I've heard a lot of buzz over the last few days about a card or two getting the axe from Standard. Namely, cards from the Temur/Four-Color Energy decks, since they've been ruling the roost for a long time. I talked a bit about Standard last week when I went over eight new cards from Rivals of Ixalan, but the driving point was that very few, if any, would be good enough to break into Standard unless something was eliminated from these dominant Energy strategies.
Ever since the release of Kaladesh, Energy has run rampant through Standard. The first iterations of Aetherworks Marvel flooded the Pro Tour, but it quickly became apparent that those combo-heavy iterations couldn't beat a control deck. Over time, the deck evolved to have a much stronger gameplan against control, and eventually was built in a number of ways where it didn't have to rely on the combo of six energy + Aetherworks Marvel to win the game. Hedge cards like Whirler Virtuoso were very tough to deal with on top of landing your big threat(s), and it wasn't unreasonable to just get to the point where you were hard-casting your giant Eldrazi.
After Emrakul, the Promised End (and a few other cards) were banned, the Saheeli Rai + Felidar Guardian combo ran rampant through the format. And after Felidar Guardian was banned, Aetherworks Marvel alongside Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger became a problem yet again. And now, with Temur Energy being so dominant...
The underlying cause of all these problems has been the energy mechanic. Energy-based threats, like Whirler Virtuoso and Rogue Refiner, continue to be problematic for most decks just because of their sheer efficiency. For three mana, you get a body that either draws a card, produces more of a resource you can't interact with, or leaves behind one or more bodies that you also have to deal with. It's annoying. It's too good. And I think it's time for a change. With the Prerelease of Rivals of Ixalan this weekend, I think that Wizards of the Coast has a few options on what they can do to help the Standard format.
Here are the most likely scenarios to come from the Ban & Restricted List announcement on Monday.
I think this is a likely option, since the Pro Tour for Rivals of Ixalan is using the Modern format. Without a lot of eyes on Standard and the SCG Tour® moving away from Standard in favor of team and Modern events, I think there is a good chance that nothing gets banned. Wizards traditionally doesn't like banning cards, though they have gotten a little more hands-on as of late thanks to such sheer, raw power and un-fun play patterns.
If the format continues as-is, I think I'll have to be very surprised by the overall power level of Rivals of Ixalan for it to matter. The lords for each tribe look solid, but I don't know if they'll be enough to make their respective tribes good enough to compete with a single Whirler Virtuoso. And therein lies the problem: Energy has access to so many diverse cards that attack and protect from different angles that you can't really cover, all based with a linear aggressive strategy.
And while I don't like cards getting banned in general, I think taking one or more cards away from the archetype could open up the format a little bit.
This is the scenario that most people are expecting, and for good reason. At its core, Temur and Four-Color Energy are just good stuff decks, and those decks rely on having access to a great mana base. If you strip them of their ability to build their mana base and generate a lot of colors, we should see some variations on the archetype open up at least. While I don't think either of these cards is inherently too powerful, they lead to a very odd sort of deckbuilding. And since both create energy, the only deck(s) incentivized to use them are energy-based decks, which ultimately makes deckbuilding linear.
Time and time again I've tried to build different three- and four-color decks, and Energy variants give you the easiest payoffs. You get access to a bunch of "free splashes," as the color requirements aren't that tough to meet (other than double green for Bristling Hydra). On top of that, having ways to spend your energy makes cards like Attune with Aether more worthwhile. Even Aether Hub gives you a much-needed one energy on occasion, completely changing the texture of the game.
And so, if you take away their ability to produce a bunch of different colors, I think energy will continue to exist, but it would look much more like G/R or G/U Electrostatic Pummeler or maybe B/G Constrictor. And that might just be enough to open up the format a bit for Rivals of Ixalan and future sets.
I don't think you can just ban one or the other, though I think Attune with Aether is the obvious best card out of these two. The two energy gained as well as ensuring you hit your land drop while fixing your colors is a very powerful spell for just a single mana. And while Attune with Aether is very similar to stuff like Lay of the Land in theory, the payoff of energy makes it significantly better in execution. And as we dumb down the non-creature spells over time, eliminating the likes of Rampant Growth and such, less-powerful spells that enable more powerful creatures will ultimately sculpt the format.
I would love to see a Standard format that went back to the theory behind fetchland + Battle lands. While it was probably too powerful in a format featuring insanely undercosted multi-color spells, the fact that everyone had access to whatever color they want made deckbuilding a lot more interesting. Yeah, you could splash virtually anything, and playing four colors was easy, but at least more than one deck could do it profitably.
