The passion that Magic the Gathering fans have for their game is something that is pretty undeniable. Similar to other cult followings that have cropped up over the years (Star Wars, Harry Potter, Kpop Stans) Magic is filled with people that have an encyclopedic knowledge about the cards that are played and oftentimes that knowledge comes packaged with ample stories revolving around obscure cards from Seasons Past.
With any fandom those passions can border on obsession combined with out-sized expectations- one good set gets you excited about the game and what it can be and so having your favorite set be followed up by one set after another that falls flat can make anyone wondering if the glory days are long behind them.
It would be easy to blame these things on nostalgia- especially now with so few people playing the game in person any shortcomings that can otherwise be ignored if ones having a good time playing with their friends has been largely eradicated. It’s for that reason that I feel people are more vocal now than ever about their frustrations with Magic but that doesn’t mean their frustrations aren’t real or valid- just that we’re all spending more time alone beside a computer and I think it’s just easier to spend our free time venting when that free time would otherwise be filled with playing Magic and complaining out loud to the people around us.
There is some truth to it all I’m sure- Magic has certainly made a lot of weird and uninspired decisions as of late but getting to the crux of just what it is that isn’t working is not as easy as simply saying “Ramp Is Too Good” or “Removal isn’t good enough”. Sure these things cause problems when they’re overwrought in Nature but there is always something that’s too good and people had the same sorts of complaints about Energy and Ramunap Red- something will always be the best- but what exactly is the best sort of ‘best’ that we desire?
To start this article I decided to go back a few years to when I first started playing the game- I can’t remember liking the game more then around the time I started playing it so I figured I’d look back to see what was going on back then that made the game something that I was infinitely more passionate about and based on the number of people playing FNM- a lot of people seemed to be more infinitely passionate about the game back then as well.
When I first walked into a game store to sit down for FNM was around the time that Archangels were descending from the skies of Innistrad and 2/3 Sylvan Advocates were among the most busted cards a person could be playing. There was little in the way of Planeswalkers aside from Jace, Unraveler of Secrets and the one sweeper that anyone was playing was called Languish and few if anyone was playing it. It’s safe to say that the power level of various cards around the time that Shadows Over Innistrad was printed was significantly lower than what we see today and it made it so you felt as if you had a chance with your under-powered hero deck even if that chance was more based around theory then practice.
An Old Deck
When comparing this deck to the current versions of the blue-white flyers deck that was printed not too long ago- it’s obvious that the cadence of cards has changed dramatically with the printing of newer cards. Where as before almost all of the cards listed interacted at instant speed, very little of the newest versions has almost any genuine play as it’s basically a traditional tap-out deck with a few counterspells to protect your units against removal.
In terms of the failures of game design in the newest set- the lack of genuine interactions that can go on the stack at any moment has seemed to decrease considerably in the past few years and I feel confident in saying that this is the most egregious mistake that Magic has made in recent years.
To me the stack is what makes Magic, Magic and by ridding it from the game (hello Teferi, Time Raveler) it diminishes so much of the games enjoyment. I still remember the aha moment when I learned what the stack finally was. As if I was in a movie and the quantum physics calculations were superimposed on the screen as I finally understood what made this game differ from basically every other game that had come before it. I was at my friends house up late playing Magic and someone had just cast a Collected Company – without understanding quite what was happening my opponent said “stack” and then everyone stopped the game to explain to me what exactly was going on.
It was then that I learned that anything could be responded to, that multiple things could be put on the stack all at the same time and that I could wait for one thing to resolve before responding to the next thing after it. It was a complicated process but also enjoyable because it was where I realized that I could gain a massive advantage over my opponent. It was what I focused all of my time on perfecting- constantly learning control decks and understanding that these pressure points were where I could make up a lot of ground against my opponents.
The current crop of game designers doesn’t appear to have the same love for the stack that got me into this game and for that I am very disappointed. No flying Avacyn’s that turn the tables and buff all your opponents, no Spell Quellers that deal explicitly with spells on the stack and zero Selfless Spirits that can be flashed in to give all of your creatures indestructible at instant Speed. Instead these interactions have been replaced with 4-mana tap out enchantments, sorcery speed sweepers, sorcery speed walkers, and a plethora of slow and over-costed removal spells. From a viewers perspective there’s nothing more exciting then the stack and from a players perspective the anticipation of having multiple pieces of interaction that can all happen at once is about as fun a thing as can happen in a card game.
