Snowball Fights: The Fall of Standard

Ryan Normandin
December 15, 2021
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- Snowball cards – cards that are good base rate but generate card advantage

- Manabase – trilands, temples, and painlands/fetches

- Good Two-drops scaled instead of just being good

- Three drop was “the spot” – two drop spot had interaction

- Ramp was creature-oriented

- Choices as to how to spend mana

- Combat mattered


Throughout Magic's history, people have grumbled about formats. For every player who loves Modern right now, you'll hear another complain that Ragavan/Saga/Lurrus should eat a ban. Only Wizards of the Coast truly has a sense for how popular each of their formats are, and the likely metric is how many people are playing matches, both in paper and, more recently, on MTG Arena.


Nevertheless, we have other data points to suggest that Standard has been in trouble since a year or two before COVID-19 happened. The unprecedented surge in bans suggested a problem, as did the precipitous drop in Grand Prix attendance. We can see in the first chart that Standard attendance peaked in around 2016, and has dropped since.

The next chart takes each month and calculates the average number of attendees in the previous year. This helps to give a more detailed sense of the decline in attendance. (Thanks to u/ChewyLSB who shared this data in a Reddit post here.)

From 2014 to 2016, there was a steady increase in the number of players participating in Grand Prix. Without more data, we can't say whether this is purely due to an increase in the size of the game's player base or increased interest in the Standard format. Regardless, both possibilities suggest that things were going well. As we neared the end of Standard's growth in GP attendance, two things stand out to me: Standard became the most expensive it had ever been since Caw-Blade and, in early 2017, it underwent its first set of bans since 2011, when Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic were banned. The bans of Emrakul, the Promised End, Smuggler's Copter, and Reflector Mage were the first of an insane 23 Standard bans over three years.

But today, we're two months past the one-year anniversary of the most recent Standard bans. And while we don't have GP data, the Standard metagame at the Innistrad Championship didn't stand out as particularly healthy, with around 70% of the metagame consisting of either Alrund's Epiphany decks or aggro decks trying to go underneath it.

Even though Alrund's Epiphany had a target on its back, it still put up the strongest winrate of the tournament, with MonoWhite having the inglorious designation of “worse than ‘other,'” MonoGreen barely keeping up, and everything else performing lacklusterly.

Source

 

And while I don't have hard data to back this up, I can say anecdotally that as local paper events have begun to return, I've seen little to no demand for Standard tournaments, nor did I see a single Store Championship choose to run the Standard format. While we can reasonably say that bans likely hurt interest in Standard, the lackluster response to the current Standard format suggests that there's still something wrong.


As such, let's compare the current Standard format to the Standard formats of 2014-16, when Standard was undergrowing the strongest growth it experienced over the last decade. I will be looking specifically at the following:


Pro Tour Journey Into Nyx Top 8 Decklists

Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir Top 8 Decklists

Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir Top 8 Decklists

Pro Tour Magic Origins Top 8 Decklists

Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar Top 8 Decklists

(Pro Tours Fate Reforged and Oath of the Gatewatch were Modern format)


Before reading on, scroll through the decks above, and see if anything stands out to you. As someone who played back then, the most complained about cards were Siege Rhino, Thoughtseize, and Goblin Rabblemaster. Once fetches were introduced in BFZ and Jace, Vryn's Prodigy shot up to near $100, that card was the focus of much vitriol as well.

Jace, Vryn's Prodigy Price History


Let's take a look at the biggest differences between then and now.


The Early-Midgame Threats


The threats of 2014-16 Standard are dramatically different when compared to the threats of today. Aside from Goblin Rabblemaster and Whisperwood Elemental, many of the best creatures were French Vanilla beaters once on-board. For the entirety of this two-year period, Abzan was the deck to beat. The Abzan creatures included Heir of the Wilds, Fleecemane Lion, Warden of the First Tree, Rakshasa Deathdealer, Siege Rhino, Anafenza, the Foremost, and Wingmate Roc. The top-end threats were chunky, but mostly vanilla. The cheap threats are more interesting to examine.


At the beginning of the game, Fleecemane Lion is a two-mana 3/3 and Rakshasa Deathdealer is a two-mana 2/2, much like Werewolf Pack Leader and Luminarch Aspirant on the turn it comes down. But then what happens? Pack Leader draws cards for free and Aspirant grows something bigger for free. Deathdealer and Lion, on the other hand, can become much more formidable, but they require mana to do so.

This is a key change that has occurred over the last several years. Back in old Standard, activated abilities allowed early threats to scale into the late game. Today, Usher of the Fallen is the only constructed-playable card with an activated ability, and the ability doesn't help it to scale into the late game at all. We used to have Polukranos, World Eater, Genesis Hydra, Reaper of the Wilds, Stormbreath Dragon, Tasigur, the Golden Fang, and other cards that generated advantage only if you paid for it.


