Today, I took out all the tentative phrasing and apologetic language out of this post about competitive Magic and the “netdeck” phenomenon. The gloves have officially come off, and I have strong opinions about netdecking and what it’s doing to casual M:TG.
My post about competitive gaming vs. casual gaming didn’t need a LOT of editing, but it did need a bit of refreshing and smoothing out in a few places. Check out the improvements!
Nevermore, from Innistrad, and its predecessor, Meddling Mage (from way back in Planeshift), are both great cards in tournaments, highly competitive, especially against combo decks that rely on specific cards. When you are able to flatly outlaw a card from being played, that gives your deck a chance to catch up or a chance to nip the opponent’s strategy in the bud.
But notice I said “good in tournaments;” these two cards are part of a very competitive strategy. That doesn’t mean these and other cards like them are good in casual play.
Or rather, cards like these are TOO GOOD for casual play. Playing this kind of card against your M:TG-playing friends, when you know their decks almost as well as you know yours, is an unfair advantage at best, and a complete friend-trouncing move at worst.
When Winning Takes the Place of Friendship in Your Life
Winning Magic games (or any other kind of game, for that matter) is fine–everybody likes to win, everybody likes to feel good about themselves. But when your wins start superseding your friendships and your relationships with other people, you need to rethink how dependent your self-worth is on winning.
I’ve played against literally dozens of people in Magic, and I find that the most fun I have is with people who aren’t playing just to win. When the opponent’s conversation consists entirely of their moves, or bragging about how well their deck is doing, I get impatient for the game to end. “Don’t you have anything else to talk about, any humanity at all?” I find myself wondering in these games. “Or are you just some soulless Magic beast who finds fun in trashing others?”
Unfortunately, for many competitive players, an obviously-one-sided game IS fun to them, while it’s not very much fun for the other player. The “competitive player” type I’m describing is the kind who just can’t snap out of the competitive mode even while playing “friendly” games. Thus, they bring their cutthroat attitude to a table where it is decidedly NOT welcome. They ruin casual games with their 5-turn-win optimized decks and then walk off, leaving the atmosphere of camaraderie in tatters. Who wants to play more Magic after being soundly whipped at it? Certainly not this girl.
The Consequences of Playing “Hardcore” Competitive Magic
Playing Nevermore, Meddling Mage, and other “game-changing” competitive cards can lead to unintended strife between Magic buddies, leading to an eventual loss of opponents to play against.
For instance, it’s gotten to the point where I don’t like playing against my own boyfriend’s Blue/White counter deck because of its Meddling Mages–if he drops one of those, I know he’ll outlaw one of the cards that makes my deck run, because he knows my decks so well. At that point, I might as well just give up, because my deck isn’t going to run the way I designed it to, and I don’t like being controlled like that. Magic is not fun for me when my strategy is rendered absolutely unplayable, and I’d wager other Magic players feel the same way sometimes.
Thankfully, my boyfriend understands how frustrated those kinds of cards make me, and he doesn’t play them all the time. Therein lies the difference, between a person who knows how to scale back his playing to a friendlier level, and people who wouldn’t know what a real “friendly” game was if it bit them in an uncomfortable bodily region.
When someone who has a “hardcore” Magic playing style shows up, casual players cringe. We know what we’re in for–we’re just going to have to lie back and think of England while they’re getting their jollies. We have to wait for them to be done so we can go on to something else that IS fun, with someone else who isn’t acting like a feminine cleaning product. I hate to put it in such blunt terms, but there it is; competitive Magic has its place, and it’s not in my living room nor in my recreation time.
And, once they’ve alienated the casual players in the play group, other competitive players will likely be next to go, as strategies get even more cutthroat and even more “uber-powerful.” Soon enough, nobody will bother even sitting down at the table across from them, because the ending is a foregone conclusion. I’ve seen it happen a few times, and heard of it happening even more times; playing too competitively and focusing on winning alone can and will destroy friendships and entire Magic playing groups over time.
Are You Addicted to Winning and Forgetting Your Friendships?
