Yawgmoth’s Whimsy #262 – Flogging a Dead Horse: Casual Play on MTGO

Read Peter Jahn... at StarCityGames.com!
Thursday, February 12th – What’s wrong with this picture? Player A – tap, tap, tap, play white bordered Venerable Monk. Opponent – sacrifice foil Polluted Delta for foil Underground Sea, play foil Cryptic Command. It’s not just that someone had brought boxing gloves to a gunfight – it is that both combatants thought they were in the right battle with the right weapon. They were battling in the casual play / casual decks room in MTGO.

What’s wrong with this picture? Player A — tap, tap, tap, play white bordered Venerable Monk. Opponent — sacrifice foil Polluted Delta for foil Underground Sea, play foil Cryptic Command. It’s not just that someone had brought boxing gloves to a gunfight — it is that both combatants thought they were in the right battle with the right weapon. They were battling in the casual play / casual decks room in MTGO.

This is a problem online. At the local stores, I can see my opponent, see his or her deck, and get a pretty good idea what I’m likely to face. I know whether to pull out my current Extended test deck, my semi-serious EDH deck, or one of the pauper or peasant decks I keep around for casual games with newer players. The point is that I can choose the deck that gives me a reasonably balanced game, where the game is won or lost based on my play skill, not the cost of my cards.

After all, I know that my $4,000 Vintage deck can beat a 10 year old kid’s Craw Wurm.dec. I see no point in proving it.

The problem is that you cannot see your opponent online. You don’t know if rAnDoM_dUdE is that same 10-year-old, or LSV slumming. Even ratings don’t really say much — 1600 could mean a casual player that has never played a Constructed game, or it could mean that LSV has a new account.

I have a bunch of decks that I have built online. I have my versions of various netdecks, in the Block, Standard, Extended, 100 Card Singleton, Pauper, and Classic formats. I also have a number of more casual decks — theme decks, etc. Here’s an example. It’s a 100 Card Singleton lifegain theme deck.

Get A Life! And Some More!

1 Ageless Entity
1 Angel of Mercy
1 Arctic Nishoba
1 Augury Adept
1 Aven Riftwatcher
1 Battlegrace Angel
1 Copperhoof Vorrac
1 Descendant of Kiyomaro
1 Divinity of Pride
1 Essence Sliver
1 Eternal Dragon
1 Eternal Witness
1 Exalted Angel
1 Hystrodon
1 Indrik Stomphowler
1 Jedit’s Dragoons
1 Kitchen Finks
1 Kjeldoran Gargoyle
1 Knight of Meadowgrain
1 Krosan Tusker
1 Loxodon Hierarch
1 Mistmeadow Skulk
1 Nantuko Vigilante
1 Oracle of Nectars
1 Oversoul of Dusk
1 Purity
1 Ravenous Baloth
1 Spike Feeder
1 Starlight Invoker
1 Staunch Defenders
1 Venerable Monk
1 Voracious Hatchling
1 Windbrisk Raptor

1 Ajani Goldmane
1 Akroma’s Memorial
1 Akroma’s Vengeance
1 Armadillo Cloak
1 Beacon of Immortality
1 Chastise
1 Drain the Well
1 Enlightened Tutor
1 Exile
1 Faith’s Fetters
1 Loxodon Warhammer
1 Quiet Disrepair
1 Reap and Sow
1 Renewed Faith
1 Rude Awakening
1 Serene Offering
1 Summoner’s Pact
1 Sword of Fire and Ice
1 Sword of Light and Shadow
1 Swords to Plowshares
1 Sylvan Library
1 Sylvan Scrying
1 Terashi’s Grasp
1 Tooth and Nail
1 Umezawa’s Jitte
1 Well of Lost Dreams

1 Arctic Flats
1 Bant Panorama
1 Brushland
1 Desert
1 Diamond Valley
1 Elfhame Palace
1 Flooded Strand
1 Forbidding Watchtower
3 Forest
1 Ghost Quarter
1 Grasslands
1 Horizon Canopy
1 Krosan Verge
1 Mikokoro, Center of the Sea
1 Miren, the Moaning Well
1 Mistveil Plains
1 Mosswort Bridge
1 Nantuko Monastery
1 New Benalia
1 Pendelhaven
1 Petrified Field
2 Plains
1 Quicksand
1 Reflecting Pool
1 Saltcrusted Steppe
1 Sapseep Forest
1 Savannah
1 Seaside Citadel
1 Selesnya Sanctuary
1 Springjack Pasture
1 Starlit Sanctum
1 Temple Garden
1 Tranquil Thicket
1 Treetop Village
1 Vitu-Ghazi, the City-Tree
1 Wasteland
1 Windbrisk Heights
1 Windswept Heath
1 Wooded Bastion

