Monday, July 13, 2009

Grim Tidings #7: Casual-Competitive

(Contributed by John Kozlowski)
If you play long enough, you soon discover that there are a lot of different styles of Magic players out there. And when I say “style”, I don’t mean “skill level”. Rather, what I really mean is philosophy, or the players approach to the game. I believe there is a wide spectrum of philosophies, ranging from purely competitive at one end to purely casual on the other.

Competitive players are a pretty diverse bunch. Each player has their own scope of competitive play, and what they expect to achieve when they sit down. Some competitive players just go to FNMs, some try to win States/Regionals, while others travel around the country to participate in as many domestic and international PTQs as they can. They may be inspired by the glory of winning, or increasing their DCI rating, or actually making money in the Pro Tour. But in the purest sense, competitive players play to win.

Casual players on the other hand are equally diverse. Their game expectations still include winning, but they have other considerations too. While some purely casual players do go to FNMs, many only play pick-up games at the local gaming shop, while others just stay at home and play on their kitchen table. They may be inspired by the joy of socialization, or immersing themselves in the game’s fantasy metaphor, or a chance to just get away from the stress of every day life. In the purest sense though, casual players play for fun.

Yes, yes, yes, I know. Making broad classifications like this is always contentious. Everyone gets upset about statements like these because we all have our own opinions of who we think we are. Let me assure you, the point of this article isn’t to segregate all players into one category or the other. In fact, it’s to prove the opposite. That there is a middle ground that serves both ends of the spectrum. I like to call it Casual-Competitive.

Casual-Competitive is a hybrid of both elements. It is a style that encourage players to build the most imaginative decks, that use the broadest of card pools without (much) limitation. The players tend to have large collections, and have experience in understanding subtle card interactions. It encourages fun, creative, and themed decks. It strives to find synergies. I think it the highest level of deck building, focusing on quality, rather than effectiveness.

In a sense, Casual-Competitive is akin to “Taking it to the next level”. Good Casual-Competitive players understand the rules, and are aware of the various global effects and threats that they face randomly each and every game. Through this adversity, they can analyze and adjust their game play to maneuver through the difficulty and succeed.

But it’s more about deck construction than just being a good player. Every format has Tier 1 decks. The Casual-Competitive player doesn’t play Tier-1 decks. His deck is excellent, but it is not net-decked. Rather, it focuses on theme first, instead of efficiency, and then scours all of the available resources to take the theme to the next level.

It Sure Isn’t Casual…
In no way do I claim that the Casual-Competitive style is “casual”. In my opinion, casual play is a way to socialize relax, and have fun. The technical mechanics of the game aren’t nearly as important as the experience you have doing it. You will still have fun while playing a Casual-Competitive style, but the quality of deck construction and complexity push it far beyond casual terms.

…but It Isn’t Really Competitive Either
I think this style is closer to being competitive that I give it credit for. The depth of the card pool tends to makes each card choice optimal. (Example: why would anyone choose Counsel of Soratami to draw 2 cards if Mulldrifter was available as well?) Unfortunately, as the casual-competitive theme crystallizes, the efficiency and power drifts away from Tier-1 status.

Many Casual-Competitive players I know voluntarily agree to limitations when building their decks. Self-imposed Highlander/Singleton restrictions force these players to research four times deeper than they normally would if the standard deck construction conventions were used. Simultaneously, I see a trend lately of using big decks, well over 60 cards. Popular formats such as EDH and 5-Color challenge Casual-Competitive players to build more complex decks (while maintaining reliable consistency) while giving players more opportunities to express their cleverness.

What happens is that while the card choices are optimal, the deck itself is not optimized. A streamlined 60-card deck that uses four-ofs of only the best cards is reliably consistent. Using an assortment of one-ofs and/or increasing the deck size dilutes the efficiency, but simultaneously makes each game different and more challenging.

Maybe Casual-Competitive needs a mission statement to help define it:
“I am Casual-Competitive. I endeavor to build creative, thoughtful, quality decks, that both myself and my opponent to be entertained by. I want my cards to be optimal, but I don’t necessarily want my deck to be optimized. I always want to win, but I don’t necessarily need a tournament setting to do it.”

The side effect of the Casual-Competitive style is that sometimes the cards can become so degenerate that its detrimental to the game experience. No one really wants to be facing down a turn 3 Braids, Cabal Minion, nor do they want to be on the wrong side of Erayo, Soratami Ascendant, or locked behind a infinite Panoptic Mirror combo. So how do you draw the line to still keep the game casual?

The answer is fairly simple actually: Don’t be a dick. If you abide by this rule, hopefully everyone in your play group will comply as well. (And if they don’t, perhaps you need to find a better play group!) This is a game afterall, and it is meant to be fun. DBAD is a gentleman’s rule, and it can’t really be enforced. All I say is Don’t do it, and don’t encourage others to do it either.

