At the time I started writing this article, the announcement had been made that all Pro Tours would be Standard. Since then a Modern Pro Tour has been
added to the schedule, but the other three events next year will feature Theros and Khans of Tarkir blocks.
The initial outcry was large. Standard will be stagnant. New sets often just don’t add much or change anything, and people would be battling with
established decks instead of new and exciting brews.
I understood this sentiment, but I wasn’t sure history agreed. While I wasn’t around for the early Standard Pro Tours, I have a fairly in-depth knowledge
of the Standard formats since it was reintroduced as a Pro Tour format during Ravnica block. I went back and immediately started thinking about all the
Standard formats leading up to Theros block to see if the issues of this block repeated themselves in the past and why they occurred when they did.
What lessons can we glean from these events for formats moving forward, and what do they suggest for the future of Standard shifting from set to set?
Pro Tour Honolulu (2006, Ravnica and Kamigawa Block, new set was Guildpact)
How Much Did the New Sets Matter
: A ton.
Lesson: Look for the mana and the high power cards to match it.
The first set of Ravnica featured Selesnya, Golgari, Dimir, and Boros. Unsurprisingly, the format was heavily rooted in BUG-based decks of many varieties
(Gifts Ungiven or Goryo’s Vengeance combo control, Hypnotic Specter disruptive aggro), G/W midrange variants (Greater Good or Glare of Subdual), and Boros
Then this happened:
And Pro Tour Honolulu told a new story. All the above decks were nearly non-existent.
You had a bunch of U/R semi-degenerate decks brought together by Steam Vents. All of them married Remand and Compulsive Research with red cards. U/R Tron
went over the top on mana and used Red to shore up the early game, while Magnivore and Owling Mine paired the blue tempo spells with niche red spells that
furthered the tempo game.
The unique structure of Ravnica block was a big part of why Standard drastically changed here, but other sets could easily have the same effect. The
temples weren’t quite powerful enough to enact this kind of change as they were staggered into Standard this year, but if that model is the one Wizards
follows in the future, expect other lands to have this kind of effect.
Following up on this set, Dissension had a similar impact for the same reasons. Breeding Pool let Kird Ape decks play Remand, Hallowed Fountain gave rise
to Solar Flare, and Blood Crypt kind of sucked, but you can’t win them all. Again, this was a case of follow the mana that lets you make new and potent
Pro Tour Hollywood (2008, Time Spiral and Lorwyn Blocks, new set Morningtide)
How Much Did the New Set Matter: A ton again.
Lesson: Play the dumb new cards.
This event was slightly skewed as Morningtide had been out for so long.
Everyone knew the joke about Bitterblossom. If this was three weeks after the set release like a current Pro Tour, I’m willing to bet that Faeries at that
event would be held in the same regard as Caw-Blade or Glimpse of Nature Elves at their respective Pro Tours. If you look back, it’s actually hilarious
where people started on that card. Eight Cloud Sprites? Still good enough because people didn’t get it.
Everyone also knew about Reveillark. Actually, it’s possible that Reveillark would have been even more insane than Bitterblossom in the
hypothetical early Pro Tour based on how much it crushed everything that wasn’t Faeries.
Still, the point stands. That hyper powerful new card probably has a home somewhere, and your opponents are going to be significantly underprepared for it.
It’s Master of Waves, or Nissa, Worldwaker, or Sword of Feast and Famine.
When all else fails, look for the card that just looks good in a vacuum.
The influx in power here really shaped Standard for the next few sets. Shadowmoor pushed Red decks up a tier, but Eventide wasn’t even close to the correct
level to make drastic changes.
Pro Tour Kyoto (2009, Lorwyn and Alara Blocks, new set Conflux)
How Much Did the New Set Matter: Almost none.
Lesson: Actually make sure the hate is good enough.
Lesson: If things don’t change, expect tuning to matter a lot.
The first note is just a personal one. Nice. Volcanic. Fallouts. Spectral Procession and Bitterblossom were still better. If a new hate card is printed and
you want to work with it and make metagame assumptions from it, be absolutely sure it’s good enough to matter.
As for the second, the decks that did well all existed before, but they were way more optimized than previous results. If you expect the new set to not
matter much, your best bet is probably just jamming game after game with the stock lists and finding a breakthrough there.
Alara Reborn after Conflux shattered the format mostly on the back of a single card: Bloodbraid Elf. Faeries, B/W Tokens, and Five Color Control were all
still good after the fact, but there was a decent amount of reshaping required to fight the new oppressively powerful card.
Pro Tour San Diego (2010, Alara and Zendikar Blocks, new set Worldwake)
How Much Did the New Set Matter: A decent amount, but no drastic shifts.
Lesson: Sometimes the best cards just go in the best deck.
Man, Worldwake was a messed up set.
They kind of mattered.
Luis Scott-Vargas and Craig Wescoe did manage to make Top 8 with Stoneforge Mystic in their decks, and Jace did find some homes outside the Top 8 in Mythic
and U/W Control. But that really didn’t matter.
Jund got Raging Ravine.
Jund’s biggest issue before was the mana. You didn’t have good ways to fight flood, and as a result, it couldn’t play enough lands to minimize screw. You
were playing three colors with not quite enough fixing. And even with these issues, Jund was still the best deck.
Raging Ravine hit all the points. Jund won the event. And the next event. And the next. Basically, no one won anything with anything but Jund until the
next set came out.
When good decks get new cards that cover their issues, things get scary fast. From this last Pro Tour, that was Caves of Koilos covering B/W’s occasional
mana issues. This point likely matters the most for the second, third, and fourth Pro Tours of a season as the “good decks” aren’t remotely defined for the
The follow up set of Rise of the Eldrazi put a lot of powerful pieces into the format. Jund was not quite surpassed, but a lot of decks became reasonable.
