This Article is Not For You: Worrying Trends in MtG

People say that Magic is going to die every week. 27 years later and it’s still going as strong as ever. But nobody can deny that 2019 was a changing point in the landscape of the Magic scene, and ever since War of the Spark everything feels different. Players of the game are becoming disillusioned with the decisions that Wizards of the Coast is making, and it feels like every week there is a new controversy surrounding their policies and cards. Magic is not dying, but thousands of it’s most enfranchised players are losing their love for the game and the future for Magic is bleaker than it has ever been.

Teferi Spring, Hogaak Summer, Oko Fall, Inverter Winter

@Hedronik

MtG is a game that prides itself on not suffering from power creep. Unlike it’s cousins of Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh, many cards from Alpha are still considered to be the most powerful cards in the game. The Power Nine is a legendary set of cards that all other effects are balanced around. Fast mana can never be as fast as Black Lotus, and drawing cards can’t be as efficient or as good as Ancestral Recall. Lightning Bolt is still a format all-star and dual lands can never be as powerful as a Volcanic Island. Power creep is inevitable, but it has largely been good for the game. Having stronger creatures than Shivan Dragon is good for the game, and new card types like Planeswalkers have provided really great design space.

But 2019 pushed the envelope in a way that was completely unprecedented. Teferi, Time Raveler is powerful because of how un-fun it is, and cards like Hogaak weren’t balanced with the Modern format in mind. Oko is easily the most powerful Planeswalker of all-time, taking the previous throne of Jace, the Mind Sculptor a 9 year old card and companions break the game in a completely different way. Every sanctioned format has suffered as a result of the design decisions of 2019 and beyond, and has led to formats that are completely different from where they were a year ago.

How did WotC get to Companion?

Standard

There are dozens of ways to cheat on mana in this standard, from playing a turn 4 Agent of Treachery, Fires of Invention doubling or tripling your mana, and Green being ludicrously strong. The core of Uro, Growth Spiral, and Nissa creates an oppressive pressure on the meta that is felt no matter what deck you are playing. 4 cards are currently banned in Standard with a new banned and restricted being announced for next week. Most strategies are single minded with enacting their own gameplan and interacting minimally with the opponent (a trend we are seeing in all formats).

Pioneer

This format used to be a beacon in a sea of bad formats, but ever since the release of Theros: Beyond Death things have been different. 4 of the top 5 decks came about as a result of Theros (Dimir Inverter, Lotus Breach, Sultai Delirium, Mono-White Devotion). With less tools to deal with combo decks compared to Modern, it’s a lot easier for these decks to overrun the format. Now with Ikoria, the top 5 decks are either combo in Dimir Inverter and Lotus Breach, or something with a companion. If your deck doesn’t fit into that paradigm (such as my personal deck in spirits) you might as well not be playing.

Yorion, Sky Nomad

Modern

Modern Horizons was a very exciting set initially, and was something the playerbase has been wanting for years. However, now that we have it, many players are going back in time to before War of the Spark and playing as if the last year of Magic didn’t even happen. Hogaak was a tier 0 deck for an entire summer, and took down Bridge From Below and Faithless Looting with it. Format staples such as Mox Opal have been banned for the sins of Urza. And now with an older format, we see cards like Lurrus become even more prominent, reducing diversity among decks and pushing other staples like Liliana of the Veil out of the format.

Pauper

Out of all the formats that have been ravaged by 2019, Pauper came out almost unscathed. Arcum’s Astrolabe quickly proved to be centralizing as a one mana version of an effect that is already played. But once that was banned, the format has returned to a state of normalcy and isn’t ravaged by the likes of Oko and companions thanks to commons not being as pushed. But it’s hard to find competitive Pauper events these days as it’s one of the least supported formats.

Legacy

For a format as old as Legacy, it’s impressive that 2019 was able to disrupt it so much. But with such an old format, there are bound to be unintended consequences. Teferi, Time Raveler and Narset, Parter of Veils completely change the way card advantage and interaction works in the format. Wrenn and Six was Wasteland locking people out of the game for months, and they recently had to ban Lurrus and Zirda. This is all while cards like Oko and Astrolabe continue to constitute large portions of the metagame.

Vintage

If it’s been an unprecedented year for Magic, nobody could have guessed what would happen to Vintage. Karn, the Great Creator was the first card to get restricted followed by Mystic Forge. An Oko turned a Black Lotus into an elk and killed somebody, and Narset had to get restricted for being too one sided. Finally, a black border card had to get banned from Vintage, a position that it now shares with cards like Chaos Orb and Shahrazad, simply because restricting it would have done nothing.

