Stop. You’re Not Going to Break The Format

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Between Twitter, forums, and talking to people barely a day goes by where I don't witness someone saying that they're trying to break "the format," regardless of which format it is. Unfortunately I think only about 10% of the time it's being said jokingly, which is a problem. I'm going to let you in on a little secret: you're not going to break the format because you can't break the format. If you find that statement offensive then either your name is Zvi, in which case I apologize, or you're too damn sensitive.

This isn't a personal attack against you. The fact of the matter is that no one, no matter how brilliant a deck builder, is going to be breaking any formats anytime soon. Do you know how many people have "broken" a format in Magic's 17½ years? It's possible I'm missing someone but by my count it's three.

First, we should define what it means for the format to be broken which is simple. Unless a card or cards are added to the banned or restricted list, the format is not broken. Afterall, if it was broken then Wizards would fix it because that's what they do. Jund didn't break standard at any point. It was a dominant deck and it was a pain in the ass but there were still plenty of competitive decks being played in large numbers. So now that we know what we're looking for, it's history time!

The first person to break a format has no name because I have no idea who it is. To the best of my knowledge, based on both my memory and a decent amount of research, the banned and restricted list did not yet exist as of March 1994 when Antiquities was released.

If I'm correct the first person to ever look around at a room full of people wasting their time with things like creatures and proceed to say "Mox, Mox, Mox, Mox, Mox, Rack, Rack, Balance. Go." was the first person to break a Magic format. Of course, the format was broken from the start but people weren't thinking like combo players yet. Whether The Rack was printed or not yet, the 20 Mox and 4 Balance deck was absolutely the first combo deck to exist; this is fact.

Unlike the player favourite combo of Channel/Fireball which could be thrown in any deck, the Balance deck was an entire deck dedicated to comboing the opponent out of the game.

Credit goes to Paul Pantera as being the second person to ever break a format. While I'm pretty confident that he's not the designer, Paul was the first person to top 8 a PTQ with Necropotence, and in fact won the tournament. This was in 1996 and since the Pro Tour existed at that point no one gets credit for anything unless they did it at PTQ or on the Pro Tour because life isn't fair. No explanation of this deck is necessary because if you're reading this then you should know about the Black Summer. And if you somehow care enough about Magic to be reading this but don't know what the Black Summer is something is seriously wrong with you. For the record, however, as much as many of you think you know about this awful time period it's a lot like the Great Depression: you can read about it all you want but unless you were there then you'll never fully appreciate how bad things were.

Finally, the most legendary player to ever break a format was Zvi Mowshowitz. Zvi was not only responsible for the famous Turbo Zvi deck, a deck that won by casting a single copy of Inspiration on the opponent about 27 times in a single turn, but I believe he is also responsible for the Tolarian Academy deck. The Academy deck was the first deck to win be consistently taking infinite turns starting on the first or second turn, and it resulted in a whole lot of banning.

A lot.

Not just the Academy itself, but several pieces of the deck all the way down to the lowly Lotus Petal were banned. In fact so many cards were banned between the Academy deck and the Memory Jar deck that Wizards actually instituted an "Oops! We're sorry!" policy where you could mail them banned rares and they would mail you an equal number of booster packs (If you knew what you were doing back then you'd trade for the banned rares really cheap to get extra cheap boxes of cards. And if you really knew what you were doing you'd just stock up on cheap Academies).

You may be thinking "But, Jeebus! Those aren't the only times the format broke!" and you would be correct to say so. However, those are the times when an individual person could claim credit. And afterall, isn't the entire point of wanting to break a format to show how super awesome you are and how much smarter than everyone else you are? I mean, no one wants the format to be broken. It's boring and terrible and makes people quit the game in droves. No, this is all about bragging rights and the one other time the format broke no one got to brag. Why? Because the other time the format broke was during Mirrodin and the deck that broke the format was a preconstructed deck. If anyone threw together an affinity deck and tried to take credit for breaking Standard I will personally call them out and insert a box of Thrull tokens into their rectum.

We're (eventually) talking about deck design here and there's no pride in having Wizards build your deck for you.

Alright, history lesson over. So what do you do then? Get over yourself and stop thinking you can break Standard, Extended, or any other format. When you design trying to break a format you wind up with a pile of grotesque combo decks and inconsistent aggro decks that all win on turn one 0.0000001% of the time and auto-scoop the rest of the time.

The lesson of this story? There is no unbeatable deck and as such you will not create said unbeatable deck and become famous forever.

By all means, build and test your own decks. I do and so you should. Deck design is an important part of the game and something any competitive player should understand well and have experience in even if they've never successfully designed a "tier 1" deck. Just remember when you're building that you will not have a favourable match up against every deck in the format.

That's what the sideboard is for.

Dr Jeebus

Dr. Jeebus is the most electrifying man in intellectual sports entertainment. He has been playing all forms of Magic since early 1995, and was recently voted the angriest Magic personality on Twitter. Though Jeebus does not have the time or money to go pro, but he's still really good and understands both the intricacies of play and of design, so you should listen to him. His notable accomplishments include beating a pro player so severely as to make him cry while at the age of 13, and defeating 5 multiplayer opponents using a single Thoughtlash.

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14 thoughts on “Stop. You’re Not Going to Break The Format

  1. I think players don't truly understand what "breaking a format" really consist of and hopefully with your explanation will begin to word things differently. I think most players have said that at one time or another (assuming they build their own deck, which a lot of people don't) but I think they really meant they would create a new tier 1 deck as opposed to "break the format". Interesting article. Hopefully it gets read a LOT.

