A Distinct Take on Casual Magic
By Adam Styborski on October 30th, 2008 · Filed in Casual · Comments not available just now
If you think winning at Magic is what makes the game come alive, you may want to understand the feelings of the players on the other side of your winning streak. Winning means a lot, but it isn't everything.
What is casual Magic?
I've been reading articles about casual Magic for a few years, and many of these articles attempt to bring the reader to one generalized conclusion: you need to be playing to win each and every game through three means: playing with the most efficient, powerful card(s) available; understanding every aspect about the game rules, individual cards, and your fellow competitors; and, finally, choosing an approach to every game with the most directly viable strategy for winning, via statistical performance or anticipated metagame, deck construction and sideboarding, or strategy and play style. Obviously this approach to games will yield stronger plays, better deck performance and increase your number of wins over time. Sounds great, right?
Bad is not equivalent to casual.
There are many of the dozens of casual Magic players who have a caveat about this approach to Magic: it sucks a lot of fun away from anyone else who is not anticipating you with an equally matched approach to every game. Casual Magic can mean a lot of different things to individual players and I am not going to pretend that I have the ultimate answer to "What is casual Magic?" (insert The Matrix joke here). However when you bring ruthless winning to casual Magic dueling, it is the equivalent of someone challenging you to a knife fight and you bringing a gun (see the Indiana Jones movie Raiders of the Lost Ark for the obvious result). It's decidedly un-fun to pony up to play Magic only to find you neither have the cards nor the experience to do anything. Many tournament players find goldfishing (playing a deck to see how fast it can take down an opponent who plays nothing, as if you were playing a goldfish) boring because they can't see weaknesses other than poor mana or lack of card drawing. Without basic interaction that is meaningful and pleasant, Magic quickly devolves from a social game to a painful lesson in why Magic Online is still pretty popular despite its current shortfalls.
Obviously, if you're going to ruthlessly win every game, you yourself are going to have great fun. It's easy to stand (or sit) there and think that when a player verbally (regardless of tact) expresses discontent with your land destruction/turn three Brain Freeze combo/Draw-Go permission deck/Legacy-tuned Zoo Aggro/tried-and-true ElfBall deck that he's a sore loser (he may well be one too!) and consider/call him a n00b/bad player/Magic failure. This is where we, of the very broad casual mindset, disagree violently. If the entire fun of the game, interaction and opportunities to gain real advantages, is sucked away by your deck, why would we want to play you? There is much to be said for the challenge factor of playing against your deck but unless I'm tuning a deck specifically geared in an attempt to overcome your specific un-fun-for-me approach (that is a deck of equal or superior caliber) it's not going to truly benefit me or you.
Taking some weak/sub-par/off-the-beaten-path/random cards, assembling a deck that brings dynamic and interesting (if not necessarily dominating) interactions to bear then plopping down with some friends to play is almost how every player starts playing and having fun in Magic. But even if I take this deck to your tuned, powerful deck and play without making a single play error I will lose. Quite obviously tuned, devastatingly high caliber decks and the experienced players who pilot them are an insurmountable challenge even for the professional players with gimped cards. It's the essential science of card development/design/evaluation and deck building/tuning: some cards will perform better in almost any condition than any comparable alternative, or will require specific foils to be utilized against it to be overcome. For example Lightning Bolt, Counterspell, Strip Mine, and Demonic Tutor have all gone the way of the "old-school" of Magic: they are aggressively, disruptively, and deceptively powerful despite their simplistic, common, or staple nature. One mana for three damage that isn't repeatable seems fair until you fully understand that it not only kills most creatures and forces your opponent to play like he starts at 17 life (if he drops to 3, it's over), but that it's so cheap for its effect you never feel like it's a hard choice whether to use it or not; it warps other players' games around it. Newer players may not understand (or fear) that playing on the draw against a deck that lays down turn one Island, turn two Island, then passes the turn means counters are not going to let any awesome spells play out this game. When you see someone tap a Swamp and something on turn two, playing the best tutor in the game, you know that something mean is coming your way turn three.
Badass card... because it's broken.
This is why R&D has consistently made great efforts to 'fix' cards and concepts, changed the number of cards and rarity encounter rate, and numerous other things that "kill" the fun in the game: balancing the delicate worlds of Limited (draft and sealed), Constructed (Block, Standard, Extended, Eternal), and casual (Two-Headed Giant and other off-formats as well as trying to help the guy who gets just a few packs of cards from a set). Think about this: how many cards now say things like "each opponent" and "target player draws a card" today? Compared to the past, recent sets are much more group- and casual-friendly and promote the greatest level of interaction even at the tournament level. Some comments on The Magic Show from Pro Tour Hollywood 2008 include Darwin Kastle, a hall of fame player, stating:
Lorwyn, and the game-changing planeswalker Garruk, took the world by storm, or rather broke the storm, and beat Dragonstorm combo in the Magic Worlds 2007. That isn't to say combo is dead, but even a current, dominating aggro-control deck (Faeries) has plenty of creatures and removal and gets pushed hard when there is good removal and creatures used against it. "Playing fair." What did Darwin mean? He meant that these decks feel like straightforward decks that everyday players would put together: my good creatures and good stuff that kills creatures against your good creatures and good stuff that kills creatures.