“Gideon Ally of Zendikar is the best card in Standard”
Gideon, Ally of Zendikar or “Gids” as he was affectionately known to those that played with him was the best Magic card that I ever played with when it first came out. This is important for several reasons but it shows how low-power the cards were when I first started playing. People would point out to me that Gideon was so good that he’s even ‘seeing play in the sideboards of modern’ as if that was some unobtainable power level the likes of which Magic players had never seen before. The times they are a changing, though, and the days where Standard cards rarely have had an impact on older formats appear to be well behind us. Whether it is Oko, Uro, Once Upon a Time, Teferi, Time Raveler, Lurrus, Field of the Dead or a wide swath of other cards- not only are the cards being printed for Standard too powerful for Standard- but they are also too powerful for older formats as well. As someone that’s always hated older formats and feels like everything is way too broken- having my favorite format basically turn into an older format with the power levels of various cards has felt downright un-fun. What’s the point in having different formats if they all end up homogenizing into the same thing anyway? I miss the days when Gids was the best thing going and really feel as if going back (and truly going back to a time before Uro) is necessary for Standard to become a healthy format again. If people want degenerate sh*t they are more then welcome to play Modern- there’s no need to bring Standard into this.
One big sadness that I feel concerning Magic is when I think back on the first preleases that I ever went to. The first one that vividly stands out in my mind was when we ventured to Kaladesh and aside from potentially the Un-sets and Eldraine in some respects- I feel as if a lot of the sets that have been printed since have failed to live up to the overwrought expectations that came with a set like Kaladesh.
Hanging from the ceiling of my favorite card game store were massive Thopters that felt like we were entering a new world. In the actual prerelease boxes were mini Thopters that although no one seemed to be able to figure out brought a lot of flavor to the process of pack opening. This was all back-dropped against a world of invention where not everything was what it seemed and we have yet to return to a world so full of flavor since.
What we’ve gotten instead is a lot of retread sets like Theros, Zendikar, completely uninspired sets like M20 and M21 with no flavor at all, and a lot of big misses like Ixalan that seem to have been created by a random number generator a la Family Guy. If there’s one thing that I’m certain about with the sets that have come out lately it’s that the quality of the flavor has felt extremely uninspired and lazy. Monsters isn’t a theme and playing a set that’s based on something that I’ve already played- I’ve played Magic a total of 3 years which isn’t that long just doesn’t really do it for me. And even if you’re new to the game the fact that you can look up old sets based on old planes and already know what to expect when you walk into a prerelease (or if you’ve ventured into older formats you’ve already seen many of these cards ad naseum) takes away the magic of wondering what this set could really be all about. Zendikar was bound to be about lands, Theros was always going to be about Enchantments and Gods and new Innistrad is without a doubt going to be heavily influenced by graveyard synergies. It’s gotten worse with time too and more and more reprint-style sets are being printed each and every year. If Magic really wants to take itself seriously then I feel as if these sets have to be reeled in greatly- one reprint set a year should be the maximum and anything else and the game will effectively be going backward.
It’s not just the lack of new flavor or fun flavor that’s an issue with reprint-style sets- it’s also the recycled keywords that bring nothing new to the table. Kaladesh when it came out had ONLY new mechanics involved in the set. Between Fabricate, Crew and Energy not a single old thing was to be found and that brought a lot of depth to the gameplay that I have yet to see since. With Zendikar Rising very little was new and even the things that are new appear to have had little impact on the Standard format. When things aren’t fresh this not only gives an obvious advantage to older players (oh sweet Landfall, I know how to break this!) but it seems to lessen the amount of time required to figure out a format and in my mind is largely responsible for the staleness that we see in Magic formats today. It also lessens the enjoyment of discovery because you’re basically just templating something from not that long ago and not actually discovering anything wholly new aside from the names of the cards themselves (and sometimes even those are a tired retread). The whole thing feels like whats happening in the movie industry and that it’s all about taking zero chances and that’s just not a very exciting proposition.
With the rotation of Nissa, Who Shakes the World, the banning of Teferi, Time Raveler, and a slew of overpowered Planeswalkers leaving the format altogether, Standard has an opportunity to undo a lot of the feel bads that has disappointed the player-base for some time now- hopefully these things will change.
(Stayed tuned for my next iteration of this article where I spend a healthy time talking about ramp strategies).
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