  2. I believe the actual term has just evolved with the player base and as Wizards is more careful it is far arder to actally break a format, I have to point out one more that most people miss due to the fact that it wasn't standard…or even a conventional format but as it was aPT I feel it is worth mentioning. Jacob Van Lunen and Chris Lachmann's Sliver 2HG draft strategy actually broke that format, if you watched any of thier matches you would understand what I mean…and if you watched the finals and the look on the Japanese's face (during the height of Japanese dominance) you would see that even they understood what thier opponents did…something that has never been done since and honestly may never be done again…they truly broke the format.

    Thanks for the article a decent read though I feel like sometimes you rant more than you inform but its fine as someone who played through all of this I can understand the frustrations of each.

    1. My default, it is impossible to break a limited format, and 2HG slivers isn't even close.
      First of all, much like with standard affinity, the first people to draft slivers aren't accomplishing anything; they're unwrapping a present from Wizards. I'm not at all impressed by two guys saying "Hey, all these cards pump each other. Let's draft nothing but them!" Whether they tried it or not, it is the first strategy that every single person to draft Time Spiral thought of.
      Second of all, and far more importantly, draft is a self-correcting format. If one draft strategy is disproportionately powerful than all other draft strategies in a particular limited format, the format will be balanced out by more people trying to draft that strategy. If you have a 4 2HG teams drafting at a table and three of them try to draft slivers, chances are the one remaining team will win and those three teams will have borderline unplayable decks. If your strategy only works as long as NO ONE ELSE thinks to do the same thing, you haven't broken a format; you just got lucky.

      1. People tried to draft against it and to draft the same strategy all weekend…its not like they did one draft. After talking to Van Lunen about it and watching the film, they were more prepared than anyone else there and they did break it. There was no way to stop the strategy because no one knew which slivers to hate draft. They had it down to a science how to wheel certain ones and which to take first even if it looked wrong. Limited formats in general I agree cant be busted but 2HG is a whole different animal and I feel as if there was another event with the same format after that you would be correct everyone would know and try and draft it then you end up like the Tolarian academy days where you have 3 slight;ly different archtypes trying to share the glory…however for this one time only I would say they did break the format, how else do you explain the fact that everyone knew what they were doing tried to hate against it and still got crushed? Its not like the tech was a secret after saturday everyone knew what they were doing.

        1. You said it yourself: they were more prepared. You also admitted that if there was another event with the same format that it wouldn't work. If their plan worked for that event but would not work ever again despite the format not changing, then they clearly didn't break it. They won the event and made everyone look stupid because they were unprepared, but that happens all the time. When Dragonstorm using Spinerock Knoll took Worlds did it break the format? Not even close. They prepared better and made everyone look stupid, but as soon as people were expecting Dragonstorm again it was a terrible deck. Same exact thing.

          1. I disagree due solely to the fact that Dragonstorm you could beat with other decks in the format, the only way to beat that sliver deck in the format was by drafting it, or at the least having it hated hard. Just like every other deck in history there was no other way to beat it than to join it, I only say it wouldnt work again because everyone at the table would be trying to draft it, but thats like saying Academy decks would be bad because everyone in the room was playing them. Again I feel its the one exception to the rule, an you are looking at it from a constructed point of view, from a limited perspective it is literally the only time the format has been play X or lose to X, nothing has even come close ever.

  3. Outstanding rant, Jeebs. Here I thought I was the only one who rolled the eyes when pros and aspirants jump on Twitter and declare they're going to "break the format." A day or two later comes the inevitable follow-up tweet "Broke it!", followed by a round of sycophantic congratulations from amongst the faithful… then comes a disappointing finish in the next pro event and the sound of crickets chirping when nobody calls them on it.

    I'm hardly in a position to talk since I don't do pro events, but then I'm also not the one running the patter either.

  4. Would you consider Caleb Durward to have broken Legacy last summer in Columbus with his survival deck. I'm sure he collaborated with people and just happened to put up the best finish, but it did result in the most dominant archetype since flash if memory serves.

    Also, when people talk about "breaking the format", I think they generally refer to their ability to create a deck that has a very strong percentage against a given field for the next tournament. To this end, something like the UWR deck was insane at the SCG LA event last January, and I think that that deck was a very impressive accomplishment in deck-building and metagaming.

  5. I agree with Nicholas: "Also, when people talk about "breaking the format", I think they generally refer to their ability to create a deck that has a very strong percentage against a given field for the next tournament. To this end, something like the UWR deck was insane at the SCG LA event last January"
    This actually being the case most of the time I believe that this makes the game more interesting and balance the hive mind principle that online play generated. Although not semantically correct if "breaking" encourages people to think outside the consecrated decks and come up with something new and creative which makes the game more diverse then keep "breaking" it buddy.

  6. I agree on the term "breaking a format" being overused, but i would disagree on the number….

    "The Broken Jar" by Erik Lauer and Randy Buehler broke the format and was banned pretty much immidiatly…
    "Survival Madness" by Caleb Durward
    "DarkDepths ThopterFoundry" by Gerry Thompson

    Just to name a few single player format breakings 😛

  7. What about Hulk Flash? You never mentioned that one. Or Trix, the deck that finally got Necro banned? Missed it, too.

    I'm pretty certain that formats have been broken more than just a few times, if your definition of format-breaking is that cards got banned as a result. Those two and Broken Jar, which someone else already mentioned, were just the first that came to my mind. And that's not counting anything before Revised, since all sorts of decks were format-breaking at the time.

    Come to think of it, since Vengevine-Survival got Survival banned, would you consider that a deck that broke the format? Lots of cards have been added to the B&R list over the years….

    1. If you've ever taken the SAT's, you should know by now that while all A's are B's, not all B's are necessarily A's. As such, when the format is broken they always ban cards, but when they ban cards the format isn't always broken.

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