It has been the talk of the Magic Internet for the past few weeks. With Standard more or less set for the time being, Modern largely out of the spotlight and Aether Revolt previews not quite here, it has left the community looking for something to fill the spotlight.
And Frontier has done just that. If you haven't heard of Magic's newest fan-created format, here are the details.
- It's a non-rotating format.
- The format begins with Magic 2015 – which is when the card framed changed to include the stamp – so it's easy to figure out what is legal.
- Included sets are Magic 2015, Khans of Tarkir block, Magic Origins, Battle for Zendikar block, Shadows Over Innistrad block, and Kaladesh block. As new sets are printed, they are added to Frontier.
- The Japanese superstore Hareruya was the first to introduce the format. They host weekly Frontier tournaments, and the Canadian megastore and tournament organizer Face to Face Games recently tried out the format with a paper tournament that drew a modest-but-impressive 38 people.
There is a lot to talk about here, and my goal here is discuss the merits of the format and why players believe it has a place in the Magic pantheon of formats. I am not an expert on the metagame – nor is it particularly telling this early on in the format's lifetime – so I'm approaching this from a big-picture vantage point.
Of course we have to start with Commander. Famous as the fan-created format, the artist formerly known as Elder Dragon Highlander (EDH) is now not just a staple of Magic communities everywhere (and one of my favorite ways to play), but also a format fully supported by Wizards of the Coast with annual Commander products.
Commander is the largest and most visible success story of player-created formats, but it's far from the only one. A story largely forgotten by time but one I love is that of Overextended.
Before we had Modern, we had Extended. It was a seven-year rotating format, and at various points in its existence was actually pretty fun. Of course, other times it was not. And no matter how fun it was, for the most part players just didn't care. They played it for the three months when it was a PTQ format, and forgot about it for the rest of the year. After all, Legacy was just better.
Except that Legacy had a major problem then, as it does now – the Reserved List. Dual lands were cracking $100 a pop and people were being priced out of the format, even as Magic experienced explosive growth. That led many to look for a replacement to the format in the hopes of dodging the Reserved List issue.
Gavin Verhey – now a designer at WotC but then a regular player and writer – attempted to solve both the Reserved List issue as well as the nobody-cares-about-Extended issue. I'll quote his seminal article on the subject.
"Extended is a failure.
It's simple as that. Few people enjoy the format; nobody plays it unless they're forced to for an event; and there's little incentive to build a collection for it. It kind of worked at one point years ago when Extended was smaller and Magic was a much different game. However with the information we have now it's clear that there's a player and interest differential between Extended and almost any other format. It's been dragged kicking and screaming into the modern age.
Finally it's time to let it go."
His proposal? Overextended. The format began with Invasion block and didn't rotate. Gavin took the extraordinary step of running online tournaments for the format and providing prizes himself to help promote it.
Around the same time, Wizards decided to give something called "Modern" a test run at the 2011 Community Cup. This, of course, led Wizards to creating the Modern format as we know it now, and Verhey's one-man quest to help solve a challenge the Magic community was facing is a historic success story, even if you've never heard of Overextended before today.
There have been a number of other player-created variants, from highly successful ones like Canadian Highlander, Pauper or Cube, to others like Type 4, Tiny Leaders or Peasant. While some have obviously endured better than others, all share one thing in common – the active involvement of regular Magic players trying to make the game better. And the history of these formats shows that player-driven action can lead to official support from WotC.
Which brings us to Frontier.
There is a lot to like about Frontier, Magic's newest player-created format. Resting comfortably far away from some of the more-broken or less-fun aspects of Modern, Frontier offers quite a bit to draw players in.
Let's be honest about this up front – this is a huge draw. Frontier seeks to scratch the same itch as Modern, while avoiding this major problem. Top decks in Modern cost upwards of $500, with decks like Dredge, Tron, Bogles and Merfolk representing the low end of that, while the top end consists of $1,000 decks like Infect, Bant Eldrazi, Abzan Company and Jeskai and Grixis Control, and goes even more extreme as you look at Tarmogoyf decks like Jund and Abzan.
