Even if Modern is the sole format you follow or play, by now you’ve almost certainly heard of Frontier. This format is the newest craze in the Magic community, leading to all sorts of excitement, debate, and taking of sides. I’ll start out by saying that I don’t really have any stake in Frontier, although I am watching its development with interest. The arrival of Frontier may have particular implications for the future of Modern, and Magic as a whole.
In case you’re still in the dark, Frontier was first introduced to us by the Japanese card shop, Hareruya. Similar to Modern, it’s a non-rotating format with a cutoff date set at the newest card frame (starting with Magic 2015). Unlike Modern, it doesn’t have any Wizards of the Coast oversight which means, among other things, no ban list. The format is still in its infancy and support is very small outside of the LGS (local game store) level. There are no PPTQs, GPs, or Star City Games Open events using the Frontier format. There is some support for decklist tracking available on MTGGoldfish, but decklists are not widely published.
When players create a new format, it’s to serve a need, perceived or real, that isn’t being satisfied by current available formats. In the case of Frontier, it’s a direct response to two factors: the perceived stagnation of Standard, and the rising prohibitive cost of Modern. Frontier is supposed to serve as a bridge between the two major formats, and thus address players’ complaints of both.
As opposed to Modern, in Frontier cards are plentiful and prices are low. The currently legal sets are pretty recent. Khans of Tarkir has been opened exponentially more than early Modern sets like 8th Edition, 9th Edition, or even later sets like Shadowmoor. In addition to a smaller card pool that necessitates fewer purchases, there are no Inkmoth Nexus‘s, Blood Moons, or Tarmogoyfs ratcheting up the cost of any individual deck. Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy might be an asterisk to this claim, but for now it’s the only card most people would consider “expensive.”
On the competitive front, Frontier is supposed to offer an experience that’s more dynamic and interesting than Standard, but still more forgiving than Modern or Legacy. The perception of Standard right now (whether right or wrong) is that strategies using Smuggler’s Copter and Emrakul, The Promised End are crowding out everything else. Modern, for its part, is in the midst of one of the most linear metagames in its history, to the chagrin of those who feel the format is little more than ships passing in the night. Frontier is supposed to be the happy middle ground between these two environments.
But possibly the most endearing aspect of the format (at least to my eye) is that it’s totally and completely unsolved. Uncharted territory like this is ripe ground for deckbuilders and brewers. In some ways it feels similar to the origins of Modern, when nobody knew what would be good and the sky was the limit.
Frontier isn’t without its issues, of course. As an unsupported format, there are no large tournament series available to test your skill. An undefined metagame can turn off players who prefer to take their decks from articles or Top 8 finishes. And the small card pool creates some problems of its own. Many of the best decks right now are ones from recent Standard past that players were all to happy to see rotate: Siege Rhino, Rally the Ancestors, Collected Company, etc. The mana is also pretty miserable—there are no full ten-card cycles of any dual, which leads to some unfortunate deck-building restrictions.
There’s also the question of cost. Despite the fact that it’s cheap right now, these sets comprise the most expensive Standard format from recent memory. Many people complained about the fact that 12-fetch mana bases were unwieldy and extremely expensive. This is history that can easily become a reality again if the right situation presents itself and Frontier gains popularity too quickly.
Ultimately, a lot of the support that stores have for the format right now is because it’s causing players to buy cards that were previously difficult for them to sell. I’m sure that the number of Siege Rhinos and Mantis Riders sold in the last month far exceeds the number sold since they rotated. Given all these things, it’s an open question whether Frontier will gain in popularity or peter out like other player-made formats that fell by the wayside.
Magic Formats in Competition
You may be asking what all this has to do with Modern. I have a theory about Magic formats which I believe can shed some light on what’s happening. Basically, the popularity of Magic formats is a zero-sum game—when one rises, another has to take a hit. Allow me to explain.
Every Magic player has a certain amount of time to devote to any and all of their various hobbies. For all intents and purposes, the total amount of free time doesn’t change, nor does that portion devoted to Magic specifically. Magic is a very time-consuming hobby which often leads to almost all of one’s time devoted to playing the game. Building a deck, playing in tournaments, and even sleeving your cards can eat into your free time. It’s very difficult for most players to increase the amount of time they’re currently spending on the game.
