The Social Contract: Build well, or Play well?

29 Apr

There’s a member of our playgroup who’s philosophy when it comes to EDH is (or was, and I haven’t heard him say otherwise) “If you’re going to do a thing, do it as best as you can. If you’re going to make a Green ramp deck, make it the best ramp deck. If you’re building Mono-Black control, make the best Mono-Black control you can.” On the surface, this sounds like a pretty typical Spikey statement, and normally one I’d be against, as far as the “Spirit of EDH” goes (whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean). However, this same guy recently (Edit: Well, it was recently when I started this article…) disassembled his Azusa deck so he could make Seshiro – the best Seshiro deck he could make.

Which led me to a thought – is it better to build top-grade decks, and play them according to the level of your opposition, or build sub-optimal (or janky, or techy, or themed, or fun, depending on your definition) and play them as well as the deck allows?

I put this question to the fine gentleman above and his answer was play as best the deck allows you to – he said he hates it when a player has the opportunity to take out the game but doesn’t. I understand that opinion but I think there’s also a danger there – if you build the best <type x> deck possible, and play it to the best of the deck’s capabilty, you better watch out what <type x> is. If your deck is “BUG Goodstuff”, chances are you’ll be winning a lot of games; but again is EDH really about winning games? The Seshiro deck above doesn’t win very often, but it’s a fun deck to play against, and it certainly looks like a fun deck to play – and in this writer’s opinion (how many tenses and viewpoints can I cram into one blog post anyway??) fun is the ultimate objective of a game of EDH.

What side of the question do I come down on? I’m firmly on the “play as well as you can” side – but my decks, generally speaking, are on the far side of the Jank River, down by Weak Theme Bend, and some of them would struggle to fight their way out of a wet paper bag πŸ™‚

I can, however, see the appeal to building a really good deck, and holding back on playing it, depending on board position, quality of players, quality of decks. It would be a pretty good ego boost, for one thing: I know I can take you out (even if you don’t), but I’m allowing you to live.

Most of the time though, I enjoy putting the off-beat, rarely seen cards into my decks, and simply seeing where they take me. So far I’m enjoying the ride, even if I’m not winning as many games as I “should”. However many that is.

Where do all y’all patient, faithful readers come? Do you build good decks? Not so good decks but play them well? Both? Neither?


Posted by on April 29, 2012 in EDH/Commander


Tags: ,

8 responses to “The Social Contract: Build well, or Play well?

  1. Kahmas

    April 30, 2012 at 4:42 am

    Personally I feel the best thing to do is build the deck the best it can be and play according to the table. The main reason for this is it isn’t any fun when you pull out a weaker deck an then spend the whole game doing nothing or getting picked on. I like to have options and make good plays while still letting the game be fun and if other people get oppressive have the option to fight back. A good example of this was when I had an Azusa and oracle of mul daya out with a strip mine in the yard and a demonic tutor in hand I didn’t want to win using a crucible lock so I didn’t use it than after a wrath and bajuka bog one of the other opponents started to blow up all my lands I finished the game with four lands in play after casting life from the loam twice but even though he was fine winning that way I was able to put up enough fight for the other player to win the game due to how the deck was built just because you play good cards you don’t have to play like a douche I feel that each card should make it in for it’s own marits and than play to have fun

    • Angus

      April 30, 2012 at 1:48 pm

      i think yes build the deck the best you can… with the qualification that you are building the ‘best’ EDH deck that you can… and then play it to the best of your abilities.

      The best EDH deck possible isn’t going to be all about winning. I think all the best EDH decks never leave you with nothing to do and are constantly presenting interesting plays to you.

      Then once you have built such a deck i think you play it to the best of your abilities remembering again you are playing EDH So feel free to steal someone’s general but waste or yosei locking someone is not a thing you want to set out to do.

