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Are rising prices killing Standard?

Last week, MTG’s vice president of design, Aaron Forsythe, finally asked the question so many of us have been wondering about for two years: why is paper Standard dying in Magic: the Gathering?

What is Standard?

Standard was, for a very long time, the entry format for Magic: the Gathering.  It was a Friday Night Magic staple.  Where you could get creative with deckbuilding and try out new cards without having to worry about working around archetypes that had been fine-tuned for years.  Standard is a rotating format which uses the most recent sets from MTG, typically the last two years.  Every so often, sets rotate out of Standard and consigned to the depths of Modern and the eternal formats.

Throne of Eldraine PW Deck
Aether Revolt-ish Challenger Deck
Theros, Beyond Death PW Deck

Wizards of the Coast supported Standard as its primary format with a rich range of entry-level products like Planeswalker and Challenger decks.  Standard was the go-to format for tournament play, especially among new players who didn’t have access to large collections of older cards.  Even among more established players, Standard was a way to get mileage out of the cards you couldn’t necessarily slot into eternal decks.

Why is Standard such a big deal?

When I came back to Magic with Core 2019, Standard was my format of choice.  It was inexpensive.  Cards were readily available, and I could open a lot of what I needed.  After opening maybe a dozen packs, I bought the singles to build a solid zombie tribal deck and spent maybe $70 on the whole thing.  Even better, I was able to keep building around the core of the deck for a few sets, adding a card here or there and taking others out.  I could actually view that $70 as an investment in my hobby, the way my brother-in-law would look at a pair of bowling shoes.  Heck, I actually won a couple of FNMs with that deck and its descendants.

I wasn’t playing in tiny FNM tournaments, by the way.  We regularly had 12-20 players at Friday night standard at that shop.  The prize support was good because with so many folks turning out the shop could afford it.  And the LGS I went to at the time also offered Modern and Draft on Fridays, which had their own following.  Standard was the big draw, though.

How is Standard any different now?

Flash forward to 2022 and I’m playing against the same seven people every week for FNM Standard, if I’m lucky.  Sometimes there are only four or five of us.  It’s been long enough that we can’t blame COVID-19 any more.  Commander events pack the game room, as does Pauper.  Modern has a strong following, and it seems to be growing as Standard deck prices creep up on the older formats.  It’s a different LGS, sure, but the playerbase is almost identical.  We range from big spenders to budget players and everywhere in between.

The biggest difference I have seen is that we almost never get honest-to-goodness new players at FNM.  When I first came back to Magic, there were always new players coming to the shop, picking up a starter deck, and learning the game by playing the game.  These days, those players almost all come in via Commander.  All that’s left to play Standard are a few crusty old holdouts.

Rotating formats are expensive.

Her Phyrexian Majesty – $55+

Cost is a factor.  That $70 dollar deck I mentioned was competitive enough to win consistently.  There were several decks in that metagame under $150.  If a deck was over $200, we players largely considered it too expensive for a rotating format.  Why drop that much on a deck when something much cheaper could be just as effective?  And I’m not talking Red Deck Wins or White Weenie.  My zombie deck was Orzhov, and my then-fiance ran a Gruul stompy deck.  The biggest investment was the land base, and that could be easily transported to other decks.  None of the lists ran heavy on mythics, unless you were playing Superfriends.

I can’t pinpoint when that changed with any certainty, but anecdotally I’ve noticed the meta’s dependence on mythic cards going up.  Where you might want one or two of a good mythic, now top tier decks are running 4-12 mythics mainboard.  This was even higher before Meathook Massacre was banned.  The key pieces of decks aren’t at the uncommon level, like Lord of the Accursed, or rare like Death Baron.  $5.00 was on the higher end for a single back when I first came back to Magic.  Going purely on feel, the format is more dependent on expensive chase cards and has less of a foundation in lower rarity cards.  Uncommon and common aren’t just indicators of pack rarity, but of playability.

Spicy Soren – $12+

That’s a lot of thinking and feeling.

A completely non-scientific look at prices and metagame reports on other fansites reveals that this isn’t necessarily the case.  While yes, some decks are heavy handed with expensive mythic cards, others aren’t.  A few weeks ago, much of the Standard meta carried a pricetag of $300 or more.  That’s trending down a little since The Brothers’ War entered the chat and Meathook Massacre was banned.  Looking at price lists, there are maybe a handful of cards in a set that are more than $10.00, with a good few between $1 and $5, and then the rest well below the dollar mark.  If I were to look at archival Standard format prices from Core 2019, I am fairly certain I would see a similar range.

So why was the expense of the format one of the most common responses to Aaron Forsythe’s question?  Is it just because players look at things anecdotally, like I do, but WotC looks at actual data?  Were our perceptions thrown off by two years of COVID that restricted us to Arena and games of Commander on Spelltable?  My editor gets mad at me if I go over 900 words, so drop me some of your thoughts in the comments or @ me on Twitter and share your thoughts!  I’ll touch on them in a follow-up piece.

Let’s save Standard!

About the Author
Silver has been playing Magic: The Gathering and other trading card games off and on since 1999, and is a lifelong roleplayer. They believe in Rule 0 and The Rule of Cool, and that the gaming table should be a safe space for everyone.

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