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In Development – I Retain Priority

So, I’ve been away for a little while. Guess what I was up to?

I hope everyone had a good few weeks while we were off prepping for a wedding. The nice girl I’m standing with in those pictures is Christine Rhee, to whom you all owe a debt if you like my use of clear visual organization and examples, since she pushed me to step up my game in those areas. If you’re curious about our outfits on the right side, you can read more about them here, here, and here. They were designed by the very talented Kim Mehee.

While we were off doing our thing, the Magic world kept on moving. The biggest request I’ve had from you all for my first post-hiatus article was to take a look at the new Planeswalker Point system. I’m going to do that today, but first I’m going to take a quick crack at the Modern bannings.

So let’s get going with a sudden swath of banned cards.

Banned in Modern

On the super off chance that you missed it, you can read the most recent Banned & Restricted List Announcement here, as well as Erik Lauer’s explanation of the changes here. The current Banned and Restricted list for each format can be found here.

To recap, here’s what’s been added to the nixed list:

[card]Blazing Shoal[/card] [card]Cloudpost[/card] [card]Green Sun’s Zenith[/card] [card]Ponder[/card] [card]Preordain[/card] [card]Rite of Flame[/card]

Fair enough. So what does that all mean for Modern?

A metric of brokenness

This was Tom LaPille’s comment on the introduction of the Modern format for Pro Tour Philadelphia. It’s a response to people who were surprised at the additional set of bannings since the Modern format test-debuted earlier in the year.

The point was, essentially, “even with additional bannings, we’re still banning way fewer cards than in Legacy.”

Or, to look at it from another perspective, “Modern is less broken than Legacy.”

So how has this changed in the wake of the new bannings?

First, we need to back up a bit and tweak our numbers a little. Although Tom just grabbed the full count of banned cards for Legacy, that’s a bit of an accidental cheat on his part. After all, the Legacy banned list includes not just overpowered insanity like [card]Tinker[/card], but also such competitive favorites as [card]Jeweled Bird[/card] and [card]Chaos Orb[/card]. I think we can all agree that ante cards and dexterity cards don’t represent broken power levels but simply “things that don’t work in a tournament setting.” We’ll throw [card]Shahrazad[/card] into that list as well, since its banning was entirely a function of tournament impracticality rather than power.

With those cards yanked from the mix, the actual Legacy banned count is 49 cards out of 11,740 total cards. Yes, I pulled the 11 suspect cards from the total Legacy card count, too. With the addition of [card]Mental Misstep[/card] to banland, that becomes 50 cards banned out of 11,740 total.

Modern, in contrast, now features 27 cards banned out of 6,273 total.

How do those numbers compare?

Well, for whatever reason, my brain went straight to how researchers measure contaminant concentrations when they discuss toxic risks in the environment. I suppose this makes sense – in theory, banned cards were “toxic” to the format, which is why they got the ax. In talking about toxins, we like to think in parts per – typically parts per billion or parts per million, when it’s cancer-causing chemicals in your water. In this case, I decided to convert the banned counts into “parts per thousand” – that is, how many banned cards a format has per every thousand cards in it. Here are the formats, ranked from highest to lowest:

For the curious, the high-water mark for brokenness is the one you’d expect – Mirrodin Block Constructed, clocking in with a whopping 16.1 ppt. Urza Block comes in second at 11.27 ppt.

So, does this mean Modern is doomed or fundamentally flawed?

I don’t think so. But I do think that it undercuts the idea that Modern is intrinsically a more balanced environment than Legacy, which was kind of Tom’s pitch when the Pro Tour format was announced. On the basis of total theoretical card pool, degree of intrinsic balance just isn’t a proper selling point for Modern.

That said, intrinsic balance of the total card pool was never the issue. Modern will always win over Legacy in terms of practical balance due to the unfortunate influence of the Reserved List. Well, “always” unless Wizards takes a fairly obvious action to remove the biggest barrier to entry to Legacy:

Other than the ten original duals, there are fewer than twenty cards on the Reserved List that see regular play in Legacy:

…which suggests that with the land issue taken care of, Legacy and Modern can live comfortably side by side. I suspect that if this can be set up, it will actually work out pretty well, as players can then “tune” their Constructed experience to suit their preferences. For some players, the possibility of getting first-turn-killed out of a game is just repellant, so even with perfect availability, Legacy just won’t be their cup of tea. On the other hand, some players (like me) enjoy the possibility of that broken turn and the attempt to interact with that explosiveness from the other end.