      • Viperion

        April 30, 2012 at 9:56 pm

        That’s an interesting (and very relevant) definition of “best” – not best as in most efficient, but as in most interesting. I like it πŸ™‚

  2. Sam

    April 30, 2012 at 9:54 pm

    punctuation is good – i got breathless reading the first response

  3. Brad H.

    May 1, 2012 at 4:43 am

    My EDH philosophy has always been “Build like a Johnny, play like a Spike.” Honestly, the “optimal” EDH deck is out there. There are maybe 5 archetypes that are head and shoulders above everything else in the game, and those are fine if you are playing in a super-Spiky environment. But in an environment of mixed power, by bringing one of those decks you have one of two ways to go:

    1) Play your deck optimally. You combo out T4 while everyone else is still ramping and/or get your Stax engine going. Everyone hates you.
    2) Hold Back. Do not go for the jugular if you deem that it would diminish the “fun” of the current game. (This is mostly how I play my Mimeoplasm and Intet decks, which are the two decks I am currently playing that can “run with the big boys” if needed). If you are lucky, people will appreciate that you are trying to create a positive gaming environment. If you are UNLUCKY, people will resent you for dragging things out and/or patronizing them by not playing to the best of your ability.

    I prefer option 2, but my playgroup is also mostly a known quantity at this point– there’s no way to tell going into an unfamilar room what kind of attitude people are going to take to what has been called “playing bad on purpose.” Most of my other decks are theme-based– All-creature Animar, Sedris Zombie Tribal, Kemba LOLCats, etc.– so they produce interactions that people may not have seen a million times before (“Oh hey, you win again with Kiki-Mite. How exciting for you.”). But when I’m actually in the game, I play as hard as I can– in fact, because the decks are powered-down to fit theme, I mostly HAVE to play as hard as I can to keep up.

    TL;DR: Building decks that are “optimal” for the format in terms of win percentage is a good way to get bored with the format quickly IMO. If being a Spike is about “proving something”, as in MaRo’s famous assessment, then in my opinion it is far more interesting to prove that you are a good enough player to win with jank like Call to the Kindred or Exquisite Blood. What are you proving by winning on T3? That you can break the format? A brain-damaged monkey can do THAT.

  4. thaumaturge

    May 1, 2012 at 5:24 am

    Whether or not you should “pull your punches” is one debate… but if you favor the side of pulling punches, the next debate is when and where you do it. I think it’s very socially acceptable to reign in the power of your deck at the deckbuilding stage, but once you’re actually in a game, you need to play to win. Letting someone else win when they know you could have taken them out cheapens their victory, which for a lot of people can be WORSE that losing. I, and every single person I play with, would rather win or lose honestly than win because someone else punted intentionally.

    If you’re going to have Deadeye Navigator + Mystic Snake in your deck together, you better be willing to use them together, because if an opponent KNOWS you could have stopped their game-winning spell, but chose not to because you didn’t want to be a dick… well, why bother putting them in your deck to begin with?

    One exception is of course hidden knowledge. If you have a Swords to Plowshares in your hand, and nobody knows this fact, you have the option of not using it. Say you just won the last three games in a row and one of the other players that is getting noticeably frustrated and upset at his losing streak goes for the kill. If you feel like you’ve had your fun and don’t want to continue to spoil it for that guy and the rest of the group, you could graciously let the lethal attack resolve and then act like you were trying to bluff with that one White open. Just make sure not to EVER reveal that you punted that game, because that just wouldn’t be gentelmanly and might seriously spoil that player’s feeling of accomplishment.

    On the other hand, if you’re playing Ghave and have some kind of combo on the board, where everyone can clearly see that you can win the game on the spot, and you don’t take it, that’s worse than playing an infinite combo in the first place. If you have the win, TAKE IT. If the method of winning seems too douchey or dickish and you’d feel guilty taking the win in that manner, CHANGE YOUR DECK.

    The appropriate time and place to decide what you’re willing to do in-game, and what your playgroup might tolerate, is at the deckbuilding stage, and NOT in the middle of a game.

  5. thaumaturge

    May 1, 2012 at 5:46 am

    As to the “fun vs. winning” portion of the argument, I say the two aren’t mutually exclusive. At least not for me. I don’t need to win 99% of my games to have fun and I don’t feel the slightest need to “win at all costs” – I have the card pool to make 3 or 4 decks that would just absolutely DESTROY my group, but they’d be rather dickish and would take advantage of the fact that I have 10x more cards than the other players in my group. I used to play that way, but once I got over myself, I realized it was more fun for ME, not just my opponents, to play decks that they might be able to beat once in a while.

