Aaron Forsythe asked a great question on Twitter recently: why has Standard play fallen off? There was a great conversation that followed (check out this fantastic data breakdown of responses from Magic Data Science). Here are my thoughts as someone who has worked on these types of problems and watched Standard deteriorate over the pandemic.
Magic in 1995
I started playing Magic in 1995 with the Fallen Empires expansion. Seems quaint now, but the only place to play growing up in rural Iowa was at whoever’s turn it was to host nerd night at their home, plus occasional battles in the lunchroom with the D.A.R.E. officer. Tournaments existed, and the Pro Tour was just beginning. The game itself was a hot new type of game; prior to Magic there were roleplaying games, board games, and miniatures games. In fact, 1995 was the year there was an explosion of TCGs on the marketplace (spoiler warning: none survived).
While Magic got “big” fast, the scale of play isn’t comparable to what we see today. To play a dozen games a day required serious effort. With school, extracurriculars, and homework there was no way, even with a brother at home to play against, that I could have gotten anywhere close to that level of play on a daily basis.
What does that mean for Aaron’s question? It’s anecdata, being generous, but for me personally I play much more Magic today than I did then. Is that true more broadly?
The Advent of Magic AI
There is a semi-sentient, world class AI playing Magic 24/7, attempting at every hour of every day to solve the Standard format. I worked on this AI briefly while I was at Wizards before taking over as the producer on Magic Online. Its name? Magic: The Gathering Arena (MTGA).
Okay, I’m being hyperbolic for views. MTGA is a free-to-play game, meaning its audience is the broadest a Magic audience can reasonably hope to be. The more you reduce friction in a game, the more people are likely to do the thing you’re trying to get them to do. While MTGA isn’t literally an artificial intelligence, as a tool for “solving Standard” it functions similarly to reCaptcha, slowly learning how to identify a stoplight one human interaction at a time.
How many people play Arena? This source pegs it at 100,000 daily active users. That generates a LOT of game play, and Hasbro has stated the amount of games played numbers in the billions. I have a hypothesis based on those numbers: compared to the past, the number of Magic games played per day is at an all-time high because of MTGA, and Standard is the most popular format on that platform according to Magic.GG.
“But Bill, what about Magic: The Gathering Online (MTGO)?” It’s true, MTGO’s release in the early 2000s likely represented a spike in play at that time as well but following game design patterns “free to play” games have much broader audiences than “pay to play” games, meaning the likelihood is very high that Arena sees significantly more players playing more games than MTGO. Which means the modern era is still seeing the most Standard games played in history on a daily basis, presumably.
So, if my hypothesis is true, that more Standard games are played each day than ever in history, what does it mean for the Standard format? It means it’s getting solved faster than at any point in history. Players are trying to figure out how to do the most powerful thing in the metagame, and they have free access to do that for the lowest price possible to build a deck, 24/7. When that happens, the best deck(s) become apparent more rapidly than before, and the puzzle of the metagame is quickly solved. You know what’s not the fun part of a puzzle? Staring at it once it’s all put together.
A theory is just a theory until you can test it with an experiment. Let’s consider one: what would a constantly solved Standard format look like? It would get stale, boring, and frustrating to play quickly. Those types of formats need a shakeup. Digital games do this by changing the stats on game pieces; Magic is hamstrung here because it has to replicate a tabletop game with analog pieces. To shake up those formats you have to use different levers. What’s a way to change game pieces that works for analog and digital games? One that’s been in effect since all the way back in 1995 when I started: banning cards.
I leave it to you, then, to deduce the answer to the experiment: has Standard seen more or less bannings than historical averages since the launch of Magic Arena?
When I retired from Wizards something I was looking forward to doing was playing competitively again. It’s tough to pull off with family and returning to the workforce unexpectedly to take an opportunity with a fun gaming startup, but “you can take the farm boy out of the Pro Tour” something something. What I was surprised to find is that the local competitive scene was made up entirely of Modern and Pioneer events with a few Sealed Deck tournaments. There were zero events using the Standard format in the Seattle metro area for the first qualifier season I was eligible for.
I found that shocking initially but it made sense after talking with community members: non-rotating formats like Modern and Pioneer became a lot more popular during the pandemic as players weren’t sure when they’d be able to play in-person again, and stores want to run events likely to fill up to maximize profits. In previous iterations of the Pro Tour, qualifying seasons rotated formats, but were mono-formatted for the entire season. In a modern context that means you’d play three months of Modern tournaments, followed by three months of Sealed Deck, followed by three months of Standard. Each qualified for a different event, but all featured the same format.
That means if your goal is to increase the amount of Standard seeing play you could accomplish that task by mandating it for Pro Tour pathway events. The most entrenched players, who are your hardcore tournament players, wind up playing Standard to chase the dream, and that in turn likely leads to knock on effects of more Standard adoption for local play as stores cater to those desires. However, I’m not sold that’s the right play for the game. Providing stores the ability to experiment with formats allows them to maximize outcomes for their local marketplace. Mandating Standard might mean an increase in people playing Standard, but an overall decrease in players engaging in tournaments because they don’t like Standard. It’s a tough nut to crack, and I’ll acknowledge the convenience of being able to sit on the sidelines with thoughts and not have to do any execution; that’s definitely easier than having to solve the problem!
Standard has gotten less fun as players create solved formats at a breakneck pace unseen before in Magic history. Combine that with a shuttering of play due to a pandemic that led to players finding non-rotating formats they could invest in due to uncertainty for when Magic play would return and you get all-time lows in Standard play. As for me? A local store actually did set a Standard qualifier for this time around. It was scheduled to follow shortly after Brothers’ War’s release meaning the metagame will be less likely to be solved for the moment. You can see me there battling in person!