Ban Whirler Virtuoso
I wouldn't be surprised to see a Whirler Virtuoso ban, honestly. That card singlehandedly changes the texture of games against basically every matchup. It gives the deck an incredible amount of flexibility, protection in the early game, and a huge energy dump later in the game. I know that Ramunap Red has a few options to help prevent the card from becoming overly oppressive against it, but Whirler Virtuoso throttles other aggressive strategies, and it seems important to open those up with the heavy tribal themes of Ixalan block.
While Whirler Virtuoso isn't the only problematic element for aggressive decks in Standard, it is the card that buys the energy decks enough time to find their closers. The fact that it can invalidate entire hordes of creatures for just three mana is ludicrous, and is my pick for the card most-likely to be banned on Monday. Regardless of what gets the hammer, I think Whirler Virtuoso should be on the list, if only because of the disheartening feeling it gives to any aggressive strategy it matches up against.
You could argue that banning Whirler Virtuoso wouldn't be enough and simply replacing it with Deathgorge Scavenger is a viable option. And while that could certainly be the case, I don't know how good Deathgorge Scavenger is against the control decks. If they've tested this scenario [lol-Ed.], I could see them potentially cutting out both Whirler Virtuoso and even Rogue Refiner, since those are the two cards that give them the necessary bridge from mid-game to late-game. Without both of these cards, I think this iteration of the deck would completely die off.
But I'm not so sure that Wizards of the Coast wants to kill off Energy decks completely. After all, it is their hallmark ability from Kaladesh, and people have invested time and money into building their versions of Temur/Four-Color Energy. My guess is that they will attack Energy decks with a light touch and choose to either cut off their mana or one of their powerful three-drops. Cutting off both seems drastic.
Unban Smuggler's Copter
The rotation of Shadows Over Innistrad block took away a lot of the key components to making this card disgusting (Fiery Temper, Haunted Dead, etc.), but I still think it might be a little too good to make its way back into Standard without a few people getting upset about it. I had a big problem with them banning Smuggler's Copter initially because they printed something so similar in the next set: Heart of Kiran. Except with Heart of Kiran, you needed some very strict requirements to turn it on. Mardu colors, for example, gave you significantly better options to turn on Heart of Kiran than any other color combination.
While this is my pick for least-likely scenario of the bunch, I think unbanning Smuggler's Copter might give the aggressive decks a big enough shot in the arm to make them competitive with the Energy variants. The only problem is that every aggressive deck will want access to it. I'm generally of the impression that a higher power level is better in Standard, so long as everyone has access to roughly the same overall power level. And if you can unlock a card to fix the format rather than lock down a card or two, that leaves a lot of consumers feeling better about their investments.
I'm not going to sugarcoat it. The last year and change has been really rough for Standard. There is a very good reason why people are leaning toward Modern in such a significantly slanted way. There is a reason why the SCG Tour® is placing more emphasis on other formats. There is a reason why so many cards have been banned.
We're not having fun.
Just because something is "on flavor" or "splashy" doesn't mean it's fun to play with. Emrakul, the Promised End was one of the coolest cards I've seen in recent memory, but it just becomes a hassle. The first few times it happens, it's a sweet effect. But when it happens nearly every single game and it is your only real win condition, it becomes a drag. The same goes for Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger, Aetherworks Marvel, etc.
Let me be clear: I don't want Wizards of the Coast to have to ban cards. I think banning any card in any format is a huge downer, because that results in a lot of loyal fans and customers losing a big investment. And while some of the cards that tag along in the broken deck can be used in other ways, the feeling of losing a deck that's close to you is disheartening. Over the past decade, I've lost a lot of close friends that I thoroughly enjoyed playing with, and I don't think I'll ever get them back. It's such a terrible feeling to have your cards essentially become worthless, and especially so when you've spent your hard-earned money and time acquiring said cards to play with.
The root of the problem, which should be fixed in the near future, is in both design and development. Every year, Wizards of the Coast spits out thousands of new cards for us to play with. And along with those cards, they have to build a world, tell a story, and make sure that all of the cards they're printing are safe while also being exciting. I don't envy their job, because I know it can seem like an insurmountable task at times, but they're trying. They're listening. They're learning. And, above all else, they're hiring a lot of great people (including some of my close friends) to help them out.
Adding an entire new branch to their Development department is a smart move on their part, but we won't be seeing the effects of their work for a little while now. Michael Majors, Tom Ross, and a slew of other great minds are in there right now trying to make the future of Standard (and Magic as a whole) a significantly better experience than it has been in the last year and change.
And I'm hopeful for the future.