[MTGS Classics] The Ethics of Casual

"Tranquil Thicket, go."

"Blinkmoth Nexus," my cat responds, "Chrome Mox imprinting Psychatog, tap, Standstill."

My cat grins like a cat. I scowl like a man whose opponent is about to draw three cards.

"Mountain, Sakura-Tribe Elder, go."

"Swamp, go."

"End of turn sac Elder fetching Mountain. Forest, Furnace Whelp, go."

"Not so fast," my cat purrs, "cycle Complicate in response, Whelp is countered. My turn, play Flooded Strand, sac fetching Plains, tap out for Persecute naming Green."

Eternal Witness, Strength of Cedars, and Mark of Sakiko end up in my graveyard. I put my hand down for a moment and look quizzically at the cat. When it appears to have no idea what I'm getting at I ask "This is casual, isn't it? I'm just asking since quite apart from the cards you've played costing more than the outfit I'm wearing, I'm finding it increasingly hard to hope that anything interesting might happen this game!"

"Meow!" the cat responded ironically, "And I suppose if I point out that the outfit I'm wearing cost less than any one card of your deck..."

I didn't wait to hear the end of the sentence. Scooping my cards in the official international gesture of sulky concession I stomped upstairs to my room.

I fired up Magic Online, but before I'd even got a game the cat had turned up and made itself comfortable next to my keyboard. "I'm just curious," it said, "to see if everyone else in the world has a different definition of 'casual' from mine."

"That's just like you," I commented, resisting the temptation to shove the cat off the table, "needing a definition for everything so you can always push the limits of what's acceptable."

"Insulting me eh?" the cat fluffed up its tail in irritation, "How about a little bet then? You play ten games of casual multiplayer and if the result of even one of those games owes more to playing skill than the decks people have brought to the table, I'll concede your point."

"What? What point? What does that challenge even have to do with the definition of casual?"

"It's obvious," the cat gave me a superior smile, "If the idea of a casual game really means anything, it should be possible to actually play one. Right? If the results of games never depend on interesting play, that proves that casual is nothing more than constructed with bad decks."

"It's not about how good the decks are, it's about..."

"Then accept the challenge!" A beep from the PC's speakers announced the start of a game. Unfortunately, my cat was sitting on my mousemat, demanding a reply.

"Very well, I accept." I agreed reluctantly.

Game 1 - Two Headed Giant Extended

Silent-Chant Zubera was recently voted
6th best Zubera ever, just behind
Omega Myr
For this game, I'm running a deck based around four colours of Zubera combined with Death Cloud (to kill them) and Patriarch's Bidding (to bring them all back). For anyone not aware, "Two Headed Giant" is a team format in which two players share a life total of 40 points and try to defeat the other two who sit opposite them. My partner to my right is running a lot of Islands and various Arcbound creatures from Darksteel together with some random card drawing. The opponent opposite me has a dragon theme deck, upgraded from a heavily Scourge-based core with the addition of some Kamigawa block dragons. Our other opponent seems not to have got the memo about mulliganning 1-land hands and never really shows off his deck except by discarding a large, scary creature once per turn.

Turn six, I Death Cloud for three with four cards in hand, one of which is Patriarch's Bidding. Bidding on turn seven brings back the Keiga I'd killed on the previous turn, but it doesn't matter. Devouring Greed on turn eight is all but game for our team as our opponents' hands are emptied, Keiga dies again and I draw five cards, leaving ten spirit tokens on the board.

My cat can't stop laughing. "Good game!" it comments, "for you. Not quite sure why the others bothered turning up."

"It was just a lucky draw," I shrugged, "that happens in Magic."

Game 2 - Two Headed Giant Extended

Some board positions look so innocent. What does Thought Courier plus Withered Wretch and four lands say to you? If it says "total lockdown imminent" then congratulations, your Magic intuition is much better than mine. One of our opponents drops a fifth land and Mist of Stagnation. We play on for a few turns during which it becomes increasingly clear the game is over.

"Ha! See? I didn't win that one."

"So?" the cat does its best to shrug, which isn't easy for a quadruped, "the game was still just one deck more-or-less goldfishing. Did you enjoy that game?"


"Did you?!"

"Well... no. But that was because my draw was awful. I had a hand full of combat tricks and none of my actual token generators. That one Viridian Joiner was the only creature I saw all game."

"Point to me then. Move on."

Game 3 - Six Player "Chaos" Multiplayer Extended

This time I was sure the cat would be forced to concede. The game was clearly fun. There was a five-color deck with massive mana production and Heartbeat of Spring. There was a zombie tribal deck. There was an Isochron Scepter / Splice deck. There was a black creature control deck featuring Royal Assassins, Puppeteers and Phyrexian Arena. I was playing my Darksteel Reactor deck (in six player games, someone is usually stupid enough to put counters all over my Sun Droplet ready for me to Dismantle it). The sixth player was running a ridiculous number of equip cards together with the usual white support stuff and a blue splash for a bit of countermagic.

