Prison Rules, EDH, and having a good time (ooh err)

09 Jan

There’s been a bit of discussion lately in our playgroup, and in the wider community about how Commander “should” be played, and whether certain lines of play are appropriate to the format. In particular, whether it’s socially acceptable to take another player out early, or to focus on one player to the exclusion of the other players in the game. This came up partly, but I should point out not only, because of the game I reported on last week, in which one player was taken out very early (turn 6 or so) but the rest of the game took around an hour. In our group we call this “Prison Rules” for reasons which I hope are reasonably clear to the audience…

The question is, is this an OK way to play? I’ve since been told that my Omnath deck isn’t fun to play against, purely because it focuses on one player until they die, then moves on to the next, instead of spreading the damage around, like most of my other decks do. I can understand that; if you’re the first one to be chosen* then you definitely run the risk of sitting on the sidelines for a long time watching the others, and of course that’s not fun.

(*for whatever reason – I’d like to point out that I usually attack the strongest player, while in last week’s game the Omnath player, who wasn’t me, chose the weakest player simply because Omnath killed him off immediately. At that point the other two remaining players tried – unsuccessfully, in the end – to take Omnath down.)

Thinking some more about the way Omnath plays led me to the conclusion that all General Damage based decks must play that way; if I hit all 3 players at the table with my General, and they’re all another hit away from dying to it, of course they’re all going to come after me! In that case, it simply makes sense to take out as many players as quickly as you can, in order to give them the least chance to retaliate. This is how I built Omnath – when it’s running good it kills one player per turn until the game ends (this is almost how it worked last week – it killed all three players in a single hit, and the last two in consecutive turns, but there was a big gap between the first kill and the second).

EDH is, first and foremost, a casual format. “Graveborn Muse” over on, opined that casual means:

Casual Magic means you care about how much fun your opponents are having.

Now that is a definition I agree with 100%, and the comment that my Omnath deck isn’t fun to play against has got me thinking that maybe I need to take it apart and rebuild something else – although personally I did have fun playing against it, as I desperately tried (and almost succeeded) to stop a 400+ power monster from running me over.

So the question for the day (500 words in!) is this:

Does focussing on one player mean that you are not playing socially?

Like virtually everything in life, I would say “it depends”. There are times where it’s obviously the correct thing to be doing; you have a board full of dragons, and That Guy Over There has a Pernicious Deed in play, with 5 mana currently available. You’re going to lose your team unless you take him out (or down) before he untaps; I believe you should attack him while the attacking’s good (and then make a deal with him to not blow the Deed while you attack other people, a point on which I’ve already discovered I differ from the most of the rest of my group; they’d rather force the Deed and rebuild on their own turn).

However, if you’re attacking the same guy again and again simply because he’s open, while it may be the smart thing to do from a winning-the-game perspective, it is almost certainly affecting his enjoyment of the game, and maybe you should hold off and let them play for a while. Yes, that drags the games out. But (and I’m sure I’ve said this before) aren’t we here to play the game? The best play in a sanctioned Magic tournament is not always the right play in an EDH game. (Notice the difference between “best” and “right” here). Having said that, if two players in the game are enjoying beating on each other as hard as they can (say for example, Terastodonning 12 lands from the same player…..) then go for it!

Now I’m not saying “don’t take out the threat” or “well, maybe I’ll just sit back and watch everyone else play then” either – you have to be enjoying yourself as much as the others around the table – but what I am saying is that we’re playing a non-sanctioned format, around a kitchen table (or equivalent), for fun and kicks.

Is there a place for so-called tight play in EDH? Yeah, I think so – but only if the rest of the table agrees. In the future I’ll be taking a look around the table and seeing who I’m playing against (both players and decks), and then select a deck accordingly – if I’m up against Kiku, Sisay, and Progenitus, then I’ll bust out a “good” deck. If I’m playing against Cat-Lady Sisay, 5-colour Angels, and Hazezon Tamar, then maybe I’ll shoot for Mayael, or Garza Zol, or Tolsimir, decks which are entirely capable of taking out a game, but in a much less focussed way.

At the end of the day (and, thank goodness, approaching the end of this article!) EDH is about having fun. Nobody should be stressing about should I be making this play or that play – we’re here to have fun (I hope!) and if you’re spending too much time worrying about the meta-meta-game (which is what this has been all about!) you’re probably thinking too hard 😀 EDH is (in theory) about haymakers and crazy plays, and focussing on one player, or more precisely the type of play that leads to focussing on one player, almost inevitably leads to the opposite kind of game. Think Big! Do Dumb Things! Enjoy Yourself!


