What Went Right and What Went Wrong with Design in Ixalan Standard

We’re nearing the end of another Standard format, which is a good opportunity to appraise its design—why some cards are well designed, why some mistakes were made with others, and what to look for or to look out for. To explain my thoughts about recent card design for Constructed tournament play, lets go over some examples.

3 Fun Build-Around Cards for Standard

Hidden Stockpile

Hidden Stockpile is one of those cards that is potentially powerful, but it’s hard to see how to benefit from it best. Even though the card is built around the set’s keyword revolt, the keyword itself doesn’t mean that you should play all of the cards built around it in that set, meaning you have to look for interactions in not only the latest released set, but also earlier.

Inspiring Statuary

Inspiring Statuary is one of these cards that looks incredibly strong, but isn’t as easy to enable as you might think at first sight. The nonartifact clause makes building around it interesting because you obviously want to play a high number of artifacts to reduce the mana cost of your payoff as much as possible, but your payoff can’t be artifacts, which would be the best payoff since the cost reduction is only for colorless mana. Finding the exact balance is difficult, but that’s what makes the card great. In my mind, some of the best designed cards are the ones that look incredibly powerful, but its restrictions make it less powerful than you first thought—or the other way around: cards that initially don’t look great, but later define the format.

Dusk // Dawn

Dusk // Dawn is great because of how many uses I can find for it in deckbuilding. The most obvious way to use it is when none of your creatures are 3 or more power and use Dawn to grind your opponent out as in the old U/W Monument deck. But sometimes when it’s not appropriate for the metagame, we can see it in the sideboard, such as the Mardu Vehicles deck in the Top 8 of the Pro Tour that used Vehicles to cheat around the Dusk clause. Another use that I tinkered around with, in more than one format, is to try to mill the card alongside combo pieces that you then can retrieve with the Dawn ability. Cards with many different unique uses are always interesting!

3 Appropriately Strong Standard Cards

Champion of Wits

Building appropriate cards for filtering is hard and there are countless examples that were pushed too far, whether it’s Preordain or Attune with Aether. Champion of Wits is perfect. Champion of Wits has a low power level, but gives you a great mana sink to win the game later on. Also, it opens avenues for other graveyard synergistic decks with embalm,reanimation, or combo decks like God-Pharaoh’s Gift that love this guy. Even when it first came out, it was fantastic with emerge.

Cast Out

I believe that printing removal cards and finding the right restriction versus power level is difficult. You don’t want Hero’s Downfall when the format warps around how powerful the removal is, but you still want to be able to deal with threats so they won’t be too dominant. Cast Out is a perfect in-between where it’s slightly overcosted for removal, even if it’s a “catch-all,” but is given flexibility because it has cycling.

Walking Ballista

Walking Ballista is impressive at first sight, but is an interesting card because of its synergy and flexibility. For you to be able to play it, you need synergistic cards in your deck to go along with it to make it more powerful, like Rishkar, Peema Renegade or Winding Constrictor. But whenever you draw it early without them, it still does something because it threatens to take over the game at some point, but not in the snowballing manner that, for example, Tireless Tracker would do, but slowly and surely. If they deal with it with removal, you often get at least a 2-for-1 out of it, killing their creature in response.

Walking Ballista also gives low-to-the-ground synergistic decks a good mana sink and topdeck later in the game, creating more staying power, and more interesting games.

3 Cards That Were Too Strong for Standard

Attune With Aether

Finding the right balance for filtering is always difficult and Attune with Aether is a miss, similar to how the unassuming Preordain was one of the main culprits of Caw-Blade. The difference with Preordain and Attune with Aether is that Attune with Aether is harder to judge since it has more to do with its partners in crime than the card itself, much like how good Traverse the Ulvenwald was when Emrakul, the Promised End was still legal.

The issue with energy is that most of the cards in the deck are fine Magic cards on their own, but with the addition of energy and the flexibility of the resource it can sometimes get out of hand. If you play Attune with Aether turn 1, Servant of the Conduit that gets killed on turn 2, and then Rogue Refiner on turn 3, you now have 6 energy. All of your plays so far have been on curve and are good enough cards for Standard in their own right, but they have gained you 6 energy for “free,” which means that any Whirler Virtuoso, Bristling Hydra, or Longtusk Cub draw will result in an undercosted card for its power level. The point is that the problem arises when you barely have to work for the resource and so much of it comes for free, whether it’s a Servant of the Conduit that has to be killed, a Aether Hub, Attune with Aether, or Rogue Refiner.

