June 11, 2015

The Best of the Worst

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How often do you win games of Commander? Like a spiritual awakening through a thoughtful master, answering the question isn't the purpose of asking it.

Contradict | Art by Steve Prescott

For longer than I should I didn't just play games with a plan to win: I played with an expectation to win. In fact, it still catch myself thinking I can win not just any game but every game. That distinction seems superfluous, but it's important.

You should lose most games of Commander.

I'm not making a grand statement about how decks should be build or how the social contract of the game should play out, but speaking strictly about numbers: In multiplayer games there are always more losers than winners. Commander, at least when I play it most often at conventions and the world over, is a four or five-player format. At the end of the game, one player walks away the winner, leaving three or four others as a loser.

While statistically speaking you're less likely to be left-handed than win a single game of Commander, the flat odds of 20% or 25% still aren't great for victory. Those flat odds make two impossible assumptions about playing:

  • Everyone, and therefore every player and deck, has a precisely an equal chance to win.
  • Winning the game is a purely random outcome.

We play Magic because neither of those are true. The best players in the game edge out 60% win rates as a sign of greatness in strictly two-player competitive formats. We build our own decks using, in Commander at least, a wide variety of cards. We make our own choices, assessing information and choosing what's important, why, and how to respond.

And yet, multiplayer games mean the odds are stacked against us to have it all come together in the end. It's one of the toughest perspectives to understand about Commander: You should find losses far more often than a win, and therefore find losing as much fun as possible.

Being honest, it's hard to play like this. It's obtuse. It's fuzzy. Playing games with a plan to win but expectation to lose is as close to living an oxymoron as I can think of in Magic. Yet that's what Commander asks us to do, and it's why I asked you to share your stories about having fun while losing games.

Mixed Match

One of the common stories, and one I can freshly relate to after Grand Prix Las Vegas, is one that ends with losing to one's own deck. Whether it's a borrowed card, unanticipated side effect of something you put onto the battlefield, or the cascade of a decision from earlier in the game, our own deck can come back to bite us. Aaron had a story with a twist:

My favorite loss was also one of the strangest ones playing against my own Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite deck. The deck itself has gradually become a tribute to all the best white cards, and it is my go-to deck for serious games. The game I lost, however, was a three player game, and my wife, who was piloting Elesh Norn, came down with a headache.

Not wanting to end the game, my friend and I opted to each take turns playing Elesh Norn making the best informed decision that wouldn't necessarily favor either player. Well, as it turns out, Elesh Norn is really strong, and even though we knew every card that was being drawn and played we still ended up losing to it. The conclusion of our game was humorous to say the least, and my wife got a kick out of the fact that she “won” the game she abandoned. It is a proud/strange feeling when you lose to your own deck.

Here's to losing,

Aaron

Aaron's Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite

COMMANDER: Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite

Lending decks is something I advocate to help bridge differentials in deck power and ideas between new-to-each other players. In Aaron's case it was exactly that: His borrowed deck delivered the final blows. Thanks to cards like Sepulchral Primordial and Treachery, the threat of our best threat ending up in someone else's hands is all too real. My revamped Mogis, God of Slaughter deck nearly won its inaugural game, but died to its own Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre that had been taken away.

Losing the first (of many losing) games of Commander at Grand Prix Las Vegas was great.

There are other ways to have fun losing. Having a way to win in a deck isn't the same was having a “good” way, and plenty of us play with wild, wacky ways to wow our opponents. Andrew took a Melek, Izzet Paragon deck to its inevitable conclusion:

The most fun I have losing in Commander usually happens when I'm playing my Melek, Izzet Paragon deck. The deck isn't really designed to win, just make flashy plays with ridiculous spells. Ideally I get to resolve Epic Experiment multiple times a game. Many times I end up playing a kingmaker role, which carries a satisfaction that comes close to winning. It may not have been you to come out on top, but at least you got to choose who it was.

