If you just finished up Part 1, you’re probably like, “Cool, dude. Nice words. But what does this experience you’re talking about actually look like?”

This series was inspired by reading an article LSV wrote about “Dimir Rogues” several years ago, thinking it was a sign of the apocalypse, and being curious enough to pay attention over the ensuing interval of time to calibrate whether I was smart or dumb.

The issue with a deck like Dimir Rogues has very little to do with whether e.g. Lurrus of the Dream Den is absurdly busted (it is) or whether Drown in the Loch provides interaction that is way too liquid relative to the opportunity cost (it does). The issue is that this play pattern should simply never see the light of day in Standard, because it simultaneously confounds and invalidates every single intuition a normal player would have about what is good relative to what is appealing. Everything is mega finicky; there are way too many words on the cards; everything happens at instant speed for some reason; different things care about different thresholds of cards in graveyards; every effect mills a different number of cards; and not one card causes you to audibly gasp or get excited when you pick it up and read it. Also, nothing that costs four or more mana is ever on the board.

My supposition was that the way a deck like this finds its way into Standard — given the very large number of very smart and talented people working on the format — is that the internal criteria for what constitutes a healthy format contained a number of metrics relative to format diversity, representation across sets, distribution of rarities, etc., but no holistic model for what the ideal play experience should approximately look like (or a holistic model that accommodates a different experience than the one I’m asserting ought to be the target). I have no idea if this is true, but it seems as though it is.

The goal of the Standard Cube is therefore to demonstrate such a holistic model through a repeatable, rewarding, distinctive play experience that feels simultaneously like:

  • What Standard has been;
  • What Standard could have been;
  • What Standard could be; and
  • What Standard should be.

Such a model should successfully showcase how history’s 30+ years of Magic cards (inclusive of those that are not technically ‘Standard-Legal’) — and, by implication, the next 30 years of Magic cards and beyond — are together able to construct a robust, resilient, and deeply rewarding ‘standard’ gameplay experience.

You can take a look at the Standard Cube here: https://www.cubecobra.com/cube/list/768edbac-627d-4e18-b555-4001ee1e5a13

Extremely important to note right off the bat is that the Standard Cube incorporates such a holistic model in Cube form, meaning there are and will always be foundational differences in how a draft environment relying on a large distribution of related-but-distinct singletons and a constructed environment relying on a small distribution of intentionally-synergistic 4-ofs elementally work. As such, the point is emphatically not to simulate a given Standard environment, but rather to demonstrate a play pattern that healthy Standard environments could themselves seek to emulate¹.

So what’s going on within this Cube?

The core design criteria of the Standard Cube, in roughly descending order of importance, are the following.

Include cards of a power level that I, Former Magic Developer And Generally Opinionated Person Zac Hill, subjectively feel is ‘Standard-appropriate’ (but also secretly think is generally modelable and objectively correct, don’t @ me, will fight u).

We have to start with the ‘power level’ question because the power level of individual cards defines the boundaries of the effects that are possible within an environment in which they are present. Without enumerating all the ways cards outside a certain band of power warp the environment in a way that forces accommodation with the parameters they impose², the question of power level is not (as some people assert) merely a preference-based question that is always relative to the other cards available. The reason is that the four-card maximum dictates a certain possibility space of games that involve a given card in question (let’s call it a ‘threat’) interfacing not with the set of effects within a given environment designed to control it (let’s call them ‘answers’), but rather with the hard constants of the game itself³.

What that means is that at a certain ratio of power-level-of-threat-relative-to-fundamental-constant-of-Magic, an increase in power level necessarily increases fragility⁴. Any format with Hymn to Tourach, for example, has a hard constant on the rate the card can be controlled that is a function of the likelihood of drawing and casting Hymn and the likelihood of causing the answer to Hymn (or the resources necessary to deploy it) to be discarded. Even if the answer to Hymn — let’s say Dodecapod — works when Hymn ‘succeeds’, the model is still governed by the same set of principles. The ceiling of something like this is a card that says “If CARDNAME is in your hand and your opponent causes you to discard a card, you may reveal CARDNAME instead. If you do, that player loses the game.”

