The Mana Dork

THE MANA DORK—Building a Social Contract

I used to have a player in my D&D group. This player was That Guy, in most of the ways you could be considered That Guy.

When playing a rogue, he’d steal from party members. When casting fireballs, he’d leave the fighter in the blast radius and ask, “You can take it, right?” If he happened to have a Charisma score above 12, every trip to the tavern would end with thirty minutes of seduction rolls.

All of his characters were mysterious and tragic, in that they wore long cloaks, constantly hid in the shadows or leaned against walls, and yet somehow still hogged 90% of the DM’s attention trying to show off how mysterious and tragic they were.

This was, of course, a problem. But why am I talking about this in a Magic column?

Today, we’re going to talk about building a Social Contract, which is a pretty big deal in Commander. And because we all know That Guy, who is That Guy because he breaks social contracts.

What is a Social Contract?

When people talk about “the spirit of Commander”, by and large, they’re talking about a Social Contract. It’s a key concept in Commander—a sort of gentleman’s-and-gentleladies’ agreement that governs what is and is not cool with the people you play with.

The Social Contract for Commander is different for every group, but here are some key points that you should talk about with your group to get started:

  1. How competitive are our games?
  2. How do we feel about…
    1. Infinite combos?
    2. Land destruction?
    3. “Stax” strategies, where a player wins by assembling a board lock and preventing other players from playing?
    4. Tutoring?
  3. Are there any cards that we should informally ban ourselves, on top of the existing Commander banlist?

The first question is the most important. I’ve had a few games where someone has sat down with a deck that is vastly more competitive than those at the rest of the table—including one which locked the rest of us out of playing any spells at all—and they were some of the least fun experiences I’ve ever had.

Ultimately, everyone is there to play. Making sure everyone comes in the spirit of play, and is capable of understanding the effect their actions—and even their play choices—can have on other people is very important, and goes a long way towards having good, fun games.

I cannot stress this enough: whether you’re a cutthroat group that likes turn-3 infinite combos and thinks Narset isn’t much of a problem, or you prefer tribal decks and “battlecruiser Magic” with most of your interaction happening in the combat phase, make sure you all agree on the power level of your games. Anything else is a recipe for feel-bads, even if it’s not you who’s feeling bad.

How do you enforce a Social Contract?

This is the hard part.

We’ve all been bullied. We all know what it’s like to not be accepted. And so we generally try to make sure everyone around us feels accepted, even if it means putting up with behaviour that makes our games less fun.

The problem is that this can absolutely kill games of Commander—even entire groups, sometimes. And so it’s not something that can, or should, be put up with.

So. Let’s say you’ve got a player in your group who’s making things un-fun for the rest of you. How do you deal with it?

I talk to a lot of people in a lot of different situations in my day job, and I’ve learned a few things about how to talk about sensitive subjects and still come out as friends. Here are my suggestions:

  1. Talk to your friend away from the table. Preferably in person, on another day entirely.

    Talking to your friend at the table, with everyone else there, can sometimes make it feel like you’re ganging up on them. People tend to stop listening and talking when they’re ganged up on. That’s not cool.

    If you bring it up in person, away from the table—in a natural moment, whenever you would talk to them about other things—it’s a lot easier to get your meaning across in a way that won’t be misinterpreted. And it’s easier for them to feel like you’ve got their best interests in mind, since you’re taking the time to talk to them about it.

  2. Listen to them. Find out what they think is fun.

    Usually, situations like this arise when people have two different ideas of what’s “fun”.

    So what you do is you listen to your friend. Don’t talk. Don’t try and correct them. Hear them out. You need to understand, on an emotional level, what they enjoy about Commander before you can move forward.

  3. Figure out ways to match up your decks so that everyone is having fun.

    Once you know what your friend enjoys, you can figure out ways to make sure everyone’s deck is in line.

    One of my favourite articles on this subject is Jason Alt’s theory of a “75% Commander deck”. The idea is that you don’t build your decks to 100% efficiency, you build them to 75% efficiency—just good enough to win a game against an optimized deck if you play well and get lucky, resulting in more fun and interesting games. Jason explains the concept much better in his article, so I’ll leave the rest to him.

    Another way is to build a new deck, or to rebuild one. Maybe your friend is just not aware of how good his deck is, and a new one would be more in line with the rest of you. Or maybe he keeps getting blown out because his deck is holding him back, and that’s why he’s kicking up a fuss. Retooling the deck itself then becomes the solution.

In my experience, a lot of human conflict comes about because we haven’t taken the time to listen to each other. Listening to other people and understanding them allows us to empathize with them, making it a lot easier to resolve conflicts and make sure everybody’s on the same page.

What happened to That Guy?

When I spoke to That Guy outside of the group, I found out that he really did enjoy what he was doing. He used gaming to completely escape from life, including from some social norms, and being That Guy while we were gaming relieved a lot of stress for him. (Note that he was actually a pretty cool guy when the dice weren’t on the table.)

However, he had also noticed that some of the reactions he was getting from the rest of us weren’t what he was expecting, and was wondering himself if there was a problem.

After we talked about it, he agreed to be more outwardly social with his character—less inter-party theft and hogging the spotlight, more role-play, social conversations and teamwork. Things worked out, and he kept playing with us until he moved.

Listen to people. I can’t say it enough. Listen to them, understand where they’re coming from, and you can resolve 90% of all conflicts without issue.

Jesse Mackenzie is a regular contributor to A Muse N Games. Tune in every second Tuesday for The Mana Dork, his column on getting back into Magic.