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Wizards recently made it known to the general public that approximately five Planeswalkers per block will be the norm. Set-specific design or other factors may effect this, but generally, we should expect to see five ‘walkers per block. By having this many available in upcoming sets, along with those already in the Frontier format, it is no surprise that they will become a cornerstone of tournament play. Planeswalkers can be more general in their use / appeal or have niche uses. It is hard to say which ‘walkers will have an impact on the format in the long term. I think they can be roughly split in three categories: early, mid, and late-game ‘walkers. These categories are entirely determined by the converted mana cost.
Early ‘walkers have a converted mana cost of two-to-three mana and will usually hit the field in the opening turns of the game. Very few walkers fall into this category. The Origins “flip walkers” and Liliana, the Last Hope are the only real relevant examples in Frontier. Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy and Liliana, the Last Hope are by far the ‘walkers with the most potential and power in this category. Both transition well from the early to late game by having ultimates that can win games. More than any other walker in Frontier, I believe Jace will be of seminal importance. When Jace was standard legal he was a four-of in multiple decks across several archetypes. His ability to sculpt hands in the early game, and flashback spells in the late game, make him extremely powerful. In fact, his price has already begun to fluctuate again in anticipation of his role in Frontier. Liliana also has that same level of impact that Jace has in the late game. She either gets to re-buy value creatures later in the game or threaten an ultimate.
Mid-game Planeswalkers have a converted mana cost of four-to-five mana and usually help decks move from that mid-game into their powerful endgame cards. Although this is not the only function of mid-game walkers, it is a theme present in several of the most powerful ones. This category will be the most popular in the format, and as a result it will be difficult to examine all the relevant examples here. I will, however, take the time to look at one special case: Nahiri, the Harbringer. Hitting land drops is of the utmost importance in mid-range decks and Nahiri gives a player the tools they need to achieve this. Her rummage ability smooths out draws and leads to an ultimate that can help to stabilize a board. Nahiri is also a form of removal which can help players stabilize board states. The card draw effects attached to mid-game ‘walkers is very necessary to help decks continue to have fuel in the later portions of the game.
Late-game ‘walkers have a converted mana cost of six or more and tend to completely warp board states once they have resolved. There are currently four walkers that fall into this category in Frontier:
Sorin, Grim Nemesis
Ugin, the Spirit Dragon
Garruk, Apex Predator
These four can reset boards, accrue card advantage, and simply win games all on their own. Ugin is the most apt example in this group, by a wide margin. Resolving an Ugin can, and will, end games. In Standard, Ugin was the penultimate threat and he is just as potent now. He can act as a safety net against mid-range decks and he is a trump card against control decks. The other late-game ‘walkers have similar uses but they will only ever be seen in limited number. Unless your deck is designed with ramp in mind, this type of planeswalker will only be seen in decks as a 1-2 of and sometimes only in sideboards. It takes time to work up to six mana, and these walkers can rot in a player’s hand for many turns.
Creatures are the one category that is highly variable in Frontier. In Legacy and Modern, several creatures come to mind that define the format: Stoneforge Mystic, Tarmogoyf, Delver of Secrets, and Goblin Guide. Although Frontier has a few creatures that spring to mind, the staple creatures are still very much up for debate. Some examples of the format defining creatures include:
This list is a sampling of the creatures that a few decks may run in the format and is by no means exhaustive. It remains to be seen if Siege Rhino will be as represented in the Frontier meta as he was in the Standard meta. He is still a strong creature that will see play in many mid-range decks but will not be format-warping. I believe the format has a healthy mix of aggressive, tempo and controlling creatures in addition to mid-range. Each strategy has its strong candidates and several of the choices are valid. One factor to keep in mind is the presence of Collected Company in the format. By having company in the format creatures with converted mana cost of 3 or less will have additional value, as well as scrutiny, ascribed to them as the format matures.
Rather than speak about archetypes, I believe this format has several non-creature spells that will shape and define the format moving forward.
