Information Overload: The State of Standard

Feature Article from Brian Braun-Duin
Brian Braun-Duin
3/10/2017 11:01:00 AM
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I was one of 16 competitors in the 2016 Magic Online Championship last weekend at Wizards of the Coast headquarters in Renton, Washington. It featured the 14 players who managed to qualify for the event on Magic Online over the last year along with last year's Magic Online Champion and me as the current World Champion. Why I was qualified for the Magic Online Championship without putting up the necessary performances on Magic Online doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me, but I was happy to get a chance to play in this tournament anyway, as it is something I have always wanted to do.

The Magic Online Championship was a pretty important tournament, kind of a mini World Championship. It was only 16 players and first place was $25,000, an immediate jump to Platinum status, and a qualification for the 2017 World Championship. That's better prizes than basically every event except for Worlds and Pro Tours. The field was also stacked. It was full of some of the best platinum pros and Magic Online grinders in the game.

I ended up going 6-8 in the event, which didn't net me anything beyond the minimum prize. I had a rough first day and a 4-3 performance on Day Two wasn't enough to repair my record. That said, it was a sweet tournament, I enjoyed my time at Wizards of the Coast, and I wish they held more awesome tournaments like that on Magic Online over the course of the year.

I have an assortment of random thoughts in my head after playing in this tournament. The Magic Online Championship is usually a giant multi-format tournament featuring all kinds of formats like Standard, Modern, Legacy, and Booster Draft. This time around it was solely Aether Revolt/Kaladesh Booster Draft and eight rounds of Standard.

I've thought a lot about Standard after so much Standard testing for this event as well as my preparation for GP New Jersey this weekend. I've been musing on what Standard looks like right now, how quickly we solve Standard, and whether or not Standard is good right now. Not all of these thoughts are related, but thankfully nobody ever said you were supposed to stay topical in your writing. Nobody, except every English teacher I've ever had. Oh, how wrong they all were, and how thankful I am that none of them read these articles I write lest they be shown the errors of their ways.

Two-Deck Format

Right now, Standard is a two-deck format. You can either play an aggressive variant of Mardu Vehicles with Veteran Motorist, or Mardu Ballista with Walking Ballista, or you can play Four-Color Copy Cat. If you're looking to be as competitive as possible and win, those are your two options.

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Now, I'm not saying that you have to play those two decks. For many players, there is more to Magic than simply winning at any cost. There are several tier two options as well, some of which are certainly a lot more enjoyable to play with. Black-Green Constrictor variants and Temur Tower headline this list.

Those decks are decidedly tier two, though. At one point, Black-Green Constrictor was a top deck with solid matchups against the big two, but Mardu and Copy Cat adapted to beat it. You can blame the gatewatch for that. Oath of Chandra and Oath of Liliana are a large reason behind this shift. Oath of Chandra, especially, allowed these decks an early removal spell that killed basically any creature in black-green, and some nice incremental damage to the face that especially pairs well with Chandra, Torch of Defiance.

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Like black-green, all it took for those two decks was some adaptation to beat Temur Tower. Once you figure out that Torrential Gearhulk and Dynavolt Tower are their only ways to win a game, the key is to put as many copies of Release the Gremlins as you have access to in your deck post-sideboard. When you remove their win conditions, they can spin their wheels a bunch, but it won't result in anything.

So why can't people beat Mardu or Four-Color Copy Cat consistently?

For a deck like Mardu, the main problem is that it plays all the best cards. It plays cheap colorless cards with an insane rate in Heart of Kiran and Scrapheap Scrounger and one of the best planeswalkers ever printed in Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. It is really hard to beat decks when you can't even come close to matching them in the raw power department. While some decks have had good Mardu matchups at various points in time, Mardu will always eventually come out on top, given enough time to come up with the solution.

When you have that many great cards in your deck and access to so many complementary tools, all it takes is to eventually find the right configuration to beat whatever is giving you problems. Mardu also has the capability to shift gears drastically after sideboard. Thanks to a non-creature artifact, recursive creature artifact, and a planeswalker being the best cards in the deck, Mardu can shift into a midrange deck or even a control deck with Fumigate after sideboard. Not only is it really difficult to keep up with the power level of Mardu, you also have to be able to successfully navigate figuring out how they will transform against you after sideboard and what you can do to mitigate that. It's a tall order.

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The reason behind the dominance of Four-Color Copy Cat is entirely based around the combo. At its core, Copy Cat is a slightly underpowered strategy, but much like Splinter Twin was in Modern, having access to an immediate two-card, game-ending combo forces people to play sub-optimally.

