The Problem Of Going Tutorless

Sheldon explores the idea of trying to go tutorless for the next Armada Games EDH League, sketching out the problems and coming up with possible solutions.

If you’re a regular reader, you know that I’m going mostly tutorless in all my decks, and it’s been nothing more than a simple personal choice. One of the reasons I developed the format the way I did was because of the sometimes-random nature of the 100-card singleton design. I really wanted there to be a looser, more open-ended format for multiplayer. When I’m playing, I want my decks to be able to do many different things or to do the same thing multiple different ways. Going tutorless helps squeeze in more opportunity. You can’t really have a Beast tribal deck with only one Beast, right?

Armada Games EDH League Chairman Michael Fortino recently asked me about the idea of trying to go tutorless for our next League. Leagues run eight weeks, so it’s not like we’d be locked in forever, making them a nice testing ground for stuff—and I don’t mean for the Rules Committee, just the Armada League. The RC fully supports local groups and leagues to go as casual or as degenerate as they see fit.

The first thing I want to define is what we’d be trying to accomplish. The primary goal is not to stop combo but to stop combo too early. There’s a difference between combo (multiple cards working synergistically) and a combo deck (focused on assembling the elements as quickly as possible). The goal here is to get rid of combo decks, the decks that finish games on turn 5 (even if the game goes on a few more turns). The idea is to create a fun, loose, higher variance environment. I think there’s been some distaste from players who look forward all week to playing in EDH League, only to have games end in ten minutes. Folks don’t have fun when they spend more time drawing their opening hands than they do playing.

I’ll remind you again that I’m not talking about the validity of hyper-combo decks; I’m talking about what the folks who regularly play in the League see as fun, or I suppose in this case not fun. I don’t want to restart the whole casual-competitive / fun-unfun debate. We’re actually not talking about that in any way here. All (non-cheaty) play styles are equally valid. What we’re addressing here is the dissatisfaction from enough players that they don’t want to come play anymore, which you can understand is bad business for the shop.

On the surface, I really liked the idea of the League going semi-tutorless, still allowing for lands to be searched up. When I gave it some deeper thought, however, I realized that there are a few potential problem areas.


Certain Decks Won’t Function

In the trim, I’m okay with hamstringing the raw-dog combo decks and the decks that just tutor for "I win" cards. They’re set up to play a game that most folks who play at our store don’t enjoy being a part of. That said, we have to think about the people who only have one deck and the folks who "tutor responsibly." I’d like the angle we approach this from to be more "come play the way the group likes" than "if you don’t play the way the group likes, you’re excluded." Nonetheless, the major point in going tutorless is to stop these kinds of decks from trampling over a more social environment.

Strengthening of Ramp and Card Draw

One of my continuing worries about the format is that it’s become a resource acquisition format as opposed to a resource management one. Magic at its heart is the latter, and I’d like to eventually figure out how to tap the brakes here—not full stop, but prevent the eleven-mana-on-turn 3 problem. Yes, this is battlecruiser Magic, and yes, I want huge, epic things to happen—just not too fast (feel free to insert your own adult-oriented innuendo here). Broken thing on turn 12 is fine. Broken thing on turn 3 is a disappointment.

Anyway, one of the huge problems I see in going tutorless is the enhancement of the ramp strategy without a corresponding downside. Currently, I can ramp-ramp-ramp-fatty-fatty, but you can answer that by tutor-wrath. I’ve expended more resources than you have, but you’ve been able to return us to equilibrium. If you’re dependent on topdecking an answer, my giant monsters get even better, and that equilibrium is more difficult for you to achieve. In fact, it’s easier in this situation for me to get ahead with another large body while you’re still digging for answers.

Card draw now becomes the primary method of additional nonland resource acquisition. Without being able to search for specifically what you want, you’re going to have to dig deeper to get what you need. Instead of those tutors, you’ll be playing more Opportunity, Jace’s Ingenuity, or Harmonize. That’s not a 100% downside, as decks that want to do one thing all the time have to spend more time getting to do them, but since no one can select the card they want from their library, each card drawn is a very precious resource.