Formats are bound to fluctuate between what is fun and what isn’t, but the last year has been catastrophic. Every single format had to have a card banned due to power level concerns and many formats are still in a position many would consider to not be interesting or fun. Wizards of the Coast promised that they would have a team to monitor balance levels of the cards they printed, but it’s clear to see that the team was not effective enough. This alone would not kill the game, as we have had bad formats in the past. Affinity, Cawblade, and Eldrazi Winter all sucked but many players persevered because they saw a brighter future. With each set breaking every format one after another, there is less hope that this will change and that this is simply the new world order.

All Hail the Whale

Formats tend to suck for one reason or another almost always, and that’s an aspect of the game that we are used to. What is far more worrying is the new approach that Wizards has taken towards the playerbase. In the past year a dizzying amount of products have come out that are all asking to be purchased. A large majority of these products are targeted towards the whales of the game and are priced far beyond what the average player is willing to spend. Having products for the whales is not necessarily bad, From the Vault in the past served as a reprint product aimed at whales, but it has now come at the cost of every other player.

The Half-Orc Report: Prepare for Trouble…

The most egregious example of this is with Double Masters. A 100 percent reprint set that required far less resources to produce than a mainline set, has packs that are quadruple the price of standard boosters. This shows that their stated aim of getting old cards in the hands of those who need them is not actually the case. They are looking at the secondary market and realizing that players are willing to spend x amount of dollars to open a lottery ticket, and they will keep on pushing on that slider until they price out everyone. 50 dollars for a night of drafting is ludicrously expensive, and if only the whales are coming to draft they’ll be cracking their packs by themselves.

Targeting the whales isn’t a good long term financial decision either. Whales spend a lot of money but if there is nobody to play with there is no reason to spend money on the game. Many players who buy into Legacy soon find out that the format is basically dead because everyone else is priced out of it. The power creep of the last year is pushing this problem into newer formats, as players favorite decks drop from tier one, they are forced to buy more cards to keep up with the metagame only to have that metagame shift drastically in 3 months when the next set comes out. So rather than trying to keep up with the changes, or continue playing their now defunct deck, many players would rather just quit.

Grinding the Grinders to Dust

One of the main reasons players are willing to keep up with the metagame and spend tons of money is to stay on top to win tournaments. Why should these players play in the highest tier of competitive Magic if they are going to get punished for being a part of the system. Recently, Wizards of the Coast has made several decisons that are detrimental to the the health of competitive play that are just baffling to see.

Chief among them is that if you aren’t in the one percent of one percent of players that get to be a part of the Magic Professional League, making money through winning tournaments is extremely difficult. Grand Prix’s have more or less been canceled this year (largely due to Covid-19, but it doesn’t help that one company has a monopoly on Grand Prix’s), and Arena tournaments are absolutely massive which makes the EV for competitive players pretty bad. If you want to make money playing card games, it’s much more lucrative to play Poker or even Hearthstone.

On top of this, they quietly chose to lower the prize payout for the Player’s Tour after months of having players sign up for PTQ’s with the intention that they would be competing for a much higher prize pool. What’s even more concerning is that behind the scenes, players who are a part of the MPL are getting a heads up on what is changing before common folk have a chance to react. Austin Bursavich heard this news and tweeted about it a week before the announcement went live on the Wizards website. As a result of doing this he got banned from tournament play, showing that if you aren’t a part of the elite your voice will get quashed.

Conclusion

Magic is dying all the time. And while there usually isn’t a reason to fear, what I fear most is my personal enjoyment of the game. The current outlook is bleak due to a combination of poor power creep management, blatant targeting of the whales to my detriment, and an absolute gutting of organized play. I hope that Magic changes course soon because this is one of my all-time favorite games, and the current path it is taking is not one I want to be a part of. I’m sure many others feel the same way, and if you do I’d like to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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21 thoughts on “This Article is Not For You: Worrying Trends in MtG

  1. Mox Opal was always going to get banned sooner or later. Same goes for Faithless Looting. The cards are just gross. Bridge from Below probably should have been banned years ago, but somehow managed to persist.

    And Teferi isn’t broken. The card is certainly solidly powerful, but it’s also not terribly hard to get rid of. It punishes greedy permission control decks, and forces them to actually run cheap conditional counterspells. It’s not terribly hard to beat Teferi.

    And if you want to deal with the money problem, the solution is simple:

    Go report WotC to the state gambling comission and explain why trading cards are gambling.

    WotC is terrified of this, above all else.

