So I decided to take the musing part literally today. I’ve written an unstructured article, discussing a lot of different, unconnected ideas without really drawing any definite conclusions—partly to see if anyone would notice the change, and partly because I’ve had a lot of food for thought over the last couple of weeks, but most of it was in the form of—let me stretch this metaphor a bit—biscuits, rather than the usual 3,000 word cognitive sandwich that I normally try to put together. Some of the things in today’s buffet may be revisited in future articles, but for now I just want to roll around a desert tray of issues for you to savor. Bon appétit!
It’s going to be Legendary and you have to wait for it, but…
The first item on the menu is just not awesome enough to deserve a real Barney Stinson quote (like Barney, I keep asking people why they don’t read my blog…I imagine it’s quite annoying). I am talking of course about From the Vault: Legends, this year’s limited edition release of shiny, pricey, boxy goodness. As a diehard Commander player and cardboard crack-whore, I was stoked to hear about the set—even the fact that Teferi, Douchebag of Zhalfir was the first legend spoiled couldn’t dampen my enthusiasm for it. After all, FTV: Relics was cool, FTV: Exiled had some great stuff and FTV: Dragons was liquid sex, and coincidentally, the only one that I never had a chance to get my hands on (I bought the Relics box set, and spent a bunch on single cards from Exiled). On the other hand, I will not be paying one red cent for FTV: Legends, either the box or the singles.
Am I just being a grumpy old man? Usually yes, but not right now. Mainly I’m disappointed that the cards in the set are just not legendary enough. I could say that a lot of the cards seem kind of new, which puts the lie to the whole “From the Vaults” thing; only four of them were printed in the old border, and two of them are still playable in Standard. Presumably the target market is people who are thrilled about Commander, have high disposable income, but never saw any cards from Alara.
Granted, there is a whole thing about the Reserve List, which I don’t fully understand (I’d love to see Volrath’s Stronghold reprinted, but I think it’s on the list), but I can’t believe there aren’t more cool legends from older sets they could have used. I actually love the cycle of six-drops from Onslaught (of which Visara is the only representative), there are more figures from the past that have had a bigger influence on the game, such as Gerard Capashen, and there was no love for Ravnica block. Don’t get me wrong, the newest sets of Magic are the best sets ever, IMHOWNRTHAISIRAIYTTAWMYJLLAJ, but if the boosters are still on the counter it doesn’t feel ‘classic’ at all. Now, to be fair, they have reprinted a lot of great legends recently—I think Silvos, Kamahl, Fist of Krosa and Memnarch have all been reprinted in the last year or two, but if they couldn’t find better options, perhaps they should have brought it out later with a better mix of doodz
Also, I think it is fair to evaluate this set in terms of how these 15 legends would rank as commanders, because that is almost certainly a significant chunk of the target market. In a word: flawed. Sure, Sharuum, Rafiq, Doran and Teferi are powerful commanders, and popular with a certain crowd, but they are not broadly popular enough to make up for how much they are specifically hated by groups that have seen them abused. Every deck is different, but these are not generally The Defenders of the Social Contract; Sharuum screams combo, Rafiq is the king of the quick combat kill (with Doran right behind him in my experience), while Teferi greatly restricts when your opponents can interact with you, and combined with Knowledge Pool he just flat-out locks them out of casting spells.
And don’t get me started on the Portal: Three Kingdom choices. Sun Quan Lord of Wu tells me that someone thought it would be clever to have a monoblue beatdown deck, because nobody plays those, right? What you have instead is a blue deck that you cannot interact with. Boy, just what blue needs: more ways to be unfun to play against.
Cao Cao, Lord of Wei seems similarly unfun for all concerned—“Hi, I’m bitter because my commander is expensive, weak as piss and, apparently, too old to ride a horse, so I’ll just make you discard two cards instead of doing something proactive.” Good times.
