Assessing the Consequences: What Happens If Stoneforge Mystic is unbanned?

I ramble so here’s the TL:DR: if SFM becomes legal in Modern, expect a rock/paper/scissor meta with Combo>Tron>Control>Combo. This is bad.

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These two cards are best friends forever.

If I had a kitten for every person that suggested SFM be unbanned in Modern, I could serve kitten stew to every player at every GP this year.

 

Please, don’t go Unruly Mob on me. I don’t actually have any delicious kittens…

Stoneforge Mystic spent half of its Standard tenure as a bad rare with potential. Every set has a few cards that are inherently powerful but often never find a home in the format because the right supporting cast does not exist.

SFM then became solid (but far from broken) when she learned to use Swords.

In Mirrodin Besieged Standard, the Mystic tutored up either of these Swords to fit the situation, allowed you to drop the Sword at end of turn, and then provided a small body to wield it if you had no other board presence. This was a big payoff for three installments of 2 mana, but nothing the format could not handle.

Then Batterskull happened.

Alongside her new BFF, SFM became so dominant in Standard that she had to be banned. Instead of three installments of 2 mana, SFM and Batterskull only required you pay two installments, and the payoff was immediate.

Two easy payments of two mana to beat aggressive decks? Where have we seen THAT before?

The ability for the Germ to block an attacker, gaining you life immediately, then to counterattack with vigilance gaining you even more life, meant that aggressive decks in Standard could not defeat SFM without a removal spell.

The recursion effect of Batterskull and the ability to just play its weaker mode (equipping it) ensured that midrange decks could not go over the top of the SFM/Batterskull combination either – just as creature decks usually could not go over the top of Umezawa’s Jitte.

If you had an outstanding removal spell like Go For The Throat or Vapor Snag, you were still miles behind. Usually it was correct to remove the Mystic herself, other times to kill the Germ – but you still needed to kill one of them.

SFM became both a 2 mana creature requiring an immediate answer, and also a source of card advantage. This is a powerful package.

Cards need to present a powerful threat to be even considered in Modern – this is, after all, a format where a Loxodon Smiter, a 4/4 with two big upsides for 1GW, is widely considered unplayable.

But I’ll argue that SFM does too much.

 

What impact would SFM/Batterskull have on Modern?

Firstly, I’ll preface this by saying I could very well be wrong. This is the insight of one person, not an all-seeing mastermind with a time machine. I posted an article last week on how B&R changes could be meaningfully tested and I have performed no such analysis.

No one person can.

I want you to start by putting yourself in the shoes of a pilot running an aggressive deck against an opponent playing SFM/Batterskull. Your opponent went first and played a Hallowed Fountain tapped, and you’ve opened with a high-quality one-drop for your deck (Nactyl, Monastery Swiftspear, or Flameblade Adept if you like your aggro with a side of combo).

Your opponent’s second turn sees them cast SFM and search up Batterskull.

If Batterskull hits the board and survives a turn cycle, your opponent can expect to gain 8 life, and you can expect to lose the game.

Consequentially, you must now spend at least one – maybe two – of your mana on your second turn killing the SFM.

This means you cannot meaningfully advance your own game plan by casting an Eidolon of the Great Revel, or a Goblin Lore, or whatever else your deck is intended to do. Your opponent has presented a threat on turn 2 that you must answer before they untap, or lose the game.

Costs two mana. Wins the game on turn 4 with the right support cast. Doesn’t help you find the support cast. Still causes a minority of players to want something from Storm banned.

Provides a must-kill threat for 2 mana, but when it dies, it hasn’t drawn you a free high impact card. And sometimes, you have the all-ramp, no action hand and the Cobra does nothing.

Sometimes, you will have the right answer on turn 2, the SFM will die, and you will still win the game on turn 4.

What will happen most often is that you will spend enough mana answering this must-kill two-drop, that you lose the aggressive initiative. Your clock slows from turn 4 to turn 5, and that simply isn’t fast enough.

If legal, the SFM-Batterskull duo will serve to push ‘honest’ aggressive decks out of Modern.

Remember, this isn’t a two-card combo like Baral and Gifts Ungiven. This is a one-card combo, because you only need to draw one piece.

Infect and Affinity can still beat an opponent that has absurd ground blockers and gains lots of life, but in SFM world, Burn, Aggro Humans and Zoo are gone.

And do you know which deck is just waiting for aggressive decks to die out?

May I talk to you a moment about Our Lord and Saviour, Karn Liberated?

My bold prediction is that if Stoneforge Mystic is made legal in Modern, the metagame will be pushed in a very negative direction. We will see a metagame where combo beats Tron, Tron beats control, control beats combo, and aggro is nowhere to be seen because it loses to all three.

I’m not a person that thinks aggro-dominated metagames are healthy – in fact I’ve written an article looking at how aggressive decks can be as oppressive to play against as combo or prison decks. The worst ever year in the Standard format’s history was dominated by an aggressive deck.

However, I do not want the aggressive archetype removed from Modern. Legacy is a healthy format with (almost) no viable aggressive decks (burn is Tier 3 and makes up about 1.2% of tournament successes according to MTGGoldfish, and it is the only aggressive deck putting up any results at all in the format). However, unlike Modern, Legacy has multiple Tier 1 or Tier 2 tempo decks as well as multiple Tier 2 aggro/prison hybrids like Eldrazi. Modern has much less of a tempo presence.

Unbanning SFM poses a very real risk of eliminating aggro entirely.

As a final point some have argued in favor of unbanning SFM and banning Batterskull.

This would, to my mind, achieve little change in the format. However it sets a fairly troublesome precedent of artificial rotations via bannings that I’d rather not unleash. Players will be forever asking things like “Will Liliana of the Veil be banned so that Deathrite Shaman can have another chance?”.

I’d rather B&R action be saved for when there are problems with the format, or for when the format has increased in power so much that former problems cease to exist.

For example, it is my belief (and I could be wrong…) that Jace the Mind Sculptor wouldn’t cause problems any more. He’d be the best all-around 4 mana threat in the format if legal, and with fetch/shock manabases Jace could be played in decks of any colour combinations. Even Jund or Abzan could run him if they wanted.

But he would not eclipse all other 4 mana threats the way he would have prior to the printing of Kalitas, Hazoret and Nahiri.

If this assessment is correct (and it may not be), Jace is an example of a card that was once too powerful for the format, but no longer is. SFM, on the other hand, sends the format into directions I do not want to see it go.

  • sirgog

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Reassessing the Modern Banlist – A Data-Driven Proposal

The Modern banlist contains a number of the worst mistakes in Magic history – cards like Skullclamp, Treasure Cruise and Mental Misstep. Each of these cards is banned in Legacy for its raw power level.

Skullclamp is my personal pick for the most absurd Limited card ever printed – beating Umezawa’s Jitte, Pack Rat, Sol Ring, Parallax Wave, Vedalken Shackles, Attrition and Citadel Siege. Unlike the last two cards, it’s absurd in Constructed too, often drawing 6 cards or more and totally taking over games for just one mana.

The list also contains cards that seem perfectly reasonable at first glance, but that enable combos that are too fast or too consistent to be legal in the format.

Summer Bloom, Hypergenesis, Blazing Shoal, Eye of Ugin, Golgari Grave-Troll – each of these cards is innocuous on its own, and none of them save the last were good during their Standard tenures.

But each of them enables combos that are too powerful for the format. They either lead to overwhelming board states – sometimes even outright kills – on turn 2 too often for the format to handle, or alternately they allow fairly consistent turn 3 kills. From day 1 of Modern until today, every time a combo deck has hit a 2% turn 2 win rate or a 20% turn 3 win rate, the banhammer has always come for it.

Hypergenesis was outright bad in Standard and at the time a bulk rare, but with the Cascade cards introduced in Alara Reborn, it lets you vomit out an Emrakul, the Aeons Torn on turn 2 around 11% of the time – in a format with fundamental turn 4. This becomes as high as 25% of the time if you are willing to settle for ‘lesser’ threats like Griselbrand or Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre.

The list also contains a number of cards that are deemed simply too strong for the format, cards that dominate games in which they are used and that simply cost less mana than their effect should.

Deathrite Shaman, Bloodbraid Elf, Stoneforge Mystic, Umezawa’s Jitte, Jace the Mind Sculptor, Birthing Pod, Splinter Twin, and the artifact lands – these cards all allow counterplay and sometimes are poor draws, but each of them have, at some point in the format’s history, earned the banhammer’s caress through being too powerful.

Some of these bans I agree with, others I do not. But I’m not going to make the case for my opinion on which cards should remain on the banlist and which should earn a reprieve. I could easily be wrong, and even if I am not you have no compelling reason to agree with me. Instead, I have a proposal for how to methodically test the waters as to which (if any) cards would improve the format if they were unbanned.

