Where Magic’s Card Design Went Wrong and How to Fix It
Hello everyone. If we’re unacquainted, my name is Robert Lee and I have a collective total of 1 GP and 1 PTQ top 8. So, as you can see, I’m a pretty big deal. I wanted to throw my hat into the ring on what I believe has gone wrong with Standard within the last year. I would very much like to emphasize that I have absolutely no relevant credentials beyond playing Magic for a long time and having marginal success within that time frame. All in all, I’m a living Dunning-Kruger effect. Before I continue, this by no means a scathing review of Wizards; they made the best game in the world and they have my utmost respect for that, but nonetheless I’m hoping that I can give some insight into how I feel as a player.
I’ve been disgruntled with Standard for quite a while if I’m being honest, probably spanning back to around the Kaladesh era in 2016. Now, I’m not saying there weren’t good times for Standard within that entire time frame or that there weren’t positives when Standard as a whole wasn’t at its best, because there certainly were. However, I believe that my entire issue with most of those Standard metas and recent card designs can be boiled down to one word: agency. When I say agency, I refer to the ability to make decisions. I believe that decisions are the lifeblood of nearly any type of game, but are doubly as important in a strategy game like Magic.
In this article, I’d like to bring up examples to show where things went wrong from a design standpoint, and how that impacted the respective Standard formats. I won’t be diving into every single set, because that would be overkill and I totally have better things to do during quarantine (I don’t). My discussion will mostly be centered around how having agency affects formats and format desirability among the player base. Furthermore, I won’t talk about necessarily what went right, because this essay would easily triple in length. Wizards has a long track record of making good card decisions and I don’t need to illuminate them all; they know what they’re doing most of the time in my opinion. However, hopefully I can illuminate for some of you what went wrong at some points and why.
There are two major types of agency that Magic is based around: agency in gameplay and agency in deckbuilding. Agency in gameplay generally refers to a player’s ability to make decisions during a game of Magic. Magic is a game where decisions are constantly made, so saying at any point that a game of Magic can lack agency would be extremely rare, barring for the cases of obscenely early wins from one of the players or screw/flood to the point where one player is functionally not playing. Nevertheless, that perfectly leads into my point: the player’s ability to make IMPORTANT decisions is unbelievably crucial to Magic being an enjoyable experience. First, I want to go over the general archetype paradigm and how agency affects each one of them.
DECK ARCHETYPES AND GAMEPLAY AGENCY
Aggressive decks will always be the toughest act to balance in my opinion, because the very nature of their game-plan is to try and stop your opponents from playing long games of Magic in which they get to make more decisions. This doesn’t make aggressive decks unhealthy for the enjoyment of the game, as many people enjoy that type of gameplay (myself included). Some aggressive decks feel effortless to play but that’s generally the exception, not the rule. Aggressive decks just tend to rely more heavily on particular agencies: sequencing and combat. Anyone who wants to tell you that sequencing or combat is easy is either wrong or Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa. Although these decisions don’t heavily involve the opponent, there is still a lot of agency at play. The biggest detriment is that a lot of matches between aggressive decks are heavily determined by who’s on the play or who curves out better. In the case of aggressive decks vs non-aggressive decks, it all hinges on whether the aggro deck can close out the game before the opponent casts enough impactful spells to close the door in their face (ex. Sweepers, Big Lifelinkers, Timely Reinforcements). The general space aggro decks take up in the metagame is that they provide a foil for slow decks.
Midrange decks: the middle child who everyone seems to like. This is by far the broadest category so it’s probably easier to define it by what it isn’t. It’s probably too slow to be considered “aggro”, too fast or not interactive enough to be considered “control”, and doesn’t have a combo, so, yeah, not a combo deck. Midrange is generally praised as the arbiter of agency: games go long enough that a lot of relevant decisions can be made, and midrange decks generally have game against all the other archetypes. In terms of agency, midrange tends to be the best at delivering. Midrange doesn’t necessarily have an assigned space in the metagame as they can shift from more aggressive to more controlling variants. However, midrange tends to struggle against control decks.