And of course, the elephant in the room: why no Xiahou Dun? This is a card that apparently goes for $150 now, but does something very cool. Sure, he gets broken with Corpse Dance or Profane Command, but frankly it’s not like the graveyard hate doesn’t keep on coming, at least on card on this list is much more abusable, and what he does is so cool! I actually have a copy of Xiahou Dun, which I picked for a ‘mere’ $20 (agonized over buying it, even though at the time I knew it was going for as much as $40 on SCG—thanks Sean!), and I would much rather spread the love and see Big X reprinted than hold on to him just to keep the price inflated.
Progenitus, Visara, Oona, Kiki-Jiki and Omnath are strong, interesting commanders that offer a lot to the casual player, although I know some who would argue that Progenitus, Kiki-Jiki and Omnath are broken, and there’s probably an infinite combo with Oona, even with Painter’s Servant banned. I’d like to see 15 cards like this: strong, interesting commanders that make you think “I wonder what I can do with that?” but not “I bet I could abuse the hell out of that!”
And finally, Kresh is hugely popular with me and other discerning barbarians. He’s a huge play for Timmy; he oozes enough flavor to make Vorthos salivate, with the raw, powerful Ray Swanland art and the whole Jund mythos behind him; and he’s swingy as hell, often dying as a lowly 3/3 but sometimes crashing through your opponents’ terrified defenders like a hungry grizzly mauling a band of hikers (god, I love nature!), which diversity gamers like me live for.
What he doesn’t do—never, ever, ever—is shine. Making a foil Kresh is like making a child-safe chainsaw; Kresh drips gore. He hacks, he cleaves, he slays, and he will most assuredly pillage. But he doesn’t shine, or gleam, or sparkle.
Plus, if you’re going to remake an old song, don’t cover Stairway to Heaven unless you really know what you’re doing. Kresh’s art was perfect the first time around, and this is so much less. No offense to Steve Argyle, who is a fantastic artist, but this doesn’t bring anything more or anything new to the piece. To me, it’s kind of like Bruce Springsteen doing a cover of Bohemian Rhapsody—I love the Boss, but I can’t imagine him ever doing a better job on that song.
Long story short: if you sit down at my table with that new foily Kresh as your commander, I will make you cry. I will crush you so hard, so fast, so mercilessly that you’ll have visions of Kresh himself swinging that jagged, tetanus-infected sword at you.
Unless you’re really nice.
Which you probably are.
But probably not nice enough.
Momma, I Just Killed a Man
I stirred up a little bit of disagreement in my group a couple of weeks ago by taking someone out of the game ‘too quickly.’ Not surprisingly, the guy I killed was one of the people who thought I’d crossed the line, even going so far as to compare me to the Skithiryx player who always tried for the quickest imaginable kills, and would usually take someone out by the fourth or fifth turn. Another guy said that plays like that were the reason he reserved the right to tuck my commander, but the other two guys said they were cool with the play. Obviously, whatever the problem is here (and if two guys in my playgroup think it’s a problem, I guess that makes it a problem), it’s subjective as hell. SO when is it acceptable to take someone out?
Most of the people I’ve talked to who think of themselves as ‘proudly casual’ say that the ideal way to end a casual game is to kill everyone at the same time, but in practical terms it is almost impossible to do. In most groups, building up to a massive alpha strike that takes the whole table in one swing is a pretty dangerous strategy, and decks that can explode out of nowhere always look like a threat even when they aren’t (“He won the last game with no board position; he currently has no board position; therefore I must kill him now”). Even being The Butter can sometimes make you public enemy number one; when I was playing Urabrask, I tried really hard not to target a single player for early elimination, spreading the pain as evenly as I could, but everyone was thinking “His deck’s done 20 damage to me already, so he’s my biggest threat,” rather than “his deck’s done 20 damage to everyone, so he’s making it easier for me to win.” On the other hand, being a serial killer (focusing your efforts on taking out a single player before moving on to the next) with a deck like Kresh or Omnath means that everyone else is searching for the card that will answer your threat and send you back to square one. Long story short, nobody wants to kill one person so early that they have to sit on the sidelines with their deck in their hands, but basically you just can’t avoid it sometimes.