Each of the above spells is a core card in a powerful deck in the Frontier format. It is encouraging to see that the cards speak to combo, control and mid-range. In some cases these cards are so powerful that they made inroads into Modern.
Collected Company was a dominant force in standard the entire time it was legal. Several decks were created and made competitive during company’s duration in standard. For the most part, two variants of Company decks will see the most play in Frontier: Bant and Rally. Bant Company is a tempo-and-value based deck that really made a name for itself after the release of Reflector Mage and Spell Queller. The deck can play at instant speed and generate so much value off casting Collected Company. Games are frequently won off bouncing, exiling, or tapping down creatures on the opponent’s side of the board for the last few points of damage. On the other side of the spectrum, Rally is a slightly more combo oriented deck. It is a unique mix of Aristocrats and sacrifice effects that gradually pick away at an opponent’s life total. Rally itself enables a massive combo turn and speeds up the clock significantly.
Jeskai Ascendancy works as a token and combo strategy depending on the build. The combo form of the deck is much more radical in its design but can be much more fun to play. In this form of the deck you are trying to kill your opponent in one turn by either pumping up one creature or increasing the power / toughness of your entire team. In the token version of the deck burn spells are combined with token creators. The mix of burn and pumping up tokens through ascendancy means that an opponent is facing down a quick clock.
The last spell I wanted to touch on was Aetherworks Marvel. This powerful artifact from Kaladesh is as impactful in Frontier as it is in Standard. Marvel in Frontier is almost entirely the same deck that it is in Standard with one big difference. Ugin is added to the deck and that is a huge pickup for the deck. Players can also choose to include Dragonlords in the deck but they will not have as large of an impact as Ugin. This deck was already very powerful but, the new threats it gets from Frontier really brings up the threat density and diversity in Marvel decks.
Weaknesses in the Format
Frontier is not an official format and is the creation of a game store. A large number of people are unwilling to invest, brew, or play in a format that will not have any impact on Grand Prixes or Pro Tours. The format may be enjoyable and interesting but at the moment it does not end in a path that allows a player to make the Pro Tour. Professional players and grinders will not embrace Frontier in its entirety as long as the format is deemed “casual”.
For better or worse, Frontier has no ban list. Everything printed from M15 forward is legal to play in the format. This means that cards such as Dig through Time and Treasure Cruise, which are banned in Legacy and Modern, are still legal in Frontier. It is difficult to create a ban list so early in a format’s conception with only a minimal amount of data and tournament results. By having a format with no bans players may complain about the “fairness” of certain cards and how they are supposed to answer certain threats.
Hate cards are an important part of non-rotating formats and help establish healthy meta-games. The type of hate cards being printed in the current standard legal sets are nowhere near as powerful as they used to be in older sets. Cards like Stony Silence, which shut down certain strategies if drawn, are not present in Frontier. One of the most glaring problems is the fact that the format has no way to disrupt mana. Frontier does not have Blood Moon, Tectonic Edge, Ghost Quarter, or Fulminator Mage, and the chances of those seeing a reprint in a Frontier legal set are marginal. As a result Frontier will continue to have a high saturation of 4-colour decks as the format grows.
[Editor’s note] Well that wraps up our first multi-part article series by Les. If you want to learn more about the Frontier format, we hold Frontier events every Sunday at 3pm at Hairy Tarantula North. 6979 Yonge Street, lower level. As a last note, congratulations to Les for winning not one, but two Aether Revolt Game Days this past weekend. We will touch more on that later.
Frontier: Overview of the Format Part One.
