Spread the Wealth: Diversity Among Formats

Feature Article from Christopher Morris-Lent
Christopher Morris-Lent
5/11/2012 9:48:00 AM
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So! Pro Tour Barcelona starts today, and I wasn't that excited about it – until a few days ago. Why not? Because it's Block Constructed.

If Standard is often a “bad” format - and by that, I mean that Delver is the most obnoxious deck since Caw-Blade, which was the most obnoxious deck since Jund, which was the most obnoxious deck since Faeries, which was the most obnoxious deck since Affinity, which was the most obnoxious deck since Rebels, which was the most obnoxious deck since Combo Winter, which was the most obnoxious deck since Necro Summer, etc. – then Block Constructed, according to conventional wisdom, has to be worse. The thinking goes: if the card pool is smaller, then the possibilities must be more constrained.

But when was the last time we had a healthy format in Block, as evidenced by deck diversity at the PT? Having come back to the game recently, I didn't know the answer to this question; so I gathered data from the last four Block Pro Tour Top 8s, and then distilled it. Here's what I found:

Scars of Mirrodin Block – 2 MWA, 2 Tempered Steel, 1 Kuldotha Red, 1 Big Red, 1 4C Tezzeret, 1 Monoblack Infect
Zendikar Block – 4 RUG, 2 MGA, 1 UW, 1 RDW
Shards of Alara Block – 2 Esper Aggro, 1 4C Control, 1 5C Control, 1 5C Aggro, 1 Naya, 1 Jund, 1 Jund/Naya
Time Spiral Block – 3 Teachings, 3 RG Ramp, 2 RDW, 2 Grixis

At first glance, the data seem to support the hypothesis that Block is dumb. Five-color monstrosities in Alara? I'm shocked. JTMS dominant in Zendikar? No way! Really, though, there are some surprises here. Scars Block, diverse, even weird? Time Spiral, with its removal-heavy draft format, supporting creature-based strategies not named Sprout Swarm? Beastmaster Ascension and Traumatic Visions, constructed-playable? There is some food for thought here.

Bearing in mind that the Pro Tour more often sets trends than rides off of them, it would be easy to be tendentious, and write off Block as stagnant and boring. But I don't think this is the case. Within recent history, it looks healthy – a lot healthier than Standard. Good show, Wizards.

Researching this piece disabused me of the notion that Block is, by its very nature, dull. In Gavin Verhey's excellent article, he presents ten or so archetypes that seem viable for the weekend; as bad of a Limited format as I think Avacyn Restored is, for Block Constructed, it looks downright awesome. Of course, nobody really knows yet, and for me this further compounds the anticipation. If you're not excited for the Pro Tour, you probably should be. The Block Constructed format looks diverse, and it looks this way because Wizards was wise enough to ban a couple of cards that were going to, as it were, White-wash everything.


Novelty is what makes life worth living, and novelty is most commonly experienced through diversity. Diversity – ethnic, geographic, ideological, and socioeconomic (most of all, socioeconomic) – is what made my high school such a great educational experience; and the lack of diversity is what made my college a soul-crushing waste of time and money. There is nothing more rewarding than being brought into contact with people who think and experience differently from you; it forces you to justify your beliefs and system of values, and prevents your life from becoming self-justifying, incestuous, or inbred. It really does “take all kinds” to construct a rewarding life, and what is so frustrating about the current climate in this country is that the politicians choose to ignore this.

This is because they are bought off. They can half-heartedly fight the corruption, as the President does; or they can just be sickeningly brazen about it, even proud of it, like his presumptive opponent. A friend of Mitt Romney recently had a profile published in the New York Times, wherein he “[made] a case for income inequality.” His argument is, at this point, a disproven bromide whose particulars I feel dirty just typing out: the rich are supposed to re-invest their wealth, which will then “trickle down” to the proles.

I do not for a minute think that this kleptocrat believes his own canards, but that is not the point: hordes of people who are both poor and ignorant do believe them. These people are not, as the Republican politicians would have you believe, poor because they are ignorant; they are ignorant because they are poor, robbing them of access to education, opportunity, and diversity. Under a Romney regime, they will certainly get poorer, more ignorant, and more delusional about their chances under a society rigged against them – rigged not by illegal immigrants, socialists, or the like, but by people “just like them” (with far fatter bank accounts and bellies). It is thus that 21st-century American politics accomplishes the stupendous feat of “shaking [the poor's] hand, while stabbing them in the back at the same time;” though everyone thinks they'll be rich, only a few can “get there,” and those few will do all they can to make sure that nobody else will attain that feat, rendering their dubious “accomplishment” less exceptional.

To bring things back to Magic, this fever-dream of wealth, and then not attaining it, is analogous to a number of phenomena. The Open grinders who seek to make a living from this game, and then rarely do, is one. The overconfidence people have in their home-brews is another, and it is this similarity on which I want to focus. Take someone like Conley: he is a genius. If almost all of his deck ideas fizzle, then what of the ideas of people like you or me? We bring them to a tournament and, ninety-nine times out of one hundred, embarrass ourselves.

If our home-brews are, overwhelmingly, “poor,” then Tier One net-decks – Caw-Blade, Faeries, Rebels – are “rich.” As in real life, if the rich get too rich – if they take up too much of the metagame (or total GDP) – then it is to the detriment of everyone. People quit during Necro Summer, Combo Winter, and Mirrodin block, and they quit en masse; the stupidity of Affinity brought about a dark age, a recession / contraction / depression, from which Magic has only recently recovered. The history of Magic shows that Stiglitz, Krugman, Buffett, et al. are right when they suggest that the rich should seek not to have a disproportionate share of a contracting economy, but a slightly smaller share of a growing one. Otherwise, who will want to play?

