Going to W.A.R with Sub-Standard Expectations

We haven’t even made it completely through Dominaria and it already looks like another inevitable ban is gloomily looming on the horizon. Are you surprised?

Let’s get this Chainwhirler on the chain gang, please.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Riley Knight wrote a fantastic piece summarizing the numerous reasons why Chainwhirler has turned Standard into a frustrating exercise in unpleasant gaming experience:

I agree with, and second, most of his arguments in that article, except for the Karsten theory of “unbanning everything.” I haven’t forgotten how miserable those cards and decks were to play with and against and I certainly don’t need an encore, swansong performance to remind me of what “not fun” games feel like.

I’m disappointed to say that I am not surprised to once again traverse this familiar path. How could I be? Standard has been one letdown after another for years now.

Some not fun cards from the last season get banned.
A new set comes out and people are excited to be released from “Standard deadlock” and play with new cards.
A few weeks of results happen.
Format devolves once again into a deadlock of unbeatable piles of “ridiculous cards with a great supporting cast.”
The internet begs Wizards to fix Standard and make it fun again.
Rinse and repeat.

Each subsequent set rehatches the same obvious mistakes in the form of ridiculously busted, stat-bloated, automatic-value, build-around-me, clearly-better-than-everything-else, Constructed staples.

How has it been almost three years and this bug can’t get fixed and these issues can’t be corrected?

Too Much Information

Magic has changed a lot in the past several years. Before I even start to talk about the cards, it is important to note that the way we play has also changed.

There is more coverage, content, and information available to players of all skill levels. The average player is more savvy and better equipped, which leads to results that much more accurately predict the best decks in a format. At the tournament level and the MTGO level, Magic and Standard are more competitive than ever before.

More focused results lead to players building and playing better decks more quickly. The fact that so many players are refining and processing so much information means that formats will become solved much more quickly than ever before.

I was likely in the minority of players who liked that Wizards scaled back on the number of MTGO lists published. I believe that process has at least culled the information tidal wave to the point where formats take a little longer to approach their endgames. Those first few weeks where players are building and tuning exciting new lists is always the high watermark for a Standard format.

Too much data is a cause for Standard’s woes, but not the only one. Copious amounts of information on every subject under the sun is a condition of modernity, and one that isn’t going away, which means that any “Standard fix” needs to operate under the presumptions of an information age.

Design Needs to Pump the Brakes

You had to ban this card from the Mono-Red deck:

And then you were like, “hey! This card feels fine!”

I’m not a genius, but this feels like it was preventable, considering that the DCI just banned a weaker mono-red 3-drop from Standard.

I’m all for interesting design. I love cards that have effects, and create new and exciting conditions for every day gameplay. As a fan of the game, I crave design that is innovative, flavorful, and creates unique and thought-provoking matches.

But simply jamming overwhelming stats onto cards designed for competitive play is neither innovative, flavorful, or thought-provoking.

In fact, I’d argue that the template for Standard decks over the past three years of Standard (a period I’ve been referring to as sub-Standard) tends to be: Find a collection of stat-bloated cards that work together and see how they stack up against other deck types built on the same premise.

I’ve noticed a trend in my Standard where in many, many instances, it feels like if my opponent untaps with a threat, because the threats are so powerful and deal so much damage, they run away with the game. In past formats, untapping with a threat typically meant that you were ahead, but nowadays threats have so much power that getting hit by a monster even once or twice becomes nearly insurmountable.

The scary thing is that I’m talking about Standard, the format with the weakest power level. If the played threats end the game in one or two turns unanswered in the weakest format, what does that say about the power level of the cards being printed?

There is a clear conflict between creating the best gaming experience in a format like Standard and pushing the stats on chase rares to sell packs. If Wizards produces sets of cards that are not pushed to the brink of insanity, fans tend not to react by opening their wallets and buying product. When Wizards puts out sets with OP cards, the players buy the product and then complain about how terrible the format is.

A More Balanced Approach Would Fix a Lot of Problems in Standard

Imagine that you are playing a game of Dominaria Sealed. You and your opponent are playing a competitive game with decent commons and uncommons, and then your opponent plays a Teferi, Hero of Dominaria.

Not the hero Dominaria needs, wants, or deserves.

The game is probably over. Maybe you even have a common 5-drop to play. It doesn’t matter because the amount of value Teferi produces compared to a Durkwood Boars is so uneven. A 5-drop planeswalker is worth 2.5 5-drop common creatures.

On top of the fact that planeswalkers are among the most pushed, power-creepy, and game defining cards, the rules were recently changed to make them even better, as many spells that could damage players (and thus planeswalkers) no longer work as a back-up plan for dealing with these game ending threats.

One fix for the tumultuous relationship between power creep and keeping players excited would be to creep from the middle rather than at the top.

Imagine that Magic cards had a baseball style W.A.R. stat. W.A.R. stands for “wins above replacement,” and is an extremely dense and complicated metric that is used to determine the overall value of a player. Essentially, the stat adds up all of a player’s batting, base running, and fielding statistics, and determines how many more games a team is projected to win with their player over an average player in the same position.

The best player in baseball, Mike Trout, is the league leader with a W.A.R. of 6.1, which means that if he were replaced with an average player, his team would be projected to win six fewer games.

Imagine what the W.A.R. stat over the course of a tournament would be if we replaced Teferi, Karn, or Goblin Chainwhirler with an “average replacement” value card. It would be extremely dynamic.

First, you’d need to determine what the value of the average replacement card would be.

Red creature, Standard legal, that costs 3 mana.
U/W threat, Standard legal, that costs 5 mana.
etc.

Given how powerful the marquee cards are (Teferi, Heart of Kiran, Chainwhirler, etc) it becomes clear that even the next best option would equate to far fewer wins over the course of a tournament. The difference between the average or below average replacement might lead to a deck that simply does not win very much.

I would argue that one way to break out of this pattern of broken formats where the log jam can only be broken up via bannings would be to decrease the difference between the imagined W.A.R. stat between the format defining power cards and the average replacement cards.

First of all, it would lead to sets that are more interesting and full of, on the whole, better Magic cards. A set that is full of attractively costed and competitive feeling cards doesn’t need busted stat-bloat cards to sell packs.

Secondly, having a smaller gap between an average common or uncommon and the soul crushing, oft unbeatable bomb rares would actually lead to a higher rate of Limited formats that people like to play with less feel-bad losses to ridiculous rares that win the game all by themselves.

One thing is for sure—Standard has some problems that have not been remedied for years now. I directly blame increased access to information (and the fact that design is up against the impossible task of staying ahead of what players will figure out after release) and the printing of extremely pushed cards that have an absurd W.A.R.

It’s the kind of situation where I’m glad that Wizards of the Coast offers so many formats to choose from. Personally, the type of gameplay that Standard provides hasn’t excited me, but I’m glad that I can focus my attention on the formats I do like. There’s a reason I’ve been writing about Pauper, Modern, Legacy, and Vintage so much lately! I’ve simply used my Magic time to play better formats.

I would love to see a Standard format that looks dynamic, fun, and full of potential, but there are some challenges ahead. Finding a way to balance the top W.A.R. cards more closely with the middle of the pack (either by toning down the best cards or powering up the bottom-middle cards) would go a long way toward not needing to click the ban reset button before every new set drops.

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