A Timely Response


For the most part, I am not the type of person who is looking to incite another person, nor am I a writer who is looking to gain recognition through aggravation. I preface this week's article this way because I watched something that bothered me quite a bit a few months ago and now wish to talk about it. I want to discuss the points at hand, but want it to be clear in that I'm not looking to create trouble but rather open up an intelligent debate on the subject.

Just before Grand Prix Columbus, Bill Stark posted what I consider to be a highly inflammatory video in which he makes a few accusations about Legacy players. I linked to this video in my article last week, but if you haven't taken a look at it I suggest going ahead and doing so now, as it is the primary focus of what you're currently reading. I can't say exactly what his motivations were in creating this video, but I'm sure the fact that it generated a lot of buzz can't be seen as a bad thing for his site.

I wanted to wait a while for this subject to cool off before I touched it, but I assure you that I've spent quite a bit of time thinking about this video's content. Originally when I viewed it I was pretty sure that this didn't apply to me. I play in pre-releases and draft every now and then; it can be a lot of fun. Sometimes when a new Standard deck appears that I like, I'll play it for a couple weeks on-line or something. I went into the Grand Prix comfortable that this video wasn't talking about someone such as myself. I did fairly well in the Grand Prix and came out of it still thinking that I was a pretty well rounded Magic player.

It wasn't until I really started writing my report for the Grand Prix that it hit me; I only play Legacy. I play in a pretty competitive metagame for a weekly Legacy event. I write about Legacy. I spend a lot of time playing and honing decks in my free time. I'm a Legacy player and I find other formats to be boring and constricting. That is when I started thinking of Bill Stark's voice as no longer being directed at others but as a belittling beam aimed right for my head, and I couldn't shake it.

I watched the video time and again and was catching myself thinking about points he had made and how some things didn't quite add up for me. I decided a couple of weeks after the Grand Prix that this was definitely a subject that I wanted to write about. When I talked about writing this on this topic with friends they encouraged me not to do so with some sensible arguments that I honestly cannot recall at the moment (which is a bit humorous considering that I'm writing on the matter now.) After talking about the matter, it made sense that I can disagree but I don't need to write something publicly about it. As time wore on, however, some of the things he said were still grinding in my mind, such as, "What is the relevance that pro players have won every Legacy Grand Prix?"

After a long deliberation, I decided that I was going to explore this, but I wanted to afford the issue enough time to cool off, because I'm not interested in causing a stir but properly deconstructing this video's elements and examing the points, only this time with a Legacy player's bias. I have no misconceptions. I am approaching this issue with a bias. I'm somewhat confident that Bill Stark would confess to the same about his video. I want to stress that I'm not trying to "punch up" or generate name recognition for being the guy that called out Bill Stark on some video. However, I do want to address the points and arguments that he proposed [in a rather flashy way] in his video.

Breaking Down the Video

I've combed over the video and I feel that these are the points that he is making, preceded by the time at which it can be found in the video.

  1. (0:35) Bill Stark believes that "Legacy only" players are burdened and are scrubs.
  2. (0:42) The pure form of the game allows the game to exist with all elements intact. This is different from the "honorable" form of the game in which certain combos, which are impossible to defend against, are banned.
  3. (1:07) Standard, Draft, Sealed, any non-Legacy format is a "Killer Combo" much like a broken character in a fighting game.
  4. (1:12) Legacy is where people go when they are, for whatever reason, when not able to cut it in Standard, Extended, Vintage or Limited.
  5. (1:30) Legacy is the "Gentleman's" Format where everyone who plays regularly, plays casually.
  6. (1:48) Legacy is a format with no variance or mana screw.
  7. (1:59) Players who primarily play Legacy are worse at Magic because they primarily play Legacy.
  8. (2:05) A typical Legacy event's player pool is generally weaker than a Grand Prix of PTQ pool.
  9. (2:21) The most notable players in Magic spend less time on Legacy [Because there are fewer Legacy events].
  10. (2:41) If Legacy players are so great, why do they keep losing to Pro players?
  11. (2:52) Fact: Every Legacy Grand Prix ever has been won by a Professional Magic player.
  12. (3:06) Legacy is playing Magic and the best Magic players are the best at Magic.
  13. (3:19) The Reality is that "Legacy format" is the same Magic game as Standard, Extended, Draft, Etc...
  14. (3:28) If you want to be the best Legacy player you can, you need to play as much Magic as you can.