Example – Hurricane Swans
Last year, I tried desperately to build a Casual-Competitive deck with Swans of Bryn Argol. I tried virtually every color combination until I settled in on UG. In the meantime, the Standard environment perfected the Seismic Assault combo (as later improved it with Cascade!). I however didn’t want to merely mimic the combo deck. Instead I wanted a Swans deck that was unique and interesting, and capable of quick establishment in a duel, and sustained resilience in a multiplayer game.

Here is the final version of my Casual-Competitive decklist:

4 Swans of Bryn Argoll
4 Wall of Roots
3 Razormane Masticore
3 Silklash Spider
2 Venser, Shaper Savant

4 Hurricane
3 Reins of Power
3 Loxodon Warhammer
2 Spitting Image
2 Iron Maiden
2 Krosan Grip
2 Psionic Blast
2 Snakeform

6 Snow Covered Island
6 Snow Covered Forest
3 Yavimaya Coast
3 Mouth of Ronom
3 Flooded Grove
2 Desert
1 Scrying Sheets

Here’s basically how it works: In your early turns, you will establish a defensive line with Wall of Roots, while concurrently ramping up to four mana for the Swans. Hide behind the Swans until you cast can Silklash Spider (another solid defender) or Hurricane. As a result, you will end up damaging your own Swans to draw more cards. Razormane Masticore feeds itself in the upkeep when you target Swans. If your opponent chooses to attack into your 4/3 flier, let them draw the cards and feel the effects of the Iron Maiden. Or if they start swarming you, exchange creatures with Reins of Power, and attack into your own Swans. You’ll draw the cards and hopefully kill off their creatures in the process.

This decklist qualifies as Casual-Competitive. It exceeds a casual deck, because it is far more than just a pile of cards that just happens to include 4 Swans. It is packed with many creative tricks that synergize with Swans ability in multiple ways, both defensively and offensively. It’s somewhat competitive, but would never be seriously viable in a tournament.

Like-Minded Individuals
What’s unfortunate, is that you can’t just randomly show up at casual night at your local gaming store and expect to find a plethora of Casual-Competitive players. What you will find is a sea of people there, with skill levels ranging from the Intro-pack beginner, to tournament-caliber T8 finisher. That’s fine, everyone can get what they want to out of Magic.

But you need to understand that these players are going to bring their deck that matches there philosophy too. When you play your Casual-Competitive deck against the beginner, you will stomp him pretty handily. The beginner’s card pool is far too weak to compete with a tuned Casual-Competitive deck, so you will either have to lower your standard and play something similar, or just avoid him.

Likewise, the Tier 1 Competitive player can (and probably will) probably roll right over you too. Sure occasionally you will win a game or two, but unless you enjoy getting beat down game after game with Tier 1 aggro/control/combo, look for someone else.

If you want to get the most of your gaming time, you need to develop your community. That will mean playing with many people, and observing their style. When you come across a like-minded player who builds Casual-Competitive decks too, recruit him to play again.

I’ve lived in four states and played Magic in every one of them since Magic started in 1993. Here. I’ve encountered many players that I remember fondly whom I would include in this great Casual-Competitive crowd.

While in Bloomington Indiana, I fondly remember playing Will L., whose creativity always amazed me. Will was shrewd and crafty, and always seemed to get the most out of his artifacts, counterspells, and Humility. Those afternoons we spent at the IU Memorial Union ceratinly were the glory days!

While in Toledo, Ohio , I had the pleasure of joining Abe S. in his Magic Nights. I gladly made the weekly commute to Ypsilanti Michigan so I could share in the fun against Abe’s Deck of Happiness and Joy, as well as well as his nearly famous Equinaut machine.

Simultaneously, I met Aaron B. in Ypsi. Aaron maintains the 5-Color Essentials decklist, as well as the Almost Essentials, which still inspire me to this day. I still refer to him and his decklists for advice and feedback. He is in Korea now, but I maintain my friendship with him overseas.

Now that I’m in NC, I’ve found a new group of players that live up to the Casual-Competitive mantra. Mike L. regularly pushes the limits of competitive creativity, and his table defining/warping 100-card pseudo-highlander Oath of Druids deck is no exception! It’s not often that you see all seven people sitting in a group game actually request and cheer for their opponent’s deck selection!

My final props go out to Kenny A., whose ability to build clever theme decks always delights me. Kenny has a refreshing approach to deck building, combining current and older cards into decks that are unique and fun to play against. His knack for finding dusty old enchantments (and everything that could possibly synergize with them) regularly surprise me.

There are countless other people I’ve had the pleasure of playing against too throughout the years, but these five certainly rank highly, and I won't forget. Thanks for all of the good times!

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