Ah Yes. Very Standard.

Posted in Latest Developments on August 10, 2012

By Zac Hill

Zac is a former game designer/developer for Wizards of the Coast and was the lead developer for Dragon's Maze. His articles have appeared in The Huffington Post, The Believer, and on StarCityGames.com. Currently he serves as the chief operating officer of The Future Project, a nonprofit education initiative, and holds a position as a research affiliate in the MIT Game Lab.

Veteran readers of mine will appreciate that I am something of a living archive when it comes to the most essential elements of the Magic cultural lexicon. I was around for "mise," "tings," "gas," "DI," "inf," and innumerable other sayings and phrases that make absolutely no sense whatsoever.

So when I was told it was Standard Week, my instincts naturally veered to the only possible valid response to, for example, an opponent peeling back-to-back Bonfires of the Damned for exactly enough to wipe your board, then peeling back-to-back Temporal Masteries in order to ultimate Tamiyo with a Dissipate in hand the turn before you topdeck what would be a lethal Pillar of Flame:

"Aah, yes. Very standard."

Unfortunately, my editors informed me that a point-by-point dissection of the trends in Magic parlance didn't exactly make for much of a development article. In any case, the meteoric rise of the term "realistic" (e.g., "Paulo Vitor damo da Rosa's tendency to Top 8 nearly twenty-five percent of the Pro Tours he has played in is very realistic, as is Reid Duke's ability to maintain his hair") threatens to obsolete any such article before it's even printed, so what's a man to do?

I guess there's the Standard format...

I've talked before about the Future Future League, R&D's internal Standard playtesting team. All of what I said in that article still applies, but while I spent a lot of time talking about what kinds of things we tend to try to avoid, I didn't really say much about the kind of environment we actively hope emerges. It's true that we do a lot of our work in the negative space—the idea being that if we make sure nothing too bad happens, a lot of the uncertainties inherent in our process will cancel out one another and the environment will approach a state of relative balance and equilibrium. This is why we try to spend a lot of time designing a large number of cards within a fairly narrow band of power, so different trends in the metagame make it viable to play different kinds of cards. But it's also true that we take measures to provide viable tools to four key types of strategies—all of which, taken together, encourage the natural evolution that helps make a healthy Standard environment fun.


When I first started playing competitively, the conventional wisdom held that there were three main types of strategies: aggro, combo, and control. The idea was that, very generally speaking, aggro lost to combo, which lost to control, which lost to aggro. Nice, tidy, and simple.

One can make the argument that that was never really the case, of course. Creatures used to be kind of embarrassingly bad, whereas spells like Lightning Bolt, Swords to Plowshares, and Control Magic were with the game from the very beginning. Red aggro certainly picked up steam with Tempest block—no one is going to deny this—but generally speaking I think I'd like to sit in the chair that has access to the Force Spikes, Counterspells, and Dismisses and not the one getting excited about Elite Vanguards with severe drawbacks. Meanwhile, control decks—theoretically advantaged against combo, according to this model—were somehow supposed to defeat upwards of five mana on the first turn and a bevy of draw-seven effects. The first environment I took very seriously was Tempest/Urza's Standard, where most of the cards I played in most of my decks are now restricted in the Vintage format, and yet these (combo) decks were supposed to be at a disadvantage to a third of the metagame? Finally, the model ignored what was perhaps the most powerful archetype: the archetype that simply cast overpowered spells over and over again until the opponent lost (e.g., NecroFirestorm; Recurring NightmareSurvival; Grim Monolith → anything).

So in retrospect I'm not sure that such a model ever held water, even though it seemed to make sense at the time.

In any case, a bunch of Very Bad Things like Black Summer (all Necro all the time) and Combo Winter (all Academy all the time) led R&D to reconsider whether it was really a good idea for creature-based decks to occupy only a third of the environment at a given point. It isn't fun, of course, to just sit and summon a bunch of dumb animals and blindly throw them at the opponent over and over again until the game ends. The trouble is that that's exactly the kind of interaction having such a paucity of creature-based strategies in an environment encourages. When blocking isn't a "thing," each one of your creatures is just a down-payment investment that depreciates your opponent's life total by a rate equal to its power every turn, and deck design is about nothing but figuring out what the most efficient way to do that is without losing all your guys to removal. From the other side, you can actually just do the math to figure out what the average rate of damage your opponent can produce is, and either (a) determine whether there's enough removal-with-value in the environment to just kill all your opponent's creatures with advantage before you die, or (b) "goldfish" faster than your opponent's "fundamental turn," which boils down to winning your game of Solitaire before he or she does.

We'd like for Magic to be a lot more involved than that.

This is How We Do It

Nowadays, our "Aggro → Control → Combo" chart looks a lot more like this:

Aggro → Midrange → Ramp/Combo → Control/Disruptive Aggro

What do each of these terms mean to us internally?

Aggro is your traditional "kill your opponent as quick as possible using efficient creatures" kind of deck. It usually features potent attacking-based one-drops (e.g., Champion of the Parish and Diregraf Ghoul) and a mana curve heavily weighted to the first several turns. Frequently, it will supplement its primary strategy with "range," or ways to end the game after its initial assault has been blunted.