Given that, getting killed early once in a while is just something that we have to accept. However, there are some variables that affect how gracefully we should accept it, and also how reluctant we should be to take someone out.
- Time and relative dimensions in Magic—is there something else to do? Is there another game to join, or trades to look at or a movie to watch? A quick kill at a pre-release with a draft flight starting soon is a far cry from a quick kill in a six-player game in a pizza joint when you know that nobody else is coming. It also makes a difference if it’s the first game of the night or you’re trying to squeeze in one last game before everyone takes the last train hom
- Design or open window—if your deck is designed to take one player out early every game and then either lose steam or morph into an Archenemy game, then you’re going to piss people off and I have no sympathy for you. Unless you’re group is cool with that style of deck and play, you aren’t really casual. On the other hand, if someone else opens a window of opportunity for you to take out someone who is going to be much harder to deal with in a turn or two, strategically it makes sense to take that opportunity.
- Mid- to late-game—rather than just counting the turns, be aware that some games move faster than others. If other players already have a kill on the board, people are getting very low on life, or battle lines have already been drawn in blood, then it doesn’t matter if it’s turn five or turn 15; it’s time to get killing!
- Restraint—a player who has gone out of their way to keep people in the game has more of a right to complain about being given the bum’s rush, but again there are a lot of variables. In the previous game, the guy that I killed was kind of in the driver’s seat and he ultimately decided not to take out the Omnath player when he had the chance, so perhaps felt that I was taking his kindness for granted. On the other hand, I was urging him to kill Omnath in the first game, because he’d just cast Genesis Wave for 11 and was threatening to take over the game (which he did). In this case, his excessive restraint cost him (and me) the game, and was not something I wanted to reward
- Revenge—never a good reason to take someone out ahead of the normal flow of the game. Because then they’ll come gunning for you, and then you’ll have to go after them again, and then madness ensues. However, I might consider an exception justified if they tuck your commander…
The bottom line is that there’s a line between playing to win and being a douchebag, which I never want to cross, but there’s also a line between being respectful to your opponents and giving up any chance of actually winning, which I am only prepared to cross in certain situations. Casual play is not about not trying to win, it’s about winning in a way that maximizes the enjoyment of others. If my opponents don’t enjoy it when I win with a Braids lock, then I’ll find another way to win, but if they don’t enjoy it when I win vanilla creature beatdown, then that is frankly there problem. Somewhere in between those extremes, there will be games I win that are more or less enjoyable for others, but it’s the average that matters more than one particular game.
So the next time someone takes you out ‘too quickly,’ ask yourself if there is a pattern of them doing this in ‘every’ game or if it is a relatively isolated incident that can be explained in the context of that particular game.
Best Magic article ever written? Stuck in the Middle with Bruce, by the legendary Rizzo. Hands down, no exceptions, kiss my ass. In fact, on the basis of that article alone, Rizzo should be in FTV: Legends. They reprinted it on SCG recently, and it was good to read it again. If you’ve never experienced John Friggin’s writing style then you probably won’t like it, but I don’t care; read it anyway, reflect on it, and if it doesn’t give make you shiver and say, “How is this guy reading my mind?!” at least once, then you need to bookmark it and come back in a year or two.
I usually take lessons from international relations, game theory and actual games, and apply them to other parts of Magic with the goal of making all of us better at multiplayer. A really good article will take a lesson from some totally unexpected part of life and make you a better Magic player. A truly great article, like Stuck in the Middle with Bruce, will take a lesson from Magic and make you a better human being. ‘Nuff said.
Is Redundancy Redundant?