I believe that the best way to deconstruct this video is to add exposition to each of these points, one at a time.

1. "Legacy only" players are burdened from choosing to only play Legacy. These players are scrubs.

This is the overall message of this video and is what the intended takeaway should be, which is why it was stated as the first point in the video. All future statements that he makes should relate back to and prove this statement. As an opinion, this point can be refuted, but as an opening statement there is actually no problem with him holding this view. "Scrubs" is my word, not his, but I think it is fitting as it is a term used commonly in gaming and even in Magic's own past.

2. Pure form of the game Vs. Honorable form of the game.

Have you ever played Street Fighter? That's the topic at hand for the next few minutes. Many people don't know this about me, but I'm a pretty big Street Fighter fan. I still remember seeing my first Street Fighter commercial where Blanka's hand bursts from the box and crushes the Mortal Kombat box; it was pretty cool back then, I just went and reviewed it and it isn't all that great now. I had cold sweats and a fever after the first time I played Marvel Vs. Capcom 2 in an arcade and spent hours mastering Street Fighter III 3rd strike. Not much of this may mean anything to you, but the take away from this exposition is that I know a bit about Street Fighter, and that is what David Sirlin primarily deals with. David Sirlin is a competitive gamer who has designed and balanced games and openly written on the subject for years, and Stark uses him as his primary source for the first points he makes in his video.

Bill Stark paraphrases Sirlin and and states:

"Player A thinks they're hot stuff at playing their favorite game. Player B defeats them using some strategy Player A had not considered. Player A determines that the true form of their game involves banning the strategy used to beat them so that they can play the "Honorable" game which they were so good at and hold on to their self-identity of being hot stuff at their favorite game. In Street Fighter [II], the situation involves specific combos that were impossible to defend against. Player B uses them to defeat Player A and Player A determines that violates the spirit of their game and refuses to play anyone who uses that strategy."

After initially hearing this, I decided that it was probably time to investigate his source, in fact Stark even suggests that it is essential reading for anyone in the gaming industry. I head on over to David Sirlin's site and spend a few hours reading all about balancing Street Fighter, reading his book, Playing to Win and even reading the articles that the book evolved from of the same name. Reading all of this content on game balancing is where I learned what specifically Bill Stark was referencing, I'd like to share that with you now.

In Super Street Fighter II Turbo, or Super Turbo as it is known (ST for short), there are two bannings that Sirlin discusses. The first is the banning of Akuma. Akuma is a secret boss character in ST; you only play against him as the final boss when you've completed all of arcade mode in under 20 minutes without using a continue (you may also need to have three perfects.) The point is, you seldom play against Akuma and you must be exceptional at the game to reach that point. Akuma is selectable in Vs. mode through a rather annoyingly long combination of selecting characters and a specific button combination. In previous Street Fighter II builds players often hacked the machines for an opportunity to play as the boss characters. Akuma was included in ST for completeness's sake, as this was the final Street Fighter II release. Just how powerful is Akuma? Sirlin explains in his book:

"Most characters in that game cannot beat Akuma. I don't mean it's a tough match--I mean they cannot ever, ever, ever, ever win. Akuma is ‘broken' in that his air fireball move is something the game simply wasn't designed to handle. He is not merely the best character in the game, but is at least ten times better than other characters."

Akuma was never designed to actually be played in the game, but rather to fill the role of boss for players that had done exceptionally well in the Arcade mode. Akuma was the elite boss for those who wanted an additional challenge and the bragging rights to go along with beating him.

In North America, Akuma is banned from all ST tournaments because when a character is more powerful by that much further than any other character, every match would simply be Akuma Vs. Akuma. That lack of variety results in a boring game that no one would be interested in playing for very long. Sirlin elaborates that while there is no hard-ban on Akuma in Japan, there is an understanding among all the top players that Akuma is not a usable character, resulting in a soft-ban. A player may use Akuma in a tournament in Japan, but all of the best players acknowledge that if he was seen as a selectable character, that it would ruin the competitive aspect of the game for the same reason that he is banned in America.

It's not really reasonable to compete against something entirely unbalanced.

