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A Case for More Standard Rotations


Officially, Standard rotates in September—early September for digital and later in September in paper—alongside the release of Innistrad: Midnight Hunt. This will finally bring to an end the stranglehold that last year's sets, especially Throne of Eldraine and Ikoria, have had on the Standard format because they (alongside Theros: Beyond Death and Core Set 2021) will leave Standard forever. 

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The last year or so of Standard has been a strange one. While most people will admit that the format is technically "healthy" (especially compared to the year and a half before, when we had endless bannings and decks shooting up to 50% or even 70% of the meta), it's also generally considered to be boring and stale. The big problem is that Throne of Eldraine has been legal for nearly two years at this point, and it is one of the most powerful sets in the entire history of Magic. Toss in companions and a few other random cards, like Emergent Ultimatum from Ikoria, and it has been nearly impossible for less powerful sets like Kaldheim, Strixhaven, and Adventures in the Forgotten Realms to make their presence felt in the metagame—their cards simply aren't strong enough in a world where most decks are playing Bonecrusher Giant, Lovestruck Beast, and / or Emergent Ultimatum. This has led to a format that, by traditional measures like metagame percentages and diversity, looks fairly healthy but also a format that many people just aren't all that interested in playing because they've been seeing (and losing to) the same cards for 20 straight months. 

Even Wizards seems to recognize that at least some players are done with current Standard and counting down to rotation, as evidenced by the addition of the pre-rotated Standard 2022 queue to Magic Arena, which gives players the ability to play a future-shifted version of Standard without cards from Eldraine, Ikoria, and friends. While adding a rotated event to Arena isn't strange (there was a Standard 2021 queue last year—it just didn't get much hype and was overshadowed by the release of Double Masters last August), the popularity of Standard 2022 is downright shocking. While we can't tell exactly how many players are playing "real" Standard and how many are playing Standard 2022—only Wizards would have such data—all visible measures suggest that Standard 2022 is the more popular format at the moment. 

I've run a couple of polls on Standard vs. Standard 2022, and while the sample isn't perfect (because it skews heavily toward people who follow me or MTGGoldfish), the results are consistent, with somewhere around 60 or 70% of people preferring Standard 2022, somewhere between 5% and 20% preferring normal Standard, and the rest undecided or not caring. I've also received way, way more Standard 2022 brews from viewers than Standard brews, many Twitch streamers seem to be favoring the format, some local game stores are switching their Standard events to Standard 2022, and websites are adding metagame pages for Standard 2022 because of its popularity. Even Wizards is getting in on the fun, banning The Book of Exalted Deeds in Standard 2022, which suggests that the format is popular enough for Wizards to care about as well. 

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Taken as a whole, this suggests to me that many players are ready for Standard to rotate now, not a couple of months from now when Innistrad: Midnight Haunt is released, to the point where, if Wizards continues to refuse to rotate the format officially, players will just do it themselves as they stop playing Standard and pick up Standard 2022. This also suggests that maybe, just maybe, the current system of Standard rotating once each year is simply too slow for the current iteration of Magic

Several years ago, back between 2015 and 2017, Wizards actually tried adding more rotations, switching to a system in which Standard rotated twice each year rather than once each year. Sadly, the experiment was short-lived, as, according to Mark Rosewater in an article called Metamorphosis 2.0, the change to two rotations a year "didn't go over well. Players disliked having the lifespan of their cards shorted by six months and they didn't enjoy more opportunities for their decks to become illegal. The response to this was so strong that we changed back to the old rotation system as soon as we had enough data to show how unpopular it was."

If we end the story here, things are simple: Wizards already tried having multiple rotations each year, players rejected the idea, and Wizards switched back to the traditional once-a-year rotation schedule. Basically, from this perspective, having more rotations each year is a failed idea that isn't worth considering. But the story doesn't end back in 2017. The last few years of Magic have seen the game change immensely—so much so, I'd argue, that whatever data were gathered back between 2015 and 2017 simply don't apply to the current version of the game. This means that rather than writing off having more than one rotation each year as a failed idea from Magic's past, we (and Wizards) should at least be willing to try it again because, rather than a failed idea, it may be that having multiple rotations was just an idea before its time.