Control decks: the theoretical antithesis of aggro. In terms of agency, a lot of it comes in the form of deckbuilding agency, which I’ll be touching on later. Control is interesting because, although the games with control tend to go long, they actually have a very similar gameplan to aggressive decks. That plan is to deny their opponent from making relevant decisions, but instead of achieving that by killing them on turn 4, it’s to counter or kill every relevant threat until the opponent concedes or dies of old age. Control rarely is a problematic archetype in Standard, mostly because the threats have generally outpaced the answers in recent years. The general space Control decks take up is a foil to the midrange decks, since they can go bigger than them.
Combo decks occupy a very weird space in design because some decks try to kill you turn 1, others try to assemble their combo turn 20, and everything in between. Either way, the combo deck is trying to use a combination of cards to produce a devastating or game-ending effect. Within the gameplay (barring the turn 1 kill type of combo), there’s a large amount of agency as the combo deck is constantly making decisions in an attempt to set up their combo and their opponents are doing everything in their power to not let them, whether that’s killing them or interrupting the combo. As an aside, some believe that combo can be any two cards that have strong synergy with each other and, although that is debatable, I would classify combo decks as decks that would find it either difficult or impossible to win outside the means of their combo. Combo occupies the most dangerous space in Magic card design because, when bad, they’re harmless, but when good, they can easily be oppressive. From that perspective, it makes sense that Wizards has predominantly avoided printing cards that could combo, a move that I’d consider mostly sound and healthy for Standard.
DECK ARCHETYPES AND DECK-BUILDING AGENCY
Aggressive decks are very simple in their deck building decisions: hit hard, hit fast, and have some reach if possible – that refers to their ability to close out games after their opponent has stabilised, say with burn. In that vein, aggro decks are very much the slave to how many aggressively costed creatures and spells Wizards prints.
Midrange decks have the greatest agency in deckbuilding and are generally the lynchpin of brewers. Since the gameplan of midrange decks is generally mutable, a combination of threats and answers is the general construction, but WHAT threats and WHAT answers you utilize gives the player large amounts of agency.
Control decks, somewhat similarly to aggro (control and aggro are way more similar than people realize or like to admit), don’t have much agency in deck building as they are generally reactionary. The control decks generally have to be packed with cards that are good against the perceived metagame. However, in predicting the perceived metagame, they grant a lot of agency and thrill in deck-building. In any given tournament, a card like Noxious Grasp, which is an incredibly powerful card, could be a slam dunk 4-of main deck (Oko Standard) or not even good enough for sideboard play (Post-Companion change during Ikoria Standard). Delegating the roles of your main deck and sideboard is generally an interesting balancing act, and offers a lot to the player.
Combo decks usually have the absolute least amount of agency in deckbuilding. Everything revolves around setting up their combo and defending it; now, balancing the amount of enablers and interaction to include is up to interpretation, but that’s generally how deckbuilding goes for combo.
Why did I bother giving such a long introduction? It’s important to understand how formats are constructed in order to properly critique them. If we don’t understand how the archetypes compete against each other and the importance of the different types of agency in Magic, all the points in this article won’t have as strong of a leg to stand on. With that in mind, let’s jump into the Standard formats.
LET’S TALK KALADESH
Boy, oh boy, was this set crazy. The amount of powerful cards made my tiny brain spin at the time, as it did for many others. However, this block was plagued by many overpowered card designs.
Oh no. A 2 mana 3/3 flier card filterer with only one good removal spell to deal with it (Harnessed Lightning). This card was simply too good to exclude in any sort of deck that played a healthy amount of creatures, which turned out to be almost all of them at the time. Wizards quickly realized their mistake and banned it before printing Fatal Push, a card that would’ve made Copter more bearable, but not actually fun or engaging. This removed deck-building agency as if you are playing a creature deck, you’re playing Copter. If you don’t have enough creatures, why don’t you play more to support Copter? Control? Can’t answer Copter. Good ban.
Oh, God no! Marvel was not a good time for everyone not named Jaberwocki. Aetherworks Marvel perfectly segues into a concept that I’m going to be bringing up a lot in this tirade: I call it the “20/10 principle”.