The point of this example is to showcase how the power level of Hymn itself imposes a coefficient of fragility upon the environment within which it exists. Hymn provides a very clear example of this dynamic at work, but this is true of all effects. An increase in power level relative to the base rates of the game inherently increases fragility. Of course, the solution isn’t just to dial down power level permanently, because fragility isn’t the only variable worth worrying about. The key, rather, is to dial down the power level until it keeps pace with that effect’s base level of interaction typical within the format — and that base level is in turn a function of the kinds of effects you want to incentivize and disincentivize. That’s because power level imposes hard constraints on your ability to incentivize and disincentivize gameplay experiences, which will be familiar to anyone who has ever tried to design a ‘thematic Cube’ only for the best strategy to involve casting a bunch of Mulldrifters. Every element of a format is downstream of raw power level.

So what are some of the other effects this cube wants to incentivize and disincentivize?

Make it possible and desirable to play and win with cool/awesome threats like Angels, Dragons, Dinosaurs, Demons, Planeswalkers, and other analogously-sweet, thematically-resonant cards — maintaining a high level of per-card appeal overall.

That doesn’t mean the format revolves around four-to-six-mana creatures. In fact, my experience is that most games are defined by two-and-three-mana permanents. You will lose games fast if you’re not on the board early. But the nature of the early-game threats is such that four, five, and six mana threats are powerful and format-defining even if you haven’t ‘ramped’ into them.

Obsolete as few eras of Magic’s 30+ year history as possible, showcasing how all eras of Magic can accommodate a “Standard” gameplay experience.

One of the things I’m asserting about Standard is that it should always feel essentially like ‘Standard’ from one decade to another; things that were good in Standard ten years ago should feel relevant to Standard today even if the exact cards/synergies/etc evolve. That doesn’t mean that nothing changes; it means that you should be able to take an effect from 10-20 years ago (“I have an 8/8 Krosan Beast for 4 mana! Go Me!”) that seemed powerful at that point in time, and understand why it either is or is not as powerful as it used to be.

As such, I’ve attempted to include cards from all eras of Standard play that fit within what I’m asserting to be a Standard power level and gameplay experience. Cards bias towards newer cards both because more cards have been printed lately and because creatures used to be unacceptably terrible relative to the base rates of the game, but there are cards from Alpha and Legends and Ice Age and Mirage and Tempest and Urza’s Saga and Mercadian Masques Invasion and Odyssey and Onslaught that are not only playable but good.

A corollary to this is that there are an awful lot of mechanics, and I’ve had to choose what kinds of mechanics I wanted to highlight. Generally I’ve tried to skew towards mechanics I think could viably be ‘evergreen’ in some context, which means downward pressure on complexity and an aversion to mechanics that have already been ‘sunset’ (I wanted both Nihilith and Profane Command badly, but I think ‘fear’ just ain’t quite there). But I also have tried to spotlight mechanics that sit at the intersection of:

  1. Generally pretty popular (Adventure, Kicker, Flashback, Split Cards, Convoke, Landfall, etc)
  2. Interact broadly with a large array of desirable effects (Afterlife, Bargain, Devotion, Eternalize/Unearth/Aftermath, Food, etc)
  3. Lead to high-visibility ‘inflection point’ experiences I think are good for lending coherence to gameplay (Suspend, Battles, Sagas, etc)
  4. Do load-bearing work for consistency and variance reduction (Landcycling, Clues, lots of the stuff that’s also in the ‘popular’ category).

That also means some mechanics that have some pretty cool cards associated with them didn’t really make the cut, which also means those ‘eras’ of Magic are less-well-represented. I have a visceral aversion to the Zendikar either-a-land-or-a-spell mechanic (“See this really cool card? Sweet, now consign yourself to never playing it ever, and instead getting a shitty land that enters the battlefield tapped and produces one color of mana! Aren’t you glad you didn’t draw a Swamp instead? Oh BTW I hope you made this game-defining decision correctly on turn one!”) so that didn’t make it in. A lot of standouts from the the “every card is double-sided in totally random ways” era also didn’t make it in for analogous reasons; I generally am averse to having to take a card out of a sleeve very obviously and parse it while either revealing it to the opponent or awkwardly not revealing it to the opponent, etc.

