And now, it's time for what you've all been waiting for. The sequel to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is finally here. Why Standard Sucks and How to Prevent It takes a slightly darker tone than the original, but is still full of the same charm. Follow the protagonist as he wades through all kinds of adventures and hijinks with a supporting cast of some of the cutest and most interesting creatures in this magical universe, mere moments before they all get turned into generic 3/3 Elks. It's a hell of a good time…
Standard is incredibly difficult to get right. The last year of Standard was truly a golden age for the format, but that level of diverse and interactive gameplay is a rarity, not the rule. I've written a number of times that Standard is simply a flawed format, and I still genuinely believe that to be true.
Standard's flaw is that the card pool is simply too small to consistently support a strong format. The smaller the card pool, the fewer tools players have to adjust to strong strategies. The fewer adjustments that can be made, the less that the metagame can ebb and flow. The less the metagame ebbs and flows means less variation in gameplay, as you face the same matchups and same play patterns repeatedly.
Repetitive gameplay is the killer of fun in Magic. More than any other factor, repetitive gameplay is the major indicator of a format's decline. Modern is incredibly popular despite being an explosive and high-variance format that often punishes interaction over linearity. It's because the replayability is so high. There are so many viable strategies and people play such a wide range of decks that you get to experience all kinds of fun and new situations in Modern gameplay, no matter how much you play. I love Modern, and this is largely the reason why. Decks that tend to stifle the diversity of gameplay situations and generate repetitive board states also tend to get banned, like Splinter Twin and Krark-Clan Ironworks.
Block Constructed, an old format that eventually died off, was often really bad because it lacked the depth of a card pool to produce fun and diverse gameplay. Block Constructed would often get solved fairly quickly and end up as a format with only a few viable decks. Sometimes the format only truly had one viable deck. It is possible that a one-deck format could be fun, if the deck is sufficiently interesting and malleable enough, and if the gameplay doesn't always follow set patterns, but it is fairly unlikely.
Standard, especially now with only five legal sets, the smallest it ever gets, is basically a glorified Block Constructed. The card pool is small enough that, more often than not, it's going to be really difficult to balance it such that the resulting format is both enjoyable and survives the mob of Magic players trying to break it.
It is possible to accomplish this balance, it's just not likely, and I don't even fault Wizards of the Coast for failing. I do think they have failed with this format, but I also think succeeding with every single Standard format is a herculean task. Still, there are some easy mistakes they've made with this format that replicate mistakes we've seen time and time again, so I want to point them out in hopes that they stop being made.
I'm splitting this piece into two parts. The first part is why I believe this Standard format is not good, and the second part is what I think should have been done differently to avoid this kind of a Standard in the future.
I pointed out above that I think repetitive gameplay is the single most important indicator of whether any format is fun or not. I'd like to reiterate that and be extremely clear about how important I believe that to be. Playing the same game over and over again loses its fun value over time, and takes a lot of the decision making and skill out of Magic, turning it from a game of tough decisions with imperfect information into a scripted exercise. Getting interesting and unique gameplay decisions whenever you sit down to play a game of Magic is what keeps players coming back for more.
Prior to the banning of Field of the Dead, Standard was mostly a two-strategy format, with some variation of the decks that comprised those strategies. One strategy was Golos and Field of the Dead decks, split predominantly into Bant Golos decks and Golos Fires decks, which were based around Fires of Invention. Golos actually created non-repetitive gameplay, for the most part.
Some Golos play patterns did play out similarly between games—unavoidable for any Magic deck—but for the most part, this was not the case. In some games, the deck would ramp incredibly fast to Golos. Other games would involve early interaction and board sweepers. Sometimes the game plans would smoothly transition between each other. The Fires of Invention versions had a near limitless number of ways that games could play out, thanks to Fae of Wishes opening up a plethora of toolbox options.
The other strategy was the base Simic decks, which are based around Oko, Thief of Crowns and Nissa, Who Shakes the World. There were a number of variants on this as well, from Simic Ramp to more aggressive Simic Midrange to Bant Ramp to a more midrange Bant Food build.
