Dear Wizards of the Coast’s R&D Department: About Standard…
Yes, Standard is a 3. People are unhappy. We get it. This article isn’t about how Standard sucks. It’s about what made it suck and how it could have been avoided. I would have done this on Twitter, but there’s just not enough space to really talk about anything in-depth. Let me preface this by saying that I’m not a developer for a game. I don’t have the extensive design experience that those at Wizards of the Coast have. I’m hoping 16 years of non-stop MTG playing and tournament experience helps me here.
You see, when people complain about cards or strategies all WoTC does is avoid making similar cards or enabling those strategies (pretty much how they handle Combo cards in Standard), either that or make them extremely tame. That kind of thinking seems to miss the mark entirely. Everyone may complain about Emrakul, the Promised End, that doesn’t mean you can’t print another big monster with a Cost Reduction-effect. Just because they complain about its Mindslaver trigger doesn’t mean you can’t print more Mindslaver-ish cards. As a designer, it’s about being careful on where you tack on that effect and what surrounds the card in question.
Emrakul in itself is especially egregious. If it were a Flying, Trampling monstrosity with protection from instants and was a 13/13 that controls opponents’ turns for 13, that would be fine. However, it’s not. It often costs a mere 7 mana or 8 mana. What other 7-mana or 8-mana spell does that in the format? A quick Gatherer search comes up with, well, nothing. Here, see for yourself.
You could argue that at 8 we have the Eldrazis with Emerge; let’s be real though, they hardly ever cost the full 8. We usually cast them for 3 to 5 mana by sacrificing Haunted Deads and Prized Amalgams. Emrakul, in its current form, shouldn’t be a 7-mana creature. As a designer, if I wanted people paying that amount of mana for it, then the abilities would have to scale as well.
In the story, Emrakul controls other beings (except Zombies), say you wanted to keep that flavor. How do we capture that and have it be appropriate for a 13/13 Flying, Trample, Protection from Instants that sometimes costs 7 or 8 mana? Maybe keep it to creatures and Planeswalkers?
When you cast ~ gain control of target non-zombie creature and/or Planeswalker an opponent controls.
No end of turn trigger so that you can keep the permanent. Still powerful. Still annoying. But not game breaking, and you still get the hunk of a beast. Is that not enough? Now, if you really want to keep Emrakul’s abilities intact, then don’t give it a Cost Reduction ability. Have it cost 13 and give us a better ramp spell so that people can actually cast it in a reasonable amount of time; we already have Shrine of the Forsaken Gods to help us out.
The latter touches on the subject of what surrounds the cards in a set. Cards don’t exist in a vacuum, they are designed within a context similar to how characters exist in a novel. They are surrounded by a living, breathing world that affects them and shapes them in some way. If you make your main character nearly invincible and opposition easy, readers will get bored. There’s no conflict, yet if you make the villain invincible, then how can you root for the main character?
For the first one you have two options, you either bring down your character to a point where his or her trials are an actual challenge, or you bring your trials to the level of your character. In literature, both are fine, but you have to be careful with how you scale them. It’s more difficult to find trials that can compete with a nearly invincible being than to find trials that can challenge a slightly above-average one.
In Magic, you can equate this to answers versus threats. R&D has pushed some threats so hard, that a lot of the answers fall short. They have basically created threats that essentially pass the “dies to removal” test, and then stopped printing decent or efficient removal altogether. Other than Grasp of Darkness and the, oftentimes, slow and cumbersome Declaration in Stone, the best removal spells have all been pushed to three-mana. Thus, we consistently end up trading down with our removal. Murdering a Grim Flayer? Net one mana for the opponent. Trying to Murder a Copter with a Selfless Spirit in play? The amount of tempo you lose is a real thing. Stasis Snare in a world where people need to side in Appetite for the Unnatural and Fragmentize for Copters and other Vehicles makes it unwieldy. So, even if you answer that Emrakul with Stasis Snare, rest assured that a drawn Appetite will undo all the work. Not to mention, that some of the better removal spells like Ruinous Path, are Sorcery-speed, thus even if you can kill Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, Smuggler’s Copter will continue to cross the Red Zone unhindered. On the bright side, Ruinous can hit Emrakul… if your opponent doesn’t use it on something else when they control your turn.
The few cheap answers we do have are all conditional, making them unreliable a massive amount of the time. They say “restrictions breed creativity,” which is true for the most part, except when the power of the rest of the pool pales in comparison to four or five cards in an entire 3-block card pool; all it breeds is a stale format where you have to play in certain colours because everything else can’t compete.
There are over 1,000 cards in the current Standard. But then I can’t play a White deck without Gideon somewhere in my 75. I can’t play a Control deck because UW out Tempos me, or a resolved Gideon is near impossible to beat. Additionally, Control can deal with all of Delirium’s threats, yet the strategy itself doesn’t close out games quickly so Delirium can edge out a win with Emrakuls. It’s hard to deal with all of Delirium’s monsters and Planeswalkers (especially if they keep recurring it with Grapples and Lilianas) and then have anything left for the Emrakul. Even if the Eldrazi gets Void Shattered, for example, the Mindslaver ability could be the end of you.