Relating this to Magic is like comparing a deck packed with a full set of power and a combo win to an M11 sealed deck. All of the cards in M11 are designed to work with other cards in M11. The deck is going to be loaded with mostly commons, a few uncommons and maybe a couple rares, whereas the Akuma deck is going to have all of the best cards from all of Magic, and really doesn't need to be concerned with anything that you do. If presented with the ability to play the ‘Akuma' deck, would you? Of course you would, rather than play against that opponent with another sealed deck. While there is a level of depth that comes with mastering TPS, when everyone plays Vintage storm against each other, the game becomes boring and it's ultimately bad for tournaments, players and business. This is why Akuma is not allowed in tournaments.

The second instance of a banning in ST involves a character called Old Sagat. In ST, you were allowed to do a specific input to select a version of the character from a previous build of the game. The two notable ones are Old Ken and more importantly Old Sagat. Sirlin states that Old Sagat is probably the best character in the game, excluding Akuma (who shouldn't even be viewed as a character in the game) but admits this point is contested by some top players. Regardless of the debate, Sagat is undoubtedly in the top three characters in ST, but is beatable, otherwise there would be no argument on the matter. Sirlin poses the question, "Why, then, would any reasonable person even consider banning him? Surely, it must be a group of scrubs who simply don't know how to beat him, and reflexively cry out for a ban. " Old Sagat's play style easily quashes more than half the cast of ST without too much work. Like Akuma, Old Sagat is soft-banned in Japan, but is perfectly legal in the United States. It's now well-known which characters can defeat Old Sagat, and those are the characters that are primarily played in America. The characters that can't do anything against Old Sagat are seldom played in America, however they do quite well in Japan where Old Sagat is generally passed over as they feel that a game without him creates a more varied and interesting play field.

What is the parallel to Magic from this example? There are a couple of good examples that can be used here, the first one being Tarmogoyf. Goyf has been the source of a lot of criticism and clamoring for banning for a couple of solid years now. Tarmogoyf obsoletes quite a few creatures because he is so efficient and so easily splashable. Whenever the debate rages out whether Tarmogoyf should be banned, there is a backlash of people that claim those that want him banned are 'scrubs' which cannot compete with him. However, the counter-argument to that is, that a Legacy without Tarmogoyf doesn't necessarily water down any decks but produces a format with more diversified threats that is far more interesting. There are valid points on both sides, just as there are in the case of banning Old Sagat.

Now that you know the backstory to roughly the first minute of the video, how does it relate? Bill Stark states that in Street Fighter [presumably II, ST] there was an issue involving an unblockable combo and Player A wanted it banned because it violated the spirit of 'his' game. Well, in the examples proposed, there really isn't a problematic, unblockable combo. There is an issue where one of the characters is entirely unbalanced, but was probably never supposed to be playable in the game. The other character actually plays a keep-away game and kills with chipping damage more often than anything, so that is clearly blockable. There are some unblockable combos in other Street Fighter games, of note, such as in Street Fighter Alpha 2, where an entire class of characters can unload a Custom Combo in an unblockable fashion (while there was clamoring for a ban initially, eventually most of the community just played the version of the game with the unstoppable Custom Combos and a lot of people still had fun with it, busted Custom Combos and all) Bill Stark, however, has chosen to show an image of a Street Fighter II box, the primary subject of Playing to Win, implying that he isn't really talking about Alpha 2, which was made much later.

So, my first problem was that I wasn't exactly seeing how the example panned out. Bill Stark then goes on to mention something about the "Honorable" form of the game that Player A wants to play that excludes whatever it was that Player B had used against him. This implies that there are at least two forms of any game. There is the pure form of the game which is the game as released with nothing after the fact, no bannings and no extra rules, simply the game as packaged. The "Honorable" form of the game features bannings and perhaps a "Gentleman's Agreement" to avoid playing or doing specific things.

To draw an analogy to Magic, let's assume for a moment that there were literally no rules for tournament Magic beyond what was printed in the Alpha rule booklet. No banned cards and no limited quantities. If you were going into a tournament today under those pretenses, what would you think would be the single best deck? If your deck features some number of Black Lotus, Ancestral Recall, Tendrils of Agony, Flash or maybe you're in the know and you're going to use Contract from Below – you're going to lose. In this purest form of the game, I propose a deck that is going to win on turn one, regardless of who goes first, every single game:

This deck is is a pretty close analogy to the power level of Akuma in ST. Sure, you can play this deck with your friends and its good for a laugh once, beyond that it gets annoying and then people stop playing with you. Even though sadly this deck now can potentially lose to Mindbreak Trap, you will often be able to go off again in response to Mindbreak Trap. David Sirlin explains that the fixes for problem scenarios like this are much easier in Magic: the Gathering than they are in other games because in real tournament Magic, you can simply ban a specific card and not negate an entire strategy. But in the early days of Magic, action like that did need to be taken because of Plague Rats: while the card was not banned, a coherent tournament structure was designed that eliminated the use of the degenerate aspect of Plague Rats; such was the case with Akuma.

