We return to the well for another installment How to Improve at Commander Without Really Trying, a series about steps you can take to improve the social side of the game. In this installment, we’re talking about triggers.
I had an interaction recently that fundamentally altered my view of social interaction at a Commander table. My friends and I were playing over Spelltable, and I’m on Elves with Grand Warlord Radha at the helm. It was my “glimpse of nature” turn and I popped off, chaining Elf after Elf after Elf. I’ve got Craterhoof in hand and a haste enabler on the field with ten or twelve Elves, but I’m about five mana short of ending the game. I sigh and lament my misfortune, about to pass the turn and prepared to be wrathed into oblivion when my friend speaks up.
"Hey, you’ve still got an untapped Marwyn.”
“Yeah, but she only taps for three. I’m still short.”
“I mean, you’ve had like 7 or 8 Elves enter the field this turn, and she’s been there this whole time. You’ve missed a billion triggers. She should be tapping for 11 or 12. You’ve got the mana.”
“Oh. Well...s***. I guess I do. Tap for 11, Craterhoof, swing for lethal?”
“In response, you win.”
I was kinda floored. Why would he let me just win? Why would he help me? My triggers are my triggers and they’re for me to remember.
Well...are they though?
Like a lot of us, I started playing MTG in 60 card formats. Name a 60 card format that isn’t Vintage, and I’ve probably played it: Standard, Modern, Pioneer, Legacy, Pauper, Cards I Own On The Floor, and I’m sure I forgot some. With 60-card, 1-v-1 formats, you’re looking out for yourself. You don’t tell people that they’ve missed triggers or show them the avenue to win. Competitive formats are just that: competitive. If your opponent misses a trigger, that’s on them. You are both there to win, and if your opponent stumbles on the way that is not your problem. By stark contrast, that “win at all costs” mindset doesn’t really exist in casual Commander; I might even go as far as to say that it has no place in casual Commander. Walking away with the W isn’t necessarily the objective of the game. Don’t get me wrong; winning is cool. But, most of us on the casual side of the game just want a good time with friends. We play to win, but not at the expense of having fun.
With that in mind, I ask you a question: what’s the point of keeping quiet when we see an obvious missed trigger? How does our silence make the game better for everyone? I posit that it does not. Commander is a format where the stakes could literally not be any lower. A win means nothing. A loss means nothing. No one’s keeping track of global ranking, reporting results to the DCI, or hoping to make Day Two. All that’s at stake is the time you’ve spent playing and fostering your relationship with your playgroup. If you’re having a great time regardless of winning or losing, then what’s the point of keeping quiet on missed triggers to gain that extra 0.0052% win probability? Who are you trying to impress? What are you trying to prove?
Helping your opponents is antithetical to what we’re all taught when we learn about 60-card, competitive formats. In Commander, it’s crucial that we unlearn that. Pointing out missed triggers and stack interactions, especially when said triggers will hurt your board state or your game plan, is beneficial to long-term health of both your playgroup as a whole and the players as individuals.
I realize that I sound like I just escaped from Geier Reach Sanitarium, but hear me out.
Consider this. You have a player with a new deck which features a strategy they’ve never played before. For argument’s sake, let’s say it’s aristocrats featuring Teysa Karlov. Aristocrat decks are not the easiest to pilot because of all the decision points, triggers, and math involved, and now Teysa literally doubles that mental workload. Even an experienced player has a challenging feat ahead of them and will likely miss some things.
From here, we’ve got two choices. The first choice is let the other player sink or swim on their own. The second is to keep an extra close eye on their board state and assist when needed. What do we stand to gain when we step in to identify, manage, and resolve triggers that aren’t ours?
The outcome of the game is determined by what was supposed to happen, and not because someone forgot something that you could exploit.
The pilot experiences more fun and less stress knowing that their friends are willing to help.
You become part of the teaching process and help this person learn their deck.
The pilot starts to form neural pathways, increasing their skill at piloting the deck in the future.
Each group member gets more practice at evaluating the whole board state, decreasing the amount of missed triggers in the future, enhancing their threat assessment skill, and increasing their capacity for strategic planning. The best plans are the ones that account for and leverage the stack and triggers effectively!
You exercise your own knowledge of the stack and rules interactions, and maybe even learn a few new card interactions and synergies.
Everyone pays closer attention to the game at hand. Fewer triggers get missed, everyone is engaged, and no one’s checking Facebook in between turns.
You learn about your opponent’s strategies, combos, synergies, and best cards for future games.
The pilot may be willing to help you out on a future turn or a future game, all because you were helpful when they nearly missed something.
Your playgroup starts to follow your lead, and the group as a whole starts to build a culture of transparency, honesty, and selflessness.
Folks let go of ego and focus more on having a fun and fair game.
Trust is reinforced.
Maybe you lose the game, but you win at setting an example for your playgroup and building a reputation for exceptional gamesmanship.
And what happens when we don’t step in to help?
Frustration with the pilot during their learning process
You probably win a meaningless game that you likely won’t even remember for...glory?
Emphasis shifts from fun to competing for edge advantages to win.
Wins are marked with an asterisk, because you should have lost but won because we’re not playing on MTGO when a computer remembers all the triggers for us.
This is what we in the biz call “a teaching moment.” No one is ever an expert the first time they pick up a deck. And even people who’ve been piloting decks for years miss things occasionally. Obviously, this treatise does not apply to the cEDH crowd; the “c” in that acronym stands for “competitive” after all. The high level gameplay is exactly what they’re after, and your triggers are yours to remember. But at casual tables, we have an opportunity to have a true communal experience and create the best, most fair outcome we can. It requires us to all pitch in and make sure that we’re keeping each other honest, even when we’re the recipient of a metric ton of Blood Artist triggers.
At the end of the day, this is about honesty and transparency. At a casual table, I would rather be honest and lose a game where someone has me beat, rather than keep quiet about something they missed and win on the back of a mistake I could have prevented. Keeping quiet isn’t necessarily lying, but for me and me alone it feels dishonest and deceitful. Your mileage may vary, but I’ve never had any negative experience for being forthcoming about the game state. We should all be here to support each other, and that starts by demonstrating good gamesmanship. If your deck can assemble a win, you deserve it. I’ll cover for you, because that will create an environment where you’re also looking out for me.
I had a game just tonight as I write this where an opponent told me on 3-4 separate occasions that I'd missed the life gain trigger on Rin & Seri, Inseparable. This was the same player I'd just helped a few turns earlier remember some death triggers on Ogre Slumlord and Grim Haruspex. Both of our experiences were enhanced by looking out for the other. By contrast, one of our opponents was tapped out but for a Maze of Ith. When asked the question, “How much mana do you have open?” they replied, “I have one land untapped.” This kind of behavior doesn’t sit well with me, and (in my own, personal opinion) doesn’t do anything to enhance the play experience for anyone. I believe that being honest, forthcoming, and helpful about your triggers and your opponents’ triggers will make for more interesting, transparent, and honest games now and in the future. Everyone benefits when you build camaraderie and trust, and it doesn’t take much effort beyond paying attention to a game you probably should be paying attention to anyway. And that’s this week’s lesson in how to get better at Commander without really trying.