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Standard's Problem? The Consistency of Fast Mana


One thing we've learned—or that I thought we had learned—over the course of Magic's history is that fast mana tends to cause problems. Going back to the earliest days of Magic, cards that allow you to break Magic's golden rule of "one land a turn" and produce way more mana—Magic's most important resource—than your opponent have populated the banned and restricted list. The original Moxen and Black Lotus, Mishra's Workshop, Candelabra of Tawnos, Channel, Tolarian Academy, Dream Halls, Lotus Petal, Mind Over Matter, Grim Monolith, Mana Vault, Mana Crypt, and Metalworker: the banned and restricted list from the first decade of Magic reads like a who's who list of cards that could produce the most mana the fastest in their given formats. 

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The trend has continued in more recent times. Chrome Mox started on the original Modern banned list, with rituals like Rite of Flame and Seething Song soon to follow and Summer Bloom, Krark-Clan Ironworks, and Mox Opal later meeting the ban hammer as well. 

While various Magic rules help to keep the game balanced and fun, perhaps the most important is that you can only play one land each turn. This resource restriction evens the playing field between various archetypes. You can choose to play an aggro deck and try to leverage your first land drops into a fast win, or you can play a slower midrange or control deck with the goal of maximizing the power of hitting your fourth, fifth, or even sixth land drop. Above everything else, games starting with mana parity between players is what makes Magic work. 

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Of course, there have always been acceptable ways to cheat on mana. Cards like Birds of Paradise and Llanowar Elves are probably the best examples. Allowing you to have an extra mana on the battlefield starting on Turn 2 makes these cards extremely powerful. But this power also comes with some major drawbacks. Birds of Paradise and Llanowar Elves die to essentially every removal spell ever printed. They are affected by summoning sickness, so you have to wait a turn to benefit from their power (unlike mana from the banned mana rocks and rituals), and they are lackluster topdecks later in the game when you already have more than enough mana to execute your game plan. Even with all of these drawbacks, Birds of Paradise and Llanowar Elves are cards that Wizards has been leery about putting back into Standard (although Llanowar Elves recently got a run through Standard thanks to Dominaria). 

The Power of Standard

A few days ago, there was a question on Mark Rosewater's Blogatog about the power level of Standard. Mark responded by asking players what they thought about the format's current power level. Personally, I like my Standard formats fairly high powered. In general, I think that powerful cards make for a fun gameplay experience. While some cards have certainly missed high in terms of power—Oko, Thief of Crowns, Once Upon a Time, arguably the entire companion mechanic (although Ikoria is new enough that it might be best to reserve judgment for the time being)—in general, I'd rather have a Throne of Eldraine (even with a couple of cards needing to be banned) than an Ixalan filled with forgetting uninspiring but safe cards (although in an even more perfect world, we could have Throne of Eldraine without cards like Oko, Thief of Crowns and Once Upon a Time). 

That said, I do think that Standard has a huge problem (which has been exasperated by some recent rules changes and mechanics): it's stuffed full of fast mana. No, we don't have Sol Ring on Turn 1 or Grim Monolith on Turn 2, but "fast" is relative to the format's speed. Killing someone on Turn 4 or 5 in Standard is fast, while it's slow for a format like Modern and extremely slow compared to some combo decks in Legacy that can kill on Turn 1 if not disrupted. 

Fast Mana: Mana Doublers and Ramp

If you look at the top decks in the Standard format, they are all based around cheating on mana in one way or another. At the top of the heap is Jeskai Fires, built around an enchantment that doubles your mana starting on Turn 4 and occasionally triples your mana thanks to Yorion, Sky Nomad blinking Fires of Invention itself to get around its "only two spells a turn" drawback. Temur Reclamation is constructed on a similar concept and around another mana-doubling four-mana enchantment in Wilderness Reclamation, which allows you to use your mana once during your main phase and again during your end step (or your opponent's turn) while also enabling mana-doubling-based combo kills with Expansion // Explosion and Shark Typhoon. While they have dropped down the rankings since the release of Ikoria, Nissa, Who Shakes the World decks are doing the same thing: playing Nissa, Who Shakes the World to double their mana and then using this mana to put the game away with huge creatures like Hydroid Krasis or Agent of Treachery