The deck began when I got a digital copy of Well of Lost Dreams (when you gain life, pay, draw cards equal to life gained.) I wanted to play with it, so I wanted to build a deck with some lifegain. That evolved into building a lifegain theme deck. Basically, I searched for “gain + life” and “lifelink” and added pretty much everything I own to the deck. I then added lands, some mana fixers and so forth.

I made a lot of compromises for the sake of the theme. For example, Quiet Disrepair is almost always worse than Seal of Primordium, Naturalize, or Krosan Grip, and Venerable Monk is barely playable in 10E Sealed, but those cards fit the theme.

The deck is actually reasonably good. It is exactly what I would have built for the multiplayer matches we had long ago, with Ingrid and me and John and Cathy. We all built new decks every week, and built them to be interesting and entertaining. They struck a balance between interest and pure power.

It is not that the deck is bad, not by any means. I can usually win, with good play and halfway decent draws, against pretty much any other deck — except two. This deck cannot beat the dedicated control decks, like the ones that placed first and seventh in the big 100 Card Singleton PE in January. You know the one — UB with lots of counters and card drawing, plus tutors and board sweepers. It also struggles against the UW control builds.

The problem is that I end up playing those two decks at least 50% of the time on MTGO, even in the casual room. Every other game starts out with Mana Leak, Exclude, end of turn Mystical Teachings for Cunning Wish or Fact or Fiction.

I’m not saying that that is a bad deck. Far from it — I have a UW version, a UB version and a UBR version that I love to play. However, I only play those decks in the Tournament Practice room online.

For anyone that hasn’t spent time on MTGO, there are several “rooms” in which you can find opponents online. Here’s the menu:


The New Players room is just that — for new players. These are players who are struggling with the interface, and who generally have a tiny collection of cards. My deck would totally blow them out. Inappropriate.

The Casual Decks room seems like the best place for my deck. It is not tournament worthy. It is just fun to play.

The “Anything Goes” room is pretty much undefined, and pretty much unused. In my experience, this is the room most likely to have people playing “free-form” decks with 20 copies of certain cards. They are the online versions of the 15 Black Lotus, 15 Ancestral Recall, 20 Lightning Bolt decks from years ago. Not fun (at least not to me), and not a place where you can find a game.

That leaves “Tournament Practice.” To me this just seems like the place to take tournament decks. There are basically two rooms available — “casual decks” and “tournament practice.” To me, at least, the idea is that you should play casual decks in the one room, and tournament decks in the other.

Another group of people have another idea. They feel that people should be able to play anything in the casual decks room — including tournament-proven decks. They are of the opinion that the lack of a hard and fast “no tourney decks” rule means that you can play whatever you want.

They are correct in that there is no specific rule. Of course not. Writing such a rule would be impossible. How would you define a tournament deck? Would it be something that is solid at the moment, or solid once? If you change three of sixty cards, is it still the tourney-winning deck? How about four cards, or five? Or can you define a tournament deck by whether it plays certain cards? Is any deck that runs Wasteland a tournament deck? (I run it mainly to break up Mindslaver / Academy Ruins locks — but my deck can hardly be called a tournament deck.)

The simple fact is that you cannot write a rule defining what is and isn’t casual, any more than you could write a set rule that would define what is and isn’t rude, or what violates the “don’t be a d*ck” rule. However, the simple fact that it is not specifically forbidden does not mean doing it is necessarily a good idea.

My position is that it is impossible to write a definition of what is tournament-only decks. However, that does not mean that people cannot identify a tournament deck — especially if they got the decklist by copying it off the PE Top 8 lists.

Why it Matters

Some people argue that, if your deck can’t win, then you need to upgrade your deck (or playing skills.) These people argue that Magic is a game that is played to win — that’s why people keep score. Spikes. For them, this debate is irrelevant; you should play what wins.

The problem is that paper Magic survives by having a wide variety of personalities playing the game. They all have a place in paper Magic. However, many of them don’t seem to have a place online.

