This weekend's Prerelease is the world premiere of Oath of the Gatewatch. Around this time I usually have a slew of ideas revolving around what the newest set will do to Standard, but this time around my mind has been busy thinking about other things. This is slightly due to the fact that this set is extremely complex and interesting, and I will need to start actually playing with these cards to get a better idea of what we should all be doing. Thankfully this will solve itself with all the VS Videos I will be doing in the near future. Next week I will have a better understanding of Standard just in time for #SCGATL, the latest stop on The SCG Tour®, but for now let's talk about a few things that have been on my mind for quite some time and what I would do if I were in charge. We start things off with the most timely of issues.
Modern Bannings and Unbannings
The Modern Pro Tour is upon us, which is exactly when Wizards decides to make the major changes to the shaky format we call Modern. Next Monday we find out what cards get axed from the format and which ones get unearthed. It's a smart move for them to do such bannings and unbannings around this time, since it forces the Pro Tour competitors to get the ball rolling in the format and then the hive mind gets to work on building on those ideas over the course of the year to let the cycle begin anew for the next Modern Pro Tour. I like to call that a working system! Well, it's what we've got to work with at least.
Modern is a tough egg to crack. Wizards has been working diligently over the years to make the cards stuck between Standard and the Eternal formats relevant. In those years we have seen formats dubbed Extended, “Double Standard”, and “1.5”. All of them had a slew of pros and cons, but the bad outweighed the good and something had to change. Modern was the latest installment of “keep my cards relevant,” which was surprisingly a huge success. I didn't know many peers that liked the format right out of the gates, but the masses got hooked. Modern slowly began to become the most popular format and that became visible at local game stores, Modern Grand Prix, and even the number of viewers for Modern events. It was an unexplainable success!
I begrudged Modern's rise to the top since I didn't like it. This was obviously due to the oldest reason anyone didn't like something, which is that I simply just didn't understand it. I always did terribly in the format and never took the time to actually understand it. Four Modern Pro Tours later and I have had no cash finishes in any of them, but something has changed from when I had this negative mind set about the format. I decided to ignore my personal bias and give the format a chance. After my pitiful performance at #PTFRF I changed my approach and started “mastering” specific decks. With that background I began to explore other strategies and with preparation my Grand Prix results were actually reasonable. In fact, I haven't finished worse than 12-3 in my last five Modern Grand Prix.
Not only that, but fun slowly seeped into some of the games I played in the format. Not all of them, but enough to enjoy going to Modern events. This change in perception and growth in knowledge is the only reason why I feel comfortable discussing the broad strokes of Magic's most complex format.
To Ban or Not to Ban?
So let's start with what should get banned. Normally I am against getting rid of cards unless it is completely necessary. More often than not, I have found the cards that have been banned to be excessive and somewhat lazy. Magic is a cyclical game if we work hard enough and most dominant strategies should naturally be hated out. When this isn't possible, that's when we need to consider getting rid of certain cards.
That time has come with Amulet Bloom. This deck hasn't been an issue in the past thanks to the deck's complexities, but those players willing to stick with the strategy have now mastered it and shown the world just how dominant it can be. One would think that this dedication should not go unnoticed and banning the deck seems unfair to those who took the time to learn it, but many of those players also believe what they are doing is unfair and not in the spirit of the format. Everyone wants this deck to go.
That's because the deck can “kill” on turn 2 as well as grind an opponent out in the mid- to late game. This just isn't something a deck should be capable of and it wasn't until Amulet Bloom was perfected, not only in deck construction but also in precision-level play. Now the deck is a monster in the format that nobody knows how to stop besides hoping for the deck's low fail rate to occur when they play against the deck. Personally I have only beaten the deck once, thanks to poor draws, and have lost to the deck upwards of twenty times. I've never had such a low win percentage against a deck that I put thought into how to defeat.
So now that the deck needs to get banned, what do we actually take away from it? My choices are Amulet of Vigor and Primeval Titan. I've heard many people discuss what should be banned, but personally I want these two cards removed from the deck and for similar reasons. Both of these cards have played a part in getting other cards banned.
I normally would not want to attack the permanents in a deck before spells, since it is easier to interact with degenerate spells than permanents. In this case, however, both Amulet of Vigor and Primeval Titan have been repeat offenders in this format. Both have caused other cards to be banned, and both break the game in some way or another. I say we just get rid of them both before they break something again.
I don't think anything else should get banned at this time.
Ancestral Visions is the easy one, since I believe it will go into the camp of Bitterblossom and Wild Nacatl. Both got banned out of fear, but upon return did not show any reason for the decision to reintroduce them into the format being a mistake. This card is simply not powerful enough to be feared anymore.
