Bands With Other Gamers

Posted in Serious Fun on March 1, 2011

Two weeks ago, I shared some personal stories about the escalation of power in gaming: the idea that there is a natural tendency for each of us to increase the potency of our decks, often in response to the powerful things other decks are doing.

This cycle of interaction is quite common in competitive circles but for many of us in the camp of "The playing is the point, not the battling," it can have frustrating consequences. While I had reiterated the idea of making card substitutions to scale power in different ways (that is, if everyone's expecting a knife fight you go along with it and leave the guns at home), it's clear that there's a lot more to be explored around keeping decks more towards parity than overpowering.

I'll admit up front: I don't have all the answers. I certainly have some suggestions and ideas for you, but ultimately what works for you and your group is going to be unique. Every group and situation is a little different, it and will take honest effort to be a good participant in your own surroundings. If you or your group has been more "Pow!" than "Wow!" recently, today should give you a little more meat to work with.

    Fuzzy Ontology

Let's back up a second. What do I mean it will "take honest effort to be a good participant" when referring to each of us? I mean that games of Magic, especially multiplayer, are group experiences and require much more consideration than is apparent at first glance. Reader willpell on the forums shared this idea eloquently:

My vision for Magic and most other forms of gaming has always been that you play games to have fun, and that you have no right to have your fun at the expense of everyone else's. The ideal game to me is a cooperative fun experience, involving a great deal of negotiation and accommodating the wishes of others (which first requires you to learn how to verbalize your wishes, and translate the language of others doing the same, both of which are Serious Fun topics I'd like to see discussed - anyone have a psychologist or educator in your playgroup?). The effortful task of figuring out how to render two-plus players' versions of fun compatible is something we need more study on.

I, too, believe that the overlap between awesome Magic and "a cooperative fun experience" is almost 100%. It's something that we often naturally encounter when we start playing Magic, and it's often those mystical first few experiences we go on to see out thereafter.

But the things willpell pointed at all play a role in our existence as players in a shared experience:

  • Negotiation and compromise between all players
  • Clear communication around concepts and interactions
  • Developing methods for mutual, shared fun that aren't excluding others

These are terribly difficult ideas.

Negotiation and compromise is the process of acknowledging that other players come with a different perspective. It's not about getting someone with a different view on something, like land destruction (Armageddon) or graveyard recursion (Living Death), to give up what they like, but to see where you are with respect to them and everyone to move towards a happier middle ground.

I want to be clear: there is no wrong way to play Magic. There are some very strange and powerful interactions that appeal to just a small portion of players. For example, I am a huge fan of Unglued and Unhinged, but many of you are not. It doesn't make these wacky, rules-untenable cards wrong to play with—it just means that it isn't always appropriate to break them out.

Finding middle ground varies a lot depending on context. In my case I include some of the "pretty legit" Un-cards in my Stack and Cube. I get little doses of the wackiness I love without forcing it into my everyday decks I bring to tables of random players.

For something a little more common, recursive land destruction can be tantalizingly alluring and group-busting frowning. Sometimes a Strip Mine or Wasteland is exactly the kind of card you might want: Volrath's Stronghold, Academy Ruins, Gaea's Cradle, and Maze of Ith can all do some pretty spicy things. But instead of a duo of Exploration and Crucible of Worlds to go with our destructive lands, why not just Life from the Loam instead? Having the ability to get back some of those cards, if needed, is fine; making it the automatic and easy thing to do every turn may not be.

This is a very murky area, as reader Magic_Pancake clearly pointed out:

While I hate to be "that guy", I'm not much of a fan [of the idea] that one shouldn't play "unfun" cards, because of how hard it is to define exactly what cards are unfun.

As I've mentioned before, what is and isn't fun is a very individualistic thing. Defining one card as "unfun" does a direct disservice to those who happen to enjoy it. What's fun in one context may be frustrating in the next. Finding the right compromise between the haters and lovers of anything, and identifying the more appropriate and less appropriate times to break it out, is a group process that everyone has input on.

Clear communication is paramount for any group, especially since we certainly don't all share one perfect view on everything. I don't mean anything particularly deep here beyond genuine sharing. When we want to say something we want others to listen, and vice versa. Stating "That's dumb!" or "You're a jerk!" doesn't clarify why we feel that way, and often puts the other person off from acknowledging the difference in experiences.

It's not about telling another player what to do, but sharing what they did that made you feel unhappy. "I never got to attack with my creatures" is a lot more useful than "You never let me do anything!" Acknowledging the other player you're approaching with an open mind and without an accusatory tone builds a bridge for both of you to walk on.