But first let’s look at some history.

 

The Golgari Grave Troll incident

This card breaks my first fundamental rule of Magic: cards cannot impact the gamestate unless they have been drawn.

An aside.

GGT was unbanned a couple of years ago. It found its way back onto the banlist after Shadows over Innistrad and Kaladesh provided the last pieces for a broken deck based around the Dredge mechanic.

If you aren’t familiar with the Modern dredge deck, it used GGT and Stinkweed Imp alongside card filtering spells (Cathartic Reunion, Faithless Looting) to fill its graveyard, and to then vomit out Bloodghasts and Prized Amalgams from the graveyard without ever drawing them, much less spending mana on them.

It was an aggro-combo hybrid, much like the Affinity decks still legal in the format – but much stronger than Affinity has ever been.

Everyone knew GGT was dangerous both before its unbanning, and in the period that it was legal. Stinkweed Imp was already legal, and allowing decks to play a larger critical mass of high dredge number cards posed a risk.

WotC went ahead and made the perfectly reasonable decision to unban the Troll at a point where Amalgam and Reunion did not exist. Then, they made the perfectly reasonable decision, when the card proved itself too good for Modern, to ban it again. (I advocated for banning Amalgam and Narcomoeba instead at the time, but the result would have been the same in either case – Modern Dredge as a deck would have been removed almost entirely from competititve play).

The experience of GGT’s unbanning and rebanning sent shockwaves through the Magic secondary market, however. Both GGT and its supporting cast became extremely expensive for a time, then cratered in price again after the rebanning. A number of competitive players lost money as a result, and this soured the waters against ‘risky’ unbannings.

The end result of the unban/reban was that we got data stating conclusively that GGT was not safe to be in Modern alongside Amalgam et al, but the cost for this data was high.

There is a better way.

Isolation Testing on MTGO

Magic Online has a thriving Modern community, with thousands of players entering competitive leagues.

For those unfamiliar with MTGO’s leagues, competitive leagues run on demand, allow players to play 5 rounds, cost $12 to enter, and award prizes as follows:

5-0: 16 Treasure Chest, 180 play points (current secondary market value $57.36)

4-1: 8 Treasure Chest, 180 play points ($37.68)

3-2: 1 Treasure Chest, 120 play points ($14.46)

2-3 or worse: No prizes.

Play points are 10c coupons used toward paying for future events (for instance 120 of them can be used to enter the Competitive League) and are unable to be traded, treasure chests are ‘lucky dip’ bags of cards from Magic’s history and at the time of writing can be sold to dealers for $2.46, although this is a price that fluctuates and is typically around $2.20. 

MTGO’s competitive leagues provide an enormous incentive to ‘break’ formats.

As an extreme example, imagine a hypothetical unbeatable deck – each time you enter a league, you play your 5 matches, then get rewarded with $45 in ‘profit’ for your time. You then enter the league again, and you can build the deck on multiple accounts and enter more than one event at once.

If your deck remained unbeatable (except when you play against your own alternate accounts), and you play fast, within a day you would have made thousands of dollars. Within a week, you’d have made more than a GP winner, and within a month, you’d likely make more than a PT winner.

This dynamic – caused by the ability to immediately enter a new tournament with prizes each time you finish one, makes MTGO exceptionally good for deck innovators. In paper, if you innovate and build a format-breaking deck you may only get to enter 4 tournaments with prizes in any given week – online, you can enter four leagues in an hour and a half.

While no deck is completely undefeatable, sometimes formats are broken and a deck exists that has a 70% or even 80% win rate against the field. The various aggressive Eldrazi strategies at Pro Tour: Oath of the Gatewatch are an example, particularly the Eldrazi Skyspawner versions.

If you discover such a deck and pilot it on MTGO, you will very quickly win a lot of prizes. You will also attract attention – MTGO publicly reports decklists of a minority of players that reach 5-0 finishes, and also publishes the screen names of players that perform well on a consistent basis. If you achieve 5 5-0 results in a single league, your screen name will attract attention and people will attempt to find what deck(s) you play. Get 15 trophies (5-0 results) and even if your list is not published, people will pay attention when you are paired against streamers and will quickly determine the deck you are playing.

This means that if a player breaks a format, MTGO will adapt to them very fast. Some will build the new deck, others will play an established deck but will attempt to answer the new deck with sideboard tech. The metagame moves far faster than in paper – which is ideal for my proposed experiment.

The Modified Banlist League Proposal

I propose that an MTGO Competitive league be set up with an alternate banlist, after the February 12th B&R announcement comes into effect. This would run at the same time as the ‘real’ Modern Competitive and Friendly leagues.

This league would run for 6 weeks, use the usual MTGO competitive league prize model, and would contain the then current Modern banlist with the following exceptions:

– Bloodbraid Elf is unbanned

– Jace, the Mind Sculptor is unbanned

– Stoneforge Mystic is unbanned

– Punishing Fire is unbanned

– Mox Opal is banned. (This will make more sense when you read the next line – I believe Opal is likely to be banned in the next 18 months in any case)

– The five ‘artifact lands’ – Ancient Den; Seat of the Synod; Vault of Whispers; Great Forge and Tree of Tales – are unbanned.

There has been a lot of testing done by individuals as to whether various permutations of these cards would be safe in Modern. But individuals aren’t as good at innovating as the Modern community in general. Individuals, no matter how talented they are as deck builders, miss ideas. It was correct to play Eldrazi Skyspawner at PT:OGW, but this card was only played by about a dozen participants – the rest never thought of it.

On top of this individuals cannot generate statistically significant amounts of data. This proposal would generate hard data, and would track how the metagame changes over time.

It would also test something that can’t be determined by a small playgroup testing alone. Standard prior to the Emrakul banning was in a strange space where the format was fairy balanced, with no tier 0 decks and more than one tier 1 deck, but the format was widely considered not to be fun. It’s entirely possible that unbanning some of these cards might lead Modern in a direction like that, and no single playgroup will have enough data to truly protect against this.

But a whole league – tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of matches played by people who have a material incentive in winning – this can and will provide very serious stress testing. It would not just be league results providing data, but also league attendance – if three different JtMS decks are widely accepted to be the only Tier 1 decks and the number of people playing the league falls off sharply by week 4, this would provide compelling evidence that JtMS is not safe to unban.

I expect that MTGO could reasonably easily be set up to put four phantom copies of each ‘experimentally unbanned’ card into each player’s account for the duration of the league, too. If this is possible it lowers the barrier for deck brewers looking to experiment with these cards.

If some of these cards turn out very quickly to be proven to be mistakes, they could be ‘banned’ midway through the league. If Seat of the Synod eats a ban on the third day of the league, players that have already enrolled in the league with Seat of the Synod in their deck would be able to complete their five matches using the card, but noone could enter the league again using it.

Conclusion:

I believe JtMS and BBE are safe to remove from the Modern banlist, that the artifact lands might be, and that no other cards are. I could very well be wrong and am very open to eating these words.

Assuming you disagree with my thoughts on the ban list, we could argue this point for hours and, in all likeliehood, neither of us will shift. Or worse, I could be wrong but convince you of my opinion, or vice versa. In any case this arguing without serious testing is about as useful as nailing a cat to your door. (Disclaimer: This isn’t useful. Please kids, don’t nail a cat to your door).

The DCI lacks the resources to do this testing, and recent Standard environments show that WotC aren’t doing a great job of it either (RIP Felidar Guardian… how you got to print is beyond me…).

But Magic Online provides the solution. All that we need is for WotC to use it.

Additionally if this league were to be a success, I think there is room to repeat the experiment in Legacy..

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Sylvan Library – A Rules Nightmare

I ramble so here’s the TL:DR – there is a solid case for errata on this card to fix some ridiculous memory issues, and to make it work the same way in paper that it currently does on MTGO (where it ‘just works’).

 

This card may not look like it, but it is a rules nightmare just waiting to happen.

Library requires you to track something simple, which you do not normally track through a game of Magic – which of the cards in your hand have been drawn this turn.

The cards you have drawn this turn are not public knowledge, and this article constructs an elaborate scenario, using only cards that are at least plausible to play in competitive Legacy, to demonstrate how messy this card can get as cards in hand change zones during a turn.

A sidenote: This card works flawlessly on MTGO, where the game client serves as an omniscient judge with access to the entire history of the game. Its problems are purely a limitation of paper Magic, where no such omniscient judge exists.

In paper Magic judges have a workaround for Sylvan Library’s memory issues – a requirement to keep cards drawn ‘this turn’ physically separate in your hand from cards drawn earlier while you control the Library.

