Kaladesh Standard Retrospective

Posted in Latest Developments on December 16, 2016

By Sam Stoddard

Sam Stoddard came to Wizards of the Coast as an intern in May 2012. He is currently a game designer working on final design and development for Magic: The Gathering.

Hello, and welcome to another edition of Latest Developments. As has become kind of tradition, I wanted to talk about how I think Standard is going and hopefully give some insights about how we within R&D view the format. Now, most of these views are my own, but they line up with many others within R&D. While we have had a lot of discussions about Standard, that doesn't mean there is a consensus. One of the things that I really enjoyed about reading this column before I worked at Wizards was the transparency in Latest Developments (along with Making Magic). These columns do not exist to gloss over the wrinkles and just hype up opinions that we don't really believe. They are here to give you, the public, a look behind the curtain, and to be honest about our success and failures. This Standard format, in my opinion, contains both.

This retrospective is a little later than most, because this Standard has been a bit stranger than I would've expected. If you look at any given week, it would be easy to say that Standard is imbalanced. That it's a one- or two-deck metagame. We've seen a lot of weeks that are totally dominated by one particular deck—be it Red-White or Mardu Vehicles, White-Blue Flash, Black-Green Delirium, or Aetherworks Marvel. But, the deck that is dominating week after week changes. Not only that, but we are still seeing a lot of evolutions within decks. White-Blue Flash is sometimes midrange, sometimes more disruptive aggro. Delirium can be aggressive or very midrange. The Aetherworks Marvel deck that showed up at the Pro Tour is quite different than the one that showed up in the last few weeks to beat back the Delirium hordes. While it still has the "turn-four Emrakul you" combo, it is also much more set up to both play a long game and to survive one (or more) whiffs off of the Marvel.

When I asked people on Twitter about their view of the format, a lot of people did give it very high ratings, citing the deck diversity and the format's evolution as high points. They were just generally enjoying themselves. At the same time, I read lots of criticisms of the format, many of which I thought were fair assessments of what those people did not like.

And I think that is correct; the metagame is very diverse in terms of strategies. When we are working on setting up metagames, we have five different buckets that we want to show up: pure aggro, which loses to midrange, which loses to combo/ramp, which loses to control, which loses to disruptive aggro, which loses to pure aggro.

In many past Standards, we have had problems filling up all of these buckets. Khans of Tarkir and several other Standards were too high on midrange, and disruptive aggro rarely shows up. Now, these are things we aim for, and the inclusion or lack of a bucket doesn't mean the format is good or bad. There are plenty of good formats where one or more bucket is lacking.

There are definitely good decks right now in each of our buckets. To review:

Pure Aggressive

  • Black-Red Aggro
  • Mardu/Red-White Vehicles

Midrange

Combo/Ramp

Control

Tempo/Disruptive Aggro

  • White-Blue Flash

The good news is that if you like a deck strategy, then you can find something that fits your playstyle. And that's just within the tier 1 decks; if you go down a level or two for FNM-level play, then there is a wider variety of decks to choose from. Suddenly decks like Metalwork Colossus or Paradoxical Outcome decks start showing up doing well.

The big downside, in my mind, is that diversity in Standard is about more than just strategies. While there are a lot of different strategies showing up, there aren't as many decks on this list as I would like, and the top three decks (White-Blue Flash, Black-Green Delirium, and Aetherworks Marvel) make up a much larger total percentage of the metagame than is ideal. It would be easy to say "everything is fine" and move on, but we're aware that there are issues people have with Standard that stem beyond just the balance of different decks in the format. I can tell you why all of these decks match up against each other in different ways, and how cool that is—but if you play against the same cards over and over again, it's hard to convince you that things are working as intended because they are not.

