With the holiday lull in action coming up, I want to avoid in-depth discussion of any given format given the drastic potential for changes with a new set release and bannings. Instead, I'm giving a snapshot of a current thought that I think distills a bigger picture of the format into a small package, covering all the formats, small and large.
Limited: The Jeskai-Mardu Trap
The vast majority of massively failed Draft decks in Khans fall into one of three categories:
1. Terrible four- or five-color decks without real fixing or cohesive vision.
2. Mardu decks that don't have creatures capable of winning the game after dealing the first eight or so damage.
3. Jeskai decks that feature a lot of good cards but get run over every game.
I've been going on non-stop about the first one for two months now, but the last two are more interesting, as the core issue that causes them is the same. This is also the same issue that lead to my 6-3 finish at Grand Prix Baltimore last weekend with a lackluster aggressive Abzan deck.
If you are playing a three-color deck in Khans Limited, unless your third color is lightly splashed, you are admitting that some small but significant percentage of your games will be you fighting through early mana issues.
If you are an aggressive deck, that's great for you. Your gameplan exists to capitalize on these draws and make it as hard as possible for your opponent to draw out of them, but you can't afford to return the same courtesy percentage to your opponent. By playing three colors yourself, you are subjecting yourself to the same percentage sacrifice.
But can't you also draw out of mana issues and win?
Try again. The Jeskai and Mardu clans both sacrifice staying power for aggressive advantage, and often have issues pulling back from behind. Crippling Chill? Great for removing a blocker or racing, but doesn't make boardstates look any better. Efficient, low end creatures like Chief of the Edge? Not great when facing down 2/5s. Other clans have high impact cards to stabilize with, while Jeskai decks are heavy on cards with tactical power that are hard to sculpt when your plays are being dictated on the back foot, and Mardu decks are full of creatures that don't exchange well once mana is out of the equation.
I'm not saying there aren't Jeskai or Mardu decks that can play a bigger game to make up for the loss, but unless the fixing piles up in the right configuration in the draft, you will likely have more success with Blue-Red, White-Red, or Black-White than full tri-color decks just by leveraging consistency.
Standard: The Source of Diversity
Eight different Standard decks top 8'ed the Season Four Invitational last weekend. Obviously this is a small sample size, but this diversity has been mirrored through events across the last months. The reasons for this are the same as the reason it happened back in Kamigawa-Ravnica Standard, which is widely regarded as the best Standard format of all time.
- The cards are good, and there are a lot of them, but the most powerful cards are flexible and not linear. It's not like Delver of Secrets, where you are basically locked into 50 cards if you want to include it in your deck. It's not even like Birthing Pod, where there are near infinite options, but they all tend to coalesce to one or two points. There are at least four separate Siege Rhino decks (Midrange, Reanimator, Aggro, and Four-plus Color), at least three Hordeling Outburst decks (Mardu, Jeskai, and W/R), at least three Dig Through Time decks (Ascendancy Combo, U/x Control, Jeskai Aggro), and so on with a whole host of cards. This is reminiscent of how Remand, Umezawa's Jitte, and Kird Ape covered almost the entire metagame in Ravnica-Kamigawa Standard, but also covered almost a dozen archetypes. Even if you narrowed it down to "B/W Jitte" or "U/R Remand," you found three or four subarchetypes with unique advantages and disadvantages. Khans Standard might be even more inherently flexible as decks default to three colors, giving them even more options.
- Linear cards exist but are prohibitively costed or have a restrictive supporting cast. Whip of Erebos is a great example of this. It's a very powerful effect, but the range of targets to reanimate is basically Hornet Queen, and it costs eight mana before it does anything. There isn't a Terastodon to wreck the other half of decks, and most of the time players who want to beat you have the ability to position themselves to do so. Compare this to something like casting Gifts Ungiven to Goryo's Vengeance a Yosei, the Morning Star and sacrifice it to Greater Good. Very powerful, however, it's set up-intensive in a way that is almost reminiscent of Commander. As for non-cost restrictive but prohibitive, we only need to look at W/U Heroic. The deck is clearly powerful, but it has a lot of inherent flaws related to the core mechanics of the deck. You are putting a lot of eggs in a single basket, and that basket happens to be in the format of the easiest to interact with card type.
- The powerful cards have good spread. This is also known as the Jund issue. There were a ton of great cards in Alara Standard, but too many of the best cards were Jund-exclusives. Other people had cards almost as good as Bloodbraid Elf, but their second best card struggled to be as good as Putrid Leech, and their fifth best card certainly wasn't as good as Blightning. There are specifically a lot of mono-colored powerful cards in this format alongside the clan-based ones to help combat this. Every clan has a marquee card, but you aren't locked to playing Stoke the Flames and Goblin Rabblemaster alongside Butcher of the Horde. If you would rather play them with Savage Knuckleblade, that's up to you to make it work.
- Last but likely most important, answers are plentiful but not oppressive. Hero's Downfall and Utter End are the spiritual successors to Mortify and Putrefy. Thoughtseize is pushing the line, but there aren't any Vapor Snags or Terminates that drive expensive creatures out of the format. This prevents the first point from changing to "These good cards aren't linear, but you can't actually play this combination because it loses to all the good answers" (see how Delver forced a world of Huntmaster of the Fells and Lingering Souls). This also prevents the second point from being "This card is prohibitive, but basically unbeatable" (see how Primeval Titan being unanswerable forced people downwards and under it or upwards and over it instead of around it).
