What Is Magic: The Gathering Frontier, And Is It The Format That We’ve Been Waiting For?
A New Frontier For Constructed Play?
If you’re interested in Frontier, you may be interested in this Facebook group: Frontier Magic: The Gathering Community.
We’re all familiar with the concept of “formats” in Magic: The Gathering, each with its own list of cards which are legal to play. Currently, there are four competitive constructed formats: Vintage and Legacy, both of which encompass all sets ever printed but with a larger ban list for the latter, and an additional restricted list for the former. Modern encompasses every set printed since Eighth Edition (the core set from 2003), and Standard only includes the most recent sets with a yearly rotation schedule to “cycle” out the oldest sets to make room for the newest expansion.
There are other constructed formats in Magic: The Gathering that either have smaller player bases or are designed for casual play, primarily Pauper, Old School, and multiplayer formats, such as Commander and Tiny Leaders. There are also various competitive limited formats, the foremost being draft, sealed, and team sealed.
So then, what is Frontier? Frontier is an independently developed competitive constructed format currently taking off in Japan. Frontier encompasses every set printed since the Magic 2015 core set, so its current pool of cards is only drawn from the past few years of Magic expansions: M15 and Magic Origins core sets along with the Khans of Tarkir, Battle for Zendikar, Shadows over Innistrad, and Kaladesh blocks.
Recently, Frontier has been lauded by a small portion of the Magic community, and a few select pro players, as a new and exciting alternative for players tired of the stale Standard and expensive Modern formats. If I may, I would like to offer a counterargument, citing the history of similar Magic: The Gathering formats, changes in Wizards of the Coast’s approach to set design, some inherent problems with the structure of Frontier, and some possible solutions.
Comings and Goings: The Two-Year Standard Rotation
Formally known as “Type 2”, Standard is designed primarily to sell the most recent Magic expansions and introduce new players to Magic. Its primary appeal to beginning players is the low barrier for entry (a budget Standard deck can cost anywhere from $25-100), while experienced players enjoy the ever-changing puzzle Standard presents as sets come and go.
To aid in keeping the format as simple as possible (and to help sell the newest sets), Standard has a yearly rotation schedule. At the end of September each year, only sets printed within the past year remain in the format and are joined by the October expansion. This means at any given time, Standard will comprise anywhere from five to eight different sets. The format is defined by the interactions between and within those sets, and how each subsequent expansion changes said interactions.
One of the issues Magic players have with Standard, in addition to having to buy new cards every few months to continue playing, is the volatility of a card’s cost in relation to its height of popularity and subsequent fall-out following rotation if the card does not see play in any other formats. Since Standard has a very small pool of cards to choose from, many cards that might not otherwise see the light of day get a brief chance to shine in Standard. Once rotation occurs, they fade into obscurity (also known by Commander players as “EDH playable” in most cases!).
An upside to Standard, however, is if any cards or decks seems too oppressive, they will eventually rotate out of the format. There’s no need to wait for a Banned & Restricted List update – the rotation will take care of the scourge of Standard.
Time Stretch: The Days of Extended
Formally known as “Type 1.x”, Extended was designed as a scaled-up Standard format. Extended was a rotating format that included recent sets but also contained, in its original form, a confusing rotation schedule. In 2008, Wizards of the Coast altered the Extended rotation schedule to only include sets from the past seven years with a yearly rotation schedule, and two years later they moved the cutoff point to four years, hoping to further simplify the format by drastically reducing its card pool.
Due to the rising popularity of Modern, Extended was officially retired in 2013 by Wizards of the Coast and its last sanctioned events were held on 8 October, 2013.
The Modern Solution
In Spring 2011, following the release of Mirrodin Besieged, Modern was created as a non-sanctioned format on MTGO to bring in the increasing amount of players interested in Legacy but wary of its high cost of entry. Modern was officially sanctioned a few months later when it replaced Extended as the format of Pro Tour Philadelphia (following the release of Magic 2012). The reason? Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic were dominating Extended. Surprised?
