Standard. Legacy. Modern. Sealed. Draft. Vintage. Block. There are a lot of formats in the world of Magic the Gathering. Six words does not seem like a lot to take in, but when you consider that 20,000 cards make up those six words and every 3 months the configuration of those 20,000 cards changes, and new ones are added to the mix, understanding each one through and through almost seems psychotic.
I had never thought of Magic in these terms early in my “career,” as playing Magic was simply playing Magic, and even if it took a little extra work to learn a format, it was ultimately fun. Then I began playing competitively. Week after week tournaments came and went, often spanning multiple formats and each requiring their own prep work in order to be properly prepared. The task actually did become daunting. The competitor in me wanting to be proficient at everything I did but the reality was that some formats were simply less important for me to put a heavy amount of time into.
I often get emails requesting things like Legacy Deck Doctor, or to play Pauper more often and while I would love to honor every one of those requests, I really dislike putting forth anything less than my whole heart into a format. It just does not feel good going into a tournament unprepared but still with a desire to succeed. Casual formats are fine, as there is no expectation of success, but for everything else, there is.
Magic has a lot going on with it. A robust set of rules that need to be comprehended just short of mastery combined with an ever evolving interpersonal game of hidden information contain enough substance to keep anyone occupied. Every format you decide to add to your repertoire just stretches an individual even more thin. There is certainly a line for each individual that allows for the most amount of mental stimulation while not hindering the entirety of one’s work. Of course that line is going to differ based on the individual, but today I would like to discuss some of the pros and cons with multiple format mastery and describe what works for me personally.
To assist me in this endeavor, let’s turn this into a bit of a game, or at least a format that most gamers would be more familiar with. Let’s assign a value to each method of understanding a format. Of course, these numbers are arbitrary, but I think they will help with the demonstration. For now, let’s use a 4 point scale that ranges from 0-3.
0- Individuals who have this number associated with a particular format know very little about the format. They might know the constraints of the format from a rules perspective, but they are not familiar with any type of metagame or the dominating strategies of the format. I would argue that the typical player ranks a 0 in their understanding of Vintage for example, if that helps make the concept more tangible.
1- Individuals who have a proficiency of 1 in a format know rough information regarding the format. This information tends to be broad, but still vital to understanding the format. They might know some of the best decks and the general speed of the format, but they are not likely to recognize fringe strategies or understand unique technology. The typical player probably ranks about a 1 when it comes to Block for example, as they are not directly rewarded for knowing that format (outside of MtGO 8-mans).
2- This ranking is for individuals who understand and probably play a format, but do so on more of a relaxed level than a 3. The individual might know the full metagame breakdown for a format and the latest technology to come out but they might not know the in depth tricks that some of the decks use or any odd rules interactions that are not obvious. In other words, they play the format extensively but have not mastered it. The average player is this way toward FNM for example.
3- This represents mastery of a format, usually requiring a refresher course in order to actually get to this point. For example, a player might be a 2 toward Standard, but after two weeks testing for a Standard Pro Tour, they probably move up to a 3. Some players remain 3s toward a format for an indefinite amount of time as well, such as Legacy experts who do not play any other format or many Pro Players toward the commonly played formats, like Standard or Draft.
Alright, so we have a rough number system to give us a little direction with this project, but we still don’t know what the proper thresholds are. That is to say, the entire push of using a point based system is to establish a trend or at least measure the amount of points a traditional player might use. Once again, each individual is going to be unique, and short of a large scale study, we will never know the exact amount of “points” and average player has access to (points almost represent mental capacity for Magic here). That said, we can “create” the various demographics and assign points to each as we see fit, ultimately trying to emulate the appropriate player.
Lets take the average FNM level player for example. Their chart might look like this:
A few things can certainly move around here. Legacy could get a rating of a 1 or a 2 based on the individual, and Modern can follow a similar path. Beyond those two sections though, I think this does a decent job of estimating where the average FNMer would use his “points.” The concept can almost be viewed like a Dungeons and Dragons character creation where stat allotment is important to everything that happens from that point forward. Moving on, we can now try to create the “Pro Player” demographic.
You see a similar trend line that we saw with the average FNMer. Higher scores are going to be received in the most popular formats, like Standard and Draft, but other areas are going to be viewed as less important. Depending on the individual, I could see Legacy receiving a 1 or a 2, so I left the option open there. An important thing to recognize about this chart though, is that even if you disagree with a few numbers, the Pro Player has actually gained points from that of the average FNMer.
This actually has a large implication behind it. If we had stuck to the Dungeons and Dragons model we talked about earlier, it is likely that every player would have the same number of points to assign to the various formats. But, because our points are only awarded after actual work or studying of a format, unlike D and D which affords the points as a right to all players, you can actually gain (or lose) total points. There is also a sliding scale effect that we will talk about shortly, but the notion that you ultimately control the amount of mastery you have is an important distinction to make. Players who complain that they are not good at limited (more commonly phrased as “I only play Standard”) can improve in that area if they only were to work at it. So keep that in mind as various formats rotate in and out.
So, under a traditional sliding scale, the total point allotment per player would not change, but the distribution of said points would. While we have already established that we do not have a traditional sliding scale here but rather a variable point system, we can still see that the sliding scale does take place for some demographics. Take the Legacy expert for example:
Even though there has been a redistribution of points for this individual versus the average FNMer, the total points are almost exactly the same. The focus has simply shifted from being above average at multiple formats to focusing your energy on one format. This allows for mastery of said format but also shows a degradation effect for other formats.
