The Three Pillars of a Healthy Format

Feature Article from Brian Braun-Duin
Brian Braun-Duin
4/20/2018 11:00:00 AM
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One of the neverending debates in Magic revolves around the hard-to-measure metrics of whether a format is good. “How can you not like Standard? It's so good right now...” “Modern is simply a bad format...” “Legacy used to be a good format, but now it isn't...” These debates continue on everywhere that Magic is discussed, from the dining room table to tournament halls to the dark recesses of the internet that only brave and daring souls are willing to go, like Twitter, Reddit and Facebook groups.

Some might even go so far as to call it the ultimate question of our age. Solve world hunger? What is even the point if we can't agree on whether Standard sucks or not? Future scholars may look back at this dark time in our history and marvel at our ignorance in being unable to answer life's most important question: What makes a format good? These hypothetical scholars probably won't, but wouldn't it be cool if they did?

There is a lot of subjectivity here. Different people enjoy different things. Some people enjoy Blood Mooning their opponent. Some people enjoy long games rich with interaction. Some people enjoy creature combat, or high pressure turns playing with or against combo decks. Nobody likes Tron, however. Even Tron players know that what they are doing is wrong. That's just factual.

Even subjective topics, however, have truths that can be learned about them. Some people love Modern and some people hate it, and that's perfectly fine for each of those people to have their opinion about the format, but there are still formats that are more well-loved than others and formats that have been more hated than others, and conclusions can be drawn about what factors generally contribute to making those formats more or less loved.

Today I'm going to touch on the three major pillars that I personally think contribute to a healthy and fun format. I think it's possible for a format to be a good format if it contains some mixture of these three pillars, even if it doesn't hit all three, but the truly greatest formats of our time were formats where all three of these principles were present.

#1: Play Patterns Are Not Repetitive

This is my pick for the most important aspect of a good format. Replayability, basically. I believe this is also a major reason why a lot of Magic players haven't switched over to a game like Hearthstone, because Magic offers such a higher amount of diversity of play experience than what you get from Hearthstone.

Why does having non-repetitive play patterns matter? Because we don't want to get bored, basically. If we're going to invest our precious time into playing Magic, we want our experience to be something memorable. We don't want to have to play the same game over and over.

This is a huge aspect of why Modern is a beloved format. Modern is the format with the least repetitive play patterns I have ever played. There is a wide swath of viable decks, meaning you won't play the same matchups repeatedly, and even within repeat matchups most decks offer a huge variety in terms of how the games play out due to the nature of how Modern decks are built. Decks like Bogles and Burn are exceptions to this rule, which is a large part of why the hatred against these decks often greatly outshines how good they actually are. These decks can take away the fun of being able to play non-repetitive games.

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Even some of the hyper-linear decks like Humans and Hollow One offer a huge variety in play experience. Cards like Meddling Mage and Phantasmal Image out of Humans can create fun and interesting games and subgames. Ever vialed in Phantasmal Image to copy Emrakul, the Aeons Torn, or even just “lesser” options like Tireless Tracker, Gurmag Angler or Primeval Titan? That's fun. While playing Hollow One, you can win games with recursive threats like Bloodghast and Flamewake Phoenix or by just smashing your opponent with big beatsticks. Burning Inquiry and Goblin Lore offer unique perspectives into how much tilt one human can experience each and every time you discard every available copy of Hollow One out of your hand “at random.” The play experiences are often wildly different from game to game.

Commander is another format that offers this non-repetitive experience and this is a large part of Commander's appeal. While I personally don't play a whole lot of Commander, the cards I most often see people complaining about are precisely the cards that create repetitive experiences. Most often, these happen to be cards that combo out too quickly and consistently, cards that create the same endgame every time like Cyclonic Rift, or cards that generate the same gameplay whenever they hit play, like the banned Primeval Titan.

Standard, recently, has had a huge issue with this problem. By all traditional metrics, our current Standard format “should” be fun. There is a diversity of decks, a diversity of playable archetypes, and gameplay is rich with interaction and meaningful decisions to be made. However, I have still heard many players, myself included, who don't enjoy this current Standard format very much. It took me a long time to figure out why I personally didn't enjoy it.

Repetition in play patterns is the predominant reason. A lot of decks in the format, at least three different archetypes, are The Scarab God decks. The Scarab God is a card that creates some of the most repetitive gameplay imaginable. All Scarab God decks basically win each game the exact same way. Eventually stick TSG and let it win the game by itself. So, while the early and midgames are often interesting, the endgame of every game of Standard while playing one of these decks looks exactly the same. You stop casting any spells and just activate the The Scarab God you have in play until your opponent buckles under the unbeatable pressure it generates.

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The previous Standard format, before they banned Attune with Aether, Rogue Refiner, Ramunap Ruins, and The Rampaging FericiDonald, suffered from a similar problem. While Temur Energy was a deck that gave the pilot a lot of decisions and interactive gameplay, it suffered immensely from being an extremely repetitive deck. Play Servant of the Conduits, Rogue Refiners and Attune with Aethers. Eventually dump that energy into a Whirler Virtuoso or Bristling Hydra and win. Every game followed the same formula.

