Team Unified Constructed is an awesome idea with poor implementation.
What’s not to like? People love team events, constructed rates higher than limited, and you push format diversity and deckbuilding creativity by making teams work together to solve this unique puzzle. When I was first starting to play competitive Magic, they ran a PTQ (back when those existed) of Team Unified Standard during Kamigawa/Ravnica, and it was one of the most fun tournament experiences I’ve ever had.
So you would think I’d be excited for the World Magic Cup’s use of the format. You’d be partially right, but mostly wrong. Here’s why:
Unification: Rules Update
The idea of Unified decks has been fundamentally altered by the latest rules change, and it spoils the format in more ways than one.
It used to be that Unified meant, if you shuffled your team’s decks and sideboards together, you could present it as a legal 225[+] card deck. The ability to split a card between decks has been disallowed, meaning if I have even a single copy of a card in my deck, my teammates may not use any of the remaining 3 copies. Not only is this needlessly more complicated and unintuitive, it flies in the face of its own name; what about the new version of the format is “unified” exactly?
But it’s not just complexity and grokability that are negatively impacted; deckbuilding and format diversity are too! It used to be that you could do creative things like splitting a key card to get the most value out of it. Our Magnivore deck gave our Heartbeat of Spring deck one of its Compulsive Researches, as even though it was better in Vore, Heartbeat could Drift of Phantasms into it. Then, Vore replaced it with Sift–a card that would never otherwise be played–to keep the same numbers. This is the cool type of puzzle-solving you eliminate with this needless new rule.
Diversity and Creative Deckbuilding
The new deckbuilding rule also greatly diminishes format diversity, despite on the surface looking like it would encourage it.
“Decks playing the same cards? How is that diverse??” Well, the logical conclusion of that line of questioning would be two Burn decks each with 2 Lightning Bolts apiece. Since that’s not how Team Unified Constructed deckbuilding is done, you have to look at the granular impacts of splittable cards and the way they would influence deck choices. The most obvious and important example is fetch and shock lands. If you play 3-Color Burn, you can still build Jeskai Control with some creative rearranging of the key overlapping cards:
Burn gets 2 Sacred Foundry, 4 Lightning Bolt, 2 Lightning Helix, 0 Arid Mesa, 0 Path to Exile
Jeskai gets 2 Sacred Foundry, 0 Lighting Bolt, up to 2 Lightning Helix, all 4 Arid Mesas and 4 Path to Exile.
Something like this isn’t possible under the new rule, and it’s not clear why (The only explanation I’ve heard is that it’s easier on the Judges doing deck-checks, which seems flimsy at best)
So really what you are doing by making the rule this way is boxing out either decks like Jund and Jeskai Control that are greedy and card-hungry (particularly mana-wise), or any of the playable decks that have overlap, such as Burn, Dredge, Abzan, Grixis, and so on. Rather than making Jeskai get creative with Flame Slashes or Lightning Helixes, the potential puzzle is simply removed from the table.
So these decks with high skill ceilings with lots of interactivity are being squeezed, so where does the overflow pressure end up? In the corner of the linear strategies.
When your cards are more linear, they’re less likely to overlap elsewhere. The issue is that many of the linear decks in Modern are the problem decks of the format; the ones that people dislike for being glass-cannons and/or breaking the “Turn Four” rule. These are the decks that generate non-games and metagame imbalances. Things like Eldrazi, Affinity, Tron, Elves, and so on are decks that are passable at their percentages in open fields, but with these specific deckbuilding restrictions, will likely spike higher than their otherwise expected turnout.
Decks like Infect, Storm, Ad Nauseum, Griselbrand, and Dredge are premium deck choices that could easily co-exist with ‘fair’ decks in harmony were it not for their manabase overlap. So in order to play these decks, you’ll likely have to fill your other two seats with decks from above.
Modern: Deck Choice
You may think that this would allow some non-tier 1 decks to emerge on the back of the benefit of minimal overlap, which is again partially true, but this type of reasoning falls short when it comes to Modern specifically.
