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Sculpting Formats – The Circle of Predation

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It is interesting to note that Wizards finally seems to be catching on to the fact that they have to actually design Standard as a format, otherwise you end up with a mediocre format. I’ve recently begun to see Wizards make a real attempt to sculpt formats with card printings and card choices, the most glaring example of which was reprinting Mana Leak in M11. I want to talk today about one of the core elements of formats, and how they operate.

The most important concept to understand here is Natural Predation. The Natural Predator(s) of specific cards or strategies are cards and/or strategies that are inherently strong against them. Natural predator/prey relationships are the core of a good format. They operate to keep various strong elements in check and make good formats. There are basically two types of Natural Predators.

Category A: Strategic Superiority

This is an archetype versus archetype predation. Strategic Superiority happens when one deck’s strategy either 1) advances the strategy of their opponent’s deck, 2) has no reasonable way to interact with or hinder the opposing deck or 3) has an unstoppable trump.

An example of (1) would be, for example, from Old Extended, playing a Sanity Grinding deck against Dredge. I would presume in most instances, this will result in the Dredge player winning, because the Sanity Grinding deck has a fundamental strategy that advance’s the Dredge deck’s strategy.

An example of (2) – which of the following two decks would win if they played each other:

I would be surprised if Deck B was able to win even a single game against Deck A, as they will likely be dead before they cast their first Tyrannax. Deck B’s strategy is just terrible against Deck A’s. In this situation, Deck A has Strategic Superiority.

Moving to an example that you might have actually see at a tournament for (3):

In Lorwyn-Shards T2, Cruel Control against your typical aggro-deck.

[cardlist]

[Lands]

2 Cascade Bluffs

1 Gargoyle Castle

2 Island

3 Mystic Gate

4 Reflecting Pool

2 Sunken Ruins

2 Vivid Crag

4 Vivid Creek

3 Vivid Marsh

3 Vivid Meadow

[/Lands]

[Creatures]

2 Bogardan Hellkite

4 Kitchen Finks

[/Creatures]

[Spells]

4 Broken Ambitions

3 Cruel Ultimatum

4 Cryptic Command

4 Esper Charm

1 Essence Scatter

1 Haunting Echoes

4 Lightning Bolt

1 Liliana Vess

2 Planar Cleansing

4 Volcanic Fallout

[/Spells]

[Sideboard]

2 Celestial Purge

2 Doom Blade

4 Great Sable Stag

2 Hallowed Burial

2 Negate

2 Runed Halo

1 Swerve

[/Sideboard]

[/cardlist]

This deck had Strategy Superiority because of the dual trumps in the match-up – Kitchen Finks and Cruel Ultimatum. The aggro deck had no real way of dealing with the advantage generated by those cards and thus the game became about whether or not the Cruel Control mage was able to find and resolve those spells before he died. Since this happened frequently, the match-up was favorable for Cruel Control. The aggro deck could win, but it was definitely an uphill battle.

Category B: The Circle of Predation

There are four pillars of this circle:

  1. The one-drop (sometimes the two-drop)
  2. The counterspell
  3. The big spell
  4. Incremental Card Advantage.

At the core of most strategies in T2 is one of these four elements. These four elements form the basic structure of what I will call the Circle of Predation. The Circle of Predation demonstrates inherent strategic strengths of one type of strategy against another. It is not Strategy Superiority, just inherent advantage. In other words, it’s not to say that these strategies can’t beat the strategies that prey on them, it’s that they have an uphill battle to do so.

This is the basic Circle of Predation:

Sculpting Formats

In healthy formats all elements of the Circle are present, so the format can shift as necessary. Unhealthy formats occur when the Circle is broken or a specific broken card/strategy appears.

There are two main wrenches in the Circle of Predation – Combo and Tempo. These two types of decks exist in a weird space. Combo decks tend to be lynchpin decks, which means that they, like big spell decks, can be vulnerable to predation by the Counterspell. But they can also be vulnerable to predation by The One-Drop. Usually these types of combo decks will be good against Counterspell decks. Thus Combo will usually exist either between the Counterspell and The Big Spell or The One-Drop and The Counterspell.

Tempo decks (Ponza is the primary example) prey on two types of decks – decks with weak manabases and The Big Spell. Their greatest natural predator is usually The One-Drop. The thing with these decks is that they can end up preying on almost anything because they prey on weak manabases. It is possible for a Counterspell deck, Big Spell deck, or Incremental Card Advantage deck to have a weak manabase, leaving the door open to a Tempo deck to prey on it.

