A Magic Christmas

Magic has gone through some major changes in recent weeks, and Jeremy has a lot of things to say about them. Mostly good things, but could there be improvements?

Merry Christmas everyone!

First off, I have to apologize to those people who’ve commented on my last article. Normally I make an effort to read and respond to every comment, but right now I’m on holiday in Vietnam, behind the Great Firewall, and Facebook access is cut off. I won’t be able to read comments for the next three weeks, but I’ll be back and able to reply again by January 12.

Now—where do I start? There have been an enormous number of announcements in the week leading up to Christmas, from the Modern bannings and the rapidly redacted missed trigger infraction policy, to the ground-shaking (for professional players at least) OP changes. There has also been the banning of Alex Bertoncini, which I have not much to say about, not having ever seen the incriminating evidence first-hand or even met the guy in person. From what I’ve heard along the line, though, it does sound like he was engaging in some sketchy behavior, so props to those involved for being willing to make the hard decisions.

All of these changes are very encouraging. Wizards has shown that they’re willing to listen to us (the Magic community). When players said they didn’t like having to remind their opponents to put a counter on their Lumberknot, only to lose the game because it’s 5/5 instead of 4/4, Wizards listened. When players said playing in a thousand Grand Prix side events, often simultaneously, was a terrible way to have to qualify for the Pro Tour, their voices were heard. When players said, “Hey, there’s something very dodgy about these videos of Alex Bertoncini in the StarCityGames.com Opens,” the DCI listened to them, examined the evidence, and made their decision. This tells us that those of us in the community aren’t just shouting at a brick wall. It teaches us that if you don’t like something, speak up! Wizards are not some horrible corporate tyrants only worried about their bottom line. They genuinely do want to make their game work and continue to be popular at all levels.

The Modern bannings

“Hey guys, let’s create a format where people can play all of those cool cards we’ve printed since we got our act together design-wise.

Then we’ll ban ALL OF THEM.”
—Anatoli Lightfoot (reproduced here without any sort of permission whatsoever)

This is the only negative thing I have to say in this article, so I’ll get it out of the way first and then get you back to your regularly scheduled puppies and butterflies.

Why do cards need to be banned? Usually for one of three reasons:

  • It’s a fundamental piece of a dominant deck or strategy;
  • It’s inherently far too powerful, relative to the power level of the format; or
  • It exerts an oppressive and unhealthy influence on the metagame.

The first two criteria are fairly clear; it’s the third that is open to interpretation. Did Cloudpost exert an oppressive and unhealthy influence on the metagame, or did it merely keep decks honest? What about Valakut in former Standard? Punishing Fire in current Modern? It does make it difficult to play Lord of Atlantis or Dark Confidant or Vendilion Clique/Spellstutter Sprite, this is true, but there will always be some card that has a similar influence. If Punishing Fire goes away, Faeries, Merfolk, and Elves probably become contenders, and those oppress a whole new set of cards and strategies. You can’t keep iterating this philosophy; at some point you have to say “alright, the format is healthy enough now; the metagame will sort itself out.”

So when it comes to banning cards, there is usually not consensus. Does Wild Nacatl prevent other cards or decks from being played? Well, of course it does, to some extent, because all cards stop worse iterations of themselves from being played simply by existing and being better. It’s trivial (and completely irrelevant) that Wild Nacatl oppresses Eager Cadet out of the format. That isn’t good enough—the question we need to ask is, does it oppress a significant enough number of other cards from being playable, such that its presence is unhealthy?

This is where things get subjective and very hard to determine. You can say with certainty that Zoo prevents White Weenie from existing by being a better aggro deck, but you can’t say with any certainty that White Weenie will therefore be viable if we ban the crucial Zoo component—perhaps Wild Nacatl will simply be replaced by Loam Lion, and Zoo will go on being better; perhaps Zoo’s lack of speed will be capitalized upon by the combo decks which will themselves push White Weenie out of the format; perhaps (probably) White Weenie was never a good enough deck in the first place.

Let’s look at Merfolk—it’s fairly likely that Merfolk will be good enough now because it was already close while Punishing Fire was still legal; Aether Vial is incredibly good for the Fishmen. Does that mean banning Punishing Fire, which doesn’t cripple any existing deck, has opened up more metagame space?

Not necessarily; Merfolk is very good against many control decks, especially now that said control decks have lost their cheap, repeatable source of creature removal. It’s unlikely that Shouta Gifts, the list Shuhei Nakamura went 6-0 with in the Modern portion of Worlds, is still going to be playable.

Modern is a diverse metagame. It’s true that Zoo was overrepresented at Worlds, but that’s only because many teams didn’t test and went with what they knew would be reasonable. In such an environment, bannings are pointless and usually bad. People want to play their cards! Jace, the Mind Sculptor is iconic. If Fred from Ohio can’t play it because it’s unhealthy for the Modern format, that’s too bad but understandable. But we don’t know that it would be unhealthy for the format. Prior to the rotation of Bloodbraid Elf, Jace was playable but certainly not making any waves in Standard (and you sided it out against Jund). Here, not only do we have Bloodbraid Elf, but two-power one-drops are on the low end of the playable aggressive creatures available. Jace would certainly be good, but it wouldn’t unbalance the format anything like Standard during the reign of Caw-Blade.

