With Magic 2019 preview season officially underway, the core set has finally returned to Magic: the Gathering after a four-year hiatus (Origins doesn’t count). I wanted to celebrate so I thought I’d do a retrospective of all core sets, but it turns out I already did one five years ago and not much has changed since. Well, that is to say, not much has changed with those core sets, but a lot has changed with Magic.

Our experiment began almost four years ago with the announcement of the “two-block paradigm” and the death of the idea of the Core Set. At the time, the major problem was, according to Mark Rosewater, an inability to continue designing blocks that had three mechanically related expansion sets. And, although that design process had taken Magic from Mirage block (with its Visions and Weatherlight associates) through Khans of Tarkir block (with Fate Reforged and Dragons of Tarkir), it would be coming to an end.

The new blocks, beginning with Battle for Zendikar / Oath of the Gatewatch, would solve a lot of problems and allow Wizards R&D to create a better experience for everyone. The Core Set became a casualty of this new design shift and also addressed the second problem that Rosewater laid out: what exactly was the Core Set supposed to be?

At the time, Rosewater wrote, “The core set has an identity problem. It’s trying to make two different audiences happy at the same time and it’s led to us making a set full of odd compromises.” The two audiences of course are entry-level players looking to learn the game and experienced players looking for the summer expansion set. Rosewater went on to identify three more issues as driving factors behind the “two-block paradigm” including the metagame, storytelling, and creative space (traveling to one plane/year versus two).

The final core set, sort of, was released in 2015 and was called Magic: Origins. Origins was, fine? It certainly set the stage for the next few years of storytelling as the Gatewatch came together that fall. Origins was, ironically perhaps, very well received as a core set. So maybe, after all those years, Wizards had finally figured out how to build a core set, only to then have to get rid of the concept entirely.

Three years have come-and-gone since the release of Origins and a lot has gone right but a lot has also gone wrong with the “two-block paradigm” leading to what Mark Rosewater titled “Metamorphosis 2.0.” It turns out that the third set wasn’t the problem with block-design, it was the entire idea of block design itself. Sets will no longer be tied to each other mechanically and Dominaria became the first stand-alone expansion released since Coldsnap.

None of this really addresses the elephant in the room or why we’ve come here today to discuss the return of the Core Set to the Magic product offering landscape. Here’s a quick list of reasons why the Core Set is returning:

  • Emrakul, the Promised End
  • Smuggler’s Copter
  • Reflector Mage
  • Felidar Guardian
  • Aetherworks Marvel
  • Attune with Aether
  • Rogue Refiner
  • Ramunap Ruins
  • Rampaging Ferocidon

Last year, Wizards announced the formation of a new segment of R&D called Play Design, headed up by Dan Burdick. The goal was to fix the problem of Magic, especially Standard Magic, having basically become un-fun to play for some people. It’s not hard to imagine that one of the challenges set before Burdick’s new team was to answer that question Rosewater brought up four years ago: Who is the Core Set for?

We won’t really know the answer until we start playing with the set, and until the full set is previewed, but the current sentiment would best be described as “tentatively optimistic.” I get the feeling that the community wants the core set to be fun again, and they want it to solve all of the development problems that Burdick’s team has been tasked with.

As the set unfolds over the next two weeks of previews we’ll be exploring Rosewater’s question of Who is the Core Set for in greater detail. Make sure you come back tomorrow for Hipsters of the Coast’s exclusive preview from Magic 2019 (which was given to us with no strings attached by the fine community team at Wizards of the Coast).

Rich Stein is a retired Magic player, an amateur content creator, and a Level 2 Social Justice Sorcerer. He hopes to eventually become a professional content creator and a Level 20 dual class Social Justice Sorcerer/Bard but he’s more than content to remain a retired Magic player. You can follow his musings on Twitter @RichStein13

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