It wouldn’t happen right away, but if we were to go along this route for a while, the already-good G/U "good stuff" decks would become the thing to play. All of you Simic mages would see an uptick in how well your decks perform since it’s much more difficult for you to be disrupted. I’d prefer to see a broad swath of strategies represented, and I fear that people might abandon some more creative angles to go for the cheap and easy. Many Commander players think that if you’re not playing green, you’re already behind, and I think this would reinforce that attitude, further widening that gap.

No "Escape Valves"

The big issue with no tutors is that no one can search for something to save the table. Simic guy has spent two turns with Seedborn Muse and Ant Queen and now has a zillion tokens threatening to kill everyone. "Topdeck or everyone dies" is suboptimal. We like situations where someone can be the hero. Building that kind of relationship capital is an important part of a multiplayer game. The problem—and one of the reasons that this idea has come up in the first place—is that it’s difficult to create a scenario where the hero can tutor but the villain (which we’re defining here as tutor-tutor-combo) can’t. This is the biggest problem to solve.

Creates Non-Transportable Metagame

If you have to change your decks to play at the shop or change them when you play elsewhere, it creates an annoyance for you. It’s kind of easy if you have 23 decks. I already have some decks that I won’t play during the League because they’re prone to piling up the negative points—and they’re not even broken (Prime Speaker Zegana being the primary example), which makes it even worse. Getting the "Dookie" penalty to give yourself the upper hand in the game is one thing. Getting Dookie and still being behind is a kick in the Jacobs.

For players who only have one or two decks and play in multiple groups, non-portability is a drag. They either have to carry around additional cards to swap in and out or they have to make sure they do it before the leave the house. I want this to be the free-and-easy format, not the excessive bookkeeping one. Additionally, if new players are learning to play in our League, they may assume that our different rules set is the actual rules set and go in blind when they play elsewhere. It’s a smaller concern but one of the downsides nonetheless.

Cards That Search Opponent’s Libraries

Bribery, Knowledge Exploitation, and Praetor’s Grasp would all have to have clarification. It doesn’t seem right that you can’t search your library but I’m free to run my filthy fingers all through it. It’s a smaller concern, but it’s one we’d have to address.


So how do we solve those problems? First, we’ll see what doesn’t work. I don’t think that banning individual cards is a viable solution. Creating a longer banned list creates the same non-portability problem that blanket-banning does. It also generates more overheard to both create and keep track of. Adding one extra card isn’t that painful, but when we start getting into multiples, it gets tricky. Does Demonic Tutor get the axe but not Diabolic? What about the Mirage block tutors? Worldly Tutor and Enlightened Tutor are often pretty benign, but Mystical gets way more dangerous things—though banning only the latter just because it can pump better fuel doesn’t make any sense.

Let’s throw a few things against the wall and see what sticks. We can bypass for now "do nothing" since while that’s a viable option, it kind of cuts our thought exercise off at the knees. I crowdsourced this idea a little on the forums, and one of the repeated and most attractive ideas is everyone having an Aven Mindcensor emblem, perhaps even for land tutoring. Four cards deep isn’t really that much, though, so that’s probably out. Is ten good? Maybe twelve? Reasonability in this case is pretty arbitrary. I’m sure that players would follow whatever number we set, but I’m also sure that there would be folks who would consider whatever the number too strict.

Making it fluid, like "top half of the deck," has some allure, but it would slow things down to a crawl as players would have to keep count of exactly how many cards are in the library. There’s an argument for putting a little yellow card in the deck, like in the old casino shoes, at the 25 cards from the bottom point. Of course, you’d have to reset it every time you shuffled, slowing things down again. We could reduce the time it takes to shuffle by just keeping the same2 5 below the card, but I’m not grooving on players getting a random 75 to play with. We build decks because we want to play the cards in them.

