Faerie Mastermind | March of the Machine
13, Mar, 24

MTG Players Are Split on How to Save Competitive Formats

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Throughout recent years, the popularity of Commander has steadily been on the up and up. Considering Commander is affordable, diverse, well-supported, and accessible, this popularity isn’t a surprise at all. Beyond being an ideal format for existing players, Commander has also massively increased the popularity of MTG as a whole.

Thanks to preconstructed decks and Universes Beyond, Commander is understandably the go-to format for most new players. While this has been fantastic for the success of MTG, unfortunately, in the words of many, it has come at the expense of other formats. Not only has Commander been seemingly cannibalizing Standard sets, but competitive play has diminished significantly.

Due to Commander’s rising popularity and the COVID-19 pandemic, non-Commander and non-Draft events have declined in popularity at FNM. Depending on your area, it may be practically impossible to find a game of paper Standard right now. Considering Standard used to be the go-to format, and is surprisingly balanced right now, unsurprisingly many MTG players aren’t too happy about this.

Feeling that Wizards efforts aren’t enough, some MTG players have set out to save Standard alongside all competitive formats. Unfortunately, despite some suggestions seeming sound, it appears there’s not one perfect answer. Despite this uncertainty, there is one thing MTG players can agree on; something needs to be done.

The only question is which suggestion will actually save MTG’s competitive scene?

New World Championship Decks?

Seattle 1998 World Championship Decks

Kicking off this discussion, u/NastyCereal recently took to Reddit with a dramatic statement; “World championship decks are the solution to Magic’s Commander problem.” Talking up their idea, NastyCereal highlighted the appeal, potential, and cost-effectiveness of these decks. Considering the past precedent of World Championship decks alongside all these positives, these decks seem like a no-brainer, right?

Unfortunately, as much as MTG players on Reddit may like World Championship decks, they have a major problem. The cards from these decks are not officially legal in any format thanks to their gold border and nonstandard back. This means you can’t pick up one of these decks for a reasonable price and take it to FNM.

In theory, World Championship decks being non-legal is actually an upside, as it brings the cost down. While this is the major problem with printing properly playable decks, sadly it’s not a silver bullet. At the end of the day, while they don’t replace traditional MTG cards, non-legal reprints are still reprints.

For example, consider Wizards released a non-legal copy of Jean-Emmanuel Depraz’s World Championship XXIX winning deck. In this deck, players would get four copies of Sheoldred, the Apocalypse which currently costs $68 each, minimum. In theory, the new non-legal variant would be far cheaper than this, but that creates a new problem.

If you’re a Commander player, a gold-bordered card is hardly the end of the world since Rule 0 exists. This theoretically allows these non-legal cards to be played without issue outside of a tournament setting. Since the majority of Commander games are casual, there’s little reason not to buy a gold-bordered card if it’s cheaper and technically playable. Unfortunately, competitive MTG players don’t have the same option which makes World Championship decks somewhat unfit for purpose. 

New Challenger Decks?

Mono White Aggro Challenger Deck

While World Championship decks may be a bust, Wizards could just print fully legal World Championship decks. Alternatively, Wizards could resume making Challenger Decks that are actually competitive and compelling for players. Unfortunately, while these again seem like an ideal solution, there’s a major problem standing in their way; cost.

When selling Challenger decks previously, Wizards has severely limited the high-power cards included to keep costs down. While new printing cards cost mostly the same, Reprint Equity demands that Wizards sell high-power cards for high prices. If Wizards didn’t do this, the markets would crash and new products containing reprints wouldn’t sell.

Thanks to this principle, when creating playable Challenger decks, Wizards has two options. Either WotC can create a high-power but expensive deck, or massively cut down to keep it affordable. Sadly, neither of these is a perfect solution.

In theory, the cheaper Challenger Decks are far better since they’re a more approachable price point for new players. While this is an upside, these decks are hardly playable in the current MTG metagame. Unless Wizards were to print a decent budget deck, potentially with some new support, they’ll simply never keep up.

