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In Development – Legacy Impacts

 

Let’s look at some numbers.

Grand Prix Madrid 2010 – 2,227 players (Legacy)
Grand Prix Paris 2009 – 1,961 players (Limited)
Grand Prix Brussels 2010 – 1,667 players (Standard)
Grand Prix Yokohama 2010 – 1,122 (Extended)

There are a lot of factors at work in these numbers, factors that we can’t easily separate from each other. European GPs are always bigger than those in other parts of the world, for example. That said, the numbers point to something that was a topic of conversation at an Extended tournament I attended this past weekend.

People like Legacy.

If I were in customer service, I’d want to run some surveys to actually evaluate this, but the distribution of numbers across these “biggest of their type” GPs probably reflects a certain amount of player preference for formats. My working hypotheses, without testing, would be:

People like Limited GPs because folks draft a lot, and you don’t even need to bring a deck.
People like Standard GPs because many of them play and keep up with Standard, so they have a deck ready.
People like Legacy GPs because in Legacy they can play with “all their cards.”

Extended is left out of this because it is neither an “all their cards” format nor a regular part of FNMs and other game-store-level events. This seems like a reasonable explanation for why Extended interest fluctuates in correlation with the presence of an Extended PTQ season.

As you may have noticed, we just saw a shift in the potential availability of certain Legacy cards with the “firming up” of the Reserved List. For reference, here’s the official reprint policy page, which includes a copy of the Reserved List. Although most of the cards on this list are far from tournament playable, the “locking down” of the Reserved List means that a number of Legacy staples will no longer see new copies.

No reprints? So what?

Prior to the announcement, there was a lot of discussion of the relative pros and cons of changing the reprint policy. As a long-term stakeholder myself, my preference would be for reprints for the very basic reason that I’d like the outside chance for my old, cool cards to turn up in Standard again. Vesuvan Doppelganger and Khabal Ghoul will probably never be tournament-worthy in a modern Standard, but were they to be reprinted in some future set, I’d be very tempted to run some in a Standard deck just to get the chance to show off their “original art” – much as we saw players doing with their older copies of Treetop Village and Reflecting Pool.

The broader concern, of course, is the long-term health of Legacy as a competitive format. Given the inability to reprint cards from the Reserved List, the big issue is that there is a finite pool of traditional dual lands. With the increasing popularity of large-scale Legacy tournaments, there’s the possibility that this finite pool will represent a similarly increasing barrier to entry for new players.

This is often couched as a cost concern, but Legacy is an expensive format, so we might give that a bye. However, my concern about the long-term health of Legacy as a format would be that this is not just a finite pool, but a diminishing finite pool. Case in point:

Scrubland

That’s a Beta Scrubland, pulled from a pack I bought in a local comic shop in the Fall of 1993. Like many original duals, it was played for a few years on random school and game store tables before anyone ever heard of card sleeves. It’s not in especially good shape.

Cards are worn down, cards are lost, cards are stolen, and cards occasionally die tragically under a wave of soda. As a consequence, there is an ever-diminishing pool of available cards. If Legacy were a static format, this wouldn’t be an issue of for a long time, but with increasing interest in Legacy, the “time to problem” will come sooner.

Once the concern turns from “cards are expensive” to “cards are literally unavailable,” that will be bad for the format.

Designing a solution

You’ll have picked up from my prior columns that my professional field is biology. What I haven’t touched on is my background in game design. I’ve written for roleplaying games and some material for wargaming as well. As such, my interest in what’s done with Magic and its format extends beyond just playing the game to trying to figure out what will make the game fun and healthy.

Given the limitation of not being able to reprint the original duals, let’s take a look, from a game design perspective, on some of the potential forward paths for Legacy:

Option 1 – Do nothing
Option 2 – Create a new format
Option 3 – Design functional replacements
Option 4 – Design to new archetypes

I’ll address these individually in order.

Do nothing

Doing nothing at all leaves the situation much as I described it above. The cost of traditional dual lands will rise, and the overall supply will be limited enough that at some point there will be an intersection of player demand and land supply that rules out access to duals for all the people who want them. If we assume that people will attend Legacy events anyway, then some of us will start using “substitute” duals.