While Old Standard certainly had some egregious freebies (Goblin Rabblemaster and Whisperwood Elemental), today's threats are dominated by free stuff. Monowhite gets free bodies off Adeline, free +1/+1 counters off Luminarch Aspirant, and has access to eight copies of Banisher Priest between Brutal Cathar and Skyclave Apparition. It also has hand disruption stapled onto a meaningful body in Elite Spellbinder. Monogreen aggro gets free cards off Werewolf Pack Leader, Old-Growth Troll, Esika's Chariot, and Ranger Class. Izzet Dragons and Epiphany get free damage off a flipped Smoldering Egg and free treasures off Goldspan Dragon.


Outside even the format's top decks, the list goes on and on. Florian, Edgar, Orah, Skyclave Hierophant, Magda, and Manaform Hellkite are just a couple of the cards that provide card or mana advantage for zero mana investment.


I've previously written about how one of the major problems with Magic design during the Era of Many Bans was free stuff. Nissa, Who Shakes the World, Fires of Invention, and Wilderness Reclamation are just a couple of examples of cheating on mana, but Wizards seems to have embraced freebies in abilities as well. I'm not saying that all abilities need to have a cost, but having a cost often leads to more interesting gameplay. Upgrading a Fleecemane Lion to an indestructible monster was a source of rich gameplay from both sides, as the Lion player tried to force a situation where they could safely activate, or activate twice, or activate and Valorous Stance, while the opponent tried to force the Lion player into using mana on other stuff or force an activation at a non-ideal time. The lack of activated abilities today robs players of similar gameplay.

Generally, having more ways for players to spend their mana is a good thing. It mitigates the feel-bad of flood and gives players more decisions. Today, the only way players can usually spend their mana is by casting cards in their hands. The loss of on-board, threat-of-activation scenarios has led to a decrease in interaction.


Let's take this a bit farther. Here is a list of every creature that you can attack an opponent with that is not a French Vanilla creature (no effects outside of keyword abilities) when it attacks from the decklists linked above from 2014-16 Standard. These are all creatures that do something (free cards, counters, mana, or bodies) for no mana investment once they're on-board:


- Anafenza, the Foremost (counters, exiles)

- Polis Crusher (kills enchantments)

- Brimaz, King of Oreskos (makes Cats)

- Goblin Rabblemaster (makes Goblins)

- Whisperwood Elemental (Manifests)

- Dragonlord Ojutai (draws cards)

- Silumgar, the Drifting Death (-1/-1 to opponent's board)

- Deathmist Raptor (returns to battlefield for free)

- Dragonmaster Outcast (free Dragons when 7 or more lands)

- Hangarback Walker (free Thopters when it dies)

- Courser of Kruphix

- Ashcloud Phoenix


And ETB's that generate card advantage of some sort:


- Dragonlord Atarka

- Eidolon of Blossoms

- Wingmate Roc

- Dragonlord Silumgar

- Icefall Regent

- Abbot of Keral Keep

- Whirler Rogue

- Pia and Kiran Nalaar

- Genesis Hydra


Here are all the cards that generate free cards, counters, bodies, or mana for free once they're on-board from today's Standard format:


- Stonebinder's Familiar (free counters)

- Luminarch Aspirant (free counters)

- Adeline, Resplendent Cathar (free bodies)

- Brutal Cathar (free exiles)

- Ascendant Packleader (free counters)

- Werewolf Pack Leader (free cards)

- Old-Growth Troll (free-ish body)

- Esika's Chariot (free token clones)

- Goldspan Dragon (free treasures)

- Smoldering Egg (free 2 damage to any target)

- Florian, Voldaren Scion (free cards)

- Graveyard Trespasser (free cards)

- Immersturm Predator (free counters)

- Magda, Brazen Outlaw (free Treasures)

- Edgar, Charmed Groom (free Vampires)

- Eyetwitch (free Learn)

- Shambling Ghast (free Learn)

- Professor of Symbology (free Learn)

- Lier, Disciple of the Drowned (free cards)


And ETB's:


- Skyclave Apparition

- Elite Spellbinder

- Esika's Chariot


Comparing the two lists, it's hard to argue that the power level is even. The threats of today offer better freebies than those of yesteryear. Additionally, many of the older threats worked best in the mid-late game (Genesis Hydra, Dragonmaster Outcast, Polukranos, World Eater, Abbot of Keral Keep), while many of the threats of today are better in the early game. You won't find a single threat on the “today” list that isn't fantastic to play on the first turn you can. This checks out: the average mana cost of the “free stuff” in Old Standard is 4.0, while the average cost of “free stuff” in current Standard is 2.8.

All this is to say that the feeling that games of Standard have become more “snowbally,” where one player runs away with the game before the other can find their footing, can be backed up. Free stuff in the early game is tougher to deal with than it is in the later game because the defending player has access to fewer resources. And if the defending player tries to fight free stuff with free stuff, then whoever used free stuff second is at a significant disadvantage.


