This is an Arms Race

Posted in Serious Fun on February 15, 2011

It was a Saturday evening but I'm not sure of the time. The throngs that had piled into the hotel ballroom had only just begun to wane. The dull, dingy lighting cast everything a hue of yellow but, by this point, I was already accustomed to it.

He was in dark clothes but wore a grin of diamonds. Tall, with shoulders set square, he set down the ninety-nine-card deck along with a copy of Skithiryx, the Blight Dragon. We had agreed to play Commander, one of my favorite ways to sling cards at a Prerelease.

I remember the opening grip after a mulligan: Plains, Forest, Swords to Plowshares, Garruk Wildspeaker, Seedborn Muse, Deranged Hermit. No mana acceleration but I wasn't out for blood: Rhys the Redeemed only needs a total of three lands to do his thing anyway. Six is the gravy that comes later.

It started so simply: lands and cheap spells. My Rhys, his Demonic Tutor. Rhys poked in for 1. He played a little dude so I kept Rhys back. I missed drawing any land right away and picked up a few more green spells. I had time and explosive potential; I just needed a land and, "I'll be fine." I convinced myself as I discarded Chord of Calling (which surely Regrowth or Eternal Witness would later get back).

The fourth Swamp came down. Time paused. The card fluttered slightly as it was laid down in front of us.

"Persecute." he said.

"Naming?" I inquired. A cold chill rippled through the air. The crowd was silent. In the blink of an eye I had shifted from jovial bantering to stone-faced flatness. I wanted to broadcast no tell as he debated the color to choose. Persecute is a powerful card.

"Green." Only a Phyrexian could have been so brutal.

Flop! echoed as the stack of six green cards hit the graveyard. Eyes went wide across the table and observers whispered a little to each other where at least one "Ouch." was muttered.

A few short turns later I had ten poison counters and a disappointed opponent.

"I'm sorry," he said as he extended his hand. "Everyone's so competitive where I play. I have to do things like that–"

"Or it happens to you." I cut him off as I completed his thought, head bobbing in agreement. "It's alright. It happens. My deck has smashed plenty of people. Thanks for playing."

I shook his hand and genuinely smiled but the dissatisfaction in his face clearly lingered as he slipped out of the chair. While I had gotten fairly used to insane things happening in Commander, why some things happen would be something I would ponder for days thereafter.

Magic means many things to many players. This past weekend was Magic Weekend Paris where Brad Nelson became the official 2010 Player of the Year and Ben Stark won Pro Tour Paris. Competition at its highest levels can be extremely exciting.

And while I don't necessarily share a direct appreciation for the most current competitive information, I do understand the fascination and draw of fighting with cards. I, and many of you, just enjoy a different source of excitement.

It's our friend's (or our own!) wacky deck making an army of self-replicated Myr Propagators. It's searching up Wayfarer's Bauble with Trinket Mage to nab another land. It's using Forbidden Orchard in a Warp World deck just to ensure everyone gets in on the fun. It's even calling out "Thundercats, ho!" as a White Sun's Zenith is cast, as I did at a Scars of Mirrodin Prerelease. (I even know a few other folks who have done the same!)

And it was a Prerelease you already heard about where a fellow Commander player Michael left me with the story we started with. This week isn't about mulling on the dark, gloomy moments in Magic but looking at why these moments will pop up and what we can do about it.

    Letter to the Player

Let's start with a letter Michael sent me:

Hi, you probably don't remember me from the Prerelease, or at least I hope you don't. Either way, I owe you an apology.

I was the one who played Skithiryx against you on Saturday. I had finished building the deck only recently, and I haven't had many chances to play the deck against others. I wanted both to try out the deck with the new cards I got, and have an enjoyable, epic rematch against your Rhys deck. While our game certainly allowed the former, the duel was nothing close to the latter. And it was all my fault.

