Going Mad – Why Standard is Becoming Less Relevant

By: Derek Madlem

A cold wind blows in from the Northwest as the last dying leaves succumb to the paralyzing reality. Winter is knocking at our doors and the foliage is not the only thing in a state of torpor. The holiday season has always been a hard time to get any real wizarding done and this year’s event calendar is certainly not any help. December has always been light on premiere level events, but this year we have zero Grand Prix events. This comes after five straight weekends of constructed Grand Prixs…maybe we’re just hungover.

Local Magic is suffering as people are abandoning Standard in levels not seen since Caw-Blade summer. This is where I should chime in with an analysis of the competitive Standard environment to explain that it’s much more diverse and competitive than it was when those four little birds were the crux of competitive Magic, but I really can’t. I don’t know what’s going on in Standard because I just don’t care about Magic right now. I said it. I’m bored with Standard and hardly care to attend the dwindling weekly locals.

But I’m almost certainly not alone in this regard; FNMs and local weeklies everywhere are suffering with the main culprit being that players simply can’t (financially or mentally) afford to buy into the current Standard format. Mono-red, the game’s perpetual budget deck, is sporting a mana base that’s approaching $200, and that’s before you even throw in your first copy of Atarka’s Command. We’re playing a format that features the first $1,000 Standard deck, this is anything but an entry level format at this point.

Magic is ultimately a social game and our excitement, or lack thereof, to play is contagious. If you’re used to 32-man FNMs and you show up to a paltry nine players, there’s a good chance that you’re going to consider other options the next weekend, and your absence only adds to the snowball effect of people abandoning weekly tournaments.

Five Stupid Lands

The lion’s share of blame for the current state of Standard lies in five stupid lands. The irony here is that these five lands were so successful at making Modern more accessible that people decided to just go play that format instead. After acquiring a few fetches, people took a look around and saw that they could play Siege Rhino mirrors for 18 months, or they work toward finishing their Modern decks and ignore Standard completely.

Then the fetches started climbing. Players that had acquired a “playset” of Khans fetches started cashing in the extras to acquire the newly cheapened Splinter Twins and Cryptic Commands to gear themselves up for tournament play, and it was all over. Tarmogoyfs becomes a lot easier to acquire when you can just hand over fetch lands to acquire the mythic two-drop.

Despite popular belief, Magic players are constrained by budgets. With the Pro Tour, we’ve heard players talking about “getting on the train,” which is to say that once you achieve silver level in the Pro Players Club the first time, it’s easier to achieve the next time and easier to make the jump to gold or platinum. The same is true for constructing top-tier Standard decks. If you had a tier-one deck in Theros / Khans / Dragons Standard, you probably have one in Khans / Dragons / Battle Standard; but if you started or attempted to return to the game at Dragons of Tarkir or Magic Origins, you’ve been playing catch up this whole time. And if you came into the game at Battle for Zendikar, I’m sorry about your luck, kid, the train has left the station.

Something Dismal Stirs

By now you’ve heard this next line dozens of times, but I’m all for repeating myself just to up the word count: Battle for Zendikar sucks. It’s painfully apparent that Battle for Zendikar is one of the worst sets of the modern era and that the Expeditions lottery is one of the set’s few saving graces, and even they’re not looking incredibly impressive right now.

Compounding the problems that were already bubbling just below the surface with the expense of Khans fetches is the absolutely dismal power level present in BFZ. Normally when a new set is released you’ll see some reasonable deck alternatives popping up to give players somewhere to start leading into the next block. These decks are rarely tier one, but they’re usually powerful enough to at least battle through a few FNMs without getting repeatedly curb stomped into the 0-4 bracket while we wait for new cards to get printed.

This time, not so much; we have a set full of Wasteland Stranglers. Cards that rely heavily on synergies (that are hardly obtainable in draft) to do mediocre things. The best comparison is I can make is the Rise of Vigil expansion for Ascension; the set contained dozens of cards that did the exact same thing as existing cards only after jumping through hoops to activate them. Why?! This is reverse power creep in it’s worst form. This is Kamigawa… and Rosewater said we wouldn’t ever be returning.

