In the old days, you could tell how serious someone was about playing Magic by how they reacted to the practice of "netdecking."
The internet is older than Magic, but they both entered the popular consciousness at the same time back in the early 90s. This was before FNM, and most people who played the game did so casually. There was no universal metagame - counterspells ruled in some playgroups, while burn was dominant in others. There were very few places to buy singles online, so we were limited to building decks out of what was opened in packs or bought out of the case down at the local store.
Before long, message boards and websites dedicated to the game began to crop up. This gave us a forum to swap strategies and optimize decks. This was about when the Pro Tour began to take off, providing competitive players with the incentive to try and "solve" each format. Savvy local players began building these powerful decks themselves and using them to wreak havoc in their playgroups. These players became known, somewhat pejoratively, as netdeckers.
It seems silly now, but at the time there was a moral debate about whether netdecking was acceptable outside of high end tournaments. Pro-netdeckers compared it to racecar drivers choosing their vehicle. If the purpose of the event was to test the skill of the driver, shouldn't everyone show up on race day with the best car possible? Anti-netdeckers considered the practice to be something approaching plagiarism. For some old-school mages, this belief still lingers. "I'd rather lose to a jerk than have a good game against someone who brought a netdeck," an old friend of mine told me last week, in reference to the weekly casual Magic night he attends. "I don't even know what to say to a netdecker. What could we possibly have to talk about?"
This point of view is almost extinct now. As the internet became our primary conduit to the world, netdecking became the norm. Walk into any Standard FNM and most of the decks will be minor tweaks on the major archetypes found at the last few Pro Tours. The idea of the local metagame - at least in competitive Standard play - is gone.
The process we use to choose our Standard decks these days has been streamlined as well. For most casually competitive players, it goes something like this:
Get excited about the fall set. Hope that your favorite cards will be competitive. Get sad when they flop.
Pay attention to the first few major events of the new format. See what does well. If you're really patient, wait until after the first Pro Tour to decide what to play. Then, choose your favorite deck and start buying and trading for cards to complete it.
Finish the deck. Play it until it falls too far out of favor. If it does, attempt to build a different deck that has many of the same staples. Repeat this process until May or June.
Sell the deck before the cards all rotate, and wait until the next season comes around to start playing Standard again.
Some players switch decks completely in the winter or spring, but most people don't do this unless a truly format-warping card is printed in a second or third set. For the most part, we pick our deck in the fall and stick with it until rotation. This strategy works because there are so many high level tournaments with elite-level players working to break each format on a weekly basis. We know what the best interactions are less than a month after the fall set is released, and most of the new decks are minor tweaks on old themes. If you picked up U/W Control, Mono-Black Devotion, Mono-Blue Devotion, or G/R Monsters last October, you only had to pick up a handful of new cards over the past year to keep your deck competitive.
This stagnation has made Standard finance really boring for the past couple of years. Most of the successful flagship cards present themselves in the fall set, pre-ordering too high to make speculating on them worthwhile. A few role-players (think Courser of Kruphix and Brimaz, King of Oreskos) from second and third sets find a home for themselves, but the format is rarely turned on its head by these cards. Staples stay high, fringe playables drop, and forgotten spells stay forgotten. Everyone plays the same few decks, and most of the coolest cards never find a home. Rinse, yawn, repeat, yawn.
In past articles, I have theorized about why fewer people play Magic during the summer. The largest reason is that that very few people want to invest in a deck right before set rotation. This has led to a lame duck Standard season where no one is innovating and many players have already sold off their staples. From a finance perspective, selling out before rotation is a savvy choice; Magic cards are expensive, and if you sell your rotating Standard cards before they crater you can fund your deck for the following season with the proceeds.
It used to be possible to keep rotating staples well into July before they started to drop. These days, thanks to a more informed player base, the sell-off starts happening in May. If you want to sell off your rotating staples at their pre-rotation peak these days, it will cost you the ability to play Standard for six full months. The trade-off between good financial practices and getting to actually play the danged game has become a harder line to walk.
As of 2016, sets will rotate twice each year in April and October. We will always be at a maximum of six months away from the next set rotation. Standard players will have to live with the fact that a certain number of their cards will always be about to rotate, which means that selling them six months before rotation will no longer be a realistic option. If you do that, you will never have a "complete" deck.
