Wizards of the Coast recently made radical changes to Standard, extending the lifetime of all sets from a two-year rotation cycle to a three-year rotation cycle. This allows for a larger card pool in the format and could make room for a more diverse Standard. With no Standard rotation happening in 2023, Wizards took the additional step of banning several cards from the format and announcing changes to their banning policy. These changes all came about as a way to "Save Standard."
This raises the immediate question of "Does Standard even need saving?" Let's assume, as Wizards does, that yes the format needs saving. If that's the case, what are the underlying problems with Standard?
What's the Problem With Standard?
Are Bannings The Issue?
I found it humorous when Wizards stated that part of the reason behind making changes to their banning policy was specifically to help Standard. Their argument was that players were never sure if the cards they were playing were going to get banned as they could make an announcement basically any week. Their chosen solution is a single yearly announcement for all formats with a three-week emergency ban announcement window after every set release.
While I have certainly stepped back from the competitive Standard scene, I have rarely heard anyone mention that the uncertainty behind continued legality was one's biggest concern behind the format. In fact, for those unaware, the old B&R announcements were scheduled 4 times a year, and emergency bans were implemented when necessary. It was only a few years ago that Wizards changed the cadence of announcements to be more flexible due to numerous Standard bannings. The most recent change walks back that flexible policy, to something akin to their older system.
The Decline of In-Person Standard
This problem feels like a red herring, but it is undeniable that there has been a significant decline in in-person Standard play. There is not a lot of solid data for us to look at to compare Standard event turnouts over a period of time to prove this, but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence. Just try to find an upcoming Standard event within 10-25 miles of where you live using Wizards' own Event Locator. How many stores are running Standard events? One? Two? None?
While I don't like relying on anecdotal evidence, I ran a loose poll in the Quiet Speculation Discord asking whose local game stores (LGSs) were still running Standard Friday Night Magic (FNM) events. Few people knew of any. I currently have five LGSs within a 25-mile radius of where I live. None of them currently run Standard events for FNM, whereas, pre-Covid all of them did. Standard was arguably in decline even before the pandemic, but the months-long pause in in-person play of any kind only exacerbated the decline.
What is really Killing Standard Demand?
So what actually is the reason for the decline of in-person Standard? I'd say the short answer is Magic: Arena. The long answer is also Arena. I remember back when Magic: the Gathering Online (MTGO) was first announced, people feared it would kill off paper Magic. Obviously, that didn't happen. The reason why it didn't is actually pretty logical. Players still had to pay to play on MTGO. If you enjoyed playing in paper and online you might have to acquire two playsets of your cards, paper versions, and digital versions. This cost was, and still is, very real for MTGO players. While diehard players had the chance to play whenever they wanted more casual players were less likely to jump in. The same cannot be said for Arena.
Why Pay to Play?
Magic: Arena is a great way to play a lot of Magic for free, and therin lies the current problem with Standard. When Standard is free to play on Arena, why would someone want to pay for physical cards and then pay a store to play in an event? This is the critical question Wizards of the Coast needs to resolve in order to get Standard back to its glory days.
One Potential Solution is to provide players with an incentive to play in a store.
Years ago, There was just such a system, called the Players Rewards Program, wherein players built up points by playing in different events. After accruing a set amount of points, Wizards of the Coast mailed players special promos. One of the most desirable was the foil textless Cryptic Command.
While that was arguably one of the poorest choices to make textless, it is a beautiful card and I remember many people wanting copies back in the day. Sadly, Wizards of the Coast ended the Player Rewards program, in part thanks to a few unscrupulous stores finding ways to abuse the system. I don't doubt that the cost of mailing promos to so many players' homes was also a factor in the decision.
Even if Wizards didn't want to go back down the rabbit hole of managing a program like Player Rewards, at the very least they could return to making highly desirable Friday Night Magic (FNM) promos again.
Back when Path to Exile and Fatal Push were FNM promos, they were easily worth more than the typical $5 FNM entry fee, and the chance to win one was a strong incentive to encourage players to turn out. Obviously, the challenge here is identifying good candidates to make promo cards out of. More often than not, the more valuable promo cards are tied to eternal formats rather than to Standard. Winning non-Standard legal cards at a Standard event can sometimes be at odds with the goal of growing Standard attendance, but hey, they can always be good trade fodder.
Another option Wizards has used in the past was allowing players to earn byes for larger regional tournaments by accruing points won at smaller local events. This mainly affects those who enjoy competing in large events, but these competitors are often the customers who also buy more cards from their LGSs and thus keep the gaming economy going. This particular solution has very little cost to Wizards themselves and marginal cost to tournament organizers, though I suspect it would have the least overall benefit to increasing Standard play mentioned so far.
While I often consider random giveaways to be a bit gimmicky, Wizards has already started moving in this direction. They've given out serialized Shivan Dragons and Giant Growths at a few large events. While these types of giveaways may cause some people who were on the fence about attending the next big event to go, they don't do anything to encourage small local event growth.
One way to do this could be to randomly reward participants via the event registration system. For example, if they mailed special promos to one out of every 5,000 FNM participants, I could see more people wanting to play just for a shot at the Golden ticket. Ideally, winners would be notified immediately so that the store itself could celebrate and everyone could get to feed off that excitement.
Make Standard Fun Again!
I understand that "fun" is a subjective term so this solution is a bit more nuanced, but I think today's "perfect mana" Standards are a problem. When players have access to lots of mana-fixing lands, the focus of decks shifts towards "good stuff piles" rather than focused decks built on a specific theme or synergy. These "good stuff piles" tend to meld together into only a few archetypes, resulting in a stale format as players tire of mirror matches or repeat matches. It is also a lot harder to metagame around these types of decks as they inherently have few if any real weaknesses.
I remember Standards of yesteryear where metagames were far more diverse than they are now. In older Standard formats the big weakness of multi-color decks was their mana fixing. The lack of reliability for a multi-color deck to cast all its spells on time allowed more streamlined decks to go under them. I would argue that any format where you can reliably cast three-or-more colored spells on time after the third turn, is a format that will inevitably get stale.
The problem with this strategy is that people have come to expect nearly perfect mana in Standard. I don't doubt that many would bemoan their inability to play four and five-color good stuff piles, but for the overall health of the format mana restrictions are a necessity.
This article began as a conversation over on the QS Discord server. If you're not yet a member, I suggest checking it out. I feel that if Wizards really wants to bring people back to what once was their flagship format changing B&R announcements and increasing the time between rotations is not enough. While I don't doubt that there are some ideas I have missed, the above ideas are all ones I have discussed with fellow QS members, and friends who are all heavily invested in the game. What do you think is needed to save Standard? What do you think of my proposed solutions? Let me know in the comments below.