Magic: The Gathering League – Insights From Exploring The Format
A few weeks ago I added a new deck to my collection, and it was terrible.
It was more clunky than an Ornithopter built by inebriated Mogg Flunkies, greedier than an Apocalypse Demon, and slower-moving than a Meandering Towershell on a treadmill. But that’s okay – it was built from three booster packs. It got a little better as more cards were added to it, but it didn’t lose its beautiful, unwieldy soul.
That’s right, I’ve been playing Hour of Devastation League, and I’m here to enthuse about it to you. I hope you learn something from my ramblings – or better still, join the next League (Ixalan) when it comes around in October!
League-ally binding*: tournament rules
Hour of Devastation League was a tournament played over several weeks. You can find out more about the structure and rules on the official Wizards page here, find a store to play at, or learn how to start your own League. Individual tournament organisers can determine a lot of the rules depending on what will work best, and prize structures will also vary between location.
Just like any tournament, the aim is to win as many matches as possible. Unlike most tournaments, League isn’t necessarily played as a series of timed rounds in a game store, although some organisers will ask that you leave your deck behind the desk instead of taking it home to play games with. Our League was played in coffee shops, in the park, in between rounds of FNM – anywhere that has a flat surface and a lack of extreme weather.
The League that I played was self-reported. Each player was given a score card for reporting the outcome of matches, and completed them over the course of the tournament. There were no defined opponents; we played whoever we want, whenever we want, and there was no limit on the number of matches that we could play.
When you enter League you are given three boosters from which to build a deck, which must contain a minimum of 30 cards. At the start of each League night (defined by the tournament organiser) you can buy another booster to improve it. You can jump into League at any point during the tournament and buy boosters for the weeks that you missed to catch up.
You can also buy another booster if you lose three matches. In League the default is to play single-game matches, rather than the best two out of three games. You can choose to play the best two of three games if you and your opponent wish, though.
One more difference to most other tournaments – you get a free mulligan. This helps a lot. Decks built from three booster packs aren’t known for being kind to their players, and Magic is best when you can play your cards.
*Pun credit to Adam Thomas, who hoped that I would play Binding Mummy in my League deck for even more value from terrible jokes.
A League above: building your deck
League is like extreme Limited. Building a Sealed deck out of the normal six boosters can feel difficult, but feels like luxury after trying to scramble for playables from three.
I get the impression that you’re lucky if your pool allows you to build a two colour deck, many people don’t have enough cards to make this viable and end up playing three colours. Mana fixing is valuable – cards that allow you to confidently play your best threats from a third colour seem to give you a great advantage in this format. I was graced with an Oasis Ritualist and a Survivor’s Encampment, and credit a lot of early wins to those cards allowing my to play my bombs. The initial games weren’t very fast, and slow mana fixing was better than no mana fixing!
I was also lucky enough to open removal. Not even playable removal, but pretty great removal – Magma Spray and Ambuscade were enough to sit me firmly in Red and Green. Following some deck building advice I added Deem Worthy, which I had vastly undervalued (or “deemed unworthy”, for those of you who like irony). Stinging Shot was another on-colour situational removal card that I added to my main deck as the first few matches played out.
After receiving some advice, the large amount of White that I was initially playing turned into a splash for Dauntless Aven to untap my exerted creatures, and for the activated ability on Pride Sovereign. My deck was able to focus more heavily on Red cards, and this was a huge improvement. I got stuck on White mana in a few games, but Pride Sovereign snowballs pretty hard so it hasn’t seemed to matter too much when I don’t play it on curve. Oasis Ritualist smoothed over awkward mana, helping my Naya deck follow its plan.
League-itimate strategies: Evolving your deck
When it came to adding a fourth booster I opted for Amonkhet over Hour of Devastation, simply because I didn’t draft Amonket much and want to learn the cards. Depending on my deck, though, I could have used this choice more cleverly to my advantage. If I wanted my deck to be slower, or to contain some Desert payoff cards, I could have picked Hour of Devastation.
The fourth booster was kind to me. I opened a second Initiate’s Companion, a card that already seemed good in my deck, and has the desirable quality of being a two-drop. On the other end of the mana curve I opened a Honoured Hydra, which went into my deck in a blink. Increasing my deck size about 30 cards, I adjusted my mana base to support the increased density of Green.
For booster number five I reverted to Hour of Devastation, hoping for some more great removal or cards that were more likely to support a controlling gameplan. I was rewarded. I added a second Ambuscade and a Devotee of Strength, helping to remove early threats and set up for a favourable late game. I removed a Cartouche of Zeal and Stinging Shot, though this decision was influenced by bringing insufficient card sleeves to League night. I also added a Desert of the Fervent, and fixed my lands to accommodate the new changes.
