With our first article we kind of wanted to tackle the elephant in the room which is the current state of standard. This is the format that makes up a majority of the competitive paper-magic community and we plan on addressing its shortcomings, such as: the cost of playing the format, speed of the game, the weakening of spells and banning of cards, as well as what we think are practical solutions to the decline of standard tournament participation. Now, we realize trying to encapsulate this topic in one article is a lofty task and we don’t presume to know everything on the matter, but these are some of the main problems with the format in our humble opinion.
The Cost of Playing the Format
Problem: Gone are the days of cheap entry level Red Deck Wins (RDW) and mono-colored aggro decks that allowed players to safely step into their local FNM and keep the meta game on its toes. Today we’re seeing a battle cruiser style format where you aren’t competitive without making your strongest cards shine. This in combination with the lack of entry level RDW and mono-colored aggro decks is causing the staples in the major contenders to be wildly over priced while offering no cheap alternative which makes getting into the format cost prohibitive for new and returning players.
Solution: We believe that these RDW and mono-colored aggro decks are the key to a healthy standard format. One that’s more inclusive to everyone by including cheap alternatives to new and returning players – while offering challenges to existing competitive players. Take a look at standard during the Theros block. The design of which had a heavy influence on mono-colored decks that ranged from cheap to expensive and had a huge impact on turn out at events as well as the format itself. A case in point is RDW. This was once considered the flagship of entry level decks. It offered an affordable price while also being super competitive. Its absence from the format also coincides with the low turn out in the last few years so reintroducing efficient burn and mono red aggressive creatures would seem to fix a lot of the cost related and participation issues that we are currently seeing.
Speed of the Game
Problem: With decks like Saheeli Combo and Mardu Vehicles we’ve seen a lightning fast format where games end on turn four or five consistently. This stifles the ability for brewers to come up with fresh ideas because they have to deal with two different decks that aim to end the game in a very fast fashion. A balance has to be struck where the fast decks in the format are dealt with in similar ways so that the slower decks have a chance to get going, but when there are two very different decks causing the problem, the solution tends to be answering those decks with one another – resulting in a coin flip style format.
Solution: We actually think Wizards of the Coast (WOTC) had it right when they decided to not put combo into standard anymore. It causes this exact problem every time it is relevant and makes it difficult to offer good counter play or diversity in archetypes. There isn’t a speed that a format should be exactly. That being said, it should allow for fast or slow play in different instances without being so fast that you can’t respond to it, or so slow that it ends up going to time every round. If Wizards increased the strength of spells and stopped combo from being a part of standard it could balance the speed and make the game more enjoyable overall.
The Weakening of Spells
Problem: Since the Innistrad (INN) / Return to Ravnica (RTR) blocks we have seen a systematic decrease in spell quality and efficiency. The charms from RTR were some of the best utility cards printed in recent years. They allowed you to have access to different answers while often not being a dead card because they have either a cycle effect or something else relevant to do. Supreme Verdict made sure you had a fast enough board wipe, ensuring that you last until turn 4 or 5. Think Twice was a hugely important card as it allowed you to do something with your excess mana and still refill your resources. Brimstone Volley and Skullcrack gave solid burn alternatives and the ability to slow down life gain – giving red a chance in control match-ups. Farseek was an efficient ramp spell that allowed mid-ranged decks to keep up with faster decks by accelerating on turn two. Pillar of Flame, Dissipate and Syncopate were all cards you could main-deck and had the ability to help keep graveyard based decks in check without hindering your strategy. Since then, we have seen cards printed like Harnessed Lightning, which has multiple restrictions. Firstly, it needs more than the energy provided to kill bigger threats and secondly, it lacks the ability to go face. Attune with Aether and Traverse the Ulvenwald only allow you to dig for lands but not accelerate. Fumigate is a card that costs five mana. That should be enough, however, even in a slower format it isn’t enough to keep you alive – even with the minor life gain built in. Unlicensed Disintegration is a step in the right direction, but costs three mana of two types in an aggro deck. This may seem like nitpicking because we think it’s a decent card, but essentially it’s still not as efficient as Terminate. Grasp of Darkness is a good card but requires you to be fairly heavy on swamps in order to use it on turn two to stop a fast aggressive push.
Solution: A healthy power creep is one that fluctuates up and down equally. Taking away without giving anything in return is just nerfing the archetypes or format and not adjusting power levels fairly. A simple solution to this is to add power back to spells and print cards with multiple functions or mana sinks so more spell heavy decks can fluently interact with the game. We’ve seen this problem in control, burn and even ramp strategies and in the strengthening of just straight creature based win cons, whether it be through aggro (mardu vehicles), board presence (bg snakes) or even combo (copycat). If you want creature combat around, that’s fine, but giving people answers is the way you create healthy alternatives to the meta – and the only way we can see that happening is with the strengthening of spells and a proper use of the power creep.
The Banning of Cards
Problem: This is another cost-based issue, but instead of being prohibitive in getting started in the format, this deals with players who are already invested in the game and now have to worry about losing their investment. If cards get banned in an attempt to solve a format’s glaring issues it can create a mistrust between players and WOTC, especially when it is used against multiple archetypes rather then just one problematic deck. It doesn’t only hurt the value of the cards that were banned but also can crash the value of the rest of the cards in the deck if it isn’t able to stabilize without one of it’s key cards. Most of the past bans have dealt with just one deck that was able to take seven or even eight of the top spots at major events and the bannings were all widely agreed upon by the community. The recent banning of Emrakul, Smuggler’s Copter and Reflector Mage actually caused the reverse of what it was trying to solve to begin with. There were more decks being played before it happened than after, and a lot of the same problems that the ban set out to resolve still exist.
Solution: While it’s impossible to foresee every possible outcome, perhaps a little more diligence or investment in research and development could prevent some of the more obvious issues such as Smuggler’s Copter and Heart of Kiran being in the same block. Instead of banning cards in a format where multiple problematic decks exist, it is probably more prudent to take note of the problems and learn from them for the future, while also allowing the current format to attempt to evolve on its own and fix itself – rather than banning cards in a reactionary manner. These principles would strengthen faith in format investments and attachments that players have to certain styles of play.
We hope everyone enjoyed the article. We know it was a lot to tackle and wasn’t nearly every issue that standard is dealing with right now, but these were the main things that stuck out to us. If you think of anything you would like to add or talk about feel free to leave it in the comments section, we would love to discuss it with you. Be sure to follow us on all of the socials linked at the top for updates on new articles!