How to Make Standard Fun Again
Magic has outgrown the current model for Standard and it's time to adapt to the demands of today's player base.
Standard formats over the past few years have become “solved” at an increasingly rapid rate. Pro players preparing for Grand Prix and Pro Tours are incentivized week after week to find the most powerful strategy available and their winning deck lists are published each weekend. Magic Online's most dedicated grinders adjust to the metagame on a daily basis, tweaking tier one strategies in response to literally yesterday's tweaks from the other grinders. Those deck lists are published daily. The result of this information cascade is that whoever wants to win in Standard will know usually within a month of a set's release the exact 75 that will optimize their chances for success.
The downside is that metagames become stale or “solved” way faster than they used to several years ago when information cascades happened much slower and fewer players were grinding hours and hours each day to solve the format – and “solved” formats are less fun for everyone. They push out creativity in deck building and make tournament experience much less novel since instead of playing against a different deck each round, you play against the same one or two decks the whole way through. Standard tournament attendance drops in large part because people don't find it enjoyable to play another weekend of Magic against the exact same two or three decks they've been playing against for the past month.
Solving the Problem
One solution posed is to stop publishing Magic Online deck lists, or at least only publish them weekly instead of daily. This would keep grinders from having full information to adjust to in their daily pursuit to solve Standard.
While this may delay the inevitable for a short time and could be a useful thing to do, I don't think it would be enough. Standard was mostly solved by the time the Pro Tour happened. Grand Prix Utrecht was essentially the eulogy of a format that had been on life support ever since the Pro Tour. Grand Prix New Jersey was little more than a reenactment of Utrecht.
Another suggestion is to ban cards with higher frequency. We saw a wave of bannings for the first time in several years when Emrakul, the Promised End, Smuggler's Copter and Reflector Mage got the axe.
This demonstrated that Wizards of the Coast meant business and was serious about making changes to improve the Standard experience. While this is a step in the right direction, it came with its own new problems. It created a “feel bad” for the person who spent $100 on a play set of Emrakuls who suddenly could not use them in tournaments despite believing they would be able to play with them for at least the next year and a half when they made the investment. It's also a bit strange when the most hyped card from the previous block (Emrakul) has to get banned. Will this be a trend? Should I invest confidently in Standard's best cards or should I instead be more cautious since the best cards get banned? Standard players already know the feeling all too well of their cards tanking in price after two years. Do they not even get two years with their priciest investments anymore? Once is fine, but if it becomes a trend it could drastically impact the attractiveness of Standard in a negative way. Worst of all, the bannings didn't even fix the problem! Standard is just as stale or “solved” as it was at this time three months ago.
So what else can we do to fix Standard? If limiting information access only slows the problem down and banning cards not only creates a new set of problems but also doesn't even fix the problem, what other options are available?
While I don't think Duress would be sufficient for fixing the problem, the idea of “emergency adding” a handful of cards into Standard to fix specific problems and promote metagame diversity is a great idea! It could work alongside bans, but if done correctly it should in most cases obviate altogether the need to ban anything. Introducing new cards instead of banning existing cards avoids the bad feelings associated with banning a card you invested in on good faith that you would be able to play it for at least the next eighteen months. It's also much more exciting - a mini set release! Instead of taking away options, new options are added. Deckbuilding creativity would be re-infused in much the same way as it would be surrounding a banning, assuming the right cards are selected to promote such creativity. The “emergency add” package should be a combination of answers for cards/strategies/mechanics that prove overpowered and enablers for cards/strategies/mechanics that prove underpowered. For instance, these would be the eight cards I would “emergency add” to Standard right now:
Preemptively reprinting these types of cards in Masters sets or in Commander products would make them widely available to players to acquire if/when they get emergency added into Standard. It would only take a small amount of foresight on the part of Wizards to place these in these supplemental products. From a design perspective, you don't want to print Tormod's Crypt in a set trying to showcase the delirium mechanic, but if the mechanic proves too powerful, it's a perfect “emergency add” to dilute the power of the mechanic. Design has to walk a fine line between making the key mechanics and flagship cards from each new set powerful enough to be played but not too powerful to lock out all other strategies. Too much graveyard hate and Emrakul, the Promised End is unplayable; too little and it is unbeatable.
Tormod's Crypt (or Relic of Progenitus if you want a stronger answer, Rest in Peace if you want to slam the door shut) would keep Emrakul, the Promised End in check while also acting as an enabler for the improvise mechanic, which has proven to be slightly underpowered relative to the other cards and mechanics in Standard and would therefore welcome the boost. This graveyard hate would not only keep Emrakul and Traverse the Ulvenwald in check, but also Prized Amalgam and Scrapheap Scrounger if the metagame moves in that direction. Here's what Grixis Improvise could look like with these changes.
