I’ve been thinking about this question for a while, partly because the closest thing I’ve got to a regular playgroup virtually dissolved at one point because there were too many egos and too many different ideas about how Magic should be played. However, I had an experience tonight that kind of put things into perspective for me, so here is my take on what it means to be playing casual Magic. The way I see it, casual is something that we can define, even though that definition contains a fair amount of subjectivity. You may well disagree – this is a question that has been around since the very beginnings of the game, so I don’t expect to resolve the debate in one article – but it’s important to at least think about what we mean when we call ourselves casual players. Having a clearer picture of what that means can help you to get more out of your play experience and build your community better.
It started with a game that I lost tonight to a Skithiryx deck piloted by a local player. Well, actually, it began when I was reading posts on the EDH message boards about how he designed the deck and how other people felt about playing against it (or a less efficient version of the same type of deck), and thinking “something’s not right here.” Still, when I turned up tonight there was a three-way just starting up, with Skithiryx and two other decks that I knew to be dangerous but much less explosive. A game’s a game, and I wanted to see if the deck was as fast as advertised, so I pulled out Thraximundar (decklist is here) and joined in.
Before my fifth turn I was dead, despite killing Skithiryx once with an Innocent Blood. Then I sat and watched the rest of the game for 30 minutes before it finally ended. Not my most enjoyable night of Magic, it must be said.
Now it could be that this whole article is just sour grapes over an early exit – I don’t think so, but I’m putting that option out there just to be fair. Also, I’ll show you both sides of the story by sharing the responses I got when I suggested that it didn’t seem like a casual deck to me.
First: “creatures are interactive, therefore it’s casual.” Now, it seems obvious to me that this argument doesn’t hold water, as it fails to distinguish between different creatures. Obviously there’s a difference between “attack you with a vanilla 1/1 until you die” and “attack you with a hasty, shrouded Blightsteel Colossus on turn three, good game.” Not all creatures are equally interactive, and in the specific case of Skithiryx, the combination of haste, evasion and quick kill from poison counters are all designed to minimize the potential axes of interaction. From my point of view, I had so few chances to interact with the deck that it might as well have been an infinite mana/fireball combo on turn five; at least that would have ended the game outright so I didn’t have to sit on my arse for half an hour.
Second: “that’s not broken; if I was going to play a broken deck I’d play Erayo or something and win on the first turn.” Again, that’s a weak argument; more casual than the unfunnest deck in the format is not the same as casual. Jack the Ripper can’t plead innocence because Hitler was so much worse (not that I’m comparing an extreme Magic deck to murder!).
So this guy who claims that he “normally” casts Skithiryx on the first turn, or casts him with haste on the second, killing at least one person on the fourth turn, said his deck was casual, and I said it wasn’t. What I have come to realize though, is that we’re both right.
You see, casual isn’t a format, in the way that Standard, Vintage or even Commander are formats. The same deck can be suitable for casual play in one situation but can be the purest douchebaggery in a different context. How do you know?
Casual Magic means you care about how much fun your opponents are having.
That’s the difference. Casual players care about, and are willing to take some measure of responsibility for, everyone else’s enjoyment. You are playing casual Magic if you don’t want your wins to come at the expense of other players’ enjoyment. You are not playing casual Magic when your “fundamental turn”[i] is on or before the turn where anyone else in your group plays their first spell. You are playing casual Magic when you are prepared to make a sub-optimal play if it will help the rest of the table to enjoy the game more. You are not playing casual Magic when the rest of the table complains about your deck every week, but you keep on playing it anyway.[ii]
What It Means
Now, I’m offering up this definition for your consideration, not claiming this as the word of God or something (and seriously, why is Word of God not the name of Magic card?). Is it a good way to think about casual play, or am I just full of it? One way we can evaluate whether or not this is a useful way to define casual play is to look at how it helps us to deal with some of the typical arguments in the casual play debate.
1) “That isn’t a casual deck”
Sorry to say, not quite true.[iii] When you say this, what you are really saying is that it isn’t considered fun in you playgroup, and that is a valid point. But there are no absolutes; any deck could potentially find a home in some playgroup somewhere, no matter how good, bad or ugly it might be. If the rest of the playgroup expects a 10-20 round game with lots of creature combat and the occasional 100-point Drain Life, and you build your decks accordingly, then you’re being casual for that group. If your group expects the game to be over by the third turn and you lock everyone out with Limited Resources on your second turn, then you’re being casual for that group.
