Standard Diversity

Posted in Latest Developments on August 12, 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 all! Pro Tour Eldritch Moon is over, and it would've been hard for us to write better finals than Liliana teaming up with Gideon to take down Emrakul and her horde of emerge creatures. We do a lot of work to make sure the story shows up on the cards, but I don't know that I could've expected it all to be that on-the-nose.

For the second Pro Tour in a row, there was a lot of concern coming into the event that nothing in the format would be able to beat Collected Company. For the second Pro Tour in a row, that has been proven wrong, but that's not to say that Collected Company isn't a dominant force in Standard, or that it won't come back to dominance once the format begins to settle out.

Diversity Matters

People being upset about just how much Collected Company showed up at the first events is pretty valid, however, as it's important for us that Standard isn't a one-deck or even a two- or three-deck format. We want to provide a wide variety of possible options, so that players can gravitate to the thing in a set that they like and be able to use it as a competitive deck in Standard. We aren't going to hit every one, but we do our best to hit as many as possible.

More than just set themes, what we aim for in Standard on a macro level is a good number of decks that can fit into the buckets of aggro/midrange/combo and ramp/control/disruptive aggro. The idea is that aggro loses to midrange, which loses to the combo/ramp deck, which loses to control, etc., all the way around the circle. It's a simplified version of a healthy metagame, and one that we don't actually see fully show up in Standard very often. Still, we aim to have there be strong deck options in each of those buckets.

The current Standard environment has decks in all of those buckets, but they aren't always the decks people are looking for, or equally competitive. Aggressive decks did not make a good showing at the Pro Tour, and I am interested to see what changes over time. Many people may have been scared by Collected Company, Liliana, or Kozilek's Return plus emerge, but regardless, the numbers were just not there. It's possible people will figure out how to alter their decks to compete in the next few weeks (Tom Ross, I'm looking at you). While we had plenty of control decks show up, the current control decks generally don't run many counterspells, leading many people to put them in the same bucket as midrange. I would argue that the white-black and Sultai decks are definitely control decks based on how they play out a game, but I do wish there were more true counterspell control decks in the format. The two complaints I get the most are that control decks need Counterspell, or that they need Wrath of God again.

I believe that the issues with counterspell-based control in Standard would be somewhat reduced if we had a four-mana Wrath, but I think more of its problem comes from the lack of strong enough blue card draw, and from having too many cards that are very punishing against control decks. Collected Company and Eldrazi cast triggers are the major offenders here, but we also have other strong cards with flash such as Archangel Avacyn, and that takes away a lot of the counterspell control deck's usual benefit of being able to hold back mana to keep their opponent from casting things on their turn. Collected Company will be gone soon, and that should put less pressure on the counterspell decks, plus Kaladesh will add a plethora of new cards to the format to shake things up.

The Four-Mana Elephant in the Room

We have gotten a lot of heat over the last year or so for no longer printing a four-mana Wrath variant in Standard. I get near-constant complaints about the effects of this, but I am really happy with what it has done. Instead of everyone just playing the same four-mana Wrath, the following cards currently see play in a variety of different top-tier Standard decks:

Because their power level is somewhat similar and their effectiveness is situational, it's important that decks decide which one they want against the metagame, and how to best make their deck with it. Languish is, as a general rule, the most powerful in a pure control deck, but it requires black mana and enough spot removal to keep clear the creatures that can survive it. Tragic Arrogance is great if you plan on having enough permanents on the board to actually get the benefit of saving some of them. Planar Outburst acts as a win condition, and Descend upon the Sinful exiles, which has big advantages, but you need to be at least capable of getting delirium for the full benefit. Kozilek's Return asks the most out of your deck building so you can trigger it from your graveyard, but a "free" 5-damage sweeper is pretty strong. I do wish that more traditional control decks were showing up in larger numbers, but I believe that will happen more over time.