In the "Honorable" form of the game, there would be some additional rules put into place to prevent this sort of mess from ever happening (or perhaps just a "Gentleman's Agreement" that no one should ever really play this deck.)

I will concede, however, that with the Old Sagat example I suggested, we are presented with an entirely different set of circumstances. Old Sagat is top tier, but beatable by some characters. I feel that a good example of how this works is that Old Sagat is a lot like a Storm combo or Dredge deck: the decks have a lot of raw power and there are a lot of approaches to the game that simply have no chance of winning against them, however, there is a vein of decks that are able to beat them, namely blue decks. In metagames where we see a lot of these 'Old Sagat' decks being played, there is a high concentration of decks that are able to beat them. In environments where these sorts of decks are lacking, the metagames are more diverse as non-blue aggro and mid-range decks begin to appear in all of their various forms. Even non-blue control decks become a possibility. This is the form of "Gentleman's Agreement" that perhaps Wizards spoke of when they banned Mystical Tutor, where it is possible to play to win, to challenge yourself to do the best you can do, without using the most degenerate strategies. Even if you do use the most broken line of play, there is likely going to be a large group of people that can beat you, if you attempt it too often. Perhaps there is a strategic element in having a "Gentleman's Agreement". Something to consider.

I feel that Wizards agrees that a metagame with more divergent decks and strategies is overall more fun and thus more healthy for the tournament scene in Magic. As a way of enabling local tournaments and attracting people to them, Legacy players will often leave the most absurdly busted decks on the shelves for local events, but suit them up for the events with the biggest prizes. Little is more fun to a new player to the format than to be crushed by decks that they can't hope to compete against.. This isn't, however, to say that Storm or Dredge are even the best decks in Legacy, the same way that Old Sagat is debated to be the top tier character. This is even more highly contested with Legacy where we have a much deeper ability to customize and fight off other strategies with sideboards and splashing colors.

I have been quoting "Honorable" when I use it because this is Bill Stark's word, not mine nor David Sirlin's. Sirlin does suggest that there is no honor in playing to win, in that if you repeat a winning action over and over and people complain about your use of it, it is likely a flaw on their part for not learning to counteract it. Sirlin concedes in his articles that if no one will play with you when you do or do not allow specific things in your house rules, then you're doing it wrong. There is no sense in playing a contorted form of Magic, Street Fighter or any other game that no one else plays, for any skills that you have accumulated in that are going to be hard pressed to translate to the form of the game which you shunned. In America, there is a hard-ban and in Japan they have a soft-ban on Akuma for being absurdly powerful and uncounterable. Old Sagat is soft-banned in Japan for eliminating too much from the game, half the characters are simply incapable of countering his moves. I propose that it is possible to play optimally, to win even if you purposefully overlook a strategy that crushes half of the others in favor of creating a more interesting metagame.

I will confess to you that I don't have tournament data from ST for the last ten years, (I'm not even sure it exists) so I can't tell you if the Japanese players that competed in those tournaments were able to flourish in an environment where people commonly played Old Sagat. However, if you are interested in it, I encourage you to look into it. Can a skill set of a game minus one element translate to the version of the game with that element? I believe it can, and so does Bill Stark, but we have different ways of expressing that. However, what if you had to play a version of the game with only four characters instead of 16? Do you think those skills would translate as well then? On this point I'm skeptical, but will discuss that point in greater detail later.

The takeaway from this section:

This section was long, but the takeaway is that the example that Bill Stark used to compare scrubs in Legacy to scrubs in Street Fighter is entirely absurd, because his example deals with entirely unbalanced characters, one of which eliminates the playability of all other characters and the other who eliminates half the roster. There are years of data to display this point. The example isn't about one player outsmarting the other, but rather about inherent unbalances within the game itself that are addressed via both voluntary and mandatory bannings. David Sirlin's suggestion of what honor in gaming is doesn't exactly match up with what Bill Stark proposed it was, but this is nothing more than a minor foot note to the larger issue at hand.

