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The Future of Brawl

Posted in News on May 10, 2018

By Gavin Verhey

When Gavin Verhey was eleven, he dreamt of a job making Magic cards—and now as a Magic designer, he's living his dream! Gavin has been writing about Magic since 2005.

Wow.

If I had to sum up the reaction Brawl has received since I introduced it back at the end of March, that's the one word I would use. You all have blown me away with the amount of play, discussion, and feedback generated around the format in such a small amount of time. Every time I see a tweet or post showing off a Brawl deck or game state, I can't help but smile at seeing this format being played and adopted worldwide.

Brawl was something new for us. When I announced it, we had no idea how it would be received. And we've heard you loud and clear—many of you have taken a liking to Brawl. And, of course, plenty of you have great thoughts and suggestions as well.

As I discussed last week, we really are in the feedback era. And in the article where we launched Brawl, I made sure to mention that we're listening. We're interested in making changes. Anything is on the table.

So, we took a deep look at the format inside R&D. We heard your feedback. And we convened several times to discuss the direction we wanted to take Brawl. This plucky little experiment has grown into a full-fledged format—and we wanted to create a vision going forward.

Today, I'm going to be sharing that vision with you and letting you know about some changes to Brawl as well.

Ready? Let's kick it off!

Having a Brawl

When Brawl was conceived and brought to us, it was a multiplayer format. This is how we tested it and played it.

And that is how so many of you have played it. I've been sent so many pictures of people around game tables, brawling as a group. It's awesome! I love multiplayer Brawl. It totally taps into that great social, relaxed, and more casual multiplayer vibe—while being accessible to people with a smaller card pool.

At Grand Prix Seattle, I and a few other Wizards had a table at which players could try Brawl. One of the coolest things was having people come up on Friday and try the format with our decks, then seeing them come back a day or two later, exclaiming "Okay, I had so much fun that I've built my own deck now. Let's play!" This happened over and over again; playing really is believing.

There wasn't really a unified way to play casual multiplayer Standard beforehand. Now I've seen many newer players take flight with Brawl, letting them play with their friends who have much deeper card pools and have a blast.

That was what we expected. However, there was something else we weren’t as sure would resonate with players that took off as well: one-on-one Brawl.

One-on-one Brawl quickly grabbed people's attention. Tons of players have taken a shine to it, all the way from newer players who prefer one-on-one over multiplayer, to experienced players who enjoy Constructed but don't have all the cards they need for Standard, to drafters who have built up a stockpile of Standard cards.

And it even captured imaginations all the way to the top. Top Magic writers and streamers like Sam Black, Andrea Mengucci, and Gaby Spartz were showing off the format. A fun personal anecdote is that I went to a local party the weekend that Brawl launched—and walked in to find Gerry Thompson locked in combat, piloting his own Brawl deck in a one-on-one game amidst a table of several other players, ranging from newer to older, all trying Brawl.

I've played one-on-one and found it to be plenty of fun, too! It is certainly appealing: it's easy to construct decks for, and you get to innovate with a wide range of cards thanks to singleton card choices, plus all the deck-building fun of building around a legendary character.

The fact that this format has such a wide range of audiences, for not only multiplayer but also one-on-one, has been amazing to see. It's grown even further than we anticipated.

Brawl Philosophy

Seeing all of this, inside R&D we put together a list of goals and tenets for what this format should be. After listening to the tons and tons of feedback, we wanted to distill it down into what we felt was important. Today, I'd like to share this with you.

Before I list these, I think it's important to note that this does embody our current direction—but that's not to say this is unalterable. As this format continues to evolve, if we receive overwhelming feedback in one direction or another, we are open to reevaluating pieces of this philosophy. But as guideposts toward the direction we most want to take today, this is where we stand.

Here are our five guiding philosophies for Brawl.

  1. Brawl Has Two Important Audiences

As I discussed above, we've seen Brawl evolve from a multiplayer-focused format to a format that encompasses two ways to play: multiplayer and one-on-one. They are both important to us, and we plan to support both of them.

