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Sullivan’s Satchel: Turn 4 Formats, Neutral Ground, And Mono-Red Roasting

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Lightning Bolt, illustrated by Christopher Moeller

Hello and welcome back to Sullivan’s Satchel. I’ve just returned from a deeply enervating trip to the Valley Forge Casino Resort, but whatever spiritual rot I’m experiencing has little to do with the Magic I watched. All three formats appear to be in varying degrees on good shape, and most importantly all three formats looked different very different from what I watched in Richmond. Primeval Titan strategies still made up a large percentage of the Modern metagame and the combo decks of Pioneer are cause for at least some low level of concern, but Standard looked very good and all three formats were flush with innovating angles of attack against the best strategies, if not exactly new archetypes altogether.

As always, thanks to everyone who sent in their questions, and if you want yours answered, send it in to mailbag@starcitygames.com. With that:

Anon asks:

During the Philly broadcast you said you thought it was bad that Wizards initially announced that Modern would be a “Turn 4 Format”. What’s wrong with having some guidelines?

I don’t think it was necessarily a mistake to say that as part of the initial announcement. Part of the goal is setting expectations in a certain place, and, while crude, I think “we want games to go on for at least four turns” gives people a framework for what inevitably would be an extremely lengthy Banned List comprised of lots of close calls and seeming inconsistencies. And of the Banned List, the majority (thought not the totality) of the bans speak to games ending too quickly, so it acts as a piece of public-facing justification for most bannings.

Still, I think it’s been net-harm over time, and not in a way that would be impossible to predict. To start with, the nature of non-rotating formats is that they get more powerful over time. Most of the time that will speed up the format, as certain strategies receive a critical mass of cheap, redundant cards cards (like Burn or Storm), or combinations of cards come together to make something much more powerful than the sum of the parts (Amulet Titan, Whirza strategies).

The number of bans required to keep the format at the same pace while releasing new sets at the pace Wizards does is likely to increase over time. Banning cards is costly, and so the natural process is to mostly abdicate the original charge and use the Banned List only to triage emergency situations. I would argue that’s been the reality for a few years now.

I think the extreme edges of the format, even if those edges violate certain established norms, can be net-upside, so long as their frequency and power level adds more excitement than boredom. As an example, did you know that it’s possible to kill on the first turn in Tempest-Stronghold-Exodus Limited? Raging Goblin, Mox Diamond, Hatred, two lands, and two Dark Rituals make exactly seven cards, and on the play that hand is 100% to win the game. Killing on Turn 1 in Draft violates an understood norm about as powerfully as possible, and it doesn’t matter at all. That hypothetical is about 0% to emerge even over an infinite timeline of drafting that block; it involves a bunch of rares and an exact opening hand.

As a slightly less extreme example, a Masterpiece Sol Ring probably is net-novelty in the games it gets played in spite of being completely busted because it occurs so infrequently; it is certainly more novel than whatever the best common is in spite of that card being much less powerful. Even if you want to argue that Sol Ring makes games miserable when it shows up, the ambient excitement of it being possible, every time you sit down, to run into some outlier (and then to have it almost never happen) adds an appreciable amount of replayability to the whole experience.

To tie this back to Constructed, I think Modern is a more fun place with the occasional extremely fast kill outlier occurring at low frequency from decks that aren’t very successful (Puresteel Paladin, Goryo’s Vengeance, etc.). There is a demographic of player who wants to do that sort of thing, even if it isn’t very good. I think Modern is a lot less fun when there are extremely strong, ubiquitous decks that kill on Turn 4 or beyond (Splinter Twin, as an example), and I think declaring the format as a “Turn 4 format” dampens the fun and novelty on the first set of decks (there is a tacit “you are doing something you shouldn’t be allowed to do” reaction) and confuses the messaging around taking the appropriate actions against the second set.

I think it is useful to think of cards as individual pieces of a curated experience than sovereign citizens that require a defense attorney. The sum of the whole, the totality of the experience, matters more than abiding by a set of guidelines. The outliers to that overall experience, at low frequencies and win rates, aren’t intrinsically problematic, and in fact usually enrich the format. That’s why I much preferred WotC’s approach to Pioneer (“say nothing”), and why I think making those declarations up front is more hassle than it’s worth.

