Standard Is Inherently Broken. Here's How To Fix It.

Feature Article from Brian Braun-Duin
Brian Braun-Duin
5/10/2018 11:03:00 AM
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Earlier this week on Twitter, I threw out a hot take.

In some regards I was trolling for reactions because, well, I was bored while traveling home from Grand Prix Dallas and just wanted to entertain myself via Twitter. I meant what I said, though. Now I'm here to back my stance up in article form, as well as provide some ideas for how I think that Standard can be improved.

Standard's popularity has been down over the past few years. I continually hear anecdotal stories of how someone's local game store switched to running Modern events instead of Standard because they couldn't get players to show up or how Standard attendance has dwindled at their shop. The SCG Tour stopped running individual Standard events, we've seen a swap back to a Modern Pro Tour (which was a success), and even Grand Prix have balanced out to having less Standard tournaments.

A lot of this has been the result of Standard being a poor format the past few years, largely due to flawed design ideology, some design mistakes and the decision to ban many cards. I went more in depth about that topic in an article a few months ago.

I'm going to take it a step further and say that in its current incarnation Standard is nearly always going to be a poor format. While WOTC has made a lot of mistakes in recent years, I don't think it's fair to put all the blame for Standard's failures at their feet, because more often than not, Standard is doomed to fail.

Why is Standard Flawed?

I'm going to provide an analogy to help illustrate why I think Standard is a flawed format. There used to be a format called Block Constructed. Block Constructed was a format where the only cards you could play were cards from a specific block. For example, in Ixalan Block Constructed you could only play cards from Ixalan and Rivals of Ixalan. Block Constructed actually used to be a Pro Tour format for one Pro Tour each year, but they stopped doing that after Theros block back in 2014.

Block Constructed was not a good format. To put things into perspective, not many people played Block Constructed. Other than the one Pro Tour per year, and sometimes the GP right after the Pro Tour, Block Constructed was almost never played in paper events anywhere. It was almost exclusively a Magic Online format, and one that was really only played by specific grinders. Very few people were playing Block Constructed and yet it still got solved pretty quickly. I can only imagine how much that process would have been accelerated if Block Constructed was a well-supported format with lots of events.

Even Innistrad block, which spearheaded one of the best Standard formats of all time with fun, interesting and unique cards had a Block Constructed format that got solved pretty quickly. I played a lot of that format – I'd guess less than 10 people in the world played more than me –and while I enjoyed the gameplay, by the end of the format there was exactly one deck in the format. Jund plus white for Restoration Angel was just better than every other deck and nearly every match was a mirror match on Magic Online. They even banned a few cards: Intangible Virtue and Lingering Souls.

The problem with Block Constructed is that some cards were just way more powerful than others, and those cards dominated the format. The format was too small for other cards to compete in power level and answers were too few or too situational to properly hold those cards in check. Oftentimes there was only one or two viable decks in the format. Sound familiar?

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I think modern-day Standard is starting to trend toward being like Block Constructed. Standard is bigger than the customary three sets that made up Block Constructed, as Standard is now seven sets deep and will be eight in a few months. For each added set, there is a ton of added complexity, as hundreds of cards are added to a pool and have an opportunity to interact with thousands of other cards. So while Standard is more than double the size of what Block Constructed was, it's way more than double the complexity.

I still don't think it is enough. There are always going to be cards like The Scarab God, Aetheworks Marvel and Emrakul the Promised End that are the absolute best threats in the format, and eventually players will figure out how to play enough of those threats in the right configurations to make it hard for other decks to compete. Standard may be more complex than Block, but I don't think it is complex enough to survive being cracked time and time again.

Formats like Modern don't run into this problem nearly as often, because format-defining threats like Death's Shadow are met by 15 years' worth of answers, and they must compete with 15 years' worth of other threats that can match them in power level. When a deck like Death's Shadow takes over the format, within a few months Modern has adapted enough to where it isn't even a top tier deck anymore. It takes a truly broken strategy, like attacking with Primeval Titan on turn two, for Modern to have to ban a card. Standard is usually too small and narrow to have the right tools to make these adjustments. The cards just might not exist to allow a Standard format to adjust to a card or strategy being too strong.

