s you probably know, the Future Future League is our internal league where we test cards for future Block and Standard. Our goal isn't to break the metagame—if our handful of developers were able to solve the metagame in the time the set was in the FFL, then the people in the real world would do it in a matter of weeks—instead, we want to provide a large number of strategies that are about even power, and allow for room in the metagame to shift as certain decks gain or lose popularity. This means our main job is to try out as many cards and combinations of cards as possible, and to give the overall strategies enough to make things interesting—not to pinpoint balance everything against each other. We do this by building decks, playing them against each other, finding out what (if anything) we want to change, and playing some more.
The last time I posted some of our historical FFL decks, I got a lot of positive feedback, so I hope to make it a more regular part of this column. I do want to make a note about looking at the decklists in context, though—playing with cards while they are in development is quite different than playing with them in the real world, since we have the power to change cards. Our goal is to make the format as a whole more fun, and that often means making individual cards less fun, and certainly less powerful, than they could be.
One thing to keep in mind is that a large set like Theros spends around five months being the primary focus of the FFL, and another month or so being the secondary focus when we start playtesting with the next set. Because of this, there are many months' worth of decklists, and many of them contain cards that no longer line up with the final version. It would be easy to dismiss a decklist as being weak because of a few cards being suboptimal, but sometimes the cards included were different. As an example, here is a deck I made to test out the interaction of an earlier version of Fanatic of Mogis and Legion's Initiative.
Barely Boros by Sam Stoddard
This was very early in the testing process. The set had been only really played in Limited until this point, so we knew that some cards were going to be wrong. Still, it's often best to start off with a version you think might be off, so you don't have to debate trying out a change later.
Looking back on this list, it certainly should've included more Boros Reckoners, but many FFL decks like this one are quick and dirty experiments on a card that we think is too good. It was easy to see that Acolyte of Mogis at three mana was just too much of a risk, so we put it at four mana, and further testing led to some of the other cards getting changed. For further decklists, I am going to update the names to the current ones, for everyone's sanity.
Another thing that happens during development is that cards get added to a set. We find things that we think would improve the metagame, so we find a spot for them in the set. As an example, below is a decklist for Esper Control made before Hero's Downfall. As a result, the removal suite it uses is totally different. It did a good job, at the time, of showcasing about what we thought this control deck would look like, but it went about it in a different way. The thing is—without Hero's Downfall, there were fewer ways to deal with Elspeth. At the same time, we also didn't have the current version of Stormbreath Dragon, which also gave some aggressive decks a way to fight her. Basically, this list did a good job of highlighting that without the haste creatures that Standard had gotten used to, it was easy to have decks dedicated to protecting their Planeswalkers be incredibly powerful.
Esper (WUB) Control by Ian Duke
There are a lot of cards that end up seeing significant play in our FFL that never really take off in the real world. While a green devotion deck made Top 8 of Pro Tour Theros, our deck was a little different—and a lot more beatdown. The rate at which we were playing Reverent Hunter is certainly much higher than the real world.
RG Beatdown by Sam Stoddard
We also make decks that look pretty goofy just to give them a shot, especially to test strategies that are probably tier two but pose some risk. It would be nice if we could eyeball everything and tell if it was too strong or not, but that's just not possible. If it were, then we probably would be out of a job. Instead, we spend a reasonable amount of time on fringe decks to see which ones pan out. For a period of time, Rescue from the Underworld didn't exile. We might be right, and it is just a fun and interesting deck, or we might be wrong, and it is too strong. I think this is just not the right card to take a risk on.
Esper Rescue from the Underworld by Billy Moreno
Speaking of fringe decks, the one below felt like it for a long time in our testing. It certainly looks like what we would've thought of as a fringe deck, but it put up much better results. Our goal isn't to push everything down, though, it is to make sure that nothing is broken, and allow for fun and interesting decks in the metagame.
Master of Waves by Ian Duke
The final version that saw play at the Pro Tour made a few different design decisions (and didn't have the benefit of Nykthos not being legendary), but overall we were pretty close in early testing. And speaking of monocolor devotion decks that Top 8 Pro Tours, our Mono-Black Devotion decks were all slightly different from the one that saw play at the Pro Tour. Some versions had main-deck Thoughtseize, some didn't. Some played Pack Rat, some didn't—we never really narrowed down to one list. I think the card we were most underplaying was Desecration Demon. The one below was pretty popular, again in the pre-Hero's Downfall era, so the removal suite is a bit different.
Mono-black control by Ian Duke
We also take some inspiration from the real world and see what decks that are currently winning might look like in the new Standard. There was a Jund ramp-y goodstuff deck in Standard at that time, so I put together a similar deck to try out in Theros.
At this time, we were testing a version of Mistcutter Hydra with haste and trample, and whose attempt to beat counterspell decks was to be castable from the graveyard—which did a good job at that, but was also being way too efficient of a creature against non-counterspell decks.
Jund by Sam Stoddard
I wasn't the only one who tested out the Hydra, although Ian went about it in a different manner. His plan was to use self-mill to put it into his graveyard and cast it. Mons made a similar deck, although he added red for Purphoros, which quickly highlighted why X can't be 0 was needed for immediate change.
GB Graveyard Ian Duke
The net result of all this testing was an understanding that we really needed a new design for Mistcutter Hydra, which went through three or four different iterations before ending where it did today. Of course, we did that for a reason—one of the biggest decks in our FFL has never really showed up in the real world. Our main control deck was actually RWU instead of WUB.
RWU control by Gavin Verhey
We assumed that in the real world, RWU would be the deck you would want to bring if there were a lot of beatdown decks, and UWB if there were a lot of control decks.
Control didn't limit itself to blue combinations, though. We had a few control decks in other color combinations—some of which have showed up in the real world (although with somewhat different cards). As an example:
Naya Control by Erik Lauer
Naya (RGW), because it has two scry lands in Theros, was a popular combination among Pit-dwellers.
Here is an example of deck taken in a different direction:
Naya Beatdown by Max McCall
I could keep going on about this, but my time is growing short. I hope you enjoyed this peek into what our FFL looked like, and I hope to share more views of this in the future with Born of the Gods and Journey into Nyx.
That's it for this year. Next week on DailyMTG.com, we have Magic Online week, and then we go on winter break until the new year. Early in January, we start up previews for Born of the Gods—so get ready for that. We have some good stuff planned for that week.
Until next time,
Sam Stoddard came to Wizards of the Coast as an intern in May, 2012. He is currently a game designer working on final design and development for Magic: The Gathering.