What Was the Best Standard Format?

Last week I asked “What makes a Standard format ‘good’?” and Frank Karsten wrote a great response, both of which generated an intense discussion. Today I’ll take a look back at some other polarizing Standard formats, and where they succeeded or failed. I’ll start, however, by addressing a few of the comments from last week:

1) Champions/Ravnica was an amazing time for Standard

I admit that I had a hard time figuring out what the format entailed outside of a 3-month period. I remembered part of it, but I hadn’t considered how many iterations of this format there actually were. Here was my initial comment:

“What that format had going for it was that the most powerful card was a colorless artifact, Umezawa’s Jitte, that played well with creatures. Let’s not pretend that this is a massively different scenario from Smuggler’s Copter being in every creature deck right now. If anything, Jitte is a more constraining card in terms of what it lets happen once it’s on the battlefield. This is a prime example of what I mean when people talk about ‘the good old days.’”

I remember enjoying that format and you know what else? I remember nearly every single PTQ deck (when PTQs were effectively the pinnacle of Standard play for many areas) was won by a Umezawa’s Jitte deck before Ravnica. Following Ravnica, decks like Solar Flare began to crop up, but it was still a Jitte vs. Anti-Jitte format.

Real talk for a minute:

  • Aetherworks – Heartbeat
  • Ghost Dad – U/W Flash
  • Snakes – Vehicles
  • Solar Flare – ???

This is the primary difference between the formats—a deck like Solar Flare* doesn’t exist and hasn’t existed in Standard in a long time. Solar Flare was a mix of good control cards, late-game threats, and a secondary strategy of cheating one of them into play on turn 4. The fact that the cards were powerful, the threats weren’t unbeatable, and other power cards didn’t necessarily affect the board were why this deck was actually interesting. “

*For more on what the heck “Solar Flare” was, check out this article.

The more I dug, the more I realized that people were likely referencing PT Honolulu, which did have an open meta with many different decks.

Jitte existed, but mostly in sideboards or left out of a handful of the Ghost Dad decks because they were either too aggressive game 1 or had their own value plan to work with.

2) The decline of player participation in organized play during Kamigawa/Ravnica/Time Spiral has more to do with Mirrodin and Affinity

I don’t disagree that part of the decline could be chalked up to the previous format. But it’s fair to call out just how inaccessible Time Spiral was to a new player. I was playing back then, and even today I forget what some of the keywords in that set did. The other key to remember is just how awkward some of those matchups were.

Wizards has done a decent job in recent years of removing 70/30 or 80/20 matchups from the metagame. Back in the day it was far more likely you were just dead going into a match—nothing will ever compare to the Owling Mine vs. Zoo joke from the Pro Tour, a match that at one point saw the losing deck casting Ancestral Recall.

One other note is that Standard events just weren’t anywhere near as common. Unless the coverage archive has been mislabeled, nearly all the GPs from that year were Limited or Team Constructed.

3) If you focus on one mean deck being mean, you’re missing the big picture of what it means that “anything is possible”

Yes, I agree, but the most annoying popular deck in a given format is also a good barometer of how much people will put up with. Formats can have broken decks and broken strategies and still be enjoyable, but sometimes people gloss over just how obnoxious some of these old strategies were. I was a big fan of Old Extended, but that doesn’t mean Tinker was a remotely fair strategy. As I said above, part of the reason these decks were more permissible was because they never had huge metagame shares. The format I’m covering today had a very annoying deck that almost nobody enjoyed playing against, and was still held in high regard.

Innistrad/Return to Ravnica

The Good

This Standard format sported a wide variety of decks until the end of the format’s life, and even then 4-5 tier 1 decks shared time at the top of the format. While there was no true combo deck, there were multiple aggro, midrange, and control strategies available. There was even an aggro strategy with a light combo finish in The Aristocrats (B/W/R and later G/W/B Aggro with a sacrifice-plus-Blood Artist finisher, see below) and Craterhoof Behemoth could essentially give Reanimator a turn-5 win.

