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Proposing an Alternate Standard

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Today we're going to deviate a little from decklists and card reviews to talk about something different: Standard, and more specifically re-evaluating what Standard is. Now, I know what you must be thinking. Me? Talking about Standard? That's not something I've really ever done in my articles before, and for good reason, but boy do I have a lot to say about it. Bear with me on this, because it's going to take a little while to arrive at the point.

I've never been particularly taken with Standard and always found myself jumping more into non-rotating formats like Modern, Legacy, and Pauper. There I could still get into games, but it required a lot less overall upkeep - especially in the latter format, which is why I went so deep in it for so long. Every now and then, though, I have moments where I happily break out a Standard deck and fall in love with a format.

Tempered Steel
Pack Rat
Hazoret the Fervent

Some of my fondest memories involve playing decks like Tempered Steel during Scars-Innistrad, Mono-Black Devotion during RTR-Theros, Blue-White Flash during BFZ-Shadows-Kaldesh, and more. Hell, one of my best tournament showings of my career was when I finished day one of Grand Prix Seattle 2018 undefeated with no byes on the back of Hazoret Red. At the end of the day, it's still Magic and is often one of the most well-supported ways to play the game, so I'll always play it in some form or fashion.

Magic Online used to make that extremely easy for me thanks to loan services and/or affordable card prices. Many of my peak years on the client involved me jamming various decks in Standard, such as the aforementioned Tempered Steel and Hazoret Red, but also decks like Heartless Summoning and even Dragonstorm way back when. Now it's easier than ever with the advent of MTG Arena. The client is simple and accessible, but with it has come problems as well, and Standard has been a big one over the last few years.

Let's face it, design in recent years (especially with the whole F.I.R.E. model) has really burned people and left a sour taste in players' mouths. It's been one problematic release after another and far too many bannings have followed in the process. For perspective, here are all of the cards banned from Standard since the release of Throne of Eldraine:

Field of the Dead
Oko, Thief of Crowns
Once Upon a Time

Veil of Summer
Agent of Treachery
Fires of Invention

Cauldron Familiar
Growth Spiral
Teferi, Time Raveler

Wilderness Reclamation
Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath
Omnath, Locus of Creation

Lucky Clover
Escape to the Wilds

That's fourteen cards! And that's to say nothing of the couple years that preceded it. The year before, in 2018, we saw bans for Attune with Aether, Rogue Refiner, Ramunap Ruins, and Rampaging Ferocidon. Ferocidon even stayed on the list until the very end of Ixalan's life in the format and there was even a best-of-one Arena-only ban on Nexus of Fate because of how dumb it made games. And even this came hot off the heels of the many bans in 2017 thanks to the influence of the Kaladesh block in no small part.

And now we come to 2021. Rotation has just happened with the release of Innistrad: Midnight Hunt and players are already sick of it. Calls for bans have already kicked up in force, with crosshairs being firmly focused on these cards in particular:

Alrund's Epiphany
Esika's Chariot

The cards just do too much, and it feels almost like an issue of not anticipating certain cards in a post-rotation environment. It could be argued somewhat that this also doesn't take into account cards being banned, but here that only really affects Omnath, Locus of Creation, and I can't see it being that different of a format if he were still around. He'd still be a major player, no doubt, but without cards like Fabled Passage, Escape to the Wilds, and Genesis Ultimatum to fuel him - not to mention a notably worse mana base without Ikoria's Triomes - and I can't help but wonder how much impact he'd ultimately have were he still here.

Regardless, right now the format largely feels like a very small handful of archetypes. You've got your Izzet Control lists, and a handful of aggro-focused decks like Mono-Green Aggro, Mono-White Aggro, and Gruul Aggro. It ultimately feels a bit lackluster in terms of diversity, and players are already getting bored and burnt out. Sure, you could play some other decks, but more often than not you'll end up getting steamrolled by many of these top decks. With the proliferation of digital - helped in no small part to the ongoing pandemic - formats are being solved faster than ever, and with a smaller and weaker card pool like this post-rotation, it's hardly a surprise. For as much as pre-rotation Standard had gotten stale and boring, at least there were a bunch of different things you could be doing and still do all right.

Standards past used to have more time to breathe, with the majority of players gleaning results from whatever big GP or SCG happened on the first weekend of release. Now we have sets coming to Arena first before even the paper prerelease. Content creators and grinders race to find the best deck as quickly as possible and services like Untapped.gg help players find the best deck in short order. Essentially, they'll take everything and the kitchen sink and throw it at the wall until they find the decks with the best win rates and fine tune them further from there. What used to be a somewhat natural and organic discovery has turned into an arms race with the best deck already being clearly defined by the time the first big event hits.