The Simic decks are, unfortunately, incredibly repetitive in their gameplay. The base strategy is to find a hand that can either cast a turn-two Oko, Thief of Crowns or a turn-three Nissa, Who Shakes the World. Barring that, a hand that plays turn-three Wicked Wolf or Oko, Thief of Crowns into turn-four Nissa is also acceptable. The first few turns are always going to be ramping with accelerants like Gilded Goose and Paradise Druid and then the next turns are always going to be playing the most powerful card that best utilizes your mana.
The repetitive gameplay of this deck is exacerbated significantly by two factors. The first is the London mulligan. If your hand with this deck doesn't produce an early accelerant and a payoff in Oko or Nissa, it's probably a mulligan. This deck mulligans incredibly well because the cards are so powerful and because duplicate copies of legendary planeswalkers or early ramp creatures can easily be shipped to the bottom of the deck on mulligans, with only a marginal reduction in power of the hand. This deck mulligans often and well, and the power boost from the London mulligan means you can just mulligan any hand that doesn't do the deck's repetitive curve-out draw.
The second factor is Once Upon a Time. Once Upon a Time typically fixes the holes in any opening hand. If you're missing lands, Once Upon a Time finds one. If you're missing an early accelerant, it probably finds that too. The Simic strategies are simply trying to execute a very straightforward series of plays every single game, and Once Upon a Time finding the missing piece ensures that most games will follow this generic and repetitive pattern.
Now that Field of the Dead is banned, it is possible that Standard will devolve into a one-deck format with Simic being the undisputed best deck. This isn't guaranteed. It's quite possible the format will continue to develop after the banning and we end up with a more healthy and diverse format than before. I hope that's the case, but the power level of Simic makes me fear it won't be.
If Simic is the best deck, and it's mostly a one-deck format, and Simic is defined by incredibly repetitive gameplay, then it's not going to be a very fun format. That's a lot of "if"s, but so far things are shaking out this way. I personally have not enjoyed this format in my testing so far, to the point that I believe it is the least enjoyable Standard I have ever played. That may sound like hyperbole, but repetitive formats based around the core principle of "whoever nut draws the best wins" top the list of things I don't enjoy, and Standard is already on my last nerve.
Green is the best at everything in Standard. Green has the best card draw in Hydroid Krasis. It has the best planeswalkers in Oko and Nissa. It has the best early game plays in Gilded Goose and Edgewall Innkeeper. It has the best removal in Wicked Wolf (and to a lesser extent, Voracious Hydra). It has the best interaction in Veil of Summer and Oko, and it even has the best beatdown creatures in cards like Questing Beast, Gruul Spellbreaker, Pelt Collector and friends. It also has the best selection and consistency, thanks to Once Upon a Time.
Green having no-restriction card advantage has proven time and again to be a massive problem in Standard. Rogue Refiner and Attune with Aether were both green card advantage spells that got banned last year, and before that cards like Tireless Tracker, Collected Company and to a lesser extent Courser of Kruphix were format-dominating cards that pushed the envelope on what is an acceptable Standard power level.
Green tends to have the best creatures as part of its color identity. Attaching the best card advantage to the best creatures is bound to create unbalanced formats. Blue and, to a lesser extent, black have drawing cards as a core part of their identity, and suffer from weaker creatures and board presence as a result of this tradeoff. When green draws cards better than those colors do, it strongly invalidates their identities.
Why play mediocre creatures plus tricks, card draw and card selection in blue if you can just play great creatures and get that same card advantage and card selection from green? Why play mediocre creatures and removal in black if you can get great creatures and that same removal in green?
Black is actually incredibly powerful right now. It has some truly insane aggressive creatures in Knight of the Ebon Legion, Rotting Regisaur, Spawn of Mayhem and Rankle, Master of Pranks. It also has pretty good removal in Disfigure, Legion's End, Noxious Grasp, Murderous Rider / Swift End, and Massacre Girl. Still, it just doesn't compare to what green offers, and fails to line up against green decks because of Veil of Summer.
