Maybe it’s the fairy tales of my youth or because it’s the universally agreed upon number at which we all “go,” but I’ve always found the number three to
be a nice round figure.
Three’s Company. Three blind mice. Hat tricks in hockey.
Long ago, Magic was a scary place. When the game started, you could play any number of cards as long as you had 40 in your deck. It didn’t matter what they
were or how many of each you used. To make the game less of a competitive joke, a four-card limit was introduced. According to Mark Rosewater, longtime
head of Magic Design, four was chosen to push consistency in deckbuilding but to also prevent certain cards from being drawn every game.
This was twenty years ago.
Since then, Magic has undergone numerous rule changes (the stack, mana burn, interrupts versus instants versus mana sources), new card types
(planeswalkers, Archenemy schemes), hundreds of mechanics, new card frames, parody sets (Unglued, Unhinged), Core Set overhauls,
Core Set eradication, restrictions, bannings, the invention of new formats, rotation adjustments, competitive play structure shifts, Vancouver mulligans,
and countless other things that all have one thing in common: they were changed in order to try to make Magic better as a whole.
Through all of these years, the four-of rule has not changed. As far as I can tell, it’s never even really been largely questioned, at least not in any
meaningful or visible way.
I can’t guarantee it would be a good change for Magic, but my gut feeling is that it would be. So based on that, I’m going to go over the ramifications for
such a change, and from there, if it has merit, important people a lot smarter than I am can get together and talk about it.
So what specifically are we talking about here?
My inclination is that Magic would be a better game if the four-of limit was changed to three.
So let’s talk about that.
Money Money Money
At the time of this writing, Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar has recently concluded. We are in the first month of a new Standard format, and there is a
defined metagame. That metagame is led by Jeskai variants, G/W Megamorph decks, Esper Control, Atarka Red, and Abzan. Almost all of these decks have
something in common:
These two planeswalkers are prominently featured in almost every competitive deck in the format. While that isn’t necessarily an issue on its own, their
prices are astronomical. Jace is currently between $70-80. Gideon is at $40-45 and climbing.
It isn’t R&D’s fault. Their job is to design and develop cards to create the best experience they can. If they paid attention to the secondary card
market, they’d essentially be making blind decisions for all the wrong reasons and the product would suffer. The secondary market is entirely dictated by
the supply and demand of the player base, which is how it should always be.
Sometimes I get people asking me if Legacy will be dead in five years. They talk about how it’s too expensive for the majority of players. In order to
illustrate how simple supply and demand principles are within Magic, I’ll give a summary of my typical answer for the Legacy gloom and doom sentiment.
We’re going to be dealing in very general terms here, but you can apply the situation to the big picture without any mental strain.
Let’s say, just to illustrate the point, Wastelands are around $60 or $70 depending on how picky you are about condition. Let’s say that you and the rest
of the Legacy-playing public think $60 is too much to spend on Wasteland, so you decide you’re not going to play Legacy from now on. Suddenly, attendance
at Legacy events begins to drop and card retailers are stuck with Wastelands in stock. Is the format going to die? What happens?
It’s simple. Wasteland drops in price to meet the decreased demand.
Will you spend $45 for Wastelands? $35? $20?
At some point, the price corrects itself, people buy it, and the format stays alive. This is happening every day, all the time. The prices you see for
every Magic card ever is the average of what most Magic players are willing to pay for any given Magic single or deck. It’s as simple as that.
So what would the market effect be if suddenly you only needed three Wastelands instead of four? Three Underground Seas. Three Force of Will. Three Jace,
Vryn’s Prodigy. Three Gideon, Ally of Zendikar.
In theory, it would reduce the demand for such cards by a significant fraction on a per-player basis; however, I believe that a combination of market
stimulation from all of the selling the new “extra” copy of these cards would create a situation where the price of individual singles would come down by
enough to make Magic more accessible without harming retailers. If players only need three Jace, that’s a lot of Jaces being sold back to retailers at
once, dropping the price by at least $10 or $20.
So how would this benefit retailers if the prices of cards are going down?
By increasing card diversity. The number of Magic cards going unused would decrease, meaning although Jace may go down by $10 or $20, it would create slots
for otherwise unused cards. If every list of an established deck has five different cards it runs four of, then that’s five new slots that will sell five
different cards that would not have sold before. It balances itself out in the immediate, and ultimately, more people are buying more Magic cards if more
people are playing Magic. And I guarantee you more people are playing Magic if Gideon is $20 or $25 than if he’s $45.
On Stagnation and Creativity
If you look at the top 4 decks from Worlds in 2000,
you can see an extremely diverse set of decks, all of which rely on a lot of synergy instead of raw power. In 2000, the Open Series was a long way off, and
the Internet wasn’t ubiquitous. We didn’t have the flow of information we have now. By the same token, the four-card limit was created in a completely
different time for the game, one without the community we have now.
In 2015, we have formats that are mined and drilled into oblivion at a crazy fast rate. Decks are less about well-oiled machines with moving and
complementary pieces; they’re now about jamming power and punishing stumbles. Too often, we act like deck diversity in a format is the only criteria for
its health. I don’t believe this is the case. You can have nine or ten different color combinations, but if all of them are using the same cards within a
given color, is the format really diverse? Christian Calcano’s U/B Aristocrats deck is a shiny little diamond reminiscent of yesteryear deckbuilding
philosophies. Sam Black is frequently building off of synergies that take him to great places.
