The Devil’s Advocate and Modern

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If you haven't heard, Wizards of the Coast recently announced a new format - Modern.  The oldest cards allowed will be 8th Edition (for core sets) and Mirrodin (for expansions).  The idea for the format, as I understand it, is to be a non-rotating (cards will never become too old and not legal anymore, meaning new cards will only be added) format like Legacy or Vintage, but it will allow Wizards to reprint any cards they want to at any time to get around the Reserved List*.  Modern would also pave the way for Pro Tour Qualifiers that used an older format, which could provide a pleasant change of pace from Standard and Limited.  Modern also serves, according to its proponents, as a middle ground between Standard and Legacy.

Modern has generated quite a bit of discussion and excitement since it was first announced as a format for the Community Cup (Wizards' replacement for the Invitational, but without the part where people cared) and even more since it was brought to the world at large in Tom LaPille's article.

Everybody needs to calm down and take a breath.  Slow down, cool their engines, and relax.  I have some bad news: Modern is not going to accomplish many, if any, of its goals.

Modern will serve as "Budget Legacy"

First, the claim that this format will allow Wizards to reprint any cards they want to in order to keep the price down is operating on a false assumption - that Wizards would ever do so.  Sure, they can, but they won't.  Wizards is never going to reprint a card to lower its price and make and older format more accessible to budget players.  WotC has said they will not interfere in the secondary market, and their track record reflects this.  If WotC wanted to print cards to drop the price and make older formats more accessible they could have made From the Vault: Legacy and given anyone that wanted it 4 Tarmogoyf, 4 Dark Confidant, etc for $50 and made a bajillion dollars in the short run without violating their Reserved List, yet they haven't.

One reason they haven't made a box set like this is that no store would actually sell it for the MSRP of $50, or whatever WotC said.  A single Tarmogoyf will run you more than that these days, and a box set with a playset of them and some other goodies on top would either be marked up until it was close to the individual market price for all the cards in it added together or else the stores would just open it and stick the singles in their case.  Either way it would fail in its goal of getting players on a budget the more expensive cards they needed to compete in older formats, and Wizards knows this.

The best way that Wizards could lower the price of older, expensive tournament staples to enable budget players to compete is the now-gone Magic Player Rewards program.  Having textless copies of tournament staples mailed right to your door would be pretty sweet, but that program was axed and will not return.  Even if it still existed, however, it could not be used for this purpose because the overwhelming majority of cards that are expensive tournament staples are complicated, which means they would be poor choices for textless cards.  Lightning Bolt, Mana Leak, Rampant Growth, and others are good choices for textless cards because they are widely played and relatively simple.  The majority of money rares, however, are too complicated to make good textless cards because it would be too difficult to remember what they did.  Dark Confidant and Vendillion Clique would be extraordinarily poor choices for cards to be given the textless treatment (not that a textless Bob/Clique wouldn't be the coolest thing ever, mind you).

Wizards could just stick any cards they desired in a standard set, of course.  Surely reprinting a card in another set would lower its price, right?  Well, yes and no.  The Ravnica Shocklands, if they were reprinted in Innistrad or the next core set, would certainly fall in value some.  Maybe Wizards would get really crazy and reprint a few other money cards in the same set.  If we suppose that every time a card is reprinted its price drops by half (which seems a stretch, but I'm exaggerating to prove a point), and every core set from now forward has several chase rares reprinted in a conscious effort to lower their price, it will still take years and years for Modern to enter the realm of budget players.

Gavin Verhey recently wrote an article in which he gave a number of decklists for possible Modern decks.  Until the Pro Tour is finished, this will be the primary source of decklists available, so I took one at random.  His first Zoo deck has 4 Knight of the Reliquary ($10), 4 Noble Hierarch (sold out at $15), 4 Tarmogoyf (sold out at $100), 1 Gaddock Teeg ($4), 1 Elspeth, Knight Errant ($12), 2 Green Sun's Zenith ($6), 4 Grove of the Burnwillows (sold out at $8), 1 Horizon Canopy (sold out at $10), 4 Arid Mesa ($13), 2 Misty Rainforest ($13), 1 Sacred Foundry (sold out at $20), 2 Stomping Ground ($25), and 1 Temple Garden ($25) for rares (I'm using all prices from SCG because they are one of the most frequented and prominent sites.  I frequently disagree with their exact prices, but they have a listing for everything and are a reasonable ballpark for the purposes of this article).  That's a grand total of $743 for just the rares, not counting any expensive commons or uncommons.  Supposing that Innistrad reprinted the Ravnica Shocklands and halved the value of the originals, that would only cut the cost of the deck by about $50.  If 2013 reprinted Noble Hierarch and Tarmogoyf the deck's value would drop another $260.  $310 is a significant amount of money, to be sure, but the deck would still cost $433 to buy new.  This means if we take a trip to Magical Christmas Land and deliberately overestimate the impact of reprints on prices, imagine that Wizards will embark on a campaign to attempt to devalue the prices of older cards to make Modern more accessible to budget players (something they have said they will never do), *and* imagine we see the reintroduction to standard of a number of cards that could easily be called broken, the deck would still cost more than $400, well out of range of most players that would consider themselves "budget".