If you’re a competitive Magic player and have found your play group steadily dwindling, you might be unintentionally suffering from win addiction. Or, perhaps this article has proven to be more of a mirror than you ever expected. Ask yourself: is winning every single Magic game you sit down to really necessary to prove you’re a “pro?” Can you really not let go of competition long enough to just enjoy being with your friends and seeing their strategies work as well as your own?
If you can’t, then maybe you’re investing too much worth in your “pro” status, and less of your worth in the relationships you forge. Humans are social creatures, after all–this is why Magic: the Gathering succeeds the way it does. When you have no one to play against, the game loses much of its luster. Too many un-fun games, and you’ll find yourself out of opponents. No one wants to play a game they’re destined to lose, and no one wants to play against someone who can’t afford to lose a game.
I’m not saying that competitive Magic is “of the devil,” nor am I saying that competitive Magic should be excised completely from the game’s structure. It’s just that all the hardcore stuff has to be balanced with easier-going games, where the stakes aren’t driven up artificially high and the opponents are people who will go and get pizza together after this last round.
How to Recognize When Your Opponent is Not Having Fun
As a type of summary to this article, I provide two handy checklists (not entirely comedic, either). The first is for “reading” your opponent when you’re stomping them in a Magic game; the second is how to soften up your play and make it easier to bear, if not easier to win against.
You Know Your Opponent Is Not Having Fun When…
- Their turns are quick: “Untap, upkeep, draw…pass.”
- They aren’t talking unless you’re asking them something directly, when before the game they were talking animatedly.
- There’s a certain glazed, dead look in their eyes, and their shoulders are as deeply hunched as if they want to disappear down into their chair.
- The only time they look happy or excited is when someone outside the game asks them what they’re doing after they finish this game.
- There are multiple player errors, done out of indifference rather than ignorance: “Oh, I just mistapped that land. Oh well.”
- They haven’t looked you in the face since turn 2.
- They finish your sentence when you play the final move that kills them–some, like me, might even add a bitter “Good” afterwards, such as “Yeah, yeah, I take 19 and that kills me. Good.”
If You See Any of These Signs…
- Ask them what their strategy is about; if you’ve been stomping or controlling them, you probably haven’t seen their strategy at its best.
- Actually listen to the answer, don’t just dismiss it as “inferior”.
- Directly apologize if the game is clearly one-sided in your favor: “I shouldn’t have played this deck against you–sorry, this one’s my competitive deck.” This wins a lot of points with casual gamers, take it from me. It means you realize how much of a pain it’s been to play you.
- If it’s truly a casual game, tell your opponent the key cards in your deck to beat; this makes you less of an uber-gamer and more human.
- Take pressure off the current game by asking them what their favorite cards, colors, card art, creature abilities, etc. are. Talk Magic theory with them.Express interest in their trade collection. Super-competitive gamers playing casual gamers usually complete their conquest and leave like a man sneaking out after a one-night stand; staying around, even just for a few minutes to look at their tradebook, might help them get over the game and see you as a potential new friend.
I might be kicking a hornet’s nest with this post, but I feel this ought to be said. Competitive Magic: the Gathering, the kind played in tournaments, is usually a bunch of players copying and winning with strategies that someone else thought up, commonly called “netdecking.” When you go to tournaments, you can just about expect to see the same 5 decks over and over again. And it really makes me angry, to be honest.
Netdecking: Plagiarism by Another Name
Considering my background in English literature and composition, the idea of stealing an idea from someone else and claiming personal winnings from it is anathema. Where I come from, that kind of thing gets you kicked out of college, not 1st place in a Magic tournament. Any idiot can steal a term paper off the Internet, or copy from Wikipedia and the like; it doesn’t necessarily mean that they themselves have gotten any wiser from the copying. The same goes for Magic decks–just because you can copy a deck doesn’t mean you’re suddenly a star player.
I view each of my Magic decks as an original work of art. Maybe it’s not an optimized game-winning machine, but I thought of it and it’s mine–it represents my creativity and my thoughts. Running someone else’s deck feels wrong somehow, as if I’m trying to take credit for the work they did in putting the original concept together. I would rather lose with a deck I created than win with something I didn’t have the slightest hand in shaping.
