This past weekend was the launch of the second preseason of Arena ranked play. Things will be a bit different this time around, though. For starters, something more valuable than minor prizes is on the line, as the Top 8 ranked players in Mythic at the end of the season will qualify for the $1,000,000 Mythic Invitational at the end of March. The other interesting aspect to this was the introduction of best-of-three (traditional) Magic.
Since I'm already qualified for the event, I've just been enjoying my time on the ladder and trying to make my way to Mythic on my own terms. That doesn't mean I haven't been influenced by the "Spike" strategies others have executed. Even though my journey to Mythic started with Wyatt Darby's Esper Midrange deck in match play, I quickly found myself doing things I never thought I would to get to the promised land starting with strategically playing best-of-one!
- Seventeen-land Mono-Red Aggro
- Nineteen-land Mono-White Aggro
- A Simic Nexus deck with Drowned Secrets as the win condition
Needless to say, things got weird, which is why I'm here today to express my comments and concerns about the Arena ladder and the potential complications introduced with a second Standard structure on the same ranking system.
Let's start the conversation of best-of-one play from the beginning. It got introduced on Arena and was the initial Constructed format for the first ranked preseason. Given the novelty of Magic's first ladder, many flocked to try to get to Mythic, even though the prizes weren't ideal. (I didn't really understand why people complained about them, as Magic Online has prize-less trophies that people seemed excited about, but that conversation is for another day.) What matters is people were playing in the preseason ladder and strategies were becoming optimized.
It's vital to know how best-of-one play works on Arena. Wizards of the Coast introduced a hand-smoothing algorithm exclusively for best-of-one Limited and Constructed play. All this effectively means is the program will look at two opening hands and give the player the one with the most appropriate number of lands based on how many lands are in the deck. It doesn't take into account anything else, like having appropriate colors or average converted mana cost of the cards in the deck.
This algorithm doesn't completely change the way we play Magic, but it does give certain strategies an advantage – specifically low-curve monocolored aggressive decks. Monocolored decks don't care about having access to multiple colors, just the appropriate number of lands, so they get to abuse this advantage more than two or three colored decks. The best example for abusing this fact is the Mono-Red list Jeffrey Brusi (Sjow) most recently used to rank up in Mythic.
As you can see, this deck is wildly different from what we can get away with in tabletop play. Most lists of Mono-Red Aggro used to play 21 lands if they wanted to run maindeck copies of Experimental Frenzy, but one could argue that changed with Light Up the Stage. In the end, though, there's no way this deck would function at Friday Night Magic as well as it does on Arena, and that's all thanks to abusing the hand-smoothing algorithm.
Another point of contention to the format is that it's difficult for non-linear strategies (midrange) to be effective without access to a sideboard. Decks like Boros Aggro, Mono-Red Aggro, Mono-Blue Aggro, Jeskai Control, and Bant Nexus ruled the format, as their strategies were never challenged by cards like Duress, Negate, Golden Demise, or whatever else we stuff in our sideboards to fight these decks. Best-of-one effectively pushed midrange out and the only decks that could function in this realm looked wildly different from the decks we were used to seeing.
- 4 Jadelight Ranger
- 4 Llanowar Elves
- 4 Merfolk Branchwalker
- 4 Resplendent Angel
- 4 Wildgrowth Walker
- 3 Lyra Dawnbringer
- 3 Shalai, Voice of Plenty
BBD's "Elementals and Angels" strategy was revolutionary for midrange strategies in the first preseason of ranked play. It had very punishing cards for aggressive decks, yet still could pressure the control decks. Shalai, Voice of Plenty was also used to beat up on cards like Settle the Wreckage that many control decks leaned on at the time. All in all, this was the first highly successful midrange deck on the ladder and many used it to reach Mythic.
Many people still wanted the option to play best-of-three on a ladder, so Wizards of the Coast introduced one for the second preseason, which started just over two weeks ago. To keep things as fair as possible, traditional wins would count as two "ticks" on the ladder, compared to one tick for best-of-one. Without this, it would make zero sense for someone to play entire matches and expect to find themselves in contention for qualifying for the Mythic Championship at the end of March, as matches take way longer than games. I've heard rumors that it's better to play traditional Magic if you can achieve a 55% win percentage, but I cannot speak to that personally.
Since then, people now have the option to play both formats and it's really cool that they both feed the same ladder which can qualify players for the Mythic Invitational in March. I'm actually really happy about this decision, even if it's not perfect. After all, Arena is still in Beta and ranked play is still in its preseasons.
