Format Problems And Solutions

Shaheen Soorani likes healthy formats, and those usually have at least some room for true control decks to thrive. But Standard, Modern and Legacy really grind his gears right now, and he’s here to share why.

No brews today, my friends. I have an ax to grind, a few bones to pick, and a couple gears of mine that have grinding long enough. Honestly, I look forward to these types of pieces, and I’ve always had glowing feedback from you after each one. Magic is much more than decklists and strategies, and the debates and discussions that the game produces can sometimes be more intriguing than actual gameplay itself. I’ve written a few articles recently that addressed the problem of slow play in Magic, delved into the reasons why we each play this game we love, and the steps to follow when building the perfect control deck. These are the types of articles that I really enjoy working on, because I know many of you out there can relate to the issues discussed or maybe it’s something you just needed to hear for the first time. Let’s get a little more specific and discuss some leaks in each of the formats that I play competitively, starting with the oldest.


This is the format where slow play and card interaction difficulty are at their highest point. I’m sure many of you just threw your hands up the first time you played against Dredge, not understanding or caring how your opponent’s cards worked. That problem still exists in Legacy today. Dredge isn’t the most popular deck currently, but a similar deck is:

The Land deck is public enemy number two with my personal pet peeve of the oldest, competitive format that many people love today. The card interactions that exist in the deck can be confusing to newer players, but neither Lands nor the Legacy format are kitchen table experiences. Legacy has been narrowed down to half of the tournament in half of the Invitationals each year, with just a few additional Grand Prix or Open competitions. In other words, the format isn’t at the forefront of competitive Magic these days. This leads me to believe that this pet peeve of mine isn’t on everyone’s mind at this juncture, but I’m sure a few of you are tired of eighty-minute rounds at every Legacy tournament you’ve attended. Wizards bans cards based on power level and overall health of the format, yes, but they also can and have removed cards with time as a reason as well. Lands has a couple of structural problems that have made us all suffer, either as tournament participants waiting for the next round, judges and staff scrambling to keep the tournament running smoothly, or as an opponent that is stuck finding themselves drawn out of the tournament.

The deck is difficult to pilot for new users. This isn’t an excuse that I typically take into consideration, because the opponent can easily call a judge to speed up the play of the new Lands player. The reality is that this usually doesn’t happen or it only happens too late. I implore players to immediately call a judge whenever slow play is obviously occurring, because you paid good money to compete and it isn’t fair to you. Lands, like Dredge, has a lot of cards that just aren’t used in any other deck. For that reason, odd interactions occur and “careful” play takes place in order to make optimal decisions.

Take all of these reasons and tack on the biggest flaw, which is the length of time required to win the game. If there isn’t a 20/20 indestructible creature, the deck reverts to using Punishing Fire to reduce an opponent’s life total to zero. This process is slow, painful, and required far more often than you’d think, especially after sideboard. The opponent could concede, but that is rarely an option because of the power level of Legacy. The cards are great and usually there is a way out of any sticky situation even if the chance is minimal. It probably sounds hypocritical for me to call out the length of time a deck requires to defeat an opponent, however it cannot even compare to the control player’s strategy. The control victory occurs astronomically faster than that of the Lands, once the control player has attained control. The slow creep of Life from the Loam/Wasteland, The Tabernacle of Pendrell Vale and Glacial Chasm for creature control, and the peck-peck-peck of one damage at a time slow-motion burn is something that can take thirty minutes even for an experienced player operating at a brisk pace to complete. High Tide suffers from a similar problem, but the difference will always be in the amount a deck is played. I’d be shocked if we have more than one person playing Time Spiral at an Invitational, due to the general weakness of the deck the and time difficulties involved in playing it. The biggest issue with Lands is that it’s also very good, which draws more and more people to the cause. The deck has always been around, and now we’re taking note as it continues to place well in big tournaments and get picked up by talented mages.

