Contract From Above

Posted in Top Decks on September 26, 2013

By Adam Styborski

Stybs has played Magic the world over, writing and drafting as part of the event coverage team and slinging Commander everywhere his decks will fit.

Every Magic player is different.

Mirror Gallery | art by Scott Fischer

Cards exist for all types of players. Everyone find cards they enjoy in every new set, from the most powerful and prominent (like Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx) through specific and strange (like Titan of the Eternal Flame) and even the humble and plain commons (like Lightning Strike).

But we all play together.

The same Commander players who vie for a turn-one Forest and Sol Ring into a turn-two Forest, Oracle of Mul Daya, Forest, and Mana Crypt will inevitably play against those who dream of a battlefield filled with tokens and counters on turn twenty.

There's tension between these different goals but it's still the same format built from the same rules for the same players. So what's the big deal if two players are trying different things?

What if I told you all of Commander is a gray area that relies on individual players to hold their own moral code?

What if I told you each of us has created difficult situations for other players in Commander, and we're each responsible for finding ways to avoid them?

Justice For All

Sheldon Menery has been an advocate of Commander since time immemorial. Some say he's as ancient as the Elder Dragons themselves. He's on the rule committee and has written extensively about the idea of Commander's social contract.

Justice | art by Ruth Thompson

He did a fantastic job explaining what a social contract is, and how it applies to Commander, in his most famous article on the matter:

In its most concise terms the social contract explains the philosophy and methodology by which societies or even subcultures maintain social order and this certainly applies to [Commander] (although we're not going to go as far as Philip Pettit's "consent of the governed"). Simply put, it's an effort by the collective to in some fashion provide a set of agreed-upon rules for the benefit of the entirety of the group. Individuals gain civil rights in return for accepting the obligation to respect (and perhaps even defend) the rights of others, giving up some freedoms to do so.


In [Commander] we already have the foundations of a contract with deck-construction rules and a banned list. That said, not all of the "rules" need to be formalized. There's no law that says you can't butt up in line at the movie theater or that you're required to be courteous when addressing people, but we generally agree in polite society to take our turn and to say please and thank you.

The social contract that I propose (at least in this particular regard) isn't one among all Magic players, but among the [Commander] subculture, a subtle but significant point which some of the forum responders from a few weeks ago may have missed. It's a shared vision of rights and responsibilities between like-minded individuals on what is an enjoyable way to spend their leisure time. Note that there are no moral assignations here. "We'd rather not play with you because of the style of play you like" doesn't equal "we think you're a bad person." Social contracts are rarely about right and wrong, despite what some might try to make you believe, but about the points which are important to the society, a path to walk toward the end that we desire, namely the benefit of all. In fact, there's no legitimacy to elements of the contract that don't forward the end goals. "Don't play counterspells" isn't a valid contractual obligation. "Don't play counterspells just to annoy people" probably is.

The contract I'm suggesting isn't "this is the way only true and valid way to play [Commander]" so much as "this is the way we agree to play [Commander]."

As you might imagine, I both agree with Sheldon and find the social contract to be a murky mess that is difficult to pin down. The very point of the social contract isn't to create a governing set of rules all Commander players must adhere to, but to create a unified focus for players approaching the format: consider other players.

That principle point was the foundation for my more specific approach to handling Commander interactions at Grand Prix and other large Magic events. The "rules" I laid out were more "solutions to the problems I'd found" than rules to be written in stone:

  1. Follow the banned list and other Commander rules. (Format variants are great fun with friends and to teach others, but "vanilla" Commander is the expectation of almost everyone.)
  2. Bring different commanders for the same Commander deck. (You can scale the efficiency and power of your deck by having a variety of choices. You can also avoid using the same commander as someone else.)
  3. Bring multiple Commander decks. (You can scale the efficiency and power of your deck by having "weaker" or "stronger" choices. You can match decks to others' expectations.)
  4. Follow the social contract. (Other players want to play. Be mindful of both how they're approaching the game and how you're acting upon that.)
  5. Assume nothing and communicate everything with other players. (Misunderstandings create hard feelings and conflict. Taking time to explain what you're doing, and fully understanding what other players are, prevents this.)