Battle for Zendikar had fewer cards show up in its own Pro Tour than any set in the modern era. But it’s not just what’s in Battle for Zendikar that’s making Standard miserable, it’s what was left out.

lightning strike

Theros may not have been the most compelling block in the history of Magic, but it featured a set of checks and balances that leveled the playing field. Certain archetypes rely on certain cards existing, and shifting the power level of commons and uncommons down closes the door on those archetypes, creating an environment where people have no choice but to play a pile of rares and mythics. We now have a format where Siege Rhino and Woodland Wanderers are rampaging the countryside, but Lightning Strike is somehow too powerful.

Against the Tide

Traditionally, at this time of year we see the tide lowering and prices across the board dropping, both in Standard and Modern. The January after release has long been pegged as the low water mark for fall sets, but if you’ve been watching the weekly interests page, you’ll notice that Standard and Modern cards just aren’t moving. Most of the big movers have been in nonsense Legends and Arabian Nights cards that show up in ’93/’94 decks and other cards with low inventory levels.

Part of this is likely due to the lack of premiere level events and their ripple effect on buy and sell prices, but the majority of it is likely due to a widespread attitude of “let’s wait it out” as players hope that the release of Oath of the Gatewatch will be the shot in the arm the format needs moving forward. I’m not optimistic (am I ever?) that Oath is going to bring any real substance to the mix.

We have little to go on as far as Oath speculation goes, but we do have a gimmicky mana symbol and the promise of “the most cards designed for Two-Headed Giant ever.” Neither of these are selling points for me. Short of tacking “exile the top card of your opponent’s library” to every card in Oath or devoid somehow becoming relevant, this block feels close to a complete loss. These might be the best prices we see for any card in Battle for Zendikar and I’m frankly kind of amazed that they’re holding at current levels. There are only two cards I see any upside on: Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger, and even those are tenuous at best.

Dragons of Tarkir / Magic Origins

Here’s where we are likely to part ways, but I’m of the opinion that it’s all downhill from here for Dragons and Origins cards. Pretty much everything from these blocks peaked the second week of October and has been on a slow and steady decline ever since. The chart for pretty much every rare looks similar to Deathmist Raptor’s:

Screenshot 2015-12-06 at 12.02.47 PM

While there’s a chance that we see a second spike on these cards around the release of Shadows Over Innistrad, I’m putting my money on a response similar to what we saw in Khans as BFZ showed up. I’m operating on the assumption that sets are likely going to peak six to nine months after release moving forward, and I have already dumped everything from Dragons / Origins that I don’t expect to play in Modern.

Watchful Eyes

Going forward, we have a couple things to watch for. Chances are good that Oath is going to be just as bad as BFZ, and this sustained “player recession” is going to put pressure on a lot of retailers and organized play in general. Many players are just going to sit out completely until Shadows Over Innistrad or shift their focus to Modern.

If the return to Innistrad follows the same pattern we’ve seen in the last two “return” blocks, we’re in for another shit show. Return to Ravnica was serviceable as a return block, but succeeded mostly on the strength of a few guilds carrying the weakness of others…I’m looking at you, Simic. BFZ has been a pile of gimmicks that are neither cohesive nor compelling and we can expect any return to Innistrad to be laden with mediocre demons, angels, and vampires taking up more than their fair share of the rare and mythic slots.

Shoehorn in some werewolves and a couple watered-down graveyard mechanics and there’s little room left for anything fresh and new. If we’re lucky, we’ll get an Avacyn’s Pilgrim reprint so we can play with a reasonable mana dork again, but it’s becoming apparent that Wizards is moving away from mana dorks at one mana in the same manner that we’ve moved away from Rampant Growth effects at two.

The other issue we can expect to rear it’s ugly head going forward is the two-set dynamic does not leave room to both pay homage to the previous block and introduce something new, leaving us without the critical mass to power the synergy strategies and shifting Standard to solely be a “best cards” format.

If Shadows falls flat like BFZ and lacks the full-art lottery tickets, we might see the first year with a decline in Magic sales and a stagnating Standard player base, which is only going to put more focus on Modern—the format that players demand and goes against Wizards’s entire primary business strategy.

