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What is the “ideal” Standard deck?

Ending Block-on-Block Violence

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This article discusses the one significant development shift that I’m most proud to have worked on. Blocks like Onslaught and Mirrodin really encouraged “self-contained” decks, but recently we’ve worked hard to make sure Standard decks are made of parts from all of the format’s component blocks. Check it out.


This article originally appeared on March 10, 2006

The letter A!s we finish working on one block here in R&D and begin working on the next, we often have discussions about what Standard will lose when the new set rotates in (knocking out the block two previous), and what the new block will want to do to compensate. Will red be lacking good small creature? Is the best countermagic leaving? Will colors other than green lose their ability to accelerate? Basically we want to make sure things never get too out of whack.

In these discussions, we sometimes talk about what the “ideal” Standard deck should look like. Not what colors it is or whether it wins fast or slow, but rather where its cards come from.

Take a look at the following four decks, which happen to be the top four finishers from the 2004 World Championships.




Bring back memories? The format was Standard using the full Onslaught block, the full Mirrodin block, and Eighth Edition. Looking back on these decks now, it is clear to me that these are prime examples of what the “ideal” Standard deck is not.

Why not? Here are some numbers.

WORLDS 2004 Cards
from
Block 1
Cards
from
Block 2
Cards
from
Core Set
Percentages Uniques
from
Block 1
Uniques
from
Block 2
Uniques
from
Core Set
Percentages
Nuijten - GW Slide
(Onslaught / Mirrodin / Eighth)
30 8 9 64% / 17% / 19% 9 2 3 64% / 14% / 21%
Paquette - Affinity
(Onslaught / Mirrodin / Eighth)
0 60 0 0% / 100% / 0% 0 16 0 0% / 100% / 0%
Ogura - Goblins
(Onslaught / Mirrodin / Eighth)
33 8 0 80% / 20% / 0% 9 2 0 82% / 18% / 0%
Bevand - Ironworks
(Onslaught / Mirrodin / Eighth)
0 60 0 0% / 100% / 0% 0 19 0 0% / 100% / 0%

A few quick notes on this and the following tables: The total number of “cards” looked at includes neither basic lands nor sideboards. If a card is in an expansion and the Core Set at the same time (think Shatter), it is counted for the Core Set. A “unique” card can be thought of as a line on a decklist and has nothing to do with the number of any particular card played.

From a development standpoint, this analysis is painful to look at. The Affinity and Ironworks decks are quite literally Block decks—neither of them get so much as a single card from the other Standard-legal sets. The other two may as well be Block decks with a few minor tweaks; if you recall, Goblins and Astral Slide were two of the premier powerhouses in the Onslaught Block environment.

Those of you with experience playing Mirrodin cards may be quick to blame that block's insular “doesn't-play-nice-with-others” mechanics, but the problem is much bigger than that. Here are four high-finishing decks from the previous year's Worlds—2003:




Again we see Astral Slide and Goblins, this time joined by the Odyssey-block Dynamic Duo of Madness and Wake. All we're missing is Psychatog. The numbers:

WORLDS 2003 Cards
from
Block 1
Cards
from
Block 2
Cards
from
Core Set
Percentages Uniques
from
Block 1
Uniques
from
Block 2
Uniques
from
Core Set
Percentages
Zink - Wake
(Odyssey / Onslaught / Eighth)
28 7 10 62% / 16% / 22% 10 3 3 63% / 19% / 19%
Humpherys - UG Madness
(Odyssey / Onslaught / Eighth)
36 0 5 88% / 0% / 12% 13 0 2 87% / 0% / 13%
Eder - Goblin Bidding
(Odyssey / Onslaught / Eighth)
6 39 1 13% / 85% / 7% 2 12 1 13% / 80% / 7%
Walls - Rift-Slide
(Odyssey / Onslaught / Eighth)
4 37 3 9% / 84% / 7% 1 11 1 8% / 85% / 8%

Three of the four decks get about 85% of their cards from within a single block; one of them doesn't use anything from the other Standard-legal block at all. The fourth deck, Wake, makes good use of a few cards from outside the Odyssey block, but not quite enough that it doesn't feel simply like a juiced-up version of the block Wake deck.

