The Perfect Casual Format, part 1
I think I can, I think I can
While I'm sure I could open my first article here on MTGSalvation with a thrilling recount of my last FNM, I think it's more reasonable to begin with a more positive first impression. After all, I was wielding a U/G Aggro-control deck with Witch-Maw Nephilim as the finisher, and you might very well think me mad to play a four mana 1/1 against things like Ghost Council of Orzhova and Burning-Tree Shaman. Fair enough. Instead of the exploits of The Little Horrible Walking Tongue That Could, I will discuss some of the things I like to do with Magical cards when I'm not losing to Gruul players who don't even realize Giant Solifuge has haste. I greatly enjoy playing Magic in non-sanctioned formats, but there are several things that must be addressed before we get to any particilar formats. What draws players into various formats? Why play Casual? What IS Casual? Throughout this article series, I propose to address these questions and suggest some new ways for you or your playgroup to approach this magnificent card game we all know and love.
The Imbalance of Constructed
As I'm sure most Magic players are aware, competitive Constructed can be quite expensive. There are several websites (including our very own MTGSalvation) which have an article series detailing how to go about building a somewhat competitive deck with copper wire, Elmer's glue, and an old analog wristwatch. But when all is said and done, it's the people with the most resources who are able to build the most competitive decks. Note that I do not say "money," but "resources." Obviously, if Billy McDeepokkits has a playset of every card in Ravnica, he's probably spent a lot of money on them. But I also mean things like access to a free online card playing program, a good sized and effective playtest group, and the ability to win cards on a frequent enough basis as to not have to buy any. Because of how important resources are to most people's ability to succeed in competitive Constructed, many players search for alternatives. Some play video games, some watch anime, and some poor, misguided souls even go so far as to try and play Limited.
The Myth of Sealed
I tend to play a lot more Sealed than I do drafts, mostly because my local card shop supports Sealed once a month for FNM, plus I play every release and Prerelease I can attend. There is a long-running rumor that Sealed is primarily a luck-based format. I'm here to dispel that myth. While I'm dispelling myths, perhaps I should also mention that camouflage is not meant for applications in fashion. Anyway, Sealed is definitely a skill-testing format. There is luck inherent in your card pool, and there is luck inherent in your draws, but the trick is to build your deck so as to minimize the negative impact of that luck. This is why the better players tend to make the top tables regularly. But if that's the case, why do I feel so dejected when I open a tourney pack and 2x Guildpact to see the following rares: Flickerform, Killer Instinct, Sitch in Time, Eye of the Storm, Copy Enchantment? I had a lot of token-producers, but hardly any removal, evasion, or beef. I certainly felt like I had wasted not only my $20 entry fee, but the four hours I spent going 2-2 and dropping. So while luck isn't the single defining factor in the format, it can often make a significant impact on a player’s ability to do well with a given card pool. Surely there has to be a format where I can be competitive, but not suffer at the capricious whims of luck?
The Ambiguity of Casual
Please love me.
Please love me.
When you leave behind well-supported sanctioned Magic formats (I'm ignoring Legacy and Vintage for right now), you are left facing a difficult situation. Let's assume you are playing a pick-up game of Constructed at your local card shop. There is no longer anyone to tell you what the rules of the format are. There is no judge to clarify rules or to tell your opponent to keep his hand of cards above the table. And there's no one (save local authorities) to stop said opponent from kicking your teeth in when you open with "Vault of Whispers, Disciple of the Vault, go." It's all self-policed. Random Example: I was playing on MWS sometime towards the end of Mirrodin/Kami/Eighth Standard, and I was messing around with a goofy R/G Spiritcraft aggro deck. Trouble is, I ran Birds of Paradise, Troll Ascetic, and Sword of Fire and Ice in addition to Frostling, Glacial Ray, Hearth Kami, and Kodama of the South Tree. To me, I was thinking "Casual" because it's not a Tier-one deck, but when I joined a game looking for "Casual" and after three turns of my Sword-wielding Birds killing Soldiers, he told me to "Take my netdeck and go home." The next invite he had open said, "Casual if u don't know what it means don't #%@*ing join." It seems to me that there is this sort of vague understanding as to what exactly casual is, but that not everyone agrees on it.
