Standard Retrospective: HOU Edition

Posted in Play Design on September 1, 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 everyone, and welcome back to another installment of Play Design. This week I'm going to be talking about the current Standard format and how the Play Design team thinks Standard is going. If you were a reader of Sam Stoddard's Latest Developments column, you'll find that this Standard Retrospective is a little different than ones of the past. I'm mostly going to be talking about what is going well, what isn't, and what our plans are to make Standard better.

This year was a rough one for Standard. We made a lot of mistakes and had to ban a few cards as a result. Other designers talked about the bans in detail, so I'm not going to go into what went wrong, but we are taking active steps to not make the same mistakes in the future.

Versatile Answers

The first thing we're trying to do is print more answers. This is something we have said for a while. We work a year in advance, and you guys won't truly see the results of that statement until Ixalan and beyond, but we were able to get a few of these "answers" into Hour of Devastation, one of them being Abrade. Before Abrade, it was too difficult to interact with artifacts without a dedicated answer. We wanted something that was more main-deckable, and Abrade was born.

In Standard, we had spells that could destroy creatures but not Vehicles, Planeswalkers but not artifacts, and so on. Answers were not efficient, and many games came down to having the right answer at the right time. The lack of efficient answers meant it was usually safer to play a proactive deck like Mardu Vehicles or Aetherworks Marvel, and decks like control and midrange really struggled. The existence of strong answers hopes to change all that, and we are starting to see that now with Hour of Devastation.

Ubiquitous Cards

Another thing we are being more careful about is printing ubiquitous cards, specifically artifacts. I've been playing Magic for 20 years and have seen Standard bans since Urza's Saga, and I have noticed that bans occur whenever there is an artifact set. Memory Jar, affinity, Stoneforge Mystic (not technically from an artifact set, but the ban was the result of strong Equipment from an artifact block, Scars of Mirrodin), and Smuggler's Copter were all examples of over-the-line cards and mechanics in artifact-based sets. Artifacts have a unique quality: they're colorless, which means they can go in any deck, regardless of color. If some artifacts are too strong, then suddenly it becomes incorrect not to play them no matter what you're trying to do. Smuggler's Copter was a great example of this. It was the first Vehicle, and we wanted Vehicles to be strong in Constructed, so it was pushed a little too far. Soon after the release of Kaladesh, the majority of decklists that made Top 8 of premier-level events contained four copies of Smuggler's Copter.

Aetherworks Marvel is another example. It has a deck-building constraint in that you need to play energy, but it's another colorless card that enables a combo deck. Despite that you need to build around it, you can build around it with any combination of colors you choose.

Artifacts aren't the only problem here. Sometimes cards are just so strong that it's wrong to not play them, and cards like that make Standard less diverse. Take Gideon, Ally of Zendikar for example. This is a card that I feel is just too strong, especially when compared to other cards in the same format. It requires a specific kind of answer and usually multiple answers to remove it from the battlefield. Even if you have planeswalker removal, you still have a token to deal with; sorcery-speed creature removal can't interact with it, and sometimes the emblem can win games on the spot. This card is just incredibly versatile and too hard to deal with. Strong cards that go in a variety of decks make Standard less diverse overall. We saw Gideon, Ally of Zendikar show up in aggro, midrange, and control decks during its Standard lifetime, and that isn't where a card should be.

Hour of Devastation Standard

Now, onto the current Standard format. I think the banning of Aetherworks Marvel finally put Standard into a good spot. We are seeing a variety of decks in multiple archetypes. Here are some of the decks that have been performing well in Magic Online Leagues and premier-level events, grouped into archetypes.

Aggro

  • Mardu Vehicles
  • Ramunap Red
  • Mono-Black Zombies
  • Black-Green Constrictor

Midrange

  • Temur Energy
  • Red-Green Ramp
  • White-Blue Monument

Control

Combo

  • God Pharaoh's Gift decks
  • Red-Green Pummeler

Takeaways on the format:

  • Players are building around themes and mechanics. Zombies, +1/+1 counters, and energy have resulted in top-tier decks. There are enough strong cards and enough synergy to make the decks function cohesively.
  • Players found single cards to build around. I was really happy to see God Pharaoh's Gift and Approach of the Second Sun decks pop up in Standard. Both of those cards were played tons in our Future Future League, and I feel that we got them to fun spots. We knew there was a chance that these cards would not show up in Standard because they are both seven-mana cards that require you to build your deck in a certain way. If the format was too fast or if the synergy level was too high, these cards just would not have shown up.
  • Good-stuff decks are strong. Sometimes you just want to jam all the best cards in one deck. I think this is a fine strategy and works most of the time, but if synergy levels are too high, then these decks tend not to work. If cards are too ubiquitous or mana is too strong, then these decks will show up too much and the format will be less diverse. The best example I have of this is from Khans of TarkirBattle for Zendikar Standard, where the format was dominated by four-color midrange decks and everyone was playing the same strong cards. In Hour of Devastation Standard, we are seeing good-stuff decks only in the form of Blue-Red Control.
  • There's a good mix of simple and complex decks. We have seen past formats that were much too complex. Eldritch Moon Standard immediately comes to mind. Emerge, delirium, and Emrakul decks were incredibly hard to play. We aren't seeing anything like that in Hour of Devastation. The aggressive decks are pretty straightforward but also have some more complex play patterns with Zombies and Mardu Vehicles. Most importantly, none of these decks is over the line on complexity, and even the straightforward decks have plenty of important and interesting decisions to make.
  • Some of the decks are too parasitic. When decks are parasitic, they will not evolve when new sets come out or when new decks emerge. Energy is an extremely parasitic mechanic and if you're playing a deck like Temur Energy or Red-Green Pummeler, you are really limited on what cards you can play. You really need all energy or energy rewards (or in the case of Pummeler, pump spells). As the format evolves, these decks really won't change—and if these decks are too strong, we will see less churn and more staleness in the metagame.

Hour of Devastation Standard is not perfect, but we are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I think things will only get better. The Play Design Team is gas, we are passionate about Magic and want it to be the best game it can be. Rotation is coming up, and we are about to enter a fresh new world with Ixalan. I'm excited to see what you guys come up with in this new Standard!

Play Design Story of the Week

Last week, a group of young Japanese players visited Wizards of the Coast as part of their Youth Ambassador Program. They got a tour of Wizards, visited some of our local game stores, received infinite Magic swag, and played Magic with game designers from R&D. These kids love Magic and had a great time playing with us. I was really impressed with their skill and how well they knew the game, especially given how young they were. It was great to see passionate kids play the game they love and meet some of their Magic heroes.

Back row left to right: Adam Prosak, Dan Burdick, and Melissa DeTora. Front Row: Future Pro Tour Champion Rintaro Funabiki.
Back row, left to right: Adam Prosak, Dan Burdick, and Melissa DeTora. Front row: Future Pro Tour Champion Rintaro Funabiki.

That's all for this week!

Until next time,

Melissa DeTora
@MelissaDeTora

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