The goal for Standard is to have a healthy metagame and fun gameplay from one set release to the next, three months later. Then a new set will bring about new cards, which will help shake up the metagame and create a fresh Standard environment for the next three months until another set shakes it up again and the cycle repeats. I think it's possible for this to happen and Standard to prosper for a period of time, as we've seen in the past, but pretty unlikely to happen on a regular basis.

So many things have to go right. There must not be cards like Collected Company that are just so much more powerful than other options such that their dominance transcends from set release to set release. New sets must be powerful and interesting enough to overthrow, update or change the current decks that dominate the format. When this fails to happen, like was the case with Ixalan and Rivals of Ixalan, we end up with the same decks or strategies dominating for too long and Standard grows stale, unfun and sometimes even bad enough to warrant bans.

It's like walking a tightrope for WOTC. They need to avoid printing sets like Ixalan that don't do enough to impact the format, because then nothing changes in Standard and the same decks continue to dominate. They also need to avoid printing sets that are too strong, like Kaladesh, because then future sets, no matter how good they are, can't provide enough impact to shake up Standard when they get released. Amonkhet and Hour of Devastation, for example, are appropriately balanced sets that will forever be lost in the shadow of Kaladesh.

It's really hard to make every set have a uniform power level while also printing enough fun, unique and interesting mechanics and cards to pique people's interest. Some sets will always be weaker and others stronger. There are always going to be cards that slip through the cracks and end up just being better than everything else in the format.

I do, however, have some general ideas that might help make Standard a better format that don't even consider set design.

#1: Don't Make Standard the Flagship Format

Standard is usually fun the first few weeks of a new set release. People are trying out new cards and it is fun to mix and match new cards with old cards to explore new interactions. It isn't until enough paper events have been scrutinized and thousands and thousands of leagues have been completed on Magic Online that the format begins to whittle down to a solved state. More and more decks are deemed unworthy to stack up against the top options.

As decks start to slough away, the format usually starts to get more repetitive and less enjoyable. You run into the same decks round after round and gameplay starts to fall into the same patterns from match to match. Players begin to countdown the days until the next set comes out so they can go back to the fun of mixing new cards with old and experimenting with new decks and ideas. Experimenting with new decks and ideas loses its luster when every round you play against Temur Energy and every round they beat you.

Standard wouldn't get solved so quickly if it wasn't played as much. One way to make Standard not be played as much – and thus remain more interesting and unsolved for longer – is to hold fewer Standard events so players are less incentivized to try to break the format.

Right now, Standard is the default format. It's the most common format played in local game stores, every Pro Tour is Standard with occasional exceptions, and it's the most-played Grand Prix format. If grinding Standard into dust wasn't an essential part of being a serious tournament player, then Standard might have a better chance of surviving unscathed from set to set.

Modern is quickly catching up to Standard's market share, but lowering Standard's impact on competitive Magic can be taken even further. Hold more Limited Grand Prix. Run a Pauper GP. Run an extra Legacy GP each year. Mix up Pro Tours so that they aren't all Standard. Make Standard just another format in the wheel of Magic instead of the main cog.

Personally, I think holding more Limited events would be a good thing. Limited seems to be a dying form of Magic, but in some regards Limited is the purest form of the game, as it teaches deckbuilding, sideboarding, combat math and some of Magic's purest fundamentals like card advantage, threat assessment and game management. Let's make Standard great again by making Limited relevant again.

#2: Change How Set Rotation is Handled

Right now, the way set rotation works in Standard is that they release sets every few months that simply add to a growing Standard format until once a year when they rotate a year's worth of sets out of the format all at once and Standard goes back to being small again.

