This entry is part 9 of 41 in the series In General

Grandpa (Eric)

By Eric, AKA Grandpa Growth

 

Multiplayer Commander is most often played in a free-for-all, last-player-standing-wins structure. This is a bit like Hamlet in that, at the end, [DRAMATIC SPOILER WARNING] everyone dies but we all go home happy anyway…At least most of the time. [END DRAMATIC SPOILERS]

 

Sometimes, the feelings of satisfaction after a game aren’t distributed in an equitable fashion. This is normal, but not unavoidable. A game that contains some unsatisfactory elements is, of course, more likely to reach a unsatisfying conclusion. The real trick of the matter is somehow discovering what each player considers to be satisfying and somehow working enough of that into every game so that everyone gets to go home happy. In Commander play groups, we think (unrealistically) that we’ll somehow be able to achieve this without even so much as discussing these underlying player expectations beforehand. This is an uncomfortable social situation and it’s the single greatest flaw undermining the growth and popularity of such a deep and wonderful Magic format.

 

The Father, The Format, and The Holy Spirit

For years the Commander community has held on to the notion that the above situation either doesn’t really exist or that it can be easily corrected. After all, how could there be any disagreement over what is a rich and enjoyable game experience when the “Spirit of the Format” so clearly outlines how to accomplish that? The regrettable truth is that there is no such clarity. “The Spirit of the Format” is employed by some as a guiding light, but the directions in which it leads are different for every person.

 

When the spirit is invoked, it’s often done in a punitive manner. That is, “what transpired was not in the Spirit of the Format, and if you don’t stop you’ll face sanction or ostracism from the group.” And here we discover the “Spirit of the Format” to be dual-wielding double-edged swords.

 

First, while the Spirit might be used to steer people into more accepted lines of play, it also draws a line in the sand and discourages players from going outside those established parameters. At the same time (in the off hand, of course), the Spirit is trying to unify a set of distributed preferences among players. Having a federalized body to center authority seems logical, but replacing the arbitrary preferences of many separate play groups by installing the arbitrary preferences of a much smaller group of influencers isn’t much of an improvement in my book.

 

The EDHRC is an opaque cabal of dictatorial oligarchs who have no legitimate authority. That sounds harsh. Let me try again. The EDHRC is a translucent cabal of super cool cats who have some dictatorial authority, but it is unfortunately not democratically granted.

The community of Commander players has accepted them because they’re the original gangsters of EDH. How original or how gangster they are is matter of historical record, traditionally written by victors. Too seldom do we stop to consider the idea that originality and gansterness maybe aren’t the most effective qualities for governance. On some level, the EDHRC is just a group of people who got organized and serious before anyone else did. This is noteworthy, but it isn’t enough for me to sustain compliance and support indefinitely. It casts these characters in a different light when you describe it like that.

 

Such a revelation begs some questions. How does one become a member? There should be at least a loosely defined process. What qualifies one for such a position of authority? I would argue experience is important, but how you measure experience is equally important. Experience might come in years, number of games, or even number of play groups you’ve been a part of and how diverse those groups were. More experience is generally favorable to less experience, but sometimes a newer person has innovative ideas, unfettered by the years of cognitive conditioning a more experienced colleague might have had. We want the people in charge to have the best ideas, not the most credentials. How people come to the best ideas is irrelevant; we just want to get them implemented. We must have a system that cultivates good ideas, promotes the people who create them, and implements those ideas at the pleasure of the people they are meant to serve.

 

Now, even though I’m advocating that the EDHRC be replaced as a concept, I’m in no way saying that they have done a bad job with their position. The format has grown and thrived. Due to their efforts, Commander got its own product and achieved mainstream success in the Magic world. It’s now the casual format of choice for the larger Magic community. The EDHRC has done an excellent job, full stop. I’m choosing to judge the merits of the rules committee not by their performance, but their intent, something that I generally discourage. In this moment, I’m an acknowledged hypocrite.

 

I question their intent because it biases their rulings based on subjective criteria. The Spirit is the guiding principle of the format, meant to foster a fun and welcoming environment that minimizes negative player experiences. There are an infinite number of ways to interpret what’s fun or negative, and therein lies the problem. The EDHRC has created an enumerated list of rules meant to build the framework for fun. They’ve created a banned list that sets up an embargo on “unfun” cards. But whose fun are we creating, exactly? Such an approach can be reduced to: here is our definition of fun; it’s official. If you don’t have fun how we have fun, you’ll be branded unfun and asked to leave the funspace.

 

A House Divided

At its best, the Spirit homogenizes. At its worst, it ostracizes. Maybe it even causes Duress. If you’re caught on the wrong side of the Spirit in an aggressively casual play group, you’ll find that suddenly they aren’t so welcoming and accommodating to other people’s enjoyment. Herein is revealed the duplicitous nature of the Spirit supporter. He says the Spirit exists so we can all have fun, but if he isn’t having fun something must be wrong and someone else is to blame. The Spirit supporter views application of the Spirit as a social justice cause and deems those who oppose it to be in league with the enemy. Those nefarious devils who seek to steal fun away from the masses and hoard it for themselves. This black and white dynamic is making it much more difficult to create an open dialogue about standards for social play in the format.

