Innovations – Magic Online Interview with Worth Wollpert, and New Extremes in Standard

The StarCityGames.com $5,000 Standard Open Series Comes to Nashville!
Monday, November 2nd – Patrick Chapin interviews Worth Wollpert on the current state of Magic Online, before moving into an examination of Standard, and a slew of interesting archetypes. He touches on the need for intelligent playtesting, perfect for those preparing for this coming weekend’s StarCityGames.com $5000 Standard Open in Nashville!

Today, I am pleased to be joined by the Senior Business Manager of Magic Online, Worth Wollpert. With Zendikar and M10, Magic has been doing extremely well lately, but I had a number of questions I wanted answered, some of which are were not easy. As you know, when it comes to Magic Online, Worth is the man to talk to. I also have some radical Standard decks to discuss after the interview.

Patrick Chapin: Thanks for taking some time out of your schedule today to answer a few questions, Worth. Magic Online has been experiencing an extended period of time without many shut-downs or delays, and customer satisfaction with 3.0 seems to have become very positive. When did this period begin, and what was done to eliminate the problems that were causing the continual crashing? Is there reason to believe that this period will continue at least until the transition to 4.0, or whatever is to come next?

Worth Wollpert: The ‘happy’ period really started with Alara Reborn’s release, I think. M10 followed and went quite smoothly, and in the last few weeks we’ve realized a few things that we did for Zendikar didn’t work out exactly as we’d planned. The past week’s worth of events on Zendikar have been, overall, very successful, but we know the experience still isn’t perfect, and the lag that has shown up in spots, combined with a couple of unplanned downtimes the week before last, really underscores the need for continued vigilance on our part. I will say that recent events are “growing pains” that stem from a desire to deliver better experience, such as faster store delivery. We also introduced some friendlier OP events into MTGO, effectively lowering the bar for newer players to dip their foot into trying a tournament of some type. Pauper, two-man queues, etc…

PC: How long do you guys plan to support 3.0? Can you tell us anything about what is to come next?

WW: I’ve actually asked all folks internally to stop referring to Magic Online with a III or a 3.0 anywhere. I feel like Magic Online is a lot like paper Magic in that it continues to evolve, and hopefully just get incrementally better, build by build. I believe we’re done with the massive change-type of builds, like April of 2008 for example, where we’re down for a week and when we come back up it all looks different. Rather, from now on, people will see smaller pieces change in and out, without bringing the system down to do so. If I get my way, there won’t really ever be a version 4, but I know that if you take a look at MTGO in April of 2008, and then look again in April of 2011, say, you will find very different products. As far as “what’s next?” the preview of the new UI work at PT: Austin was a good hint of the direction we’re taking. Stability is always our #1 concern though, so those issues will trump basically everything else. As you mentioned with the player satisfaction growing over the last 6-8 months, clearly our focus on stability is making the general MTGO playing populace happy.

PC: Recently, Wizards of the Coast has announced 16 slots available from online PTQs (as opposed to one, previously from the world championships). Does this mean that WotC plans to continue to expand its online presence proportionate to its paper presence? Has WotC revised at all their position about the risk of Magic Online cannibalizing paper Magic? Will we ever see an Online Magic Pro Tour, or at least in the next few years?

WW: I wouldn’t expect things to get much bigger in the near term regarding the size of Online PTQs and the rate at which we give away slots. Sixteen slots for every pro tour, and some similar number for Worlds, “feels” right to me, at least for now. The logistics on an Online Pro Tour are staggering to think about, and there is nothing there planned for the near term, but technology is advancing by the day, so I suspect at some point that would be a reality. Long way off though, I think. Regarding MTGO and paper Magic, our thoughts are that we want people to experience Magic in whatever format and on whatever platform is right for them. Each way to play offers something the others don’t. We don’t mind if you guys want to play ALL the ways, though.

PC: Some of the primary advantages of having online qualifiers seems to be the lower cost to operate and the opportunity for players in remote locations to qualify, as well as those that might not have the means to attend many or any PTQs. Some critics have pointed out two potential problems though, and were wondering your responses.

The first such concern is that there seems to be widespread concern about Pros “assisting” friends during PTQs. While some people were concerned about the possibility of Pros playing for someone, the more realistic concern would appear to be that a player has a “ringer” sitting in the room, giving advice and talking about situations with him/her, or at the very least a chat window open where plays are discussed with “teammates.” There is already software circulating that allows players to see the Magic Online Screen that their teammates are seeing, so as to be able to better assist them.

What is WotC’s position on such assistance, as it would appear that there is a strong incentive for players to operate this way, and it would seem that it is not clearly defined as being against any rule? If this is illegal, what is the specific policy forbidding it? If it is legal, do you think that up and coming players that don’t have “ringers” for friends will actually have a fair shot at competing? Is WotC at all concerned about predictions that the majority of these 16 slots will go to “friends of ringers?”

