In 2011, I wrote a piece called Standard’s Dead, and Other Things People Like to Say. Jace, the Mind Sculptor was tearing up Standard and a ban felt imminent. In that piece, I poke at the idea that our perceptions of a format’s health aren’t signifiers of anything—they’re just our perceptions. In an effort to quantify the collective distaste for Standard at that time, I called up a bunch of local game stores, pretending to be another site's columnist (I still love Fletch to this day), and got attendance numbers for the PTQs from the previous summer and the current one to see if attendance lagged in the wake of Caw Blade’s dominance.
And lag they did! Every single location’s PTQ attendance dipped. Perception took on a new weight. It was then that it hit me: it doesn’t matter how many important decisions or how skill-testing a mirror match is. How people view the format’s health matters. I discovered something fashion insiders have known since time immemorial: if it doesn’t look good, then who cares?
There’s going to be another banned and restricted announcement on Monday; we’re staring down a similar precipice. Put clearly: Standard’s been in various states of “screwed up” since the release of Kaladesh. The list of cards banned since the set was released runs only five cards deep, but a format like Standard is where cards typically don’t get banned. Five cards axed in the span of one year was last seen in the throes of Affinity’s run. Even during Caw Blade, only two cards were banned.
Twitch chat was packed with reactions to the topic of Standard during Grand Prix Santa Clara coverage last weekend. Every time the idea of Standard was breached, chat voiced displeasure of the format loudly, unanimously, and in no uncertain terms. Standard gameplay could be seen in the early rounds of day one and then it remained conspicuously absent until coverage was forced to show it in the finals, where prolific Magic Online ringer Logan Nettles (username Jaberwocki) lost a close match in the Temur Energy mirror. The fact that Nettles’ opponent was technically playing Four-Color Energy will be a more important distinction in six months than it is today since the basic game plan of the two decks are mostly identical. For all intents and purposes any Attune with Aether deck will draw the same amount of ire from the peanut gallery.
The core of the big three Energy decks—Temur Energy, Four-Color Energy, and Sultai Energy—lies in Attune with Aether and Rogue Refiner. Longtusk Cub used to be in all three decks as well, but as the latter two archetypes became more streamlined to win mirror matches, deck builders eschewed them altogether. This speaks to how the games formed by the cards in these decks play out—it’s largely about maintaining your tempo advantage if you’re on the play, or just trying to keep up with your opponent if you’re on the draw. As more talented mages than I have observed, the threats in the deck all render themselves impervious to removal in different ways.
Standard’s not the only dysfunctional format. Every format has its issues. Vintage has a Mishra's Workshop problem. Legacy is dominated by the core of Deathrite Shaman, Brainstorm, Ponder, and Force of Will. Some professional players are openly despondent about the upcoming Modern Pro Tour.
In players’ eyes, the problem with Standard is that the format is more or less “solved.” If this sounds unfair—like Standard’s being held to a higher level of scrutiny than the other formats—then you’d do well to remind yourself that not only is Standard Magic’s marquee format, but the one where R&D has the most control over crafting the in-game experience. And in the last year, any triumphs Standard may have experienced from a gameplay design perspective were undone by a steady stream of bans. I don’t think it’s a stretch to classify bans—which undermine consumer confidence and exist only as a last resort—as a failure.
It’s difficult to diagnose why the community has such a distaste for this midrange deck as opposed to, say, the Abzan deck from a few years back that starred Siege Rhino and Thoughtseize. Maybe it’s because Energy has been such a nuisance almost the entire time it’s been legal. The best version of the Felidar Guardian combo deck was in an energy shell, using Attune with Aether to fix mana, Rogue Refiner to dig, and Harnessed Lightning and Whirler Virtuoso to buy time while setting up the Saheeli Rai combo. Aetherworks Marvel used all same other cards in a similar fashion: to aid and protect a combo. It didn’t take long after Aetherworks Marvel got banned for a straight-up midrange deck, sporting all the old energy cards and rolling in Bristling Hydra as an impervious-to-spot-removal win-condition, to claim the title of Standard’s best deck. Ixalan has demonstrated itself ineffectual at meaningfully impacting the metagame; the promise Search for Azcanta showed at the World Championships seems like it belonged to a different iteration of Standard, it was so long ago. There have been no Rivals of Ixalan events yet, but early returns yield a similarly underpowered set that doubles down on tribal themes that have already proven to be ineffective when pitted against Standard’s suite of hyper-efficient removal.
What’s hard to conflate with all of this is that, at local game stores, asserting that Standard is lame has always been fashionable. Legacy, and to a lesser extent, Modern, have an air of mystique around them bolstered by their inaccessibility relative to Standard. I’d wager that as players invest more and more into formats like Legacy and Modern they become less willing to acknowledge the format’s flaws, lest they reckon with the idea that they invested their money incorrectly. In the case of Standard, it hasn’t had a deck expensive enough to push purchasers into this brand of reality denial since fetch lands were legal. This is how you get the prevailing narrative that Standard is bad.
Sometimes the narrative stumbles into the realm of truth by accident; Standard is often untenable. It’s hard to quantify what a good Standard looks like versus a poor one. Designing environments that can Withstand years of play at a professional level is absurdly difficult. It begs the question: are there heuristics for developers to follow in order to lower rate of failure? Even if there are, faithfully abiding by them during the design and development of every new set would make for some boring Magic.
I have no good guesses for what’s going to happen Monday morning. The problem cards in Standard, as I see them, are Hazoret the Fervent, The Scarab God, Attune with Aether, and, to a lesser extent, Rogue Refiner. There’s no way Hazoret or The Scarab God get the axe without Attune getting it as well. No bans is also a possible, albeit unlikely, outcome.
In a way, it’s comforting. In my early 20s, I sat at my laptop and hammered away at the keyboard with Aqua Teen Hunger Force playing in the background, essentially marveling at how fickle Magic players can be. Now, in my late 20s, I’m still trying to quantify why all these wackadoos hate Standard so much as an unwatched TV screen plays 15-year old episodes of Aqua Teen Hunger Force.
May the future of Standard line up with every single player’s expectations.