Magic has changed vastly in its 27 years. In the old days, there used to be all these wonky rules, weird ways to word things, cards that were just completely indecipherable; there are countless examples of cards that when seen for the first time, after you’re done scratching your head, will make you laugh and wonder what Wizards could possibly have been thinking… for a hilarious stroll down memory lane, watch this video. I could spend a truly inordinate amount of time talking about the multitude of changes (who am I kidding, I already do regularly!) just in my nine-year lifetime or passing on stories I was told about the beforetimes when creatures were total garbage and spells were ludicrously broken (look up the Shandalar video game if you’d like a taste of this yourself; people stream it to this day and it’s still fun!), but for this article, I’m just going to focus on just one particular aspect.
One of the major ways our beloved game has evolved over the years is how it’s gradually added a million more ways to play. As I’m sure you all know, the huge variety of formats is one of the biggest appeals of the game; people spend a lot of time talking about what Wizards has done wrong but it’s pretty incredible that they’ve managed to develop all these distinct intricate ways to play that together appeal to so many different kinds of people. But there’s more to it than just formats. Back in the old days, nobody playing outside of playing very casually ever had to ask how many games their match would have; people still don’t on other platforms, but it’s a quandary that every single Arena player faces at some point or another, and the answer isn’t obvious for most people. There’s really no wrong answer, but let’s see if I can help you find the one you prefer!
By way of a tl;dr, I’ll summarise the arguments in a clear bullet-pointed manner near the end.
So what are the key differences?
Like Magic’s formats, the best-of-one and best-of-three (Bo1/Bo3) modes each have their own die-hard advocates, their pros, and their cons.
Let’s discuss some advantages of Bo1 first:
According to Wizards, far more people play best-of-one on Arena, and there are some good reasons why.
Slamming 60 cards together isn’t just easier than 75; it’s usually the fun part. Choosing sideboards is one of the hardest parts of deckbuilding and it often doesn’t feel rewarding because generally these aren’t really exciting cards that synergize great with your deck; they’re more like concessions you might have to make in certain matchups. You put all these sweet cards in your maindeck for a reason; where’s the fun in sacrificing your gameplan just so your annoying Control opponent doesn’t kill you? Aren’t you supposed to believe in the cards you’ve chosen, your friends, to carry you through the bad times as well as the good? When you’re playing with “wishboard” cards such as Fae of Wishes or Karn, the Great Creator, Bo1 is way more fun to deckbuild for! You get to throw in all these wacky silver bullets, play with a much
I used to much prefer Bo3 Draft because well, there’s a lot of reasons I’m going to get to later! Of late though, I’ve been really turned off it because I really like to draft, as in do the draft portion, and if I spend the same amount of time on Bo1, I get to draft three times as much. That’s not a joke; that’s a decision Wizards has made in making you play up to 6 Bo3 matches on Arena as compared to only 3 on Magic Online. I have to set aside around three hours to play a Bo3 draft on average, which is absolutely insane; this is partly because I’m a pretty experienced draft player and my winrate in Bo3 is very high (I’m not trying to brag, that’s just one of the advantages of Bo3 I’ll talk about later!) so I often have to play five or the full six matches. I really just don’t have the time or inclination to do this as much anymore so I have mostly switched to Bo1, and do Bo3 drafts much more occasionally than I used to (so I get the fallout of Wizards rotating the great Theros: Beyond Death format for much worse ones..). This is really a concern for anyone playing Bo3; Ben Stark talks on his Twitter a lot about how much he wishes Wizards would cut down on Bo3 draft length for this reason.
In card games, variety is a big concern – that’s why we have random elements in the first place. If games play out the same way, the game gets boring much faster – we saw this in the Oko format, where you could have mana dork into Oko a ridiculous amount of the time by abusing Once Upon a Time and Gilded Goose; this is also the time when the most people quit Standard, and when places like Reddit were swarmed with only posts complaining about how bored they were with Standard or with Oko specifically. Sideboarded games are different in many ways from game 1s, but you’re still playing the same matchup – the variety is much lower than in Bo1, where you get to have a quick taste of many different matchups and have an entirely new experience each time, rather than a somewhat different one.