Having a high level of diversity is important not just in archetypes, but in card choices. It is important that the best way to get the strongest effects in Standard is to warp your deck in some way to take advantage of them. If the vanilla effects were the strongest and we had Wrath of God in Standard, then I think we would see a lot less diversity in deck-building decisions. Having your Wrath cost four means that the decks that play it can play less cheap spot removal, and more games come down to the "do they have it or don't they" of the turn-four Wrath against aggro. Even against midrange or other control decks, your card does exactly what it says it does, so there is less ability for both players to make interesting decisions to outplay the other.

Similarly, the reason we keep pushing out Cancel with upside rather than Counterspell for Standard is that Standard only has so much room for powerful counterspells. Well, kind of. That number is much higher the cheaper the counterspells are. Unlike Wraths, a deck can just run 20 counterspells and a little removal, if the counterspells are cheap and strong enough relative to the rest of the format. The thing about Counterspell that is different than Doom Blade is that Counterspell stops anything. Barring uncounterable spells, there isn't much play around the card. That's fine, assuming people are paying three mana and getting some extra advantage. We can print multiple three-mana counterspells with upside, and it would be very hard to run them all effectively. Let's say we had Absorb, Undermine, and Dissolve in the same Standard—I bet no deck would run all twelve. But they might run four to six, and I'm not sure what the mix would be. At the same time, we get to print counterspells that cost less mana but don't counter everything, or that cost more and have bigger effects, and there are big deck-building decisions that go into figuring out how to maximize them. I think decks choosing how many Essence Scatters and Negates to run is much more interesting than just running maximum Counterspells.

We want true control decks with some number of counterspells to be viable in the metagame. For example, let's look at David Schnayer's deck from Pro Tour Eldritch Moon:

David Schnayer's Esper Control

It would be hard not to call this a control deck—it runs six main-deck counterspells, a board wipe, a lot of removal, and card draw. We want these kinds of decks to exist in Standard, because they are good against huge swaths of the metagame but have some clear weaknesses. This deck has a lot of game against aggressive decks, but it is just going to struggle against an all-in mono-red deck that is trying to end the game before Jace, Vryn's Prodigy and the planeswalkers can take it over.

Red Problems

Another criticism that we have received a lot in the past six months is related to mono-red decks in particular. These decks are definitely struggling to stay competitive, and while we added Incendiary Flow to the format, only one person decided to show up to the Pro Tour with a dedicated mono-red aggressive deck.

If you remember, about a year ago I mentioned that we were trying a lot of new things within both red's color pie and how we develop red cards. We were tired of red being almost exclusively mono-red aggressive decks, and wanted to branch out the color's power a bit. In that time, we have seen cards like Pyromancer's Goggles, Chandra, Flamecaller, Collective Defiance, Kozilek's Return, Tormenting Voice, and Magmatic Insight all make splashes in Constructed, but we have seen the aggressive decks fall much further than expected.

One of the challenges of burn is, much like two-mana counterspells, players don't quickly run out of room in their decks for Lightning Strikes and Lava Spikes. We were very concerned about how strong Atarka's Command was, coming out of Magic Origins Standard, and we decided to be careful about printing too much direct-to-player burn as a result. In hindsight, the requirements for there to be a red-green aggressive deck for the maximum amount of burn may have been enough to keep it from showing up, but we also were not expecting the Collected Company decks to be as strong as they were and to really punish strategies like the mono-red deck. This format was a learning experience for us, and I think we have a better idea of how much and where to deploy cards for aggressive red decks in the future, which you will see as soon as Kaladesh. I don't know if they will immediately return as Pro Tour–winning decklists, but I am overall very happy with the additional space that red has claimed in the past year, and I think the color has a lot more interesting things to do in the future.

That's it for this week. Next week, I'll be back with a preview card from Conspiracy: Take the Crown, and a story I really like about the development of that set.

Until next time,

Sam (@samstod)

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