The card’s Gatherer entry lists the following ruling:

“Any cards drawn prior to Sylvan Library’s ability resolving, including in your upkeep or in response to Sylvan Library’s triggered ability, can be chosen to be put back using this effect. Sylvan Library’s controller is responsible for keeping these cards distinguishable in hand, such as by keeping them separate from cards that began the turn in hand.”

This solves most Sylvan Library issues, albeit at a price – introducing information leaks to your opponent about which cards have left your hand.  However it doesn’t solve all issues with the card.

Players who started Magic during the present century may not have seen how strong this card is in conjunction with Sylvan Library.

Abundance and Sylvan Library were best friends in Magic during the 1990s. Abundance puts the cards into your hand without you drawing them. Sylvan Library lets you draw three cards instead of one per turn, but then imposes a steep cost – if you actually did draw cards. (Note the difference in wording between Brainstorm – which forces you to return two cards and doesn’t care which were drawn this turn, and Sylvan).

If you control both, you get to use Abundance’s replacement ability three times per turn without drawback. Whilst generally too slow for Legacy these days, it’s not impossible to assemble these two enchantments and gain incredible value. As a side note, Abundance is also good against Leovold.

Which brings us to our hypothetical.

Alice and Beth are playing in a Legacy event.

Alice is playing a UG reactive control deck that uses Abundance/Library as a value engine. She has a hand with a lot of land in it, and controls a Misty Rainforest, two basic Islands, and a Tropical Island. Unusually for such a deck, Alice plays Stifle.

It’s Game 1 and Beth hasn’t made any plays that give its strategy away as yet. She’s actually on Cascade-Hypergenesis – a strategy that has been banned in Modern since the format’s inception due to its ability to vomit out massive amounts of creatures as early as turn 2. In Legacy it’s a fringe-competitive strategy – one that many Modern Living End fans try to make work.

Noting that Alice’s mana is all untapped, Beth passes the turn, and decides to try to fire off her ‘combo’ in Alice’s upkeep. She casts an instant with Cascade, and her Violent Outburst can only cascade into one possible card – one of the three copies of Hypergenesis she plays.

Alice can counter either the Hypergenesis itself, or the Stifle trigger. As Alice has no Stifle in hand, she casts Brainstorm.

Note that at this point, Alice neither controls a Sylvan Library, nor does she have one in hand.

Alice’s Brainstorm draws her no Stifle, but instead she hits a new Brainstorm, plus two lands – a Misty Rainforest and a Tropical Island. She puts an Island and a Tropical Island from her hand on top of her library, then activates the Misty Rainforest on her battlefield and casts the other Brainstorm.

This one gets results. She draws a Stifle, an Abundance and a Sylvan Library. She keeps all three cards, throwing back two other cards on top of her library, and fires off the Stifle targetting the Cascade trigger.

Beth is having none of this, and casts a Force of Will to counter the Stifle. Noone else has any plays, and so the Force of Will resolves, the Stifle is countered, and the Cascade trigger resolves, spins up Hypergenesis. The Hypergenesis also resolves.

Alice is in deep trouble, but at least drops a Sylvan Library and an Abundance – whilst Beth drops an Emrakul, the Aeons Torn.

We now move to the ugly part.

It’s Alice’s draw. She does the usual ‘Replace 3 draws with Abundance activations, then activate Sylvan’ play, which puts three cards into her hand without them ever being considered drawn.

Alice then goes to finish resolving the Library ability. She looks at her hand and has no idea whether the Tropical Island in her hand was drawn from her first Brainstorm – and thus should be counted as a ‘card drawn this turn’ by Sylvan Library, or if was instead the one she had in hand at the beginning of the turn.

Assuming Alice elects not to return any cards to her library, there is no way for a judge to determine whether Alice should lose 0, 4 or 8 life to Library late return fees. She has drawn 6 cards this turn, and has moved more than 6 cards from her hand to other zones. Depending upon which cards were shuffled away, Alice may have 0, 1 or 2 cards in her hand that are drawn this turn.

All the decisions to put cards on top of her library here were all made at a time that Alice not only did not control a Sylvan Library, but quite reasonably did not foresee that she might gain control of one before her draw step.

Sylvan Library isn’t the only card with horrible memory-related rules corner cases, but it is the worst of them precisely because the card is quite good.

This card also causes awful memory issues if cast late in a turn in which Draw 7s, cantrips and the like are being flung around – especially Draw 7s which also scramble the graveyard, like Timetwister. Fortunately the Vortex hasn’t really made it into competitive play since leaving Standard.

It’s also problematic that in order to play Sylvan Library and Brainstorm in the same deck, in paper Magic you are required to feed your opponent free information every time you cast an upkeep Brainstorm, telling them how many cards out of the new three you keep in hand, and how many you return to library. Many games this will not matter, but particularly against opponents playing Vendillion Clique, or who use Gitaxian Probe or Thoughtseize to see your hand, it is a significant information leak that can punish you.

I don’t have answers to the conundrum raised by Sylvan Library. Fortunately both Abundance and Hypergenesis are seldom played in formats where Sylvan Library is legal, and so this situation is almost relegated to the level of a hypothetical. The present workaround comes close enough to working that it is not yet a major problem.

I do think the rules around this card should be tightened up, however, and Wizards should not be afraid to issue errata that maintains the spirit of Sylvan Library  without preserving its original functionality in every situation.

One option is to errata the card to

“At the beginning of your draw step, you may draw two additional cards. If you do, choose two cards in your hand drawn this step. For each of those cards, pay 4 life or put the card on top of your library.”

This would preserve the historically significant interactions (Abundance, etc) but would still allow some corner issues with draw step Vendillion Clique scenarios.

A more significant change (which would break the Abundance and Pursuit interactions) would be to change the card as follows:

“The first time you would draw a card during your draw step, instead look at the top three cards of your library, return them in any order, then choose one – draw a card; draw 2 cards and lose 4 life; or draw 3 cards and lose 8 life.”

Whilst this would be a functional change, it would be far from the most significant functional errata in recent times. But it would allow paper play to ‘catch up’ with some of the advantages MTGO offers for playing Sylvan Library.

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PSA – Blood Moon bugged on MTGO

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so here’s a moving picture.

 

 

At around 52 seconds I play a Stomping Ground into Blood Moon.

Under the new rules (introduced with Ixilan), the Stomping Ground’s ETB replacement ability should not be checked. I should not have the option to pay life, and the land should ETB untapped as a non-basic Mountain.

MTGO is still working to the rules that existed prior to Ixilan, so the ETB replacement still occurs. Fortunately this didn’t cost me the game.

This is a known bug, but as Blood Moon is one of the highest profile cards in the Modern format, and the Blood Moon – Cavern of Souls interaction comes up in Legacy too, you should be aware of this one.

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Playing To Your Outs – Lessons From An HOU-HOU-AKH Draft

This is my first attempt at using videos on the site, and using Youtube. If it looks terrible, let me know and I’ll see if I can fix it.

 

I had an interesting MTGO game recently. Here’s a replay video.

The format was HOU-HOU-AKH draft (as I’m terrible at Ixilan so far…), and after taking the best cards without regard to colour for the first couple of picks, it became clear that an aggressive WG strategy was open. However, I had enough good red cards to merit a 3 mountain, 1 Desert of the Fervent splash.

After going 2-0 and winning game 1 of the final, I see a dubious, colour screwed hand in game 2 and decide to keep it.

I fall way behind early, as a result of having 4 uncastable white cards. I spend my turn 2 cycling trying to find a Plains, and then spend my turn 6 actually fetching one. That’s the cost I paid for a greedy splash.

On my opponent’s ninth and tenth turns, it’s clear that they are just a second away from sealing the win.

Then, you’ll notice that I draw absolutely perfectly for about three turns in a row, while my opponent fails to find gas, and I end up stealing the win.

There’s a lot that can be taken from the decisions I make on the 9th and 10th turns.

Firstly, as I’m forced to accept a horrible 5-for-2 block on the opponent’s tenth turn, I accepted that there’s a lot of circumstances in which I cannot win.

If my opponent has (almost) any combat trick, I lose. So I play under the assumption that they have no tricks. I lose nothing by doing so – if they have one and cast it, I lose whether I play around it or not.

Likewise I just die if the opponent draws Open Fire or Blur of Blades on their 10th or 11th turn – so I just assume they will not draw it.

Secondly, the only chance I have to get out of the hole I am in is to win via the Pride Sovereign. That card is obnoxiously overpowered in Limited, and so I decide to protect it at any cost.

On several occasions I make plays during my opponent’s turn that will result in me losing outright if I draw a land (or another blank card like some combat tricks).

