Today instead of talking about Standard as it stands, I want to look ahead and some commonly overlooked format threads when rotation happens.
Format note #1: Incremental and investment cards are much stronger when the power level of the format drops off.
Two things happen at rotation, the first being that the Standard format will contract down to only five available sets. This vastly limits the combinations you’ll be expected to face and culls half or more of the best cards from the previous format. What’s more is that often the best new cards aren’t immediately recognized and as a result, there are a lot of good cards that see play but we never have the optimal cards and strategies the first few weeks of the format.
Secondly, it means that the power level typically drops off, since in recent years R&D has really pushed a power block, synergy block rotation. I can’t really remember the last time we had two power blocks stacked back-to-back, the closest would probably be Scars-Innistrad block. With the upcoming block, barring some massive change of philosophy or a massive error, odds are very high that Khans won’t be as powerful as Return to Ravnica was.
What did we see in the first week after Theros was released? We saw a bunch of strong control strategies, some midrange value decks, and red decks. More on that particular dichotomy later, but the point is that playing a Jace was suddenly a lot safer in a world without Restoration Angel or the potential to get Hoofed on turn four. Removing some of the top-tier threats slows down the metagame and generally allows these types of cards to shine.
While we didn’t catch on to Pack Rat for quite some time, a lot of that can simply be laid at the feet of what we could do instead. Powering up Rats simply wasn’t as attractive when you could discard and rebuy 7- and 8-drops before. Planeswalkers suffered from much the same fate, though they could at least recoup some immediate value.
Would Gods have had a shot at succeeding in the majority of decks back then? Or in almost any Standard format that we’ve had in the past 4-5 years? There may have been some minor play, but it’s hard to justify cards that take multiple turns to produce value in more powerful formats. You can see even more recent examples, such as Domri Rade falling out of favor, and Ashiok‘s rise and fall.
Once RTR block leaves, however, then it’s the perfect time to try and run it back on all those planeswalkers and incremental card advantage engines that were too slow or too expensive to pull off.
Kiora? Ashiok? Chandra? All will be given a fair shake again, and Block already showcased that slow grind cards like Courser of Kruphix and Prognostic Sphinx were great in the right shells. Most of the Gods were too slow for current Standard and are perhaps the best examples of cards that may see more play once the reset button gets hit. Cards like Keranos and Ephara couldn’t quite draw enough cards quickly enough, and are some of the best to look at after rotation.
Format note #2: We may not have a four-mana unconditional sweeper.
One recent article has heavily hinted at R&D taking a break from four-mana unconditional sweepers. Maybe we won’t see Wrath of God or Damnation in Khans and instead be forced to adapt. Assuming this is the case, then the whole landscape changes because it has been a long, long time since we haven’t had a four-mana sweeper in Standard. It totally alters how we build decks and how matchups play out.
If this holds up to be true, it makes looking at Block that much more important. Typically, a number of Block plans are invalidated by the introduction of a new sweeper, and without one, strategies utilizing devotion, green incremental advantage, and aggro decks all get better. It also means that other decks should look long and hard at alternative kinds of removal—the top choices being Anger of the Gods and Drown in Sorrow.
Spot removal also becomes more relevant, and cards like Sylvan Caryatid and Courser of Kruphix get even better with their inherent defense. Swarm plans still get knocked out by the three-mana sweep effects, and those don’t pull double-duty against midrange. Now control players may actually have to pay attention to the exact removal breakdown they run.
Format note #3: Revisit power cards that were 2nd and 3rd tier.
I already mentioned some of them above, but all the two-color Gods seem like a great place to start with Khans revealing wedges. Gods that were powerful and too clunky to use in current Standard include Pharika, Athreos, Iroas, and Xenagos. I also think the two biggest potential winners are Ephara and Keranos, simply because difficult-to-kill draw engines look to be a solid play. Keranos in particular suffered in Standard while being a very good sideboard choice in Modern, if the format is the incremental card advantage grind-fest that Block was, people will try a lot of shells involving the Lightning Bolt master.
Planeswalkers and Gods are a given of course, but what else gets a bump up in power? As we saw in Block, Courser and Caryatid are A++, would -play-again, and cards like Prognostic Sphinx at least have a shot at playability without Sphinx’s Revelation or Aetherling around. Heroic strategies are probably too busy getting wrecked by endless amounts of spot removal, but not having to deal with Supreme Verdict is a net positive.