This blow will be softened by fewer cards rotating at each turn. This autumn, 50% of Standard will rotate away all at once. In fall of 2016, by contrast, only a third of the cards in Standard will rotate out. Having fewer cards rotating away each time should normalize the process a little, allowing more people to feel okay about keeping their cards through rotation. With fewer cards being devalued at once, the psychological toll of riding it out won't be as heavy. While keeping more cards through rotation means that we'll all be losing more money, it also means that Standard will shine with a year-round vibrancy. The summer 'dead zone' may soon be a thing of the past.
Netdecking is also about to become a lot harder for most of us to do. Pro players and grinders - the elite innovators - don't have to worry that much about the cost of building the best deck for a given event. Some are relentless traders, others pool cards, and many are allied with a store or website that is happy to lend their best players a few cards before the big tournament. They have no incentive to build the cheapest deck or to build with the most existing staples.
With Standard rotating twice a year, keeping up with these pros will cost a lot more. Not only is the length of each Standard format being cut in half, but most cards will be legal for a shorter overall duration. Today's fall set cards are legal for 24 months, our winter sets for 20 months, and our spring sets for 17 months. In 2016, the big sets will be legal for just 19 months and the small sets for 15 months.
Because of this, it is likely that many cards - even the most objectively powerful mythic rares - will shine brightly and spike hard for just a few months before the format is shaken up. If you're constantly chasing the latest piece of tech, you're going to find yourself buying into staples at their absolute peak and then trying to trade them away for the next new thing along with everyone else who is actively trying to play the format's top deck. It will be twice as expensive and twice as time consuming to stay on top of these things. At a certain point, it will only make sense to do so for the players who are incredibly serious about winning a high level event.
Where does that leave the rest of us? It's too early to say, but I expect that the new face of Standard will more closely resemble the Standard of years past than today's stale metagame. If the best decks in the format are shifting every few months anyway, I expect fewer people to keep chasing the best three or four decks. We'll start to see a lot more rogue brews as well as more decks modified and tweaked in interesting ways to keep them afloat through rotation. Standard perfection will be much more fleeting, and that shift should open up the format to creativity in a major way.
I also expect Magic finance to get much more interesting in the new Standard. Cards will have more chances to prove themselves and powerful role players will be less likely to go without seeing play for the entirely for their time in Standard thanks to random hate or bad metagame luck.
Take a powerful but situational card - say, Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx. Nykthos is fantastic in a metagame where mono-colored ramp decks are incentivized, but it's below par in a metagame where two or three colors are a necessity. With the way set rotation works today, Nykthos will get to experience only two distinct Standard metagames - Ravnica/Theros Standard, and Theros/Khans Standard. If Nykthos had been in the fall 2016 set instead, however, it would have gotten a shot at greatness in three distinct Standard metagames before rotating out.
The changes will also mean that powerful cards will no longer find themselves 'buried' in spring sets. With the way people approach set rotation these days, spring set cards are almost dead on arrival. Not only are they released right when players are ditching Standard for the summer, but they are released into an environment that is six sets deep, making it much harder for any individual card to make a large impact on the format as a whole. These cards are really only front and center for a single iteration of Standard, much like one-of core set cards. The only spring set cards that find success today are those that are perfectly positioned for that format. In the future, every card will have a roughly equal chance of finding a home.
This boom-and-bust cycle will also be exacerbated by changes to the draft environment. Mark Rosewater is still thinking about whether the new block structure will be drafted Small/Big/Big or Small/Small/Big. If it ends up Small/Big/Big, which seems likely, the small set staples will end up in much shorter supply. In addition, with Conspiracy and Modern Masters having been such major hits, what's going to happen when a supplemental product cuts into the drafting time of one of these blocks? When a short-printed mythic spikes in the new age of Magic, it will spike hard.
The removal of core sets will also change the way reprints work. I expect more generic staples and reprints (Elvish Mystic, Doom Blade, Negate) to show up in normal expansions, but I'm not sure where block-specific reprints will show up. If they want to reprint, say, Avenger of Zendikar outside of a block set on Zendikar, it'll have to be either as a judge foil or in a Commander expansion. This makes these cards a slightly safer long-term hold than they are now.