Again, much like Mardu, Copy Cat has the ability to shift gears tremendously after sideboard. It can board in countermagic to protect the combo, or it can just board out the entire combo and be a grindy midrange deck with a bunch of card advantage and win that way. Given enough time, much like Mardu, Copy Cat has the ability to adapt to and beat whatever strategies are supposed to beat it. That's what good decks with many playable options and an overpowered strategy at their core are capable of doing.

Is Standard Fun or Good?

Recently, I've seen a lot of discussion about Standard. Is this Standard format good? Is Standard fun? People seem to come down equally on the question. One of the big discussion points that I see time and time again is regarding diversity. A lot of people equate the ambiguous term “diversity” to being the dominant factor in what makes a Standard format good. “There's so much diversity in this format, how can you say it's a bad format?” It's an argument I hear a lot, and one I've likely even made myself in the past.

I think this is a flawed method to measure a format. For one, there are multiple kinds of diversity, and different people care about different kinds of diversity and some, like me, care about none of them. Whose diversity is most important? Which ones matter? There is deck diversity, which basically means: “how many different viable decks are there?” There is card diversity, which focuses on how many different cards strategies are built around. There were a bunch of decks last Standard format, but extremely low card diversity, since every deck was built around either Emrakul, the Promised End or Smuggler's Copter. Lastly, you can look at archetype diversity, measured by how many different archetypes, like aggro, control, midrange, or combo are represented by the format's top decks. Some people don't care if there are a bunch of viable decks all playing different cards if every single one of those decks is an annoyingly grindy midrange deck.

I think the only real metric we should use to determine whether a format is good or bad is based on fun. Do people have fun playing this format? Is there something that everyone can enjoy about it? Is gameplay good? These are all subjective measurements, but you can generally get a pretty solid feel for how most players come down on the fun metrics for Standard based on tournament attendance and the general vibes people give off on social media or at events about whether they are having a good time or not.

My take is that Standard is simply okay. I'd say it's on the lower end of what I would consider to be an acceptable Standard format. I would describe this Standard as a high skill and high luck format. Some games are extremely tight games where both players have a huge number of available decisions for how to play the game and all of those tiny choices matter. But for each of those, there is a game where someone combos the other on the fourth turn or Mardu curves out on the play and the opponent is just dead no matter what cards they have.

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It's also a high-stress format, which certainly lowers the fun factor for a lot of players, including myself. You have to constantly make plays and just hope they don't have a certain card that you're just stone dead to if they do. Usually that's the Copy Cat combo or Unlicensed Disintegration or Gideon from Mardu. Compare that to previous formats where the power level of various cards is more evenly distributed, and gameplay is more about maneuvering for an advantage and less about how the game centers around the hyper-powerful cards.

Recently, it seems that more and more Standard formats are being considered “not very fun” by a growing number of players. A common opinion is that WOTC is to blame for designing bad sets, which leads to bad Standard formats. I partially agree. Cards like Emrakul and the other Eldrazi titans are low-fun cards that invalidate everything the opponent has done prior to them and efficient colorless cards that can go into any deck like the vehicles and Scrapheap Scrounger are easily format-warping. Tie that together with a two-card infinite combo and it's easy to see that this is the source of many issues.

With that said, I don't think blaming WOTC's set development tells the entire story, which leads into my next topic.

The Information Age

I have this theory that every format is a bad format, given enough time. Take your most beloved Standard format, pretend it got played for another six years without any cards shifting in and out of it, and then consider whether it would still be good at the end of that six-year span. It's likely that it simply would not be. By that time, people would have distilled the best decks and strategies by so much that only a small number of decks would be viable choices, and variation in how to build those decks would become nonexistent. Players would become so accustomed to the play patterns within games that gameplay and sideboarding would become automatic.

By the end of that six-year span, players would be begging for a change of pace from this bad Standard format. The format may have been good at one point, but over enough time with enough people trying to break it, it would eventually crack under the pressure.

It's for this reason that I think that WOTC changing the Standard rotation schedule from 18 months back to two years without ever trying a single rotation at 18 months was a mistake. If Standard formats shift fast enough with enough new sets moving in and out, they don't have enough time to become bad formats and people will be able to continually enjoy playing Standard. If you take away quicker rotations, then you get stuck with things like Collected Company or Gideon, Ally of Zendikar dominating Standard for two full years and players being stuck having to deal with it. This can also lead to situations where they have to ban cards, which comes with its own set of problems.

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Every year, Magic players get better and better at breaking formats and solving them as quickly as possible. The lifetime for Standard formats is steadily decreasing as we use and spread information about Magic so much more efficiently than before. When I first started playing Magic back in Ravnica and Time Spiral Standard, things were way different. Back then, there weren't tournaments like the SCG Tour or Grand Prix every weekend. There were fewer articles about Magic, people read those articles less, and less information about decks and decklists existed. We were also worse at deckbuilding, worse at sideboarding, worse at figuring out what the best cards were and how to use them in the most effective way. People would show up to events with their own brews way more often, and people's decklists were way less homogenous and fine-tuned to be the best possible version of the archetype.