Those are prices the average Magic player can't afford without a concerted and sustained effort to break into the format. Yes, it's easy to make the argument that Modern is less expensive than Standard over the long-term, but that doesn't help the player who started in Dragons of Tarkir to play with his friends at your weekly Modern tournament. These high prices mean that players have to commit to a deck and stick with it, hoping it doesn't get banned or falls out of favor. It also means that players are often drawn to budget decks, which have the problem of eating up non-zero amounts of money while also not allowing players to compete at the top of the format, creating further artificial barriers to their fully entering the format.
As someone who loves Modern and produces Modern content every week, I'm painfully aware of the shortcomings of the format. But we're not here to talk about Modern, we're here to talk about avoiding its problems altogether – with Frontier.
The most expensive deck – and arguably the best – is Four-Color Control, or as you used to know it, Dark Jeskai. The control deck full of fetch lands and Jace, Vryn's Prodigy clocks in around $400. Rally the Ancestors is right behind it. That's far from a cheap buy-in, to be sure, but it is a far cry from the heights Modern decks can reach. And most of the other decks that have made regular appearances in the fledgling Frontier format – Humans, Elves, Atarka Red, Bant Eldrazi, Grixis Ensoul Artifact – all come in at $200 or lower. That's on par with the average Standard deck, and in some cases even less expensive.
@Chosler88 Being able to play any style you want, while simultaneously mostly interactive games (no infect vs ad naseum 12 turn matches)— Zach Allen (@A22en) December 2, 2016
Because Frontier consists entirely of cards made with contemporary design philosophy, there's a lot more interaction than you'll find elsewhere. There's no Infect to kill you on turn three, no Storm to ignore everything you're doing, no Blood Moon to lock you out of spells on the second or third turn, no Ensnaring Bridge to completely end the game against a host of aggressive decks, and no absurd cards like Choke or Boil that would never be printed today.
Instead, players are forced to actually play Magic with each other. And while that means something different to everyone, there can be no doubt that Frontier has fewer blatantly unhealthy cards than other non-rotating formats.
@Chosler88 Torrential Gearhulk into Dig Through Time— Andrew Grenz (@andrewgrenz3000) December 2, 2016
I've never targeted a Dig Through Time with Torrential Gearhulk, but after this I sure do want to. And the fact that you can cast Dig and Treasure Cruise are certainly draws to a large part of the player base.
But it's more than just the banned cards. There are a lot of Standard cards or decks that players enjoyed playing, from Atarka Red to Mantis Rider to Panharmonicon to Sidisi, Brood Tyrant to Goblin Rabblemaster that players have rotting in their collections that they want to take advantage of. The Standard rotation change to every six months only exacerbated the feeling of cards becoming useless too quickly, and while the rollback of those changes bodes well for the future, it doesn't do much for those cards that never really had their chance.
And we can't forget about the Truth, the Dream, the Answer, the Main Event, the Natural, the Franchise, the Big Fundamental, the Rhino Highlight Film, the Black Rhino and any other nickname that is a perfect fit for our favorite Frontier card.
@Chosler88 Everything I have seen about Frontier seems to be about preventing Extinction of Siege Rhino.— Brian David-Marshall (@Top8Games) November 30, 2016
One of the best parts of any Magic's players life is the opportunity to create something new. Frontier offers that by smashing together a bunch of cards that hadn't previously interacted – Gearhulk and Dig Through Time are just the tip of the iceberg here. Abzan Falconer and Thalia's Lieutenant are another, as is Goblin Rabblemaster and Reckless Bushwhacker.
Discovering these interactions is a highlight for anyone who likes to build decks, and exploring that space is something that Frontier can fulfill in spades in the short term. Starting from a card pool so small (compared to other non-rotating formats) means that the overall power level is low enough that there is a lot of room to experiment.
With all of that said, there are certainly some challenges Frontier faces, some of which are inherent and some that will naturally be improved over time.
This is how the mana cycles break down from the sets legal in Frontier.