In fact, the Modern banned list started off unusually long, and it was expected that it would reduce over time. This is from Tom LaPille original article announcing the brand new Modern format:

“[T]his list is a lot longer than it was at the Community Cup…. [W]e can always unban cards in the future. In Vintage and Legacy, over time we have been continually picking away at the respective restricted and banned lists, and both are at historical lows in terms of the percentage of the card pool that is banned or restricted. As we get more information, we will change the Modern banned list over time. We may have overbanned here, and if we did, we have plenty of time to go back and fix that.”

Now is the time to go back and fix it. The list has not shrunk—it’s grown by seven cards since its inception, and banning too many cards can be as damaging as banning too few. Banning too few results in an overpowered format where broken and unfair strategies dominate; banning too many results in a stale and uninteresting format, which Modern is in danger of becoming. I think the following cards could come off the list (probably not all at once, but these are the potential candidates):

  • Ancestral Vision. Seriously, just because a card is playable in Legacy doesn’t mean it’ll be too good in the smaller formats. Ancestral Vision is a good card draw spell, but a fair one, and unbanning it would go a long way towards helping the blue midrange and control decks, which currently have precious few sources of card advantage.
  • Bitterblossom. Faeries was very good in Standard and Extended in its time, but Modern is a whole different animal. Affinity is legal, for one thing, and Faeries has always had problems with decks that put aggressive creatures into play very fast.
  • Green Sun’s Zenith. This is another card that’s good but hardly overpowered. Yes, it does do a lot of things, particularly in a format with Dryad Arbor, but it’s really not oppressive. I mean, it’s a green card. Be reasonable.
  • Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Yes, this is a card that has historically been “too good.” That was in Standard, though, and four mana in Modern is a lot. Combo decks can kill a player who taps out for this incautiously, and Zoo can just Lightning Bolt or attack it.
  • Umezawa’s Jitte. If you’re noticing a theme with these cards, they’re all midrange cards that encourage interesting, interactive decks. Jitte is a very good midrange card, but it’s beatable with well-timed removal, terrible against combo, and weak against control—it wouldn’t break anything.
  • Wild Nacatl and Punishing Fire. These didn’t need to go on in the first place and even less so with the above cards opening up a ton of interesting, powerful strategies that aren’t Zoo.

Farewell Planeswalker Points—we hardly knew ye

This is the big one.

Wizards is:

  • Marginalizing the Planeswalker Points system. PWPs will no longer qualify you for Pro Tours or the Magic Players’ Championship (formerly Worlds). They’ll still give you byes at GPs and invite you to the World Magic Cup qualifiers (the new Nationals, of sorts).
  • Changing PWP multipliers—public events at GPs have been reduced to 3x, and FNMs are now only 1x.
  • Bringing back (keeping?) the Pro Player’s Club. Good finishes at Pro Tours and Grand Prix over the course of the year will continue to bring you benefits the following year.
  • Introducing the Magic World Cup (I know they called it World Magic Cup, but that just seems like the words are in the wrong order. They don’t call it the World FIFA Cup, after all). To some extent this replaces the previous World Championships.
  • Reinstating the Pro Tour invites to top finishers at Pro Tours and Grand Prix. Fewer people will be invited on this basis than previously, but those who are also receive plane flights.
  • Slightly increasing the number of PTQs in smaller markets, like Australia (that’s us!).

If there is someone, somewhere, who is unhappy about these changes, I’m not sure who they are. This is very, very awesome, and when I first read it I literally pumped the fist.

It was obvious to many people for the last few months that Planeswalker Points, as the sole qualifying measure for Pro Tours, were terrible. Not only was playing lots rewarded over playing well, the multipliers were scaled such that dropping from a GP to play side events was the right move, as was signing up to multiple side events at the same time under the assumption that you would concede every round. This is clearly bad. A lot of fixes were suggested, such as a cap on the number of points you could earn from a given kind of event in a given season, or an allotted number of tournaments you could count towards your planeswalker point total, or multipliers to top finishes in Pro Tours or GPs to maintain the reward for doing very well.

What wasn’t clear was—why change it in the first place? What was wrong with the old system? Elo rating was understandably not something Wizards wanted to maintain, given that it encourages people to not play tournaments. But the Pro Player’s Club, invites to top finishers at Pro Tours and GPs—without these, it’s impossible to stay on the Pro Tour without becoming a grinder, and it locks many people out from the top echelons of competitive play. And the Pro Player’s Club never discouraged anyone from playing more Magic.

