There’s a phrase that you’ve probably been hearing for quite some time, whether it be among casual play groups, game store regulars, or YouTube content creators: The fabled Rule Zero, a pre-game discussion that promotes a more friendly and even approach for players in both familiar and uncharted territories. It can mean the difference between a fun and balanced experience, or a miserable one. At the end of the day, we’re sitting down to slap some cardboard and have a good time; however, one person’s yum might be another’s yuck. So let’s talk about it!
I’d like to regale you with an experience that happened to me in the past, one that serves as an inspiration for this writing. Let’s set the stage.
It’s been a nice evening at my LGS, and I’ve already played a game of Commander with my two friends. We’re a turn or two into the next game when a younger-looking guy walks up to us and hastily asks if we’re looking for a fourth. We look around at each other and shrug “why not?” Seeing as this format was designed for four players and there’s currently only three, we shuffle our decks back together and begin a fresh game with our new acquaintance. He places his commander (The Ur Dragon) in its appropriate zone, and in my head, I can hear that song from Kill Bill. You know, the siren one? Yeah, you know it.
It’s at this point that I realize we didn’t really have a discussion of our deck power or anything of the sort due to our rushed introductions. I breathe a sigh of dread, and we draw our opening hands. The rest of the game is a merciless beat down from this guy’s dragons, while any attempt the rest of us made to contain him is easily countered. There were moments where he wasn’t even paying attention to the game, but rather leaning back in his chair and fraternizing with nearby tables. Only when he would face forward and see new permanents on the board, would he then retroactively counter or destroy them.
If this sounds like a “feel bad” situation, I can most certainly confirm that it was. After the game ended, the rest of us were so annoyed that we packed our decks up and called it a night, well before the shop closed. Unfortunately, the damage was done. “But Evan, isn’t there a way to avoid these kinds of situations to make sure that everyone is on a level playing field?” Well... Yeah. It’s the title of the article that you’re reading. In hindsight, if we had that pre-game discussion about what our decks do and how we intend to win, maybe we could have chosen other decks that were more fitting, or ask him to play a lower-power deck. However, we did not. And that, my friends, is what gathers us here today.
As I mentioned in my opening, the Rule Zero discussion happens before you begin the game, maybe even before you've picked which deck to play. It’s a good habit to get into as you play in casual circles, but it really shines when you play with other people at your LGS that you may not be familiar with. As far as what you want to ask when you sit down, it’s pretty simple. Something as vague as “How does your deck try to win?” or “How fast can your deck win?” goes a lot farther than you’d think in establishing expectations. Questions like that will get your opponents thinking and everybody can gauge the kind of deck they can bring to make that game engaging.
When I first learned of this principle, most people were still using a 1-10 scale to signify their deck's strength. It’s an easy idea to get behind but it suffers from the problem of being too streamlined to be helpful. If the average pre-constructed deck is a 5-6, and cEDH deck is a 10, then your deck has to exist somewhere in that gap. There are not enough degrees between those ends of the spectrum to really dive into the design of your deck. It’s mostly just based on your mana curve and how many tutors you run; which are not enough metrics to go on, personally. The running joke is that every deck is a 7; I'd go as far as to say that the number scale is a little outdated at this point.
In addition to this conversation, you could also institute some of your own house rules to make the game a better experience for everyone involved. Keep in mind that these rules are not to tilt favor in any one player, but so that no one is truly left behind. After all, we’re all here to play some Magic, not just sit around and watch everyone else play. I do like to play Solitaire every now and then, but I don't bring other people into it.
Here are some of my house rules you can use as inspiration for your own games:
Free Mulligans: In Commander, the first mulligan is free, but every subsequent one will require you to put a card from your new hand on the bottom of your library. With my adjusted rule, If the first hand you draw is unplayable, reshuffle and draw again, and again, and again until you have something you can work with. However, we're working on an honor system here, so don’t get greedy with it.
Oops, No Lands: Let’s say the game is a few turns in, you kept a risky hand or you’re running out of gas. My rule states that if you’ve missed two consecutive land drops, and you don't draw one on what would be your third, at the start of your turn, you're permitted to go grab a basic land from your library and put it on the battlefield tapped.
Don’t scoop at instant speed: Pretty self-explanatory. In fact most players abide by this one. If you feel like you’re going to lose or you have to leave soon, just concede on your turn. Not only is it the courteous thing to do, but it's less likely to mess up anyone else’s board. There are lots of variables to take into consideration, and conceding during your turn makes for a clean break without causing any hard feelings.
A topic that I briefly discussed in my last article was the concept of proxies; cards that are copies of existing cards with similar or alternate art that are included in your deck either because you only own one copy of the card, or the card is too expensive.
The Rule Zero conversation is a great place to mention if you include proxies in your deck because not all players want to play against them. Me? I don’t really care. I encourage newer players to use them because a well-built deck is not always accomplished on a smaller budget, and I’d rather be out-played than out-bought. Besides, a player can build a deck that is 100% proxied and still lose every game, maybe because they just aren’t that good at building decks, or their deck isn't designed to be as strong as possible. Keep in mind that players can also use Rule Zero to try and use cards that are on the ban list, or alternative commanders. As long as everyone at the table agrees, everything is good.
One last thing I’d like to bring up is the use of politics in Commander. This is a practice that is exclusive to multiplayer formats. It can mean the difference between getting knocked out of the game first, or being the last player standing.
Let's set a scenario: all four players have established some pretty gnarly board states. So far, the game has been a tumultuous battle of wits, and you’re one direct attack away from losing the last of what little life total that you have left. You get the table’s attention and boldly proclaim: “If no one attacks me for two turns, everyone can keep their boards.” There’s a brief moment of silence, and looks are exchanged between all the players. Whether or not you were telling the truth, your words can carry weight. You could be bluffing, or asserting yourself in the situation. Most of the time, no one wants to poke the beehive and find out.
Those two turns might be just enough time to draw into the card that you need to close out the game in your favor. However, it bears mentioning that if you were to go back on your truce, you will be dealing with the consequences. It usually won’t go in your favor, and it may follow you from this game to the next. One last note, (and I cannot stress this enough) COMPLAINING IS NOT POLITICS. If everyone is attacking you or countering your spells, it’s because you’re the biggest threat. Take it as a compliment.
So, there you have it: An explanation of the ever-elusive Rule Zero. It’s a principle, a practice, and a way to ensure that every player is going to have a good time. Getting used to the idea and putting it to use can and will save you some frustrating experiences, or at least give you more knowledge on how to handle your next game. The more you play and have these discussions, the more you spread the word to other players so that we, as a community, are more vocal and understanding of each other.