There has been much discussion in recent weeks about the future of Standard on MTG Arena thanks to the arrival of Alchemy. The Magic community is certainly split on whether Alchemy is a good addition. However, the new format is far from the only thing plaguing Standard right now.
From a sparse wildcard economy that incentivizes players to pilot one good deck to an imbalance between colors, it’s difficult to find success in competitive Standard with a non-meta deck. This begs the question, is it still possible to play a deck for fun while staying competitive?
A Word on Fun
Before going any further, it’s important to distinguish what “fun” means in this context. At the end of the day, everyone’s definition of having fun while playing Magic: The Gathering is different.
Some people like controlling the board and winning with big finishers, others like swinging lots of creatures to win on turn four. That’s part of the beauty of Magic. It allows each player to enjoy the game in their favorite way.
That being said, some decks see play simply because they are the most powerful and, in turn, make it more likely that you’ll win a match. This has always been true. However, the rise of grinding on the Arena ladder has made it more prevalent than ever before.
It begs the question, is playing a meta deck to quickly climb the ladder fun?
If your only goal is to win, then it probably is. Magic isn’t just about winning matches, though. A huge part of the game is building your deck and experimenting with cards along the way to fine tune it. Even for casual players that aren’t focused on perfecting the perfect ratios of a deck, building something around your favorite card or tribe can be extremely fun.
With this in mind, we should look closer at whether or not Arena is making it difficult for “fun” decks to thrive. In other words, can players still find success on the ladder or in competitive events without playing a meta deck?
Once again, keep in mind that playing meta decks can be fun. Whether you like taking multiple turns with a combo, going infinite with lifegain, or smashing your opponent with fast creatures, meta decks come in many forms. Likewise, it's certainly possible to have fun in casual queues with a homebrew deck that isn't focused on winning. Even there, however, many players still run a meta deck to try and finish daily challenges and earn rewards.
For better or worse, the desire to win often drives many Arena players to pick up a meta deck when their homeade deck (that they may consider more fun) isn’t competitive.
Naturally, not every deck can be at the same power level. That being said, the current divide between Tier 1 and Tier 2 decks in Standard is a large one. Taking a look at the metagame data from MTGGoldfish, we see that Mono-Green, Mono-White, and Izzet Dragons/Turns take up a combined 54.7%.
Most people would agree that these three decks sit comfortably in Tier 1 status week in and week out. Some challengers like Orzhov Control and Temur/Naya Midrange are fitting of Tier 1 status in many matchups but are often quite weak against one of the other three Tier 1 decks.
From there, the drop off into Tier 2 is huge. Lists like Rakdos Midrange (Treasures), Mono-Black Aggro, Orzhov Clerics, Selesnya Humans, Sultai Ramp, Gruul Werewolves and Dimir Zombies fill out this category. Generally, these Tier 2 decks play well with each other and can create intense, close matchups when paired against one another. That being said, they often fall short in games with Tier 1 decks.
Of course, the problem isn’t that there are “better” and “worse” decks in the meta. The issue is that these decks are so outmatched they rarely see play on the ladder. Untapped.gg gives almost every Tier 2 archetype a win rate below 55%. For those hoping to climb the ladder quickly, that simply isn’t good enough. Meanwhile, Tier 1 decks are able to obtain win rates above 60%, especially in best-of-three.
All this isn’t to say that a great pilot can’t improve the win rate of a homeade deck. It also doesn’t mean Tier 2 decks never beat their Tier 1 counterparts.
On a platform like Arena, however, players are rewarded for winning and doing so consistently. Those hoping to reach Mythic on the ladder can’t afford to drop percentage points off their win rate by playing a Tier 2 deck.
This encourages (if not mandates) players that want to perform well on the ranked ladder to pick up a Tier 1 deck. Otherwise, they simply aren’t going to be able to keep up with players that do so. In turn, more people choose to spend their precious wildcards (more on that later) on Tier 1 lists, leading to a stale metagame and play experience.
The gap in power and win rate between Tier 1 and Tier 2 decks is a big reason why many players feel like they can’t pilot a “fun” deck to success.
The Izzet Problem
Many of the problems currently plaguing Standard on Arena right now can be attributed to one archetype—Izzet control. That sentiment isn’t intended to put blame on those who enjoy playing Izzet decks or taking advantage of the powerful cards available in those colors right now.
Rather, it’s merely an observation of a format being warped around a single color pairing. Yes, colors other than red and blue have powerful cards.
Green has Esika’s Chariot and Werewolf Packleader to snowball games out of control. Black has Lolth, Sorin, and a suite of removal to control the board. White can go wide, exile creatures, and control the sky with angels.
