This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series True Conviction

By Matt

I don’t hate competitive decks.

Okay, I’ll grant that this sounds far-fetched coming from the guy who says “tutor generals are worse neighbors than the Taliban” and “you’re as respectable as John Wayne Gacy, Jr. when you play 5-color combo decks”—but it’s the truth. To hate competitive decks would be to hate one half of myself, one half that surfaces at the right times and the right places but remains respectfully hidden away from the casual group games that the Rules Committee (hereby abbreviated to ‘RC’) promotes.

There is a time and a place for a Land Destruction archetype, for “Counterspell: The Deck,” for Necrotic Ooze combo, for Erayo lockdown, for Captain Sisay and her hateful band of prison guards, and for all the things you deem “cheap” or “unfair” or “overpowered.” That place is for equally Spike-y playgroups and that that time is for when someone chimes: “Who wants to duel?” I am fully in support of both ends of the spectrum of Commander—“Casual” and “Competitive”—and I never judge unless one of the two is presented repeatedly and pompously out of context.

I am loving and accepting and open to all of the wonderful things that this format has to offer—wait, who invited you, Optional Sideboard Rule? We don’t welcome your kind around here! OUT! GET OUT! That’s it, I’m getting my shotgun!

Alright, I suppose I have some more explaining to do for my blatant hypocrisies. You see, sideboards and I have a bit of a troubled history, and not a single agreeable experience to speak of. Whether the Optional Sideboard Rule was being used in group games or in dueling, the results were the same: the Optional Sideboard Rule favors assholes and leaves an ass-y flavor in the mouths of all the other players, plaguing playgroups and negatively affecting turnout. In other words: the Optional Sideboard Rule (henceforth ‘OSR’) is a big middle-finger to both casual and competitive Commander and should never be used under any circumstance.

Yes, I understand that “normal Magic” has sideboards, but this isn’t normal Magic. This is a format where communication, knowledge of the meta, and a temporary “3v1” is your sideboard and shield against so-called “degeneracy.” And especially in Commander duels, your knowledge of the competitive meta and your weaknesses should be taken into consideration in your deck-building stages, given that your deck consists of 99 cards, which is plenty of room for diverse and/or redundant answers. Let’s move on.

The Rules Committee’s obvious endorsement of the OSR is just one reason of many that I don’t trust their authority and often describe them as irresponsible and out-of-touch. Let’s take a look at what they have to say in support of the use of Sideboards on the official Commander website, and break down their argument point by point:

“Highly tuned threats piloted by skilled opponents mandate efficient answers. The minimum number of response cards required to ensure they are available in the early turns can easily overwhelm the majority of an EDH deck’s building space.

Sideboards allow players to respond to the “best” strategies in a timely fashion. They should be strongly considered as a necessary defense against brokenness and degeneracy in an environment where no gentlemans [sic] agreement on style of play exists.”

“Highly tuned threats piloted by skilled opponents mandate efficient answers.”

As a matter of fact, EVERY threat in Magic mandates answers, and the severity of those threats and those answers shouldn’t be a sliding scale that you move freely in a 3-minute span before matches (and I’ll explain very pointedly why in a bit). As your knowledge of the card pool deepens and as you gain access to more efficient answers to deal with decks that become more “highly tuned,” the scale should be sliding naturally towards “efficient” over the course of your time playing Magic. If this isn’t happening naturally over time, then you’re bad at Magic. Your opponents aren’t cheap jerks who need to be punished for running more efficient decks; you’re a bad player and your stubbornness makes you the deserving target of my next dragon punch.

“The minimum number of response cards required to ensure they are available in the early turns can easily overwhelm the majority of an EDH deck’s building space.”

I’ll get straight to the point: the only time you’ll be in need of redundant efficient answers in the early game is when someone opens with Sol Ring, Mana Vault, and/or Mana Crypt, and uses this Legacy-banned dream team to fuel an early combo or lock piece. I agree that you shouldn’t have to fill your decks with excessive amounts of targeted discard and artifact hate, but having to do this isn’t the fault of “highly tuned threats piloted by skilled opponents”—it’s the fault of a really irresponsible ban list encouraging players to build degenerate decks (but I’ll save that for another diatribe). Point being: The RC and OSR supporters are crying “Wolf!” when we can see the murderer stabbing our inner-child in plain sight of us.

“Sideboards allow players to respond to the “best” strategies in a timely fashion.”

Sure, but sideboards also allow bad players to momentarily compensate for their stubbornly inefficient answers in favor of putting in utterly offensive hate cards. You better believe that if there is an option available to players to manipulate a rule in an unsporting way, they will—and with shameless bulges in their britches—especially if there are prizes on the line. And if there aren’t prizes on the line or the environment isn’t competitive, then why in the hell else would anyone even consider using a sideboard? Oh boy, do I have some snarky answers coming to that question!