Why was Standard during that time period simply one Block deck fighting another? Why couldn't interesting hybrid decks using cards from all available sets flourish? There are myriad possible reasons, which I'll outline below.

1) The most powerful cards (or mechanics) in the block are the “linear” ones. What do the following powerful cards have in common: Astral Slide, Arcbound Ravager, Circular Logic, Goblin Warchief, Krark-Clan Ironworks? Each of them tells you exactly what kinds of other cards to fill your deck with. Astral Slide demands cycling cards. Ravager and Ironworks require artifacts to fulfill their potentials. The Warchief commands Goblins. And Circular Logic wants free permanent discard outlets.

The problem arises when the only place to find the necessary kinds and quality of cards to combine with these powerhouses to make interesting Standard decks is in the same block as the cards themselves. All the cheapest artifacts are in Mirrodin. All the most aggressive Goblins are in Onslaught (as are the only cycling cards). And Odyssey is the home to the best discard enablers the game has ever seen. Our designers may have believed that most of these cards weren't too overly parasitic—after all, they did work with other cards in the game. Eighth Edition's Goblin Raider plays just fine with the Warchief. Arcbound Ravager can eat a Mirari just as easily as it can an Ornithopter. But in reality, while it may look like you have a few choices, you really have no choices at all. The mechanical themes of the blocks were turned up to levels unmatched by the neighboring blocks and Core Sets.

2) Neighboring blocks have nothing to do with one another. Sometimes this happens because of unintentional bad planning in R&D. When we decided to “retire” all the popular creature types in the Odyssey block (Goblins, Merfolk, Elves), we had no real idea that we'd be doing a “tribal” block next. By the time we realized we'd like to have some decent Goblins and Elves running around Standard to give players deckbuilding options with Onslaught, it was too late.

Sometimes the blocks have nothing to do with one another on purpose, which turns out to be a bad idea in retrospect. We intentionally “starved” the world on gold cards leading up to Invasion and on artifacts leading up to Mirrodin. The former worked out well; the latter not so much. Why? Because Invasion didn't tell you “play as many gold cards as you can,” whereas Mirrodin told you to “play as many artifacts as you can.” Because there weren't too many other artifacts in the Standard environment to choose from, Mirrodin decks tended to be very insular.

3) Core Sets are too weak. Core Sets tend to contribute to Standard all the time, but usually with support cards. Birds of Paradise, Duress, Mana Leak, and Enlightened Tutor are all fine cards, but they tend to merely shore up existing strategies as opposed to opening doors to new ones. One way to absolutely guarantee that Standard feels different from the various block formats is to put cards that enable new decks in the Core Set. The best historical examples are cards like Armageddon and Opposition, both of which enabled decks that were comprised of Core Set cards plus cards from expansions.

Assuming we could address all these problems, what would “ideal” Standard decks look like? I went rooting around old web coverage and came up with four good examples from various points in time.





HISTORICAL IDEALS Cards
from
Block 1
Cards
from
Block 2
Cards
from
Core Set
Percentages Uniques
from
Block 1
Uniques
from
Block 2
Uniques
from
Core Set
Percentages
Krouner - Squirrel-Opp
(Invasion / Odyssey / Seventh)
13 17 18 27% / 35% / 38% 4 6 5 27% / 40% / 33%
Finkel - Fires
(Masques / Invasion / Seventh)
18 12 21 35% / 24% / 41% 5 5 6 31% / 31% / 38%
van de Logt - Replenish
(Urza's / Masques / Sixth)
17 13 13 40% / 40% / 40% 5 5 6 31% / 31% / 38%
Selden - Survial-Recur
(Mirage / Tempest / Fifth)
14 26 11 27% / 51% / 22% 9 13 4 35% / 50% / 15%

To me, these decks are things of beauty. My criterion was a simple one—double-digit cards from each of the two relevant blocks and the Core Set. I made this up on the fly while writing the article; in R&D, we talk about the ideal Standard deck in abstract and have never actually created a metric to measure it. Obviously this rule is not hard and fast and we should never be trying to force this kind of mixing too much. Should we do our jobs well, this kind of stuff should spring up relatively regularly.