THE 20/10 PRINCIPLE
Every format and every deck has its best cards, that’s part of the game. The disheartened sigh when you’re on the draw and your opponent plays a Llanowar Elves resonates with us all. Llanowar Elves on turn 1 feels like a 10 out of 10 play (10/10). The trade-off with it though, is that it scales poorly later. It may be a 10/10 turn 1, but it’s a 1/10 on turn 10. So what’s a 20 out of 10? A 20 out of 10 is a card (generally a build around, but sometimes in its most egregious form, not) is a card in a deck that’s so powerful the entire game feels warped around it. If you get the feeling that the match is going to be decided by how many times the 20/10 card is going to resolve, it’s generally indicative of uninteresting gameplay.
This can generally occur when the format lacks enough reasonable answers to the 20/10 cards, but I would still argue that forcing a player to have an answer to a 20/10 card or lose on the spot is not particularly engaging gameplay. Mind you, this isn’t applicable to expensive threats like Ugin, the Spirit Dragon or (arguably) Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger, as cards that are expensive should generally have game-ending effects.
Marvel is one of those examples of the 20/10s as the only really good answer to it was Ceremonious Rejection, but the issue was Rejection wasn’t good against anything else in the deck besides the Marvel (and the Emrakul technically, but it still didn’t counter the trigger which was the back-breaking part). The entire Marvel deck was designed to accrue energy, play a Marvel, and ideally win the game that turn. Without enough relevant counterplay, it was an extremely obnoxious deck that forced the meta to adapt in the sense that you either play Marvel, or you play a deck that had a good sideboard for it because there’s no way you were going to have a good game one. Good ban.
GB CONSTRICTOR AND FOUR-COLOR SAHEELI
I’ll keep this short; nothing at the time really beat GB Constrictor besides another problematic deck, Four-Color Saheeli. Nothing else actually competed beyond those two decks, trust me, I tried. Also, not banning a two-card infinite combo where both cards are reasonable on their own, immediately? Ballsy move Wizards, but I don’t mind that they experimented since the last time something like this happened was when Deceiver Exarch and Splinter Twin were in Standard. However, both those cards individually were pretty bad which definitely tempered the power level of the deck.
Oh come on Bob, Temur Energy mirrors were super intricate and deckbuilding was super important! Completely true. Once Saheeli and Marvel got their well deserved bans, Temur Energy ravaged Standard. Temur Energy’s gameplay agency was really high, but the deck-building agency of the format was very low. Yes, I guess tuning your deck to beat the mirror is agency, but not being able to play pretty much anything in the format that isn’t an Energy card, Hazoret, or Glorybringer is very problematic.
This is another situation that Wizards desperately has to try to avoid: the proverbial one-deck metagame. Mono Red Aggro was also popular, but its Temur Energy matchup was considered slightly unfavorable; it just saw play because it wasn’t Temur Energy, so it was a change of pace from the constant mirrors. In the one deck metagame, it’s rare that the deck actually takes up more than a 20% share of the meta, but that’s not because players are trying to optimize their win percentage, but that they’re trying to have more fun. This is endemic to a lot of the Standard formats recently, as one deck really stood head and shoulders above the rest of the format and everyone either played it or actively avoided doing so, because they wanted to play their strategy.
Metas change, that’s fine, but it’s inherently harmful to the fun of the game if your move feels forced, like you have to choose winning or playing a strategy you like, or WHEN YOU DON’T HAVE AGENCY.
GUILDS OF RAVNICA
With Kaladesh rotating out October 5th 2018 and with the dawn of Guilds of Ravnica, Standard experienced a period of deck diversity and interesting gameplay that it was lacking for quite awhile. Again, not to say the gameplay agency was necessarily lacking, but the deck-building agency definitely was. I would say the next few standard formats were pretty interesting; there were some overpowered cards (Goblin Chainwhirler, Teferi, Hero of Dominaria) but they weren’t at the same level as my previous mentions. Guess Wizards has gotten everything under control again…
THRONE OF ELDRAINE
OH NO. OH GOD NO. GET HIS HOT BODY AWAY FROM ME.
We all know what hunk I’m talking about, Oko Thief of Crowns. Furthermore, we were subjected to another juggernaut right before this in Field of the Dead. These 2 decks were clearly the only reasonable decks to play if you cared about winning, and they let Mythic Championship 5 happen with both legal. Both decks dominated the meta and it was clear both were problematic. Thus, everyone was excited for bans and they banned the two best cards in Standard, Field of the Dead and… Wait, what? Just Field of the Dead? Oko did better at the MC! This was the first inkling of what was going to be a huge problem in Standard moving forward: Wizards being super hesitant in banning cards that are clearly problematic. Mythic Championship 6 (the first PT I played in!) came and went, Oko obviously dominated it in a clear one deck metagame, and it was banned shortly after. I don’t know why they waited, but it was certainly not the last time they were going to do that.