Other stuff that requires tracking — Day/Night, Ascend, The Dungeon, Tempted By The Ring — I just am not in the mood to mess with, even though I think a given Standard environment can handle them as long as they don’t compound exponentially.

Still, I think the ultimate result delivers upon an experience that showcases, in cool ways, the breadth of what Magic has offered up over its lifespan — while creating space for the kinds of cards that are super sweet but just don’t cut it in most other styles of Cube (I’m looking at you, Primordial Hydra).

Other stuff I wanted to lean into are things like:

  1. Facilitating an overall leisurely-but-brisk pace of play, ensuring the gameplay progresses forward towards resolution from the first turn onward while avoiding both unpleasantly-stressful all-or-nothing blitzkrieg early games as well as protracted slouching-towards-inevitability late-game grind-fests.
  2. Generally favoring solidly-two-color decks and gameplay — with a span of aggressive and controlling options present (in weighted distributions) across the color combinations — leaving room for frequent splashes as well as monocolor and three-plus-color decks at lower frequencies.
  3. Easing up on the density of cards that get compoundingly better on the play versus the draw, e.g. tons and tons of redundant Jackal Pups/Llanowar Elves/Champion-of-the-Perish/Signet effects⁵.
  4. Minimizing the number of games decided by ‘flooding out’ in the mid-late-game by 1-2 cards relative to the opponent by having a number of low-opportunity-cost mana sink and card draw effects across all colors.
  5. Making it relatively possible to access 4-6 mana effects without overloading on ramp through a comparatively high density of treasures, clues, cantrips, and other ways of augmenting your natural land draw.
  6. Capping the number of ‘unbounded’ effects that tend to compound upon themselves (e.g. cards like Vraan over cards like Blood Artist)
  7. Focusing on synergies that generate more than an average card’s value for the cost (i.e. Spell Stutter; Draconic Roar; Wicked Wolf) rather than synergies that totally define the entire sequence of the game (e.g. Winding Constrictor, Goblin Bombardment).
  8. Enabling a few ‘that’s definitely busted’ play patterns if the stars align (“Bituminous Blast into Crashing Footfalls”; “Unburial Rites my Griselbrand”) without making them the go-to way of winning games.
  9. Featuring Planeswalkers that fit our original Planeswalker design criteria rather than the later pattern of “Nekrataal something + Do Other Stuff”
  10. More broadly, emphasizing ‘strategic complexity’ through things like modal spells and modular mechanics rather than ‘operational complexity’ through really intricate single-card effects.


As I mentioned, my goals with this pair of articles were to put some assertions into the zeitgeist about how Standard should work and then ‘put my money where my mouth is’ by debuting a gameplay experience in Cube form that attempts to satisfyingly deliver upon those parameters. I have no idea whether or not I’ve succeeded, but I hope that my successes and failures alike are able to drive a broader conversation about what Standard should look like and how that advances a set of goals that are important both for players and for Wizards as a company.

I am acutely aware of how easy it is to sit on the sidelines making a bunch of assertions despite having spent more than a decade ‘out of the arena’. One of the reasons I spent months designing this Cube before writing these two pieces is precisely to attempt to back up what I’m saying with some degree of i) skin in the game and ii) concrete instantiation of what I’m talking about. I’ve also attempted to get at least somewhat back into competitive play (yay cash finish at the Limited Open in Vegas!) so that my opinions about how Magic currently works aren’t hopelessly out of date.

Still, I recognize that it can often be frustrating to hear very pointed opinions from someone who is at the end of the day not accountable for the outcomes of what he is saying, and who is also not privy to the vast majority of information driving the decisions about which he is pontificating.

To that end, all I can offer is the following story.

Imagine there’s this game you really like called Magic: The Gathering. You care about it enough that your Mom encouraged you to start playing it at the professional level when you were about fifteen years old. Despite neither of your parents so much as owning a passport, you managed to travel the world for the better part of a decade and make lifelong friends from countries across the globe — all because of your devotion to this game.

