One of the most common questions I get from people is whether a card that is not currently in Standard would be too strong. Usually these are people's pet cards, or cards that look like another card in a set but are slightly more efficient.
The answer to most of these is actually no—though maybe not for the reasons people might expect.
While there certainly are cards that are too powerful for Standard without any context, most of the time the cards in question would be fine, except that the interactions with other existing cards in Standard would make it too strong. One of the problems with reprints is that we don't get to tweak the numbers.
For example, we tried Liliana of the Veil in Magic 2015 and found her to be too strong for Standard. Some of that was because the mono-black decks were already very strong, but some of it was that the card is just very efficient. It does see play in both Legacy and Modern, after all. And while the card wasn't oppressive in its first time in Standard, we generally don't want to intentionally reprint something that we believe might be the strongest card in the format. It just leads to things being stale and prevents new things from flourishing. You will see cards in Standard in the future that are as strong as or stronger than Liliana of the Veil, but it's likely that we misevaluated just how strong they were in development.
And that's fine. I think making those mistakes in power level (as long as they aren't off by too much) is a lot of what makes Magic fun. Often these mistakes happen because one block did a very poor job of supporting a strategy, so we find that a card isn't too powerful, and then when we print cards in the future that are at a normal level for that strategy, the net result is something being too strong.
There are plenty of cards that are too strong for Standard without context—it's just that they are above the bar we like to set for cards. Chances are, if a card is banned in Modern or Legacy—and not simply because of some weird combo (see Punishing Fire, Sword of the Meek, et al.)—it will be too strong for Standard.
At the same time, many of the top cards in Modern are also likely to be too strong for Standard. I hear a lot of claims that Tarmogoyf wasn't that good in Standard, but it did win both Pro Tour Valencia and the 2007 World Championship—the only two Pro-level Standard tournaments when it was legal. I don't foresee us reprinting Tarmogoyf for Standard any time soon, but stranger things have happened. I mean, Australia once went to war against a herd of emus and lost. Kind of.
Force of Will is in a similar spot, where many people believe it is only good in degenerate formats where the card disadvantage is less important. That really isn't true. Putting a card like that in Standard, when you can tap out for a planeswalker, rest assured you have a free way to protect it, and then be able to untap and protect it further, is incredibly powerful. This is just not a card that we are willing to put into Standard, since it would require us warping the entire format around the card—something that I don't think is worthwhile for any one card. I wouldn't expect this to be in a Standard-legal set any time in the near future, barring wayward buses or a radical shift in the direction we want to move Standard toward.
What Defines a Format
In most cases, a format is defined by its most powerful cards. That should seem obvious, though often the individual cards that are the strongest may not be readily apparent. It's easy to look at the strong and splashy ones that have a high correlation between "casting it" and "winning the game," but harder to evaluate are the support cards that let those splashy ones work.
A prime example of a format-defining card that needed support was Stoneforge Mystic. It is perfectly fine if, like in its first year in Standard, you're fetching up Trusty Machetes and Basilisk Collars. It's when you are hitting Swords and Batterskulls that you run into a problem. So, the card only defines the format if it has the support. Stoneforge isn't the best example, though, because the Swords and Batterskull are obviously very powerful cards in their own right. It's when the secondary cards are innocuous, or things that seem like they have been around forever and are evergreen staples of the format, that they are easy to miss.
When Delver was the top deck in Standard, I saw a lot of people complaining about Delver of Secrets and going as far as to ask for its banning—without realizing that it wasn't the actual problem card in the deck. It was the card that was often winning the game, sometimes on a frustrating turn-two blind flip, but I think it was Ponder (and to a lesser extent Gitaxian Probe and Mana Leak) that turned Delver of Secrets from a pretty strong card into a defining part of the format. When Ponder rotated out and there was no particularly good way to set up your draws, Delver totally fell off the radar for the Innistrad-Return to Ravnica year, despite taking up its role as a Legacy superstar. If we had left Ponder in Magic 2013, or given another effect that let you easily stack the top card of your library, it is possible that the year would've had similar Insectile infestations.
The challenge for development that might not be obvious, therefore, is making sure that as many cards as possible have the right amount of support necessary to work, but not so much that it makes it dumb to do other things. As it turns out, the splashy, high-powered cards are usually the easier ones to get right because they are easier to identify. The real challenge is trying to make sure the format has the right number and kinds of support cards to make it so our new themes can show up without being overpowered, and that they all work for Limited.
Looking at current Standard, it would be easy to say that either Siege Rhino or Jace, Vryn's Prodigy is the defining element, but neither truly is—it's the mana base. The reason you are seeing so much of Khans continue to dominate, and so many four-color decks, is that we experimented with having a very strong mana base in Standard using fetches and duals, and it ended up exceeding even our expectations for power.
Looking back at the battle land/fetch land mana base in Standard, I think it's looking very unlikely that we will have fetch lands and lands with basic land types in Standard for a while, and certainly not at a time when we aren't pushing a multicolor-heavy set. It was something we tried, and ultimately it made Standard less fun and less accessible for many players. That isn't to say it was exactly a failed experiment—it showed us some pretty good data, and it will lead us to making better sets in the future. Standard is still diverse, and I think it's pretty fun, but I for one am excited to see Shadows over Innistrad come out, with rotation bringing a change in the mana base as well as the opportunity for more new decks in Standard.
Moving Standard Staples
There are cards that aren't necessarily too strong, but we don't want them in Standard at a given time for a variety of reasons. Often this is because we don't think they make things more fun, or they make Standard feel less different as new sets are released.