There are lots of great ways we can provide tools for both groups. As we continue to look toward things we may want to do to support the format, we are keeping both groups' needs in mind—and while I can't quite say what those things are yet, know that they are in the works. For examples of existing things, however, making sure that Magic Online keeps and supports its one-on-one Brawl queues and Leagues is important, as is making tweaks to that format for game balance (more on that below).

However, in cases where the needs of the two formats are at odds, multiplayer should win out. This is not to say multiplayer always takes precedence: for example, if a legendary creature is far too strong in one-on-one but not an issue in multiplayer, it is still likely correct to ban that card. If something is vastly better for one of the two play methods and only slightly worse for the other, the needs of the vastly better should win. But if there is a decision where the two different kinds of play have competing needs, multiplayer will generally end up ahead.

Why? Because one of the most important parts of this format existing is that it creates that casual, relaxed multiplayer format for the Standard card pool. Especially for new or recently returning players, having a format that gives utility to a wide variety of easily accessible cards is hugely important. Magic has been missing an easy way to start playing socially with friends. We believe Brawl fills that hole and we don't want to compromise that.

But really, with all of that said, we see these less as two distinct ways to play and more as simply one unified format: Brawl. You can have a Brawl deck and play it in multiplayer or one-on-one. And yes, decks optimized to play in multiplayer will do better there, and decks optimized for one-on-one will do better there—but they are compatible. Importantly, these are not different formats.

Which brings us to the second point of our philosophy.

  1. Don't Fracture Brawl

Imagine this scenario.

You walk into your game store. You ask if anybody wants to play Brawl. Two other people say yes!

You sit down to play. However, after the first two turns it quickly becomes apparent you've all built decks under very different rules! You have a Standard Brawl deck. Someone else has a Modern Brawl deck. Somebody else is playing their Invasion block Brawl deck. And, suddenly, there's a huge "language barrier." Brawl means something very different to each of you. You're not playing the same format.

When I say "Brawl," it's important to know what format I mean. When I say "Modern" or "Commander," the vast majority of players pretty much know what I mean. (Yes, in Commander there is a difference between one-on-one and multiplayer, but a wide swath of people will mean the multiplayer format, and Commander has also existed for long enough that it can support two varieties.)

Especially this early into Brawl, splitting it into several different formats and legalities is very dangerous: if you fracture it, you start running into incompatibility issues, and then people can't find critical mass to play. If one person brings Standard, one brings Modern, and one brings Invasion block, that's not really compatible, whereas if all three had brought the same format, it would be.

It's deeply important to create the feel that "your deck always works" no matter where you go—much like Commander (one-on-one-specific decks aside) goes. This is a huge part of what makes these types of formats hum. And while supporting both multiplayer and one-on-one creates a minor fracture, your deck is playable in both, and a deck built for one can easily shuffle up and play the other.

So, how might this practically be applied?

Well, one way is in terms of banned lists. We are not interested in banning a card just for one-on-one play and letting it still be legal in multiplayer, or vice versa. That means that if you have your deck and a different number of people want to play than you have prepared for, you just can't do it.

It is important to note that we do have some flexibility here when it comes to tweaks that do not alter the rules for playing the game. Changing the starting life total only for one-on-one play and leaving multiplayer as-is, for example, is something we are okay with. Your decks are still fully compatible even though the parameters have changed. And yes, some decks would be weakened—any kind of quick, aggressive deck playing multiplayer, for example—but you can still play them together and have a reasonable game. And, most importantly, you can sit down and still play your deck in a format the players have a shared understanding of.

The place where this has been perhaps most discussed is surrounding the format legality for your cards. So, let's get into the third philosophy here.

  1. Brawl Uses a Standard Card Pool

Out of all the elements of Brawl, this has perhaps been the most discussed. And it has been wonderful following all sides of the discussion and seeing what has leapt out of it.