Magic 2011 slammed down Primeval Titan, which then completely wrenched the format into disarray.
Pro Tour Paris (2011, Zendikar and Scars blocks, last set Mirrodin Besieged)
How Much Did the New Set Matter: One deck broke it. The rest was the same.
Lesson: If you have a combo, you need to find the shell. Modular combos are huge as a result.
Stoneforge Mystic was a card that fit into a number of shells before this event. Naya decks pairing Cunning Sparkmage and Basilisk Collar, White Weenie
decks using it to upgrade the mediocre bodies moving into the mid-game, and even as the Kor Equipment theme deck enabler it was intended to be.
The Sword of Feast and Famine interaction was certainly powerful, but it needed a home. I remember playing Stoneforge Mystic in an aggressive Boros deck
leading up to that event and Sword of Body and Mind was not even close to what it wanted, let alone a less aggressive Sword.
But in the Caw-Blade shell, the combo was unbelievable.
If there’s a pair of cards that are powerful together but don’t require a lot of things of the rest of your deck, you are probably best off trying them
with a lot of different shells around them.
I don’t really want to talk about the follow up sets here as the format was crushed under clear mistakes. Banning Stoneforge Mystic and Jace mattered more
than anything else that happened in the next six months, and even after they left, it was just the next tier of overpowered effects that took over.
Pro Tour Honolulu (2012, Scars and Innistrad blocks, latest set Dark Ascension)
How Much Did the New Set Matter: Not a lot.
Lesson: If existing cards impose hard restrictions, find the ones that break them.
The card of the format heading into this event was Vapor Snag. Creatures that cost more than two and didn’t have immediate value impact could not stand up
to getting bounced once, let alone multiple times with Snapcaster Mage.
The two cards that really broke out this Pro Tour were ones that played well against Snag: Huntmaster of the Fells and Lingering Souls. Turning Snag back
into the low value card it appeared to be on the surface was a big part of breaking through the perceived Delver dominance.
The next two sets added a lot of firepower to the format. Avacyn Restored added Restoration Angel and changed game pacing and timing against Vapor Snag and
Mana Leak, while Magic 2012 brought options to Birthing Pod that pushed it to a real top tier strategy.
Pro Tour Montreal (2013, Innistrad and Return to Ravnica blocks, latest set Gatecrash)
How Much Did the New Set Matter: Quite a bit.
Lesson: New cards make new rules.
Prior to Gatecrash, the format was Thragtusk. Restoration Angel my Thragtusk. Angel of Serenity looping my Thragtusks. Craterhoof Behemoth for 80 because
that’s the only way to deal enough damage through your Thragtusk triggers. While some non-Thragtusk decks did achieve a moderate amount of success, they
were deliberately set up to either exploit the inbred Thragtusk mirror decks.
Then Boros Reckoner happened.
Thragtusk was still a good card, don’t get me wrong. But suddenly there was a shift. Not only did Reckoner win the heads up fight, but it further oppressed
some of the smaller options that were trying to go under Thragtusk.
The decks that performed well at that event played cards well-suited to this new fight. Jund was the Thragtusk deck that handled Reckoner the best, while
The Aristocrats and Jund Aggro had the removal for Reckoner and Falkenrath Aristocrat as a threat that ignored it.
The most important change is sometimes a new deck, but if enough people start figuring something out, the most important factor can easily be playing
within a new set of rules.
Looking forward, Dragon’s Maze added a couple very powerful cards to the format that pushed new archetypes around while Magic 2014 enforced new rules with
How Much Do New Sets Matter?
I’m only looking at sets that solely add at this point. Sets that pair with a rotation or old core sets that push out the old cards don’t count because the
subtraction is bound to break a few bonds.
Things appear evenly split between three outcomes:
what cards can be paired. It’s also possible the mana was always there and a new fleet of threats gets added, but that really hasn’t been something
Bitterblossom, Reveillark, and Bloodbraid Elf as drastic examples of this.
that filled the biggest gap.
We are just exiting a case 3 scenario. Typically, this doesn’t last long and is a bit of a backlash to a previous expansion of power that got a little out
of control. Welcome to how Return to Ravnica block added multiple cards to Eternal formats per set and not because they filled combo niches.
I expect most Standard Pro Tours to feature a reasonably large change to the format. A few might not, but I don’t know if we will ever see anything like
this year. In fact, it might even be an interesting subgame where figuring out nothing changes earlier than everyone else benefits you greatly if it’s true
but at the cost of being a huge issue for those who made that assumption when things actually do shift.
Grand Prix Portland Wrap
I teamed with Craig Wescoe and Alexander Hayne for the now dead format of Magic 2015 Team Limited. We ended up going 10-3 and getting a last round scoop
from some friends who did not need the three Pro Points we racked up.
After playing a team Grand Prix without byes, it was clearly right to cut them. Not only is the event much smoother with two less rounds that way too many
people didn’t play (a single player with byes granted them to the entire team), but the byes were overkill. Team formats already favor good players because
you have more variance insurance with two extra matches per round.
The lack of draft on Day 2 also solves a ton of problems. Again, faster events, but the double rounds versus the same opponents created lots of collusion
incentives. And honestly, Team Sealed is definitely a skill intensive enough format to deserve further play. The pool rebuy going into Day 2 is necessary
for a number of reasons, but moving forward I’m not unhappy to play fourteen rounds of Sealed from twelve packs.
Overall, the experience of a team Grand Prix is still awesome, if not better than it was before. Well, maybe not better than last time, but sometimes you just have to settle with two
Pro Tour Champions as teammates.