Proxies and Playgroups


The Castle of Bentheim by Jacob Van Ruisdael (1650s). Warkite Marauder by Victor Adame Minguez.

The format of Commander has a robust and vibrant online community on social media. You can go onto Facebook or Reddit and wade through a seemingly endless number of posts about our game. In those many discussions there are certain topics that come up again and again. There are problems that can never be solved and divides that are hard if not impossible to bridge. Commander players wrestle with topics like combo, poison, banning or unbanning cards, and whether the casual and competitive games are truly like oil and water.

We also talk about proxies.

We talk about proxies and the discussions can get so heated that some groups have tried to create special subforums for those discussions to try to tamp down the high emotions that always seem to come up.

Today I'm going to talk proxies.

I’m not going to argue that they’re good or that they’re bad. I’m going to argue that they can be an easy way to wreck a midrange playgroup that includes players who aren’t interested in optimizing all of their decks and instead like to play fun, casual decks.

Put on your seatbelt because the road might get a little bumpy.

Proxies and Alters

The first thing I would like to clarify is that I'm going to be talking about proxies, not alters.

An alter is a card that has been modified, usually by a trained and capable artist like redditor /r/klug_alters, creator of the Black Lotus alter shown above. A common way to alter a card is to extend the artwork over the border, the textbox and other parts of the card so that you end up with a "full art" card that features the original artwork. The bottom line is that you're playing with a real card that has been modified by an artist.

A proxy can be anything from an index card with a card name written on it to a near-perfect reproduction of a Magic card. Its purpose is to stand in for the real copy of the card that you presumably own and have somewhere safe. Some players proxy cards they don't own and can't or don't intend to ever purchase. The bottom line is that you're not playing with a real, genuine Magic the Gathering card in your deck.

Alters are amazing ways to bling out your deck so it is unique and memorable. When you alter a card, you are essentially damaging it, so few players would have a really expensive card altered. Proxies can also be amazing to look at and can be unique and memorable. They can even be professionally printed and look just like the original card, though I do not endorse using high-quality proxies that are basically counterfeit cards.

When in Rome

The next thing I would like to make crystal clear is that I think you should do your best to work with the group of players that you play with. If everyone else is proxying cards, you should consider doing so as well.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

If you don't adhere to the practices of your group, you'll be playing with a built-in advantage or disadvantage. If you're constantly winning on the back of a bunch of proxied cards that are really powerful and the folks you play with aren't proxying cards at all, that might be a problem. On the flip side, if you refuse to proxy cards and you are constantly faced with decks that are chock-full of proxied bombs, fast mana and expensive cards, you might find it really frustrating.

Maybe you're fine with your opponents doing whatever they like and you don't care how it affects your ability to occasionally win a game. I expect most players want a relatively even playing field. If you're not all deck-building by the same rules, the field will be clearly tilted in favor of players who use proxies to power up their decks.

Beating a Dead Horse

The arguments for and against using proxies are predictable and sometimes compelling.

The game shouldn't be about who has the most money. You should be supporting your local game store by buying and playing with real cards. Proxies are the only way younger or poorer players can keep up in groups where some of the players have access to any card they want to put into their decks. If you aren't willing to move the real cards from deck to deck, you're just being lazy. If you force your opponents to actually move their cards from deck to deck, you're just wasting everyone's time.

People get so heated about these arguments that some of them refuse to play against proxies or refuse to play in groups that don't allow them. Both positions are understandable and I’m not going to champion any of these arguments.

Commander's unique position as one of the most casual of Magic formats has made fertile soil for this conflict to grow. Today I'm going to try to avoid beating a dead horse. Maybe writing about proxies at all is beating a dead horse, but it’s on my mind and I’m hoping I can add something new to the conversation.

Proxies and Placeholders

One reason some players will proxy a card is because they either aren't sure yet if they want to buy the card or they have it on order and it hasn't arrived yet.

I think these cards should be called "placeholders" instead of proxies, as the intention isn't to run a card that you're never going to own another copy of, but to represent the card until the real card arrives or gets purchased.

Maybe this is needlessly splitting hairs, but I feel like this is central to the issue of proxies.

Who cares if the fake card is ever going to be replaced by a real card?

Lots of players who avoid using proxies and prefer to play "real cards" care, that's who.

These players have gone to great lengths to build decks with only real cards and some of them appreciate it when their opponents do too. On the other hand, some players are so laid back they don't care what you do, so long as you're not cheating.

Magic is a wide and diverse community with players that represent every conceivable approach to the game. There is room for those who support the use of proxies and for those who do not want proxies to be used in their games.

Which Cards Get Proxied?

One of the most obvious questions to ask is which cards actually get proxied. If you have a single copy of Armored Ascension but want to run it in three decks, is it better to proxy the card or pick up two more copies?

