Format rotations are the best of times, and the worst of times. They make deck builders look like geniuses, they make them look like fools. They put a world of opportunity before us, and a wake of obsolete knowledge behind us. They make us reorganize our card boxes.

Most people love new formats, but I kind of hate them. I have never been much of a brewer: I prefer a world with a coherent metagame that I can attack, with decks I can tweak and match-ups I can learn. Often, I’ll stick to limited for the first few weeks of a format to see what develops, but that option may not be available if the tournament schedule doesn’t play along. If you feel the same way, I’ve got a couple new format rules of thumb that might help you slog through the slow weeks.

Rule 1: Linears, duh.

I worked with team TCG in 2013 for the Pro Tours in Montreal and San Diego. I wasn’t qualified for Dublin or Valencia, but who wants to go to boring ol’ Europe, anyway? Right? Right?

So I said “fuck it” and went to Dublin anyway. Most of the time, I wandered around Dublin from landmark to pub, but I stopped in to the team house to help out a little. Theros had just replaced Innistrad block in Standard, and the team was struggling to find a deck they liked. Most of the team ended up running a Rakdos aggro deck that someone brewed up on Wednesday night. A couple people had suggested devotion lists to the team early on, but they had been dismissed out of hand due to the preponderance of “bad cards”. The team did not have a single devotion deck in their gauntlet.

How did that turn out? Have a look at the top 8 decklists from PT Theros. That’s five devotion decks: three blue, one black, one red. Two of those decks would go on to dominate the format for the rest of the year, and…it seems so obvious now! Wizards printed a new mechanic that basically built your decks for you… how did so many people miss it?

Sometimes we forget that Wizards has gotten a lot better at this since they made mechanics like snow-covered land, phasing, and bands-with-other-legends. Now it’s stuff like madness, storm, and devotion: so try the linear mechanics.

Rule 2: The good cards are obvious.

I played on the Pro Tour in Honolulu in 2009. The format was Shards of Alara Block Constructed, and the crew I was working with got very attached to an extremely aggressive Jund deck which topped out its mana curve on Bloodbraid Elf. To make the mana work, we played a bunch of borderposts. The deck (which you can find by searching for “Carleton” here) had a few things going for it on paper, but was actually horrifically bad. Bloodbraid Elf was a very good card, but everyone else was casting it too, and they weren’t cascading into useless borderposts. There was another big difference between the good decks and ours. Take a look at the top 8 decks, and notice how many Planeswalkers, Maelstrom Pulses, dragons and other rares you see. Now check out how many rares and mythics my deck had: just two in the main, five in the side.

I haven’t done the research, but I’m pretty sure there haven’t been a whole lot of decks with less than 10% rares winning Pro Tours in the last decade. Wizards makes the rares rare so they don’t ruin limited and so that people will buy packs in order to get them. Those are the good cards.

No one on our team finished in the money. Obviously.

So no need to get cute: just take a look at that Khans spoiler and try to find some rare cards that have synergy with other rare cards.

Rule 3: Everything old is new again.

If you check out that Dublin top 8 again, you might notice a non-devotion deck that made a huge impact on the last year of standard: Esper Control. Wafo-Tapa’s deck is just chock full of Ravnica Block cards. Esper Control was arguably the best deck in Ravnica Block Constructed, but it was a non-entity in Standard, where Cavern of Souls forced Sphinx’s Revelation decks to play proactive cards like Thragtusk. Wafo-Tapa took advantage of a lot of new scry effects, but mostly he took advantage of a bunch of cards that had lost their luster in a hostile Standard format, but were ready to shine in after the rotation.

Sometimes the biggest clues to a new format are in what cards have departed. Sure, you have an entire new set to work with, but you also have an entire block and base set that are entering their senior year, ready to haze the incoming class of cards in turn. That’s a recipe for showing off some new tricks: just ask Nightveil Specter.

Other strategies for coping with new formats including boring stuff like making friends with a deck-building savant, or finding the best deck from the old format that lost the least cards. Speaking of which, I’m going to go build mono-black aggro with Bloodsoaked Champion, Mardu Skullhunter, and the Duchess.

Gabe Carleton-Barnes has been playing Magic for over 20 years, mostly as a PTQ grinder and intermittently as a Pro Tour competitor. Currently based in Portland, Oregon, where he is an Open Source web developer by day, Gabe lived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for three years. While there, he failed to make a documentary about competitive Magic but succeeded in deepening his obsession with the game. Gabe is now a ringleader and community-builder for the competitive Magic scene in Portland, wielding old-timey slang and tired cliches to motivate kids half his age to drive with him to tournaments.

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