And Now For Something Completely Different

Sam Black doesn’t just analyze Magic, he analyzes what Magic could be in the future. Read about Sam’s appearance at the Pro Tour and a format he thinks could exist alongside Modern in the future!

Grand Prix Washington, DC: March 11-13!

I’m sure you know about #PTOGW. You know that Team CFB/FtF and Team East/West Bowl crushed it with their Eldrazi decks. You may or may not know that my team, UltraPro, had a relatively poor showing, having failed to find anything good enough to pull the team together. We played seven different decks, with the most common being a Mardu deck championed by Paul Rietzl. Justin and I played Lantern, and while Justin didn’t win a match in Modern, getting paired against Burn twice and Death’s Shadow Zoo twice, I went 8-2, so I’m currently in the lead for the “Constructed Master” slot at Worlds.

Yes, I think Eldrazi is the indisputable “best deck” in Modern, but I think people calling for emergency bans at this point are crazy.

I don’t remember who first made the comparison to Elves in Berlin, but it’s perfect. The Pro Tour in Berlin that Luis Scott-Vargas won with Elves was the breakout tournament for Elves, and I’d argue the deck dominated on a similar scale and that several of the cards were legitimately ban-worthy, like Glimpse of Nature, which is banned in Modern. Despite that fact, the deck was not banned on the spot, and it did not go on to dominate Extended, the format of that Pro Tour. I believe, though I’m not certain, that the most successful archetype following that Pro Tour was a mono-blue Faeries deck Gabriel Nassif played at that Pro Tour.

The best strategy in Modern, as I so often say, is to play the least fair deck that no one is expecting/prepared for. It’s hard to get less expected than the unknown, so if you can find a truly powerful new deck, you’ll have a great chance in Modern. This means playing the most expected deck is rarely a good idea, especially if the deck is exploitable, which is to say, if it has known weaknesses.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I think banning an Eldrazi land is completely reasonable. Lands that tap for more than one mana are generally unfair, and the Eldrazi deck likely invalidates every other oversized creature strategy. Basically, it’s a much better Zoo, except that it can’t reliably cast colored spells. How substantial that exception is is debatable, but the short version is that I think there are real reasons to play Zoo over Eldrazi, but it seems really hard to justify playing Zoo against Eldrazi in a world where Eldrazi is popular.

My suspicion is that ultimately it will be correct to ban a land from the Eldrazi deck for the sake of format diversity, but it doesn’t need to happen now because the deck’s presence will push people to explore new space to beat the deck. Some of the new decks that are created might stick around after Eldrazi is banned, which would be a net positive for the format, and in the interim, we get to explore a format with some very new constraints and incentives. As I said in my last article, #PTOGW will not look very different from Modern tournaments following it.

The Eldrazi deck has a huge problem with opposing non-creature permanents. Ensnaring Bridge and Worship are the most obvious. The U/R Eldrazi deck has Hurkyl’s Recall, which can answer Ensnaring Bridge, but Jiachen Tao’s Eldrazi deck has only a single Ratchet Bomb in the sideboard that allows it to beat Worship, and getting Ratchet Bomb up to four against someone who’s planning on using Worship to beat a deck that relies on Ratchet Bomb as an answer is somewhat ambitious.

Moving forward, we’re going to see Eldrazi decks try to incorporate new cards to fix their known weaknesses and we’re going to see decks get built and selected for their ability to incorporate cards that beat Eldrazi. Ensnaring Bridge will likely become a common sideboard card, rather than just something that few fringe decks are built around, and we’re going to see archetypes selected for having positive matchups against the Eldrazi decks, something that wasn’t really happening in this tournament. I’m not sure exactly which decks those are, as I haven’t tested Eldrazi extensively, but I’d start by investigating decks like Affinity (which I believe to have an edge despite not winning the Pro Tour), Infect, Scapeshift, Storm, Abzan Company, and any Worship / Ensnaring Bridge deck.

Now onto the real order of business.

Acting Casual

While my title could certainly refer to the future of Modern, it’s not actually what I had in mind. I had a little side project this weekend at the Pro Tour. Wizards of the Coast sends a few members of R&D to every Pro Tour to watch it happen and talk to players and get feedback to take to work the next week. One of my favorite parts of every PT is talking to those members of R&D, many of whom I’m good friends with from before they were working at Wizards, when we were both competitors and both interested in working for WotC someday. I like getting to see friends who don’t make it out of Seattle much, but I also like discussing the latest set and where Magic’s headed. This weekend, I had an idea I wanted to float by them.

As I see it, almost every casual format is designed to increase the pool of cards that people play with. This happens because there are sweet cards that people wish they could play with that just aren’t quite good enough for competitive constructed formats and because playing with more different cards results in more varied gameplay. As I discussed when talking about the incentives in Modern toward diversity because it results in a more varied experience that Magic relies on for replayability, the same basic goals exist in other formats.

If my friend and I each own one deck, and we’re going to play against each other hundreds of times, playing any Constructed matchup will get pretty boring, as we’ll learn the few different ways the games can play out. If each of us has a deck with 100-200 different cards, as some casual formats offer, every game can be an entirely new experience.

Let me get into my personal history with Magic a bit. I started playing Magic in 1994, but I didn’t qualify for a Pro Tour until 2006. For the first twelve years I played Magic, I was a casual player, more or less. I started playing in local tournaments in 1995, and I was always competitive, in that I always tried to compete to the best of my ability, and I started playing in PTQs around 1998, but I’ve also played a ton of casual Magic.

