This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series True Conviction

By Matt

In a tiny cul-de-sac at the end of Mirrodin Lane, the peaceful residents of Multiverseville celebrate Karn Liberation Day, a midsummer’s reprieve of jumping through neighbors’ sprinklers and sharing bean casseroles as well as PG-rated jokes and stories, commiserating and rejoicing in the spirit of the day.

Kresh tosses a Frisbee to his neighbor, Hanna. Shirei gets his kite stuck in Doran for the twenty-seventh time that day. Jhoira remarks, sipping her eighth beer, “If only I could suspend this hangover forever!” Everyone laughs. All is well in Multiverseville.

The moving truck rumbling down the block towards them goes unnoticed at first, the euphoria of the day intoxicating them too much to immediately register the realization that they’re about to have a new neighbor, and that their lives will never be the same again. The truck backs into the vacant house opposite of Teferi’s residence, beep, beep, beeping as it does. Everyone goes silent, unable to quell their curiosities as they stare at the truck now parked in front of the green-painted house with the white-washed picket fence.

The door to the truck opens violently, and it’s alarming to some, striking at their cores menacingly. Two legs appear beneath the door—soles thudding on the pavement—clad in knee-high, brown pirate boots. Feet pivoting, the figure slams the truck door shut, and many gasps pierce the silence at the shocking sight of the new resident, a young, busty brunette woman clad in a scandalous sort of red bikini-top. She flashes a sideways grin, surveying her new neighborhood through furtive glances left, then right.

Ib Halfheart’s pet hound Isamaru goes wild, barking obscenities at the newcomer. Nothing had ever before worked up that dog like this, and so everyone was all the more surprised when he bolted across the street at full force, as if to tear the mysterious lady to shreds.

The dog leaps at her as soon as it’s in range, but she intercepts the furry little thing in the air with a mighty boot, launching the dog back across the street to where it came, its limp body bouncing thrice before skidding to a halt near its owner.

Ib howls on behalf of his downed dog, running to the little thing to hold him, “She kicked my dog!” Shocked, appalled, and in disbelief, the people of Mirrodin Lane begin murmuring amongst themselves.

“She’s a bad apple, that one.”

“Well, she was only defending herself…”

“How can anyone do that to a poor little creature?”

“My God, maybe dogs CAN sense evil.”

“Why are we in a 50s suburban stereotype?”

If this sounds at all familiar to you, then you’ve probably unwittingly welcomed someone into your playgroup who insists on playing a general that rubs you the wrong way, but you can’t quite put your finger on why you feel that way. It’s like someone new joined your book club, and this person shamelessly shows up with the Wikipedia article instead, boasting about how they didn’t even read the book, declaring “it’s faster this way” with a subtle undertone of “haha, suckers.”

Oh, you try to tell yourself that the person is just “different” and that maybe you’re being unjustly intolerant whenever the nagging suspicion that what they’re doing is wrong claws at your mind—but deep down, you know that your rage is justified. You know it in your soul that this person and the General he or she brings to the table aren’t good for the community, and their subversions shouldn’t be welcomed. You know that this individual is just plain “missing the point,” but you don’t know the right words to voice your discomfort on behalf of the group.

I know just what you can tell that individual: “Hey JERKOFF, why don’t you stop playing Tutor Generals?”

If you don’t pay as much attention to the wardrobes of the characters in the magic cards as I do (like, omg, did you see what Akroma wore on the red carpet at the Webby’s??), then I’ll just come out and say that the dog-kicking general in the above dramatization is Captain Sisay, one of a handful of the Generals with a Tutor ability—that is, either a triggered or activated ability that allows you to search for a card from your library. Oh yes, that’s as absurdly powerful as it sounds, and there’s a good reason why the very mentions of Godo, Bandit Lord, Captain Sisay, Momir Vig, and especially Zur, the Enchanter have caused countless players to make early trips to their underwear drawers.

Alright, that’s the end of the sartorial humor from me, I promise. Now, onto serious matters: systematically explaining to you why you’re a bad person for playing tutor Generals.

