Standard of Living
I'll begin by asking: What is the greatest threat to a trading card game? Ah ha, I already answered this one—complexity creep. (Thanks for reading, by the way.) No, that's Magic's current greatest threat. My question wasn't about where we've evolved to in nineteen years. I'm asking the question that Richard Garfield himself asked when he first came up with the entire genre of trading card games. What is the greatest threat to a trading card game?
To answer this, let's take a step back. What does a trading card game require? For starters, you have to make a game in which you have a whole bunch of cards that you can use any subset of to play a game. Another key component of a trading card game, if you have plans for it lasting any length of time, is to make expansions that create new cards to add to the system. (I talk quite a bit about the essence of what makes a trading card game tick in a column I did back in 2009.)
As you add cards to the system, we start having a problem. Only so many cards can matter for Constructed play. As I talked about in my article about why we design bad cards ("When Cards Go Bad"), some of the cards can't be good. In fact, a majority of the cards can't be good because the nature of the system only allows so many cards to rise to the top. Making a more powerful card doesn't change the number, it just pushes one of the Constructed-level cards off the list.
Adding more cards to the mix through expansions doesn't change this number, so all you are doing is creating more unplayable cards, either by making them directly or by displacing previously playable cards with new ones. You could create a system by which each new set pushes out older cards to make the new cards relevant, but that ends up in what we call power creep. Each set raises the bar on what cards can do until you get to the point where the game collapses under the weight of the power level. ("I win turn one before you can even play.")
Besides ultimately breaking the game, power creep also tends to upset your audience because none of their older cards hold value. The new powerful cards have to push out something, and that something is old powerful cards. This makes players feel bad because the cards they already own keep getting devalued.
How does one create new cards without causing power creep and the ultimate collapse of the game? Richard actually had an answer to this problem. The original plan was for Magic to keep coming out with a new Magic game each year. Magic: The Gathering wasn't intended to last forever. It was the name of the first game that Wizards would sell for a year. Then a new product, Magic: Ice Age, would be released. Magic: Ice Age would have a similar rules system but it would be a brand new game complete with brand new backs.
I've told the story about Arabian Nights almost having a different back (in this column) but I didn't explain it in this context. The reason for the card back change was that Richard was thinking of each expansion as its own version of the game, not pieces of one singular game. Luckily, before going to press on Arabian Nights, Richard and R&D realized that players wanted the continuity between all the Magic cards. They wanted to be able to mix and match between everything which required a uniform back. Once the decision was made to make all the card backs uniform, Richard and R&D had to find a different way to solve this problem.
After some thought, they realized that the only way keep a set power level was to limit how many cards were allowed in the system. This led to the creation of the concept of formats. Before this decision, Magic was a singular card game (okay, there was a division even then between Limited and Constructed). No one asked what format you were playing because there was only one—just Magic.
The initial announcement explained that Magic would now have two formats. One was called Type 1, which was the format that everyone was already playing. The other was called Type 2, and it was limited to the last two years' worth of sets. (To be historically accurate, the early days took a while to settle on exactly two years.) Note that the separation wasn't by blocks, because the concept of blocks hadn't happen yet. Each new set would knock off the equivalent from two years earlier.
Magic has had its share of player outrage. Both the Sixth Edition rules changes and the Magic 2010 rules changes caused a bit of an uproar. The announcement of the mythic rare rarity created a backlash. The changing of the card frames created more email than I thought possible. But all of these pale to the reaction to the announcement of the existence of Type 2. ("What do you mean I won't be able to play some of my cards?")
I'm sure if you dig into the bowels of the Usenet you can find posts about how Type 2 will never catch on and other rants about the pure evilness of the decision. Interestingly, seventeen years later, Standard (we realized a few years later that "Type 2" was a poor name for our premier format) is by far, and I'm talking a huge margin, the most popular Constructed format to play Magic.
While solving the power creep issue was probably the driving force behind the creation of Standard, there are a number of other reasons it has proven so important. Let's talk about them:
Shift The Metagame
Of all my metaphors (and I do love my metaphors), the one I use the most is comparing Magic to a pendulum—the hanging-rock-over-sand kind. I explain that R&D's job is to keep pushing the pendulum in different directions to make the experience of the game ever-changing. Like a pendulum, the game keeps coming back to its center default state. Another reason it's important for cards to rotate out, as well as in, is without the exodus, it would become harder and harder to push the pendulum in new directions.
As an example, it's very hard for a single expansion to have much effect on Vintage. At best, maybe a few cards are even playable in the format and only every once in a while do one or more of those new cards cause any kind of significant shift. In contrast, new sets have huge impacts on Standard. Enough so that many pro players preparing for a Pro Tour feel they have to wait for the latest set to come out (or at least the information about it to be known) before they have any good chance of understanding the metagame.
People like to focus on the addition of new cards to a format, but the subtraction usually has a bigger impact. The reason is pretty straightforward. With addition, you can still rely on what you already know to base your understanding on. With subtraction, you often don't have that luxury.