I’d love to hear what Standard looks like in your area. What’s attendance like? What are players saying about the format? How many have dropped the mic, never to return?


21 thoughts on “Going Mad – Why Standard is Becoming Less Relevant”

  1. I’ve been keeping track of how many people come to events over here in Nagoya, Japan, but it’s slightly skewed because we just had GP Kobe a few weeks ago that pushed attendance at standard events upwards. There are also about 20 stores within a 30 minute commute for a metro area of about about 3 million people. With that being said, I’d say the average FNM is hitting about 16-20 players, with weekend tournaments hitting between 24-30 most of the time. Number are slightly down after the GP, but I think it will pick up once the holidays arrive.

  2. Standard? After Theros rotated, it became Dark Jeskai, GWx goodstuff, and that rogue Esper Dragons player that wont give up despite losing all the good removal from Theros. The format hasn’t been more boring.

  3. Maro dropped a huge turd on MTG, an ominous epitaph might be Alpha 1993 – BFZ 2015. After 20 years of passionate play, the BFZ fail made quitting standard and limited feel so right cause who wants to draft or play sealed with cards that are subsequently unplayable, worthless. Time to fire Maro look for new direction.

  4. I recall last year that Abzan was the truly expensive deck and that most of the competitive alternatives were easy to obtain. The main difference is that we HAD competitive alternatives. You know there’s a problem when every blue deck needs 4x Jace. You’re exactly right in that the low BFZ power level is a huge culprit. I think things would be a lot better if battle lands weren’t fetchable…

    Attendance-wise, our weekly competitive standard night is struggling to get just 8 people and fire off (this time last year there were 15ish a week). FNM also dropped from 25-30 down to about 15. I noticed a lot more people drafting than usual with very few of the new players sticking around longer than a week.

    The attendance drop has actually been happening before rotation. I think most people were hopeful that BFZ would bring in a new era of interesting decks instead of Abzan Aggro vs Devotion vs Control. What we got is Abzan Aggro vs Jeskai vs Control. Standard hasn’t been the least bit fun for me since the early summer, so (like you illustrated) I finished a couple modern decks! I’ll also point out that weekly modern night attendance has also struggled quite a bit, though there are enough faithful regulars to at least get to 8 people (it hit 20 during its prime).

    My FNM decks are built to give the format the proverbial finger. I went 4-1 last week with turbo turns :p

  5. I have seen the exact opposite in my area and it seems as though you are deciding to complain and actually don’t have any evidence that attendance is dropping anywhere. You state these as fact with no data to back it up, just to continue harping on BFZ as if it’s some kind of affront to MTG.

    I love standard right now, people in my low-income small town are having plenty of luck brewing with the cards they have on a budget.

    This article won’t be a piece of trash after you actually have some evidence to back it up.

    1. Mike,
      I’m jealous that Magic is picking up in your area because if you look at the other comments, you’ll see that attendance is down pretty much everywhere else.

      The other thing to consider is that a pile of data points is not the style of article I like to read, so it’s not the type of article I’m going to write. I’m a member of a few networks that share this sort of information among the members and am personal friends with a number of store owners, managers, and employees that also discuss this sort of thing with me on a regular basis.

      Beyond that I live Indianapolis, a city that has a good number of game stores and events on varying nights of the week and have seen for myself as an attendee that events are down at every store I attended.

      Maybe I’m just complaining about BFZ, or maybe I have actually tapped into a number of sources to get a read on the reality of the situation and chosen to share that information with you using words rather than a bunch of graphs and charts, sorry that makes this article complete trash to you.

  6. I’d love to comment on how Standard FNMs have been doing in my area, but to be honest, I haven’t attended a standard event since shortly after BFZ was released. It hasn’t been an issue with prices really, since I have full playsets of the khans fetchlands, it’s more that decks feel like worse versions of Theros/Khans standard, and between that and general holiday-related travel lowering my free time, Modern and Legacy have been more compelling formats to spend my time and money on.