We look back fondly on a lot of those formats, but had those sets been printed as-is in this day in age, there's no real reason to believe they would have been good formats. There's no reason to think that they wouldn't have been just like our recent crop of formats: quickly distilled down to their component parts and solved with brutal, surgical, efficiency.

I think the main culprit for how quickly we solve formats is Magic Online. Magic Online is a place where thousands of players can play thousands of matches daily. These thousands of players are all trying to come up with the best versions of the best decks and they are all collaborating with each other, whether they know it or not. Thousands of players every day are working as hard as they can to break a format that is supposed to last us for three months until the next set comes out.

Every time someone goes 5-0 in a league with a deck and it gets posted online, other people adopt that deck. It's format evolution. Most of the time these 5-0 lists are better than the lists that don't go 5-0. Players pick up and start playing these successful lists and make small changes to try to improve them even further. This iterative process of picking up successful lists and tuning them to be even better repeats itself over and over again every day as the format grows more and more solved and less and less options become available for us as viable competitive choices.

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We can see this with the last Standard format. The Naya and Temur Aetherworks Marvel decks started as a rough Red-Green Aetherworks Marvel list that was getting occasional 5-0 results on Magic Online. It did not take long for the collective to pick up on the deck and begin to make it better and better through the Magic Online iterative process. Shortly afterward, the deck was dominating paper Magic tournaments until Emrakul, the Promised End got banned. It went from a rough deck that needed a lot of work to the best deck in Standard, dominating and stifling the format, all in a matter of a few short weeks.

Would that have happened without the petri dish that is Magic Online? Eventually, sure. People would have probably figured it out. But how long would that have taken? It could take months, and by that point a new set would have come out and the format would have changed. It's possible that we could have gone through that last Standard format without ever having realized the monster that slept beneath the surface the entire time. If only a few players tuned, adapted and worked on the rough Aetherworks Marvel decklists, do we escape the last format with fond memories instead of the frustration of getting Ulamog or Emrakul cast against us on turn four yet again?

We can also see this in our current format. The major decks right now are all products of Magic Online's iterative test environment. Mardu Ballista was a deck that was going 5-0 on Magic Online. It got picked up, improved upon, and then completely dominated Grand Prix Utrecht. Magic Online has shifted us away from playing suboptimal Copy Cat decks in favor of the planeswalker versions that put up better results. Black-Green Constrictor has similarly been boiled down to only one viable version of the deck, the Greenbelt Rampager and Longtusk Cub energy-based version.

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Without Magic Online's constant testing environment and public results, it's unclear that this would have all happened. People would still be playing the Mardu lists from the Pro Tour. There would still be five different versions of Constrictor decks being heavily played instead of everyone settling on the one version. People would still be playing the all-over-the-place versions of Four-Color Copy Cat with Cloudblazer or Verdurous Gearhulk or Elder Deep-Fiend or Aetherworks Marvel instead of the better version that plays Oath of Chandra and Chandra, Torch of Defiance.

Instead of being in a two-deck format with a couple of somewhat-playable tier two decks, we might be in a format with tons of different options for what to play. People could play all different kinds of decks, all viable, with many different builds to choose from. We could go an entire format without coming to a consensus on what the best build of the best deck was, and it's even possible that we'd never find the best deck in the first place. Formats would be broken or solved far less often, and maybe we could make it from one set to the next set without Standard becoming dull, repetitive or simply unfun.

Is there such a thing as “too much information?” My girlfriend assures me that there is every time I give her the details on my recent trip to the restroom, but that's completely unrelated to the current topic. Don't worry, I'm still sticking it to my English teachers with non-topical conversation, 2,000 words later. Never give up on your dreams, kids.

But in all seriousness, is it possible that all this readily available information is hurting us more than helping and completely destroying Standard as a format? I never thought I'd say this, but maybe we need less netdecking.

I think WOTC should reconsider the idea of posting decklists from Magic Online. While it is cool to see new decks that are doing well or updates on our current decks, I don't think it is healthy for the format. We're in another Standard format that is starting to look closer and closer to being solved before its date of expiration, and I don't see any reason to believe that the next format is going to be any better.

Who knows, maybe cutting us off from our precious Magic Online decklists can return us to the fun, glory days of yesteryear where new and innovative decks would show up and completely take a tournament by surprise. Instead, we get events where people show up with updated versions of Magic Online's latest offerings and completely take by surprise paper Magic players who aren't keeping up with the latest trends.

- Brian Braun-Duin




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