Those were the warmup points; now here’s the main course. For the longest time, it felt like Magic was only going to join the modern world through grated teeth, with enough kicking and screaming to put cousin Timothy to shame. Arena was the first really major attempt to make Magic convenient and easy to fit into our daily lives, and in large part it has succeeded in that (lack of mobile client notwithstanding). Bo1 is the prime example of this; you can enter the world of Plains and planeswalkers (sadly not so many plainswalkers these days but Old Fogey will ever retain his place in my heart…) whenever you have ten minutes to spare these days; you can go from sweeping your kitchen to Flame Sweeping your opponent’s board in a matter of moments. Full disclosure; I played one in a break while writing this article even! By comparison, Bo3 is a much more serious affair; I have to put aside at least half an hour, sometimes more, because I don’t actually know how long it’s going to take or if I’m going to need that third game. I’ve lost plenty a match before (especially on MTGO) because my lunch break ended, or I got a call, or I was getting late for whatever silly social I was going to (the good old pre-isolation days). There’s also the downtime of having to wait for Arena’s Gabe Nassifs to sideboard and in general, people tend to think more and be more deliberate in Bo3 because there’s more on the line, and it’s seen as the more “serious” game mode. I accept all this, it’s not the worst, but it’s a mild irritation I don’t have when I slam that “Standard Ranked” button. All in all, Bo1 is a big part of why Arena has changed Magic’s landscape forever, so why would you bother with Bo3?
Because giving up on Bo3 requires some major sacrifices itself.
Sideboarding is a fundamental part of the game that Bo1 loses, and decks not having to worry about that has some pretty far-reaching implications… The biggest reason, apart from time saved, for aggro being so popular in Bo1 stems from this; you get all these free wins from people playing all these expensive or do-nothing cards for other matchups. Who cares about all the incremental value Thassa would accrue over the course of the game when it does nothing right now and they only have one or two turns left? Is Casualties of War really going to do all that much when they’re taking 8 damage on turn 4? In Bo3, sure you’ll win game 1 easily because you weren’t playing awkward situational cards and they were, but then your opponents will get all those terrible cards out of their deck and put in cards that are great at hosing you, and suddenly things might not end so well, no matter how fervent your champions are. It’s like Aggro, and other very proactive decks such as Simic Flash, are preboarded in Bo1 and your opponents have to deal with that – they have to dedicate some slots to just not losing to you for free, but it won’t be enough because they still have to prepare for other decks; aggro is popular, but that’s not all there is and ideally, you’re still only playing it half the time or less. If you just start putting a bunch of cards that are awful except against aggro in all your decks, suddenly you just get to autolose a bunch of games, especially since it’s not like aggro decks are so similar that the same answers are good against all of them… I’m reasonably certain of which side I want in Duel Decks: Cerulean Drake vs Ajani's Pridemate, for example.
But that’s just the fallout after sideboarding’s removal; we haven’t actually taken into account what’s lost. Sideboarding makes the game more interesting, is very skill-testing, and enhances fun. Remember those games where you just have four removal spells that are never going to have targets stuck in your hand against Control? Was that your idea of a good time, just going “pass the turn” over and over while they drew cards, threw planeswalkers at you, hammered another nail into the coffin each time you said those words? That’s much less likely in games 2 and 3, and also in general, Bo3 means those games don’t matter as much – if the matchup’s decent then you can just win the other two, where you didn’t get unlucky. So many decisions go into sideboarding; there are so many aha moments where I realise “this matchup plays out like a slow midrange mirror so discard is bad here, even if they’re a blue deck”, you have to have an intimate knowledge of both your deck and your opponent’s… I play magic because I love the challenge, I love bettering myself, and Bo3 aligns better with those considerations, and for me, that’s the biggest single consideration.
Bo1 might have more variety, but sideboarded games often play out in an incredibly different way and feel really fresh because of sideboarding e.g. I bring my Robbers of the Rich and Legion Warbosses into my Fires deck, and now my Control opponent is just dying with two Disenchants in their hand. There are so many opportunities to next level people in really sweet ways, and the same matchup can play out in some really weird and wacky ways. If I vary up my sideboard, I can play the same matchup over and over and have it be very different each time e.g. with Fires, I could instead bring in Elspeth Conquers Deaths and Agents of Treachery to fight Control by going over the top.