  7. Our FNM attendance was actually higher before BfZ came out. Several of our players have cited the price of competing in standard right now as their reason for not playing. Both Jeskai and control require 4 Jace, That’s 1/2 to 2/3rd of the format needing 4x the same mythic. There’s too much demand for too little of that card out there. Jace would not have been nearly so good if they had printed decent cheap removal. The number of playable commons is super low, and the number of required mythics is very high. With the ability to play 4-color mana bases, everyone can play the same mythics, further homogenizing the format and putting the interest in the same cards.

    The entire set of Khans is basically bulk + 5 fetch lands because everyone is playing the exact same cards. Even though there are 3 or 4 different decks, there is a ton of overlap between them.

    Players are demanding Zendikar fetchland reprints. This is what happens when you can play any color combination you want.

    They need to improve synergy and playability of the commons and improve disruption and interaction.

    Sorry for the long rant.

    TLDR: Attendance is down at our store week after week, with many citing price to play the format.

  8. Attendance overall for Magic at my LGS has been dwindling for the past year. Some players have talked of frustration with Standard, while others dislike my LGS’s change of policies away from a free FNM event to a $5 entry FNM event. Since BFZ came out, our attendance has been in the 10-15 per non-free event. We usually get more people attending the free afternoon Commander event than the at night Standard event.

    I haven’t played Standard since shortly after Dragons came out. For me, it’s not having an option to play in a Standard event for free that keeps me away; I would have no problem playing Standard otherwise.

    We have also been having a hard time fielding our weekly draft. I think it’s fielded maybe three times since BFZ came out. We had a hard time fielding Origins drafts (I never got the chance to draft that format), and even a few MM2015 drafts didn’t fire (which blew my mind since the LGS was charging $24 for it). Drafting is my favorite format, so this makes me sad. This week I brought a bunch of sealed product and four of us did a Conspiracy-M12-MM2015 draft in place of the sanctioned BFZ draft which didn’t fire. It was a lot of fun! [It helped that my friend opened a foil Cryptic Command – my packs so I keep all the cards!]

  9. There seems to be a greater demand for Commander than Standard at my LGS. The biggest complaint(s) I’ve heard with regards to Standard is (a) the cost of entry and (b) the shortened rotation cycle. Why pay more to play less? Thus the turn to Commander. I’d rather invest my $1000 into a Commander deck that doesn’t rotate than try my luck with Standard.

  10. I’ve noticed a decline at my local shop as well. I started playing when Khans was released and usually there would be 20-30 players for FNM. Now it’s lucky if we get 16. It didn’t help that the shop owner stopped giving store credit and started giving standard packs for prizes.

    1. I know, packs are trash. It’s why I don’t play at FNM. If they would allow store credit to build up at my LGS I would be there every friday.

  11. I have been avoiding playing Standard since the price to play competitively necessated a 500 dollar mana base. I was bored last Friday so grabbed my UB Aristocrats deck and hit my LGS.

    Turns out I am not the only one having issues with Standard right now, 5 people showed up. That was a first, Fridays were always a safe bet before …….

    Why Magic, for the love of god , why did you do this to us ……… ?

  12. For the first time that I can ever remember, Standard didn’t fire at FNM last week because we only had 6 players. We had to turn players away from Modern FNM the week before because there weren’t enough tables.

  13. Our LGS has not been doing so hot since M13. That is the last time I think I have seen 20+ show up for FNM. These days we get more like 8-12 and most fridays it’s 8. Sometimes the shop owner needs to play just to fire off an FNM. The players are there but the cost is too high for most of them. Most just play casual EDH. Almost every new player I see looses interest in a month or two as well. I would guess the constant need to siphon money into a format that offers little return(financially), and the fact that those 8 steady players are all spikes turns off anyone new from playing. Pre release events still pull around 20-30 though. Our LGS is located in a small suburb in central NY.