I play in a casual group that's relatively quite competitive. Our casual decks are often fairly streamlined and powerful, involving such standout decks as "Thopter Combo," "Pernicious Deed," "Pox," "Counter-Steal," "Glimpse Elves," etc. Most of us didn't play competitive formats; we are casual players, but we like to build strong decks and there's definitely quite a bit of Spike in our group. The same trend occurs in our Commander decks, and some of us do try to tweak out and optimize our decks to their highest potential. While most of our decks aren't too combo-oriented, and we don't play at the highest levels of Commander power (as can be seen from the lack of blue in most of those decks), we still have some rather powerful decks built to be as good as they can be. We don't shy away from a lot of things that other groups may discourage (it just wouldn't be Commander without recurring land destruction), and our meta definitely has its shares of combo and blue.

Well, that's the perspective I came from when it came to my Skithiryx deck. I wanted a deck powerful enough to win in multiplayer while disruptive enough to stop the combo decks from just winning. It was mono-black control with Skithiryx as a finisher, filled to the brim with discard, card advantage, removal, sweepers, fast mana, and ways to tutor out the above. In all my past experiences with EDH*, I thought that the problem decks, the true jerk decks, were all blue decks, and thus this was my answer to them. Well, it turns out blue isn't the only color capable of unfun.

In hindsight, this should have been obvious. In building to beat the unfun decks, my deck had become exactly what I hated. It hasn't taken long after the deck was completed to figure this out, but it's already resulted in one game's worth of bad memories for both of us. Commander is about fun, and I can't see decks like mine contributing to anyone's fun, even my own. I don't know what I'll do with the deck. Perhaps I'll take out some of the least fun cards and see if it can be made a bit less miserable. Perhaps I'll play it only against the blue decks it was built to defend against and use more fun decks like my Mayael the Anima against the rest. I do love Skithiryx**, the card and the general, and I used to feel such excitement at building a deck around it. Perhaps, in time, that excitement can return.

I can't take back the bad memories my deck has created. I can't take back the game that was never really a game. But I do apologize heavily for any negative feelings I have created because of it. I have definitely learned my lesson; if I should see you again behind the table at the next Prerelease, I'll be sure to reach for the good ole red, white, and green.


* It'll always be "EDH" to me.
** Knowing how to spell "Skithiryx" without looking it up should show my dedication.

Michael raises a number of different things, but his experience isn't a unique one. Many of us, at one point or another, have taken steps to fight that which we dislike. Many of us have also been inspired by powerful, even competitive, decks and built something similar. Many of us have taken a hit as splash damage in a battle against someone else's deck.

Magic is way more complex than a single article to sum it up. But let's break down what Michael hit here.

    Deck Inspiration Comes in All Forms

Just because a deck is powerful, competitive, or otherwise, something held in high regard doesn't mean you can't use it. Many of the "top decks" of the competitive world rely on incredibly entertaining interactions.

For example, Conley Woods recently took Standard by storm (Prior to Mirrodin Besieged, of course!) with a Genesis Wave deck. Genesis Wave was one of the cards previewed right here in Serious Fun for Rise of Eldrazi. Genesis Waveis buckets of fun heaped on pure, rich joy.

The idea of "multiplayerizing" a deck—taking it from geared at dominating in duels to merrymaking in multiplayer—is a concept that Kelly Digges touched on a while ago. There's nothing wrong with where your inspiration comes from because, honestly, we're all drawn to slightly different things. While I may be a fan of "deck-building by instinct and awesome" you can certainly go down the road of "I want something proven."

    Deck Power is Scalable

It's all the same end point of sitting down to play some games with friends and fellow players. What changes, of course, is exactly how you're going about it. Counterspell is similar to Lightning Bolt in that they're both as cheap as it gets for the effect. That's the reason they are, or at least were, so ubiquitous in decks in those colors.