In Magic 2014 and Theros, we added Mutavault and Thoughtseize to Standard. We knew they were popular Modern cards and wanted to try them out in Standard. I think, in the end, both of those cards were incredibly powerful (and ubiquitous) and they made Standard less fun. It was much harder to do cool things in Standard when those cards were floating around. This had the upside of letting people play with the powerful cards (and powerful cards are frequently fun), but the downside was that they made it harder to do quirky or interesting things. A goal of Standard is for the games to come down much more to the new and unique things as opposed to the vanilla powerful effects, which I think does a reasonable job of describing both Mutavault and Thoughtseize. On the plus side, they did have a huge part to play in making Pack Rat a Standard all-star in its second year of life, so they have that going for them.
As we continue to try to make new and diverse Standard formats that feel unique, we do have to change what the staples of the format look like from time to time. Day of Judgment as the vanilla Wrath had a real problem in that it meant that as long as it was in Standard, people would only play four-mana Wraths. It meant that we had to balance the aggro decks around that, and that we didn't have much ability to make things that felt new. By moving unconditional Wraths to five mana but letting you cast cards like Languish at four mana, we have greatly improved our ability to create interesting Wraths for a variety of decks and allow people to play End Hostilities one week and Planar Outburst the next.
Likewise, Elvish Mystic wasn't taken out of Standard because it was too strong. Not exactly. I would say that when Elvish Mystic was in Standard, it was secretly one of the strongest cards in the format. It was the defining characteristic for green decks, and many of those decks were defined by the difference in power between games where it played a turn-one Elvish Mystic and the ones where it didn't. A card like Birds of Paradise has the same problem, but worse, since it can mean the difference between a turn-two gold card or not. We are currently taking a break from one-mana accelerators in Standard, much in the way we have moved away from doing two-mana mana stones. Part of the reason is the belief that this lets us create a wider range of cards that can see play (since we can actually put meaningful riders on two-mana mana Elves), and to allow for strong green two- and three-drops to see play without having to balance them around Elvish Mystic.
Lightning Strike wasn't taken out because it was too strong. Lightning Bolt...well, I wouldn't say never, but don't be surprised if the most-played card in Modern doesn't hit Standard any time soon. It is the most-played card in Modern, which means that it would likely be the most-played in Standard, to the point of warping the metagame around it.
Lightning Strike is the right power level for Standard, but it is pretty boring. And any time we take a card that is pretty boring but a four-of in a ton of decks and add extra text onto it, we aren't allowing for future sets to print cards that might be an option to play instead. Much like we have been experimenting with differences in mana accelerators in Standard, we are entering an era of experimentation on how to move the suite of burn spells around such that there is a lot of choice while ensuring you can't just put them all in a deck and end up with a Modern burn deck.
Although none of these cards are in Standard now, I don't think they will be out forever. As we make green more about two- and three-drops for the time being, while we have more two-mana mana Elves, I can see a point where we want to shake things up and go back to using one-mana mana Elves for some period of time. It lets players who have only been playing for a few years experience something new and acts as nostalgia for older players. The design of Standard is cyclical, and many things that leave will probably not stay gone forever.
Providing a Standard Experience
After 23 years of making Magic, it should be clear we can't just play around with improving everything to make new cards. There just aren't enough costs that can go down. We may not be able to make as many cards for Vintage every year, since the bar that a card has to cross to be better than another card there is absurdly high. But we can control the kinds of cards we make for Standard. And as we make those, many of them will be at the right power level for Modern, helping to add to that format. And then some of them will end up trickling down to Legacy, and even a few per year to Vintage.
If you want to play with the most powerful cards, it's hard to argue against Eternal formats, since Standard can't compete there. The goal of Standard is to allow for new experiences, and to let each set's themes and mechanics shine. Part of that means that, over time, we need to kill a few sacred cows and change up what we think the baseline is for some effects, so that we can introduce new ones.
Imagine that you are working on Sixth Edition for Magic. You are discussing which cards to not reprint, and the decision comes down to leave out Dark Ritual. It would be easy to say, "Yeah, but without Dark Ritual, black will be too weak! Dark Ritual is a huge part of black's staple kit, and without it, it can't compete." Well, that may have been true of sets before then, but once you have taken the card out of the format, you get to open up a lot of design space. While a lot of black's power was in a turn-one Dark Ritual into a three-drop (or three one-drops), that also meant that you had to balance all of the three-drops as if they would be out on the first turn. We took Dark Ritual out of Sixth Edition, and black ended up being fine over time—much in the same way we removed Counterspell from blue, Lightning Bolt from red, and Swords to Plowshares from white. Once those cards were out of the colors for Standard, it increased the range of cards that could see play in all the colors.
That isn't to say that we've been 100% right on changes to the kinds of cards we put into Standard in the past, or that we will be in the future. We do a lot of testing internally, find what we like, and release it to the world. We can generally figure out what is powerful enough for Standard, but it's harder for us to gauge what people will like. Sometimes we are wrong because we misevaluated the power, and sometimes we realize that people will forgo decks that are strong enough because they just don't like the play style. By comparing our Future Future League decklists to how those decks played out in the real world and how strong they ended up being, we can try to figure out areas where we are repeatedly over- and undervaluing cards and tweak those in upcoming sets. When we try something and it ends up being stronger than we expected, we look at those results and make sure to test those kinds of cards more in the future, so we can continue making the kinds of cards that people will enjoy playing.
That's it for this week. Join me next week when I delve further into these topics and talk about exactly how we use real-world data to inform our decisions on balancing card sets.
Until next time,