Players out, but no players in

So, moving away from theory, what do we think of the actual bannings?

I tend to agree that [card]Blazing Shoal[/card] highlights the risks associated with having alternate kill mechanisms such as poison, especially when the kill condition is orthogonal to many potential defenses (e.g. life gain) but is in line with many offensive enhancements (e.g. creature Power boosting). It’s not just that poison kills at 10 damage, it’s that unlike actual damage, you get to plug in all the damage-increasing modifiers but the defending player is cut off from many of the tools they’d normally use to stop the kill. As a frequent Dredge player in Legacy, I can tell you that decks that operate largely on a different axis from the rest of the game can really cut a swath through any given tournament.

[card]Rite of Flame[/card] seems like a fine card to ban – it’s easily the most efficient ritual in Modern, and its removal leaves many other workable ones behind.

Similarly, [card]Ponder[/card] and [card]Preordain[/card] really do a lot to allow combo decks, but do not horrendously gut the format by their absence. Removing them pushes toward more two-mana card selection options, which in turn means that there is more design tension in building combo decks. I suspect this is a good thing overall.

[card]Cloudpost[/card] pretty much had to go. There’s a quote from the last time Blue-Green Tron was good in Extended – possibly from Adam Yurchick – that can be paraphrased as “it’s like every other control deck, except I get to have way more mana.” Cloudpost was like this, but more so, being faster and more resistant to the typical limiter on mana-rich decks – aggro.

I’m sad to see [card]Green Sun’s Zenith[/card] take a hit. The logic is that it was limiting diversity in green decks. The quote from the explanation is that “The DCI hopes that banning [card]Green Sun’s Zenith[/card] increases diversity among Modern green decks.” So does that logic hold?

Well, here are some percentages to consider from those Modern decks that had positive records at Philadelphia.

I made a point of removing the CFB Countercat deck from the last two categories because it was so heavily represented in the top decks, so it imparted a bit of skew.

So is 40-60% prevalence of [card]Green Sun’s Zenith[/card] in non-Post decks insufficiently diverse? I don’t know that it is, so we may see the Zenith return some day.

Why we ban cards

I’ve touched on this elsewhere, but I think this topic should usually be closed with a discussion of why cards are banned.

There is no such thing as “the health of the format” in the abstract, away from player attitudes. We’re not managing the health of an at-risk wetland area here – instead, we’re managing the ecology of “player happiness.” So the only reason to ever ban (or unban) anything is because by its presence (or absence) in a format, a card is making players not want to play the game.

In that light, these bannings seem fine. Although many players were thrilled by the advent of Modern, years of collected player attitudes tell us that the less players feel like they can do something to impact their game outcomes while they’re at the table, the less they feel like showing up at all. Also, hacking out one entire branch of the play experience – control – disenfranchises players who enjoy that aspect of the game. In contrast, even though I am a huge [card]Green Sun’s Zenith[/card] fan, I’m still going to enjoy Modern even in its absence.

That said, I’ll close by suggesting that [card]Ancestral Vision[/card] can probably be unbanned without suddenly and accidentally giving control dominance over the field.

Planeswalker Points

That was the big news from this week. Last week, Wizards decided to celebrate my wedding week by completely revamping the ratings system for sanctioned play. There’s been a lot of message traffic on that already, but the overwhelming request was that I take a look at the new system.

So with that in mind, I’ve reviewed the Wizards explanation of Planeswalker Points and read the full Terms and Conditions as well.

Here’s what I’ve learned.

What’s your goal, planeswalker?

The very first question we have to ask here is “What is my goal here?”

It’s easy to get lost in discussions about event multipliers and gaming your points, but you need to start by knowing what you’re hoping to get out of the system. Right now, Planeswalkers Points (PwPs) give you a very select set of possible benefits. These are:

That is all that PwPs can do for you right now.

