Commander League Development

Welcome back, readership. Last week, we made preparations for Commander Summer. The Magic 2012 previews have already started rolling across the interwebs, and every player I know is buzzing about the release of the Commander preconstructed deck lineup in June. Interest in my favorite Highlander format is at an all-time high. In fact, I have already started modifying preconstructed decks based on the minimal information we have about the new Commanders. If you missed it, take a look back at a possible direction that players might take the modification of their {G}{B}{W} decks once we get our hands on the Legendary Karador, Ghost Chieftain. Check out that article for the deck list and start making a “most wanted” list of cards that you might like to purchase if they are not automatically included in the $30 “Counterpunch” deck.

This week, we are going to shift our attention back to developing local Commander leagues and playgroups. I have received a good amount of e-mail and Twitter requests asking questions about setting up Commander tournaments and league play. After organizing a couple of playgroups, I have some insights and understand that this is a prime time to set up playgroups at your local brick-and-mortars. Two of my first articles for this site focused on creating your Commander tournament scene (click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2). I noted some key steps that folks should take when preparing their leagues:

  • Advertise and invite players to the league.
  • Stock up on Commander staples and supplies.
  • Promote a casual orientation.
  • Generate an effective prize structure that reinforces sportsmanship, attendance, and the casual orientation.
  • Develop a system for pairings and round length.
  • Maintain player communication through multimedia sources.

Completion of a League Cycle

I currently participate in a league at a large Tampa location. Advertising the tournaments and inviting players to participate has steadily become easier as the size of the Friday Night Magic crowd has increased. Our store supports Friday night tournaments with an average of forty-eight players over the last three months. About 50% of the players who rock Standard constructed decks on Friday night trade their small stacks for hundred-card Highlander decks on Sunday afternoon. Generating crossover attendance was one aspect of generating a player base. The league started humbly, with six to ten players showing up for tournaments each week. Throughout the first league season, attendance steadily increased. Some of the prizes and rewards encouraged players to bring new players. Tournament entry was free for a player who invited a friend who had never played in our league. Over the course of the twelve-week league cycle, the attendance reached into a consistent fourteen to twenty players.

There were thirty-one unique players who registered for at least one Commander tournament during the first round of league. Over time, there were a couple of regulars who landed a job during our tournament time, while new players heard about the tournament on the store’s website or were invited by friends at an FNM. These were my goals for the first cycle of league play:

  1. Increase the average tournament attendance to sixteen players (four comfortable pods of four players).
  2. Make sure that folks had a great time and wanted to continue playing.
  3. Provide a source of recreation and benefit to the players while providing the store with the incentive of new customers and improved sales.
  4. Develop a player group with a casual orientation in which players provide positive social experiences and enjoyable company for each other.

Mission Accomplished

After reviewing notes and data, and reflecting on the first twelve weeks of Commander at our Tampa store, it seemed that we were on our way to reaching each of the league’s goals. It was important to understand the “mission statement” and goals for the league, because there were several instances in which the players and organizers could have made some mistakes or modifications that might have been counterproductive.

Growth is an obvious goal, but it is not always clear how to promote growth. There might be a natural cap on the number of players who are able to walk through the door on any given day. Players have to work and attend school, and have family obligations or other competing forms of recreation that prevent them from participating in the league. Aside from the natural population cap that might exist for a store in a given area, the league’s “chemistry” and social feel might hinder growth.

In my first attempt at setting up a Commander league, the social climate took a turn for the worse after about sixteen weeks of play. The environment became cutthroat and profit-driven. Many players stopped playing for fun and simply built brutal, effective decks in order to win store credit. A large group who began playing in the tournaments broke away from the core group and formed a league at another store. That league was designed with alternate win conditions to dissuade players from the “Spike-ish” tactics that dominated the initial league. Over time, I left the league I founded in search of fun and enjoyment. Turn-four wins were not good for the league, and players often left the tournaments to escape the torture of degenerate combos.

The factors that contributed to this degeneration of a once-thriving league were linked to social attitudes and money. If you put too much money on the proverbial line, some folks will eventually prioritize winning that large prize over having fun. The league also lacked the social stewards that are necessary to fill essential roles. Some players in your league need to take new players under their wing. New players require mentors who help them build decks, understand the rules, possibly loan or give cards, and eventually pass on the casual orientation and goal of having fun. If new members are greeted by an early elimination on their first try and left out by the “in-crowd,” it is unlikely that you will see them return.

