Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.

This is my all-time favorite quote in the entire history of known civilization and it comes from controversial boxing legend and pop-culture icon Iron Mike Tyson. The beauty of this quote is that it applies to so many more things than just the sport of boxing. In my day job as a software developer I am able to apply this quote frequently. This past weekend the video gaming community was treated to such a phenomenon when the open beta of Final Fantasy XIV, a new MMORPG from Square-Enix, was bombarded with far more players than the servers could handle. On top of the atrocious server load issues, a major bug kept over 10,000 players from being able to access their characters. Square-Enix’s servers had a great plan in place right until thousands of gamers simultaneously punched them in their metaphorical face.

Magic the Gathering is not immune from Tyson’s philosophy either. If you’ve ever played Magic Online (MTGO) then you’re familiar with their repeated attempts to put out a quality platform for playing Magic the Gathering on the internet. It isn’t that they’re trying to fail, it’s that their plans for MTGO go haywire when the players get their hands on it. It’s impossible for the testing team to explore every possible scenario or play every possible format in every permutation, or the game would never be released to the public. Unfortunately, what ensues is a back-and-forth where Wizards attempts to improve the product only to get completely blindsided by the community’s boy-I-love-an-extended-metaphor hay-makers.

Moving away from software development, the quote applies nicely to the design of Magic the Gathering on paper as well. There are countless examples of cards that fit this paradigm. Among them are such classics as Tarmogoyf, Memory Jar, and Necropotence. However, those aren’t really great examples of Magic’s design being completely knocked off it’s rocker. These are examples of powerful cards that were designed to be very good but ended up being incredibly powerful. These are more of a series of jabs to R&D than anything else. The real uppercuts were the creation of alternate formats that the designers had never considered.

Commander and Cube are the most popular examples of R&D getting its collective bell rung. Magic cards were never designed to be played as singletons. MTG took baby steps into this area of design early in its existence. The Legendary rule and the Restricted List for Type 1 were the first examples of cards that were essentially solo players, though the former was by design and the latter by necessity. Legends could appear in multiples in your deck, but restricted cards could not. The results were positive and both concepts are still part of the game today. This design space was never really explored any further since Magic is played with up to four copies of card in any deck and Vintage (formerly Type 1) is the only format with a restricted list. Why bother designing cards that could only show up as one-of’s in a constructed deck?

Then came the left hook and boy did it come out of nowhere. In a quick succession the community was presented with new formats such as Type 4 and Elder Dragon Highlander. Soon after followed Cube, made famous by Evan Erwin. All three of these formats emerged around 2004. Mirrodin was in full swing and unsurprisingly players were looking for something to do besides sacrifice all of their artifacts to Arcbound Ravager. Over the next few years these seemingly “casual” formats became increasingly popular. Wizards inadvertently poured fuel on this fire with three straight blocks loaded with cards ripe for these formats. First came Kamigawa block, a fierce fist to the jaw full of flavorful legends like Azusa, Lost but Seeking. Following up this devastating blow was a flurry of jabs known as Ravnica. You may be familiar with some of the amazing multi-color tools from this block such as Lightning Helix, a staple of these formats. Finally, the knockout punch was delivered in the form of Time Spiral block. With legends like Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir, color-shifted spells like Damnation, and future-shifted beauties like Tarmogoyf, the stage was set.

Wizards learned their lesson and they learned it fast. Magic was no longer going to be predominantly played by two people sitting across from each other with sixty-card constructed decks. The era of 100 card decks and cube drafting was upon us. Planeswalkers entered the game next and while they were originally designed before the rise of Commander and Cube, nowadays it is a given that R&D treats these formats as equals to constructed. A quick look at the products page reveals the shift in R&D that came with this phenomenon. Prior to 2007 there were no quality boxed sets that would cater to this new style of Magic. Then, over the next few years, we got Duel Decks, Premium Decks, Planechase, Archenemy, Commander and From the Vault. Before this, all we had was the World Champ decks and… Portal… I guess.

Not everyone could take a punch like Mike Tyson, and very few could stay standing after being on the receiving end of the champ’s knuckle sandwich. However, when dealt a massive curve, Wizards stepped up admirably and rolled with the punches. Magic prior to 2006 and Magic after 2006 are incredibly different products, and the rise of these non-traditional formats is at the heart of that change. As I touched on last week, Wizards needs to design cards for the people who want to play with and collect them. The shift from cards being predominantly designed for competitive constructed and limited events, prior to 2006, and now the significant portion of cards being designed for Commander and Cube after 2006, is an amazing change of direction for any company, let alone one as massive as Wizards.

It’s been nearly 10 years since these formats emerged, and the game has never been better.

The Quick Hits

  • Speaking of game design, Darwin Kastle chimed in this week with three suggestions for improving the design of the game. Number one on his list is fixing mana-screw by putting land-cycling into the core set. I’m sure that one will go over well with new players. [Gathering Magic]
  • Jason Alt, financier extraordinaire, thinks it’s important to play casual Magic. As someone who quit the competitive circuit six months ago, I tend to agree, and have participated in pre-releases since my departure and plan to represent Team Hipsters in Zach Barash’s Standard Pauper event. [Quiet Speculation]
  • Jessica Ross is “approximately” 20 years old, and her favorite female video game character is Carmen Sandiego. The last Carmen Sandiego game came out in 1998, when Miss Ross was five, and oh god, now I feel really old. [Gamer Boy, Gamer Girl]
  • More people than ever are playing Magic Online, or so we’re being told. I can’t imagine that has anything to do with the impending new client software does it? Well, enjoy the old version while you still can. By the way, FTV20 goes on sale online on Friday, August 23rd, for $39.99. Foil Jace, the Mind Sculptor is currently trading at a lot more than $40. You do the math. [DailyMTG]
  • Mike Linneman reviews the new art found in FTV20. He also talks about cosplay this week. MTG cosplay is growing pretty rapidly these days. You should get in on the ground level. Yes, you. [Vorthos Potpourri]
  • Here are some foil underlayers for Magic 2014. If you like shiny things click this link. [Magic Arcana]
  • Adam Barnello takes a good hard look at geek culture in the wake of the massive event we all know as Gen Con. He even compares it to Indy 500. I wonder which event sees more alcohol consumed in a single weekend. I think it’s a coin flip at this point. [Recurring Nightmares]
  • Paulo wrote a lot of words on psychology and gaming this week. It’s a good read if you’re into that. If you’re not, then you’re probably in the majority. [PV’s Playhouse]

Wallpaper of the Week

Well… whatever followed last week’s new art for Cruel Ultimatum was going to have a tough act to follow. It was bound to be another piece of new art from FTV20 and they went with Gilded Lotus. It’s pretty… but it’s a pretty boring wallpaper.

Grade: C

The Week Ahead

I have to put together a Standard Pauper deck for Zach’s tournament. I have no idea what to do, but if you have any awful Standard Pauper combos you want me to play, leave them in the comments.

What We Learned is a weekly feature here at Hipsters of the Coast written by former amateur Magic Player Rich Stein, who came really close to making day two of a Grand Prix on several occasions. The goal is to take some of the events and articles polluting the Magic world, strip out the chaff (tournament reports, game theory, economics) and give you our superior opinion. Complaints are encouraged.

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