An Update on Standard

Posted in Latest Developments on March 24, 2017

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 week of Latest Developments. Last week, I decided to not talk about Standard, but I received enough requests for more information that I thought I'd take my column this week to go over what happened with the last banning window and what we are thinking about moving forward. We decided to not ban anything in Standard and instead allow the format to continue evolving to see what kind of a difference additional weeks of play and possibly even Amonkhet would have on the Constructed format.

This isn't a reflection that we believe everything is perfect with the format; it's us listening to players' concerns and trying to do what is best for Magic. We want to reaffirm their confidence in Standard and Magic as a whole. There's a balancing act here—repeated banning events, especially in a short time frame, are a blow to player confidence. On the other hand, stale and uninteresting formats cause players to drift away from Standard. Since there are no bans we felt confident would significantly improve the format, we took the approach we felt has the best chance of a good outcome when all is said and done.

Looking at the Standard bannings last time, I think overall they did a reasonable job of accomplishing what we were expecting in Kaladesh standard, but when Aether Revolt came out, the format ended up being less diverse than we had hoped. We ended up with Mardu Vehicles (which got a huge benefit from both Spire of Industry and Heart of Kiran), Black-Green Constrictor (which couldn't have existed before), and Copy Cat decks (which also couldn't exist in Kaladesh Standard). In an ideal world, we would not have to ban any more cards in Standard, and future sets would do enough to balance out the format such that no bannings are needed.

With the last two weeks of Grand Prix, we certainly saw Mardu Vehicles take a huge step up in the metagame—a pretty impressive feat considering it was already arguably the best deck. But we also saw some interesting cards coming out last week to combat Vehicles. Dampening Pulse, in particular, is a really fascinating way to both slow down Vehicles's aggressive starts and make it harder for them to crew Heart of Kiran while simultaneously fighting the Copy Cat combo. While it would be hard to argue that Mardu Vehicles didn't have a really great weekend, there is some hope with Temur Tower that the format still has some tricks up its sleeve.

In the end, we have ended up in a place where we have two very solid tier 1 decks (Mardu Vehicles/Ballista and Four-Color Copy Cat), and a few decks that are close to tier 1, but appear to be a step below in power (Black-Green Constrictor, Temur Tower, and Torrential Gearhulk decks). As with many formats, if you go down to tier 2, there are a lot more viable decks running around, but those decks seem less able to occasionally punch through to the Top 8 than usual. While I believe it is possible that banning some cards right now could have improved Aether Revolt Standard, it highlights one of the risks of banning cards in any format—the decks that emerge may still not make for a more fun Standard than what currently exists. We understand that bannings have a huge impact on players' confidence in the game, and we want to minimize the number of times we do that in Standard.

Developmental Takeaways

I think we learned a lot from this latest Standard when we were making it, in the last year of playing it in the Future Future League, and even now. Well before the Pro Tour, there was a big desire to increase the number and power of answers in Standard. While our internal metagame was more varied than the one you are seeing in real life, we were also feeling the pressure of planeswalkers, Vehicles, and graveyard strategies. While I think we hit a pretty good stride with the way that we pushed strategies and decks in three-set-block world, the switch to two-set blocks and the removal of the core set really hurt our ability to make all of that work properly, and I think we underestimated some of the severity of those changes.

One of the best parts about core sets was that because there wasn't a strong theme, we could just put any old card there. Steel Overseer in Magic 2011, along with Voltaic Key, Triskelion, Ornithopter, and Elixir of Immortality got to exist just because, and then they worked for a year to push up Mirrodin block before rotating out. It would've been much harder to put a card like Steel Overseer in Battle for Zendikar or Shadows over Innistrad and make it work properly. In fact, we tried to set up Kaladesh a bit with the theme overlap of "colorless matters/artifacts matter," but ended up missing on most of those cards. It's much easier to throw a late reprint into a core set than to plan out how to make the appropriately powered card that will be printed before you can really test it with the set it's trying to set up.

We are also having a lot of discussions internally about what makes for a fun Standard and how hard to push all of the individual themes in our sets—especially as Standard goes from having two major block themes to having four instead. For one, I think that pushing the block mechanics themes pretty hard in two-block world was a good idea, because it helped make each block feel different and helped each year of Standard have more definition. When moving from two to three or four themes per year, we suddenly ran into problems, and in the end, I think we pushed those individual themes too hard. We are also talking about the power of our hate and answer cards within and around the block. While we definitely were moving away from having any strong hate cards for the block's theme within the block when blocks were a year long, that we are hitting four "themes" per Standard means that we will have a hard time dodging them all. We don't need to answer Kaladesh with Shatterstorm or anything like that, but I think in hindsight, making sure that we have at least Naturalize or something stronger in the format is important to keep the format in check, if our themes hit harder than expected.

As a side note, in the past, I have written "Days of Future Future" articles where I reveal our FFL decklists for a specific time period. I will show off a few here, but this series will likely take a small hiatus through Hour of Devastation. The nature of the bans and how far ahead we work has divorced that testing from how things are likely to look, and sharing a ton of our decklists that are so different than what the real world metagame looks like is unlikely to be useful or garner any positive discussion. We know that sections of our data for the FFL are compromised because of the changes we discussed above, and we've been working on solutions behind the scenes to address that.

But it's still fun to look at some of the decks for the FFL in Aether Revolt Standard.

For example, we had something similar (though far less tuned) to the Constrictor deck:

FFL Constrictor

We didn't totally miss on all the top decks, but they weren't necessarily as strong as our strongest things in the metagame. We were still playing a lot of Smuggler's Copter and Emrakul, the Promised End and expecting Gideon, Ally of Zendikar to rotate, which changed our estimation of many decks and which ones were safe to keep around for a bit longer.

For example, check out this deck:

FFL Mono-White

Or this:

FFL Delirium

While these might be interesting to look at, an entire article of these would be overkill. Depending on how things go over the next few sets, I might share a few decks here or there, but likely not as the focus of an entire article.

That's it for this week.

Until next time,
Sam (@samstod)

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