The past year has been an interesting one for Magic, filled with high highs and low lows. We’ve seen Magic run the gamut of its strengths and weaknesses. It’s also been an enormous time of growth and change. Magic has a brand new design paradigm in the Blockless Model and a brand new design pipeline with Vision, Set, and Play Design. It has a new way to play in MTG Arena.

Today, let’s review the past year.

Standard Releases

Ixalan introduced a vibrant new world with arguably the greatest storyline of the decade and some much-needed love for Pirates and Dinosaurs, but was counterbalanced by potentially the worst Limited format of the decade. Dominaria was the inverse of this, with a truly spectacular Limited environment but a merely satisfactory story that had to accomplish far too much in too few chapters. Both introduced sweet, powerful cards to rotating and nonrotating formats alike but both suffered in Standard due to the raw, overwhelming power of Kaladesh.

Rivals of Ixalan and Hour of Devastation continued the trend of small sets fixing many of the problems and homogeneity of large set Limited formats, but introduced their own issues. Hour diluted or outright removed many of the primary themes of Amonkhet, while Rivals of Ixalan replaced powerful, uninteractive aggro decks with insanely powerful, completely uninteractive bomb rares. Dominaria proved that Magic stills makes sweet, slower large set Limited formats and tested the upper limits of common and uncommon complexity (which Magic seems to have been frequently crossing since Khans block). The trend suggests that Magic has done a lot to right the ship in terms of Limited and Standard, but time will tell if this the case (as well as allow Kaladesh block to finally rotate out).

We’ve also seen Colossal Dreadmaw, a card that’s now been printed and reprinted four times within a year, which has to be a record. Particularly considering it didn’t even exist at this time last year. I don’t find the joke funny, but I’m glad that other folks do.

Supplemental Releases

Unstable proved to the world that a seemingly doomed supplemental product line could become something spectacular. Masters 25 and Iconic Masters did the opposite, proving that a previously spectacular supplemental product line could badly miss the mark—twice. Unstable enjoyed three print runs, was a shockingly excellent Limited format, and holds a price premium because of its unspeakably gorgeous basic lands and tokens, whereas many local game stores lost a lot of money buying Masters boxes that they can’t move.

Magic has worked hard to embrace less-served audiences and expand to brand new audiences. There was a lot more love for Commander players in the Masters lines, suggesting that future (thematic) Masters releases may further benefit them. Products like Signature Spellbooks replacing From the Vault, Battlebond a brand new kind of supplemental set, and the new Product Architecture team suggest Wizards is taking a more flexible approach to product lines, retiring ones that aren’t hitting the mark and experimenting with plenty of new ones that could serve under-tapped player bases. The Global Series product line could be a huge wedge into a massive market and the start of an entire multicultural line of releases, and if not, it can be quietly retired.

I’m optimistic that Magic is trying so many new things. I recognize that most of them are not targeted at me, but that’s fine—Magic produces three major expansions a year and several supplemental sets that I either directly enjoy or benefit from their contributions to cube. And yes, I said three major expansions, which brings me to…

The Return of Core Sets

After a three year absence, core sets are back. They’re necessary for newer players, they’re necessary for the health of Standard, and they’re probably necessary for R&D (who now have to crank out three worlds a year, rather than the one they had to before Magic Origins). Just supplemental products have had a stronger focus on their target demographics, core sets will focus much more heavily on newer players. Here are Mark Rosewater’s words from Metamorphosis 2.0:

The core sets are back—kind of. As I explained when we got rid of the core set, they’ve always had an identity problem. Are they for newer players or enfranchised players? We’ve decided to err on the side of new players. Note this doesn’t mean there won’t be some goodies for the enfranchised player (there will be new and reprinted cards aimed for Constructed play), just that whenever we got to a fork in the road, we picked the path of making this product the best introductory booster release possible.

Modern Core Sets were never really for me—I got bored of their Limited formats quickly. They sometimes had great reprints, but summer always meant taking a few steps away from Magic, spending much less money on it, probably stop going to tournaments, and then hitting the ground running in the fall. The past two summers have been utterly exhausting with multiple product releases and no obvious time to take a break. It feels weird to say, but I think I’m glad that the new core sets are even less designed for me than the previous era’s. I’m not sure why there are so many Limited GPs for it (particularly when there are so many fewer non-team Limited GPs for other formats), but I’ll take my easy off ramp so I can splurge on Guilds of Ravnica in the fall (which will hopefully be outstanding).

I’m cautiously optimistic about Magic going forward. I think Dominaria has done a lot to both right the ship of Magic’s expansions. I believe that R&D has shifted their approach to Limited, allowing for less similar-feeling, heavily aggressive draft format. I believe that Magic experimenting with new product lines and MTG Arena (which presently doesn’t support how I want to play Magic, but has the potential to be a vastly superior experience to Magic Online when it comes ot of Beta) is a boon for enfranchised, casual, and potential players. We’ve seen missteps necessitating Standard bannings, undermining confidence in the entire Masters line, and multiple revisions of just what Standard is; but Wizards has often been honest and adaptable when they’ve erred. We’re in a time of change, and Dominaria could be a springboard into Magic’s greatest generation yet, with the largest and best-served player base ever.

I’m quite surprised how I’m feeling about Magic at present. At the beginning of the year, I was excited about GDS3, close to quitting Limited thanks to Ixalan, and enjoying Magic’s story more than I had since Agents of Artifice. Now, I’m disappointed about GDS3 (the contestants were excellent and deserved their shot, the entertainment, educational, and professional aspects of the competition personally missed the mark, but that’s a story for another day), traveling all over the country to play Limited, and disappointed by Dominaria’s overstuffed and rushed story. You’d think that going from being satisfied by 2/3 criteria to 1/3 would be a step down, but I care faaaar more about how I play the game than that which surrounds the play experience. And frankly, I think it’s easier for Magic to modify how it tells its stories based on feedback than change how t designs their sets (which also includes storytelling).

And that’s where we are now. Here’s hoping it’s an excellent, relaxing summer and the third trip to Ravnica is the best one year.

And, as always, thanks for reading.

—Zachary Barash

Zachary Barash is a New York City-based game designer. He works for Kingdom Death: Monster, has a Game Design MFA from the NYU Game Center, and does freelance game design. When the stars align, he streams Magic.

His favorite card of the month is Goblin Fireslinger. It’s brutally simple and quite weak but it just plays perfectly with Bloodthirst (which it was designed to do). And it can be surprisingly potent clock when games go long. It pulls a whole lot of work for a simple common.

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