Just because there is a variable point output based on the amount of time and commitment you dedicate to the cause does not mean there is actually an unlimited supply of points though. Consider this individual for example:
As much as LSV will try to convince you that this is actually him, don’t fall for it. An individual with mastery in every single area is not only unheard of, but likely unhealthy as well. There is a ton of depth to Magic formats and there are clearly a lot of formats as well, so in order to actually have mastery over each of them would indicate a severe lack of attention toward other areas of life, not simply gaming. If you are losing sleep or work or relationships over your attempt at mastering all of the formats, you are doing so in an unhealthy manner. And because I cannot see another way than just that to actually attempt to master all of these formats, it is probably a good idea to simply never try that, as it is just an unreasonable goal with potentially disastrous side effects.
So the real question here, is where is the sweet spot? If there is a point where mastering formats actually becomes detrimental to the rest of your life, but also a point where you are not getting the most out of Magic that you can, how do you avoid those two extremes? Also, what are the benefits to mastering one format versus being a jack of all trades, but at a lower proficiency than the one format master?
The first big question to ask yourself before looking into any of this, is what are my parameters? In other words, how much time, money, and dedication are you actually willing to commit to Magic? Don’t be ashamed if that number is low, as well all have our roles, but know that a lower number essentially means less points to spend, so how you spend the ones you do have becomes that much more important.
Let us assume from this point forward that we are solely talking about competitive players. Other players are important too, but we had to pick a demographic anyway, so it might as well be one I am more familiar with. Let us also assume that a particular individual has enough time that he can reasonably muster up 8 points to assign, similar to the average FNMer. What are his best options for properly distributing them? Again, this is always going to differ based on the individual, but here are some options.
The way I see it, you have essentially two paths to take here. You can go the route of mastery for a format, like Legacy, Standard, or Vintage. This would imply that you have more love for that format than others and are excited about playing it year round. You may not get official support from Wizards year round, as the PTQ season will rotate, as will the Grand Prixs, but you can probably find enough local support for format X that keeps you happy. Your point distribution might look like this:
Once again, 8 points, but placed into fairly different roles. Outside of draft, which is often a minor exception to the rule, this individual spends the majority of his time focusing on Standard. Standard is a particularly good format to focus on, assuming you wanted to focus on exactly one. Not only is Standard the most supported format, with nothing less than an FNM every single week, but it is also a relatively small format where mastering the card pool is a significantly easier task than say Vintage or Legacy. Because Standard is so well supported, I would argue that this level of player, given that they have slightly less time to devote to Magic, is the best type of single format mastery, and I would assume the majority of us agree with that. What if the stats change though?
This type of “master” actually has it quite rough. You see, Legacy, despite the efforts of SCG and others, is still supported less than most other formats. The Legacy master might be super prepared for the few big tournaments he gets to compete in each year, but even then, because there are so few tournaments, variance can easily sweep you away, leaving you without any impressive finishes. Compare this to the individual who has no 3′s, but has 2′s spread across a larger portion of the board. Even though that individual might not be as good at any one thing as the Legacy master, they get to compete in a substantially larger amount of tournaments and therefore have more chances at success, with a relatively similar level of commitment to preparation. Of course, if only a few tournaments a year is a boon for you (as in you do not have the time to attend any additional tournaments,) then mastery of a more obscure format, like Legacy, is perfect for you.
Personally, I prefer a more “give and take” style of point allotment, but I realize that few individuals have the luxury of doing just that. Because Magic is such a large part of my life, I have the time and ability to prep for individual tournaments extensively and draw close, if not actually master, most formats before actually have to play in them. For this method, your scale varies on a week to week basis. Assume week 1 is a big Standard tournament, week 2 is a Legacy tournament, and week 3 is Modern. The scales might look like this:
Through this model, you can see the loss and acquisition of points through both a lag perspective (this is why Standard remains a 2 during week 2 for example. Your stored knowledge begins to fade but remains high and then drops again the following week) and a progressive perspective, like the increase in mastery over Modern as the format draws near. Because of the increased speed of competitive play, with formats rotating in and out week after week, similar to the model above, having the versatility to focus your efforts on the appropriate format is key for anyone looking to adapt that life style. Meanwhile, for different competitive players, like an SCG Grinder, they can pretty much always leave their points in Legacy and Standard and mostly ignore other formats until a Pro Tour or PTQ season rolls in.
Of course, there is no one “right” way to do any of this. Most of it will come down to individual circumstance, but I think highlighting other approaches to the game is still important to shine a light for players who have never known such a thing. Magic is so deep and complex that exerting yourself in an attempt to master everything will ultimately hurt you. Magic is not like chess where mastering a format leads to mastery always (or at least above average always) because the rotation of formats and an evolving metagame both mean that your mastery will quickly become outdated without further prep work.
Whatever your method for approaching formats and tournaments is, remember to keep it fun and not burden yourself too much, as your results will suffer. Enjoy the diversity that Magic brings and embrace the type of player you are. Mastering formats is not something you can simply “do,” it comes through patience and persistence and is certainly not for anyone, so enjoy Magic and what it means to you. Thanks for reading!