How to Fix Standard - Energy is Not the Problem

Feature Article from Craig Wescoe
Craig Wescoe
12/29/2017 11:02:00 AM
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Over the past couple months, I've heard a lot of people point to the energy mechanic as being too good and the reason Standard is not what it has been in previous years. I very much disagree with this claim and in fact I think the problem with Standard can be pinpointed to something related but altogether different. The problem with Standard today and over the past couple years is lack of efficient answers to the actual threats in the format.

When I say lack of efficient answers, I don't just mean we lack cheap removal spells. In fact, we have plenty of those in current Standard. We have Fatal Push, Shock and Magma Spray as some of the most efficient one-mana removal spells printed since Path to Exile. We also have cards like Abrade, Lightning Strike, Essence Scatte, and Walk the Plank at two mana. So what do I mean when I say we lack efficient answers?

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I'm not just talking about one- and two-mana cards that can kill a creature; I'm talking about cards that can efficiently and effectively answer the most powerful cards and strategies in the format. In other words, answers that are specifically tailored to deal with the threats of the format. For instance, I want cheap cards that answer Hazoret the Fervent, The Scarab God and Glorybringer. I want cheap hate cards that make the linear strategies of the format (such as Energy or Cycling) much less effective. In essence, what I am suggesting is to include answers to the actual threats rather than Imaginary Threats. These answers need to be strong enough to cause a metagame shift away from the dominant cards or strategies being answered. Without such answers, the metagame stagnates and becomes “solved” because the tools are not in place to force the best strategies to adapt.

There are two effective and complimentary ways to do this, so I will address them each individually: (1) producing effective hate cards for linear mechanics, and (2) producing efficient answers to the actual best threats in the format.

Producing Effective Hate Cards for Linear Mechanics

Solemnity and Tocatli Honor Guard are about the closest things we have in Standard to a hate card for the energy mechanic. In principle, these are the types of things I am talking about, but in practice they each fall short. The first problem with these cards is that they each must be played on time, prior to the threats they impact, to have a meaningful impact on the game. In other words, neither card impacts cards already played. Tocatli costs two mana, so this is less of a problem for the creature than it is for the enchantment, although still takes away from its efficacy as a hate card. For Solemnity, however, this is a very big problem since it costs three mana. This means on the draw, the opponent is able to cast Attune with Aether, Servant of the Conduit, and Bristling Hydra before we can even resolve our hate card. The opponent already has six energy and we're pretty far behind on board and just spent our third turn not interacting with their creatures on board.

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The other problem with Tocatli Honor Guard is that it is so easily dealt with. It literally dies to every removal spell in the format outside of Shock and Magma Spray. The opponent can effortlessly Abrade or Fatal Push the Honor Guard (depending on whether Temur or Sultai) and then go about its business as usual. Sweet card that is specifically designed to beat their strategy that already has the drawback of being required to enter the battlefield on time on turn two to meaningfully impact the game at all!

What should have happened was to make Solemnity more like Stony Silence. It should have cost two mana instead of three and it should have removed all counters from each permanent and each player upon entering the battlefield, in addition to preventing further counters from being placed on them. This would have made the card a legitimate trump to the Energy decks and a safety valve that could be employed by almost anyone to keep the strategy in check if need be. And it's still narrow enough that it is a sideboard-only type card that would really only come in against Energy decks.

For Tocatli Honor Guard, maybe add an additional ability that says something like “Discard a card: Tacatli Honor Guard gets +1/+1 until end of turn.” This would make it a more playable main deck card (since a 1/3 for 1W is pretty unplayable against any deck where the other ability isn't super relevant) and would also make Abrade and Lightning Strike inefficient answers to it (and would even allow it to survive a Glorybringer hit by discarding two cards if the controller deemed it worthwhile to do so). This ability would also synergize with cards like Legion Conquistador that can fill up your hand with fodder. By watering down each of these hate cards and thereby rendering them much less effective at combating energy, we essentially have a Standard format devoid of hate for the dominant linear mechanic of the format. As a consequence, the metagame is stagnant and the comparatively less powerful mechanics of Ixalan are unplayable until the next set comes out.