This situation is exacerbated by the prominence of mana acceleration today. Though Wizards has scaled back from the worst of the free mana, we still have Jaspera Sentinel and Magda, Prosperous Innkeeper, Unexpected Windfall, and Goldspan Dragon. Back then, they did have Elvish Mystic, but the three-drops just weren't that good. They had plenty of two-mana dorks as well between Sylvan Caryatid and Rattleclaw Mystic, but ramping into a Turn 3 Polukranos, World Eater doesn't feel nearly as depressing as a Turn 3 Esika's Chariot.


Serious threats that generate free advantage being deployed on Turn 2 is a significant deviation from how games of Standard used to go. The aggro decks of Old Standard would chip in for some damage with Monastery Swiftspear or Zurgo Bellstriker, or perhaps they'd set up with Eidolon of the Great Revel. Aggro decks of today throw down Luminarch Aspirant, Werewolf Pack Leader, and Ranger Class, threatening to dominate the game unless you immediately get onto the board and defend yourself. Less time to set up restricts the space of decks that can exist.

Yet today's Standard is restricted not just from the bottom, but from the top as well.


The Top End Threats ( Epiphany is a Problem )

Alrund's Epiphany is a giant game-over button. Hullbreaker Horror fills a similar role. It's natural to wonder what the top-end threats from Old Standard were, and they look dramatically different from today's.


Elspeth, Sun's Champion was the game ender of choice while she was in Standard. Ugin, the Spirit Dragon saw some play, but he was mostly a one-of in control decks. Dragonlord Atarka was popular in RG Devotion decks fueled by Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx and Voyaging Satyr.


Let's compare how these cards can be answered. Epiphany can be countered, and that's about it. Elspeth came in with such little loyalty, that a flying creature could kill it, or a wide enough board could chip in for a point or two, and then Lightning Strike or Magma Jet would do the rest. Ugin, the Spirit Dragon usually ticked down when he entered, which meant he was susceptible to burn spells as well. Blue had countermagic for these expensive, sorcery-speed threats, Black had Hero's Downfall, which was a 3- or 4-of in every Black deck, and White had Banishing Light. Green had trampling threats like Polukranos, World Eater and Siege Rhino. Multicolored decks had Utter End, Jeskai Charm, and Dragonlord Silumgar.

Elspeth, Ugin, and Atarka were undeniably powerful, but every color could answer them, and while answering them would leave you behind, that felt reasonable for a 6+ mana threat (again, it feels a lot less reasonable when it's a four-drop Chariot). The lack of a hard cap on the top-end of the format meant that players could do whatever – aggro, midrange, and control were all viable shells. Alrund's Epiphany kills midrange automatically while also asking a lot of aggro decks.

Compare Epiphany to the premier combo decks of Old Standard, which were Jeskai Ascendancy-based. There was the pure combo version, which used Retraction Helix, and the tokens version, which used Ascendancy as an engine to supercharge a tokens strategy. The pure combo version was slow, clunky, and could be attacked by aggro, midrange, and control. The tokens version was more resilient, but was weak to sweepers and even had a dedicated hate card in Virulent Plague.


Epiphany, on the other hand, requires minimal concessions in deckbuilding for the “pure combo” version. You're not playing anything nearly as bad as Briber's Purse. The builds of Epiphany that use the full eight dragons or focus more on Lier and Smoldering Egg similarly get to simply slot the Time Walk into a totally viable shell.

Jeskai Ascendancy combo decks could be answered in more ways and required more deckbuilding sacrifices than Alrund's Epiphany, which is likely why players had a higher tolerance for it, and it was a footnote instead of The Format.


Lightning Strike

A hidden problem of Standard for the last several years has been the lack of playable burn spells, of which Lightning Strike is the best. Red has historically served a valuable role in Standard formats because it is the only color that can play removal that isn't dead against control decks. The presence of Red aggro-burn acts as a safety valve. It keeps planeswalkers in check, forces control players to actually end the game, and leads to interesting choices around threats for other aggressive and midrange decks. It forces players to trade sideboard slots that are good against creature-based aggro (sweepers) for cards that are a bit weaker in general, but have more game against burn decks. I believe the lack of reach has harmed the ability of Alrund's Epiphany to be combatted.


Conclusion


Since Old Standard, free effects have gotten better and cheaper, furthering the play-draw disparity and constraining player choice in gameplay and deckbuilding. The increase in speed of the Standard format combined with the hard upper limit of Alrund's Epiphany have led to a format that gives players few options in deckbuilding and gameplay. Old Standard had more choices in how players could use their mana, no hard upper cap, and no Treasure tokens. If Wizards wants to return Standard to a fun, dynamic format, they should seek to emulate what made it so good back in 2014-16.

Ryan Normandin is a grinder from Boston who has lost at the Pro Tour, in GP & SCG Top 8's, and to 7-year-olds at FNM. Despite being described as "not funny" by his best friend and "the worst Magic player ever" by Twitch chat, he cheerfully decided to blend his lack of talents together to write funny articles about Magic.

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