The question isn't "Should I use it?" because it's nice to be able to cast spells a little easier but "Should it still be used?" As I pointed at more directly before, sometimes making substitutions or adjustments (on theme and reaching for the same goal) is a good thing to do. You may not need a fully armed and operational battle station to take down a Rebel fleet, just a few mercenaries for hire.

    Arms Races Are Awkward

Which is the third sticking point Michael raised: everyone is caught up in a staircase of one-upmanship, trying to out-fight each other at every turn. Resisting your opponents is a natural part of the game: creatures blocking can be as relevant as those attacking. Countermagic, or things that kill creatures, or destroy permanents provide different avenues of interaction. Sometimes, it's exactly these types of back-and-forth battles between powerful approaches that make a game of Magic exciting.

But therein lies a vast grey area not yet discussed: updating decks with respect to your opponents. That's what Michael meant by "meta," short for metagame: the types of decks and effects you're likely to encounter where you play. The importance of a metagame matters only inasmuch as how those decks and effects affect your affection for your own deck (say that five times fast).

What I mean is that it's natural to feel some frustration when your awesome thing doesn't work against someone else's awesome thing. You like creatures, they like Day of Judgment and Black Sun's Zenith. You like artifacts, they like Viridian Corrupter, Sylvok Replica, and Creeping Corrosion.

What isn't necessarily natural (or ever really necessary) is changing your deck to attack that which attacks you. Perhaps adding countermagic to stop Day of Judgment or Black Sun's Zenith will work. Maybe slipping Darksteel Forge into your artifact deck is the trick to stopping the destructive onslaught. Some players argue this is a requirement to play Magic.

But it isn't.

Nothing is needed for decks more than a desire to play them. Fighting firepower with more firepower is fine—up until the game moves away from actual gaming (remember, playingMagic?) and into the realm of fighting other players.

It's this spiral of escalation and aggression that can twist what was a casual get together into a stressful event of putting decks through their paces. Changing your deck, adding or removing things, or even switching to a completely different set of cards is fine. In fact, I strongly encourage you to try new things.

It's the mindset of "How do I break her deck?" or "What can I do to stop him?" that becomes a dangerous precedent. When your focus leaves what you enjoy and want to do and stays fixated on things you feel the need to address that danger lurks.

    The Bandwagon of Brothers

Of course, changing your deck because you now have a new point of view in mind is perfectly pleasant. It would be madness to argue against changing decks. But what I want to encourage most is that we consider two sides of the coin as we make our way through piles of cards:

  1. What makes my deck fun?
  2. Does my deck make someone else's deck unfun?

More directly: being contentious about changing your deck is more than simply the awareness of what you're changing. It means to set phasers to "Stun" rather than "Kill" from time to time. It means considering Consume the Meek over Black Sun's Zenith. It means trying out Doran, the Siege Tower instead of Teneb, the Harvester as your Commander. It means both bringing a deck built for showing off your favorite thing and one that leaves some room for others to show off theirs.

And if all else fails just talk about it. Having friends who want to play with you is a powerful draw. Sharing how you feel about some games, looking at why things went the way they did, doesn't have to be an exercise in debating "skill" and "ability." Sometimes friends just don't know how you feel until you spell it out.

And as for Michael, let me spell it out for you: you're fine. You like Skithiryx, the Blight Dragon. You want to have him as your Commander. I think that's awesome, and if you have fellow Commander-loving friends, I'm sure they agree with me. The only thing I ask is that the next time you flip through your deck ask yourself "Is this card here because I want it or because I feel it needs to be?"

And then ask your friends to do the same.

From our gaming and your letter alone I know you're in the right place. You don't need red, green, or white—any color can bring some awkward moments to a table—but just a little less "Pow!" and a little more "Wow!" in your picks. Really, I can't wait to play you again!

For everyone else I hope you, too, will check your deck and consider where, exactly, it fits in with your friends. Join us next week when we see two sides to a different coin.

(PS: I, too, can spell Skithiryx without a reference handy. You're not alone there either, friend!)

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