I’m posting this before the B&R announcement, because that decision has been made already and nothing I say will be able to influence it. Set design has painted WotC into a corner and they really don’t have any good choices for this B&R update anyway.
Whatever they do, Standard will continue to be mediocre, and a lot of players will be upset. We are mostly stuck with hoping that Amonkhet fixes the format, but more likely waiting until BFZ rotates out.
Anecdotal evidence points to Standard tournament turnup only slightly increasing since the release of one of the most impressive sets of the last five years (AER) and the bannings of two cards that were warping the format (and a third that was already very good and that Wizards argues would have filled the vacuum).
I want to discuss how Standard got into this situation.
Present Standard is a 2.5 deck format.
You have two Tier 1 decks. Mardu Vehicles (Mardu) combines a fast clock, anti-Planeswalker pressure, and a solid removal suite. On average it goldfishes on turn 4.5.
Copy Cat Combo (CCC) plays for lategame power, combining traditional control elements and an over-the-top big finisher play (the combo) that outright wins the game. In this sense it has filled into the role that BG Delirium played prior to the banning of Emrakul.
There was a BG midrange counter synergy deck that was well positioned in the metagame early on after AER launched, until CCC adapted to beat it. The adaptations made to CCC actually made the deck stronger overall against the entire field.
These three decks contain a number of cards that are just better than everything else in Standard.
Heart of Kiran
Gideon, Ally of Zendikar
Saheeli Rai (Note: Not good on its own, but extremely good in its deck)
I’m going to compare these to the best six cards (as I remember them) from a different Standard era. Kamigawa-Ravnica-9th Standard was a very well regarded Standard environment at the time. You’ll notice something different about the list.
Birds of Paradise
Wrath of God
All of the best cards in today’s Standard are hard to answer threats. The best cards from Kamigawa-Ravnica-Ninth Standard were a mixture of utility (BOP), threats (Jitte, Bob) and control elements (Remand, Wrath).
Why are we seeing more pushed threats and less answers?
I’m going to argue that the root cause lies with the Alara rarity reshuffle.
Prior to Alara, we didn’t have anything similar to modern rares or mythics. Instead every pack had a card that was about half way in between the two modern higher rarities. (For example, in 480 packs of KLD you can expect about 4 Saheeli and 8 Scrounger. In 480 packs of RAV you would expect 6 Birds of Paradise).
The rare slot included utility cards (like dual lands), resilient threats such as the (at the time very strong) Kodama of the North Tree, zany build-around me cards that were mostly terrible with the occasional exception, and almost all legends.
Post Alara these cards have been split between rare and mythic rare, with the cards with the larger boardstate impact mostly promoted to mythic, and the utility cards (like dual lands and answer cards) and early game plays demoted in rarity to ‘new rare’.
With five notable exceptions I can name (Lotus Cobra, Mindbreak Trap, Voice of Resurgence, Grim Flayer and Mox Opal – there may be more), utility cards and low-impact plays have not been at mythic but have been at rare.
Instead the mythic rarity has been dominated by threats. Planeswalkers, powerful legends (and some terrible but flashy ones too), and cards with hard-to-manage drawbacks like Inverter of Truth.
This has created a financial incentive for Wizards to reshape Standard to showcase the best mythics.
To do that, they have made it harder to answer these higher rarity threats.
Returning to Kamigawa-Ravnica-Ninth era, there were plenty of cards – including at low rarity – that answered the best threats of the day and answered them well.
Remand, Hinder and Mana Leak provided temporary or permanent answers to the format’s best threats.
Mortify and Putrefy efficiently answered individual big threats. Lightning Helix hyperefficiently answered small ones.
You could even pack enough removal to kill everything your opponent tried to equip a Jitte to, and kill them before that mongrel equipment generated them any value.
Finally Wrath of God answered swarms.
