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Ixalan Standard and One-Set Blocks


We're now a few weeks into Ixalan Standard, a set release that came along with Standard rotation, and so far the results have not been encouraging for Magic's newest set. While it's likely unwise to judge Standard at large by the metagame at the 24-player Worlds, it's also true that Ixalan didn't really show up on Magic's biggest stage, which is a bit disappointing for a set that received a lot of hype. Even beyond Worlds, the numbers on Ixalan simply aren't very good. If you look at the 10 most played creatures in Standard, you won't find an Ixalan card among them, and while the set fares a bit better in terms of spells (taking two of the top 10 slots), the only Ixalan representatives on the list are the reprints Duress and Lightning Strike. As such, "Ixalan Standard" is starting to feel like an oxymoron, because there simply aren't very many Ixalan cards or decks being played at the moment.

Part of the reason why Ixalan has been relatively underrepresented in its own format is the power of some of the mechanics from Kaladesh block. Energy, for example, is not only extremely pushed (at this point, it's pretty clear that Aetherworks Marvel wasn't the only problem and that the mechanic in general is just too good) but extremely parasitic, making it really hard for any Ixalan cards to break into the deck. Along the same lines, Vehicles—while not as popular right now as it was a few months ago—is still hanging around and is another deck that is pretty close to Kaladesh Block Constructed. 

The combination of these two experiences—Ixalan not being good enough and Kaladesh being too good—is an annoyance right now but an annoyance that will eventually fix itself. Hopefully, Rivals of Ixalan will build off the themes of Ixalan to an extent that we'll actually see some competitive Dinosaurs, Pirates, Merfolk, and Vampire decks, and in the worst case, Standard always has the natural safety valve of rotation (although right now, the rotation of Kaladesh block in September 2018 feels a long way off). As such, rather than spending time talking about a problem that is relatively new and will (hopefully) solve itself before too long, today we're going to use our current Standard format as an example to examine the future of Standard.

Metamorphosis 2.0

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There will no longer be small sets (in main releases; supplementary sets, such as Conspiracy, may still be smaller). All main Standard-legal expansions will be large, and all of them will be drafted alone. From a design standpoint, each will have its own mechanical identity, although there's potential for a small amount of overlap. —Mark Rosewater, Metamorphosis 2.0

While there were a ton of interesting and exciting changes announced in Metamorphosis 2.0 a few months ago, one change that hasn't been talked about enough is the move away from traditional blocks. Over the last decades of Magic, the year was typically dominated by one block containing three sets and, more recently, two two-set blocks. Moving forward, while we will still have some blocks, they will be in name only, as each Magic set will stand alone and have its own "mechanical identity," with only a "small amount" of overlap. On the surface, this sounds like a great change. Large sets are always more exciting than small sets and offer more sweet, new cards, and moving away from "blocks" will help with fatigue and make sure that Standard always feels fresh. Even if you love a set, it's sometimes hard to get excited for the second set in a block because you know what's coming (for instance, it's a pretty good bet Rivals of Ixalan will have Pirates and Dinosaurs, which takes away from the suspense of guessing what crazy cards and themes could be right around the corner). On the other hand, having four standalone sets each year with little overlap also has some major challenges, and some of the biggest are exemplified by the current state of Standard. 

Challenges of One-Set Blocks

From Wizards' perspective, with four standalone sets each year with unique mechanics, it will be extremely important that each and every one of these sets sees Standard play. Having a set that simply doesn't show up isn't just an admission of defeat in terms of design but bad for the bottom line, since Standard play is one of the main selling points of new Magic sets. With two- and three-set blocks, it's easier to make sure every set shows up, at least a little bit, since in the worst case, the cards from the second and third sets of the block will slot into decks with the same themes and mechanics of the first set (e.g., you can play Pirates from Rivals of Ixalan with the ones from Ixalan, and your deck will be better, almost by default, because you have more options to choose from). 

