Monday, January 18, 2016

The Chocolate Cake Club

Author's note: This is my 299th post on this blog. I kinda wish I could have saved it for 300 but the timing didn't work out. Anyway, this is also very certainly going to be my most divisive, inflammatory and controversial post ever, probably by a very large margin. I may lose one or two of the, like, six people still reading this blog, and beyond that it'll languish in obscurity. Some part of me hope it blows up the internet, but mostly I hope no one at all reads it and I don't get flamed to death. But for better or worse I had little choice but to write these words, and only slightly more choice as to posting them. But frankly even if I get nothing but hate for this post, it is by far the thing I am most proud of and I feel it is the best thing I have written here. Even if you disagree in the strongest possible terms, I hope you can understand that.

Once upon a time a group of guys decided they really liked chocolate cake. They decided to put together an informal group, a sort of club, wherein they could make and eat chocolate cake, together. Over time they encountered more people who shared their love of chocolate cake and wanted to join their chocolate cake appreciation group. They were happy to share in their love of chocolate cake, so sure, why not, let anyone who likes chocolate cake join in the fun! But over time as the chocolate cake club grew, some people said “I like cake, but chocolate isn’t my favorite flavor… can I bring a vanilla cake to the next chocolate cake club?” The originators of the club were a little uneasy by this but they wanted to be inclusive rather than elitist, so they said “Sure, go ahead. We just don’t want to eat any of your vanilla cake, because we’re all about the chocolate, but to each his own.” Then someone else was like “I love chocolate, but cake is kinda boring to me. Can I bring a chocolate cream pie to the next meeting?” And again, they wanted to be inclusive, and at least this time it was still a chocolate-based desert. There were many debates among the founders of the chocolate cake club about how strictly they should define chocolate cake – for instances, was a chocolate pie closer to being chocolate cake than vanilla cake was? Or vice versa. They didn’t want to be so strict as to outright disallow all non-cake items AND all non-chocolate flavors… but should they stick to just cake, but allow more flavors? Or stick with chocolate but allow more types of dessert?

So, they came up with a compromise – if your favorite dessert was at least chocolate in flavor, OR a type of cake, you were allowed in, but if it was both non-chocolate, AND non-cake, you couldn’t join. So, no lemon meringue pie, for example – there was already a club for that anyway. But still, the club had grown so big and had so many people that even this was dissatisfactory to some. A few people who had joined the chocolate cake club willingly, but then after joining complained that they were diabetic and wanted the club to incorporate some diabetic-friendly options. The vegans joined and, of course, wanted vegan options. Those with celiac disease wanted gluten-free chocolate cake. One guy tried to SUE the chocolate cake club because he gained over 80 pounds while a member of the club! Fortunately the case was thrown out.

Point being the chocolate cake club was founded because of a handful of guys who just wanted to socialize while enjoying chocolate cake club. And while they tried their level best to make everyone who joined happy and to be as inclusive as possible, no matter what they did, there was always some segment of the membership who hated what the club had become. Eventually the club was barely recognizable – only a small percentage of its members were actually eating chocolate cake. To make matters worse there were even some people who willing joined the chocolate cake club, only to ridicule other members for eating chocolate cake and not some other more advanced type of cake.

So, we’ve got the chocolate cake club, with only the original members and a fraction of those who joined later eating chocolate cake. We’ve got people eating all manner of other desserts, but insisting that they belong in the chocolate cake club because their strawberry cake is just a better version of chocolate cake. We’ve got people ridiculing the founders because they can’t bring their CHICKEN POT PIE to chocolate cake club – “It’s a PIE!” – and when you explain to them that chicken pot pie isn’t even a dessert, and that there’s actually already a club called the “CHICKEN POT PIE CLUB”, they get all whiny and say “But I want to join THIS club, I want to be part of the chocolate cake club!”, so they are grudgingly let in the door, but then complain that no one in the chocolate cake club wants to eat their chicken pot pie!

So, to sum up, there are people who, inexplicably and against all reason, want to join a club that has the words “chocolate” and “cake” in it even though these people clearly don’t want to have anything in the slightest to do with actual chocolate cake. Why would you want to join the chocolate cake club if you dislike chocolate? Why would you join if you already have a weight problem? Why would you join if you think chocolate cake is the most pedestrian of all desserts and anyone who eats chocolate cake is a simple-minded buffoon who doesn’t know what real cake is? Why would you join a chocolate cake club and insist that the club be made to revolve around vanilla cake instead?