The Scarab God

Whenever a card creates strategies because of its power in those colors or because of its synergy, it’s great. But when a card excludes certain strategies or forces you to play with certain cards to deal with it, it’s an issue—two statements that are both true of The Scarab God. For example, I tried to build a Gate to the Afterlife creature-based U/B deck for the PT that felt good, but since it was built around mostly creatures and wasn’t fast enough to race The Scarab God, it got excluded for that sole reason.

The main issue with The Scarab God and why it’s so powerful is because of how well it snowballs, meaning the game is almost certainly over if you untap with it, and in combination with how hard it is to kill. Since The Scarab God can’t be out valued and is almost impossible to win against, you need to go under it or play exact answers. If you’re not playing Vraska’s ContemptCast Out/Ixalan’s Binding, or a deck featuring counterspells, you have to play some weird choices, such as Essence Scatters in your proactive deck or even Struggle // Survive.

Whenever a proactive card snowballs too easily or gains value even when you deal with it (see Tireless Tracker/Gideon, Ally of Zendikar), it’s likely to be oppressive.

Hazoret the Fervent

Hazoret the Fervent enables pretty much the entire Ramunap Red deck. Don’t get me wrong—that is a good thing! The issue with Hazoret, however, is that it demands a completely different answer than the rest of the deck. After you’ve dealt with early aggression well and survived at a high enough life total not to get burned out, sometimes Hazoret the Fervent wins on its own anyway. Most things that deal with Hazoret the Fervent well cost 4 or more mana, which isn’t ideal againstthe rest of the deck, meaning that the reactive deck in the matchup needs to not draw these answers in their opening hand, but still needs them to survive a potential Hazoret the Fervent. This leads to some unsatisfying games where you survive early and have multiple cards to deal with future threats, but can’t win against a Hazoret, rendering all of those extra cards useless.

Whenever there’s a card that’s exceedingly powerful, whether because it snowballs like The Scarab God or kills you like Hazoret the Fervent, it’s dangerous to make them also too hard to kill.

3 Cards I Wish Were Stronger

And how I’d change them

Jace, Cunning Castaway

Jace, Cunning Castaway is one of the coolest and most interesting planeswalkers in a long time. I’ve always liked the idea of the proactive blue decks—having a flexible deck of evasion creatures, flash creatures, and reactive cards to go around it—and Jace, Cunning Castaway seems like just the planeswalker for that type of deck. Also, the ultimate is just awesome.

The issue with Jace is that he’s not good enough and I believe that it could be fixed by increasing the the power and toughness of the illusion token from 2/2 to 3/3. I’ve tried it in multiple decks and the issue with the 2/2 is that it seldom threatens to trade or do anything on the battlefield. Almost every time, your opponent can just attack Jace the turn you play it and make a 2/2, and plussing it only gains you 4 life on turn 4. But if it were a 3/3, that could at least hold some attackers off or threaten to trade with any of their real cards that turn. If it were a 3/3, it wouldn’t be too powerful because a 3/3 for 3 mana is below power level in Standard anyway, and the addition of Jace on 1 loyalty would make it just right. Jace wouldn’t threaten to make another 3/3 until two turns later, given that it costs 2 loyalty to create one. The 3/3 could still be killed by all of the removal that’s being played that costs 2 mana, or Fatal Push, so it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch. If it seemed too powerful in testing, you could add the the classic “illusion ability” where if the token was targeted, you had to sacrifice it.

A better Jace could spawn new strategies, such as blue proactive decks, or even go nuts with Anointed Procession!

Rashmi, Eternities Crafter

Rashmi is a very sweet card that I would love to play, but is too anemic. The issue with it is that it’s too easily killed by early removal, doesn’t block well for a creature that costs 4 mana, and doesn’t produce value when it enters the battlefield. While I don’t think Rashmi should create value when it enters the battlefield, the other two issues could be addressed. You could make Rashmi cost 3 mana. In that case, she would still be easy to kill, but would have decent stats to block with at least for that turn. Even if Rashmi survives, it doesn’t mean that she wins the game, given the random nature of her ability. It would be closer to Jori En, Ruin Diver, which wouldn’t have the upside of being able to cantrip the same turn with another spell, but would have a more powerful snowballing ability the next turn.