This was always somewhat of a thing thanks to the likes of Magic Online in the past. The client has long held big events like the Dailies of yesteryear, weekly Challenges, and Pro Tour Qualifiers (as well as their successors). Wizards publishes a monstrous plethora of lists from these events, and even more still come from the results of their leagues that have been a mainstay for the last several years. This would allow sites like MTGGoldfish to compile all of these lists into a single source and allow players to see just how represented a certain deck was in the meta.

There was still a lot of data missing here, however. When you look at the site, and others like it, what you see doesn't take into account certain factors. The biggest point here is that it compiles all of the decks together in one big pool and doesn't take into account things like if a list finished in 1st more than another deck. This can make a deck show up at the top while a deck that appears lower in the metashare rankings actually has a better overall win rate.

The other thing it doesn't show is the specifics of any given matchup. One reason players like to utilize services like Untapped.gg (among other similar ones I've seen since Arena's inception) is that it actually shows you the stats of how your deck is matching up against other decks. Not only does it show your win rate overall with your deck as well as your others - handy to figure out which is performing best - it also shows you your good matchups vs. your bad ones. This helps you identify which decks are best against what and helps you to strike hard against the meta.

This is new and is something Magic Online didn't have, or at least not to this degree. On that client, to get this degree of info players would often need to keep spreadsheets with in-depth information. Sometimes communities would band together to watch all matches from a major tournament to find out decks, their matchups, win rates, and more. Oftentimes, however, the general public wouldn't see this info, and as such the majority of players didn't get access to this sort of in-depth information. Compare this to now and it paints a picture of just how different things have become.

What's worse is that with MTG Arena, you lack the means to play other formats. With something like Magic Online, you always have whatever you want more or less at your disposal. If Standard bores you, then you can check out Pauper and Pioneer for pretty comparable prices, check out Penny Dreadful virtually for free, or check out the dirt cheap Commander scene on the client. If you have the means for it, then it's also the most accessible way to play Modern, Legacy, and Vintage - especially in these often socially distant times.

Arena, however, gets the weirder and more off-the-wall formats. With no Modern, Legacy, or even Pioneer yet, the options are pretty limited. If Standard bores you, you can always jump over and check out Historic. However, that format has also been riddled with constant changes between bans and a wild release schedule where something new can drop swiftly and damn near unannounced, much like Jumpstart Historic Horizons. Beyond that there's the Brawl formats that certainly don't appeal to everyone and Limited formats which you have to be a veritable god at to be able to play continually.

I've wondered for a long while now how we can possibly fix this issue. I'm no game designer by any stretch, so I can't really pinpoint the specific areas that might need work. The answer in the Kaldesh-Amonkhet days was, well, answers. We needed more of them and the whole thing just felt lacking and tough to deal with. Now it almost feels like the answers got too good as have the threats. There has also been a notable lack of mechanical cohesion with blocks going the way of the dodo, though they've clearly been trying to make this work going forward. Last year it was double-faced cards - which admittedly didn't work the greatest - but now we have the overlapping Innistrad sets.

I also have a feeling sets like Streets of New Capenna, Dominaria United, and The Brothers War will all play into each other somewhat well. We know New Capenna is a shard-color set, after all, and we also have seen Coalition flags in the early art for Dominaria United. I think it's not much of a stretch to assume the return of domain as a mechanic feels likely, and we'll also get plenty of artifice to play into things with Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty and The Brothers War to help make this a bit more feasible as well.

That said, we're still facing a problem with Standard now and frankly, we have been for several years. So, what's the solution?

Wizards has tried many things over the years. For a while, we had a few alternatives in the form of things like Extended and Block Constructed. Extended was phased out in favor of formats like Modern and Pioneer, and while Historic tried to fill this void a bit, it's become something entirely different that's now hard to keep up with. When it came to Standard itself, though, they mostly kept it the same for several decades, but not for a lack of attempting to innovate.

Block structures changed and then went away. Releases and legalities have changed over the years. There once was a time where a set wouldn't become legal until several weeks had passed from the release date. Core sets disappeared, returned, and vanished once more. Wizards even did the unthinkable once and tried to change the rotation schedule to speed things up and make rotation happen more frequently!