I don't think this is the optimal way to handle Standard from a format health perspective. As I mentioned earlier, the goal for a healthy Standard is to have Standard survive the three-month period between set releases without becoming stale, being solved, or being broken. Then the new set can hopefully shake up the format enough that it can last another three-month period without becoming stale, solved, or broken.

Right now, with each set release except for the one set per year where rotation occurs, Standard is only being changed by one set: the new set coming into the format. Sometimes that isn't enough to make an impactful change. If the new set can't shake up the current top decks, then we are likely in for a bad Standard format.

Instead, I think every new set that comes into Standard should be accompanied by the oldest set also being removed. Standard would always remain the same size, instead of fluctuating from anywhere from five to eight sets deep, and every time a new set was released, Standard would change by two sets instead of one set. This would provide a much bigger impact on the Standard format by removing tools from top decks while also adding in new cards to the format, every three months. This would make it way more likely that the top decks would change with each new set release and increase the time it would take to solve the new format.

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From a fairness perspective, this rotation method also makes the most sense. In this method, each set spends the same amount of time in Standard, rather than some sets spending a full two years while others only get 15 months. Now that they are moving to a model where each new set is going to be a standalone set instead of being part of a block, there aren't considerations like keeping Amonkhet and Hour of Devastation together for rotation that will need to factor in, further reducing the reasons to avoid adopting this model.

#3: Make Standard Bigger

If my hypothesis is correct that Standard is too small and not complex enough to survive the level of scrutiny we give to it, then one fairly obvious solution is to just make Standard bigger. The previous idea of changing set rotation would help accomplish this by making Standard always a uniform eight sets instead of fluctuating between five to eight sets, but maybe that isn't enough and we should think bigger.

Perhaps Standard just needs to become three or even four year's worth of sets. A bigger format means that there are going to be more answers to problematic cards, and more chances for the format to shift and adapt to dominant decks. There will also be a higher density of powerful cards, and sometimes the best way to balance powerful cards is to have competing powerful cards from other decks. A lot of the best formats, like Innistrad-Return to Ravnica Standard and Theros-Khans of Tarkir Standard were fueled by this ideal.

I can see this making it harder for newer players to get into the game, but in many ways it will help players, because cards will remain in Standard for longer periods of time and retain their values for longer. Players complained about Standard being reduced to 18-month rotations because their cards would rotate and lose value too quickly. A longer Standard rotation should produce the opposite effect as cards would hold value for longer, and players wouldn't need to invest in as many new cards from each set as less new cards will be powerful enough to impact a larger Standard format.

 Collected Company
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One fear with having a bigger Standard format is that cards like Collected Company that scale to become more and more powerful with a bigger card pool might be way too good in a three or four-year Standard format. That problem would be amplified because sets rotate out slower, so we'd be stuck with a card like that dominating for an even longer. A card like Collected Company could be a scourge on Standard for a full three years instead of “just” one or two.

The solution to this is to just ban cards. While banning isn't optimal, I think having a larger format incorporating more sets will actually reduce bans overall. Cards like Emrakul, the Promised End would have never needed to be banned if we had four years of effective graveyard hate to combat delirium. Cards like Ramunap Ruins or Rampaging Ferocidon would never have needed be banned in a bigger Standard format, because so many other cards would match or surpass them in power level. So while the occasionally scaling card like Company might need to be banned in a bigger Standard, I think overall it would reduce the need to ban cards as more answers and more competing threats would exist.

And who knows, maybe a powerhouse like Collected Company wouldn't even need to be banned in a bigger format, because more cards like Grafdigger's Cage, Dispel or Hallowed Moonlight could also be present to keep it in check, along with other powerful strategies to compete match and compete against it on power level.

Standard has been comprised of only two years of sets for as long as I can remember. Perhaps it has always been that size. There is really no reason to believe that this is exactly the optimal time frame for a good Standard format. It's just the way it's always been done. Perhaps it's time to change that.

- Brian Braun-Duin

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