The tide of the game swung back and forth. The B/U deck seemed to be doing well in the early game until the Zombie player dropped a Call to the Grave which nobody who was able to felt like destroying. The equipment deck eventually hit it with Altar's Light on the end step before the start of his turn, then dropped an Auriok Steelshaper. The Steelshaper picked up a Bonesplitter, a Fireshrieker, and a Specter's Shroud, then proceeded to attack the five color player for half his life and a card. On his own turn he dropped a Bringer of the Black Dawn. The splice player then revealed his deck's true intentions by milling 16 cards from the equipment player's deck and bouncing the Steelshaper. It came back down again to attack me the following turn and I dropped a Reactor on my turn, figuring it was about time to win. Heartbeat of Spring and Door to Nothingness from the five color player was followed by an entwined Promise of Power from the B/U player which was Mana Leaked by the W/u player. Buried Alive put an Anger in the zombie player's graveyard and he dropped Aether Vial. I went for Flamebreak followed by Dismantle, then played a Coretapper which would have won me the game had the five color player not Cunning Wished for Recoil to wreck me. The game finally ended when the Zombie player played Balthor the Defiled and activated him. He sacced the Anger to Nantuko Husk and then headed for the B/U player, taking him down to 2 life. The five color player played Wrath of God. Unwilling to lose all his zombies, the zombie player vialled out Shepherd of Rot and killed everyone for a six way draw.

Good game, I typed enthusiastically.

"No it wasn't!" the cat muttered contemptuously, "all the interaction in the entire game was rendered irrelevant by Balthor followed by Shepherd."

I wasn't sure I completely agreed with this. After all, the Reweave on the Door to Nothingness made a difference because otherwise the five color player could have knocked the zombie player out of the game with the Aether Vial activation on the stack. I was about to raise this possibility with the cat when I noticed it was sharpening its claws on my shiny new five-point-surround subwoofer. I picked up the nearest object at hand and threw it at the cat. This turned out to be a remarkably poor plan since it was my dice tin, which came open in the air and showered half the room with regular polyhedra.

The cat sprinted from the room with its ears angled back like a jet fighter. I sighed and set about picking up dice while I waited for my next game to start.

Game 4 - Singleton 2 vs 2 Extended

As it happens, by opponent was playing Goblins, but it really might as well have been anything. The other opponent had constructed a classic mono-U deck consisting of one each of all the vaguely playable card drawing and countermagic online. He countered my Explosive Vegetation. He countered my partner's Mind's Eye. He countered my Tephraderm. He countered my partner's Memnarch. That was enough for the Goblins to kill me, after which it was only a matter of time before my partner died too.

His deck wasn't overpowered per se. He was even running Vex!

Still, I wasn't arguing with the cat on this one. And not only because it was still out of the room.

Game 5 - Prismatic Two Headed Giant

This game was classic Prismatic. Early mana acceleration gave way to midgame card advantage wars. Then both sides shot up to absurd life totals. The game ended when my partner resolved a Myojin of Night's Reach, netting a 12-for-1 card advantage.

Anticipating the cat's reaction, I kicked off a private chat with one of our opponents afterwards to discuss the game. "I'm writing an article," I explain, trying to sound important, "and I wanted to ask what you thought of the game. Is Myojin broken?" There is a long pause and I wondered if he was going to answer. "nah," came the eventual response, all in lower case, "not broken just really dumb. a lot of the time it just gets countered." I don't bother to respond that I've never seen one countered, because I suppose he should be right. In theory.

Somewhat sheepishly, the cat crept back into the room and perched next to the angle poise to get a good view of the screen. I noticed with amusement that my girlfriend had stuck a post-it note to the cat's ample backside. It read "Are you coming down for lunch or not?" which was a fair point. I stopped for a break, though my mind was still on the issue of casual. I think this became fairly apparent when I poured milk into my grapefruit juice having forgotten it wasn't a coffee. I decided to take my sandwich back upstairs and get on with the challenge.

Game 6 - Three vs Three Extended

From a certain point of view three player teams should be a very interesting format, since there are enough decks on each team to pack all the necessary answers. In practice, one of my partners played Howling Mine on turn two, Underworld Dreams on turn three and Teferi's Puzzle Box on turn four to produce what ought to have been an easily answerable threat. The one oppponent playing Green managed to Naturalize both the Dreams and the Box on the same turn... which played straight into my Second Sunrise.

