In the past week, Wizards of the Coast announced and enacted a number of changes to the functionality of MTG Arena, including implementing a ranked ladder climb, much like Hearthstone. As you win ranked games, you will climb up the ladder from Bronze to Silver to Gold to Platinum to Diamond to Mythic. One aspect of that announcement that has drawn a lot of controversy is the decision to make both the constructed and limited ranked ladder use single-game matches (Best of one or Bo1) instead of the traditional format involving a game one followed by 1-2 sideboarded games (Best of three or Bo3).
Sideboarding has been a mainstay of competitive Magic for as long as I've been a part of it and is one of the core aspects of tournament play. In fact, some professional players like Brad Nelson have experienced enormous success largely from their ability to build and utilize strong sideboard plans to pivot in ways to surprise or overpower the opponent. Removing sideboarding from ranked play takes away some strategic depth and deck building considerations from the game.
However, from the opposite perspective, MTG Arena also offers several things, like drafting with bots or the hand-selection algorithm in Bo1 games, that are already a departure from how Magic traditionally works, and there is no real reason that MTG Arena needs to attempt to perfectly mimic paper Magic. Magic Online exists – well, at least for now – to accomplish that. MTG Arena can be successful while also being something completely different, and it's a flawed mindset to think that a change from what we're used to is wrong simply because "it's not how it's always been done." I believe a lot of the success of MTG Arena is because of, not in spite of, its willingness to change aspects of the traditional game to transition the game to a faster and more intuitive digital product.
Which gameplay method is superior? I personally think there are pros and cons to both. For example, I think Bo1 is better for Limited play, where it greatly speeds up the process of playing out the games of a draft before being able to draft again, but Bo3 is currently better for constructed play because cards are designed with sideboarding in mind. That may change in the future, but I don't think it's correct to say definitively that one is better or worse than the other, and I think it's possible that they could potentially coexist. In fact, I hope they do coexist, as I like both. I will say that with how many wins you need to hit Mythic on the ladder, Bo3 would make the process of ranking up take significantly too much time and the ranking system would need to be reworked to accompany it, but that's a whole other can of worms.
At any rate, while I have several thoughts on the matter, I'm not writing to debate which system is superior. They each have their advantages and should just coexist. Instead, I'm looking to discuss how to approach drafting and playing ranked Bo1 games, because it is something completely different than what we're used to and therefore requires changing how we do things.
I'll start by saying that I've only played a handful of ranked games on the Constructed ladder. As of now I'm still Bronze on that ladder, but I have played a lot on the Limited ladder over the past week, where I'm currently about halfway through Platinum. As a result, my ideas about best of one for limited are going to be more fleshed out and backed up than they are for constructed. Regardless, I've spent a decent bit of time thinking about and discussing these topics over the past few months.
I never thought I'd be jamming Dominaria drafts repeatedly in December of 2018, but here we are, and here I am. What's next, Ixalan? Hahahahaha. Good one, Brian. But, yeah, that's actually what's next. Can't wait.
One of the huge things that has somehow fallen under the radar is that in Bo1 games on MTG Arena, the program draws two opening hands for you and selects the one that has the closest approximation to the average land/spell ratio for your deck, ignoring what colors those lands produce or what the rest of your cards are. This has an enormous effect on gameplay and deck construction, and yet I haven't seen many people discussing its impact.
For one, it drastically reduces mulligans and improves the consistency of decks. This has a profound effect on how we should construct our decks, because we can safely assume that in most games our opponents will have a hand with a balanced mixture of lands and spells. In other words, our opponents will generally have strong hands, which means that we should expect decks to nut draw us way more often and therefore consider building our decks to compete with these nut draws. As an example, I like cards like Fungal Infection way more on MTG Arena than I did in paper Dominaria drafts, because it can trade with many two-drops or kill them outright and it can protect against draws like Champion of the Flame into Dub, which happens a lot.
The hand selection process also makes mulligans way more punishing, because it's less likely our opponents will mulligan with us and it's more likely that they will have a high-quality hand to punish us for having mulliganed. In this regard, decks with less consistent mana bases or three-color strategies will often be worse because they will need to mulligan to find the right colors of mana more often and thus start disadvantaged way more often. The hand selector only looks at the number of lands, not the colors they produce or what lands match with the spells in your hand. For example, in a 26-land Jeskai deck, it will give us a hand of three Islands, four Niv-Mizzets over a hand of four dual lands, Treasure Map, Deafening Clarion, Teferi every time because three is closer than closer to the average number of lands in the deck. That's why these three-color decks are just going to have to mulligan way more than other decks, because it's less likely the hand selector is going to pick the actual better hand.
