There is a narrative structure to Magic releases, and although it has changed a bit over time, the major points are all largely the same. As in:
Pre-Pro Tour Environment
Post Pro Tour Environment
(NEW!) Post Pro Tour B&R announcement
In this system, interest, excitement, and (most importantly) attention are directed at the new release. The last few weeks of a lame-duck Standard format tend to see drops in participation and innovation, and prices on existing cards soften (even more on cards rotating out). One of the most important (and simultaneously, most difficult) things to do during the first few steps of that cycle are to pull OUT OF the gravitational pull of a new set, and focus on which existing cards may be undervalued. Margins are hugely important when it comes to Standard, so its vital to pull the trigger when the time is right. Some of what we discuss today will be informed by what happened at the Star City event over the weekend, as well as expected responses and metagaming course corrections. I think you’ll see what I mean as we get started.
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Bannings are tricky things. A ban in Standard is different than one in Modern or Legacy, both in terms of tone and player response. “Older” formats inherently carry the risk of bannings as a check against unforeseen interactions between new and old cards (this is the essential crux of the Golgari Grave-Troll re-banning, new cards like Cathartic Reunion just made Dredge “too good”). It’s possible that this is because formats like Modern are created with some bans already in place, so some of the bloom is off the rose from the get go. Standard, however, is a much more volatile situation. Standard is sold in part as a balanced environment, and bannings, even intended to preserve the greater good, are considered in part a failure.
BRIEF COMPARATIVE ASIDE: The immediate aftermath of a Standard ban kinda feels like when an interim head coach takes over a football team. Yes things are different with Umezawa’s Jitte gone, but nobody thinks that Dan Campbell is really going to stick around. Then again, the Jags hired Doug Marrone, so who knows?
My guess is that bannings in Standard ultimately take some of the romanticism away- players (bad ones) assume that THEY will find the missing piece of the puzzle and vanquish the scourge of whatever deck they keep losing to at FNM and then some how win a Pro Tour. I want to get to the meat of these particular bans (the Standard ones, mostly), but I will say that the addition of a second B&R announcement is an early check against Saheeli Combo disguised as a good idea. I don’t know how the Magic population writ large will respond to the idea of a more policed format philosophy, but I do think it will help prevent player bleeding in the event of a broken format.
Emrakul, the Promised End: This is quite possibly my favorite ban- Emrakul was the de facto top of the format in terms of size and effect, and it warped card choices and game plans towards it. Killing Emrakul (or rather, imprisoning her on the moon) opens up endgame opportunities for cards like Ulamog, Kozilek, or new cards like Herald of Anguish. More importantly, decks that were homogonized in certain forms can now branch out and specialize- Green Black doesn’t NEED to be Delirium anymore, if they find a finisher better than Traverse for the next best thing to Emrakul, although that’s still an option. That trickles down to mean that early game plans don’t have to be the “self-mill while trying to stay alive” tactics that they were before. I don’t know if there is a clear best winner in this situation, but there are several smaller ones.
Smuggler’s Copter: Actually, this might be my favorite ban. Copter had the same deck-building effect as Emrakul, but on the exact opposite archetypes. There will continue to be decks that want to include a mix of Vehicles and creatures, but I don’t expect there to be a 1-for-1 replacement (not even the impressive-looking Heart of Kiran).
Golgari Grave-Troll: Dredge is tough to balance, and GGT is just way too good to exist in Modern. Early impact has been a spike on Golgari Thug, although that card doesn’t have the potential to close out games like Troll does. The only Dredge cards that should be allowed in Modern are Life From the Loam and Moldervine Cloak, as they are the ones I like best.
Reflector Mage: The UW decks have a lot of congestion, and so losing Reflector Mage makes the construction of those decks more streamlined. That’s to a degree the opposite effect that the other bans are expected to have, but it also eliminates some of the weird issues that Reflector Mage had on the formats it was in (namely, Eldrazi Displacer). I think UW is still a deck after losing Mage and Copter, but I don’t think it’s a major player.
Gitaxian Probe: I can’t pretend to know everything about how this impacts Modern, but I definitely get that it’s a big deal. I’m going to pass on this as there’s way too much contextual determination on what replaces it where, and I’m not sure that there is much financial upside given that most of the replacements are things like Serum Visions and Sleight of Hand. Combo decks get some degree worse, although mostly because they can’t have a Peek before attempting to go off.
To close, here are my favorite cards ahead of this weekend’s prerelease!
