Powerful sets are a normal part of Magic design. It is not unusual to have a set that pushes the limits of Magic: the Gathering, and this is oftentimes very good for the game. Power creep, when managed carefully, can push the game towards a more healthy environment. For example, creatures are much stronger now than they ever were in 1993 and this has been a good example of power creep. But the last year of Magic has pushed the envelope in an unprecedented way. Ever since War of the Spark last year, culminating with the latest set Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths, Magic has had shakeup after shakeup. I want to discuss how we got to this point in time, where Companion has completely overtaken every competitive format in the game, and why this may be the case.
The Ebb and Flow of Magic’s Power Level
Alpha still influences modern Magic design 26 years later, and holds the game to a standard of what is considered fair and unfair. Each game of Magic starts with 7 cards and one land per turn, but Alpha showed us that these rules are meant to broken with cards like Ancestral Recall and Black Lotus. This is what makes TCG’s so unique, and breaking the rules the game has set allows fantastic things to happen.
But, without a careful guiding hand, power creep can start to change what is normal for the game. Magic has the advantage that the set that introduced the game, also has the most powerful cards in the game. The game is constantly trying to push the boundaries of what is possible, but having a ceiling keeps things in check. It is important that the game breaks it’s rules every now and then, or else things remain stagnant. Shivan Dragon is no longer the king of creatures, and it’s better for the game as a whole that creatures have improved.
Original Innistrad Standard is iconic for being one of the most powerful formats Magic has ever seen, with many cards from that Standard still seeing heavy play in eternal formats to this day. 2019 has done the same for Magic design, pushing it’s boundaries to new levels but while Innistrad is regarded as one of the greatest sets of all time, 2019 has received unprecedented levels of criticism. This is where the ebb and flow of magic design becomes critical to the health of the game. Innistrad was an amazing set that changed the face of Magic, but a year and a half later we got Dragon’s Maze.
The design team is very intentional when they try to push what the game can do, and plan far ahead to return things to normal. Magic tends to go through a cycle every two years where we see sets get pushed only to return to normal, and maybe even dip below what is considered normal. This eb and flow allows the game to still push it’s limits, while keeping power creep down to a minimum. We can see this rise and fall in power level starting with Kaladesh.
Kaladesh was a return to artifact sets, and proved that they are still broken. This lead to the first bans Standard had seen in 6 years with Emrakul, Reflector Mage, and Smuggler’s Copter getting the axe. This was quickly followed up by a Felidar Guardian ban as an unintentional turn 4 infinite combo with Saheeli Rai was discovered and promptly dominated Standard. Magic was the most powerful it had ever been for years, and cards had to get banned as a result.
This era of powerful Standard cards was not going to last long. Amonkhet followed Kaladesh a few months later and was a fairly tame set, and did little to shakeup the metagame. The extreme high of Kaladesh was soon followed up by the extreme low of Hour of Devastation, which had the worst expected value anyone had seen in years. (The Expected Value of Hour of Devastation).
Ixalan did not fare much better. Although it was a set loved by casuals all over, it flopped for the competitive audience. Looking through all of the Rares and Mythics of Ixalan, I only counted 4 cards that still see play in Pioneer and Modern. (Legion’s Landing, Search for Azcanta, Rampaging Ferocidon, and Settle the Wreckage). They knew that Kaladesh was going to push the limits of Standard, and preemptively corrected for that by powering down Amonkhet and Ixalan block. When these sets dropped, Standard players had hoped to see the metagame defined by Kaladesh to be shaken up, but they curved too far the other way and nothing changed when these new cards released.
With things beginning to become stagnant, many people grew bored of the game. I stopped playing Standard myself because nobody could beat Mono-Red and Temur Energy, and the new sets weren’t powerful enough to compete. Many players in the community longed for more powerful cards that could challenge the status quo, and we voiced our opinions.
Dominaria was the set that followed Ixalan, and even had Doctor Garfield on the design team. Dominaria did a great job of pushing the power level of Standard sets, while still keeping everything in check. Cards such as Teferi, Hero of Dominaria stretched back to eternal formats and Standard benefited greatly from this set being in rotation.
From this point on, things started to change. The opinions of yester-year were heard loud and clear, and set design began pushing for more powerful mechanics. They recognized that they needed someone focused around balancing cards and created the play design team. This team became focused on creating a powerful yet fun Standard environment that aimed to be “a Standard power level somewhere in the range of Standard circa Return to Ravnica and Theros.” (Play Design Lessons Learned).
And for the next two sets we got almost exactly what we wanted. Guilds of Ravnica and Ravnica Allegiance introduced cards that invigorated old formats (Arclight Pheonix, Assassin’s Trophy) and powered up Standard in exciting new ways (Hydroid Krasis, Wilderness Reclamation). People still complained, as is our ilk as Magic players, but for a short while Magic was firing on all cylinders and looked unstoppable.
Then War of the Spark happened. This set was the conclusion to not only a beloved block, but also a story that was 10 years in the making, and was even the marquee set of Magic’s 25 year anniversary. It was a set that demanded powerful cards, and R&D had to stretch into new design space to get there. We expected a powerful set and it delivered, giving us tons of new cards that promised to change formats, just like we had been asking for. In many ways War of the Spark was a wild success in terms of design, but a few cards skewed a little too far.
It’s been no secret that for the last few sets, Magic design has focused exclusively on Standard. We can see this plainly with Karn, the Great Creator and Teferi, Time Raveler. Karn could effortlessly enable a hard lock, by pulling a Mycosynth Lattice out of the sideboard, and easily slotted into one of the most disliked decks in Modern. (Sorry Tron players). Teferi was specifically designed as an answer to combat the flash decks that they had began pushing in Standard, but wasn’t tested long enough for them to realize just how un-fun the card is. Other cards from the set such as Narset and Nissa proved to be format warping as well, which put a stain on an otherwise great set.
