Something To Ponder: Attuning A New Standard (part 2)

Squadron Hawk

Hello everyone, and welcome back to the Sanctum.

I hope you all are doing well, and enjoying Rivals of Ixalan as today is it’s release. This week we saw the banning of several cards in Standard (AGAIN) that will shake up that format. In Part 1 of this article series I discussed one of the many reasons that underline how we got here.

For years creature based strategies has been pushed more to the forefront of winning decks, and with the exception of Azorius Control during the Return to Ravnica / Theros blocks of Standard it was quite true. Problems came about in design, and play, and most of what we were given was “wait it out until the next set (or rotation of another)”, however people kept playing as things were not as extreme as they have been in recent years.

These last few years, with their focus on making sure spells were not as good (or better) than creatures, and with feedback from Tournament Players, Wizards of the Coast has been trying to develop a Standard where things don’t get out of hand. Each time there always seems to be something wrong, and the gap between spells & creatures widens. Feedback from players isn’t the only issue that caused the issues with Standard to get this bad though. Today we’re going to talk about how a game made for those 13+ became a game that’s been around for a long, long time. That game is Poker.

At the end of my last article I spoke briefly about a time where the Khans of Tarkir block, Magic Origins, and Battle for Zendikar dual lands provided us 4-color decks that pushed Midrange strategies to the extreme. Decks in Standard became very expensive to the point that it reminded us about another era in Magic where in order to play you really had to pay.

The Caw-Blade era, and Magic: The Pokering

Scars of Mirrodin was released October 1st, 2010. It came after one of the most memorable blocks in Magic’s history at the time (Zendikar), and players have been introduced to a Jace with 4 abilities, a creature that searched for equipment (which equipment had been a minor card type since we were last on Mirrodin), and a new Planeswalker named Gideon Jura. These cards would help shape Standard for almost the entire next 12 months.

When players returned to Mirrodin they were introduced to a scarred landscape where the Phyrexians were trying to overtake the world using all sorts of machinery at their disposal. Mirrodin, in terms of design, is infamous for almost destroying the game as a whole. The Affinity mechanic had put an artifact based deck, called Affinity for obvious reasons, at the top of competitive play to where nothing else was close. Design of cards had to move away from this super-synergistic strategy in order for the game to repair any loss in consumer confidence, and then provide players with something new to get excited again (speaking of Kamigawa and Ravnica blocks respectfully for those keeping score).

I somehow dodged that mess. I had stopped playing with Odyssey as I could not keep up financially, and even sold my cards at one point. (editor’s note: Never do that. Ever.) I was playing a lot of Dungeons & Dragons then, and I had put a lot of money into the pre-painted miniatures that came out. I also was able to get my own club night DJing at various clubs around town. Although some nights were stressful, and I juggled a lot to make ends meet, it was a fun & memorable time. However the degenerate nature of a dominate Magic deck was about to rear it’s ugly head again, and no one was ready for it.

During the fall of 2010 Hall of Fame professional player Brian Kibler designed a deck titled Caw-Go. At the time the equipment package had not been a popular function of the deck, but the idea behind the deck was to get the maximum value off cards such as Jace, the Mind Sculptor‘s “Brainstorm” ability (that cost 0 loyalty to activate), and Squadron Hawk’s enter the battlefield ability to find other copies of itself. You would play 1 Squadron Hawk, find one more, use Jace’s 0 ability to put the found Squadron Hawk on top (with another card not needed underneath it) and have essentially 3 fresh cards for 1W. This level of card advantage was difficult for decks to overcome, and as the deck evolved through the rest of 2010, and through the first half of 2011, it had very little opposition. The only deck to truly give it a fight was RUG Valakut which used Lotus Cobra, Primeval Titan, and Valakut, the Molten Pinacle to deal an arbitrarily large amount of damage. The decks that could not beat Caw-Blade tuned to beat Valakut which kept the RUG decks from obtaining an equal share of the metagame.

