This entry is part 3 of 9 in the series Line in the Sand


We all know that Commander is supposed to be a social format; play nice with others, don’t play stuff that others find unfun, blah blah blah. Certain people whom many look to as leaders of the format are preaching about their desires for Commander:

  • Don’t play land destruction
  • Don’t play combo
  • Don’t take extra turns
  • Don’t play blue

The so-called Social Contract is being described as an agreement not to play “d-bag” cards and strategies. As I’ve said many times before, the concept of what is unacceptable to play is too subjective. This contract we’re all supposed to be abiding by is creating a rift in the player base. It’s entirely possible that this rift would be there regardless of what certain Rules Committee members are saying. This divide is as old as the game itself, when Johnny, Spike and Timmy realized they all had different definitions of “fun.”

The Commander player base, as fanatical as we can be about our favorite format, has started drawing battle lines and hurling insults at each other across the anonymity of cyberspace. Many people think this divide between “competitive” and “casual” is like a war. “Either you’re with us or you’re against us!” the enraged players say. “If you’re not playing my way, then you’re not playing in the Spirit of the Format!” We have all these catchphrases. Sort of like propaganda.

It’s ridiculous.

The divide in the player base is not a war zone, it’s not a huge trench filled with sharp stakes—it’s a line in the sand. An arbitrary line we as players have drawn, one that can easily be erased or shifted. The question is, what is the best way to do that?

My solution is using a gentleman’s agreement, which is not the same as a Social Contract. A contract implies that we’ve all signed it, and that we’re all bound to it. The only problem is, hundreds of people can’t agree on anything, especially not their vision for the casual format of their favorite card game. I have my own ideas about the Social Contract itself, but I think I’ll leave that for another day.

Wikipedia defines a gentleman’s agreement as: “an informal agreement between two or more parties. It may be written, oral, or simply understood as part of an unspoken agreement by convention or through mutually beneficial etiquette. The essence of a gentlemen’s agreement is that it relies upon the honor of the parties for its fulfillment, rather than being in any way enforceable. It is, therefore, distinct from a legal agreement or contract, which can be enforced if necessary.”

A gentleman’s agreement means that you don’t have to talk to every person you play Commander with and set out a set of rules and expectations to play by. You also don’t have to play by the expectations of people you will probably never meet or play Commander with. There is a certain way to form a gentleman’s agreement about playstyle and what is acceptable within a playgroups. It takes a little bit of work and some observation, but I’ve learned that it is very much worth it.

Here’s what I do:

1) Play the first few games with new people.
If I’ve never played with someone before, and there is a good chance I’ll play with them again, then I watch them during the game. I watch what cards they play. I watch how they play. I look for their reactions to how I and others at the table play. It’s fairly easy to get an idea about someone’s expectations about the game if you just pay attention

2) Choose my deck according to the power and skill level of the table, especially the new players.
This goes back to my last article, in which I talked about building a casual deck. Sometimes you will have to build a new deck to fit the environment you are playing in. Most Commander players I know have at least two decks. These decks are normally built for different power levels, so if you don’t personally own a deck that’s on the right power level, you can probably borrow one from a friend.

3) Remember how everyone you know plays.
Which may seem like a lot of work (and it is), but it will save you a lot of upset players. Play according to the desires and expectations of the table. This is why so many people have stories about games where they lost before turn six to a combo and everyone was angry and annoyed: they weren’t all playing the same game.

Which leads me to my definition of a gentleman’s agreement:

“A gentleman’s agreement is an informal agreement between Commander players, because we’re all adults. It is an unspoken agreement not to freak out when someone does something you don’t like, because if they keep doing it you can either tell them or find other people to play with. The essence of a gentleman’s agreement is that if we’re all playing the same game with the same expectations, then we’re probably having a good time. A gentleman’s agreement isn’t something you can force people into, but if they don’t abide by it you can kick them out of your club and complain about them behind their back. Or something equally juvenile.”

Many of us don’t want to be hampered by what other people want when we build a deck. Realistically speaking, however, that’s not going to happen. If the people you’re playing with don’t like your deck, they probably won’t be playing with you for much longer. Sometimes the best thing to do is follow the gentleman’s agreement and play well with others. Optimally, though, you just find a group of people who all have the same expectations about a game of Commander.

In conclusion, I’m going to share the (mostly unspoken) agreement I have with my three favorite Commander-playing gentlemen:

  • Everything goes, but if you’re     going to combo off don’t do it until we’ve had a good game. Unless you want to hear a lot of grumbling and whining.
  • Land destruction is okay but don’t get offended when everyone grumbles over your casting of Cataclysm.
  • Going after one person is kind of rude and forces them to sit and watch for the two or three hours it will take us to finish the game.
  • Play good cards. Play synergistic, powerful decks.
  • If you want to test a new casual deck or something, then tell everyone. It’s no fun if we’re playing our normal decks and you’re playing Illusion tribal.
  • No drinks or food on the table when there are cards on the table, or Brionne will kill you and never cook for you again.
Series Navigation<< Line in the Sand 02 – Be An AmbassadorLine in the Sand 04 – I Sold my Soul to the Internet >>