Well, they’re back. More than anything, these changes represent a return to the old system. Planeswalker Points will still earn you byes at GPs and get you towards the Magic World Cup, so there’s still that link between local play and the Pro Tour, but they’re no longer the only option. You can attend two GPs a year and still do very well if you win a lot, and you can also now stay on the Pro Tour with a string of good finishes. That is crucial if we want to make the distinction between the best and the grindiest.

So let’s compare what we have now to what we had before whenever the Planeswalker Points nonsense started. What’s changed?

1. Worlds, as we knew it, has gone. It has been replaced by two smaller tournaments, the Magic World Cup and the Magic Players’ Championship (I don’t really like that name—if not the World Championship, why not call it the Masters’ Championship or something? Magic Players’ Championship is so bleh).

This is the most important change, and I’m not completely sure how I feel about it. To be clear, it’s very good for me personally—I’m quite likely to qualify for the Magic World Cup as the top pro from Australia, and there’s also a reasonable chance I’ll be the APAC representative for the 16-player championship, and the combined prize purse is of similar size in a smaller field. But Worlds was very awesome, and it’s a shame to see it go, and it’s not at all clear that these Magic World Cup qualifiers will do a good job of replacing Nationals. Nationals was a goal in itself for a lot of players. The qualifiers seem like glorified PTQs—will we see the same prize support for these as for Nationals? It seems unlikely, and it’s clear that they aren’t handing out professional points at these events either.

Of course, this is still fantastic relative to what we had a month ago, and we don’t know enough about the system to condemn it yet. I’m very happy about the World Cup itself. Anyone who has made the top three of Nationals before will know how awesome it is to be on your National team—you’re all working together, and representing your country, and everyone is cheering for you, and so on and so forth. The World Cup takes that and puts it on a much larger scale—instead of competing for a $12,000 first prize, which is insignificant relative to the Pro Tour itself, you’re competing for… well, we don’t know yet what you’re competing for, but the prize purse overall is $150,000, which is over half of a Pro Tour payout. This system also still allows players from smaller nations to break onto the scene—given half of the PTQs from small countries were cut, we really only had the Nationals/Worlds circuit left, and it’s good that they’ve decided to maintain it.

The Magic Players’ Championship had already been announced, and once you get past the whole “I can’t believe they took away Worlds and replaced it with THIS” reaction, it’s pretty cool. They aren’t inviting people based on Planeswalker Points anymore, so it actually does represent a cross-section of the best; the quality of play should be excellent. It’s like watching a great Pro Tour top 8, times two. It also represents a huge incentive—getting to play on the Pro Tour is already very exciting for the average PTQer, but the next level is getting to play in this championship. It’s a massive motivator for me, at least. Playing in the inaugural version sounds awesome enough that I would consider travelling outside Australia just for GPs, and you can bet I’m going to be testing like anything for Honolulu.

2. The Pro Player’s Club is substantially different—it now has only three levels: silver, gold, and platinum, corresponding roughly to levels two, five, and eight in the previous system, respectively.

This is kind of a “meh” change; it won’t affect a lot of people, and the best will still be rewarded—but I don’t think the removal of stratification is a good thing. One of the problems with the previous system was that a difference between 39 and 40 pro points was massive, while a difference between 40 and 49 was irrelevant. This new system makes that problem much worse by failing to recognize there’s a real difference in skill level between someone who gets 38 pro points and someone who gets 25. In return, it’s easier to learn, I guess? Compared to level eight, the platinum rewards at Pro Tours are substantially larger, but the rewards at GPs are half the size, and there will be a lot more GPs this year than Pro Tours.

It’s also interesting to note that they changed the points payout substantially—Pro Tours got a massive shot in the arm, with places 5 to 16 almost doubling, and GP got points taken away. Is this a good thing? I’m not sure; there seems to be a de-emphasis on GPs as top premier events, which is good for people already on the Pro Tour but bad for the GP grinders. No one in 2012 will win Player of the Year with seven GP top eights but no Pro Tour top eights, that’s for sure.

Overall I predict there will not be a lot of public outcry about this change because everyone is so relieved to have the Pro Player’s Club back more or less intact, but I do hope they add in ruby or emerald or something between gold and platinum. The difference a single pro point can make right now is too much.

3. Pro Tours now award invites to the following Pro Tour only to the top 25, and GPs award invites to the top 4, but all invitees receive plane flights.

Personally, I really like this. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m from Australia, and plane flights anywhere cost two thousand dollars, but there’s something gratifying about how you’re not only being invited to participate in a tournament—you’re even being flown there. It says to the player, “We’re so thrilled to have you representing your country at the highest level of our game, we want to make absolutely sure you attend.” It makes it so much easier for people to justify the time and expense. The first few times I qualified for Pro Tours via top 16 in GPs and top 50 in Pro Tours, I actually resented the qualification—all it did was ensure that I didn’t go. Because I was qualified, I couldn’t play in PTQs to try and get the flight, and because I couldn’t get the flight, I couldn’t afford it. It’s hard to be 16 and a high school student :(

Alright, this is it for this week. I’ll be back next time with some New Year’s resolutions. Until then!