Why would you join the chocolate cake club for ANY reason other than that you really like chocolate cake and want to eat it in a group with others who like chocolate cake?

I believe this little story illustrates perfectly the problems the EDH/Commander format faces today. But, there is one really huge logical flaw in this analogy, which I wrote it into the story on purpose – the name. If you’re at all clever, that should be the first thing you latched onto – “Well, sure, but the name “Elder Dragon Highlander” isn’t really informative at all, beyond the word “highlander” implying a singleton format – and the new official name “commander” is only descriptive in that the deck has a commander – so basically if you’re going by the name, any deck that is A) singleton and B) has a commander is basically chocolate cake, right?” And to an extent this is correct – calling your club the chocolate cake club is short enough and concise enough to get pretty much the full message across. It would be impossible to convey ALL of the rules and intent of the format into a simple, concise name. “Hundred card singleton format with a commander, a commander tax, and some color identity rules” is about the shortest you can make it and that just doesn’t roll off the tongue, now does it?

So the name doesn’t convey everything the way the name “chocolate cake club” does. But surely the RULES of the format do, right? Well, to an extent, sure. But remember, the chocolate cake club founders didn’t want to explicitly ban everything that was not both chocolate AND cake. They didn’t want to spell out the exact recipe one should use to make said chocolate cake, either. They wanted to make chocolate cake club as inclusive as possible without completely eradicating the core purposes of “chocolate” and “cake”. So they adopted a more lenient approach – let people diverge from the chocolate cake core quite a bit, but not too far – but leave the chocolate cake name intact to continue to promote and remind people that, while they will ALLOW something like, say, brownies, and they won’t kick you out of the club for bringing brownies, they aren’t exactly fitting with the spirit on which this club was founded.

They hoped people would respect the clear, stated intentions of the club without them having to enforce them via policy and rules. But the people who joined chocolate club were not interested in observing things like “spirit” or “intent” –  “If you INTEND this club to be about chocolate cake, but don’t explicitly ban vanilla, then screw your intent, I’m bringing goddamned vanilla!” And if you DARE to say “No I don’t want to eat any of your vanilla cake, I came to this club for CHOCOLATE cake” you are derided as being elitist and exclusionary. And heaven forbid you shoot a sidelong glance of irritation at the guy chowing down on his chicken pot pie over in the corner – “I disagree with your definition of what chocolate cake club IS, and it is my opinion that chicken pot pie is close enough to chocolate cake that I should be allowed in this club and this club should accept my opinion no matter what evidence to the contrary is put forth!”

Simply put, EDH or Commander, regardless of the name you chose to call it was created by a group with a very specific vision and a very specific intent. But EDH is NOT a format that can be everything to everyone – that was not part of their intent at any point. They wanted it to be bigger than themselves and their singular vision, but in giving people the leeway to make it less about “chocolate cake” and more about whatever other “dessert” they happened to like, the chocolate cake club is, in essence no longer the chocolate cake club. It is now more of a “I guess bring whatever the fuck dessert you feel like bringing, but if you INSIST that it’s chocolate cake even when it’s clearly a peanut butter cookie, we’ll let you in Club”. EDH is no longer EDH. It is not the format the creators envisioned, it is a thousand-headed hydra created by a combination of the RC’s unwillingness to cut off some of those heads for the sake of their own vision, mixed with the overblown sense of entitlement that is a scourge upon many aspects of our culture as a whole, but which tends to pervade the Magic community incessantly.

I want to play EDH. And I define EDH not JUST by the explicitly spelled-out rules listed on the website, but ALSO by the clear INTENT by with the RC has attempted to govern the format. When something like playing Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth in a mono-White is TECHNICALLY legal but CLEARLY it goes against everything the founders of the format INTENDED for it, then I’m not going to play Urborg in my White deck. And frankly, if you are doing so you are not playing EDH. You are playing “Hundred card singleton format with a commander, a commander tax, and some color identity rules” which is NOT the same thing. You are eating vanilla cake or chocolate pie but trying to tell me it’s chocolate cake. I want to eat CHOCOLATE. CAKE. Not whatever dessert you brought.