In the end it comes down to the context of the format, just like Birthing Pod took forever to find a Standard home that wasn’t awful. Perhaps Yisan, the Wanderer Bard and Aggressive Mining will take the same path—it all comes down to what comes out of Khans.
Format note #4: Red vs. control myth.
It has become an all too common meme that red decks dominate immediately after rotation and control is at its weakest point since it isn’t tuned to the metagame. Yet in the past two rotations, both times we had very successful control decks immediately take shape. In fact, control has been one of the absolute best choices for post-rotation play. Why? Partly due to the control cards being inherently very powerful, it’s hard to argue against cards like Jace, Verdict, and Sphinx’s Revelation. Even if the specifics differ from person to person, the powerful core of the deck is still there to overpower a lot of decks that aren’t quite streamlined or resilient enough to pick them apart.
Control decks are only a bad choice when the control cards are weak and require specific metagame considerations. If the deck has a strong defensive plan and powerful single cards, then there’s really no reason it can’t succeed early on. Red decks are the typical go-to because the red shell is second nature to everyone now, it’s simply a matter of swapping out cards that fill the same roles. How hard is it going to really be to convert Rabble Red to a post-rotation world?
So that’s the primary answer, people are lazy and like easy fill-in-the-blank deck lists. If you aren’t big into brewing, I don’t blame anyone for going this route, but it has made for the same “truths” to be repeated every rotation that frequently don’t hold up. Red decks will likely be good at the start of rotation because the color has some very potent cards and other decks aren’t streamlined. It doesn’t mean control is a pile and a bad starting place just because red decks are likely to be good or because the metagame hasn’t formalized.
Standard and the Changing Rotation
Well now that we’ve seen the rotation announcement, making every Pro Tour Standard makes a lot more sense (though I personally think keeping a Modern PT is a good move). On the whole I can’t really find a lot of downside to this announcement other than potential cost increases for a certain subset of players and speculators. Otherwise, what does this change really mean?
1) Drafting gets better, despite a massive improvement in Core Set Limited over the past few years. Third sets are gone, so it’s less likely that we’ll get a watered down second set, and it opens up the possibility of BBA drafts instead of BAA in the future. Core set draft is never a thing again, which, if anyone remembers the M10-13 days, wasn’t exactly the best of times.
2) Eliminating core set gives WOTC an opportunity to focus on designing better new-player introductions and products. Instead of a compromise between introducing new players to the game, appeasing long-timers, Limited players, and keeping some sweet reprints around, instead they can make products that purely serve the 1st demographic. In the past this has largely been unsuccessful, but with so much market research done, I imagine they’d have more success moving forward.
3) Metagames change more quickly and there’s less dead time for players trying to buy in. Instead of the last four months of a format being wasted time for new players, the right time to buy in comes around twice every year. People aren’t stuck playing the same decks for a year of their life and instead there are more opportunities for role players to make that leap to the big leagues. Mistakes also don’t stick around as long as they do now and people will enjoy being rid of them six months earlier than before.
4) Prices could fluctuate wildly and you get less time with your cards when you buy them. While this isn’t an issue for many of the players I know, it definitely could get out of hand for those with a passing interest in Standard. With that said, one aspect many people overlook is that many casual Standard players just buy one or two decks and that’s it. They aren’t trying to keep up with the Joneses and they aren’t really the first to buy new cards.
I could be wrong though, and I hope they’ll be watching closely. This is part of the reason why I think Limited with two sets may be switched up at times to help with the small-set mythic problem where a few cards everyone wants are driven up to $30-40.
I’m excited about the changes on the whole, though, and feel like this new rotation is a net benefit for nearly everyone.
Finally, I’ll leave off with one last update on current Standard with the latest MTGO stats thanks to Rolle.
Standard on Magic Online
Best cards for MY deck. (As usual sideboard cards tend to take the highest slots.)
To the shock of no one, red decks immediately take over the format when proven remotely viable. Notably, Esper Control continues to do well in the hands of a few solid players and Jund has a really ridiculous win percentage for the amount of red floating around.
I’ll be happy when Khans spoilers start coming out and we can finally leave behind these decks, after nearly a full year of them.
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