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Remastering Magic: The Formats

Written by Scott Campbell on . Posted in Competitive Magic, Historic, Modern, Pioneer, Standard

Remastering Magic: The Formats

Scott Campbell

Scott Campbell, also known as MTGPackFoils, has played Magic: the Gathering since Revised. He mostly plays Azorius based Control, or Golgari based Midrange decks. He also enjoys MLB, D&D, and is a former DJ.

Hello everyone, and welcome back to Legit MTG. I can’t believe it’s already August! There’s still a lot left to go in 2020, and there are some products coming soon that will be exciting for everyone, even if you just play Magic Arena. One of those is Amonkhet Remastered. This set exclusive to Magic Arena is providing players cards from the sets Amonkhet, and Hour of Devastation, many of which have not been seen since Magic Arena was in Closed Beta. While this will be an exciting time to play cards such as Gideon of the Trials, and Approach of the Second Sun (and believe me when I tell you I can’t wait), it is this release that’s inspired a new series of articles from me that I am titling “Remastering Magic”.

Remastered sets are not a new thing for digital Magic products. When Magic Online started many years ago (2002) it did not have all of the cards previously made available in paper. In order to accomplish this Wizards of the Coast released Masters Sets showcasing played cards for players to add to their collection, and Tempest Remastered gathering cards from Tempest, Stronghold, and Exodus sets respectfully. Seeing this idea brought to Arena is excellent, and I feel with some considerations perhaps we can remaster the game as a whole.

Today I want to take a look at some of the formats. I won’t be addressing Vintage (because it’s fine as is for the purposes of this article), Commander, nor any other singleton format. I also won’t be reviewing Draft or Sealed as those are formats I rarely (if ever) play. I’ll be reviewing Standard, Pioneer, Modern, Historic (to a degree), and Legacy. Without further delay let’s dig in.

Remastering Standard

Before we look at remastering Standard we have to understand what it is. By definition when used as an adjective Standard is “used or accepted as normal or average”. Knowing this will help understand the desire for Wizards of the Coast to have as many people play this format as possible. It is perhaps the most played non-singleton format with Modern perhaps being the most popular. It is here where many players cut their teeth on tournament level Magic playing first at their local stores with friends, and then perhaps at larger events such as MagicFests or at a stop on the SCG Tour. During a player’s time in Standard they may grow their collection to play in other formats, and navigate their way through learning those formats as their interest in the game continues to grow. 

So “what’s wrong” with Standard? While we don’t want to look at this as a “right or wrong” there are opportunities for improvement with the format. Currently the two issues impacting Standard are the increased number of cards banned (6 so far in just 2020 alone), and when the format rotates. 

Fixing the bans

While it is understandable to push card design to entice excitement from the players this constant drive to always provide new cards, while eschewing the player’s need for reprints, has put us in a predicament to become the beta testers for the new cards. While there are not enough people within Wizards of the Coast to properly test every single possible interaction cards will have in a Standard environment, partly as the focus is on Drafting, there have been an increased number of banned cards in the format. Sometimes the cards being banned are truly overpowering for the format, sometimes cards are in strategies that are so powerful that players refuse to find answers to a top deck and choose to play it as well. This only increases the number of these top tier decks in an event leading the viewer to believe those few decks are the only choices for the format. When the number of top decks represented gets close to one this makes for an unsatisfying format regardless of how many cards have been made to answer possible problems, and thus causing Wizards of the Coast to ban a card (or several cards). There is also a boredom factor as well which has been highlighted currently due to the global pandemic. As we move closer to the fall each year people tend to play decks off the radar just for fun until the new fall set arrives, and then we start over looking for the best deck. Due to the lack of paper events at local stores everything is on Magic Arena, and there is less brewing happening there. So how can this be improved?