So many great ideas have been pitched. Watching people who have played multiplayer formats like Commander for years discuss variations on how the rotation could work and the kinds of decks they would allow for has really caused us to talk and question our goals for the format. What is the right path to take here?

And it is a tricky needle to thread. After all, people will build up Brawl decks and then have pieces rotate. Casual formats don't normally rotate, and this is a possible exit point. By the same token, if cards continue to pile up in the format, then it loses a lot of its identity as an easy entry point for new players and drafters. Over time, you end up with just another format with a huge card pool like Commander.

There are halfway mediums between the two as well. For example, allowing any deck that would have ever been Brawl legal to be playable. However, this means that the sets with more power would still crowd out the options from groups of sets that aren't as strong. You could allow for people to use any legendary commander from throughout Magic, and then a Standard-legal card pool, but then you are likely to see the same powerful commanders, wielding power far outside of the Standard card pool, again and again.

Additionally, we've received tons and tons of feedback from players grateful that there is a casual format they found it easy to build decks for. And, crucially, those players expressed thanks that they could use what they already had without feeling they needed to compete against the weight of many other older cards. There are plenty of people who do feel this way, and their opinions are also important.

Ultimately, after listening to tons of player feedback on every axis, we have decided to keep the format Standard. The Standard power level; the ability for new players, drafters, and people with small collections to enter with less friction; and the Standard rotation to keep the format fresh are all elements we are excited to see play out with Brawl.

With all of this said, I know this is a popular discussion point and something there are many strong feelings about. We want to keep monitoring people's reactions and some of the other exploring players are doing. We will continue to learn a lot about how important having that fresh format is, especially once the rotation happens with Spaghetti this fall. But for now, we intend to keep the format Standard and continue to watch.

  1. Protect What Makes Brawl Fun

It's easy to forget something very simple in all this discussion about the future of the format: Brawl is fun! That's the reason why we're looking at this at all. It was important to make this a part of our philosophy so that we didn't lose sight of this piece of the puzzle.

Some of Brawl's most fun pieces are:

  • The varied singleton nature! It's great to play games and draw really different mixes of cards each time.
  • Building around a character. This is something that traditional Standard doesn't offer, and it's really interesting to know you will always have access to a particular card—but that the rest of your deck will be quite varied. There are so many decks where you can say, "This deck would be great if I drew [certain card] every game," and Brawl lets you do that! Plus, it's the only format that lets you use a planeswalker as your commander.
  • The ability to use cards you wouldn't otherwise use in Constructed. Standard is fun, but often boils down to very similar decklists, with many cards shared between them. Brawl's singleton rules paired with color identity restrictions mean that you can put a bunch of cards in your deck that would never make a normal Standard deck. It's fun to get to play with them!
  • The format is accessible. It's pretty easy to put together a Brawl deck and start playing, without needing tons of playsets. If you are someone who drafts a lot, assembling a Brawl deck is much easier.

That's not everything, of course, but those are a few important key elements. And as we continue to move forward, we will always to make decisions that support the aspects that make Brawl awesome rather than those that might harm it. (As just an example, if we made Brawl let you have two copies of any given card, that would hinder some of its singleton fun.)

And last, but certainly not least, and something near and dear to my heart . . .

  1. Brawl Should Receive Wizards' Support

When we launched Brawl, we just put it out there into the world with the rules and the promise of some Magic Online events. We had built a car, and we gently nudged it forward. We needed your help to keep the car moving.

Over the past couple months, that initial push coupled with your help has sent the car zooming ahead at top speeds. Which is awesome! It also means we should be supporting it however we can.

I have received many requests, ranging from promos, to having special Brawl events, to preconstructed Brawl decks, to making regular banned and restricted announcements, and more! And while I can't say too much about where we have ended up quite yet, I want to let you know these discussions are happening.