But we're not all equal players.

We all have slightly different angles on what is fair or not, what it means to play or not, and how we do (or don't) tow our part of the social contract line. When I asked you to share your solutions to tough situations I didn't know what to expect. Would I get an avalanche of bad feelings and grievances? Would I get powerful insight from angles I'd never considered before?

I received some of both the above, but not nearly as much as I'd hope. (I'm sure the upcoming release of Theros isn't distracting, at all.) However, three main approaches were common to most of the what you shared.

Turning the Tables

Political power in multiplayer games is a longstanding challenge to describe. Is it the ability to make other players do what you want them to do? Is it misinformation that shapes player knowledge how you choose? It is the ability to forge alliances, or break them, at the most opportune moments?

Political Trickery | Art by Scott Kirschner

Kelly Digges covered the types of political power that players often bring with them, but one method stood out across your feedback: turning the tables on the "king" by ganging up to defeat him or her.

I believe the situation you're referring to can best be described with the "lockdown breaker." This is usually employed when somebody is playing a combo or Stax-aligned commander (in our group usually Ghave, Guru of Spores) takes control of the board using recursive removal to the point where no one can attack or play creatures without having them either end up dead or worse.

The "lockdown breaker" is the joining together of the group to defeat the lockdown player. Usually this turns the game into a kind of Archenemy game as all previous grievances are put aside to smite the lockdown player for his hubris. While this sounds decidedly unfun on the surface it elicits what Selesnya would refer to as a feeling of community as we all get together to bash the threat. Even the Ghave player gets to feel pretty good if he goes down, as it took the combined might of the entire table to bring him down. Of course, this might not work for everybody, as some people don't like being ganged up on in multiplayer, but if approached with the right attitude it can be a positive experience.


This is something that happens almost naturally for all of us in games: we pile onto the player who appears (to us) the furthest ahead. What's important here is the framing. Under the social contract, being the player with "the most powerful deck" or "furthest ahead" isn't bad, and taking the brunt of opponents' efforts isn't bad either. As long as your group is actively looking to push against whomever happens to be doing well the game doesn't devolve into a witch hunt. Getting ahead will happen, at least in the eyes of other players, even if you're trying to avoid it yourself.

Being big enough to accept the hits while interested enough to target someone else who's big is a core component to advancing any multiplayer game, but particularly Commander. But there's another way to do this.

I play Commander with a semi-regular group at my local store and although most of us are there for casual fun, there's one guy who always brings super-optimized combo decks. It's fine every once in a while, but rarely did any of our games pass turn ten when playing him. Since he didn't want to change his decks, we decided to try something different and make a series of highly focused control decks to fight him. Green enchantment removal, blue spell control, black creature removal, etc. It hasn't stopped him from using his optimized decks, but made games more interesting. It almost turns the game into a game of Archenemy when someone gets too far ahead, someone almost always has a solution for the biggest problem at hand.


What Sean talks about here is borrowing from more traditional Constructed formats, like Standard and Modern. Instead of demanding other players change their decks, each player looks at changing his or her own to handle a situation. You might call this "metagaming," but for Commander it's something a little different.

Tuning or creating a deck to prey on others isn't something we'd want to see, but knowing someone else loves a specific type of deck and changing yours to interact better is. It's one way to consider building multiple decks or bringing multiple commanders. When you're playing the same players every week, it's going to take each of you adjusting your strategies to keep games fresh and interesting.

It's not about tuning to specifically destroy one player's deck, but ensuring your deck can now play with and against what other players are bringing. With up to a hundred unique cards in a deck, why wouldn't you want to keep changing them around from time to time?

Turning toward the top enemy and adapting decks over time are ways to deal with touchy cards and tricky decks. There's one more way to influence what you'll see in others' decks: banning.

