Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Magic: The Gathering – Modern, “Legacy-Lite,” and Alternate Formats

by Chris McGinty (According To Whim .com)

Magic: The Gathering is a game that is particularly interesting because just as there are a crazy number of combinations that can form a Magic deck, there are also a crazy number of ways to play the game, called formats. Some formats are simply a list of expansion blocks you can use in games. Some formats are rules for how to play with more than two players. Some formats make rules about how you can construct your deck. One format doesn’t even use cards. One format starts you off with an avatar that gives you special rules. One format has random occurrences built into the game that affect everyone. Sometimes the formats even overlap. It is possible to play 2-Headed Giant using the Extended card pool.

The formats that follow the rules as printed, but are based on which sets can be used, are rotating formats and non-rotating formats. Standard uses only cards from approximately the last couple of years. Extended is something like the last five years. Vintage and Legacy both allow use of every card printed with a few exceptions. Standard and Extended rotate out sets when new sets are rotated in. Legacy and Vintage don’t rotate, because they have a start point that doesn’t change. They are more cumulative formats in that they just constantly get a bigger card pool.

The trouble with the non-rotating formats is that they are very overpowered in tournament play, and the availability of the power cards has been decreasing for years. Because of this, Wizards of the Coast (WotC) started looking for another non-rotating format to introduce. They came up with a format called Modern. The idea behind modern is that when they released 8th Edition, they changed the look of the card frames. Cards with the new card frames would be legal in Modern with a few exceptions. This was as arbitrary of a start point as any other was, but when Aaron Forsythe suggested it, it seemed to make a certain logical sense. It felt like a natural start point.

When I read about Modern, I thought it was a great idea. I will probably never play Legacy or Vintage except maybe casually. I play Classic, and that’s bad enough. There is an odd problem with trying to differentiate between the two types of casual. There is casual where you build fun decks that aren’t meant to destroy your opponent, and then there is casual online where people act like that’s the point.

As to the why I’m a fan of the Modern format idea, my first CCG was Net Runner (I’m a huge fan of Richard Garfield, go Rocketville!). Net Runner lived an unfortunately short life, but thrived for a few years after it was unable to be officially supported. There was a semi-recognized tournament format known as Draconian inspired by Neal’s Draconian Banned list. It took the, just over, 500 official Net Runner cards, and banned 120 of them to create the Draconian format. His intent was to let some good cards that weren’t quite the best see play.

Every time I see a format in Magic that causes players to have to rethink what cards to use (Kaleidoscope, Rainbow Stairwell, Pauper, Highlander) it makes me just a little happy, because I enjoy Magic for the mental exercise.

My biggest complaint about Magic has always been that I don’t think I have an ounce of Spike blood in me, Spike being the nickname for the player who is only out to win. I play the game from the perspective that it is more fun for me to win because I thought my way through to victory than to win because my deck worked as it was finely tuned to do. I build decks around cards that function in a way that I find interesting and fun, rather than cards that create nearly unstoppable win conditions.

Most of my Net Runner playing has been with people who aren’t dicks about creating overpowered decks though, so having the Draconian format hasn’t been that important. But in Magic, a format like that would be very helpful.

My suggestion, which I’ll call “Legacy-Lite,” just because I have no better name popping into my head at the moment, would have some real downsides in time and cost to implement, but if it was something WotC was able to do might give them a long term non-rotating format that they would have better control over the power level. Let’s face it, there are already decks that would dominate in Modern as they proposed it.

With “Legacy-Lite,” each year, WotC would release a set similar to the old Nth Edition sets, and to the Masters Edition sets online. The sets would consist of all reprints, and would intentionally avoid the top 25% in terms of power cards. The format would start with the first year of reprints, and would maintain a legality of only cards in “Legacy-Lite” sets. They could potentially take it a step further to push sales by saying that it has to be those printings, though they normally don’t use that restriction. Since all of these cards would be cards already known to the public, much of the design and development of the sets could be done by players, with R&D having the final say to maintain power levels.

Even in the Draconian format, banning 25% of the Net Runner cards that were most commonly used in tournament decks, there were still some powerful decks. How nice would it be to see some decks in tournament play made up of “Tier Two” cards that are only considered to be not good enough to play because there are cards better than them?

