Sometimes you just need to round up your friends and play some Magic. I put out the call to my local friends and a few nearby folks for a Magic weekend, I started to call "BruCon." On the last weekend in April, players arrived by plane, train and automobile for a weekend of Commander, Conspiracy, and Cube. Just over a dozen players from around the Northeast converged on my home and played Magic all weekend!
Queen Marchesa managed to win a five-hour, six-player Commander game! A nine-person Conspiracy draft resulted in a trio of three-player games that involved three players wearing crowns all at once. No Leovold, Emissary of Trest were opened, but Protean Hulk, and more copies of said Protean Hulk than I can remember, appeared in several Commander games over the weekend. By the end of the weekend, I'd managed to play almost all eight of my Commander decks, and Cubed twice – I played more Magic that weekend than I had the entire month before!
On Saturday night, after the last game wrapped up around 1:00 AM, the remaining players settled in the living room, no one interested in playing more Magic that night. Instead we did what most Commander players have been doing for the last few weeks: we talked about the Banned List and the Social Contract.
So many conversations relating to these topics tend to be colored by the fact that everyone talking is in the same group. It is easy to forget that there are groups out there that say no to any kind of combo and countermagic, while other groups encourage everything including the fastest combo kills available, and everything in between. This leads to stunted conversations where everyone agrees the Banned List is too big/small, or that the Social Contract is essential/pointless.
That night I had four players who play together and each have at least one other group they play with. These are players who have seen beyond one group and would have a more well-rounded opinion than any one person.
Carlos has been writing for GatheringMagic for years, and before that was a regular guest on one of the first Commander podcasts, Commandercast. His decks tend to be large puzzles that eventually fit together for complex wins that players like myself rarely see coming.
Omar is a New York area player who has been playing Commander with a variety of groups for a long time. Omar built decks to win games, then shifted his style when he decided he enjoyed the game interactions and the players themselves even more than winning. However, having played with and against his decks this weekend, I can say his decks are still powerful and Omar makes as solid a board assessment as any Commander player I've met.
I first met Preston a couple of years ago at Gencon and we spent almost half a day looking for misprinted cards for his Boros misprint deck. This apparently casual attitude towards the game doesn't carry forward to all his decks, but Preston does enjoy meeting the players as much as playing the game.
Andrew and I first met four years ago and have become good friends. His decks are regularly tuned and quite often loaded with beautiful alters. He loves every aspect of the Commander society from players, theme decks, strategy, and art, to a perfectly set up combo. He has at least three different groups he plays with, giving him insight into all sorts of groups and players.
While the discussion was mostly free flowing, I did take a few points from them and I thought I'd share.
Adding to the difficulties are the Commander side events at bigger events. These side events invariably involve some prize that encourages players to push the edge. These events have pushed Commander closer to being a competitive format where the Social Contract has little effect. If the Social Contract is weaker, the Banned List becomes the list of cards people can't play, and everything else is completely acceptable.
This is a nightmare for a broken format like Commander. Everyone knows there are cards that can break the format, and the players are expected to tread carefully in these areas, with the understanding that you want games that everyone playing will enjoy.
While I've listed this as one topic, it is really more like two. Carlos discussed the lack of clarity revolving around how a card gets on the banned list. The primary concern revolved around how some cards were banned based on a worst case scenario involving the card, while other cards seem banned based on how they are used on average. A consistent, step-by-step process is something Carlos wanted to see.
Predictability was something that was important to most of the players. The players liked the idea of being able to walk troublesome cards through a step-by-step test to see the likelihood of the Rules Committee banning the card. Instead of wondering whether the Committee members have had enough of Deadeye Navigator, someone could walk the card through the test and say, "yes, this fits the criteria," or "no, this doesn't." Admittedly, even with a step-by-step process there will be several cards that get through the test or don't, based on a player's personal experience, but it had to be better than what is there now.
Omar had an issue with the Banned List itself. Omar sees the Social Contract as a way to "soft-ban" a card. If you or your group doesn't have fun when a particular card hits the battlefield, the Social Contract discourages you from playing that card. If everyone is supposed to be having fun, as the Social Contract says, then if a card is preventing that from happening, stop using that card or at least try to shift the way you are using the card to something your group finds more acceptable. The Banned List provides a list of cards that you can't play, which carries an implicit okay to the cards not on the list. This flies in the face of the Social Contract.
Rather than see the Social Contract and the Banned List at odds, Andrew viewed the Social Contract as the gray area between the Banned List and regular play. The Social Contract provides an understanding of what cards, in certain circumstances, aren't fun. Andrew looked at cards on the Banned List as cards that warp games they are in and simply aren't fun most of the times they are played. Preston likened this to something of a watch list. A card in the gray area could be something like Protean Hulk. Protean Hulk can be used as a way to find an answer to a problem on the board, a way to find awesome big creatures, or a way to find the pieces to a combo that shuts a game down. As long as Protean Hulk isn't used as a way to find a combo to end games again and again, it can fit into the gray area. And because it can be used in a way that isn't necessarily fun, it should sit in the gray area.
Preston ran Protean Hulk during our weekend games. He warned us ahead of time that he was going to run it, with the idea that he would be using it "just for value." It proved to be a powerful card over the weekend. I'd say it warped one of the games where it appeared, but mostly because it was copied and bounced so many times it became a feature of the game. I suspect had it not just been unbanned, it wouldn't have been as noticeable as it was.
While I like the idea of the Social Contract as a gray area or watch list, I don't want the Social Contract to be seen as an arbitrarily large list of cards that you should be careful about using. The Social Contract can mean different things to different groups. Some groups are okay with a Protean Hulk being used as a way to combo out the game, so it wouldn't even be in the gray area. Quite often, whole deck styles are subject to the limits of a group's Social Contract.
There was a discussion about whether the Banned List was even relevant to the average kitchen table group. While most of these groups follow the Banned List, their list of "banned" cards is likely much larger, due to the Social Contract. Many of us discovered that we haven't run or even seen Deadeye Navigator in a deck in years. The card is either seen as oppressive by a group or everyone has used it to the point that they don't see it as a new thing.
I ran Deadeye Navigator in plenty of decks and the card is simply crazy. There are so many creatures with "enter the battlefield" abilities it seemed that it belonged in every blue deck. At some point though, the card was just predictable and not any fun to run. My opponents were sick of seeing it and I didn't enjoy it either. My group essentially banned it without waiting for the Rules Committee.
Leovold took a different track with my group, but ended up the same way. By the time anyone in the group was even considering using Leovold as a commander, we all knew what sort of a deck it would likely mean, and knew we weren't interested in that kind of game. I was lucky enough to preview the card for Wizards of the Coast, and even I recognized that I wasn't going to buy the card to torture my friends with it.
Most groups come to these conclusions without a specific discussion. The group simply starts to see particularly powerful cards as offering nothing to their enjoyment, and the card fades from use. Is there really a need for the Banned List for groups like this?
In the end, the difficulty with the Social Contract and the Banned List seems to lie with the fact that they are different things for different people. Any attempt to make one group happy is going to leave another wanting something more. This may also be the only thing that keeps Commander running, as it offers something for most of the players playing it. I want to thank Carlos, Omar, Preston, and Andrew for their insights and offering perspectives I hadn't considered. Getting a chance to play so much Magic over the weekend was great; getting to do it with great friends was even better!