Two extra boosters made a world of difference, and it was possible that I should have steered away from Naya completely and explored a different strategy. Staying flexible is important, and realising when to switch out is an interesting decision in League.
Why do I think League is great?
It helped me to learn the set
After drafts and pre-releases I often feel that I only just scratched the surface on understanding my deck. With a bit more time and a few more games, I could have learned so much more. Keeping a Sealed or Draft deck sleeved after a tournament and jamming more games against like-minded players feels like a great way to maximise the potential to learn.
For this reason, my boyfriend and I kept our Sealed pools from the Hour of Devastation pre-release, built new pools from the boosters that we won, and have since been adjusting our decks and playing different matchups. Between us we have a good sample of the archetypes that the set has to offer, and I think it’s a great way to learn.
Playing League feels similar to our Sealed strategy. It’s basically building a Limited deck and then having it stick around for long enough to maximise its value, evolving it over time. That’s one of the reasons why I like League so much.
I got into League because I wanted as many ways as possible to learn the ins and outs of Amonkhet and Hour of Devastation. League decks are very different from Sealed or Draft, but the experience has definitely helped me. I’m pretty terrible at learning cards from reading about them, but something clicks when they’re in my hands.
The extended tournament length helps with the learning potential from League. With the freedom to adapt your deck at any time, League creates a good excuse to mull over your deck as you go about your non-Planeswalking life. I found myself devoting more idle thoughts to the game and to my deck, which hopefully helped me to learn more about it. The frequency of play helps, the single-game matches that you play in between rounds of Modern at FNM serve as a constant reminder of the power and toughnesses of the Zombies wandering around Amonkhet.
The format seems to gently encourage giving and taking advice from other players. It lasts a few weeks and allows you to rebuild your deck whenever you want, meaning that conversations focusing on “you should play that Deem Worthy” are encouraged and informative.
It’s a brilliant midpoint between casual and competitive
League is a competition but fits into casual play. It’s odd, but refreshing, playing what feel like casual games but having tournament standings at stake. League has replaced some of the casual games that I would otherwise have played, bringing an interesting new dynamic to the Magic that I play in the pub with friends.
There was a lot of interest in League in my MTG Community during Hour of Devastation, which meant that we tried to squeeze games in wherever possible. The competition motivated me to play, and I soaked up similar enthusiasm from my friends, leading to what felt like a fun casual-competitive scene.
It’s an exercise in adaptation
I was interested to see how my deck evolved as I added more booster packs. Which cards would I open that strengthen my existing gameplan? What would I need to open to push me into another colour? Would I even realise that I should shift colours, or be too tied up in my existing strategy to notice?
Now League has finished, but I enjoy thinking about how my deck would have evolved if the tournament continued. When it got to the six-booster stage would my deck be worse than the average Sealed pool because of my tendency to adapt my existing deck, rather than seeing the pool with unbiased eyes, or would the prior knowledge of the cards made it better?
I’m of the opinion that Magic is equally fun at every power level, provided that the games are reasonably balanced at each level. I’ve had just as much fun playing Modern, Pauper, and my friend’s Bad Cube (comprised of 360 of the worst-rated MTG cards). League is a reminder that you don’t need expensive strategies to have great games of Magic.
It slots neatly among other formats
I’ve played League before, after, and during FNM, at a casual Magic night, over late-night ice cream, and at home. I considered carrying around my deck at the bottom of my bag in case I ran into a friendly Magic player who needed to kill some time. Chat between rounds at FNM started to be filled by “do you have League?” “YES I HAVE LEAGUE” “let’s play League!”. Because you can play one-game matches, it’s easy to find time.
Summary – In a League of your own
As you probably guessed, I think League is great. Over the course of the tournament, fitting the games in felt like an excellent side quest to my goal of getting better at Magic. It taught me about the cards and strategies in the set, about adaptation, and it taught me to always, always remember that an opponent might kill my creature in response to my Ambuscade. Massive thanks to James Winward-Stuart for organising the League that I participated in.
I only wish that I could have played more, but something is likely to get in the way at some point during a four week tournament. My participation in League was limited by my insistence in summoning Elf Warrior tokens all over Grand Prix Birmingham, and it’s impossible to be sad about that. (Wonderful tournament, excellent opponents, 5-4, nearly made day 2, so close!)
Roll on Ixalan, and the League of pirates and dinosaurs!
Are you taking part in a the MTG League? If so then what do you like about it? If not then why not!?
Thanks for reading,