White is suffering from a massive identity crisis. It's unclear to me what white's section of the color pie is supposed to be. White tends to have aggressive but easily removed creatures, board sweepers, and overcosted but universal removal. Sometimes overcosted removal plus cheap creatures can be effective, and sometimes overcosted removal plus board sweepers can be effective, but more often than not white just has a bunch of really mediocre cards and is by far the worst color in Standard. To make up for white being the worst color, they often just give it incredibly over-the-top planeswalkers like Gideon, Ally of Zendikar or Teferi, Hero of Dominaria so that people are begrudgingly forced to play it.
Having all the power in Standard concentrated into one color is not healthy for the format and does things like invalidate a whole lot of potential strategies. Three-color decks benefit from an increase in power level over single or two-color decks, but the tradeoff is a lack of consistency in their mana bases. When you can get the power of three colors in one color, there's no reason to bother with things like that. Why play an inconsistent-but-powerful three-color deck when you can just play an incredibly consistent and just as powerful mostly single-color deck?
The last problem with this Standard format is one that has also reared its head several times in the past. I've long gone on record saying that cards like Llanowar Elves are very scary cards to print in Standard, because they make Standard about nut drawing your opponent before they can react instead of playing an interactive game. Last year, Llanowar Elves was held in check by Goblin Chainwhirler, red's incredible power level, and a lack of other powerful green cards to accelerate into, but simply printing that card is incredibly dangerous.
One of the fun things about Magic is interaction. It's what separates Magic from other games. I'm not suggesting that Magic should be solely about interaction, but some amount of interaction is great and fun.
Interaction is typically non-repetitive. Yes, Tyrant's Scorn killing Knight of the Ebon Legion will happen over and over again if those are highly played cards in Standard, but when to time those effects, or whether to play the Tyrant's Scorn or another card instead are all decisions that create unique and interesting games of Magic.
The opposite of interactive Magic is nut-draw or snowball games of Magic. These games involve one player jumping to an insurmountable lead by executing their deck's nut draw—in other words, curving out perfectly—and the other player having no recourse against it. These early advantages snowball, building on each other to create even more advantages. Your opponent is forced to make suboptimal plays to attempt to catch up, which allows you to press your advantage, forcing even more suboptimal plays out of them through desperation. This compounds on itself, nearly always resulting in victory for the player with the nut draw. Even if the opponent has the tools to win, sometimes they have to deploy them so suboptimally in order to merely survive that it doesn't matter.
A deck having a nut draw is totally acceptable in the confines of Standard if it either happens infrequently enough that it isn't problematic, or if effective counterplay exists in the format. Currently, the nut draw of green decks happens incredibly frequently, thanks to Once Upon a Time massively increasing the consistency of finding those cards. The green nut draw also lacks effective counterplay, because a turn-one accelerant like Gilded Goose far exceeds the acceptable power level for acceleration in Standard.
One of the most fun things to do in Standard is to attempt to solve the puzzle of the format. Standard produces a metagame over time of top decks, and it's enjoyable to work on figuring out how to beat those decks. I love trying to come up with strategies, card choices or plans that I think I might be able to execute to beat the best decks.
It's much harder to accomplish this in a format that is all about nut draws and snowballing. For one, your plan might not be effective against your opponent's nut draw, drastically reducing the times where it can win you a game. Secondly, even if it is good against your opponent's nut draw, if the crucial turns of the game happen on turns one and two, you've seen fewer cards by that point in a game and thus are less likely to find the cards you need. If, by turn four or five it's too late anymore for your plan to be relevant, then your chances of winning are entirely reliant on your opening hand, and not on the cards you put in your deck to draw over the course of a game.
Formats defined by nut draws and snowball games often feel like flipping coins. The person on the play tends to have a massive advantage in these kinds of formats, making the die roll incredibly important. Furthermore, if both players are playing decks designed to execute a nut draw that lack recourse against the opponent's nut draw, then it considerably reduces the role of skill. It can feel like you have no agency over the outcome of the game and that gameplay is reduced to both players flopping their opening hands and top 2-3 cards on the table and seeing whose is best. That's more suitable to games like War than Magic.
