Balancing Power Levels in Casual Multiplayer Commander
It's not always easy to switch from a 1-vs-1 format to multiplayer Commander. One can easily be at odds with the rest of the players when you're too used to playing very powerful decks against only one opponent. In this article, I talk about how to balance fun and strategy, while overall respecting the playgroup.
Different players have different priorities when playing Magic: The Gathering. This is even more true when playing with a group of friends who all want to do different things with their Commander decks. As a result, some players might find it difficult to integrate into a playgroup if they build EDH decks focusing on playing the most powerful and best version of a deck they can possibly build. If they are used to one-vs-one games, they might find it especially difficult to negotiate politics during a multiplayer game. Instead of joining a playgroup with competitive decks and immediately becoming the archenemy at the table in every single game, with some small adjustments to the deck, players can still have fun without losing the ability to win. In this article, I will be using my own personal experiences to look into how we can make the playgroup experience fun.
You have finally finished your Commander deck. You've spent a fortune making it the best version it can be. You have already won a few games of competitive one-on-one matches. You are ready to crush all your opponents. Now, one of your friends asked you to join a multiplayer game. You shuffle your deck and start the game. Early on, you take the advantage and multiplayer politics starts kicking in. The other players are persuaded to gang up against you and in no time you become the archenemy of the table. This will result in two possible outcomes:
One: You win and manage to dominate the game thanks to your powerful deck. However, the other players complain that your deck was not in the same power level as theirs. The game was over in 10 minutes; it was not fun for the others and they don’t invite you to play again.
Two: You end up losing because your deck can’t deal with all the threats coming its way. This is not fun for you and you decide not to play with this group again.
Of course these are two extreme options, which sadly occur more often than one might think. Some players even get labeled as the "Spike" player and others refuse to play against them. A lot of EDH players like the format for its casual environment, so when they see a player going off in insane combos early in the game, they get intimidated or outright furious. In order to have fun, most of the time, players need to strike a balance. So how can we do this?
Before I explore ideas on how players can integrate into playgroups, let’s talk about the three main MTG player profiles.
Most MTG players know about the main psychographic profiles for Magic players – Timmy, Johnny, and Spike. These refer to players' preferred play styles, as each pursues or enjoys different outcomes from a game. According to the official MTG website, these psychographic profiles can be roughly summarized as follows:
Timmy - a player who plays Magic because he enjoys the feeling he gets when he plays. A Timmy player is in it for the journey. They like playing big spells, big creatures, interact with their opponents, build different decks, and enjoy the variance of the game.
Johnny - a player who plays Magic because he wants to express something. Johnnies are combo players who want to show the world how clever or off-beat they are. A Johnny player will build "janky" decks and watch them go off. They want to be different and sometimes build decks out of sheer stubbornness of playing specific cards in them.
Spike - a player who wants to prove that he/she has proficient skill in the game. These players are the analysts, the strategists, innovators, and tuners. They like to have the best possible version of a deck and want to win at all costs. These players are more likely to participate in GPs and Pro Tours.
Of course, players can have overlapping personalities with attributes from different profiles. These are just a baseline to generally describe what elements are most dominant in a player. So how do these fit in a multiplayer Commander game?
The Balancing Act
In a single playgroup, one might find extremes of each personality. This means someone might bring their tuned-up combo deck, another will bring their 10/10 power level deck, and someone else will bring their favorite fun deck. How will this game play out? Probably, both Spike players will try to win in the first few turns, while the Johnny will try to assemble his combo as fast as possible, and the Timmy will be left to his own devices trying to impact the board.
However, a multiplayer game of Commander does not usually evolve in a straightforward manner. Players will speak to each other and will try to influence the outcomes of the game, either by striking deals or manipulating situations to their advantage. The player less versed in the art of politics will find it hard to win unless he has good command of the game and the board state.
In my experience, the use of politics in EDH games usually comes to a peak when a player is being too "Spikey". This is when other players will try to gang up against him/her because they are dominating the game. This might seem unfair to the player being ganged up on but in reality, how they played their cards and how oppressive they are being is to blame. In particular, certain cards immediately elicit a reaction, which can turn a whole table against a player. As a result, players need to be aware of their actions in order to survive powerful plays and have the possibility to win. The best way to look at this is to adopt a balance between all the psychographic profiles previously explained. Some situations might require a Johnny approach to things while another just needs a Timmy to smash face.
This can translate into deck building. Decks can be flexible enough to allow a variety of strategies depending on the situation. Spike and Johnny decks tend to be linear as they focus on a single strategy to win and try to do it as efficiently as possible. This can result in monotonous games as players will already know what you are up to and try to team up against you. So instead of trying to win fast, a deck can be tweaked to include sub-strategies or answers to specific threats. By being flexible, you are more likely to still have fun during a game, even though a player might have stopped you from temporarily winning.