The clearest candidates for this job are the Ravnica duals. They have all the critical components of the traditional duals, including the ability to generate two colors and the presence of two basic land types. So what about the downside? Just how much trouble would you be in if you had to run Ravnica duals in your decks in a Legacy tournament?

Naturally, this depends on your deck and your matchups.

Ad Nauseam Tendrils (as played by Tomoharu Saito)

Ad Nauseam Tendrils (ANT) approaches a worst-case scenario for the Ravnica duals. In ANT, your life total is not just a barrier for the opponent to carve through to win. It’s a resource that you need if you’re going to win. An ANT deck typically will need to fetch and use at least two duals before winning, meaning that the use of Ravnica duals would put you 4 life down relative to your traditional dual-using compatriots. Given that the average cost of a card in Saito’s ANT build is 0.9, losing access to 4 life points means losing access to roughly four and a half cards.

Naturally, this represents a significant limitation on the ability of an ANT deck to win, suggesting that the deck would not be resilient to this adjustment.

Other decks that make significant use of life total as a resource will be similarly hindered by this approach. Modern Reanimator clearly falls into this category.

Countertop Progenitus (as played by PV)

Countertop decks make very little proactive use of their life as a resource. In Countertop builds you need your life for the occasional fetchland and to allow your Force of Wills to work, but otherwise your life total primarily represents a barrier for your opponent to overcome. Like ANT, Countertop wants to fetch for two duals on turns one and two, and can potentially start pulling down basic lands afterward. The 4 life total deficit you acquire by playing Ravnica duals will mostly matter when playing against aggro decks, as many other decks in the format “win” the game not by the incremental damage route, but by taking control of the game and then offing you at their leisure.

Thus, the life total gap here represents perhaps one turn sooner that Zoo kills you, or one fewer spell ANT needs to dig for to knock you off. The effect is not necessarily profound, but it is there.

Dredge (as played by Lukas Ansorge)

Look – no duals! Dredge, like a few other Legacy decks such as Dragon Stompy and Elves, can operate just fine without any duals at all. As a consequence, the relative worth of this option remains unchanged regardless of what happens to the overall supply of dual lands.

It’s impossible to turn these qualitative observations into quantitative outcomes just by staring at them – that is, we can’t say “Well, Ravnica duals in Countertop Progenitus means that you lose 10% more games.” The way I would attempt to test this would be to track the use of traditional duals in Legacy tournaments, marking off a “virtual” 2 life each time a dual entered the battlefield during the first three turns (this three-turn limit is in place to control for later, “elective” turns when players fetch for a dual to get a post-Brainstorm shuffle or to thin their deck, but could reasonable elect to let a Ravnica dual come in tapped. Then I’d track each time a game could be expected to have it results reversed based on the virtual versus real life totals.

For example, a Countertop player kills his opponent with Progenitus, ending the game at 3 life. If the Countertop player brought in three duals on turns one through three, his virtual life total would cross 0 before he made the Progenitus kill.

This is an imperfect register of course – in real life, you just play differently when you know untapped duals cost you life. That said, I’d love to see the results of this kind of analysis. Conveniently, a whole new Legacy venue has opened up where an interested researcher can watch game replays and actually carry out this kind of evaluation.

I don’t have the time to do this particular field experiment, but if you’re inclined, remember that to accurately detect a meaningful shift in success rates, you’ll need a large sample size, likely four hundred or more matches.

Create a new format

As Magic’s longevity increases, it seems natural that more “generational” Constructed formats will arise. One popular suggestion is “super-Extended,” which might encompass sets from some arbitrary point centered around Onslaught or Mirrodin, and could generalize over time to be “the second half” of the Magic timeline.

Pertinent to today’s discussion is the idea of some a Post-Reserved-List Legacy (PRLL?) that would duck the reprint problem entirely by comprising sets from Mercadian Masques block onward. This has the upside of allowing reprint access to any card that might become important in the format, with the significant downside of cutting off access to a lot of popular cards (no Force of Will or Swords to Plowshares, for example).

As before, I’d want to see actual customer sentiment surveys before making any assertions, but it seems as if this solution would undercut the “I get to play all my cards” appeal of Legacy”¦and I suspect that when that factor is removed, a lot of players would simply prefer to default to Standard.

A similar option would be a sort of “Legacy Minus” – basically Legacy minus any cards on the Reserved List. This cleaves uncomfortably close to banning cards based on monetary price, and seems as if it would be the most alienating option possible for the player base.