In particular, however, one of the best plays came out of a game in which I started out horribly mana screwed. I was barely scraping by, hoping that every card I drew was something that would keep me alive. I managed to level up an Echo Mage and then drop a Dualcaster Mage with no targets at the end of the turn before mine. I untap, kick a Rite of Replication targeting the Dualcaster Mage, and copy the Rite with the Echo Mage. The copy resolves, giving me five Mages that all target the original Rite. All I needed to do was survive a round and I would win!

I pass my turn into a Wrath of God. Oh well.

With dangerously explosive regards,

-Andrew

Andrew's Melek, Izzet Paragon

COMMANDER: Melek, Izzet Paragon
99 Cards

It's easy to build a lethal Commander deck. Powerful cards and combos, with plenty of mana and other enablers, means putting together a machine of doom can be done. It's a tempting response in the face of the stacked-against-us multiplayer odds. Valuing value above all else makes sense.

But if you choose not to, a whole world of weird opens up.

Andrew's deck is flavorful, full of style and it has the tools to make Izzet dreams come true. And any game where Dualcaster Mage and Rite of Replication go off in a towering climb of tokens sounds exactly the kind of craziness I like to face off against and lose to. Perhaps that's what makes the anti-mono-value approach to the game something I eschew: I'd never see the things players like Andrew bring.

Those moments of surprise are part of Commander's charm, and losing to something incongruent with other ways to play Magic make the format stand alone. Will shared a story of that simple surprise in the face of losing:

I had a couple friends in college, one who I taught how to play Magic, and one who only sort of played. To get them play more, I made a couple Commander decks specifically with their styles in mind so they could always use “their deck” when we played (Zo-Zu, the Punisher and Edric, Spymaster of Trest). One time on a choir tour, the three of us and another friend who hadn't played in 7 years had my favorite game of Magic ever.

The commanders were Zo-Zu; Edric; Kemba, Kha Regent (me); and Niv-Mizzet, Dracogenius. The decks I made for my two friends, who were seeing them for only the first or second time, ran like clockwork. Edric got to be political, both red decks had very intimidating Hellkite Tyrants that almost stole all of my equipment, and Zo-Zu got 3 Valakut, the Molten Pinnacles (via Vesuva and Thespian's Stage) onto the battlefield. But the best part was seeing my friends, who rarely, if ever, played Magic, understand the spirit of the format so well. Of course, I was hopelessly behind the entire game, running on fumes, but I didn't care a bit because my friends were having so much fun.

The game ended when the Edric player drew his card for the turn and started laughing for a good two minutes: an Archetype of Imagination, which let his Avenger of Zendikar plant army swoop in and kill us all in one go. In some games that ending might have ticked me off a little, but seeing his face as he read the card for the first time and realized that he was going to win with an army of giant, flying flowers made it just perfect.

-Will

Will's Strictly Business

COMMANDER: Edric, Spymaster of Trest

A new player using a new card in one of the few situations it could shine so brightly? Moments like these are exactly the moments I recall most. I've shared Commander with new players. I've watched competitive players move from value focused to player experience focused. I've seen the mighty choose the “worst” play to just see where the game would go from there.

Those moments only exist when you accept losing as part of the package does Commander become the best format in Magic.

Opposite Day

While none of the decks and stories above will change how anyone perceives Commander overnight, building up to beautiful losses in small steps adds to your games in ways unlike anything else.

Like all ideas I want to turn this one on its head as well: What is the most fun you've had winning a game of Commander, and why?

  • Feedback via email in English
  • 300 word limit to explain the moment and what made it special
  • Sample decklist (does not count against word limit)
  • Decklists should be formatted with one card per line with just a leading number, such as "3 Mountain" – just a space (no “x” or “-”) between the number and the card name, without subtotals by card type (Submissions that don't follow this rule will be ignored.)
  • Name and email required (non-personal information to be used in column)
  • Your Twitter handle if you use it

Winning isn't everything, but the rare moments we come out on top can be just as much fun as those we lose for different reasons. I'm looking forward to what stands out from the wins we've earned together.

Join us next week when we unmask the heroes of our own origin stories. Catch you then!



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