A multiplayer game, whether casual or not, tend to have a different progression than a one-vs-one game. In a one-vs-one game, the idea is to try and win as fast as possible. On the other hand, in a multiplayer game, this can be hampered not just by one player but by the three other players who also want to win. As a result, some players will point out threats to other players which are usually at the detriment of the player who is ahead of the others. This means multiplayer games require balance between a winning strategy and negotiating with other players, which a single competitive EDH deck, most often, cannot deal with. This doesn’t mean one can’t build a competitive Commander deck for multiplayer Commander, however. I am only referring here to the notion of using a tuned up one-vs-one deck in a four-player game. Depending on the type of playgroup, it can sometimes be challenging to determine what kind of deck to use. But a rule of thumb is always to communicate with the other players and ask them, before the start of the game, if they are playing casually or competitively. I also recommend asking the players to rate their decks before a game because if most players are using decks which can be considered as slow or super casual, then I try to adapt and not join in with a super aggressive and competitive deck.
Playing on a Budget
Another aspect one needs to consider to balance the gameplay in a playgroup is budgeting. It is not a mistake to correlate powerful cards with expensive cards in Commander. This leads to many players spending a lot of money on cards with powerful and more efficient effects. Players who can’t afford or do not want to spend a lot of money to play a game of Magic, usually turn to budget alternatives. The alternatives might not be super-efficient but most of the time, produce a similar effect. As a result, some players purposely restrict themselves when deck building. This adds another challenge, while not breaking the bank. In my opinion, decks on a budget are the funniest to play within a playgroup (also playing with budget builds).
Depending on the playgroup and group of friends, players can agree on certain benchmarks/ house rules to use for their multiplayer games. For example, my own playgroup prefers to use budget-friendly decks instead of fully tuned out decks. Our most fun games are the ones where we use the preconstructed decks released by Wizards of the Coast each year and play them out of the box untampered or improved. Over the course of the following months, instead of upgrading the decks to make them their best possible version, we instead try budget upgrades (usually between 10-20 Euros). It is very tempting to go into the think tank and start building or upgrading a deck with the goal to make it the best. However, always consider the other players of the playgroup. You can still all decide to go crazy and challenge yourselves in building the best decks. The point is to keep everyone on the same level, which will translate into longer and more fun games.
An important part of competitive EDH is having access to all colors fast. This means running expensive lands such as fetch lands, shock lands, and other efficient lands that do not enter the battlefield tapped. Competitive players even go for the original dual lands (for example Tundra, Underground Sea, etc…), which are super expensive. However, if you are playing in a casual environment with your friends, do you really need to spend so much money for such mana base? In my playgroup, we mostly use the Scry lands from Theros, for example Temple of Victory (which is criminally underplayed, even though it allows you to scry when it enter the battlefield), Pain lands, such as Karplusan Forest, Check lands, like Isolated Chapel, Filter lands, like Wooded Bastion, the Vivid land cycle from Lorwyn – Vivid Creek, the new Battlebond lands, such as Luxury Suite, and the other lands that fix colors but enter the battlefield tapped, for example Stone Quarry. Sure, these lands are not as fast as the other ones, but they manage to provide any of the colors we might need and do not cost a fortune. If all of us in the playgroup are using similar mana bases, then there is nothing wrong with a land that comes into play tapped. Does this mean that you are powering down your Commander deck by not using super quick and efficient mana bases? Yes, but this does not mean that your deck is at a disadvantage if you are playing against other budget players.
When it comes to casting spells, each Commander deck is unique, and each deck is optimized to win in a certain way. Understandably, players want tools to get to their winning strategy as soon as possible. In casual EDH, especially casual multiplayer, this is not a priority as much as having a fun game. Players in my playgroup would rather buy a preconstructed Commander deck than spend money on Vampiric Tutor or Mana Crypt. This is something to consider if you are trying to join a game with friends in a non-competitive environment. I always keep a few cards that I can replace in my competitive decks, just in case I am going to play a casual game with the same deck. This will try to depower my deck to make it a more balanced game against other casual or inexperienced players. My playgroup always tries to prioritize fun games instead of winning games quickly. My advice is that if you are planning to play with friends for fun, before building the deck and buying the cards, check with them and ask for their suggestions, so that you will not end up spending a lot of money on a powerful deck that nobody wants to play against.
Whether you play to win or for fun, if you are in a playgroup or wish to start one, you have to be considerate of the other players. If you play with budget players, don’t be the one who plays with the most expensive decks just so that you can always win. Try to integrate by using different decks whose power is on the same level as everyone else’s. Communication between friends is a key to a healthy playgroup and fun games. I always ask new players joining our games whether they like to play five games of 5-10 minutes each or play one game of 30-40 minutes. Depending on their answer, I will know if anyone of us will have fun in our playgroup or not.
What are your experiences in playing or joining a playgroup for the first time? Let us know what players can do to integrate better.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.