    I’m currently experimenting with building far more thematic EDH decks, rather than just playing mostly “good stuff”. At one point you could guarantee that every copy of Prime Time and Constipate Sphix I owned would all be in decks, but I currently have more copies of both of those cards sitting in my binder than are in decks.I’ve scaled back the overall power level of my decks, in favor of trying out new and interesting things.

    However, even in these experiements, if the deck isn’t CAPABLE of winning a fair number of games I get bored with it VERY fast. As I said above I don’t need or want to win every game, but if I simply CANNOT win with a deck I have ZERO interest in playing it, no matter how cool the theme might be.

    And frankly, I expecet the same of my opponents. I think it’s really cool to see a heavily thematic decklist like the all-sexy-women deck or the all-old-people Zur decks posted at the forums. Thematic decks make me smile, on paper, but I would HATE playing against them just as much as I’d hade playing against a d-bag Arcum Dagsson deck. Why?

    Because that player is clearly not playing to win. Sure he might try to win as hard as his deck would allow him too, but he clearly decided at the deckbuilding stage to place “theme” so far above “power” that he didn’t care if he made an utterly terrible deck that was virtually unable to win. Beating a deck like that would give me absolutely no joy or satisfaction as it’d be very nearly the same as “goldfishing”. Simply put, playing against decks that have little hope of winning before the game has even begun is just as unfun as playing against a deck that YOU can’t hope to beat!’

    Now, I realize that some people are perfectly capable of having a good time playing a terrible deck if it has a really amusing or cool theme. That’s perfectly okay if that’s what they enjoy, but there’s no way I personally can have fun playing those kinds of decks, OR against them. Thusly, it has become my driving philosophy that when it comes to deckbuilding, fun – for you AND your group – should be your top priority, with winning as the secondary concern, but once you start playing, winning should be your #1 priority, as the “Fun” consideration should have already been address in deckbuilding, so always making the best possible play you could make will hardly every be deemed dickish or unfun.

    And as always, there are a ton of caveats and exceptions that go along with this, but as a general rule it has always served me very well. Acidic Slime, for example, is a card that is basivally never considered a douchey card to put into your deck, but dropping the slime on turn three to kill you’re opponent’s bounceland might be a dick move. Usually, I’ll chose NOT to blow up someone’s bounceland with an Acidic Slime, even if it’s technically the right play, but I do so knowing that they’re probably going to drop a Mirari’s Wake or a Sword of Feast and Famine or something equally worth blowing up later, so I’m not exactly handing them the game by neglecting to resort to mana denial – I also do this in hopes that the next time they have the opportunity to screw me over in such a fashion, my restraint will earn me enough goodwill that they show me the same courtesy.

  6. ntropy

    May 2, 2012 at 3:11 pm

    I like all of my punch-pulling to happen in the conceptual stages of the deck. I have some decks that right out of the gates have been very powerful – Xiahou-Dun the One Eye, for example. I built that deck to cast Corrupt every turn until everyone else was dead. I could have altered it to be less boring, or less powerful, or less likely to cast Temporal Extortion multiple times in one turn, But that would have taken away from the deck in my opinion. Instead I played it only occasionally, got my kicks, and eventually retired it. On the other hand, I built my Beast Tribal deck (Mayael) know full well that I would be sacrificing utility and power in the name of theme, and as a result, winning would be an uphill battle. There are no non-beast creatures in that deck with the exceptions of Drumhunter, Fierce Empath, and Wirewood Savage. It runs Venomspout Brackus, Ashen Firebeast, and Root Greevil. It cost $12.00 to foil out. It’s just as satisfying to play as the mono black misery machine was, for entirely different reasons. I guess what I’m saying is that I like to Play Well. I like to build bizarre decks as best as I can, and play them for all they are worth. Building good decks is easy (Ramps + Haste + Threats). Building deliberately bad decks is boring (I just won’t run Primetime…) Building weird decks and trying to make them good is awesome (EDH Fluctuator anyone?)


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