The only reason I would bring back Stoneforge Mystic is foreshadowing for my next topic. White is just such a weak color that I don't want powerful cards in the color to get removed from the game. Of course there is an argument that Stoneforge Mystic got banned because of how broken it can become when backed up by blue cards, but that isn't even that bad for Modern. Blue and white are among the weakest colors, only staying alive thanks to Snapcaster Mage and powerful multicolored cards. White deserves a powerful early drop in the format that can compete with the likes of Tarmogoyf, Dark Confidant, Wild Nacatl, Goblin Guide, and Snapcaster Mage. Right now the color is used as a splash for Lingering Souls, Restoration Angel, and Path to Exile. It needs more of an identity.
The only reason I have come to think this way was Stoneforge Mystic becoming the promotional foil at Grand Prix this year. It made me think that it would either get reprinted in Standard or unbanned in Modern. Since it isn't a part of Oath of the Gatewatch, my gut tells me it will see the light of day once again in Modern. That, or it was a pretty bad choice for a Grand Prix foil.
This topic isn't on the tip of everyone's tongue, but something I have been thinking about for some time. Pretty much ever since I saw Gideon, Ally of Zendikar for the first time is when this topic sparked in the back of my mind. “Another busted white planeswalker” is what I thought to myself upon first viewing. As Elspeth, Sun's Champion was seeing her last sunset in Standard, we see another format defining white laneswalker bringing in the new dawn. Why?
After much contemplation, I've come to the conclusion that white sucks and has no true home in the new age of Magic cards. It's funny to think that the first card that brought us into this world of permanent-based power creep was Baneslayer Angel, but times have been changing. Now we see every color having extremely powerful and efficient permanents, but also the spells that give those colors their identity. White pretty much just has impressive creatures with mediocre versions of spells that the other colors have. The removal is situational so that it doesn't step on the identity of other colors, pump spells are much weaker for the same reason, and the one thing white had in mass removal has become worse than the other colors' versions of them. It pretty much just has better standalone creatures than the other colors, but that never works out since they all die to Doom Blade. You know, a card that white doesn't have.
Having the best creatures doesn't actually accomplish much when the spells revolving around the permanents are the most important. The best example I can think of is Brimaz, King of Oreskos. I thought this card was going to be absolutely busted upon first viewing. It just looked amazing in a vacuum but never lived up to the initial hype. Now, this happens time and time again with Magic cards. Sometimes a card everyone thinks will be good never lives up the hype while others ignored prove to be format-defining cards. It's just that Brimaz, King of Oreskos felt pushed beyond belief and Wizards had to assume it would be a major player in Standard. Now the card did see play, but sporadically. It never defined anything, but was a card you could sometimes play.
Multi-colored spells make my argument more difficult to articulate since it's hard to sit up on this soapbox and argue white is the weakest color when it's actually in the most powerful and most played archetypes in Standard. So let's break down this argument in the easiest way possible by looking at each color separately and then add multicolored cards into the mix afterwards. This will be quite difficult to hammer home since the past three years of sets have featured the multicolored themes of both Ravnica and Khans of Tarkir, but I'm going to try my best.
Black, Red, and Green have all shown that they can more often-than-not stand alone, or exist with a small splash and still compete in Standard. Mono Black Devotion, Atarka Red, G/R Devotion, Rabble Red, G/R Eldrazi, and even B/R Dragons. Blue only really has had Mono-Blue Devotion, and White arguably had W/U Heroic.
From these standalone decks we can gather that black always has a coherent theme of being able to kill creatures and draw cards, green has sufficient ramp and large creatures to cast off the acceleration, and red with early aggression and reach in the form of burn and pump spells. Blue and white have had a much harder time being standalone colors.
Now blue has its reasons for not being a powerful standalone color, and that's thanks to its strong color identity. It has card advantage and counterspells, which are two things that go best with another color's strong traits. This is fine, since blue plays support very well and is a good thing for Magic. Blue being a base color oftentimes leads to something degenerate and what usually follows in a banning.
So what can we gather from W/U Heroic being the last time white has had a successful strategy where it was the base color? That white's strongest independent identity is that it is a color of fast creatures backed up by tempo-based protection spells. Whenever such cards are actually strong enough, we can see a white-based deck succeed.
Now there are many arguments against my ideas that you could make. For example, Sam Black and Craig Wescoe's Mono-White Devotion deck from Worlds this past year is a strong defense against my line of thought, but personally I didn't consider this deck that good and was more of a metagame call than a strategy that could hold up for a long period of time.
Now we get to multicolored cards. The multicolored cards that have white in them make up for the color's independent shortcomings. Just think about it for a minute. White's multicolored cards are usually better than those without the color in them. This helps keep the color relevant without needing to give the color a complete overhaul. It's what keeps all the colors in balance. That, and a really amazing white planeswalker.
