The State of Standard: Pick Your Poison

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Oh I do love the internet. Whenever something gets popular, people start to hate on it. Magic is hardly excluded from this phenomenon, and for a game that has such a vibrant online community that’s not surprising. Magic as a sport (it’s as much of a sport as chess or poker dammit) is on an upswing of popularity right now, thanks in large part to the visibility of the Star City Open series and the coverage provided by GGsLive and SCGLive. With increased popularity comes increased recompense, making it easier than ever for pros like Gerry Thompson to make a real living off the game. Between prize money, sponsorships, appearance fees and cash for writing columns it is more viable than ever to list your profession as “Magic player.” Unfortunately, with this increased popularity and financial viability comes a problem that has afflicted other sports that rose to popularity: boredom.

When MMA shot to the mainstream and started handing out seven-figure contracts and six-figure bonuses, the dominant fighters all started adopting a specific style. Look at Georges St-Pierre as an example, or Jon Fitch. The plan is to take your opponent down and lie on them for 5 minutes. Fans are starting to complain about it but there is one undeniable fact: it wins fights, and makes its proponents very rich.

Look at football, or soccer if you’re from North America. The English Premier League is popular across the world, and is on TV everywhere. When this first happened, a team from north London called Arsenal was one of the more successful ones. That success was due in large part to a stifling, choking defensive style that looked to control the ball and basically prevent the opposing team from doing anything before scoring a single goal in the dying minutes to win. Chants of “Boring Arsenal” were not uncommon when the team was on the road. The key point? They won. A lot.

This is why the SuperBowl, the NHL and NBA Playoffs, the World Cup final and countless other major sporting events are often seen as major let-downs to the casual fan. The offensive-minded, exciting and open teams tend to flicker out before the championship games, and those that don’t have switched to a more conservative style. The amount of money and prestige on the line makes teams want to not-lose first and win second, which is totally understandable when you look at the prestige, the money and the recognition the winner receives. Nobody remembers the runner-up.

The more aggressive, attacking and entertaining style is also more risky. It entertains the fans but it also runs the risk of losing the game to a team/fighter/player who can sit back, soak up pressure and counter-attack. As a result, most teams/fighters/players in this situation will make the call to play the defensive game. If you hadn’t already, you should now be seeing the link to tournament Magic.

One of the common complaints about Standard right now is that Caw Blade is incredibly boring, and the Caw mirror is right up there with pulling teeth or listening to a Jon Medina podcast in terms of entertainment value. They take forever, almost always go to turns, and the decks have been around so long that we all know what they do. Watching one play the other is even worse than playing one against the other. But, as with Arsenal’s stifling defence, GSP’s takedowns or the New Jersey Devils and their trap system, Caw Blade wins games. So does CounterTop in Legacy.

We all agreed that all these cash tournaments are good for the game. I don’t think any of us realised what it would do to the metagame though. I think the effect has been twofold. One, the constant tournaments have allowed pros to fine-tune their decks to a level we’ve never seen before, which means that a control deck like Caw Blade has been able to tweak to beat anything that threatens it. Two, players are flocking to Caw Blade because it wins. The more it wins, the more people play it. The more people play it…you get the idea. It’s a vicious cycle.

The straight point here is that if we want to make the Pro Tour, the SCG circuit, the TCGPlayer circuit and all the other tournaments out there into a financially beneficial proposition for Michael Poszgay the pros, we have to accept that these pros are going to focus on winning at all costs. Whether that means playing boring but powerful decks, looking for every legal edge they can get or writing for print magazines for early testing help, it’s a by-product of Magic’s success. Is it in the best interests of the game if people like Gerry Thompson, Patrick Chapin, Guillaume Matignon Conley Woods and Brad Nelson can be full-time Magic pros? Right now they supplement their tournament income by writing columns and signing with websites. If the PT and SCG circuits continue to grow, “Magic player” might become a viable career. Do we, as the rank-and-file players, want the game to devolve into non-stop control-on-control?

Unfortunately it’s a pertinent question. New Phyrexia was supposed to shake up Standard and add some cards that would end the dominance of CawBlade. Although cards like Despise, Beast Within and Hex Parasite are certainly damaging to the uber-dominant strategy, the major card that everyone pointed at to stop the deck was Deceiver Exarch and its combo with Splinter Twin. The first post-NPH tournament was won by CawBlade, in fact a version running some of the cards that were supposed to stop it. Now I’m well aware that one tournament is a poor sample size, but CawBlade has stayed on top so long because it evolves. The Exarch-Twin combo can fit into CawBlade without much effort, and that’s without even talking about adding Batterskull to the already potent mix. Losing to DI 1/4 eyeless muppets is definitely no more fun than birds with swords, so even the advent of the new combo deck won’t rescue Standard.

“Rescue Standard.” There’s a funny thing. Sure the format is far from diverse right now, and I’d even agree that the top decks do not lend themselves to entertaining viewing. Does that mean it needs rescuing though? Pro Magic players owe nothing to viewers of internet streams. It is certainly within the rules of the game to play a control deck, and to continually tweak that deck from week to week. CawBlade is not killing Standard…tournaments are. So make your mind up boys and girls…do we want more tournaments, or do we want a less-defined metagame? Because you seemingly can’t have both.

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