"There," I pointed to the screen, "that game was decided by a clear playing error!"

"Not really," the cat shook its head, "it was correct to wait until the last possible moment before playing the Naturalizes in case a more serious threat appeared. You held one of the few cards in the entire Extended cardpool that would wreck him if he did so."

This made me think. The diversity of its cardpool is Magic's greatest strength. The moments in the game where a narrow or underpowered card swings the outcome of a game ought to be fun. And yet losing to something "unlucky" always feels bad.

Dante and Virgil encounter Ravager n00bs
on their journey through hell.
-etching by Gustav Dore
Game 7 - Two Headed Giant Classic

One of my opponents is playing Vial Affinity. My partner concedes on turn four. Great.

Game 8 - Emperor Extended

Emperor is a three vs three format in which the middle player of each team cannot attack. Spells have a "range" of two players, which basically just means that Emperors cannot attack each other and as a flanking player you cannot attack the flank which is not opposite you.

In this game it turned out that whilst my team was composed of three random players, the opposing team all knew each other... and had built their decks to fit together nicely. One 16-spell storm into Tendrils of Agony later and the game was over.

The cat was most amused.

Game 9 - Five Player Multiplayer, Attack to the Left

This time it was me that annoyed the whole table. This was ironic, since I was playing arguably my weakest online deck. It's a horrible W/G/U pile of jank designed to have fun with all kinds of silly rares I drafted during Mirrodin block. Trouble is, it happened to have a Platinum Angel in it. Nothing unfair about that, you might think. There are innumerable ways to deal with a Platinum Angel. Surely somewhere in four decks there must be some artifact removal or creature kill? The Enchantress deck didn't have any, though it Caged the Angel quite effectively. The Samurai deck didn't have any, so long as I didn't attack with it. The rat deck had rather unwisely chosen Terror for its removal. The fourth deck had been subjected to an early Haunting Echoes by the Rat deck and no longer contained any removal at all.

I won that one, but only after repeatedly not losing it.

Game 10 - "Rainbow Stairwell" Singleton Two vs Two

Last game. Now you have to understand that I've been playing strategy games for almost quarter of a century and I've come to value fair play and good sportsmanship. I would never cheat or bend the rules in any game. At least, I'd never bend the rules unless I was playing against my lowdown scumbag of a cat which has no concept of honor and lives only to make me look foolish and to smugly taunt all of humankind. So I chose the format of the last game "at random". Allegedly.

Rainbow Stairwell is a format designed to some extent to make sure opposing decks are well suited to facing each other. Each player must run four of each basic land plus four non-basics. In each color, each player must have a one mana card, a two mana card and so on up to six. The last six cards are artifacts costing one to six. Gold cards are banned.

The pace of the format is less gentle than you might expect, since with six being the top of the mana curve it doesn't pay to sit around for too long. Unfortunately my opponent's two-drop artifact was an Arcbound Slith. My cat was watching closely and I had a terrible feeling this would be the end for me. My deck was full of answers. Surely I could draw one? I played blockers, but my opponents burned and Rended them. Finally, with the Slith on 4/4, my partner managed to Electrostatic Bolt it.

The game proceeded well and ended up as a damage race between my Silent Specter and a Treespring Lorian facing my partner. Chump blockers and combat tricks from my partner kept us in the game until the enemy topdecked Loxodon Warhammer. We won by a single turn thanks to my partner's Kami of False Hope.

The cat thought for a moment, then admitted defeat.

It was only after it had jumped down off the table and left the room that I noticed my opponent complaining about the format. "It's too luck based," he explained, "you just cannot build a deck with any consistency. If your opponent plays anything broken you have to have the answer in hand or you lose. It's like playing Limited."

That gave me pause for thought. I like Limited. Then I understood my cat's point. Constructed formats are quite naturally about deckbuilding. Skilled play matters a lot, but a competitive Constructed player is happiest when their deck wins without needing to be played well. However, nobody enjoys losing a game before it even begins. Which presents problems for a casual Constructed format.

Then it suddenly struck me what the answer was. When playing casual, you still have to play to win or the game doesn't work. Deckbuilding is another matter. There's no need to try to build a winning deck. Building bad decks is not intrinsically fun, but that's not the only other option... You're building to entertain.

By this time it was late at night, but I got up early the following morning to pursue my new goal: to build the perfect casual deck. I started by sketching out some rules. I drew one from each of the games I had played the previous day, in order:

1) Must not destroy lands.
2) Must not prevent opponents from playing the game (no prison decks).
3) Must win gradually, not via a single devastating move.
4) Must not run counters of any kind.
5) Must not run discard.
6) Must not force the opponent to have specific answers.
7) Must not be overpowered (powerful cards are fine, as long as the deck as a whole is reasonable).
8) Must interact well with a variety of possible decks my partners might run.
9) Must run enough answers itself that no class of threat is an instant game loss.
10) Must be reasonably consistent.

