A Future for FFL Articles

Posted in Latest Developments on May 30, 2003

By Randy Buehler

Last week I wrote an article examining a zombie deck that I ran in the FFL a year ago. The e-mails I got on the subject were interestingly split - many of you really liked the article, but there were several of you who complained that I was spoiling some of your fun by building the deck for you. (Others took this opportunity to complain that R&D is "pre-building" too many decks, in general.) The message board thread was generally pretty positive, but I was not sure what to expect when I checked out the results of my poll:

Would you like to see more articles that
showcase a deck from the FFL in the future?
Yes 6388 85.7%
No 1063 14.3%
Total 7451 100.0%

That's pretty lopsided. I am still sympathetic to those of you who would rather have the opportunity to try your own hand at building a deck before I show you what we did, but you do appear to be outnumbered by quite a bit.

Since this week is soldier week and you guys seem to want more FFL content, my first thought was that I would look at some of the white weenie decks that we were running last year. However, I got so many interesting questions about the FFL in my e-mail this week that I think I would rather answer them and clarify some things about what the FFL tries to do and what it doesn't. So this article may not fit perfectly into "Soldier Week," but it at least it was inspired by thinking about soldier decks, honest.

Here's a pretty typical e-mail:


I loved the behind-the-scenes development articles such as FFL. My question is the UG madness decks that have been tier 1 since Judgement came out. Did the future future league put together a similar deck and consider it tier 1 quality? (Wow, a good deck with no rares!!)

Also, how many tier 1 or tier 2 decks does the FFL actually get correctly a year before anyone else sees the cards (not an exact number, just a rough feel)? I heard that the Wizards staff underrated the power of Upheaval, does this mean that the upheaval + tog/infestation combo was missed by FFL?

Peter T
Bellingham, WA

One thing I should say right up front is that our goal is not to figure out exactly which deck is the best deck. Instead, our goal is to try to identify which decks are actually good enough to play in serious tournaments, and then make sure nothing bad is going on with any of them. If we can identify the ten or so archetypes that make up the bulk of tier one and tier two, and they're all reasonably interesting decks to play (with no brokenly powerful cards or degenerate combos) then we're pretty happy. We don't actually care which one of them is the best as long as none of them are too good.

People often ask me what deck was the best deck in the FFL and I never have a good answer because that's not how we think about things. It takes a lot of time to fine-tune a good deck and I know from my playing days that those last crucial decisions (and those couple of cards that you use to react to a trend in the metagame) are often the difference between a Tier 1 deck and an also-ran. In the FFL, however, where we don't care so much about differentiating Tier 1 decks from Tier 2 decks, and where we never have to choose which one deck to run in some big tournament; we never do that fine-tuning. All we try to do is identify the important features of the environment and gain a rough understanding of the probable metagame (or possible metagames). Anyway, among the ramifications of this approach is that those of you who are worried that by giving away our decklists I am "solving" the metagame really don't need to worry. We'd be the first ones to tell you that if we were preparing to run these decks in tournaments, they would need a lot more work.

Hopefully all of this philosophy will help you understand my answer to the original question: How good are we? Specifically, how often do we identify the best decks ahead of time and how often are we taken by surprise?

I'm pretty happy with our performance overall. We tend to identify most of the important archetypes ahead of time and so if you look at the FFL on the level of deck-types, our metagame usually looks pretty good. For example, we were running red-green and blue-green Madness decks. We were running blue-black control decks with various versions of Psychatog. We were running goblin decks, elf decks, and beast decks. We also experimented with several variations of decks based on Mirari's Wake (and moved it up to 5-mana based on our playtesting).

Of course, we also spent a lot of time running a wizard deck. A lot of FFLers spent a lot of time locked up by Patron Wizard and that's the real reason why so many of the wizards in the Onslaught block are so bad - we kept nerfing them based on our experience with that deck. The FFL wizard deck wasn't very much fun to play against and it also seemed reasonably good (until we nerfed all the other wizards anyway).

Also, if you examine the FFL at the level of individual cards, our track record isn't quite as good. Every set seems to have at least a couple of cards that turn out to be significantly better than we thought they were along with some that are significantly worse than we thought they were. So, for example, we played with Wild Mongrel but I don't think we appreciated quite how insane he is, especially with Madness cards. We also had a red-white cycling deck based on Lightning Rift, but we didn't put Astral Slide into it. And no one ever put Upheaval into a constructed deck. Oops.

All in all I think we do a decent job identifying the relevant forces in Standard even if we're never perfect at the card by card level. And that works out well since our real goal is to make sure there are multiple interesting decks, but we don't care so much about the details of which one is the best.

Another common complaint I've heard about the FFL is that we are making constructed decks too easy to build. That is, some of you think that we print cards specifically to go into one deck and that this policy of ours detracts from your enjoyment of the game. I can certainly see where this impression comes from, since several of our recent mechanics work best when you play a bunch of the cards with that mechanic together. For example, mono-black control decks, elf decks, and cycling decks all work this way. However, this impression is wrong. It's not the case that we try to pre-construct Standard decks for you. Some mechanics will inevitably funnel their power into one good decklist, but we rarely know exactly the best way to take advantage of our mechanics. Like I was explaining in the previous section - our goal is to make sure the cards are interesting without being too good. What you guys do with them after we balance them is up to you.

In addition, I have seen what is coming down the road (in the Mirrodin block) and I know that it was a much harder set for us to playtest because the mechanics do not lend themselves to obvious decks. When playtesting Onslaught, it was fairly easy to just try to pick out all the best goblins, put them into a deck, shuffle it up and see how good it was. (The tribal mechanic in general makes it easier to figure out what the good decks are.) Next year's mechanics, however, are not nearly as straightforward and I suspect the complaints that we are pre-building decks will die down in six months. Like many aspects of Magic, this one ebbs and flows. Different mechanics work in different ways and one of our most important over-arching goals is to make sure things change from year to year. This year's mechanics may lend themselves to obvious decks, but next year the pendulum will swing back in the other direction.

I hope this article has given you a better idea of what we're trying to do when we develop cards for constructed. Mostly we just try to create an environment that will be fun for both deck builders and deck players. That does mean that we have to try to build our own version of the decks that we think will be good, but it doesn't mean we ever know exactly which ones are best or precisely which cards go into them.

Randy may be reached at latestdevelopments@wizards.com.

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