We read articles and social media and see the wide variety of opinions on this format. To be clear, no environment is perfect—and I personally am happier with this format than I was with Collected Company, but that's not exactly a high bar. I can think of quite a few things I would do differently personally with Eldritch Moon if I knew how this Standard would turn out, and I am pretty sure there are a few things we'd do different with Kaladesh in the same way. But it's always like that. Cards that I might call mistakes are often only that because of the lack of counterplay more than just how strong the card is. By that I mean there isn't a strong answer to go to if people want to play a card. There wasn't a strong answer to Bloodbraid Elf other than to play it yourself. There isn't really a deck that is particularly well set up to punish your opponent for playing Smuggler's Copter or Ishkanah. And whether or not I might call a specific card a mistake, there are people out there who really love that card. We want a game full of 0s through 10s, not just a lot of 6s (if I may reference the 0–10 scale we use to rank how excited people are to open a particular card). If we could fix all of our "mistakes" for Standard, than I'm not sure Modern would be that great of a format.

One of the big discussions internally is about the strength of answers versus the strength of threats and whether we have swung too far onto the threats end. Emrakul, for instance, is a pretty huge reward for delirium, and between protection from instants and her ability to take your opponent's turn, she can be almost impossible to deal with. Gideon is efficient and easily defends himself. Vehicles are a part of that problem too—they are resilient to sorcery and mass removal. This leads me to my next subject.

The Emrakul (and Copter) in the Room

Smuggler's Copter is obviously very strong. We knew it was strong—one of the best cards in Kaladesh—but it is showing up in a higher percentage of decks than we hoped it would. We had it pegged as our strongest Vehicle, and the only one we had total confidence would hit Standard. We also had reasonably good suspicions that both Skysovereign, Consul Flagship and Fleetwheel Cruiser could hit, but were not positive. If we knew exactly how strong we needed every card or mechanic had to be to hit without it being too strong, then the game would likely be too prescriptive.

Any time you remove colored mana costs from cards, you risk these kinds of things happening. Artifact sets can be a real catch-22 where you want to push the card type, but you also have real challenges in keeping color balance in line. It's why we don't do them all the time. The fact is that if the majority of decks want to play the same card, then we are probably not in a great place. Copter itself really warps the removal in the format because it is invulnerable to sorcery-speed removal if your opponent doesn't want it to be killed. It's not great to be in a format where people complain that planeswalkers are too hard to deal with, but Ruinous Path and Incendiary Flow aren't good enough options because of Vehicles.

All that being said, there are some strong cards in Aether Revolt and beyond that are good against Copter because by the time we were closer to locking in that set, we knew we needed to have some answers for the card. I'm not going to say that Copter is going to fall out of the metagame or anything, but hopefully people will have a few more options when combating it, as well as options for decks that don't play it.

Emrakul is in a similar spot. She was created as a very flashy mythic rare, and there were a lot of pressures put on her to be strong in Standard and to live up to her original card (which was difficult because of how over-the-top that version was). We played with her a lot, and liked her as a top-end Standard finisher, but we were not going as hard as the real world in trying to turbo her out. At the same time, we also just play a lot fewer games than the real world does, with a lot wider variety of decks. The number of games the average person in R&D played against Emrakul was much lower. Emrakul is a card that was very fun when she was cast sometimes, but is much less fun as the default ending card for a lot of matchups. Certainly, we understood as we got into later sets in our Future Future League that we needed to make sure we not only had answers for Emrakul, but that we made a few cards "Emrakul-proof" in the way that Reflector Mage ended up being a card that you couldn't super-heavily punish someone for having in their hand when Emrakul resolves. A lot of times we find through testing and real-world data that there are things that are fun in theory or fun in small numbers, but that aren't fun when they are "the thing" to do—and I believe Mindslaver effects are in that category.

Looking Forward

We're at the point where the Kaladesh Standard format is just about done with sizable tournaments. Many of the goals we had for this format, like energy and Vehicles showing up in large numbers and for more accessible decks to be viable, were accomplished. I'm not going to say it's a perfect Standard environment, but I think it has been solid. Just because it met our goals, though, doesn't mean that it did everything right. There are things we are just now discussing about this Standard that will impact how we think about balancing Standard in the future. As always, we are looking for feedback about how much people enjoy Standard right now, and how excited they are to play Standard as Aether Revolt comes out. It also raises a lot of questions for us about what else we need to be doing to push formats in directions that are not just healthy, but also diverse and (most importantly) fun. And I do have high hopes that Standard will be fun with Aether Revolt.

So, keep playing and keep giving feedback. We listen; we really do. And we'll use it to keep improving Standard environments in the future.

Until next time,

Sam (@samstod)

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