The surprising news to me was that decks that met this criterion were really hard to find, even throughout time, usually because the Core Sets weren't chipping in all that much. I'm still not sure that we as a department will agree that the Core Set should be contributing all that many cards to top-tier decks, but as one of the architects of Ninth Edition I wanted to make sure that it did its part to keep Standard fresh.

On that topic, how have we been doing recently with regards to the three problems I listed above? We knew that Odyssey / Onslaught / Mirrodin was a low point for Standard deckbuilding—so have we actually corrected anything?

1) On the strength of “linear” cards. Kamigawa had quite a few linear cards and mechanics, from “splice onto Arcane” to the tribal interactions of Spirits, Snakes, and Samurai. But we did two things right with those cards. One, if we did make a segment of linear cards powerful, we didn't make enough of them to fill an entire deck. So if you like the interaction between Lava Spike and Glacial Ray, you still have to look hard for cards to flesh out your deck. Similarly, Hondens work well together but only combine to make a portion of a total deck. Two, if there were enough cards to make a whole deck, we didn't push the mechanic very hard. Snakes are a great example of this—they were decent in block, but aren't a real player in Standard, which is fine by us. After all, there are next to no other playable Snakes in Standard, and we didn't want a top-tier Standard deck to be made from all Kamigawa cards. Kamigawa's “spiritcraft” cards are another fine example.

Ravnica has very few powerful linear cards at all—most of its power is very open-ended. All Loxodon Hierarch and Lightning Helix demand is that you play mana of their colors; whatever cards you choose to surround them with is up to you. Of the seven keywords so far in the block, only dredge has the potential to be really insular (as it has been in Extended), but in general you tend to see one or two cards from each mechanic in decks as opposed to a deck stuffed with every card that shares a keyword.

2) On blocks not working together well. We didn't really address this issue fully until Ravnica design, wherein we consciously chose to incorporate two of Kamigawa's major themes—legends and Spirits—into the newer block. These decisions have paid off—I have seen Minamo untap Niv-Mizzet numerous times, and similarly Plagued Rusalka was triggering Tallowisp regularly at last weekend's Pro Tour.

Ideally we'll be able to subtly weave cards into existing themes from block to block from now on.

3) On the Core Set being too weak. The addition of the painlands alone to Ninth Edition puts it on the map, as just being able to access better mana makes decks possible in Standard that are not in block. Additionally, there are some great “build-around” cards in Ninth like Wildfire, Battle of Wits, and Greater Good.

Of course, by addressing problem #1 on this list we allow more Core Set cards to creep into Standard. Cards like Phyrexian Arena, Ravenous Rats, and Sudden Impact have been around forever, but by loosening up the tyranny of linear block mechanics on deck construction we open the door for these more versatile cards to show up.

Let's take a look at the Top 4 finishers from Honolulu to see how it has all shaken out.





HONOLULU TOP 4 Cards
from
Block 1
Cards
from
Block 2
Cards
from
Core Set
Percentages Uniques
from
Block 1
Uniques
from
Block 2
Uniques
from
Core Set
Percentages
Herberholz - Gruul Beats
(Kamigawa / Ravnica / Ninth)
3 36 8 6% / 77% / 17% 1 10 2 8% / 77% / 15%
Jones - Zoo
(Kamigawa / Ravnica / Ninth)
11 25 17 21% / 47% / 32% 4 7 6 24% / 41% / 35%
Chan - Owling Mine
(Kamigawa / Ravnica / Ninth)
14 4 26 32% / 9% / 59% 4 1 7 33% / 8% / 58%
O. Ruel - Hand in Hand
(Kamigawa / Ravnica / Ninth)
12 32 10 22% / 59% /19% 5 9 3 29% / 53% / 18%

Yes, Herberholz's Gruul deck is essentially a block deck with Kird Apes. And yes, Chan's Owling Mine relies a little too heavily on Ninth and not enough on stuff from Guildpact. But overall this is the best Standard has ever looked in my opinion. In fact, this cross-section is probably more perfect than if every deck were an even blend of each constituent part. Some decks have a “Ravnica” feel, some have a “Kamigawa” feel, and some even have a “Ninth” feel, but they all rely on key pieces from the other sets to make the whole what it is. Most importantly, there are no zeros anywhere on the chart.

