FINAL JUDGEMENT: The Formats
Now that we've covered WHERE you're going to play, let's cover WHAT you're going to play. The Magic tournament environment is separated into basic formats: Constructed and Limited. Constructed includes Type 1, Type 1.5, Extended, Block Constructed and Standard. Limited is made up of Sealed Deck, Booster Draft and Rochester Draft. Each format has its own particular challenges, strengths and weaknesses. I'm going to give you my perspectives as both a Judge and a player on all of them, then discuss how to best survive each environment.
>From a Judge's perspective, Constructed tournaments are far easier. The decklists are more concise. There's not that hour-long drafting/constructing period. The types of decks or at least combinations of cards are more limited. Constructed tournaments are roughly two hours shorter than Limited tournaments with the same number of rounds.
As a player, I prefer Limited, especially Draft. Sealed Deck has a greater luck factor (although skill is still paramount) than Draft. A great deal of Standard, at least with loads of net decks floating around, depends on matchups. You can have a mediocre deck with good matchups that wins, or a great deck with bad matchups that gets hammered. It's my opinion that skill has the greatest impact in Draft. Since I think I'm a better player than you are, I want to play where that skill matters.
>From the Judge's side, Type 1 can get rather difficult, simply because the available card pool is immense. Trust me, inventive players can come up with weird combos you've never seen before, most often involving cards that were never meant to be played together. I could write a whole column on the arcane interactions of Chains of Mephistopheles alone (but trust me, I won't). Additionally, the Restricted List currently contains 48 cards. Try to commit THAT to memory.
Type 1 is a format I only play casually, and only in multiplayer. We play Vintage in our Friday Night games (here's a plug for the Cyber Cup, right across from the Bear Tooth Theatre in Anchorage; we're there Fridays from about 7 p.m. on) because some players have a limited collection of cards and it keeps the environment fresh. We'll probably move into some narrower formats just for the fun of it, but I wouldn't want to rob someone of the pleasure of playing Karakas or Kird Ape.
Type 1.5 is not much easier to judge than Vintage. Anything on the Vintage Restricted List is Banned in Type 1.5. It gives players without the expensive Power Nine the opportunity to play in the wider open format. The strange interactions of cards you might not have seen for years will crop up at the most inopportune moment.
It's not a format in which I've ever played, but I wouldn't mind playing in at all. It's open, without the need to invest a thousand dollars or more in Moxen and Loti, et al. The types of decks that show up will no doubt be interesting, varied, and difficult to play against.
Extended consists of each set from 5th Edition and Ice Age forward. As we narrow the card pool a bit, the Judging gets a little easier. Judges that haven't been certified for long have a better chance of being familiar with the cards. The Banned List is only thirteen cards (in addition to the illegal sets).
Again, as a player, I like that it's an open format without all the overpowered or underpriced "I win" cards. My preference is to play the game, not watch someone else (or have someone else watch me) play. Hence, I have a distaste for combo decks. Unfortunately, arguably the strongest deck archetype in this format is Pebbles, which involves Enduring Renewal/Goblin Bombardment and 0-mana cost creatures. What's difficult is that a player has a tough time preparing for what he might face over the course of a tournament.
Block Constructed, which consists of any Standalone set and its two expansions (such as Masques Block, consisting of Mercadian Masques, Nemesis, and Prophecy), is by far the easiest to Judge. If there are problem cards, they've already been banned, and the card pool is smaller. The only time it might be truly challenging is the first round of Block Constructed tournaments after a new set it released, before anything has been Banned or tricky combos have been discovered.
I've liked to play Block Constructed up to Masques, which I didn't like at all due to the proliferation of just a few archetypes. Rebels are the way to go, hands down. I'm quite excited about how Invasion Constructed will play out. I don't see any truly broken combos just yet (if you do, send them to me!), and spending five or six mana to play something doesn't seem unreasonable.
I'll point out a tremendously fun, although unsanctioned, tournament type featuring Blocks. It's called "Block Party," and was featured at last year's invitational. Each player brings a deck from ANY Block, paying attention to the Banned list from that particular Block. We did one recently. Of the fifteen decks, we had four Tempest, four Invasion, four Urza's, two Ice Age (which includes Alliances and Homelands) and one Masques. Only Mirage was left out. The raw speed of Tempest won the day with mono white taking first place and suicide black taking third. An interesting Urza's Block land destruction deck took second. If you're in the mood for something different in your local environment, give this one a whirl.
The last Constructed format is Standard. Standard always includes the most recent basic edition of the game (currently 6th) and the two most recent expansion blocks (as of November first, this will be Masques and Invasion). Judging this is only moderately difficult. Most disputes involve timing or poor communication between players, not the cards. Again, the narrower card pool helps Judges figure out quickly which cards will actually get played and which are likely to be problematic.