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While we have had mana doubling cards in the past, until very recently these cards have been symmetrical and/or slow. Dictate of Karametra, Gauntlet of Power, Extraplanar Lens and Vernal Bloom all double your mana, but they have potential to double your opponent's mana as well. Meanwhile, cards like Vorinclex, Voice fo Hunger and Zendikar Resurgent double just your mana, but they cost seven or more mana to get on the battlefield, making them difficult for most decks to play. Even Mirari's Wake (which is asymmetrical and only five mana) still requires you to wait a turn to untap your lands and take advantage of the extra mana, while Fires of Invention, Wilderness Reclamation and Nissa, Who Shakes the World all generate extra mana immediately in one way or another. This immediate mana production - Fires of Invention immediately allowing you to cast another four-drop the turn it comes into play, Wilderness Reclamation untapping all of your lands on your end step so you can spend the four mana you spent to cast it again on your opponent's turn - essentially makes both Fires of Invention and Wilderness Relocation free once you have enough mana to cast them; a further boost in power compared to similar older cards. Basically, while doubling mana has been a thing in Magic for a long time until recently they have been somewhat overcosted and slow casual staples rather than cards that are pushed for Standard play.

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While perhaps a bit more of a stretch, I think you can make a similar argument about various ramp and midrange decks like Bant and Sultai that are built around getting ahead on mana, with Growth Spiral and Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath allowing for extra land drops. What makes cards like Growth Spiral and Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath different from "safe" mana accelerants like Birds of Paradise and Llanowar Elves? The answer here is they are lacking all of the drawbacks of safer mana-ramp spells. First, Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath and Growth Spiral ramp in ways that are unaffected by removal—you can't simply Bolt the Birds. As soon as Growth Spiral or Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath resolves, the damage is usually done, and your opponent is up one mana for the rest of the game. Second, unlike Birds of Paradise or Llanowar Elves, which are brutally bad topdecks in the late game, you don't mind drawing Growth Spiral on Turn 8 since you can always cycle it into a new card, and Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath is often the card you want to draw most later in the game since you'll end up with an extremely powerful 6/6 on the battlefield once you escape it. 

Basically, our current Standard format is overflowing with cards that are difficult or even impossible to interact with that put one player very far ahead in mana. The end result is a metagame where you're at a massive disadvantage if you are trying to play Magic fairly—that is, making one land drop each turn like Garfield intended. 

Less Variance 

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The second layer to this problem is the London mulligan rule and the companion mechanic adding additional consistency to these fast-mana decks. Take Jeskai Fires, for example. Without Fires of Invention, the deck is very beatable—casting one five-drop a turn just isn't all that strong. However, thanks to the London mulligan rule and Keruga, the Macrosage, Jeskai Fires almost always has its namesake card in play on Turn 4, with the London mulligan rule allowing the deck to aggressively mulligan for its namesake enchantment while knowing that even at four or five cards, it will have a playable hand and Keruga, the Macrosage, further reducing the drawback of mulliganing aggressively because your four-card hand is really a five-card hand thanks to Keruga. Plus, it's really hard to be resource-light, even when aggressively mulliganing, when you have a companion that draws at least one or, more commonly, 2–4 cards when it comes into play. 

Frank Karsten, in a great article on Channel Fireball looked at the basic math of London mulligans compared to the previous Vancouver (scry 1) mulligan rule. If you're looking for one specific card (like Fires of Invention) and are willing to mulligan to five to find it your odds of hitting it is 78.3% with London mulligans compared to 72.8% for Vancouver mulligans. At a glance, this doesn't seem like a big deal. Fires of Invention showing up 6% more often, while a meaningful increase, isn't a game changing in and of itself. However, this number almost certainly greatly understates how big of an impact London mulligans are currently having on the game for two big reasons.

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First, Frank's article was written before companions were printed. One way to think about having a companion, which is essentially an extra card in your starting hand, is as a free mulligan. You can mulligan to six in search of your most important cards, but thanks to your companion you will still start the game with a virtual seven card hand. This line of thinking would make companions somewhat similar to Serum Powder, except its a Serum Powder that doesn't take up a slot in your deck and you have it every game. With Serum Powder the odds of finding Fires of Invention on a mulligan to five shoots all the way up to 89.6%. This isn't to suggest that the math is the same with a companion, but the free-ish mulligan you get from starting with one additional card in hand does increase the odds of finding what you want by allowing you to mulligan even more aggressively.

Second, while London mulligans might only increase your odds of having Fires of Invention (or whatever you primary payoff card might be) in your five card hand by 6% compared to the old mulligan rule it greatly increased your ability to mulligan to five. Being able to keep the best five cards of a seven card hand rather than being force to play with whatever five cards happen to come off the top of your deck means that, even in the 20%-ish of games where you mulligan to five and don't find your primary payoff (like Fires of Invention), you're still likely to at least have a functional hand. London mulligans have greatly increased the incentive to mulligan if you don't have your best cards in hand because there risk of auto-losing to a non-functional mulligan hand just isn't anywhere near as high as it was in the past.