Typically at this point in the design cycle, R&D begins pulling back on the power level of the cards they print. While we end up getting sets like Hour of Devastation and Dragon’s Maze, it’s ultimately what is best for the long-term health of the game. But for whatever reason, that didn’t happen after War of the Spark. Modern Horizons was the next set to follow, and it changed Modern in ways that we will never be able to go back to.
With a developmental cycle of under a year (one year less than Standard sets receive) very little testing went into power level considerations. War of the Spark was thought to be one of the most influential sets from a pure power level, but Modern Horizons threw everything for a loop. Cards such as Hogaak terrorized the 2019 summer season, and brought several different cards down with it including previous format staples such as Faithless Looting. Wrenn and Six did the same to Legacy, and even to this day it is hard to comprehend how much has changed. Five color decks now play Blood Moon in their sideboard, and the banning of Mox Opal has killed decks like Affinity that have been staples of Modern since the formats inception.
But that was just a one off set, right? Certainly power level would start to cool off? Initially, it seemed like Magic was returning to normal. With such a crazy release schedule throughout the summer, it took us a moment to realize just how busted Core 2020 was. Once zombie tokens began to meander through every battlefield in Standard, and a one mana Cryptic Command in Green stopped any hopes of interaction we realized that Core 2020 was showing no signs of slowing down.
Then came Throne of Eldraine. As a whole, the set was very similar in regards to War of the Spark. Lots of powerful and fun cards, with just a few that completely outshone everything else. They decided that it would be a good time to experiment with free spells again, and we got Once Upon a Time. A win in flavor, and very often a win for the player if they ever got to cast it for free. But even with all of these cards printed in the last year, none even came close to Oko, Thief of Crowns.
Oko seemed so innocuous on the surface, but quickly showed his true colors. Absolutely dominating every game of Magic he was cast in, it didn’t take long for the title of best Planeswalker in the game to definitively belong to Oko. When a Black Lotus got turned into an Elk and swung for lethal, we as a playerbase had to take a step back and see that everything that was true a year ago no longer mattered.
When Pioneer was created, thousands of people jumped ship and moved to the new format in hopes that it wouldn’t be as busted as older formats. After a couple of bans, this eventually proved to be true and Pioneer was dynamically shifting due to changes in the metagame, rather than changes caused by new sets releasing. When Mono-Black Aggro dominated, Chonky Red came in to put it in it’s place. Then with Chonky on top, other decks such as Niv-Mizzet went even bigger and had an unstoppable late game.
We all held our breath in anticipation of Theros, Beyond Death and crossed our fingers that it wouldn’t be as broken of a set as we had seen in 2019. Three months later and Underworld Breach is banned in Legacy, and 4 of the 5 best decks in Pioneer are based around Theros cards. (Dimir Inverter, Sultai Delirium, Mono-White Devotion, and Lotus Breach). The churn of the metagame is not dictated by players responding to each other anymore, rather it is defined by when WotC prints a new set.
Finally, we arrive back to Ikoria in the present day. Faith in the balance team has completely erroded away, and the envelope of the game was pushed further than it has ever been pushed before. One of the fundamental rules of Magic, as defined by Alpha, is broken before the game even begins with Companion. It’s unsurprising that if a deck can play an 8 card hand, it will and some decks require so little change that giving up a sideboard slot isn’t even a cost. My deck of choice in Bant Spirits has absolutely no reason to include a vanilla 5/5 for five, but Jegantha requires no changes to add to the deck and an 8 card hand is simply too powerful to pass up.
It’s been a year since War of the Spark has come out, and it is clear to the community as a whole that design is not slowing down. Community sentiment regarding bans is the highest it’s ever been, and several players that I know personally are even beginning to quit the game. One community even created a discord to simulate Modern before 2019. Many are comparing 2019 to Urza’s block and Affinity standard, but the difference between 2019 and those sets is that things have only gotten more powerful. Mirrodin block tried to self correct with Fifth Dawn being a 5 color set, rather than artifact focused. Ikoria is instead warping the metagame around its new mechanic, rather than pulling things back from what we got in 2019.
Designing for Standard is Short Sighted
Even with all that happened in 2019, all the turmoil and bannings that came about because of it, I have to say that Standard looks like a well balanced format. They achieved their goal of creating an interesting and unique Standard format that resembles Return to Ravnica Magic. Limited has never been this deep or complex, and Arena is a great platform to play Magic on.
But these formats do hardly anything for me.
I dabble with limited, and keep my eye on Standard, but it’s very hard for me to remain engaged with these formats. Modern and Pioneer are the formats I love and care about, and it’s great to see that other formats are succeeding, but this doesn’t have to come at the expense of other formats. Cards such as Underworld Breach may be interesting during their Standard tenure, but loses all value once it leaves Standard if it has been banned everywhere else. A collectible card game should be keenly aware of the value of older cards (and they’ve shown this awareness with how they treat fetchlands) and disrupting the decks and collections of enfranchised players with every release shouldn’t be the goal.
My hope is that this is simply a time in Magic where the game is pushing it’s boundaries, and will eventually come down from the high. With every new set, I am getting more worried that this is the new norm, and shattering shakeups are to be expected. This past year of design, and possibly even new future of powerful cards will not kill Magic: the Gathering. But this is not the kind of Magic I and many other players of the game enjoy. Thank you all for reading, I hope you have a great week and an amazing Tuesday.