And in that same vein, if a player is upset about something you did and isn't sharing things eloquently (say, right after the game or in the heat of the moment), don't buy into that negative experience. Be patient and wait for that player to cool down. Take the hot-blooded moments in stride, not in arrogance but in humility, and revisit the issue a little latter. Be proactive and initiate a conversation with genuine concern, gently pulling at better understanding the other side of things.

It isn't always easy, but the simple action of directly acknowledging others' experiences can help resolve many conflicts.

Finally, developing inclusive experiences will encourage a healthier culture within any group of players. Whether you have a handful, like you and a few friends who get together every now and then, or a heaping, like the throngs that consistently outnumber Friday Night Magic for me, promoting an environment that brings players in is a powerful way to put everyone on the same page.

What this means everyone specifically participates in different ways to play. While Commander is a ton of fun, so are Draft and Sealed Deck. Sometimes sharing or borrowing decks is needed to bring players on board. There are numerous ways to include everyone's ideas of fun.

    Changing Formats Up

One of the easiest ways to bring players on board is to simply switch up what everyone's doing. If it's been continuous Commander for a few weeks, perhaps some Sealed or Group Game Drafting is in order. A little switch up can do a lot:

  • Playing the same format endlessly can lead to insular and parasitic development of decks, and the types of negative growth that make it incrementally less fun over time.
  • What's possible and powerful in one format may be unavailable or weaker in another.
  • Starting a new format puts everyone on a fresh start, ready to begin exploring anew.
  • The variety of strengths and desires of individual players can have opportunities to shine depending upon format.
  • Formats like Planar Magic, either the regular vanilla Planechase incarnation or the awesome Eternities Map configuration, apply a level of randomness that can break up normally stagnant or repetitive game play.

Of course, eventually switching back to a previously played format can lead everyone right back to how things were before. Generally, however, playing with new cards in new ways is one of the best ways to inspire new decks. Just because you're going back to revisit something doesn't mean you'll want to do it in the exact same way as before!

    Borrowing Decks

When I first jumped back into Magic, Commander (then called EDH) was what everyone wanted to play. With just a few booster packs and a preconstructed deck I didn't have the cards in hand to build my own deck. It was a little hard to find someone to play against who had the same type of deck as me.

And if a few newfound friends hadn't lent me a deck several times I might have never stuck it out playing.

Many of us build more than one deck. I'd wager most of us have multiple decks, sometimes for multiple formats, on hand at all times. Putting those extra decks to work in the hands of someone who'd like to play, or even just borrowing one to play anyway, can be rewarding:

  • Others' decks give us some insight into how they see Magic, and the cards they use are often slightly different than those we'd pick ourselves. This can encourage creative changes that don't necessarily increase deck potency.
  • Multiple decks from the same player may have a similar level of power between them. With one person doing all the construction, the way cards are used will naturally be more consistent.
  • It can be an exciting experience for "Johnny Suitcase" to see all of his work in action at once; inclusion isn't just for new players but those of all stripes!

While not everyone likes their decks to be used by others, many of us really get a kick out of sharing what we've spent time and effort building. And for those of you who like to build a lot of decks all at once, it's a great way to see them all in action quickly!

    Teaming Up

Going it alone can be a scary experience. In duels, it's just you and the other player. But in multiplayer, it's you versus what seems like the world: three, four, or more other players, all after you. It's no wonder that we often reach for comfort and security when facing a table of opponents.

One way to reduce that feeling is by playing with teammates, as this comes with some benefits:

  • Randomly pairing up for Two-Headed Giant, Emperor, or Star prevents special coordinated shenanigans and allows new players to meet, greet, and work as one. It's multiplayer with fewer losers!
  • Having teammates brings a spirit of cooperation into games that are normally about just fighting everyone else. And because you're not standing alone you're never being completely ganged up on!
  • Mixing and matching team-based formats, like Archenemy or the Planar Invaders amalgam, can put a new spin on the "usual" multiplayer experience and provide ways for bigger teams and more powerful decks to enjoy the spotlight too.

Simply forming teams doesn't necessarily ensure everyone has their type of fun (as some players just don't like teams at all), but it's one of the ways to break up the existing assessment of "Who's on top?" and reset the status quo.

    What's on Second?

Bringing players of all types and styles together in a variety of ways to play is an admirable goal and awesome achievement once cleared. There aren't easy answers to every how and why things don't work out between us, but working to keep the focus on the other players around is a worthwhile and valuable principle.

I hope this week provided a little more insight in keeping games going strong, and players of all types happier than before. Join us next week when we get a little medieval!

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