Yet, none of these can match up with the main Izzet shell. Alrund’s Epiphany aside, Izzet players have access to an unequal number of extremely powerful cards.
Fading Hope, Divide by Zero, and Burn Down the House all control the board while providing extra upside in some way. Expressive Iteration sees play all the way back to Vintage thanks to its ability to ramp and provide card selection for two mana. Memory Deluge and Unexpected Windfall keep your hand full. An array of red burn spells let you pick off high-priority targets. Meanwhile, Galvanic Iteration lets you copy any of these powerful spells for double the value. Izzet also gets access to some of the best creatures in the format in the form of Goldspan Dragon, Lier, and Hullbreaker Horror.
In a best-of-three format, few decks are able to answer this Izzet shell by going toe-to-toe with it. Instead, the best hope of winning is by playing very aggressively to get “under” the Izzet deck.
Hence, we’re seeing a huge portion of the metagame being occupied by the likes of Mono-White and Mono-Green aggro decks. Typically, an influx of aggro decks is tamed by midrange builds that outsize them. In our current Standard, however, midrange is almost non-existent.
Why? Because the Izzet shell completely dominates it. Playing two, three, and four drops into bounce and removal spells simply isn’t good enough.
As a result, midrange players are discouraged from building in the archetype since a significant portion of their games are played against a deck that they stand no chance against.
Meanwhile, traditional control decks have a hard time beating Izzet due to the fact that it fights on a different axis than basically every other deck in Standard. Instead of focusing on creatures, dealing direct damage, or landing a big threat to close out the game, Izzet wins by controlling the game itself. It does so by hijacking turns with multiple copies of Alrund’s Epiphany and by out-valuing opponents until they can’t keep up in the resource race.
All things considered; this shell is a nightmare for just about every other deck in the format. It’s also the clear driving force behind Standard’s current meta.
The Three Pillars of Play
Throughout the history of Magic, aggro, midrange, and control decks have worked like a rock, paper, scissors system. Aggro decks are supposed to get under control. Midrange goes over aggro. Control beats midrange. Combo fits into the equation somewhere depending on the format you’re playing.
This system is the natural order of things in MTG and has helped keep formats balanced for nearly 30 years.
Right now, that balance is being disrupted by Izzet. Since the deck is so strong, it all-but-entirely boxes midrange decks out of the competitive circle. That leaves nothing but aggro to try and beat it and other control variants trying to win the mirror.
If midrange can’t find room to succeed, then aggro decks begin to run wild. Right now, that’s why Mono-Green and Mono-White are so heavily played and are competing at such a high level.
Until midrange decks find an answer to the Izzet problem, this trend isn't likely to change. Of course, that answer isn't a clear one. According to the rock, paper, scissors rule, Izzet should still have an advantage in the midrange matchup. However, midrange needs something to give it a fighting chance.
Once midrange is able to re-enter the format, things will hopefully come into some degree of balance. When (or if) that happens, "fun" homebrew decks may also have a chance of competing.
The Economy Problem
Another major issue facing Standard right now is Arena itself. With most paper events focusing on formats like Modern and Commander, Standard has been mostly relegated to the digital realm.
Unfortunately, Arena’s economy is only contributing to the imbalance in the format. Since wildcards are so rare, players with any semblance of a budget must pick and choose what deck or two to play.
As a result, players build a competitive Tier 1 deck to help them grind the ladder and get more rewards. The lack of wildcards within Arena’s economy stifles creativity since players don’t want to spend their precious resources on cards for a “fun” deck that may or may not be competitive.
At this point, issues with Arena’s economy are well-known. However, at a time when Standard is also facing challenges from its unbalanced card pool, the economy problems are amplified.
Can the Problem Be Fixed?
Some believe that the supposed “death of paper Magic” will drag Standard down with it. Others point to the release of Alchemy as evidence that WotC doesn’t care about the format anymore. Yet, many players still love Standard and simply want to see the format be balanced without the hoops of digital-only cards and the risk of cards being nerfed (we're looking at you Alchemy).
With the many problems plaguing Standard right now, we must ask whether or not the format can be fixed.
Will Izzet dominate until the next rotation? Can cards from the Magic sets of 2022 help bring the shell back to Earth? Will WotC step in with bans to help balance things and breathe life into “fun” decks once again?
Only time will tell.
What do you think about the current state of Standard? Have any suggestions on how the format could be fixed? Want to share your spiciest homebrew "fun" deck? Let us know in the comments below!