It’s hard to think back and remember when people really liked playing Standard. Did they ever like it? Some people have told me that it was great during Tarkir but I remember Siege Rhino complaints. As my fellow writer Anthony Lowry recently reminded folks, Magic players will complain about anything. The currently in vogue topic of complaint is the Magic story and the members of the Gatewatch. Is it justified?

Most of the concern revolves exclusively around Planeswalkers both in the story and on the cards. In the story, fans are reportedly growing tired of following the same group of characters from world to world where they fight big monsters like the Eldrazi and conclude those fights in what can be called “Dragon Ball Z” style, which is to say they simply have a bigger blast of energy, often charged by Chandra Nalaar.

On the cards there is also a growing concern that highlighting Planeswalkers and pushing them as the face of the Magic brand has resulted in cards like Emrakul and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, to be more powerful than they otherwise would have been. Is the development team overpowering cards that highlight the story in order to make the brand more appealing? Should the game come first and the brand second? These are valid concerns.

Let’s take a look at a few of the concerns the community has voiced starting with two articles by SaffronOlive of MTG Goldfish. In the first piece, SaffronOlive discusses the problem of banning cards more frequently as a way to address symptoms of what is actually a larger problem. The article provides a deep analysis of recent high-level Standard event meta-game breakdowns in the top 8. By looking at the diversity of decks that make the final tables of a tournament, SaffronOlive shows the slow degradation of Standard despite bannings. He then looks for the base cause and comes up with the following.

What we are seeing in Aether Revolt Standard is Wizards’ chickens coming home to roost, so to speak. It’s the culmination of a bunch of small but intentional choices Wizards has made over the past few years as far as the direction of the game itself…Getting new players into the game makes the quarterlies look good and keeps the stakeholders and CEO happy. As such, this doesn’t seem to be a choice motivated by making the actual game of Magic as good as possible but by other exterior forces.

In the past year or two, Wizards has made it clear that it sees Magic not so much as a game but as a brand that it can use to sell merchandise, art books, and maybe even movies someday. The issue is that the push to being a brand rather than a game has had a hugely negative impact on the game itself. We see story cards and mechanics being pushed to absurd power levels…We’ve seen the proliferation of “the Gatewatch,” characters who will doubtlessly be essential to the long-rumored “Magic movie.”

Basically, it feels like Wizards has sold out.

A week later, SaffronOlive was back with another piece for MTG Goldfish specifically addressing Planeswalkers as the face of the game. SaffronOlive continues to lament the Gatewatch, which he derisively refers to as the Jace-tice league, a common name among those in the community unhappy with Wizards of the Coast’s Avengers/Justice League style of storytelling.

SaffronOlive latches on to a common narrative that has been heard in the past few months. The logic is that Magic: the Gathering, as a brand under Hasbro, should be treated like Hasbro’s other action brands. In order to accomplish this, SaffronOlive explains, the brand needs a face. That face is the Gatewatch, and that face needs to be good enough in the game to be the primary focus and the selling point of the product.

The argument continues much like the previous piece, explaining that because Planeswalkers are the face of the brand they have been over-powered by development and therefore the Standard meta-game is continuing to suffer. As Amonkhet previews continue to roll out, Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, Magic Pro Tour Hall of Fame player and writer for Channel Fireball, also addressed the story and the Gatewatch’s influence on gameplay.

PVDDR, as he’s known in the community, does not find the Gatewatch appealing due to their lack of complexity and their stereotyped personalities forced to fit Magic’s color pie environment. He believes the audience has tired of repeated stories with shallow characters.

When reading the story of Amonkhet, I realized that I just didn’t care about the Gatewatch. All I wanted was for the Amonkhet Gods to appear. I absolutely love the story of Amonkhet and its setting, but it’s the world and its characters that I want to see.

This is another common refrain. The fans want to learn more about the new world they’re traveling to, the people and places in that world, and the heroes and villains of that world. Instead, they get more of the Gatewatch in a new world. PVDDR continues by comparing the Gatewatch to the crew of the Weatherlight. This was an ensemble of about a dozen characters who spanned the Magic story from the Weatherlight expansion in June of 1997 through the Apocalypse expansion in June of 2001.