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Consider for a moment the tribal set of Ixalan. How would Wizards make sure the set is playable with only one set to work with and no second or third set to offer support? We were just discussing how, thus far, Ixalan has yet to make a significant impact on Standard, and under the one-set block structure (without Rivals of Ixalan on the horizon to support the themes), Ixalan would have to look a lot different to not be deemed a failure. Under the current block structure, we can write off the tribes' problems with a "don't worry, they'll get there once Rivals of Ixalan releases this winter," but things look a lot different with only one set of Dinosaurs, Vampires, Pirates, and Merfolk. Wizards would have essentially two choices: give up on Ixalan seeing play in Standard (which probably isn't really an option from Wizards' perspective) or go our of its way to push some or all of the Ixalan tribes to the extreme, to make sure they are good enough to fight their way into Standard. 

This might sound like an easy choice: you just push Dinosaurs and / or Pirates enough that there can be a competitive deck, even with just one set to work with, and call it a day. But this isn't as simple as it seems. We have an example of what this technique looks like already in our current Standard format, thanks to energy. 

Take a look at the energy deck above. You'll notice that it's essentially a Kaladesh Block Constructed deck. Since energy asks players to play a ton of energy cards to make their deck function the "right" way, to build an energy deck is to play as close to 100% energy cards as possible. Since energy only exists in Kaladesh, this means it's almost impossible for cards from other sets to break into the deck, and this is unlikely to change for as long as energy is in Standard (barring another energy set, which seems unlikely while Kaladesh is still in the format). Even more jarring is how Wizards made sure that energy was good enough to see Standard play: they basically took already playable (and in some cases, already strong) cards and tacked "add energy" or "energy payoff" onto them. 

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Compare energy to cycling. If you look at the cycling cards in Amonkhet, pretty much all of them come with a one-mana cycling tax, which is the price you pay for the upside of being able to cycle away the card when it's bad. Censor is a Force Spike, Limits of Solidarity is a Threaten, and Razaketh's Rite is a Diabolic Tutor, but each have the one-mana "cycling tax." While it makes perfect sense that cards with an upside would cost more, this didn't happen with energy for some reason.

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Rather than making us pay an energy tax for the upside of energy, many of the energy cards are costed exactly the same as if they didn't produce energy, with the production of energy being pure upside. You could cross off the "make energy" part of Rogue Refiner and it would still be a very playable card as a 3/2 for three that draws a card when it enters the battlefield (in fact, Storm Fleet Spy is close to strictly worse and Wistful Selkie sees play in Modern, despite a challenging mana cost and less power). You could make Whirler Virtuoso a 2/3 that made a 1/1 flier when it entered the battlefield, and it would still be Standard playable (see: Thopter Engineer, which saw some amount of play during its Standard life). Meanwhile, rather than costing two mana like Censor, Attune with Aether is exactly Lay of the Land that just happens to give you energy. Rather than costing three mana, Longtusk Cub is a Grizzly Bears that just happens to also give you both energy production and an energy payoff. Time and time again, energy breaks the "if you get an upside, you pay more" rule, which is so important to Magic

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Breaking the rules of how the resource system (the "you pay more for upside" rule) of Magic works is a horrible way to push a mechanic for constructed. Imagine if, instead of the cycling tax, Censor actually was Force Spike and Limits of Solidarity was Threaten. It would make sure that cycling was good enough for constructed, but it would also lead to power creep spiraling out of control. If Limits of Solidarity cost three mana, there would be no reason to even consider playing Threaten over it, and the same would be true with Censor and Force Spike if Censor were just a single mana. This is pretty much what happened with energy, which is why the mechanic is so dominant in Standard today.