Once Mirrodin Besiged came out that following January things changed quickly. A new piece of equipment came out that would provide the deck an advantage to play at instant speed (or just have twice the mana they want each turn), and it would push this deck towards one of the most oppressive decks since Affinity. Sword of Feast and Famine would allow you to untap with all of your lands after combat if a creature quipped with it dealt damage during that combat. This would allow players to play a removal spell to get rid of a block, or put the opponent off tempo, and then untap your lands to have mana open for a counterspell, or play a Planeswalker. Stoneforge Mystic then entered the deck as another creature, and help you not pay full retail for the equipment. Even if you did not play Nahiri (who is on the art) on turn 2 you had counterspells in your deck to make playing her in later turns even that much more powerful. The fact she replaces herself (with the equipment found), and allows you to put any equipment card into play at instant speed made her an instant hit once the Swords from Scars of Mirrodin block came out. The deck was incredibly strong, and played a Tempo style control where it could land an immediate threat after wiping the board of creatures, and keep the opponent off balance by returning a permanent, or countering their next spell.

Nice format you have there. It would be a shame if someone battered it.

In the story of New Phyrexia the Phyrexians won, and had changed the plane of Mirrodin forever. The villains of the multi-verse now were rooting out the remaining defenders of the world in order to get them to convert (or die). Batterskull came out in New Phyrexia, and that pushed Caw-Blade into overdrive. The card became as obvious of an inclusion as milk is to a bowl of Frosted Flakes, and no article was needed to tell you to put it into the deck. The set being leaked to the internet before preview season could get into full swing did not help as it cemented Caw-Blade as THE deck before any card from New Phyrexia was available for play.

In the tournament scene Caw-Blade became the villain of Magic: the Gathering where it was setting record highs in not only percentage of the metagame (at various points it was over a 50% win rate, and some tournaments where near 80% of people registered played the deck or a variation of it), but also was setting highs in how expensive it was. The deck, during it’s peak, could cost anywhere between $700-$800 to build.

Seven to Eight-Hundred dollars. If you didn’t already own the cards. Yikes!

Let’s take a look at a sample build (SPOILER ALERT! It still costs nearly as much).

Caw Blade deck

4 Squadron Hawk
4 Stoneforge Mystic
2 Emeria Angel

4 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
2 Gideon Jura

4 Day of Judgment
4 Preordain

4 Mana Leak
2 Into the Roil
2 Spell Pierce

1 Batterskull
1 Sword of Feast and Famine

4 Celestial Colonnade
4 Glacial Fortress
4 Island
4 Plains
4 Seachrome Coast
2 Arid Mesa
2 Scalding Tarn
2 Tectonic Edge

4 Flashfreeze
3 Divine Offering
2 Journey to Nowhere
2 Negate
2 Oust
1 Sun Titan
1 Dispel

This deck was the definition of efficiency, and had the tools to fight itself in the mirror. Players had played variations of the deck which included:

When your only innovation with the deck is to change some of the other components it leaves little room at the top for other decks to share in the spotlight.

In Part 1 of this series I mentioned where Tournament Players wanted a definitive “best deck”. Here it was. Caw-Blade Summer dominated 2011 until both Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic were banned. These were the first bans in Standard since March of 2005 when key pieces for Affinity were banned way too late in it’s life cycle. These cards were soon banned in Extended, and also banned in Modern when the format was created. The power had started to shift away from spells, and towards creatures (or in the case of Jace non-creature permanents). Many players wisely ported the deck to Legacy where it is still a solid strategy to this day.

…but how did it get this far?

  • Enter StarCityGames

The retailer whose tournament series had picked up a lot of steam in recent years started to provide us the quality of coverage similar to what we see nowadays. These events became so popular that they were as popular (if not more so) than the events Wizards of the Coast had structured for professional play (GPs, the Pro-Tour, etc). Those who wish to make their mark professionally had a way to make some money from playing Magic, and without going through the steps that Wizards of the Coast had presented. All they had to do was spend about $700, spend any free-time learning the deck inside and out, travel to an event hosted by SCG, and then get one of the top finishes to get about $1,000 back. A top finish at an open also have the player an opportunity to be invited to the StarCityGames Invitational where they could compete for (if I remember correctly) $15,000. Regardless of the exact figures this game had finally become something other than Magic: the Gathering. It became Poker.