3. Non-Legacy formats are the "Killer Combo" that are beating Legacy players.


4. Legacy is where players go when they're not able to cut it in other formats.

In the previous four pages, we took a look at how there wasn't exactly a ‘killer combo' that was being banned in Street Fighter, but rather a pair of problem characters. It's odd to me that Bill Stark would then stretch to use the analogy of a combo here, because you'll have the most broken characters when you have a game with the greatest number of characters as that will give you the largest pool of strategies. Because we're sticking with such a strong Street Fighter theme I decided to make some visual aids to help explain why this is so odd to me:

This seems to be an over exaggeration of the number of viable

Standard decks but remember, Ken and Ryu are pretty much the same.

Which is contrasted with:

Look at all those options!

Legacy Deck Selection

When dealing with maybe eight decks in a customizable game, the number of variables is relatively small when compared to looking at Legacy which has over sixty playable decks.

Stark sugests that Legacy players are not playing these formats simply because they are doing poorly at them. However, it is my experience that many players become Legacy players because other formats stalemate and are ultimately uninteresting, even if the players are doing well in those formats. Legacy offers a huge variety that Standard just will never be able to size up to. The common complaint about Legacy is that the format is, "too fast" or "non-interactive" from players that are looking in from the outside. Famously, Todd Anderson received a series of inflammatory comments when he posted a report bashing the Legacy community for what were ultimately his failings. Personally, I've never heard a Legacy player claim that Standard or Extended was too difficult in any facet, but rather that they enjoyed the interactions in Legacy a great deal more.

5. Legacy is the "Gentleman's" format.

This is an implication that I believe was started by Wizards themselves when explaining the banning of Mystical Tutor. That everyone in Legacy was running around playing casually in tournaments, but when a serious prize was up for grabs they would break out the Mystical Tutors. Now, the reasons for this are debatable, but Bill Stark wants to imply that most, if not all, of Legacy is a very casual format where few players play to win.

With the Mystical Tutor example, I think it's a lot like Old Sagat. You can play with him, he's really powerful and beats about half of what you will potentially face without any real contest. However, when Old Sagat is played quite a bit, then the metagame shifts to an environment that is far more hostile for him. A theory of why Mystical Tutor wasn't played heavily except in significant events was to keep the metagame under-prepared for that nature of threat. Bill Stark seems to not only echo this, but amplify it by implying that people are playing casually in Legacy. Why is this?

7. Legacy players are worse at Magic because they primarily play Legacy

Bill Stark's opinion of Legacy seems to be that not only are people not playing the best decks because of an agreement with one another, but also because of a level of ineptitude that comes from playing with a large card pool. I think what he is trying to say here is that when you play only a format that you excel at, you're seldom challenging yourself to do better – which is actually a great message, you should always be looking to improve yourself, to challenge yourself more. However, Stark suggests with this claim that there is a small and finite amount of things that you can learn in Legacy and that the format is easily mastered (which is implied later when he discusses how only pros have won Legacy Grand Prixs).

I decided a few weeks ago that I was going to play in a Standard event, so I did a bit of testing and trading and assembled the U/W control deck that I played and made 11th at the event (my report from that event can be found here). While the card pool was much smaller, I was able to make a number of similar plays to those that I and other players often make in Legacy. Examples? Glad you asked. How about this play:

"Him: Island, Island, Mountain, Mountain, Scalding Tarn, Tectonic Edge

Myself: Celestial Colonnade, Plains, Scalding Tarn, Arid Mesa, Glacial Fortress, Tectonic Edge.

When he goes to his end step, alarms go off in my brain and I know that this CelestialColonnade is vitally important to the success of this match. So when I get priority I have six lands in play and I do the following.

1. Activate Arid Mesa. Sacrificing is part of the cost so I have five lands on the battlefield. In response.

2. Activate Scalding Tarn. Sacrificing again is part of the cost, so I have four lands on the battlefield In response.

3. Activate Tectonic Edge targeting your Tectonic Edge once again, sacrificing is part of the cost to activate this land, so I have three lands in play with all of those triggers on the stack."

As I reported last week, my opponent, who seemed like a fairly competent and serious player called the judge insisting that this wasn't possible. This is the sort of play that the U/W Tempo deck makes all the time to make sure that Weathered Wayfarer is active but there isn't anything your opponent can do about it. While I've never played U/W Tempo myself, I've witnessed this very thing happen numerous times and knew how to take advantage of cards that have activated abilities relative to the number of lands that are on the table, such as Weathered Wayfarer or Tectonic Edge.