When you are behind, this is often the correct play.

After the Sifter Wurm wrecks my board, if the top three cards of my library were not all live cards, I was guaranteed to lose. So I played under the assumption that I’d get runner-runner perfect draws and the opponent would not draw perfectly.

Usually, you lose anyway. But sometimes, you get lucky enough to eke out a win from a game you would otherwise have lost.

Magic is a game of tiny advantages. Sometimes, you are a hundred-to-one longshot to win a game. In those situations, don’t concede. Play for the miracle, because sometimes they do happen.

 

As a side note, here’s a game where that deck didn’t draw particularly well, but still beat a turn 6 God-Pharoh’s Gift that triggers three times. Don’t pass so many Dauntless Avens, the card is nuts.

 

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Site Update

Hey all, sirgog here.

No posts in a while so I thought I’d give a brief update.

I’ve been *really* busy. That’s all. My 9-5 job (overseeing end of lease returns on commercial aircraft) has been busier than normal, and I’ve not had enough time to do much more than follow Ixilan and Iconic Masters spoilers.

The site isn’t going away.

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Thoughts on the end of FNM, and its replacement with a casual tournament

Wizards announced changes to the FNM system that, in my opinion, effectively end the popular program and introduce something new with the FNM name.

The original announcement is here, and the WotC response to vocal criticism of the change is here, where it dominates the ‘News of the Day’ article.

Taken as a group, these changes will improve in-store play for some players, and make it worse for some others.

If you are intimidated by low-stakes competitive play, and prefer really casual events, these changes will be mostly positive for you.

If you love Standard and your local store supports it, these changes will be mostly neutral.

And if you love drafting, follow competitive sites and play to win at FNM drafts (the path that took me into competitive play), these changes are terrible.

I’ll just add a quick aside. This is not a cost-cutting exercise from Wizards. This is WotC spending money to (in their mind) improve programs for in-store play. This article argues it misses the mark, but I think WotC spending money on in-store play is a good thing if done well.

 

What was FNM?

FNM is a WotC promotion where WotC provide free prizes (in the form of unique foil promos, mostly of uncommons) to stores that run low-stakes tournaments with them.

Stores were mostly free to set the format of these events themselves.

Stores with a competitive clientele that focused on Modern could run a Modern event with the top four winning the promo cards. Stores whose playerbase was quite casual could run FNM and award one promo card to first, and three to random players.

The promo cards were sometimes crap noone wanted like this piece of shit.

At other times they were Standard staples with at least some cross-format appeal like this gem:

And at other times they have been chase commons and uncommons with beautiful art, and occasionally cards not otherwise available in foil.

These cards – Swords to Plowshares, Serum Visions, or very long ago Priest of Titania – all made the FNM program extremely popular with a considerable number of enfranchised, competitively minded players.

FNM will continue to exist but the promo cards are being replaced by foil tokens. For all intents and purposes, this kills the program for the semi-competitive enfranchised player. While there are exceptions, these players broadly do not care about tokens – they want to win playable cards.

These players also usually appreciate low print run reprints of cards like Serum Visions or Path to Exile, which can become difficult to trade for. Just having a few dozen more Serum Visions in binders in a city makes the card easier to acquire even if the retail price isn’t changed much.

 

What’s filling the void, and why doesn’t it suffice?

From the ashes of the old FNM, two new programs rise.

New FNM is intended to be a much more casual event, precisely because there are only tokens on the line, not popular cards. Responses from casual players are mixed, but (as far as I can tell from reading social media), are mostly ambivalent or slightly positive.

For the semi-competitive and competitive crowd, the new system offers Standard Showdown.

Standard Showdown was WotC’s response to the worst Standard environment since the days before the banning of Arcbound Ravager and seven of its partners in crime. Facing stores abandoning their flagship format, they offered stores additional prize support in the form of special booster packs that had less cards than usual but had more rares and foils, and (at first) could contain a Zendikar Expedition. This gave players who were fed up with cats being copied or Snugglecopters a material incentive to try Standard again.

There are three reasons Standard Showdown doesn’t fill the void left by FNM’s changes for semi-competitive and competitive players.

First, as implied by the name, it is Standard only.

Standard is a reasonable format right now and it is the most popular format of the various Constructed ones, but it is far from universally liked. Many stores simply cannot fire Standard events but have large Modern playerbases, or dozens eager to draft.

On top of that, there are niche stores where Legacy has a well-established playerbase.

These stores have no replacement for FNM. They can continue to host new FNM events with the new token promos, but given how available third party tokens of high quality are, I doubt these promos will attract players.

Secondly, the prize structure is much more of a lottery than many players like.

With today’s FNM, you know the prize structure. There’s a promo card worth perhaps $3 (for a dud) or $15 (for a very good one). You can sit down on your last match and think ‘I’m playing for $15 here’.

With Standard Showdown, you are playing for an undraftable pack with unpredictable value. While the mean (average) value of a cracked prize pack will be in the range of $3 plus whatever the new promo lands settle at, the median (i.e. midpoint) value will be basically just the new promo land.

If you like cracking packs these prizes are fine, but if you do not, they are not so hot.

Stores get 40% fewer Standard Showdown packs than they get FNM promo cards, so there are less prizes to go around, exacerbating this disappointment.

Thirdly, for reasons I cannot fathom, Standard Showdown is only allowed to be held on weekends. For suburban stores this is the logical time to run any event, but for CBD stores with an older clientele, this is a dealbreaker. These stores’ best customers are (mostly) 20 or 30 something office workers (my demographic), who love to rock up and play Magic after work, but for whom it is often a considerably bigger ask to show up on a weekend.

Taken together these three reasons mean that Standard Showdown is being poorly received by large parts of its target audience – and those players are now furious that they are losing FNM with nothing of value (to them) replacing it.

 

An Alternative

I’m not wedded to the current structure of FNM.

Wizards clearly want to encourage the more casual players to play Magic in store, and to enter laid-back tournaments with little on the line, and without facing as many highly skilled opponents that are playing to win. I’m 100% for encouraging this.

It is possible to create prize structures that promote this goal without removing a beloved program from enfranchised players.

WotC could combine the best of both worlds by offering more participation rewards for in-store play.

Imagine this – Wizards announce that in October, WPN stores at the lowest tier will be given 32 copies of an alternate art promo Rogue Refiner, 8 foil copies of that same promo, and 50 Goblin tokens to distribute as prize support split as they see fit between a minimum of four tournaments, of which at least one must be Standard, and at least one a Limited format. (Presently this store would get 12 Standard Showdown packs, and 16 FNM promo foils).

If that store had a competitive clientele, they could offer Friday and Saturday qualifier events each week, giving out very small prizes but allowing people entry into an end-of-month championship, where most of the promos will be given out to the top 4.

If the clientele are much more casual, it may be more appropriate to have Chaos Draft Friday which awards the tokens, and Standard Saturday with the promo Refiners, with every participant in Saturday events getting a non-foil promo while stocks last.

And yet another store might feel it best to have a Standard league, where you build your deck, change it as you wish, and play matches on your own time, with a big prize for playing games (win or lose) on the largest number of unique days.

Ultimately stores know their playerbase and would often come up with better ideas than I have here for their promos. As long as they are distributed with integrity and the distribution is clearly communicated to players, I’m fine with anything.

Just don’t scrap a popular vehicle for promo cards unless you are replacing it with something that’s at least as good as what is lost.

  • sirgog

 

 

 

 

 

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MTGO’s changes have made me nervous.

Edit: Following a couple questions on Reddit I’ll explain at the very end what MTGO redemption is. Just scroll to the bottom then return here.

 

If you look through my history on this site and on Reddit, you’ll see I’ve been pretty solidly behind MTGO’s general direction over the last couple of years, with the exception of the redemption changes (which came bundled with a decrease in draft entry fees, but overall I feel this was net negative).

My opinions changed this week. I’d like to outline my fears, and the reason I’ve significantly downsized my MTGO collection.

I’m not totally panic selling and I’m keeping my decks, but I have sold off the collection of format staples I had accumulated over a few years, and converted them into complete Amonkhet sets, ready to redeem.

Goodbye my playset of almost everything from MM2; goodbye Ancestral Vision, Scapeshift, and all my spare VMA dual lands and spare Snapcasters. And hello to 40 sets of Amonkhet.

 

The Rishadan Port Price Collapse, and its implications

I posted a thread on Reddit about a month ago that, as far as I can tell, precipitated a price crash despite not starting a lot of conversation.

This crash was always going to happen, but my post seems to have spooked two or more dealers into getting into an undercutting war rather than sitting on their stock.

