This week I decided that I'm going to address the elephant in the room: the health of Standard. Standard is the format I currently play the most. That is the case for many others as well. Yet at the same time, there has been a lot of public outrage about the format over the past few years. In many cases the complaints revolve around certain colors being unbalanced, or a specific card being too strong.
Rather than simply blame Wizards of the Coast for printing overpowered cards, I want to dig deeper and try to identify why recently it seems like Standard is consistently unbalanced. I would love it if players were happy playing Standard, but the sad truth is that there is much more negativity surrounding the format than there was a few years ago.
Recently we had an announcement that included the banning of two cards and a complete change to how the companion mechanic works. You would think that these changes would cause a major shift in how players view Standard. Unfortunately, the sentiment still isn't great, because it feels like to a certain extent the bans pushed the format back in time.
There is almost always going to be a best deck that people don't like playing against because of how good it is. This is practically inevitable, so the goal is to have tools available so that players can combat the deck. For every deck, there should be some way to beat it. The issue is that sometimes it seems like no matter what lengths you go to, there are decks that are so good there's nothing you can do other than play them in order to have the best chance to win.
Right now, the best deck is Temur Reclamation. To the surprise of no one, Temur Reclamation completely dominated this weekend, winning both online Players Tour events. Shout out to fellow TCGplayer columnist Allison Warfield, who made Top 8 with the 75 I recommended in my article last week!
Temur Reclamation didn't just do well—it did too well, with a huge portion of the field choosing to play the deck. A healthy format is not when one archetype is more than a third of the field, but that was the case this weekend. This deck hasn't changed that much over the past few months.
Furthermore, there has never been a PT where there were 32 copies of a single card in the Top 8. When every Top 8 deck in a Players Tour is playing four copies of Growth Spiral, it starts to become questionable if these recent changes to the format were actually helpful. Blue and green cards in general have seemed much better than those from other colors over the past year or so—just look at the banned list.
We live in an age when information spreads quickly. Many MTG players use social media like Twitter and Twitch where information spreads easily. Beyond this online play has grown, so it is easier to test and play games online, see what other people are playing, and make adjustments. Cards are getting quickly exploited, and once a deck explodes in popularity the complaints about it being too good start shortly thereafter.
The other piece of the spreading of information is that content creators are incentivized to do this. For example, it is my job to give players useful advice and deck recommendations, which helps the spreading of information. When formats get solved so fast though, decks and strategies often become largely invalidated by the top deck or two people find.
Standard is the primary format on MTG Arena. Many players play exclusively on Arena, especially due to the current global circumstances. This makes players less interested in older formats currently. It also means that there are more minds working hard to figure out the format as quickly as possible.
I think it is widely agreed that the power level of cards over time has increased. Why is this happening? Well, there is pressure to create cards that people want to purchase. In order to accomplish this new cards must in some way be more interesting and appealing than previously printed cards. Unfortunately, creating new and interesting cards that are at the right power level has recently proven to be quite difficult. We have seen the danger of over-shooting and accidentally going above the acceptable power level bar.
Yes, some of this lies with those creating the cards, but sometimes it is hard to predict exactly how a card will do, as WotC only has so many resources they can put into testing cards out. You aren't going to get every card exactly right on power level, and there will always be some that are better than others. Hopefully this gets toned back though, as a card like Oko, Thief of Crowns that is actually broken in every format is not okay.
On the other hand, Agent of Treachery was a reasonable card, and I never would have predicted it would get banned. The key with Agent of Treachery is how strong it becomes alongside Winota, Joiner of Forces or Lukka, Coppercoat Outcast. Whether WotC saw these interactions and thought about how these cards work alongside one another I'm not sure. Identifying cards that are not too strong on their own, but when combined become too good, is very important. Felidar Guardian is innocuous on its own, but with Saheeli Rai it became a format-breaking card.
In order to make formats feel interesting and fresh I believe the frequency of bans (and even unbans) needs to increase. Part of the hype surrounding Pioneer during its creation was the willingness on the part of WotC to make aggressive bans. I believe this played a major role in the format being so successful. Players want to feel like they have something new to explore each week, rather than playing against the same decks month after month. The unfortunate part about bans is their impact on card prices.
Despite the banned list mounting in Standard, it hasn't been enough. WotC is still trying to be careful about not banning too many cards at once. I would have loved to see Wilderness Reclamation and Teferi, Time Raveler banned in the last announcement, alongside the other changes.
Optimally in a format like Standard where there are only a handful of legal sets at a time, each new set that gets added makes an impact and changes the dynamic of the format. Sometimes this is the case, and other times not much changes, depending on the set in question.
An injection of cards every four months in many ways isn't fast enough to keep Standard interesting on its own. The format can be solved, and usually is largely figured out within the first month after a release of a new set. Of course, WotC doesn't have the capacity to produce a new Standard set more frequently than this.
The best way to shake up a Standard format is by rotating sets out of the format entirely. However, this doesn't currently happen often enough. When there is a rotation, that's the best time to brew new decks, and in many ways it's the most interesting time to play.
My suggestion is to have sets leave the format every time a new set enters the format. One set comes in, another one goes out. I'm sure there are some logistical issues behind this that I'm not thinking of, but taking cards out of the format can often be more impactful than adding new ones.
There is an issue with the system, and something needs to change, as history has a way of repeating itself. With bans becoming necessary more often and players not feeling like they are getting the enjoyment they would like from Standard, I'm hoping WotC is taking steps toward solving the problem. Personally, I still like playing Standard, but I have to agree the metagame isn't particularly diverse. I don't know that Standard will ever go back to the way it was five years ago—too much has changed. Unless dramatic action is taken, I no longer am confident we can have a healthy Standard format for a sustained period of time.