“They should be strongly considered as a necessary defense against brokenness and degeneracy in an environment where no gentlemans [sic] agreement on style of play exists.”

Whether there’s an “agreement” or not, there’s a certain communicative expectation that takes place before, during and between matches which sets the stage for what constitutes an acceptable style of play for every group (or, if it’s a tournament setting, you bring your best and expect the same, period). Encouraging the use of the OSR shits all over the ideals of respectful communication (and surely the type of “social interaction” the RC is trying to promote), instead leading players to deliver spiteful “fuck yous” in cardboard form as they reveal themselves to be one of the following types of players: a) self-righteous condemning assholes, b) rules-manipulating unsporting twats or c) stubborn scrubs with shit decks.

Let me be absolutely clear: the OSR is NOT the bridge between competitive and casual play styles, if even there is one. If someone brings a gun to your knife-fight, then take out your own gun or ask him kindly to take out his knife, too. If you don’t have both styles of Commander decks, then you’re going to quickly become one of the three obnoxious bastards in the above paragraph that no one enjoys playing with.

The very first time I played a game of Commander in which someone actually opted to take advantage of the OSR, he was the sole player to do so at the table. This was a 4-way tournament setting, and one that I’ll grant was poorly regulated, because the B-type player took longer than 3 minutes as he delved into his ENTIRE binder of cards to find a single card before our match that was meant solely to hose my deck. The card was Empress Galina, which is the only card he put in simply because Sisay joined the General pile.  We’d never played against each other before, so he had no idea what level of “degeneracy” my deck was packing.

As if having a combo-centric mono-blue Memnarch deck wasn’t competitive enough, the sideboard-using player opted to give himself a boost just to hose one deck, simply because the rules allowed for it. In other words: The rich just got richer, and sideboards failed to fulfill their “game-balancing” destiny. Strike one.

In this same playgroup, mono-blue and blue-heavy became far too prominent, and every game was littered with counters and attempts at combo-ing off with the same couple of combos seen in every deck. The obvious fact that this playgroup seriously lacks for imagination aside, I have to judge the non-blue players, too, who refused to tune their decks to be faster and more aggressive to combat the blue menace. At the very least, you’d think, that the Asuza players would switch to Thrun and match his blue opponents in cards that can’t very well be interacted with and just win every game, right?

What the non-blue players did, instead, was take advantage of the OSR to play cards like Choke, City of Solitude, and Boil, regardless of if there was just one blue player or three. That’s not to say that any of these color hosers ever resolved, but then that would describe our C-type players rather well, wouldn’t it? The rich decks continued to prosper by adding cards like Back to Basics while the OSR just made for a more hostile and bitter experience for all. Strike two.

I used to play competitive 1v1 games in the only venue that held tournaments for them in NYC, an unsurprisingly brief venture that ended in a matter of months due to low turnout. I could write an entire article about the rise and fall of this scene, but I can’t emphasize enough how instrumental the OSR was in bringing the scene to its bitter end. With money on the line, I decided that I no longer wanted to lose to control decks, so I filled my sideboard with the most vicious anti-control tech available. I was known infamously for putting in 8 cards from my sideboard every time a blue player sat down across from me.

After a while, my deck became fast and strong enough on its own merits that I no longer needed all of the hateful sideboard cards—but I kept playing them, because I could. I used to rant in that oh-so-endearing way that I do about how the blue players needed to be taught a lesson, and I was doing everyone a favor. Well, not all blue decks are created equal, and my smug sideboarding started to deter every single blue mage—either super competitive or merely competitive-curious—from showing up again. Strike three. GTFO.

If the RC continues to marginalize competitive-minded and/or duel Commander, the format will become characterized by constant anger and confusion as long as players have the option to communicate in passive-aggressive spiteful terms. Calling the sideboard rule “optional” while being clearly in support of it is irresponsible—given the obvious detriments the rule has to promoting positive social interactions. But this is just one of several clear indicators of the RC’s attitude towards players who don’t share their identical vision of Commander, as if ignoring those players will make them vanish. As if giving a little wink and a nudge to encourage A and C-type players to resolve their grievances with better players through manipulating anti-social rules will grow the community. As if being skilled and playing highly-tuned decks is something deserving of derision and spite and has no place in Commander.

I have much more to say about the sort of unwelcoming “Us vs. Them” message you can easily glean from reading the official rules and delving into articles from the RC’s figurehead, but I’ll save it. The bottom line is that the RC has a ton of sway in determining how fledgling playgroups handle get-togethers and tournaments, and the “official rules” can and have ruined newcomers’ impression of the allegedly social format we all call Commander. More to come.

Series Navigation<< True Conviction 02 – An Open Letter to 5-Colour DeckbuildersTrue Conviction 04 – Go Tuck Yourself >>