"This is possibly the best Standard ever," were Pro Tour Hall of Fame member Paul Rietzl's first words on the subject of this tournament. He was standing with 2014 Magic World Championship Finalist (and also Hall of Famer) Pat Chapin, and Pro Tour Magic 2015 Top 8 finisher Matt Sperling, as the three were solidifying their decklists for the Grand Prix. This deck finessing was nothing new for them. Rietzl even joked about a previous Grand Prix where he was building his deck in the middle of the floor in the tournament hall right before the start of the rounds.
As they looked through some cards, Chapin quickly agreed with Rietzl's bold claim. "It is definitely on the short list," he said. "I mean, I just played nine matches on MTGO and there were no overlapping deck strategies at all." He continued that it's been a long time since this many interesting deck strategies were all viable. "And it changes each week; and even each game has strategies and little battles that make the matches fun."
I asked Sperling his thoughts on the subject, but he smiled and said, "Oh, I don't know anything about Standard," and he pointed back to Rietzl and Chapin. The two continued in kind.
"There are more people now finishing a tournament then saying, 'When is the next tournament?!' I've played some of these match-ups 500 times and I'm still looking forward to playing them again." It's really hard to argue with Chapin on this one. Basically throughout the entire Grand Prix season, a new deck would show itself to be viable—Mardu Midrange, White-Blue Heroic, Jeskai Tokens, Black-Green Constellation, we could keep going. The variety comes from a lot of good cards, and as Chapin was remiss to add, "the good ones are fun."
"But we've been lucky about this great format." Rietzl interjected. Everyone paused, not sure what he meant. "It's only a matter of time before Brian [Kibler] breaks Temur and breaks the format." They laughed, a little at Kibler's expense, but even that dig shows the variety of the format. Not only has Temur finished in Grand Prix Top 8s, but when I later asked Chapin what archetype is the closest to being pushed over the edge, he said "Temur."
But it's not only about a variety of decks that make a good format. As Chapin alluded, it's the strategies within the games and the decks themselves that make or break things in Standard. And that's where Khans has really shined. Rietzl talked a lot about the "fungibility"of the decks and cards. "If you want to play Abzan, the only card you really have to play is Siege Rhino. From there, the rest is up to you."
"Sometimes you play the objectively powerful cards, but sometimes you don't." And that fungible nature of the decks also means that you can "adjust your deck to new 'deck of the week'," as Chapin added.
This also means that cards like Thoughtseize are less powerful than they've historically been. "I think Thoughtseize is the worst it's been in Standard," Rietzl opined. "There is no house of cards that when you take that one card, everything will fold." The decks' nature allows them to function as a whole, rather than rely on a singular card, like, for example Pack Rat.
Additionally, the great depth in the format is in the strategy rather than in the cards themselves. "There are constantly two or three decisions you have to think through; and that's probably the right amount of decisions." Chapin said that Scry 1 is a perfect example of this. The games constantly have little choices to gain you benefits, but they aren't necessarily game-breaking choices each time.
Sperling finally jumped into the fray to agree. "With Abzan Charm, anyone can easily understand what 'draw two cards' means," but knowing when to use which of the modes of the card is the difference in playing well.
The amalgamation of all these different factors is what makes Khans of Tarkir Standard so great. And Rietzl summed it up well: "No one is even grumbling about a Standard ban. I mean, you always get someone calling for something, but that's just not happened."
"Even the [conspiracy theorists] aren't saying anything," Sperling added. And I think that's a great indicator of the format too. If everyone, even in the age of the internet, is satiated, it's an amazing thing indeed.
But nothing gold can stay. Soon Fate Reforged will upend the metagame order we've finally settled into. All three of the players I talked to were excited to see how it could add to the amazingness we already have.
When I asked what Chapin wanted out of the next set, he said only this: "More."
What will Fate Reforged hold? We've seen precious few cards in the preview season, and they are already looking pretty sweet. Only time will tell. But there's plenty of time for that later. For now, this weekend, it's time to celebrate one of the best Standard formats in recent memory. Long live, Khans of Tarkir.