I bring all this up because I have a proposal to help change that. White has been pigeonholed in what it is capable of for long enough and I have an ability that could change that without being too powerful. Hopefully. I call it “Divine.”
Divine--(This permanent enters the battlefield with a Divine counter. Whenever this permanent would die, instead remove all damage from it and remove all Divine counters on it.)
You're pretty much correct if at first glance you thought of Hearthstone's “Divine Shield” mechanic, the Umbra cycle from Zendikar block, as well as Magic's persist and undying mechanics. This is a combination of all of these abilities, but set apart by being an ability solely for white. This gives the color its own source of “card advantage” by having powerful creatures that don't just die to Doom Blade but also don't need so many abilities attached to them to be relevant when they do survive. It would not be an ability that a slew of creatures would have, but only a few to give base-white decks a better chance of being successful.
My initial ideas would be to attach this ability to a 2/2 Flyer for WW, a 4/4 Flyer for 1WWW, or any three-drop rare costing WWW or 1WW that WotC would want to see more play than it normally would thanks to the way things already are. This ability would give white its own sense of built-in card advantage that it only ever has when all cards get the ability, like persist or through the powerful planeswalker the color constantly gets.
Divine would also change the game for white when it comes to combat, which is the one area it is supposed to excel. Being able to block while still attacking next turn, chump attack, or chump block twice puts more pressure on the other colors to deal with board positions. White could finally compete with cards like Treasure Cruise, Kolaghan's Command, and Den Protector, but in its own way without the necessity of cards like Abzan Charm being printed.
What do you think?
Grand Prix Changes
The last thing on my list for today is Grand Prix and what I think could be improved. I played in the first Grand Prix of the season last weekend in Oakland and have to say I was not impressed with the new changes. Day Two was over 500 players thanks to everyone with an X-3 or better record making it. Many of those players who lost Round 10 ended up playing all day Sunday for only Pro Points, since a very small percentage of players finishing with an 11-4 record cashed. It felt like a bust.
Finding the perfect mix for Grand Prix structure and payout has been difficult for some time now, and I am thankful that WotC cares enough to constantly be trying to fix it. It seems that they have been making major changes to the system each and every year and what we have now is infinitely better than it once was. These changes are necessary thanks to the high volume of players that love this game and want to come out and compete. We could live in a much worse world where fewer players played and Wizards couldn't care less. They really do try to please the people like all good businesses do.
It will be impossible to not come off biased here in my thoughts on what could be changed, but that's why this article is titled “What I Want”!
I want Day One of all Grand Prix to be ten rounds and for Sunday to play out as it currently does. Previously 7-2 felt like an extremely high bar that was difficult to obtain consistently for talented players without byes. Wizards took a step in the right direction and lowered the bar to qualify for Day Two, which is a home run for the players just wanting a taste of the Sunday action. Having to finish 6-3 just doesn't feel like a high enough bar to justify a spot in Day Two, especially once you add byes into the mix and realize that Gold and Platinum pros only have to go 3-3 to make Day Two. That record is not an accomplishment and shouldn't be rewarded in any way. I feel that I should be forced to have a winning record to show up the next day.
Adding an additional round to Day One will do many beneficial things to the current Grand Prix structure. It will balance out the reasonably wide gap between 7-2 and 6-3 being the bars for making it into Day Two, while also making sure players with good results like 11-4 will at least min-cash. It will also bring more players into Day Two, which was the goal, but not over a quarter of the original field. Balance in the force indeed.
The other, more subtle thing this would accomplish is eliminating most of the players going X-2 and missing Top 8. Wizards put into place a contigency plan for Grand Prix so that players finishing 13-2 would still get to go to the Pro Tour even if they didn't make Top 8. This was great for the players, since we all know that going 13-2 is an incredible feat. My change to the system would hurt the masses' chances of making the Pro Tour, since the new bar would be 14-2. Hello? Did I lose you there? It would suck that the bar would increase for those trying to get to the Pro Tour, but that would only be for Grand Prix that reach unbelievable numbers, since most players make it at 13-2 when the field isn't over 2000 people.
The biggest concern I can think of for this system is that Day One would be even longer than it already is, but I don't know if that is more important than always seeing great records be met with Top 16 finishes or worse. Fifteen rounds of Swiss just isn't enough for tournaments of this size anymore. I understand that many issues can come from adding more rounds and we have seen those issues pop up in the past. Those issues also arose when tournament organizers weren't ready for the increasing number of players that we see now. These days we are more prepared for high volumes of players and I feel that an additional round would not be that difficult to handle, but I do not run the events. I would love to hear from those who are more educated on the topic of longer tournaments.
You're the One That I Want
So what do you think? Are your wants for the new year in Magic in line with mine? If you had one Magic wish, what would it be?