Aggro decks all need to play Smuggler’s Copter, otherwise they can’t be expected to compete with the rest of the format. Even then, right now? Despite seeing some Mardu Aggro decks Top 8 or win a GP, the rest of the field has kept the Aggro numbers at a minimum. Instead, we see the metagame pie be devoured by GB Delirium, UW Midragane/Flash, and GR Aetherworks.
The latter brings me to another interesting point. There’s a portion of the community that’s complaining about Aetherworks. Complaining about how the deck can use it repeatedly and it’s interaction with Emrakul, and I’m afraid of Research and Development taking these cries at face value and stop printing cards like these. Aetherworks is essentially the combo deck of the format and if they stop printing them, we might eventually see the actual death of Combo. So, instead, why not give it the Emrakul treatment from earlier—let’s tweak it.
First of all, Aetherworks is a card that’s purely contextual. It highly depends on whatever it is surrounded by. Without Emrakul or Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger in the format, we might be casting Elder Deep-Fiends and Distended Mindbenders. There is an ocean of difference between casting a 5/6 that taps 4 permanents for a turn or a 5/5 that discards (potentially) two cards from you, than a 13/13 Trampling, Flyer that controls your turn and a 10/10 indestructible creature that exiles two of your permanents and mills you 20 cards whenever it attacks. Let’s go a step further, have you seen an Aetherworks whiff? You know… when the best thing it gets is a Chandra or a Puzzleknot? Not so scary, huh? Maybe it’s not the Aetherworks after all.
Second of all, Aetherworks’s actual problem right now is not that it can play any card in the top 6 cards, it’s that it can “cast” them. If the card read: “… you may put a permanent from the top 6 cards of your library onto the battlefield,” the world would be quite different. Emrakul, Ulamog, and the Emerge posse wouldn’t trigger. Sure, you still get giant, hard-to-deal-with monsters, but you don’t get the crippling “cast” abilities that accompany them. You still get a chance!
See how minor tweaks could change how everything can play out? Gideon could have not had the indestructible clause when it became a creature so that Unlicensed Disintegration could kill it and add a bit more strategic depth to playing Gideon. The simple act of removing one word from its text box would have made the format that much healthier and interesting.
What about Smuggler’s Copter? It could’ve been a 3/2. Making it so Harnessed Lightning could kill it even if it was crewed by a Veteran Motorist or a Depala, Pilot Exemplar. Maybe not have it loot. Just make it a 3/3 Flyer. Perhaps make it cost 3 mana or up the Crew cost to 2.
Simple fixes to these cards would have been enough to keep them from overwhelming formats. Furthermore, as it stands, if designers really felt like leaving everything as-is, the least they could have done was give us worthwhile answers like Pithing Needle. Even a Phyrexian Revoker functional reprint would have been ideal. Print efficient answers like Hero’s Downfall, Naturalize, etc.
In general, the biggest problem, is R&Ds constant need to unnecessarily push cards for Standard play. Every time, every single time they do this, they end up banning or writing articles apologising to players. It happened with Collected Company. It happened with Siege Rhino. It happened with Jace, Mind Sculptor and Batterskull (or, rather, Stoneforge Mystic), and happened with Phyrexian Mana.
This needs to stop.
The aforementioned tweaks wouldn’t make the cards any less interesting, splashy, or Constructed playable. People would still try to play them and break them. They just wouldn’t dominate. And if ever there is a need to push cards, then put safety valves in place to keep them in check.
We don’t need Rest in Peace for Delirium where Scrabbling Claws could work. It’s a toned down Relic of Progenitus and can take out specific card types in a pinch. Plus, it’s an artifact that could have easily shown up in Kaladesh or the pure flavor of it could have been an Innistrad card.
Moreover, if you don’t want to print efficient removal for Planeswalkers then don’t make them Constructed playable. Either that or print Hero’s Downfall or Oblivion Ring-type cards so that they don’t get out of hand. Possibly a Journey to Nowhere style card that can also get Planeswalkers. Perhaps keep it at 3 mana and Uncommon. Blue can have something akin to Confiscation effects for creatures and Planeswalkers, or reprint Volition Reins or Confiscation itself. Green can have three-mana Bramblecrush-effects with an added non-land clause to avoid Stone Rains in Standard. Red can have a Direct Damge-effect that if redirected to a Planeswalker it deals more damage. For example, have a Searing Spear variant deal 4-5 damage if it’s being redirected to a Planeswalker.
The point is, as a designer, you don’t need to stop printing certain effects. All they need is gentle turning of the knobs, printing of appropriate answers, and to stop pushing cards. Especially stop pushing cards. Let cards find their home by themselves. This is more important now than in the old days. In a world where Standard is smaller than it used to be. In a world where the format is being solved at remarkable rates, why design cards that are blatantly powerful and pushed? It makes our job as players easier. Letting cards find their home by themselves means that players will need to work extra hard to identify what works and what doesn’t.
I think that made sense. Did it? Anyhow! I guess what I’m trying to say is that, I know design is not easy. Especially when there are so many sets on the queue, there’s pressure from corporate to sell cards, so there’s a need to make some obvious ones to make the set appealing. However, this comes at the cost of tournament attendance and player satisfaction. It comes at the cost of players’ wallets that can’t afford a playset of a 60-70 dollar Mythic. Something that was promised to players was not going to happen when Mythics were introduced.