EDH Political Science - The Irrational Gamer

(Act of Treason | Art by Eric Deschamps)

Your Rational Prison

Welcome to EDH Political Science, the series where we craft any reason we can think of to apply the outside world to our multiplayer game of political madness.

Politics is maddening and emotional. Emotions are human nature. We conflate happy, mad, glad, and fear with our natural state of being. Emotional expression is seen as a natural reaction to outside stimulus. Snakes and Cyclonic Rifts make normal people fearful. Puppies and playing Sol Ring make people happy. If you Force of Will my turn-one Sol Ring, you are supposed to feel a little remorse, but if you Force of Will my Cyclonic Rift, I'm supposed to be understanding. Understanding these emotions - and the way they are expressed - can have big implications for us when playing EDH.

Emotions don’t just happen to us. We don’t have circuits of predetermined feelings telling us what to think; rather, modern neuroscience teaches us that the brain predicts our future reactions based on past experiences and the cultural norms surrounding those experiences. Then we take those reactions and impose a whole slew of meanings upon them. These meanings are culturally constructed in the same way Magic: the Gathering is: we all agree on some rules, and whatever we agree on has real implications for future uses of those rules. When we see “creature” written on a card in Magic, that means it interacts with the rules in a certain way. Similarly, socially we agree on appropriate reactions to have when someone close to us is hurt. Any other reaction is breaking the rules or playing outside the game.

This idea, of emotions being a byproduct of society and not nature, was penned by cognitive neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett in her book How Emotions are Made as the “Theory of Constructed Emotion”, where she shows that there are no universally accepted ways to express emotions. For instance, smiling hasn’t always been the de facto way of expressing joy.

What implications does this have? Outside of EDH, this has plenty of implications, such as romantic partners inferring interest based on word choice. Within EDH, the stakes are obviously lower. We might quarrel over proper threat assessment, fume because of aggressive attacking, or pine for the missed trigger on a hectic turn, but nothing terrible. At worst, these turn a friendship cold for an afternoon or wrench your gut with prideful sorrow.

And yet, paying attention to emotion's social construction can shepherd game-winning turns and accompany closer communion with your playgroup.

Threatening Aura

Threat assessment is a place where Commander players exhibit emotion. We shame poor threat assessment and laud good assessment. These instincts are said to be something that “experienced players” have and “inexperienced players” don’t. However, we all have emotional bias. Ten different players of similar experience level may find a few different, equally viable targets for any removal spell. This variation tends to diminish as player experience increases, but there are still differences that can be noticed. Aspects of a person’s mood, hunger, current win/loss record, sleepiness, personal history with another player, or any number of a myriad of other factors can all affect their gameplay. It may not change their threat assessment in any one instance, but it may change how often they hold onto answers, who they attack, how often they attack, or how likely they are to forfeit.

Some players will take offense at overtly emotional actions. For instance, an attack at the player who killed your commander could be seen as impulsive. We commonly associate these actions with “primal” or “irrational” behavior without considering the actual threat assessment, when in reality these emotions are not deviations from rationality. Our choices can’t be impartial, and believing you can separate your rational self from your emotional self is a fiction. All of our decisions come from the process that we use to create emotions. In this aspect, our biases always show through. A player frustrated with proxies might see the player using them as more of a threat. Someone who lost to a commander recently might be more wary when seeing that card at the table again. Our social contracts are warped by popularity. We can reassess these biases by seeking a deeper understanding of specific emotions and gameplay decisions. At the same time, we can gain awareness of our emotions, how they affect our play decisions, and seek to cultivate empathy for play decisions outside of our own biases.

My Healers Had Much Work to Do

The data from EDHREC can help illuminate social boundaries. Threat assessment is contextual, but we can understand what current social contracts say by looking into some EDHREC features, like the salt score, top commander picks, and common themes from individual commanders.

We start with a staple for this series, the salt score. This list is comprised of the top 100 cards ranked by community vote on how frustrating it is to see at a table. At the top end (as of writing this) we see Stasis, with a salinity of 3.15, meaning that usually people are going to find the card at least a little frustrating.

Stasis is not surprising to see as the saltiest card; in fact, our social agreement for making fun games is highlighted by its salt score. Possibly the most useful thing about this Top 100 list is that it can show us an outline of the social contract. Here, we see mass land destruction, like Armageddon, steal-your-stuff cards, like Sen Triplets, extra turns, like from Time Stretch, Expropriate for doing everything that it does, and much more. Memnarch is missing from the list, but Urza, Lord High Artificer at number fourteen and Teferi, Master of Time on the list at all shows how the social reality we construct together can ebb and flow with popularity.

This concept of an ever-changing social reality can help shape what we should be playing and what we shouldn’t. A card being salty doesn’t mean you need to keep it out of every list, but knowing that players might have negative past experiences with certain cards can help understand where you will show up in threat assessment when you include said cards.