One thing I can tell you is that it has caused R&D to look ahead to upcoming sets and try to make sure we have exciting Brawl legendary creatures and planeswalkers coming up, and that there is a good spread of colors across them. The fact that some colors currently don't have Brawl commanders (well, Jodah aside), whereas some combinations like red-green-white and blue-black-red have multiples, is feedback we've heard loud and clear. We want to try and make sure there is always an option available for every two-color combination, and work toward having many, if not all, three-color options available. (Which, for you folks, mostly just means having sweet legends around.)

All these things take time, but they are on our radar.

All right. There's the philosophy. So what does that actually mean?

Well, it's time to make a few changes.

Incoming Colorless

The first change, from a structural perspective (and very much geared toward Brawl's uniquely fun elements), has to do with playing colorless commanders. I've heard feedback from many players over the past couple months wishing that they could more easily play a colorless commander like Hope of Ghirapur.

Okay, okay. And Karn, Scion of Urza.

Anyway, with the current land mix in Standard, it's not really feasible to do so because you can't use any lands in your deck that have colored mana symbols . . . including basic lands! Building with those commanders is definitely something we would like players to be able to do.

We talked over the options, and decided on the following rules change: if you have a colorless commander, you can play any one type of basic land in your deck.

This lets people easily make decks with cards they have. We talked about options such as making Wastes legal, but that has its own oddities because they are not legal in regular Standard—and people would have to go and acquire a bunch of Oath of the Gatewatch cards, which will become harder as time goes on. We felt this was a clean solution, something we could easily implement in Magic Online and the direction we wanted to go.

Here's the more technical version of this, courtesy of Matt Tabak:

  • If your commander has no colored mana symbols in its mana cost or rules text, you may choose one of the five basic lands (Plains, Island, Swamp, Mountain, or Forest). Your deck may include as many of that chosen basic land as you want.
  • As an example, your Karn, Scion of Urza Brawl deck can include 20 Plains or 20 Forests, but it can't include both Plains and Forests.
  • The other cards in your deck, including whatever nonbasic lands you want to play with, are all still subject to the original rule: "Cards in your deck can't include any colored mana symbols in mana costs or rules text that aren't found in the mana cost or rules text of the deck's commander."

Start building up your Karn decks today!

Play Designing Brawl

With this format becoming more popular and being adopted by players all over the world, I talked with Play Design to help make sure they had their eyes on it. This relatively new group makes the intricacies of Magic formats better and does a great job keeping a finger on the pulse of the format—and fortunately, several members of that team are Brawl fans!

I asked the team to dig into the format, and after plenty of discussion and investigation, they came back with some thoughts and changes. Here's Ian Duke, letting you know about some changes to Brawl, as well as what they have an eye on.

Ian, take it away!


Brawl Banned and Restricted Changes

Play Design and other R&D groups have been closely monitoring the evolution of the new Brawl format. While we're thrilled with the excitement with which players have adopted the format, it's become clear that some balance changes are necessary to make Brawl as fun as it can be.

Before we jump into today's changes, I want to reiterate what Gavin has said: R&D views Brawl as a format for many different types of play. Multiplayer and one-on-one Brawl are different ways of enjoying the game, and either can be played casually or competitively. In looking at balance changes for Brawl, we considered each of these ways to play and listened to a wide variety of player feedback.

That acknowledged, R&D does feel that having unified rules for Brawl deck construction is important. The difficulty of asking players to internalize different card legality lists and having decks be incompatible between multiplayer, one-on-one, casual, and competitive games outweighs the upsides. Regardless, today's balance changes are ones that we wanted to make across the board. Going forward, we'll keep card legality consistent for all ways to play Brawl.

The first change is that we've separated the Brawl banned list from the Standard banned list. While Brawl will still draw its card pool from Standard-legal sets, individual card bans will not be the same for the two formats. This allows us to address balance changes independently, tailored to the rules and metagame of each format.

