Desperate, But Not Serious

Triple warning: this piece has very little to do with judging. It is going to scoot all over the place in service of a central premise. Also, I’m not speaking on behalf of Wizards, just providing the perspective of someone involved in all levels of OP (and Commander).

I have an ARAM record of 1880-1844.

For the many of you to whom that sentence meant nothing, ARAM is a game mode in League of Legends. Unlike “normal” League, which is an intricately strategic game involving warding, roaming, rotations, and map awareness, ARAM is five people on each team charging up the middle and fighting with each other.

It’s glorious.

Part of the appeal of ARAM is that the vast majority of people playing it don’t take it seriously. Oh, we’re all trying like hell to win, but if we lose, there’s a Find Match button and nothing at stake. There’s a good chance that a person playing horribly is on a champion they’ve never touched before, and that’s built into the game. My Yasuo play the other day was not pretty. Didn’t matter, had fun.

Because of this, the in-game chat – a legendarily toxic part of League – is similarly laid back. Maybe one in ten games there’s someone who berates someone else, or says “It may be ARAM but we’re still trying to win” and they’re usually gently mocked or ignored. Of course we’re trying to win, but why stress? I’d lay good money that those comments don’t come from ARAM regulars. It comes from serious players who happen to have stumbled into ARAM, and ARAM is not serious business.

Interestingly, I’ve done a lot of reflection on this in my role as a member of the Commander Rules Committee. There’s been no shortage of debate about the casual versus competitive divide. Commander is obviously designed for the casual side, but there’s a small, vocal group who want it to be a competitive format. That dichotomy masks a deeper philosophy, though, which is that Commander is not a game that should be taken seriously. Sure, you want to win, but the community we’ve always tried to foster is one that seeks to enjoy the games, have fun, and kind of chill out about the end result. Who won is less important than what cool things happened. Despite what some people believe, the player who complains that you used removal on their creature isn’t being any more correct than the person who thinks it’s a good idea to combo out on turn 3, as the problem in both cases comes from mismatched expectations. The correct behavior is to be graceful about it, then find someone else to play with who thinks along the same lines as you do.

And now, for a spectacular transition…

In my opinion, letting Commander be sanctioned at FNM, even casually, was a mistake. At the time it seemed like a great idea. There were people who were playing Commander on Fridays, so why not throw a few cheap foils at them and get them registered?

We were blind to what, in retrospect, seems obvious, even as someone who goes to FNM every week. Sanctioning implied a level of seriousness that the format didn’t want and provided incentive for serious players to get involved. As the very design of Commander isn’t compatible with serious play, it led to unnecessary friction from mismatched expectations.

And this week, some of that has come to wider FNM with the announcement of the change from promo cards to promo tokens. There’s been a lot of screaming and hyperbole floating around where Wizards is telling competitive players that they aren’t welcome at FNM (they are) and are trying to kill communities (they aren’t) and are lying about numbers (sheesh). And so on. What they’re doing is acknowledging a fundamental truth:

FNM is not supposed to be serious.

This is not something new. I’m pretty sure this philosophy has been in place for at least five years, maybe ten. FNM is Wizards’ flagship for competitive, but not serious, play. It’s a fun place to get your game on in a social way, usually with prizes not significant enough to tip things over to where the competitive players need to get serious. That’s why the blinders were on for Commander sanctioning, because when you put FNM like that, it sounds like Commander.

I don’t think it’s coincidence that the “good” promos are few and far between. I think the few that have been good have either been mistakes the other direction (a card that turned out stronger than expected) or experiments to see if a good promo would increase attendance without wrecking the atmosphere (apparently no, and it maybe did). Given that, if the feeling is that FNM is being taken a little too seriously, they use the one knob they have to dial it back a bit.

Promotions make things more serious. If Riot suddenly announced something exclusive that you could only get by winning ARAM, ARAM would become an unplayable mess for a while as a bunch of people descended upon it and took things too seriously. FNM is the same – it’s the first wider community thing new players are exposed to, and that should be a welcoming environment that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Competitive players are welcome! It’s serious players who need to be directed elsewhere (and that appears to be Standard Showdown, along with PPTQs, GPs, etc). In particular, the Levine Trench is incompatible with FNM, and there’s a lot of overlap (not 100%! not you!) between players in that mindset and the ones motivated to show up because of a valuable FNM foil.

People wonder why Wizards didn’t just talk about this up front. I don’t think they had anything to hide. I believe it’s because this idea of unserious is so baked into their understanding of FNM that it didn’t occur to them that they needed to make the point. It was just obvious, and everyone is approaching this announcement from that context, right? That bites us in Commander, sometimes. We’ll make an announcement, and not mention stuff that’s so obvious to us it’s become a blind spot. It’s something that you have to watch out for.

Everyone is welcome at FNM, and all the “Wizards is telling Competitive players to go away” is overblown. But, there’s a group for which FNM is intended and decisions get made to foster that group. That’s what has happened here (and, hey, enhanced programs for serious players, too!) and hopefully all the expectations are less mismatched now.

Sometimes you should play Magic because you just want to play Magic. It’s glorious.

I’ve disabled comments here, because I’m off to Kyoto soon and they’ll just get stuck in queue. A Reddit post is probably better anyway and I’ll check there periodically.