Hey Patrick,

I started playing MTG at ZEN/M10 block, but before, when I used to play Pokemon/MTG, my local game store (I live in New York) was Neutral Ground, back when it was on 26th St.

I have so many fond memories of that place (the cases of power 9, the perpetually non-functioning microwave, the cheese stained tables, Brian-David Marshall) but I didn’t realize the store became something of a cult classic. I didn’t know until much later that every MTG player within a hundred miles, including yourself, had played there at some point and what kind of legacy it had. 

What are your favorite memories of Neutral Ground? 

Thanks,-Mike

Neutral Ground was a massive hobby store in Manhattan, and was a fixture of my early competitive days. Even in the late 1990s and early 2000s the notion of having that sort of retail space in an area that expensive always seemed unsustainable from the outside; today it seems almost impossible. It was a flagship store, so it held PTQs and Regional Championships along with several of its own tournament series.

As a kid from New Jersey, Neutral Ground was the perfect platform for my feelings of resentment towards New York City along with a desperate desire for legitimacy that couldn’t be conveyed anywhere else. Winning events there held a significance that didn’t translate to Philadelphia, Boston, or Baltimore, even if the players were more or less the same. Nostalgia for Neutral Ground is as much a part of my Magic generation’s fabric as debating Tempest Block Constructed sideboarding or the best red common in Odyssey.

Some favorite memories, in no particular order:

I was a student at Seton Hall University, about 15 minutes from NYC. I wasn’t having much luck making friends, so I decided to take a train to Neutral Ground one Wednesday evening to see what was going on. I walked in, and Jon Finkel asked me if I was willing to be the 8th drafter in a Masques Block Rochester Draft for his Pro Tour testing. I couldn’t believe it; it was like if LeBron walked up to me and asked if I could sub in as the starting shooting guard for the Lakers. I remember being so star-struck that I couldn’t talk en route to a 0-3/0-6 (probably ruined the draft) and went back to New Jersey in disbelief that such a place could exist so close to me.

At a summer Regional Championships (old qualifier tournament for US National Championships), both the elevator and air conditioning broke and those of us who were in the losers bracket had to walk several flights of stairs to the dance studio, which Neutral Ground rented for the day due to overflow. We had to play on the floor. I picked up my second loss when someone used Bind on my Spiritmonger to kill it in Game 3, and I walked down about ten flights of stairs, caked in sweat and miserable, and went straight to Penn Station and took the train back to New Jersey.

I was on the verge of dropping out of college and literally had no idea what I was going to do or where I was going to go. Thinking about the last happy memory I had, that draft with Jon, I spent my last few dollars to get a train ticket up to New York to kick it at Neutral Ground. It was the middle of the week, around noon, and I had no reason to believe anything was going on. I walked into the store, and Brian David-Marshall (who by this point sort of knew me) came bounding out, asking if I had decks to test for the next tournament, and we played for hours, eventually other friends of mine trickled in and hung out, and I recall for however low I felt that I would always have some sort of place with these people and that I would figure out my next steps.

In the finals of a PTQ against ex-StarCityGames.com editor Steve Sadin, I conceded Game 3 while attacking for lethal on table because I got our life totals confused. Steve let me take it back.

From Sam:

hi, my question got skipped on air because Cedric was talking about girl scout cookie my question is what do you feel about burn-in modern and do you think mono-red is better in modern. also if you want to answer how do you feel about red in pioneer and standard  

I love the questions that come from an honest place the most (in this case, resentment towards Cedric).

I do not think Mono-Red is better in Modern. The cards aren’t appreciably more powerful and the format is so fast that you need the implied “haste” from burn spells in a way that can’t be replicated by Rampaging Ferocidon or whatever Chandra you’re thinking about playing.

I think red decks in Pioneer and Standard are both solid choices. I think the Pioneer lists are actively good. I think the Standard lists I see are quite bad, but that’s mostly a function about building around Embercleave. I don’t believe you can reliably thread the needle between “critical mass of cheap attackers” and “something good to put an Embercleave on” and not get hands that are too slow, too lopsided, whatever. I haven’t gotten into the lab just yet, but I think I’ll be ready to debut my sixteen-Gingerbrute build sometime in the near future, to be foisted upon an unsuspecting, captured audience.

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