The other key element to removing things is that it allows design and development to craft new environments. Because we only have to focus on two years' worth of cards, we have the ability to plan ahead and create interconnections. If we were only adding to the environment, we would have to work on shifting the current environment rather than trying to craft a new one. It would give us far less ability to make new things happen.
Subtraction also does something else very important. Making Magic is hard. We do our best, and our track record's pretty good, but it's impossible to never miss. Having cards leave the system means that we don't have to live with our mistakes for all eternity. With larger formats like Vintage and Legacy, this problem ends up being solved by having banned and restricted lists.
Players tend to go through cycles with powerful cards. At first, they are excited about discovering how powerful they are. Then they love exploring how best to abuse them. Eventually, though, they grow tired of seeing the card again and again and having to deal with an environment always warped by the card. Rotation works well because usually at the point that the final stage sets in (not always, of course) the card tends to be close to rotation.
One of the big lessons I've learned about design over the years is that design isn't about setting a path but pushing in a direction. New environments need to care about new things. By having a constant shifting, you allow R&D to make sure each environment has the elements that help it thrive but also allow it to remove things that would stunt its growth.
This kind of design is nearly impossible in larger formats because there is already too much momentum pushing in other directions. For instance, Standard can have a season focused on certain tribes, possibly even ones that previously had never had much focus. Larger formats can at best push the few tribes that have historically proven strong, and even then, it's tough to have too many cards that are going to stand up with the best cards of the past because most of those tend to be cards that had their power pushed a little more than we meant. The past is guided by things we usually didn't intend, while the present is more guided by things we purposely mean.
Aid in Introduction
In my New World Order column, I explained that one of the things we have to remember is that new players always start from the same place—they know nothing. If we want to help get people into Magic, we have to begin by insulating them from the vastness of the game. While having 12,000+ cards will help maintain their interest once they're invested, before that time it actually serves as a means to scare them off. As I've explained, the number one thing that stops new players is their own belief that the game is too hard to learn.
Standard does a couple of great things for the new player. First, it chops down the cards to a much more manageable size: 1,000–1,500 cards is a lot less scary than 12,000+. Second, because those cards come from just two blocks (and one or two core sets), there are just a few key themes that have a spotlight on them. Third, it takes the themes that the players are seeing in all the marketing and articles and allows them to directly apply it to the decks they are making. Finally, it lowers the barrier to entry not just in cards, but also in monetary requirements.
Makes New Sets More Relevant
I like to focus on the art of game design, but it would be wrong of me to pretend like there isn't also a business side of game design. The art side of me is trying to make the best, most fun game possible. The business side wants to make sure that we motivate people to want to buy the current sets. Another important part of Standard is that it puts the customer focus on the sets on sale. Yeah, it's great that we made a cool set eight years ago, but the thing that's going to keep us making more awesome Magic sets is that you buy the sets we're selling now.
Luckily, this plays into a key component of human nature—the desire to play with the newest thing. Human beings are curious creatures that tend to get distracted by newness. There is a novelty to new things and this primal human drive keeps the focus on the latest product. In other words, players want to play with the newest thing and the Standard format reinforces that this play pattern is acceptable.
I obviously feel Standard is doing good work, but it would be wrong of me to pretend that there is only upside to the Standard format. Here are some of the bigger issues it has:
The biggest issue with Standard is the one that players complained about when we first announced Standard (and the concept of formats where all the cards weren't playable). Players value their cards. Standard gives those cards a limited life span. We've solved this problem by making sure that we support numerous larger formats that allow players to play more of their older cards. Vintage and Legacy allow you to play almost all of your cards. Modern and Extended allow fewer cards but still are significantly bigger than Standard.
Prevents Long-Time Pet Decks
A bunch of these negatives are really just positives turned on their ear. While it's great for the metagame that Standard keeps evolving, it also means that players can only play with their pet decks for a limited time. Standard's churning means that players who want to play have to invest time in making sure their decks are always up to date.
Speeds Along The Metagame
While some players love the flux of the game, other players need it to slow down a little so they can figure out what's going on. Standard tends to speed things up rather than slow them down.
Creates Rough Spots
There's a long list of what colors can and can't do mechanically in the color pie. While we make sure to hit all of these over time, that duration tends to be longer than two years, which means at any one moment in time there is some ability that a color is supposed to be able to do but can't. This is key to helping environments feel different, but it can be quite frustrating for a deck builder when his or her color(s) has an answer that its allowed to do but no card existing to do it.
As you can see, Standard is not without its flaws, but I feel that each of the flaws comes with a counterpart that is doing good for the game.
And that is all I have to say on the topic of Standard. Hopefully, I've given you a little more insight into why Standard needs to exist and all the benefits it provides the game. As always, I'd love to hear your take on the Standard environment. (It existing, not the current metagame—you can send those letters to Zac.) You can reach me in my email, this column's thread, on Twitter, Tumblr, or Google+.
Join me next week for the World Magic Cup, when I tell you a tale about the very first world team championships and how it almost never happened.
Until then, may you have some fun playing Standard.