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December 20, 2016

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Giving Frontier a Chance

If you have not yet heard, there’s a new format stirring in the world of Magic called Frontier. It is effectively “new Modern” with legal sets starting at Magic 2015 and Khans of Tarkir instead of 8th edition and Mirrodin, and nothing is banned. The format has no official support, but is being pushed by some large gaming stores in Japan and is making waves across the internet as players try to figure out whether this is something they want to support or not. If you have not yet seen anyone playing it in your local gaming store, there’s a good chance you will soon.

Why would Magic need a format like Frontier? Some argue that Frontier would be a cost-friendly non-rotating format for players unwilling to invest in expensive Modern and Legacy decks – but that is a very weak foundation to stand on. It is not hard to imagine a successful and popular Frontier leading Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy back over the hundred dollar mark and immediately restoring the value of Khans of Tarkir fetchlands to their peak Standard prices. With the small card pool it’s also more likely that breakout Standard cards will also be breakout Frontier cards – so Frontier players would not only be forced to pay the Standard-legal premium on new powerful Mythics, but actually cause an additional spike due to their own format demand.

So price is not a great reason to endorse Frontier – however there may be a niche for it nonetheless. If Frontier can provide us with a kinder, gentler, more interactive version of Modern it could still have a bright future. I suspect many Modern players would seriously look at making the jump to a non-rotating format that reflects Wizards more recent design philosophy (e.g. no Storm, no Infect, no Dredge, no Phyrexian Mana) if it can still offer a skill-testing and engaging play experience.

To see if Frontier might be on pace to offer this sort of gameplay I sleeved up a deck and ran it through some matches. My weapon of choice was this blue/red/black Prowess list that I found online:

Frontier Prowess

Creatures: (15)
Elusive Spellfist
Monastery Swiftspear
Stormchaser Mage
Thermo-Alchemist
Zurgo Bellstriker

Spells: (24)
Expedite
Exquisite Firecraft
Incendiary Flow
Lightning Axe
Lightning Strike
Painful Truths
Pieces of the Puzzle
Slip Through Space
Treasure Cruise
Wild Slash

Lands: (21)
Bloodstained Mire
Island
Mountain
Polluted Delta
Smoldering Marsh
Spirebluff Canal
Sunken Hollow

Sideboard: (15)
Disdainful Stroke
Dispel
Incendiary Flow
Kolaghan’s Command
Lightning Axe
Radiant Flames
Smash to Smithereens
Tainted Remedy
Unsubstantiate

I chose this deck because outside of the fetchlands and fastlands it’s incredibly cheap to build, and as a Modern player I already have those lands anyways. I also figure if you’re going to just dabble in the format it’s a sin to not play something that let’s you sleeve up Treasure Cruise or Dig Through Time again. I ran the deck through about a dozen games, and while the results are far from conclusive here are my early observations:

Consistency is an issue. Usually in Modern my decks do what I design them to do, often through disruption. The lack of card selection, good redundant effects, and a simple, resilient manabase meant that every few games my Frontier deck would just fall flat on its face. While that happens in Modern, it’s relatively rare – especially playing a game where you can’t cast spells due to your lands. While it may be a Prowess deck problem, I saw other synergy-driven decks get similarly stuck at times and even the goodstuff decks would occasionally be caught fighting their manabase and unable to cast their spells.

Games were slower, but not really more interactive. My deck was designed to be fast and evasive, but I was surprised how often I was just pointing burn spells at the opponent rather than their creatures, and how rarely they would even have removal for my creatures. Rally the Ancestors, Sphinx’s Tutelage, and a couple different Delirium decks all seemed to more or less ignore me and pursue their own linear gameplan. If our criticism of Modern is the lack of interaction, this experience wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of Frontier. If anything it felt worse because other than maybe Tormod’s Crypt Frontier lacks the sideboard bullets to really punish these linear decks.

The format’s diversity may be an illusion. Because we cannot really punish linear decks in Frontier the way we can in Modern (think Stony Silence or Leyline of Sanctity) they kind of all blur together. Whether they attack through enchantments, the graveyard, or sheer aggression it doesn’t seem to make a big difference to how you play against them. Similarly while Frontier offers a lot of viable colour combinations for midrange decks, at the end of the day the difference between Sultai Charm and Crackling Doom is not really that significant; they’re all more or less the Frontier equivalent of Modern’s Jund/Abzan.

With such a small sample size and limited experience it would be silly to denounce the format entirely, but after a dozen games I found I lost interest in Frontier. It did not feel more interactive or skill-testing than Modern, which is what I’d really need to jump on the bandwagon. If the format continues to grow and the metagame evolve I will gladly check in again to see if it improves in those areas. Until then, I would be very conscious of the risk that the format may become solved – that is, that only a few select decks are competitive or that a certain card is broken (perhaps Rally the Ancestors or Dig Through Time). No official support means no official banlist, so if this happens Frontier will likely join Tiny Leaders in the dustbin of Magic history. That being said, I’m not against hedging on the future and picking up some Frontier cards that are on the Modern fringe like Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy or some Battle for Zendikar dual lands – there’s always the chance Frontier turns out to be the next Commander rather than the next Tiny Leaders.

Until next time, good luck getting those Frontier events to fire and if it starts to shape up “better than Modern” let me know!