Notice what is not on that list:

I’ve confirmed with Scott Larabee that this is a legitimate omission. The 2012 Premier Event Invitation Policy makes no mention of how one acquires Pro Tour Players Club levels, although they are still mentioned as a method of qualifying for the Pro Tour. What this means right now is that we can’t assume that Pro levels will be acquired in 2012 following the same rules that applied this year. I’ll speculate that Pro levels will be determined in some way based on your Professional Total score, which is currently only tasked with earning you an invite to Worlds.

Okay, so other than the warm fuzzy feeling of raising your score, that means that we currently have four possible targets for our PwP-based ambitions – qualifying for the PT, qualifying for Worlds, qualifying for the FNM Championship, and earning GP byes.

So which of these should you shoot for?

I want to qualify for the Pro Tour

Go win a PTQ.

Seriously, unless you’re in a very select group of supergrinders, your best bet is to go win a PTQ.

Let’s take a look at the upcoming qualifying season to consider how this will work.

First, we want to check out how we can qualify for the Pro Tour.

Once again, note that top 16ing a GP will no longer qualify you after this season.

Also note that the Invitation Policy document incorrectly listed Japan as part of the Asia Pacific region. Scott Larabee has confirmed that this was an error, and Japan is its own region. The upshot of this is that players attempting to qualify on rating out of the Asia Pacific region do not have to compete with Japanese players.

So if you want to make it in based on your Competitive Total ranking, that means you’re trying to either be in the appropriate top rankings in your region or be in the top 65 players in the world. How feasible is this?

Let’s look at our theoretical North American competitor who wants to grind in on PwPs.

The qualifying season for PT Dark Ascension is 2011 Competitive Total Season #3, which runs from August 29, 2011 through December 25, 2011. Your Competitive Total score for this season will be based on all your Competitive event points earned in this timeframe except for those earned at Worlds.

During this period, there are…

So if we’re trying to qualify on Competitive Total score, then the very first thing we need to ask is “Who are we competing with?”

For the regional qualification, it is very important to remember that these invitations do not pass down. In other words, even if the top ten players in North America are otherwise qualified, those invitation slots do not open up.

So within the North America region, that means you’re competing for those slots with much of the ChannelFireball crew and all of those SCG Open Series grinders whose names you’ve started to recognize.

A review of the top twenty or so SCG Open Series players over the last seven Open Series weekends shows that those players averaged about 500 Competitive Total points from Open Series events alone over that time period (note that these points are picked up across an average of 3.8 Open Series weekends out of a possible seven).

So, if one of these Open Series stars decides to hit up the following schedule with a modest overall match win percentage…

…they are highly likely to clock a minimum of 1,000 Competitive Total points.

If you spend your time attending FNM every weekend, you may clock in at 320-400 points or so. If you step it up a notch and hit 10 FNMs and a 5 PTQs, then you may come in at 600-700 points with an okay match win percentage.

The bad news here is that many players do a lot better than the 1,000-point mark. If we look at just American players from the second 2011 Competitive Season (April 11 through August 28), we see that the top twenty-four players picked up 2,000+ points during that timeframe.

So, here’s punchline number one:

If you want to qualify based on having a top Competitive Total score for your region, you probably need to grind a big event series and fill your spare weekends with FNMs.

…and, of course, win a lot while you do so.

But that’s just regionally. What about globally?

Global invite on ranking is a little kinder in that it does pass down. If someone qualifies some other means, they don’t eat up one of the 65 global slots.

However.

Keep in mind that within North America, we have at least twice as many 2,000+ point players as we have regional slots, and that many of the regional slots are going to folks who aren’t using them…effectively dumping other 2,000+ point players into the global pool.

There are similar “high-score player” overloads in the Europe, Japan, and APAC regions, albeit not as many as in North America. Returning again to the last complete Competitive Total season, there were 35 players topping the 2,000-point mark worldwide. If we go twice as deep into the worldwide ranking as we have open global spots (so to the 130th place mark), then we’re looking at a minimum Competitive Total rating of 1,600.

This leads to punchline number two:

If you want to qualify based on your global Competitive Total ranking, you must break the 1,500 point mark in the season.

That’s my current best estimate of the minimum (and I do mean minimum) entry position to have a chance at a ranking qualification for the next Pro Tour.