Yet most tournament players these days win with decks they pulled off the internet, just like the player next to them did. Instead of introducing new ideas to the Magic: the Gathering community, they’re content to just take a “deck that wins” and profit from it. How does that express individuality and creativity? How does that prove anybody’s smarts? IT DOESN’T!
This is why I get angry when I’m in a tournament full of nothing but copycat decks. I resent it when my playing skill and deckcrafting ability is judged to be of poorer quality because my lovingly crafted strategy didn’t win against a netdeck. And I hate it when these punks act so smug about winning with their netdecks, as if their win proves they’re somehow “smarter” than I am, when all they did was search Google for a few minutes. I feel like shouting, “Go home and build your own blasted deck instead of copying from everyone else, and then we’ll see who wins!”
Why This HAS TO STOP
I’d like to have fun again in Magic. And right now, the competitive tournament mentality is absolutely WRECKING the Casual Magic scene that I used to enjoy so much. Most people just bring in their netdecks now for CASUAL games, instead of working on deck ideas they actually thought of and want to test out. And you just can’t test a new deck against a netdeck that’s designed to win in 5 turns or less–it’s not even a contest, just a foregone conclusion.
Maybe for everyone else, “fun” equals “beating the crap out of someone’s copied Tier 1 deck with your copied Tier 1 deck,” but it’s not fun for me, and it’s not fun for most of the Casual Magic players I’ve talked to, either. Competitive Magic definitely has its place, but I don’t want it in my living room, and I don’t want it in my casual games. Just for once, can we all just build our OWN strategies and actually have FUN?
The question may seem to be a no-brainer for some people–of course you play competitively. What other reason would there be to play, except to win and learn how to win more? Once you remove the competition aspect from a game, a lot of the fun of it leaches out, and it becomes a mere distraction instead of something you can rationalize spending time on.
But, for others, the competitive angle actually eats away at the heart of what made the game popular in the first place: it’s fun. You know, fun? What we used to have playing this game before it became a nail-biting, tooth-grinding, money-gobbling event? For that matter, when a game is not played casually anymore, is it even a game anymore?
Where I’m Coming From
I’m mainly coming from a background of collectible card gaming and miniatures gaming with this article, but you can see elements of these same two schools of thought clashing in the worlds of sports, races, card games like poker, etc. In any type of game, it seems, you are always going to have the people who absolutely have to be the best at every game they play, and the people who play it to have fun with friends and socialize rather than win.
But sadly, the competitive type tends to quash out the casual type when they are brought together, like hunters shooting bald eagles–the casual players are already endangered due to everything in life having to be a competition in this day and age. Once the competitive players start sucking the life and fun out of a game by making it all serious, the casual players eventually stop trying to play. It’s no fun sitting across the table or standing across the court or field from someone who acts like every missed roll or every missed play is a nail in their coffin.
Yes, You Can Be TOO Competitive
I personally am competitive in my heart, but I hate the way that competitiveness transforms me when I play a game. Suddenly, I have to win, I have to be the best, because I’m such a perfectionist I can’t stand to lose. It really drains the fun out of the game for me, and it’s not fun for my opponent to watch me disintegrate into wordless anger every time the dice don’t roll my way. Thus, I’ve largely gone toward casual gaming, to take some of the intense pressure off and to try to train myself to have fun again.
One thing I’ve noticed, however, in my odyssey away from competitive gaming, is how much competitive gamers look down on casual gamers. To them, we are an inferior breed, weaker players, not really even worth “real” players’ time, because we don’t take the game as seriously. Having been very competitive before, I understand why they get like this–sometimes, it feels like the whole world is staked on your next card, your next shot at the basket. But when a game becomes that important to you, hasn’t it become less of a hobby and more of an addiction?
When Games Are No Longer Fun…Re-Examine Yourself
I don’t intend to solve this quandary in one blog post, but I did want to bring this to people’s attention. Whether you play games just to have fun or you play them to win, if you’re happy doing it, then you’re doing something right. The only time I worry is when it seems that games are no longer fun and they are instead things that you have to win at to be happy. Then, I believe, competition has crossed the line into obsession.