Making your own rules

Card games have had trailing letters after their name for a long time. TCG, CCG, LCG, ECG, and I am confident there are plenty of others. Generally it refers in some way to the monetization model, they are collectible, they are tradable, they are a living card game. Different variations to communicate a core method for acquisition. Maybe they aren’t necessarily descriptive enough on their surface but for those in the know they tell a relevant story. One that sometimes gets lost is the idea of the customizable card game. The one that comes to mind is the Aliens vs. Predator card game.

1997 – 1998 RIP

Really all card games are customizable though right? That’s part of the allure. Each game you play anything could happen. You create your customized deck and then clash with an opponent (or more) and have an enjoyable time in the process with friends and potentially frenemies. I actually hate that word, but that’s a digression for another day. There are plenty of reasons to play card games but I’d imagine this general thought went through every card player’s head at some point in their career. It may not have been for the game you are playing right now but presumably there was a point where you just played for the love of the game, and the excitement of just playing the cool new card you ripped from a booster or traded those useless moxes for.

I never did that last part because I never owned a mox.

Let Me Sing You the Song of My People

Eventually though you potentially craved more and the siren’s call of competition drew you to tournaments .That’s where the wheels come off for some people. Competition can be cutthroat. Competition can be abrasive. Competition is also really damn fun in and of itself. Through tournaments, ladders, and leagues new life is breathed into games. It is an end unto itself, as those who love competing push themselves and other competitors to new levels in both understanding of the game as well as exploring and experiencing new aspects that may not otherwise be uncovered.

That isn’t to say that casual play is bad or lesser. Quite the opposite. It’s been brought up many times on stream, on recording, and even here on this very site that everyone wants something slightly different out of games. That same person may even want different things at different moments in time. That’s part of being human. Nothing wrong with that. Developing games is much more difficult as a result, but that doesn’t mean there’s some inherent rivalry between groups of players. Unfortunately that seems to arise anyway.

“I HAVE THE POWER” exclaimed Destro as he attempted to crack open Metalhead

Part of the conflict is valid. At the end of the day companies are not generally releasing independent sets for casual play and competitive play. Magic blurs this to an extent but as with most things Magic is the exception that proves the rule (another saying I hate). Magic can be used to defend just about anything in card gaming as it has been around so long and it has gone through some enormous upheavals over time that it can be difficult to apply lessons from it. After all, how many other games are left standing? Especially if they took some of the lumps that Magic did over the years.

Bring it back, the point is that casual and competitive players are “competing” for the same card slots in the same sets for the most part. Effects that appeal to the kitchen table may not cut it in the tournament hall and vice versa. Sometimes they overlap but not always. Two things that are often forgotten is

  1. Someone can be both casual and competitive at any point in time, including the same time
  2. The rules surrounding play are what drives this

Already I can hear the lament “how can casual play have ‘rules’? ” Well that’s the crux of this article. Like it or not your casual play group or even your desired play pattern for our digital tcg players has an outline in their head(s) about how the game should work. Not necessarily how many resources per turn, or whether there is a post combat main phase, or what order to resolve triggered abilities in, although all of those could be part of it as well. Instead it’s “are counters fair?”, “resource destruction is bad”, “combo is not just inherently evil but the literal Devil and it ate my cat”.

Let’s Talk This Out

Did you just say you LIKE combo?

Occasionally the last one feels like it may come out of someone’s mouth, or fingers depending on the medium.

Having these rules, these guidelines is not really bad. Truly how different is it that when meeting a new group they tell you “hey this is a casual game, please try not to play a turn 1 combo” in EDH/commander from the governing body banning or errata’ing a card? Effectively in both situations they remove cards or effects from the pool. The rub here is that at the end of the day there will always be good and bad cards! In a casual environment there are good or powerful cards that are “within the rules” of the kitchen table. The same as how a tournament will refine what decks and archtypes are acceptable to play. Distilling them into tiers.

For competitive play the rules are basically “survival of the fittest”. Inherently the goal of winning drives decks and players to adapt. They are going to pour over card pools, analyze matches, and eek out every legitimate advantage they can in order to pocket just a few more percentage points in any given game. This isn’t written in any rules document. Instead it is just something that springs up as a result of the original edict.


That’s it. That single word pushes players to invest all this time and effort. Winning is of course fun, but it isn’t the only part of competition that is enjoyable. Taking a more philosophical leaning, it’s the journey. The hours spent testing and with friends, teammates. All the effort that ultimately culminates in a win either at a tournament or on the ladder. Just as earlier, the experience isn’t all that different from casual play, they just happen to have minor modifications along the way. Barring something super egregious, play whatever the hell you want in a tournament. That’s up to you and in many respects that is significantly more inviting and open than what is set forth by casual circles. Does it work quite that cleanly? Of course not, but that’s not solely on the competitive side there are other factors that cause ripples.

Mind rules. It’s like customizing the game, but without telling anyone. That’s basically what the casual ruleset is, a social contract about certain portions of a game. Finding a way to enjoy a game either in a casual way or competitive way is absolutely fine. Really the issue arises when you try to impose those restrictions on others against their wishes. Anecdotally I’ll elaborate with this: While the Transformers TCG was still alive I recall sitting down after a tournament with a number of content creators. We were fortunate to have not just an abundance of enthusiastic people in the community but specifically in our local area. We came from diverse gaming backgrounds but crossed paths through this game. Since it was a tournament the conversation eventually gravitated towards growth of the scene and community building. The disagreement was whether individuals should play top tier decks. At this stage the Big Dogs were either discovered or at least pretty close to being set in stone. As you’d imagine one camp stated that it is a killer for communities. People won’t want to show up and play against the same stuff over and over, especially if they get stomped. The other side wanted to compete and compete against the best of the best builds and players.

