We’re living in strange Standard times. The format has definitely seen better days, and there’s reason to suspect things will get worse before we reach the light at the end of the tunnel.

Weaker Cards Banned

Magic’s flagship format, Standard, has seen better days. Cards have been banned for the first time since 2011. These bannings rectified developmental mistakes of a different sort than most: cards like Stoneforge Mystic, Umezawa’s Jitte,, and Arcbound Ravager are dominant staples of non-rotating formats, overly powerful in older formats and broken in Standard. Contrast this with newly-banned Smuggler’s Copter, Reflector Mage, and Emrakul, the Promised End, which are hardly played outside of Standard. They were banned not because of a grossly high power level, but a Standard unable to accommodate them. Emrakul, the Promised End isn’t nearly as busted as Jace, the Mind Sculptor—the format simply wasn’t balanced enough to answer her and made her too easy to utilize.

The problem wasn’t a single card being too powerful, the problem was the finely balanced machinery of Standard wasn’t perfectly calibrated. That’s much a harder thing for development to get right. They veered a bit too hard into pushing threats over answers and they’ve learned their mistake.

An Entire Archetype Missed

That said, development recently made a major mistake. Sam Stoddard has gone on record to say that development wasn’t aware of the Felidar Guardian/Saheeli Rai combo. This could have been due to a last minute change, or been in the files for a while and never seen. While Saheeli Rai combo isn’t considered the dominant deck of Standard (that honor is being fought over by Mardu Vehicles and BG-based decks), it is a top tier deck and one which R&D was completely unaware of.

Unexplored Territory

Standard is in untested waters right now. Three cards are banned (neutering Aetherworks Marvel archetypes and killing WU decks) and an entire deck was missed by development.

Overall, I’m not terribly worried about this situation. The power level of the format is diminished, lessening the odds of an unreasonably broken card defining and overpowering the format. R&D might not have tested this format, but they did test its more powerful cousin with now-banned cards.

No, my big concern is on April 28th, when Amonkhet releases. In October, Wizards announced that Standard was returning to an annual Standard rotation. Given Magic’s release schedule, Amonkhet was likely development-complete by the time of the announcement or very soon thereafter. Amonkhet and Battle for Zendikar blocks were not tested together. They weren’t designed or developed to coexist. We’re wading into a more powerful Standard format, one where Gideon, Ally of Zendikar (the most powerful planeswalker in Standard) gets a six month tour of duty where he was never tested. Cards like Thought-Knot Seer, Eldrazi Displacer, Prairie Stream, Hissing Quagmire, Kozilek’s Return, and Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet are lingering around in a Standard environment they were never meant to see. There’s no telling what new cards they’ll crowd out or interact with in unexpected ways.

Fingers on the Banhammer

R&D is in a bit of a pickle. The Standard bannings sent a shock throughout the format, righting wrongs but also invalidating people’s purchases, and in some cases, entire decks. R&D rightfully hates to ban cards, since they are the ultimate development mistake and hurt confidence in Standard.

That said, confidence in R&D is likely also a bit lower, between the bannings, development completely missing the most powerful combo deck in Standard, and Sam Stoddard acknowledging that the previous Standard was so unbalanced that Collected Company ought to have been banned. R&D has had a couple misses lately. They’ve acknowledged that they have failed to ban cards in the past which deserved banning, suggesting that they feel the need to be more proactive. They’ve banned cards recently.  They’ve since given themselves the ability to ban cards twice as often. There’s a very real chance cards will be banned again soon, either by R&D’s desire to curate this untested format or the need to remove some the untested power BfZ block brings to Amonkhet.

I am excited to see what Magic looks like, once the lessons of the first year of the two block paradigm are implemented in its design. It was a massive change to Magic and there have been some growing pains. R&D made a bunch of experiments, as they do every single release, most of which were successful, but some (and perhaps an unusully large number) of them were less than successful. That said, they’ve heard the community’s response and seen the tournament results. It’s only a matter of time before we see answers better able to answer threats, or green lose its crown as master of card advantage.

Of course, that will take time. Let’s all keep calm as Amonhket and Bolas loom. There’s a very real chance there will be more bannings before the year is done. Magic is an amazing game and will still be here next year, and the year after that, and so on. We’re just living in interesting times right now.

As always, thanks for reading.

—Zachary Barash


Zachary Barash is a New York City-based game designer. He’s played Magic since 1994, but went on a long hiatus, like many folks. He’s currently pursuing his MFA in Game Design at NYU and designing for Kingdom Death: Monster, a game that is most definitely not Magic.

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