Magic 2015 and Magic Origins: Enemy pain lands (Caves of Koilos, et al)
Khans of Tarkir block: Allied fetch lands ( Polluted Delta); tri-lands ( Sandsteppe Citadel)
Battle for Zendikar block: Allied battle lands ( Canopy Vista); enemy creature lands ( Lumbering Falls)
Shadows Over Innistrad block: Allied shadow lands ( Foreboding Ruins)
Kaladesh block: Enemy fast lands ( Botanical Sanctum)
Of these, we have three enemy pairs, three allied pairs, and then tri-lands like Mystic Monastery, simple duals like Highland Lake and several color-fixing one-offs like Aether Hub.
This leads to a few problems, and it's largely the same problem we had in Khans of Tarkir-Battle for Zendikar Standard – the way the fetches interact with the battle lands means that any attempt at a three-color fetch land mana base leads you naturally to four colors, just due to how those two cycles interact. This is why that Standard was filled with four-color "good stuff" decks like Dark Jeskai, Blue Abzan and Blue Mardu. It was a huge blurring of traditional mana principles, and caused that Standard format to devolve into a mess of four-color decks (and Atarka Red) that players largely did not enjoy. Combined with the fact that the power level of Khans of Tarkir block is much higher than the other sets in the format, we have a format largely defined by those same Standard archetypes.
But the problem actually goes a bit deeper than that. Not all of these cycles are created equal. When Modern was created, it too had unbalanced mana, but still had the baseline shock lands like Sacred Foundry that more or less gave everyone a consistent starting point.
Frontier, on the other hand, currently benefits some enemy pairs more than others. For instance, suppose we want to build an aggressive white-blue deck consisting of all the usual suspects. While we can certainly do that, the mana base for that deck has essentially just Flooded Strand and Port Town to make it work, since Prairie Stream isn't good until the third turn, and Port Town itself isn't as reliable as we would hope.
Contrast that with someone hoping to build a red-white aggressive deck. They get significantly better options, with Battlefield Forge and Inspiring Vantage being much more consistent at fixing mana in the first three turns. They even get the option of playing a creature land in Needle Spires to increase the deck's reach.
In other words, it's not inherently a problem that the mana isn't perfect, but it is a concern that certain deck archetypes are viable and others aren't due to nothing other than the arbitrary half of the mana cycle that happen to be legal. Given the ease that midrange and control decks have to play a full four colors of mana, this naturally slants the format toward certain decks.
It's important to note that Modern faced this problem to a lesser extent, for a long time. And as more sets enter Frontier, the imbalance will be lessened. So while this isn't an unfixable death knell for the format, it is a problem with its current iteration.
Remember this little guy?
This was the terror of an entire Standard format, both due to power level and price. Jace was pushing past $75 at its peak in Standard, and along with fetch lands it helped to create one of the more expensive Standard formats in history.
Now remember that Frontier is built on the foundations of that Standard format. Two of the top decks – Four-Color Control/Dark Jeskai and Rally the Ancestors – run a full playset of Jaces along with a mess of fetch lands. That's the reason these decks make up the top tier of the format, and it has the potential to undermine one of the biggest advantages of the format.
Right now $400 for one of these decks is pretty reasonable. But keep in mind that Modern prices once looked a little like that as well. The dirty little secret about Modern prices is that it's demand that pushes up the price despite repeated reprint sets aimed at decreasing prices for the format. If formats are popular, players are going to pay for the cards.
Imagine a world where Frontier takes off, players love it and Wizards of the Coast picks it up as a Grand Prix format. This will cause a rush of players into the format, and prices will rise as a result. The fact that four-color mana bases are utterly unable to be punished due to the lack of a policing effect like Blood Moon means that many of the best decks – just like in Khans of Tarkir Standard – will end up playing a bunch of colors. That means a bunch of fetch lands and a bunch of Jace, Vryn's Prodigy. If these decks are $400 now, what do you think happens as players flood into the format? We end up with Tarmogoyf 2.0, which despite multiple reprints is still over $100. While Modern proves this doesn't mean that format won't be popular, it does undermine one of the key tenets – affordability – of Frontier.