The Pizza Principle
This phenomemon leads me to what I call the Pizza Principle: the number of players able to agree on what is acceptable in casual is directly proportional to the number of people who can agree on pizza toppings. In other words, the more people you have trying to play, the harder it is to get them to agree. You and your brother might be fine playing Affinity mirrors all day (what else are you going to do with those cards, after all?), but start adding more people and you will wind up with someone who will start to have Vietnam-style flashbacks induced by Arcbound Ravager. This begs the question, WHY? What is it that makes Magic fun to one person but not to another? The key to that question lies in realizing that we all want a pizza with different toppings.
The Magical Trinity: Timmy, Johnny, Spike
(Please read this article for reference)
Wizards of the Coast (in particular Mark Rosewater) has addressed this issue many times before. Recently Mark even went so far as to re-define the three player profiles to separate them from their common stereotypes. In R&D, Wizards has a term for a card that is a hit with all three player types: a hat trick. In this article series, I will be exploring formats in which you can pull off a hat trick - not in a single card, but in the format itself. The key to finding a format like this is to examine where each of the three different player types overlap, aside from the obvious comparison of all three playing Magic.
Spikes are probably the easiest, as Spike players like to win however they can. They will make the best use of the tools available in any situation, as they often have a keen eye for not only raw power, but efficiency as well. This essentially means that as long as there is an obvious competitive goal and a clear winner, Spikes will be happy. I myself am predominantly a Spike, which may seem an odd admission considering I am writing am article about casual Magic. However, just because the competition is generally what drives my interest, it doesn’t mean I don’t want to shake things up. I’m what Rosewater calls an “Innovator Spike,” so I like to mess with established ideas in order to make them better, faster, stronger. ::cue Six-Million Dollar Man theme::
Timmies are the next easiest. Since the Timmy's primary goal is to have fun, we want to avoid any situations where the Timmies are not having fun (gosh, is that all?). The easiest step to avoid this is to eliminate any formats where a player no longer gets to play if he or she loses. This means avoiding Emperor (or at least having Timmies as Flankers), Grand Melee, and single-elimination tournament brackets. In addition, the card pool needs to have at least some cards that offer huge effects, since that's another big draw for the Timmy-oriented player.
Johnnies are the toughest to provide for, as they are most roguish of the three. The trick with Johnnies is to give them the tools to do their own thing and be innovative without enabling complete brokenness (especially with Spike/Johnnies). In casual, combo decks are usually a no-no, but there's more to Johnny than just playing combo. Johnnies really want to see how the various cards interact with each other in cool and interesting ways. I would suggest that the key here is to have an interesting and varied card pool from which to draw. If there are a lot of cards from which to choose, especially if they are ones that are not particularly familiar, Johnnies are likely to have a blast figuring out new ways to make them work.
Card Pool vs. Play Format: FIGHT!
Does anyone see a problem with the three key points I outlined above? One of these things is not like the other: Spikes and Timmies derive the greatest amount of their playing pleasure from the format, whereas Johnnies typically derive theirs from the cards. This means one very important thing: you can't ignore either of these aspects. There is a reason for the long-standing stereotype that Spikes are the best players, and that is that competitive Standard Constructed caters to their needs better than either of the other two types. Not only is it highly competitive, but Spikes are usually drawn to the most efficient cards. Johnny and Timmy evaluate cards most often based first on what they do, not on what they cost. Spike has an advantage right from the get-go, as Spike is playing Loxodon Hierarch instead of Bounteous Kirin when he wants a 4/4 that gains life. To tie this back in to our topic, the card pool should strive to put all three players on equal terms. In other words, the most efficient cards in the pool should not always be obviously better than the biggest or most interesting.
However, the card pool is only the first step. The format plays a huge role in how enjoyable the session will be for all players involved. For our purposes, the format considers everything except the card pool itself: house rules, number of rounds, teams, how the players get their cards, Limited or Constructed, and anything else along those lines. The choice of format is often most heavily influenced by the number of players present. Even numbers of players tend to have an easier time, since they divide up evenly for teams. I will be presenting formats that work well for groups of players up to six, at which point it’s probably better to break off into smaller groups to avoid individual turns bogging the game down for too long.