Examples from the modern history of Magic of the Circle at work include some of the following decks:

Incremental Card Advantage vs. The One-Drop – Gifts Rock vs. Boros (Extended 2006):

The Big Spell vs. Incremental Card Advantage – UW Tapout vs. Jund (Past Standard):

The Counterspell vs. The Big Spell – UW Control vs. Valakut Ramp (right now):

The One-Drop vs. The Counterspell – Zoo vs. Faeries (Extended 2009)

Each of these showcases inherent advantages to the appropriate side within the circle.

It is important to remember, however, that the Circle isn’t law. It only represents natural advantages certain strategies have over others. This isn’t to say, for example, that Counterspell decks can’t beat One-Drop decks, or that Big Spell decks can’t beat Counterspell decks. In fact, things like this frequently happen.

So how do you reverse trends in the Circle?

  1. You can have stronger cards.
  2. You can be a hybrid deck
  3. Your opponent cannot be fully executing his strategy

Jund was a perfect example of #1. Jund is an incremental card advantage deck, but the card quality and power was just so much better than anything else in the metagame, and thus it dominated the metagame for a while.

Many modern builds of UW control are examples of #2. They run some countermagic, but also run things like Planeswalkers and Titans that are big spells, so they can just out-trump you in ways also. Thus they can act as a Big Spell deck or a Counterspell deck depending on the scenario, giving them a lot of flexibility.

A good example of #3 is the modern Red Deck. With the Red Deck today, there are two types of games – games where the red deck has Goblin Guide and games where the red deck doesn’t. This is because when the Red Deck has Goblin Guide it is acting as a true one-drop deck, and thus has all the advantages associated with that strategy. However, when it doesn’t have Goblin Guide the strategy becomes much weaker, since it relies on a two-drop to do that job.

Applying the Circle to Designing and Viewing Standard as a Format

The easiest way to have a healthy format is to have each element of the circle be a strong a viable part of the metagame. While this is hard to achieve exactly, it is reasonable to have each element of the circle at least exert a strong presence. It is difficult to foresee exactly which element will be the strongest, but it is reasonably easy to allow each element some room to play in a given format.

In order to keep each element in the format strong, each element has to have strong cards to work with. This means that there needs to be good one drops in aggressive colors (typically white and red, but basically red in most formats), good counterspells, good big spells, and good two-for-ones. The reason I argue for the printing of Mountain Lion (Red Savannah Lions) and reprinting of Counterspell (i.e. UU Counterspell) is because these two cards would strengthen those elements in the Circle enough to give play in those departments.

The experiment with Cancel proved that Cancel alone is not strong enough to give Counterspells play in T2. In fact, the combination of Essence Scatter and Negate is not strong enough. There needs to be a 2 mana counter that has play against both creatures and non-creatures. Mana Leak fills this role for now (which is why it was so huge when it was printed), but Counterspell would be better for it. The fact of the matter is, a card like Mana Leak or Counterspell is necessary for a healthy Standard environment.

The necessity of a good one-drop in red at all times makes me think that Mountain Lion would need to be printed. Maintaining a good one-drop in the core set would free Wizards from the need to print a good red one-drop in every base set, opening up design space. It’s possible that they want to print this good one drop anyway, but Mountain Lion is a viable replacement if they want to go in a different direction.

By creating a Circle that is not heavily skewed toward any individual strategy you bring balance to a format at a core, fundamental level. But it does not make the format interesting.

Interesting formats are created by wrenches thrown in the typical paradigm represented by the Circle. This is where Combo and Tempo come in. Combo and Tempo interact with the Circle in different ways than the core elements, exerting stress on the format that makes it different. Stone Rain is a critical element for Tempo decks, because of the nature of the archetype. Applying pressure is critical, and that has proven to be only effective when it starts at 3 at the latest. Starting at 4 is simply too slow.

I am happy that Wizards has pushed the power level of creatures. They always should have been a relevant and important part of tournament magic and they are now finally taking their rightful place on tournament tables everywhere. However, a focus on creatures vs. non-creatures is too simplistic. It does not encompass how Magic formats operate as a whole.

What I have presented here does not encompass every Magic format either, but it is a pretty good skeleton of how T2 operates and how Extended will operate in the future. Eternal formats are basically a different animal. Still, Standard, as Wizards’ most popular format, needs to be designed to be a fair and balanced environment. The Circle of Predation is a good place to start.

Chingsung Chang

Conelead most everywhere and on MTGO

Khan32k5@gmail.com