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Frontier - Between Standard and Modern

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Hello everybody!

Recently, I've talked a lot about Standard and Modern and today, I'm going to delve into another format, the one that lies between these two. You might say that there's no such sanctioned format and you would be right. But, while officially that is true, there have been signs that things might change one day and even Maro has already said that Wizards have been thinking about creating a format between Standard and Modern. But sometimes the players act faster than Wizards and so we can already see what this format could look like: the Hareruya chain of stores in Japan has started to support a non-rotating format called "Frontier", with cards from M15 on being legal, and they have even organized a series of Frontier tournaments, with the biggest one having over 300 players. Sometimes the changes come from the top, with Wizards making an announcement, but at other times, the change starts at the players or stores. I think that in this case, the prime reason is likely the fact that Modern is getting too expensive for many players and Standard is not diverse enough. Frontier, sometimes also called "Post-modern" or "Contemporary" (I like the puns in both of these names), seems like a perfect solution. While right now, it's not much more than a mix of two Standard formats, it is going to grow naturally as time progresses. To mark the boundary of Frontier with M15 might look counterintuitive, especially since M15 was only printed in 2014, but it has its logic: it was with M15 that the card frame changed slightly, so just like Modern encompasses cards with the "modern" card frame, Frontier only includes cards with the newest card frame that we've had so far. Even now, the format seems to be fairly diverse, which is only going to improve with new sets being added to it.

So what is Frontier about? Right now, I think the most fitting description is that it's basically an environment where you can play any deck from the past two Standard formats (Khans + Magic Origins and the current one), but you get a lot of new toys for your decks. The downside is that we'll have to play against decks that felt oppressive or tedious - decks that we were happy to see rotate. However, since the pool is bigger, each "oppressor" doesn't take up more than 10-15% of the field, which means that you shouldn't play against them more than in one out of ten rounds. And a big advantage of this format is that you can pick your favorite deck from the past three years or so and spice it up with whatever it was that you couldn't play because of the Standard rotation. And that's just the beginning. Block mechanics and interactions do constitute a big share of any Standard, but in Frontier, you can find weird cross-set interactions that were not designed by R&D to work together in the first place. And, unlike Modern, Frontier so far seems to be a lot less dominated by "must-answer" cards and strategies and is also a lot slower, which should give you time to proceed with whatever game plan you prepared. So, what are some of the most important strategies in this format? In a recent Japanese tournament with 300+ players, the top16 looked like this:

1x Jeskai Aggro (1st place)

1x Dark Jeskai (2nd place)

3x Abzan Aggro

1x 5C Bring to Light

1x Rally the Ancestors

2x Mardu Green

1x Grixis Zomb-Emerge

1x Grixis Control

1x Elves

1x Atarka Red

2x Bant Humans

1x Jund Delirium

If the presence of so many "wedges" worries you and you think that this would be just like Khans Standard, where Abzan kept battling against Jeskai, rest assured that this is not the case - thanks to mana fixing in fetchlands and Battle for Zendikar duals, mana bases are fairly stable and many decks can afford to play three colors, but that doesn't mean that the decks resemble the old "wedge" decks of the past. Sure, Siege Rhino and Mantis Rider are still some of the best cards in the format, but apart from that, a lot of creativity is possible.

Let's have a look at some of the decks that do very well, in order to get a better picture of this format. Perhaps we can start with the deck that took down the aforementioned tournament: Jeskai aggro by Kyou Suzuki.

Frontier Jeskai Aggro by Kyou Suzuki

I think that this is a very fine example of combining the strongest engines of two blocks, two engines that work very well together. Khans of Tarkir brought the aggressive Jeskai shell with Mantis Rider and Jeskai Charm, while the current Standard format promotes the aggressive U/W approach with Selfless Spirit and Spell Queller powering Smuggler's Copter. Faerie Miscreants look a bit odd to me, but it’s probably a concession to having a low curve and a bunch of flying creatures that could hop into a Copter or be boosted by Jeskai Charm. Since Frontier is not yet a format tested by GPs or PTs, all the lists, including this one, might still use some tweaking, but the design that we have here looks really promising - a three-colored aggro deck with almost the whole mana base consisting of lands that come into play untapped before turn four, cheap aggressive flying creatures and a bunch of burn spells that can finish the opponent off once your creatures can't get through anymore.

