Shadows Standard Midseason Retrospective

Posted in Latest Developments on May 20, 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.

We are at about the halfway point between the release of Shadows over Innistrad and that of Eldritch Moon. Today, I want to do something I haven't really done much in this column, and that's talk about the format as it exists today—what we perceive as working from a development perspective, and what could be improved. I don't want this to be something where I just pat us on the back for always doing an awesome job. I think it's important to acknowledge shortcomings and try to address some of these issues with you all, so you have an idea of what we can do to try to improve things in the future. That doesn't mean that things will be perfect by the time the next set comes out (we do still work very far in advance), but we do learn from our mistakes and spend a lot of time reading feedback on social media to get an idea of how people are perceiving the format.

Often, this kind of feedback comes at the end of a year, and it's easy to throw last year's stuff under the bus when it's not the fresh thing. With that in mind, I wanted to give an opportunity to look at things that are more recent, and be upfront about what is working and what's not.

Deck Diversity

Standard, right now, has a reasonable amount of deck diversity—certainly much more than in the last year. White Weenie and Green-White Tokens give options for the people who like aggressive decks, red-green can ramp you into Eldrazi titans straight up, or you can go more Johnny-ish and throw some Pyromancer's Goggles in the deck. Jund, Naya, and white-black, among others, offer good-stuff midrange strategies, and we have several control decks, many of them still rallying behind the Dragons.

One of the things Standard struggles with as a format is that it often devolves into "good-stuff decks" instead of decks with a simple, coherent strategy. It's not hard to understand why—there is limited room for card interaction between sets (intentional or otherwise). It's nothing like the 50-plus sets of Modern, where you can find ways to hypercharge one strategy in a way we wouldn't do for Standard. One of the reasons I believe Modern keeps growing in popularity is because it offers many decks that are very much not good-stuff decks. Look at Affinity and Infect. Both decks have a lot of medium-pick Draft commons that, when combined with cards from various sets that help the strategy, turn into a deck that can easily win tournaments. There is something very appealing about decks that have an easy-to-understand strategy, even if the play-by-play parts of the deck may be incredibly hard. A player may not be able to pick up Infect and do well, but they can certainly watch a game and understand how things are going.

Over the last year, Standard was inundated with a three- and four-color decks that had strategies, but were frequently more about playing a lot of cards with strong individual rates rather than anything actually grokkable. I think that some number of these is good to have—even great to have. But too much of a good thing is bad. In the same way that we would be unhappy if every deck in Standard was a linear deck, if there isn't a decent array of options for players who like playing different kinds of strategies, that means something went wrong.

Currently, I'd give Standard high marks for not just diversity, but also balance. There is no de facto "top deck," even though there are clearly different tiers. The first two weeks of the format were pretty scary for the members of the development team, as the StarCityGames.com events results came in with a ton of White Weenie and Bant Company decks—and really not much else. This led to a lot of people on the internet loudly claiming that we had screwed everything up, and Standard was a total mess. Fortunately, the Pro Tour happened and introduced a ton of new decks. Since then, we've seen a number of different events won by a wide variety of decks—aggro, midrange, control, ramp, and even combo. Always a good sign.

An aside on combo: we did know about the Brood Monitor/Eldrazi Displacer/Zulaport Cutthroat deck internally when testing Standard, and intentionally let it exist. We didn't have all the tools—we weren't using Cryptolith Rites to speed it out—but we weren't caught by surprise. We knew there were cards that could interact with it, and presumed it would be pretty fun if it appeared in low numbers. In the past, I personally believe we've been a little too gun-shy about complicated and interactable combos, and that has generally led to there being very little combo in Standard. I'd personally much rather live in a world where clunky combos like this exist in Standard, and not ones like Splinter Twin. We want to scratch the itch for people who like this kind of deck, but not make it the absolute strongest thing to do in the format.

Note that diversity and balance are different, and they can exist independently. Rock-paper-scissors is a balanced metagame, but not diverse. Rock-paper-scissors-lizard-Spock is better, I guess, but our aims are a little higher when thinking about Standard. Ideally, there should be a top-tier deck in each of our five buckets (aggro, midrange, ramp/combo, control, and disruptive aggro).

If there is one thing I think the format is really missing right now, it's diversity in the aggressive decks. The White Weenie deck is definitely that, and the Green-White Tokens deck is something I would usually classify as aggro, though it certainly often appears to be more midrange. That's about it. It's clear that the lack of a two-mana 3-damage red spell that can hit the face, along with some other factors for the red deck, are generally keeping it out of top-tier tournament viability. For sure, it shows up here or there, but it hasn't made the kind of performance we usually expect out of ol' faithful. Now, it may be good that people are given a break from the deck; it has been the aggressive deck de jure for the past four years at least, but I would like it to at least be a little better for its diehard fans.