Since Eighth Edition marked the beginning of the newer “Modern” card frames in 2003, this was chosen as the point of origin for the Modern format. Primarily, this would give players a visual cue for which sets would be legal. It was admittedly as arbitrary an origin as any other, but Wizards wanted to make it absolutely clear to all Magic players what sets would be included in Modern. There was no significant change in R&D (Research and Design) with Eighth Edition, but as with the recent reversion of the Standard rotation, sometimes the best decision is to keep things simple.
Since its induction, Modern has been popular with competitive players who enjoy an evergreen format without having to buy any cards from the Reserved List – a significant barrier of entry for Legacy and Vintage players. Since the Modern card pool is significantly smaller than its Eternal counterparts, the format is often shaken up whenever a new powerful card is printed in a Standard set, keeping the format fresh while grounded in the roots of Standard formats past.
Evolution: The Stages of Research and Design at Wizards
A moment ago, I made mention of the fact that while 2003 brought the “Modern” card frames with Eighth Edition, there was no significant change in R&D. At this point, I think it’s important that we take a brief look at the history of Wizards of the Coast’s Research and Design Team, and how it has evolved over the years.
Originally, Magic: The Gathering was designed around individual cards and their function within the colour pie. In what we call the ‘Second Stage of R&D’, or ‘Silver Age’, a “big picture” approach was applied to block design. With the Third Stage or “Bronze Age”, the focus was further shifted to actually giving each block its own theme. Mechanics became more cohesive and contributed to the overall feel of the block.
The Third Stage of R&D began with Invasion, the block that highlighted the story of the Phyrexians invading Dominaria and doing battle with Urza and Karn. This stage ended with the objectively disastrous Kamigawa block, which had its own signature mechanics but was poorly planned. This gave rise to the Fourth Stage of R&D, when Mark Rosewater took on the role of Head Designer.
Starting with Ravnica: City of Guilds, block planning was a much more meticulous process, and each block would evolve through the course of each set contained within, and mechanics would often change or adapt as the block progressed. The New World Order was founded during this stage, which began a policy of keeping cards at common rarity as simple as possible. The Fourth Stage ended with Rise of the Eldrazi, which was a set Rosewater admitted was poorly executed and was eventually tacked onto the Zendikar block late in the development stage.
In the Fifth Stage, R&D changed the way in which mechanical themes were developed. The mechanics of a block had to be used to paint the setting, rather than serve as the starting point. During the Fifth Stage, which began with Scars of Mirrodin, the method of world building called “Top-Down Design” came into its own, commencing with the Innistrad block.
Top-Down Design eventually led to the Sixth Stage of R&D, which began with Khans of Tarkir: This current stage is focused on developing the elements of a block’s design before even thinking of the cards and mechanics of the sets. Top-Down Design has evolved into a new method, Exploratory Design, which encompasses world building, integration of card flavour, and the integrity of the colour pie.
Realms Uncharted: The Development of Frontier
In July 2016, a Tumblr user asked Mark Rosewater about the possibility of a Post-Modern format, to which MaRo replied there was a “good chance” of Wizards considering a format between Standard and Modern.
The Magic community has often speculated about the possibility of a Post-Modern format larger than Standard and much smaller than Modern – similar to Extended, but non-rotating. This speculation found new life after Maro hinted at the possibility that Post-Modern could be in Magic’s near future.
On 26 September, the Japanese game stores Hareruya and BigMagic posted an announcement to Hareruya’s website that they were in the process of developing a new Magic format called “Frontier”. An English translation of the announcement was posted to the MTG subreddit, where many Magic players expressed their excitement at the possibility of finally having a Post-Modern format.
In Hareruya’s announcement, the main reasons cited for introducing the Frontier format was twofold: First, Standard’s six month rotation schedule, which was only recently abandoned, made it difficult for Magic players to keep up. And secondly, Modern staples such as Tarmogoyf and Liliana of the Veil are simply too expensive a barrier for Standard players wanting to play a non-rotating format.