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It seems strange to me that the hate cards would be watered down in this way, especially since all the energy cards seem to be designed specifically to Withstand powerful hate cards. For instance, what happens if Solemnity costed 1W instead of 2W and it took away all counters from everything when it entered the battlefield, in addition to preventing further counters from being placed on things? What would this do to the Energy decks? Well, first of all, this would only be a strategy for games two and three since you can't reasonably play a card that narrow in your main deck. Secondly, even if on the draw it would have big impact on the game. Consider the previous scenario of Attune with Aether into Servant of the Conduit into Bristling Hydra. Instead of coming down on turn three after all these spells have already been cast, it comes down on the second turn after the Servant of the Conduit. And instead of the opponent being left with six energy to essentially make the Hydra unbeatable anyway, they are left with no energy and their Servant of the Conduit becomes Grizzly Bear. This means next turn they can't even deploy their Bristling Hydra since their mana accelerant no longer produces mana, but they can still cast their Rogue Refiner and draw a card before playing their Bristling Hydra Broodhunter Wurm on turn four. In other words, the game isn't instantly over, but the game becomes much more manageable and their overall game plan is considerably weakened. This is exactly what a healthy hate card does to a metagame otherwise dominated by a mechanic that is more powerful than everything else in the format!

Wizards of the Coast has shown an overly cautious attitude toward printing hate cards in recent years. I understand the philosophy behind it. For instance, you don't want to create this really cool delirium mechanic with a bunch of interesting and flavorful cards only to have none of them be playable because you printed Scavenging Ooze and Rest in Peace in the same format. This philosophy in a general sense is a good one; my contention is that they are overly cautious with hate cards and thereby removing the safety valve that would otherwise keep their overly pushed mechanics from dominating in an unhealthy and undesirably way.

Many people probably don't remember a trend in Magic's earliest expansion sets regarding hate cards. No, I'm not talking about Flashfires, Anarchy, and Gloom, although it really is a miracle that I continued to play in the face of such cards, right? What I am referring to are City in a Bottle, Golgothian Sylex, Apocalypse Chime and to a lesser extent Arena of the Ancients. These cards essentially invalidated the entire expansion set, or at least that was their functional aim. This is where I would draw the line at making the safety valve too inclusive. Make safety valves that are narrow and that realistically impact the linear strategies they target in a big way, but not even in a way that renders such strategies completely inert in the face of the hate card, as with the improved version of Solemnity I suggested. You should never print a safety valve that renders the entire set obsolete. That is an unnecessarily broad answer, not to mention a horrible idea for selling boosters of that expansion.

Cards like Grafdigger's Cage in previous Standard formats have proved effective at combating graveyard decks without rendering the targeted graveyard-based mechanics unplayable. For instance, Cage came at a time when creatures had undying and spells had flashback. For one colorless mana, literally any deck could improve its matchup against decks that exploit either of these mechanics. It did not render either of these mechanics obsolete; rather it weakened them in a way that was not really main-deck worthy but cost-effective enough to be worth the sideboard slot to keep decks in check that relied heavily on the mechanics affected by it – which is exactly what the aim of the hate card should be! A flashback spell that cannot be flashed back is still half as effective, just as a creature with undying is still a creature even though it doesn't come back after it dies. The effect Solemnity would have had against Energy decks if it had been powered appropriately would be similar to the effect Grafdigger's Cage had on decks utilizing the flashback and/or undying mechanic.

Instead, what we have is a format dominated by one mechanic and no good answers to it, which makes for a frustrating and stale metagame. This is the real danger of being overly cautious with hate cards. The key isn't to water them down. The key is to make them as narrow as possible in that you really have to be aiming for one strategy in particular in order to include the hate card in your sideboard.

In addition to printing effective hate cards for the linear mechanics of the format, we also need to have efficient answers to the actual best threats in the format.

Producing Efficient Answers to the Actual Best Threats in the Format

Efficient answers aren't necessarily removal spells that cost one or two mana that trade one-for-one with the threat. This is one way to design them, but by no means the only way. Sometimes the card trades card advantage in exchange for tempo and efficiency ( Path to Exile) while other times it is the reverse ( Nekrataal). But the answer doesn't always have to come in the form of “use this to kill that” either.

One of my favorite “answers” in Magic history is Tsabo's Web. The problem card was Rishadan Port, which ended up being more powerful than the designers imagined it would be and it became a four-of in nearly every single deck in Standard and was easily the most powerful card in the format. Since Rishadan Port was colorless and could thereby fit into literally any deck, the answer had to likewise be able to fit into any deck. So they made it an artifact. The other constraint is that it had to be a card you could play in your main deck and reliably draw but that wouldn't hurt you when you drew multiple copies. Otherwise your “answer” to one problem (having your lands tapped down by opposing Rishadan Ports) simply gave you a new problem (a bunch of redundant cards stuck in hand).