MTGO – Why isn’t Rishadan Port in freefall? from mtgfinance

It turns out I was wrong. It’s not going to be 6 months for Port to be under 70, it will be 6 weeks. Four weeks after my prediction, it is buylisting at 73 (PRM version) and retailing at 80.5 tickets. (Prices taken from www.goatbots.com, an MTGO dealer I am not affiliated with but use as a priceguide and often buy from and sell to; there may be better deals available).

Now Port was always going to fall.

The card was ultra, ultra rare due to the nature of the Masques release, and ultra low supply cards with low demand are the most sensitive to crashing in price.

In MM2, the paper world experienced this with Daybreak Coronet while MTGO players saw Hurkyl’s Recall crash from $55 to $2.

When treasure chests were introduced there was serious panic that they would crash the value of older cards. I argued at the time that these fears were unfounded. But then two things changed.

First, there was the decision to aggressively pump the drop chance on some of the rarest cards online. Port, Wasteland – these cards had their drop rate more than double recently. As a result I expect a slow, steady decline (for the Wastelands and Force of Wills with high demand) and a rapid decline (for the likes of Port with low demand).

Secondly, there was the decision to award 1300 treasure chests per week – that’s nearly 6000 per month – in the format challenges.

This is a huge increase in supply, much more than I anticipated when I defended the introduction of Treasure Chests against criticisms from people saying ‘this will crash the value of my collection’.

I still don’t think the original chests would have crashed anything, but I do think the two changes combined mean that any non-redeemable MTGO collection is now a depreciating asset; much like a Standard staple approaching rotation like Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is.

This isn’t to say that a diversified Legacy collection on MTGO will crash in value next week, but I now project that it will trend downward over the medium term.

I own one multi-thousand dollar depreciating asset (my car), I don’t want to take the loss of owning a second one.

After a good deal of thought, I decided a couple weeks ago that if anything about MTGO’s future scared me, I would sell most of my valuable older cards and turn them into one of tickets, hard currency, or redeemable sets, and that I would downsize over time starting with selling off my extra VMA dual lands.

 

The Future of Redemption

And now we get to Announcement Week, and the mysterious announcement about digital Magic scheduled for Tuesday 13-Jun.

Redemption is a huge overhead for Wizards, but at the same time mass redemption (not players redeeming 4 sets for personal use, I’m instead talking paper MTG stores and e-stores redeeming 100 to 500 sets per month, every month) is the absolute pillar online cards derive value from.

This is the reason that MTGO dealers will pay you real life currency for bulk Event Tickets – they know they can trade to turn those tickets into redeemable sets, and sell those sets to paper MTG stores that are not affiliated with online dealers, acquiring real currency back from the store.

Wizards have made redemption worse on several occasions.

First they removed the ability to redeem sets released years and years ago (until about 2009 you could still redeem Invasion-era sets).

Then they upped the redemption fee from just postage, to $5 per set + postage, to $25 per set plus postage.

And most recently they severely restricted the redemption window, from ~24 months after a set releases to just ~6.

I’ve long feared that removing redemption was in WotC’s long term plans, I’ll go over why I recently began to fear it may be in the short term plans too.

Consider the timing of the ‘digital Magic’ announcement.

We all know that the Banned and Restricted announcement is the absolute most important piece of Magic news, especially when Standard could go many different ways.

Whatever the decision is – whether it’s a Marvel ban, no changes, an unbanning of Reflector Mage and/or Snugglecopter, some combination of the above, or something totally unexpected, the Standard B&R announcements will be the absolute centre of Magic discussion tomorrow. Discussion of other formats will be hot too.

Any other news released on the same day as the B&R announcement is going to be buried.

Political theorists have a term for releasing one piece of bad news strategically, in order to divert attention from another, more damaging piece of news. It is called a ‘Dead Cat strategy‘.

Wizards know this. Their decision to schedule “an announcement about digital Magic” on the same day as the B&R announcement may be harmless or even a mistake. But it may very well be that the B&R announcement is the dead cat being thrown on the table, in order to suppress discussion of redemption changes or redemption ending.

There’s just this circumstantial evidence that the announcement may be what I fear, nothing more than that. But if it is true, MTGO will go up in flames quickly. Every dealer will try to dump all their non-redeemable cards to turn them into redeemable sets, to get as much money out of the program as they possibly can.

As a form of insurance against this possibility, I’ve jumped the gun and actioned my plan to convert most of my collection into a few dozen Amonkhet sets.

After all, I insure my car, and I consider redemption ending tomorrow to be a more likely event than me needing to claim on my car insurance.

 

Conclusion

Two years ago I was confident that having a diversified collection on MTGO was fairly safe. Some cards would get reprinted and lose value, others would gain value, and ultimately I’d have real cashout equity if I wanted to quit the hobby, or needed money. Probably less than I paid to buy in, maybe more, but at least I’d get an appreciable fraction of my collection’s value back.

Six months ago, I still maintained that confidence while a number of other people were losing theirs.

As of the last week I have lost that confidence.

I’m no longer willing to have thousands of dollars tied up in MTGO cards. Hundreds of dollars (i.e. a deck or two) is fine, but thousands (i.e. enough staples to own the core of every deck in the format at once) is beyond my risk threshold.

I expect that dealers will have to increase their razor-thin margins on MTGO over the future if redemption remains uncertain. That will hurt me if I reverse today’s decision and buy back into a diversified collection again, but that’s a price I’m willing to pay to avoid carrying the risk of losing thousands.

If redemption does die, I’ll probably quit MTGO unless Wizards announce a realistic replacement system of providing cashout equity, perhaps something like the defunct Diablo 3 Real Money Auction House. Even then, I will assess any such development on its merits before deciding whether to quit or not.

Ultimately, Magic is too expensive to play if you don’t have cashout equity.

  • sirgog

 

Edit: MTGO’s redemption program lets you swap a complete digital set for the corresponding paper cards in exchange for a modest fee.

For instance I (in Australia) can pay USD 255 and ‘surrender’ 9 Amonkhet sets on MTGO (so 9 of each mythic, each rare, each uncommon, common and basic land, all non-foil, PW deck cards not required) and Wizards will send, via FedEx courier, a box the size and shape of a booster case with 9 boxed up complete AKH sets. If my sets were foil online, they’d send foil paper sets instead.

Wizards declare a value of USD 75 per set whether normal or foil, and I’m required to pay any Australian government import taxes and goods and services tax (currently $0 on orders under AUD 1000, and 5% import duty + 10% GST + AUD 50 processing fee on orders from AUD 1000 to 9999, hence 9 sets). Your country may charge more or less.

In my experience redemption takes about 10 days but can only be initiated at downtime, which is only once or twice per month. (Wizards do not guarantee that speed).

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Reflecting on Marvel – The 14-Jun Banned/Restricted Announcement

It’s that time again. Another banned and restricted announcement is coming, and a lot of eyes are on Standard.

In anticipation of what Wizards might decide, the secondary market on MTGO has priced in considerable ban risk on Marvel’s most expensive pieces.

Ulamog has fallen in price by 50% over the past week, and at the same time the most played mythic in Standard, Aetherworks Marvel, is less than one fifth the price of Torrential Gearhulk, a card of the same rarity printed in the same set. This is despite Blue Hulk seeing less than half the amount of play in Standard that Marvel does, and no appreciable amount of play in any other format.

The MTGO market moves faster than the paper secondary market, but these falls indicate a growing number of people do not expect the present Marvel decklists to remain legal in Standard, and those people are panic selling Ulamog, while dealers also reduce the number of copies they hold. I’ve not been watching but I expect you will see reductions in buylist prices for those cards in the paper world too.

In this article I want to look at when, how and why the banhammer should be used in general, then look at today’s Standard and offer my thoughts about the upcoming announcement.

In Defence of the Banhammer

I was pretty vitriolic in calling for a Felidar Guardian ban in Standard at the last two B&R announcements. (Or Saheeli. Saheeli would have worked too, but something had to go).

Since the cat was drowned, Standard has had its problems, but the format is in a much better place than it was when Copy Cat Combo was Tier 0.

That banning completely turned around the collapse in tournament attendance figures.

Nowhere was that clearer than on Magic Online, where the Standard leagues were less popular than the Modern leagues in the day following the April 24 ‘no bans’ announcement. Normally, the Standard leagues have 2-3 times the attendance that the Modern ones get.

Tournament attendance is the primary basis on which banned and restricted decisions should be made.

When a deck is driving players away from competitive play, it is too late to print an answer in the next set and hope that the answer solves the problem. Magic R&D simply does not work on that timeline.

In these situations, the format needs to be altered to deal with the problem – and the tool Wizards has historically used to do this is the banned and restricted list.

