How To Have A Great Commander Rule Zero Discussion In ‘Magic The Gathering’
Commander is Magic the Gathering’s most popular format. Whether it’s the diversity of decks, the large online communities that play it, or just the social aspect of coming together with three of your friends and slinging spells, Commander has endured where others have not.
Part of that success lies in the expectation of collaboration intrinsic to the format. You and your table are encouraged to talk things out before play to work out exactly what sort of experience you want.
This talk, called the Rule Zero Discussion (borrowed from Dungeons & Dragons’ session zero, where the players and dungeon master set out their boundaries and goals for play), is something a lot of players struggle with. Communicating what your deck is, and what kinds of game you enjoy, can be tricky, especially to people who you likely have never spoken to. To help explain how you can improve your rule zero discussions, I turned to various Magic the Gathering content creators and asked for their input.
The Key Points
1) Rule Zero Discussions are meant to ensure the whole table has fun.
2) Discuss what you like about Commander – do you want to pop off, play with weird cards, or somewhere in the middle? Set a positive tone for the rest of the game.
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3) Time and speed are a better metric of ‘power’ than a numerical score. Ask how many turns it takes something to win usually.
4) This isn’t foolproof, it may take a few games for the table to get the same vibe. Have debriefs after each game and adjust accordingly.
Setting the Foundations
The first thing any table wants to determine before playing is what the goal is. Do you want to show off your powerful deck brews, or do you want to play a pet deck that prioritizes cards you like over cards that are necessarily “good”. Or, as podcast host and Commander Advisory Group member (a group of players who, while not setting the rules for Commander, advise the Rules Committee on the health of the format) Shivam Bhatt says, “Are we going for chill out build out, or are we going for the throat?”
For instance, my favorite thing about Commander is seeing the weird and obscure cards that come into their own in the right deck. Because of that, I prefer more chill games where people are free to throw in their less-than-optimal favorites, like my precious Tidal Barracudas and Ivy Lane Denizens. However, someone else may like the high-impact, big plays of cEDH (competitive Commander), where every card should be the very best at what it does. Neither are a right or wrong way to play Commander, but trying to jam them both into the same game will never end well for anyone.
Another important aspect of the Rule Zero discussion is how flexible you’re being with the official, written rules of the format. One of Commander’s strongest selling points is its laissaiz-faire approach to the rules – you can either follow them to the letter or set out house rules beforehand with no problems whatsoever. Playing a normally banned Commander, or having a different color identity to the one on your card, or anything else is allowed so long as your table is okay with it, and the start of the discussion is the time to work this out. If your table is not okay with that, make sure you have a backup deck ready to play instead.
Finally, this talk is a way to set the tone of the players as well as the game. As Vincent “PleasantKenobi” Chandler, a YouTuber and streamer, notes, “I would personally avoid ‘what do you not want to play again’, due to the fact that it can open a can of worms and create a negative mindset before decks have even been shuffled”. Going into the talks with a positive outlook can lead to a positive game, while the inverse is also true. I know for a fact the second I rock up with my Kwain, Itinerant Meddler deck and get a groan from another player that I’m likely to have a bad time, because we’re starting off from a point of being annoyed and upset, rather than eager to have fun together.
Talk About Timing, Not Power Levels
A big problem in the Commander community is how people misjudge the power of their decks. Somebody may consider their deck a super high-powered 8/10 deck because it wins all the time at their game store, but in reality it’s simply finely tuned for the meta of that particular environment. Inversely, someone may think their deck is way worse than it actually is because they lack the confidence in their own builds (this is something I’ve tripped up on in the past, with some of my decks dominating games where we all thought each one would be roughly equal).
Because of this, the numerical power levels system often used by Commander players is worthless for Rule Zero discussions. Joseph Johnson, co-host of the Commander channel I Hate Your Deck, said “I think just sticking a blanket number on a deck isn’t as effective in asking these questions, before everyone rates things differently”. There is also this excellent video on the Tolarian Community College channel, written by recent Commander Advisory Group addition Kristen Gregory, which pretty succinctly tears apart the entire notion of giving your deck a number.