This is basically a complete reversal of what I previously THOUGHT I believed. I’m generally in favor of inclusion – it’s a word with positive connotations, while exclusion is very negative. But those moral values are not inherent in the words themselves – excluding someone from the format because, say, they’re black? Or female? Those are clearly such wrong-headed, immoral acts that their taint carries over to the point where excluding anyone for almost any reason feels dirty. But what if someone said they wanted to play their 50-card tiny leaders deck in a Commander game? What if they just wanted to run Fable of Wolf and Owl in their mono-Green deck? Well, those examples are clearly against the rules, very explicitly, so we wouldn’t allow that, and likely no one would consider us to be elitist or exclusionary for disallowing those actions. So we have here clear, undeniable proof that we are all comfortable with enforcing the rules of the format, but for some reason, we are nowhere near as comfortable enforcing the RC’s vision or their intent or the “spirit” of the rules.

So, it’s indisputable you can’t play Fable of Wolf and Owl in an Omnath, Locus of Mana deck, and no one seems uncomfortable with that fact – well, not the enforcing of it, anyway. Plenty of people disagree with the RC’s current stance on Hybrid cards, but even they don’t dispute that enforcing the rules even if you disagree with them if perfectly fair and indeed even expected. But, if you want to play Wooded Foothills and Windswept Heath in your Omnath, Locus of Mana deck, that is clearly and indisputably LEGAL per the exact letter of the rules, but it is also clearly and indisputably something the RC does not endorse, so doing so is in effect exploiting a loophole in the rules that the RC is unwilling to close because they value OTHER things more than they value closing this loophole. Fair enough – it’s good that the RC has priorities and is able to say “Okay we don’t LIKE this thing, but the work it would take to fix it and the various downsides of doing so suck even more than this thing, so we’re just going to have to live with it”.

But there again is the problem – you give people an inch, they want a whole foot. You give them a foot and they demand a yard. And so on and so on. While the RULES are being largely upheld, the INTENT and SPIRIT that was supposed to be a guiding principal rather than an ironclad rule has been all but eradicated. It’s just like Wall Street and the banks – if it is TECHNICALLY legal, if they can do it and not be punished for doing it, and it makes them money, then they don’t care one whit about the spirit of the law or any moral question. They don’t care if it will send the economy of the whole country into recession, or put hundreds of thousands of people out of jobs – if it’s good for their bottom line and it is, technically, legal per the LETTER of the law, that is ALL they care about. And that is very similar to the state of the format today.

Sheldon Menery, the other members of the RC and those of us who are still in the chocolate cake club because we like CHOCOLATE CAKE can talk all we want about what the format SHOULD be, but as long as the rules allow people to completely ignore the SPIRIT or the INTENT if they want, they WILL do so.  We have reached the critical turning point – either the RC starts enforcing their vision a little more strictly, or the format will no longer be the format they created at all. “The spirit of the format” is a phrase that no longer has any meaning whatsoever to the majority of those playing EDH, and no amount of proselytizing on our part will change their minds. It is time to kick all the other flavors and all the other dessert types out of the chocolate cake club and tell everyone else to either start eating chocolate cake or GTFO – OR, we can take the exact opposite approach and stop pretending that this is still the chocolate cake club and start calling it the “Generic whatever dessert club” and the founders and those of us chocolate cake fans can let them have the club while we all go start a new club that is, once again, back to its roots of being about chocolate cake.

So there it is. If you want to eat vanilla cake, you should be allowed to do so, but you shouldn’t be in chocolate cake club doing it. Go start up a vanilla cake club. If you want to eat chicken pot pie, you should be allowed to do so – but don’t get mad when I, a fan of chocolate cake, don’t want to eat your nasty chicken pot pie with you. If you want to eat chocolate cake, but want a sugar-free option? Okay, sure, you should be allowed in chocolate cake club – sugar-free chocolate cake is disgusting to ME, but it is undeniably still chocolate cake! So there is clearly room for different people with different tastes, and chocolate cake club should be as inclusive as possible, but it should still be ABOUT chocolate cake at the end of the day. If you aren’t interested in chocolate cake, don’t join the club called chocolate cake club and then try to change it to be about whatever you like better than chocolate cake. It’s not that I don’t like the PEOPLE that want to eat vanilla cake. I don’t have anything against vanilla cake fans. I just don’t like vanilla cake itself and I don’t want to eat it with you.