A common breakdown in these sort of discussions is labeling one side or the other inappropriately. Look, both of these groups have a valid point. It ultimately depends on the individuals in question and the nature of the event as to how things should be configured. If people want to just show up and throwdown with their wonky homebrew then great! If they want to sharpen their mind and skills with the bleeding edge then fantastic! Here’s where the issue comes in and see if you can recall your own interactions where something similar happens. To me the venom for competitive focus was verging on palpable. That it was inherently lesser to want to play powerful cards. The only reason you could have for doing so is to crush dreams and obfuscate some mental or moral failing.

My response as “What if I just like those cards?”

Hope you like those cards

It sort of broke the conversation for a breath. I don’t believe that in that moment the intent from the other participants was to be malicious, however I’ve witnessed plenty of conversations where it is painfully obvious that wanting to win is looked down upon. There’s something wrong with you if you enjoy the game in that way. A thought process like that is kind of sinister when looked at in that light. Driving the disconnect are the Mind Rules. It is present in other game genres as well. In fighting games playing a top tier or “cheap” character or playing in a certain way (e.g. zoning) will garner a lot of backlash from some individuals.

Realistically the problem comes down to one thing and that’s butthurt.

I Didn’t Expect That

Butthurt of course is often due to unmet expectations. Saying “that’s unfair” doesn’t mean that whatever the object is question is actually unfair! Expecting everyone else to play the game you want it played instead of how it is played is a you problem. It is justifiable to not enjoy a certain card, deck, or play pattern. In fact suitably communicating that is reasonable. The difference is that the developer intent in conjunction with the controlling format and cardpool are what defines whether something is OK or not.

A common response I’ve witnessed in commander/EDH circles is that if someone shows up with their super busted turn 0 combo, let them go off, then just continue the game as if they never were even there. They had their fun and everyone else gets to have their fun afterwards. You can debate the merit of this approach but the underlying point is that if it was made clear that the rules are “don’t do X” and you went ahead and did X there’s a problem. In the same vein if you queue up for ladder and your opponent is running a deck you don’t like well sometimes that will happen. They get to have fun too.

The answer is to adapt. Not wail.

Games have rule both written and unwritten. If you want either changed there are right and wrong ways to address it. In some cases it may be politely asking someone to knock it off, in others it may necessitate the 1st party stepping in to change a format.

There are a lot of things you can’t actually control in a card game. The contents of the next set for one. The meta at a given tournament for another. Your opponent’s topdecks are a common one. However you can control your attitude when approaching an event or even just the game as a whole. At some point the thought must go through your head “this is not for me, and that’s OK”. Card games are about evolution to a degree. The fluidity is part of what makes them fun. I say that as someone who loves the “boxed board game” appeal of eternal formats. That isn’t how card games get made, or make money though. It certainly isn’t the way that most people enjoy them either. As a result I need to accept that there are limitations to what my personal preferences can influence. If at some point I determine that the enjoyment to effort ratio isn’t appropriate then I reassess where I stand with the game, and possibly stop. Not an ultimatum. Not a tantrum. Just stop. Maybe things will circle back around in the future but the idea is that you are in control of the expectations you have for the game. Lowering or raising them based on new information is both normal and correct.

At the risk of the analogy falling flat since it’s been so long since the world afforded the opportunity to do this, if you walk into a bar it doesn’t make much sense to throw a temper tantrum that everyone is drinking alcohol. If you don’t want to partake you can get a soda or water, that doesn’t mean you need to crap all over how someone else is having a good time. At a vegan restaurant don’t expect to order a steak. If you aren’t happy with the options you don’t go flip another patron’s table screaming about how they are a bad person because at the seafood place you couldn’t get a decent deli sandwich. It doesn’t make sense and you just look like an insane person. In the same way when you sit down to play a game try not to project your own requirements onto your opponent. They are allowed to play the game, within the context of the rules, as well.

Explaining to someone up front what the expectations are as a playgroup so everyone is on the same page is rational and sensible. If you show up to a tournament (or ladder) the expectation is that you are bringing the big guns and playing to win. Expecting people to adhere to your mind rules is unfair at best and can really be unhealthy.

Don’t Hate the Player Hate the Game. Well….Don’t Hate that Either

There may be a point where a game needs outside intervention. There is an actual problem with the environment because [insert thing] is actually ruining the game. Of course the issue is that everyone has their own definition of what ruin looks like and that’s why you’ll constantly see a stream of “X is killing the game!” anytime there’s anyone invested in something. That’s the developer’s problem though. They need to try and appease all these different player segments that have all these varied wants and desires. As players it is more important to ensure that you are not arbitrarily setting up rules for other players. Everyone is free to express their own opinion about the state of the game but at the end of the day everyone has fun differently. Just as with other topics you need to be able to take yourself out of the situation and not make it personal. Really you need to ask the question as to whether something is actually problematic or you just simply don’t like it.

As always everyone, thanks for coming by and Black Lives Matter.

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