Color Balance

I've said a lot of good things about Standard, but here is one area where Shadows over Innistrad Standard has not lived up to what we would want. White and green are by far the strongest colors in Standard right now, and you won't find a ton of decks without at least one of those two colors. Luckily, not every deck pairs them together. Between the Red-Green Ramp decks, Red-Green Googles, White-Black Control, and Black-Green Aristocrats, red and black are seeing their fair share of play.

Blue is the color that is clearly having the hardest time right now. While we see Blue-Red Goggles decks, and all varieties of Dragon Control, most decks that are playing blue are just doing it for Jace, Vryn's Prodigy and Reflector Mage. In an ideal world, blue would be the basis of many decks, not just splashing the two strongest cards in Standard. The development team has spent a good amount of time talking about the problems and what went wrong, and trying to improve on things in the future.


If we'd had this accurate an idea of what the metagame looked like when developing the set, we probably would've given blue some better things to do and taken a bit away from at least white and probably green as well. There isn't a lot of reason to second-guess, since I don't know those changes would make the format better, but our goal is to get it to a point where we can't tell what the right things to do in Standard are when we release a set.

Sideboarding

Over the past few years, we have reconsidered how we want to push sideboards away from strong color hate, and more toward cards that put pressure against different strategies. Part of the issue was that the green color-hate cards were almost always just much weaker than the colors that had direct access to removal, but part of it was that if mono-black control was the strongest deck, it was pretty frustrating that you would get punished by the same cards for playing a mono-black aggressive deck—since they tended to ignore the strategy and just hate on the colors.

Cards like Infinite Obliteration, Hallowed Moonlight, Virulent Plague, Invasive Surgery, and Clip Wings were designed to be relatively weak cards in a vacuum, but they could show up at times if the metagame was right—and...well, it has been right for many of them. We knew tokens would be one of the strongest strategies, so there are good hate cards against it. Clip Wings was designed as an answer for Dragonlord Ojutai, but has also done a good job of dealing with Avacyn, and Infinite Obliteration acts as an answer for decks that put too much weight behind one creature. Ever hit Seasons Past or Dark Petition with a delirious Invasive Surgery? Not what I would call a weak play, that's for sure.

For me, this is proof that our strategy for seeding sideboard cards has generally been working. While none of these have kept the decks they are good against from showing up on tournaments, they help diversify the metagame by allowing decks that want to compete on a different axis access to powerful answers.

Looking Forward

All in all, I would say that Standard is going very well right now. It's not perfect, but I don't know that any format really is. It is well within the range of what I would call a very healthy Standard format.

There is one thing that I want to call out as something I feel we did miss in Shadows (somewhat by design) that I wish we had adjusted: tribal decks. Obviously, Humans has hit, and hit pretty hard, but that's not that surprising because of just how many seeds the deck has. It turns out we print a lot of Humans, and in every set in Standard. Spirits, Zombies, Vampires, and Werewolves just don't have enough creatures that fit into their strategies or quite enough oomph in the ones that do exist. Now, we do tread a fine line with "There aren't enough artifact creatures to make this affinity deck work—let's make sure Darksteel has some," and "Oh man, maybe we should ban a few cards," but in hindsight, I wish we had taken more risks on a few of these cards. The tribal aspect to Innistrad is, in some ways, just as important as its graveyard component, but it is one that is not pulling nearly as much of the "cool stuff to do" weight. I don't know that there is any one decision I can point to where we totally missed on this, but I do think we could've done a better job of making sure that the aficionados of each tribe had a little more to latch onto—even if it wasn't a top-tier deck.

Spoiler alert: luckily, Eldritch Moon contains Spirits, Zombies, Vampires, and Werewolves to go along with the Humans in the set. Hopefully that will do enough to fill out all of these decks. As is often the case, it's hard to tell just how strong these decks will end up being. Looking back at the last Innistrad block, they were a little hit or miss—but most were at least competitive at the FNM level, if not at the PTQ/GP or PT level. These decks are also some of the most appealing and easy decks for new and casual players to latch onto, which is why I am hoping they get enough traction to at least appeal to those players and bring them more into Standard.

That's it for this week. I'll be back next week talking Eternal Masters.

Until next time,

Sam (@samstod)

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