That said, let’s walk down this road a little. If our major goal is to inhibit (and thereby have people not play) the decks which overrely on tutors to not be able to search up their combo pieces, then potentially cutting out one or more of those pieces will achieve the goal. Unfortunately, this path gets muddy pretty quickly. Ten is probably not enough to do anything useful; twenty is likely way too many. Another arbitrary number even if well intentioned is likely to cause some bad blood. Let’s get back on the main road.

Another suggestion is to make the number of cards players can search dependent on the turn. The deeper into the game we go, the more of their library they can search. The first issue here is again the original number. Making the number low, like equal to the turn, effectively means no tutoring. Sure, there are games that go 25 turns, but we tend to see them in the 12-15 turn range (although I suppose that would get extended some if there were less tutoring going on). Making the number too high means again having the problem of wasting time counting. The second issue is adding more administrative overhead to the game. "What turn are we on?" is easy to answer when it’s 4 since you can probably just look at the land drops but dicey when it’s 14.

If I were to choose one of the Mindcensor options, it would be a static number. The rest simply detract too much from game play. I’d go with one of two options. If we want to set a number for both land and nonland tutoring, slightly inhibiting the ramp, I’d pick a larger number like 25. Yeah, it’s kind of lame if you have to roll the dice to Rampant Growth for your only Mountain, but I also feel like there needs to be a downside to a greedy mana base. If we want ramp to be able to search freely, which is my preference of these two options, I’d set the number at something reasonably countable like 15. Once we get into more than that, we start really slowing down the game.

While the Mindcensor idea is the most palatable so far, I’ve heard a few other outside-the-box ideas. The first is that all tutors that don’t get lands can fetch only lands, but if it’s your turn, you get an extra land drop. You wouldn’t get the extra land drop for cracking Arid Mesa, but if you cast Demonic Tutor, you’d get a land plus a land drop. This seems reasonable. After all, you get the extra land drop with Wood Elves, right? This idea solves the issue of players having to change their decks or having dead cards. The downside is that it’s a little janky and would have to be explained again each week. While this only seems moderately complex in theory, writing it out is trickier:

"If a spell or ability instructs you to search your library for a card that isn’t a land, search your library for a land card instead. If it’s your turn, you may play an additional land this turn."

The other wild idea that I heard is basically Hive Mind for tutors—everyone gets a copy of any nonland tutoring you do. I imagine that would get pretty degenerate pretty fast. And if someone Demonic Tutors for a land, which is certainly known to happen, what does everyone else get?

All in all, I don’t think I’m a fan of just "no nonland tutors." I like the modified Mindcensor idea enough that I’d be willing to play with it, but I think I’d be happier with more consideration of points and penalties. Currently, you get a bonus point for not tutoring (except for land). What I’m thinking at the moment is that you can tutor as much as you want but there’s a -1 penalty for each time you do, which is pretty hefty considering that the high score in most games is 5-7. This means that you can continue to play as you want but you won’t necessarily be able to win the table, which is something we already do. It can’t actually stop the griefers from griefing or the comboers from comboing, but it will certainly provide a no-reward scenario for them.

I’d also add, in the spirit of an existing bonus point for "Awesome Play," that the table agrees to award a bonus point if someone tutors for an answer that gets the rest of the table out of a tight spot. I’d likely want to add a few additional ways to get positive points to slightly offset the tutor penalty, but I wouldn’t want to add so many as to completely offset it. Finally, I’d consider adding a provision that players who end up with negative points X weeks in a row get some kind of penalty. The only thing that comes to mind is a suspension, but this runs into the difficulty of telling someone that they’re not welcome to come to the shop, which once again is bad business (not to mention working against the idea of community building), so it’s probably off the table.

Modifying the points system has shown that it’s capable of shaping the style of play in the League. Instead of creating a wordy, difficult, or involved rule that will actually detract from game play, we can add something along the lines of what we’re already doing and create the desired effect at the same time.

This is the solution I’ll present to Michael. By present, I mean I’ll say, "Hey, go read my article this week." Your comments will certainly help, though I ask that you keep it to the parameters of this particular equation and not let it devolve into a different issue.

Embracing the Chaos,


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