What Makes a Standard Format “Good”?

That seems to be the question of the moment, prompting posts on social media and an effort within the Magic community to determine just how “bad” this Standard format is. Is this a fair sentiment? Does nostalgia blind us to the flaws of older formats? What do people actually want to see in Standard?

For example, one of the best formats was one in which Mirari’s Wake was just becoming a known quantity. Eventually it would be considered the best deck in Standard, but for a number of months a sweet mix of U/B Madness Psychatog, Mono-Black Control, G/R Beats, G/W Midrange, and Astral Slide Control peppered the format. U/G Madness and Opposition made for fun side stories, moreso because we all built decks so loosely back then. Upheaval was just an adorable board reset for many—Zvi was one of the few to recognize the power of resetting the game on command.

That’s the key factor we overlook when we go back in time. Even in more recent formats, there simply wasn’t the wall-to-wall coverage or level of analysis we’ve had from 2014 onward. MTGGoldfish, Magic Online analysis, and SCG Opens dwarf the available coverage in the years prior.

Until Wizards blew up the replay system, we were only a few months away from seeing every Constructed Magic Online matchup broken down and learning how these played out over a large sample size of games. This is already happening in Hearthstone. The metagame is effectively “solved” within 2 weeks due to the number of players, speed of the games, and the ease of tracking them. Many of these beloved old formats might have played out completely differently with the benefit of the shared information we have now.

So why have recent Standard formats been so poorly received? After talking with a number of players at the store level and reading many of the comments from grinders on social media, the top 3 shared principles behind “the best Standard” seem to be:

  • Variety in decks and strategies.
  • A high power level (though this is the most subjective of the criteria).
  • Interactive game play and decisions that actually matter.

Essentially, players like formats where they feel good about playing their cards, decks are distinct from one another, and they feel like their decisions have meaning. You can easily have formats where your deck has a variety of decisions that become routine over time, and the same goes for decks where your opponents simply don’t get to do anything fun or interesting.

In other words, decks like Eggs, Ponza, or Stasis probably shouldn’t be one of the top decks. The higher the power level, the more likely your format will be capable of surviving such an event and produce interesting game play in spite of itself. Urza’s Standard post-bans was a great example of this, as the metagame was quite diverse and you could play whatever you wanted, but only because the power level was off the charts. I played a very bad mono-red deck that won on turn 5 and played disruption, while other people died to Yawgmoth’s Bargain or got locked out of the game by Deranged Hermit and Opposition (later to become Tangle Wire and Plow Under).

While people complain about variety, they really want #3 as well, or they simply don’t care. The current Standard is a great example of a format with variety in decks and a higher than average power level (as I would say of any format where a turn-4 Emrakul, the Promised End is common), but people simply don’t feel that this crop of decks promotes good game play.

While Standard fills the diversification quota of aggro, midrange, tempo and combo, there’s simply too much overlap in cards. All the tier 2 decks share cards with their tier 1 counterparts. They don’t feel or play out differently from the optimized iterations of these strategies, which makes everything in the format feel somewhat the same. The most interesting games are when neither player draws these powerful cards and instead each player has more time to develop resources.

You can still have a fun and interesting format with a card that clearly dictates how a portion of the format plays. Flametongue Kavu was overpowered for its time, but it did not impede every strategy in a generically powerful way. Instead, it affected the pool of playable creatures and provided an interesting side route for control decks to rely only on spells.

The same goes for the amount of diversity among archetypes. You don’t need a perfectly balanced metagame to have a great Standard format. It certainly seems to help though, as many of the best formats did have a viable combo deck.

One other thing to keep in mind is how subjective all this criteria really is. Remember that when you go off on how X is terrible and Y was so much better. This post certainly put a damper on the nostalgia goggles I had for Ravnica/Time Spiral. Another format that oldies have told me they enjoyed a lot of was Champions of Kamigawa/Ravnica.

You know what I remember from that format? Never getting past a 2nd land drop until it was too late to matter. Welcome to U/R Magnivore.

U/R Magnivore

So with this introspection, I’m starting to realize how much of the negative washes away with time. Obviously, some formats are just bad regardless of time. I don’t think anyone would recall Combo Winter fondly or consider Collected Company in every good deck the pinnacle of Standard play. Some of the sweeter, more complicated old formats had some flaws, though—and some benefits that today’s formats simply don’t have.

So what was your favorite Standard format? What do you look for in a great environment? Leave a comment, and next time we’ll take a look at some of the more beloved Standard formats, and what worked and didn’t.


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