Current Legacy is also starting to fall into this problem. As Deathrite Shaman, which is the best thing you can be doing in Legacy, begins to earn a bigger and bigger place in the format more and more games are pushed into almost chess-like opening move sequences. They cast Deathrite Shaman on the play. You are forced to spend your turn removing it if you can. Then they follow up with another proactive play. You are already behind from being forced to answer their Deathrite Shaman, so now you are forced once more into making the play that best tries to catch you up. 1. E4. C5... Thankfully, Legacy mid and late games are still pretty interesting, even if opening game sequences are losing their non-repetitive value.

I think the biggest key to getting back to having non-repetitive gameplay, at least in Standard, is to move toward having a diversity of playable threats that scale, and a diversity of playable answers. Having a diversity of effective answers also forces players to branch out with what threats they bring to match up the right threats to the wrong answers. Look at these two decks from this event back in 2015, one of the last times we had a Standard format I enjoyed. Each have a variety of great threats, but effective answers also did exist to each threat, creating a nice dynamic of non-repetitive gameplay as players tried to line up effective threats and answers against each other.

#2: Decisions Matter

The next pillar of a fun and healthy format is that the decisions you make have a meaningful effect on the outcome of the game. If the Modern format fails at any pillar, this is the one. Some games in Modern fall victim to situations where nothing you really do has any effect on the outcome of the game. Your opponent's Ensnaring Bridge, Blood Moon or Grapeshot for 20 was going to kill you no matter what you did in the first two or three turns of the game.

Why does this matter? It's the same reason a game like Spades is way more fun than a game like War. We want to actually influence the outcome of any game we play. Games are a way to exercise our critical thinking, problem solving and strategic minds. If games just devolve into rolling dice with no thought involved, then we don't get to challenge ourselves and stretch our mind-muscles and we might as well just be watching The Real Housewives of Dominaria instead. It defeats the purpose of even playing the game in the first place, unless we're just interested in gambling, which, well, has its own value in some situations. Don't tempt me with a good time.

Recent Standard formats have actually been really good at this. Sequencing, timing your spells at the right moments and being patient with removal spells to line up against the right threats have all been hallmarks of the last year of Standard. I've been really bad at these Standard formats, ergo, I have irrevocably been led to the conclusion that I suck at making decisions. Give me my Ensnaring Bridges and Blood Moons! It's the only way I can win.

Legacy is the poster child for decisions mattering. One of the big draws to playing Legacy is that it is a Brainstorm-dominated format, and Brainstorm is the ultimate card for making decisions. When do you cast Brainstorm? What do you put back? In what order? Do you draw those cards again or fetch them away? Brainstorm itself gives you about 80 decisions, and they all matter, or at least we'd like to think they do.

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Even Modern, gripes aside, does actually offer a lot of relevant decisions that matter in many matchups, whether we notice them or not. Yeah, yeah, our opponent is a complete luck sack for drawing Boros Charm to kill us when we were at four life, but we also fetched and shocked ourselves on turn one when we probably didn't need to actually do that. Or maybe we refused to ever fetch and shock ourselves and we slowed ourselves down by two full turns because of it, giving them the time they needed to make us morose with the Boros.

Sometimes the control we think we have in a game is actually just an illusion. There are a lot of games, even games that last 20 turns, where we don't really have much control over the outcome of the game, even though we think we do. We can make the best choices available to us, but whether we win or lose is still firmly in our opponent's hand and comes down to the choices they make. It's for this reason that I dislike platitudes like “after each loss, you should review what mistakes you made that cost you the win.” Sometimes you didn't make meaningful mistakes (everyone makes minor mistakes in nearly every single game), and sometimes searching for and fabricating game-altering mistakes that don't exist is more harmful than any benefit that could be derived. It's things like this that cause people to mulligan great seven-card hands because they lost the last time they kept an opening seven that looked like that and in their search to find a reason for why they lost, the mulligan decision is what they came up. Maybe your opponent just had a better mixture of cards and that's why you lost – it happens.

This illusion of control is why I think that this pillar is number two on the list behind non-repetitive play patterns, because I think we're pretty bad in general at determining which decisions actually do matter and which ones don't. I think we can have fun in games where very few of our decisions actually did matter if we don't realize that this is the case, and we can similarly not enjoy games where a lot of our decisions did matter, because we didn't realize that they did.

Ultimately, though, I think this pillar is a great compliment to the first pillar. It doesn't matter all that much if our gameplay experiences are all unique if they still all involve us dying on turn three with no recourse, and it doesn't matter much if we get to make a lot of decisions if they are the same decisions time after time with the same eventual outcomes. The most fun experiences are when we get to make new decisions and have those decisions matter.

#3: Metagaming is Relevant

The last pillar is one that is a bit different than the other two pillars. While the first two mostly referenced the gameplay experience itself, this one takes a completely different approach and instead looks at metagaming, or “the game outside the game.” Do deck choices or card choices actually matter? Does the work I've done picking my deck and figuring out my 75 cards leading up to an event create a noticeable difference in my performance over just playing the stock version of the best deck?

