Standard Needs a Rebrand

I’m curious if this article will see print. I wrote it and assume it will. CFB has always been amazing about letting me write what I want, which is what makes it worth doing.

“Monday, Monday… can’t trust that day…”

The higher EV play would be to say how thrilled I am with the bannings and how I can’t wait to start brewing new Standard. Can’t and won’t. I’ve written that article several times already and it would be disingenuous. I’m done lending the benefit of the doubt to Standard.

Fool me once, shame on you.
Fool me four straight times, shame on me.

Like many, I’m annoyed with Standard. I’m also hopeful that things can be improved.

A Format Has An Identity

No matter the format, it has an identity.

It can be good or bad, positive or negative. Name a format and see what comes to mind:

Modern: The format with 50 decks where everyone plays whatever they want.

Legacy: The format with Force of Will and Brainstorm where the games are skill-intensive and the cards are expensive.

Standard, on the other hand, has been in the midst of an identity crisis for a few years now.

Standard: The format with only a handful of viable decks that becomes solved after a few weeks and has constantly and consistently necessitated bannings over the past year.

Stagnation. Solved. Then bannings.

If Standard were a restaurant, it would offer only three menu items and once you finally find something you enjoy, they ban it.

Also, all menu items are midrange stew.

The Tragic Fall of Standard

I have tremendous respect for the difficulty designing sets, blocks, and formats from the top down. I’ve designed a few games with friends over the years and having exciting effects that are also balanced is no small task.

With that being said, Standard has been a mess for almost two years.

“Who would have guessed that the Promised End was only the beginning…”

Last January was the first of four bannings, but the mess goes back even further.

“Who could forget the fun times we all had playing Standard with these gems…”

Although Collected Company wasn’t nerfed during its tenure in Standard, it probably needed to be. Standard has shaken out to warrant bannings for the better part of almost two years now. The fail rate is just too high.

If there is a silver lining, Energy Standard at least provided games that were decent (until they got boring and uninteresting). Win or lose, games that revolved around infinite Cats or a turn-4 Eldrazi were unsatisfying.

Recipes for Failures

Magic design needs to be exciting in order to get people’s attention when a new set comes out. These are often pushed and powerful cards that make people say, “Whoa!” and make a Keanu Reeves meme face.

“More stats than a baseball analytics convention.”

I understand I’m not the target audience for these kinds cards. I see these cards on the spoiler and I roll my eyes because I know they will be annoying me for years to come.

Busted cards have a profound effect on Standard. It isn’t like Modern where there are hundreds of insane cards and countless efficient answers to everything. In Standard, these cards tend to be 1) better than everything else in terms of cost-to-benefit ratio, and 2) they might only be answered effectively by a couple of cards, or as is often the case, not effectively answered at all.

The endgame of my article in favor of Modern was that the format doesn’t have a best deck and that leads to crazy amounts of diversity. The format never gets stale because there are always too many viable options to account for.

A format with an identity that revolves around unheard-of diversity is a good thing. A format with an identity wrapped up in quick stagnation has some challenges to overcome.

Modern and Standard are opposites. In Standard, the card pool is small and the prevalence of a defined best deck(s) dramatically culls potential options. After a few weeks of events (and more importantly, MTGO results) the format is solved to the point where it becomes correct for most players to lock in and play the obvious best decks.

The other problem I have with Standard best decks is that they are so obvious and prepackaged. Take all the best cards with a mechanic and add an excitement-getting mythic or two… delirium, Vehicles, emerge, energy. I get little satisfaction out of playing decks like these because I feel like they were pre-built by R&D before I ever even got to the spoilers. I feel that way because, well, they are.

Standard either needs “no best decks” or “more best decks” to create a more dynamic metagame. Either way, the challenge that I’d like to see met is for Standard to feature between 5 and 8 real, viable options after a month.

I hope these concerns have already been addressed and solutions are already coming down the pipeline. It could well be that these past few years have been a new vision for what Magic and Standard look like and that it will take time for Wizards to craft a working formula to make it so.

Thoughts on New Bannings

I can’t congratulate the DCI for fixing something so obviously disliked and broken that not fixing it would have incited bedlam.

Seems fine.

Energy needed major bannings and they happened.

Seems too cute.

Given the data provided in the B&R announcement it makes sense to ban something from Red Deck Wins. 60% win rate against the field is not cool.

Banning the Dinosaur seems really loose and I don’t like that decision at all. I read the explanation but it didn’t really gel with my experience from real life.

“Is this just too obvious?”

If the problem is that Hazoret is just a messed up card, why can’t the DCI just ban Hazoret instead of some random Dinosaur? The banning makes me think of back in the day when the DCI banned a bunch of nonsense instead of just hitting Necropotence outright in hopes of making Necropotence decks more fair. Spoiler: It failed.

Personally, I would have banned Hazoret and moved on with my life.

As an aside, I wanted to brew Dinosaur decks with Rivals of Ixalan and it was frustrating that the best Dinosaur in the block was banned before I ever got a chance to play with it in context.

But it’s good to know that Ramunapless Ramunap Red will have less efficient sideboard options against token decks… the safeness that I’m feeling right now is so warm and comforting that I want to wrap myself in it and take a nap.

