Shadowmoor's Impact on Standard

Posted in Feature on June 6, 2008

By Devin Low

(For more details about the recent changes to the Vintage restricted list, please see the end of this article, featuring guest star developer Mike Turian.)

Like Iron Man and the new Indiana Jones, Shadowmoor made its Hollywood debut last month, rotating into Standard just in time for inclusion in the Standard-format Pro Tour–Hollywood. That means the Pro Tour was our first taste of Shadowmoor in Standard. Some 371 brave warriors began Day 1 of the Pro Tour, cutting down to the 123 best-performing players for Day 2. To make the cut to Day 2, you have to get significantly more wins than losses, playing against the best in the world, so your deck has got to be good.

So I've got a quick quiz: name one red card from Shadowmoor that made Day 2. Can you think of one? Once you have your answer, click here to see if you're right.

Oh, and there was also this one: click here

Oh right, and these Shadowmoor red cards placed in Day 2 of Pro Tour–Hollywood as well: click here.

And that's just the red cards. The other colors of Shadowmoor had their standouts as well. You can glance through the Day 2 Pro Tour decklists in the Pro Tour coverage, and I always find doing so to be a great way to get a sense of what decks and what cards are successful in the field, giving a wider and more complete picture of the metagame than just the Top 8.

Four Challenges

Shadowmoor faced some unique challenges in how much it would impact the Standard Pro Tour scene, and I'm psyched that a whopping fourteen red cards from a single set all got a chance to show they could crush skulls under the spotlights on Day 2. So what are the challenges that threatened to reduce Shadowmoor's impact on Standard? I see four.

1. No Rotation

Because the Lorwyn / Shadowmoor year is a year of two two-set mini-blocks, Shadowmoor is the first large set ever to enter Standard without rotating anything out. When Lorwyn entered Standard last October, it rotated out an entire year of Magic sets to make room: Ravnica, Guildpact, and Dissension all moved out of Standard on the day that Lorwyn became legal. That meant that lots of old tournament top dogs like Loxodon Hierarch and Lightning Helix rotated out of Standard, making room for Lorwyn cards like Wren's Run Vanquisher and Mulldrifter to rush into that gap and pick up the mantle of the new tournament powerhouses.

Out with the old, in with the new

Would we have seen as many Merrow Reejereys and Makeshift Mannequins in Standard during the early days of Lorwyn if all of Ravnica block had still been legal in Standard? Probably not.

That means that when Shadowmoor entered Standard and rotated nothing out, I was concerned that Shadowmoor's impact on Standard might not be as visible as Lorwyn's was. After all, when Lorwyn rotated in, its cards had to compete for slots in decks with five sets: Coldsnap, Time Spiral, Planar Chaos, Future Sight, and Tenth Edition. But when Shadowmoor rotated in, its cards had to compete for slots in decks with seven sets: Coldsnap, Time Spiral, Planar Chaos, Future Sight, Tenth Edition, Lorwyn, and Morningtide. An increased number of sets competing for the same number of slots in decks means fewer cards from each set make it into those slots.

2. Magic Online

Pro Tour–Hollywood was scheduled to occur almost immediately after Shadowmoor became legal in Standard. That's always an exciting time to have a Constructed Pro Tour because it means the environment is undefined. Instead of the same metagame we've already seen, we get to see all kinds of innovations, and watch the competitors that innovate best succeed, just like the same thing that happens at Friday Night Magic as new sets emerge.

Tournaments in undefined formats can be especially skill-testing because they test not just deck building, sideboarding, and play skill, but also the ability to create totally new archetypes, accurately predict an unknown metagame, and position yourself in that metagame. That scheduling also has implications for Pro Tour preparation on Magic Online.

Magic Online uses a weeks-long public beta to debug each card set, and that beta cannot begin until the set is known to the public. That means it takes several weeks after a set is released in the real world before it is available online. The scheduling of the Pro Tour so soon after Shadowmoor's real-world release meant that competitors could not "let the world playtest for them" by simply borrowing Shadowmoor Standard decks from online Premiere Events instead of crafting their own.