If developing a whole new set each year would be too cumbersome (which I suspect it might be) there are three possibilities I can think of to lessen the burden:

- The first would be to make the initial “Legacy-Lite” set a very large set to get people started (1,000+ cards) and then do the new sets every two to five years depending on sales and demand.

- The second would be to start with Magic 2010, and make the format legal cards just those printed in Core sets from 2010 on, which is just “Modern but More Modern.”

- The third would be to let the community build the format with guidance from WotC, and rather than print cards, just post an official list of cards that can be used in the format, adding cards to the list at semi-regular intervals.

The issues I see with the third possibility are that it is easier to list cards that can’t be used, than to list cards that can be used, when you have no anchor (like cards printed with expansion symbols) to help people keep track, and that without new cards printed it would be a format for the secondary market. Perhaps making it a Magic Online only tournament format could fix many of the issues, since the online interface can keep track of whether a card is legal in a format.

So why do I care? I think one of the fundamental flaws of “Magic: The Gathering” is that there are cards that rarely see play, and not because they are just seriously useless. I understand that that happens from time to time, even in my precious Net Runner. The problem is that all too often a card is actually pretty good, but it’s not strictly better than other cards. With Magic, taking out the top 25% of power cards, like Draconian did in Net Runner, would solve this problem some. Slowly replacing the usable cards, while avoiding the top 25%, would be even better. I’m willing to bet there would be a tipping point where all of a sudden even the “Legacy-Lite” format would have cards that never saw play, but at least for a little while they might.

The best way for lesser used cards to see play is simply for players to start using them; this is obviously easier if you have a small group that plays together from time to time, and you can create you own formats.

“Ok, everybody listen up. Next week. Your decks must be two colours. One of your colours must be white. You may not use black. Your decks must have 67 cards. These cards may not have names that start with the letters S,W,A, or T. Further, the card Swat is banned in this format, along with any card that has been banned in Standard. Your deck must run 20 to 24 creatures (10 have to be uncommon cards from Onslaught block, 2 must have appeared in a Core Set). Your deck must contain seventeen cards that are not basic lands from Homelands. Everyone will start with 11 cards in hand, 4 of those cards will be Terrors that are not part of your deck, and may be cast using any coloured mana. We will play free for all, and start with 42 life each, except Bob who will be allowed to run a proxied Black Lotus in his deck and will start with 33 life. Good luck.”

Now you tell me that wouldn’t be fun.

Unfortunately, the only way I can think to do this online is to find like minded individuals who would like a deck building challenge, and would stick to it. It might require creating a chat room where specifics could be decided.

Online would be limited in other ways, but that’s the very nature. It has advantages and disadvantages. Imagine a format where there is a pile of Equipment cards that anyone can draw from if they put the top five cards of their library into their graveyard. You simply couldn’t do something like that online. I’m not sure why you would do it offline, but that’s not relevant to this discussion.

Actually, one that you would have to do offline, that I think might be interesting, would be where everyone looks through one person’s collection and builds enough 60-card decks for everyone who is playing. Shuffle these decks into one deck, and then randomly make piles of 60 cards, and set them all aside. Each player can draw the top card of any of these piles as though it was their library. All effects that target a specific library simply read any of these piles. Everyone maintains their own graveyard though. Keep a pile of basic lands face up, and any basic land in your hand can be traded for another basic land in the face up pile. Obviously, you can’t lose by decking, but cards that mill, you would decide which graveyard they go into. I’m sure there are other considerations (the reason I said one person’s collection is so there is no confusion as to whose cards are whose), but I’m just saying this because I’ve always been interested in a format where you really don’t construct a deck, but rather have to adapt to whatever you draw.

I feel that there are many interesting things that can be done in Magic. I think formats are the way to see more of these things happen. Some of what I’m writing here may seem convoluted, but you have to admit that different cards would see play, and different strategies would have to be used. If a format doesn’t work then don’t play it again. If a format does work, play it more often. All I’m trying to convince you of is to play formats that give the largely unused cards a chance to be shuffled up and played.

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