Under this criteria, the ban of Splinter Twin in Modern was not justified, because the ban drove people away from the format. I’ve seen no compelling evidence that the Twin deck was driving people away from competitive Modern.

However, the two Standard bannings, and also the recent Modern bannings (Git Probe and GGT), were both successes. As was a historic example, the mass banning of almost every card in Ravager Affinity Aggro back in the days of Kamigawa.

After Emrakul met her Promised End, the Snugglecopter was scuttled and Reflector Mage took a long hard look at itself, Standard tournament attendance revived. It plunged again when the Copy Cat Combo decks were perfected, but kicking the cat did solve that problem.

A few players may well have walked away from competitive play because they had just bought into a Standard deck to see it get banned, but the format cannot be held ransom to the demands of people that buy into obviously broken Tier 0 decks.

If you buy into a deck as overwhelmingly dominant in its format as Copy Cat Combo or OGW-era Modern Helldrazi, you have no-one to blame but yourself when the deck is smashed by the banhammer.

Buying a broken deck is not an investment to be amortised over nine months (in Standard) or five years (in Modern). It’s an investment that must be amortised in weeks – something that will not happen unless you are entering multiple small tournaments each week and a couple of big events on top of that.

Alternatives to the Banhammer

One alternative to swinging the banhammer is simply declaring additional cards to be legal in a format. This actually has a partial precedent – from October 1999 until October 2002, the Extended format (a format somewhat similar to today’s Modern) explicitly allowed the ten Revised dual lands despite them not being in any of the sets legal in Extended.

This, however, creates serious problems with card availability.

Pithing Needle is one example of a card that I believe would drive the Marvel menace to the sidelines, and might also have dealt with the Copy Cat Combo menace.

However, it hasn’t had a printing below foil mythic (Masterpiece) rarity since Return to Ravnica, which is now several years ago.

Arbitrarily declaring Pithing Needle legal in Standard (or jamming it into one of the Planeswalker decks) would set a precedent I’m not too happy with, where Standard requires a card not available in current boosters (the Masterpiece version is too rare to count).

In particular this is bad for Magic tournaments run by new shops or small shops. These stores will not have an extensive inventory of cards from a few years ago, and will struggle to meet demand – potentially pushing their customers toward competitors.

In addition to this logistical issue, adding ‘must-sideboard’ cards to an environment is (at least in my opinion) bad for the game. I feel Modern would be a better format if players didn’t feel obligated to run Stony Silence and/or Rest In Peace in sideboards.

There are only 15 slots in a sideboard; reducing that to 11 is not a good thing.

The banhammer is a last resort method for Wizards R&D to fix their own screwups. R&D needs to get better at detecting these problems (it’s hard to believe that Marvel was printed without an “Aetherworks Marvel enters the battlefield tapped” clause). But any changes in R&D coming out of the fiasco that was the last year of Standard will not flow through until (at the earliest) early next year, and R&D are still going to be human.

Humans screw up. R&D will continue to screw up. The banhammer is there to provide a painful way to reduce the damage caused by these mistakes.

 

The State of Standard

Standard now is a multi-deck format, but one with a clear best deck. Aetherworks Marvel combo, specifically the Temur version, is the format’s top deck by far.

Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger, is a perfectly fair Magic card if you ramp up to it. It takes over the game entirely, but for ten mana, that’s what you would expect it to do.

When Ulamog comes out on turn 4, it ceases to be a reasonable Magic card. In a Temur energy shell, the turn 4 Ulamog isn’t very common, but it does happen. When you fail to hit Ulamog, you either get Chandra, Flamecaller (weaker than the big Eldrazi, but trades off being weaker for also being hardcastable), or in the total fail case you get an energy source, which then helps you power toward spinning the Marvel again on your next turn.

 

The last weekend’s Standard GP results showed that the Marvel combo decks are far and away the best decks in Standard, and while Temur Marvel didn’t dominate the top 8s, it did dominate the top 32 of each of the three GPs, making up about one-third of each T32.

 

Marvel – A Design Mistake

Aetherworks Marvel is surprisingly hard to interact with, and it does extremely dangerous things.

It breaks two of the most fundamental rules of Magic.

Firstly, it allows cards to impact the gamestate without being drawn. I cover this topic in another article. Marvel’s rate for doing this isn’t particularly egregious, and so this on its own isn’t a big problem.

Secondly, and far more importantly, Marvel facilitates other cards breaking what I term the Third Fundamental Rule of Magic – that cards must have an impact commensurate with the amount of investment (mana, and other costs) required to cast them.

The present Standard format has a number of extremely high impact threats.

While Ulamog is the best of these, it is not the only one. The format also contains Kozilek the Great Distortion; Desolation Twin; Void Winnower; Elder Deep Fiend; Chandra, Flamecaller; Approach of the Second Sun and Sorin, Grim Nemesis, and these will soon be joined by a Nicol Bolas card. (I’m deliberately not going to discuss the highly credible leak of Bolas but instead I’ll just assume it’s something similar to the Conflux Bolas card – a devastatingly powerful lategame trump card with a high mana cost).

These cards are balanced by virtue of their very high mana costs – in short, the investment required to deploy them. Marvel removes this balancing effect.

The other factor making Marvel a menace is its inherent randomness. Much like losing to a Miracled Bonfire of the Damned made you feel helpless and that your decisions over the entire game didn’t matter (and winning with Miracle cards felt anticlimactic), winning or losing with Marvel often comes down to a game of percentages.

In a gamestate where hitting big will win you the game and whiffing on Marvel will lose it, assuming you play 4 copies of Ulamog and 2 Chandra, spinning Marvel basically turns the entire game into a coinflip. Again, anticlimactic.

 

So What’s The Solution?

I’ve spent this entire article making what seems like a case for banning Aetherworks Marvel. The deck is too large of a metagame share, is dominating major events, and creates miserable play experiences.

However, that’s not what I believe Wizards should do. Tournament attendance is not in freefall. While I believe banning Aetherworks Marvel could be justified, I believe there is a better answer.

Spell Queller is a powerful card that is extremely good at proactively answering Aetherworks Marvel. It is a maindeckable card, solid against the entire format, but truly excellent at causing combo decks to stumble.

The decision to ban Reflector Mage, while reasonable at the time, has resulted in the Queller seeing less play in Standard than it otherwise would have.

 

My three suggestions for the 14-Jun B&R announcement.

Firstly, announce that Aetherworks Marvel Combo is a problem deck, and that while no bans are hitting it this time around, make a firm commitment to ban Aetherworks Marvel at the very next B&R announcement if the deck improves in metagame share.

During the washup of Tempest-Urza Standard, which was dominated by broken combo decks that required three waves of bannings, Standard had a format ‘watch list’.

This was a list of cards that were not banned but that Wizards wanted to warn players were at serious risk of being banned.

As part of the ‘warning’ about Marvel, reintroduce the Watch List.

Secondly, unban Reflector Mage in Standard.

Reflector Mage is a strong card, and one that was banned because the WU Flash deck with both Reflector Mage and Snugglecopter was considered too strong.

However, that deck has lost Snugglecopter and is not well positioned against two recent printings, Heart of Kiran and Sweltering Suns. Both of those cards are absolute must-answers for the formerly oppressive WU deck. (The deck has answers; it just has to have them at the correct time).

Reflector Mage being legal in the format would add more Spell Quellers into the metagame. Queller is extremely good at slowing down Marvel’s big turn long enough to win the game, and in a last resort situation, Reflector Mage itself can answer a resolved Ulamog, potentially putting you back in the game.

The 2 power on both Reflector Mage and Spell Queller also ensures that a deck built around these cards will not easily get to use the most powerful vehicle still legal in Standard, Heart of Kiran.

There has never been an unbanning in Standard before, but there is a first time for everything.

Reflector Mage should be placed right onto the new Watch List, although I don’t think it will actually need to be banned again.

Thirdly, no changes are needed in any other major format, except to put Death’s Shadow on the Modern watchlist. Legacy is extremely diverse at present, and while Modern and Vintage aren’t perfect, both are doing pretty well.

I’ll leave the MTGO-specific 1v1 Commander and Pauper formats to people that pay more attention to them than I do. It would not surprise me in the slightest to see Baral, Chief of Compliance taken out the back and shot. Pauper seems in acceptable shape but again, I’m no expert there.

That’s enough rambling for today.

  • sirgog

 

 

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An open letter: The failings of MTGO’s trading system, and how to solve them

This was originally posted on the old Wizards of the Coast boards in September 2014. Those boards are now long gone, but I stand by the ideas I posted back then.

I’ve edited for clarity and for the different format of my blog, but the content is the same.

As this was first posted three years ago, it references some card values that are no longer close to accurate.

 

The failings of MTGO’s trading system, and how to fix them.