WW: Our ToS is very clear. The owner of the account must play at the event, and account sharing is forbidden.

PC: The second major concern is that Online PTQs do not create the same community that paper tournaments do. While online play has its own community, no question, “going to” an online tournament is not the same type of experience as attending a paper Magic tournament. What is being done to alleviate concerns about the decay to Magic culture that some speculate will result from such a major chunk of the Magic experience being removed? What is being done to keep players interested in attending paper PTQs?

WW: Paper events are at their highest levels ever, as we speak. A rising tide lifts all ships.

PC: Can you comment on whether or not you expect paper PTQ attendance to drop as a result of these online PTQs? What incentives is WotC putting in to place to reward those players willing to drive 1-4 hours to paper tournaments?

WW: The reward for those people is the same as it always was: an experience that you cannot replicate online, and a shot at a PT invitation. As I said, all our Magic programs (both paper and online) offer something different for everyone. Paper Magic attendance is at its highest levels ever, we don’t expect that our online products are doing anything other than helping that grow, and vice versa.

PC: How is Magic Online doing today, compared to other times in the past? Is it bigger now then it has ever been in terms of the number of players and the amount of playing going on? What percentage of Magic’s M10 business was paper versus online? What are the implications of the massive success of paper M10 and Zendikar?

WW: MTGO is bigger now than ever, yeah… for that matter, so is paper Magic. We are breaking records of all kinds (users, session times, unique players, the list goes on), and then re-breaking them a week later. Duels of the Planeswalkers has had a noticeable positive impact on both our paper Magic business and with MTGO too. I can’t speak to percentages of revenue of this or that, but generally in business, success breeds more success. We definitely have plans in place that should help us continue to see the explosive growth we’ve experienced in the last year.

PC: First there was one slot, then sixteen… how far will the transition to online go? Will competitive play eventually be a nearly entirely online experience?

WW: This is answered earlier, basically. I don’t see us expanding too much beyond what we’ve got right now any time soon. Technology moves so fast it’s hard to predict what’s going on next week though, let alone next year.

PC: Can you tell us anything about the success of the XBLA Duels of the Planeswalkers game? Has it met expectations? What is next for Digital Media beyond Magic Online?

WW: Yes, it has absolutely met (crushed, actually) expectations. Even the most optimistic folks here are floored by how well the game has done. The last announced bit from us several weeks ago was 200,000 titles sold and well over 500,000 trials downloaded. That’s pretty incredible when you think about those numbers relative to the current Magic playing population in the world. I should add, the expansion for Duels just came out a few days ago, and neither that nor the main game show any signs of slowing down, we are currently (as of the writing) sitting at #1 on XBLA’s best sellers list. We have some exciting announcements about other non-MTGO Magic digital products coming before the end of the year… nothing I can spoil here though, unfortunately.

PC: Can you comment on the success thus far of the Magic Online Championships tournament series? Is this the beginning of the “Magic Online Pro Tour?”

WW: We’re thrilled with the participation for the 2009 MOCS stuff. Magic Online and paper Magic are joining forces more than ever, what I believe to be the single biggest booster draft ($50k) ever will be happening on a LAN in Rome, and those 8 players will get to enjoy all the amazing parts of the paper event as well. Really exciting stuff. If I told you the genesis of the whole MOCS program, you’d never believe me.

PC: Is there anything else you guys have cooking that you would like to tell us about to today? Anything you would like to add?

WW: Not too much I can add that isn’t covered above, just a reassurance that as a company we’re totally committed to providing a world-class experience for Magic players of all types. We definitely are not resting on our heels, however; we know MTGO still needs work, and we’re going to keep at it. Please ask your readers to keep up the feedback. It’s been immensely helpful to us, and everything that is posted in a constructive manner generally gets read. Thanks again, Patrick!

PC: Thanks again for your time, Worth!

So, Magic Online is in a good place these days, which is obviously awesome. Let’s get down to the business at hand: radical standard decks. Many people have been discouraged by how awesome the Jund deck is, and how the oppressive combination of Putrid Leech, Sprouting Thrinax, Bloodbraid Elf, Blightning, and Bituminous Blast are destroying just about all comers. Look at Vampires, for instance… a fun and interesting new archetype that people love. Obviously, they can never beat Jund. That sums up a lot of match-ups in this format.

Do not despair. There is hope. Today we are going to look at some of the more interesting decks to emerge so far in the post-Zendikar Standard environment. When preparing for the State Championships coming up, it is important to develop a full and accurate picture of the new Standard metagame. One of the best techniques that I have learned for approaching new rotations’ effects on a format is to try to figure out what the extremes are for the format.