Can we keep this up? I hope so, but it is difficult. We don't want to avoid new linear mechanics—after all, many of those turn out to be incredibly fun and popular (such as Slivers). We know a large group of players don't enjoy agonizing over deckbuilding but would rather instead throw a bunch of cards that share a type or keyword together, and we need to make sure they have a good experience as well. But what we can do is stop regularly pushing set themes to the level where they are incompatible with everything else in the environment. I'd like to think that we've already done that.

In closing, here are a dozen more decklists from Honolulu and the most recent round of Nationals and Worlds, going back about a year. The numbers tend to be pretty good across the board, as all these events happened after the major banning of affinity cards. Some decks favor certain blocks to be sure, but there is only a single zero on the chart. I hope that's the last zero I'll ever see in one of these analyses, and Standard will continue to showcase different decks than those we'll see in Block play.

Let's end all the Block-on-Block violence. Drop me a line if you feel strongly one way or the other.










Jushi Blue




OTHER RECENT DECKS Cards
from
Block 1
Cards
from
Block 2
Cards
from
Core Set
Percentages Uniques
from
Block 1
Uniques
from
Block 2
Uniques
from
Core Set
Percentages
Bracht - Heartbeat
(Kamigawa / Ravnica / Ninth)
17 17 6 43% / 43% / 15% 5 6 3 36% / 43% / 21%
Lebedowicz - Izzetron
(Kamigawa / Ravnica / Ninth)
11 23 26 18% / 38% / 43% 4 7 9 20% / 35% / 45%
Goodman - Ghost Dad
(Kamigawa / Ravnica / Ninth)
23 21 4 48% / 44% / 8% 9 7 1 53% / 41% / 6%
Wiegersma - Roxodon
(Kamigawa / Ravnica / Ninth)
7 38 8 13% / 72% / 15% 3 13 2 17% / 72% / 11%
Mori - GhaziGlare
(Kamigawa / Ravnica / Ninth)
15 28 10 28% / 53% / 19% 6 9 3 33% / 50% / 17%
Karsten - Greater Gifts
(Kamigawa / Ravnica / Ninth)
29 10 10 59% / 20% / 20% 12 7 4 52% / 30% / 17%
Asahara - Enduring Ideal
(Kamigawa / Ravnica / Ninth)
9 17 24 18% / 34% / 48% 3 5 8 19% / 31% / 50%
A. Ruel - Critical Mass
(Kamigawa / Ravnica / Ninth)
30 6 14 60% / 12% / 28% 13 2 4 68% / 11% / 21%
Olynyk - Viridian Rats
(Mirrodin / Kamigawa / Ninth)
14 18 16 29% / 38% / 33% 4 7 5 25% / 44% / 31%
Reeves - Jushi Blue
(Mirrodin / Kamigawa / Eighth)
21 8 10 54% / 21% / 26% 7 2 3 58% / 17% / 25%
Ravitz - Flores Red
(Mirrodin / Kamigawa / Eighth)
35 9 0 80% / 20% / 0% 9 3 0 75% / 25% / 0%
Goron - Tooth and Nail
(Mirrodin / Kamigawa / Eighth)
24 11 18 45% / 21% / 34% 10 5 5 50% / 25% / 25%

Last Week's Poll:

Which of the following lands will be the most abundant in this weekend's Top 8 Standard decks from the Pro Tour?
Steam Vents 1890 20.5%
Temple Garden 1609 17.5%
Godless Shrine 1556 16.9%
Overgrown Tomb 1390 15.1%
Stomping Ground 959 10.4%
Watery Grave 862 9.4%
Sacred Foundry 571 6.2%
Yavimaya Coast 140 1.5%
Adarkar Wastes 111 1.2%
Sulfurous Springs 110 1.2%
Total 9198 100.0%

The correct answer was Steam Vents, as three of the Top 8 decks were blue-red.

This Week's Poll:

 Should Standard be a regular Pro Tour format?  
Yes, Honolulu was great.
No, I don't like pros dictating the metagame.
No, it isn't as interesting as Block or Extended.
I don't care.
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