Another far simpler example is casting Condemn on an incoming Raging Ravine in response to the +1/+1 counter being added. Again, my opponent in the 4-1 bracket called the judge and insisted that this play couldn't possibly be legal, however, obviously it is and the judge helped to explain how. In Legacy, I deal with creatures getting triggers in combat all the time and as a control player with access to Pulse of the Fields, I need to know when it is most advantageous to cast Swords to Plowshares on a Goblin Piledriver or a creature that is about to receive an Exalted bonus. Sometimes I realize that I'm going to need to win a game with damage so I do it in response to these triggers, but there are other times where I fully intend to use Pulse of the Fields and keep the opposing player's life total as high as possible and win via Jace, the Mindsculptor or a Waste-lock.

I whipped up a little image in paint to help express this point:

Tourney Format, Relative Cardpools

Graphs and charts really look great and go a long way to add legitimacy to an argument.

Here, the yellow oval represents the Standard card pool. To the best of my understanding, Bill Stark proposes that because a player only uses cards within the blue space, Legacy (which contains all the non-Vintage spaces) that player has made a decision to be a poor Magic player because he has limited the experience that is open to him. My counter-point to this claim is that in playing Legacy, you're exposed to all types of cards that can possibly be played in the small spheres and that experience is much more likely to splash over from Legacy to another format than it is from another format to Legacy. Furthermore, there are things in the Legacy sphere that are going to be entirely alien to a Standard player such as Storm combo, Doomsday, Dredge, Painter-Grindstone combo and even non-degenerate strategies such as Life from the Loam based control and Stax.

Wait a second, Bill Stark never said anything about Standard players! You're right, he didn't but this same principle applies to Extended and will apply to any formats that exist between Legacy and Extended. I suggest that if I'm familiar with how to defend against an aggro strategy in the format with the strongest aggro strategies, I'm familiar with the tools needed to defend against an inferior aggro strategy in a format with a weaker card pool. I feel that it is foolish to believe that if you have experience with a combo/aggro/control deck in an environment with weaker cards, that it becomes easy to translate that to a format with stronger overall cards. An example to contrast my experience with U/W control, the Wild Pair combo deck tore up Time Spiral block constructed, does that mean that it was going to be exceptionally strong in Standard as well? Extended? Legacy? In fact, the Wild Pair deck never even really made an impact on Standard the entire time Time Spiral block was in the format. I'd further be skeptical if the card was ever cast in tournament Magic for Extended, let alone Legacy - although Wild Pair is quite strong in EDH.

6. Legacy is a format with no variance.

(Presented out of order because it disrupted the flow of the argument being presented.)

At one point, Bill Stark makes the claim that Legacy is a format without Mana Screw. For proof that this format does have mana screw I present to you game two of my feature match against David Gleciher in the Star City Games Legacy Open in Nashville. The game example I'm referring to is game two starting around 10:30 in the video. This is short, but it doesn't take much to defeat some fallacies.

8. The Legacy player base, in general, is much weaker than Grand Prix or Pro-Tour Qualifier Pool.

Bill Stark's exact words on this matter are, "The field of Legacy players in general is much weaker than the PTQ or Grand Prix pool and the numbers clearly indicate this to be true." Which is promptly followed by no numbers. I don't have the numbers on the matter either, but I do have questions on what he means. By, "PTQ and Grand Prix pool" are we referring to all players in the event or to the players that travel to these events? What are the numbers that clearly indicate this?

It seems to me that regardless of the answers to those questions, the wording of this phrase is tricky enough to always make it work. The key phrase is italicized in this section's heading and is the trick to making this argument work every time "in general". Let me give you some examples of how you can use "in general" make a variety of statements work as you need them.

Player A: The 1991 Chicago Bulls, in general, are way worse than Magic Johnson.
Player B: But the Bulls had Michael Jordan!
Player A: No, no, I mean, in general, like if you average them.

Or how about:

In general, texting while driving is fine because you're only looking away for a few seconds.

This one is even in context:

The Legacy player base, in general, is much weaker than this year's Grand Prix Columbus pool.

