The release of a new Magic: the Gathering expansion is usually a joyous event for players, and this spring’s ancient Egypt-themed Amonkhet set should have been an easy hit. Instead, players are reeling from a competitive scene that has lately been dominated by a couple of overpowered cards, and hoping that Amonkhet can breathe fresh life into it.
A powerful white planeswalker named Gideon, Ally of Zendikar has dominated the Standard format since his release in fall 2015’s Battle for Zendikar expansion. The most prestigious tournament in Magic is the quarterly Pro Tour, in preparation for which professional players hole up for weeks to intensively brew decks with new cards, tune promising archetypes, and come up with the 75-card list that they hope will be fresh and powerful enough to crush a field of the 400 best players in the world. In the six Pro Tours for which Gideon, Ally of Zendikar has been legal in Standard, he has been featured in decks in the final round in all six. Despite his dominance and public outcry from professional players, Gideon has survived two waves of bannings, and currently serves as the centerpiece of the deck at the top of the format.
Mardu Vehicles is a white-red-black aggro-midrange deck that enables Gideon to smash face in a steampunk skyship. Vehicles dominated and won this winter’s Pro Tour Aether Revolt, and was considered the best deck by a wide margin, before the rise of Copy Cat, a combo that was featured in numerous decks in both online and paper tournaments, warping tournament play to the exclusion of most other viable strategies.
A big appeal of Magic is the diversity of playstyles available to players, and a format with only one or two viable deck archetypes is boring. In the week preceding Amonkhet’s April 28 release, Magic publisher Wizards of the Coast first decided to let the Copy Cat combo persist in the new Standard format, then after two days of data gathering (and severe player backlash) reversed their position and issued an emergency ban to shut down the deck.
With the Copy Cat combo out of the picture, Wizards and the Magic community are hoping that new strategies can rise to the forefront. At the height of Copy Cat terror, only Gideon-centered Mardu Vehicles decks held onto a significant portion of the metagame. It’s possible that decks featuring new gems from Amonkhet will fill the void left by Copy Cat, but recent tournament results suggest that Gideon is here to stay, and may warp Standard just as severely as Copy Cat did.
At the April 29–30 StarCityGames.com Atlanta Open, the first large tournament of the new Amonkhet Standard, the deck took up five slots of the Top 8, and 18 of the Top 64. In the early stages of Standard, established decks that are already tuned tend to wallop newer brews, and the highest tier of professional players tend to stay home and work on their Pro Tour decks in secret rather than compete in the Opens. Some pros expect new decks to shine now that they can focus on taking down Vehicles without worrying about losing to the infinite cat combo. Others, including the reigning world champion, see no end to Gideon’s dynasty.
Gideon is powerful and relevant during all stages of the game. Gideon is a Planeswalker card, inherently difficult for opponents to interact with. Aggressive decks take advantage of Gideon’s attacking power and resistance to removal to close out the game early, while defensive decks use Gideon to create token creatures to clog up the board and push the game toward the later turns. Gideon is emblematic of a phenomenon that some players disparage as “battlecruiser Magic”: a format in which synergy is underpowered, and decks that pack the most generically powerful cards are impossible to beat. This is the heart of the problem for Magic players disenchanted with the staleness of the Standard format—it’s less fun (and more expensive) to win with a pile of mythic rares than to outmaneuver opponents with subtler and more unexpected strategies.
Some critics peer behind the curtain of Magic design and blame Magic’s storyline and marketing for Gideon’s absurd power level. Magic storylines recently have revolved around the swashbuckling, villain-foiling exploits of a team of recurring characters, and Gideon is like the Superman of the Gatewatch, Magic’s Justice League. If Gideon is going be on the face of the Magic brand and sell its paraphernalia, the argument goes, Wizards must make damn sure that his card is good enough to see tournament play—and they did, to a fault. In a recent blog, Magic designer Mark Rosewater acknowledged player disapproval of the Gatewatch, and shared that design will respond in kind starting with this summer’s release of Amonkhet’s Act II, Hour of Devastation. Until then, however, Gideon is here to stay.
This weekend’s Pro Tour Amonkhet in Nashville represents a critical event for Magic. If Gideon and Mardu Vehicles put up the dominant numbers that we saw at the Atlanta Open, confidence in Wizards’s ability to keep competitive Magic dynamic and fun will drop, and the community may cry out for yet another banning. If Amonkhet brings new and interesting strategies to the forefront that break the shackles of battlecruiser Magic, then perhaps Wizards’s lateness in banning Copy Cat will be forgiven, and players will continue to invest and experiment in Standard.
Rafael is a 6th grade math teacher in Boston, and a competitive Magic enthusiast specializing in Modern. You can follow him on Twitter @greypoupou.