When you add all this together the end result is a Standard format where most decks are built around fast mana - powerful ramp cards that lack meaningful downsides and mana doublers which are essentially free once you get four or five lands on the battlefield - and these decks will have access to their powerful ramp cards and/or mana doublers most games because London mulligans remove much of the risk of mulliganing to six or five in hopes of finding your payoff and because companions provide further incentive to mulligan aggressively by giving you what is essentially one free mulligan thanks to a virtual eight card starting hand.

Fixing the Problem

So, going back to Mark Rosewater's question, is the power level of Standard too high? I think from a broad meta-perspective, the answer is no. We want high-powered Standards; at least, I do. While certain cards current in Standard (or recently banned from Standard) are too powerful, this is somewhat unavoidable if the goal is to print powerful cards. Some cards an mechanic will inevitably miss high in power level and maybe even need to be banned.

That said, the amount of asymmetrical fast mana in Standard and how consistently decks have access to their fast mana card(s) are huge issues in our current Standard format. Getting ahead of your opponent on mana is one of the most powerful things you can do in a game of Magic, and our current Standard format is overflowing with cards that not only put you ahead on mana but also are likely to keep you ahead on mana because they are so difficult to interact with. 

So, how can we fix this problem? Over the short-term, I'm not sure there is a great answer. Wilderness Reclamation and Nissa, Who Shakes the World rotate in September, so those are problems that will solve themselves before too long, but Fires of Invention and Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath will be around for more than a year still (although maybe Growth Spiral and Nissa, Who Shakes the World rotating will help to power down all-in Uro ramp strategies). While I don't want this to be a "call for bans" article, I do think that if you look at the metagame numbers and play patterns, there is a very high probability that if Keruga, the Macrosage and Yorion, Sky Nomad remain legal in Standard, Fires of Invention will get banned at some point before it naturally rotates in September 2021. 

Over the long-term, I'd argue that both the London mulligan rule and the variance-decreasing companion mechanic are bad for the game and should not be a part of it, but I don't expect that Wizards would listen. It's seems that current Magic design is for Hearthstone players who think that the Magic mana system is rigged and or unfun than it is for long-time Magic players who understand that "variance is the lifeblood of the game.". 

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Assuming those big, systemic changes are off the table, the best fix is to stop printing asymmetrical mana doublers and no-downside ramp spells that players can't stop easily with creature removal. Basically, we need more Llanowar Elves and Rampant Growths and fewer Growth Spirals and Uro, Titan of Nature's Wraths. We need more Dictate of Karametras and Vernal Blooms and fewer Nissa, Who Shakes the Worlds and Fires of Invention

If Wizards is married to the London mulligan rule and mechanics like companion, then its design process is going to have to take the consistency they add to the game of Magic into account and shy away from printing cards like Fires of Invention. In the old days, where you started with seven cards in hand and tried to avoid mulliganing because there was a chance your five- or six-card hand could lead to you not playing Magic at all, cards like Fires of Invention might have been fine. Sure, it would still win mostly by itself in the games where it was drawn, but these games would be much less frequent than they are today, with all of the new variance-reducing rules and mechanics. In a world where you start with eight cards in hand and can freely mulligan to five or even four in many decks, knowing that having the right card in hand is worth more than having two or three of the wrong cards in hand, cards like Fires of Invention are immensely oppressive since they hit the battlefield on time in most games. 

In the end, my belief is that outside of some outliers on the high end of the power scale, like Oko, Once Upon a Time, and likely companions, most of the cards in Standard are of an acceptable power level. The problem with Standard isn't that the overall power level is too high; it's that thanks to the huge reduction in variance over the past year thanks to the London mulligan rule and companion mechanic, the best cards—often fast mana cards that essentially win the game almost by themselves in just one or two turns, like Fires of Invention, Wilderness Reclamation, or Nissa, Who Shakes the World—show up too frequently in games, which makes them feel more oppressive than they would have in the past. 

Thankfully, the problem is one that can be fixed by reversing the recent trend of removing variance from the game through rules changes and new mechanics; removing unkillable, no-drawback ramp and mana doublers from Standard; or preferably both.

Conclusion

Anyway, that's all for today. 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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