Frontier is not only unique because of the sets that are legal, but also because of the fact that there are no banned cards in it yet, so it's the only constructed format in Magic where you can run a playset of Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time. Together with Jace, this makes blue really powerful: either as a control color that uses Dig Through Time as a card that runs away with games where you stabilize, or as the default color for graveyard shenanigans. That's the way Takimura Kazuyuki decided to go and he came up with this build, which gave him a top 8 at a major Frontier tournament:

Jace, Vryn's Prodigy
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Magic Origins (Foil)

This list is fairly close to the current Grixis Emerge archetype we have in Standard, but with several key additions. First of all, we have Jace, Vryn's Prodigy, who seems to have been printed for this exact deck: he fills your graveyard, flashes back Collective Brutality and Cathartic Reunion and together with Treasure Cruise gives the deck so much card drawing that it should easily avoid the biggest pitfall of the current "dredge" deck of Standard: getting stuck with no way how to generate card advantage or progress your board. Fetchlands are here mostly to fuel delve, that's why there are even Flooded Strands with no white - we do play a lot of self-mill, but many of these cards have a purpose in the graveyard, so it would hurt us to exile them.

What I like probably the most about this particular list is the transformational sideboard. Instead of having silver bullets against other decks, the sideboard offers a control route, where you can board in all fifteen cards and be close to a "Grixis control" deck - with discard, countermagic, removal and heavy-hitting finishers.

Many decks in Frontier are centered around particular engines from one of the blocks that the format consists of, but that's not true for all of them. Sometimes a certain theme is sprinkled across several sets and while not being too dominant in any of them, when you combine all the cards, you suddenly have a competitive deck in a larger format. This seems to be the case of Frontier Elves.

It's mildly surprising not to see Collected Company in this deck, but you can only run so many 4-drops and in this deck, Panharmonicon is probably just better, as strange as that might seem. Once you resolve the 4-drop artifact, your cards become quite absurd - twenty-four creatures that have ETB abilities plus a playset of Chords mean that the amount of card advantage you get is simply through the roof. And while getting extra cards out of Elvish Visionary and extra tokens from Dwynen's Elite might be nice, the most significant advantage comes with Shaman of the Pack: triggering his ability twice means that even with only a couple of elves in play, the opponent is going to take massive hits. Triggering Sylvan Messenger twice is also sweet, although that should mostly lead to finding Shaman of the Pack to close out the game.

The last deck that I want to talk about today also uses a core that we've seen in a previous Standard format, but combines it with a lot of new additions.

Frontier Ensoul Aggro by Oonishi Akira

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Hangarback Walker
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Magic Origins (Foil)

The mana base looks a bit suspicious and I'm not sure if I would want to run a Darksteel Citadel in a three-colored aggro deck with so little fixing, but the raw power is undeniable. With no Wild Nacatl or Goblin Guide in the format, artifacts seem to give you the most aggressive opening - between Toolcraft Exemplar and Inventor's Apprentice (which this version doesn't even play), there is a lot of pressure that you can create with your 1-drops. Ghostfire Blade, Ensoul Artifact and Shrapnel Blast also give you big incentives to play artifacts and I think that the biggest challenge is going to be how to make the mana work - whether to stick to a more traditional U/R (or even W/R) version or to go with all three colors. Basically, white gives you the best 1-drops and blue offers Ensoul and some sideboard cards. And while I like the idea of casting Ensoul Artifact on a Clue made by Thraben Inspector, I think that for now, I would just stick to two colors.

Oonishi Akira's version seems to be pushing the archetype to the limits in terms of aggression. In addition to the usual Shrapnel Blasts, he uses red also for the combination of Built to Smash and Temur Battle Rage. We've been used to the "combo" of Become Immense with Battle Rage, but thanks to so many relatively high-powered creatures (Ensoul Artifact, Toolcraft Exemplar, Fleetwheel Cruiser) and - most importantly - cards that boost power in Ghostfire Blade and Built to Smash, the Battle Rage can be quite deadly in this shell as well.

At this point, it's pretty hard to guess whether Frontier is going to become an official format or not. However, with the gap between Standard and Modern getting wider and wider, it's logical that eventually, some format to bridge these two is going to be created. If the boundaries that are chosen are going to be the same ones as those that Frontier uses or not, that's impossible to say right now, but based on the decks that we can see so far and on the potential that this division offers, I think it would be a good choice.

That's it from me for today. Thanks for reading and see you next time!

Adam

Adam Koska
Adam Koska

About Adam Koska

Adam is an experienced player from the Czech Republic who has a number of high-profile finishes under his belt:

  • 14th at Pro Tour Portland 2014
  • 9th at Worlds 2009
  • 9th at Pro Tour Kyoto 2009
  • 64 Lifetime Pro Points
  • Three times Czech Nationals Top 8
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