Another massive effect that the hand selection has is that it chooses your hand based on the average land/spell ratio for your deck, which means that the number of lands we put into our deck has a very strong impact on the kinds of hands we will get. For example, in Limited, if we play 17 lands then the average number of lands in our opening hand is 2.975. This means that it will always give us a three-land hand above everything else, but if the algorithm sees a two-land hand and a four-land hand it will give us the two-land hand every single time since two is closer to average than four. In paper Magic, if the average land count for a seven-card hand is 2.975, then we'd see two land and four-land hands nearly at the same frequency, but in MTG Arena Bo1 it's going to be significantly more often, because the hand selector will never choose four lands over two.
That has an enormous effect on both deckbuilding and the kinds of decks that are successful. This strongly incentivizes playing low-curve decks with lots of cheap creatures and spells because we will have a lot of land-light opening hands. The algorithm is never going to give us a four or five-land hand if a two or three-land hand is also an option, so decks that get on the board quickly and decks that can function if they miss their third or fourth land a few times are going to generally fair quite a bit better than 17-land decks that are looking to stabilize with expensive cards.
This also makes cards like Opt, Adventurous Impulse and other cheap cantrips, card selection options and even mana acceleration significantly better than normal, because we will often keep hands with low land counts and they can find us land drops early on and spells later. I prioritize these cards way higher than I ever used to.
I strongly believe that if you're playing a deck where you are relying on casting four-plus mana spells or if you have a lot of cards with kicker, such is the case in Dominaria draft, then playing 18 lands is going to very often be correct. At 18 lands, the average land count in our opening hand is 3.15, which means that we'd be given four-land hands over two-land hands, while three-land hands are still going to be the default. The risk of flooding out at 18 lands is higher in paper Magic, which is why 17 has been the "default" land count forever in Limited, but since the hand selector is going to give us those dreaded five-land, two-spell hands much less often than normal, this risk is immensely diminished. Eighteen lands will be correct a significantly higher amount of the time than normal and flooding out will happen significantly less.
Likewise in Constructed, 25 lands in a 60-card deck means on average you will have 2.91 lands in your opening hand, whereas 26 lands means the average is 3.03. In a 25 or fewer land deck Arena will give you a two-lander over a four-lander with the reverse being true for 26-plus. In a deck like Jeskai Treasure Control that often plays 25 lands, I'd lean toward playing 26 on Arena in Bo1 queues. Arena is going to mitigate the outliers like five-plus land hands, making the extra land less likely to flood you out, but four-land hands are going to likely be stronger in a format where your opponents will have good draws and you can't afford to stumble against them. Boros Angels is another deck where I'd probably play 26 over the customary 25 on Arena in Bo1 matches.
There are a lot of considerations when drafting in a Bo1 queue vs. traditional drafting. For one, there is no value in taking a sideboard card. As a result, I would rather draft a card that might make my main deck but probably won't over a card that would be a slam dunk sideboard card but would never make my main.
I also draft with the consideration that my opponents are more likely to favor aggressive strategies – which are more successful with the hand selection process – and therefore I will skew my deck toward being strong against nut draws or powerful openings, especially on the draw. The die roll matters a lot more when players can more consistently have nut draw potential. This not only affects how I draft, but also how I eventually build my deck.
There are two major things that I think are important to keep in mind when drafting in a Bo1 limited environment. The first is that the value of hedging or all-purpose answers grows significantly. For example, I will maindeck Crushing Canopy a large amount of the time in Guilds of Ravnica draft if I'm playing Bo1, whereas I would be far less likely to in a Bo3 match where if I lose to an unanswerable permanent in game one, I can just sideboard against it. Generally, it's worse to have the situational card over a more consistently good option, but in Bo1 I don't want to get caught with no outs to the various rares my opponents will play.
Likewise, I value cards like Mammoth Spider higher in Bo1. It's a reasonable sized creature, but it also blocks flyers, and therefore is a nice safety net so I don't have to play a Pierce the Sky. If I don't have all-purpose answers like Mammoth Spider, then I am not afraid to hedge my bets and maindeck a card like Pierce the Sky, because I don't want to simply lose if my opponent happens to have Lyra Dawnbringer or Demonlord Belzenlok in their deck. Arbor Armament is another example of a card that also is a nice hedge. It's a weak combat trick, but another way to deal with a flying creature and the versatility in its potential utility improves its stock in a format where you don't get a second or third chance to beat bombs.
Blessed Light is another card that sees its value increase in Bo1, as a few copies of Blessed Light might mean that you don't need to also maindeck an Invoke the Divine, which I would otherwise play. Blink of an Eye is another all-purpose answer that helps hedge against problematic permanents and is thus a high pick.
The gist of what I'm getting at is that if I'm not drafting an aggressive linear strategy myself – in which case I can often ignore what my opponent is doing – then I am looking for answers that are universal, even over ones that are more powerful. I'm also willing to hedge and play what are normally sideboard cards just to give myself outs to otherwise unbeatable cards.