Magic is an expensive hobby.  There are just no two ways around it.  The expense can be kept in check by tournament winnings, successful speculation, good trading, or a number of other ways, but at the end of the day it is always going to be expensive to start from nothing and buy a tournament quality deck.  Anyone that is claiming that a new format, other than Pauper, will allow budget players to truly compete on the same level as the real grinders that have all the cards they could ever want is either wrong or lying.

The imaginary $400 price tag is still significantly lower than the price for many tier one Legacy decks, but, because it is still outside the reach of budget players, Modern will not become a haven for people who have been priced out of Legacy.  If the goal is to appeal to players that can not afford Legacy but the price is not significantly lower than this then a relatively small percentage of players will be positively impacted - only those that can not afford a tier one Legacy deck filled with dual lands, Force of Wills, and so on, but can afford to spend $400 or more for Modern.  I would postulate that this is a very small number of players.  Most players are either willing and able to spend whatever it takes to build the deck they want to play or they are not, and I don't see the price tag of entry being $400 instead of $1,000 as particularly relevant in that regard.  Of course everyone is going to be happier if they can buy deck A for less than half the price of deck B if they have already decided to buy a new deck, but how many players are going to look at a $400 price tag and think "I can afford that" that would think "I guess I can't afford that format" if they saw a $1,000 price tag?

Modern will usher new players into Legacy

Some of the Legacy players I know have been excited about Modern, believing that it will encourage Standard-only players to give it a try, and once they have a Modern deck, to give Legacy a try.  The belief is that many Standard-only players look at the size of the cardpool available in Legacy and become paralyzed.  There are so many options, so many decks and strategies to become familiar with that they don't know where to begin, and so they just never start.  This is a feeling I am quite familiar with (first "weekly" column in a month, high five!), but slimming the cardpool by a decade isn't going to help with that.  Mirrodin and 8th Edition were both released in 2003.  Since then, Magic has seen creatures pushed to the forefront, the first bannings in years, entirely new strategies and ways of thinking about the game come into existence, be forgotten, and then revived, and dozens of important decks come and go.  "Modern" is the perfect name for the format as it is truly all-encompassing of the modern era.  For someone starting Magic within the last few years that is an incredible amount of history to catch up on.  In fact, I would argue that it would be easier for someone that was familiar with Modern to get into Legacy than for someone only familiar with Standard to become well versed in Modern.  1993-2003 has more years than 2003-2011, but most Legacy decks have more cards printed after 2003 than before.

Similar to my budget argument above, I don't believe there are many players that would be willing to do the work needed to become familiar with Modern that would not be willing to become involved in Legacy, despite the fact it would be more work to catch up on Legacy.  Most players are either willing to put in work to learn a new format, in which case they have already entered Legacy, or they are not, in which case they will not bother with Modern.

Modern will allow Wizards to have an Eternal PTQ format

Possible, but unlikely.  I would like very much to hear that Modern was going to be the format for a cycle of PTQs every year but I would bet against it happening.  Wizards is a business, and they don't make any money by having a Modern PTQ cycle.  They have to have Standard PTQs to help fuel the Standard fires and encourage people to open more boxes and so on, and they make money on every pack sold for Limited PTQs.  How is it in Wizards' interest to have PTQs that are Modern?  If it was in their interest to do Modern PTQs, wouldn't we have seen Legacy PTQs sometime in the past?

Another strike against the Modern-as-PTQ theory, at least for the foreseeable future, is that it is almost identical at the moment to the last iteration of Extended, right before it was shortened to "double Standard".  There was not a lot of love for that format, as I recall.  You couldn't walk into a random store and play a pickup game with anyone in Extended when it wasn't the middle of the PTQ season because no one had a deck built, and virtually no one cared about the format.  PTQ attendance always fell when it was Extended season compared to Standard or Limited seasons.

Modern may become a PTQ format sometime in the future but I would be quite surprised to see it happen anytime soon due to the lack of profit for WotC and the similarity to the unpopular Extended.

There should be a new format added every so often as the game ages

Another frequently given reason for the need for Modern is that new formats should come into existence every now and then as the game ages.  The thinking is that Wizards should introduce a new format every five years (or some other arbitrary span of time) to allow people to play the timeframe they want.