Rather than explaining why I think the trading system in MTGO is the most serious ‘big problem’ with the client right now, I’ll encourage MTGO players to carry out a small experiment.

Over the next week, play as you normally would, and record how long you spend logged into the MTGO client. Don’t count extended AFK time, just the time you are there, paying attention to the client.

Record how long you spend actually playing games of Magic or other related activities like building draft decks, and how much total downtime you have (time between tournament rounds, or time spent acquiring cards you want for a deck, or time spent checking prices and then selling the cards you just drafted).

I believe that if you play either Limited or competitive Constructed much at all, you will find that collection management related downtime significantly cuts into your Magic playing time.

Collection management downtime is a big part of paper MTG, but like cards becoming accidentally damaged or sleeves becoming marked, trading is something that MTGO can do better than paper.

This letter is about my proposals to decrease the time wasted on collection management by players, so that we can spend more time on the parts of MTGO that we actually enjoy – competitive-minded decision making in a world of incomplete information and nearly unlimited possibilities.

 

An aside on trade history:

This is background info and can be skipped, but may interest some. If that’s not you – just scroll down to the next bold text.

MTGO player-to-player trading was originally designed, like many other parts of the game, to mirror the experience of paper trading closely.

Players stick their currently unneeded cards into virtual trade binders (making them visible to prospective trade partners) or they can keep certain cards in reserve. For example, I might own four City of Traitors that I don’t put in my trade binder, but if you have a Tarmogoyf I want I might be willing to make them visible then.

All transactions are direct player-to-player trades.

Early on, before I started playing on MTGO, the Event Ticket became THE established currency of trading. It could have been packs instead, but for various reasons related to prize support, liquidity of certain boosters, and tickets being a cheaper object than packs, tickets made more sense as a currency. Event tickets being a trade currency has been given ‘official’ approval by WotC in many an article since then, for example in DailyMTG.com articles that focus on budget decks.

Early in MTGO, card liquidity* was low, until around the era of Betrayers of Kamigawa, when human dealers were phased out in favor of bots.

Early bots didn’t handle the whole trade, they just spammed a trade message in various channels over and over alerting you to the offers the human behind the bot was offering.

But soon fully automated bots appeared that used optical character recognition to work out which cards a trading partner had in their binder. They quickly became common.

Owning a trade bot was initially extremely lucrative and their coding was a guarded secret, but in time they became widespread and margins became lower. Now, it is effectively impossible to be a dealer on MTGO without running multiple bots 24/7.

The human element of trading from MTGO’s early days is completely gone, and there is third party bot software available to ‘buy’ a license for in exchange for a fee.

This isn’t an attempt at nostalgia for the old days. There were positives to the pre-bot era, such as the community that developed around the ‘Auctions’ channel.

But overall I think the automation of trading has been a good thing in general – drafters can offload undesired cards with less effort than before, Constructed players (competitive or casual) can assemble decks more easily and at a lower price, and price speculators can quickly acquire 200 copies of the card they expect to be the Next Big Thing. In short, liquidity in the market has increased, and this is a good thing. Collection management downtime has decreased dramatically.

However, it’s not perfect.

* – For those without economics knowledge, ‘liquidity’ means how easily something can be traded. Increased liquidity generally reduces the gap between buy and sell prices. You can see this in paper Magic, where many dealers will offer a higher percentage of their sell price for highly-in-demand Standard cards they can move quickly, and a lower percentage of their sell price for hard-to-sell cards like a Japanese foil Goblin Welder (even though the latter will command a high price if you find the right buyer).

 

Problems with the current system:

Firstly, event tickets are indivisible, meaning that players cannot trade for low value cards without trusting a bot that has a partial ticket accounting system or finding a mutually acceptable low value trade item. This is not a good system at all as more than 95% of the cards opened in booster packs have a value well south of one ticket.

This rewards unscrupulous bot owners (closing one bot and reopening a new account can result in you stealing up to 99 cents from each of a LARGE number of players, this really adds up).

It also has nonmonetary effects – it feels much worse to trade for obscure cards. Consider a card like Clone – making a trade of one event ticket for four copies of Clone feels really bad, even when there is the promise of future credit. (At the time of writing, Clone’s price was 0.03 tickets).

If I wanted Clones, I might be happy ‘throwing away’ USD 0.88 for the convenience of quickly finding four copies of a desired card, but I would still feel bad about hitting ‘confirm’ on a trade where I’m getting only 12% of the value of what I am trading away.

Secondly, if you want a card, there is no easy way to find someone that has the card you want. (This is less true in 2017 than it was in 2014 – there are more dealers that try to stock everything than there were 3 years ago). You can go to the message boards and find someone that claims to have the card you want, but the messageboard reflects only what people claim to have, and with a limited amount of characters that can be typed into a message, it will not necessarily be accurate.

For example, take two cards at opposite ends of the desirability spectrum, Clone and Cryptic Command. (At the time of writing, the first bot I checked is buying a Modern Masters Cryptic Command at 21.01 tickets and selling at 23.49).

A search in the client for the text string ‘Cryptic’ will find a selection of bots that claim to have Cryptic Command in stock at a certain price. This can be misleading.

Often what they mean is ‘The last time I updated this message I was selling Cryptic Command at 23.49 tickets, but since then I sold my last copy’, or worse, it can mean ‘The last time I updated this message I was selling Cryptic Command at 23.49 tickets, but since then I decided to up the price to 24.99 tickets and I hope you don’t notice’.

Your search will also find bots that are offering to buy Cryptic Command at various prices, as well as people that are trading Cryptic Commands but will not disclose their prices, and it will also pick up bots with Cryptic in their name.

A search for ‘Command’ or ‘Cryptic Command’ will also work, but will show less results. Players familiar with Magic lingo often abbreviate the card as just ‘Cryptic’, and those search terms will not connect with this abbreviation.

A player unfamiliar with the nuances of MTGO trading and card nicknames may be disheartened to see only a small number of people claiming to deal with this card.

It’s worse again if you want a specific edition of the card, particularly a rare one like an ME4 Tundra.

A search for ‘Clone’ on the other hand will show very few results, as while a large number of players have the card and are happy to trade it, they do not consider this fact worth advertising.

Thirdly, there is no requirement that players honour their publicly advertised prices. This is a major timewaster for people that are trying to source a card.

Many of the larger bot chains have algorithms written into them that dynamically increase card prices as you try to buy more copies of it. So buying one Cryptic Command might cost you 23.49 tickets, but buying two might cost you 23.79 tickets each, and four might cost 24.49 each. (2017 edit: This has largely changed now – most bots will sell a playset of a card at the same per-unit price as they would sell one).

Fourth, the trade system generally requires people using it to share a language, which in practice means English as I am yet to encounter a bot in any other language.

My suggestions would overcome this barrier, allowing me (a person who speaks only English) to trade to a player that speaks only Japanese. It would also improve the experience of trading with a person who speaks French as a first language alongside just a few words of English.

Fifth, and possibly most importantly, trades require both partners to be online.

Sixth and finally, the trade system does not support large trades well. Several years ago I traded a very large number of tickets (500) for four sets of Return to Ravnica. I had to talk the set seller through a way to do the trade that didn’t expose either of us to potential fraud. Otherwise, I could have let them take 400 tickets in one trade and taken all the mythics and rares and then blocked them, effectively stealing nearly 100 tickets.

This could be much worse with 4x foil sets.

Whilst I believe WotC take a hard line against using deception in trades, it would be better if the system simply did not allow it.

 

My suggestions:

Suggestion #1 – Increased currency granularity:

Firstly, eliminate event tickets and replace them with an account balance that is used to enter tournaments, purchase digital MTGO products from the store and can be used as a currency to conduct trades (but never withdrawn for cash).

2017 edit: Note that these would be separate from Play Points, which would continue to be unable to be traded. (PP did not exist when this letter was originally posted).

If there are legal reasons (gambling laws, money laundering laws), or if credit card fraud risk stops this being viable, instead introduce a new digital object, the ‘chip’, which represents one-thousandth of an event ticket. Allow event tickets to be ‘opened’ like boosters (becoming 1000 chips), and phase out Event Tickets, using chips as the new way to pay tournament entry fees. (For example, you could enter a 2 ticket Constructed 1v1 queue by paying 2 Event Tickets, or alternately by paying 2000 chips).

Either of these would solve problem 1 outright. Low value cards would immediately become readily tradeable, as the vast majority of cards still hold a value of at least one-tenth of a cent.

Secondly, keep the person-to-person trading interface that exists now, but create and heavily promote a new trading system that mirrors the broker-based market in the MMO EVE Online (and consider paying CCP, the makers of EVE, to help you implement it into MTGO).

