How to Fix Standard

Monday’s B&R announcement brought no changes to any format. I didn’t expect changes in Eternal, but I thought there was a reasonably good chance we’d see something in Standard. All things considered, it feels like a missed opportunity.

I’m Not a Cat Person

I wanted to see Felidar Guardian (or Saheeli Rai) banned in Standard. I wanted to see the Copycat combo put into a rocket ship and blasted into space, never to return to Standard ever again.

I hate Mondays and Felidar Guardian.

Efficient 2-card “win the game” combos are too strong for Standard. Mardu may be the best deck (albeit by a slim margin) but I would argue the existence of the combo is a great enabler for Mardu.

There are plenty of archetypes that could be good against Mardu, but are simply off the table because they are too soft to combo. Cards like Ishkanah would be great against Mardu, but you can’t play with expensive controlling threats because if you tap out, there are not enough Spiders in the world to save you from the beatdown of a googolplex baby kittens.

The only thing I really cared about was that the combo was removed from Standard. I wouldn’t have shed any tears over a broken Heart or Gideon. But I do strongly believe that removing the infinite combo from Standard would open up more options.

Why They Should Have Done It Now

Now, later, or never, but you have to choose one!

In an ideal world, the DCI would never need to ban a card. We live in the real world, not an ideal one.

One of the upsides to banning later is that the DCI has more time to look at the format and maybe cards from the next set will relieve the tension. By banning later, it opens up the opportunity of never banning, which is ideal.

While the best-case scenario remains (the problem fixes itself), the reality is that Copycat combo is not a problem that will ever go away. Here are two arguments for why I think the DCI would have gotten a lot of value out of banning Guardian.

1. The format is stale anyway.

I enjoyed Standard this time around and thought it was a good format. Week to week, the format shifted dynamically from one deck to another. But now the dust has settled and the puzzle has been solved.

I was involved in an interesting social media discussion that really got me thinking about the nature of the problem with Standard. Ultimately, I liked the journey of this particular Standard and how the “deck to beat” seemed to change week to week for the first month or so. But is it even avoidable in an age of so much information sharing and so many people playing for a format not to become solved after a while?

Here is a snippet of that conversation:

Brian DeMars: “I know! I’ve literally made that same point multiple times and pointed out that the games are actually highly interactive/decisions matter a lot. People just shrug ‘idk, format just sucks.’ What more do people want lol?”

Eric Froehlich: “The format is completely horrendous, but the games are highly interactive. If you want to win, there are only 2 strategies you should play, and that lack of diversity is quite awful. (Yes, I’m more than fully aware that other decks can win, but you’re making a mistake by playing them if you care about equity.)”

Paulo Vitor: “I don’t think it’s highly interactive… a lot of the games I see are resolved by mana problems (since the most popular deck is 3-color aggro) and being on the play in the mirror match is HUGE. Then there’s a t4 combo deck. Sure, some games are good, but only once you get past the barrier of ‘did I draw all my colors? did I get nut drawn on the draw?’ and that’s a hard barrier to cross in this format.”

Brian DeMars: “I’m not sure a Standard format being ‘solved’ down to a couple of decks after a few months is even avoidable anymore. I’d love to see it, but it might just be an eventuality of a world with so much available data.

Also, I’d argue that the value of a format isn’t just whether it gets solved, and what it looks like at the end, but what the whole narrative was. The metagame was dynamic and changed week to week. It wasn’t obvious how things were going to shake out.

I don’t see it as an issue of this particular format being bad, but perhaps an issue that most Standard formats reach this point before a new set comes out.”

Eric Froehlich: “Of course it’s avoidable, simply requires not having a few cards so broken that you have to play with them, just like every other format.”

Corbin Hosler: “What you are all missing is that there are five or six competitive tier two decks that can win Friday Night Magic, which is how 99% of players interact with Standard.”

Brian DeMars: “Eric, when would you say was the last ‘good’ Standard format?”

Eric Froehlich: “That’s a question I asked myself recently and couldn’t come up with an answer… the issue is exactly as you said in that people can solve it rather quickly. This is a fixable problem, but not one that WotC will, or necessarily even should, fix. Making cards that are crazy overpowered helps to drive sales, but creates stale formats as players should absolutely be playing them if they want to win.”

Paulo Vitor: “Corbin Hosler, we aren’t missing that, we just don’t think it’s necessarily a counter argument to ‘I find this standard boring to play/watch/deck build at the professional level.’ The majority of the non-absolutely-degenerate formats will have this diversity at the FNM level, so achieving that is not necessarily an “excuse” to be bad professionally – it’s definitely not a trade-off that needs to exist.

I think we are all in agreement that no matter how you feel about the overall journey of Aether Revolt Standard, we’ve reached a point where it is solved and there isn’t much more work to really be done.

If the DCI had banned a card, it would have shaken up the metagame and created a whole new world for players and deckbuilders to explore. Instead of another month or so of complaining about Mardu versus Saheeli matchups, there would be a ton of excitement about building and exploring a brand new metagame.

I see this as all upside for Magic, as it would turn this ‘dead format’ into an invigorated one that people would be excited to explore. Nobody wants to play this format for the next couple of months and a ban would have been upside in generating interest in an otherwise defunct Standard.”

2. Bannings now allow us to explore the spoilers in proper context.

Another reason I would like to have seen the ban take place now, instead of down the road with the next release, is that it lets us look at the next set of spoilers with fresh eyes.