This is usually the point where people start comparing the two formats and picking their side – at least, that's what I've done in the past and seen others do in my personal echo chambers. I could sit here and say best-of-one is checkers to best-of-three's chess. I could also argue time being a factor and playing quick games is great. Obviously, there are many arguments on each side, but one never used is that best-of-three isn't perfect either. In fact, I'm confident that best-of-three tries to push combo, control, and aggro out of the metagame the same way that best-of-one tries to push midrange out.
Hear me out before you start yelling at me in the comments!
One of the most winning best-of-three strategies has always been to fill a sideboard with removal, pivoting threats, and ways to gain card advantage. This caused a lot of matchups to devolve into midrange mirrors, even if the decks didn't originally identify as one. Control decks sideboarded in threats, aggro decks brought in noncreature permanents that gained card advantage, and midrange decks always improved after sideboard. This mold was rarely broken.
I'm a firm believer that green midrange decks have been overpowered for years now. My go-to quote: "A green deck that draws cards and can pair easily with blue or black is most likely the best deck in the format." There are a ton of arguments I could use to prove this bold claim, but we can simply look at the history books.
- Abzan Aggro/Control
- Four-Color Rally
- Bant Company
- Bant Humans
- Golgari Delirium
- Four-Color Marvel
- Four-Color Saheeli
- Temur Marvel
- Temur Energy
- Golgari Midrange
- Sultai Midrange
Each of these decks was a great choice for its format, in the argument for being the best deck. Sure, aggressive and control decks were always in the picture, but these decks never really had the same results as their corresponding midrange decks.
Giving us the option to play best-of-one or best-of-three almost organically allows us to pick the home for where our favorite strategy can be optimally played, given what we've seen from the preseason ranked results. If our goal is to just enjoy playing our favorite deck, we can almost choose where it will be best-positioned.
That seems like a huge plus for Magic (well, at least in theory). I don't want the perfect to be the enemy of the good here, but what I'm currently seeing is not how I hope things will look like in the future. For starters, this natural separation of strategies between the two ranked formats has left the individual metagames extremely predictable. Unique metagames are also evolving within each of them, but the changes aren't conducive for personal enjoyment. At least not for me.
Here's a breakdown of the decks I've been most likely to play against in each structure of the ladder.
- Sultai Midrange
- Esper Control
- Azorius Aggro
- Nexus of Gates/Four-Color Gates
- Mono-Blue Aggro
- Nexus of Fate
- Mono-Red Aggro
- Esper Control
- Mono-White Aggro
- Mono-Blue Aggro
There's been some overlap, but that's mostly just because Esper Control and Mono-Blue Aggro are well-rounded strategies. They both can compete with both extremes of best-of-one and aren't exploitable strategies in best-of-three. It's quite possible this information could be used to consider these strategies as the best choices in tabletop events, but I don't have enough data to sign off on this theory.
As you can see, both formats became polarized due to what's optimal in their given structures and then even more so due to metagaming. The best example of this is Gate strategies in best-of-three, as they're rising in popularity thanks to all the good matchups like Sultai Midrange and Esper Control. Nexus of Fate in best-of-one works as well, as it's a very good strategy when it doesn't need to fight sideboards. The metagames will continue to evolve, but not in a way we're used to – it will be less balanced and more predatory.
I just don't think the future of ranked play can support both best-of-three and best-of-one, especially if something's on the line like qualifications for tournaments. Maybe there's a world where a tournament is held for hundreds to thousands of people who hit a certain rank in Mythic. The current system rewards hyper-competitiveness and consistency, which doesn't allow players to do anything but the most strategically sound plan. There may be many options available, but they aren't that interactive.
Another issue I have has nothing to do with there being two ways to rank up. It's that Wizards of the Coast seems poised to make high-level Arena events use best-of-one Magic. I get it – sideboarding isn't flashy or fun to the new eyeballs coming into Magic. It's complicated, convoluted, and difficult to cover from a coverage standpoint. That said, is "Duo Standard" the fix? For clarification, here's how Duo Standard works.
Players will submit two Standard–legal decks. Players will not sideboard between games, though they may submit a sideboard (for cards such as Mastermind's Acquisition). Players can submit two different decks, two of the same archetype with different cards in both, or the exact same deck twice. Have at it!
Match play will take place using both of each players' submitted decks. Matches will be conducted as follows:
- Which deck each player plays and who goes first will be determined randomly.
- In the second game, players will use the deck that they didn't play in Game 1.
The player who went second in Game 1 now goes first.
Game 3 (if necessary)
- Each player selects one of their two Standard decks to play for the third game.
Then the player who goes first in this game is determined at random.