Lands isn’t the biggest culprit in our fight to make Magic tournaments run smoothly, on time, and prevent unintentional draws. The deck that needs to go is one that I could have seen myself piloting once upon a time:.

Miracles has been the best control deck in Legacy for years now, being used faithfully by BBD, Reid Duke, and many more heavy hitters. It’s a control deck that has all of the most powerful card draw and removal spells alongside a free combo. The combo is essentially free because Sensei’s Divining Top is already a powerful card on its own. Sensei’s Divining Top allows a player to set up draws and find answers with very little drawback. When we combine it with Counterbalance, any opponent on the other side of the table wants nothing more than to concede and move to the next game… but they don’t. I wouldn’t either, and that creates the biggest time issue that this fantastic game can experience. Sensei’s Divining Top requires maybe fifteen seconds at most per activation, but it is used nonstop from the very first turn. When the draws have to be perfectly placed on top of the library, those decisions become more difficult and time-consuming.

This is another deck that takes a very long time to win, either using Entreat the Angels, Stoneforge Mystic, or Monastery Mentor to finish off the opponent. Stoneforge has lost favor and Monastery Mentor is usually in the board, so the typical win condition is a one- or two-of Miracle that can take ages to find. The win will happen eventually, as we saw with Lands, but the opponent is under no obligation to scoop up their cards because things aren’t going his or her way.

Miracles may be the toughest deck in Legacy to play, and that goes for the most experienced player down to one that is just getting into competitive Legacy. Brainstorm is tough enough to figure out once, but then you throw in four artifacts that can Brainstorm whenever you want and now we have a problem. Control in Standard is tough to play, and when you take that tough decision tree into Eternal formats it gets even harder. I empathize with those administering the tournaments, however, the key problem I have with unreasonably slow decks is not that they draw themselves out of contention if their pilots are not operating at their peak, it’s the unavoidable unintentional draws that the opponents of these slow players will receive. Scolding people for not screaming “Judge!” five minutes into a match at the first hint of slow play isn’t how we solve these problems.

What can be done, then, to improve Legacy at the competitive level? Break out the banhammer my friends and cut the legs off of both these decks. I would have removed Sensei’s Divining Top from Legacy a long time ago. It’s always difficult to carve a piece or two out of decks that abuse the format in a way where it doesn’t leave a power void for other decks to attempt to fill and dominate, and a concern that such bannings may have collateral consequences is entirely valid, so it’s important to ban the right card to only affect the decks that deserve it. Sensei’s Divining Top is a great Magic card, and luckily it’s only played heavily in one deck. The card I’d select to get banned from Lands is much trickier to determine. We could destroy their ability to win through burn by removing Punishing Fire, but that hurts Jund and other Tier Three decks that may enjoy the fair removal combo with Grove of the Burnwillows. I’m afraid that removing Dark Depths may not slay the beast completely, but that land is at least only used in the deck in question here. If I was a member of Wizards of the Coast tasked with nominating a card for removal I would vote for Punishing Fire, but that is purely based on my hatred for the card with a complete acknowledgement of my personal bias. The more logical removal would be between Dark Depths and Life from the Loam, which are rarely used outside of the Lands strategy. Legacy is sweet, slow play is terrible, and that’s what I wish would change to improve it.


This is the most frustrating format for Wizards because they want nothing more than to get it right. Even though they know Standard sells and the vast majority of competitive play will focus on the new sets, they’d like very much for their replacement of Extended to survive and thrive. I don’t particularly mind the format as it is, but there has been a slight uproar on the lack of bannings in the last announcement after the Grishoalbrand deck reared its ugly head. It’s no secret that nearly each Top Eight, GP or Invitational, contains a couple aggro decks and the rest are combo. It’s tough to call Infect aggro anyway, because it plays out just like a combo deck does: the decisions in that deck are all based around getting one little bugger through and just dropping your hand on it. The rest of the decks that have dominated recently are Abzan Company, Elves Company, Amulet Bloom, Grishoalbrand, Ad Nauseam, and Twin variants. A format is at its healthiest peak when the format is diverse and decks from control, aggro, midrange, and a sprinkle of combo are represented in both total number and success rate. Modern is a combo-infested format where a player’s ability to brew is at its lowest. I’ve done well in the past with my fair control decks, but not recently. But control isn’t the only thing that is on life support in Modern: mono-red and Jund are both heavily played, but neither puts up anywhere close to the numbers they should with the amount of players sleeving them up. Grixis Control tries desperately to be a player in the game, and it too is falling short.