I feel that this comparison is incredibly unfair for three reasons. First, Legacy was officially adopted as the casual format. It took a long time and a lot of pressure from Vintage players, but most of them finally moved on to Legacy. How do I know this? Years ago, I too played Vintage and whenever someone wanted to play with a casual deck they would say, "Oh yeah, I'm playing Type 1" and we would insist that they try to play 1.5/Legacy as that had a much more casual crowd – and it did back then. Casual players finally moved away from the broken aspects of Vintage for the more stable beatings that they would receive by classifying their deck as Legacy, so the 'Legacy player base' has a high saturation of casual players. Secondly, the example takes an average of all the players in Legacy and compares them to a group of Pro Tour hopefuls and actual Pro Tour players who travel around to PTQs and sometimes even Grand Prixs. These people are only traveling to these events because they have winning records and are looking to extend those records further. Lastly, this logic that supposedly proves that Legacy players are inferior can easily be applied to any other format's primaries, take a look:

The Standard/Extended/Vintage/Draft/Sealed Deck/EDH/Scrabble/Pokemon player base, in general, is much weaker than the PTQ and Grand Prix pool.

See how that works? I feel that you cannot compare an average to a select group that is above average and attempt to hold this as a valid claim.

9. The most notable players in Magic spend less time on Legacy [because there are fewer Legacy events.]

10. If Legacy players are so great, why do they keep losing to pro players in Legacy Grand Prixes?

11. Fact: Every Legacy Grand Prix ever has been won by a professional Magic player.

There is an easy way to address why every winner of a Legacy Grand Prix has been a pro player: You're given pro points when you win a Grand Prix. However, because this is a joke, that's not how we're going to address this one.

Bill Stark is 100% right. Professional Magic players play less Legacy than other formats. Almost no pro player gained that status through playing Legacy. I did. I'm a level one Professional Magic: the Gathering player. However, neither Saito nor Wafo-Tapa, neither Luis Scott-Vargas nor Patrick Chapin became a professional Magic player through Legacy. Perhaps because there have been a total of six Legacy tournaments in Magic's history that were capable of giving players even a single pro point? So, what incentive is there for them to work on Legacy? Well, very little obviously, but furthermore, none of Magic's most notable players became notable because of Legacy. The lack of large scale Legacy events gives serious Legacy players very little opportunity to come out and shine in high prize events, and is directly related to the lack of well-known personalities generated from the Legacy scene.

This is going to take a while, but I'd like to talk about Sirlin again, as it's been a while since we talked about game balance. In his book, Sirlin discusses how the values learned from playing a version of the game that no one else wants to play are moot, because when you go to play the real game some of those skills may not be able to translate. I'm paraphrasing here but the idea presented is that when you play with a stripped down version of the game, when you go to play with everyone else, you probably will have wasted your time because everyone else wanted to use the characters/decks, moves/cards and techniques/archetypes that you tried so hard to avoid in the first place. This goes back to the idea of the pure form of the game and allowing as many elements as possible vs. the honorable form of the game, the version of the game that strips down questionable elements that are generally accepted, which of these sounds more like Legacy to you? Which of these sounds more like Standard? Sirlin ties into this again by stating that there is no sense in playing the game that no one is playing. Right now, people are playing both, and that is actually great for everyone. However, when the day comes where there are no future sets, which is more likely to live on?

Sirlin talks about a world of gaming that has automatic updates and how that world presents a huge deterrent to players optimizing skills, for if you unlock or enable anything canny and unintended, it will simply be patched in the next update, negating all the work that had been put into discovering it. With a finished game, like ST, there was no system to take away from those discoveries and players were allowed to optimize skills based on a finished product. In Magic, the issuing of new sets is very much like an automatically updating game, because whenever a mistake is made it can be answered through a new card being released or a banning taking effect. This sort of action, according to Sirlin, means that players are never truly going to try to master the game.

It is my opinion that Standard is an artificial creation which has the obvious purpose of generating income – which is fine, the purpose of Magic is to generate a stream of revenue for Hasbro, Inc. I accept this. What this does is create a player base for formats that I'm skeptical there would otherwise be one for, such as Standard, Block and new Extended. It is most common to have high prize events for those formats that are constantly patched and closely monitored because they can generate the sales of new product more efficiently than older formats. However, it presents an environment where the incentive to hone lasting skills is diminished by the ever-changing landscape.

What was the format of Magic's largest tournament? Grand Prix Madrid, which was Legacy. The second and third largest Grand Prixs that allowed you to bring your own deck in the North America were also Legacy. Despite the fact that the only format that receives less prize support, moderation and attention from Wizards of the Coast than Legacy is the clearly shunned Vintage, the player pool of Legacy is made obvious whenever there is a large-scale event for it. Perhaps a reason for this is with a format such as Legacy, you have an environment in which the Earth rattles the least when a new set is released, meaning that you've come as close to a complete game as possible. As Sirlin states, there is an attractive quality to a complete game because the ability to master a skill set has potential for lasting pay-off.

