While the Invitational schedule didn't line up with my usual plan of watch all the rounds and report on the new format, I've been learning a lot of fundamentals from testing for this Pro Tour. I feel like I'm disproportionately ahead on the Limited and Constructed format for the amount of work I've put in, and I've tried to figure out why to make sure the answer isn't "unwarranted confidence."
Good Decks Format Versus Bad Decks Format
For Constructed, I've realized my lock on the format has to do with having a good understanding of what decks actually have to look like in order for them to succeed. Long story short, this is an extreme of a format where all the cards and decks are good.
This one dates back to testing for Pro Tour Honolulu. No, not that one, the one in 2012 where I failed horribly and missed day two and which resulted inone of the all time great tournament reports from Brian Kibler.
Long story short, the decks for that format were.... bad. The prime example of this was Delver, which was honestly the worst "best deck" I've ever seen.
You had threats that were either insane or unplayable depending on your opponent's curve, and your answers followed the same suit. You were a little ahead in the mismatch fight due to Ponder, but there were still a lot of games where you were behind from the get go.
But the Primeval Titan decks were also bad. Sometimes you played a Titan on turn 4, sometimes you got it Mana Leaked and didn't do anything else.
But the non-Titan decks were also bad. You could curve out with Champion of the Parish and bash your opponent, or you could clunk out, miss a drop, and just die.
You may also remember the same play pattern from the previous Standard format. Sometimes you Pack Ratted and that was that, or you Desecration Demon-ed them and they couldn't beat a 6/6. Or sometimes you had Cloudfin Raptor, Frostburn Weird, Thassa, God of the Sea, anything else. Or the control deck had Supreme Verdict on turn 4, hit all the land drops, and cast Sphinx's Revelation on time.
And sometimes you just missed a beat and died. Or drew Underworld Connections when they were attacking, or Pack Rat when they had Bile Blight and were left with awkward one-for-ones. Or they had the Thoughtseize and Hero's Downfall to kill your Thassa and Master of Waves, and your awkward curve left you with a bunch of one-power fliers that just didn't cut it. Or your opener had one Temple and two duals, and you missed land five and never pulled into a spot to Revelation for a million.
Compare that to this Standard format. If you look at the decks, these kinds of play patterns don't really exist. Sure, there are games where Goblin Rabblemaster, Mantis Rider, Jeskai Ascendancy, or some other card just runs away with it. But those cards are just as often part of a longer positioning battle. If you look at the decks, every card is impactful and plays to a longer, interactive game. Seriously, Sylvan Caryatid has been cut from decks because it "isn't good enough," which is pretty absurd in the abstract.
The same was true of Return to Ravnica Standard. There were decks that forced the issue of having answers or racing like hexproof, but even those decks had a lot of flex to them, and it required a lot of finesse to math out the races against Thragtusk or specific answers.
But what does it mean that the decks are "good" or "bad"? It's not about cohesive linearity because Wolf Run Ramp and Tempered Steel were really solid linear decks that were still "bad," and there are definitely linear good decks. It's not about absolute power level, because it's not like Snapcaster Mage, Primeval Titan, Mana Leak, and Mental Misstep from a "bad format" aren't a great set of cards, and neither is Dig Through Time, Siege Rhino, Thoughtseize, or Elspeth, Sun's Champion.
What it's about is power level deltas.
Look at last year's decks. Is Quicken really a good card compared to Sphinx's Revelation and Supreme Verdict? Or Devour Flesh compared to Pack Rat or Thoughtseize? Or are they just really situational cards that sometimes do something you kinda need to have happen that fill in the gaps between the good cards?
What about this year's decks? The random two-drops don't really outclass the six-drops, but they carry weight later in the game (Fleecemane Lion, Rakshasa Deathdealer). The power jumps aren't absolute like they were last year. The delta between similar tiers of cards is also blurrier. Siege Rhino is probably the best four-drop, but the fight between it and a Sidisi, Brood Tyrant or Outpost Siege is actually a fight regardless of who hit the table first.
Looking at the other formats, it's interesting to classify them in this way. Modern is definitely a high delta format with lots of situationally powerful cards and filler between the absurdly powerful combo pieces. Vintage is definitely a low delta format despite the Restricted list. There are just so many answers, ways to filter cards, and powerful effects that it's easy for your entire deck to be loaded with them. Legacy is borderline, but it's really just a bunch of high spread decks that happen to look like decks of all good cards when you cast Brainstorm and Ponder, which implies there can be a coexistence between the two at some times.
So, what does this actually mean?
On the lowest level, in a good deck format, don't play bad cards. While not every good deck format is the midrange slog fest like this one is, there is often a trend towards exchanges when all the cards are good and there is a low quality delta between them. Playing a situational stinker often means that when everything trades off, your last card is worth nothing, while their last card is great. The big effort that has to be put in is figuring out what the line between a good and bad card is. For example, this weekend we saw in practice that Sidisi, Undead Vizier and Lightning Berserker definitely are on the good side of that line, but that wasn't obviously clear for either of those.
In a bad deck format, make sure that you show up with the actual hitters. The easiest way to lose is if your high quality cards aren't actually high enough quality. The example of this I immediately think of is Jund Monsters last year. Polukranos and Stormbreath Dragon actually lost the heads up fight to Thassa, Desecration Demon, or Sphinx's Revelation, and that was your power high end. As a result, the deck sometimes won when you drew answers to their good cards and had more good cards than your answers, but in the parity cases, you were often behind.
This also means different things for different archetypes.