  1. Design the Core Sets to represent the foundation for the coming year of Magic by having building blocks for the three pillars: Aggro, Combo, and Control.
  2. Each expansion set afterwards should build upon those archetypes continuing to keep things in balance. One season Control may do well, and the next Combo, and so on, without one archetype becoming over dominant.
  3. Mix in reprints when revisiting known mechanics (Landfall, Flashback, Kicker, etc) to call back to a previous era of Magic while introducing an older card to new players to enjoy.

While this is easier said than done I feel a balance can be found by having this focus, and start it with the Core Set release. Why is that important?

Change when rotation happens

As it stands now the Core Set is released after a year’s worth of product for the current Standard. Rotation happened almost a year prior to it’s release, and for something that is supposed to be a “good jumping on point”, and targeted “at new players” it always feels a little late to the party. This is why I suggest we have rotation happen with the Core Set release instead of the fall release.   

What this does is lay that foundation of expectations for the coming year while still combining with the previous year’s worth of cards, and allowing the ebb and flow of Standard to have a more natural beginning as well as an end. Imagine if the sets from Guilds of Ravnica through War of the Spark left Standard when Core Set 2021 was released last month. Wizards of the Coast would not have had to ban the cards today that were banned (Wilderness Reclamation and Teferi, Time Raveler to name a few). We would be reviewing the new format with fresh eyes, and the fall set would be adding to it instead of causing the rotation that is coming soon. Right now with those cards banned we have two months (at most) to really play some powerful Magic with the cards we have now, but if this was changed per my suggestion the problems would have solved themselves, and these next few months would not feel dead. 

The summertime should be exciting, and the key moment to acquire new customers. More people are active, and willing to spend money on new things. Wizards of the Coast, and Hasbro, can capitalize on that by doing these two things for Standard.

Remastering Pioneer

Prior to today if you asked me what I thought about this format I would have told you it was dead. The problems I highlighted above with Standard being drilled down to few possible decks to play were amplified with this format where it was dominated by three combo decks. However with the correction made today by Wizards of the Coast in banning Inverter of Truth, Underworld Breach, Walking Ballista, and Kethis, the Hidden Hand, there may yet be life to this format.

What is the Pioneer format? This format launched late last year was done so as a means for players to play cards that have left Standard without forcing the player to have only Modern as an option. With how far back Modern’s start is (8th Edition and Mirrodin) the more years of Standard that go by the wider that gap is. The further that gap is the more tuned the decks in Modern become leaving little room for new players to explore play beyond Standard. Thus Pioneer was born. It’s starting point is currently Return to Ravnica, and it is that starting point that I want to examine.

The true Origins of the format

While this may seem like a moot point to many if you look at the eras from which cards are played in a format you will notice that they come from specific points in Magic’s history. This is very evident in the Pioneer format. Many players currently playing Standard Magic were not playing when Return to Ravnica was released. We are creatures of habit, and tend to stick with what we know, and are comfortable with. Plus when considering the story, which until the failures of the War of the Spark story were highly applauded among the community, it only makes sense to start the format at Magic: Origins. Doing this solves several issues currently present.

  1. No need to worry about fetchlands being legal or not as they were printed before the format starting point. As it is now they had to immediately ban them upon the announcement of the format. Having a banning on, more or less, day zero is a pretty bad look. Never start something with a negative.
  2. Story, story, story. In Magic Origins we learn of the backstories of our heroes seeing them as Legendary Creatures before they find their spark becoming planeswalkers. Each of these cards in a way felt like choosing a character race and class in Dungeons & Dragons, and then building your deck around them. While the card pool is big enough that we won’t need to do that we can still capture that same feeling by combining these older cards with new releases to create a powerful deck. The story, and design, from cards in Return to Ravnica through Dragons of Tarkir seem to be from a different story altogether.
  3. Uncounterable problems. Cards in Return to Ravnica had the “can not be countered” clause to them, however there was only a cycle of allied colored spells. This cycle was never completed, and it’s possible it was not a favorable design within Magic R&D. While there are incomplete land cycles all across Pioneer (Pain lands, Fast lands, Creature lands, Battle lands, Reveal lands, Bicycle lands, and now Triomes) it is a lot easier to reprint those lands into future sets than find a home for enemy colored uncounterable spells.

