I'm a big fan of the Commander podcast, "The Command Zone." Jimmy Wong and Josh Lee Kwai do a great job entertaining and informing listeners on all Commander-related topics. They look at deck types, play styles, and cards from a Commander perspective. Add in excellent sound quality and polished editing and you have a great weekly podcast.
At the end of episode 125, "Talrand, Sky Summoner," Josh asked a series of questions. "How do you guys feel about counterspell.dec? Do you like playing against it? Is there any creative, fun way someone has used it that changed your mind?"
When you hear the entire podcast, it is clear that this question isn't really asking about counterspell.dec, but about the strategy that encourages that style of deck and how listeners felt about that strategy. The podcast discussed a friend's Talrand, Sky Summoner deck. The deck was initially created as a counterspell deck that existed not so much to win, but to be one deck in a two-headed giant pair. His deck would stop the opponents from making their essential plays while his partner's deck would go about the business of winning the game. The deck became a go-to deck when he felt someone needed to stop winning or was focusing unfairly on him.
Given that I chose to write an article, you won't be surprised to find that my gut response was, "I hate those @#$@ "Talrand-style" decks! I hate playing against them, and no, no one has found a fun, creative way to play it that changed my mind."
However, this really didn't seem fair. We've all had nights when an opponent seemed to be always choosing us when there were plenty of other, better options to choose. Maybe decks like this aren't fun to play against, but maybe it would be a good idea to have something like it in our arsenal of decks. I thought I'd look at...
Josh described one instance when his friend Craig brought out the Talrand deck. He had either won the last three games or targeted Craig early in those three games. Upon seeing the Talrand deck, he knew immediately what was about to happen and laughed it off, saying that he deserved it.
This is the kind of temperament you want from all the players in your group. Everyone should understand that these are just games and that everyone is friends and can handle some good-natured ribbing or a little tormenting. These Talrand-style decks (I'll just call them Talrand decks from here on) are practically your group's way of announcing their intervention — "Josh, you have a problem and you need to recognize it." If you are going to run a Talrand deck, you want to be sure that your group has that kind of temperament.
At one point, my group did not.
There was a player in the group who took every slight personally. He did not respond well to players looking for retribution by targeting him endlessly. He would whine loud and long during the game and continue the complaining once he was eliminated. He did not see why he was being targeted and continually being targeted did nothing to change his attitude or play style, since he couldn't understand that he had done something wrong. Temperament means everything.
And it doesn't mean just your opponents, either. Why are you bringing out the Talrand deck? If you are targeting an opponent for the wrongs they have done to you, be sure that they have actually done those things and it is appropriate to respond in this way. Did you make some outlandish demand and are now planning to punish the player who didn't abide? Have you been vulnerable to early attacks in the previous games and now you feel it is appropriate to respond to your deck's failing by an all-out attack on one player?
Another friend had a standing promise that if you attacked him, he would go to his Talrand deck — in his case a burn deck that could take out one opponent but no more — for the next game. This outlandish response to standard game play makes a Talrand deck problematic in your group.
While there are a variety of ways and reasons for multiplayer games to stop being fun, one reason comes about when the players have different goals.
In some situations, a variety of goals is fine. I played against one player who just wanted to get a particular creature up to a 100/100. He didn't care if he won, and even made a point to not attack or block with his growing creature. He just wanted to get that 100/100 creature that game. This is mostly harmless. Some players set up in game goals for their deck and are more focused on getting that to happen than winning the game. While I'd prefer that player to be trying to win the game, they are still part of the interactive experience of multiplayer Magic. You and your opponents still have to try to win while working around whatever it is each other is trying to do. There are still multiple other opponents who are trying to stop you.
In other situations, this can be a real problem. When a player's goal for the game is not to win, but to prevent another player from winning, it creates an imbalanced game. In the standard four-player game, if Craig is playing only to stop Josh from winning, then Josh needs to overcome that, then try and defeat the remaining opponents, while his remaining opponents only have to defeat the other player and whoever survives the Craig versus Josh game.
This turns multiplayer games, where rather than needing to consider the board state of three opponents playing to win, you have to consider them while also playing a one-on-one game with the person playing not to win, but to stop you from winning. Even if you can win that sub-game, you'll still come out and have to face two opponents who have been building resources and waiting for you. And in my experience, this is what will happen.
Those games I talked about playing with the player who took every attack personally? The two players who weren't involved pretty much agreed to not insert themselves into that battle and waste resources. Since both players were going to use every resource they had just to get through that battle, so why help one side or the other? We also rarely attacked each other, preferring to simply sit back and build mana bases and board states in preparation for the coming three-player game with the winner of that battle. That strategy practically guaranteed that one of the two not fighting from the start was going to win.
These games just aren't fun for the players involved. They wanted to play multiplayer games, not some weird handicap game. For many players, these games are some of the only games of Magic they'll get to play that week/month. Losing games to someone who feels the need to enact a vendetta is losing one of the few games of Magic they get to play. My group only plays once a week; I'd hate to spend 45 minutes doing something other than playing a great interactive game of Magic.
At one point, I noticed I was using a "Talrand deck" in my games. I'd be unhappy with a result in the previous game(s) so I'd go to a particular deck to torment a particular opponent. Once I noticed I was doing it, I switched to choosing decks at random for each game, ensuring that I wasn't teeing off on a friend.
So after looking at things a little more carefully, my answers to Josh's questions really haven't changed. No, I don't like playing against decks that can't win games. Decks that exist just to stop another player from winning are often used in childish and vindictive ways.
The joy of the Talrand deck depends upon your group. When you have a group of close friends who can laugh off a focused attack, who aren't prone to reacting badly to that sort of attack, then the Talrand deck is a valuable tool. When your group doesn't offer that option, you are left with alternative tactics. You can let it roll off. If you are suffering from unfair targeting, how far does it go? Is it really worth any response? And if the targeting goes beyond what's fair, trying using the ultimate weapon: talking.
So often it is simply a matter of talking about it, and a resolution quickly presents itself. Perhaps one of your friends doesn't understand your threat assessment and it appears as though you are targeting her unfairly. A quick discussion about why you see things that way can resolve the problem and give both of you insight into how the other views the strategies of the game. Sometimes it is simply as easy as, "what the hell? Again?" to make someone realize they have repeatedly targeted you all game. Other times it takes more than that, but talking about it brings awareness and offers possible solutions.
Talk and find out what can be done. Players want to have good games. Don't throw them away if you don't need to.