Armored Ascension is a cheap enough card that someone might well run a placeholder until they pick up a copy, but few Commander players will run a proxy with no intention of getting real copies eventually. It seems self-evident that the vast majority of proxies are made for cards that are prohibitively expensive.

Proxying a card to keep it out of harm's way makes sense. Some players just play with their valuable cards and expect their opponents to do the same. If you play with strangers, have seen drinks spilled or had cards damaged by clumsy opponents, the desire to keep a card worth hundreds of dollars as safe as possible is completely understandable.

If we're looking at expensive cards as the most likely cards to be proxied, it begs the question of whether this means proxied cards are generally more powerful. I think that’s a pretty safe leap to make. You’re going to proxy cards that are out of your price range, and those are going to be powerful cards that will make your decks better. Otherwise, you’d probably just run something else.

Commander is an amazing format where all manner of cards and strategies can be played. Power is a relative thing, and few cards are universally powerful in all decks. Gaea’s Cradle in a voltron Uril, the Miststalker deck doesn't make a lot of sense, but you still wouldn't call Gaea’s Cradle a weak card. It's just weak in that deck.

I think it's safe to say that proxied cards are generally powerful cards that will make decks faster and more effective. Most players who use proxies will run a placeholder for cheap cards they haven't purchased yet, but will proxy cards that are so out of their price range that they'll never pick up a copy. They might also run a proxy as a "test card" to evaluate whether or not to purchase an expensive card, but the bottom line is that we're talking about expensive, powerful cards.

Why Proxy at all?

This is a tricky question because there are many reasons why players will proxy cards.

There is a core issue that doesn't often get brought up when players talk about proxying cards. That core issue is about maximizing your win rate. When players proxy strong cards across all or many of their decks, they’re trying to make those decks better.

Some players are happy to have a range of decks of varying power levels, some of which might be optimized or even "competitive" and some of which might be objectively bad, durdly and slow. Their bad decks might be decks they love, that they find hilarious or that have some feature that makes them fun to play even if they rarely compete for a win.

Other players can't abide playing a deck that isn't optimized. They have such a competitive mindset that they can't imagine playing a deck that can't win by a certain turn. They don't see any point to having "bad" decks and if a deck isn't performing well enough, it will probably soon get torn apart.

This isn't a black and white issue. There are many approaches to the game and I don't think any of them are "wrong". You can be a Spike, a Johnny, a Timmy, a Vorthos or someone else we haven't found a word for yet, and I think you should still have a place at the Commander table.

If you have a Mana Crypt and you choose to just keep it in one deck, not proxy it and not move it into whatever deck you're playing at the moment, you are willfully allowing all of your other decks to be less powerful. If you choose to move it around or proxy it into every one of your decks, you are making every deck you play that much better. If you're proxying multiple powerful cards and doing everything you can to make all of your decks as optimized as possible, you're going to have the ability to build faster, more explosive decks across your whole collection.

Why run your most powerful cards across ALL of your decks?

You might play in a group where everyone else is doing the same thing.

You might play with players who all have such expansive collections that they can run the same powerful decks without even running proxies, and you just want to be able to play with them and not always be at a disadvantage.

You might also just really like to win. Everyone likes to win, but not everybody wants to win so much that they decide to fully optimize every single one of their decks.

Before we go on, let me make it clear that there is nothing wrong with building and playing the best decks you can possibly build and play. I'm not about to say those types of players are "bad" and are "ruining the format". You can, however, ruin your playgroup if you’re not careful.

How Proxies Can Affect a Playgroup

This is where I get to the heart of the matter.

Proxies are fine, though players in a group should probably all be playing by the same deck-building rules. Proxies are generally made for more expensive and powerful cards.

So what happens when players start proxying powerful cards across all of their decks?

Their decks all get better — sometimes a lot better.

The same thing happens when players simply buy powerful cards and put them in all of their decks. This issue isn’t about proxies, but the use of proxies is inextricably linked to the problem of escalating power levels in playgroups.

Every game of Commander has a "window" of time within which the game will occur.

The window closes when the game ends.

If you are playing decks that are tuned to be able to win by turn five, that doesn't mean that the game will definitely end by turn five, but it does mean that you are creating a window of time for your game that is much, much smaller than if everyone was playing an untuned, casual, tribal deck with no way to win other than in combat on the battlefield.

If you take all of your decks and tune them up, either by running proxies or by just running all of the most powerful cards you can get, the assumption is that you are trying to make those decks better able to win games. You might be making them faster, but you might also be making them more resilient or more responsive.

By doing this, you are NOT preventing anyone in your group from playing whatever they want to play. They can still play decks that would be lucky to assemble a winning boardstate by Turn 12.

What you are doing is making it harder for them to be able to play whatever they want and have much of a chance of winning the game.

Who do you play with?

Are all of your friends as competitive as you? Do they all want to push the envelope of Commander deck speed and power? If the answer to this is "Yes", you're lucky. Many groups have a range of players and personalities and it can be a struggle to keep everyone happy and having fun.

