Every time a new set comes out, I get really hyped for Standard. I do. I love brewing with new cards. I love finding obscure interactions, or using big, dumb idiot cards, like Lochmere Serpent, to build around and have fun with. (And to be fair, Lochmere Serpent put up some solid results!) And it seems more and more with recent sets I'm let down. Now, I know, a good portion of this disappointment is my own fault for trying to make bad cards good, but on the other hand, I've spoken before about the sizable difference in power between the medium cards and the great cards, as well as how few "good" cards are actually printed in any given set. (It's usually something like 30 out of 260.)
A lot of this I chalked up to 2019 being a really lopsided year for Magic design, making a lot of overly powerful cards that seemed to skew multiple formats, but I think it goes back farther than that, and I do worry about the trend continuing into the future, as I already see similar patterns emerging with Theros Beyond Death.
Today I'd like to talk a bit about some of the design problems I feel have been cropping up more and more in Magic, and maybe you can tell me if you've experienced the same feeling.
Every Card is Sphinx's Revelation
The deck which was utilizing Sphinx's Revelation that stood out the most for me was Wolf Run Bant. This was a deck that even had Pro Tour Top 8 appearances. The deck was basically a midrange/control hybrid that looked to close out the game with a really big Kessig Wolf Run activation. The deck had card advantage in many forms, but it was all pretty tame. Take a look at the following cards that were all essentially two-for-ones:
That's pretty much it. Those were all the cards that could provide more than one card's worth of value. The other cards in the deck were usually just utility cards, such as Dissipate, Farseek, or Azorius Charm. Surprisingly, there were zero planeswalkers present in the deck.
The most egregious card in the deck was certainly Sphinx's Revelation, which the deck had four copies of. This allowed the deck to pull way ahead, but it was also only a single card, that could be dealt with by a counterspell. That being said, this was the card that you wanted to deal with, either by making them discard it or countering it, or negating the life gain somehow. If you were somehow able to remove it from the deck, even, the deck actually ends up being pretty tame.
My problem with modern Magic, or Standard specifically, is that all cards have a very real "this must be dealt with" Sphinx's Revelation feel to them. And many of them are uncommonly difficult to deal with.
Take the newest cycle of Gods. My opponent played a Thassa, Deep-Dwelling, and I simply couldn't deal with it blinking things like Risen Reef or Omnath, Locus of the Roil, over and over, turn after turn. I simply didn't have any way to deal with an indestructible creature, that isn't actually a creature most of the time. And maybe that's on me, but I really don't think it is. This is a card that has very niche answers to it, and there are any number of cards that allow it to snowball out of control.
Take the previous gods, from War of the Spark. Cards like God-Eternal Kefnet, which you have to deal with every three turns, or find a way to win through it.
Then you have planeswalkers, like Nissa, Who Shakes the World and Oko, Thief of Crowns (I knew we hadn't heard the last of this guy). These are both planeswalkers that take over a game on turn three or four and, without a specific answer, will overwhelm you in board advantage; one of them so much so that it was banned. (The more you know!)
Bolas's Citadel is a card I played in about four out of six matches today. In one of them I was at literally 20 life, after gaining life turn after turn from Uro. The opponent managed to kill me in one turn, thanks to one Gray Merchant of Asphodel and innumerable Cauldron Familiar and Ayara, First of Locthwain triggers. It was miserable, and fairly uninteractive, and they didn't even sacrifice ten permanents to Bolas's Citadel, even though they could have.
The same can be said for certain creatures, such as Wicked Wolf, Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath, or Hydroid Krasis. At the peak of its time, we had Thragtusk, which was close to the most value you could amass from a creature, and it was a format staple. It presented a healthy amount of value and it was simple to kill. How many times have you played against a Wicked Wolf and knew you were never going to be able to remove it from the board? This efficiently brings me to my next point...
Too Many Engines
Say what you want about cards like Bloodbraid Elf into Blightning, or Jace, the Mind Sculptor all by himself, but these cards weren't "engines." They were powerful, and they allowed players to pull ahead incrementally, but they didn't force the advantage bar in the complete opposite direction. Huntmaster of the Fells, for example, was a format staple at the time. It was a fantastic creature, but I never felt helpless against it.
Now, keep in mind I've only played about eight matches of current Standard so far, but they were all pretty grueling and grindy. Every single deck seems to have some sort of engine that amasses huge amounts of card or board advantage, among a number of different permanent types. Even fairly innocuous commons and uncommons like Witch's Oven and Cauldron Familiar become an almost non-interactable combo and can easily be splashed into almost any Black deck. Sure, you can play specific cards like Legion's End, but the question becomes... should you have to? And even when you do, you're just as likely to face something like Risen Reef and Thassa, Deep-Dwelling; another engine that gets out of hand far too easily.
In one game I had about five cards in hand, and the opponent had none. They drew a Risen Reef, which hit another Risen Reef, which hit an Omnath, all with a Thassa on board. At the end of the turn they had about six cards in hand and a full board.
Trail of Crumbs and something like Gilded Goose is another powerful engine. The Standard format is basically full of engines like this that amass ridiculous amounts of card advantage by recurring actions. One of my regulars in Twitch chat, Bret, was so amused by it that he said he was going to make a Commander deck that just put 20 triggers on the stack without actually doing anything, because that's kind of how Standard looks from the outside. It's a death by 1,000 cuts format right now. All of the top decks just churn through cards and 1/1 creatures and artifact tokens until you're basically too overwhelmed to block correctly or remove the correct component of the four-card combo that's on board.
The problem is that every card is a haymaker, even the non-haymakers. There are so many cards in Standard that have to be dealt with, or you'll simply get overrun by them, and a lot of it is a synergy issue. One Mayhem Devil is fine on its own, but the entire deck that surrounds it won't forgive you if you let the opponent untap with it in play. I feel like now, more than any other time in Standard's history, it's nearly impossible to tell who is going to win a game from one turn to the next. Losing in one turn from 20 life. An opponent going from an almost empty board and no cards in hand, to multiple creatures and six cards. The advantage bar swings more wildly now than I can ever recall it swinging before, and it's almost comical how far ahead you can be, only to fall behind on the following turn.
This was the main reason I wasn't nearly as hyped about Nyxbloom Ancient as everyone else was. I know all too well that a seven-mana creature that you need to untap with and does nothing when it enters the battlefield just isn't going to have the effect people want on the format. Sure, Ali is going to find the best way to break that dude, but that's likely the extent of it.
Is Standard the most miserable format ever? No, of course not.
Is it unsalvageable? Not at all.
Is it possible that I'm the only one who feels this way? Sure.
But I bet I'm not.
This is a topic and a feeling that I've had for a long, long time, and I think it is the sole reason I find myself shying away from Standard more and more, as my appreciation for formats like Pioneer grows. The thing is, I love new cards. I want to play with cards like Ashiok, Nightmare Muse, Atris, Oracle of Half-Truths, and Dream Trawler, all of which seem like reasonable fair, and self-contained cards. I just don't want to have to trudge through every cat, elemental, food scrap, and kitchen appliance to do so.
I'd really love to hear what you guys think in the comments. Am I overreacting? Thanks so much for reading, as always, and be sure to use promo code FRANK5 to get 5% off all your orders! I love you guys, and I'll see you next week.