Posted by on January 9, 2012 in EDH/Commander


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14 responses to “Prison Rules, EDH, and having a good time (ooh err)

  1. Inzen

    January 9, 2012 at 2:37 pm

    What my local playgroup do in this situation is to create a house rules of sorts. Basically, if you’re attacking or doing direct burn damage, you roll a dice. A d10 usually, and assign numbers (4 players) 1-3,4-6,7-9 and 0 for reroll/player chooses but we opt for reroll or you can assign odd/even if you’re playing 3 players.

    That way, it will take the ‘bully’ or the unsocial factor out of it. Since the victim is a bit random, there’s less animosity and all can enjoy the game a bit more.

    Naturally, non-damage spells are fair game.

  2. Viperion

    January 9, 2012 at 2:42 pm

    “a bit random” is overstating things somewhat! That makes (targeted) burn spells near useless, IMO – have you noticed less Lightning Bolts and more Pyroclasms since you brought this rule in?

    What happens with Ruhan in this situation? What about Grip of Chaos?

    Although it’s a nice thought, this change would make the weakest colour in EDH even weaker, and takes out a nice tactical part of the game, for me. If it works for your group, by all means keep using it, but I’d be surprised if it hasn’t altered the way people make decks in your area.

    • Inzen

      January 9, 2012 at 3:22 pm

      Lol. To be honest, maybe our playgroup there’s not many red player, but the burn thing was modified later. The original house rule is only to avoid some gang up when it comes to attacking, so we actually stressed to rolling is only for the attack phase.

      But the group enjoyed the random factor and decide to keep it on, so to speak. So it’s just later that the group decides to burn by also using the dice. (basically just to make sure that there are no ‘hard feelings’, playing true to the social aspect of edh)

      There’s only 6 of us who plays casual edh here, the rest are competitive type 2. And the more ‘vicious and imba edh decks/players are excluded’. Why play against imba decks when you don’t enjoy playing..

      Of course, this is a casual group I’m talking about. Strategically, it’s less sound, but it’s the social aspect that we’re focus.

      • Inzen

        January 9, 2012 at 3:40 pm

        To clarify, the random burn is only against players. When targetting creatures, no randomness involved. 🙂

  3. Graveborn Muse

    January 9, 2012 at 3:03 pm

    Very nice article addressing a very thorny question! I tend to think that going after one person MAY be the best play IN THE SHORT TERM with aggro decks, I would rather spread the love around even though it’s strategically suboptimal, but that depends (as you say) on a range of in-game factors.

    • Viperion

      January 9, 2012 at 3:10 pm

      Thanks for the praise! I’ve been pointed to a number of your articles in recent days and I think we have a pretty similar outlook on the Spirit of EDH, if I may trot out an overused phrase 🙂

      As you say it depends on a range of factors, but generally I won’t actually take an opponent (also known as “a potential ally”) out of the game early, but I will usually take any opportunity to remove opposition late. I guess from a Ferret/Alonghi standpoint, I’m an early Ferret (keeping people in the game keeps my profile down) and a late Alonghi (you die now!)

  4. murkymercy

    January 9, 2012 at 4:25 pm

    I think some of the newer players in our group have a bit of a different view of things in that if a player is open for attack they will have no problem with piling in there and axing them in the face. I don’t think its a disregard for other players enjoyment as much as an “I win when everyone is dead” view. That is fair, just means that people will have to take that into consideration and have more early defence. Or we all power down the decks we lend out so that its less likely something like that happens. Such as Jac took out the Catastrophe from Akroma as it gets lent out quite a bit and newer players go “ooooh I could destroy all lands that seems like a winning play” and I feel like having to convince a player to not do an option they have isn’t a good way for them to get better, they should do the option they want and see how it turns out.

    • Viperion

      January 9, 2012 at 4:32 pm

      Totally agree with you there, and a good point I hadn’t considered. I don’t think powering down the decks would work for me personally (I’d probably avoid the deck myself, knowing that it wasn’t as good as it used to be), but considering what decks to lend out.

      As far as trying to talk them out of plays they have that might not be optimal/good/nice, in last week’s example it turned out to be the right play as it did play a fairly large part in her winning the game, therefore reinforcing rather than punishing the behaviour.