It wasn’t all kittens and rainbows then – you did need playsets of a number of utility rares (Birds of Paradise, shocklands, 9E painlands) to be competitive, and those cards were rarer than they would be today. But Standard overall was much healthier.
Contrast to today.
Yes, there are reasonably good cards that answer some of the big threats.
Unlicensed Disintegration kills the Cat Lady and her cat if you control an artifact, and at least saves you from the combo otherwise. But it is useless against the Scrounger or Gideon.
Fatal Push gets Heart of Kiran, but misses everything else.
Almost nothing answers the Scrounger.
And there are no catch-all maindeckable answers like Putrefy or Mana Leak.
This lack of answers creates an environment where the big splashy mythics can indeed become must-have 4-ofs, which has not really been the case in much of Standard’s recent years.
In that sense it’s a short term bonanza for Wizards.
After SOI everyone needed 4 Avacyn to be competitive.
Then the meta shifted with EMN and you needed 4 Liliana and 4 Emrakul.
Then Kaladesh hits and you need the new Chandra (even if you then decide she was a mistake to buy it’s too late).
Then it’s AER and Heart of Kiran, and new life is found for Saheeli.
But it’s a short term bonanza only.
Standard is Wizards’ #1 cash cow. The present mess is the worst state Standard has been in since Arcbound Ravager was legal. And it’s been a resilient mess, with each Standard since BFZ released varying on a scale from mediocre to awful.
So what’s the solution?
We need cards like Wrath of God, Mana Leak and Putrefy (or the more recent Hero’s Downfall) that provide maindeckable answers that can answer a variety of diverse threats. These need not be the very best cards in the format, but they should be in the top ten.
In the short term, though, the banning decision has already been made and an official article will have been written (but not posted) by the time I post this. There’s really no good options.
Wizards could also pull something unprecedented, go outside of standard policy, and do something unexpected to Standard via something like restricting a card or even adding a card to the format. The last real ‘out of left field’ B&R announcement was the Stoneforge Mystic banning (this card is banned, unless played as exactly the Event Deck list). I don’t expect this and I don’t see any great solutions to the present mess even if we don’t stick in the bounds of present policy.
For what it’s worth (not much, as I neither make the decision nor have influence over the people that do), I’d ban the cat, unban Reflector Mage, and monitor the format closely, hoping to see an interesting balance of UW tempo (possibly splashing), Mardu Vehicles and the various GB strategies that the Crazy Cat Lady is preventing now.
But whatever is done, many players’ pet decks will not be competitive in a week’s time. Either irreplaceable pieces of their deck will be banned rendering it unplayable, or the decision not to ban cards will engineer a metagame where their deck cannot compete.
The longer term issue is that answers need to get better.
Here I want to pose two questions to readers.
Firstly, assuming that we are stuck with the Alara rarity system into the future (which I do not see changing despite my dislike of it), and assuming we are stuck with Wizards wanting some subset of mythics to be played as 4-ofs, how would you feel about more utility cards at mythic? Assume there is to be no change in the proportion of cards at each rarity that sees serious competitive play.
For example, how would you react if this card were spoiled in Amonkhet at mythic (sorry about the terrible name):
Nicol Bolas’ Variant on Doom Blade
Destroy target non-black creature or non-black Planeswalker.
If the target dies this turn and you control a Bolas Planeswalker, you may return the target to the battlefield under your control.
Secondly, presently in large sets, 121 packs contain (on average) 1 copy of each of 15 mythics, and 2 copies of each of 53 rares.
How would you feel about a set size reshuffle, so that instead 121 packs contained 1 of each of 25 mythics, and 2 copies of each of 48 rares? Or perhaps 31 and 2×45?
Note that your odds of opening a specific card would not change. You would open a mythic more often, but have no more (or no less) chance to get the one you specifically want. Similarly you’d be less likely to see a gold symbol, but you’d have the same chance to open a Concealed Courtyard.
Let me know your thoughts either in the comments or on Reddit.
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