The State of Standard: Whither Banhammer?


If you’ve ever heard me on a podcast (Horde of Notions, ManaScrewed, occasionally Avant Card Show) or if you follow me on Twitter (@lansdellicious) then you’ll know that I’ve been very vocal in my call for Jace, the Mind Sculptor to be banned. I’ve complained about how he’s an auto-include, how he has a “Jace Test” associated with him that renders swaths of creatures “unplayable” in Standard, how the most efficient way of dealing with him is to manipulate the rules and play the other version of him which CAN’T be good for the game. Recently I’ve agreed with the anti-Stoneforge Mystic sentiment, although I was saying it wouldn’t get banned due to the New Phyrexia event deck that contains two copies of it and is being pushed as “perfect for FNM” by the marketing wizards at…well, Wizards.

I’ve listened to Joey and Big Head Joe telling us to “stop bitching, start brewing” and agreed with Smitty that we HAVE been brewing, and we haven’t got anywhere. For every deck we brew, the Caw Blade players brewed an answer. I listened to Mike Flores say that this is the best Standard ever due to the skill required to win, and I disagreed because the format was boring and being dominated by one deck, over and over.

I was wrong. About everything except the Stoneforge banning.

I got nothing but love for Smitty and his attempts to break the format. It’s hard to argue with the success that CawBlade has had and the number of decks it puts in the top 8 and the field in general. It’s even harder to argue that the attendance at a lot of Standard events has gone way down. But Flores is right (as he often is): to win in this metagame, you have to be a good player.

What led me to this revelation? Game Day. I know it’s a ludicrously small sample size, but really that was just the puzzle piece that slotted into place and allowed me to see the overall picture. Allow me to expand on this for you. My Game Day had 18 players. The only decks in the room that had more than one person on them were DarkBlade and Soul Sisters. In the Top 8 the two Soul Sisters decks were 3rd and 5th respectively while the Caw decks were 1st…and 15th, ahead of one person and the two who dropped. The person who was leading at that point was probably the best player in the store while the other guy…well, he isn’t. The Caw decks are VERY skill-intensive and as a result, people just playing them because they win are not going to waltz to Top 8. It’s not like Affinity, Academy or even Rebels in that regard. A format that allows the best players to win more often with the best deck is better than one that allows for a ton of random wins.

It also occurred to me that Caw decks are stocking heavily against the mirror right now. Wraths, Gideons and other anti-aggro tech cards are being dropped for Dismember, Despise, Inquisition of Kozilek and Divine Offering. With Spellskite, Celestial Purge and sometimes even Act of Aggression in the board to take care of Exarch Twin, Caw has precious few slots to take care of the next tier of decks. Basically it has morphed from a solid mid-range deck into one that attacks the top two decks in the metagame…while losing to the others. Vampires, Soul Blade, Simic Aggro, Red Deck Burns, even something from tier 2 like Elves (suck it Nina! *Chris dodges*) or Kuldotha Red can win a tournament right now, because Caw doesn’t have an answer to creature swarms any more. Are you really looking forward to paying four life to kill one threat against a deck that still has five other threats on the board?

We’ve seen one extreme: everyone plays Caw. That’s what led to the current environment, with Caw maindecking answers for the mirror. So many of those matches were going to time, hurting the records of the pilots. Well, the mediocre pilots anyway. How many times did you see Edgar Flores going to time? Anyway, with everyone playing Caw some people realised that Flores was right: only the best players get the best results with the best deck in this format. So what did they do? They went home, they brewed (GASP!) and they came up with a deck that better suited their play style. Imagine that.

My co-host Noyan and I both strongly believe that playing a deck that suits you will always trump netdecking. That’s not to say the deck will be better, but you will perform better with it. I am a combo player first and an aggro player second, so if you force me to play control I will likely pull a Wall of Tanglecord (0-6 baby!) and be miserable the whole time. Give me some beatdown with a quirky combo and I’m more likely to go 2-4. OK so I’m not that terrible, but you get the idea. Unfortunately, a lot of people didn’t.

The internet has been both a blessing and a curse to Magic. Speculating on cards, spoilers, Godbooks and netdecks are all of dubious benefit to the community. I’ve often thought that netdecking would eventually reach critical mass and damage Magic, and it’s there now. It took almost weekly high-visibility tournaments for it to happen, but there it is. CawBlade hit, it won, people copied the lists of the winners and played them 75/75 without a moment’s thought and the saturation assured that they would dominate the top 8. The pros then started modifying the deck to handle the mirror, and the sheep followed. Then the smart players, who either never bought in or wanted to get out of Cawville, realised that it was safe to play aggro again. UB Control and Valakut had been hated out of the format, CawBlade wasn’t playing Wrath effects and the best way to beat Caw was to blitz it. That’s where we are now. It’s a cycle though, and soon the Caw players will adapt again and go back to playing Day of Judgment. Will that be enough to swing everything back to Caw?

It’s likely, but I don’t know how quickly that swing will happen. We have 4 months until Jace and Stoneforge are both out of Standard naturally, and in that time we have M12 to change things up. One thing that the Caw mirror now has to contend with is Batterskull, which will make the matches even more interminable. With the possibility of so many draws, Caw will have to maindeck answers to Batterskull which, in a deck that is already incredibly tight, leaves room for other decks to slip through.

This format is no longer as boring and oppressive and it once was. The Caw decks are more vulnerable to other decks than they have ever been, and the field is starting to diversify. Banning Jace and/or Stoneforge would certainly change everything, but would it be for the better? Caw would be dead but so would Soul Blade, Jumanji, BW Stoneforge, RUG, BUG, UG Flores Wave and so many more. What does that leave? A bunch of aggro decks and a ton of others built around the Splinter Twin combo. Does that sound fun? To me…not so much.

Whatever does happen, I pray that Wizards doesn’t trot out the line about “not banning anything since Mirrodin block.” That particular bit of trumpet-blowing will be bad enough if it comes before the swing of the mighty Banhammer, but to put it before a “and we’re not going to start now” would put me on tilt to rival certain Italian architectural landmarks. It’s a lousy excuse and even the people who don’t want a ban won’t be happy with that reasoning.

What do I want? Frankly I’m fed up with Jace. Sure I play Stoneforges, but even when I didn’t I wasn’t calling for them to get the axe. That said, if Jace doesn’t go I don’t think Standard is necessarily doomed. Unfortunately, unless players stop bitching and start brewing…it might be in trouble.

The bottom line here is that players need to stop being sheep. Just because your favourite pro won a SCG open with CawBlade doesn’t mean you have to play it. Play the deck that suits you best and hope you run well. Because really, that’s what wins tournaments.