But the majority of decks? They’re a pre-packaged greatest hits album of the most powerful spells in a given color; players are just mix and matching.
If your opponent has a Siege Rhino or two, your decisions need to be flawless to get ahead. If your opponent has three or four Siege Rhinos, your decisions
are probably meaningless.
So what does this have to do with going to a three-card limit?
The most degenerate types of draws and decks become much less frequent. Siege Rhino isn’t the same style of villain if its presence is reduced by 25%.
Imagine how much less obnoxious Delver Standard would have been if your opponent didn’t frequently have it on the first turn. Imagine which other megamorph
cards would go from bulk to playable if you were only allowed three Deathmist Raptors and three Den Protectors. Imagine a world where land destruction and
two-mana counterspells aren’t blacklisted because you don’t draw them as frequently. Imagine a world where forgotten Magic cards suddenly become relevant
because deckbuilders have to use a greater diversity of cards. This would help Standard the most without really even creating a dramatic effect on healthy
In this example, the most powerful cards in the deck (Top, Counterbalance, Brainstorm) are all reduced, thus encouraging things like Enlightened Tutor and
Trinket Mage to help fill in some of the new blanks without fundamentally changing the deck. The end result is a deck that is 90% as efficient as the
previous version, but that doesn’t have Top on 1 and Counterbalance on 2 as much of the time. The same applies to the “Show and Tell with Force of Will
backup” hands you sometimes see out of Sneak and Show.
What about another non-rotating format?
- 3 Snapcaster Mage
- 3 Delver of Secrets
- 3 Young Pyromancer
- 2 Gurmag Angler
- 2 Tasigur, the Golden Fang
- 2 Jace, Vryn's Prodigy
Again, you’ll see that this deck is quite similar to what we have now, but it creates a scenario where deckbuilders are forced to increase their card
diversity slightly. It will play mostly the same, but the number of times its high end runs away with the game should be considerably less. In fact, you
could make a strong argument that Modern is the healthiest Magic format at the moment, or at least it has the most card diversity in viable competitive
strategies. Notice also that a huge subsection of Modern decks have more one-of, two-of, and three-of copies of cards when compared to other big formats.
- 1 Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker
- 2 Pestermite
- 1 Vendilion Clique
- 3 Deceiver Exarch
- 3 Snapcaster Mage
- 1 Keranos, God of Storms
Is it the same deck? Again, yes, but now instead of being positively mortifying and miserable to play against because of its capability for end-of-turn
blowouts, it’s now merely only uncomfortable to play against.
If Standard is the format we’re really trying to improve most with these number tweaks, we should probably focus on that now.
- 2 Dragonmaster Outcast
- 3 Mantis Rider
- 2 Tasigur, the Golden Fang
- 3 Jace, Vryn's Prodigy
- 3 Hangarback Walker
How different is this deck? Jace and Hangarback will appear on turn 2 less of the time, and Mantis Rider will appear on turn 3 less of the time. I would
generally regard this as a good thing. The lessened fetchland count will minimally affect Dig Through Time, Tasigur, and Murderous Cut, but it should be
noted that they’ll all be a turn or so slower, which is a good thing since delve is provably silly sometimes.
The reduced number of fetchlands also allows the format to speed up a few minutes, which it desperately needs. The control decks of the format aren’t able
to close games out with a huge spell or a huge threat the way they used to be, so there are games that drag on forever even though they aren’t technically
over. Dig Through Time takes forever to resolve sometimes. Finishing games in this format deserves an article all its own, but one thing that would have
helped it for sure is less copies of fetchlands.
- 3 Anafenza, the Foremost
- 2 Wingmate Roc
- 3 Siege Rhino
- 1 Tasigur, the Golden Fang
- 3 Warden of the First Tree
- 3 Den Protector
- 3 Hangarback Walker
- 2 Drana, Liberator of Malakir
This is the first deck where shifts aren’t just tweaked, they’re heavily modified. Losing one copy of Warden of the First Tree affects turn 1 efficiency
drastically, and losing a Siege Rhino affects the number of times the deck can simply jam itself to victory. As a reaction, the deck goes up a tad on
removal and invests itself in other strong places previously unseen, most notably Drana. She may not be the best choice, but she works well with Anafenza,
and Warden frequently sucks up the same amount of mana before it dies anyway.
To Three or Not to Three
The point is, going to a three-card limit doesn’t fundamentally change what we’re already doing. It won’t alter reality as we know it, and it will barely
inconvenience us in most places. But it does reduce the horsepower of the top end of things to a place where I think we’d all enjoy the game a bit more. It
would slightly increase card diversity and affordability. It would make sideboarding even more of a science, and it would create more challenging gameplay
and deckbuilding. I ultimately don’t think it’ll happen any time soon because I get the feeling that the kneejerk outcry (there’s always one, let’s be
honest) and the ensuing “it’s different, therefore it’s ruined!” tidal wave probably don’t outweigh the subtlety of the overall effect. But it’s worth
noting that Commander essentially became a format because of how tiresome it gets winning and losing with cards you draw over and over again in competitive
environments. Are players honestly going to be any better or worse at deckbuilding or playing simply because of this sort of change? I highly doubt going
from four to three will prevent the cream from rising to the top as it always has.
That’s enough from me on this. I’ve theorized sufficiently, and now, I put it in the capable hands of everyone else to discuss, debate, and throw objects