The other way to rebuild Rashmi would be to make her a 2/5 instead of a 2/3 and keeping the mana cost. This means that she would survive cards like Abrade, Chandra, Torch of Defiance, Glorybringer, and Fatal Push in most cases and would be able to block well on the first turn. She wouldn’t be close to impossible to kill either and wouldn’t produce too much of a threat the turn she enters the battlefield, but she could take over the game the following turn, or the turn after that.

Dark Intimations

Dark Intimations was one of the most exciting build-up cards for the yet-to-be-previewed Nicol Bolas. I like how it’s a throwback to Cruel Ultimatum, a card I, among many others, loved to play with as one of the most iconic cards ever. Dark Intimations isn’t good enough, but it still made you hope that Nicol Bolas was going to be so good that it would be played anyway, because who doesn’t want to play a synergy-Bolas deck in Constructed?

Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh wasn’t good enough to make Dark Intimations playable, but I wouldn’t say that’s Nicol Bolas’ fault, since I believe Nicol Bolas himself is actually pretty well balanced. It’s Dark Intimations’ fault. The issue with this card is that the tapout effect that you would play in a control shell isn’t powerful enough to catch you up in any way. Whenever a control play taps out for something that costs 5 or more mana, it needs to win the game as a threat or make you able to come back and Dark Intimations does neither. But if Dark Intimations would instead be an instant instead of a sorcery, it could play a different role entirely, more similar to Silumgar’s Command or Jace’s Ingenuity. There’s some issues with having discard spells at instant speed, given that they can make the game less fun for somebody trying to topdeck themselves out of a situation, but at 5 mana, I believe that’s less of a problem.

Two Standard Formats That Were Fun and Healthy

Innistrad Block – M13Return to Ravnica Block

I believe that this is the best Standard format I’ve played. I remember when I was fortunate enough to Top 8 PT Gatecrash, there were 7 different archetypes in the Top 8 and tons of different cards featured. The decks in the format ranged between aggro, synergistic creature decks like Aristocrats or Junk Sacrifice Synergy, Reanimator, Control, Good-Stuff Midrange, Aggro-Control, and so on. I think a few things made the format:

  • The mana was good. To be able to play a wide range of decks and try different things in different shells, a Standard format where the mana is bad won’t let you do that. But it shouldn’t go too far to the point of Vived-lands and Reflecting Pool, where the mana is perfect.
  • There were tons of proactive good-stuff threats, but the reactive cards were just as good. The threats didn’t snowball as much as a lot of threats have recently, meaning that the game wasn’t over as fast if something was left unanswered. But a lot of the threats, while powerful, left some value even when killed, such as Huntmaster of the Fells, Restoration Angel, Snapcaster Mage, Thragtusk, etc., which meant the reactive cards weren’t too good either, even though they were as powerful as Detention Sphere, Supreme Verdict, Sphinx’s Revelation, or Dreadbore. This led to more comebacks, and longer and more interactive games.
  • Whenever you have a keyword, you want to push for it to be played. A lot of the times it’s played it becomes too obvious how to build your deck. Energy? Jam all of the good energy cards in there to get a tier 1 Constructed deck. The same thing goes for crew and Vehicles, where it’s obvious which cards are good with the pushed Vehicles, like Toolcraft ExemplarVeteran Motorist, or back in Theros Standard where the best cards were devotion based, so you just had to play every good blue creature available from just a few limited options.
    The sets in this Standard format didn’t have much of these, and with good mana, there were tons of interactions and ways to build decks to explore. It didn’t make the format too obvious, so it kept evolving, spawning new decks almost every tournament as long as the format still existed.

Ravnica Block – ColdsnapTimespiral Block

This format is my second favorite format. I remember that there were a ton of different viable archetypes in the format and they weren’t all the most typical Standard decks either. Some of them had strategies that looked more like a Modern deck, whether it was Angelfire, Tarmorack, or a deck trying to Chord of Calling for Arcanis the Omnipotent and Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir. Time Spiral was experimental without being pushed. The reason why this is one of the best Standard formats of all time was the variance between how different decks operated and how that suited different players. You could even play Dragonstorm, a combo deck that could win on turn 4 in Standard!

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