  14. Mini Article, “3 Reasons”
    I play standard for 3 reasons
    1) To win (my lgs offers store credit instead of packs – first place $35-50 depending on turn out) It’s great getting expeditions and other expensive cards with credit just for playing.
    2) Show off a new brew
    3) play to have fun

    Why I stopped recently and think others did as well
    1) even the best players don’t win all the time. I always have a winning record but unless you break the top 3 to 4 store credit from winning just covers entry for the event. I know not all stores allow for potentially infinite free play, but if you are lucky enough to have one, it definitely brings in players.
    2) bfz and origins brought little to no tools for competitive brews. Why brew a deck if it sucks, right?
    3) teens and college-aged players make up at least half of the fnm players at my lgs. As noted many times, standard becomes a money issue. If they don’t have a good chance to win, they don’t have fun. I don’t either when they stop coming. They don’t cultivate a good relationship with Magic as I did at their age. If they just want to play, why pay $5 entry to lose? Just play with friends for free.
    I also got tired of playing abzan for that past 5 sets. I love the colors, I love the cards, but dammit you drive everyone away.

  15. I can’t really disagree with what Thehoardling had to say.

    I stopped playing 60 card decks after mythic rares were introduced. Including Standard and Modern. I only play EDH and draft right now. So far BFZ has been a bad set to draft, so I imagine it is crap for standard too. Last week turnout was 16. I would guess that’s about average, I have seen as few as 11 and as many as 32 (capacity)

    I love MTG and have played since revised. They had such a solid base in terms of rarity, when they added a 4th they really skewed how the game feels and it had a major effect on the cost to play. Especially if you wanted a play set of mythics/s. Maybe changing the number in a set (alone) would have served them better, or perhaps number of cards per pack. IMO they are under pressure from stockholders at Hasbro to use these gimmicks to profit at the expense of the player base. Which is fine until your game costs so much it drives people away.

    I personally feel they have many issues to address at this time. (WTF was the point of two sided cards?!)

    As mentioned in above comments, The learning curve to play is massive. People enjoy winning, and when it is tough to win while owning the cards, its nearly impossible when you start out with mostly junk and have so much learning to do and spikes to beat. Imagine how big this problem could become if the games player base was to be cut by even 1/4. Prices could plummet, especially for more recent printings.

    The lottery is so gimmicky. One player I talked to said he was refusing to trade for any BFZ because he believes they will be worthless due to people cracking packs looking for the expeditions (over supply/under demand). I am not sure if he’s entirely correct, but it seems like a crap set in general. Personally I don’t even care for the dual lands from the set.

    With the price and availability of the cards I desire at this time (Tabernacle, mana drain, chains, candelabra, Library, Bazaar…) I am strongly considering dumping some modern cards to simply buy nice proxies and some Xmas gifts for my family.

  16. I can’t say anything about FNM attendance, but you’re throwing shade for no reason. Outside of the price point, this standard season is very skill testing and really rewards anyone who puts time into learning their deck/the format. Moreover, the top decks represent different archetypes (control, aggro, combo, midrange, tempo).

    You’re absolutely off mark on criticizing the removal and wanting it to be more like theros (ie hero’s downfall). Theros’ design space created a very blasé environment where you never had to work to make your removal effective. Downfall killed everything and anything for 3 mana at instant speed. I’m not sure why you would be something desired….

    1. Unfortunately the quality of the format is irrelevant if people aren’t playing it. I was simply discussing the tiny things that are adding up to reduced attendance at Standard tournaments and making the format less relevant for players, which ultimately means that less cards are going to be relevant financially.

      I’m also not saying that there is a lack of viable archetypes, I am saying there is a lack of low-cost alternatives and NEW archetypes brought into the format by BFZ compared to what we’ve seen with the release of past sets.

  17. Same story on my LGS, attendance is somehow stable with 20 people or so but everyone complains on the cards price, lack of power in BFZ except for Gideon and stallnes of the format. We get very few new players who give up very quickly. I agree fully to your articles, keep up the good work & greetings from Europe.

  18. Everyone always goes on about the prices of standard (and i agree theyre pathetic now), but what i cant seem to grasp is how many drones there are in this game, you dont need a single jace to win a game, i own 0 jace i own 0 fetchlands and i play against 500 decks all the time at FNM yet i still seem to have at least 80% win ratio.
    Heres what it comes down to, become a brewmaster, stop the mindslaving meta and quit being a mindless cookie cutter. Build,test,repeat until you have a eureka moment.
    META=DRONE I run the game it doesnt run me.

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