Standard, We Have a Problem (Again)

Feature Article from Seth Manfield
Seth Manfield
5/24/2017 11:01:00 AM
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Over the past year or so, Standard has had its fair share of difficulties to overcome as a format. Wizards has attempted to manage the issues by banning cards, but seemingly every time a ban happens a new card or problem becomes more evident. The format is flawed. There are consequences to banning four cards that were supposed to be in the format. Did the bannings actually help Standard, or is the format actually worse now? What can we do to fix this issue?

The Power Level of Cards is too High

When looking back 10 years or so over the course of Magic's history it should be evident that cards have been slowly but steadily becoming more and more powerful. Gone are the days when cards like Shivan Dragon could see Constructed play. The newer versions cost one less mana, from Thundermaw Hellkite, to Stormbreath Dragon and now Glorybringer, each card seems to be a bit better than the last. I think this is necessary to some degree, as printing cards which look powerful helps sell product. However, it is important to be very careful especially with cards and combo that don't resemble anything we've seen before.

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Aetherworks Marvel is a card that is unlike anything in the history of the game. Wizards has admitted that they knew this card had dangerous applications, but still were willing to take the risk of printing it. However, was it really necessary to have Aetherworks Marvel in the same Standard format as Eldrazi like Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger and Emrakul, the Promised End? Some players thought that banning Emrakul, the Promised End would stop Aetherworks Marvel, but that didn't happen. The fact is that you don't need both of these huge Eldrazi; four copies of Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger is enough!

Aetherworks Marvel is the current major problem with Standard, but there has been a trend where many games of Standard get decided on turn four, which should really be more like the speed of Modern decks. The combo of Felidar Guardian plus Saheeli Rai was simply a major oversight in design. With Splinter Twin being banned in Modern, Wizards would not intentionally print that sort of interaction in Standard. Winning on the fourth turn makes for lots of uninteractive games.

Gameplay

Speaking of the Copy Cat combo, another problem is that many games of Standard are very random. It has become difficult to leverage skill. Most of the skill is in deckbulding, but a couple weeks after the Pro Tour most of the best players are all playing the exact same deck. Putting an Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger into play on turn four is essentially winning the game, even though it may take a few attack steps to close things out. Spinning Aetherworks Marvel resembles Four-Color Copy Cat in many ways, as the decks really are not very different at all.

Both Temur Marvel and Copy Cat use the same energy cards that help preserve your life total. The nut draw of Temur Marvel beats the best draws out of the fastest decks in the format. The deck really is just a one-card combo: draw Aetherworks Marvel alongside some energy cards and start spinning, even if you don't hit Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger on the first spin it is easy to ensure you have six energy for more spins.

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Temur Marvel definitely has a fail rate, as the deck can look pretty bad when you don't draw Aetherworks Marvel. I believe that Temur Marvel is the best deck in the format, but you will still lose about 30% of games to your own terrible draws, and then it doesn't really matter what the opponent is playing. These sort of high-variance games make it difficult to get a significant edge. You will notice when looking through Standard Grand Prix Top 8's that recently the big name pros are not doing as well as expected. Overall, there are less players with lots of pro points, compared to last year, for instance.

With Temur Marvel as the best deck, players are now able to build their Temur Marvel decks to be as strong as possible in the mirror match, like Paul Dean's version from Grand Prix Montreal.

This list has two copies of Shrine of the Forsaken Gods, as it turns out being able to hardcast Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger a turn earlier in the mirror is worth making the mana worse. Both Grand Prix this past weekend ended with Temur Marvel mirrors.

Is Banning Cards a Reasonable Solution?

Most of the time when we spot an issue with a format we can highlight one card or deck that is too strong, and the easy solution to improving the format is a banning. The issue with this is that Wizards has already been doing a lot of Standard bannings, and this affects players' willingness to invest in cards. I have heard multiple players state that they were forced to invest in Marvel because they want to play the best deck, so wouldn't it be unfair to ban another card from Standard?

Banning cards has acted like a band-aid up to this point. Going into Pro Tour Amonkhet, the format was wide open, as it wasn't clear that Temur Marvel was the best deck and there were plenty of other strategies, including the Zombies deck which won the Pro Tour. The issue is that Temur Marvel can be tuned in such a way it can adapt to pretty much every deck in the metagame if it wants to. Chandra, Flamecaller for example is a card that is the perfect foil to Zombies. Now that the Pro Tour has passed, the format is beginning to look like Temur Marvel and then everything else.

