I have been known to use a clever turn of phrase now and then. I’ve also been known to have many more that aren’t so clever. I’m also a big fan of puns, juxtapositions, irony, and all sorts of other literary devices. Though if I wasn’t, neither of us would probably be here right now.
The English language is a marvelous, robust, and ever-changing thing. It’s evolved multiple times over many centuries, from a mix of Latin and Germanic roots, through an incredibly large infusion of French vocabulary, all the way to the modern day, where seemingly every new Internet fad in turn creates a new definition. Yep: yolo, twerk, and selfie are all now dictionary-worthy words.
Such it is. That is part of what makes the language so dynamic and why it’s of the most adaptable ones out there.
The average person doesn’t take advantage of this though. With over 1 million words in the lexicon, the normal person only uses about 20-35,000. Even if many of them are antiquated or obsolete, that still leaves a lot of literary space to play in.
Of those, one of my favorites are oxymorons: statements that are seemingly contradictory on the surface but may belie actual meaning on further inspection. These include phrases like ‘civil war’, ‘crash landing’ ‘living dead’, or the old chestnut, ‘military intelligence’. Not only are they great for a joke, but they’re capable of having context too.
In a similar vein are the notion of contradictory statements, and what brings us here today. Consider this pair of facts:
- By design, Commander is intended to be a casual format that encourages players to build and explore various EDH decks using a of host different Commanders and flavor cards.
- By design, Magic is intended for you to kill your opponent as prudently as possible.
While both of these things are true, they often run into trouble with one another when they intersect.
Whether it’s a result of the player behind their creation, or the indelible lure of powerful cards, one of the most common problems people have when playing Commander – especially in mixed play groups – is that not every legendary creature is on the same level. Some legends simply are more powerful than others, and that’s why in some cases (Braids, Cabal Minion, Griselbrand, Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary, etc), abusing their abilities reached such dangerous levels that they had to be outright banned. Part of this is because of the advantage such cards give, but it’s also partly because we collectively as players can’t resist the lure of adding in the necessary tools to break them.
Once again, see point Number Two.
As a casual format, Commander provides an incredible amount of leeway for you to be creative with your deck choices, including the Commander itself. But for many, power and playability wins out more than creativity and flavor. It’s why for every Soraya the Falconer there’s eight Zur the Enchanters, and for each Aboshan, Cephalid Emperor there’s a dozen Kaalia of the Vasts.
You get the idea.
I’m not here to argue that every legendary creature could or even should be chosen to lead your EDH deck. Rather, I’m pointing out that not every Commander deck plays the same way and how difficult it can be to properly reflect that in a normal game of Magic. More often than not, people choose legends either because of their aggressive power or their ability to combo with them.
Yet we all know, intrinsically, that there are more play styles in a multiplayer setting than a strictly Proto-Spike or Proto-Johnny approach. Some legends, for example, allow you to have political or diplomatic decks (Gwafa Hazid, Profiteer or Basandra, Battle Seraph). Others are designed to be way more defensive-based (i.e. Ith, High Arcanist). And simply look at how many control cards in the format that are highly discouraged or even banned all together.
The simple, undeniable truth is that not all Commanders play the same, and so not every deck is – not should be – designed to win the same way. Standard multiplayer rules, however, can make the expression and execution of those non-combo-win, non-aggro decks rather difficult.
However, aside from simply trying to house rule everything into oblivion or having to metagame your friends every time you play, there are other options to mitigate this effect. One of these is a point achievement system.
Commander ‘leagues’ have been using this approach for quite some time, but it can easily be adapted to kitchen table Magic. The premise is straightforward: rather than the game’s winner be determined solely as the last player standing, players get points for doing (or not doing) certain things throughout the course of a Commander game. These can be literally anything your group thinks is fair, and the Internet has no shortage of places to check out whole lists of them. Some examples of Achievements include:
+1 Point for being the first person with no cards in their hand
+1 Point for giving a permanent you own to another player
-1 Point at the end of the game for not playing your Commander
And so on.