Most of the time, metagaming matters. We can level our opponents by playing a deck they weren't expecting or by executing a different plan in a matchup that they weren't prepared for.

Why is this important? Well, in some ways, this is the most rewarding aspect of Magic. Spending a lot of time leading up to an event coming up with a plan to catch people off guard, and then having that time be rewarded by doing exactly that is very validating, and this is an important part of what makes a format enjoyable for many players, myself included.

Part of the appeal of Magic is the notion that if we out-prepare our opponents we can beat them, no matter how good they are at the game. This is the core principle that has fueled my entire career. I know I'm not better than the titans of the game at in-game decision making, but if I come with a deck they are not ready for with a plan they haven't tested against, maybe I can catch them with their pants down. The idea that the time we spend daydreaming in class, while sitting bored at our desks at work, or the time invested reading decklists and articles on the internet can actually impact our performance at an upcoming event is an important one. We don't want to feel like we're wasting our time preparing for upcoming events.

Having this kind of deck preparation matter is unfortunately not a part of every format, however. There are plenty of formats where there really isn't room to improve on stock decks, and any attempt to metagame or level people with a transformational sideboard is just worse than playing the stock version of the best deck. The last Standard format where Temur Energy dominated was a good example of a format like this, where it was hard to get an edge in the mirror no matter what you did and it could be argued that even attempting to metagame against the mirror was worse than just playing the most boring stock version imaginable of the deck. At Pro Tour Ixalan, after two weeks of nonstop grinding, I played the most stock version possible of Temur Energy and went 8-2 with the deck. While doing great with the deck felt nice, it's not a particularly rewarding feeling to know that 12 of the best minds in Magic couldn't come up with anything better in two weeks time, and we could have just better spent our time goofing off and possibly performed just as well.

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Usually these formats exist when there are cards that are way better than everything else, and it almost doesn't matter too much what you surround those cards with, because the supporting cast is just going to greatly pale in comparison to the main act. Energy was exactly the kind of mechanic that fits the bill here. It doesn't really matter if your flex slots are Magma Sprays or Essence Scatters or Supreme Wills, because the core configuration of Rogue Refiner, Servant of the Conduit, Attune with Aether, Bristling Hydra, Whirler Virtuoso, and Glorybringer is so powerful that these cards can carry the rest of your deck no matter what it looks like. You could create an innovative sideboard plan to try to beat the mirror, but most sideboard games are still just going to come down to who draws more Rogue Refiners.

Sometimes non-rotating formats like Modern and Legacy can run afoul of this pillar, where there isn't much room to innovate or improve upon established archetypes. You don't really get to metagame with your card choices, because you actually just need all 15 sideboard cards the way they are already configured in the stock version to handle the established threats in the existing metagame.

More often than not, however, even thoroughly established archetypes in older formats still have a lot of room to maneuver and still have plenty of room for innovation in sideboard plans, card choices, or even the precious main deck slots. For example, I think Modern Humans could be built without any copies of Kitesail Freebooter, which has greatly underperformed, but that's not something that I've seen people experimenting with. Those are the kinds of changes that people aren't willing to make, until someone goes boldly forth, does well with it, and then this innovative new version quickly becomes the stock version itself.

While this pillar of a healthy and fun format is in many ways separate from the other two pillars, the three still do mesh well with each other. Coming up with new decks, new sideboard plans or innovative card choices can lead to non-repetitive gameplay and can create situations where you can outplay your opponent with cards or plans that they weren't prepared for.

One thing I want to note is that one of the ideas that most frequently gets mentioned when people discuss “what makes a format good” is diversity, and that isn't something that made my list. Diversity, in this context, refers to the number of viable decks that one can play in an event. A lot of players simplistically boil down a format's health to a simple measurement of how many decks or archetypes are viable.

I don't think that is a good measure of a format for a few reasons. One is that simply having options doesn't make a format or game fun. Those options must be meaningful to create enjoyment. I could devise a format where everyone started at five life, and the format might be extremely diverse in what tools people choose to beat their opponent with, but it wouldn't necessarily be fun, because games would be over quickly, decisions might not matter much, games would be repetitive, and so forth.

Another knock against diversity as a measuring tool for format health is that there is often an illusion of diversity that exists. True diversity is hard to pin down, because given enough time a lot of decks in a format are going to get weeded out as not being viable options because they can't compete with other top decks. So while a Standard format might sometimes seem diverse if there are 10-15 decks people are piloting, within three weeks it may end up not being a diverse format at all if only two or three of those decks actually turn out to be viable choices. It might not actually be good format, no matter how diverse it appears. It also might not be a great format if there are 15 decks, but 14 of those decks can't beat the 15th.

As I mentioned at the start of this article, fun and enjoyment can be subjective. So, while these are the pillars that create an enjoyable experience for me, the same doesn't have to be true of everyone. At the very least, I hope this has been thought-provoking and has better helped people think about and understand what is important to them about a format and what makes a format good or bad. If we're going to spend all our time complaining about formats being bad, at least let's do it with well-defined reasons.

- Brian Braun-Duin




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