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Gradually, Modern is developing a financial barrier to enter, like that of entering Legacy. In Modern’s infancy, it was a budget form of Legacy that was more approachable by new players. Although Modern does not have the same breadth and scope of cards that are available in the Legacy card pool, its power level and interactions still attract many players. Over time, the mana base, creatures and vital spells began to rise in price as Modern become more and more popular. The endless cycle of supply vs. demand has progressively driven up staple card prices of the format. It is important to understand that a card can see exclusive play in the Modern format and still command a hefty price tag. For example, Path to Exile, sees very limited Legacy play but is a staple card in Modern decks that contain White. When the card is played, it is generally played as a four-of, and commands a price of $10+ on the secondary market. Getting a playset of the removal spell would then cost $40+ depending on the current market. These prices become even more extreme when it comes to important lands and creatures which only receive limited print runs such as Tarmogoyf.
Seeing the rise in popularity of Modern and the demand for the staple cards, Wizards made strides to reprint cards when they could. Since Modern’s card pool is entirely made up of cards that are not on the reserved list, any of the cards could be reprinted. Wizards took a gamble and released the Modern Masters reprint series. Core cards saw limited reprints and drove down prices temporarily. Unfortunately, Modern Masters ended up causing issues in the long term. Prices on the reprints did temporarily drive prices down but, over time, those prices stabilized to approximately their pre-masters reprint pricing, or in cases even higher. For example, Kitchen Finks (a modern staple), saw a reprint in Modern Masters. Before the reprint Finks was $8-10. Once the card was reprinted, it saw a dramatic price drop to about $2-4. Now, the card is floating around $13 on the secondary market: higher than before it was reprinted. The reprint set also drove up the demand for cards that were not reprinted, like fetch lands. Ultimately, the Masters series got more copies of needed cards into the general player base but really did not make it much easier for new players to enter into modern.
Entry into Modern is not unattainable, but players were crying out for other options. Hareruya, a major store in Japan, is attempting to fill this gap with a new format of their own design: Frontier. Japan is a large market for Magic but they do not have access to the volume of modern and legacy cards that are available in North America and Europe. Japanese players that wanted to play a powered up non-rotating format were searching for some alternative. Hareruya hopes Frontier is the solution, not only for their players but for the magic community at large. Frontier, like Modern, is a non-rotating format that draws a line in the sand where players can only play cards from a certain set forward. Frontier only includes new frame cards with the hologram sticker incorporated into the frame. The card pool is:
Shadows over Innistrad Block
Battle for Zendikar Block
Khans of Tarkir Block
The different card frame acted as an easy way to divide what is Frontier legal and what is not; similar to the method that Modern established. By marking such a recent legality point, deck cost should be a non-issue for the Frontier format. It is also important to keep in mind that post-Return to Ravnica sets all had very high print runs compared to many other sets in Magic’s long history. Having these higher print runs means that card availability and price should be less restrictive for the format, even if demand increases.
The Mana Base
Mana bases are by far the most expensive part of any non-rotating deck and help to define older formats. In Legacy, dual lands are hundreds of dollars each and allow players to create painless, perfect multi-coloured mana. While in modern, mana bases are created around shocklands: a painful yet more economical mana base. Shocks average between $10-15 apiece. Modern and Legacy both make use of fetchlands that only serve to further increase the price of mana bases. Playsets of the original Zendikar fetchlands go for hundreds of dollars on the secondary market. Compromises can be made, but that drives down the consistency and power level of decks. Frontier has created a card pool that avoids many, if not all, of these expensive lands. Legacy has the true dual lands, modern has shock lands, and Frontier has a combination of battle and shadow lands. The frontier land suite includes:
- Five allied fetchlands (Polluted Delta, Flooded Strand, Wooded Foothills, Bloodstained Mire, and Windswept Heath)