The Wizards strategy has been to ban, ban, ban, and ban some more in order to remedy the staleness of a format that is still relatively knew. It hasn’t worked. So what can we do? What would I do? I’d try the opposite strategy and remove more cards off of the banned list. Modern, like Extended, is powerful and will have powerful cards regardless of how many you try to remove. I think that Wizards should have let the format breath with the smallest banned list possible and then go in and try to delete the big issues.

We are dying to a turn two Primeval Titan, but drawing three cards on turn four off of Suspend is too powerful? Cards like Bloodbraid Elf, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Ancestral Vision, and Green Sun’s Zenith are busted cards, sure, but that’s the draw to older formats. My solution wouldn’t be to unban all of these cards now and let us all club each other to death. I think that little by little Wizards should remove a card here and there, cards that never got to see play, to see if they can revive archetypes that are diminishing into oblivion. Jace, the Mind Sculptor is a card that could revive control single-handedly. Bloodbraid Elf would have R/G players strike fear into the hearts of opponents again, me included. Would it even be better than Siege Rhino? Let us find out! There are cards that I believe are banned just because of their historical tyrannical tenure in Magic, but cards have increased in power level since then. We either have to free some of these cards or we’ll have to ban all of the combo pieces eventually like we have been. Blazing Shoal was banned for being a turn-two or -three combo-kill card, so get ready to put those Primeval Titans, Griselbrands, and Angel’s Graces back into your binder if the trend continues.


Not once, but twice. Two mono-red victories in a row at the highest-level tournament the game has to offer. Is that a problem? Yes. Is that because I hate mono-red? Yes. There aren’t any real glaring issues in Magic’s most popular format currently. I mentioned earlier in the article that the healthiest formats have each of the three major archetypes accounted for and performing well, with a little touch of combo here and there. That isn’t currently what Standard is seeing, but the format is still new and ready to be explored and developed. Control hasn’t been a putting up any numbers in quite some time, which disturbs me but frankly does not disturb the masses out there. The format is dominated by red, green, or both combined these days, and we have to continue to fight to plant the control flag firmly at the top.

Even the U/R decks out there are super-aggressive burn decks in disguise, which gives us yet another hurdle to jump when trying to sculpt a control deck to answer both ends of that spectrum. On the one hand we have indestructible 5/5 attackers and on the other we still have to face draws with three creatures out on turn two that we absolutely have to answer. The challenge is getting increasingly more difficult; however, I still believe we have the tools to put up some fight.

Languish has helped me achieve victory here and there with the Sultai deck you all have seen me rave about in the last few weeks, and now we just need a powerful removal spell in the two-drop slot that can answer most threats in the format. Bile Blight seems to be the card that we have started to see more copies of because of its wide range of uses against the majority of decks in the format. I continue to pilot and use my list from last week, but don’t think that this Pro Tour has shaken my resolve. Standard is ever-changing and rotating, so fixing the format when it’s broken is just a matter of waiting. Patience is rewarded – they said the days of four-mana sweepers were in the past, then Languish took us a step in the right direction. They said that the two-mana removal spell was a thing of the past, but Ultimate Price at least opened the door for that too. I think Wizards knows that the game’s popularity will thrive regardless, however, keeping the different archetypes balanced in the most-played format is essential for the non-casual world.

I know that some of these opinions may be hard to swallow, but that’s what’s been grinding my gears recently and I hope you all enjoyed reading some opinions even if they were strong and unfiltered.