I think the biggest thing by far is to stop giving green generic card advantage cards like Rogue Refiner, Tireless Tracker and Hydroid Krasis. These cards can just go into any green deck and be really good, and they invalidate entire colors who rely on card advantage to make up for their otherwise underpowered cards.
I do believe that green can have access to card advantage, but it should be in the form of what I call an engine. Engine decks are actually my favorite kind of decks. You assemble a series of cards that together will form an engine that generates advantages. In other words, it's card advantage, but it requires that you work for it.
A great example of a green-based engine deck was Junk Reanimator from the days of Innistrad and Return to Ravnica. Once the Unburial Rites and Angel of Serenity engine got rolling with that deck, it would generate a lot of two-for-ones and advantages, but it required setup and work to get going.
An example of a current engine card is The Great Henge. This card is very powerful and creates a lot of advantages, but requires that you work for it, and by itself it doesn't create card advantage. You can't just throw it into your deck, like Tireless Tracker, and have it always be good. You have to build and play around it.
Another current engine card is Edgewall Innkeeper. This card is borderline too good because it comes down on turn one, before the normal turns of interaction in most Standard formats, and creates nut draws that are sometimes way too hard to come back from. With that said, this card also requires that you build your entire deck to maximize it. You have to play a ton of Adventure cards in order for it to be good, which is a big deck-building constraint to reap the card-drawing rewards.
I also think that green should not have better card selection than blue or red. Blue and red have looting and rummaging (respectively) as part of their identities to give them a chance to turn their garbage cards into the right ones for the matchup. Since the power of the cards in blue, and oftentimes red too, are usually lower than what other colors have access to, these abilities to increase consistency are needed to keep pace. When green has cards like Once Upon a Time that give them significantly better selection and consistency then these blue and midrange red decks, then what really is the point to playing those colors, outside of all-in red or burn?
Easy at-least-two-for-ones like Nissa, Who Shakes the World and Wicked Wolf are also likewise a bit too much card advantage for green. Nissa turns excess lands into creatures every single turn of the game, creating untold amounts of card advantage by making sure you can't really flood out. Wicked Wolf is a Nekrataal that also prevents your opponent from easily attacking through it or using removal on it. These cards don't say "draw a card" on them like Rogue Refiner, but they still produce a ton of card advantage compared to what other colors can muster up.
Finally, Veil of Summer is just way too good a card. I actually think these kinds of counter-counter cards are totally acceptable for green's color identity, but this version in particular is just too powerful. Veil of Summer, or one-mana Cryptic Command, completely destroys any chance for blue or black-based decks to hope to compete with green. I also think Veil of Summer will eventually have a lasting negative impact on formats like Modern, Legacy and likely even Pioneer, the new format. I imagine this card will soon get very tiresome in those formats, if it isn't already.
To create balanced formats, white has to have an actual color identity that allows it to compete on an even footing with other colors without requiring a generically pushed card like Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. I desperately want to do one of those really condescending tweets with the clap emoji between each word that says "Gaining. Life. Is. Not. An. Identity."
I have an idea of what I think white's color identity should be. I think white should really lean into and maximize the punisher and taxing element of white cards. The best white cards in older formats tend to all be incredibly punishing sideboard cards or punisher tax effects that make it hard for your opponent to play the game.
White creatures should provide proactive disruption to delay or prevent your opponent from developing their game plan, and they should be pesky. Hard to get off the board. I like the idea of white creatures coming with a one-time use indestructible or protection shield, kind of like what Kira, Great Glass-Spinner provides. I was talking to Brad Nelson about this and he suggested persist as a good white creature mechanic, and I also agree with that.
If white creatures are hard to get off the board, then a white deck could thrive by either going wide with pesky creatures or by pairing pesky creatures with disruption. Both seem like totally reasonable styles of decks and both seem like the kinds of decks that we've seen be an appropriate power level for Standard before.
As for proactive disruption elements, I think things like "Your opponent can't activate planeswalker abilities" on a 2/2 creature that has a protection bubble is exactly the kind of effect that white needs. Other examples of good taxing effects are things like Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, Thalia, Heretic Cathar, Leonin Arbiter and Spirit of the Labyrinth.