For everyone who loved casting Siege Rhino, there is another player (or two) who hated getting ground out of game after game by the Rhino. Remember how fondly we remember Rally the Ancestors or Collected Company Standard?
Yeah, not very much. One of the changes Wizards made to Extended before killing it was to change it from a seven-year rotation to a four-year rotation. The idea was that players could get a few more years of use out of their Standard cards, much like Frontier. But the reality is that more than anything, players hated playing against Bloodbraid Elf or Mistbind Clique for another two years, and as a result stayed away from the format.
@Chosler88 midrange circlejerk is dominated by 4c strategies, unlikely new standard sets will present a higher power level of cards than ktk— Daniel Fournier (@tirentu) December 2, 2016
Again, this is a problem that gets better over time as more sets enter the format.
So is Frontier the next big thing, or the next Tiny Leaders?
I don't know. I know that a lot of the problems it's seeking to alleviate with Modern are issues inherent to the Modern format as constructed, and can't easily be solved. Rather than try, Frontier seeks to eliminate them entirely, and does a good job doing so.
If we break it down into three main categories – Accessibility, gameplay and desire – it's easy to see where Frontier shines, and where it needs to improve.
Regarding accessibility: with Frontier, we'll never have to worry about ancient designs like Simian Spirit Guide or Choke or Ensnaring Bridge, and we won't have to deal with the tiny print runs of 8th Edition. Sure, certain cards like Jace or fetch lands could be expensive, but due to the larger print runs the format is based on it becomes much easier to "whack-a-mole" with these cards than it is for a format like Modern where everything is liable to spike based solely on scarcity.
Regarding gameplay: Right now the format has a long way to go. It's dominated by four-color decks that are rehashes of Standard decks, and the unbalanced mana and power level, lack of good graveyard hate or combo decks outside of Rally the Ancestors. Of course, the format is in its infancy so it's impossible to know if this initial take on the format is the right one, and these issues naturally improve as more sets are added.
Regarding desire: Clearly, the desire from the player base is there. The buzz of Frontier is a clear sign that Modern, for all its popularity, is missing a large segment of the audience, particularly those players that have started in the last three or four years and don't have Tarmogoyfs, Scalding Tarns or Snapcaster Mages just hanging out from drafts back in the day.
It is a lot harder to make the case from Wizards of the Coast's point of view, and while official support isn't necessary, it ultimately is pretty important to the future of Frontier. By every metric Wizards has shared, Modern is a runaway success – players love it and attendance at Modern events is increasing. Every other year they get to print a reprint set for Modern, sell it like crazy and ease players into the format. Standard, meanwhile, is struggling after the change to six-month rotation, and they are desperately trying to get players back into Standard with things like the Standard Showdown.
What does supporting Frontier do for Wizards that Modern isn't already? Remember that Modern was created for one overwhelming reason – to create an eternal format that isn't hindered by the Reserved List. Sure, they're happy if players still play Legacy, but they recognized that it had upwards limits on its growth due to the Reserved List. Tarmogoyf is the Underground Sea of Modern, but unlike Underground Sea they can print Tarmogoyf at Mythic every other year and sell sets because of it. In this sense, Modern is doing exactly what Wizards envisioned for it, and the fact that players like it is icing on the cake.
If you're sitting in the Wizards of the Coast war room and discussing the merits of investing resources into the format, the question that must be answered is: what problem does this solve for us? From their perspective, it's hard to see how Frontier solves a problem, while it does pose the non-zero risk of fragmenting the player base. If a store has four Legacy players, four Modern players, four Frontier players, and four Standard players, it has no tournaments.
I don't say this to tell you that Frontier can't exist. What I am saying is that if you want Frontier to take the next step from Internet buzz to Friday Night Magic format, it's going to take all of us doing our best Gavin Verhey impression. Foster the format, welcome new players, organize tournaments. Above all, show Wizards why it's in their best interest to support it. It's not an easy task, but it wasn't easy for those judges playing EDH in their hotel rooms, either, and look where we are now.
Thanks for reading,
@Chosler88 on Twitter