Unbanned: Aetherworks Marvel, Felidar Guardian, Attune with Aether, Rogue Refiner, Rampaging Ferocidon, and Ramunap Ruins

  • Aetherworks Marvel
  • Felidar Guardian
  • Attune with Aether
  • Rogue Refiner
  • Rampaging Ferocidon
  • Ramunap Ruins

We've removed several of the cards on the Standard banned list from the Brawl banned list. Because of its singleton nature, we believe these cards will be less problematic in the Brawl environment. Part of what made these cards so powerful in Standard was the ability to play multiple copies and build highly efficient, consistent decks around them.

We considered leaving Felidar Guardian banned because of its game-winning combination with Saheeli Rai. Ultimately, with access to a maximum of one copy of each card and only when using specific commanders, we predict that overall Felidar Guardian will add more fun and variety to the format through its other interactions than the Felidar Guardian–Saheeli Rai combo subtracts.

Absent from this list of unbanned cards is Smuggler's Copter. As it is colorless and easy to crew, we anticipate that most decks would play Smuggler's Copter if it were unbanned. Because Smuggler's Copter has a low mana cost, is difficult to block, and both applies life-total pressure and impacts card flow, too many games would be decided simply by which player drew their single copy. This is especially problematic when efficient answers to Smuggler's Copter are also limited to one copy per deck. Because of its likely ubiquity and potential to make many games play out the same way, we've decided that Smuggler's Copter should remain on the Brawl banned list.

Banned: Baral, Chief of Compliance and Sorcerous Spyglass

Baral, Chief of Compliance is both the most popular and most winning Brawl commander in Magic Online one-on-one play. Over the initial weeks, Baral decks constituted more than 35% of the metagame and achieved a nearly 65% win rate. In the two most recent Magic Online one-on-one Brawl Challenges, the majority of the Top 32 decks used Baral as a commander (24 decks, then 23 decks, respectively).

In addition, we've heard feedback from players that the counterspell-heavy play pattern Baral encourages detracts from what they enjoy about the format, effectively nullifying many deck-building choices at too efficient of a rate. This feedback came from both one-on-one and multiplayer Brawl enthusiasts alike. As a result of both metagame data and player feedback, Baral, Chief of Compliance is banned in Brawl.

We considered banning Baral as a commander but allowing him to be included in the main deck. However, controlling blue decks using other commanders are already among the other most powerful strategies. Given the data we have on how overwhelmingly powerful Baral is as a commander, the games where he is drawn naturally from the main deck are also likely to favor the Baral player in an extreme fashion. So, we've decided to ban Baral both as a commander and as a main-deck card. In the future we'll consider the option of banning problematic commanders but leaving them legal for main-deck play, but we'll weigh this against the value of keeping deck construction rules simple to understand and remember.

The second card to be added to the banned list today is Sorcerous Spyglass. This decision is driven more by player feedback and the spirit of the format than by one-on-one metagame data. Sorcerous Spyglass's low colorless mana cost has made it a ubiquitous and disliked card, especially in multiplayer. One of the unique and beloved features of Brawl is the ability to use a planeswalker as a commander. Sorcerous Spyglass provides an efficient way for any deck to shut down planeswalker commanders, often before they even hit the battlefield.

Along these lines, we also considered Gideon's Intervention and The Immortal Sun as potential bans due to their ability to lock out certain commanders. However, these cards cost considerably more mana, to the point where opponents can be expected to have found a way to remove or prevent them, or to punish the player casting them with a powerful play of their own. The fact that Gideon's Intervention is white also greatly reduces its frequency of play compared to Sorcerous Spyglass. We'll continue to listen to community feedback regarding these cards and others that can invalidate commanders.

Starting Life Total Change (One-on-One Only)

As the final balance change we're announcing today, the starting life total for one-on-one Brawl games will now be 20 life, lining up with one-on-one Standard play. We understand this could be a controversial change, so let's dig in to the reasoning.

In researching the Magic Online one-on-one metagame, we've observed that many of the strongest strategies use the cushion of a higher starting life total to spend early turns drawing cards and filtering through their library. This extra life also allows controlling decks to skimp on anti-aggro countermeasures and instead focus on the late game.

