Analyzing Magic’s New Challenger Decks

Last Friday, Wizards announced a new Magic the Gathering product, Challenger Decks.  The idea behind these pre-constructed decks is to bring in new players at a competitive level to participate in Friday Night Magic or other tournaments.

In a time where Wizards has tried very hard to refocus players on the current Standard format (for a complete primer on competitive Magic for beginners, read my post here), the company is searching for a way to get players reinvested in playing at FNMs.  They goal here is to give players a firm footing competitively, without having to buy singles and without having to work from the weak precon’s of Magic’s past.

Let’s take a look at the new Challenger decks and see what they have to offer, if they have what it takes to be successful, and what they may mean going forward.

A Look Back at What They’ve Tried

The concept of the Challenger deck, a pre-constructed “tournament ready” product, is nothing new.  In the past, Wizards has put out “Event Decks” that were meant for the exact same purpose.

From 2011 to 2015, Wizards churned out these Event Decks hoping to new players quickly up to FNM speed.  However, they discontinued these products as, despite the early enthusiasm behind the idea, they simply lacked any true competitive base.  They weren’t much better than the old set pre-constructed decks (which were basically good for one or two cards, if that).

Stoneforge Mystic

When the Event decks were first announced, the idea was applauded, and the first couple iterations fit the purpose quite well.  Interestingly, one the first Event decks, War of Attrition, contained two Stoneforge Mystics, which were banned in Standard at the time.  However, Wizards gave a special waiver for this pre-con and allowed the deck to be played if it was the exact decklist out of the box (spoiler: no one did).

Magic Mirrodin Besieged Event Decks

The Event decks ended up falling flat because Wizards was still testing the waters of basically handing out the chase rares, mythics, and uncommons in a small, cheaper package.  One of the first two Event decks, Into the Breach, contained Goblin GuideGoblin GuideContested War ZoneLeyline of PunishmentSpikeshot ElderDevastating Summons, and Devastating Summons.  The Goblin Guides were great (and maybe Spikeshot Elder at the time) but the others were mostly garbage.  Sure, they were better than some alternatives, but they were not competitive.  The Lightning Bolts were also nice, but were in abundance at the time as a common in the core set.  The deck really left a lot to be desired.

The Event decks became relegated to a spot for newer players, but didn’t really pack the value needed to truly be competitive.  You needed to sink more money into singles to truly get even a baseline worthy deck.

Challenger Decks Have Upped the Value

Now, looking at the Challenger decklists, Wizards has finally put some effort into really packing some value into these things.  As a great example, Hazoret Aggro contains both a Hazoret the Fervent and Chandra, Torch of Defiance – both chase mythics that are $20+ at the time of this writing.  That’s a great start for new players, who will instantly get the $30 MSRP back with a purchase.

Magic Chandra, Torch of Defiance

And that’s to say nothing about where the real value in these lists resides – in the rares.  Yes, the mythics are flashy and expensive, but accumulating rares as new player can be difficult, and oftentimes they are the critical core pieces that make the mythics shine.

Continuing with the Hazoret list, the deck comes with: 3 Soul-Scar Mage 4 Bomat Courier 3 Kari Zev, Skyship Raider 3 Harsh Mentor 1 Glorybringer.  All of those cards are Tier 1 level competitive red aggro cards.  Wizards did not make concessions here and add weaker red one drops – the gave you the full 4x Bomat Courier, the card that is a shoe-in four-of in all modern red aggro decks.  Getting this base of cards is exactly whats needed to make the deck more competitive beyond just the mythics.

Magic Hazoret Aggro Deckbox

The Vehicle Rush deck gives players 4 Bomat Courier 4 Toolcraft Exemplar 4 Scrapheap Scrounger 2 Pia Nalaar, again, the actual complement of creatures these decks are playing in Pro Tours and Grand Prix.  It’s not 2x Toolcraft Exemplar and then some nominal white one drop.  In addition, Vehicle Rush (which is called Mardu Vehicles in the metagame) comes with even more value – 4 Unlicensed Disintegration 4 Lightning Strike for some awesome uncommons, and then 4 Heart of Kiran – the key mythic of the deck as a four-of.  What a great start.

However, all this value has to be balanced with a lack in some area, lest these newfound Standard players would simply buy these decks and never the precious booster packs.  Well, Wizards scaled a bit back in giving players the lands they might otherwise need.

Magic Money Cardback

While the Hazoret deck doesn’t need any real special lands (the key red land was banned recently, and the deck is mono-red and plays basically 20 basic mountains), the other decks do require a more complex manabase.  The Vehicle Rush deck, a three color enemy wedge with a somewhat tricky color curve, gives the following 24 land:

4 Spire of Industry 1 Dragonskull Summit 1 Inspiring Vantage 1 Concealed Courtyard 3 Aether Hub 3 Unclaimed Territory 2 Evolving Wilds 5 Plains 3 Mountain 1 Swamp

Now, I will concede this a good start to the manabase for a three color deck.  However, the 3x Unclaimed Territory is simply out of place here.  Those and the Evolving Wilds are simply budget replacements for more Dragonskull Summits, Inspiring Vantages, and Concealed Courtyards.  Take a look at this example decklist for a more optimized manabase for the archtype.  The Courtyards alone are around $30, and thus the value needed to be shaved.