"[in this Pro Tour] everyone's doing what I call 'playing fair.' ... There aren't a lot of turn three kills ... I'm beating them down but on turn seven they're 'Okay. I've got the right pieces and now just some crazy thing happens' even though you seem like you're in control of the game. People are playing good creatures, good removal, and they're battling; they're really good Limited decks."
How is casual so different from everything else?
This brings me to a thought experiment. Imagine if you started today and picked up a few boosters or a theme deck and some random commons and uncommons, which are not the greatest in any given set, by the friends who introduced you to the game. Your card pool is fairly restricted and you only have a scant few copies, if any multiples, of cards that feel really great. Your opponents, however, won't be similarly restricted. Some will have multiple copies of the greatest cards in the game and some won't be shy about playing with them. In fact, even given clear card pool restrictions (i.e. Block or Standard or applying the 'Highlander' or Peasant rules, for example) they will, invariably, have the best cards available and use them in whatever deck they are playing. They will have tuned and played the deck a few times or apply a similar build from a deck to attain similar results. If you're starting to get depressed, it's not over yet. They will have mastery of many (or all) of the following that you, as a new player, cannot: game and timing rules, expansive knowledge of printed cards and interactions, tournament and other skill-testing experience, play testing and deck tuning across and against various deck types, and well-constructed sideboards. David and Goliath is not a fair comparison: a can of Raid and an ant would be the appropriate comparable match up.
Not for trade until Standard rotates again.
This is the pain new players run into repeatedly (and budget players, too, but that's a completely different article). Generally speaking, many of these experienced players will be nice, have some spares of the good commons from the latest set to spread around, trade generously with a new and deserving player, make efforts to point out things (i.e. tricks and interactions) to know and learn, and take a look at your cards and decks to make recommendations (with sound logic and clear explanations) that immediately improve your playing. This is what many people think of casual Magic: an experience in growth and fun, even if you're on the losing side of the game. Casual [b]Magic[b] isn't always about relaxed or altered rules, weird formats, challenging card pool restrictions, or even bomb-laden Timmy mash-fests, but the learning and social sharing of a group experience. Have you ever met somebody new and something you had in common was that you've played Magic before? You can talk in a unique language of creatures, spells, and rules; the heartache of a game-changing play by an opponent; and the best victory in memory that wasn't a decidedly one-sided affair but of a back-and-forth, good play meets great play give-and-take battle of wits and quick thinking.
Thinking about (or hopefully remembering!) winning brings me back to a main point for all this: tournament level engagement versus casual, social experience. In casual Magic there are two general playing situations: multiplayer and dueling. I won't dwell on multiplayer other than to say that many articles already exist on how to get the most fun out of multiplayer and how to be a fun (and better) player in multiplayer. Casual dueling is a very different beast from not just tournaments but also multiplayer. While you have everyone from the day-one fresh player to the grizzled veteran packing 32 distinct decks (no shared play sets; he's packing enough copies for each deck that wants it) to test your mettle against, you're going to play several of them at once. Generally, you're going to play the same person a few times with a few different decks with the goal of winning a few games. They won't be a perfect 50-50 split, and you may not win at all, but the feeling of moving towards a victory is awesome.
There's a catch. If you're one of the new guys then going and playing against other new guys will be a lot of fun: lots of trading creatures, lost of different spells, and lots of colors (without good mana fixing) so you can play all of your best spells – it's the ideal situation. But if the guy with a suitcase of decks slides up to play, you get a little nervous. As you switch through each of your few decks, he thoughtfully thumbs across dozens before pulling one out. Each time the game goes pretty similarly: you drop creatures and play a few spells that buff yours and remove his, but he draws more cards, or plays better creatures, or has stronger spells that, surely even if not slowly, grind your deck apart. Some games you only see six different cards, one of those being the basic land he uses in the deck. There is little variation in or with his decks: they kill quickly and rarely stumble. In the end you really can't match up to his cards, especially the ones you've never seen before.
Don't level the playing field; come back down the mountain from time to time.
As a solution to the problem I've illustrated above, I have a simple proposal for casual Magic: have some local rules. I don't mean banning counterspells, land destruction, affinity (despite the fact I, personally, get real sick of it), or Daves, but a set of "Rules of Engagement." Just like traditional duelists agreed upon weapons, location, seconds, and other matters of chivalry, you too should discuss what is about to happen. I've got a generic Rules of Engagement list here to show you what I mean:
The Rules for Casual Magic|
1. Agree on card pool format: Set, Block, Standard, Extended, Eternal (Legacy/Vintage), and Un-inclusiveness thereof.
2. Agree on individual card restrictions: Pauper/Peasant, banned and restricted cards, Singleton, Rainbow Stairwell, and Elder Dragon Highlander are all common examples (by contrast, you'll almost universally you'll stick to the four-of rule).
