The Complexity Climb

Carsten writes about the step-by-step climb up the complexity ladder from format to format and the role each of the three major Constructed formats plays in it.

It would be a terrible thing if Legacy were Magic’s largest supported tournament format. There, I said it. And yet I also believe Legacy and Vintage are the coolest and most fun formats in existence. That is, after all, why I play Eternal formats almost exclusively. So what gives?

Well, the thing is that I have a past with this game—with time, each and every one of us does. The longer you play and the more experience you gather, the more interactions and decisions become second nature. I understand that holding back lands in RUG once you hit two or three in play to set up Brainstorm is important. I know that City of Brass followed by Ponder means I might just die next turn if I don’t keep open disruption.

These things and the million other little plays, from fetching on your turn to play around Stifle to having an understanding of your opponent’s Storm deck to know what to take with your Thoughtseize—all the tiny details that might just end up killing you if you get them wrong—are what makes Legacy as fun as it is. They’re also what make the format so incredibly hard to get into, and these plays are only scratching the surface of Legacy’s complexity.

Now imagine Legacy is Magic’s major format. How many players would you honestly expect to be dedicated enough after a little casual play to actually graduate to full-scale tournament Magic if it required that much learning effort? If they get killed by Storm and Show and Tell on turn 2 a couple of times as the main course and then lose to never having mana while a Delver beats down as dessert?

Throwing a new player into Legacy would be like teaching math by starting with differential equations, like teaching someone martial arts by giving them a brick and telling them to break it with their fist. And that’s why—not even counting WotC’s bottom line—we need Standard and Modern and why the most supported and most widely played tournament format has to be something along the lines of Standard. Without new players entering the game, the player population stagnates and over time dies off because of real-life commitments, and ultimately there is nobody to sell cards to and Magic as we know it comes to an end.

By providing a growing ladder of areas of play mattering, of single decisions gaining importance as  formats grow larger, players have the chance to slowly assimilate and get used to everything you need to keep track of. That’s what I will be taking a look at today—the step-by-step climb up the complexity ladder from format to format and the role each of the three major Constructed formats plays in it.

Standard: The Training Ground 

So what should the premier supported format look like? Well, it should be reasonably similar to a casual kitchen table match or a game of Limited—what else are new players with maybe half a booster box’s worth of cards really playing after all?

Standard should be the game’s proving ground and training track, the format in which you can internalize the basics of efficient gameplay and prove you actually understand the fundamentals. Card advantage. Racing. The basics of tempo. Board advantage. The dance of answers and threats. Playing around sweepers. Planning ahead due to the cards in your hand and what you expect from your opponent’s deck. Mind games. Metagaming. Silver bullets, trumps, countertrumps, and inevitability.

In short, there is already so much to learn that Standard practically has to cater to the basics, to straightforward strategies that are relatively easy to wrap your head around. When you enter competitive play, the last thing you need is to be instantly confronted with all the opportunities for craziness twenty years’ worth of Magic history has to offer.

As such, there are a couple of conditions a good Standard format has to conform to.

1) A Limited Number Of Fields Of Battle & Limited Strategic Variety

When you already have to work hard to figure out if you should be trading or racing, if you should use removal on their guy or advance your own board, forcing you to at the same time understand strong graveyard synergies, purely stack-based threats, interlocking engine combos, and all the other possible shenanigans I and most other Legacy players are so fond of is just too much. Don’t get me wrong, you can do it—you just need people that know what they’re doing and are ready to spend enough time teaching you. A lot of players won’t have that.

2) A Forgiving Nature

When you’re new to competitive play, you will make mistakes, significantly more mistakes than even a bad player with some experience. If your format is like Legacy and many even minor misplays may just end with you dead, you’ll be losing a lot. And losing is no fun.

Even more importantly, most newer players will not even be close to good enough to realize they made a mistake when we’re talking about the tiny mistakes that often end the game in Legacy—they’ll attribute it to random chance and be disenchanted with the game because they feel as if skill doesn’t matter.

