Lights up on a living room. JON is sitting on a loveseat, with random open notebooks and a laptop covering the entire ottoman. He picks up his
phone, and dials a number from the computer screen. JON puts the phone to his ear.
PHONE (VOICE OVER): Hello?
JON: Hi, is this Steve?
PHONE (V.O) Uh, yes, who is this?
JON: Hi, this is AJ Sacher, and I’m writing an article for StarCityGames.com about the current Standard format. Do you mind if I ask you a few
PHONE (V.O.): Sure, AJ.
JON: Great. You organized a PTQ in Lenexa, Kansas last month, correct?
PHONE (V.O.): Yes, I did.
JON: And how many people showed up to that PTQ?
PHONE (V.O.): Uhh… I don’t have that information. I’m actually packing up to go on a trip with the family; do you know Lloyd?
JON: Yup, I see his name right on the website here.
PHONE (V.O.): Well, if you call him up, he can give you all the information you need, okay, AJ?
JON: Sounds good. Thanks for all your help.
PHONE (V.O.): Yup, bye now.
JON hangs up the phone and dials another number off the website and puts the phone to his ear.
PHONE (V.O.): Hello?
JON: Is this Lloyd?
PHONE (V.O.): Yes, may I ask who’s calling?
JON: Yes, this is Gerry Thompson, and I’m writing an article for StarCityGames.com about the current standard format, and I wanted to know if I could
ask you a couple of questions.
PHONE (V.O.): Sure, Gerry, shoot.
JON: Well, I see you organized a PTQ on the (looks down at notebook) 21st here, in Lenexa, Kansas. Is that correct?
PHONE (V.O.): Yes, it is.
JON: Great. And how many people showed up to that PTQ?
PHONE (V.O.): Sure; you’ll have to give me a minute.
JON: No problem. Take your time.
PHONE (V.O.): Alright, we got 57 people.
JON: Thanks (writes on notebook). And did you organize a Standard PTQ in Lenexa last summer?
PHONE (V.O.): Sure did, Gerry.
JON: Awesome. And how many people came to that PTQ?
PHONE (V.O.): You mean the PTQ that fed Pro Tour Amsterdam, right?
JON: I do.
PHONE (V.O.): We got 74 people for that tournament.
JON: Alrighty, thank you very much.
PHONE (V.O.): Is that it?
JON: That’s it. Thanks very much.
PHONE (V.O.) No problem, Gerry. Looking forward to the article!
* * *
I learned everything I know about investigative journalism from Fletch.
We’re in the week after the SCG Invitational and GP: Singapore, and it’s really the same as it’s always been since PT: Paris- this Standard format kinda blows and New Phyrexia did nothing to make things any better. The good guys got Hex Parasite and the bad guys got Batterskull.
I hadn’t given much thought to Standard outside of the PTQs and SCG Opens I want to play in this summer. I see a lot of reactionary stuff on Twitter about Magic- I’m sure we all remember #banjace fondly- and I tend to ignore it. People complain about Standard constantly. I’ve had at least one foot in the Standard waters since Odyssey came out, so I’ve been privy to what people complain about in Standard. I think the only time people never complained was Ravnica block, and that was when I complained the most because I couldn’t play a mono-colored deck anymore.
I’m from a different time, I think. I like it when people are punished for making wild stretches with their mana bases. However, from Ravnica forward, the decks in Standard have been able to get away with crazy mana bases. The deck I hated the most in recent years was actually that four-color control deck out of Lorwyn+Shards Standard, the one that played Cruel Ultimatum, Baneslayer Angel, and Plumeveil all in the same deck. There was no more incentive to be mono-color anymore. Anathemancer didn’t really matter when your opponent was resolving Cruel Ultimatum and Baneslayer Angel.
Ultimately, I realize that I’m in the minority as far as what formats click with me and what don’t. I realize that not everyone loves fair cards like Man-O’-War and Jackal Pup as much as I do. So I try not to complain too much about Standard, because I recognize that I, like 99% of Magic players, have no idea what it is that I actually want.
Caw Blade just doesn’t represent much of a problem to me. There have been good decks before, though, to be fair, they were all fairly linear. Caw Blade, as a deck to hate against, is a deceptively easy puzzle to solve on the surface. A Squire gets a Sword. The Squire vials out the Sword. Something else grabs the Sword an attacks. It’s not like this happens all on the same turn, so, what’s the problem, right?
The problem with Caw Blade is, as many before me have noted, that it’s not linear at all. Caw Blade attacks on a lot of different angles: It attacks your mana with Tectonic Edge. It makes more cards than you with Jace, the Mind Sculptor, and to a lesser extent, Squadron Hawk. It gets a massive tempo advantage when some dork wearing a Sword of Feast and Famine gets through and untaps all your lands. And then there’s the f%$#@ing counterspells.
It’s possible (and probably true) that Standard has never been as skill-testing as it is at this moment in time. Those who are uninterested in or unable to appreciate the intricacies of a Caw Blade mirror match just can’t compete with the players that have put the time in and that know their deck up and down, backwards and forwards.
With the advent of the Star City Open Series, Standard has been showcased to the general public far more often than it has in the past, and the verdict is in- the best players play Caw Blade. It feels like the same core group of players cash week in and week out. No matter how soft they may say the Open tournaments are, it’s still a daunting task to perform so well so consistently.
Magic, like all card games, is a game of variance. The best players recognize that, so they try to take away some of that variance by knowing their cards better than the other guy, knowing the matchups better, knowing what cards matter, knowing what to pick fights over, etc. It would appear, by so many Caw Blade players consistently doing well at these Star City Opens, that this group of players has figured out how to take a substantial chunk out of the variance factor of the game. When I say “substantial chunk out of the variance factor,” what I really mean is “bigger chunk out of the variance factor than any other deck could ever dream about, and it’s not close.”
