A Plan to Save Standard

Aaron Forsythe, the VP of design at WotC, tweeted this out four days ago:

Over the past few years, Standard play has dried up in many stores. I have my own list of possible reasons, but I’d love to hear from you about your store community. Why has sanctioned Standard play declined relative to other formats in your store?

Having to ask is really actually kind of embarrassing… I don’t mean asking in general, but in this case. It should be pretty obvious why they have been driving people away from the format.

The main reason is the pandemic. Standard, as a frequently played format, is very relient on having a card collection from which to build decks. This isn’t something you just buy. You accumulate cards. It helps with the sting of the cost of the game. These decks are very expensive. The most popular decks currently are mostly around $300-$500. That is a big deal. Especially, as the format is often the gateway to the game. With new decks coming into the format constantly, you could easily use as much in a year as it would cost to buy a Modern deck and just perusing quickly through the most common Pioneer decks, you can get most of them for what it would cost you to buy a Standard deck.

Also, if you do pay that sum, you can’t be sure you can actually play your deck. Because the (honestly) horrifically bad testing has caused a lot of bans recently. (And no, millions of players finding optimal decks faster than a small team is not a justification, because if I can personally see in minutes that a card is going to be a problem, I didn’t exactly need millions of people to figure that out with). Back in the day, I knew this young kid (who isn’t young anymore), who spent a lot of time and money to get all the cards to a Splinter Twin deck in Modern just before it was banned. As far as I know, he never played again. And WotC does seem to know this cost, but they still haven’t actually done anything about it, but instead they have just made things worse by avoiding banning the cards they know should be banned. I mean, they are actually calling themselves out by nerfing cards in Alchemy, but not banning them in Standard. That just makes them seem incompetent in a whole new way.

The gameplay is also boring. Because of powercreep, most games are either over very fast or are just players playing haymakers until one can’t. That’s not much in the way of interesting gameplay. Also, because so many of the cards are so powerful these days and have a lot of ETBs or strong wards or other such abilities, the value of counterspells has risen, but at the same time it’s also widely known that counterspells are not considered fun by the more casual players, for whom the format should definitely be of interest.

What is also not helping is that they have mostly abandoned the LGSs. They are selling directly through Amazon and their own website, so what is an LGS to do? How about move away from Magic? There are other options. Many players have moved away from Magic to other games, so why wouldn’t the stores as well? You can’t just let them have the scraps and expect the stores to be happy with that.

On the other hand, their hands are tied. The have financial goals, which are going to lead them into self-destructing. To make things right for the format, they would have to take a hit in the sales for at least a full rotation to bring the powerlevel back down to something manageable. Who is going to explain that to the higher-ups, who don’t necessarily even understand the game.

With that in mind, here’s a plan:

First, it’s going to take time. At least a full rotation. You need to get the too powerful cards out of the system and you need to give people time to accumulate collections.

So, in order for people to accumulate collections, you need to get people to draft, which means that a) you need to make sure draft environments are fun, and b) that draft boosters are readily available. Both of these have been a bit of a problem for some time now. Sure, the quality of limited play is up from its early days, but its also down from the really great draft sets. I don’t know how the design process needs to be changed, but with how badly sets have been balanced for a while now, they definitely need to do something here. So many of the recent sets have a very limited number of playable archtypes, because certain cards have been pushed way too far. Also, if they want Standard to be played, they can’t print set boosters at the expense of draft boosters. There have been times when stores just ran out of draft boosters early in the format.

And this is something they should be willing to throw money at. How about giving packs to stores for prizes similar to the prereleases? Yes, this is going to cost money, but keeping Standard around is key to the health of the game overall and that requires a healthy draft culture.

You also have to maintain the Gathering. One of the ways people in the past have been able to play tournaments in having a network of people to borrow cards and decks from. So, if you can encourage people to maintain these communities, Standard will fare better. I don’t really have an answer to how to do this, except that you need to get people to come to the events regularly so that they can build on what they have.

You could also try to give players a smoother entrance into the format. Challenger decks could help a lot in this, if they can actually make ones that are worth buying. No control decks with aggro creatures and other similar clear mistakes. Like this year, three of the four challenger decks were just horrible and the last one had banned cards. Yeah. That’s cool. They are supposed to design for the format, but they clearly have no idea what’s going on with it.

The aspirational aspect of the game needs to return. Sure, you can play on Arena and qualify, but if you have never played a real paper tournament, going to a GP or equivalent can be intimidating (and you shouldn’t try to play a competitive tournament without having played a REL Regular before). You need to be able to start your journey to being a pro at the local shop. It doesn’t have to be much, but for those who want to play a PT (or whatever) some day, they should have a reason to come in and play regularly. Yes, this does mean that they might have to rethink their whole system again, as it would seem pretty clear to me that the current system has already failed (because WotC neglected to actually make sure their partners in this regard are making sure the events work).

Finally, make separate WPN promos for the Commander and the competitive crowds, so that you can actually put usable cards in those packs. I know this is too much to ask, because they don’t seem to know what’s actually usable, but one can hope. Right?

Finally, while Commander gets a lot of attention, I do feel Standard is very important for the overall health and longevity of the game. However, we are living in a time where Standard feels more like chore than something fun and they need to fix that before they can do anything else. And for that to happen, they might need to get new people… and get rid of some of the existing ones. I think I’ve mentioned this before somewhere, but Gavin Verhey mentioned in a YouTube video that he plays a lot of Fog decks in the Future Future League. If they are going to optimize their use of resources, they need to get rid of such behavior. They need to clean house. They need to get rid of that kind of chaff.

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