One of the usual techniques I learned from Michael J Flores was that of extreme metagaming, as he wrote about here. The basic idea is that you probably don’t have the time to test every different deck in the format, so in an effort to understand the format the best you possibly can, you try to find the extremes of the format. You look for the fasted Red Deck Wins, the “hottest combo,” the “coldest control deck,” the strongest card quality mid-range, whatever the most extreme version is of each major strategy that you can identify.

Okay, so you understand that Jund is the default midrange deck, and why midrange Bant or Midrange Naya decks suck – i.e. they seek the same position in the meta that Jund enjoys, but they cannot possibly hope to be better at it. What now? I have written enough lately about possible control builds, which do a good job of offering the “biggest deck” in the format. Boros Bushwhacker is my current pick for best “ultra aggro,” though White Weenie is not terrible if you are into that sort of thing.

What other extremes can be pushed? Today I am going to write about a new style of Elf deck in an attempt to abuse Planeswalkers the hardest, as well as “Cascade Desire” in an attempt to abuse cascade the hardest. In addition, there is a laundry list of bizarre combo decks that I want to talk about, all looking for a position as the “best combo deck” to punish decks that deal too heavily in anti-creature or slow proactive creature assaults.

First up, we have a bold new “Tinker” deck that won a Magic League Trial on Thursday.

The deck’s creator said that his Jund and Vampires match-ups are decent, but Boros Bushwhacker is a very bad match-up (presumably as he is too slow). He defeated White Weenie in the finals and Five-Color Cascade in the semis. Is his deck good enough to survive? Maybe… it is obviously filled with some very cute tricks, and it has the potential to be absurdly busted at times, but it appears a little slow and there are all sorts of problems that go along with running 39 mana and 14 fatties.

The way the deck usually plays out is by playing at least two mana accelerators in the first three turns, as well as a Trapmaker’s Snare to find Summoning Trap, if you didn’t draw it. Of course you can’t count on being able to “Trapcost” the Green Trap; however, you don’t need to with this build, since you are likely to have a creature in your top 7 cards that is well worth paying 6 mana (at instant speed!) for. A lot of decks in this format are going to have a real tough time dealing with a turn 4 Iona or Sphinx of the Steel Wind, and even Baneslayer Angel or Mycoid Shepherd can be a brutal surprise in combat.

Playing against any sort of mid-range or control strategy is actually exactly where you want to be with this deck, as you ramp out mana quickly, then set up turns where you lead with Iona. If it resolves, you “win,” and if they counter it, you just start Trapping. They aren’t playing counterspells? Well, then there is a good chance that they won’t be able to beat Iona (unless they have thought this out during deck construction).

Where can you go from here? Clearly this concept has a lot of possibilities. You could get a Trap toolbox. You could play more card draw. You could have more fatties that are actually castable (like more Baneslayers). The point is that this is very clearly an exciting new style of deck that is going to take some exploration. The biggest weakness it has so far is with two-color ultra fast aggro decks. Iona not being an auto-win, and the risk of falling so far behind on board that even a turn 6 Sphinx of the Steel Wind is not a lock, is a scary thought.

Up next we have another Magic League winner, this time a G/r Elf deck piloted by Kaesh, filled to the brim with powerful Planeswalkers…

This is an interesting direction to consider taking Elves, as the tribe needs to be re-imagined, now that they are without the Wren’s-Run Vanquisher, Nettle Sentinel, Heritage Druid, Wilt-Leaf Liege (what I would do with THAT guy!), and so on.

There is a definite shortage of good elves, so the pilot has opted to focus on using the Elves they do have to start powering out devastating Planeswalkers on turn 3. Garruk’s power goes without saying, especially in a deck that actually wants an Overrun, but Nissa Revane and Sarkhan Vol are also both very strong here.

Nissa creates a powerful board advantage, and her weakness to Lightning Bolt is lessened by the fact that Lightning Bolt is going to be awesome against this deck no matter what. Even if they draw one or two Bolts, they are going to have to use them immediately, meaning she will often live if she can dodge Blightning. The life gain ability can be absurd in racing situations, and her ultimate is going to be tough to pull off, but you can actually lock up a game in a creature standoff and close it out by using her ultimate, which will almost surely be game (with 4 Bloodbraid Elves and 4 Elvish Archdruids, at the very least).

Sarkhan Vol is another nice fit, as haste is particularly awesome with Elvish Archdruid. The threaten ability adds a nice element to the deck, as you have no other main deck ways to interact directly with creatures. The ultimate doesn’t take that long to set up and offers another “game-winning threat.”

Chandra out of the board is probably a metagame call, as I could imagine her main in many fields. She is obviously awesome against Baneslayer Angel, and can be a nice swap for Sarkhan Vol against aggro decks.

