Coloring in Lines

Posted in Serious Fun on August 7, 2012

By Adam Styborski

Stybs has played Magic the world over, writing and drafting as part of the event coverage team and slinging Commander everywhere his decks will fit.

Mark Rosewater's oft-repeated mantra—Restrictions breed creativity.—has long since taken a life of its own. The idea is pretty straightforward: The more you confine and limit obvious possibilities, the more moving forward requires discovering the clever and efficient hidden within the boundaries. While designers and developers of games certainly appreciate this type of solution finding, it's players who benefit most.

Have you heard of a competitive format called Standard?

Using cards only from recent sets, with a regular rotation of the new expelling the old, drives one of the most common features of Friday Night Magic. Generally speaking, Standard is pretty fun for those of you who like a little competition with your Magic.

What makes it fun is a fusion of many factors, but I believe it's the restriction that matters most. When you have fewer cards to consider, exploring more of them is easier. While I can't speak to the speed at which the Magic world iterates through the cards, I can say that it's awesome to see slightly more curious options pop up.

Building up in Standard is the purview of guys like Jacob Van Lunen and Mike Flores. I guarantee they're going to have something to say about Standard Week. What I want to speak to here is taking the idea behind Standard, its powerful restriction on cards, and applying it elsewhere.

Jacob Van Lunen | Mike Flores

Standardizing things could be just what you need to jump-start your games.

A Man, a Plan, and a Ban

There's a nefarious way to look at applying restrictions to the cards you can use: banning. Kelly Digges spoke to the idea of banning cards among friends. It's a compelling primer on why it's okay to simply Murder some cards between us.

What today is about is taking that a step further. It isn't about taking a scalpel to something you already love, but an axe to transform it brutally. Taking an axe to something might sound like it can only result in bad things, but Standard is the premier example of the good that comes from it. In a digital example, Pauper is a popular format for Magic Online. Both take the axe to vast swaths of cards, and both are excitingly dynamic.

What this means for the non-competitors among us is that we should look into taking advantage of this for ourselves. Why? For an example, if you play a lot of Commander or general multiplayer (that is, the old school sixty-card build it and bring it way to play), then you might have run into the same thing I have: staleness. Whether you're piling them ninety-nine high or finding the fourth copy you need, some cards just work harder for multiplayer.

Discovering those cards for the first time feels amazing. That's exactly why some of us play the game! But once the unknown unknowns become the known knowns, the luster can vanish quickly. I remember the first time I cast Primeval Titan: I actually giggled. It felt great. And then I cast it again. And again. And began reanimating it. And again. And stealing it. And again. And adding in extra combat steps. And again.

It isn't that Primeval Titan got bad or it suddenly isn't a sweet card to play, it's just that it's something that's now a part of every single game of Commander I play. It isn't only me playing it, but if you're packing green then Primeval Titan is almost assuredly within the ninety-nine you bring. It's a very awesome card, no doubt.

This situation is something that Standard is designed to avoid. Instead of banning individual cards to make things vary more (although bannings can take place if they're truly needed!), the card simply isn't printed in a new set. Eventually, some new block release will kick it out when everything changes. Yes, an amazing card has a chance to shine, but its days are numbered as well. If you don't like that card, you can count down the days until it's gone.

Between you and your friends the idea of cards going away might be entirely alien, and banning just one (good but passé) card creates hard feelings. Like ripping a band aid off in one swift move, banning en masse usually ends up less painful in the end.

Plus there are these cool benefits:

  • Everyone starts building new decks together. You get to explore not just your own things, but the cool things others find too.
  • Overlooked and forgotten cards get to have their day. Whether it's a "fixed" version of an older, more powerful card or a shiny new star that hasn't found a home, different things get to be a starter on the team.
  • Any change that is decided can be undone. Just because everyone decided to try something doesn't mean you have to keep doing that. Updating, altering, and removing the rules you agreed upon keeps the fresh rolling.

Anyone who's created their own format has probably done all of this. Applying a new rule to restrict how decks are built is one tried-and-true way to inspire creativity. That's exactly how things like Commander and Pauper got their start.

If you're wondering why I'm so general, it's because choosing to cut out cards is vague itself. Standard uses the "newest sets only" idea, with a specific point of the year to kick out the oldest. Pauper used the "printed as a common only" principle to invert the usual suspects in decks. What you choose to try is entirely up to your imagination.

But one suggestion I'll share today is applying Modern to Commander.

Gilded Lotus | Art by Martina Pilcerova

A Case Study in Changing

Commander uses almost every card in the game. From the very first cards printed to the promos of this week's Friday Night Magic, Commander is where you can see anything. What you see most often, of course, is much more consistent: Primeval Titan (mentioned above), Sol Ring, Gilded Lotus, Mind's Eye, Rhystic Study, and dozens of others featured everywhere.

While we explored Pauper Commander before, restrictions to formats don't have to be as dramatic. What happens if we apply Modern to Commander? Let's start with an existing deck:

Ghave, Serious Fun of Spores

Download Arena Decklist
Planeswalker (1)
1 Garruk Relentless
100 Cards

This is one of my favorite Commander choices, as it's both the type of deck I do best with and something we all helped create together. While Avacyn Restored and Magic 2013 haven't had a chance to get involved with it, I don't hesitate to pull it out anywhere I'm playing Commander. It's a fine deck, and thanks again for helping make it happen.