Thanks to this lack of strength, a lot of players will shy away from this product since it’s not fit for purpose. Worryingly, the same could be true of a high-priced fully meta-ready deck. While a $400-$500 Esper Midrange Challenger Deck would be successful now, if the meta moves, this deck could flop. 

Since Challenger Decks have only been released once per year, Wizards can’t react quickly to the meta, especially thanks to printing delays. As a result, if Wizards wanted to maintain the relevance of these decks, they’d have to manufacture a worryingly stale metagame.

MTG Arena Holds the Key?

Priest of Possibility
Priest of Possibility | Alchemy: Dominaria

While not widely suggested on Reddit, personally, I feel that MTG Arena could be the real saving grace of competitive Magic. Admittedly, MTG Arena doesn’t have the je ne sais quoi of paper play, but it shouldn’t be dismissed. Offering affordability, convenience, and accessibility, MTG Arena shares a lot of Commander’s best bits.

Right now, as much as there’s potential, the competitive scene on MTG Arena is somewhat lackluster. Sure, there are ranked queues, Qualifiers, and Championships for players to compete in, but they’re not the most common events. Should these be bolstered, as they were during COVID, Arena could easily be a haven for competitive play.

Beyond appeasing competitive players, MTG Arena is also a compelling entry point for new players. Not only is there a tutorial, but the game’s economy is surprisingly generous nowadays. If Wizards wanted to tap into this accessibility, it’s possible Wizards could sell challenger decks digitally to kickstart players’ collections.

Without the problem of reprint equity, a digital challenger deck could be both competitive and well-priced. In theory, these could be regularly updated or replaced with each set to keep decks relevant. While not every player will be happy dropping real-world money for digital-only cards, MTG Arena does offer many fixes.

Sadly, as much as it has its strengths, MTG Arena isn’t a perfect solution. For starters, Modern, Legacy, and Vintage aren’t on the client and aren’t currently planned. As if this wasn’t bad enough, this solution could massively hurt Limited and pack-opening experiences. 

While Standard and Pioneer hardly control the MTG markets, it’s nonetheless exciting to open a Standard staple when cracking packs. If Standard only really exists on Arena, however, then this excitement will be largely erased. Thankfully, Commander-playable cards do mitigate this problem, but Wizards won’t want to shoot themselves in the foot.

Wizards Is Doing Just Fine?

Wizards of the ________
Wizards of the ________ | Unfinity

Ultimately, it seems that there’s no perfect solution to simply reinvigorate competitive play. World Championship decks aren’t playable, Challenger Decks aren’t viable, and MTG Arena could do more harm than good. Thanks to this, we may just have to leave Wizards to their devices and hope things improve.

Thankfully, that hope isn’t just a pipe dream for a better tomorrow. While Commander is making money hand over fist, Wizards does still care about competitive play and formats. Recently Wizards has been focusing their efforts on Standard by switching up the format’s rotation and improving competitive support.

While the cost of competitive formats will always be a problem, the lack of support has long been the real issue. Now this is being improved, we’re seeing major events with significantly more participants than in previous years. Considering the competitive scene is a core part of MTG, this is obviously a good thing, right?

At the end of the day, MTG players will enjoy what they want, and Wizards will support that. Should the competitive scene fade away and die, it’s likely not because Wizards decided to randomly kill it. Instead, any move like this will be led by player interests and what best serves the game’s future.

While there are an awful lot of casual players, more now than ever thanks to Universes Beyond, Competitive MTG shouldn’t die out. Even if most players don’t dream of going pro anymore, a healthy competitive scene is nonetheless valuable and important. Subsequently, we should be able to hope for a bright competitive future for MTG.

Potentially, we may be seeing another sign on this soon. According to Blake Rasmussen, the next WeeklyMTG is about premier play changes on MTG Arena, which could bolster competitive support.

Read More: MTG Fallout Digital Absence Angers Players

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