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Markets that are completely unregulated are dysfunctional (except, perhaps, in Ayn Rand's wet dreams). For Magic, this is where the ban-hammer comes in: it quashes things that are un-fun and abusive (and, though Rand would have enjoyed playing Skullclamp, I think even she would not have liked playing against it.)

That being said, I am too realistic to not know that markets that are over-regulated Quash innovation and enterprise. So the ban-hammer must be used judiciously. I think it is good, generally, that America errs on the side of capitalism, and that Wizards errs on the side of forbearance. This sometimes has absurd and terrible results – banking de-regulation; Batterskull in Caw-Blade. I wish that governance could be more proactive and less reactive: disasters like the global financial crisis and turn-two living weapons were, in retrospect, not hard to Foresee. I guess the difference is that Wizards is doing the best they can, while Washington is not.

Just as there is nothing that makes an economic system inherently sound, there is nothing that makes a format inherently playable. Legacy is an easy example – without a ban-list, it would be broken and boring, not cerebral and thrilling – but, since I know more about Modern, and since its genesis was quite a bit more recent, I'll talk about it.

Twenty-one cards were on the initial ban-list; in order of descending abusiveness, they ranged from Skullclamp to Sensei's Divining Top. I remember the reaction to this list. The average competitive player was incensed. How dare they ban his favorite Bitterblossom, his pet Ancestral Vision! Wizards had acted with a heavy hand; they had stifled creativity, neutered the format, affected the Cultural Revolution.

Then PT Philadelphia happened, and it turned out that Wizards had had the right idea – they just hadn't gone far enough. Turn-two kills with Storm and Poison, and turn three Emrakuls, were wrecking parity and interactivity. The format was too busted. So they banned six more cards, combo enablers and combo pieces. Then it turned out Punishing Fire was oppressive (Nacatl was debatable), so they got rid of those too.

Now the format is far from perfect, but still very good; I reveled in PTQ season, and it was exciting to see a different winner every week, a different emergent brew almost as often. Modern is diverse and novel because it is balanced, and it is balanced precisely because these cards are banned. In Modern, you can play aggro, combo, control, White, Blue, Black, Red, Green, and any combination of the above; whatever sort of “mage” you are, you can find something to suit your fancy. Whoever you are, the system is not rigged against you.

I will once again draw attention to a fact I find astounding: in Modern, only twenty-nine cards (out of a total pool of 6,923) are banned. If only the ratio of prisoners to citizens in the U.S. was so low.


There are 12,394 distinct cards in all of Magic, and 674 in Innistrad Block Constructed. Of these 674 cards, only two are banned, so the ratio of banned cards in IBC and Modern is comparable. But what of the sole unregulated format, Standard? Nothing is banned there.

Rapacious readers of Magic media will recall an article of Zac Hill's, on the Mothership, where he annoyed a lot of people by making a number of transparently false claims. For example, Zac fingered Mana Leak as a “savage culprit,” responsible for homogenizing Standard. Everyone who played Dark Ascension Standard knows this to be ludicrous. Mana Leak has been a good card, but a fair and interactive card, since 1998. It is also a very “Blue” card, powerful but reactive, with the risk of being irrelevant.

You do not need me to tell you that the problem was Delver of Secrets, which is neither reactive nor ever really irrelevant nor even “Blue,” in color-pie terms. Hell, it was originally going to be a Green card, the specific details of which I would be delighted to have someone dredge up. It was a mistake similar to Rancor's casting cost being reduced from 3 to 1 en route to the printers, but, in terms of novelty, diversity, and balance, it was much worse. From the possibility of laying it turn one, doing nothing thereafter, and winning; to the asinine sub-game of “will it flip blind?”, I hate Delver of Secrets.

But Zac's article may not have been so wrong after all, because, should Avacyn Restored have any impact on Standard at all, it will likely be to loosen the Stranglehold of Delver. RG Aggro is a mid-range deck lacking card quality and overly reliant on dorks in a format filled with decks that will sweep those dorks, and then go over the top; and yet, it won an SCG Open. Wolf Run Ramp is another deck I do not like, but if it lets other decks in by foiling Delver, then I am for it. Humans, Zombies, Kamikaze, Frites – these are all pretty good.

I'm not fond of Standard right now, but at least with the new set there is the possibility of brewing. May this brewing engender a group of decks as diverse as the set I hope to encounter from Pro Tour coverage. Sometimes simplicity – a small card pool, an elegant political system – can create something more beautiful, more multifarious, than an unwieldy, under-regulated morass that tends towards uniformity.

I have one final idea. I very much like games, more so than “the game” that is synonymous (in my cultural group) with the “rat race,” because games are more of a meritocracy. Merit alone will not take you far in real life – not with the way this country is – but it will help you succeed at games; with a little variance, it can take you right to the top. It is too often forgotten that Magic is not life, but a part of life; in this regard, though, it is better than life.

Alright. If you're playing at the Pro Tour, then I wish you the best of luck luck (though it's already too late) – and, if you're not, remember that you “cannot lose if you do not play.” The game is what it is.

Thanks for reading!

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