Instead of using an out-of-ten score, work out both how quickly your deck wins, and how quickly it can hit critical points in that path to victory. As popular proxy artistMeghan “Sheepwave” Burden puts it, “I usually make it clear what my general clock and gameplan is… like, ‘this deck’s critical turns are probably eight-10, and wins through combat damage and large burn spells'”. This is echoed by Casual Jake, YouTube and Twitch content creator, who adds that “this is not an exact science, but gives us insight into the style of game we will be playing”.
To work this out, do something the community calls ‘goldfishing’ – run your deck on your own, with no opponents, and see how long it takes for you to get to a point where you could win. Try goldfishing both with a shuffled and drawn ‘normal’ hand, and ones you’ve set up as perfect, one-in-a-million draws, because the difference between what normally happens and what could happen is vast. As Joseph Johnson also adds, “I also ask how fast a deck can win with an optimal hand and what combos or typically oppressive cards are featured in the deck, if any”.
Using my own decks as an example, my Jadzi, Oracle of Arcavios deck is a combo deck that relies on Enter the Infinite to win. While it’s pretty luck-based, it can win as early as turn five or six if I’ve had effective ramp and enough spells to keep triggering Jadzi. This is verbatim what I say to people about my deck during Rule Zero discussions, as combo decks are a style that rub many people the wrong way, and I’d rather they ask me to swap decks if need be than anyone have a bad time playing.
It’s Okay To Get It Wrong, And It’s Okay To Walk Away
You could be a master communicator who can perfectly describe your deck to everyone, but that doesn’t necessarily mean your games will go smoothly 100% of the time. Interestingly, Shivam Bhatt tends not to even ask anything about power levels or timings, instead preferring to work off “the intent and experience of the table”. As he mentioned earlier, simply knowing if people are playing for the win or playing for the experience is enough for him.
On the other end of the scale, sometimes even a complex rule zero might not be quite enough. Kristen Gregory said that the first game you play with a table should work as a calibrator for your future ones. Alongside having a rule zero discussion beforehand, she advocates for having a “post-game debrief”, saying “whenever you play in a new playgroup, or with all new decks that don’t have reference points, you should all be aware that game one is about calibration. Things can and will happen that show imbalances at the table. If you keep that in mind and don’t get salty, and have a good post-game debrief, you’ll have a much better game two”.
While the rule zero discussion is an attempt to outline a game everyone will enjoy, sometimes things don’t go to plan. As Casual Jake puts it, there is a level of personal responsibility needed when sitting down to play, “Personally I look forward to playing with people rather than the decks, so I am flexible when it comes to deck choice… I try to make sure I have a multitude of decks ready… so that I have the ability to scale to the pod’s level… If a pod is unable to reach an agreement on a power level, I believe it is understandable to thank the group for their time and effort, but seek another group that can offer an enjoyable experience for all”.
I think PleasantKenobi laid out the importance of the rule zero conversation incredibly well: “Rule Zero conversations [aren’t] unique to Magic the Gathering. It’s akin to a discussion prior to a Dungeons & Dragons game where you settle on how much roleplay is going to happen, and what subject matter people are willing to engage with. It’s scoping out what people want to do with the next 2-4 hours of their time”. It’s a way of respecting everyone’s time.
It’s an unfortunate fact of the rule zero discussion that the most intense conversation is probably going to happen when you know your playmates the least. You’re meeting potential strangers and hashing out what you want to spend the next few hours doing, and you’re having to advocate for the sort of play you like the best. That’s hard, especially outside of the well-scripted confines of the game itself. But knowing which questions to ask, and which questions not to ask, helps make this vital chat less of a cursory show-and-tell of the commanders being played, and more of the enjoyment-maximizing process it should be.
Put it this way: even before you sit down to play, you’ve put a lot of time into this game. You’ve had to make the deck (which can take hours and significant amounts of money), sleeve it and find a group, and so taking just a few more minutes to work out with the group how to have the most enjoyment with their investments is crucial.