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Tsabo's Web only costs two mana, which means on the play it could come down the turn before the opponent could start activating Rishadan Port. On the draw it could come down the following turn. So it was cheap enough to be effective. But it was also punishing enough to really keep decks in check that were jamming four copies of Rishadan Port since a single copy of Tsabo's Web would keep all the Rishadan Ports from ever untapping again. The best part was that it also drew a card immediately, which meant drawing multiple redundant copies of the answer could essentially be “cycled” away. To me this was a perfectly and elegantly designed answer that is tailored specifically to the problem at hand.

When it comes to current Standard, I already mentioned some ways to include hate cards to weaken th Energy decks, but the other problem is that Hazoret the Fervent, The Scarab God and Glorybringer have no good answers in the format. Essence Scatter is literally the only card in the format that can answer all three without spending the same amount of mana on the answer as the caster spent on the threat (aka the only “efficient” answer). And Essence Scatter comes at a significant price in that you must leave mana untapped and also have the answer in hand prior to the threat being cast. These are two considerable costs. The other answers in the format such as Vraska's Contempt, Ixalan's Binding and Cast Out cost just as much mana to cast as Hazoret and nearly as much as Glorybringer and The Scarab God, which make them inefficient answers.

What the format really needed was an improved version of Reprisal that exiles the creature instead of destroying it. Costing two mana is important because the answers must generate a tempo advantage to make up for the times when they are the wrong answer to an opposing threat and for the times when you don't have the answer in hand. Otherwise the threat always has the upper hand. Since two of the three threats (Hazoret and Glorybringer) have haste, it is also important that the answer is an instant. And since Hazoret is indestructible and The Scarab God is pseudo-indestructible, the answer must do something other than “destroy.” So, either you could print a strict upgrade from Reprisal that exiles instead of buries (and justify this by making it rare) or you could tack on some minor drawback such as “controller of the creature exiled gains two life” or tie it into the flavor of the set by adding a line that says something like “if the creature exiled is a God, then exile all Gods from graveyards” or whatever. There are countless ways to creatively adjust the power level appropriately to still make it work.

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The idea is that the answers of the format need to deal with the major threats of the format efficiently and effectively. Otherwise, the threats will dominate and nobody will have any recourse since no such answers exist in the format. Without any good answers, the metagame would be kept from moving forward since it would be “solved.” On the other hand, efficient answers would cause people to switch threats to ones that are more resilient to the removal spells that efficiently target the previous threats in the metagame. For instance, people might cut Hazoret from their Ramunap Red decks in favor of more three-drops or move them to the sideboard to bring in against decks not running this Reprisal upgrade. And Energy decks might choose to play planeswalkers instead of Glorybringer or The Scarab God as their high-end payoff cards. And these changes would make other cards more effective answers like Sorcerous Spyglass to answer the planeswalkers and more Abrades to answer the non-Hazoret creatures in Ramunap Red. Efficient answers would cause the decks in the metagame to continually transform while effective hate cards would cause the entire metagame to continually shift.

Conclusions

The problem in Standard right now is not that the energy mechanic is too strong. In fact, the mechanic in a vacuum is quite balanced and not even good enough to see serious play in Modern, unlike most of the actually overpowered mechanics throughout Standard's history. In other words, if we were to include it in a Gauntlet of Greatness of all the best decks in Standard's history, it would easily be one of the last picks. It's just a midrange value deck with the ability to curve out. The problem is that there are no hate cards available in the current Standard card pool to keep it in check, nor are there efficient answers to the top threats of the format. This holes in the available card pool keep the metagame stagnant and “solved” instead of continually shifting as the answers look to line up with the threats of the format and the threats thereby change to dodge the answers being played, which then causes the answers to switch yet again to keep up with the new threats. That's how Standard stays fresh and fun and interesting, continually allowing for new avenues to be explored by players as the metagame evolves. Instead we have a gridlocked traffic jam in the metagame where no efficient answers exist to the current dominant cards and strategies in the metagame, so no one has any reason to switch decks or even to change which threats their deck plays.

The solution isn't to weaken the answers out of fear that the key cards or mechanics will fail to see play. The solution is to strengthen a variety of answers so that the metagame constantly has room to shift and adapt to whatever the current best strategies and threats are. That's what's wrong with Standard and that is how to fix it.

Craig Wescoe
@Brimaz4Life




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