Since cards in Standard are balanced around one-on-one play starting at 20 life and seven cards in hand, a higher starting life total fundamentally favors these controlling decks that focus on drawing cards and removing or countering the opponent's threats. We've concluded that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve long-term strategic diversity and balance through individual card bans alone so long as one-on-one Brawl maintains a much higher starting life total.

For some players, part of the appeal of a format like Brawl is that games are slower paced and more varied, and that splashy late-game cards are stronger. We agree! Singleton deck building already pushes the metagame in those directions. The problem we see is that extra starting life on top of that favors blue control decks too heavily. Overall, this is to the detriment of slower non-blue decks that don't have access to efficient card draw and counterspells. What we're aiming to achieve with this change is games that are slower paced and more varied than traditional Standard games, without making pure control always the dominant strategy.

This marks a large change to the one-on-one Brawl format that no doubt will have far reaching effects on the metagame. We'll continue to monitor gameplay data and player feedback. At this point, we believe aligning starting life totals with Standard play best sets up one-on-one Brawl for long-term health.

Future Plans

With Brawl being a brand-new format, we anticipate needing to make early balance changes at a more frequent pace. Much of this process will be R&D listening to player feedback and coming to understand what aspects of the format are most important to preserve and how players value having a wider card pool (fewer banned cards) against a more curated gameplay experience (fewer unfun cards in the environment and a more balanced one-on-one metagame). Our ultimate goal is a fun environment that serves the players who enjoy it, and we're happy to draw that line differently than we do for formats that support competitive tournament environments.

We're deeply interested in player feedback on this topic, so please continue to share your thoughts through social media. We'll aim to give an update on our plans in the coming weeks.


Thanks, Ian! Having Play Design really dig into this format has been hugely useful.

This is just one example illustrating that when I say "Brawl should have Wizards' support," we really mean it. We are putting time and resources into the format to try and make it as great as possible. As Ian notes, look for more from Play Design on Brawl in the future.

Going Forward

That is a lot of information in one place—and I hope you found this look at our philosophy useful and are excited about the changes coming to Brawl!

Now, for some dates.

All of these changes are effective in paper play immediately! So to recap, starting right now:

It's going to take a little bit of time to make sure we implement it right into Magic Online, but we wanted to get these changes out to you as soon as possible to let you know we're looking at and really do care about the format.

The bannings and unbannings, as well as the changes to starting life total for one-on-one play, will go into effect on Magic Online beginning on May 30. In the meantime, continuing to run events in a format that is undergoing major upcoming changes doesn't make a lot of sense, and we didn't want to offer a play experience we all agreed needed improvement for a long duration. So until Magic Online is able to implement these changes with that downtime, we'll be temporarily suspending Brawl League play and one-on-one queues on May 16, as well as the weekly Brawl Challenges including the one previously scheduled for this weekend. Of course, during this time you can still play multiplayer Brawl on Magic Online. (And, by extension, casual one-on-one Brawl.)

The change allowing for you to play the basic land of your choice if you're playing with a colorless commander is going to take a bit more time to implement, and so expect those changes to appear in the Core Set 2019 update.

I hope you're as excited for this new and updated world of Brawl as I am! We also launched a Brawl survey today, with the goal of capturing as much data as possible. Please take it—we would love to get your perspective. You can find the survey here.

Keeping everything from this article in mind, I will reiterate what I said in my introductory article, as well as what I have said here many times: Brawl is still changing and evolving. We are going to keep watching the format, reading all of your feedback, and making changes.

What do you think? Anything in this article you have questions about? Any changes you like or dislike? Please, let me know! Reach out to me on Twitter, on Tumblr, or by sending me an email at BeyondBasicsMagic@gmail.com and I'll be sure to read it.

Thank you again for all your incredible feedback and support as we roll this format out! This whole process with your feedback, thoughts, gameplay discussions, and ideas has been a great reminder of how wonderful the Magic community is. I can't wait to see where Brawl goes from here.

Here's to the future of Brawl!

Gavin
@GavinVerhey
GavInsight

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