But until the RC stops saying “we’re really more into chocolate, but vanilla is fine too”, and starts saying “no more vanilla cake allowed” I’m going to continue to be served the occasional slice of vanilla cake anyway, and worse, I will be subjected to harsh ridicule and called names when I say I don’t like vanilla cake and would rather not eat it. I will be labeled an asshole for simply wanting my chocolate cake to be actual chocolate cake. I will be forced to endure people telling me their recipe for chocolate cake is far, far superior to my amateur chocolate cake recipe (only to be handed a recipe for pumpkin pie when I ask what they put in their chocolate cake).

Or we can do what we’re doing right now and have a million little individual micro-clubs – chocolate cake clubs, vanilla cake clubs, brownie clubs, peanut butter cookie clubs, tiramisu clubs, etc. all doing their own individual, different things, but somehow all of us PRETENDING that all these different clubs are have equal, legitimate claim to the “chocolate cake club” title, and acting all offended when someone says we aren’t chocolate-cake-y enough because the rules don’t explicitly say we have to bring chocolate cake to the chocolate cake meeting. We can completely and utterly do away with anything to do with “spirit” and “intent” beyond what the actual rules state, rebrand the club as “generic dessert club” and all just agree that anything that isn’t explicitly spelled out in concrete rules is fine, and if the RC wants their “vision” to match reality, then they better start writing some rules to enforce it.

There is just too much bickering and arguing over what should be acceptable in the chocolate cake club these days - but the answer is clear: either make it so only chocolate cake is allowed in chocolate cake club, OR make everything allowed but stop pretending it's still the fucking chocolate cake club!


  1. So, edh is starting to hit peak rant. Well, I can't say I disagree with you. People do seem to get way too Whiney. Actually, today has been kind of funny. A staple got banned, but no one seems to be freaking out. Anyways, nice read, keep posting more!

    1. Actually one of the many factors that led to my writing this - and there were MANY, some going back to a few years ago - was the sheer number of people calling the RC morons and other, worse names for banning what is, CLEARLY, the most bannable card still in the format - and I say that as an absolutely unapologetic FAN of Prophet of Kruphix. I am, and will forever be, sad that she got the axe - but that doesn't mean she wasn't THE only card currently allowed that I would consider bannable.

  2. This was highly entertaining a read for a rant. I don't disagree with you at all.

    I got into this format as a casual change from playing in my high competition standard/legacy/etc environments only to find that people who were playing this casual format were playing turn 3 lockouts or kills. Then I was told that it was my fault because I was playing an under powered deck. I didn't go back to league night number 2. I also don't play on magic online anymore for similar reasons.

    Most of what I play now is commander night with my friends and we play from my precon box or my decks that are made to play against each other. If we want to play a competitive format we change formats.

    1. Thanks for the comment! It is ranty, yes, I agree. Couldn't be helped. :)

  3. Thaum, for your 300th blogpost, you can lay out the framework for how to implement the change from what we have now to the rules-enforced Chocolate Cake Club.

    I'd suggest a name-change would be a good place to start.

  4. I think the biggest problem is that EDH was created to be small, it's a victim of it's own popularity.
    It was created to be a fun format for casual kitchen table games where the rules arguements were solved on a case by case scenario by the group playing.
    As much as Sheldon has done for the format he has also caused much of the schism in the format.
    Sure it would be nice to have clear cut rules and I agree with pretty much 90% of what you said.
    However the biggest issue is that back when it was originally created (Pre-Sheldon popularising it) most of the disputes were just settled by the friends playing it and a lot of mechanics like hybrid mana hadn't even been created.
    That is an AMA with one of the original players of the format and even he is amazed how quickly and big the format spread.

    There are ultimately 2 options that really work :
    A) Set your own rules that your play group agrees too and stick to those.
    B) Wizards step in and formalize all the rules

    Sadly as good as the RC are currently at making and adapting rules, since they partnered up with wizards for product etc they have been in some aspects scared to make big decisions like off colour fetches , but also accused of being to biased to only making bans based off their playgroup.

    Ultimately EDH has to go one way or other and either be a local based community run format or an official Wizards rules formalized format. I don't think the Rules Commitee will ever want to take the necessary steps to stamp out any problems.

    Again great read and haven't lost this reader.

    1. Thanks for the reply, anon! Greatly appreciate the support and the additional food for thought.