It also meant that competitors could test Time Spiral through Morningtide decks online, but couldn't test Shadowmoor in them. For people who do their playtesting in the real world, this doesn't matter. But for competitors who prepared for the event extensively with Magic Online, it could mean that they could prepare decks largely, or even exclusively, without Shadowmoor cards.

Eventual Pro Tour-Hollywood champion Charles Gindy is an example of this category. In the Deck Tech feature on Gindy's deck in the Pro Tour coverage, Gindy says:

I was testing some builds I found online, and there was one I liked that didn't have the [Chameleon] Colossus in the main. I swapped those in and suddenly the deck was very good and very consistent.

I won a couple of Premiere Events on Magic Online with it, so I was also very comfortable playing this deck for an extended period of time. The main deck is perfect, but you might need that one more Squall Line in the board.

Since Gindy practiced heavily on Magic Online, he tweaked his deck online to the point where he decided that "the main deck is perfect" without having access to Shadowmoor cards. That meant he didn't play any Shadowmoor cards in the Pro Tour except in his sideboard. If a large number of players followed this preparation strategy, Shadowmoor could end up appearing less often in the event than it deserved.

On the flip side, many competitors warmed up with Magic Online, then switched to playtesting for the final several weeks with Shadowmoor cards in real life, allowing them to see which Shadowmoor tools they would eventually decide to use. That path could lead to an increase in the number of Shadowmoor cards present at the event.

3.) Playtest Momentum

Besides online, the Shadowmoor cards only became available in the real world just a few weeks before the Pro Tour. That means that even competitors who wanted to include Shadowmoor as fully as possible only had a few weeks in which to see how Shadowmoor fit into the Standard metagame puzzle.

Aaron Forsythe, Erik Lauer, Ken Nagle, and Mike Turian went to Hollywood to gunsling, analyze the Pro Tour and the public events for R&D, and to talk to Magic players of all kinds face-to-face to get their feedback on what we do and how we can continue to make the game even better.

Several of the Pro Tour competitors they talked with said that they had had existing Time Spiral-Morningtide decks that had been playtested across the world for months and months, and then a couple of intriguing new deck ideas based on Shadowmoor engines. With the small amount of time between Shadowmoor's release and the event, many opted to go with their tried-and-true Time SpiralMorningtide decks, which had been playtested to a razor's edge for months with the exact right number of each kind of land, adding in Shadowmoor elements to update them, rather than taking more of a risk on less-tested, more innovative Shadowmoor-based deck concepts.

4.) R&D Watchfulness

We design and develop card sets far in advance of their real-world releases. As you read this, R&D is developing Magic sets that won't come out until 12-16 months from now. That means that if a deck shows up in the real world more powerful than we had anticipated, sometimes we can't react with new cards to answer that deck until two, three, or even four sets later.

But often, towards the end of a set's development cycle, we have a list of decks on our radar that the internal Future Future League has identified as being powerful. As we make new sets thereafter, we pay close attention to what we add to those known, powerful decks. Often, when the decks are fun and healthy for tournament environments, we happily add additional cards to sets that could be powerful additions players might or might not choose to add to those decks as the sets come out.

But sometimes the FFL finds that decks we have created with previous sets' cards may be more powerful than we had planned, and have risks of being unhealthy for tournaments if they get too powerful. When we detect that early enough, we are less likely to use new sets to power up the decks that could get out of hand if they get too good, and more likely to introduce hosers for those strategies.

For example, by the time Shadowmoor was being developed, the Future Future League had alerted the rest of Magic R&D that Faeries and Reveillark-based combos were both powerful decks that could potentially get really annoying if they became significantly more powerful than they already were. As a result, the Shadowmoor development team was extremely careful about cards that might potentially make Faerie and Reveillark combo decks more powerful. Instead, Shadowmoor was more likely to have cards like Guttural Response, Vexing Shusher, Firespout, and Faerie Macabre, each of which performed well enough at the event to make Day 2.

Since R&D was intentionally careful about cards that could go into tournament Faerie and Reveillark-combo decks in Shadowmoor, those decks intentionally have very few Shadowmoor cards added to them. Since those decks would be a part of the Standard metagame, but not have Shadowmoor in them, that could potentially reduce the number of Shadowmoor cards appearing at the Pro Tour as well.