 

I’m not a doctor, but this kind of malcontent can’t be good for your health. It isn’t good for your personal growth either. The Spirit shouldn’t be the proverbial “trigger warning” of the Commander format. Any set of rules that governs Commander and any governing body that enforces those rules, should be aware of the perverse incentives that they are creating.

 

Instead of building that open environment where positivity can flourish, it seems instead that we’re building a group of people who are in an echo chamber becoming more and more insulated from outside opinions. Rather than learn to engage with other humans and their ideas, we’re writing them off as adversaries. Saying that someone can’t play certain cards or strategies because I find them unfun is simply not a reasonable way to accommodate others and is not a group dynamic that I want to be a part of.

 

The Efficient-Formats Hypothesis

I see the Spirit being applied in three ways, that I’ve named in allusion to the Efficient-Market Hypothesis.

 

Strong Form: The Spirit is a sacred law. Violating it is not just violating the rules, but it’s violating me as a person. If you don’t strictly conform to my subjective definition of the Spirit, you’ll be punished.

 

If you’re a person who thinks or acts this way, I have bad news: you are the problem that you’re trying to solve. Like a driver in traffic lamenting the stress of their commute, you’ve placed yourself at odds with the purposes of every other driver without giving credence to the idea that their needs and preferences are just as legitimate as yours. The more strictly you try to enforce your preferences, the more trivial differences are turned into emotionally charged debates and eventually you can’t coexist with the people you’re depending on for your fun.

 

Semi-Strong Form: The Spirit is a set of guidelines. We don’t have rigidly defined boundaries about what’s acceptable, just general feelings, but you can still face some punishment if you stray too far outside those boundaries.

 

The Semi-Strong form introduces the most necessary quality for human coexistence: compromise. If the box where you keep your idea of the Spirit has flexible edges, there’s a better chance that you can fit it together with other people’s definition. This facilitates harmony, but doesn’t address the core issue: how do we decide where those boundary lines are drawn? Where they lie is important to most people, but the fundamental concept that drives this debate isn’t where such a line is drawn, but why. An arbitrarily line, even a curvy one, can only ever approximate the group’s preferences. Adapting and changing it is a whole different ball game, and to agree about changing it requires that we agree that it’s wrong in the first place.

 

Weak Form: The Spirit is a destination, not a set of directions. People shouldn’t be punished for having different ideas, but appreciated for the value those ideas have in the format.

 

There’s a relative lack of Weak form supporters in the Commander community. You might appreciate the diversity of Limited Resources in theory, but people turn sour when things start to hit home. It’s far easier to rationalize in our minds that, “I’m right and I’d be having fun if not for person/card/strategy X.” An example: the Weak form response to mass land destruction is to accept its value in the format and respond strategically, rather than pursue a metagame solution like sanctioning the cards or players that enable mass land destruction.

 

The major flaw with the Weak form is that Strong and Semi-Strong form supporters can hardly tell that there’s any order at all. To the Strong form supporter, a Weak form playgroup might look like a lawless hellscape of chaos and abuse. The Weak form supporter is wary of enumerating lists of offending ideas, so it’s harder to communicate with and convince the Strong and Semi-Strong form supporters for whom concrete scruples offer attractive simplicity.

 

You might already be guessing about which camp I fall into, but the more important question is which form are you asserting? Is it compatible with the views of your playgroup? Is your playgroup’s view fully compatible with the views of other playgroups?

 

Rescribdubbibz

Underneath all of this rhetoric, an age old war is being waged where the soul of humanity hangs in the balance between prescriptivists and descriptivists. These two groups have diametrically opposed viewpoints and are locked in a territorial dispute over philosophical ideologies. This grand conflict has spilled over into the Commander format and like Pandora’s Box: once released, the evil can’t be put back in.

 

The debate between the Pre’s and the De’s has taken on many forms and expanded into countless disciplines. I’m going to do my best to boil down the essence and explain it, but understand that these are gross oversimplifications and will necessarily lack the vital context that shapes such deeply nuanced positions. In a nutshell, whether you’re a prescriptivist or descriptivist comes down to how you think rules should govern complex systems. For additional understanding, you can see how this conflict shapes language in this video.

 

Prescriptivists: Believe that the system should have hard and fast rules. The system shouldn’t deviate from the rules. If the system is violating the rules, the system should be changed to conform more closely to those rules, but the rules stay the same.

 

Descriptivists: Believe that the system doesn’t follow the rules, the rules follow the system. The rules describe how the system is rather than prescribing how it should be. The system can and should change dynamically. If the system is violating the rules, the rules should be changed to more accurately describe the standards of the system.

