I’ve been thinking a lot about format building. A lot of this was inspired by Patrick Chapin’s recent article on Standard, along with Joel Larsson’s take based on the current rumblings about more potential bannings in the pipe and the general joy shared by the Modern and Legacy players at Grand Prix Santa Clara. Oh, and of course, Patrick Sullivan going off on Ravenous Chupacabra and a brief rant on general game design.
I’m starting to come around to the idea that it’s better for a format to lean toward too powerful or too weak than this lofty design goal that everything be “just right.” Because all too often, formats considered “just right” early on stay that way until they’re refined, and then it all goes straight in the trash.
We end up with formats like the current one, where it was an OK three-deck format that ended up becoming a one-deck format. That’s not an uncommon development—we’ve seen this happen with Marvel, Rally, Energy, Jund, and so on. One of the problems isn’t that these formats ends up too powerful as a whole, it’s that one deck in particular has too many of the best cards or takes advantage of a broken mechanic and ends up dominating everything else.
Meanwhile, we have many examples of formats with a boatload of powerful plans being diverse and fun to play. The post-Caw-Blade format after the Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic bans was a grand old time and had a variety of strong archetypes. When Khans of Tarkir came out, Dark Jeskai was the best deck, but there were plenty of other powerful options you could choose. Ravnica – Time Spiral had a bunch of build-arounds for a really diverse and interesting format. What’s key is that many formats could end up like this if we start with a bunch of powerful build-arounds and then use bans to prune anything that ends up definitively too good.
Why do I think this can work? Simply look to the most popular format in Magic: Modern. The past two years (minus Treasure Cruise and Eldrazi Winter) has basically been “pick your favorite cards, and if they meet a baseline power level, run it!” I wouldn’t exactly call decks like Affinity, Eldrazi Tron, Titanshift, U/R Storm, or Lantern Control fair decks, but it doesn’t matter because the format generally has enough power and strong hosers that other decks can compete. As much as the degeneracy turns some people off, there’s a parity to it all the same that allows for the much-vaunted diversity everyone except the evil pros want.
Even decks that you could argue are tier 2/3/Shaman at least feel playable and capable of winning games against other established strategies. G/R Ponza can turn-2 a Blood Moon and establish a clock early on, even if they don’t just Stone Rain a few of your basics first. Merfolk and Elves have enough lords and power cards (along with sideboard hate) that they can be respectable aggro decks with some level of disruption. Cards that ruin weaker formats like Thoughtseize and cheap catch-all removal like Lightning Bolt, Fatal Push, and Path to Exile fit right at home in Grixis Shadow and Jeskai Control.
Meanwhile, the worst thing that can be said about really weak formats is that they have a higher chance of being boring before new sets come in and freshen things up. This isn’t ideal of course, but it certainly isn’t a deal-breaker. Better to just be boring after two months than frustrating and boring. It also enables many weaker decks at lower levels of competition due to the increased time they have to establish their own game plan. Did I love my time playing Faeries without Bitterblossom? Not particularly. It was a whole lot better than the mess that got caused after that card got printed, though.
I have this feeling that the last few Standard formats were balanced on a knife’s edge. I had higher hopes going into Ixalan block since it seemed like a major power deescalation from Kaladesh block, but the problem is that those mistakes aren’t leaving fast enough.
It isn’t just about having strong answers—that’s only a piece of the puzzle. You also have to consider what kind of interaction you want the format to revolve around. If you go in with the idea: “I’m going to purposely weaken discard and countermagic,” that creates a vastly different format based on your threats. As we’ve seen, when you keep the same “powerful snowball threat/every creature creates immediate value” philosophy from the past 2-3 years, then you better make sure your creature removal is really strong to compensate. Other methods include other forms of interaction, for example, situational “can’t attacks'” like a less painful Ensnaring Bridge or minus-X-power-to-all-creatures-style enchantments.
It can’t just be one facet—Fatal Push and Harnessed Lightning are great cards. The sweepers are too expensive and too conditional to keep up with the threats, though. You could maybe get away with that still, except then you need to ensure that there aren’t a bunch of cheap ways to invalidate the sweepers. This entire format could possibly have been “fixed” by simply excluding Negate and Spell Pierce.
U/W decks’ main weakness against Temur Energy is that they cannot beat a bunch of Negates against Settles and Fumigates. You lose an entire turn and they lose 2 mana. Even if Negate were gone, Duress could make Sultai Energy become the big bad. Ironically, the fact that we have any playable countermagic has undone the control decks in this format. They would be better off if they had gone all the way and printed zero counters that cost less than 3 mana in Standard. On the other end of the spectrum, a card like Daze would be amazing for a deck trying to go under Temur Energy without providing it with even more tools.
Supreme Verdict would’ve been another way to deal with this dichotomy where you limit how good Spell Pierce and Negate are against control decks packing board sweepers. Or utilize better scaling removal to combat the fact that the average 2-drop in this format can either draw cards, become a 6/6 if drawn late in the game, or simply become indestructible in response (and that card doesn’t even see play!).
Or, go the other direction, and power down creatures to offset the sheer amount of utility being stapled onto the most commonly played creatures. Ari Lax wrote this earlier this week: “If we have learned anything about Magic in recent years, it’s that paying for value is stupid. You can just get a free card on a creature for basically no upcharge in whatever form you want.”
It blew me away just how accurate this statement is now. Why do “just nets you value” cards get overrated early in the spoiler season or show up in week 1 decks only to inevitably never see the light of day again? Is it because they always get replaced by a creature that just does the job better? Ding ding ding! As Chapin succinctly put it, “The problem isn’t wanting to ensure the new mechanics show up. It’s a great goal, particularly when you believe in the mechanic’s play pattern for Constructed. I believe the problem stems from attempting to brute-force the top with relative power.”
Stop making me instantly look for the replacement to “Green Creature Value Machine” every block. Stop giving every playable white creature a ton of random utility like Reflector Mage, Spell Queller, Foundry Inspector, Veteran Motorist, and so on.
I would say that I’d be happy looking to the future, but frankly, I’m at the point where I need to see the changes. My hope is that by Dominaria and M25, we start seeing the payoffs from the play design team, because it’s not looking great right now. Rivals of Ixalan just came out, and two of the most talked about cards?
Oh… okay, I guess.