For the purposes of this article I like to think of winning as being the only player left alive at a table at the end of the game, while a victory are the little moments during a game when you can say to yourself “My deck did the thing it was supposed to do”, or “This is a moment we will remember”.
Now if you look closely, this article’s core idea isn’t all that different from Mark Rosewater’s psychographic profiles Timmy/Johnny/Spike. Timmy likes big moments of victory, moments he and his friends will remember. Johnny prefers creative victories, showing off the cool cards he put in the deck and its synergies. Spike simply enjoys winning, and showing he can beat everyone at the table.
The point of this article is to talk about the different types of victories that exist in a game of casual commander, and how to make sure that your play group can withstand the test of time, and repeated games against one another. Being aware of what the “victories” of your play group are can help in making sure everyone has fun, and in finding new players to play with.
I am going to run down a couple of examples of players and their decks, and then talk about how those players can make sure they have fun together. Now, this article is aimed more at reducing friction in a play group of Johnnys and Timmys. And if someone is fully a Spike, then think of this more as a plea to see things from another angle. Casual commander is different than competitive commander. You often play with the same two to four people every time. After after one game ends, you usually play another one immediately. If you only focus on the win, your play group can get boring rather quickly unless there is a solid balance between the decks.
- Lazav is playing a deck based around milling his opponents, and reanimating their creatures. He doesn’t really have any win conditions in his own deck, preferring to steal them from others. His victory is telling everyone to mill a card or two every upkeep, and frequently asking to see everyone’s graveyard after drawing a reanimation spell.
- Zedruu is playing a deck based on donating terrible cards to everyone else, and gaining a lot of life. He doesn’t really win the game so much as grind it to a halt. His victory is owning the best permanents on the board, and counting up how much life he gains each upkeep.
- Ghave is playing a token deck, he loves making his board huge and growing it each turn. His victory is swinging for massive amounts of damage, spread out across the board.
- Daxos the Returned is playing an enchantment deck, he has a lot of cards that care about enchantments, and has built some interesting synergies. His victory is getting to see those synergies and combos go off.
Each of these players have built their decks to give them victories throughout the game, even if they happen to lose. They can play multiple games against each other with the same decks, and still have fun because each of them can have a victory in any given game, without necessarily winning. The danger of building a deck that does not have any victory conditions is that only one player can win any given game, and if that is where you put the entirety of your fun, it's very possible that you could play three games in a session and not have fun in any of them. Think of a combo deck for instance, if the goal of the deck is to combo out, and the player will only have fun if they successfully combo out, then there will be games where that player doesn’t have fun.
Focusing on victories can also help you have fun no matter the play group. In a play group where you have the most powerful deck, focusing on your victories can make sure you don’t just steamroll your friends. Your friends focusing on their victories can make sure they have fun, even if they know they probably won’t win the game. A Spike in the same situation can’t do much but change their deck to try and make it more powerful, which is something that doesn’t help them during the current play session.
In casual commander it's important to make sure you know what your deck’s victory condition is, and to nurture it to make sure you are having fun. For Spike’s this means improving the win-rate of their deck, and putting in cards that counter other strategies. But for the other psychographics, it takes a little more intimate knowledge of their deck and it's goals. Lets look back at the four players we talked about earlier.
Lazav has put his fun into the basket of reanimating other players’ creatures. For him to improve his chances of victory, he has to get to know his play group. Who runs the most valuable creatures? Whose deck is too creature light to target with mill? Is it better to run cards that mill everyone equally, or is there a specific player he should target?
Also, how does Lazav have fun even if he can’t get his mill/reanimate engines going? How does he expand his victory condition so that he can have fun, even at a table without a lot of impressive creatures in the deck? Maybe Lazav should put some big creatures in his deck, and focus on milling every player at the table, ensuring he always has a target for his spells.
Sometimes this means lowering the power level of your deck to match your play group, and make those big fun moments happen more often. Think Ashen Powder vs Dread Return. One is more powerful, but can only reanimate your own creatures. Ashen Powder can’t reanimate your own creatures, but leads to a different type of fun where other player’s strategies are now brought into the mix.
Zedruu has put his fun into the basket of trading, stealing, and donating permanents. Wacky situations and strange cards are fun for him. Even if a game doesn’t go his way, Zedruu can still have those moments where one of his artifacts hits the battlefield, and everyone groans and starts pleading to not be given it.
How does Zedruu have fun if he can’t get a payoff from donating his permanents? How does he have a functional deck even if he can’t give away his cards? Maybe Zedruu can focus less on cards that hurt their owner, and more on wide-effect enchantments. He can still have those wacky moments, but nobody else at the table feels directly attacked.
Think of Aggressive Mining vs Perplexing Chimera. One card shuts down a specific player and prevents them from getting more mana, and possibly from having fun. The other card creates a minigame that still can disrupt the player that you want to disrupt, but in a way that still allows them to be in on the game.
Here are some ways to apply this to your own play group:
- Think about what your victory condition is. Does your deck have multiple? Can you achieve the victory condition every game? Is your victory condition winning? Does this line up with the rest of your group’s goal?
- What are the victory conditions of your friends? How can you take advantage of these victories to join in on the fun? Are any of the victories of your group mutually exclusive?
- Are there players in your group that seem like they frequently are not having fun? What is their victory condition? Is it winning? Maybe have a talk with those players and figure out what they want to get out of the experience. Do your goals line up?
If there is a player that constantly isn’t having fun, maybe your group’s goals and that person's goals aren't lining up. For example, the Ghave player likes to build a huge board, but so often his victory condition leads quickly into a win with cards like Overrun. In order to not lose, the other players at the table have to shut down, not only his win, but his victory as well. This means that Ghave, although he is a Timmy that likes his big board and cool tokens, he is playing like a Spike, and putting his fun into a basket that looks very similar to winning.
Similarly, Daxos is a Johnny and is proud of his cool combos, but they frequently cause him to immediately win, or to shut down the other players. Cards like Sigil of the Empty Throne fit perfectly with his theme, and can be fun to use in combo with his other enchantments, but they win the game very quickly unless he gets shut down. He has built his deck like a Johnny, and has put his victory condition in a combo/synergy basket, but that basket has no bottom and is directly above a win basket. Neither of these players are having fun because their victory condition is being shut down.
To contrast it, Lazav’s milling doesn’t ever directly kill players, and often goes unaccosted. He gets to achieve his victory condition frequently, because his victory doesn’t directly lead to a win. Players die long before cards like Mindcrank empty their library. Similarly, Zedruu plays havoc on the board, but regardless of whether it gets to stay that way or not, he still got a few moments in the game where he got to swap around permanents and have silly plays. Cards like Humble Defector and Puca’s Mischief can create those minigames and odd moments. Those moments don’t always snowball into a win, but a big board of enchantments or tokens frequently will. Lazav and Zedruu have separated their victories and their wins in order to make sure they can have fun every game.
Now, there is nothing wrong with having your victory condition being very similar to a win condition, but it is important to take stock and ask yourself how you have fun in a game. In a casual game of commander thinking you have a fun deck, but in reality you are built for a more competitive group, can cause you to feel like you aren’t having fun in a game. It can reduce a lot of friction knowing whether your play group is full of people looking for victories and cool moments and showing off their decks, or if it is a more competitive group that wants those cool moments and combos to be how they win the game.
The point of this article is to give you some insight on how to think about how you have fun in EDH. There is no right or wrong way to play, but at the end of the day I think everyone (Johnny, Timmy, or Spike) wants to have fun in their own way. Knowing how you plan to have fun before starting a two hour long game of commander can go a long way to making sure you get your victory.