But first, before we proceed, you must acknowledge the following as absolutely true: There is a clear and absolute division between playing competitively and playing casually, and we will not make sweeping value judgments on which is the correct way to play. However, for the purposes of this argument, we’ll consider the original vision of Commander, which consists of group games that promote positive social interaction. In other words, we’re not concerning ourselves with win percentages. If we were, this article would be titled “Tutor Generals Saved My Cat from a Tree,” featuring Sisay, the earnest Captain of the Fire Fighting team.

Missing the Point

Let’s play the numbers game for a moment. In traditional, tournament-sanctioned variants of magic such as Standard or Legacy, players are tasked with making 60 card decks, which is the required minimum size and thus the optimal number to attain the ultimate goal: consistent gameplans that yield the highest win percentage.  In this standard setting, deckbuilders are allowed four copies of any legally permitted card in whichever format of Magic they’re playing. If my math serves me correctly, that means that there’s a 600,000% chance that you’ll draw into whatever optimal card you put into your deck, making each game play out roughly identically.

Commander, on the other hand, is a singleton format where you have 100 different cards including your Legendary general. A format of this nature’s inherent design dictates that players must have multiple game plans, a lack of consistency otherwise seen in competitive Magic and creative innovation in finding less-than-optimal card choices to round out your deck. This describes 95% of the Commander decks out there; decks that don’t “rub Commander players the wrong way.”

Consider the 5% of decks who are commanded by a Tutor General. Almost always having access to a permanent that allows you to routinely undermine one of the core design features of this format is an unwelcome perversion to the vast majority of players. These players have either completely converted from standard magic or are at least seeking a break from the cutthroat environment of consistent gameplans and samey decks. Neither of these two characteristics do not and should not define a format that cropped up in opposition to the standard trends in magic.

That is, the majority of casual players who are attracted to Commander place a great deal of value on expression and innovation, design elements that are not only self-rewarding but are pleasing to a group’s sensibility. Humans have a natural, positive reaction to novelty—so says I and social psychologists, anyway. Contrast this to a standard environment, where expression and innovation are actively chided and belittled by the hearty experts, barring those infrequent circumstances where someone’s innovation strikes gold in resulting in a deck with a higher win percentage.

But again, Commander players don’t place value on win percentages, or at least they don’t value winning over the other concerns of Commander culture: expression and positive social interaction.

Duh, Winning!

Playing with a consistent tutor mechanic breeds decks that are designed to win first and begrudgingly hold back powerful plays so the groans around the table become less deafening second. For those who opt to make decks with consistent, one-track gameplans first, there’s inevitability at work in the disregard for the level of positive interaction expected in a free-for-all format. Playing a tutor general is an affront to the format, and is tantamount to saying, “Actually, guys, I really wanted to play Archenemy instead.”

What I mean by “holding back power” is the concession that many players who miss the point of EDH try to make in feeling out how much they can get away with in their group without getting the boot. When playing a Tutor General, you’ve more than likely crafted a gameplan that consists of nabbing pieces out of your deck in a specific order, playing a toolbox-style deck that either locks down or combos in a handful of turns (something far more akin to a standard deck’s goals). Holding back in this setting means making knowingly sub-optimal plays to appease the group, which players rightly intuit as insincerity. If you’re packing antisocial cards and your group knows it, then at least have the courtesy to use them.

Insisting on playing Tutor Generals in a group will pervert that group, mark my words. Any format in Magic yields an arm-race, true, but nothing has been more immediately dangerous to the variety and, indeed, the well-being of Commander than those players who bring decks to the table that are designed to win better and faster than the decks around them, and with generals that give them the absolute advantage necessary to do so. Winning is discouraged in Commander if that is your deck’s primary goal, but you’ll see a lot of deckbuilders adapt similar mentalities to those with Tutor Generals if they even hope to survive to the mid-to-late game, where the majority of Commander decks want to be.

I don’t mean to imply that your decks shouldn’t have win conditions, or should be sup-optimal. What I do mean is that tutor generals have a distinct Tier advantage in affording their controllers consistency whereas the rest of the table is falling behind both in their assuredly less-consistent gameplans and, generally, in card advantage. On top of this, tutor decks are discussed ad nauseum on the internet, and it’s almost inevitable for its pilot to seek out the these discussions and thus the absolute best cards for his toolbox, resulting in increasingly more brutal, anti-social pieces to survive the immediate 3 v 1 situation that ensues when generals are revealed.