When you left home for the first time and moved to a country you’d barely heard of called Malaysia, you were way more scared and lost and overwhelmed than you’d ever admit to anyone. But you were immediately welcomed by a wonderful community of generous and compassionate people⁶, all of whom were willing to take a bet on you because they were kind enough to read your writing every week. They even put up with you when you threw tantrums about losing to Lightning Talons, and never stopped complaining about the heat!

Eventually you’d land the gig of a lifetime: going to work on this game you’ve loved since you were a kid. It was every bit as delightful as you’d imagined it would be, even when much of the rest of your life was falling apart around you. When it came time to leave, you were so nervous that you forgot to mention that part out loud when you asked your boss to lunch to break the news. How could you walk away from something you’d dreamed about for your entire life?

But you did. And the wild ride of life has validated that decision every day since then. You never really left it behind entirely, of course. For a while you were a commentator on the Pro Tour, calling a lot of things ‘devastating’, mispronouncing various Greek etymologies, and conflating card titles like “Calcite Snapper” with playtest names like “Switchaturtle”. Later you’d come back briefly to populate an early Modern Horizons 2 file with Orzhov token-makers like “The Stuff That Happens When You Die,” a black/white HH Instant that sacrificed a creature to create a 1/1 Spirit Token, a 1/1 Bird token named Vulture, and a 2/2 Zombie token that could not block. You’d also write a 40-page screed on set design philosophy that was somehow even longer than this one, and mercifully never really saw the public light of day.

Then there was this big global pandemic. Suddenly there wasn’t much to spend your money on for the better part of a year, and very few of the normal costs of living in New York City, and you thought it’d be a good time to get back into Magic on the internet. Instead you (fortunately, in hindsight) bought a bunch of power, because the contemporary era of Magic — a game you’d played at the highest level, designed for several years, and obsessed over for ~80% of your life — had stopped making sense.

Now, you aren’t necessarily the world’s most self-aware person, but you’re not batting zero either. You know you’re getting older, and learning new stuff is harder than it used to be. You know that the game has to constantly evolve, and that evolution won’t always go in a direction that’s most intuitive to you. But you’re also the designer of Thundermaw Hellkite, and so (perhaps naively) feel as though you know a thing or two about making cool and appealing and exciting Magic cards that are also powerful enough to play.

And if you were a betting man, you’d bet that you’re probably not the only person who feels like there should be a format where the Thundermaw Hellkites of the world have room to breathe.

¹ The biggest difference between this Cube and any real Standard environment is that the level of synergies that define a given Standard environment is always going to be significantly higher, both due to rotation allowing for a smaller subset of Magic’s overall possibility space, and because of the 4-card maximum.

² E.g. Flametongue Kavu banning 4 toughness creatures for 4 or more mana; Wrenn+Bowmasters eating up X/1s; tons of Goblin Guides/Pteramanders/etc demanding timely cheap removal or Pyroclasm effects and lowering the general curve of threats; Primeval Titan or UrzaTron instant kills putting on a ceiling on how much durdling is viable; etc.

³ One of the reasons Companions were so format-warping at their initial cost was because they altered this dynamic fundamentally, in a way that didn’t comport with intuitions about 1:1 Constructed formats.

⁴ Defined as something like, “the extent to which the outcome of a game hinges upon a smaller versus larger distribution of interactions”.

⁵ Plenty of these certainly remain but I’ve tried to cap their upside, e.g. with Evolve.

⁶ One of whom, Sashi “C Loco” Balakrishnan, you were lucky enough to run into just a week ago in Vegas.

Zac Hill (he/him) is the Chief Operating Officer of The Office of American Possibilities, a venture studio for civic moonshots. OAP’s projects have included initiatives like Welcome.us, The COVID Collaborative, and 24/7: The People’s Filibuster for Gun Safety. A Pro Tour mainstay for a decade, Zac scored a Top 8 at Pro Tour Honolulu 2009 before heading in-house to become a Lead Game Designer of Magic: The Gathering and Magic: Duels. He returned to the Pro Tour in the broadcast booth from 2011-2014. Zac’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Believer, The Huffington Post, DailyMTG, StarCityGames.com, and The New Atlantis. He lives in Washington, DC.

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