* * *
Lights up on JON sitting at a kitchen table with headphones in his ears. The other end of the headphones appears to be plugged in under a clutter with notebooks and a couple stenographer pads spread about the table. A laptop juts out of the mess and is obscured by multiple sheets of paper. JON pulls a phone out of the clutter, and we can see that the phone is hooked up to the headphones he wearing. JON dials a number on his phone from his laptop monitor, puts the phone down, and sighs.
PHONE (VOICE-OVER): Game Shop, how may I help you?
JON: Hi. Did you organize a Pro Tour Qualifier tournament in Atlanta, Georgia last weekend?
PHONE (V.O.): Uhh, yes. May I ask who this is?
JON: This is Brad Nelson, and I’m writing an article for StarCityGames.com about the current state of Standard. Do you mind telling me how many people showed up to the standard PTQ last weekend?
PHONE (V.O.): Uhh…
JON: I tried to find the information on MagicTheGathering.com, but it just wasn’t there to be found, I guess.
PHONE (V.O.): Uhh… well, you know, I’m just not that comfortable giving out that information. We have a Facebook page-
JON: Oh, yes, I looked on there, and couldn’t seem to find how many people showed up to that PTQ last weekend.
PHONE (V.O.): Oh. Well, uh… sorry, Brad. I’m just not at liberty to give out that information. If it’s not on our Facebook page, I’m not sure I can tell you.
JON: Hey, don’t worry about it. Sorry for bothering you, and thanks for your time.
PHONE (V.O.) Yup, bubye.
Without missing a beat, JON rips the phone from the headphones, chucks it onto a nearby futon, and lets his head fall onto the laptop keyboard with
When the variance is taken out of the game almost completely, as Caw Blade does, we as Magic players know that something is rotten in Denmark. What exactly it is that’s rotted doesn’t usually make itself readily apparent. It’s at this point that people clamour for bannings. They know they’re not having fun, they’re not sure why, but they know it has something to do with this new deck that everyone seems to be playing. And crying out for bannings is easy, so it’s the standard route people take.
Players are probably less likely to admit that the fun-factor comes in variance, the actual thing they’re trying to overcome. I was having a conversation with Evan Erwin on AIM the other day, and I asked him if comparing the qualifier season of PT Amsterdam and PT Philadelphia was a good idea. Both are Standard, both happened or are happening during the summer, and both had their respective bogeymen- Jund in 2010, and Caw Blade in 2011. Evan agreed, and had an interesting point to add-
Why would a non-spike ever go to a Pro Tour Qualifier? What could Timmy and Johnny ever want to do with a Pro Tour? My guess is that they’d like to make it there on their own terms, beat the Spikes and their stupid netdecks all the way to the blue envelope. However, between having the Star City Opens, with grinders’ decklists and their week-to-week tweaks being made public every week, there has been a cosmic shift in the technology available to the average player. Sure, the tech is still a week short, but to the average player who’s used to playing the same outdated list from a GP for months at a time, being able to track Edgar Flores’ week-to-week changes to Caw Blade is huge.
This chart compares player turnout from last summer’s PTQs to the PTQs that have happened so far, while New Phyrexia has been legal. I kept it to USA, and I was unable to include a few places, either because they couldn’t get back to me in time, or, in the case of places like South Jordan, Utah, hadn’t hosted a PTQ the summer before. And I didn’t count the Providence PTQ because it was day two of a Grand Prix.
The results were pretty harrowing. Every single location has gone down in attendance. Madison, Portland, and Philly were the only ones to crack triple digits, and in the case of Madison, the turnout was still down almost 50% from last summer. Roanoke’s PTQ had thirty people. Thirty! Do you know what else there is to do in Roanoke? Last night, Lauren Lee, who resides in Roanoke, Virginia, tweeted that people waited in line for a grand opening of a f@#$%ing Chipotle.
Evan Erwin, who also lives in Roanoke, just had his 15th kid, out of boredom.
There is nothing to do in Roanoke.
And yet, they got thirty people at a PTQ. I realize that continual growth is obviously not something that Magic, or anything else, can sustain forever and ever, but every location saw a decrease in turnout, and it’s worth noting that most of these declines are quite sharp.
Maybe Magic has survived this long because people have been too proud to play the best deck. Now that we’re at a point where the best deck, impervious to hate, is essentially laughing at all other comers, what happens? The best players clean up. That much is certain. What happens to everyone else? Maybe they pick up the best deck and inflate its percentages. Maybe they stop going to PTQs altogether.
What happens now? I think the damage is done. It really takes a perfect storm of things to go wrong to make player turnout drop so sharply, methinks. The presence of a card, that you couldn’t play blue without, whose ceiling was $100 a pop, shouldn’t be overlooked. Inherently busted cards Batterskull and, to a lesser extent, but starting to catch on, Dismember, play a part. Putting Stoneforge Mystic in the Event Decks is a strange move to me, as it is to many others, I’m sure. The growth of Legacy, a cool format with variance out the ass, is probably also a contributing factor, or maybe it’s
happening because Magic players are desperate for an interesting alternative.
I guess my point is that Magic players don’t always know what they want, but they know what they hate, and right now, it’s Standard. I wish I could finish on a message of “ we’ll be fine as long as we don’t do -this- again,” but I’m honestly not sure how we got here.
[Editor’s Note: For those who think the drop in PT attendance is all about the Opens, I talked to a number of European judges this week who said otherwise. Euro PTQ attendance trends look almost identical to Jon's chart above, meaning there have been massive drops PTQ numbers for Finland, Germany, Italy and elsewhere, and it has absolutely nothing to do with people attending Grand Prix or SCG Opens there.]