Yahenni’s Expertise: I think there is a real possibility that the next few months are dominated in part by Liliana, the Last Hope. That’s not to say that there won’t be other decks (we know Saheeli Combo will be a possibility for at least the first eight weeks), but I do think that Lili could stand to serve as a pillar of the format. In that situation, Yahenni’s Expertise seems INSAAAAAANE. Planeswalkers are graded in part on how well they can defend themselves, and having the opportunity to package a Languish in for  seems incredible. At $6 I still really like these, but I would rather trade for them than buy them outright.
Sram, Senior Edificer: Big IF here, but if Puresteel Paladin Combo is a deck, then this feels like a critical 4x. Definitely a high-risk situation, but Modern has been shaken up considerably. I don’t think THIS is the card that sees a tremendous price spike, but I think this is the card that makes the deck work. Key pieces that COULD see an increase include Mox Opal, Monastery Mentor, and Puresteel Paladin itself.
Greenwheel Liberator: I read this a few times to make sure that it counted my Windswept Heaths. It does! Definitely going to try this in Modern with Experiment One and Burning-Tree Emissary. Hidden Herbalists and Narnam Renegade are interesting options also- although these are all pretty narrow.
Lifecrafter’s Bestiary (foil): These feel like a sneaky-good pickup, but definitely for the long term. Most of the decks that want this have access to green already, so color identity isn’t an issue. Long term hold.
That’s all for today, good luck at your prerelease!
Today we are going to talk about Frontier, and I am going to be VERY critical of it. I want to state a couple things off the bat, in hopes that it will help both of us take the most from this that we can:
I have long been advocating for a reboot of Extended. However, I have no financial interests in that “format” outside of the miscellaneous cards acquired as a consistent Standard player of the last several years.
I do not want Frontier to fail as some sort of emotional vendetta. I believe that Magic is good when there are lots of popular formats, and tournament-level constructed Magic TRULY needs more options to cast the wide net that Organized Play wants.
Similarly, I do not intend to target Frontier as either a boon or detriment to Modern. I’ve been pretty vocal in my complaints with that format, and (spoilers!) they are present in my assessment of Frontier’s flaws.
I flew on Frontier Airlines once, and it was a pretty subpar experience, and if we are being totally honest, like 8% of my dislike of Frontier comes with mentally auto-associating it with crappy flights.
Let’s start by describing what Frontier actually is. Frontier is a format that started popping up in Japan several months ago, and began to gain traction there as an alternative to Modern. The starting point here is M15, in part because that set introduced new card frame changes (including that little holographic oval on rares/mythics). The similarities to Modern don’t stop there, however- Frontier is non-rotating, so the cards that are already in are only leaving through bans. It also only includes Standard-legal expansions, so things like Commander products don’t have a significant impact. Let’s talk about what the selling points of Frontier have been so far:
CARD ACCESSIBILITY: In this sense Frontier is advertised as a cheaper alternative to Modern, rather than a new experience. Some Modern cards, like Blood Moon and Dark Confidant, have not been made easily available since they were last in Standard. Things like Tarmogoyf serve as permanent representations that if you haven’t been playing Magic for a very long time, you will have a harder time participating now.
This is something that I definitely sympathize with, and I don’t think that making the jump from Standard directly into Modern is feasible anymore (if it ever truly was). The problem, of course, is that Frontier only solved the symptom, not the cause. If Frontier is still around in ten years, then cards from M15 and Tarkir will still be old cards. They are accessible now the same way Cryptic Command was accessible when Lorwyn was the newest set out. It is mistaking recency for availability, and that’s a long-term issue.
One of the problems with Modern is that it has baked-in issues created by turbulence in Magic’s past. Tarmogoyf’s price is reflective of the fact that it was printed at a time where Magic’s active player population was possibly a third (or less!) of what it is today. Modern is a set of rules for play but not a means of itself providing for that play. If Magic’s boom times are coming to an end, or we see a large enough shrink in players that print runs decrease, then those fluctuations will be forever encased in amber in Frontier’s availability. The graph below represents Modern’s accessibility problem because that inequality is unchangeable (reprints that aren’t in Standard legal products have yet to meet the required numbers to address this issue, by virtue of their scale).
THAT LITTLE FOIL OVAL: It’s not a major selling point, but it’s nice to know that there is an extra security measure against counterfeit cards. I don’t actually have an argument against this, so I’ll give them points for this. See? Fair and balanced.
DESIGN PHILOSOPHY: Modern’s tentpole exists on the basis that the card frames changed, not a clear and consistent development philosophy. Modern simultaneously operates in a reality where Blood Moon, a rare originally printed in THE DARK (!!!!), exists alongside several sets where Stone Rain was deemed “too good to exist anymore”. Magic design and development is not static, and so effects and functions evolve over the course of time. This is why some effects, like “Destroy all creatures” (originally found on Wrath of God), have crept up in cost and mutated in functionality. These fluctuations serve as a complex system of balance beams in Standard, while at the same time narrowing in on theoretical ideals of cards/effects (Day of Judgment probably costs a theoretical 4.5 mana). Of course, when you compare these new cards to Blood Moon, a card so old that “The Adventures of Pete and Pete”WAS STILL MAKING NEW EPISODES, they fail to come close to making an impact.