Paulo concludes his thoughts in this section by summarizing much of what SaffronOlive had already written. He agrees that pushing the Gatewatch’s power level on the cards warps the competitive environment creating a burden on professional Magic players (of which Paulo is one). Are SaffronOlive and Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa’s concerns about the Gatewatch valid?

Mark Rosewater, the head designer for Magic the Gathering, made a statement on his blog about the ongoing concerns. He explains that while the plan was originally to have all five core members of the Gatewatch appear in every story, the fans have expressed that this is too much, and beginning with the Hours of Devastation expansion we will see their prominence begin to diminish. The cause for the delay, as always, is that Wizards designs their sets several years in advance of their actual release, and community feedback takes time to manifest itself in the actual game.

The community is correct to be concerned about the health of Standard and the viability of Magic as a brand but is the root cause being properly identified? After all, this isn’t the first time in the history of Magic the Gathering that the Standard environment is unhealthy. There have been three instances in the past where the environment was too warped to go on without cards being banned.

The first such example came in late 1998 through early 1999 when nine different cards were banned from Standard due to power level including Tolarian Academy, Dream Halls, Time Spiral, and, most famously Memory Jar. The next episode came almost six years later in the summer of 2004 and spring of 2005 when nine cards were banned in Standard due to the strength of the affinity mechanic and the power level of Skullclamp.

Each of those scenarios was a clear case of a lack of developmental attention to the Standard environment. In the earlier case in the late 90’s this was because the quality of the development team was not on-par with the quality of the top pro players. Wizards began hiring many pro players to help ensure this didn’t happen again. In the mid 2000’s, the problem was because of a mechanic that development did not fully understand.

Standard remained healthy for another seven years until June of 2011 when Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic were banned thanks to the insanely powerful Caw-Blade deck that dominated the format. This was the first example of a planeswalker’s power level being pushed too high and the result warping the Standard meta-game. It’s safe to say that Wizards learned a clear ceiling on how powerful a planeswalker can be, though they aren’t afraid to keep testing that limit.

All of these cases predate the modern Gatewatch story and none of them were driven by an initiative by Wizards to push the story and brand. In all three cases the problem was developmental. The development team may have been under-resourced or the direction they took could not adequately discover the issue before players did. Why is the current case different?

The reason why players and fans are so ready to blame the Gatewatch for all their problems this time around is because some people genuinely don’t like some of these characters and they make an easy target for ridicule, as shown by the articles above by both SaffronOlive and Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa. In both articles the author’s slip in some insults directed at the characters such as calling the group the “Jace-tice” league or comparing Nissa Revane to Rita Repulsa from the Power Rangers.

Because it’s so easy to paint a picture on the collective backs of the Gatewatch members, the development team is being let off the hook for what is a clearly unhealthy Standard environment. As recently as a few years ago, when Modern was completely shaken up by repeated bannings of the top cards in the format, the fans were ready to point blame directly at development, but not in this case.

Moving away from the Gatewatch being the focus of every story may have been inevitable anyways, but to attach the problems in Standard to the problems in the story is not really getting the whole picture. The shift to two sets in each block as well as the change to an 18-month Standard rotation and the subsequent change back to a 24-month rotation do not get enough scrutiny.

The development team should count their blessings that the creative team is taking the fall for this one. Magic players are notorious for complaining about everything and the Gatewatch have become the poster children for the community’s anger. It will be interesting to see, beginning with Hour of Devastation: if the Gatewatch has a diminished role in the story but Standard is still unhealthy, will fans find a new target for their anger?

What We Learned is a weekly feature here at Hipsters of the Coast written by former amateur Magic Player Rich Stein, who came really close to making day two of a Grand Prix on several occasions. Each week we will take a look at the past seven days of major events, big news items, and community happenings so that you can keep up-to-date on all the latest and greatest Magic: the Gathering community news.

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