Another consideration when drafting Bo1 is that the value of cards that are hard to interact with in the main deck goes up significantly. While I already thought a card like Helm of the Host was a bomb, it is doubly so in Bo1 Dominaria drafts on MTG Arena because your opponent can't just sideboard into Invoke the Divines if they lose to it game one. They have to hedge against it in their main or have an all-purpose answer like In Bolas's Clutches to have a shot. If all you play is game one, then very few of your opponents will have an answer to a card like Helm of the Host and thus it will win a much higher percentage of games than it would in a traditional best-of-three setup. Artifacts and enchantments – typically the hardest permanents to answer main deck – will typically see their stock rise.
Bo1 in Constructed heavily favors linear strategies. Linear strategies traditionally refer to most aggressive decks and combo decks, but I think it can also (somewhat) apply to control strategies. Control decks are usually pretty linear in that they look to answer whatever the opponent is doing and then eventually win somehow. Their Game Plan is very much a point A to point B plan.
A non-linear deck would be something like most midrange strategies, which can pivot between several different roles and don't have the same general plan or path to winning every game. Sometimes a midrange deck will ultimate a planeswalker, sometimes they'll be the proactive deck that beats you down, sometimes they will control the board before eventually winning by grinding you out. There is no one typical way that they win a game and their cards are meant to be versatile to support multiple possible roles.
Linear strategies, such as aggro, combo or control, are favored in a Bo1 environment because those are the decks that usually win game ones and then they get worse after sideboard when other decks can adjust to the strategy.
One of the easiest ways to win in Magic is to make your interaction good against your opponent and make their interaction bad against you. Control decks thrive at making opposing interaction bad against them. All those removal spells don't do anything against mostly or completely creature-less control decks and without sideboard games for players to swap removal spells for Duresses and powerful threats that dodge answers, Control looks to be quite strong.
Aggressive decks often don't bother themselves with playing dead interaction cards and also seek to invalidate opposing interaction either by rendering it too slow or ineffectual against the specific threats drawn that game. Both decks are looking to win the first game by punishing flaws in the opposing deck, which can then adjust strongly after sideboard to either attack the specific threats in aggro decks or bring in their own threats and disruption against control.
Midrange decks lose a lot of strength in Bo1 play because midrange decks thrive on winning post-board games once they've adjusted against the opposing strategy. Without that option, these decks have to hedge pretty hard against the metagame they expect to face and hope that they draw the right half of their deck for the matchup they are facing or just ignore some matchups entirely and focus on beating others.
Bo1 Constructed is going to promote a lot of metagaming. In Bo3 Constructed, sometimes one deck rises above the rest and is just simply the best choice for everyone to play because between its main deck and sideboard it is hard for any deck to beat it. For example, Temur Energy in the last format was a deck like this before they banned it. I think it's less likely that will happen in Bo1 because the "anti-decks" will always arise to beat any given dominant strategy and without the dominant strategy able to adjust against the anti-deck after sideboard they will have to make concessions that weaken them elsewhere or accept the losses. That will create consistent shifts back and forth in the metagame and reward people who stay on top of it or come up with new strategies to exploit it.
In the dark, the best strategies will likely be ones that are skewed to beat linear aggro and linear control decks, which will often be an aggro or control deck that is just tailored for the mirror match as well as the opposing pillar of the format. Right now, I'd probably play Jeskai Control with lots of board sweepers or a Boros aggro deck with anti-mirror technology. I'm also considering Izzet Drakes with main deck answers for both Niv-Mizzet and Adanto Vanguard.
Here's an example of an Izzet Drake list that goes back to playing Murmuring Mystic to trump aggressive decks. There are only two Lava Coils as a hedge against control strategies where it's generally a dead card. Ral is also a good hedge card as a powerful threat and removal spell.
This is similar to the Jeskai deck I wrote about last week, only it has cut the Syncopates and Karns for more sweepers, a 26th land, and a Dive Down to protect the Nivical Miz.
This deck that team France played to first place at the World Magic Cup last weekend is another great option in that it has no creatures main and will invalidate a lot of removal spells in opposing decklists, while also having a lot of board sweepers to deal with the aggressive white and red decks.
Ultimately, I would like to see WotC involve Bo3 matches in competitive ranked play in MTG Arena. I think there is a world where both Bo1 and Bo3 can exist together, have separate metagames and separate functions, and I think removing Bo3 from competitive online play is a net negative. I'd personally love to play both, but in the meantime I will be working on figuring out the best way to perform best in this new best of one world we find ourselves in.
As long as you remember the most important thing, I'm sure it will all go smoothly. What is the most important thing, you may ask? Well, we finally solved the debate of whether or not it's okay to say "Good Games" after the match. It's clearly not acceptable, because the phrase is now "Good Game." And that's a GG no re on this article. Peace! Brian out.