The new rotational economics should also change our definition of what it means to be a Standard staple. Certain cards - the Thoughtseizes and fetchlands of the world - will be heavily played for all three legal seasons no matter what else happens. Everything else, however, will constantly be subjected to major rises and falls in value. Cards that are only powerful in the current metagame will find themselves free-falling after rotation, and other cards that might never have had a chance to shine will be given their turn in the spotlight. This will make speculating on powerful but underused Standard cards lucrative again. Standard Magic is about to become more expensive, but your finance chops should allow you to stay ahead of the curve.
Of course, all of these changes are far in the future. Considering how much the game of Magic has changed over the past few years, I wouldn't be shocked if other major changes come to the game by the time the new set rotation policy is implemented. We've still got a full year of Khans block, and nothing about Standard will really change until after a set that isn't released yet has made its way out of the format. It's fun to theorize, but that's all it is at this point. I expect Standard to become more fun, more dynamic, and more expensive, but it's all guesswork beyond that.
For now, I'm mostly just grateful that the men and women in charge of my favorite game are committed to making positive change a reality.
This Week's Trends
- I'm writing this before the PAX party, so by the time you read this we'll likely know some pretty juicy details about the fall set. I'll touch on them in the comments and cover them in depth next week.
- If the Onslaught fetchlands are confirmed, I wouldn't be shocked if there is a quick and brutal Zendikar fetchland selloff. Onslaught fetchlands will take some of the pressure off the Zendikar fetches in Modern, which should cause them to drop back into the $30-$40 range. If the Zen fetches fall much lower than that, it's probably right to buy in. Many of the best decks will still need Scalding Tarns and Misty Rainforest to function, and the Magic market has a tendency to overcorrect in times like this. If the Zendikar fetchlands are back instead, sell yours immediately. Any fetches showing up in Standard will sell in the $8-$15 range, so if you can get more than that you should do so right away. I also expect that any fetchland confirmation would lead to an overall spike in Modern prices. Fetches are the most expensive part of most decks, and reprinting them will lead to a gold rush on many other staples. I would especially target budget decks like Storm. If fetchlands weren't revealed over the weekend, then I strongly doubt they will be in the set. We can start the speculation train again this spring when Modern Masters II spoilers begin.
- As of this writing, we have seen a pretty good Khans spoiler: Soundclaw Mystic:
It's no Sylvan Caryatid, but that doesn't mean it won't see play. If you play it morphed, unmorphing it basically adds two mana to your pool for free that turn because you can tap it right away. It's a little expensive - three-drop ramp creatures rarely work out, but it's certainly versatile. I'm withholding judgment for Standard play until we see how important it will be to generate a bunch of RUG mana on turn 4.
- Goblin Guide spiked pretty hard the weekend before last- its new price on StarCity is $30. This was the result of very successful buyout that caused the price to more than double. I expect the new price to be sustainable, though it might taper off a little before plateauing in the $25 range.
- Sliver Legion and Sliver Overlord have both spiked considerably over the past month or so. Sliver Queen is on her way up as well. This is your last chance to grab her, I think, before her price blows past $50. Don't forget - she's a reserved list card. The spike has also moved on to some of the Tempest and Onslaught era slivers, which have started to climb as well. Crystalline and Magma are both on the move right now. Solemn Simulacrum - one of my favorite casual specs - is rising again as well.
- Someone spent a bunch of money spiking Oubliette from $8 to $25. It has since dropped back off to the $10-$12 range. Feel free to ignore this. Ditto Umbral Mantle, which had a hilarious spike to $9 last week before falling back off.
- Ravages of War also had a stupid little spike, going from $250 to about $500. This is a fair price to pay considering the actual rarity of the card, especially in English, but I would not want to be holding on to any of these when the inevitable reprint shows up. It'll show up in a From the Vault set or as a judge foil at some point - not if, but when. I own zero P3K cards right now, and I want to keep it that way.
- I would not mind owning a bunch of copies of Keranos, God of Storms for the long haul. He's showing up in Modern and Legacy, and I wouldn't be shocked if he's a $25-$30 card long term.
- The Standard index continues to surge upwards, with Nissa, Worldwaker, Xenagos, the Reveler, Kiora, the Crashing Wave, Mana Confluence, Liliana Vess, Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver, Sylvan Caryatid, Polukranos, World Eater, Hero's Downfall, Eidolon of the Great Revel, Master of Waves, Goblin Rabblemaster, and many more rising in price. People are officially starting to get excited about the upcoming season, so your buying window has nearly slammed shut.