In the early days of Magic, decklists could only be made
in a laboratory. Now, you can create one in your bedroom!
A tall order indeed... was it possible?

I began to rummage through old decklists and both my online and paper card collections looking for ideas. I quickly decided I wanted to run Green for mana acceleration and fixing and Blue for card drawing. I liked the idea of using Fertile Ground and Deep Analysis to solve my partner's card and mana troubles as well as my own. I added Gifts Ungiven and Fact or Fiction to give my opponents some interesting choices. Ensnaring Bridge seemed like a more creative way to deal with creatures than mass removal.

Slowly the landscape of my room changed. I cleared up (well, OK, shoved to one side) all the old coke bottles and pizza boxes. I dumped all the piles of clothes out of the door to be washed. Some of them were probably clean, but being a guy I'm fairly indifferent to smells that could knock a girl out at twenty paces, so I decided to play it safe. With my arms full of clothes I couldn't quite see where I was going, so it was a completely innocent mistake that I dumped them all over the cat. It ran in a blind panic into my room, then slowed to a cautious stop when it realised it was running on Magic cards.

My cat, being a dedicated constructed player, was truly horrified by my embryonic decklist.

"This," it declared solemnly, "might just be the worst deck I've seen in my life. What were you thinking?!"

So I was forced to explain the idea of the perfect casual decklist to my cat. Much to my surprize, instead of ridiculing me it decided it would be more fun to try to outdo me at my own game. We soon ran out of floorspace again, so I shunted the pizza boxes and coke bottles outside the door too. We then laid out all the candidate cards by function and mana cost. The cat offered its expert opinion as I marked down the changes.

Uba Mask: In - Helps to disrupt excessive card drawing.
Scrabbling Claws: In - Disrupts graveyard abuse.
Blatant Thievery: Out - Annoys some players.
Mana Short: Out - Reduces interaction.
Proteus Staff: In - The deck runs Islands and generates tokens but has no creature spells.

We tried a bit of playtesting, but soon realise that it's pointless. The deck seems weak, but we knew that. The question is whether it's fun to play and the other players in the game have fun too.

Quickly, we rebuilt the deck online.

It didn't seem to be annoying anyone, though it took three tries to win a game. Towards the end of the third game, it became apparent that we'd managed to really annoy someone. Some days, no matter how hard you try to build the perfect deck, you... forget about the mess outside the door.

The cat and I looked contrite as my girlfriend listed a few of my shortcomings. She glanced around the floor, picked up the decklist and raised her eyebrows. "And what's this rubbish?"

So I had to explain all over again.

"Before you play any more matches," she warned sternly, "you'd better clean up all that mess."

I continued to look contrite, but she had to reach out and redirect my attention manually when she noticed I was looking contritely at her midriff and suspected my mind wasn't really on tidying.

"Also," she remarked over her shoulder as she stepped back over the pile of mess, "you want to be running Zur's Weirding."

See? Everything ended up in the
washing machine. Who says I'm
no good at tidying?
The cat was very happy with the whole tidying up plan, since it played no part in it.

Finally, we got back to testing the deck. It was quite fun to play, but the real test was whether our opponents were having a good time. So we decided to ask them. I had some doubts as to whether the responses would be helpful. The results were something I never would have predicted.

Without exception, every player we talked to responded in essentially the same way: either by suggesting changes to the deck or by talking about a similar deck they had built or seen.

"You want Trinket Mage" (No we don't, it's a creature...)

"Hunting Pack would make a great finisher" (We're already running it, you just died before we drew it...)

"You need some lifegain to back up that Weirding" (No, because the idea is not to abuse it...)

"Lethal Vapors would be tech in that deck" (With our zero black mana sources? Neat idea...)

"Seedborn Muse would be great in that deck" (Nope, still don't want creatures...)

"My version has Phage the Untouchable!" (OK, I made that one up...)

Then suddenly my attention was pulled away from Magic by the sound of my alarm clock. Oh nooo! Had I really stayed awake all night? Would I have to go to work on no sleep?

Fortunately not. My cat's fat butt had nudged the clock and set it off. Still, it was 3am. Probably time to call it a night. I crawled into bed and put the light out. Lying there thinking, I realised we had hit on the secret of casual after all. It wasn't the specific decklist, it was the mental attitude with which we approached the game. I'd just spent almost a whole day with the cat without arguing with it. We had fun. That was seriously unprecedented.

Just as I was almost asleep, my cat whispered to me in the dark, "Chimney Imp would be mad beats in that deck!"


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