Magic Checklands

Despite this, I think the value is actually there in these things.  Manabases can be fixed by the players through their own collecting, instead of trying to get up to four-ofs of the actual critical creatures and spells.  I think newer players will have more fun drawing the powerful spells and creatures, and worry about the lands later.

Can Challenger Decks Reinvigorate Standard Enthusiasm?

We have our past good faith efforts but ultimate failures in the Event decks, but we have remedied a major flaw with the increase in value and deck building.  Will a stepped up power level in the base product help bring new players into Standard, and participating at the store level as Wizards intends?

This is the (multi-)million dollar question.  It’s a tough call, but I do think this will have a net positive impact on the state of Standard.  Wizards has a done a decent job in trying to address the outstanding woes of Standard through banning unpopular archetypes to designing cards that are more interactive or creature-based.  Amonkhet was well-received in power and flavor, but Ixalan has fallen a bit flat.

Return to Dominaria Art

I believe the upcoming Return to Dominaria set is a chance for Wizards to really knock it out of the park.  Nostalgia sets typically do well, as evidenced by all the “Return to” set design.  This time, we are going back to the place that old-timers will remember fondly, and as a long-time player, that really excites me.

Personally, I originally saw the Challenger deck announcement (before the decklists) and thought, “these are going to be Event decks 2.0 — pass.”  Now that we have the decklists, I am highly likely to buy a couple.  You can buy two for $60 and pick the ones that share colors to better complete the lands and 2 or 3-ofs.  Combined with the new set, I am genuinely interested in Standard again.

Of course, my personal experience and enthusiasm is not a barometer for the larger market.  However, I think that players like me, who have been passive for the past X amount of time without an easy buy-in to get started in Standard again, are looking at this with bright eyes.  With the value in these things, there is an opportunity to quickly get one or two decks in shape.

Magic Friday Night Magic

I believe that these Challenger decks might not be the pure cure that Standard needs, especially because most of the value is in cards that will rotate in 6 months.  However, if Wizards is wiling to put these out on a consistent basis – with consistent power and rares – I think it will be enough to nudge a good of folks to throw $30 in to see what happens.  Better than investing $100’s of dollars into a deck piece by piece and then see a piece get banned.  $30 is the perfect level to take a flyer on the deck and at least give it a shot.

Conclusion

In sum, I think the Challenger decks are a great idea.  Give players an ACTUAL on-ramp into the competitive side of the game, and do so by cramming actual value into a $30 price point package.  And make that value for real decks that exist in the metagame.

Long term, I think the next set will be critical for Standard.  Further, I think Wizards needs to followup and release equally powerful pre-cons in the new Standard, and continue to do so to prevent the subset of priced-out players from simply not going to FNM.

What are your thoughts on the Challenger decks?  Do you think they are competitive?  Do they have enough value?  Will they help Wizards’ Standard slump? Comment below!

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Analyzing Magic’s New Challenger Decks

  1. Man, I haven’t played Magic in years. I was never a hardcore player, but I was around when it came out. I was in High School, everyone played it in lunch period, and it was one of the earliest success stories in trading cards after the 90’s comic bust nearly took trading cards with it. Up until then, trading cards were either centered on sports fans with Topps, Fleer, Upper Deck making MLB, NFL, NHL, NBA sets every year, or the occasional non-sports line. Usually stills from a summer blockbuster if it wasn’t something fun like The Garbage Pail Kids line. Comic book character cards were big for awhile like DC Cosmic Cards (I still have my complete set.), Marvel Masterpieces (Alex Ross, painted iconic Marvel characters, and each painting was turned into a card.), and some cards based on Image, Valiant, and Dark Horse books had been out.

    But anyway, fast forward a few years, and people realized they were just buying decks of pretty pictures. Magic was in many ways, not only a fun tabletop RPG, but also the savior of the non-sport card market. Simply by being a compelling game. Poke’mon, and Yugi-oh kept things going. So, seeing how it’s been around for 20 years or more I kind of like the idea of an entry level set. Something people new to the game or decades lapsed can try out. Especially since over the years rules changed, some cards were banned for being game-breaking, and other stuff. Hopefully, it works out for them.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I enjoyed your anecdote of how you saw magic slotting in during its release alongside its contemporaries. It’s amazing it’s managed to last so long and build the empire it has today. I think they definitely need, or at least trying, to bring in newer players they are beginning to lose to digital card games like Hearthstone.

      Liked by 2 people

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