Part of what makes Team Unified Constructed fun is that deckbuilders often have to get creative and invent new decks out of the leftovers from two high-tier staples in order to navigate the boundaries and show up with a competitive deck. When you force new archetypes to be explored, you’re strong-handedly encouraging format diversity. Modern doesn’t need that push. There are so many tier 2 and 3 decks already that have little to no overlap that there’s little to no incentive to actually innovate. The whole “restriction breeds creativity” thing falls apart when the restriction is expansive enough to not warrant creativity. Diversity is not a Modern problem, but relative power-levels absolutely is.
The reason that the higher-tier decks can compete in balance is because they cut a razor-thin edge between being just faster than them, or just fast enough to stop them, or just fast enough to not be stoppable. When you invite these other decks into the ring, you generate lopsided match-ups between decks that are demonstrably too slow vs their totally fast enough opponent. You likely have to do the same, and what you’re left with is a bunch of 90% vs 10% and vice versa pairings where the games don’t even have to be played, and then either one side got it lined up in their favor and it’s over before it started, or you end up with a mirror or otherwise close match, and then you have a coinflip.
There aren’t enough healthy 65%-35% matchups to go around when your deckbuilding restrictions narrow you into so much linearity.
Modern: Anti-Linearity, aka Hate
So how do you break up linearity? Specified sideboard hate, of which there is plenty in Modern, but it too falls victim to the new rule.
Not all hate is created equal, both in terms of accessibility and power-level. Rest in Peace can only be played in white decks that don’t need their graveyard, but is absurdly good at what it does. Relic of Progenitus can be played anywhere, but is more value [and time] oriented rather than being lights out.
Without being able to share cards, no two decks can each play a Sacred Foundry to splash 2 Rest in Peace and 2 Stony Silence in their sideboards. That means that the Affinity player has a greatly reduced chance of having to face Stony Silence while also likely knowing whether they will by the time post-board games begin.
“But AJ,” you may note, “There’s more than enough good hate of key strategies in Modern to go around!” And again, you’re partially right. In a perfect world, the three of you respectively could play RiP, Relic, Scavenging Ooze for graveyards, Stony Silence, Creeping Corrosion, Ancient Grudge for artifacts, and Kor Firewalker, Timely Reinforcements, Sun Droplet for Burn.
But are we really going to have a white deck and a green deck without a white green deck? Are we going to have a white deck, a green deck, and a red green deck? Can one deck really cast Kor Firewalker while another can play Timely Reinforcements (and the third lines up to be able to utilize Sun Droplet)?
These are deckbuilding puzzles that I like. The problem is that we aren’t talking about multi-purpose, replaceable effects here; these are massive swings in equity that have huge drop offs in effectiveness. This isn’t Compulsive Research vs Sift (a slight downgrade) in a format where games go 7+ turns, it’s Rest in Peace aka “I win instantly” vs Relic of Progenitus aka “I’m not entirely dead yet” in a game that lasts 6 turns.
Not much of the super effective hate is colorless either, which is extra bad news if you wanted to go with Affinity/Eldrazi and Tron plus a “normal” deck, which I think is a rather natural avenue.
Conclusions and Solutions
The World Magic Cup is just beginning, and will be the stage for Team Unified Constructed that the world will see. This is a shame, because I predict it will do little more than sour both TUC and Modern in the eyes of the players and viewers at home. It brings out all of the worst parts of Modern, and if my evaluation of how matchups will line up is correct, will be a poor experience for spectators thanks to lack of innovation, format stagnation, and exclusively lopsided or coin-flippy matchups.
So how would I fix it?
Revert the rule change since the new one pointless, terrible, and needs to go.
- Play round-robin in top 4 or even just the finals, let everyone play to balance out the mismatches and insure you get the pairings that make the match interesting.
- Team Unified Standard, not Modern as that only encourages the negative things about the format while “helping” with problems it doesn’t have. In Standard, you have far less linearity, the games go longer, the matchups are all closer, and the smaller card pool allows for more creativity and problem-solving.
- Play Team Unified Constructed locally because it really is a fantastic way to play Magic, and I highly recommend trying it out if at all possible. You can get two friends and challenge three LGS regulars that at next week’s FNM you’ll have a Team Unified Standard showdown, it’s just that easy, and well worth it. Just be sure to tell them you’re playing by the old deckbuilding rules!
Thanks for reading.