Banning decks or cards in my group is easy. We all know when a deck gets degenerate enough to stop being fun. I self-retired my Sharuum the Hegemon deck for that very reason. The real difficult situations for us arise during games. For instance, my friend's Teneb, the Harvester deck will slap a Whispersilk Cloak onto Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre. What a predicament for everyone else. One friend has an Omnath, Locus of Mana deck and can't deal with Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre. Another's Wort, Boggart Auntie deck can't either, but has an army of Goblins. My Teysa, Envoy of Ghosts deck has an Angelic Edict in hand. Omnath deck Naturalizes the Cloak, I Edict Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre, and the next round of attacks from Wort ends Teneb for good. We're a very spiteful group. The upshot is that the political nature of Commander allows multiple players to fill in removal holes to deal with problems that players want solved.


Banning cards is often the point of last resort. When "no good can come of this" is overwhelming in evidence and established by data. It's why it's so rare for Constructed formats, even though it's an obvious and always-available tool. Banning in Commander is a little different. While the rules committee has its own discussions and criterion (to which even I'm not privy), each of us can take the goal of a banning and apply it to ourselves.

Forbid | Art by Scott Kirschner

If we wanted to, we could make a list of cards across every color and type that could be included in almost any Commander deck of the appropriate color(s). It'd be filled with cards like Sol Ring, Mana Vault, Volrath's Stronghold, Phyrexian Arena, and Wrath of God. Powerful staples and key cards for combos, unsurprisingly, fit well everywhere.

Andrew's group applies something I started to do some time ago: restrict staples and cease using dominant cards. I took Sol Ring out of my Commander decks until I brought out Kaervek the Merciless. If I'm playing spells with in their costs, like Earthquake, then Sol Rings makes sense. For an average deck where all Sol Ring would do is launch me several turns ahead I find it's unnecessary. I don't want to launch two turns ahead but plod along with everyone else. I retired Rhys the Redeemed as a commander because my deck was tuned to efficiently create swarms of tokens that immediately required answers from opponents. Now, when I create tokens, I make fewer of them and use them for things other than just attacking opponents.

If each of us set aside our "best" cards we'd all create fewer situations where something degenerate is happening. But there's also something to be said about the flip side.

A new player came to our Commander group once, and his Bruna, Light of Alabaster deck was..."rough around the edges," shall we say. It stood absolutely no chance of competing against some of the more tuned and powerful decks in our playgroup, so the other folks and I dug through our binders and pulled out bulk rares and uncommons to make his deck more competitive. Totem-Guide Hartebeest, Righteous Authority, Three Dreams, Eldrazi Conscription, Kor Spiritdancer... all of us chipped in so that he could be more active and relevant in our games, rather than sitting back and watching strong decks pummel him time after time.


From listening to Commander players everywhere, through emails and in person at massive events like Gen Con Indy, is clear that one frustration newer players have is just having the "right" cards for the format. Magic, if you haven't heard, has been growing and there are new players all the time. I can see it in the decklists submitted around commanders: lots of cards in Standard and other recent sets, frequently reprinted cards that are plentiful within communities, and choices for lands that aren't just the rank order list of "best in class" for the color.

It'd be easy to write this off as just "bad decks" but it's much deeper. Commander has a pool of cards as vast and deep as Legacy. Most Magic players today haven't been playing (off-and-on, admittedly) since the days of Ice Age and Mirage, and even then some of the ubiquitous cards of today weren't being printed.

Oren's approach isn't about self-banning ourselves into the ground, but giving into and building up the Commander community around us. Newer players will try all sorts of formats and ways to play before finding things they like most. Ensuring Commander is experienced fairly, with other players considering the newest and new players having their own things to do well is precisely what the social contract is meant to do.

What Matters Most

What's the "right" way to play Commander? The only answer I can give is that it's always relative to the other players. Are they strong and expect you to act accordingly? Are they exploring and would appreciate feedback or recommendations for cards? Are they carefree and just looking for a wacky time with newfound friends?

Keeping other players in mind and acting in the best interests of everyone will give you the tools to solve your own difficult problems. Since we've spent all of today looking at the negative, let's take a look at positive things. What is the most helpful thing for Commander someone has shared with you?

  • Feedback via email
  • 200 word limit to answer the question
  • Name and email required (non-personal information to be used in column)

Whether it's something a friend pointed out to you or an explanation someone had for why he or she does something, Commander is a format where everyone seems to have something compelling to share. I want to know what was the greatest you received.

Join us next week when we find ourselves on an enchanted journey. See you then!

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