If we assume the amount of time that a player spends on a week on Magic is constant, then each format will compete for their time. I don’t know about you, but even during periods of increased play I often find myself devoted to one format due to the preparation time required. If I’m trying to solve a Limited format it will eat into brewing time in Standard. If I’m trying to test my Modern deck against the gauntlet to hone my sideboard, I’m less likely to have time for casual Commander games. And so on.
It appears that Modern has begun to take the lion’s share of most players’ time. It’s a format that never rotates and has recently become fairly easy to get into. Card availability isn’t usually a problem and deck prices have been slipping in the last few years due to Masters sets. What this ended up doing was pulling people away from Standard and Legacy, and toward Modern as their Constructed format of choice. It was really a perfect storm. Modern has most of the longevity of Legacy without the price tag. The introduction of the fairly inexpensive Eldrazi and Dredge decks, as well as a pretty unsavory Standard format, pushed Modern to the top.
I don’t think that Frontier is a bad format or that it will kill Modern or anything like that. What I do believe is that too many formats existing at the same time makes it harder to find someone to play your format of choice. Not everyone has a deck for every format, and the more formats out there, the more likely they are to have a gap. Even right now, if you go to your LGS there is no guarantee the people there will want to play your favorite format. While unlikely, it’s even possible that 14 players or so show up to a store to play Magic and still can’t fire a tournament.
So in short, I think pushing a new eternal format like Frontier is not in Wizards of the Coast’s best interest, and probably wouldn’t end well for players that enjoy Modern. I’m not advocating that you should support one format over another or convince people it’s not worth playing Frontier. I just want to let you know what the past data shows. Realistically, only a finite number of formats can exist with competitive support. We should choose carefully.
Thinking of the Future
A large amount of what happens next depends on if and when people start holding larger tournaments for Frontier. Even if card prices start to rise due to player interest or speculation (the latter which I would advise against), they won’t hold their new prices unless there’s a thriving tournament scene to aspire to. While it’s very difficult to gauge how much interest there is in a format when Magic is traditionally at its lowest point of the year, there are certainly a lot of people talking about Frontier. It’s simply too early to tell if this is the second coming of Commander or another flash in the pan like Tiny Leaders. At this point I just want to see if Wizards of the Coast decides to entertain the idea of hosting it on Magic Online. That requires the least amount of resources and could give us the biggest glimpse into what that format can actually do.
Financially, I wouldn’t advise doing anything rash. As I alluded to just above, I don’t think Frontier staples are a great speculation vehicle since the future of the format is so uncertain. Buying cards now could save you a few bucks, but the needle has already started to move and there isn’t enough data to suggest this is a good time to buy. Of course, hindsight will always be best and this might be the time to buy but I think the risk is too high.
The one set of cards that I would advise considering are Modern cards that seem to be picking up steam in Frontier. If you don’t have your playset of Tasigur, the Golden Fang, Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy, or Collected Company, now might be the best time to pull the trigger. Especially if you’re looking to add to your Modern collection before Modern Masters 2017, these cards are in no danger of reprint compared to stuff like Snapcaster or Tarmogoyf.
On Modern Financial Deck Techs
One last note before I close today. I’m overwhelmed by the positive feedback I got from my last article. I’m glad to hear that the Modern Financial Deck Tech was something people wanted to read, but I want to clarify one thing: nothing is foolproof. When dealing with financial predictions you have to tread very carefully. It’s incredibly hard to predict reprints and the only information we have to influence our decision is past data. As such, not every card mirrors exactly whatever card we try to compare it to, and our educated guesses can easily prove wrong. This risk is pretty significant in Modern, since nothing’s on the Reserved List—cards basically can’t remain insanely expensive forever.
That said, critically examining the financial outlook will generally prepare us better to make these decisions. So you can look forward to more Financial Deck Techs in the near future. I’d like to write one per month—the next one I’m planning will be on Infect.
How do you feel about Frontier? Are you excited to get brewing in the “new Modern” and see what it’s all about, or are you standing by the old guard? Let me know in the comments and I’ll see you next week.
Jim Casale is a well-established Magic player who has plenty of experience grinding the tournament circuit. He qualified for his first Pro Tour in 2016 and likes to talk about hockey. You can find him on Twitter @Phrost_.