A reason to care about commons: my favourite form of casual Magic
By Neil T Stacey
There are many types of Magic player. These days, I fall firmly into the category of ‘Competitive Player’. When I show up at a tournament it’s with an expectation that I have a non-negligible chance of winning it. If you ask me what I look for in a card, I’ll talk about things like flexibility and resilience but the truth is that the cards I like most are the ones that increase the number of my matches that I will win.
But I wasn’t always like this. There was a time when I played Magic with no prizes on the line. No judges, no official pairings and no DCI number. There were no packs to win, let alone play-mats, and I’d never even heard of the Pro Tour.
And yet somehow, it was fun anyway.
All the goals and rewards that now motivate me were non-existent. There was no need for anything beyond sheer enjoyment of playing Magic. This hobby of ours is a remarkable game; what it has to offer goes far beyond the handful of official formats.
For those of us heavily invested in competitive Magic it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that competitive success isn’t necessary for Magic to be fun and rewarding. It’s also easy for stores to focus on competitive players, who spend a great deal more money on the game.
Yet, the reality is that casual players greatly outnumber competitive players. And that’s the way it should be. When you get down to it, Magic is a game. The main point is for it to be fun. Furthermore, the competitive scene suffers without a healthy casual scene supporting it. Casual play creates demand for a more diverse range of cards, padding revenue for stores and keeping card trading going. Casual play introduces new players to the game in a comfortable setting, without the intimidation factor of tournament play. Hardly anyone dives straight into competitive play without first going through an incubation period of some sort of casual play.
Without the breeding ground of casual play, hardly anyone would be playing the game at all. As competitive players, it’s easy to forget that our hobby depends entirely on new players. Last week I proposed that the way to grow SA Magic is to focus on teaching the game to as many people as possible, and to let them enjoy the game in their own way rather than pressing them into tournaments before they’re ready for it.
Premature tournament exposure can put someone off of Magic entirely. Mismatched deck strength is compounded by vast gulfs in play skill and the disillusionment that comes with realising that everyone net-decks. All-in-all, I think it’s for the best to hold off on pressuring new players into tournaments.
Casual play is not without its own pitfalls, however. Without the clear rules of specific formats, Magic can be a mess. WOTC has made a lot of mistakes over the years, and no unprepared new player should be on the receiving end of any of them. The various formats establish a baseline that puts everyone on more or less equal footing, while ban-lists keep things sane. Without these safety nets, casual Magic is a jungle. When you bring your favourite Minotaur deck to the kitchen table, there’s no way to know that you aren’t bringing a knife to a gunfight. Or that your knife isn’t actually a bar of soap. I mean seriously, Minotaurs?
So playing without a specified format can be problematic for casual play. Playing with a specified format can be just as bad. There is such an abundance of information about the established formats that it isn’t difficult for someone to come up with a competitive deck-list. Competitive decks can be expensive, so it’s often the person willing to spend the most money who ends up dominating a play group.
So how can you actually have fun playing casually? One way is to get lucky and pull together a play-group who have similar budgets and put in similar amounts of time and effort, keeping things balanced. That doesn’t always work out, however, so the reality is that sixty-card Constructed decks aren’t always the best bet for Casual play. WOTC has put a lot of support into the Commander format as a casual way to play, where the high variance of playing singletons prevents repetitive play and keeps the power level down. I guess I’m not alone in finding Commander terribly slow and dreary, because another singleton format has popped up – Tiny Leaders, which shrinks deck size to fifty cards and restricts you to cards of mana cost three or less. If neither of these are your cup of tea, or you don’t have access to even single copies of some of Magic’s most powerful cards, then the remaining option is Limited.
Drafting every week? In this economy?
We pay a lot for boosters in these parts, so regular Limited play isn’t an easy sell when someone’s looking to relax and kill some time.
These options don’t necessarily suit everyone, so today I’ll talk a little bit about my personal favourite way of playing Magic casually. It’s an inexpensive way to play that yields endless fun while honing play skill and deck-building alike.
What you need is two teams of three people, and twelve boosters for each team. Initially, you’re just playing Team Sealed, building three forty-card decks and playing one-on-one against an opponent from the other team. However, you spice it up by rotating who plays against whom and each week, both teams get to add to their pool one booster from any Standard-legal set.
It’s pretty simple but has a lot of upside to it. Team play has a tremendous bonding effect, as well as compensating for differences in experience and competitiveness between people in your play group. You don’t need everyone to be at the same level, you just need to get the teams roughly balanced. And if you ever played playground soccer then you’ll know that intense team rivalry can develop even with no prizes to play for.
What I enjoy most about this format is that it makes opening a booster exciting again. You get to sit with good friends and pore intently over a pack, figuring out how those cards can affect your prospects for the next week’s play. It makes a nice change from flicking through to the rare and chucking the rest in a shoe box. Getting to choose from a range of sets incentivises your team to dig into full card image galleries and turns buying a single booster into a major strategic decision.
The process of updating and tuning your decks lets you get creative and hone your deckbuilding skills, while sticking to one on one play forces you to improve your play skill in ways that Chaos games never will.
There are endless ways to play and enjoy Magic; this is one of the ones that I enjoy the most and it’s one that I have found to be an excellent way to introduce new players to the game. There are plenty of ways to customise it. The basic idea is to use a limited pool of cards and to gradually expand it, recapturing the joy of opening boosters and playing with limited resources.