Why Standard-Plus Should Be a Singleton Format
Happy New Year, and welcome back! 2019 has a lot of new things in store for Magic as whole, with Magic Fests, E-Sports, and the introduction of a new format come October. There's plenty of speculation about what this format will look like, but I won't be bringing you any today in my article. Instead, I want to offer a suggestion: the "Standard-Plus" format, as it is currently referred to by Wizards of the Coast, should be a singleton format in the interest of the health of the format.
The Arena Problem and Standard Plus
I've written about Arena on Cardmarket Insight, but I haven't discussed the biggest problem that Arena faces as it heads towards October: Standard rotation. While getting into Standard through Arena is relatively cheap compared to other alternatives, Arena currently lacks a non-rotating format for the current cards to be played once they rotate out of Standard. Magic's biggest argument for buying into Standard is that the cards that rotate out will retain some of their value and even be playable in other formats that are supported, but in the case of Arena, this currently isn't an option. If Wizards wants people to feel that they can safely invest their money into their new online platform without it disappearing into thin air, they have to create a format exclusive to Arena that will alleviate this rotation problem. While Wizards refers to this future format as Standard Plus, there's very little information otherwise regarding what the format will look like and which sets will be included.
Furthermore, with the experience of a handful of non-rotating formats under the belt in Magic's 25 years of existence, we can see that there are inherent problems with a non-rotating format. In every format we've seen, power level and power creep are the biggest problems when it comes to eternal formats.
The Problems of a Non-Rotating Format
Power creep is a problem in a non-rotating format because it prevents newer cards entering the format from being playable. If the power level of a format is too high (or becomes too high), the cards in Standard that rotate out might as well have been deleted from your account because they have little chance of seeing play. If the idea for Standard Plus is to create a format where we solve the rotation problem and at the same time create a non-rotating format that will be accessible in the long-term, it's of the utmost importance that we consider how power level will be managed for this new format.
It's easy to identify why non-rotating and eternal formats become more and more powerful – in fact the answer itself is tautological. These formats become more powerful because cards enter the format that either are more efficient than previous iterations or new cards introduce powerful abilities that cause a power spike. An example of the first case is the Delve ability from the Khans of Tarkir block. Delve was originally a mechanic introduced in Future Sight, and cards with Delve abilities included the trio of Death Rattle, Logic Knot, and Tombstalker. The cost of the cards, along with their respective abilities, made these cards solid, playable cards after their introduction, but they never were format warping cards in their own rights. With Tarkir block, Delve gained notoriety as one of the most powerful mechanics ever printed, introducing the likes of Gurmag Angler, Dig Through Time, and the immortal Treasure Cruise. These Delve cards were more efficient version of a previous mechanic and quickly took over their respective formats. The two blue Delve cards even earned the honors of being banned in both Modern and Legacy and being restricted in Vintage. Two good example of cards introducing new abilities that cause an overall power spike is Eidolon of the Great Revel and Monastery Swiftspear. Eidolon dealing two damage per every spell cast with a CMC three or less and Swiftspear's Prowess meant that the power-level of Burn in Modern and Legacy took a big jump after their respective printings. These effects were not only unique, but they provided an effect that was stronger than any replaceable effect that was previously available. In other words, so long as Wizards continues to print new cards, the power level of non-rotating formats will continue to creep up.
A compounding issue to this conundrum is that, while Wizard R&D does its best in pushing cards that believe will see play in formats such as Modern and Legacy (Fatal Push and Assassin's Trophy being some recent, notable examples), they don't have the resources to test how every single card they print will affect the metagames of non-rotating formats. The card pool is too deep in eternal formats to test for these formats, and while certain cards will fit smoothly into existing shells, many cards end up creating their own archetypes that are impossible to predict (Arclight Phoenix) comes to mind in this particular case). What, then, can be done?
How Singleton Polices Power-Creep and Other Benefits
Without some sort of rotation, it's inevitable that power creep happens, and that's the reason rotation exists for Standard in the first place. The heart of the problem when it comes to power creep for older formats, then, is the rate at which strategies become powerful. Modern since its inception has been a format where linear decks race each other, with initial bans required to police the linear degeneracy. Having started at a high power level, it's astounding that the format gets more and more powerful and linear each year, with current top dogs including fan-favorites KCI and Dredge. The reason these decks are powerful – and become so powerful so quickly – is because of the four-copy deck-building restriction. By allowing for four copies of a card to be played in a deck, the consistency of a deck becomes that much higher, even if the card is a card with a unique effect that cannot be replaced. In many cases, however, the deck is already stacked with cards that have similar effects as the others and these cards act as copies 5-8 (or even 9-12) in a synergistic deck. We see this in the case of Chromatic Sphere and Chromatic Star in KCI, Cavern of Souls and Unclaimed Territory in Humans, and Lightning Bolt and, well, almost every spell in Burn. This redundancy makes decks that much faster and more consistent and thus expedites the process at which formats become more powerful.
Singleton does away with consistency because decks can no longer stack the same effect as efficiently. If a deck wants to play burn spells, it can't rely on Lightning Bolt to fill up 1/15th of the deck, and it has to consider what other options it has available. Most likely, there simply isn't a card as efficient (or more efficient) than Bolt, and the deck will have to settle with a card that does something similar but with less efficiency, such as Lightning Strike. This slows down the velocity with which decks can execute their game plans.
Additionally, forcing decks to use a spectrum of efficiency when searching for a specific effect means that cards that aren't the most efficient version of an effect will have the possibility of seeing play. In Modern, cards such as Noble Hierarch and Gurmag Angler comparatively see more play than similar cards such as Birds of Paradise and Hooting Mandrills. Singleton would mean that decks would now have to consider playing Birds or Mandrills to replace the effects of the aforementioned cards, and this would consequently allow for wider range of diversity in decks. This also makes for a much more interesting viewing and playing experience – if an opponent opens with a Birds of Paradise, the first thought that crosses my mind is that my opponent is playing some sort of Chord of Calling deck. In a singleton format, I become much less sure – any number of decks could be running Birds of Paradise because it's only one card out of sixty. This makes my future plays more difficult to plan, and thus more challenging, and it also makes the game more entertaining for the viewer who will be seeing different decks playing different cards in their deck lists.
Issues with Singleton
This isn't to say that a singleton format wouldn't come with its share of problems. The biggest sticking point that singleton would have is that it heavily skews games towards players that draw the best card in their decks. To illustrate what I mean, imagine two players playing against each with identical mono-red burn decks – a deck with 59 one-mana burn spells and one basic Mountain. The objective best card in these decks is the basic Mountain because whoever draws the land can cast his or her spells and win. A more relatable example is a game of 1v1 Commander, in which one player draws a Sol Ring in his or her opening hand and the other does not. The player who drew the Sol Ring has massive advantage going forward because Sol Ring is that much better than most of the cards in either players' decks (and doubly so when it comes out on the first turn). Since consistency will be deemphasized in a singleton format, it becomes even more difficult for players to have the right answer at the right time, and thus the effect of these powerful cards will be felt starker in games.
Speaking of consistency, it will take time for combo decks to develop in a format where players can only have one copy of a key component in their decks. The scariest linear decks in Modern aren't very scary when you know that your opponent only has one copy of each Tron land, Griselbrand, or Krark-Clan Ironworks. Despite what people's opinions may be about certain decks, the fact that combo decks would be nearly non-existent (or at the very least extremely underrepresented) would result in a decrease in a diversity of major deck archetypes.
What do you want to see in Standard Plus? Would you be happy playing a non-rotating Singleton format? Let me know in the comments below!
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.