- Five enemy manlands (Needle Spires, Wandering Fumarole, Shambling Vent, Lumbering Falls, and Hissing Quagmire)
- Five allied battlelands (Canopy Vista, Prairie Stream, Sunken Hollow, Cinder Glade, and Smoldering Marsh)
- Five allied shadowlands (Choked Estuary, Port Town, Fortified Village, Foreboding Ruins, and Game Trail)
- Five enemy painlands (Yavimaya Coast, Battlefield Forge, Shivan Reef, Caves of Koilos, and Llanowar Wastes)
- Five enemy fastlands (Inspiring Vantage, Botanical Sanctum, Concealed Courtyard, Blooming Marsh, and Spirebluff Canal)
- Five wedgelands (Sandsteppe Citadel, Opulent Palace, Nomad Outpost, Frontier Bivouac, and Mystic Monastery)
- Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
There are other minor lands available to the Frontier pool, but the ones listed above are the most important. Lands like Darksteel Citadel and Sanctum of Ugin are more of a niche importance. Few ways exist in Frontier to punish greedy manabases. The manabases are also much less painful than modern mana because they are not centered on shocklands. While not being painful, the mana is much slower and more difficult to sequence / balance correctly. Players can easily construct four-colour decks but the mana base would be difficult and mentally taxing to create. This type of mana harkens back to the time of 4-colour Mardu Green midrange and Jeskai Black Control decks. Consistent mana is available in the format, it just requires a careful balance. For example, the following is a version of the Jeskai Black manabase; a four colour deck:
An elegant balance is struck between the different types of lands available. As with all the other non-rotating formats, fetchlands play a vital role in anchoring the mana and making the delicate manabases possible. Poor sequencing in the early game will lead to slower mana, lands coming into play tapped and hamper board development. Time and effort needs to be expended on creating the correct and balanced manabase in this format.
Efficient and powerful removal is a necessary component of a non-rotating format. The Mardu wedge of colours makes up the space where removal exists in magic. It is hard to form an exhaustive list of staple removal in Frontier but, the following is a starting point:
- Crackling Doom
- Murderous Cut
- Ultimate Price
- Ruinous Path
- Declaration in Stone
- Utter End
- Anguished Unmaking
- Fiery Impulse
- Galvanic Bombardment
- Lightning Strike
- Harnessed Lightning
- Valorous Stance
- Stasis Snare
- Stoke the Flames
- Blessed Alliance
Frontier removal is pushed much more to the situational spectrum. Unconditional removal does not exist in the same way that it does in Modern or Legacy. Sorcery speed removal and higher converted mana casts are both hallmarks of Frontier removal.
Unlike the older formats there is no premium one-mana removal spell. Legacy has Swords to Plowshares, Modern has Path to Exile and both formats have Lightning Bolt">Lightning Bolt. Frontier, by contrast, has a lesser parallel in the form of Fiery Impulse / Galvanic Bombardment. These spells are not like Bolt: they cannot act as burn spells in the late game. One-mana removal helps midrange and control decks address the early game and are a crucial component of an effective deck. Besides one-mana removal, decks also need access to unconditional removal and removal that can destroy / exile permanents other than creatures. This is the space that Anguished Unmaking and Utter End">Utter End occupy. These cards are main deck answers that can remove a singular problem from the game. In Modern, cards like Abrupt Decay and Maelstrom Pulse exist to fill this role, but Frontier functions without those older, more powerful cards.
Low-mana and unconditional removal are both vital, but I also wanted to address a favourite piece of removal I have in the format: Crackling Doom. On the negative side, Crackling Doom has a very restrictive mana cost and is rather expensive at three mana but, that is where the downsides end. Doom is perhaps one of the best removal spells in the format. Edicts help decks handle hexproof and indestructible creatures. This removal spell also has a small amount of burn attached to it that can be redirected to Planeswalkers. On top of all of this, the spell can be “flashed back” by means of Jace, Torrential Gearhulk, or Goblin Dark Dwellers. If you are playing the Mardu colours in Frontier odds are this is one of the reasons you are in those colours.
This concludes Part 1: This is only the first part in a two part series giving an overview of the Frontier format. There was simply too much information to go into in one article. In next week’s article I will explore the Planeswalkers, creatures, major spells, the format’s weaknesses, and sample deck lists.
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