One way to compare different decks is to place them on a spectrum, with Synergy (every card makes every other card better) on one end and Good stuff (every card in your deck is best-of-breed) on the other. Of course, like every model it over-simplifies—Synergy decks will have some good stuff and Good Stuff decks will have some cards that work particularly well together—but it’s a good starting point for thinking about most decks.
But it isn’t just a spectrum between the Synergy and Good Stuff in Commander like it is with other decks; in Commander it is worth looking at two different elements of synergy: intra-deck synergy and commander-deck synergy. This is something that came up in tuck week: one of the reasons why Brandon is much more relaxed about tucking is that he tends to build around his commanders much less than I.
Building around your commander leads you to ask some interesting questions about what cards go well with your commander and which don’t. For example, if your general has haste, would you include the boots, or Anger? Would you be disappointed to draw one of those when you have Urabrask in play, or would you be happy that if your commander gets killed, the rest of your team can still come out swinging? If your commander could kill your opponents’ creatures, a la Visara, Thrax or Sheoldred, would you include the same amount of removal as you would for a commander that couldn’t? How many removal spells would you play with, and do you think you’d normally be happy to see an Innocent Blood in a Sheoldred deck? Depending on card availability and how many cool toys you want to squeeze into your deck, you might end up making significant changes to your deck based on who your commander is. Now, this is not a bad thing, but if you do it, you need to be aware that it can make you vulnerable to situations where you lose your commander for whatever reason.
Synergy and Good Stuff are always important factors in card selection, but in commander we have to balance between two additional, and quite different questions: how much value does this card add to my commander, and how much does it lose if he/she/it isn’t around? If you’re like me, then the balance usually tilts in favor of commander synergy, and if you’re like SBM then you are more likely to consider the card in isolation from the commander and focus on its synergy with the other 98 cards in your library. There is no right or wrong answer—some people think that the coolest thing about the format is that you can build around your favorite commander, some don’t care, and some play in metas where your commander might not be available to you for very long—but you need to know that the question is being asked.
I Hope Sheldon Doesn’t Read Us!
My article on what I considered to be the worst rule in Commander led to our impromptu Tuck Week here on Muse Vessel. I was hoping to lay out a persuasive argument, get some healthy debate going, and ultimately be able to convince my playgroup to introduce that house rule. It turns out I can’t even persuade my fellow muses, which is disappointing to say the least, but to add insult to injury, Sheldon Menery did a brief bit for the Commander Card of the Week on the SCG newsletter, and he chose Proteus Staff, the only repeatable tuck effect in the game. So, either Sheldon heard about Tuck Week and send out a discrete little “Screw you!” in my direction, or he doesn’t read my articles. Basically, neither of those makes me happy!
Seeing as I started it all, I think I deserve the right of reply; here are my takeaways from Tuck Week. Firstly, no matter what your position on tucking might be, if you read all three articles (and assorted comments) and didn’t at least gain some new respect for the other side of the debate, then you need to open your mind. There’s nothing wrong with people holding strong opinions about Magic or any other topic, as long as they aren’t so dogmatic that they stop listening to the other side. Good points were made on both sides, and if you can’t find them then you need to look more closely.
Secondly, I don’t think any of us were truly objective on the issue—everyone comes at it from their own point of view, and their point of view is flavored from their experience. For example, SBM was really concerned about keeping tucking as a solution to graveyard effects, and WBM was looking at it more in the abstract because tucking is virtually non-existent in his group. Both of them reached a different conclusion to me, but is any one of us actually wrong if we’re each addressing the situation from a different context? In my group, either nobody is abusing the graveyard or I’m the only one doing it, so I never perceived it as abusive. Either way, in my experience, graveyard recursion is utterly irrelevant to the tucking debate; in his, it’s critical. Also, unlike WBM’s experience, tuck is everywhere in my group, despite/because of my opposition to it; I am apparently the only one who doesn’t run tuck in a deck that can support it, and Condemn is rapidly becoming a contender for “Most Played Card.” The rules committee guys are at least aware of metas that are plagued by broken commanders, whereas that is a problem that my group has dealt with through the social contract. Other people who commented in the forums also had their own ‘shoulds,’ reflecting their experiences and their idealized view of Commander. A lot of folks I agreed with totally, but in doing so I realized that one of the reasons I agreed is because I share that normative framework, which I know doesn’t fit everyone.
