time in the same manner, always making them wait for you before they can have their fun or do something they want to do? So why do you waste everyone’s time at the table? You can crack that fetchland or activate Top while someone else is continuing the game.
The last time sink I most often see is related to searching is the mid-turn tutor. The easiest fix is to announce your search target and if you intend to cast it or not. “Trinket Mage resolved, I’m going to tutor Sol Ring, cast Sol Ring and tap it to cast Izzet Signet. Go.” Simple! Of course, if someone has counters, you need to wait before announcing search targets and make sure everything resolves properly. But even that can be done quickly and all the shuffling can be finished later.
This stretches from time into its own category. Being prepared is key. You prepare against a metagame with a deck choice, build, and sideboard cards. For Commander, this works in a very similar way. Be prepared for the game and the deck you are playing. Being prepared for the game includes the basics like a pad and paper for life (dice get knocked over and roll), a playmat, the deck, the commander not being shuffled into the 99 (it happens to all of us); but it also includes being prepared to play the game, the whole game.
Life happens, emergencies occur, a ride shows up early, or something else. I get it. But if you only have 30 minutes until you need to leave, you shouldn’t jump into a four-player pod. When a player scoops, there is a drastic impact on the game. Suddenly, the player who was holding back because alpha striking would mean a lethal counterattack is free to run rampant. The game shifts, and the shift is much greater than many players believe. It is okay to pass on a game so that the remaining players enjoy it to the fullest. Don’t be selfish and cram twenty minutes of rushed gameplay into a game that was expecting an hour-long session.
Being prepared for your deck also means being prepared for the deck you are going to play. This may sound a bit strange, but hang on. Have you ever seen a player run Rhys the Redeemed and not have any tokens ready? It happens. But it shouldn’t. If you are playing a deck with tokens, have them ready to go. I prefer to use decks of playing cards for my tokens, since they can easily fit onto the table and give me numbers, suit, and different colored backs to provide a variety of tokens. You can use whatever you want, but keep them on the table!
This applies for decks with a +1/+1 counter theme or a deck just running a card like Juniper Order Ranger or Cathars’ Crusade. Those counters are going to be flying around, so have dice ready. If you plan on playing Cathars’ Crusade in paper Magic, I hope you have a brick of six-sided dice, because you’re going to need it.
Have your supplies ready and don’t cause a delay or need to borrow from your opponents. Having your game ready to go is your responsibility. If an opponent has enough forethought to bring tokens and dice, you can be expected to do the same.
Etiquette and Protocol
Be respectful, be mindful of how much time you are using, be prepared for your game, and follow the social contract for your group. Easy concepts, easy follow-through, better games. The onus for improving Commander as a format is on us. What else can you do? What important point did I not mention?