I think I'm really going to enjoy the Standard environment with Invasion. Like Invasion Block Constructed, the game will slow down a bit. A slower environments leads toward luck being less of a factor and the skilled player coming out on top more often. Slower doesn't have to mean control-only. I like the idea of big, fat creature battles and complex situations. They're far more interesting intellectually - and Magic is, after all, striving to be an intellectual game.
Limited is a horse of a different color. Making something out of a limited, and sometimes poor, pool of cards is difficult. Whether you get to pick which cards those are or have a pile dumped on you doesn't really matter that much. As opposed to Constructed, where the minimum deck size is 60 cards, the minimum for Limited is 40. Land ratios depend on which sets are being used.
Judging Limited can sometimes be difficult because cards are played that would never otherwise be played. Suddenly, a card you've completely ignored is staring you in the face, demanding to be ruled on. Fortunately, new cards are extremely well templated, making them easy to figure out. Judging Sealed Deck and Drafts aren't all that different. The biggest challenge comes from making sure the players register their decks correctly and remember to write lands on their sheets.
Contrary to popular belief, Limited is not, well, limited, to a particular Block or set of cards. A Revised Starter with a Legends and a Prophecy Booster is just as sanctionable as Mirage/Visions/Weatherlight. In fact, a favorite Booster Draft at the European Championships has been Legends/Antiquities/Dark.
The most common form of Limited is the Sealed Deck. Players get a Tournament Pack (what we used to call a Starter) and two or three boosters. They then make the best of what they have. Ferrett wrote a fine primer on how to do your first Sealed Deck tournaments. (Well, of COURSE you think it's fine, Sheldon - all I did was rewrite the advice YOU gave me, chief! - The Ferrett) I'm sure our editor can insert a link to it HERE. Luck plays the biggest factor in Sealed Deck, but it's by no means the only consideration. Not all the cards a player receives are optimal, so it's difficult to find the least bad cards (as opposed to, in Constructed, finding the best).
In Booster Draft, players each get three Booster packs. They sit in a circle (or approximation thereof). At a signal from the Judge, each player opens their first pack. After a specific time interval (I like forty-five seconds each for the first five cards, thirty seconds for the next five and fifteen seconds for the last five), the player chooses one and passes the rest of the pack to the left. After the entire first booster is drafted, each player opens their second booster. This time, they pass to the right. The third pack is passed left. The player then takes those forty-five cards and builds a deck from them with as many lands as he wishes.
What's interesting about Booster Draft is predicting which cards will come back to you (you get two from each pack). It doesn't make sense to use your first pick from a pack to draft a card you know no one else wants. Figuring out what the players on your right are drafting can give some clue as to what cards you will or won't be seeing in later packs. There are so many articles on drafting, I won't venture to do the work better drafters have already done.
Rochester Draft is the most engaging of all Draft formats. The players once again sit in a circle, each with three booster packs. Instead of each player opening a pack simultaneously, only one pack is opened at a time. The Judge opens the first player's booster and lays it out on the table for all to see. The players get a minute to review the cards. Then, the first player chooses a card. After the chosen interval (normally three seconds), the player to the left chooses one. This clockwise rotation continues until reaching the eighth player. After drafting card number eight, the eighth player drafts again, followed by the seventh, and continuing counterclockwise until all the cards are gone. The player drafting first from the booster gets only one card from that pack.
The next pack to be opened is that of the second player (the one to the left of the first player). That player chooses the first card, and the rotation continues as with the first player. This continues until a booster has been opened for each player. The second set of boosters begins with the eighth player drafting first. The rotation begins counterclockwise and boomerangs back. Then the seventh player opens a pack, and so on back to the first player. The third set of boosters is drafted exactly the same as the first. Here's what the whole thing looks like:
First Booster: 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-8-7-6-5-4-3-2, 2-3-4-5-6-7-8-1-1-8-7-6-5-4-3, and so on.
Second Booster: 8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1-1-2-3-4-5-6-7, 7-6-5-4-3-2-1-8-8-1-2-3-4-5-6, and so on.
Third Booster: 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-8-7-6-5-4-3-2, 2-3-4-5-6-7-8-1-1-8-7-6-5-4-3, and so on.
I absolutely love this format. With each player seeing every card, it's very easy to know what's coming from your opponent when you play. It's also easy to see what you can and can't draft. Once the pack is opened, you can should be able to predict who will draft what and when. You can develop a strategy based on what's likely to be in coming packs. I find it the most challenging and most rewarding format.
The various tournament formats give players the opportunity to compete in differing events that use different skills. Cards, strategies and styles work differently in Constructed formats versus Limited. Players that want to do well in all formats must know and understand what makes each format unique and what makes it work.
And that's my Final Judgement.
Sheldon K. Menery