Almost immediately following Hareruya’s announcement, a subreddit was created for Frontier, and various MTGO emulators incorporated the format for playtesting. Magic pros have expressed excitement for the format, MTGGoldfish now provides metagame information for Frontier, and even Wizards of the Coast has given it a nod.
Far Wanderings: The Problem with Frontier’s Point of Origin
No format is without its problems, so it’s important as Frontier begins to find its legs as an unsanctioned format to point out some inherent flaws. First off, let’s examine the point of origin. Similarly with Modern, M15 is somewhat arbitrary and was chosen for its change in card layout. I will cede that Wizards of the Coast chose Eighth Edition as the Modern cutoff point to avoid confusion, and as previously mentioned, the best solution is often the simplest.
However, there is one major difference between the start of Modern and the start of Frontier: From the very beginning, Modern encompassed the past seven years of Magic, while Frontier only dates back to 2014. Even if the origin was pushed back a few years, nobody would be confused about what was legal. Also, as the dialogue on the health of Modern continues, and uninteractive cards that were printed in Modern’s oldest sets stand firm as format staples, some are pushing for Eighth Edition to be banned from Modern altogether (LSV even advocates a ban of core sets all the way through Tenth Edition). While Eighth Edition was a good choice to avoid confusion at the outset of Modern, its inclusion in the format has become a point of contention.
Is M15 the ideal cutoff point for Frontier? We’ll examine both sides of the question – which sets follow M15, and which sets are excluded?
Mana Clash: The Problem with Frontier’s Land Base
The first thing to look at is the mana capabilities of Frontier compared to Modern. A significant contributor to the prohibitive cost of Modern is the land base, with ten fetchlands and ten shock lands legal to play. It’s worth noting that the cost of shock lands and Onslaught fetchlands has dipped dramatically in the years since they were reprinted, but the Zendikar fetchlands are still hanging out at exorbitant prices.
What does the Frontier land base look like? For allied colours: Fetchlands, ‘battle lands’, and ‘shadow lands’. For enemy colours: Pain lands, ‘man lands’, and the newly-printed ‘fast lands’. Other options include the Khan’s of Tarkir tri-lands, Aether Hub, and uncommon tapped lands.
For many, the Khans fetchlands are enough of a turnoff that they are unwilling to try Frontier unless they are immediately banned from the format. Anyone who played Standard during Khans of Tarkir‘s eighteen month stint remembers four colour decks with price tags close to Modern, and fetchlands were the heart of that problem. On the whole, the Frontier land base is extremely unbalanced while also facilitating four-colour strategies with prices akin to Khans-BFZ Standard. They’re certainly not as expensive as their Modern counterparts, but if part of the appeal of Frontier is affordability, fetchlands will always pose a problem.
For those who do not view the cost of fetchlands as a problem in Frontier, then we must consider an issue which is currently plaguing Standard of late…
Natural Selection: The Problem with Frontier’s Diversity
“But Frontier is diverse,” I can hear the internet saying.
“Yes it is,” I reply, “so let’s take a look at the Frontier metagame.”
The small sample size on MTGGoldfish’s metagame breakdown shows the following decks:
- 4c Rally
- 4c Control
- 4c Aggro
- Bant Yisan Chord Company
- Jund Control
- Grixis Control
- Jeskai Humans
- Abzan Midrange
- Bant Eldrazi
- UR(W) Prowess
- Mono-W Humans
The list goes on and on. Notice anything?
(MTG nerdery) Man, I could modify this UB Aristocrats deck to be Rally the Ancestors so easily, just a bummer it runs yet another 4 Jaces.
— Ryan Letourneau (@NorthernlionLP) November 16, 2015
@OriginalOestrus CoCo is the new Siege Rhino.