If, on the other hand, you generally don’t just lose because you played the wrong land on turn 2 but instead simply end up somewhat behind but the game goes on, you will have the chance to make bigger and more visible mistakes later on. Instead of luck, it will usually be the huge all-out attack that was answered by an Advent of the Wurm that costs you the game, and you’ll realize you screwed up and feel like you can do better next time. In this way, ironically enough, the game being less skill based will be perceived as allowing skill to matter more and keep players interested.

3) A Leisurely Pace

The larger the card pool gets and the higher a format’s power level is, the fewer turns games generally end up having—card power compresses the game and forces players to make more and more interdependent decisions per turn. Not only does that mean it’s easier to screw up early on, but it also increases the number of things you need to pay attention to in the similar way as additional fields of battle do. Again, there is a limit as to how many things you can suddenly learn to keep track of, and by creating a reasonably slow format, newcomers won’t be overwhelmed.

4) Strong Yet Encouraging Feedback To Non-Optimal Play

As mentioned before, newer players are likely to overlook many misplays they make, especially if they have to do with the nitty-gritty details that keep the game moving instead of big obvious oversights or getting punished by one particular card. To teach them that all the details matter, there have to be mechanics that very obviously punish doing things in non-optimal ways.

At first that might seem to be at odds with the forgiving nature mentioned under the second condition, but that’s what the leisurely pace is there for. By striking the correct balance between the two elements, it’s possible to create a format which both visibly punishes you for misplaying but also allows you to keep playing the game so as to have the opportunity for blunders that feel like more acceptable reasons to lose the game.

The perfect example of this is conditional tap lands like the M10 duals or the Scars of Mirrodin lands. Both of these very visibly punish you by keeping you from playing the spell you could otherwise have cast if you drop them on the wrong turn. You will realize that you made a mistake when you suddenly can’t play your Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas on turn 4 because you played a Swamp instead of that Darkslick Shores on turn 3.

After that you will know that you need to pay attention when deciding which land to play when—or at least you’ll be paying attention to that particular kind of specialty land. At the same time there is nothing hidden about the interaction—just RTFC would have gotten you through the problem, and you also don’t necessarily just lose the game because you missed it. You’re simply behind.  

Now, these are things that I feel are important to make sure new players can enjoy the competitive play experience and not be scared away from learning what a beautiful game Magic actually is. The most widely played format also has another role though. It needs to give players a whiff of how much more there actually is to the Magic experience and whet their appetites for all the far-out things that are theoretically possible in the game and that are possible in the larger formats.

The key here is to not overdo it. Introducing one additional field of battle, such as the graveyard like Wizards did with Innistrad, or one particular kind of unusual strategy, such as engine combo like Pyromancer Ascension, is a good thing. Players learn that there are things outside of combat and removal that matter, yet there are only very few of those things at a time. Instead of being overwhelmed, they’ll be intrigued to see that there are even more things you can do with the cards than what they were used to.

By regularly changing up what kind of out-there strategy is viable in Standard, players are educated about different fields of battle and different kinds of unusual strategies and can learn to appreciate these things without being bummed out, overwhelmed, or losing to things that feel as if there is no reasonable answer to them.

And once players have grasped the fundamentals, evolved to the point of seeing mistakes that don’t necessarily matter in the game at hand, and understand to expect unusual angles of attack, they’re ready to graduate to the next stage of the complexity ladder.

Modern: Introduction To The Real World

What these players need now is a world in which what was unusual before is commonplace, where smaller decisions and more minor details matter. The games need to become more compressed, the fields of battle and angles of attack more diverse, the axes of interaction multiplied.

Yet at the same time the format has to do its best to get players used to this wider Magic experience, not overwhelm them and scare them off. This is what the format would ideally do:

1) Make Most Existing Strategies Viable In The Format

While a lot of decks should still revolve around creature combat and removal to make the transition from Standard upward easier, most other strategies should be present in reasonably pure forms. Engine combo, instant-win two-card combos, synergy-driven aggressive decks, tempo strategies, hardcore control, wall-of-countermagic decks, graveyard-based decks, tutor-toolbox strategies, pure burn, and the multitude of other decks that ignore the dominant paradigm of "play a guy, attack" should all be present in the format in some form.