If someone is a double Timmy/Jonny/Spike with a shot of Vorthos, they should be able to find games that are fun for them, and that probably means they will be playing — or trying to play — in the casual decks room. They may find fun games — but they will also find decks that belong in the tournament practice room. And playing against those decks will not be fun.

Magic Online needs to have rooms for everyone. It does — if people could just read the names. I have tournament decks. I play them in the tournament practice room (and PEs, etc.) I also have casual decks, and I play them in the casual decks room.

I have heard one other argument recently, from people playing blinged-out UB control decks in the casual decks room. Once in a while, I violate the “don’t teach a pig to sing”* rule and tell these folks that they should not be afraid to take their tournament decks to the tournament practice room. Many of them have said “but 100 Card Singleton is popular here.” Yes, but not if you keep playing that deck. Two months ago, I waited, on average, two minutes for a game or match of 100 Card Singleton, and maybe 1 in 10 games were against control decks. Today, I wait an average of 10 minutes, and half my games are against those decks.

Having an inbred and overly-powerful set of decks dominating a format does bad things to said format. Years back, Emperor was a fun multiplayer option. About that time, people started playing the Twiddle / New Frontiers builds, and the format pretty much died shortly thereafter.

Actually, all of multiplayer is sort of like that. In the old days, the numbers of players in the multiplayer rooms were roughly comparable to those in the casual decks rooms. Back then, team decks — decks built by pairs of players to help and synchronize with each other — were relatively rare. Today, they seem more common, and player counts are maybe a fifth of what the casual decks room has. (There are other reasons for the decline of multiplayer, but that’s another article.)

Label your Table

Some vocal forum denizens take the position that you can play anything in the casual decks room. If you have special needs or desires, you should label your table — in other words, note what your preferences are when you offer the game or match. I’ll talk more about that in a moment, but first another deck.

In a moment of weak-headedness, I bought a digital copy of From the Vault: Dragons. I actually needed a number of the cards, and foils are sort of nice. It was not a great decision — I probably could have gotten all the cards I really needed for a lot less buying singularly, and buying non-foils. I did buy them, though, and I can’t return them, so I might as well play with them — which leads to my dragons deck, again in 100 Card Singleton format.

Jund Dragons

1 Anger
1 Birds of Paradise
1 Bladewing the Risen
1 Bogardan Hellkite
1 Brimstone Dragon
1 Broodmate Dragon
1 Cairn Wanderer
1 Chartooth Cougar
1 Civic Wayfinder
1 Crimson Hellkite
1 Darigaaz, the Igniter
1 Dragon Engine
1 Dragon Whelp
1 Ebon Dragon
1 Flameblast Dragon
1 Hellkite Overlord
1 Kokusho, the Evening Star
1 Krosan Tusker
1 Rorix Bladewing
1 Sakura-Tribe Elder
1 Shadow Guildmage
1 Shivan Dragon
1 Shivan Hellkite
1 Solemn Simulacrum
1 Tarmogoyf
1 Twisted Abomination
1 Two-Headed Dragon
1 Vine Trellis
1 Wall of Roots
1 Zirilan of the Claw

1 Agonizing Demise
1 Beseech the Queen
1 Coalition Relic
1 Corpse Dance
1 Crucible of Fire
1 Darksteel Ingot
1 Diabolic Tutor
1 Dragon Breath
1 Dragon Roost
1 Dragon Shadow
1 Ebony Charm
1 Emerald Charm
1 Explosive Vegetation
1 Eyeblight’s Ending
1 Firespout
1 Form of the Dragon
1 Harrow
1 Jund Charm
1 Kodama’s Reach
1 Living Death
1 Pernicious Deed
1 Rampant Growth
1 Sarkhan Vol
1 Seal of Primordium
1 Sword of Fire and Ice
1 Sword of Light and Shadow
1 Violent Ultimatum
1 Void