THEROS BEYOND DEATH
At this point, there were multiple strong decks, but all of them felt egregiously overpowered. Between Uro being busted, Fires of Invention being busted, Wilderness Reclamation being busted, and Jund Sacrifice, which was an amazing deck, feeling comparably fair or even underpowered, that’s how powerful this Standard was. I always thought that if everyone has a bazooka, it’s balanced. However, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Just because everyone has a bazooka doesn’t mean the format feels balanced: it then comes down to who draws their bazooka first, or in other terms, who draws their 20/10 card.
Magic World Championship came by, and surprisingly, the metagame seemed relatively balanced: 4 Reclamation players, 4 Fires Players, 4 Mono Red Players, 3 Azorius Control Players, and 1 Jund Sacrifice player. I don’t think this particular Standard format was good, but it certainly wasn’t bad. I didn’t like how many 20/10s there were, but people seemed reasonably placated. All seemed ok in the world. Then Aaron Gertler took down the DreamHack tournament with an off the wall brew: Temur Clover. This deck absolutely dunked on Control, was ok against Fires, and struggled against Reclamation. At the time, it seemed like a fine addition to the metagame. Later on, Rakdos Sacrifice also turned out to be a great deck, backed off the success of Chris Kvartek’s 10 win run in the Mythic Point challenge. So, there were a lot of playable decks at the time, still not the greatest format because of so many 20/10s, but pretty good considering.
IKORIA: LAIR OF BEHEMOTHS
Alright, so Companions were overpowered, which was something I saw from a mile away. However, I actually liked that Wizards tried to push the envelope a bit and try out an interesting new design. I wish it wasn’t a design that was clearly going to be problematic, but it is what it is. Unfortunately as a result of that card design, Jeskai Lukka Fires was one of the most unfun decks to play with and against, but it didn’t live very long before Fires got banned and the companion rule was changed. These seemed like good changes at the time, and they were.
HOWEVER, everyone who played Standard knew that if you take out Fires and Companions, Reclamation will just eat everyone, so most players at this time were also hoping for a Reclamation ban or at least an Uro ban. It didn’t happen, and it ate everybody’s lunch.
CORE SET 21
M21 added some new cool cards to the meta, but Wilderness Reclamation was still just destroying everybody. You could play other strategies, but it was simply worse than tuning Reclamation and everyone knew it. As a sick joke, people started putting Teferi into their Reclamation decks just to combat the mirror. Back to the dominance of a 20/10 card and back to a one-deck meta. However, after the online Players Tour, there was a glimmer of hope before Zendikar released.
Sweeping bans that actually seemed very good for freshening up Standard right before rotation: Wilderness Reclamation, Teferi, Time Reveler, Cauldron Familiar, and Growth Spiral. Somehow, Growth Spiral took the bullet for Uro, but otherwise the bans were largely applauded by the community. This is probably the best and most frustrating part of the current Standard as I’m typing on 10/1/2020: the Cauldron Familiar ban. This was a great move by Wizards, as Cat wasn’t dominating Standard at the time, but it was clear that if it stuck around, it clearly would.
Omnath was clearly broken and everyone knew it more or less. I thought Omnath was going to be really good per my Standard Tier List, but I expected it would be somewhat hard to cast. Clearly, I was wrong and Omnath dominated the first weeks of tournaments. There’s a now famous screenshot of the top 21 lists in an SCG tournament and 19 of them were Omnath decks.
A really, really bad look for Standard and a level of dominance for one archetype that I have personally never seen. So everybody was excited for the following Monday, the day that Omnath would likely get the boot. If you follow me closely, you know I was hoping for an Uro and Clover ban as well. Uro has been allowed to live for far too long, and Clover, like the Cauldron familiar ban, would be a preemptive strike against a deck that would likely be too powerful once the last remnants of broken 2020 designs were eliminated.