Design functional replacements

The reprint policy prevents reprinting of cards in a “functionally identical form,” which is defined as follows:

A card is considered functionally identical to another card if it has the same card type, subtypes, abilities, mana cost, power, and toughness.

This means that you can’t just file the serial numbers off of Bayou, rename it “Everglade” and call it a day. However, it does mean you could print this card:

Peat Bog
Snow Land – Swamp Forest

Note that I’m treating the ‘Snow’ supertype as an “ability” here, it’s possible that you would actually need to print something like this to cleanly duck the reprint policy:

Quagmire
Land – Swamp Forest

When Quagmire enters the battlefield, you may rearrange the order of the cards in your graveyard.

In essence, this one is entirely doable.

The most frequent concern raised about this approach is that it wouldn’t level the playing field in terms of access, as players with classic duals would simply be able to go up to eight copies and thus have “better” decks anyway.

This is one concern we can tackle with a fairly qualitative analysis. Consider the dual lands present in the mana bases of the following decks taken from the top eights of GP Madrid and the last two SCG Legacy Open events:

Countertop Progenitus – 3 Tropical Island, 2 Tundra, 1 Volcanic Island
Reanimator – 4 Underground Sea (with no other duals)
Zoo – 3 Plateau, 1 Savannah, 2 Taiga
ANT – 4 Underground Sea, 1 Tropical Island
Goblins – 2 Badlands
Assault Loam – 1 Badlands, 1 Plateau, 1 Savannah, 3 Taiga
Team America – 1 Bayou, 2 Tropical Island, 4 Underground Sea
Landstill – 3 Tundra, 2 Volcanic Island
Tezzerator – 1 Tundra

Clearly, most of these decks are not aching for a fifth through eighth copy of your favorite dual land. ANT is the notable exception, as that lone Tropical Island is not there to power out any green spells, but to be an ersatz fifth Underground Sea. The majority of Legacy decks will not be improved by adding in a bunch of additional duals in the same colors – in fact, with fetches and utility lands, they tend not to have room for them.

This approach come pre-packaged with the issue that we probably don’t want either Peat Bog or Quagmire in Standard. The fundamental issue with the classic dual lands is that they are too good. Although cards have been designed to make non-basics worse, the duals are good enough that they largely remove the kind of cost-benefit calculation that we want players to make when making manabase and deck color composition decisions. This leaves the option of making a separate, From the Vaults: We’re Fixing Legacy set, or coming up with a very creative mechanism to make lands that are significantly worse in Standard than they are in Legacy.

Design to new archetypes

The final major option is to try and reduce the strain on those Legacy cards that are in finite supply by opening new play spaces that don’t depend on them. Dredge is the clear banner-bearer for this approach, being largely a product of the unholy fusion of Odyssey, Ravnica, and Time Spiral blocks. As we saw above, a contemporary Legacy Dredge deck needs no dual lands, and many builds don’t even touch the Reserved List at all (the example build above has a total of five non-reprintable cards).

The upside to this approach is that it’s possible to build toward new archetypes without destroying Standard. For example, Scars of Mirrodin could safely contain some enablers for a sort of “super-Affinity” in Legacy without allowing a coherent Affinity build in Standard (or even Extended, given that Mirrodin block is next on the rotation chopping block).

The downside is that these new play spaces tend not to plug well into the existing format. Whereas having dual lands gives you the ability to play a number of popular archetypes, having Dredge cards pretty much means you can build and play a Dredge deck. Consequently, the promise of “you get to play with all your cards” remains unfulfilled, and Legacy as a whole still suffers from a barrier to entry.

The optimal solution

It’s not clear what the best solution is. Assuming no change in the reprint policy, I’d like to see a proactive move made to keep Legacy a healthy format, as it’s an obvious crowd favorite and enhances the value of Magic’s seventeen year history of core sets and expansions. Perhaps a real-world take on the Master’s Edition sets, featuring a mix of classic cards and not-quite functional reprints could do the trick. We can call it Chronicles II.

In the meantime, we’ll look to Rise of the Eldrazi and its impact on Block, Standard, Extended, and Legacy. So far I’m completely sold on the flavor of the set. I’m looking forward to another week of previews to help us all understand the set in context, so we can start the cycle of deck building and discussion all over again.

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