I'd like to discuss something I considered when I was researching all of this. What I had began pondering was "What if there is a myth of competitive Magic?" If David Sirlin knows so much about gaming as Bill Stark suggests, perhaps he is truly on to something. How competitive can an unfinished game be? The incentive to balance the game from a designer's view point is quite low because there will always be more sets and time to address the issues, and there is a strictly finite time for playtesting. The incentive to master the game is low as well because there will always be new cards to undo any progress made thus far. This idea seemed to coincide with the high level events that I had attended where even at the upper tables it wasn't the test of wits that I had assumed it would be, but rather one player making an obvious error or one player's deck failing to even begin executing its plan.

I think the level of competition in Magic compared to other games is something interesting to look at, even if I am wrong or if the subject turns out to be rather depressing. Regardless of what the level of competition in Magic is, there is a system in place to find the most competent players for constructed formats: The PTQ system. The PTQ system filters out players that are most likely to make play errors and bring non-competitive decks, regardless of the level of competition an event has in it. There being no such qualifying event for Legacy to distinguish the top tier players from the rabble. This sort of logic brings us again to the, "in general" example I proposed earlier, where it is ultimately incredibly difficult to determine which Legacy players are quite good and which are just like all the rest.

12 (3:06) Legacy is playing Magic and the best Magic players are the best at Magic.

13. The reality is that "Legacy format" is the same Magic game as Standard, Extended, Draft, Etc..

This is going back to the example I gave earlier about the relative card pools. Basically, what Bill Stark seems to be saying is:

Playing Standard, Extended or Limited = Magic

Playing Legacy = Magic


Skills from Standard, Extended, Limited > Skills gained of playing Legacy

He has clearly established that Standard, Extended and Limited = Magic = Legacy. It's absurd to me to suggest that these skills cannot translate, and as I said before, I'd be skeptical to believe that the skills from playing a more constricted format translate better to a wide open format than vice versa. I won't spend anymore time on this subject, because it has been addressed previously.

It would stand to reason that if you're the best at something, you're going to be the best at that thing. From my own experience, I'm familiar with playing control mirrors. As a result, I was really able to outplay all of my control opponents when I played in States a few weeks ago. There is a discipline that comes only through losing because you didn't wait to cast your Brainstorm or didn't time your win condition properly.

14. If you want to be the best Legacy player you can, you need to play as much Magic as you can.

Bill and I really do agree on this point. About a year-and-a-half ago I decided that I really wanted to sharpen up. Sam Stoddard, who formerly wrote on this site, published an article on Star City a few years ago that details the process that I feel really outlines how many players go through an awakening. The first step for me was to resolve to play more Magic and to Create A Fearless Magical Inventory. Since everyone is going to have their own sticking points, the steps beyond that are likely going to be unique, but for me it involved identifying why I was being attracted to playing inferior strategies and to take close stock of what play style generated the best results for me.

I feel that Legacy offers a wellspring of experience, quenching even the deepest thirst with the ability to play with and against all of Magic's strongest strategies and cards, without having a format dominated by the game's most degenerate mistakes. This differs clearly differs from Stark's opinion that Legacy is exclusively a scrubs format. While I'm not claiming that a player should play Legacy to the exclusion of other formats, I think that doing so isn't necessarily a flaw for competitively minded people.


Legacy is still seen as a niche format although it has proven its player base in great form as it has aged. The arguement over the skill level of players in any format is something that is likely going to rage on, as it has for some time, and until there is a system similar to the PTQ circuit designed for Legacy to set apart the rabble from those that may never truly be a resolved issue for some.

Any time I thought of competitive Magic in any facet I would be be burdened with thoughts on this topic. While it took a while to get here, hopefully now I'll have ridden myself of those troubles. Next week I'd like to tell you all about my experience in Nashville for the Stary City Legacy Open where I had a pretty good run. It may be an idol-of-the-tribe sort of thing, but my last two finishes in large events have been 11th and 10th, and I fully expect to finish in 9th at my next one and then to be in top 8's for the rest of my life. I'll give you the short of it now: Peacekeeper is amazing!

~Christopher Walton
im00pi at gmail for Electronic Mail
Master Shake on The Source.