Now, Mr. Skithiryx regularly plays EDH with another guy whose deck is just as explosive, and they enjoy smashing each other in the face with those decks. In that group of two, those decks qualify as casual, because they love playing that way. In the occasional store-organized EDH tournament here, super-fast combo wins are the norm, so again Skithiryx might be considered casual in that environment. Personally, I think that is the Magic equivalent of a game of ‘Wank the Biscuit’, so joining them would not be a fun experience for me. I could go a step further and say that nobody else in our playgroup has, to my knowledge, decks that are designed to win that quickly, so in the context of our broader playgroup those are probably not casual decks. However, we should all get out of the habit of saying “That’s not a casual deck” as if it were an absolute, rather than a relative statement.
2) “Stop whining and play better decks”
The person who says this is to the rest of their playgroup is, in my experience, invariably not being casual. They are basically saying “I am not responsible for your play experience”, which is correct in a tournament setting, but is not casual Magic.
As an aside, I often find that the super-explosive broken deck doesn’t do as well in the second game, because people focus all of their attention on it. I played against Skithiryx again with a deck that featured more answers to his artifact acceleration, and the game was quite different – apparently Return to Dust, Oblivion Stone and a recurring Putrefy were all it took to slow him down. I had just started ransacking his graveyard with a Lightning Greave-ed Teneb when the pizza place closed, but things weren’t looking good for him. The question is, was that game more fun for me? Not really; believe it or not I don’t enjoy games where I have to focus all of my energies killing the same guy every time or I lose, even when I’m successful. That kind of play is appropriate for Archenemy, but in regular multiplayer I enjoy a pace that let’s things unfold, lets everyone do their thing, get some different cards on the table and so on, and so do the vast majority of casual players that I’ve met. In other words, while losing to those kinds of decks is generally an unfun experience, beating them on their own terms is not everyone’s cup of tea either, and thus not always casual.
3) “Casual players don’t want to win”
Not true – this is why I would use the term ‘tournament player’ as the opposite of ‘casual player’ instead of ‘competitive player.’ I consider myself to be a competitive player – I play to win, I tweak my decks constantly and I read whatever multiplayer strategy I can find online – but for the casual player (at least as I’ve defined them here) the ideal game is one where the rest of the group is having a good time while you are beating them. Even in professional sports, being competitive doesn’t mean cheating or playing in an unsportsmanlike way. In the same way, playing casually doesn’t mean that you can’t be competitive, it just means that winning isn’t your only consideration.
4) “How can I care if my opponents are having fun when I’m trying to beat them?”
Honestly, I consider this to be a pretty stupid question; the two are not mutually exclusive. Give everyone a chance to play the game.
5) “But I like building killer decks and winning with huge early combos.”
If winning is the most important thing for you, and you don’t care how you win or how your opponents feel about it, then that’s why there are tournaments. When your casual games aren’t qualitatively different from your Vintage tournament games, and no one else in your playgroup has decks that resemble top tier tourney beasts, then you are not really being casual. Once you understand that casual and tournament play are different, then you can start getting something different out of your casual play experience, but you can’t expect every other casual player to share your focus on that narrow part of the game that revolves around early- or mid-game combo kills.
Keeping it Casual
So what can you do to keep your play casual – and by extension, keep your group as tight as possible? The most obvious thing is to pay attention to the rest of your group. What do they enjoy? What are they expecting/hoping to get out of their games – and are you an essential part of their gaming fun, or an obstacle to their enjoyment? If the people sitting across from you are opponents above all else, then you need to rethink your approach to the game. We may not always have the good fortune to play with friends in the “best buds for life” sense, but casual play only begins when you can think of the people sitting across from you as fellow gamers who have an equal right to a fun gaming experience, rather than just ‘opponents.’
Even before you get to the venue, you have a choice between casual and non-casual play. How many decks are you bringing? How many different play styles and power levels will I find in your deck box? If you’re only bringing your strongest deck, or decks, then you’re missing the point of casual play. If all of your decks are control, or aggro, or combo, or happy tree friends tribal, then you are not doing enough to ensure that your playgroup is having a good time. I cannot stress this enough: more decks is better!
