Thursday, March 16, 2017

A Virtual Core Set for Magic: the Gathering's Standard Format


Magic: the Gathering has several constructed formats. The flagship format is called Standard, and basically consists of all sets released in the last couple of years. As new sets are released, older sets rotate out, so the pool of cards from which to build decks changes regularly.

Lately, the Standard environment has had a lot of issues. Earlier this year, WotC banned 3 cards, the first time cards have been banned in around five years. And even after that, the resulting environment is not perceived as healthy, and there are calls to ban more cards.


Right now, WotC really has only one way to affect the Standard environment: banning cards. New sets in the pipeline have already been finalized. Changes made to sets in production won't show up for over a year.

I propose that WotC add a new Virtual Core Set for Standard. This would be a list of already printed cards from older sets which are now legal in the current Standard.  I envision a starting list of about 50 cards, 10 from each color, which are "staples" of traditional Magic. The Core Set would not be cards that you build a deck around, but be mostly utility and sideboard cards to help weaker decks challenge the stronger ones.  Not the stars of your deck, but role-players. "Engine" cards, finishers, and "flashy" cards would come from the current sets in print.

A candidate staple for the Virtual Core Set


  • This would provide a second, less-drastic mechanism for tuning Standard. Instead of the only option being to ban or not ban cards, WotC could first try adding or removing cards from the Virtual Core Set. If Standard needs a little more graveyard hate, rotate in some more graveyard hate.
  • This would allow WotC to add cards to Standard without affecting Limited formats. This allows WotC not to have to worry damaging a good Limited environment by reprinting a strong card meant for Standard.
  • Allows WotC more breathing room when it comes to reprints. Sometimes reprints are necessary, but don't fit in the set thematically, or have to replace a new card. This avoids that issue.
  • Cheap. There used to be a Core Set made up mostly of reprints. But since most players already had the cards, and the Core Set was at a lower power level, it didn't sell well. A simple list of allowed cards has a minimal cost, in contrast. There should be a healthy supply of most cards that would be in the Virtual Core Set from previous sets.
  • I think a Core Set would provide a stronger "baseline" for Magic in Standard. There would always be a little counter-magic, a little burn, etc. that adds additional support for the main themes from the released sets.
  • Standard legality becomes more complex. Right now, it's just cards in the legal sets minus a handful of banned cards. Standard would become cards in the legal sets plus cards in the Virtual Core Set minus the banned cards. Depending on how often the Virtual Core Set changes, keeping track of whether a deck is legal or not would become harder for more casual players.
  • Virtual Core Set cards might oppress or crowd out new cards. For example, let's say Counterspell was added to the Virtual Core Set. Obviously it would displace any counters from the new set, and may end up killing whole potential strategies.


  1. So is there no longer a core set? Has anything replaced it, or are there only 3 set releases per year?

    1. They now do 4 sets a year, but 2-sets per block. So Large-Small-Large-Small.

      There's no real replacement for the core set, but my understanding is that they try to put some necessary reprints in the 4 regular sets. They do "Masters" sets occassionally, but those are high-value reprints for the older formats, and are not Standard-legal.

  2. For this to be relevant the power level of these cards would have to be fairly high. Cancel isn't usually a playable standard card.

    The extension of that is that it would force the power level of cards in the expansion sets that round up standard to be even higher. WOTC wants to sell cards so that means that every set would need to have sideboard cards better than the established baseline. No one wants to open a niche card that's not even usable on constructed because a better one always exists. This leads to every set trying to offer cancel with upside, but not so much upside as to impact other formats (modern, etc). How much minor value do you want to see stapled onto cancel, shock, doom blade, etc? Gain a life? Scry? There's only so much incremental advantage that you can add to these effects.

    1. I think the opposite is true. Ideally, cards from the Virtual Core Set would not be played as their power level would be too low. Standard should be mostly the regular sets. But maybe if a deck needs a touch more counter-magic, it takes Cancel as the last few slots.

      But if we're in an environment where we just need a little more hate to make the top decks "fair", then WotC can rotate in a bit of that hate before resorting to bans.