It is key for the storeowners and some members of the playgroup to play the mentoring role with players who are new. Further, we have a sort of unwritten rule to put on “kid gloves” with newer players. If you have the chance to kill someone with a giant attack, you might think about choosing a veteran over the new player in the first few weeks of participation. I like to give new players a chance to acclimate, strengthen their decks, and get their battle legs under them before they receive the full strength of a deck’s power.

In our league, we have games within the game. The whole league functions like a role-playing game in which you level up your mage by achieving prosocial and competitive accomplishments. For example, you can level your Commander mage (your league account) by controlling fifteen enchantments, using a foil Commander, or saving someone from being eliminated from the game. Further, you can also level up your mage by buying the players in your pod a drink or by inviting new players to the league. Players can grow and improve the mage throughout the course of the league by participation, purchasing, and playing. After a number of completions, players win Fat Packs, store credit, and entire boxes just for playing in the league. You can win a box without ever winning a tournament or without ever killing a single player during league play.

As a result, we now have a second cycle of league play going. The achievements necessary to level your mage are reset and new. They are driven by the mission statement, and aim at growing the league and providing an outstanding experience.

Updates and Modifications

Our league attendance last week was twenty-three. It was eighteen the week before, and that was in the face of some large local tournaments firing on the same days. In a world of invitational qualifiers and traveling tournament circuits, your local store can still compete. However, they have to meet the social and recreational needs of the playgroup. The owners, organizers, and players are all responsible for achieving these goals.

With a growing league, there have been lots of positive, unintentional results. Some of the Commander players have picked up Standard decks and have played in FNM. The Commander players occasionally stick around and participate in drafts after the tournaments. Many players are exploring other formats and become multifaceted customers who purchase product and participate in multiple types of Magic.

As the tournaments have grown, we have made modifications on the fly through league votes. Players have decided to take the three-way split of our prize structure and break it down even further to support a casual orientation. We charge a $3 entry fee. One-third goes to the headhunter prize pool, one-third goes to sportsmanship, and one-third goes to participation. However, when the league started hitting twenty players, the participants felt that a $20 store credit prize might result in competitiveness. Therefore, we divided the pool into a first- and second-place award in each of the aforementioned categories. The first-place winners take down 67% of the pool in each category, while the second-place finishers each land 33% of the pool.

We also make occasional rules changes as they suit the needs of the group. It is essential for the group to function positively and for the rules to work in conjunction with the mission of the league. If there is a certain strategy that thwarts growth and hampers fun, the group might get together and gain some consensus around a rules modification.

Maturity: The Ultimate Goal

There is a developmental progress that players seem to undergo as they venture into the format. Veteran players need to understand this development, and new players should learn about the traditional steps. Competitive players regularly make the switch to Commander. They come in with hopes of winning, crushing dreams, and walking away the grand champion. If they do not notice the effect they have on more casual players, they either experience social problems or simply wreck the league’s fun. Most players are able to navigate through this transition from competitive to a casual mindset with good mentoring and a chance to understand a new definition of winning.

The league rules, rewards, and structures should reward players for making this transition and maturing. I will share a couple of closing examples. After spending weeks trying to take multiple turns with Twin Cast targeting Time Stretch, “Joe” began to notice that he was often the target early in games, players rarely cut him a break, and he began to find less success. He initially won a few Head Hunter awards and banked some store credit, but he slipped into a sort of numb tournament play. He was not having fun. His matches were often filled with discomfort and a little hostility from other players.

He consulted with his mentor and decided to move away from the combo. He built a mono-White deck using a new Commander and aimed to be powerful, but not broken. In his first couple of weeks, players still targeted him with hate and discard, and connected him with his actions of the past. Eventually, they realized that he had changed up his routine in search for more fun.

Joe noted that he felt awkward playing against Blue players who countered all of his powerful cards. His deck did not have the bite he was looking for, and sometimes he lost to his opponents’ competitive win conditions. At this point, he could have simply abandoned his mono-White deck and returned to his old ways.

However, he would ultimately end up back where he started. If he sets a model to other players and aims to have fun rather than just winning, he will reach the maturity required to survive a casual tournament scene. Eventually, you get to a point in which winning is not the ultimate goal. Simply getting together to play and having a great time, with an occasional kill and many weeks of great sportsmanship, becomes your reward.

Players make choices that shape their league play. Most folks should aim to evolve, and they should understand where others are as they make their journey. The vast majority of folks are able to adjust their expectations and enjoy the league as long as they commit to the mission and act accordingly. Take some time this week. Outline your mission. Share it with your playgroup and generate some consensus. Then begin planning rewards, achievements, and prizes that can help players achieve that mission. My best educated guess would predict that long-term league success is tied to having a great mission that promotes the type of maturity and play experience that keeps players engaged for the long journey through the Commander format.