 

So here we have the question: if our goal is to improve the Commander format by making it more enjoyable to more people, to grow the format and the player community to new heights, which system should we be using? Your answer will change based on your previously held tendencies toward one side or the other, but the question remains: is a prescriptive, Strong form of the Spirit of the Format the way to go, or would a descriptive, Weak form be better?

 

The two entrenched sides of this conflict argue with increasingly heated rhetoric. To some, the EDHRC and by extension the Spirit are not in fact the beating heart that drives the popularity of the format, but rather the gangrenous limb that will inevitably kill it. To others, even vaguely hinting at ideas that undermine the credibility of the EDHRC is blasphemous. To do so is to invite sadism and vitriol into the pristine Elysium of Commander. We have to acknowledge that insults and flame wars aren’t doing anything to actively advance the agenda of improving and growing Commander. Rather, an intense disagreement looks to outsiders as a sign of weakness and they might take their casual Magic elsewhere if they’re put off by the division between the two camps of Commander players who are unwilling to compromise.

 

Some people argue that we don’t need to grow Commander. It doesn’t need to be changed or improved, because it’s fine the way it is. If other people don’t find it appealing, that’s of no consequence to Commander players.

 

I want to close the loop on this logic right here: if you don’t think Commander needs to exist beyond your front door, then what need do you have for a governing body in the first place? The point has been made clear by the community: every week there are more Commander playgroups than sanctioned tournaments [Citation Needed]. The fact that they don’t always self-manage properly is the reason we’re moving towards a unified set of community standards in the first place. And again, the “accept my view or go somewhere else” logic hasn’t worked for any organization in history.

 

So…there. It took me almost five years, but I finally put together an article about the Spirit of the Format that sums up my thoughts on why it is so problematic, but won’t lead to a mob burning my house down. I hope.

 

Before I go, though, I want to put all my cards on the table, so everyone can see where I am coming from. Let’s call it consumer protection and place our tongues firmly in cheek.

 

My Biases

  • I can’t stand bureaucracies. I get angry at bureaucrats even though I know that the citizens being served are always the number one problem with a bureaucracy. I blame the employee incorrectly when the problem is actually caused by me, the customer.

  • I’m a moral relativist and a Machiavellian’s wet dream. If said customer can’t interact properly with their bureaucracy, I say obliterate them both and don’t worry about who gets hurt. In the end, you’ll have removed a problem and the person who had it. The silence will be golden. If a problem is worth complaining about, it’s worth solving even if the solution might not be comfortable. I believe the ends justify the means, but I’m always going to ask if the ends are even justified at all.

  • I’m a firm descriptivist when it comes to Commander. I’m very hesitant to enumerate any lists of offending cards or strategies, because I want an objective standard for all decisions and any list you can compile is going to be influenced by the subjective biases of the person compiling it.

  • I don’t want to submit authority to any group of people who have a closed or undemocratic process. If you wouldn’t allow me to join your group, I’m not going to allow your group to dictate what I do. That being said, even if they offered to have me join, I find the idea of joining a group of prescriptivists objectionable in itself. So, sadly, I won’t ever be on the EDHRC or serve as a member of Congress. Even if I got to assert my own subjective preferences, I would never assert that it’s what’s “right” or “best.”

  • I’m usually caught on the “wrong” side of the Spirit and I find that it visibly ages me whenever someone invokes it against me. I immediately think of them as an insufferable sheep who can’t think for themselves. When such a person says I’m “wrong” for attempting to think differently, it makes me want to give up on them as a person. I hate quitting and I’m trying to quit quitting, but sometimes it ain’t easy bein’ greasy. I’ve gotten real comfortable being a jerk to jerks and that’s not a good thing.

  • Sometimes I feel a little like an outsider, because I don’t have the terminology to accurately address a problem that I have with Commander. It makes me think of my inner D&D character questioning his alignment. I think rules are great and that people should follow the rules.  Rules are most often broken for selfish reasons. This makes me feel unusually Lawful. But inevitably I will find a certain rule to be founded on arbitrary principles. Because I can never abide an arbitrary standard, I suddenly become an anarchist rebel trying to tear down the oppressive authoritarian establishment. The Chaotic dark side is whelming. But, after all that, I have to step back and realize that I’m not following rules for the rule’s sake, nor am I always abandoning them for freedom’s sake. I’m just some dude smack dab in the middle of Neutral land whose only code of conduct is “follow my own arbitrary standard to not follow arbitrary standards.”

 

There you have it. No grand unifying thesis. No adamant conclusion. Just some ideas that create more questions than they answer. I think my work here is done. Share your thoughts in the comments below, follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and be sure to support Commandercast.com on Patreon.

 

-GG

“In General” is the place where I share my ideas on unconventional topics that are often only tangentially related to Magic. This column is a mixed bag where I collect and present ideas that don’t have a home anywhere else. If you want a column about strategy, psychology, design, economics, philosophy, internet culture, and referential humor, you have come to the right place.

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