It is important that these strategies remain relatively pure—that is to say that their angle of attack and game plan rapidly becomes obvious when they’re seen in action. This is important because a big part of what the intermediate format should do is educate players about the huge strategic variety Magic allows for. If decks become to multilayered and flexible, they can play out very differently from game to game, and figuring out what the deck is actually trying to do becomes too difficult for the uninitiated.

In addition, their power level should be low enough that they generally lose to dedicated hate brought to bear against them, another fact that is helped by keeping the strategies pure. In this way players get to adapt to the fact that a variety of focused noncreature-based decks exist that need dedicated answers, but they also learn how to identify, include, and play these answers.

Answers to the hate should exist, but their flexibility and power level needs to be kept in check. Players need to be introduced to the "answers to your answers" dynamic that large-format linear decks exhibit, but this has to happen without causing the feeling that there is in fact nothing they can do because their hate is too easy to get out of.

In the same vein, efficient disruption, be it countermagic, discard or all kinds of hate permanents, should be widely available and playable. The most important lesson to learn here is that you have to be able to interact unless you’re just the best aggressor—that just playing your guys and trying to swing in is in fact not all you need to do to win at Magic.

In this way players learn to accept the fact that a large card pool also means that it is basically impossible to be prepared for every strategy you might encounter. Sometimes you’re going to run into someone who’s doing something you simply don’t understand on the fly and just aren’t ready for. That’s part of the beauty of Magic, but it’s something that you need to learn to accept since it can be a frustrating experience to start with.

This is by the way where I feel Wizards hasn’t been doing a great job with the Modern format. In their quest to make the format more appealing to players used to Standard, they’ve dialed back a number of more extreme strategies like engine combo and control to the point where it’s become very hard to play them at all. This is partially necessary because there are a number of important answers to these kinds of strategies missing from the format—Counterspell in particular is something that would help Modern immensely in my opinion—requiring certain bans to keep the format balanced. By having to kill off whole strategies, however, the format is hindered in doing its job of educating advancing players about them.

2) Make Sure There Is A Predator For Every Type Of Strategy But Playskill Reigns Supreme

With a multitude of viable strategies, metagaming becomes harder as well as more rewarding because there are decks with more lopsided matchups. As a result, it’s important for players to learn that whatever they’re doing there will be someone out there that just has their number. The rise and fall of whole archetypes and strategies depending on what other people are playing is an important feature of the large Eternal formats, and as such the intermediate format should teach players about it.

At the same time, though, a format in which only these types of metagame-dependent strategies exist rapidly boils tournaments down to winning the coin-flip lottery of getting the correct matchups.

That isn’t what Magic at its best is like either, so there should also be decks that have a shot against most other decks but aren’t strongly favored against many opponents. However, it’s important that these decks aren’t just 50:50 to win depending on the luck of the draw but that their win percentage varies strongly depending on correct play. Otherwise our now-educated players will rapidly realize that the game is more about variance than skill and decide to concentrate on more fruitful intellectual pursuits.

3) Compress The Game & Ramp Up The Decision Density To Make Small Plays Matter More Yet Ensure That Evident Feedback Is Available

Having graduated from the most widely played format, players are now ready to make more decisions in the same time span and realize that even minor decisions can matter a lot. To keep the game experience fresh and interesting, it is therefore necessary to ramp up the complexity to a point where each turn becomes challenging again and minor mistakes are more likely to directly lead to game losses. It is however still important for players to get strong enough feedback to clearly point them towards their mistakes.