Shadowmoor in Standard

The good news is that despite these four challenges all saying that Shadowmoor might not show up much at all at Pro Tour-Hollywood, the fifteen red cards making Day 2 of the Pro Tour bear witness to the fact that Shadowmoor made a significant impact after all. There are certainly some decks that show little to no Shadowmoor, balanced out by other decks that show lots of Shadowmoor.

Paul Cheon and Luis Scott-Vargas's green-white fatty "Hammertime" deck propelled both of them into Day 2 on the back of eleven maindeck Shadowmoor cards each, with six more in the sideboard.

Cursecatcher Antoine Ruel, Olivier Ruel, and Guillaume Wafo-Tapa all vaulted into Day 2 with Quick 'n Toast's sixteen maindeck Shadowmoor cards.

The Merfolk decks that were successful all added Shadowmoor's Cursecatcher as a quality one-drop that counters otherwise problematic Sulfurous Blasts and Cryptic Commands and makes the whole deck better. Cursecatcher now has the pedigree to back up its good press, with sixty different maindeck Cursecatchers all making Day 2 of the Pro Tour.

That means that fifteen decks with 4 Cursecatchers each played on Day 2 of the Pro Tour, but Kitchen Finks blows away even that popularity with fifty-one different Day 2 decks at the Pro Tour all playing the Shadowmoor superstar. I don't have room to discuss every Shadowmoor card that appeared, but I wanted to give a special nod to Eloi Pattaro for winning his way into Day 2 with this innovative Wilt-Leaf Liege deck:

[Deck: "Eloi Pattaro Wilt Leaf Liege"]

What Pro Tour–Hollywood Says about Standard

Overall, I have to admit I was pretty thrilled with what I saw. The Top 8 shows Standard is at a high point in diversity and players' ability to choose to play whatever style they want. There were six different deck types in the Top 8:

  • Two black-green Elves
  • One white-blue Merfolk
  • One red-green Big Mana
  • Two white-blue-red Reveillark
  • One green-white-black Doran
  • One blue-black Faeries.

All deck speeds are represented there, with aggro weenies, midrange fatties, board control decks, creature decks with an infinite combo built-in, and Faeries being somewhere between an aggro-control deck and a true control counterspell deck. The point is: Whatever style of Magic you enjoying playing, it is available to you right now, and it's powerful enough to make the Top 8 of the Pro Tour. And the Day 2 field shows even more diversity, with over a dozen distinct deck types proving they can be successful.

Four white decks, four blue decks, four black decks, three red decks, and four green decks is incredibly even and balanced between the colors, almost bizarrely so. Again, the point is: Whatever colors you enjoy playing in Magic, they are available to you right now and they are powerful enough to win in a variety of different ways. The red elements of Reveillark decks are certainly quite small, so I'm glad that a ton of mono-red aggro burn decks and red-green decks also showed a lot of success on Day 2, buoyed by those fifteen red cards from Shadowmoor that all won their way into Day 2.

I'm also very happy to see that while these decks have a lot of features, capabilities, and angles of attack, Standard right now revolves around creatures attacking and blocking, backed up by powerful spells like Profane Command, powerful support elements like Sygg, River Guide, and powerful engines like Reveillark.

I'm glad that the Pro Tour showed that the "answers" I wrote about R&D seeding into the sets a couple of weeks ago , from Faerie Macabre against Reveillark to aggro backed up by Cloudthresher, Squall Line, Sulfurous Blast, and/or Firespout against Faeries really worked out. Players discovered these answers, used them successfully to win those matchups, and made it into Day 2 and the Top 8. Going into the event, everyone was wondering if Faeries were beatable, and the Pro Tour has demonstrated resoundingly that they are quite beatable.

For many years-long stretches of its history, Standard Magic has included tons and tons of decks that play nothing on the board for several turns, then randomly combine a bunch of spells and a Yawgmoth's Bargain, a Time Spiral (the card, not the set), a Cadaverous Bloom, or a Dragonstorm and kill the opponent. Or play out Stasis, Tangle Wire, Opposition, or Winter Orb / Icy Manipulator to lock down the opponent and prevent them from playing any spells for the rest of the game. Those elements all have a place in Magic, especially "infinite" combos, and I respect them, but they don't need to be the prime focus of what tournament Magic is about, as they have been several times in the past.

