Kingmaking, Collusion, and Bullying - (Beyond) the Boundaries of Play in cEDH | Magic: The Gathering
October 24, 2023
Ultimate Guard Team
Magic: The Gathering
MTG, cEDH, Commander
A game is defined by its rules, and these rules are laid out in its rulebook. This might sound straightforward, but it's not. A game is governed by two very distinct sets of rules, often referred to as the 'magic circle,' and we tend to overlook one of these rules sets.
The more obvious set of rules can be found in the aforementioned rulebook. These rules dictate things like how cards function, how they interact with each other, and what constitutes a legal move, all based on game mechanics. They usually provide clear instructions, such as the deck size and the outcome of certain game actions.
A scenario like resolving a Vampiric Tutor without any necessity while an Opposition Agent is on the battlefield during a cEDH tournament match is technically unproblematic by following these rules. The player adhered to all the game mechanics, cast Vampiric Tutor correctly, and followed the precise steps, ultimately leading to their opponent searching their library for a legal target, Ad Nauseam.
While it is a completely legal sequence of gameplay, the game action feels wrong and shouldn't have occurred in the first place. The reason for this discrepancy lies in the implicit rules we all agree to the moment we decide to play a game together: the social contract.
The social contract in Magic: The Gathering
The concept of the social contract is most commonly associated with the RPG (Role-Playing Game) community. In this context, both players and the Game Master (GM) come together to establish their expectations for a campaign and their interactions with each other. For example, they may clarify that any in-game betrayals based on the character's morality are limited to the fictional world and do not spill over into real-life relationships. Alternatively, they may agree that betraying one's party is strictly forbidden within the game world. These social contracts are highly individual and group-specific, ranging from formal contract signings to open discussions or even unspoken agreements.
The moment of entry into the game or what's often referred to as the 'magic circle' is somewhat nebulous. Is it when you decide to drive to a friend's house, bringing your dice and character sheet with you? Or does it begin when you sit around the table, and the GM adopts a different voice for the adventure's introduction? Perhaps it's when you take your first in-game action, like deciding to shoot an arrow at an approaching goblin while rolling a die. However, somewhere in between these moments, you actively cross the threshold into the magic circle.
In multiplayer Magic, specifically in EDH, many of these aspects hold true. At the very latest, your participation begins when player 1 makes their first in-game move, signifying that the four of you have formed a pod, and your active engagement has yet to commence.
EDH, commonly referred to as Commander, stands out within the realm of Magic formats due to its casual nature. As a result, you might find it necessary to establish a few unwritten rules or "social contracts" in order to tailor your card choices. The first contract involves curating your card pool based on your gaming experience, while the second is shaped by the kind of social interaction you aim to have with your playgroup. This thoughtful consideration is highly recommended and typically takes the form of a Rule Zero discussion.
In contrast, Competitive EDH (cEDH) defines itself as a subformat of EDH where the Rule Zero discussion is essentially redundant. But is this truly the case?
The debate surrounding card limitations becomes indeed irrelevant since there are virtually no restrictions, apart from the official ban list. Some of these implications also extend to the social aspects of the game experience. Players are expected to maintain good sportsmanship and not get upset if their lands are destroyed or their decks are milled. Furthermore, the primary goal is to ‘play to win,’ especially in a tournament setting.
Given these conditions, the previously mentioned scenario of Fred casting a Vampiric Tutor into Sara’s Opposition Agent without external influence can be readily classified. It's been determined as a legal game action, but it runs counter to the principle of playing with the intent to win. Consequently, Fred has violated a well-known and widely acknowledged social contract, seemingly without immediate consequences.
However, how do we go about defining and assessing such plays that blatantly defy the social contract?
Is it a case of Kingmaking? | cEDH
Kingmaking involves the capacity to determine which player will win the game in a clearly deterministic situation, where the potential Kingmaker will definitely lose the game, and at least two other players demonstrate an undeniable path to victory. Therefore, even though the example might commonly be seen as an act of kingmaking, Ad Nauseam searched for by Sara doesn't guarantee a certain win. While the odds of winning are undeniably high, and she would probably secure victory in 8-9 out of 10 attempts, there remains a chance for her to fizzle and lose, as amusingly happened in the pod I was part of.
Another scenario that may initially appear to be kingmaking, but is quite common in the cEDH community, is when Tom attempts to use Red Elemental Blast (REB) to counter the enters-the-battlefield trigger of David’s Thassa's Oracle. However, this attempt fails because REB doesn't work in that way, leading to the successful resolution of the trigger and a game loss for Tom. In this case, it's important to note that this isn't kingmaking at all.
First, there wasn't another player in the game who was on the verge of securing a certain victory. Second, the action taken by Tom was not even a legal game move (even though he could have used REB to counter Thassa's Oracle while it was on the stack before entering the battlefield). Third, it was not intentional; Tom simply didn't understand how to properly use his spell.
Intentionality is often overlooked when it comes to evaluating game actions, and it's a critical factor. This situation is somewhat similar to what happens in video games like League of Legends, where players accuse others of "inting" (short for intentional feeding) when, in reality, those players are simply performing poorly compared to their opponents and losing fights due to a lack of skill rather than a deliberate attempt to help the opposing team. In my perspective, true kingmaking involves intentional and active actions, as "making" implies a purposeful act.