If you are looking for a hole when Fate Reforged comes out, look for something that changes one of these paradigms. Maybe one specific set of colors hits a critical mass of powerful cards and ends it.
That all said, after watching the Jeskai Tokens deck in action for the first time while Dylan Donegan was wrecking people at the Invitational (I missed watching Yuuya doing the same at Worlds), everything I said above might be all proven wrong very quickly. Jeskai Ascendancy is not a remotely fair or reasonable Magic card, and Treasure Cruise also being above the fair line definitely doesn't help keep it down. The deck is likely manageable for now, but I'm hard pressed to believe that some emergency valve doesn't have to be released in the next two years. Whether it's a timely and very specific hate card or a ban I don't know, but a lot of that has to do with what comes out in the next few sets before adjustments can be made for the mistakes that make that deck function.
Modern: Interaction is the Unsung Hero
There's a lot of buzz about Treasure Cruise, Birthing Pod, and other engine cards in Modern right now, especially with the bans approaching, but one important thing I've found in my early Modern testing is that the answers matter as much as the threats.
Almost everyone in the format is doing something powerful and proactive. While there are some Amulet of Vigor versus Affinity shoot outs, most of the time the lopsided matchups are one player interacting while the other just can't. Being able to interact in scenarios where your deck "shouldn't," assuming it comes at a low cost in terms of diluting your engine, is huge.
Look at Delver. The easy answer is to Lightning Bolt their creatures and play a Tarmogoyf, but when Vapor Snag plus Snapcaster Mage comes into play, it's easy for the Delver deck to upend a losing board position. Look at Angel Pod, where Abrupt Decay plays a huge role in preventing people from getting underneath you and exploiting the fact your deck is higher cost and less fluid than the rest of the format.
Unless you find something completely out there and blindside everyone, you better be ready to at least pretend you are playing fair Magic.
Legacy: How to Beat Storm
Storm appeared to be the most successful deck at the Invitational, with three copies in the top 8 and multiple players at 7-1 or better. Oddly enough, this was shocking to me. It doesn't feel to me like the decks in the format are bad against Storm. It just feels like people forgot how to handle it.
If you want to beat Storm, here is how:
- Play Force of Will. This is not a plan. This is more of a rule. Relying on spells that cost mana is just asking for Storm to get out under you and win before you cast enough things that matter. The only real exception involves being Stax, where one artifact or creature card is good enough, and even that plan is fragile for the next reason.
- Diversify. This isn't the same diversify as "Play 1 Ravenous Trap, 1 Tormod's Crypt, 1 Grafdigger's Cage to dodge Pithing Needle, Cabal Therapy, and Nature's Claim out of Dredge," but it's similar. Storm has a few very specific ways to beat interaction, and while they are all good, making them jump through multiple hoops puts a lot of stress on their deck. Playing all Force of Wills and Flusterstorms makes it easy for them to overload on discard or Xantid Swarm you. Playing Meddling Mage with Force of Will makes them need Massacre, Duress, then have to draw and cast them in the right order while not drawing too many of the wrong one.
- Remember they are fundamentally constrained by needing a certain number of cards to win. This is probably the most common mistake people make. Your Spell Pierce trading for their Ponder now means they don't get the +1 Storm bonus part of a Dark Ritual compared to when you trade it for two mana later on. Force of Willing their first Ritual in a number of scenarios is as constricting as countering the Tutor. Red Elemental Blast is honestly scary despite the combo being all black, red, and artifact. Run them down on cards and you are far less likely to see them chain through your interaction.
- Play the same game as them. Part of the reason I'm so hesitant to Storm right now is that so many of the other decks just look like Storm decks. If you also have twelve cantrips, you are just as good at finding Force of Wills as I am at finding Duresses. If you have Young Pyromancer, you are almost as good as having an explosive clock as I am. When I first picked up Storm I exploited the fact that I had full access to my deck while my opponents played with what they were given, but every other deck can return the favor of "turn 3 possibly with Duress backup" by being a "turn 4 with 1.5 Force of Wills and a Pyroblast".
I'm not guaranteeing a 100% success rate with this plan, but if people start playing this way, Storm no longer is a deck with any real edge.
Vintage: Yes, This Format Too
I haven't found a chance to play Vintage lately, largely due to event travel and Pro Tour team meetings overlapping with local events, but I was linked the following deck from the top 4 of a tournament in Ohio. Yes, it was a 16-person event, but it was invite only so I would expect the player quality to be very reasonable.
Gush seems absolutely filthy with Jeskai Ascendancy as it gives you looting fuel immediately, and being able to trigger it off playing a "land" in the form of a Mox is equally wrong. Add the fact that this deck is fairly Mental Misstep resistant on the threat side and I would not be surprised to see more of this or similar decks in the future.
Not specific to this shell, Containment Priest is awesome. Dredge and Oath both are positioned for Grafdigger's Cage with Nature's Claims and Mental Missteps, so a two-mana creature with a very similar effect against them is going to be bad news.
The big takeaway: every format right now is deep enough to survive repetition or dynamic enough to keep things fresh and create interesting topics both narrow and broad. Compared to last year's sea of Wingsteed Riders, Pack Rats, and Deathrite Shamans, that's a huge improvement. While I'll soon enter the black hole of Pro Tour testing and solely focus on Modern and Draft for multiple months, I'm excited to see if the other formats remain just as thought provoking after Fate Reforged as they are now.