Whether you identify yourself as Spike, Johnny, Timmy or other, bringing more decks will lead to a more enjoyable gaming experience for you, as well as your playgroup. Are you a Spike who wants to prove yourself? Then prove you can beat me with a Standard deck, or a Tribal deck (Legacy Goblins doesn’t count!), or a Budget deck, not just with that $1,000+ masterpiece that you’ve spent the last year fine-tuning. Are you a Johnny who wants to express yourself through your decks? Then I’m probably preaching to the choir, but make sure you express the full range of your personality, rather than just using one deck that represents your dominant side. Are you a Timmy who wants every game to be a fun and unique experience? Think how much more fun you’ll have when you play something new each time!
As far as I’m concerned the only acceptable excuses for bringing one deck to a gaming session are:
- I just started; I don’t have enough cards to build a new deck
- I’m stony; I can’t afford enough cards to build a new deck
- We never play more than one game per session
The first two excuses are acceptable for a limited time only. After a little while though, you or someone in your playgroup should arrange to get another deck together for you. It’s not hard: 24 Swamps, 20 Black creatures and 16 Black spells is all you need. It’s OK if your deck is weak and unfocused, as long as it’s new – a deck should always be a journey rather than a destination anyway, so play a piece of crap, enjoy the new interactions and evolve it as new cards become available to you. The third excuse is only acceptable if you’re bringing a different deck each time. When you bring the same deck to each gaming session, you’re neglecting your responsibility to the rest of the group.
Finally, the most difficult question of all: when to kill? If you usually kill one player quickly and leave them sitting on the sidelines watching the rest of the game for a long time, then you are not doing all you can to ensure that they are having a good time. I’m not saying you should throw the game away because you let a big threat develop, but I think you’re dangerously close to being non-casual if you kill a player early just because you can. Casual doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t kill anyone, but it does suggest that ousting another player is a decision that shouldn’t be made lightly, especially if there aren’t any other games for them to jump into.[iv]
I often hear the excuse “I’m playing an aggro deck; it’s what I’m supposed do!”, but if you build a (usually aggro) multiplayer deck with the sole intention of killing one person before you run out of steam and either die yourself or have minimal impact for the rest of the game, then you are not being casual. It’s easy to kill one person in a typical multiplayer game, but why limit yourself to that low-hanging fruit? Step up to the challenge of building a deck that is capable of winning the whole game; when you succeed it will be a greater accomplishment, and in the process of pacing yourself, you’ll create a more enjoyable gaming experience for everyone else. And no, playing aggro isn’t a valid reason for ignoring this. I loves me some aggro in multiplayer, but not at the expense of everyone else’s play experience, so my aggro decks are usually designed and played to end the game quicker for everyone, not just one person.
Instead of playing with Terminatoresque efficiency, spread the love around a little bit. This is ‘fair’, gives everyone an equal chance to develop, and from a strategic point of view makes you look like less of a threat. As a general rule, the player who just killed someone singlehandedly in the first few turns is the biggest threat to kill someone else in the next few turns. It might be counterintuitive, but you are sometimes more likely to be the last one standing if you let a weak player live a little longer than if you finish them off just because you can.
My intention with this article was not to dictate the terms and conditions of casual Magic from on high, but to contribute in some small way to building a shared base of attitude, behavior and expectation for the casual community. In the end, winning is fun, but it’s not worth alienating your playgroup. When everyone is on the same page, then it’s a real win-win situation for everyone, and when they aren’t, your favorite game can become much less fun, so it’s definitely worth going out of your way to pay attention to the enjoyment of others. And as an added bonus for those who still dream of first turn kills, the occasional extreme deck will ruffle fewer feathers when you’ve already proven to your group that you care about them enough not to get carried away with the ultraviolence.
[i] The “fundamental turn” of a combo deck is the turn at which they consistently “go off” and win the game. In some cases, it is also the turn right before they get roundly pummeled by the rest of the playgroup.
[ii] This can be a double-edged sword. If your deck is so weak and boring that your friends don’t enjoy playing against it, but you’re too lazy to spend an hour on Sunday afternoon improving your deck to the point where it challenges and interests the rest of your group, then you aren’t as casual as you think you are!
[iii] And yes, this means that I made a faulty argument earlier this evening. It happens – but the purpose of an argument is not to shout at your opponent until they stop disagreeing with you; it’s to understand everyone’s point of view and come to a better understanding of the issue. That’s my goal here, even if it means admitting to (gasp!!) being wrong.
[iv] And don’t kill the same guy first in consecutive games without a damn good reason. If you get to play for three hours but they only get to play for 30 minutes because you ousted them first in every game, then you’re responsible for screwing up their night.