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To understand why the failure of two rotations each year back in 2015–2017 doesn't really apply to today's game, we need to start with a big one: prices. As Mark Rosewater mentioned, one of the biggest complaints from players was that their cards' lifespan was shortened, which seems to be Wizards' "we can't talk about card prices publicly" code for "players thought this made the game too expensive." Back in the 2015–2017 era, this change probably did make the game too expensive. The years 2015 and 2016 are remembered as the time when Standard was at its all-time most expensive. Thanks to a combination of fetch lands, fetchable dual lands, and five-color piles that encouraged players to splash the most powerful and expensive cards (like Jace, Vryn's Prodigy, which peaked at just under $100 in 2016) the average weighted price of a Top 8 Standard deck was nearly $700. That's the average cost of a competitive deck, not the cost of picking up an expensive outlier. 

Compare that to today, when the most expensive deck in Standard (Sultai Ultimatum) is $363, and that's a 95-card deck thanks to Yorion. Of the 12 most played decks in our current Standard, seven cost between $138 and $209, and only three decks cost more than $300. Basically, a top-tier Standard deck today costs somewhere between 1/3 and 1/4 of what it cost back in the 2015–2017 period when we tried multiple rotations. While this is, in part, because of card-pool changes (e.g., we don't have fetch lands in Standard, and if Wizards is to be believed, we're unlikely to have them in Standard in the near future), there are other most systematic reasons for this price drop, including the advent of collector boosters (which have given us tons of different special versions of each card, lowering the demand for and cost of the base version), paper Magic becoming increasingly dominated by Commander (many of the most expensive Standard-legal cards are expensive because they have high Commander demand, rather than high Standard demand), and Standard's shift from being primarily a paper format to being primarily an Arena format (which is, in part, because of the pandemic, although in reality, this shift was taking place before COVID was a thing—the pandemic may have sped up the process, but it isn't the primary reason why Standard has increasingly become a digital format). 

Speaking of Arena, this is the other huge, huge recent shift in the Magic landscape. Back when we tried two rotations a year, Arena didn't exist. Today, billions of games are being played on Arena (more than ever), with many of them being Standard (since Arena doesn't support most other formats), which means Standard likely will become solved quicker (the more games that are played, the more quickly that players will find optimal builds and decks), which in turn necessitates faster changes in the format to keep players interested in the game 365 days a year. Standard can't afford to have dead periods anymore when players don't care about the format because Arena is so important to the current iteration of Magic, and Arena is built to force players to play as much Standard as possible. 

The other big impact of Arena is that it allows Wizards to completely control the game's economy. Cards on Arena cost exactly what Wizards say they should cost since there's no trading or secondary marking and Wizards controls the drop rates of wildcards and individual card rewards. This means that adding more rotations to Standard doesn't have to make the game more expensive (at least, on Arena) because Wizards can easily compensate by offering more "renewal rewards" at rotation, increasing the drop rates of wildcards and card rewards, or doing any number of other things since they control the economy.

Of course, Mark Rosewater's comments about more rotations in Metamorphosis 2.0 didn't focus exclusively on prices. He also mentioned that players disliked having more opportunities for their decks to become illegal. (While this partly could be because of the cost of putting together a new deck, it could also just be that some players really enjoy a deck and want to be able to play it for as long as possible.) Pretty much all of the evidence we have suggests that this wouldn't be a huge problem today for two reasons.

First, as we discussed before, many players are choosing to play Standard 2022 (which makes their current Standard decks illegal) rather than traditional Standard. This is a pretty clear sign that many players want their decks to become illegal (or at least their opponent's decks, which are probably the same as theirs because the same handful of archetypes have dominated Standard for 18 months), to the point where they will play a not-real format to make it happen. Add in the constant complaints about Throne of Eldraine, Ikoria's companions, Emergent Ultimatum, and Rogues, and it seems clear that a meaningful portion of Magic players who interact on social media would be willing to see their decks become illegal if it meant they didn't have to play against decks that they considering boring and unfun. 