Depending on what happens in Standard over the next few months, we could be looking at the spoilers and saying, “well, this new card will be great if or unless Copycat is banned.”

Also, what happens down the road if data seems to suggest it is likely Copycat should be banned during spoiler season? Am I now supposed to evaluate every card in two separate contexts? With or without Cats? At least if they had banned something, people would know where they stand in terms of what the next format will be like.

Standard Needs to be Reimagined

I was having a conversation with my teammates about Standard and the potential bannings, and my friend Kyle Boggemes made a point about the nature of Standard that I’d like to unpack.

The first problem with Standard is that midrange is just too good. Believe me, I’ve mocked midrange and the motivations of those who devote their lives to it when it isn’t good. But the times have changed—midrange is the king of Standard and has been for a while now.

Midrange being OP is a direct function of the cards that Wizards has produced over the past few years. Midrange cards are just better than the cards that do other things. To be clear, Mardu Vehicles is an aggro midrange deck, B/G Constrictor is a pure midrange deck, and Saheeli is a midrange deck with a combo kill.

In a rock, scissors, paper metagame Mardu is aggro, Saheeli combo, and B/G midrange, but in actuality all of these play midrange game plans.

Why would I play a removal spell when I can play a removal spell that is also a permanant that can randomly take over and win the game?

In particular, planeswalkers are more powerful than the creatures or spells in Standard. They impact the board immediately, continue to generate advantage every subsequent turn they survive, and if they are not quickly answered they take over the game all by themselves.

Gideon, Bully of Standard.

Gideon is a great example. It does a ton of different things for a relatively cheap cost and can simply kill people in a matter of turns if unanswered. It doesn’t help that it is difficult to answer and almost impossible to answer profitably.

If my objective is to win as often as possible (which it is), why would I ever bother to do anything but play with these cards that are a) supremely efficient, and among the most powerful pound-for-pound cards in the format, and b) not easily answered or punished by the rest of the card pool.

A big part of the reason that we arrive at these stale two-deck metagames at the end of a season is that certain types of strategies, i.e., midrange, are simply better than other strategies because they have access to better, more powerful, more efficient cards.

Bring Back “Not Fun” Strategies

When I brought up the question that I had asked EFro on Facebook: “What was a great Standard format?” Kyle, quickly, expertly snapped back with Ravnica/Kamigawa as a great Constructed format and his reasoning for why was so expertly smart that I was immediately on board.

He said that Ravnica/Kamigawa was great because there were literally endless different things that people could do because Wizards wasn’t afraid to print “not fun” cards. There were all kinds of different obnoxious decks back then and absurdly powerful broken spells as well.

On the surface, you’d think that obnoxious decks and broken cards would be bad, but it created all kinds of different available options for players.

“I’m coming for your lands, and then I’m coming for you!”

There were Magnivore land destruction decks, Heartbeat of Spring combo decks, Gifts Ungiven ramp decks, Solar Flare control decks, U/G tempo fish decks, Zoo aggro decks, Orzhov midrange decks, Owling Mine prison decks, the list goes on and on.

It was a format full of powerful spells and quality mana fixing that allowed players to do whatever they wanted to do. The card design wasn’t focused on creating a specific kind of ideal play experience (midrange) but rather facilitated a multiplicity of possibilities that spanned the entire range of gameplay.

I feel like at some point in time an analyst looked at some chart that said: “People like to play midrange the most. People don’t like to play against land destruction. People don’t like to play against counterspells. People don’t like to against prison decks.” And then they decided the most logical conclusion was just to eliminate the undesirable archetypes in order to give the people more of what they want.

Honestly, who can ever beat the all powerful Boomerang?

The problem is that people often don’t really know what they want. In the short term, yes, people get annoyed at losing to whatever the thing that just beat them was—especially if that thing made them feel like they were never in the match in the first place. But I would posit the question: “Is a stale two-deck metagame with only two flavors of midrange at the top really a better game play experience?”

I think that all depends upon who you ask. You need look no further than Modern to see that options are popular with players. Modern has everything and then some. All of those “unpopular” strategies are present and accounted for. There are prison decks like Lantern, fast combo decks like storm, R/G land destruction decks, and yes, even counterspell decks. Lots of people complain about specific cards that they hate, but the fact of the matter is that for all of its perfect imperfections, players love Modern and it has continued to grow and thrive in spite of that.

Stop Handling Standard Players with Kid Gloves

I would fix Standard by taking off the kiddie gloves and printing cards that provide different viable strategies. If the goal is actual diversity of strategies and a dynamic play experience there need to be more kinds of options. The 5 most obvious “good” cards can’t all just be grindy, midrange cards.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “What if, in an age of more information and data, the format still gets solved, but now instead of midrange being the best, two even less fun strategies emerge at the top?”

Good question! On the surface, if we have to have a two-deck metagame, at least 4C Saheeli versus Mardu facilitate interesting and interactive games. Whereas land destruction versus control might be a less fun experience for a lot of players. In particular, these kinds of decks can cause a negative experience for the casual and FNM crowd.

My answer to that would be to let the game designers do their thing instead of putting them in a box where certain areas of the game are “off limits.” They have some great players and designers over there and I have faith that they’d figure it out. I’d accept some missteps on a path that expands what is possible in Standard so long as they were trying new things.

The downside is that taking a risk could lead to an endgame format that is worse than the last few iterations of Standard. But with that being said, the last few Standards, while fine, were not great, and there’s a real chance we could get something much, much better.


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