    I stopped buying Magic cards more than a decade ago because the game is grossly overpriced and has been for more than a decade. It’s just unreasonably expensive, and the distribution method is extremely anti-consumer.

    1. I’ve played D&D for decades. I recently started playing Magic after the D&D Ravnica book piqued my interest in the world… and my 12 year old daughter wanted me to play. Magic turned our family’s quarantine months into a new adventure. My wife really enjoys it. She finds the short games far easier on her attention span than D&D.

      As quarantine begins to end in our state… my interest in Magic led me to explore the internet. I read and watched many people’s opinions over the past 3 weeks. It appears that all the reasons I never got into Magic are still valid. It looks like it might just remain a household game for us. Which is disappointing because i want to like it more… but it doesn’t seem worth the investment.

      1. As a household game amongst your family it will be awesome. The game only really starts to break down once you get deeper into it.

      2. That’s just it… after playing with my family… I started to look deeper. I hoped that after the quarantine I could play at my local store. But I’m just not interested in draft and Standard seems too restrictive.

        Do you think Jumpstart will improve the game? They said it only has 37 new cards, and the reprints in Jumpstart will be considered part of Core Set 2021. Will that mean the varied themes in Jumpstart will create better themes for Standard?

        Or do you think Jumpstart will just be weak sauce crap like the pre-con Planeswalker decks? I know Jumpstart is a gateway for new players… but it would be nice if it improved Standard play at the same time.

      3. I don’t know enough about jumpstart to say anything. I believe it will be a good product and will probably be better than Planeswalker decks. Those are really bad haha

      4. @Brad Wolf

        Jumpstart is it’s own thing and it’s own format so won’t have any effect on Standard. As for the reprints, they will not be considered part of the Core 2021 set as there 500 of them, which is way more than the set itself. About 120 of the reprints are in the Core set, but the rest are from earlier in Magic.

        Jumpstart is basically WotCs take on Keyforge. If you are unfamiliar with that game it involves precon decks that are each unique and designed to pull out of the box and just play. Every deck is random, has an individual deck name and different card backs so there is no deck building possible. You play them as is.

        Jumpstart will be something like 46 different themed booster packs with about 121 variations among the themes. The themes can be around mechanics, creature types or a general idea (scary creatures, for example). Each booster pack is 20 cards, which includes the lands, and you are supposed to take any two boosters and mash them together to make a 40 cards deck. The idea is supposed to be a simulation of Limited formats (Draft/Sealed) in which the card pics are done by WotC for you. Like Keyforge there is suppose to be no deck building done in the format.

    2. @Craig C

      I know what Jumpstart is… i didn’t need further explanation.

      What I said regarding the reprints… was based on this video…

      https://youtu.be/SE614vfZuzQ

      At the 12 minute mark they explain that there will be 120+ cards from M21 in the Jumpstart packs.

      My point:

      If there are that many M21 cards in Jumpstart… then many of the Jumpstart themes will be represented in M21.

      For Example:
      Wizards, Goblins, Unicorns are all Jumpstart themes. There that means there will likely be a few Wizards in M21… and a Unicorn or 2 in M21… probably some Goblins in M21.

      Therefore… my question/suggestion was:
      Since there will be M21 cards that fit into Jumpstart themes… it could be possible that some of those cards might make it easier to build those themes in Standard.

      That’s what I was getting at.

      If that’s not the case then I will continue to have no interest in Standard. Because I like building themed decks. If I can’t build a theme I enjoy and still be competitive, then I don’t want to play Standard.

      When I look at decks that win Standard they look like a hodgepodge of the best cards from each color or mechanic. That doesn’t interest me. Wizard themed decks… Goblin themed decks… Dragon theme decks… interest me. But I don’t want to put a Bone Crusher Giant in my Goblin themed deck just because its one of the best red cards. Nor do I want to put a merfolk pirate in my Wizard deck just because its a good blue card. If there’s no other Giants in the deck… or there’s not a story related reason to put a pirate in my wizard deck… I don’t want it in there… it spoils the fun. I don’t think any card should be a must play. That’s poor game balance.

  2. “blatant targeting of the whales to my detriment”

    I want to encourage you to rethink this one. Unfortunately, there are a lot of negative voices out there right now focusing on the bad and not taking into account the good or any contributing factors. Worse still, community sites like the MTG subreddit are actively filtering out positive voices. All this leads to a very human reaction: the negativity spreads and it feels like there’s nothing but doom and gloom.