Another big thing is that if you’re good at the game, your winrate will be magnified in Bo3. The sample size is bigger so the weaker opponent is much less likely to win the whole match – they have to have draws that are enough better to overcome the skill gap in two games instead of one. This effect is very visible in Draft, which isn’t very matchup dependent as compared to Constructed; according to my decktracker, there’s a difference of about 8% between my Bo1 and Bo3 winrates for as long as I’ve been tracking them (since Ravnica Allegiance or so) and there are public streamer records that show similar or greater deviation. Over the course of all of your drafts, that adds up to a truly gigantic increase. This applies to Constructed too though; the better player in the mirror or evenish matchups is much more likely to win. That being said, there is an adverse effect on uneven matchups – it’s much easier to steal a game from a deck you’re bad against in Bo1 than in Bo3. If you’re good and want to maximise your winrate, you must play Bo3, whereas a more average player should play Bo1, as increased variance favours them against stronger opponents.
To paraphrase from my Heuristics article, if you’re forcing yourself to do the hard thing, the right thing, then your brain gets used to that and it becomes easier. What that means is if you force yourself to play the more serious game mode/practice sideboarding, you will get better much faster because it’ll force you to think a lot and that knowledge will be applicable to other situations. For example, if I can’t win the long game in a matchup and so I sideboard in a way to go under them, I can apply that directly in games – if my opponent is playing Azorius Control, because I’m used to sideboarding, I know that if I can’t beat them late, I must do it early so I’ll play more aggressively on that basis. This might seem like cherrypicking an example, but I tend to think that knowledge in Magic is very transferrable – a player who is exceptionally good at one format is likely to be good, though not as good, in every other format; you can see that in the pro scene where a lot of people profess that they don’t play a particular format much but their knowledge of the game allows them to still outplay the vast majority of players. I am a better Draft than Constructed player, but when I see my opponents in Constructed slam some card I can’t deal with, I tend to think along the same lines as if they play a Draft bomb – I immediately start thinking about what outs I can draw into and come up with a plan to buy time/mitigate that card’s impact before I draw the out/give myself the best chance I can to draw it and still have it be good; that’s a skill that my Draft experience helps with a lot.
Also just playing against better players or people who are playing better is a great way to improve – they challenge you with strategies at their disposal that weaker players generally won’t have, like setting stops to confuse you, hiding information better, casting spells at inopportune times for you, playing around more things you could have etc . Bo1 is a more casual mode, partly because of what I said before about people playing less seriously, but also because the major tournaments, for now, are Bo3 – the people who want to participate in them will all play Bo3 almost exclusively; you’re far more likely to run into a pro player there, so it’s much harder to learn how to combat those strategies. And obviously, if you plan to play in tournaments yourself in the near future, that’s an almost slam dunk reason to play Bo3.
So let’s break it down:
Pros of Bo1
- Much more convenient; easier to plan around and fit into your day.
- People play faster; the competition is easier. Lower stakes, more relaxing.
- Deckbuilding is more fun; sideboards can be dull.
- The Bo3 Draft mode on Arena is annoyingly long.
- More variety game-to-game since you (ideally) play a fresh matchup each game.
- More chance to win against a bad matchup.
- More chance to win for new players/people who aren’t as good at the game.
Pros of Bo3
- Bo3 makes for a deeper gameplay experience, because sideboarding is so important and requires you to think outside the box a lot.
- Sideboarded games are more likely to be interesting; fewer non-games where one side just gets run over.
- Skill matters a lot in sideboarding; it greatly benefits the better and more creative player. Bo3 will also improve your game faster because of this.
- Bo3 directly enhances the better player’s chance to win the match, by increasing the sample size.
- Arguably has a healthier meta; Bo1 favours very proactive decks.
- Still a lot of variety between sideboarded games and game 1s.
- More metagame variety since aggro is worse.
- Bo3 is better as practice; you’ll improve faster in playing it because the competition is better and people play more seriously. If you’re practising for tournaments, you must play Bo3.
Cliche I know, but there’s no wrong choice! You just need to look at that breakdown and decide which factors matter most to you. I play a lot of both, and I usually decide based on how much time I have but I tend to favour Bo3 in Constructed, since self-improvement and a deeper gameplay experience are of paramount importance to me (and winning more is nice!). That being said, I have switched over to Bo1 Draft a lot, purely because I want to enjoy and practice the drafting stage, and I find that six matches is just too much for a lot of Draft decks.
Thanks for reading!
As always, you can find all my articles, the whole shebang from Limited Set Reviews to Draft Tier List to Strategy Articles to Deck Guides, at mtgazone.com/drifter. If you don’t see anything specific then I’d recommend Hypergeometric Calculator in Magic, my strategy article which teaches you how to tap into an invaluable resource pros already use, to assist in your deckbuilding and mulliganning decisions!
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