The New Arrival: Frontier for the Modern Soul

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.

Wherefore Frontier?

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.

The Appeal

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.

Disadvantages

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_.

7 thoughts on “The New Arrival: Frontier for the Modern Soul

  1. Frontier is a cash grab created and supported by large retailers who are sitting on piles of worthless cards that have already spiked heavily in price. It does a wonderful job negating one of its own foundational principles (price) before it’s even accepted as a real format!

  2. I’m optimistic about Frontier. I like how the absence of blood moon and ensnaring bridge provides deck building freedom from mentioned hosers. Also the lack of lean mean catch all cards like bolt, path, and abrupt decay seems limiting at first but later I’ve realized how much more room it allows for deck design and game plans to develop. It’s cool how the seemingly “weak” and limited card pool creates a unique environment for deck design and game play.

    Modern is still my favorite format and I don’t like supporting standard because its “$$$ deck = win” design. I will continue to brew fun janky stuff for my local modern fnm and fall back to Burn for PPTQs and GPTs. But I’m excited to play some Ensoul Artifact (or as i call it “izzet scissors”) aggro in Frontier because the deck cost me 20$ bucks to build. If Frontier takes off then sweet, I bought into the format for only 20$… if not then I will part the deck out and make 80% of my money back.

    1. Totally agree with the article here. Risk of fragmenting player base is real – im sure most people have seen an fnm where the draft players try to get the standard players to switch over to fire the event. Granted most stores run different formats on different nights, but most players have a limited number of events theyll attend regardless.

      Biggest fear for frontier though is that “brewers paradise” lasts three more weeks and we find out that if you arent playing company rally or dig you’re actually not competitive at all. With no banlist a solved broken metagame stays solved and broken. No big deal for the twenty dollar brew decks – but if you bought those jvps you might have some buyers remorse.

  3. Please smother Frontier in it’s cradle and stop talking about it. Of course a new non-rotating format would be detrimental to Modern. That is exactly why a site dedicated to Modern shouldn’t write about it.

    Magic can’t handle too many formats. I think it’s very understandable that people will continue to try to make new ones. But enough already. If you divide the community too much it will eventually fall. Anyone who plays MtG at their LGS is motivated to go there because there’s others there playing. If you thin out the crowd there will be a decline because with less people at the event it isn’t as fun to attend. Then it’ll decline even further.

    This will eventually cause the heat death of MtG. I don’t think people understand this or they don’t care. Standard stale? What do you think Frontier would be? Rally, CC, Rhino, Jace. Don’t make me laugh.

    🙁

  4. My question is:

    If Wizards officially embraces Frontier who will define what will or could be banned? Will be Wizards, the community or Hareruya store?

    Besides all the price, brew paradise and everything else if Frontier becomes a official format I don’t believe that Wizards will keep an eternal format without any ban list. And even before things get real who could determine a ban list? Hareruya? Players from USA, from Japan, from somewhere?

    Even inside Frontier some players say that frontier should have a ban list with fetch lands. Hareruya says that frontier will not have a ban list but if players do not agree what could be done? Because there is no serious format where a LGS says “we will not play with ban list here” but other LGS says ” we will play Frontier but with a ban list”.

    I’m not against Frontier just want to know how far will it go. I’m worried because some people are just selling it as a cheaper format and how wonderful it is. Any casual format is cheap before It becomes official and metagame gets solved. See how cheap was Liliana of the Veil before Modern official release.

    No matter what format you play staples will always be expensive (most of them) even in Pauper. Magic is a game that could be as much expensive as you want. You don’t need to play a tier 1 to succeed and play with expensive cards to “have fun”. No matter what format you play you could have fun at any cost and sometimes be competitive with a good budget brew. You just need to know your priorities and how much you want to spent is this hobby.

    People should not sell Frontier for it’s prices but for It’s card pool.

  5. I don’t agree with you on the fact that the popularity of formats is a zero-sum game. For your explanation to work you have to suppose that the player base is constant and that each magic player has the same preferences.

    This is false and fails to explain the popularity of different formats. First because the playerbase is growing, which means it is actually a positive-sum game.

    Second, I believe that the main reason for having different formats is that each of those occupy a different market space and appeal to different kinds of players. If you make the hypothesis that player preference are asymetrical, a new format doesnt necessarily imply a loss for other formats. It can also help grow the playerbase if it appeals to player types that were satisfied by neither format beforehand.

  6. Thanks for the article Jim! Personally, I can’t wait for frontier to fade away. I agree that individual magic formats are a zero sum game, and with only two accessible formats (because very few players find legacy worth getting into anymore, and nobody can really play vintage), it keeps Modern the go to eternal format. From my perspective, anything that could represent any kind of negative impact on a format I’ve sunk hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars into goes immediately on the list of bad things. I also think that the founding point of frontier, providing a smaller financial transition, doesn’t really hold true. There are plenty of decks in tier 2 that don’t tax the wallet like bgx decks do, and even at least one that trades most of it’s fetches for kaladesh fastlands (Jeskai Aggro)

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