Unlike Modern, every deck more or less had its own tempo and pace of play. Only a handful of decks forced you to make very specific decisions or die, and they weren’t even the best choices.

Control was viable on the back of Sphinx’s Revelation, Augur of Bolas, and cards that could interact early and often. Snapcaster Mage was actually a non-factor in a number of control decks. It was present, and it was sweet with Restoration Angel, but not to the degree you’d expect from an Eternal staple. Instead, control leaned on instant-speed removal, the versatility of Azorius Charm, and Augur/Restoration Angel.

The Bad

The format revolved around Farseek, Bonfire of the Damned, Thragtusk, Restoration Angel, and Unburial Rites. The only strong deck that didn’t play any of these was Naya Humans. Eventually, we figured out that you could jam 3 of them into the same deck and that’s why some people remember the Angel of Serenity/Thragtusk days most.

Certain cards were too good at hosing one specific color. Lifebane Zombie proved to be Brian Kibler’s bane and was one of the more disgusting hosers in recent memory. It’s a strong hand exile effect attached to a practically unblockable 3/1 that could be played on curve.

Bant Hexproof was one of the least fun and interactive decks we’ve seen in the modern era of Standard. People gloss over this one, but when I went back through the Top 8 records, Bant Hexproof was definitely a contender for at least part of the format.  Geist of Saint Traft with a Spectral Flight and Unflinching Courage attached to it was miserable.

Miracles were legal, specifically Bonfire of the Damned, which meant a game that was certainly locked up could be split open by a well-timed topdeck. It also meant the best sweeper and X-damage spell in the format was a massive variance swing. It didn’t feel much like Magic when you lost to back-to-back Bonfire slams.

Overall

For many of the positive reviews of the format I saw, I found plenty of old forum responses that mirrored the complaints about Abzan or Jund. People didn’t like playing against Jund and Reanimator Midrange for many of the same reasons people got sick of Abzan—they were too good at winning the resource battle and took a long time to win. The mirrors took a staggeringly long time because the removal was efficient and Thragtusk, Restoration Angel, Scavenging Ooze, and Huntmaster of the Fells kept you alive forever.

I can tell you from experience that it gets old watching the same people rack up draws and then complain afterwards. On one hand, you get more turns of resource management. On the other, you get turns where neither player feels like they’re accomplishing anything. The format before M14 and Thragtusk was considerably better in this regard, as Junk and Jund were dominating the majority of Top 8s after that point.

Still, every deck had the ability to interact with each other and there were a high number of efficient answers in the format. Pillar of Flame was an effective Shock, Azorius Charm was a good tempo play, Detention Sphere was a catch-all, and Supreme Verdict was one of the best Wrath effects of all time. Dissipate is the kind of card you miss for the right reasons. It isn’t an amazing card, it’s just a workmanlike answer.

Overall, if you removed Bant Hexproof from the format and toned down Thragtusk and Burning-Tree Emissary, this could be the ideal Standard to emulate. As it stands, it’s still arguably the best Standard format of the past 5-6 years, even with all the blemishes. It sets the bar in terms of interactivity and decision making, with the exception of getting trucked on turn 3 by busted Humans or hexproof draws.

Power-level-wise, the biggest problem was that the mana was a freeroll for so many decks that the best cards were just jammed into every deck. There was still a ton of diversity in the power cards for decks, but single-colored cards like Restoration Angel and Thragtusk saw an overabundance of play. Some really enjoy this type of play—they just want to play against different decks, and others hated the fact that you see universally good cards in any deck that could justify the color splash. There were 5 interactions that mattered more than everything else:

Sample Decks

G/R Aggro

Naya Aggro

Abzan Reanimator

Jund Midrange

U/W/R Control

U/W Control

Mardu Aristocrats

Junk Aristocrats

Next time I plan to cover Champions of Kamigawa/Ravnica, and possibly Time Spiral as well, but doing research on those formats is more murky and time consuming, so it could take a bit. If anyone has any reliable sources for metagame/results, please share in the comments!

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