Of course, for those who have no interest in modifying the tuck rule, my article should be read as a generic strategy article, the key point of which is: tuck is strong! Play tuck! I honestly hope you won’t, but if you don’t see the problem it’s probably because you underestimate the power of tucking, so you should play more if it. I think if you do, you’ll see what I mean. Other things being equal, tucking anything is basically stronger than destroying it and very close to exiling it (because the odds of drawing it again are so low in a 99 card deck), and it is strictly better than destroying a commander. The folks in my meta have realized this, and you will too.
Finally, none of the philosophizing and abstract debate is going to change the way tucking makes me feel. Regardless of the role that tucking may play in balancing the game, as someone who chooses commanders because he wants to play them, I always lose a layer of enjoyment when the figurehead of my deck is removed. Of course, my decks are often strong enough to carry the day without the commander, but once again, not having access to your commander makes it harder to win, period.
I find it particularly soul-destroying when I’m out of gas (which happens to the best of us) and drawing nothing but land off the top. Mana flood is universally agreed to be one of the least enjoyable parts of Magic, and one of the things I like about Commander is that when you’re playing land-go while other folks are actually casting spells and doing stuff, being able to cast your commander every second turn makes experience a lot less depressing…unless you’ve been tucked.
What, weren’t you paying attention? Randomness and vagary are on the menu today. No points are to be made here—go and read Rizzo instead!
 In My Humble Opinion. Well, Not Really That Humble. Actually I’m Sure I’m Right And If You Try To Argue With Me You’ll Just Look Like A Jackass
 And believe me, as much fun as he is to play, he’s not worth paying a hundred bucks.
 Even though he knows I am then going to take him out as fast as I can in the next game—my standard response to commander-tucking. That’s why I say that the social level of multiplayer is less important than the strategic and political levels until it isn’t.
 Unless you use a combo of some kind, which casual players usually abhor. Yes, there is a certain amount of friction here, which contributes to the problem: the ideal way to win the game in the ideal is with something that you should ideally never play! While you’re trying to figure out what that last sentence means, let me hit you with another question: is it OK to win with a pseudo-combo? For example, how would you feel if I cast Death Cloud for a dozen or so with It That Betrays in play? I haven’t exactly won, although the odds that you can come back from that are pretty low, as I have all your land and creatures, and you’re playing off the top. Do you say GG, do you play it out or do you call me a dirty-combo-cheater-cootie? Exactly what constitutes a “combo”?
 Perhaps it was karma, but the next night I showed up to see a totally full house—a six-player Planechase game and a five-player chaos game, which is the most we’ve had at Shakey’s for a hell of a long time—and nothing for me to do but watch. Everyone was really cool about it, involving me in the game, asking advice or showing me their hands and snickering, but two hours later there was a grand total of one death from both tables and I was a sad panda.
 My last four games all involved tucking, and in my last game I died as a direct result of not being able to replay my commander. The irony is that I played Sheoldred on a relatively empty board and she got tucked by Ben because he said he wanted to play his commander. Curiously enough so did I, but I never got another chance.
 And as something of a purist, I really don’t enjoy the ‘obvious solution’ of adding more tutors, counters, etc, to my deck. I could (I do own a shit-ton of Demonic Tutors from back in the day, although I also have a shit-ton of decks that could use them), but telling me that I should is a subjective statement, trying to force your way of playing the game on to me; it is no different from someone saying that you shouldn’t play tuck spells. Like I said, everyone has their own normative position, whether they realize it as such or not.