It’s a vicious cycle when the tutor player feels obligated to remove Jareth, Leonin Titan from his deck and replace it with Iona, Shield of Emeria to have more firepower to survive the three-player alliance whose aim, every game, is to eliminate you first.

I should know; I’ve had a Captain Sisay deck for years.

There Goes the Neighborhood

If we accept the natural arms-race nature of a collectible card game that has over 11,000 cards to choose from and that some cards are far better than the others, then we can at least take comfort in the fact that most of the powerful and difficult-to-answer staples in Commander are happened into—for the most part—at random. Or, at least, we know that most decks do not have virtually unlimited tutor capacities, and thus we do not need to have virtually limitless answers to the immediate threats and combo pieces that are tutored up.

This comfort and, in fact, balancing-principle of singleton, 100-card Commander is undermined by Tutor Generals, who are able to over-centralize games on some of the most difficult-to-answer and environment-warping cards in Magic. I understand that these types of frustrating cards don’t define every tutor deck, but there’s little denying that the sheer consistency factor (and the sense of dread this factor elicits in a group) sets these decks apart and in a way that isn’t in line with the vision of the format.

But for those deckbuilders that do attempt to adapt their tutor decks to handle a triple onslaught, their decks very often become what is known as “prison-style” decks—so-called, I imagine, because they’re about as fun to play against as being cornered by Crazy-Eyed Joe in the prison shower. If you’re confused about the sort of cards I’m talking about, I’ll list a few (try not to cringe): Gaddock Teeg, Stasis, Tangle Wire, Ghostly Prison, and Linvala, Keeper of Silence.

And whether you’re setting up your tutor engine on turn 4 or turn 8 isn’t the issue here; games have a sort of gloomy, helpless ambience about them when you’ve grown accustomed to playing against Tutor Generals, whose inevitability will win out in the end and make each game overly familiar. Games lose their sense of mystery and variety in this setting, and you find yourself in constant desperation mode, hoping you’ll top-deck the tiny handful of cards you have in your deck to deal with the tutor menace, gradually telling yourself that you have to adapt to be faster and more consistent, and one day, perhaps, giving in.

It may never occur to you, long after that day, that the reason you no longer enjoy playing Commander is because of the way you allowed yourself to adapt, but you have this odd sensation to play Standard again, because it seems to have a healthier and more varied meta than this one. You may even have the impulse to Dragon Punch that Sisay player, but you can’t quite pinpoint the source of your rage.

Well. Now you know.

It’s been one year to the day since Sisay moved in to the only house on the block with a fence around it, a once quaint and endearing picketed fence that now looks more to its neighbors like ominous pikes, a jarring sort of partition that would have once seemed out of place in the neighborhood. But Mirrodin Lane is a shadow of its former self.

Teferi’s house has been long-since abandoned, as Sisay’s best friend, Iona, has taken up residence within her green-painted lair, and Iona somehow charmed the city council into banning all people of Zhalfir-descent from the neighborhood.

The corrupt mayor, Sisay’s friend Gaddock Teeg, had suddenly taken an interest in setting restrictions on any and all commodities deemed “exorbitant,” and thus many residents had to watch, dumbfounded, as their above-ground pools were leveled by city bulldozers, their pool tables and riding lawnmowers confiscated, too.

Meanwhile, the city councilman Linvala, yet another friend of Sisay’s, had taken away the residents’ ability to protest any changes in a swift coup of the former politician, Azami, dooming them to a life as restricted prisoners in what was once a frivolous, jovial neighborhood with so many freedoms.

This day used to bring out the best in the people of Mirrodin Lane. It used to promote good-spirited playfulness and camaraderie. But now, on this day, in the thrall of Sisay’s influence, the people are apprehensive to even set foot on their own lawns. All but Sisay herself, that is, whose lying languidly on a lounge chair, sipping a margarita.

She remarks, “I love this neighborhood.”

But no one is there to hear her.

Series NavigationTrue Conviction 02 – An Open Letter to 5-Colour Deckbuilders >>