I like that this Top 8 definitely includes several archetypes beyond beatdown and fatties, including true control decks, board control decks, aggro-control elements and infinite combos, but that all of these decks used creatures, attacking, and blocking to accomplish their objectives. Contrast those to a Stasis, Time Spiral (the card, not the set), or Winter Orb / Icy Manipulator deck which really don't need to use creatures at all, and are hideously uninteractive with the opponent, and thus often unfun.

In the past, jaded Magic players have often uttered blanket statements like "That card sucks, because people never block in Constructed." Or even "That card sucks, because creatures aren't good in Constructed." Whether you go over to Friday Night Magic tonight, or if you get a chance to look at the Pro Tour–Hollywood coverage, I guarantee you will see plenty of creatures, plenty of attacking, and plenty of blocking, even in the control and combo decks.

And when I compare that to Dragonstorm Standard or Winter Orb Standard or Stasis Standard, it is very obvious to me that Pro Tour–Hollywood shows Standard to be in a fun, healthy, interactive place. And that really gets me psyched up, since making Standard fun, healthy and interactive is a lot of what Magic Development's job is all about.

Now allow me to introduce Magic Developer and Pro Tour Winner Mike Turian to discuss the recent Vintage format restrictions.

Mike Turian
Mike Turian

The DCI is continually looking to do what is best for the health of the Vintage format.

The combination of Flash with only a few cards, leads to too many turn zero and turn one kills. The speed and ease of these Flash combos led to Flash being added to the Restricted list.

Merchant Scroll, Brainstorm and Ponder have all been added to the restricted list. Merchant Scroll tutors for the most powerful cards. Likewise the access power of Brainstorm and Ponder make finding the powerful restricted cards in a deck too easy.

Gush returns to the restricted list. Last year, we removed four cards from the Vintage Restricted list. Of those cards only Gush has proven problematic as a free card-drawing instant.

2008 Vintage Championship

This year's Magic Weekend in Chicago will host more than just the U.S. National Championship. It will also be the site of this year's Vintage Championship as well as other Vintage and Legacy events throughout the weekend. The winner of the championship will take home the 2008 Vintage trophy, an oversized alternate-art Mox Ruby:

Set your sights on this Vintage prize

Last Week's Poll

Which of these is most annoying?
Counterspells 3759 25.4%
Land destruction 3272 22.1%
Story Circle, Teferi's Moat, and/or Worship 2299 15.5%
Too much shuffling 1418 9.6%
Combo decks 1036 7.0%
All my creatures getting killed 912 6.2%
Discard 654 4.4%
Bounce 606 4.1%
Aggro beatdown 511 3.4%
Recursion 360 2.4%
Total 14827 100.0%

Wow, I think over fourteen thousand poll votes is my new record. Especially since we get way more page views than we get poll votes. Looks like the "Which is most annoying?" poll really hit a chord. I asked a lot of other Magic designers and developers to predict the results of this poll, and they all correctly guessed that Counterspells would win the "most annoying" championship. Counterspells can be a lot of fun to play, and they're an important part of Magic, but they can be incredibly frustrating to fight through. R&D has long been aware of many people's annoyance with counterspells, creating a long history of anti-counterspell cards from Red Elemental Blast to City of Solitude to Scragnoth to Choke to Gaea's Herald all the way to today's Guttural Response and Vexing Shusher.

Land destruction is the runner-up in the "most annoying" race because it's also a "you can't play your spells!" mechanic. Just like getting all your spells countered is really annoying, having all your spells sit in your hand while Sinkhole and Strip Mine or a parade of Avalanche Riders smash every land you play is pretty damn annoying to people as well. While Story Circle and Worship don't say, "You can't play your spells," they do threaten to say, "None of your spells matter," which itself can be really annoying. The choice that ranked higher than I predicted was "Too much shuffling." As one onlooker said, "With land destruction, at least one person is having fun. With excessive shuffling, everybody's just bored." Many are the cards that have been killed in design or in development because they would have promoted excessive shuffling!

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