Hello again, folks, it’s cailtis back again after far too much time. Today, I want to do something fairly dissimilar from my articles in the past, and instead of telling the story of one of my decks, I want to talk about a larger concept or discussion point that affects all EDH players.
Before doing so, as a random caveat: if you have not seen it yet, Wizards of the Coast has made a huge announcement today, May 16, here. There are some pretty frickin’ awesome stuff to start getting excited about, so hopefully this year will be yet another great year to talk about Magic: the Gathering and EDH!
Onto the topic at hand: recently, since my return to my hometown playgroup, I was glad to hear some banter here and there about the prevalence of “chaos” in our playgroup and its importance to some decks in the meta. The opinion of “chaos” in general seems to be mixed, but it’s worth noting that there are fairly passionate opinions on both sides of the issue. One player, this past weekend, actually refused to play a potentially-game-winning combo with my 5-color enchantment deck because it involved casting Possibility Storm–a decision that broke my heart.
Chaos, as it’s been colloquially appropriated in EDH groups, is a feature of deck strategy that aims to employ certain elements of random and symmetrical means to the game that lead to ends that include, but aren’t limited to, completely rearranged or absolutely new boardstates, the destruction of fundamental and stable resources (lands, hands, life totals), and the inability for players to physically take part in the decision making their deck hinges on to employ a strategy. As it sounds, and probably as you’ve experienced it already, this is an incredibly polarizing feature of a game that is famous for respecting a variety of approaches to fun and interactive game play.
For example, Magic respects both variance and strategy: while chess will always favor the objectively-better player, this sameness between games could be seen as both attractive and unattractive; likewise, the role of a die or a flip of a coin (as a “game”) will have many different outcomes happening in succession, which may grant more staying power for players since things aren’t so consistent, but it also forces players to question the importance/meaningfulness of the roll/flip to begin with because of how little the player him/herself had to do with the outcome of the “game”. Similarly, Magic grapples with the public-versus-hidden information dichotomy of some games (chess vs. poker), among other complex considerations. Richard Garfield built a game that was both seductive and timeless because decks and hands aren’t always the same and there are elements of variance, but he also wanted to develop a game of strategy and grit that invited the player to take an active role in pursuing victory, even if the probabilities had stacked poorly against him/her (having to mulligan aggressively, drawing poorly for many turns in a row). This was all considered with the understanding that much of the fun and beauty of Magic: the Gathering should inevitably complement the fact that players are acting out of self interest, acting to achieve victory in the easiest, strongest, or best way possible every game–it is a game of competition, as most games are in one way or another.
However, a “competitive” and a “casual” match of Magic are two very different things, as we know–and EDH serves to only emphasize the rift between the two. Sometimes, for a casual player, the most fun and enjoyment lies in making a snap decision to have an effect go off that won’t necessarily further his/her agenda towards victory–the weight, significance, and/or delivery of that certain effect may provide enjoyment that far outweighs the enjoyment one would get from actually physically “winning” the match itself. Being able to do big and ridiculous things was one of the cornerstones of EDH’s inception, and is a guiding principle for most decks today (a general look at the relationship between a deck’s win condition and the converted mana cost/required mana to enact it is evidence for this). Outside of win conditions, however, people have still thoroughly enjoyed just absolutely discarding the commonplace conditions of a Magic game. Chaos is one of these ways that some players still get to have fun and enjoy the game while not particularly furthering a strategy with the intent of winning in the quickest or strongest way possible.