To continue the land example from above, current Modern mana bases do this very well. By giving players access to shock lands and fetch lands, they get to make more decisions during mana development, and it’s reasonably easy to make sure you always have access to your colors when you need them. At the same time, though, the life loss associated with having played or fetched the wrong land at some point still provides glaring feedback—in the form of a Lightning Bolt to the face—that you made a very relevant mistake when sequencing your lands wrongly.

When a player has finally mastered the intricacies of multiple angles of attack, different fields of battle, less-obvious decisions (in the sense that it’s hard to realize they are decisions), strategic superiority, and the resulting necessity for dedicated answers, they’re finally ready to fully enjoy what the largest card pools have to offer.

Legacy (& Vintage): The Full Monty

Amusingly enough, there is both not much and far too much to say about the final step on the complexity ladder. I’ve written more than one article about the fundamental nature of Legacy and what makes it such a special format, so there clearly is a lot to say about using almost all the cards from Magic’s twenty-year history. And yet from the perspective of what I’m writing today—what the steps of the ladder should be—it’s really pretty straightforward. The whole point of the large formats after all is to allow for everything.

Almost every wrong decision might just kill you, games are often compressed to the point of only taking a couple of turns, and learning feedback—outside of just being dead or so far behind that you cannot come back—is rare. If you don’t realize that you’ve been making a mistake by thinking through the whole game and looking for alternative lines, you probably don’t see the skill involved in many games at all. Put bluntly, the training wheels are off.

The tools involved are so powerful, the punishment for mistakes is so high, the game states swing back and forth repeatedly so much that simply being able to improve actually involves a significant amount of experience, knowledge, and dedication. You might use every skillset, from combat and combat tricks to calculating out ten-spells-a-turn chains. When you play an Eternal format, you could run into anything.

The variety of possible strategies is incredible, every single part of the game is a field of battle you can try to exploit, and the threats and answers are ultra-efficient. To really become excellent at playing these formats, you need a profound familiarity with even obscure rules interactions and a near-limitless card pool, to be aware of and pay attention to just about every decision you make in the game, and a high tolerance for losing due to getting small details wrong.

In short, when playing the large formats, you’re committing yourself to jumping into a pool full of sharks. There is nothing to help you gloss over the shortcomings in your play or your deck, and no mercy will be granted. You’re out on the edge.

Having Climbed Up

Many old-school players—myself included to be honest—bemoan what we perceive as a lack of depth in the smaller formats. When you’re used to the incredible variety of what Magic can be, from prison and combo through aggressive and midrange strategies to full-blown hard control, having access to only a small selection of these feels flat and unexciting, as if the game isn’t living up to its full potential.

What I’ve tried to show you today is that there actually is a good reason for things to look at least somewhat like they do—or at least that’s what I believe. If everything were available, the game would overtax newcomers to the point of driving them away.

That doesn’t mean Standard couldn’t do with a little more variety thought. When was the last time there was a viable prison strategy in that format? How about an actual combo deck, not some glorified pump-spell strategy? And yet fundamentally the approach of slowly ramping up the complexity and depth of the formats so as to ease players into playing more and more complex games makes a lot of sense as a whole.

Sure, when I started playing, that’s not how things worked. We had prison decks, midrange, full-blown control, Necropotence, and probably a lot of decks I never even knew. We didn’t have much netdecking and the hive mind tuning decks to their deadliest in weeks either. Heck, when I started, nobody even knew what a mana curve is. Magic actually was easier back then simply because we were all so much worse. No need to learn as much to start winning if nobody else knows anything either, right? In today’s age, I think a measured step-by-step system to introduce players to all that is possible within the game is a good way to make this game as big as it can be. Wouldn’t you agree?

I hope you enjoyed this rather philosophical piece instead of something more strictly related to actual gameplay or a particular format. If you would enjoy reading more articles like this one, disagree with some or all of my observations, or think I missed something important, let me know in the comments. I likely won’t be answering much at the moment—I’m quite busy trying to finish my Master thesis in time—but I’ll still make sure to at least read everything you have to say.

Until next time, keep climbing!  

Carsten Kotter