Pithing Needle would be another improvise enabler, but more importantly would be a universal answer to just about every single problem card in Standard. You could name Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, Saheeli Rai, Walking Ballista, Heart of Kiran, Smuggler's Copter, Dyanavolt Tower, or Aetherworks Marvel, in addition to several other cards that see play. It's actually so efficient and flexible of an answer that it would likely see play in many main decks, at least initially, since it dilutes the power level of nearly every single one of the most powerful cards in Standard. Something like Phyrexian Revoker could be a weaker answer that plays along the same lines, but given the amount of removal available in the format that kills it, I suspect it is not a strong enough answer. Instead I think Pithing Needle is in the perfect place since we also have cards like Release the Gremlins, Natural State, and Natural Obsolescence to efficiently deal with the Pithing Needle from strategies that rely more heavily on the cards it stops. The combination of Tormod's Crypt (or Relic of Progenitus) plus Pithing Needle would not only improve Improvise decks, but would also give Tezzeret the Schemer an added boost and hopefully push that archetype into the ranks of viability.
Windstorm and Rending Volley would be efficient sideboard cards against White-Blue Flash, helping to keep that deck in check without banning Reflector Mage or Smuggler's Copter. Rending Volley would also double as a way to kill Felidar Guardian to break up the Saheeli combo. It could also kill Rogue Refiner or Whirler Virtuoso, so it's an overall good card against Four-Color Copy Cat as well as against Flash, presumably two of the top decks in the “nothing banned” Standard format.
Propaganda stops the Copy Cat combo since they have to pay two mana for each attacker and it also plays well against Mardu Vehicles since it keeps them from being able to tap out to play a creature and then use that creature to crew and attack with their vehicle. I could see it opening up deck building space for blue control decks to shine, perhaps involving Dovin Baan, an interesting planeswalker with potential that never quite found a home.
Runed Halo is the only card on this list that would potentially price people out, given that it has only been printed once, in Shadowmoor. It would need to be reprinted in Modern Masters or in a Commander set. As far as its Standard applications, it would be a perfect fit for this metagame. It's a unique answer to Emrakul, the Promised End in that Emrakul's triggered ability cannot target the controller of Runed Halo, nor can Emrakul deal combat damage to its controller. So it elegantly turns Emrakul into little more than a 13/13 flying blocker. It also functions as an answer to the Saheeli combo by naming Felidar Guardian. Besides these specific functions, it is also simply a solid card that can be played main deck as a way to stave off damage from whatever potential attacker the opponent has on board. It also creates an interesting play dynamic against vehicles. If you name the vehicle, they just attack with the creature instead of crewing the vehicle – but if you name the creature, then they instead use it to crew and attack with the vehicle.
Prophetic Bolt is the type of card where you can pass the turn with five mana untapped and know you will have a strong play almost no matter what the opponent does. It is also specifically good against a few of the most powerful cards in current Standard. Opponent plays Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and makes a token? No problem, kill Gideon and get a free Impulse out of the exchange. Trying to combo me out with Saheeli? I can kill Felidar Guardian and get a free Impulse. Deciding to plus Saheeli instead? No problem, I'll just kill Saheeli for value. Choosing whether to make a token or plus Gideon to five to play around Prophetic Bolt would be an interesting play decision. Bolt can also kill Archangel Avacyn, a mainstay in Mardu Vehicles and Flash. Its mana cost is sufficiently prohibitive to only see play in a couple of strategies but the effect is powerful and interesting enough to play an important role in the metagame. Control players will flock to strategies that allow them to cast Prophetic Bolt off Torrential Gearhulk's ability. I could see it in Jeskai Control, Temur Tower, Four-Color Copy Cat, and potentially splashed elsewhere.
Duress could also help solve some matchups for decks that need a little extra help against Unlicensed Disintegration, Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, and Heart of Kiran or Smuggler's Copter. It could be effective against Aetherworks Marvel strategies and whatever control strategies might emerge as a result of all these efficient answers being emergency added into the format.
If instead of banning anything we “emergency added” these eight cards to the current Standard format, the metagame could look something like this:Blue-Red/x Improvise
Four-Color Copy Cat
Contrast this rich and diverse metagame of nine distinct decks with our current metagame or the one prior to the bannings. Each essentially consisted of two to three decks only, with little room to innovate once the format had been “solved.”
Regardless of what exactly these changes would do to the metagame or whether this list of eight cards is optimal or whether a modified list would be even better, the overarching idea of using “emergency adds” to Standard is better than banning cards or leaving the format stale and solved for months. The current Standard formula used to work in the past when the player base was smaller, tournaments were less frequent and information was less readily available day-to-day for players to tweak and tune their lists, but Magic has outgrown this model. It is virtually impossible for Wizards of the Coast to generate a puzzle sufficiently complicated that the Hive Mind of Standard grinders won't solve it within the first month and a half of a set's release. So instead of trying to do the impossible or leaving the puzzle solved for months, things need to be regularly shaken up midway between set releases.
Emergency bannings come with their own problems whereas emergency additions come at a comparatively small cost if the cards are readily available to players, which can be easily accomplished by placing them in supplemental products in anticipation of potentially needing them as emergency adds. Once this practice becomes the norm, players would adjust and it would not be strange to have a handful of legal cards exist in Standard that are not printed in the “legal Standard sets.” Players would begin to see it as a type of Core Set that is released in small handfuls at regular intervals throughout the year instead of all at once as a single set. And most importantly, metagames would be more diverse, formats would be less stale, and the puzzle would be regularly more challenging.
In short, Standard would be fun again!