I’ve been thinking about Pro Tour Dominaria for two weeks now.
I can’t say that I’m surprised that Basic Mountain once again reigned supreme. What with most of Standard’s best cards being banned and the sheer number of powerful red cards that also contribute to a proactive game plan. Oh right, there’s also Goblin Chainwhirler, the most restrictive and punishing card since, well Rampaging Ferocidon.
Now, given my irreverent tone, the general Magic zeitgeist and Twitter conversations recently, I bet you’re waiting for me to start thrashing into Standard, the lack of deck diversity and all of the problems with Magic recently. But no, I’ll leave the peanut gallery hating to the king of all haters Daniel Fournier, and today I’m going to be advocating on behalf of Standard’s lack of deck diversity. More specifically, I want to talk about why Magic is imperfect, and why that’s one of its best qualities.
There’s no doubt that aggressive red decks dominated the last Standard Pro Tour, that energy strategies dominated prior to that and a short time ago in was Emrakul, the Promised End that reigned supreme. Hell, even this past weekend we had the Magic Twitter crowd calling for Mox Opal and Ancient Stirrings bans after Matt Nass won yet another Grand Prix with Ironworks Combo.
With all this said my point is this: it’s a good thing that these formats play out this way, it actually make them healthier, more competitive and in my opinion more fun.
I’ve always looked at tournament Magic as an exercise in “beating the boogeyman.” I believe when Standard is at its healthiest, there is a consensus “best deck” that you must beat or play in order to have a shot in any given tournament. I think that this deck acts as the logical center for which all of the thinking, deck design and strategy for the format revolves around. It aims you, it creates an obvious villain and that is a story line all of us nerds want to be a part of.
Here are the three key points that I’ll elaborate on why I think “best deck” formats are optimal:
- These formats are actually less restrictive for new players and make it easier to jump into Magic
- These formats are much more competitive and lead to complicated and skill-intensive games
- These formats best reward pushing limits in deckbuilding, transformational sideboarding and creativity
One thing I often hear from those that are critical of best deck formats are that they make the game more restrictive for new players. That if you walk into Standard and want to have fun and play something in the second tier of competition you’ll just get run over and go back to playing EDH or Modern.
I actually believe the contrary. I think that limiting the challenges of deck selection in the game’s premier competitive is great for new players. They can jump into the format and pick up their Goblin Chainwhirlers and work on the build of Red they like and tune it to beat the decks in their metagame.
What’s more is that in these formats the number of enemies for the “best deck” is smaller. Which, again, I think allows newer players to have a smaller group of decks to memorize and work on understanding. This, from my perspective, reduces the barrier to entry for players to feel “competitive” in the format, which is the real key. All you want is to allow players to feel like they’ve got a shot, and the rest lies on their shoulders.
If you’re a fan of high-level competitive Magic like I am, your favourite games to watch are when the best players in the world are competing for a Pro Tour title. Over the last couple years, we’ve seen this running string of best deck formats lead to some incredible matches of Magic where players are playing at the highest level imaginable.
Think about Owen Turtenwald wielding Emrakul, the Promised End in that awesome Temur Emerge deck or Paulo Vitor Damo Darosa playing Mono-Red and finding ways to win matches he had no business winning.
Top 8, Pro Tour Eldritch Moon, Owen Turtenwald – Temur Emerge
The reality is that these testing teams are just so good now-a-days that they are able to solve these Pro Tour formats promptly. After the Pro Tour we often know what the best deck is. In my opinion this has led to a lot of games of Magic where players are forced to extract their edge in game-play and skill rather than walking into the match with a deck advantage.
I understand this point is quite subjective. I like to watch players like Owen and Paulo have to face-off in mirror-matches. And I understand that others like to watch rogue deck versus rogue deck. But to me, I see this as another benefit to Standard often having a “best deck.”
My last point is I think the most important to me personally.
I believe that this kind of format actually promotes MORE creativity rather than less. When the barriers to what you can play are wide open, it’s honestly not that hard to come up with some unique technology to give you a little bit of an edge in one out of ten popular match-ups. But, when a format is reduced down to just a few big decks major ideas like transforming your deck after sideboard, taking a wonky approach to a match-up or playing a tech-card are both much riskier and can break the format wide open.
I’ve got a couple strong examples of this. First, during Courser of Kruphix and Elspeth, Sun’s Champions reign over the format, Brad Nelson started boarding in a full play-set of Fleecemane Lion in the Abzan mirror. This was very unique, as it took a proactive stance in a midrange mirror which is quite abnormal, but Brad saw the cards activated ability as powerful enough to justify the choice. Deciding to run with this kind of sideboard plan at a major tournament requires a lot of risk, but pays players off in a huge way for hard work, which is the mark of a healthy format.
This happened again when Temur Aetherworks Marvel was popular. Team Genesis discovered that Chandra, Flamecaller was a Marvel target, sweeper-affect and midrange threat that the deck needed to reach the next level. They were rewarded immensely that Pro Tour and ended up achieving major success in the team series because of it.
Just weeks after that Pro Tour, Paul Dean and Brad Nelson iterated on Marvel again with Ulvenwald Hydra to once again go bigger in the mirror and both players Top 8’d Grand Prix Omaha.
First Place, Grand Prix Omaha, Brad Nelson – Temur Marvel
Just imagine how great it would feel if you discovered the way to defeat Goblin Chainwhirler and company in this current Standard format. It’s the chase for that feeling that keeps me hungry to play and work. And that’s what I want out of format.
The reality of all of this is that everyone plays the game for their own reasons. But I’d like to think that everyone shares the feeling of overcoming something. That’s what this game offers, the ability to see a challenge and work to overcome it. Whether it’s Goblin Chainwhirler, making Day 2 of a Grand Prix or defeating your greatest adversary at a local tournament.
There’s a lot of talk about what should or shouldn’t be legal, or “the norm” in every format. Magic certainly does beget echo chambers of varying sizes and topics. But I hope that we can all be unified in the pursuit of climbing the mountain to that perfect fifteenth sideboard card or way to attack a match-up. I think we all lose sleep over those choices.
Magic’s imperfect, and that’s why it’s a beautiful game.
Face to Face Games will be hosting Nats from June 29 – July 1 over the long weekend. Come down early and make a weekend of it! We’ll also be hosting a slew of side events including a 5k Modern FacetoFaceGames.com Open+, a Legacy Eternal Weekend Trial and a Legacy Showdown on the Sunday. Get all the information here.