3. Declare your archetype: aggro, combo, control, or a hybrid. (Various specialties: Sligh, Ponza, Draw-Go, Zoo, Weenie, and Tribal are a short list of bad examples that new players may not understand.)
4. Declare your main colors without necessarily discussing card/spell specifics.
5. Play for at least three games: test other cards, strategies, and play decisions and discuss with the other how to improve each others game. Best of three does not mean you are the best.
Does this speak for itself? If you said "Yes, this effectively sets up a mini tournament match" then you win the prize (see your local store for details)! By getting a fair, but general, sense of what the opponent is packing is fairly straightforward and not an unreasonable expectation to have in casual play. "What are you playing?" is the question I ask first at every game; if they smile and describe their deck, it's great because they, too, are looking to experience something fun. And, other times, they grin wickedly (quite often cat-like) and break out a broken deck. These are like cancer, playing a social game only to serve themselves. Like a living creature, a community is built upon the individual pieces contributing meaningfully to lifting the entire weight of living whole. You need a leader or leaders (the brain and its sub-functions), a healthy body (excited players of fair skill), and growth and re-growth (new players who pick the game up at least as fast a players quit and old players who purchase some new cards at a regular interval to introduce freshness to playing that can become stale) to function. If any of these fail (you lack someone with initiative to organize players to meet, find a facility to hold them, and regulate the herd of nerds while they are there; enough players to have meaningful social interaction beyond just trading duel partners; or new cards and formats to continuously keep playing from stagnating) then it will collapse and shut down. However, even with a healthy, robust group there can be a player (or two or three or more!) who takes it upon himself to dominate – dominate in a destructive, counterproductive-to-the-group way. He brings unfair combo decks, mass land destruction, four-of sets of Moxen and Time Walk, and other abusive cards (Fork on Twincast on Shahrazad) to play with every week. He laughs at card restrictions ("Peasant is stupid – all commons? LOL!") and requests to balance ("Standard is for noob players. Vintage/Legacy/Urza Block is the only real format."). These Dave-type players aren't emotionally attached (at least in a healthy way) to the idea of having fun playing Magic, they are attached to the ever increasing number of wins they are accumulating.
Tournament winners owe a debt of gratitude to casual players - without these casual card-flippers playing the game and hyping it as being awesome fun back in 1993, nobody would be writing lengthy articles calling for committed, fun-seeking players to work as a whole to improve the casual Magic experience for everyone and no prizes of cash, promotional cards, product, and other rewards would come from any altruistic donors, let alone a profit-seeking company like Wizards of the Coast. Good thing we're not needed for the survival of the game any more, right?
This general list of "rules" above is not as restrictive as one would think at first glance. Most casual players are apt to bend the rules and this is normal and acceptable... when both players are aware beforehand. Play EDH against Vial Goblins. Play 1999 Draw-Go against Dragonstorm. Play Invasion Block Ponza against Aggro-Faeries. Play junk sealed from a prerelease against Stax. These define what casual Magic is: chaotic mixing of everything that can be Magic. The driving goal is to bring the "shared, fun experience" back to the forefront. Most players want, at one point or another, to see firsthand what makes a Vintage deck so powerful. Then, after two or three games they get it, the novelty wears off and they move on. It's when the players described above sneak in an un-fun deck into other formats, ambushing new players, and otherwise through guile and subterfuge bringing overpowering dominance to games where it's completely unexpected, unanswerable, and un-fun. Not since Urza's Legacy was released have there been block decks that crush on turn one or two. This was so un-fun (read: unfair to the point that the coin flip often decided the game and then, only then, the DCI took the ban hammer and smashed everything already broken) that even many tournament players themselves stopped playing, and some of these were cancerous players who love to wildly crush.
I have been told that summarizing a point succinctly is the key to communication, so here goes: when someone brings a tuned, Vintage-restricted-packing combo deck to players who are "trying something new," he's not allowed to gloat or become frustrated at their desire to not play against that deck: he's a cancerous vampire to casual Magic that slowly and surely turns new players from optimistic, friendly fellow players into sour, frustrated competitors who avoid playing anyone they know packing "better" cards, entirely defeating the point of a social game. Your obligations as a player at casual Magic are to encourage good playing (including sportsmanship and general rules enforcement), building better relationships to all deserving players (especially newer players and especially not the Dave-types), and make good-faith efforts to ensure that, while the person you're playing won't win every game, he or she is having fun.
And, honestly, isn't that the true point to playing Magic?
By Adam Styborski on October 30th, 2008 · Filed in Casual · Comments not available just now
About Adam Styborski
Adam Styborski has played Magic on and off from around Ice Age onward. With his B.A. in Mathematics, he promply got a job in the insurance industry and moved far from the tiny towns he grew up in to the urban metropolis of Washington, D.C. Constantly trying new things, he loves to win with the unexpected and has found a home in the very diverse Magic community in D.C.