The alternative to banning cards is waiting for the next rotation. Even if Aetherworks Marvel were to get banned, we would still have cards in the format which really are just too good. Notably Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is still a four-mana card that can very easily take over the game on its own. While most players don't think of Gideon, Ally of Zendikar as a card that wins the game on its own, when it comes down on turn four it is very difficult to stop.

Preparing for the Next Rotation

Looking over the past few sets, the power level has been toned down. This is good, but means that there are some sets in Standard that are much weaker than others. Going over Amonkhet, for instance, there aren't that many cards from the set outside of the Zombies that are seeing play. When the Mythics from a new set aren't seeing Standard play, there isn't as much incentive to buy the cards. Wizards seems to be retroactively trying to correct the Standard format, but it takes time. Many players are eagerly awaiting the rotation of Battle for Zendikar and Shadows Over Innistrad blocks.

Making all this worse is the fact is that rotation was changed back to a once-a-year occurrence rather than every six months, which means cards are Standard-legal for six months longer. This change was made before Standard's problem were as evident, but personally I am ready for the rotation now. We will have to wait until September for the rotation, even though in many ways the only logical solution to the problems Standard is facing would be lots of cards leaving the format. We may be stuck with these problems for another few months.

More All-Purpose Answers

The printing of Hour of Devastation may attempt to shake up the format, but once again it is important to refrain from printing extremely powerful cards in order to combat the ones in Standard already. What I recommend is some sort of answer that is essentially a role player. I am talking about a card like Pithing Needle. This is the type of effect that happens to be effective against the strongest cards in the format right now. Having an easy way to stop Aetherworks Marvel or Gideon, Ally of Zendikar completely definitely could shake things up.

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Anytime you have an extremely powerful combo or interaction, there need to be cards on the other end of the spectrum that are designed to be good against the most powerful cards in a format. Sometimes though, even the hate cards aren't enough to stop a deck. When looking back at Four-Color Copy Cat, Authority of the Consuls was one of the best answers to the combo, but the deck actually could beat Authority of the Consuls without much of a problem.

The current combo decks only need to devote some slots to the actual combo, so there is room to have alternative ways to win the game alongside answers to hate. For instance, in Temur Marvel you need to play a bunch of ways to produce energy alongside four Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger and four Aetherworks Marvel. There is still room after that for counters like Negate or Censor in order to protect against disruption.

Currently Dispossess is the latest answer to thoroughly deal with Aetherworks Marvel, but against black decks it is easy to implement a secondary plan with other threats like Tireless Tracker to help protect against Dispossess or Lost Legacy after sideboard. These Cranial Extraction cards look like they should be great versus Temur Marvel, but are not nearly as effective as advertised.

There Are Still Other Viable Decks

All hope is not lost. Temur Marvel is the best deck in Standard, but that doesn't mean there aren't other decks that have game against it. Blue-Red Control with lots of countermagic is one direction you can go, making sure Aetherworks Marvel never enters the battlefield in the first place. And because Aetherworks Marvel decks do have a fail rate, there isn't any deck it automatically crushes. Mardu Vehicles, Spell Queller strategies, Black-Green Energy, Blue-Red Control, and Zombies are all solid tier two decks in my eyes right now. It is not necessarily a mistake to play one of these alternative decks, but the unfortunate part of a format like this is it becomes necessary to warp your list around one specific strategy.

Would We Be Better off if Previous Bannings Had Never Happened?

This is a hard question to answer. I was happy when Felidar Guardian was banned because the Copy Cat Combo was way too powerful, but that was only one problem the format had. If all of the banned cards were still in the format Standard would look similar to Modern. As it is, the power level of the format is too high, but by having the banned cards back it could help even out the diversity of decks.

Clearly Temur Marvel would still be good and have access to Emrakul, the Promised End alongside Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger. Vehicles decks would have Smuggler's Copter back, White-Blue Flash gets Reflector Mage, and then there is also Four-Color Copy Cat. That would be a crazy world. In order to make the format better banning Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Aetherworks Marvel is an option, but I don't know if the community could deal with more bannings at this point.

Thanks for reading,

Seth Manfield




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