Magic players are a fickle bunch.
We're now a week into Strixhaven Standard and the complaints are coming in that the set is underpowered and not really having any effect on Standard. The five new colleges and their fancy gold cards just can't hold a candle to the raw power of Throne of Eldraine and the adventure mechanic, so we're still seeing a ton of Embercleave, adventures, Yorion, and Rogues. There are no cards in Strixhaven that simply jump off the page with raw stats and power.
I'm here to tell you that this is a good thing!
Yes, it is unfortunate that we are in a bit of a holding pattern until rotation. It is clear that the last few years of Standard design have been way off the mark, with Wizards of the Coast turning the power level dial up to eleven over and over again. Even with an astounding six cards banned from it, Throne of Eldraine still continues to dominate Standard with the adventure mechanic and absurdly powerful cards like Embercleave and The Great Henge.
Zendikar Rising and Theros: Beyond Death have their own problems, which isn't even considering how each has a clearly busted mythic (Omnath, Locus of Creation and Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath, respectively) that is already banned. Many of the cards still legal in Standard can be stifling, while also creating gameplay that can be tedious and repetitive. The multitude of bannings has made Standard balanced, but the games themselves often end up boiling down to one of the big, busted cards.
Nothing Before This Mattered
The biggest complaint about Standard right now is how much of it boils down to one of the big cards coming down and invalidating almost everything that happened before it.
You play six or seven turns against your opponent, going back and forth with whatever the main plan of your deck is, until one of the above cards get cast and effectively undo everything that happened in the game before it. All that mattered was the player was able to make it to the point to resolve one of these spells, which is usually enough to win.
We see this even in the more aggressive and midrange decks. So many games come down to Embercleave at a critical time, a The Great Henge that gets to sit on the battlefield for more than one turn, or a Yorion, Sky Nomad creating an insurmountable amount of card advantage for a very low deck-building cost.
Now this isn't exactly news, but what is news is the introduction of Strixhaven to the mix.
Strixhaven is exactly what Magic needs right now.
We've seen these sorts of "power-down" sets before, but they haven't always been super well received (see Mercadian Masques or Ixalan). It's a difficult balance to maintain, as a set without huge flashy powerful Mythics or a major impact on Constructed formats, especially in the wake of power explosion and ban fatigue, is a tough sell.
Yet Wizards of the Coast seems to have really hit it out of the park with Strixhaven for a number of reasons:
We've seen the "color combinations as group entities" theme successfully a number of times, and here it is once again well executed. Each college does a very good job of being clear about what they care about, while also managing to distance themselves from past stereotypes. Lorehold cards feel different than Boros cards, and even the Mono-colored Lorehold cards feel appreciably different than Prismari cards, just like those Prismari cards feel different than Quandrix cards.
Furthermore, while the raw power isn't overwhelming, there's a lot of very cool synergy stuff present in each college. Each college cares about something, which makes you need to build your deck in certain ways to take advantage of all that it has to offer. This is a far cry from "holy cow Bonecrusher Giant is good... oh wait I can play Edgewall Innkeeper too?!"
Making synergy matter makes Constructed more interesting, as well as making Limited and absolute blast.
The Mystical Archives
We've seen older cards reprinted into sets a few times before, from the Timeshifted Sheet of the original Time Spiral, to fancy high-end stuff like the Inventions in Kaladesh. However, the Mystical Archives in Strixhaven are perhaps the most brilliant use of reprints in any set yet.
It's very clear that Strixhaven isn't going to have a huge impact on Standard until rotation, so how could Wizards of the Coast maintain hype around the set and make it still have a big impact without printing cards at the far-too-high power level of Throne of Eldraine? Curtailing power creep in a successful and interesting way is a tough problem.
How about a bunch of awesome, alternate border reprints that will be straight-to-Historic Legal?
While a bit obtuse when first announced, after a bit of thought the Mystical Archives are a perfect solution.
- They get to give Historic its own identity as well as a big shake up.
- They give collectors fancy new versions of cards they love
- They add a unique and amusing element to Limited
Seeing Brainstorm in a format without fetchlands is like seeing the card in a whole new light. Lightning Helix without Lightning Bolt? Memory Lapse without Mana Leak and Counterspell? Taking cards that already exist but putting them into a whole new context is awesome and there's no doubt that it is an exciting time to play Historic. Being able to create major change in Historic while leveling out Standard is an amazing thing for one set to be able to do.
It also fulfills their dedication to providing collectors a million different fancy versions of cards, as well as adding to a Limited environment in a way we've never seen before. With Magecraft being a major factor in Strixhaven Limited, having occasional access to a bunch of great instants and sorceries from Magic's history for your draft deck is exciting and fun. However poor Constructed design has been over the last few years, Limited has been phenomenal and this is just another sweet way to push that.
Give It Time
Strixhaven is a sweet set that accomplishes a very large number of goals simultaneously.
This is an impressive feat, which makes me hopeful for the future of Standard and design in general. We're going to have to suffer through Throne of Eldraine and friends for a little while longer, but it feels awesome to see Standard headed down the right path. I'm extremely excited to see what Standard will look like this time next year, and for the moment very excited to play a ton of Historic and see what the Strixhaven draft format has to offer.
Trust me, this is much better than banning a few cards every few months!