The Justice League – Fun in Elder Dragon Highlander

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Friday, December 4th – Friends, I am happy to state that it is a fantastic time to be an Elder Dragon Highlander enthusiast. Interest in the format is very strong. Wizards actually mentions EDH games as part of the Public Events schedule at Pro Tours – not to mention its inclusion in the Comprehensive Rules – and it’s become more likely that you can find a few one-hundred-card decks in your local playgroup than not.

Friends, I am happy to state that it is a fantastic time to be an Elder Dragon Highlander enthusiast. Interest in the format is very strong. Wizards actually mentions EDH games as part of the Public Events schedule at Pro Tours — not to mention its inclusion in the Comprehensive Rules (though, no, this does not mean that EDH will ever be sanctioned as a format) — and it’s become more likely that you can find a few one-hundred-card decks in your local playgroup than not. As somebody who loves this format above all others, I am enormously happy with the way EDH seems to have matured and developed.

With this new surge of interest in the format, there has also been a new surge of writing about the format. Sheldon Menery and Bennie Smith have recently put together some terrific articles on EDH deck-building and the social aspects of the format. Brian Coval recent article on his Mono-Black Stax deck showed another side of the format: something more competitive than the approach advocated by Messrs. Menery and Smith, but still valuable and valid in its own right.

The unfortunate downside to the surge in discussion about the purpose of EDH and how it should be played is that the format seems to be extremely polarized. There are some who advocate a Timmy-oriented approach, full of fun and unorthodox cards (the ones usually derided as “awful” by competitive players). Others prefer to play EDH as Spikes, wanting to come up with the most broken concoctions they can in order to win. Both approaches are equally valid. (Though, for what it’s worth, my sympathies lie deeply in the Timmy camp, even if my decks are much Spikier than I am. I don’t think it really sunk in until Bennie Smith innocently inquired one day if I was still playing “that Spiky Kresh deck.” If Bennie says it’s Spiky, it’s Spiky.)

It goes without saying that the Internet is a challenging medium for communication. Tone and body language are completely stripped from how we talk to one another. When you compound that with the complete anonymity provided by the Internet, any real need we have to be civil to each other goes out the window completely. I mean, sure, the Internet gives us the opportunity to communicate with people all over the world, but how well are you actually communicating if you’re just being a jerk?

What I find most frustrating is how antagonistic the disagreements are between the Timmies and the Spikes. Rather than emphasizing what each group likes about EDH — rather than sharing different forms of enthusiasm for the format — the discussion instead degrades into judgments about the Right Way to play EDH, or how a difference in opinion is indicative of some intellectual shortcoming on the part of one individual or another.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. What it comes down to is that different players appreciate the format in different ways, and that is fine. I’d go so far as to venture that it’s even good. We need divergent opinions in order to strengthen the format. That being said, there are a few ideas I’d like to contribute in an attempt to advance these discussions on how the format ought to be played.

Definitions of Winning

I don’t think anybody likes losing. I mean, sure, some among us don’t mind losing, if the loss was to genuinely being outplayed, rather than mana screw or mana flooding. If you know you’ve played your best, and if the game was enjoyable outside of the outcome, I would suggest that losing is an acceptable outcome.

Some in the EDH community — myself among them — would argue that winning a game of EDH doesn’t matter. I’m much more amused by what plays make me laugh than what plays might win me a game. For example: Just last week I participated in a three-player game with my good friends Mark and Laura — Mark with a Dakkon Blackblade build that focuses on such platinum hits as Whim of Volrath and Spectral Shift to make cards like Order of the Sacred Torch completely stupid, Laura playing Razia, Boros Archangel along every other angel she could find, and I with Momir Vig — and, after many turns of grinding away at one another, Mark has an Angel of Despair, and I have a ton of mana and a Rite of Replication in my hand. When my turn finally rolls around, I tap nine and cast my Rite, targeting the Angel. Laura, in a display of traitorous behavior sharply contrasted by her normally good nature and strong moral character, decides to Reiterate my Rite, copying the Angel and then destroying it. I howled with laughter, and many high-fives ensued. I also won that game. Only one of those two facts actually matters to me.