Players despised the idea of two rotations a year at the time to the point that WotC soon reversed this announcement, but I've wondered if this might not merit re-evaluation. After all, one of the big points of this argument was the nature of Standard at the time. This announcement landed right around the time when decks would frequently run you hundreds of dollars in what many argue was one of the most expensive Standard formats of all time. There also wasn't as reliable of a way to play digitally at an affordable rate, with Magic Online decks being cheaper, but still fairly comparable in price to their paper versions.

With the advent of MTG Arena, however, this becomes more manageable. A surprise ban isn't fun because people might lose a whole deck in the blink of an eye and not have anything else ready in the interim. With multiple rotations, you know it's coming and can prepare for it. Wildcards make it easy as heck to pick up a new deck, and paper cards have rarely been cheaper thanks to things like set and collector boosters. The problem here, though, is that you end up with a tiny format with a small card pool twice a year instead of once a year, bringing down diversity. What's the solution, then?

The big problem with something like Extended is that it never was that much fun, and the moment Pioneer ends up on Arena it'll just get fully outclassed and disappear once again. It's also too close to Historic to be relevant, even if it's a bit more fixed in that sense. The solution, I feel, becomes to take a different approach to Standard entirely and re-evaluate how the rotation happens. In my opinion, keeping a few additional sets could help manage this by making formats sizable without making it overbearing the way Extended would often seem. After all, the only reason we stick with the four sets rotating at once is tradition and the old block structures of the past. I see two ways of doing this.

The first is the one people most commonly talk about: make it so there's always eight sets using a first in, first out system. Basically, the idea here is that every time a set gets added to the card pool, the oldest set exits. This would mean that with Midnight Hunt coming in, we'd only have lost Throne of Eldraine and with Crimson Vow, we'd be losing Theros Beyond Death. While this does effectively create a rotation once every three months, it's far more manageable to lose only one set instead of four and isn't nearly so drastic of a change.

The other solution is similar, though less frequent. In fact, it's much closer to the double rotation method WotC tried to implement back in 2015 with the release of Battle for Zendikar. The problem with that method, however, is that it only allowed for a maximum of six sets to be legal at any given time. Part of this was concern over the growing complexity of Magic due to smaller blocks, but I think the bigger problem there is how small that card pool is. If they bumped that up to allow two sets to go every six months but have it be the last 7-8 sets rather than the last 5-6 sets, it'd be a lot easier to swallow.

There're probably other ways, but these two seem to have the most potential. Regardless of how they do it, I'd like to see WotC take chances with these kinds of things. It might seem sacrilege to do it, but frankly, they've already done it!

Standard 2022 was an alternate best-of-one queue that let players get a feel for what to expect in Standard before the release of Midnight Hunt - excluding the sets ranging from Throne of Eldraine to Core Set 2021. This format wasn't without its problems and even early on showed the potential issues in cards like Alrund's Epiphany and Esika's Chariot, but I don't think that was looked upon so much because people were just happy to have an alternate to actual Standard. Things had gotten boring and people were really looking forward to rotation, so while some people still enjoyed the current meta of the time, giving players an alternative to explore was like a breath of fresh air.

With Pioneer still in limbo for the time being, this provides Wizards with a perfect medium in which to explore alternate takes on Standard. This could be versions like the ones I mentioned above or else trying something completely different. In doing so, it gives players yet another way to play and escape things when formats get rough and also allows Wizards to see if perhaps players end up preferring something else. If it turns out people are cool with the change, it could even lead to changes in how Wizards defines Standard and could change the nature of the format for the better.

Even if they do change it, you know what they can still do? Keep the original Standard formula around on Arena too! Call it something like Classic Standard or something else like that. Some players - particularly the older ones - are always going to be sticklers for that classic way. Standard's been the same way for nearly thirty years, and that causes people to end up pretty stuck in their ways. It doesn't really cost much - if anything - to cater to them as well, but after thirty years, it's probably time for innovation to take the wheel.

Whatever the case, it's clear that something has to change, and soon. Wizards works years in advance, so I wouldn't even be surprised if they already had something in the works following the reception of the sets released in the 2019-2020 season of Standard releases. I just hope they act on it sooner rather than later, because I - like many players - hate seeing it struggle the way it has over these last few years. Fixing the card designs is one thing that can and should be done, but that's not always as easy as it seems, so having safety valves such as an alternate format can go a long way. They can make the change for the better, but ultimately they have to be the ones to make it a reality. I just hope they do so sooner than later.

Kendra Smith

Twitter: @TheMaverickGal

Twitch: twitch.tv/themaverickgirl

YouTube: Kendra Smith

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