With the majority of cards in this format that are being played coming from Magic Origins, or after, it only makes sense where the players like playing. Moving this up will also allow the format to be played on Magic Arena while keeping it distinct from Modern. If cards from as far back as Return to Ravnica are ever added to Magic Arena then we might as well add the next format to Magic Arena as well, or…is that already in the works?

Remastering Modern

As mentioned earlier Modern dates back to 8th Edition, which was released in the summer of 2003. This is when Wizards of the Coast presented a new border to the cards (which was then further updated with Magic 2015). That was a long time ago. Seventeen years ago in fact. So why is this format called Modern? The word in itself when used to describe something means: “relating to the present or recent times as opposed to the remote past”. With the format having nearly two decades worth of cards, why are we using a word that’s similar to the word contemporary to describe something with so much history?

This is where I want to focus, and unlike above there won’t be the need for additional points because the solution is simple: Rename it Historic.

Yes, yes, I know we already have “Historic” on Magic Arena, but take a look at some of the cards that have been added in the Historic Anthology series (sets of cards specific to Magic Arena). Where do they come from?       

Modern.

By making this change (eventually) we can have Modern (renamed Historic), Pioneer, and Standard on Magic Arena and in paper (also called tabletop). By having the paper game mirror the digital game on Arena more players will wind up playing both. Isn’t that the goal? Shouldn’t that be THE goal? Magic Online is old, and antiquated, and while I know there are companies who deal in digital objects on Magic Online that can’t continue indefinitely into the future, can it? The only other recourse would be to come out, and say that there will never (ever) be Modern games on Magic Arena. If that’s the case, and the push for more play on Magic Arena continues, what confidence does that instill in those who play Modern? Making this change would be a win-win.

Remastering Legacy

This now leaves us with Legacy. The only format with the perfect name for what it represents Legacy allows one access to all of the cards in Magic’s history give or take a few cards that have been banned. One glaring problem though that this format faces is the Reserved List. This list, which has been changed many times since it was implemented in 1996, prevents Wizards of the Coast from reprinting much needed cards for players to build Legacy decks. Those cards are mainly lands. Especially the dual lands. 

While this is in play perhaps the only recourse at this time is to ban all cards on the Reserved List. The format continues to see little support from a tournament play perspective, and the longer this continues the lack of new players will be able to enter. Yes you can play the format on Magic Online (and at a cost much more affordable than in paper), but why restrict this to being the only option. Shaking up the format by removing the cards on the Reserved List will not only breathe new life into a format many have thought about leaving (if they haven’t already), but it would allow Wizards of the Coast to print similar cards to keep some archetypes alive. Imagine if a card like Lion’s Eye Diamond was made, and put directly into Legacy, but instead of costing zero to play it cost one generic mana. Give it the same cost to activate as well. It would slot right into Dredge, and be affordable for those who want to play the format. As the years go by Wizards of the Coast will continue to print cards not meant for Standard, and getting Legacy players to open packs is something they want.

The one problem with this is that it could begin to feel like a “Big Modern” as opposed to Legacy, and while that may be a temporary thing the collectibility of cards in the format may be what prevents this idea from gaining any traction.

In Conclusion

Magic: the Gathering is a game that is always changing, and growing. While over the last decade formats such as Commander, Modern, and now Pioneer have been added it does not mean that they are etched in stone. We, collectively, have been able to handle changes to these formats from new cards being added, as well as cards being banned, We can adapt to remastering these formats to better represent what they are as well as reaching new players to the game.

What are your thoughts on how we can improve these formats? Please leave your comments below, and follow me on both Twitter as well as Facebook.

Next Week

I’ll return with one of my all time favorite decks, and a few thoughts on how to play it in some of these formats mentioned above. Stay tuned.

Until then…

TAP MORE MANA!!!

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