For contrast, go back and re-read “Mono-Black Stax in Elder Dragon Highlander” — specifically, the account of Brian’s game. There are cards that hit the table in that match — Dimensional Breach, anyone? — that I would never consider in EDH, as they’re too good at keeping people from being able to actually play the game. Hell, I’m pretty sure Braids, Cabal Minion hits the board on turn 13, and the author himself drops Chains of Mephistopheles (!) on turn 25. Clearly, these guys are not playing to goof off. They seem to place a premium on competition, so victory is going to be defined by who is the last player standing. This is not a match at which I’d feel at home, but who cares? The point is to have fun, by whatever means are agreeable to those participating.

Comparative Competition

How good is “too good? What is fair? Most importantly — how do you decide?

So, Bennie Smith thinks my Kresh deck is Spiky. I agree with him (and am actively soliciting suggestions for how to make it less so). I have actually pulled absurdities like Vicious Shadows out of the deck in order to make it a little more reasonable, but I still know that a deck that can infinitely loop Survival of the Fittest through Genesis (rather than Squee, which got yanked for the same reasons listed above) and drop a ridiculous army of monsters via Living Death is going to seem too good (and unfair) to some people. Playing Grave Pact makes no friends for anyone, and the prospect of using Xathrid Demon to fling an obscenely-large Lord of Extinction at someone’s face would provoke some to hurl (well-deserved) insults in my general direction.

I myself have definitely castigated people for playing decks that I thought were too competitive, or too concerned with winning: I recall one particular game in which an opponent tapped out on one turn to cast Sanguine Bond, immediately followed by Invincible Hymn. Calling my reaction to being one-shotted “caustic” would have been a slight understatement. I don’t care how you play EDH, but one-shotting someone out of nowhere is not cool. But I digress.

Sheldon’s article on an EDH Social Contract touches on a few principles that he feels are conducive to EDH: Come in the Spirit of Friendly Play, Give Everyone Else A Chance to Play, It’s Not Personal, and Take in the Big Picture. While I agree that the latter two principles are generally good practice regardless of the philosophy of your local playgroup, I think that the first two principles Sheldon espouses are fairly fluid based on what your playgroup wants, and should be examined when deciding what is good and what is fair.

Some people like playing as a social activity to be enjoyed with one’s friends. Others like playing as an exercise in competition — also to be enjoyed with one’s friends, but without the same context of recreation as is present in a casual EDH game. Different decks and different strategies are appropriate for each group depending on how they measure themselves on the friendly/competitive scale and the interactive/non-interactive scale. For example: Take a deck with lots of elements of mana control and discard, and contrast it with a deck with lots of “everyone draws” effects like Howling Mine and Rite of Flourishing, and see where you end up.

Anything to Everyone

The main point I’m trying to make is this: EDH is a wonderful, complex, format that can be appreciated by a broad range of players. Some people prefer it to be more competitive, constantly dueling for some marginal advantage while leveraging ridiculous card drawing and crushing board control toward the win, while others prefer marathon games that end with one player at a four-digit life total and another with a 700/701 Exalted Angel off Cradle of Vitality. Neither style is wrong and, contrary to what I’ve been reading (and with a great sense of disappointment) in the SCG forums discussing these articles, the way you play EDH doesn’t say a thing about your moral value as a person. EDH is not serious business, and those who would argue that it is are actively damaging the format — sure, your intentions are probably good, but you’re not helping.

I’m writing this as somebody who loves this format, and wants to see it grow and become prolific. I prefer to play it a certain way, but I acknowledge that my way is not the One True Way. As a lover of the format, I encourage everyone to go forth and play, but do so with an open mind to the way other people interpret it. If you’re not having fun playing, I’d wonder why you’re playing, but I’d also suggest considering the possibility that other people might define fun differently than you do.

Until next time, thanks for this time.

Nicholas Sabin
nicholas dot sabin at starcitygames dot highlander
NicholasAtSCG on the SCG forums and … pretty much everywhere else.
… Except for Facebook, where you can find him as Nicholas Sabin.

… Hi, Ute!