Starting at the Bottom
With the remaining time in this article, I’d like to give an example of a card pool and format choice that works well for three players. Over the series, I will add more players and experiment with different card pools, sharing from the experiences of my play group as much as possible. You may notice that we tend to play more Limited formats than Constructed. The main reason for this is that is allows us to tailor the format to the card pool(s) we have available. Since last-minute changes to who’s showing up can mess things up if we go in deciding to play Constructed Emperor, it often saves time and aggravation to stick with Limited. However, I will be using some Constructed formats in future articles after I have a chance to try some various ones out.
One of the fastest, most entertaining, and challenging formats for three players is the Topdeck Draft followed by a match of Cutthroat. For this format, I prefer to use a pool of the discarded commons from Ravnica and Guildpact packs. Ravnica block has some of the best commons ever for casual, and the amount of mana fixing available often ensures that all three players get a chance to play their cards even when not playing green. Note that you shouldn’t use the leftovers from a Draft or the cards you didn’t play in Sealed, as your pool will tend to be a bit lopsided in color. The proportions of color don’t have to be exact by any means, but it will help smooth things out considerably later. If each player contributes about four packs worth of commons (45 cards per player is perfect, so add one more if you want) you’ll have the right number of cards to get started. You can go as low as 30 cards per player, but that leads to some very clumsy decks. While it might be fun for advanced drafters, this often proves too frustrating in practice. Also, make sure you've got a good sized stack of basic lands on hand. About twenty of each color should be plenty, but it never hurts to have more just in case.
Once you have constructed your pool of cards, you can save it for later and draft with it again. It’s interesting to do this, because the dynamic of drafting changes significantly when you have some idea of what’s in the card pool. Of course, it would take a long time to see all the cards, so you can get a lot of mileage out of this simple stack of 135 Ranvica block commons.
The Topdeck Draft
After you shuffle the whole pool of cards, put them face-down in a single pile on the table. Determine randomly who will go first. Let’s say I’m going first. I take the top card off the pile and look at it. I now have a choice – I can either pass that card to the left and take the top card of the pile, or I can keep the card I’ve looked at and pass the top card of the pile to the left (without looking at it). Either way, I wind up with one card and the player to my left will have one card. The player to my left then gets to do the same thing, and this continues until the entire stack is gone. Since you are only looking at one card each time, the choice is usually pretty quick. To ensure faster choices, we usually disallow looking at what you’ve already drafted once it’s officially “yours,” but that’s really up to you.
Once you've got your cards, pick out the ones you want to play and build yourself a 40-card minimum deck. What makes this interesting for most players is that you are often forced into playing "sub-par" cards just because they are in the same color. Though they were ostensibly drafted, the deck often feel more like really lousy Sealed decks, which just makes it even more fun. Spike has to milk the most advantage out of his card pool, Johnny can force interaction between cards that don't usually interact, and Timmy has a slow enough environment to be able to play more and splashier cards.
For the match itself, we use a three-player format called Cutthroat. It's basically a cross between a duel and 2-Headed Giant. Any damage that you deal to either player (not to yourself), both players receive. The player going first does not get to draw a card on turn 1, and all three players begin with 20 life. Attacking is handled a bit differently than in 2HG, in that you choose which player to attack on your turn, and you cannot split attackers between players. The winner is the last player left alive. The pace of this format allows for a more aggressive strategy, but generally prevents a player from getting "teamed up on." Players often wind up defending each other, as that winds up being the same as defending themselves in many cases. Especially with this card pool, Cutthroat winds up being quick-paced and interesting while allowing different player types to use different strategies. I recommend playing until one player gets two victories, but have fun as long as you want with the decks you've put together.
Hopefully, I’ve done a decent job of explaining the importance of having your casual format appeal to all three player types. Next time, I will step up the card pools, formats, and player numbers as well as talk about some other ways to encourage the diversity that makes a fun and interesting play group. Thanks for reading!