In middle school and high school my favorite format was the five player format most commonly called “Star” these days. In college, my friends and I drafted and played a modified version of the casual format “Five-Color,” a 250-card format that required playing cards of every color. Our modification was that we played “Five-Color Highlander,” meaning, of course, that we played 250-card singleton decks. By the time formats like EDH / Commander, Tiny Leaders, and Canadian Highlander became popular, I’d moved on to almost exclusively playing competitive formats, not because I don’t like casual Magic, but because I just need to focus on competitive formats to prepare for tournaments.

I attended Beloit College, a small liberal arts college in a very small city in Wisconsin. There were a decent number of people there who played Magic, but I played most often with the same two to five people, and we played pretty regularly, so I have a lot of experience with the advantage of big-deck casual formats over competitive formats for small play groups.

Now, where I’m going with all this. I think it’s crazy that Wizards hasn’t done more to try to match tournaments to the way people actually play Magic for fun. I get that no one wants EDH to become a competitive format. It’s not trying to be balanced for tournament play, and supporting some tournaments would hurt the casual side of the format. It’s great to have a format in that space and I’m not trying to threaten that. What I’m trying to do is make a more fun tournament format.

My suggestion was to try running some high-level tournaments using a Highlander or Singleton format. My first suggestion was 100-card Modern (Modern for card availability and balance reasons), but concerns were raised regarding shuffling that many cards properly in a tournament setting, and also how long games would take searching a 100-card Highlander deck.

My solution is to suggest 60-card Modern where all search-and-shuffle effects are banned. Removing tutors helps push the varied gameplay the format is intending to maximize, which makes up for having smaller decks than I’d like, and removing shuffling time helps push the “fun” element that I’m trying to push by removing boring shuffling time. The alternative, a 60-card Highlander format with searching, would actually result in more searching-and-shuffling time than Modern. For a variety of reasons, some of which should be obvious, there are greater incentives to play tutors in such format, and because searching for a single card takes longer than searching for a card you might have multiple copies of, this is strongly undesirable.

People I talked to were interested in the idea and especially the motivation behind it, to try to reach out to more Magic players by making competitive Magic fit better with their goals for playing the game. The same people, though, felt like they needed more information; specifically, they wanted to know what this format would actually look like, what decks would get played, how the format would play out, and whether players would be interested in it.

Modern essentially started as a player-based, grassroots format, organized largely by Gavin Verhey, and something like this would have the best chance of happening if it caught on independently first. Still, I want to try to answer the question of what decks in this format might look like, something I hadn’t thought through before suggesting the basic idea.

Before I get into hypothetical early decklists, I want to clarify that I’m not trying to replace Modern, and I’m not suggesting this because I think Modern is bad, and most specifically, this isn’t a result of having “given up” on Modern after seeing it “destroyed” by the Eldrazi menace. I was working on this idea before this PT started, and I want it to exist in addition to, not instead of, other competitive formats.

So, how might decks look in this format?

Let’s start with some basics:

From these decks, I think it’s apparent that there are enough cards in Modern that you can play a basic aggro or control strategy without playing any embarrassing cards. These lists assume the current Modern banned list with all cards with the word “shuffle” in their text box also banned, including cards like Ghost Quarter and Path to Exile. One thing that stands out from building decks in this format is that I would certainly ban Blood Moon, as it’s too hard to build even a two-color deck that’s really good against it without going out of your way.

The other concern is that every deck might be too basic, like these, where they have a strategy that feels very “core set,” the kind of timeless deck archetype that exists in every format rather than the more interesting fringe strategies that come out of synergies between certain cards. Let’s examine what’s possible in that space.

This is an unfocused mix of graveyard strategies. It’s certainly not the optimal graveyard deck, but it shows how many redundant cards there are that allow a Highlander deck to incorporate strategies like this.

This is a hybrid value/combo creature deck that’s somewhere between Rally, Company, and Aristocrats. The combos are harder to assemble with only one copy of Collected Company and no Chord of Calling, but cards like Eternal Witness and Rally the Ancestors help assemble all the pieces over a long game where some die. Plan A is certainly just building card advantage and attacking, but the deck has a lot of ways to randomly assemble a combo and win on the spot.

This is partially just to explore how possible it is to build a deck that’s generally based on having lots of copies of the same effect. By combining the “take extra turns” strategy with the “Fog” strategy to create a general-purpose Howling Mine / planeswalkers strategy, I think I was able to get enough together, though it likely actually needs more one-mana cantrips to find the relatively few Howling Mine Effects.

One thing this list highlighted is how much green ramp is cut off. That ultimately might not be much of a problem, but I could also see allowing cards that search as long as they can only find basic lands. This would allow cards like Path to Exile and Ghost Quarter, help some of the manabase issues by allowing Evolving Wilds and Terramorphic Expanse (which I think a lot of decks would play), and allow things like Nissa, Vastwood Seer; Sakura Tribe-Elder; and Cultivate. I think those spells are likely good to have in the format without allowing fetchlands, which slow games down too much.

If a format like this appeals to you, the best things you can do to make it happen are to build and share interesting decks, so that we can get a better idea of what the format looks like and whether it would accomplish the goals of fun and diversity. Just start playing the format and discuss the idea online!

Grand Prix Washington, DC: March 11-13!