Let's go back to Dinosaurs for a minute. Imagine that Ixalan was a one-set block and Wizards really needed Dinosaurs to be good enough to show up in Standard right away (rather than waiting for the second set of the block to come out in a few months). Unfortunately, this means Dinosaurs have to be good enough to compete with energy, the pushed mechanic from one of the previous blocks in Standard, which means Dinosaurs in general get a huge boost in power (imagine a five-mana Carnage Tyrant, for example). Now, we have Dinosaurs and energy, but remember—we have an entirely new one-set block filled with entirely new mechanics coming in three months, and the key mechanic or tribe from that block now has to be good enough to compete with both energy and the pushed version of Dinosaurs designed to compete with energy. Then, the next set has to compete with Dinosaurs, energy, and whatever the pushed mechanic / tribe from the last set was; rinse and repeat.  

Block Constructed Standard

The biggest risk of this process, apart from power creep issues (which is a concern, but Wizards has proven itself quite good at managing power creep), is that Standard devolves into a bunch of Block Constructed decks. Kaladesh gives us energy, which doesn't interact with anything. Amonkhet gives us a graveyard-themed deck, which might incorporate a few cards from other sets but mostly stands alone. Ixalan gives us Dinosaurs and / or Pirates, and then each block battles it out against the others for Standard supremacy. 

The problem with this style of Standard is that it massively reduces decision making in deck building because there are so few possible options. It would be fun to build a different type of energy deck, but there are only 66 energy cards to choose from (and remember, these cards come from two sets; the number would likely be lower under the one-set block structure) and a much smaller number that are actually good enough to have potential in Standard, which means when you sit down to "brew" with energy, your card pool is perhaps 25 cards, and then you fill in the gaps with utility cards like removal and card draw (and even here, energy is often the way to go, with cards like Harnessed Lightning and Confiscation Coup). The problem is even more severe when you look at the Ixalan tribes:

Discounting basic lands, there are 259 cards in Ixalan, and a full 150 of them (58%) refer to one of the set's four tribes, either by being tribe members or by being non-tribe members that interact with the tribe (like Drover of the Mighty for Dinosaurs or Lookout's Dispersal for Pirates). Even with this high level of dominance, there simply aren't that many options if you want to build a tribal deck in general, especially for Vampires and Merfolk, where you'd need to play nearly half of the current tribe members in Standard to be able to make a functional tribal deck. 

Looking at the numbers, it's hard to imagine Wizards being able to make Ixalan any more tribal without getting into the weird, gimmicky "everything's a creature" territory of Legions, especially under the one-set block structure, where every set is designed to be drafted alone (which means each set needs a certain number of utility cards like removal spells, card draw, counterspells, combat tricks, and the like). Because of this, it's difficult to see how a set like Ixalan could work under the one-set block structure without a very pushed, energy-style, almost pre-built Dinosaur or Pirate deck obviously geared for constructed—there's only so much room in a set, and if you can't improve a tribe like Dinosaurs by making more tribe members, the only real option is to make the Dinosaurs you do have room for in the set even better. 

Having a Standard where each one-set block has its own energy is a pretty scary thought. Cross-block synergy and the openness of brewing are a large part of the fun of Magic, and if each set has one energy-level deck, this aspect of Standard will be hugely diminished. Back to our Ixalan example, considering that simply printing more Dinosaurs and Pirates in the next set likely wouldn't be an option, apart from going the energy route and simply pushing the cards to overpowered levels, what other options are there for Wizards to make sure Ixalan tribes show up in Standard?  

Solutions

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The easiest solution is to make one-set block sets more vanilla. Instead of Dinosaurs and Pirates, make the tribes Vampires, Humans, and Zombies, which show up in most Magic sets by default. This way, even though upcoming sets will be standalone and unique, they can still offer support for previous sets, at least to some extent. Unfortunately, this isn't a great solution because having unique tribes and mechanics is part of what makes Magic so great. Ixalan itself is a shining example of this: the community was extremely excited about the set because it has unique new tribes in Dinosaurs and Pirates, and people likely wouldn't be nearly as excited for yet another set of Zombies or Humans. 

