Posted by ‘BRIONNE’ aka ‘FORK OF DOOM’

Today I’m going to delve into a dark world, a world where men sell their souls for a quick buck. A world where innocent men are taken for all they’re worth. I mean, of course, GP Commander pods. I’ve played in my share of tournament side events, and have lost many more than I’ve won. I’ve all but sworn off GP pods, but for GP San Antonio I decided to make an exception. I wanted to take another look at them, keeping a mostly unbiased viewpoint. Knowing what I was going into made it a lot easier to distance myself from the frustration of losing to busted decks constantly.

I started out playing Friday night, and had a blast. I watched a table lose to Withengar Unbound enchanted with Phyresis. I won my first pod with Eight-and-a-Half-Tails, which only happens when everyone at the table plays “fairly.” Having two pods in a row be average games seemed strange. Maybe I’d just had some bad luck with side events in the past.

Saturday morning started out pretty great for me. I cruised the dealers and spent way too much on some sweet foils. After that, it was time to show off my new shinies by playing some more Commander. I grabbed a pod and promptly lost to an Animar player. That was more in line with what I was expecting. (I swear, I can’t go to an event without seeing at least one Animar deck.) The other two people stuck around to play a casual, no stakes game. That one lasted long enough for me to cast a Boundless Realms large enough to get every basic out of my deck. We had to call it quits to register for the “Commander Challenge.”

For those of you who have never heard of this monster of a side event, the “Commander Challenge” splits the people who play, in this case 24, into pods of 4-5. The winners of these pods get packs and sleeves and a mat, in addition to playing in a final pod for a From the Vaults set. The entry fee is $10, and the prize just for winning your first pod is a decent one. Needless to say this is when people bring out the big guns.

I sat down to my pod and immediately picked out the guy I thought would win. I saw a Mana Drain and his foil Edric, Spymaster of Trest, which was enough to convince me he meant business. I chose my Adun Oakenshield deck, which can combo off or play a long game. I was unsurprised when the Edric player cast Tangle Wire to slow down the table long enough to draw tons of cards off his cheap beaters, cast Beastmaster Ascention, use cheap counters to stop any attempts to remove that enchantment, and then win off a Notorious Throng played for the Prowl cost. The other four players in the pod were livid. The Edric player was given the silent treatment as he left. We decided to play another game (“a real game” is what they called it) that lasted another hour or so.

As we played, reports filtered in from the other pods. Some guy had used Ad Nauseum to cast a lethal Exsanguinate turn two. Two guys had teamed up to win and split packs in another. The last pod took well into our casual game to decide a winner. That honor went to a fellow who won with a Palinchron/Sneak Attack combo. According to Karston, who played that pod, everyone was OK with the combo win.

Although my pod had been the least combo-licious win of the entire tournament, my pod-mates were still fairly upset. My offhand remarks of “at least it wasn’t a Winter Orb” didn’t do much to calm anyone down. I was annoyed too, but the game we were playing was so fun I couldn’t stay that way. I cast a Survival of the Fittest turn three and nobody freaked out. The same happened with a Tooth and Nail, and I realized that these players were not used to really powerful decks.

It was then that I began to realize the real problem with pay-to-play events at large tournaments: a lot of players don’t know what to expect. Sure, it’s easy enough for Commander players who have spent tons of time online to spot combo pieces a mile away, but not so for the average player. So many people go into these pods expecting the same sort of game they play at home, and that isn’t what they get, because other people are playing to win. There is money on the line, and that can turn even the friendliest Magic player into a complete jerk. So the problem isn’t playing for prizes, it’s that many Commander players don’t know the song and dance of paid pods.

I remember the first pod I played where someone brought an early game combo deck. It was Scion of the Ur-Dragon, and he won turn six. I was upset for weeks. How dare someone bring a deck like that, just to make money? It was wrong. It was detestable. After two more big tournaments I came to realize running pods for profit had become the norm. The judges seem to be the most familiar with this. They listened patiently as players from all the pods complained, apologized for the bad time, then told everyone “that’s what happens when you pay to play.” I knew they were right, but many other players refused to accept this.

The thing is, I see it at every GP I attend, not to mention I hear about it online. I know it will happen. Honestly, I continue to play out of sheer stubbornness. I’m convinced that there exists a deck that can stop all the combo, and still win a pod without pissing off everyone in it. Then again, I don’t know if such a deck could ever exist. This always bring up a debate. Is it okay to take a powerful deck to win games if money/prizes are on the line? One side says it’s taking advantage of people and is against the “spirit of the format,” while the other side says that when you bring prizes into the picture you should be able to play to win. Both sides must remember that fair is relative, and one man’s fast aggro deck with cheap countermagic is another man’s combo deck.

I do know that the four player game I played after the loss in the Commander Challenge was the best game I played all weekend, and it was only ended by an Insurrection that stole tons of dragons and my 15 Plant tokens. I enjoy the more casual side of Magic, so playing for money isn’t something I enjoy anyway. I’m not sure where the line should be when it comes to the power level of decks at pods. I do know that teaming up to win pods is a scummy thing to do and anyone who does that should be embarrassed that they need help to win a game of Commander. That is the one and only thing I will condemn when it comes to pods.

I think that, overall, paid Commander pods wouldn’t be so bad if everyone who went into them knew what they were getting in to. In an attempt to change this, I’ve created a PSA to save all those poor bastards who are thinking about paying $5 to get their hope and dreams crushed:

Do you play Commander? Are you thinking about playing a side event at a GP to win something playing while Magic and meeting new people? What you may not know is that danger lurks in the deckboxes of every opponent you see. They might be playing A Combo Deck. These dangerous players are out to steal Your Hard Earned Money by playing a deck way more powerful than yours. The only way to avoid being a victim is to play casual games or bring a More Broken Deck.

Leaving aside my habitual sarcasm for a bit, there is one way to answer the dilemma for yourself. Can you live with yourself at the end of the day? That seems a bit dramatic, but it’s meant to be. Chances are if you bring a really powerful deck all your opponents will hate you. If you’re okay with your opponents complaining about you to anyone who’ll listen while you go home with the prizes, then by all means go for it. If you care what other people think, then that reaction might be a bit much to put up with. As for anyone with $5 burning a hole in their pockets, just know if you spend it on a Commander pod, you might be spending five dollars to watch fifteen minutes of someone casting their combo. Then again you might meet some cool people out to play a good game of Commander. If it’s the second then congratulations, because those are the people that make this format so fun to play.