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Second, and perhaps even more importantly, over the past couple of years, Wizards has made countless decks illegal without rotation through bannings. From October 2019 to present, we've had Field of the Dead, Oko, Thief of Crowns, Once Upon a Time, Veil of Summer, Agent of Treachery, Fires of Invention, Cauldron Familiar, Teferi, Time Raveler, Growth Spiral, Wilderness Reclamation, Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath, Omnath, Locus of Creation, Lucky Clover, and Escape to the Wilds banned in Standard. While some of these cards are utility pieces that showed up in multiple decks (like Once Upon a Time or Veil of Summer), many of these bannings targeted specific decks and basically killed archetypes. You can't play Fires without Fires of Invention. You can't play Golos Field without Field of the Dead. You can't play Four-Color Omnath without Omnath, Locus of Creation or Temur Rec without Wilderness Reclamation.

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Basically, over the past couple of years, Wizards has shortened the life of many popular decks. But rather than doing it in a scheduled way that players can prepare for with rotation, Wizards has just done it at random through bannings. In many ways, having your deck made illegal through bannings is much more painful than losing it to rotation. Decks that get banned typically are strong, which encourages players to spend their money and wildcards on them to be competitive. In some cases, players buy a deck only to find out weeks or even days later that a banning has made it illegal, while they were expecting to be able to use their investment for months or even years. At least with rotation, players can make an informed decision on the cards they buy and craft. Wilderness Reclamation rotating in a few short months? Maybe you buy a second-tier deck with a longer lifespan instead. With the random pacing of bannings, it's extremely difficult and arguably impossible for players to make this type of informed decision. 

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There's even some strong evidence that faster rotation would have reduced the number of bannings over the past two years. While many of the bannings probably would have happened either way, if we had a rotation twice a year, Teferi, Time Raveler, Wilderness Reclamation, Agent of Treachery, and Growth Spiral all would have rotated naturally from Standard before they were banned. And this potentially undersells the impact that faster rotation would have on minimizing the need for bannings. Take Cauldron Familiar, for example. When it was banned last August, it has a year and a month left in Standard before it would rotate. If we had two rotations each year, it would have had closer to six months left in Standard before it would rotate, which might be a short enough time span that Wizards (and players) perhaps would be willing to deal with the Cat a little while longer, knowing that it would be leaving Standard before too long anyway. "Don't worry, it will rotate in a few months" sounds a lot better than "don't worry, it will rotate in a year." 

Conclusion

So, would having multiple rotations each year work in the current Arena- and Commander-driven, banning-fueled version of Magic we play today? I don't know for sure. What I do know is that Magic is a very, very different game than it was back between 2015 and 2017, when we tried multiple rotations before, to the point where I believe whatever data Wizards gathered that lead to it reverting the decision is meaningless, or very close to it. Standard decks today cost a fraction of what they did then. Most Standard is played on Arena today, where Wizards can make the format as cheap or as expensive as it chooses because Wizards controls the economy with an iron fist. The weight of the argument that players dislike their decks becoming illegal faster has diminished, thanks to the seemingly endless stream of bannings making players' decks illegal at random. Add in the current popularity of Standard 2022 and waning interest in "normal" Standard over the past several months, and to me, this says that having a faster rotation schedule is at least worth trying again. It's hard to see how faster rotation can make Standard worse than it has been for the past couple of years. And if it succeeds this time around, it could solve many of the issues that currently plague Standard, from endless bannings to a stale meta leading to players choosing to self-rotate by playing Standard 2022 over traditional Standard. Worst case, it flops, and Wizards can revert back to the current rotation schedule after having gathered data that are meaningful to the current digital and Commander era of Magic

Wrap-Up

Anyway, that's all for today. What do you think of the current rotation schedule? Is Magic different enough today that it's worth trying more rotations again, or do the concerns from 2015–2017 still ring true to you? Let us know in the comments! As always, leave your thoughts, ideas, opinions, and suggestions in the comments, and you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive or at SaffronOlive@MTGGoldfish.com.



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