      Note to self: Be careful what weapons you place in the arms of babes (by which I mean babies, not red-hot smoking… you get the idea. Ahem.)

  5. murkymercy

    January 9, 2012 at 4:30 pm

    To be clear, I have no problem with prison EDH IF everyone else enjoys it too.

    • Viperion

      January 9, 2012 at 5:32 pm

      Agree with you there as well. I wouldn’t personally enjoy it as a default (although sometimes it’s good) but as long as everyone’s on the same page, fun can and will be had by all

  6. Thaumaturge

    January 10, 2012 at 4:40 am

    I tend to disagree with your statement about General Damage decks needing to focus on one player.

    As you know, I play Rafiq and Thrax a lot and both decks have General Damage as their primary win condition, and while Rafiq did require a little bit of fine-tuning to get it from being a 1v1-only deck to an okay-in-multiplayer deck, it still does it’s thing quite nicely while spreading the love around. I find it is best to try to get all of my opponents into a “one swing away from death” state as quickly as possible. Yes, this means I’m going to be the biggest target at the table, but it also means all of my opponents have to be very, VERY careful because if they go all-in to take me out, they leave themselves open as well.

    The same strategy works for Thrax just as well. I try to hit everyone at least once early on, so that everyone is forced to play a little more defensively. That way, there isn’t one player who thinks they can risk taking a hit or two from you to go all-in to take you down.

    When you focus on one player early and take that play out quickly, you still achieve the same result of making yourself the #1 threat, but you’ve also done so while leaving your other two (or more) opponents at full strength – meaning they have much more freedom to gang up on you aggressively. Whereas, if you spent the early turns weakening everyone equally, when you do finally take out one opponent, the others will have to be much more careful and defensive in their approach to dealing with you.

    From a politics standpoint, this actually works great if you have, in the past, been notorious for being a take-one-guy-out-early player and gotten flack for it. Once your group notices you’ve switched gears to spreading the love around a bit, that should earn you a little bit of goodwill for not being the guy to ruin one players fun. That political goodwill converts to strategic advantage, though, because the players will at the very least have less personal and emotional reasons to go for your throat.

    • Viperion

      January 10, 2012 at 7:43 am

      It’s interesting you should say that; I made that claim because if you’ve been sharing the General Damage love around, you’ve done less than 21 points of damage to each player (assuming of course that it’s only your General that’s been doing the damaging) so even if one player does decide to take you out, they can do so without too much danger to themselves as they’ll more than likely have around half their life total remaining, and even worse may have the blessing of the table to do so if they’re any good at politicking. (“Hey guys, I’ll take out Generalissimo over there on behalf of all of us if you don’t attack me this turn”)

      (That sentence was way too long. More coffee required!)

      The next time I play my Omnath deck I’ll try your approach and see how it works; however the last time I made a point of not killing someone when I could have, they attacked me on their next turn, as they didn’t want to feel like they “owed” me.

      Thanks as always for the comments!

      • Thaumaturge

        January 11, 2012 at 8:38 am

        Those are good points… I guess it is an important part of my strategy that I usually have some reason besides simply being nice in letting someone live – if they’re clearly open, and killing them is clearly the right move, it’s rather condescending to give someone a pass… but it all depends on the scenario. Letting someone live can either come across as a) toying with your food / win-more, or b) letting them live because it’s strategically/politically wise to do so.
        One of those scenarios will just piss them off further, but the other scenario is likely to buy you some goodwill from that player. As long as it doesn’t appear blatantly obvious that killing the player is the best possible play, you should be able to get away with it.
        Another caveat is that if you’re the “that guy” in your group, it may or may not matter what potential goodwill you might gain, anyone you let live might use that as an opportunity to screw you over even at considerable cost to their own chances of winning.
        So, there is definitely a lot going for the strategy of hammering one guy at a time, though I think above all else, it’s worth TRYING to make the damage-spreading strategy work for you, in the interest of fun and having a better time all around.

  7. Thaumaturge

    January 10, 2012 at 4:46 am

    Of course, if you play with a group that plays primarily with their hearts instead of their heads, you could still wind up shooting yourself in the foot, because those sorts of players will often go all-in to take you down even if they KNOW they’ll wind up dead at someone else’s hands. They’re not playing to WIN, they’re just playing to kill YOU.

    But I hate playing with people like that, so I tend to avoid those players.


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