Consider this example: in a four-player EDH game, a Mizzix of the Izmagnus combo deck continually tries to grab experience counters to eventually combo out and kill all of its opponents. The natural check to this deck is the Derevi, Empyrial Tactician control deck that sits across the table, which is constantly countering it’s large draw spells and killing Mizzix in every way possible. In this situation, it wouldn’t be uncommon to see things like a recur-able Glen Elendra Archmage on the Derevi’s board, which consequently maintains a soft-lock on all non-creature spells that enter the stack, from any player. One of the other two players, a tribal elves Ezuri, Renegade Leader deck is thusly locked out of the game because Ezuri had already been countered a handful of times and the deck’s boardstate had been wrathed enough times to completely kill its recovery back into the running for winning the game. The last deck, a chaos/non-lethal Narset, Enlightened Master deck, is able to swing in with a hasted/boot’ed Narset and slam a Warp World–completely reworking the progress the combo Mizzix and control Derevi decks had developed during the game toward locking the other two players from having any enjoyable interaction with the game itself.
And another: in a three-player game, one aggro deck (let’s say a Krenko, Mob Boss goblin aggro deck) is smote down quickly by the combined wraths and removal forces of two control decks, one an Oloro, Ageless Ascetic deck and another a Brago, King Eternal deck. The aggro deck had, again, been locked out by the fact that its opponents collectively had much more staying power into the late game (and the means to destroy fast and acutely-operating decks like the Krenko aggro deck) and could really no longer operate without first answering to the multitude of cards found in the control players’ hands and the large mana pools they now possessed. The gamestate had then become a battleground for counter-wars and combo-building between the control players until the Krenko player waited for the other players to tap out, and played Possibility Storm. The inherently decision-based and timely instants and sorceries in the control players’ hands had been almost absolutely neutered by the fact that they could no longer determine the timing of their spells in their deck until the enchantment was removed.
In the above examples, which course of events did you “sympathize” more with? The first example is one that I experience much more frequently, and find it a better example of how chaos operates in my playgroup that isn’t nearly as competitive as others. I sympathize much more with the chaos player in this example, because the inclusion of Warp World clearly is in there to rip apart lockouts that happen in the meta to the less-counterspell-and-combo-oriented. It was cast at a helpful time, that allowed everyone to continue playing, albeit at different conditions. However, it was also cast randomly from the player’s deck, which is definitely alluring because the randomness of Narset’s flip-up ability means that a player cannot “grief” the game by, say, just choosing to Warp World at a random point in the game to just elongate and further frustrate the game’s narrative. In the second example, I see this inclusion of chaos in the deck a more competitive decision–it’s clear that the Krenko deck has encountered the frustrations of the control decks of the meta before, and has prepared an answer to them that counters them hard and the “chaos” of Possibility Storm isn’t nearly as symmetrical here since the player of the Krenko deck could have simply built the deck with Storm’s effects in mind (it sort of does that already–the deck wants to spam goblins, and one goblin for another is still putting a goblin into play). In both situations, the chaos cards are large and powerful effects on the game, but have wildly different implications for the game at hand.
(Note: if you’re interested in hearing more about my exposure to Possibility Storm, check out my Glaring Spotlight article about the card here!)
For the competitive player, the fun of a game like Magic: the Gathering lies within the competition between players itself. This might mean that “chaos” cards can be used as leverage against some players, or can be angled in certain ways to benefit oneself while harming others. Things that detract from the ability one has to make decisions and think critically will be unappealing to the competitive Magic player, and chaos definitely can fit under this category. For a casual player, maybe the fun of a game like Magic: the Gathering is physically playing out the ridiculous and unique interactions many cards together have to offer, and relies less on the frenetic nature of competition: chaos can definitely be a method to encourage interaction in this regard, but could also be a deterrent to interaction.
If fun is the ultimate goal of both of these players, there’s no doubt that chaos can be both a blessing and a curse. I have friends that despise chaos because it promotes baseless randomness that is frustrating and taxing on innocent games of Magic that depend on the clashing of players’ strategies to be fun; I also have friends that swear by chaos as a tool that can bring hardass blue (and their derivations) decks back to a playing level that keep the game interesting for all players. No matter your opinion on chaos individually, and with any powerful deck strategy, balance will require you to consider your fellow playgroup members and the state of your metagame.
How do you feel about chaos in EDH? Does it appear too frequently or not frequently enough? How about the attitudes of those who use it? Let me know in the comments section below!