There are several problems with this.  First, every format conceivable can not be played every weekend, because there are simply not enough weekends in a year.  There is a large tournament worth paying attention to nearly every weekend as it is, and Wizards is planning on significantly increasing the number of GPs happening next year.  TCG Player recently started a tournament series to directly compete with the Star City Games Open circuit, and more are sure to follow if they succeed.  The current formats are exploding in popularity and are covering nearly every weekend in the year.  With the year as saturated as it is, adding another format is unlikely to increase the number of tournaments being played, it will simply cut from the same pie and lower the number of tournaments being played in every other format.  Between Legacy, Standard, Vintage, and Limited, there are plenty of formats to be worked on today.  Unless they are one of a very small number of people in the world (I'd guess under ten, certainly under one hundred), chances are most people have not become truly proficient  these formats.  Most players would be significantly better served by another tournament in a format they already know than a new format.

A second hole in this theory is it has a ridiculous end state, if followed to infinity.  If Magic remains successful and thrives for years and years, as we all hope and dream, and Wizards makes a new format every five years, think about how hard it will be to find someone with the same favorite format as you in fifty years.

"Anybody have a Most Recent 20 Years deck?"  asks our Hero, walking into the local card shop.

"No, but I have a Most Recent 15 Years deck.  Want to game?" comes the reply.

"No real point, because I have to worry about three combo decks you don't, so you'll roll me.  I have to play a bunch of maindeck hate cards to fight them that would just be mulligans against you," returns the Hero.

Someone else chimes in:  "I have a Most Recent 25 Years deck...we're pretty close.  I'm up for a game."

So our Hero start playing, and all seems well.  They begin by playing a few dorks and bashing, but Hero has a sweeper and is able to counter their backup play.  Hero counters a few more things, then plays a fatty to clean things up.  When Hero is tapped out, however, the other player uses the window to take Hero's fatty and attack them with it, then use a surprise Tainted Strike.

"...OK...I take 9 poison?" Hero say.

"Good game.  Again?"

Hero and the opponent look at each other for a second, both confused, until they remember that poison was changed to make eight lethal instead of ten around twenty years ago to make the poison decks a bit more competitive, and the game has provided neither of them with any useful testing information because they were playing around different things.

Hero tries playing again but runs into a dispute over Hexproof/Shroud.

Unable to find anyone with a Most Recent 20 Years deck, our Hero leaves without any real playtesting accomplished for their tournament.

Its OK though...because our Hero's tournament doesn't fire.  Our Hero's tournament is stuck at seven players and has to be canceled, while the same thing happens at the Most Recent Ten Years tournament across town.

I'm sure that Modern will have some interesting decks to look at and brew with.  It will be fun to try to crack a new format, an occasional change of pace from Standard-Legacy-Limited could be nice (I haven't cracked my way into Vintage yet), and I've made some cash speculating on a few cards and look forward to continuing to do so--a new format being announced always helps with that (I'll leave the details to some of the other writers on this site).  That said, Modern has a number of glaring problems that many people seem to be ignorant of/ignoring, and that is going to burn them if they continue paying $40 for every Ravnica Shockland in sight and spending days brewing for Modern instead of working on their sideboard for Standard, or better learning how to play their Legacy deck, only to find out that no one wants to play.

Thanks for reading,

Brook Gardner-Durbin

@TheBG_D on Twitter

*The Reserved List is a list of cards Wizards promised to never reprint after they angered many collectors by making an entire set that was nothing but reprints, Chronicles, greatly devaluing the originals.  The overwhelming majority of cards that are actually played from the earliest sets are on the Reserved List, which means that if Wizards wants to reprint some old cards to make the older formats such as Legacy and Vintage more accessible, they can't.  Everyone, Wizards included, thinks that the Reserved List is terrible and should go away, but they made a promise as a corporation a decade ago and have to stick to it.


3 thoughts on “The Devil’s Advocate and Modern

  1. right now there are 3 ptq formats – Sealed, Standard and Extended.
    extended is a hated format and modern has reinvigorated ppl so it could easily replace extended, why would wizards want a format that attracts no interest and tiny ptq's as a result. Modern is more cost effective than legacy and as popular given the hype generated by the changes to PT Philly and Worlds.

  2. I think one thing in your analysis of the price issue is the availability of cards. Specifically, Brick stores are going to be more likely to host Modern over Legacy because of card availability. If the store does not have a large stock of staples for Legacy and has focused instead on Standard, it would be easier to push Modern than Legacy since the cost to acquire staples is going to be less relative to Legacy. This also does include the staples the store is likely to have already. This fact could make it more sustainable long term.

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