Champion of the Parish
Diregraf Ghoul

Midrange tends to feature one-drops with abilities (e.g., Llanowar Elf) and early threats that are more defined by their resilience than their raw size, speed, and power. These decks tend to be a turn slower than the aggro decks—although still reasonably fast—and oftentimes use Planeswalkers to generate advantage on the battlefield. They will sometimes use a few reactive cards to deal with key threats, but tend to be at a disadvantage if they draw too many of this type of card and are unable to develop their board. Some midrange decks trend toward the aggressive end of the spectrum, and others toward control. What they hold in common is their focus on accumulating advantage on the battlefield itself, as opposed to gaining an advantage in raw resources (having a 4/4 versus a 2/1, as opposed to having two cards in hand versus a single card, for example).

Llanowar Elves
Gideon Jura

Ramp decks tend to spend their early turns developing their mana advantage instead of deploying threats to the board. Because we've made a concerted effort to push more expensive spells into Standard—we want a greater overall number of Constructed-viable cards, which requires us to expand the space of mana-costs that would ordinarily be considered playable—the return on a six-mana card tends to be better than that of two three-mana cards, three two-mana cards, etc. Moreover, it's typically easier to kill creatures than it is to disrupt mana-advantage spells. Taken together, what this means is that if a Ramp deck successfully ramps and an aggro deck successfully curves out, usually the Ramp deck will be at an advantage when the dust settles. The drawbacks, however, are twofold: First, Ramp decks are usually a little less consistent because environments contain fewer mana-acceleration spells than they do viable attacking creatures. Second, they rely upon one or two threats to do a lot of work for them, so if those are countered or stripped out of their hand, they usually run out of gas.

Birds of Paradise
Strangleroot Geist

Combo, under our current definition, doesn't mean what it used to mean: powerful engines that end the game quickly and consistently. Instead, we use this term to refer to decks that attack the environment at odd angles. Good recent examples of this would be the Open the Vaults deck from a few years back, or Team StarCity Black's Invisible Stalker deck at Pro Tour Avacyn Restored. Ideally, we aim for strategies that have severe weaknesses, assuming everyone is gunning for them, but can take advantages of holes in the metagame to really storm a particular tournament.

Invisible Stalker
Runechanter's Pike

Control means more or less exactly what it sounds like. These decks attempt to accumulate resource advantage, contain threats, and run opponents out of options. Typically—though not always—they end the game with the very same threats midrange or ramp decks use. The difference is that they're not focused on getting those threats out as soon as they possibly can. Instead, they use them to mop up a game they've already secured and stabilized. Alternatively, the large threat itself can be used as a tool to stabilize, either by virtue of its size or its ability to remove threats.

Searing Spear

Finally, we use the term Disruptive Aggro to describe decks that either (a) deploy a powerful threat and protect it long enough to end the game, or (b) couple pressure from resilient threats with removal, discard, and countermagic such that the opponent can never really get his or her game plan off the ground. These differ from Midrange decks in that they usually contain far fewer threats, focusing on those that either hit the hardest or are the most difficult to remove. They usually goldfish slower than Midrange, too, but tend to be less vulnerable to the strategies that attack the battlefield (mass removal, for example).

Mind Rot
Ravenous Rats

Now that we've said what all of this means—gasp, deep breath!—we get to the important part, which is why all this stuff is oriented this way in the first place.

First, the four categories: each "bucket" represents, in an ideal sense, a quarter of the metagame. It never works out this exactly in practice, but in some theoretical sense we feel like it would be awesome for twenty-five percent of an environment to be aggro, twenty-five percent to be midrange, twenty-five to be a combination of ramp and combo, and twenty-five to be a combination of control and disruptive aggro.

So why do the arrows flow into one another like they do?

Unlike the "Aggro/Control/Combo" model, the sequence of the decks listed above isn't simply a declaration of what beats what—though it is partially that. Rather, each bucket represents a shift in how the deck intends to interact with the deck in the previous bucket, largely by focusing on a different zone. The Midrange deck exploits the aggro deck's lower mana curve—and the limitation of being developmentally constrained by mana—to produce superior threats on the battlefield. The Ramp and Combo decks exploit the midrange deck's lack of pressure to spend time setting up what amount to trump cards. The Control/Disruptive aggro decks exploit the Ramp/Combo decks' focus on one particular threat by targeting that threat and leaving those decks unable to function. Finally, the Aggro deck exploits the Control deck's ponderous mana-costs and the Disruptive Aggro deck's lower density of battlefield advantage to deploy its strategy before it's capable of being successfully disrupted.

This model comes very close to accurately representing our ideal Standard environment, and we're pleased for the most part with how things have looked since we adopted it. Obviously, all these categories aren't set in stone, of course. Frequently (especially after sideboarding), Control decks have natural advantages against Aggro decks because they can configure themselves to do nothing but draw cards and kill creatures. Combo decks can change the axis along which they operate—look, my Reanimator deck is now a Show and Tell deck!—and Aggro decks can try to out-midrange the midrange strategies, etc.

At the end of the day, no heuristic is going to accurately model a system as complex as a Magic metagame. Moreover, sometimes you print a card like Stoneforge Mystic or Snapcaster Mage that throws these categories out the window and starts to heavily reward the strategy of "casting better cards than your opponent." In general, though, this model gives us a ton of insight about how to best deploy various levels of power in the Standard environment, ensuring that we're juicing up the kinds of decks we need to bring balance to a metagame, and not just handing out all the gas to what's already good.

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