Over the years the tournament scene flourished, new formats (hello Modern) were added which only intensified the Magic as Poker paradigm, and more options to play at the higher levels were added. The desire to “get value” out of not only playing, but investing in Magic as a source of income increased. Cards that were never going to be reprinted became targets of buyouts to corner the market on cards, and retailers were offering bigger discounts on trade ins of cards they could hold on to until the prices of the cards peaked, and then sell back as a profit. Magic: the Gathering became a business to others besides Wizards of the Coast. While interest in their product increased was it for the reasons the game was released to begin with? That question may never be truthfully answered.

In the years since websites that track the prices of Magic singles popped up, more websites that focused on strategy, and winning decks. Some websites also countered with brews (or budget decks), some focused on FNM play, while others talked about other things Magic related. The beginning of content creators for the game came out of this mess, however Magic seemed irreversibly changed from the perspective of the game. Players became divided between Tournament Players, FNM Players, and those who played casually (something I have coined as The Kitchen Table League, which I would love to be again one day). Those who were without an FNM to play had few outlets to play the game, and with this intensified focus on “play to win” they felt further divided from the rest of the community. While there may have been some good that came out of Caw-Blade summer it’s effects cut deep on the game as a whole, and future design seemed to highlight that.

Jace Architect of Thought card
“Hey folks. We fixed Jace.”

Jace, Architect of Thought came out a few years later to provide players a new Jace to play in their decks. Some of us have viewed this as a “fixed Mind Sculptor”. It’s ability to interact only with the creatures the opponents have in play was an obvious sign of trying to move the game towards a creature focused level of play. While initially dismissed he would lead to an era of true Control decks when Theros was released the following fall.

loxodn warhammer
Remember me?

Equipment in general was avoided unless it was just a minor buff in power, or did something that fit the theme of the set. Any piece of equipment made after Caw-Blade summer was generally worse than this (formerly popular) Equipment card from the original Mirrodin block.

mtg tournament

Magic tournaments, and their coverage, had exploded after all of this. Interest was at an all-time high (at that point, and ever increasing each year) as players were looking for the next Caw-Blade level deck. Decks like Temur Energy were approaching that level of the meta share until the recent bannings this week. Players would even consume articles written about Magic strategy before a new set comes out as the Tournament Players were writing articles about cards they were testing. This became such a phenomenon that there was discussion these articles were written before a new set would come out so Tournament Players would either shape the metagame months before a tournament, push sales of a card not performing well, or both. Whatever validity that would have would forever remain unanswered.

Caw-Blade was one of the most memorable decks in Magic history, but it’s impact reached farther away from the tournament tables than many of us may even realize. It’s even become a verb when describing how much of a percentage one deck is representing in the metagame, or how much a Standard deck costs, even to this day.

Wizards had learned a valuable lesson in design. Having cards that work this well together can cancel out any other strategy, and without developing proper answers it leads to a summer of dominance, and may require bannings. Turning Standard (slowly) into a creature based strategy can help curb this, but how far do they want to go? Will aggro decks provide enough in depth play to be accepted from the Tournament Players, or will a Midrange strategy be best? The more those questions seemed to be asked the more we get the later of the two.

However feedback from players, and eras of oppressive decks aren’t the only things that have caused design to change this way. Next time we’ll discuss how competition to the game itself has helped shaped Wizards of the Coast’s design over these last few years.

Thank you all for reading. I really do appreciate this. I hope you enjoy the introspective look on the game from this player’s point of view. We could discuss what impact these recent bans in Standard have had on the game, but when we have a lot of bans in a 12 month period we should peel back the layers of that discussion to get as close to the root as possible.

Please follow me on Twitter, and Facebook, at MTGPackFoils. Until next time…



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