A current example along the lines of what I'm talking about is Tithe Taker. I think Tithe Taker is a bit too weak for what is needed, but I'd like to see more of this kind of effect.
Another effect that I want to see white get is removal that doesn't create an obvious ticking time bomb scenario. A card like Prison Realm, Conclave Tribunal or Glass Casket just creates this subgame where you have to constantly worry about how screwed you'll be if your opponent manages to remove it.
I really, really liked the design of Baffling End, where your opponent never gets their card back, and instead they get something else. I also really like Palace Jailer. That card is a little too good, but I like that the condition for your opponent getting their card back isn't simply removing the Palace Jailer but accomplishing something else entirely.
I want to see some Baffling End-type cards for planeswalkers, so your opponent doesn't get a full loyalty planeswalker back, at the timing of their choice, if they manage to have a way to remove your enchantment. For white to be a playable color, it has to have playable removal, which means significantly less conditional removal that creates these terrifying ticking time bomb scenarios.
In a healthy Standard format, the critical turns of the game typically happen around turn three to four at the earliest. The critical turn is the turn where one player can take a huge advantage if the other player can't effectively match or react to what they can do. Turn three or four is deep enough into the game that both players have seen a reasonable number of cards and have had a reasonable chance to develop.
In our current Standard, the critical turn of the game is turn one or two. If your opponent leads on a Gilded Goose, then you have an extremely limited window to do something relevant before they accelerate into things you can't deal with. If your opponent leads on Edgewall Innkeeper, you have a small amount of time to do something relevant before they bury you completely in card advantage.
This is way too early for Standard, where the list of relevant one-mana interaction is extremely short. Cards like Shock and Disfigure can interact with these plays, but those cards aren't good against the rest of those decks. The other problem is that you basically have to have these cards in your opening hand or they will be too slow and the damage will already be done. If the answer is that you have to mulligan to these cards, then you're left throwing away perfectly playable hands to find ones with early interaction that isn't even good against your opponent's deck except to stop their nut draws. Stopping the nut draw isn't even winning the game, it's just not dying immediately.
We've seen this be a huge problem before in past formats, and not just with one-mana accelerants like Llanowar Elves or Gilded Goose. Kaladesh Standard had an extremely early critical turn with cards like Bomat Courier, Scrapheap Scrounger and Heart of Kiran being powerful early plays that demanded an immediate response or you would just die to them. Even though ample tools existed to deal with those cards, like Fatal Push, Magma Spray and Abrade, the best deck still utilized these cards, because it is a lot to ask your opponent to have a playable hand that also has one of these cards. Even if they do manage to stop your nut draw, you just continue to play a normal game of Magic which they also have to match pace with.
I think one-mana accelerants or one-mana must-answer threats are way too good for Standard because they push the critical turns of the game up to unhealthy levels. I wish WotC would stop printing these cards, because time and time again they have shown that with the right support, they have the power to completely ruin the format. I still have nightmares about how hopeless it felt to play against Elvish Mystic into Courser of Kruphix, and it feels the same way when your opponent curves Gilded Goose into Oko. Worse, really.
I don't even think three-mana planeswalkers are inherently a problem. Event cards like Teferi, Time Raveler or Oko, Thief of Crowns aren't too good for Standard on their own. Oko or Narset, Parter of Veils can create games where the critical turn of the game is turn three, but that's entirely reasonable for Standard. However, playing one of these baddies on turn two is way too good for Standard to the point of absurdity. The difference between turn two and turn three is astronomical.
I saw a lot of discussion about people suggesting that they also ban Nissa or Oko alongside Field of the Dead. I honestly don't know what should or shouldn't be banned in Standard, and it's still pretty early in the format, but my next pick would have been Gilded Goose. I think without turn-two Oko or turn-three Nissa (minus Leyline shenanigans) the critical turn of the format would slow down enough to be reasonable.
Delay the critical turn of the game by not printing cards that can either allow for powerful three-mana plays to be played on turn two, or cards that snowball card advantage when they come down on turn one and don't get immediately removed, like Edgewall Innkeeper. This promotes gameplay where interaction is a relevant option, and some amounts of interaction is what makes Magic great.