The other issue that I’m grappling with is that I just don’t have confidence that the DCI has a firm grasp on the problems going on or how to fix them that I trust such a cutesy meta banning to balance a format they’ve had little ability to stabilize over the past year.

Speaking of shaky confidence in the future:

Next on the banning block?

I hope that knocking energy back down to earth will solve the biggest issues facing Standard right now and open things up. I’m not rooting for the DCI to fail, but I think it is really important for restoring credibility to Standard that the format doesn’t need another banning this time around.

A big part of the rebrand that Standard needs is to regain credibility as a format worth investing time, energy, and enthusiasm into.

Solutions and Reflections

In reflecting over what I’ve written so far it is inescapable not to return to the idea of Frustrated Spike from the last article. Am I Frustrated Spike?

Most definitely, yes.

Frustrated Spike was never meant to be a judgment. It was a literal observation:

Frustrated: Feeling or expressing distress and annoyance, especially because of inability to change or achieve something.

Spike: Competitive player.

As a tournament player, Standard events are my least favorite. At least, for the past few years.

I get bored of the same cards, decks, interactions, and lack of room for creativity. The prevalence of obvious, insurmountable best decks built around busted mechanics leaves me little interesting new space to explore after the first few weeks.

As a Spike, I want to be able to take the things I’ve learned about a format and apply them to building a new strategy to combat the best decks, which isn’t possible because the prepackaged best decks are just too good. There is little space to build new decks. Most innovation revolves around making matchup related adjustments to a handful of best decks.

Why innovate when you can just replicate?

My falling out of love with Standard may also be attributed to another, non-design-related phenomenon:

Back in the day, Standard was “The Format.” If you wanted to play FNM or any other local tournament, chances are that you were playing Standard.

Extended was just a PTQ format that grinders played in October.
Eternal formats were niche gatherings (some things never change).
Standard was everything and all the time.

In the midwest Modern has easily usurped Standard as “The Format.” Is it because people love Modern or because Standard has been dumpy for a while? It’s kind of a chicken-or-the-egg question. Whatever the case, players have other options now and that has compounded Standard’s issues.

What would a rebrand of Standard even look like?

It needs to be fresh and distance the format from the identity of stagnation and bannings that have haunted its recent past.

On a positive note, I like that some things will be shaken up with regard to rotation in the foreseeable future.

One problem that may have plagued Standard is that it got smaller. Right now, it went from being an eight-set format to a six-set format. Fewer cards mean fewer options. It also makes generic good stuff decks less likely to compete with block mechanic-centric strategies.

More sets, and more BIG sets, in Standard should provide players and deck builders with more tools in their toolboxes (*crosses fingers*).

I’m also glad to see core set returning. The ability to print cards outside of blocks to balance the metagame is key. I’d love to see more generic good cards printed that are not so beholden to fitting into block design. I’d also love to see core set include more sideboard-hate cards. In particular, cards that are specifically designed to be good against the mechanic-driven block decks.

Another possible fix is to make the emphasis Team Stratified (everyone plays a different format) events. It wouldn’t make the format less stale, however. It would mean that I could presumably play it less by finding a teammate who actually enjoys the format like I enjoy Modern or Legacy.

I noted from the comments about last week’s Modern article that the thing I valued about Modern (no best deck and a 50-deck meta) was specifically something other people hated about the format. I’m sure that there are people who really enjoy going deep into a format with a few decks and this would be a way to preserve that experience without pushing it too hard onto people who don’t want it. Inversely, people who enjoy the Standard experience (but don’t like the buck wild aspect of Modern) would be covered as well.

A big upside for embracing a more team-centric approach for tournament play would mean that more tournaments would be appealing to a greater number of players. Players would also be more free to specialize on their favorite format rather than bounce around between formats in order to attend larger events like Grand Prix.

Another avenue I’ve considered is to bring back Block Constructed in some kind of meaningful capacity. It could even be another option for Team Stratified events!

One area where I think Standard suffers is that it is regarded as the “introduction to tournament Magic format.” It is the cheapest Constructed format to get into and has the lowest learning curve (smaller card pool). It makes sense that the first Constructed format most people play is Standard.

As a gateway format, Standard has a unique tension between needing to be accessible to new tournament players while also being a competitive Pro Tour format.

It isn’t that simple things can’t have depth. The problem is a hesitancy to add depth because they doesn’t want to annoy or confuse new players. I assume this is why there are rarely good “hate cards” in Standard.

Block could be that let-the-good-times-roll format full of unbeatable midrange decks where new players can learn the ropes at FNM and never get hit by a hateful sideboard hoser or Stone Rain.

Whatever happens with Standard in the future, I’d like to see the format sustain a higher number of viable strategies.

Maybe the key is to change nothing and leave the format to the people who like it the way it is.

Perhaps Standard and Modern are not inherently good or bad formats and the differences appeal to players who enjoy different aspects of the Magic experience, although that conclusion feels a little like a bad 90s sitcom, group-hug resolution to a complicated problem. Still, who doesn’t love a good group hug and a chorus of Kumbaya?

It occurs to me that part of the problem with Standard is that it lacks a clear direction, audience, or vision.

Who is it for?
What is it supposed to be like?
What is good or special about it?

Whatever it is or will be… let it not be this:

“Standard is defined by quick stagnation and constant bannings.”

The last, and most important question I have about Standard:

“What would you like Standard to be?”

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