This build makes excellent use of the Oran-Rief, the Vastwood, getting a steady stream of bonuses throughout the game at very little cost. I must admit, I am a bit concerned about the deck’s inability to interact, which is a dangerous weakness for a deck that doesn’t kill turn 4. Still, this is the first exciting Elves deck I have seen in the new format, and it can provide a foundation for a modern Elves deck.

Next we have a popular archetype that has been around since before the rotation, but has been gaining a little popularity on account of the rest of the field weakening.

The particular brand of Five-Color Cascade takes our Hawaii sideboard plan of every cascade ending in Blightning or Esper Charm to the extreme. You will usually be able to empty your opponent’s hand by the fifth turn, at which point you just start filling the board with Baneslayers while you continue to barrage your opponent with a steady stream of two-for-one’s.

This deck is one of the primary reasons people need those Goblin Ruinblasters so badly right now. The raw power of this deck is very high, and such ultra consistent cascades are very exciting. This deck is a little slow, though, and continues to lead to reasonably well positioned status of Boros Bushwhacker. Michael Flores has been a particularly big advocate of this deck, which appears to be inspired by Ben Botts dedicated cascade deck from last season.

I am not going to say much on this one, other than if you are the type of person who has liked Turbo-Fog in the past, you may want to give this brew a go, but at the end of the day, Archive Trap doesn’t really add that much of a new element to the deck. It is still the same old Fog deck that people with Howling Mines have been making ever since Hovi/Place/Long/Rank/Dove invented Turbo Stasis.

I would love to include a Warp World list, but I have yet to see anyone really crack the code. The cards that seem the best in the deck so far are Lotus Cobra, Trace of Abundance, Siege-Gang Commander, Elvish Visionary, and Warp World. How do you fill out the rest of the deck? I am not sure yet.

Ob Nixilis is potentially a fantastic kill card, as he generally means most Warp Worlds will actually be completely fatal. Even as a back-up plan he is not too bad, and you want to be fetching anyway on account of the Cobra.

Landfall is one of the most exciting ways to abuse Warp World, since every Warp World will trigger ever one of your landfall cards many, many times. As such, even the Gladehart and Rampaging Baloth are worth considering. The key is to focus on making your strategy a permanent based on, particularly permanents that provide card advantage, such as Borderland Ranger. Garruk is tempting, but remember, you can’t put him into play off Warp World, and he does not combo with Trace that well.

Even though you don’t get the cascade off Bloodbraid Elf when you Warp, I am pretty sure he is worth it anyway, as he is a great way to advance your board on turn 3 or 4 and help make your Warp bigger. Besides, a 3/2 haste is not the worst card to reveal.

Since there will be plenty more landfall cards in Worldwake (or so a little birdie told me), this is one strategy to keep an eye on, as it may break out, even if it is not quite there yet.

Here is a crazy combo deck that a lot of people missed, as Nick published it in a feature article during the week of the Pro Tour. The basic idea is that you can flip Pyromancer’s Ascension relatively easily with all of the basic building block spells early, leading to games where you start developing a huge advantage with all of the forking going on, eventually going off completely with Naya Charm plus Time Warp.

You can Naya Charm and use the two copies to get back a different Naya Charm and a Time Warp. Then you Time Warp and get two turns. Repeat this until you have drawn you’re a lot of your library, then either bash with the Sphinx every turn, or Banefire them over and over until they die. Remember when going off to use Worldly Counsel to ensure that your Banefire is not one of the bottom cards of your library.

I am not sure how effective this deck is in this form, as Blightning and Mind Sludge seem tough, but it is a radically different direction and worth exploring.

Hopefully this has provided some food for thought as you begin to assemble a Standard gauntlet to forge your new brews. Remember, it is not enough to just test your decks against the three most popular decks. You want to find the most extreme decks of each major style of play and test against each of them. Do you really need to play a ton of games against White Weenie? Probably not, as it is similar in style to Boros Bushwhacker, though not as extreme. This does not mean that it is worse; it just means that you will probably learn more from playing games against RW, since it pushes the boundaries of what your deck has to be able to do.

Sometimes it is better to test against the most popular deck of a major archetype. Other times, you will find that match-up easy and will want to intentionally pick the second most popular deck of that archetype if it is a harder match-up for you, forcing you to adapt and strengthen your deck’s plan. For instance, maybe your deck is great against Boros Bushwhacker, but Brave the Elements is just a killer versus you. In that case, you might want to play more games against White Weenie, rather than just your good match-up.

See you next week, as I continue to explore Standard and talk about more ways to prepare for the State Championships, taking into consideration that for the first time in years, they will be taking place after the World Championships (which changes a few things).

Patrick Chapin
“The Innovator”