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A better solution is doubling down on avoiding parasitic mechanics. Compare energy to raid, cycling, embalm, or just about any other mechanic in Standard. Most mechanics interact especially well with other cards in their set but work with other cards from other sets as well. Raid doesn't care if you are attacking with a creature from Kaladesh, Amonkhet, or Ixalan; it just cares that you are attacking. In a world of one-set blocks, it will be even more important to avoid mechanics like energy because it will be extremely difficult to get them right with only a single set to work with. If you miss high, you end up where we are now: with the best deck in Standard pushing new cards and sets from the format thanks to its parasitic nature. If you miss low, you risk an entire set being deemed a failure thanks to the fact that its primary mechanic (which eats up a ton of cards in the set) doesn't show up in Standard. The window for making energy good enough to incentivize players to build around it and play it competitively but not so good that it takes over Standard is tiny (and might actually be non-existent for energy specifically, thanks to the parasitic nature of the mechanic). 

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Of course, this comes with a challenge: what do you do about Dinosaurs and Pirates? Tribes, especially new tribes that are lacking support, are parasitic by nature but important to the game. Without enough support, we end up with Aetherborn—basically a footnote of Kaladesh block that will soon be forgotten—but with too much support, we end up with tribal decks like Faeries (basically the tribal version of energy dominating Standard). One solution is to make sure that at least some of the tribe members are strong enough to see play as standalone cards (and it seems like Wizards did do this with Dinosaurs, with cards like Deathgorge Scavenger, Ripjaw Raptor, and Carnage Tyrant, even if they haven't been able to keep up with energy so far), although this can be tricky without making the cards too good when they are played in tribal strategies. Thankfully, one of the other big changes announced in Metamorphosis 2.0 might hold the key to solving the problem.

So, how can Wizards tie together three disjointed one-set blocks each year? The answer here is the return of core sets. Core sets are unique, since they typically have a much looser mechanical theme, which means Wizards can use the core set to act like the second set of all of the one-set blocks in Standard, pushing mechanics and tribes that might need a bit more help while also punishing mechanics and tribes that might be too good in the Standard format. More importantly, this can be done preemptively. While we don't know what the next year of Magic sets will hold, Wizards does, which means tribes, mechanics, and sets from the near future can be foreshadowed and supported before they even see print, with the help of the yearly core set. Taking full advantage of the one set each year where the typical rules of modern set design are loosened a bit is likely the single most important thing Wizards can do to make sure the new one-set block structure succeeds and we avoid problems like energy and Block Constructed Standard in the future. 

Conclusion

Our current Standard format does a great job of illuminating both ends of the spectrum when it comes to making unique mechanics and tribes in the one-set block structure, which might actually be a good thing for Standard moving forward. Seeing the parasitic nature of energy, combined with the Ixalan tribes' struggle for relevance with only a single set of support, will hopefully get Wizards thinking about how these types of mechanics and tribes can be balanced in the one-set block structure that is just around the corner. While it certainly isn't impossible to have a balanced Standard with each mechanic and theme only having one set of support, it will be more difficult, even with the core set on the horizon to help smooth things out. Finding this balance, where Dinosaurs and Pirates are playable but not so parasitic that they reduce choice and deck-building decisions, will be the key to Standard's success under the new structure, so hopefully Wizards takes a hard look at what has gone right and what has gone wrong with Kaladesh and Ixalan, and uses these lessons as a guide through the transition to one-set blocks. 

Anyway, that's all for today. What do you think? How can mechanics, tribes, and themes be balanced with only one set of support? Are we doomed to a Standard that is essentially a bunch of Block Constructed decks battling it out, or can the return of the core set tie everything together in a way that makes sense? Are there any other potential solutions worth considering to make sure standard is balanced under the one-set block structure? Let me know in the comments! As always, you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive or at SaffronOlive@MTGGoldfish.com.


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