The assumption Frontier makes is that Magic is in a much healthier place now than it was when 8th Edition came out, and in that respect they are correct. The crux of that argument is backward-facing however, rather than anticipatory. Frontier, by never rotating, is cementing its own roster of “Best Available”- sure, that new card is good, but is it better than Siege Rhino? Is that new one drop really better than Monastery Swiftspear? If WotC ever decides to get aggressive with certain reprints (think Lightning Bolt in M10), then you have that card in Frontier FOREVER.
Frontier’s fatal flaw, as you may have pieced together by now, is a small thermal exhaust port right below the main port with a shaft that leads directly to the reactor system that it does not rotate. That is ultimately a long-term problem. If Frontier goes the way of Tiny Leaders and fails to mature into its role (that’s my bet), then that won’t be an issue ever- but if it succeeds, then it is going to be the crux that makes some hard to reprint cards mini-Tarmogoyfs. I’m going to close with some of the cards that stand to benefit from Frontier’s success- but be aware that buying into this format is definitely risky at this point.
Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy: This guy has to be the most obvious starting point. Well actually, my instinct was to start with Thoughtseize, until I realized (for like, the hundredth time) that Theros isn’t in this format. Jace is #1 because he is insanely difficult to reprint- he’s a flip card (expensive on the production side, requires a product with enough flip cards), he’s a specific character (can only appear in a set where Jace makes sense OR is flavor-neutral), and is a narrow iteration of said specific character (can only appear in a setting where Jace gets his spark like Origins OR is flavor neutral). Essentially, “Baby Jace” is going to have to be in a supplemental product that can afford the front end cost of including flip cards, even though almost all of the flip cards are from Innistrad, so there is no flavorful throughline for something like a Duel Deck. The best case scenario is the Modern Masters iteration that goes up to Origins, which is going to be several years away. Even if Frontier died tomorrow, it’s easy to see why this is a steady play at $45. Oh, and the Grixis/4c/5c control decks love this card, so it’s actually pretty good in the format. I’m not going to cite too much in terms of past results, but there are some decklists at mtgdecks.net that I’ve been scoping out. It’s too small a sample size to say what decks are “best”, but it’s still real data. If you have an appetite for more expensive “specs”, this is a good one even if you don’t like Frontier’s outlook.
Collected Company: If Jace is #1, then CoCo is #1A. Company gets better any time a creature that costs 3 or less is printed, and is easy enough to splash in any color aggro deck (we have literal fetchlands). These are down at about $10, which may be the lowest since DTK came out- this card is good in Modern and (very) fringe in Legacy, so snapping some up in trades is extremely appealing. This will be a pillar of the format if Frontier blossoms.
Emrakul, the Promised End/ Ugin, the Spirit Dragon: These two are roughly the tied for best in the “biggest thing” category, so I could see either (or both!) being the premier topper of the format. Emrakul is still in Standard for a while, but Ugin is pricy despite being playable in almost nothing else. I say hold off on both of these, but watch them- the success of either one (if any) will help dictate which playable support cards may see secondary spikes.
Dig Through Time: LOL there’s no way this format makes it. But this frustrating garbage is apparently legal, so expect at least modest gains if Frontier survives.
Obelisk of Urd: Elves is a deck, and there is probably some tribe (humans?) that is on enough of the white weenies to make this functional. Goblins is close but probably not close enough.
These are the sort of “Level 0” cards that caught my eye, because I’m not sure if we have a stable enough environment to begin metagaming off of it. The issue will for now be supply, because everything (other than maybe M15 and Origins) has pretty big market saturation. Things like Kalitas that are currently good in Standard AND Modern are interesting plays, but probably won’t see too much percentage increase as people who already play Modern won’t have much issue oscillating to Frontier.
That’s all for this week, let me know your thoughts on Frontier, my assessment of it, and what cards you like, if any.
Okay, so good news/bad news. The good news? THIS is the the historical best time to buy Magic cards. Right now! Pretty much now-ish until the first week or two of January. Now it’s worth mentioning that Aether Revolt releases on January 20th, but I don’t think that will hurt us now. The bad news, of course, is that for a lot of people this is the absolute worst time to be spending lots of money on Magic cards for yourself. That’s why we are going to have to be smart and make sure we are putting a lot of thought into our targets. We’re going to parse what we can from the spoiled cards we’ve seen so far, and then use the rest of the data at our disposal to make informed decisions from there.
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