This is Wizards of the Coast's first attempt at a best-of-three competitive format without sideboards. Before I allow myself to jump off the deep end on this topic, it's important to preface that the Mythic Invitational is a promotional event. It's supposed to draw eyeballs and show just how awesome Magic is. New players may be turned off from the coverage if we do things they aren't familiar with, and sideboarding does involve a deep understanding of the game. I think it's tough for us to see the forest through the trees on this subject, as this event will be the biggest in the history of the game. It would make sense that we'd want the most skill-intensive form of Magic being used to decide who takes home a quarter of a million dollars. I mean, that's slightly more than I've made lifetime playing Grand Prix and Pro Tours.
That said, I'm wary of how this will play out. Strategies like Nexus of Gates and Mono-Red Aggro will still be very good in this format and midrange decks will be at a disadvantage. In fact, I believe the most important aspect of this format is to make sure you don't have a very bad matchup between your two decks. If you do, it will be very difficult to win a match, since your opponent will pick that deck for Game 3. Obviously, it can be a choice to have a bad matchup that you don't expect to be played in high numbers, but that's going deeper than I want to go today.
It just doesn't feel exciting to me as an enfranchised player. I'm excited to see the stage, the players, and everything that goes into the production of the event, but the idea of the games just doesn't do it for me. Maybe the games will carry enough of the coverage that the strategy doesn't need to be leaned on as heavily as it does in traditional coverage, but that's purely speculative. My biggest fear is things will get redundant and the iterations between decks won't be as noticeable as they are when we take account of players' sideboards.
Stop Complaining, Start Participating
So far, this entire article has centered around explaining formats so I can explain what my issues are with them. That's obviously not constructive, nor do I think these decisions so far have been bad, so we're changing gears from here on out. My intentions with this article are to not just rile up my reader base but instead highlight potential issues in hopes that we can find ways to fix them in the future.
It doesn't matter what our opinion of best-of-one is; the format isn't going anywhere. It's popular, and a great way to introduce new players to Constructed Magic. In fact, a friend of mine told me a new player started playing FNM at his local store, thanks to Arena! It's an important piece of this esports push, and one we shouldn't be too harsh about. That doesn't mean it can't be made better, though.
I believe Wizards of the Coast should start supporting the format in other ways. Instead of just posting a weekly list of the Top 100 players in Mythic, we should get decklists! Players love decklists! So much so that The GAM Podcast's Twitter account @arenadecklists soared in popularity right after it was created, and all does is retweet people who post decklists.
It's fine if the people have to take a grassroots approach to cultivating a database of information, but it would be nice if there was something on Wizards of the Coast's website where people could look at best-of-one decklists. Maybe some basic strategy on what's doing the best in each tier of the ladder. Just interesting things to think about. Odds are there will eventually be a ton of websites dedicated to strategizing the ladder, but right now that's not the case, which could let Wizards of the Coast swoop in and start that sort of content creation, even if in the form of articles written by ladder grinders.
Being more aggressive on bans in Arena best-of-one would also be something I'd like to see. I think it's absurd that Nexus of Fate hasn't been banned yet. It's boring to play with, annoying to play against, and difficult to work with using the Arena interface. I'm normally not too harsh on a card, but this one is just a mistake for all the reasons we've seen people talk about: shuffling back, instant speed, only in foil, and whatever else is out there. It's okay for them to make mistakes, but fix them aggressively online when the format doesn't impact tabletop anyway!
Best-of-three should have more support on Arena. Right now, it's impossible to direct challenge a testing partner on Arena for the Mythic Championship in Cleveland in two weeks. It's pretty absurd that I need to go back to Magic Online to properly prepare for events in real life. I can't even use direct challenge to practice specific games due to the hand-smoothing algorithm.
Note: Arena's Executive Producer Chris Cao recently announced they're adding best-of-three to direct challenge. Knowing that updates to Arena are constantly happening even between the short turnaround that's involved with writing articles makes me beyond excited about the future of this program. It just shows they care and are working hard to make sure Arena is amazing!
I'd also love for Wizards of the Coast to experiment with alternative best-of-three formats that don't include sideboards on Arena. After all, we're in beta still and there are cool formats each weekend that get played. Why not let the masses try Duo Standard! Maybe they don't want things to get solved, which is why they also aren't giving away any data about the decklists climbing the ranks, but I think player involvement is amazing. Let us try formats and give feedback. That would be so much fun!
In the end, I want to make sure you know that I don't think the sky is falling or anything like that. I just think we're in a very exciting time for Magic, but also need to make sure things are done right. Moving away from sideboards, to me, runs the risk of Magic feeling boring. I don't think this game is shallow enough for that to happen if we figure out awesome alternatives, but at the same time, if they aren't found, I'd like a good home for best-of-three play and not just a rank attached to best-of-one ranks.
What do you think? Anything I say today resonate with you, or did you disagree with pretty much everything I said?