 

Suggestion #2 – Sell Orders:

This is basically a buyout-only ‘auction house’.

A ‘sell order’ is a pledge to sell a card for a certain price, if a buyer can be found in a given timeframe. When you create a sell order for a card, the card is removed from your collection and placed in escrow for the duration of the sell order.

If a buyer is found, the card is delivered from escrow to that buyer immediately, and the tickets/chips/account balance is transferred to the seller.

If the sell order does not fill, or if the seller elects to cancel their order, the card is returned from escrow to the seller at the end of the time period.

I see no reason to augment the sell order option with an ‘auction house’ or ‘best offer’ options when you have…

Suggestion #3 – Buy Orders:

A ‘buy order is the reverse – a pledge to buy a card for a given price, if a seller can be found in the relevant timeframe. The entire price of the cards in question is deducted from your account balance and put in escrow (alternately, tix and chips are put in escrow).

If a seller is found you get the cards and they get the escrow; if no seller is found, you get the currency back when the order expires or when you elect to cancel it.

In the event of a card being banned or unbanned in any format, all outstanding buy/sell orders up for that card would be immediately suspended until the order placer next logs on, at which point they will receive a message:

“The card Show and Tell has been banned in the Legacy format, do you still want to offer 105.003 tickets for each of four copies of Urza’s Saga foil Show and Tell?”

Buy and sell orders should be anonymous, and treat different versions of a card as totally different objects. (Example: a Mercadian Masques Counterspell would be treated as a different item to a Tempest Counterspell, even though many players would consider them interchangeable. A text search for Counterspell would show both, as well as their foil versions, and the various other printings of the card).

Players could look at their objects in escrow, buy orders and sell orders at any time, cancel orders at any time, and modify an individual buy or sell order once per hour. (Once per hour would prevent 0.001 ticket price wars being won by bots that are programmed to check if they have been undercut or outbid every minute).

 

An example of buy and sell orders in practice:

Imagine I want to acquire three copies of the card Voice of Resurgence. Being a little vain, I want my Voices to be shiny. (At the time of writing in 2014, the first bot I checked was buying foil Voice of Resurgence for 33.42 and selling for 40.49, so ‘fair price’ is around 36-37 tickets)

– I browse the sell orders and see a total four foil Voices for sale, at 36.999, 37.000, 41.000 and 236.000 tickets.

– I decide to buy the two cheaper copies of the card, but feel 41 is more than I’m prepared to pay (and I sure as hell am not paying 236). Without me ever knowing who I am trading with, I select ‘buy’ on the first two. My account balance drops by $73.999 (tracked to a tenth of a cent), the two foil Voices are transferred from escrow into my account, and the account balance of my two trading partners is increased by $36.999 and $37 respectively.

– I then decide to post my own buy order to try to get the third one more cheaply than 41.000. Looking at the buy orders up currently, I see four at 24.777, 28.599, 30.600 and 30.602. I consider offering 30.603, but then think that I will get the card more quickly if I offer a little more, and so I offer 35.000 and set a duration of 72 hours on my offer. My account balance goes down by $35, and this store credit goes into escrow. For the next three days, if anyone wants to sell a foil Voice for 35 tickets, even if I am offline, they can sell it to my order.

– Before anyone fills my order, the DCI shocks everyone by emergency banning Voice of Resurgence in Legacy. (Don’t make banned/restricted list announcements drunk, folks). I don’t care, as I wanted the card for a Modern deck. My order now goes into stasis until I log on and confirm ‘yes, I still want the card at that price’ at which point the three day order period begins again. Alternately, I could elect to cancel the order and offer it again at a lower price.

A second example:

I play an M15 draft, and one of the cards I acquire is an In Garruk’s Wake.

It is my ninth copy. I do not want this card, I don’t want any of the nine, but I cannot be bothered posting a sell order to try to get top dollar for it. I just want them gone.

I right click it in the collection and a list of buy orders for the card appears on my screen. The first person is offering 0.032 tickets for (M15 non-foil) In Garruk’s Wake but is only buying four copies. The second person (presumably a dealer) is offering 0.027 tickets for the card but is willing to buy as many as 233 copies.

I then am given the option ‘Sell four copies for 0.032 tickets each?’ which I click. After a confirmation window, 0.128 tickets leaves the first buyer’s escrow and is credited to my account balance. Then I right-click the In Garruk’s Wakes again, and have the option ‘Sell 5 copies for 0.027 tickets each?’ Again I accept, and the IGWs go to the dealer, and $0.135 is added to my store balance.

Of my six complaints about the trade system, this proposed overhaul would address five. The only one not covered is the availability of obscure cards, as many human players will not bother posting them. However, it is likely that dealers (human or bots) will fill that void, making sure that there is still liquidity in the Chimney Imp market – and more relevantly, in the market for low (non-zero) demand, low supply cards like foil Massacre.

 

Monetizing the Trade System:

WotC are a business, and implementing this system so far looks like a lot of cost for no revenue gain.

There’d be customer goodwill (which is meaningful) and also perhaps some people drafting more often because they can sell their cards more quickly. Those matter but probably would not cover the cost of recoding trading entirely.

There are other ways they could get more out of the system without undermining customer goodwill.

Taking a cut from each trade (even a 0.5% cut) would cost this goodwill, and I don’t even think it’s the best way to monetize the system either.

Presently, a moderate number of players pay third parties for licenses to use their trading bot software.

WotC should have a goal: to get this money in their pockets instead.

A concrete suggestion:

Firstly, impose a limit of buy orders and sell orders active at any time for a given account. 8 buy orders and 8 sell orders, with buy orders capped at 4 copies of the card (no limit for sell orders), and order duration capped at 72 hours, would be a good starting point.

Alternately, consider a limit of having 100 orders total, with orders for multiple copies of a card counting multiple times. So ‘Want to Buy: 3 Wasteland’ would take up 3 of your 100 orders.

That is enough to post buy orders for most of a Constructed deck at once, especially when you consider that you’d be buying many cards directly from other people’s sell orders, but it is not enough to run an online dealership or to build sets at bargain prices for redemption purposes.

Secondly, offer players the option to pay USD6 per month (by credit card, or by event tickets/account balance/chips) to have these restrictions considerably reduced. USD6 is a fairly arbitrary estimate at being a price that is reasonable but generates real, ongoing revenue. Accounts that pay this charge would have a limit of 500 buy orders, 500 sell orders, and a cap of 12 copies of a card per order and 7 day time limits.

Effectively, paying this $6 per month gets you all of the benefits you would get today by running a single bot, but the money goes to WotC, not a third party bot coder.

Finally, offer players the option to pay USD50 per month to have the restrictions entirely removed.

This expensive option would give you the benefits currently reserved for people that run trade bots on a dozen accounts or more.

A second option to monetize the system is to require a deposit on sell order listings and buy order listings, that is refunded in full if the order fills. This would dramatically cut down the number of ‘nuisance’ listings where someone posts a ridiculous lowball price such as ‘Buying foil FUT Tarmogoyf, 12 tix’ in the hopes that someone misreads that as 120 tix. This deposit could be as high as 1% of the order amount, and it would serve as a tax on dealers much more than a tax on the Limited and Constructed players that generate WotC revenue.

In summary:

The people that speak highly of MTGO’s current trading system are mostly dealers that make a living (or at least heavily subsidize their hobby) from being the middleman between buyers and sellers that cannot find each other.

The prevalence of third party bots available for license is a necessary evil right now, but poses major risks to MTGO’s integrity.

There has already been at least one incident where a ‘trading bot’ program had trojans built into it that allowed the bot owners to potentially steal cards from those running the bot. If this happened on a big scale, it would be both a public relations nightmare for Wizards, and a financial risk too.

In addition, it’s hard to know how much strain bot chains put on the server currently, but it must be significant. There seem to be over a thousand bot accounts logged on at any time, most have large numbers of cards for trade, and opening a trade with one would query the server ‘How many of each card does this player have for trade?’ every time.

There’s two more advantages WotC gain before even considering possible revenue from the trading system.

Firstly, by speeding up collection management, players that draft a lot will spend less time on collection management, potentially allowing them to fit in one more draft here and there.

Secondly, by having supply and demand driven broad price guidelines publically available in-client, WotC aren’t intervening in the secondary market, but they still manage to minimize the number of times a new player goes through the experience of being badly ripped off in a trade. This might improve new player retention.

For these reasons, I feel replacing the present trade system with a buy order/sell order system should be the next ‘big project’ undertaken by MTGO management after the completion of leagues.

If done well, it will make customers happy, entice them to spend more, and assist in retention and growth – a trifecta that can only be good for MTGO and WotC.

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