1 Auntie’s Hovel
1 Badlands
1 Barren Moor
1 Blood Crypt
1 Bloodstained Mire
1 Contested Cliffs
1 Darigaaz’s Caldera
1 Fire-Lit Thicket
1 Forest
1 Gilt-Leaf Palace
1 Golgari Rot Farm
1 Graven Cairns
1 Grove of the Burnwillows
1 Gruul Turf
1 Highland Weald
1 Jund Panorama
1 Jungle Shrine
1 Karplusan Forest
1 Kher Keep
1 Llanowar Wastes
1 Mikokoro, Center of the Sea
1 Mishra’s Factory
1 Mountain
1 Mountain Valley
1 Overgrown Tomb
1 Reflecting Pool
1 Rocky Tar Pit
1 Savage Lands
1 Shizo, Death’s Storehouse
1 Skarrg, the Rage Pits
1 Snow-Covered Forest
1 Snow-Covered Mountain
1 Stomping Ground
1 Swamp
1 Taiga
1 Tranquil Thicket
1 Treetop Village
1 Twilight Mire
1 Undiscovered Paradise
1 Vivid Grove
1 Wasteland
1 Wooded Foothills

It is basically a mana ramp deck that builds up to bad fatties, with a smattering of other cards to make sure I don’t lose the game while ramping up. I could make it tournament viable by adding some more burn, some card advantage and losing the dragons, but that’s not the point. It’s a casual theme deck, and I want a place to play it.

I know that it just loses to UW control and UB Teachings control. A decently tuned version of either of those decks should be able to keep the board clear, and eventually kill me with something like Venser or Urza’s Factory. The downside is that they will do that 20 minutes later.

This deck can also lose to a fast swarm deck, also tournament tuned, but that is less annoying simply because it does not take as long. Those decks just overrun you quickly, so the pain ends quickly. I don’t really want to face either deck, but facing the UW & UB control decks piss me off more.

Actually, I do want to face those decks — but with my tournament-tuned decks, in tournaments or in the tournament practice room. I don’t want to face them with my semi-casual theme decks in the casual decks room.

Which brings us back to labeling your tables.

How, exactly, do I label my table? Do I post it as “casual?” What does that mean?

To some people, casual has a very explicit meaning, or set of meanings. Dom Camus wrote an article on The Ethics of Casual, back in 2005 on another site. It is an interesting — albeit dated — discussion of what constitutes “Casual” play. Here’s his list:

1) Must not destroy lands.
2) Must not prevent opponents from playing the game (no prison decks).
3) Must win gradually, not via a single devastating move.
4) Must not run counters of any kind.
5) Must not run discard.
6) Must not force the opponent to have specific answers.
7) Must not be overpowered (powerful cards are fine, as long as the deck as a whole is reasonable).
8) Must interact well with a variety of possible decks my partners might run.
9) Must run enough answers itself that no class of threat is an instant game loss.
10) Must be reasonably consistent.

My deck is certainly not casual — not by this definition. I have land destruction (Wasteland, Ghost Quarter). I have sweepers (Void, Pernicious Deed, Living Death). I have discard (Void again, and Ebon Dragon). I even have some pseudo lock elements, with cards like Form of the Dragon and Corpse Dance with Sakura-Tribe Elder. My deck is not casual.

I could try “no counters,” but that is not what I want. I have no problem playing against other casual decks that have a couple of counters in their toolbox. I have some of those decks myself. You can build casual decks with counters — even true counterspell — and not build the complete control decks that I have a problem with. I’m just bugged by the decks that have enough counters to waste one on a turn 3 Venerable Monk. That is an indication that they intend to counter everything you play (except for the things they kill or steal), and will have enough card drawing to always have counters.

Again, especially, in 100 Card Singleton, this is not a bad strategy. It is, actually, a very, very good strategy. It is a tournament-winning strategy — and one that should be reserved for tournaments and the tournament practice room.

The other problem with labels is that people don’t tend to join games with labels. Even labels like “>10 counters, please” seem to about triple the time you spend waiting for games to start, in the casual room. That can mean up to half an hour during slow times — and that is not really a solution, either.

There is a third solution, of course. I can just quit playing casual decks, and retreat back to my tournament decks and the Constructed queues. I’m close to that already. The downside, though, is that if I am being driven out of the casual room, I am probably not the only one leaving. Personally, I have the collection and skills to head for tournaments. Many other players don’t, so they will not be driven to other rooms. They will be driven to other games, like WoW. That is not a good outcome.

“Play what you want” is a damned shortsighted position, at least when it comes to the tournament practice room. I much prefer “don’t be too cowardly to take your tournament decks to the tournament practice room.”

Now you can take your rant-in-reply to the forums — the link is at the top of the page.

Flame on.


“one million words” on MTGO

* Don’t try to teach a pig to sing, it wastes your time and annoys the pig.