Recently, a lot of discussion has centered around whether this is a good Standard format. Sam Stoddard, a Wizards of the Coast developer, posted a question on Twitter about this exact topic.
On a scale of 1-10, what do you think of the current Standard environment now that it is about over? 10 being the best. #WOTCstaff
— samstod (@samstod) December 13, 2016
The results weren’t particularly positive, with the average response hovering around “3” in terms of how good Standard is on a 10-point scale.
Personally, I put Standard at somewhere around 4 to 5. The metagame has continued to adapt. Game play is good in a lot of games. Many games are complex, skill-intensive, and actively fun to play. But for every one of those, there are also really dumb games where someone just Marvels into Emrakul on turn 4. I don’t think this is the worst format of the last few years, but it certainly isn’t the best, either.
I think there are essentially two problems with this current Standard, and both seem doomed to be continually repeated based on WotC’s recent design philosophy. I don’t have the kind of data or information that WotC uses to make decisions. It’s possible that I am completely off-base here, but these are the first two things I would look to fix in an effort to improve Standard game play in future formats.
#1: Stop Printing “I Win The Game” Cards
Lately, WotC has been pushing more and more toward what they call Battlecruiser Magic, where each player starts throwing down their haymakers one after the other and eventually someone outmuscles the other to win. I think that’s perfectly fine, and I don’t mind that style of Magic. I have no problem smashing a Skysovereign, Consul Flagship into an Archangel Avacyn, which then later bites it to a Noxious Gearhulk. That’s just good, clean Magic.
Where it becomes problematic is when one of the Battlecruisers just immediately ends the game on the spot, invaliding all the previously played Battlecruisers, and invalidating any future played Battlecruisers. All the maneuvering done up to that point ends up just being completely pointless.
I don’t think the problem with this Standard format is Thought-Knot Seer, Gideon, or Ishkanah. I don’t even think it’s Aetherworks Marvel. I think the problem is Emrakul, and to a lesser extent cards like Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger.
Emrakul, the Promised End is this ticking time bomb that just ends the game basically every time it is cast—even through countermagic most of the time—and that isn’t a fun play pattern. Aetherworks Marvel allowing you to cast Emrakul on turn 4 is just a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself. Emrakul might as well just have “you win the game” printed on it.
When Emrakul came out, I wrote an article about the card where I basically compared it to Ugin, a previous “I Win the Game” offender. Cards like that just aren’t fun in most cases, even for the people playing them, because you don’t have to really work for it. They are especially not fun to play against, as most decks and board states leave the opposing player completely helpless.
For someone who really loves Eldrazi a lot (Thought-Knot Seer is my thin-legged bro), I think the top-end Eldrazi like Ulamog and Emrakul produce a net negative for competitive Magic. I didn’t like them and their effect on the game the first time around in Rise of the Eldrazi and I like their cheaper but more effective counterparts even less this time around. Very little good can ever come from printing cards like this, and I hope in the future these Battlecruisers of Battlecruisers are more manageable and less unbeatable.
I’m not asking that they stop printing big creatures and big effects anymore, but stop putting what amounts to “You Win the Game” on them as the card text. Who would have thought that actual “You Win the Game” cards like Battle of Wits would be the good guys here?
#2: Print Reactive Cards that Are Effective
Recently, WotC has shifted design philosophies such that they don’t want to print excessive hate for whatever mechanics they are pushing. I think that’s all well and good. You don’t want to make an artifact set and then print Stony Silence, Ancient Grudge, and Shatterstorm in the same set, completely invalidating many of the new cards. That isn’t fun for players who want to experience the joy of playing with the new mechanics.
But I think they made the classic mistake of skewing too far the other direction. Just because printing Ancient Grudge could ruin the fun in an artifact set doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have access to Shatter. Shatter isn’t powerful enough to ruin anyone’s fun, but it could be necessary to keep things in check if some card or combination of cards gets out of control.
Red, the color best known for being able to blow up some pesky artifacts, has its cheapest artifact destruction spells at a whopping 4 mana. To be fair, the options at 4 mana are dense. If Ruinous Gremlin isn’t your thing, perhaps I can interest you in a Structural Distortion instead? Not interesting in going upstairs for 2? I get it. Demolish it is.
There are zero cards that hate on the graveyard in the entirety of Standard. Graveyard hate was so bad in the last format that players were even sleeving up cards like Hedonist’s Trove to attack graveyard strategies. Now we don’t even have that. We simply have nothing.
Printing something like Rest in Peace is probably a bad idea, but maybe Cranial Archive can show up instead. And while I believe some cards like Emrakul are problematic to print in the first place, if we had effective graveyard hate, that annoying Ishkanah or Emrakul would be far less of an issue.
Without some cards that push back against the new mechanics, Standard is going to keep being plagued by situations where cards like Rally the Ancestors, Smuggler’s Copter, Aetherworks Marvel, or Emrakul, the Promised End become oppressive. Balanced and fun formats arise when cards and strategies do fun and powerful things, but answers also exist for them.
Even something simple like Pithing Needle would have given players a functional way to deal with Smuggler’s Copter, Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, and Aetherworks Marvel. I understand that it’s not fun to play your powerful mythic and see it easily answered, but I think it’s even less fun in the long run to lose over and over and over again to those same mythics week in and week out without having any recourse against them.
To pull a historic example, my favorite Standard format of all time was Innistrad/Return to Ravnica. That format contained many decks that did powerful things, but each of those powerful decks also faced countermeasures. Junk Reanimator was a very strong deck in the abstract, but it existed across formats where cards like Rest in Peace, Ground Seal, Scavenging Ooze, and Lifebane Zombie were legal. I can only imagine that deck being developed today. They would print no hate, it would dominate the format for 6 months, Standard attendance would dip, nobody would have any way to attack it, and we’d be left to sit around and wait for it to rotate out while a subset of players pushed for Unburial Rites to be banned to Make Standard Great Again.
Having access to cards like Ground Seal or Rest in Peace in the format didn’t take away the fun of playing cards like Unburial Rites. On the contrary, it actually made things more enjoyable, because the deck never got too oppressive and the format didn’t get stale. I could play the deck the entire season against a variety of archetypes that could keep up with it in power level if I wanted to. If they ever printed a card that pushed the theme a little too far, players could simply fall back on cards like Ground Seal, which actually ended up seeing some main-deck play in the format at various points.
The existence of answers doesn’t invalidate threats, and mechanics can exist through a little pushback. Give us problems to solve, but also give us the tools we need to solve those problems. A problem without a solution is like… well… Emrakul in Standard without graveyard hate. And that analogy is a lot like Standard these days. About a 3 out of 10.