The only real stipulations to an Achievement is that it has to have a point value that seems fair, it has to do something that is physically possible to do, and you should have a name to go with it. Not only does it make them easier to remember, but they’re more fun. For instance:
+1 Point Generalissimo: anytime you kill a player with Commander damage
+1 Point Copycat: the first player to copy a spell or permanent of another player
+1 Point With Friends Like These: the player who had the most creatures on the battlefield when they died
-1 Point Greedy McGreederson: anytime you take 3 or more turns in a row
The only other stipulation is to decide when and how that point is awarded. Most Achievements can be broken down into one of four groups:
- Once Per Game Achievements – the first player to accomplish it gets the point
- Once Per Player Achievements – every player is capable of gaining a point if they accomplish the goal
- End of Game Achievements – awarded to players who fulfill certain conditions once the game has ended
- Always Present Achievements – awarded as often as a player can fulfill the triggered condition
As with any system, it can be altered to meet the needs of your group, but this is the setup our play group uses when we have more than six or so people playing. The natural upside is that it gives the freedom for more diverse deck styles. For instance, with an Achievement system in place, you could actually build a damage prevention deck or pure defensive deck and still have the potential to win a game against aggressive or combo-laden foes.
Like everything, however, there are tradeoffs to attain this more egalitarian setting.
For one, it’s not always guaranteed to be universally loved. For another, the game can get slightly more complicated since there are now objectives to keep track of beyond being the last person alive (though that itself can still be an Achievement).
Griping generally only happens when you first implement such a system or if someone from the outside decides to participate and they have a deck that runs on the Uber-Spike or Uber-Johnny model. The longer people use it, however, the more this subsides. Achievements alter the stipulations for who the winner of the game may be, but it also effects everyone equally. Sure, it can be frustrating on occasion to have effectively slaughtered your enemies with wild abandon only to lose out to the guy in the corner playing in bunker mode, but that cuts both way. Consider being the person who built a negotiation-style deck and then was sat next to four other players whose decks don’t know the meaning of the word. Normally, you’re probably just going to sit there and die. With Achievements, you actually could still win out in the end.
Though you probably still will die.
That being said, although having Achievements can help players win through other means, normal gameplay doesn’t suffer as a result. In the end, it still pays to attack, board wipe, and play politics per usual. Achievements merely provide new additional paths to victory.
Complexity, on the other hand, is a legitimate concern. With well over a hundred or so possible Achievements that can be found online – not to mention those your group may invent themselves – trying to play with all of them would be an exercise in futility. That is simply too much new information to keep track of. To that end, we suggest limiting the number to keep track of.
We experiment with different numbers ourselves, but as a general rule we limit to 15-20 Achievements at a time, with 8 ‘Always On’ Achievements, 2-4 Once Per Games, 2-3 End of Games, and 4-6 Once Per Players.
Moreover, to avoid giving anyone an unfair advantage, we choose them by random lottery via spreadsheet. First, every player selects three decks they may want to use for the evening. Once chosen, decks cannot be altered for the rest of the night, and you are restricted to only choosing from those three. Then, the Achievements are randomly chosen and made visible for everyone. For any games that evening, only those Achievements are in effect.
Not only does this give us a workable number of goals to work towards each game, but it provides a healthy variety of Achievements to use. Between public ones and those we’ve crafted, we have a list of around 150 to pick from. Selecting 15-20 or so each game gives us occasional repeat Achievements from previous game nights, but more often than not we are always playing with some new twist to the game without it ever feeling burdensome or unfair.
Achievements do a commendable job implementing some mild player balance when done right. It gives Commander the option for more than one or two styles of decks, along with the freedom to try out more creative, flavorful or unconventional Commander choices. It’s not something one has to use all the time, but if you take the minor steps needed and embrace an Achievement-based play style, it’s certainly worth a Point or two towards the more diverse playability the EDH ethos encourages and perennially strives for.
Do you use an Achievement system? How has it gone for your group? Tell us on social media!