Is it a case of Spite Playing? | cEDH
Spite playing involves targeting a specific player in a way that punishes their previous game actions while disregarding the current assessment of threats and the intent to win. The only argument that could classify the example mentioned above as spite playing is that, by needlessly favoring one player, others are punished in the process. However, this argument seems somewhat weak; a more relevant example of spite playing might be when a player Pact of Negations a spell, but they can't pay the upkeep cost for PoN.
Spiteful actions can stem from various sources, such as prior game actions within the ongoing game or a player's reputation as being exceptionally skilled or unlikeable in some way. Following this, the player who cast Vampiric Tutor might have a higher likelihood of receiving spiteful actions later in the tournament or in their gaming career because they initially breached the social contract, making themselves an easier target for unsportsmanlike behavior.
What about an act of collusion? | cEDH
The Commander’s Herald defines collusion as "probably the simplest concept (...) albeit the hardest to detect. Collusion, simply put, is two or more players working together to reach a predetermined outcome." Considering that Fred and Sara didn’t know each other before the match, it would have been impossible for them to agree on a predetermined outcome. While collusion is a serious problem in tournaments, especially in the last swiss rounds to manipulate the entries for Top16, our example is not such an act.
UnsportingConduct | cEDH
The example provided doesn't neatly fit into the previously discussed concepts, and it's worth noting that these well-known concepts generally don't result in direct punishment from judges or tournament organizers. However, what might be driving Fred to play in this manner? Hopefully, the fact that "Sara" was a female player and Fred was male didn't influence his decision-making, as that would indeed be a peculiar form of sexism. Let's assume that their genders didn't play a role.
When I asked Fred about his thought process at that moment, he mentioned that he wanted ‘to shake things up in the game’, which had been slowed down by various stax pieces like the Opposition Agent mentioned earlier. Interestingly, a turn earlier, he had removed my Opposition Agent, so it's reasonable to assume that he had been considering casting Vampiric Tutor specifically in Sara's path well in advance. Since Fred was playing a Korvold Treasure Storm deck, which is an aggressive turbo deck, a slowed-down table would be detrimental to his game plan. Perhaps he was attempting to open up the playing field by allowing Sara to search his library.
Even if he didn't originally expect her to find a win condition, the fourth player and I argued that this was the most likely outcome, and he proceeded with his actions. His statement of "I want something to happen" clearly indicates that his attitude was in direct contradiction to the tournament's core idea of winning and, in doing so, breached the social contract within this Magic community. Similar to the NFL, there should be some mechanism, like a flag for Unsportmanlike Conduct, that players and judges can use to address and penalize such breaches because the Magic Judges paragraphs on IPG 4. Unsporting Conduct Minor/Major are insufficient for this type of play and do not cover those game actions.
Mana bullying: ‘Playing to win’ gone too far
Casting a Vampiric Tutor into an Opposition Agent is indeed a legal game action, and similarly, "Mana bullying" is the exploitation of a somewhat questionable but legal game mechanic where tapping for Mana resets priority. By using this method, a player with interaction cards can legally compel others to tap their lands repeatedly to reset priority. This allows the player to maximize the value of their interaction and potentially dominate the game – a strategic move to enhance their chances of winning, at least in theory.
However, Mana Bullying has become a concerning and divisive issue among many cEDH players, as it has been observed in some of the largest online tournaments recently. This phenomenon contradicts the self-proclaimed identity of cEDH players, who generally aim for high-level competitive play. Therefore, the social aspect of cEDH cannot be disregarded, even in a tournament setting.
Some playgroups have taken the initiative to address Mana Bullying by starting their rounds with a social Rule Zero discussion, explicitly stating that Mana Bullying won't be tolerated. This discussion primarily focuses on Mana Bullying, at least for now, while excluding other forms of bullying.
When a player's sole strategy to avoid losing the game is to apply emotional pressure to a player attempting to win, without utilizing in-game mechanics to interfere, it can be seen as an approach driven by the intent to win. However, this situation is viewed differently within the community, as some consider it a form of politicking, while others perceive it as harassment. Evaluation of such situations is particularly challenging, as they are highly individual and are perceived differently by each player. Some players may be more vulnerable to such tactics and prone to making errors under hostile conditions, while others may be more resilient and unaffected.
Don’t be a dick
When it comes to game mechanics, there's an impartial third party enforcing the rules, but when dealing with social aspects, often not enough attention is given. While there's a long-term consequence of losing trust among fellow players for those who frequently push the limits of social interactions (and they may become easier targets for spiteful plays, as mentioned earlier), in open tournaments, they essentially have no consequences to fear.
Nevertheless, even in a competitive cEDH setting, the game is inherently social due to its multiplayer nature, creating a need for a fundamental set of rules that judges can enforce. Tournament organizers have the power to establish floor rules that every participant must follow automatically. These rules should place more emphasis on guidelines for social interactions in upcoming events because strict enforcement of game mechanics only covers one aspect of the game. The other, equally important aspect, needs to be addressed. Even if it's as simple as "play to win, but don’t be a dick."
This post is an entry by Ultimate Guard's Social Media Manager Henning Jansen.
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