Popularity Isn't Always Grand

Top commanders can also be a point of contention. Regardless of where a commander’s salt score lies, the popularity can increase the chance for negative past emotions. Past experiences for popular commanders need not be entirely negative, they just need to be memorable. A player has a higher chance of having lost against a popular commander since they are more likely to have played against it at all. All things being equal, popular commanders can set off alarms for players at the table to pay attention. They already know what you’re capable of and just how frustrating it could be to play against you if they have related past experiences.

This phenomenon is more likely to be true for the top commanders of the past two years rather than those most popular in the last week. Those popular for longer have had more time to do damage, and those that show up on both are doubly menacing. That means they have staying power and likely will cultivate this reputation for a long time coming.

Themes and Branching Out

Themes can also amass their own reputation. Obvious pairs of commanders with their respective themes lead to expectations as described with popular commanders above, so little more needs to be discussed here. Themes can also help out, so let's get into that.

Fixing our problems here comes down to emotional stabilization. When your emotional instability is causing gameplay issues is often known as 'tilt'. The more we understand about our emotions and the more times we play with different cards at the table, the more likely we are to keep our thoughts consistent.

Playing with a wider variety of cards can be a personal choice or a group choice. You could start by branching out to strategies that you don’t normally play. We see plenty of animosity in 60-card competitive formats between archetypes likely for this reason. If you start to branch out and play more control when you only play aggressive decks, not only will you understand better how to play around their tricks, but you can also gain new appreciations for the cards that you saw as frustrating, leaving you less likely to experience tilt.

An easy trick to get you started playing with more cards is going to the EDHREC page of a commander that you want to try and picking a theme on their page with a lower popularity. I, for instance, had a lot of fun playing Edric, Spymaster of Trest as an Elfball commander. It gave me a new way to see Edric and a new way for me to understand the limitations of Elfball.

Your group can try out new cards by imposing restrictions on deckbuilding or by gifting lists to play. Budget restrictions are helpful ways of avoiding staple cards. I recommend setting a limit for the list as a whole to grant flexibility. My playgroup also tried out giving a set commander and a theme to break people out of old habits. I gave our local superfriends player Rona, Disciple of Gix to try as a superfriends list and he seemed to find a few new tools to work with there.

Unstable Frontier

Stabilizing your own emotions outside the game is the harder trick. Barrett has a few tips for this in How Emotions are Made. She explains that your emotional self and physical self are intertwined in more ways than we commonly think. Everything you eat, the things you read, people you talk to, and the amount that you exercise all determine your current state of mind. How you understand that state of mind is what becomes your emotions. The more different types of emotions you understand and the depth at which you understand them increases your ability to affect them. As well, if you seek to diversify and make positive choices on eating, discussions, reading, exercise, etc., then you can maintain stability over your emotions. Stability and understanding here lessens tilt, brings you closer with the friends you play with, and increases your overall satisfaction with the game.

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This list is an amalgamation of something I made for a Reddit article and a revised list by u/hamie96 after thorough playtesting. The aim here is to hopefully skirt the edges of the social contract by playing a combo list that is at once fragile and versatile. Kogla, the Titan Ape is a commander that has been overlooked, likely for being an unassuming mono-color commander. Mono-green combo lists are not uncommon, so this could immediately send red flags to players that are familiar with the idea. For most, I think it will be a surprise, which will help offset the negative emotions someone might have if you played a more popular commander.

As for gameplay, this list is looking to assemble a land that produces five or more mana at once, along with a Human with haste that can untap that land, and a way to spend infinite mana. Wow, I know. That's a bit much. But that's what's going to help you. You're not as much of a threat with a bunch of disjointed ambiguous combo pieces that few people know about. Warning: this list can easily transition to a grindy game. Kogla's powerful attack trigger keeps other lists off-balance. There are plenty of slots for protections and proactive strategies filled with cards like Nature's Claim, Kenrith's Transformation, and Force of Vigor.

From This Day Forward, We Confront This World Together, Lifting Each Other Up

We cannot know what people are feeling by looking on the outside. We can, however, gather information and make guesses, and hopefully those guesses line up more often when we understand emotions and one another better. Cultivating empathy with the people you play alongside is important, as is gaining a deeper understanding of those around you grows your ability to thrive in life and games. Take an opportunity in the near future to reach out to someone new. If we can work together to grow our community and empathize with those around us, the game we share will play better and feel better.

Rick is a professional bookseller, writer and gamer. He could be battling international trade atrocities with his Bachelors Degree in International Studies, but he would rather be playing games of magic, running game night at the bookstore, playing an insidious dungeon master at a convention, or talking and writing about any of the above.

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