You can calculate based on this. You’ve burned about three weeks of the season already, leaving you with fourteen (realistically, twelve) weeks of scored playing time. Can you breach 1,500+ points in the remaining time? If you can’t, I recommend just focusing on PTQs as your avenue to qualification and otherwise giving yourself a bit of a break.

I want to qualify for the FNM Championship

This qualification is a much simpler case, but it also rewards pure, painful grinding far more than the PT qualification does (surprisingly enough).

The 2012 Friday Night Magic Championship season runs from September 5, 2011 through July 1, 2012. Your score is based on performance in FNM and only FNM during this period.

Invitations to the FNM Championship will be given out to the top hundred FNM players collected on a region-by-region basis (shed a tear for the Laotion and Kenyan players who can’t qualify). More specifically:

The setup is easy, but the execution here is likely to be a little painful. In the wake of the switch to the new ranking system, some stores have altered their FNMs to have more rounds – sometimes many more, making it more of a “Friday All-Day Magic” than an FNM. Even if that is cleaned up, some stores have always run 5-7 round FNMs (Superstars runs a stock 4 rounds, as do many stores).

What this means is that if you’re trying to qualify for the FNM Championship, you are competing with other players who have access to week after week of 6-7 rounds of FNM play. If you’re “stuck” with a 4-round FNM, that means even if you maintain the same win percentage as they do, they’re likely earning 50% more PwPs than you, week after week.

For reference, we’re only two FNMs into this first qualification season and there are already over 200 players with 100+ FNM points (meaning they’re averaging 5 or so match wins per FNM, per week).

The FNM Championship is the WoW of Magic competitive play. It rewards finding the right venue (dungeon) and then grinding the hell out of it.

Or, to put it in punchline form again:

If you want to qualify for the FNM Championship, find a large venue that runs 6+ rounds and expect to miss no more than a few FNMs during the season.

…and to be clear, the FNM Championship qualifier season runs for ten months.

So for the true grinders, have at it. For the rest of us, it’s probably best to enjoy the FNM Championship coverage from afar.

I want some GP byes

The new GP bye system appears to be replacing the effect of Pro Player level on GP byes…although that’s just conjecture on my part.

You earn GP byes for all GPs in the next Competitive Season based on your performance in the current season. For example, your final Competitive Total score for the current season, from August 29 through December 25, will determine your GP byes for all GPs during the period running from December 26 through April 1, 2012.

The qualifying rules are pretty simple on this one:

Fortunately, we can use data from the most recent Competitive Total season to pretty succinctly put boundaries on these groups.

I expect these to slip up somewhat as people choose to stay in events longer to accrue more points, so we may want to adjust them a bit.

Those are your targets, and they are very clean targets indeed.

I want to qualify for Worlds

Worlds qualification by rating will be based on your Professional score. Since so many things about the Professional score and its impacts are still up in the air, I’m just going to leave this one alone for now.

All our priorities

I like to keep goals in mind. It helps me retain perspective.

In evaluating the bannings, it’s good to remember that the point of this game is for folks to have fun. Every change to the card pool in competitive play is pretty much done with this in mind.

In the same vein, I overall approve of the shift to Planeswalker Points. Based on my evaluation of the system so far, it will have very little impact on the vast majority of players. The single biggest change – and one I heartily approve of – is that many of our local “on the edge of greatness” competitive players can now participate on the full range of local events without any fear of that single, awful ratings train wreck where fate, mana issues, and a low-ranked opponent conspire to see you disinvited from the next PT or docked a bye you’d otherwise earned.

What’s more, the way the system is built makes it much, much clearer for each of us how we can prioritize our time to get what we want out of competitive play. In my case, it makes it utterly clear that my path to the Pro Tour is via PTQ, and that it’s entirely plausible for me to pick up at least a standing 1-round GP bye for the following season. Many of you may also be able to figure out much, much earlier if you’re still in or out of the running for the FNM Championship.

It’s all about priorities.

Want to grind your way into FNM fame? Do it.

Want to come in just over the line to get a 1-round bye? Do that.

We’ve set out some benchmarks above that you can use to guide your progress, and I’ll expect to revisit them as the season moves along.

So you have your numbers – now what are your targets? Where do you want to be on December 25th?

***
magic (at) alexandershearer.com
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