— Ian D (@dixonij) April 17, 2016
32 copies of collected company in the top 8 of the magic online ptq today. next one will have 0. thank you jesus of nazareth
— Logan Nettles (@Jaberwocki) September 18, 2016
— Michael Szymanski (@MikeJSzymanski) May 5, 2016
Oh, that’s right – the top decks of Frontier feature cards and archetypes that were once the bogeymen of Standard. The centerpieces of Frontier are either at the top of current Standard, or were cause for celebration when they rotated. Why then are we so quick to jump on the Frontier train?
Is diversity for the sake of diversity a good thing when the most commonly played decks are basically the oppressive leftovers of Standard past?
Contingency Plan: What Are Our Possible Solutions?
As I see it, there are two possible solutions: The first solution is decide now whether Frontier will be an affordable alternative to Modern, or just a powered-down version of its competitive counterpart. If the former is true, fetchlands simply have no place in the format.
If the latter is true, M15 should not be the true point of origin for the format. If cost is not an issue as long as Frontier stays below Modern in overall price, the problem to tackle is format diversity – and as I’ve already stated, diversity for the sake of diversity doesn’t inherently mean Frontier is healthy. As long as the most rampant decks from the past few years of Standard are left to duke it out, many Magic players will be hesitant to dip their toes into Frontier.
M15 does come close to marking a paradigm shift in set design – the Sixth Stage of R&D, or Exploratory Design which started with Khans – but it’s far too small a sample size for a healthy level of diversity. Instead, go back to the Fifth Stage, or Top-Down Design. This would result in one of two possible cutoff points: Innistrad or Return to Ravnica.
If the origin were moved to Innistrad, the biggest problem would be prohibitive but powerful cards such as Liliana of the Veil and Snapcaster Mage. If Frontier is intended as Mini-Modern, Innistrad is the ideal cutoff point, though the average deck cost would rise significantly. Furthermore, most of what I am about to say about the Return to Ravnica would also apply here.
If Return to Ravnica is instated as the origin, the only issue is the addition of shock lands. Many might see this as an upside, especially since shock lands and Khans fetchlands are fairly affordable and no longer the main offenders for why Modern land bases are so prohibitive. A Return to Ravnica origin would make Frontier more of a post-Modern format, with more tools for control, aggro, and midrange. Dragon’s Maze would open up the possibility for Maze’s End alongside Voice of Resurgence; M14 would give life to Young Pyromancer strategies, Archangel of Thune, Mutavault, and other powerful creatures; whilst Theros block would bring scry lands, Devotion, Heroic, Constellation, and of course, Thoughtseize.
While an RTR-onward format would still have its problems, in my opinion, it would be a far healthier format with a wider range of threats, answers, and possible archetypes. The land base would be slightly more expensive but more balanced and flexible, and players wanting to try one or two-colour strategies would have more tools at their disposal.
Perhaps the best fix for Frontier is time. At the moment there’s just too small of a sample size to do anything but brew with the most oppressive cards from the past two years, but in a few years the problem could potentially resolve itself. It’s not a guarantee, but something we have to hope for if we want an alternative to the cost of Modern and the vapidity of Tier-One Standard.
If Frontier is intended as a cheap alternative to Modern that showcases the leftovers of recent Standard, so be it, but a ban on fetchlands is direly needed to preserve both diversity and cost. However, if the format has a little wiggle-room on cost and wants to play out as more of a Post-Modern format, push the point of origin back a few years to include RTR, M14, and Theros block. The inclusion of these seven sets would bring enough bells and whistles to liven things up and make for a far more healthily diverse field.
If Frontier is intended as “Modern but without all the impossibly expensive or broken cards”, maybe Innistrad would present itself as the more appropriate option. The cost of the format would be a safe margin below that of Modern, but the power level would also drastically increase. This seems to me like the least appealing of the three due to cost, but it’s worth discussion and consideration for the future.
If you are looking for more information on Frontier, you may be interested in this Facebook group: Frontier Magic: The Gathering Community.
You’ve read my open debate as to the potential of Frontier, so what do you think of the points I’ve put forward? And what are your thoughts on the format itself? What are its pros and cons, and how can they be improved?
Community Questions: Do you think fetchlands have a place in Frontier?
Thanks for reading,