Balancing Standard Formats

Posted in Play Design on September 22, 2017

By Melissa DeTora

Melissa is a former Magic pro player and strategy writer who is now working in R&D on the Play Design team.

Hello and welcome back to Play Design. This week I'll be talking about how the Play Design team crafts and develops Standard formats. We have three main goals in designing Standard formats. We want Standard to be:

  1. Balanced
  2. Diverse
  3. Fun

There is a lot to cover in that, so this article will focus on balance and the other two goals will be discussed in a future article.


There are many ways in which we balance a format, and today I am going to talk about one of them. One of the things we strongly consider when developing Standard is our creature sizing. We take careful consideration of the power and toughness of all the creatures we feel will see play in Standard. Additionally, we also choose what kinds of creatures are affected by the removal spells available. Every threat should have an answer, but not every answer should deal with every threat. One fun thing about Standard is that you can change your deck, your creatures or removal suite to suit not only your style of play but also to react to the metagame.

Reacting to Removal

I'm going to use Languish as our example here. Languish is a four-mana sweeper that kills anything with 4 toughness or less. It was clearly designed for Standard play and is lined up so that on turn four, it can kill anything that was cast on turns one through three.

Because Languish existed in Standard, players had to be thoughtful about what kinds of creatures they played in their decks. It was important that there were enough options available for players who didn't want to lose their entire boards to Languish.

Sylvan Advocate was one of those cards. It has a very good rate for a two-mana creature. A 2/3 for 1G is not strong enough to play in your Standard deck by itself, but the upside it gives you in the late game is huge. The third toughness was added to Sylvan Advocate so that once you hit your sixth land, it could survive Languish. Some other creatures we sized at 5 toughness with the goal of surviving Languish were Reality Smasher, Mindwrack Demon, and Tasigur, the Golden Fang.

Reacting to Creatures

Just like how we size creatures to match up well against removal, we also shape removal to kill creatures we are finding harder to deal with than we anticipated. For example, we pushed Archangel Avacyn to be a strong card in Standard, and due to it having flash, it was hard to kill with the removal spells that were offered. Languish and other sorcery-speed effects meant that Avacyn would get a hit in before a removal spell could affect her. With the ability to cast her end of turn, untap, and then have mana available to protect her, we wanted to add an option so that Avacyn wouldn't dominate games. We decided to add a card to Oath of the Gatewatch as an additional safeguard against Avacyn. The rate on this card needed to be good enough so that it could be played as a main deck card. The card we added was Grasp of Darkness.

When we were testing Amonkhet Standard, we were having a hard time getting the Zombies deck to a good spot. Magma Spray was a heavily played card because it could deal with Scrapheap Scrounger and other small aggressive creatures, and it was a very efficient removal spell against Zombies. We wanted one of the more important Zombies in the deck to be able to survive Magma Spray, so we changed Lord of the Accursed from 2/2 to 2/3.

Sometimes creatures are pushed to a point where they can dominate Standard games, and we need to make sure that they line up well with the answers available. Glorybringer is one example of this. It attacks right away and is also creature removal. It was important that Glorybringer had 4 toughness so that it could be killed with Grasp of Darkness before it had the chance to attack. We sized Hazoret the Fervent at 4 toughness to die to Grasp as well, as we predicted that this particular God would be one of the stronger ones to see play.

Going back to our Languish example from earlier, can you guess which creature we were reacting to when we decided to make Languish a four-mana sweeper that gave -4/-4 to all creatures?

Click to reveal


Safeguards: How We React to Strong Decks


Magic R&D makes Magic sets years in advance. The Play Design team specifically works about a year to eighteen months before each set is released. Given that it can be hard to react to real-world Standard concerns. Since the Play Design team has a strong background in competitive and pro play, we use our experience to predict which strategies will be strong.

One of the decks we predicted would be strong in real-world Standard was Blue-Red Control. It has one of the stronger sweepers in the environment, Hour of Devastation, and one of the strongest control finishers we've seen in a long time, Torrential Gearhulk. We wanted to be sure that we had an option for players to go to if this deck was a little stronger than we had anticipated, and we designed Carnage Tyrant to fill that role. Carnage Tyrant is not a card you'll want to play in an environment with a lot of fast aggro, but if Control is one of the top decks in the metagame, you have this card available. It's very difficult for a Blue-Red Control deck to beat Carnage Tyrant. It can't be countered or targeted, survives Hour of Devastation, and attacks through Torrential Gearhulk. Again, you're not always going to play this card, but it's very strong when the metagame calls for it.

Wrap Up

One of our ways to achieve Standard balance is to make every threat answerable in some way. Some threats should be easier to answer than others. If you have to put in a lot of work to produce a threat (it having a high mana cost or forcing you to make deck building sacrifices, for example), it should be harder to answer. We try to give players a variety of answers so that players can react to the metagame accordingly and a variety of threats so that players can adapt to the removal that is being played. This philosophy is still a work in progress, but we are finally beginning to see the results with Ixalan and beyond. I'm looking forward to Ixalan Prereleases kicking off tomorrow. I can't wait to see how the set plays out!

Until next time,

Melissa DeTora

Play Design Story of the Week

Written by Allen Wu

As a commentator, Ian Duke is known for his sultry baritone and crisp analysis. As a designer, Ian is known for his flawless intuition. As a civilian, Ian is known for his looks and equally dashing brother. But if you haven't interacted with Ian personally, you wouldn't know just how honed and biting his wit is.

Today's Play Design story comes from our regular meeting in which we discuss cards to change based on our experiences in FFL. The main topic that day was a red aggro deck Paul Cheon built that was proving slightly too resilient. We don't mind when red decks are powerful, and we aren't opposed to giving them late-game tools, as the Ramunap Red deck from this past Standard format shows, but we try to make it so blocking remains an effective strategy. For example, Ahn-Crop Crasher and Earthshaker Khenra are powerful tools for getting around blockers, but creatures like Catacomb Sifter and Whirler Virtuoso that generate multiple blockers get around those cards and can effectively stifle Ramunap Red's ground offense.

In our meeting, I complained that I'd built a green midrange deck to try to go a half-step over Paul's red deck but had still repeatedly lost to it. And while my point was valid, my framing was slightly off. In FFL, our goal isn't to statistically determine whether or not a deck is too powerful. We just try to make sure each strategy we're pushing has the tools it needs and no cards cross the line. Ultimately, it doesn't matter who wins or loses.

Ian didn't hesitate to pounce. "Don't worry, Allen," he reassured. "We'll get you your Ws."

Latest Play Design Articles


April 30, 2020

Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths M-Files – The Humans and Everything Else by, Jadine Klomparens

Welcome back to the M-Files! Jadine Klomparens here to bring you a behind-the-scenes look at how the cards in Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths came to be. This time around, we're taking a look...

Learn More


April 23, 2020

Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths M-Files – The Monsters by, Jadine Klomparens

Welcome back to the M-Files! Jadine Klomparens here to bring you a behind-the-scenes look at how the cards in Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths came to be. Hope you like monsters, because this ...

Learn More



Play Design Archive

Consult the archives for more articles!

See All