This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series The Shouty Game

Posted by Chris Lindores
I am here to tell you a most bizarre tale. A story of one man and his Commander playgroup, which is one woman…

I’ve played on and off for ten years or so, but about 18 months ago, after a big gap from playing regularly, I retrieved all my cards from back home and endeavoured to teach my partner, Ruth, how to play. However, we ran into a few problems. Here are Ruth’s top five:

 Weirdy-beardy rules

Ruth: How can it possibly be reasonable that this creature can be in two places at once? Physics doesn’t allow for that; it’s not an electron.

Chris: The rules were created a good while ago and some of them are slightly arcane, but they seem to work well most of the time and the stack is tried and tested, with a simple system for resolving effects.  Including creatures being sacrifice to themselves. 

No two decks are created equal

Ruth: It would be quite difficult to learn chess if your opponent had three queens and you only had pawns.

Chris: I’ll give you that in my card collection, some colours, especially black, have more access to a greater range of effects than others due to my preference for those colours and subsequent trading for more cards of those colours, but… OK, you’ve got me here; we’ll sort this out.

Time Walking forever

Ruth: What can you conceivably still be doing? I’m going out for a fag.

Chris: Each step in each phase in each turn requires you to reevaluate the entire game state and how each card in hand, permanent in play and card in graveyard might impact it. This highly complicated decision matrix can take some time to work through.

Tough on fun, tough on the causes of fun

Ruth: This is why we can’t have nice things.

Chris: Sometimes if, for example, an opposing army of tokens and related token-enhancers is threatening to kill you and you have an Oblivion Stone in hand, it would be churlish not to play it and immediately blow everything up, hopefully giving you time to rebuild and attack back. The game ebbs and flows like that.

Accidental silver bullets

Ruth: How is that not the equivalent of erasing all the text on my cards?

Chris: There is a very high level of variance in Magic and sometimes that leads to you drawing the right card at the right time. Sometimes it leads to drawing the right card at the wrong time. And the wrong card at the right time. And the right card at the wrong time. …it probably all balances out eventually.

These reasons, among others, led her to christen it ‘The Shouty Game’. Funnily enough, these problems were not solved by introducing the highly unpredictable and bizarre Commander format.

My choice of commanders was limited. The gap in playing I took meant that I lacked cards from the last five blocks, particularly the multicolour-tastic Ravnica, Lorwyn and Alara. I attempted to find new cards by raking through the giant boxes of commons and uncommons at the local games shop, Black Lion Games. I had no playgroup but my terrible and badly paid job has wildly inconsistent rotas, no fixed finish times and many other attributes that are not conducive to meeting up regularly on the same evening in the same place with the same group of people for the same activity. Needs must, though, and I knocked up some dubious decks and we gave it a go.

We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Rules
Playing against only one other person leads to some interesting issues with house rules and card choices, such as:

  • We don’t bother with Commander damage. I don’t really know why; it seemed a bit silly so we have never paid it much heed. But then I’ve never kept track of it just to see what might happen; I’m assuming that whoever would do 21 with their commander would probably win anyway, but that rules out Voltron and other strategies.
  • We allow hybrid cards in decks which only share one colour with the card, which I know from articles and podcasts isn’t that uncommon in other folks’ house rules. This stems partly from lack of card choice and availability, which might be central to some of the specific problems that we run into. Unmake isn’t perfect and might be half-black, but it’s also half-white and does a decent Swords to Plowshares impression (for only three times the cost – hmm).
  • Our limited card selection has also led to using non-legendary creatures as Commanders. By this I don’t mean using something like the Nephilim or Prince of Thralls as a commander, but using Grand Abolisher as a commander (not at all coincidentally in the same deck as Unmake; that deck needs a lot of work). I’m not too keen on this myself, but for decks Ruth likes to play, like our WW metalcraft-equipment, I just don’t have the commanders to facilitate it. Masako the Humorless and Opal-Eye, Konda’s Yojimbo just aren’t going to cut it. I suggested Rune-Tail, Kitsune Ascendant, but apparently that would be too ‘cheaty’; what’s ‘cheaty’ and what’s not in our bizarre perpetual two-person playgroup is another thing I’ll tackle later in this series.
  • Between me stopping and starting playing again, the combat rules changed. I taught myself the new ones, but as to how accurately I’ve been playing them since… who knows?
  • We ignore any effect which would ‘tuck’ a commander and instead put them back into the command zone. Such a small playgroup polices itself very well – at the point where your opponent (who you have to sleep in the same bed as) is telling you to piss off and not play that fucking commander again, it’s probably best to do so. If it got to the point where either of us wanted to ‘tuck’ the other’s commander, things would already be going very badly indeed.

Welcome to the House Of Fun
Effects we tend to avoid in the name of ‘fun’ are counterspells, discard and land destruction. We haven’t explored these potential strategies fully, but that’s something I’d like to do in later articles to figure out why they are quite so aggravating. The closest we get to land destruction is Acidic Slime occasionally blowing up a Vitu-Ghazi, the City-Tree but that’s it. These strategies might be more fair in multiplayer (LD is questionable, but mana-limiting seems fine) when multiple people are gunning for you and each player is making ever-increasingly giant, game-changing plays. However, when you’re playing against only one opponent, just ripping that person to pieces and winning easily from there without them having a chance to actually play anything can drag a bit.

Creating ‘fun’ games is difficult when the decks are as unevenly matched as ours. I’m considering removing Vulturous Zombie and Avatar of Woe from my The Mimeoplasm deck and replacing them with some quirkier cards as the reaction they provoke when they hit the board doesn’t really make it worth playing them (Lord of Extinction is right out). Games are much less fun when one player loses the will to continue, as Ruth and I have proven many times. When Ruth’s favourite decks are a bit more buff, I might return them to their rightful place.

I’m also debating whether to give the same Mimeoplasm deck a rest for a bit, as it plays such a different game from other decks we have that they can’t really interact with it in any meaningful way. My Savra, Queen of the Golgari deck has been resting for a good while now because even though it can be horribly inconsistent, when it wins games, it really wins them and it’s no real fun for either of us.

These Are The Things We Can Do Without
In later articles, Ruth and I will sound off about how some cards and strategies can destroy a happy gaming session, up to and including: a) big unkillable flying creatures b) Wrath effects c) endless graveyard recursion d) zombie rubbish e) counterspells f) blue and black in general and g) oh, stop that now, come on. We will plunge head-first into the things that make us angry and chart their specific levels of bullshit on our patented Shouty Scale™, and at some point, maybe, I’ll stop being a cheapskate and actually buy some cards to improve our most awful decks. I hope you’ll join us then.