However, on September 28th, they only banned Uro. I’m speaking a week before the Grand Finals and I’m not positive what will happen. However, from what I can tell, all the Uro ban did was take out one of the few bad matchups for Omnath in Sultai Control. The Omnath decks themselves remained largely unaffected and, even the Standard Challenge on the day before the Omnath ban, was won with an Omnath list using only one Uro! Thus, the likelihood of the Grand Finals being flooded by Omnath in levels unlike any other tournament in the history of Magic, seems relatively high. This is so frustrating as a competitive player, as it’s like you just lost your whole leg and the doctor sews a foot to your hip. Yeah, I guess it’s a step in the right direction, but it’s pretty meaningless without the rest of the job.
It’s clear that they don’t want to ban Mythics in their new set and I can sympathize with that, but like Oko and Uro before it, they are simply waiting too long to excise overbearing cards. I don’t mind wanting to aggregate data before making these decisions, but any strong Standard player can and could have told you that Oko, Uro, and Omnath are clearly all too powerful to exist in the same design space as Mythics like Outlaw’s Merriment and Drana, the Last Bloodchief.
Why is that the case? It’s because all these cards robbed you of DECKBUILDING AGENCY. More on that in a bit. Now that Omnath has successfully taken over Standard, and even Temur Clover players are using it, I have no doubt that he’s going to get smacked out of existence sooner than Wizards wants and two weeks later than the rest of us want. What I fear the most, though, is that it’ll only be an Omnath ban, then Temur Clover will just fill the void that Omnath left. Is Clover as strong as Omnath? No, it’s not, and historically it hasn’t been a problem in past metas. However, that was endemic to how disgustingly overpowered past designs were. It’s not that Lucky Clover isn’t overpowered (and it didn’t have to be if there were a suite of answers to it that aren’t bad to maindeck), it’s just that everything else was even more overpowered. Clover is the only deck that can contest with Omnath right now, so I sincerely hope they see the writing on the wall and take it out with Omnath.
This is where my jimmies are going to get the most rustled at Magic card design in 2020. In a Magic deck, you have to choose between cards that produce different effects that allow you to construct a cohesive gameplan. Generally, that has to do with threats, answers, cards that provide card advantage, and lands. What 2020 card design did is decide that all of these should be printed on the same card. Oko was a threat, interacted with your opponent’s permanents, card advantage because he could steal opposing threats, and it took so many resources to kill him. Furthermore, in something that was going to be endemic to a lot of green Mythics, he made Food tokens so he was a source of incidental lifegain, as if Aggro decks didn’t have a hard enough time beating through an endless swarm of 3/3s.
Now let’s take Uro for example: it’s a threat, it’s not interaction, but it’s card advantage because it cycles on ETB and attack, it ramps, and it gains life! It does so much on one card! Omnath is a threat, sometimes interaction with the third mode, it’s card advantage because it draws a card and ramps, and it gains life! So how does this relate to deckbuilding agency? You don’t have to choose what cards to put in your deck if you can just play cards that do literally everything. This feels obvious but seems like something that’s been missed or, for whatever reason, even pushed in recent card design philosophy. Players don’t have to make decisions on how to construct their deck if they can play cards that do everything. This is the second type of 20/10 cards that exist (the first type just being so disgustingly powerful that you can generally win off of them singlehandedly): cards where they have so many effects that they’re just auto includes in every deck that can support them, and they’re extremely powerful. Uro doesn’t win you the game like Aetherworks Marvel did, but saying it’s less broken than Aetherworks Marvel is not the benchmark we should be shooting for in Standard.
The last type of deck-building agency that has frustrated me recently, but I don’t fault Wizards for nearly as much, is the set-specific pre-built decks. What do I mean by this? Since each plane is only represented in one set, Wizards has to squish all their cool card designs for the flagship mechanic in that set. When that happens, recently you could just jam together all the cards with the same mechanic and end up with an amazing Standard deck. It’s cool when decks revolving around a flagship mechanic are good, and cool if they end up being the best, but it’s not cool when they end up being oppressive.
