Last week, I ended up at two separate Standard tournaments that didn’t fire because they couldn’t get the required 8 players to sanction. A year ago, I would have thought such an unlucky occurrence impossible, but these days it isn’t that uncommon.
Let me begin by saying that I don’t think this current iteration of Standard is a particularly good or bad format. I’ve certainly played other Standards I thought were better, and ones I thought were inferior. So, what is up with Standard’s waning popularity right now?
Modern is Encroaching into Standard's Territory
At the heart of Standard’s slow decline is Modern. There are different ways to view Modern’s impact on Standard, but to deny that Modern is king is to bury one’s head in the sand.
While I wasn’t able to play Standard last week, I was able to play in multiple 35+ player local weeknight Modern tournaments. The trend is totally flipped from what I would have expected a year or two ago.
So, is it that players just prefer Modern to Standard? Is Modern somehow a superior or more fun format?
Well, again, I don’t believe that is true either. Modern is a great format but not without its problems. When I was at GP Dallas, I had multiple players express their dismay at the speed and brokenness of the Modern metagame. Last week, I wrote about some fixes that could help reign in speedy combo decks. It’s not like Modern is a utopia with a monopoly on fun and playable games of MTG.
More than anything, I think players like the non-rotating element of Modern. They feel more comfortable collecting Modern staples because they are safer investments in the long term.
We saw an almost immediate change to the fast rotation Standard policy as a result of dwindling Standard popularity. I think it is safe to say that the stability of Modern is more attractive than the volatility of Standard.
Is There a Dropoff in New Players?
Standard has always been the gateway to bring casual players into the FNM and LGS scene. It has a lower cost to entry than any other format and typically attracts a large crowd.
The dwindling local attendance of Standard tournaments makes me wonder if perhaps Magic is experiencing a lull in picking up new players. It could also be a textbook case of “what came first, the chicken or the egg?” Is the lessening popularity of Standard failing to bring new players in for FNM or is the falling off of new players causing the low attendance?
Standard is "Solved" Too Quickly
I have a great deal of respect for the game designers and playtesters because I know that it is difficult to balance and create sets of cards. With that being said, Standard is “solved” way too quickly.
Nothing feels worse than playing a format where you feel there is little space to innovate and try new things. Players want to experience new things, see new kinds of games, and feel excited about new experiences. It is true that Modern stays fairly consistent over time, but the big difference is that there are dozens of decks, which means that while the format may change slowly, there is a lot to experience before it feels boring to an individual player. Particularly, the players who play in smaller local events.
As technology and information continue to speed up the rate at which we encounter and interpret information, the reality of “solved” formats becomes even more of a problem. Perhaps some of the more open formats of yore that are now beloved would have suffered a different fate had they been in the modern era. With that being said, Standard (the smallest card pool format) faces a real obstacle with so much data available.
Standard has Become About Cards, Not Decks
One of the biggest pitfalls of Standard is that games are often defined by drawing the “best” cards on curve at the right time. Now, I understand that a good curve is what the game is about, but with a smaller card pool there tends to be a greater difference between the best cards at each cost in your deck.
Take a card like Smuggler's Copter:
The difference between a draw from an aggro deck that plays Smuggler's Copter on 2 and one that doesn’t have Smuggler's Copter is night and day because Smuggler's Copter is so much better than the other cards in the deck. The same can be said for being able to jam sick mythic planeswalkers on curve.
Having a handful of cards in the format that are just clearly more powerful than the rest forces players to use these cards, they get locked into just playing the same good decks.
A potential fix to this problem could be to print more efficient or flexible answers to these powerful cards. In particular, there's tension because even when you answer a planeswalker “efficiently,” they have often already generated value.
I understand that design doesn’t want the game to be dominated by answers that are more efficient than threats. Swords to Plowshares is not a healthy card for Standard—but when there are no good ways to interact with the best cards, the format becomes more about playing the best cards and hoping to draw them.
The last 2 Standard formats were absolutely dominated by Rally the Ancestors combo decks and Collected Company aggro decks, and there simply were not enough foils for these "best decks" available to players. So, why not? If design is going to unleash super busted cards and strategies into Standard, it seems intuitive that there should also be high impact cards that interact favorably with them.
If one of the premier strategies is graveyard based, like delirium, there ought to be cards for fighting the graveyard.
Standard Needs More "Good Mana" Sets
When I think back on sets that really galvanized players to be engaged with Standard, two sets come to mind: Khans of Tarkir and Return to Ravnica.
It is worth noting that both of these popular Standard sets had format-warping, busted cards that I discussed before:
The difference is that these sets also provided players with liberal access to great mana. Mana is often the most confining factor that limits what players can and can’t do.
When better mana exists in Standard, there are more options for deck builders, which helps keep the format from feeling solved. Players can splash a color in order to gain access to a unique spell or effect and more decks are able to utilize more of the better spells.
On the one hand, it may seem bad that more decks can play Siege Rhino, but a high percentage of the field would just have played Abzan anyway. At least people had the option to customize their Abzan deck to do a variety of things, or splash Rhino into a different deck that wouldn’t normally have had a chance to play it.
When mana is a limiting factor in a format, the metagame becomes about finding the best couple of shells to put the best few cards together, and there is little room to explore outside of that.
I appreciate the intricacy of having different levels of fixing in Standard at a given time. But while I appreciate it, I’m not sure that that fact does the format much of a service. Players see a format with fewer options, and immediately associate it with being less interesting and playable.
Mana constraint is real. While I understand that you can’t just give people "free perfect mana" every time (cards need a cost, after all), I also understand that Magic is more fun when players have more options. Better mana gives players more options.
Standard will never give players as many options as Modern can. Modern has way more cards and much better mana. But adding consistency would help fix Standard.
Introducing a New Frontier
There is currently a grassroots push for a new intermediary format between Modern and Standard called Frontier.
Frontier incorporates all of the sets from M2015 forward and would be a non-rotating format like Modern. The format bans a lot of the problematic Modern cards simply by not going back far enough to incorporate them and feels a lot like Extended back when it was “Super Standard.”
The upside of Frontier is that it eliminates a lot of the cards that people would like to see banned from Modern from the older sets while highlighting a lot of the cards from the more recent sets.
I can’t say whether Frontier will be a format that Wizards will ultimately support as a sanctioned tournament format, but I am excited to take a crack at playing it in the near future. I love new formats and especially ones that have room for innovation. Just take a look at these examples:
Deploy the Gatewatch
My biggest concern is that if Frontier takes off, it is yet another format pulling players away from playing Standard. Honestly, I’d much rather play Frontier than Standard if given the choice. So, what does that really say about Standard?
My analysis is that it makes sense that Standard is dwindling in popularity with the uptick in Modern. Perhaps Standard needs a facelift in order to continue to be relevant considering the current circumstances. The biggest challenge that I see is creating an identity for Standard that can actually compete with all of the positives Modern has to offer. Are we entering a brave new world where Modern has completely displaced Standard? It is starting to feel that way.