Back in 2019, I was anxious that Magic might end up passing me by. I worried the game would become so focused on other audiences that the products I was so squarely within the target demographics for would cease being for me. That the game I loved playing would evaporate, having transformed into a vessel primarily for Commander players and collectors. I loved Magic and didn’t want the dance to stop.

It’s been three wild years, and much of what I feared has come to pass. The game has realigned itself more around non-rotating formats (where power creep is a constant concern) and embraced massive audiences of which I am not a member. These shifts seem almost prescient given how they enabled the game to not only weather the pandemic, but thrive. And it turns out that Magic has most certainly not passed me by. Sure, there are ways I make out better and worse, but the game still has plenty that gives me joy. So today, I thought I’d take a step back and be a bit more personal. Just how is the state of the game for me (and for players like me)?

State of the World

At my core, my favorite part of playing Magic is competitive, tabletop Limited. For the past two years, through no fault of Wizards, that wasn’t possible to do. And while Covid-19 hasn’t gone anywhere and I’m still very cautious, the world isn’t as scary to me as it was two years ago. I’ve once again had the joy of playing at my local game stores and with friends during lulls, and it has been absolutely wonderful. While it looks to be a while still before we see anything resembling a Limited Grand Prix, enough of my favorite parts of the game have returned that I’m falling in love with it all over again.

Turns out, getting to enjoy Magic the way I love playing it is most of what I need from the game.

State of Magic Online

I would never have put “regularly playing Magic Online” on my 2022 bingo card, yet I’m somehow back. It turns out, it’s awesome to have cubes all the time! And it’s a platform to get to playtest my and other peoples’ cubes, too! Of course, the fun I’ve been having on Magic Online is directly linked to an issue elsewhere.

State of Arena

This is the biggest sore spot for me. I have completely burned myself out on Arena over the past two years. I’ve now come to the conclusion that Arena is worth about ten weeks of gametime annually—about two weeks per set release, and another week or two when the Arena Cube is up. If there’s a set I really don’t enjoy, as was the case with AFR and SNC, then 10% of my annual Arena time evaporates.

I just feel like the client isn’t meant for me any more, and maybe it never was. It’s great for playing lots of Limited, but it’s really only meant for playing the most recent Limited format until the next set comes out (especially with my preference for Best of Three and drafting with human beings). I just get bored of drafting the same thing over and over, and Arena makes it facile for me to get through the 20-30 drafts I have patience for within the first week or two.

Arena has rightfully put more effort into addressing the issues of Constructed than Limited, as Constructed has more issues, but I feel like an afterthought. The client heaps increasing numbers of useless currencies upon me that I can’t convert or donate to people who need them. As a solely Limited player, wildcards and cards are all but worthless to me. I don’t enjoy online tournaments, so giving me useless Play-In Points serves as a constant reminder of the gems Arena now withholds. The fact that nothing has changed in years (except for the introduction of Play-in Points making the economy actively worse for me) made me realize that Arena likely isn’t intended for me to play beyond the week of release. It’s a shame, but it’s healthier to accept reality than keep playing a program that only offers me brief windows of fun.

State of Vorthos

Back in 2019, Magic’s story was in a poor place after failing at the finish line with War of the Spark. I love Magic’s story (and am a huge Gatewatch fan, which might not be the most popular position), but the period since then hasn’t been my favorite. To me, it feels like the story has been muddling along, where a constantly rotating cast has unrelated adventures. Meanwhile, Phyrexian Praetor cameos try and fail to serve as buildup to a major narrative event beginning this year.

I’m reminded of the leadup to War of the Spark. We had years of following the Gatewatch’s adventures, all building towards a major showdown with Bolas. Towards the finish line, the plot got sidelined in Dominaria, Guilds of Ravnica, and Ravnica Allegiance before failing to stick a nearly impossible landing with insufficient buildup. This time, Magic seems to be trying to do the same thing, except with no overarching structure whatsoever.

I’m glad if other people have been enjoying the story, and I’m glad that Magic is trying rather than cancelling its fiction again, but I’m just not engaged by it. This is a better state of affairs than Ixalan (when I loved the story and couldn’t bear to actually play the set), but I wish I could have my cake and eat it, the way I used to back with Khans of Tarkir and the Gatewatch.

State of Annual Releases

Streets of New Capenna is the final set of the 2021-2022 Standard window, and with it ends the first year of a new release cadence (with two fall sets and no summer Premier expansion). I’m curious to see whether (and if so, how) Wizards iterates on its pace of releases. This new schedule certainly addresses past issues with overstuffed summers, fall and core sets getting too much time in the spotlight, and winter & spring sets not getting enough time. However, I’m not sure how successful the first foray was.

The biggest issue is Streets of New Capenna. Wizards can never know with certainty whether a set is going to be enjoyed, beloved, or disliked by the majority of players. However, few sets can command interest as the primary option for five months. Unfortunately for SNC, it barely held my interest for a week, and that creates an enormous lull. Magic is trying to bridge the gap in tabletop with Commander Legends 2: Battle for Baldur’s Gate and Double Masters 2, but the former may appeal to fairly different audiences than the average Limited players and the latter is likely too expensive to be played more than once or twice by the majority of drafters. Perhaps Arena will fill the gap with an Alchemy adaptation of Battle for Baldur’s Gate, but I’ll admit the setting, the general discourse around Alchemy, and existing Alchemy cards make me bearish on playing much of it next month.

There’s also the issues of having Innistrads Crimson Vow and Midnight Hunt so close together. I didn’t love Midnight Hunt, but I wish it’d had a bit more time before it was eclipsed by Crimson Vow spoiler season. After that, Crimson Vow had far too much time, especially with it having (in my opinion) less longevity than a normal set because of its proximity to and overlap with Midnight Hunt.

This is the part of Mark Rosewater’s upcoming State of Design that I’m most interested in, as well as something I’m eager to see in 2023’s release schedule. Perhaps I’m in the minority and most players enjoy this new cadence (and are well-served by Commander Legends 2), or perhaps Wizards will reconfigure the formula going forward.

Magic today is, as ever, in flux. Change is as essential to Magic’s survival as is the printing of new cards. Wizards must constantly innovate and experiment in order to survive and thrive. Some of these endeavors will be more successful than others. Many of these successes will pass me by as I’m not within their intended audiences. And as long as there’s enough Magic for me—which there absolute is—then I’m a happy camper.

Well, a happy camper who’s prone to complaining from time to time, but complaining is both a form of engagement with and passion for the game. It’s good for people to complain a bit (and without being jerks to each other), since it means that the players care. It’s much more concerning if there are lots of sets like Streets of New Capenna (which was definitely intended to me but I felt no excitement for) than Adventures in the Forgotten Realms (which I quite disliked, but my frustration really stemmed from it not being meant for me).

There’s a ton more that I could have gotten into (and may well follow up on next week), but Magic is a massive interconnected system of multiple games and there’s only so much to say in one sitting. At the end of the day, I’m cautiously optimistic about Magic’s future (and more optimistic about my ability to continue enjoying Magic now than I was the last few years), while wary of several of Magic’s recent choices. Time will tell how it all pans out, but I’m happy to say that I’m still here, still engaged, and still eager to see what the future brings.

And, as always, thanks for reading.

Zachary Barash is a New York City-based game designer and the last commissioner of Team Draft League. He designs 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 (but the stars align way less often than he’d like).

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