Right now, Standard is being terrorized by these prebuilt decks: Omnath, which is Landfall tribal, and Clover, which is Adventure tribal. Wizards believes that formats are being broken faster because the average player has improved and information spreads way faster. Both of those statements are true, but that’s not why Standard has been struggling. It’s because there isn’t much work you have to do to put these broken lists together. This happened with Vehicles, this happened with Energy, and this happened with Oko (Food). Temur Clover took a little more time, but as I said before, that’s endemic to everything else being busted beyond belief.
As an aside, Clover is a particularly frustrating archetype to combat because they can more or less do everything. As I said back in the beginning preamble, midrange decks should generally struggle against control. This should be doubly true since Clover is a midrange deck that is so powerful against aggressive decks. However, that isn’t even close to being the case. Are you an Aggro deck? Here’s Bonecrusher Giant, Lovestruck Beast, Brazen Borrower, and even Fae of Wishes as a blocker? Midrange? You’ll get buried by Innkeeper, Clover, and Fae of Wishes value. Control? Same as midrange, but even more susceptible since your counterspells are now terrible as well. The only real way to combat Clover is to go over the top of it; however, when you can go over Clover in Standard, it just seems likely you’re playing an overpowered strategy yourself.
Everybody knew Omnath was broken on Day 1 because all you had to do was put a few Landfall cards together, put in some ramp, and boom, you have a Tier 0 deck. Something like Jeskai Lukka Fires, which was broken and made Standard very sad, I don’t blame Wizards for missing. It’s true that companions were too strong, Fires was as well, but I certainly missed Lukka and Agent of Treachery being broken when combined. However, if problematic cards were taken out of Standard earlier, a lot of this could be avoided. Again, I’m not saying that Wizards is bad at their job; I can’t even imagine how difficult the job is, but you mess up, you have to clean it up in a timely manner. You admit you made a mistake, and move on.
- Stop making 20/10 cards. When games entirely revolve around whether one card resolves or not, that’s not interesting game play.
- If you want to print powerful cards, make strong answers for them as well. The biggest problem with Lucky Clover in particular is first how it’s templated. It copies the spell, which you can’t interact with. Instead, if it doubled the effect as it resolved, then counterspells would actually be able to interact with it. Secondly, there’s no good answers to it at all. Embereth Shieldbreaker is not a good answer to Clover. It’s a 2/1 that’s terrible when they don’t draw Clover; that’s not a punishing effect in the slightest. If they templated Clover differently or reprinted Divest or something, it would help significantly. It’s unfortunate because Clover is a cool card design with extremely uncool gameplay implications.
- If a card is clearly too strong for Standard, just ban it and get it over with. Uro wasn’t magically going to be a fair card if you let it stay long enough. Wizards did it right with Cauldron Familiar, I hope they do the same with Lucky Clover.
- Aggro decks cannot thrive when the best cards in Standard are huge roadblocks, gain life, and also have 6 other abilities. If you want Aggro to be good, you need to be careful with how many abilities one card can have.
- Control decks cannot thrive when the best cards in Standard do too much for too little. When every card replaces itself or accrues value in some way, if you miss a counterspell you can just lose. Uro, Omnath, and Clover all are extremely powerful cards that can replace themselves quickly in value. You can’t have every good card replace itself. Furthermore, if you don’t print good answers to powerful cards, people will give up on trying to play interaction and will just play the pushed threats.
- In general with pushed card designs within the past few years, all the amazing cards have slotted into midrange strategies that allowed them to be so powerful that other strategies couldn’t compete or they do too much for too little, so trying to go under or over them is just as challenging. Keep cards interesting and powerful, but make sure your players have to consider the opportunity cost to putting a card in their deck and not that they put it into every deck within those colors.
- Agency is the lifeblood of Magic. If players feel like they lack it either in the gameplay or deckbuilding phase for extended periods, Magic is in a bad spot. In totality, Magic players want Magic to succeed. We won’t always be right about what’s best for the game, but if a huge amount of the community agrees with a certain action, it’s prudent to take that action.
- We aren’t frustrated because we expect Wizards to mess up; it’s because we expect them to succeed like they’ve done so many times in the past. Most of the people who are vocal about their dissatisfaction are doing so because they care, not because they don’t.
That’s about it for today! If you agree or disagree with any of my points, please comment and I’ll try to respond to them in a timely manner. Remember to be respectful though; I understand tempers can run high when we’re frustrated. If you like my content and want more, you can follow me on Twitch! Have a great day!