For any group out there that seems to have the same Commander decks every week, adjusting the rules can lead to a little more variety (in our unique ninety-nine-card format). Modern Commander is something that can work well for groups with players of wildly varying starting points.

From the deck above, all of the following cards are illegal for Modern:

I can hear the exclamations already. "You're removing the cards from Magic: The Gathering Commander too?" Yeah. They aren't legal in Modern, so they wouldn't be legal in Modern Commander. Awkwardly, that includes our commander of choice.

But once the shock wears off, you can see the deck isn't that different from before. The array of colorful lands, the sacrifice and token themes, and plenty of ways to recycle and convert tokens into useful resources is all still there.

But everything took a little hit removing illegal options:

Cards Purpose
Ghave, Guru of Spores Commander!
High Market; Phyrexian Altar; Vish Kal, Blood Arbiter Sacrifice
Deranged Hermit, Hornet Queen Tokens
Karmic Guide, Oversold Cemetery, Phyrexian Reclamation, Volrath's Stronghold Recursion
Attrition, Martyr's Cause Removal
Grasslands, Krosan Verge, Windswept Heath Fetch lands
Bayou, Command Tower, Savannah, Tainted Field, Tainted Wood, Scrubland Lands that produce more than one color of mana

The easiest way to deal with change is to simply look for one-for-one replacements.

Cards Replacements
Ghave, Guru of Spores Teneb, the Harvester
High Market; Phyrexian Altar; Vish Kal, Blood Arbiter Ghost Council of Orzhova; Miren, the Moaning Well; Phyrexian Vault
Deranged Hermit, Hornet Queen Cloudgoat Ranger, Rhys the Redeemed
Karmic Guide, Oversold Cemetery, Phyrexian Reclamation, Volrath's Stronghold Doomed Necromancer, Dread Return, Golgari Guildmage, Hell's Caretaker
Attrition, Martyr's Cause Plagued Rusalka; Teysa, Orzhov Scion
Grasslands, Krosan Verge, Windswept Heath Armillary Sphere, Evolving Wilds, Terramorphic Expanse
Bayou, Command Tower, Savannah, Tainted Field, Tainted Wood, Scrubland 2 Forest, 1 Plains, Rupture Spire, 2 Swamp

Updating to new cards isn't a catch-all answer for avoiding the staleness issue: Miren, the Moaning Well; Doomed Necromancer; and Teneb, the Harvester are all common features of the tables I play at.

However, it took a little digging to find some options off the radar. Hell's Caretaker is a card I totally forgot about until we went looking for repeatable ways to get creatures back. Golgari Guildmage is both timely and useful here. Cloudgoat Ranger is a great way to make some tokens in a hurry. Plagued Rusalka is not Attrition, but it does let us snipe away annoying little guys with our own.

But not every card can be replaced so easily. There aren't plenty more dual lands to use since we're already using the best eligible ones. A combination of more basic lands and things that seek them out seem like fine alternatives given that we're still loaded with nonbasic options.

Taking out these old, awesome cards hurts. We wouldn't have included them if we didn't like them. But if I were bringing the updated deck to play some Modern Commander, I know I could count on the same experience I enjoy. Changing the requirements on cards doesn't stop you from enjoying what you want, but it does change which cards you're using and why.

Fling | Art by Parente

The Readers Have Spoken

Before I get into this week's request for you, let's look at the results of last week's poll:

Did you enjoy the Krenko Commander deck analysis?
Yes! Please do it again sometime! 1423 59.6%
Yes, but please wait a long time to do it again. 312 13.1%
I didn't really mind one way or another. 306 12.8%
No, but if you did it again I wouldn't mind. 159 6.7%
No! Please don't do this again! 186 7.8%
Total 2386 100.0%

The Krenko, Mob Boss Commander challenge was a smashing success, and many of you loved it. Thanks! Like any first effort, there was also a lot of room for improvement and polish for a repeat. I followed the forum and email responses, and rest assured that when the time comes to try again I'll have a few new tricks up my sleeve. You've been warned!

However, what really stood out from this experience wasn't getting the data but that so many of you were passionate enough to send a deck. So I want to try something similar.

This time, I'm looking for a cool deck. Ideally, this deck is representative of why someone would want to play or build a deck. The catch, of course, is that this deck must be for a format you want to see more players play. Tell me about a cool format you want shared, and show me a deck that's awesome for it. Your format can be something broadly known but currently unpopular, or a new way to play with restrictions that yields some awesome creative options.

The challenge for your deck isn't to be "the best" at winning, but "the best" at supporting a format you love. I can talk for hours about Commander, and it's my go-to option for looking at things. (Unsurprising, I know.) So I want to turn the tables to you, and get the best of the rest from the experts abroad.

To recap:

  • Pick your favorite format you want to have shared with the world (so more of us give it a go, too).
  • Provide the best representative deck that shows off what's awesome about making decks for the format.
  • Send the format, it's rules (as description or a link somewhere else), and the deck to me using the Respond Via Email option below.
  • All emails must be received by midnight Eastern on Wednesday, August 15.

I'll comb through the emails to pull out the coolest things that come through. If you have any questions, just send them through and I'll try to answer them as they come! Good luck and happy building!

Join us next week when things go global. See you then!

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