Do you have any players who like to build decks that are clearly not competitive?

Is there someone in your group who loves building odd tribal decks or even odder janky decks that they find fun but that rarely win?

Many groups have players who do not adhere to the "win early, win often" mindset.

If these players are your friends, you enjoy having them play with you, and you don't want to lose them or have them drift away from the format, I would urge you to consider how your approach to both proxies and deck-building affects your meta.

Keep an eye on the health of your playgroup. Your increasing win/loss ratio can come at high cost.

Closing the Window

If you have players who play slower decks, that doesn't mean they don't want to win. Most everyone wants to win, at least occasionally.

It also doesn't mean you're obligated to let them win, but for the health of your playgroup I'd urge you to try to make sure some of the games you play are ones in which those players will be able to have fun.

Fun for many players means winning, but for most everyone it means playing their deck and getting to see their deck do some of the things it was designed to do.

If your deck is designed to win by turn five and someone else's deck is designed to assemble a strong boardstate by turn eight or 9, your deck's success is going to prevent your opponent from doing what they want to try to do. They literally don't get to play their deck because your deck is often going to end the game before they can even really get going.

You’re not a bad person for wanting to play your optimized deck, even if it means that certain other players have little chance of winning or even competing for the win.

The big question is whether or not you ever switch down to play weaker decks that will allow your friends with slower decks to actually be able to "do their thing". If you’re playing casual games with friends, I would suggest that part of being a friend is meeting them halfway. Play some games with your best decks, but also play games in which their slower decks can have a chance to do their thing. If your idea of fun is just always winning, that might be a problem.

If you're paying to play in a tournament or in a league, play your best deck if you want and make no apologies.

If you're in a casual playgroup, be careful about being a win early, win often, win-at-all-costs kind of player. If you have no consideration for the other people you're playing with, you shouldn't be surprised if you have more casual players simply stop playing with you.

Everyone wants to have fun.

If you are making the "window" of your Commander games so short that only a few players ever have a chance to see their decks play out, you might not be winning as much as wrecking your own meta.

Having a casual deck to play every now and then should be a small price to play for having a healthy and diverse group of friends to play Commander with.

Coming Full Circle

So what does this have to do with proxies?

If your playgroup has a range of players with different approaches to the game and different levels of power in their deck collection, it might be a big mistake to proxy your powerful cards into all of your decks. Doing that can come across as caring more about your own win rate than having a playgroup where there is room for everyone's decks — even the more midrange ones — to have fun and compete at the table.

My own reaction to discussions about proxies are always colored by my approach to the game.

I am that player who has a wide range of decks and doesn't proxy or move my best cards from deck to deck. I want my Karona, Myr Queen deck to be able to have the space in a game to try to establish a boardstate and maybe get a few swings in before the game is over.

I recoil at the idea of a player caring so much about their own wins that they make it impossible for their friends to play anything but their fastest, most brutally efficient decks. I have decks like that, but I love variety in my Commander experience. I like to play at fast tables and at slower, more casual tables and be able to try to have a good time in both environments.

That doesn't mean I'm anti-proxy and it doesn't mean I think it's terrible for you to have a Mana Crypt (real or proxied) in all of your decks.

What it means is that I think you should pay attention to how the players you play with feel about proxies and about having a meta that is less and less receptive to more casual playstyles.

If you're all on the same page and everyone is having fun, have at it.

If you're pushing the envelope and your use of proxies is negatively affecting the health of your meta, don't be that player who ends up wrecking their playgroup at the cost of trying to maximize their personal win rate. It isn’t worth it.

Final Thoughts

I’m well aware that I sometimes come across as being a bit preachy. I have strongly held opinions and every now and then I like to share them. I don’t assume I’ve changed anyone’s mind about whether or not they should or shouldn’t use proxies, but I hope I’ve given you some new ways to look at the topic

If I can leave you with two thoughts, the first would be to support your local game store or your online retailer of choice even if you do sometimes use proxies to cut costs. For me, that’s NexGen Comics in Pelham, NH and CoolStuffInc.com. Whatever your home store or favorite site might be — they need your patronage, possibly more than you realize.

The second and more important point would be to not wreck your playgroup by making your decks all so competitive that nobody else ever has much of a chance to win games. Your buddy building bad tribal decks will probably appreciate it when you occasionally borrow a bad deck and play a slower game, even if they don’t tell you.

If your group is full of players who all want to play the fastest decks at the highest power levels and don’t care one bit if the cards or real or not, good for you. Our format and our community is a wide and varied one, and there is room for everyone, even if you have to do a little work to find like-minded players who want to play in as degenerate or as casual a manner as you.

If you’d like to keep up with how I’m doing in my casual and Commander League games, feel free to visit http://dantesdad.wixsite.com/commanderruminations. That’s where I share those stories and my progress each month as I compete for our league’s top point total.

Thanks for reading and I’ll see you next Monday!


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