The one I'm most familiar with is aggro.
In good deck formats, your aggressive decks should be as non-interactive as possible. You want Pyreheart Wolf, or hexproof, or flying, or whatever method of not letting your opponent exchange cards. You are exploiting time in exchange for being a bit behind on trade, so you can't let them make those exchanges. Your opponent's good cards will often be a threat to race back, so if you ever let up the gas you will die very fast.
In bad deck formats, your aggressive decks need to be sure that a mix of their crappy cards is good enough to win some games. If you don't draw Thassa, God of the Sea, you need to be able to kill them with Cloudfin Raptors and Judge's Familiars, or get them dead with Signal Pests, Vault Skirges, and Nexuses if you don't have a Cranial Plating in play. I personally think these games are some of the best Magic, but that may be because I enjoy my opponents losing in miserably embarrassing ways too much.
Control decks are mostly the same regardless of setting. Your trump needs to be a real trump that goes over the top. In bad deck formats, this is usually a single card that just ends the game with no reasonable answer. Sphinx's Revelation, Cruel Ultimatum, Grave Titan. In good deck formats the bar on trump is usually a bit lower since if there was some absurd trump, the format would be bleeding the other way, but it's still something that outclasses the other threats in the format. Ugin, the Spirit Dragon as the only absurd board rectifier or chaining Dig Through Times would be the example of this format, or Nephalia Drownyard as a way to always win the long game in Innistrad/Return to Ravnica Standard.
Midrange in bad deck formats is about riding the highest quality cards possible. Last year, Pack Rat was the most dominant two-drop, Desecration Demon was the most powerful four-drop, Underworld Connections was the second most powerful long game (sorry, Sphinx's Revelation was a nice one), and Thoughtseize and Hero's Downfall were the best answers. The rest of your cards just filled in the gaps while you assumed your opponent would stumble somewhere and just get out-card-qualitied.
In good deck formats, the reverse is true. Instead of having the highest quality cards, you need to make as many of your cards as always good as possible. While this is generally the goal of most decks in good deck formats, you have to really take it to the extreme. You need to be as many Abzan Charms and Hero's Downfalls as possible and as few Bile Blights.
As for combo, it mostly changes how you play the game. Good deck combo decks usually have a lot of velocity--or really just set up time--and can play through interaction fairly easily. Bad deck format combo is really Charbelcher style where you just have to jam as fast as possible. Sometimes you have interaction in your deck, and sometimes you draw it. If you don't, well, that's too bad. Hope they don't have their necessary answer, but honestly if the deck is good enough to play, you are a favorite.
The Stone Giant Fallacy
Part of why I'm so comfortable with Limited is that I'm very comfortable playing this general pace of format, but a lot of it is that I immediately started evaluating cards in the right context for this. A lot of people are putting everything into the context of Khans of Tarkir Limited.
Or, a bit more awkward, just missing the actual effect of cards under all the other text.
Grand Prix Boston 2009. The largest North American Grand Prix of all time.
While I was struggling to win with Master of the Wild Hunt and 39 bricks (read: actually 7-2ed fairly easily because that card was unbeatable), my friends and I were sharing decks and figuring out our mistakes. For example, I should have maindecked Deathmark as per the above basic land issue note.
However, a friend of mine made an error a bit more egregious than that.
His deck was a fairly Red-heavy R/G deck with a 10 Mountain, 7 Forest manabase. A semi-suspect Canyon Minotaur filled out his curve, and we immediately looked to his sideboard for a replacement. And what did we find.
I'll let that just sit for a minute.
We asked him why the Stone Giant wasn't just in his deck to begin with. Why would you play the 3/4 over a 3/3? Were you worried about mana constraints despite the manabase being skewed in favor of the better card? Was there a creature with Protection from Giants we forgot about?
The response we got was "Have you read that card? It's trash. Why would you ever use that ability?"
Sometimes there is throwaway text on a card that just puts people's blinders on.
In Limited, this comes up in the above Stone Giant example. A well-known Limited reviewer put a lot of hate on Graceblade Artisan and Dragonloft Idol in their review of this set because their bonus text was situational and really just overkill. While I don't disagree, their end rating of the cards was definitely lower than I would have rated the straight vanilla versions of them. Because the trinket text on the cards was unappealing, they put the cards into the unplayable category instead of looking at the whole package and realizing it wasn't a linear enabler, but instead, just a body with marginal upside.
On the flip side, this often shows up in people trying to get too linear in Constructed. Goblin Rabblemaster was initially overlooked because it looked a lot like Goblin Piledriver and people kept looking for the other Goblins to play with it. Turns out it is almost actively worse with other Goblins in play, and better just as an army in a can.
This is somewhat an extension of The Danger of Cool Things (I hope this classic is older than at least one person who clicks to read it). When a card makes you want to do something cool, you try to do it and judge the card based on how it stands up in the extreme case.
Good cards don't often work that way. They are just good. They have good rates, they play offense or defense, and they just do work. Sometimes its effect is magnified by surrounding direct synergies, sometimes it is improved by structural synergies instead.
There are your Tempered Steels, your Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx, your Arcbound Ravagers that are kind of clearly unplayable without significant effort being put towards a linear strategy. But for anything where that is in question, just consider it might be good on its own.
Looking back at the whole, the other important takeaway is that I'm questioning my position. Most of my big failures have been when I've automatically thought something was true without taking the time to confirm it. While I've been able to figure out logical reasons behind my positions on both formats, I still need to collect more empirical evidence to support them.
Also known as.... you know, testing.