    I would encourage you to look beyond the voices and see the whole picture. There are problems right now, especially in terms of gameplay balance, but the ‘whale products’ issue isn’t all its cracked up to be. We’ve gotten one reprint set this year already (Mystery Boosters) that was very affordably priced and had tons of needed, worthwhile reprints that had a significant impact on the secondary market. We also know that more non-premium products are coming this year. The premium pricetag on Double Masters means it’s a product not all players can or will buy into, but even considering that there are far more non-premium products in 2020 than there have been in years past. Additionally, WotC is doing a lot to help LGS this year, especially in light of the COVID-19 situation.

    There are problems, to be sure. Gameplay balance is quite poor in most formats right now due to bad quality control from testing/development concerning what is being allowed to see print. Card prices are going up in eternal formats, largely due to the enormous popularity of EDH driving demand far beyond what has been there in the past, and this is something that can’t be fixed with even multiple reprint sets. But I would encourage you to swim against the current of negativity in the community right now and view the whole picture. There’s bad here, but there’s also a lot of good that isn’t being considered.

    1. That is a fair assessment. Normally I try to be pretty positive with the game and I very rarely covered controversy in the past. But the last year has had a complete shift in how the company approaches the game and it has impacted my enjoyment of it. When I have to spend so much money to enjoy the hobby anyways it’s a slap in the face when they reprint fetchlands in a 200+ dollar product and have a reprint set starting at 300. I know the game has done good, but there’s currently a lot of bad as well that is souring my opinion of the game.

  3. Thank you for writing this. There have been a lot of things bubbling under the surface for a while now, particularly the worrying rise of card power level, but it’s refreshing to see someone just come out and say it. I know there are some folks will complain about just about anything, but as someone who’s played the game since I was a kid, I really think the current situation is uniquely alarming and not just usual “Magic players griping”. I used to play Yu-Gi-Oh!, another game you called out in the article, and as you indicated that game has basically been power crept to oblivion. Magic had pretty much avoided that for all of its history – there was always power creep, but as you noted above, the oldest cards were also still the benchmarks for real power, and the approximate level of power, while it ebbed and flowed, remained within a relatively small window. Nowadays we get commons with 3 or 4 abilities and cards like Questing Beast with so much text that it’s hard to keep track of what’s happening on even a small board. For the first time ever, I am worried about Magic’s future.

  4. However, we know reprints of fetch lands in a non-premium set are coming this year, and although Double Masters is $300/box, Mystery Boosters released this same year at a more affordable rate. So yes, there are more premium products coming out, but there are also more non-premium products coming out. Granted, much of the ‘feel bad’ part of this could have been prevented by WotC had things been announced differently – announcing 2XM alongside Mystery Boosters would have been nice, and releasing the fetchland set after the upcoming reprint would have been nice – but overall even if you completely ignore the premium product, we’re still getting a lot of good this year.

    Like I said before, I think a big part of the frustrations right now is that right now we’re dealing with unbalance and unfun formats, and dealing with real life stress due to COVID. Makes it really hard to try to be nuanced when all we want (and need!) right now is for a stress-free hobby to escape to.

  5. Inbelieve your points are valid and point to a deep problem in negative press for publicity.
    Every set in the last year has had some card that upsets the format in heavy ways. the card news blows up social media and people either scramble to get them or scramble to get ahead of the meta. In each case WoTC makes a ton of money off players.
    If they stop dropping the power level now, they will see sales drop as there is no more panick buying and executives will not like that.

  6. Great article!
    This line really hit home for me:
    “Magic is dying all the time. And while there usually isn’t a reason to fear, what I fear most is my personal enjoyment of the game.”

    In the past when “magic was dying” my fear was, that there could be no tournaments or players left to play my favorite game with me. Now im sure the game will live on, but I dont enjoy it anymore.
    Thats a much sadder death to me.

  7. Wizards can’t rob me of the collection of cards I have, They can’t rob me of my friends I play the game with. It’s still a fantastic game, and I can still enjoy it. I just don’t have to buy any of the new crap they are putting out now, and I can even ignore rule changes they promulgate hereinafter. I used to spend far far too much money on the game. It feels like they have freed me of that burden. I hope others will follow my example.

  8. Total bs on the landscape of legacy . Arcum astrolabe % is only 22% of the metagame which is lesser than deliver at 30% and oko is totally within the power levels of legacy and is played in a wide range of decks . Your opinions are severely off the mark if you are not familiar with a format don’t give statistical answers claiming things that are untrue .

  9. The win rate of astrolabe based decks are also subpar and terrible if you bother to check the metagane and analyze the data . The only deck that it actually * beats * is delver . The decks are inconsistent and durdle way too Much while trying to do too much . And reprints are fine but Not always and ridiculous like yugioh . This is a collectible as well as a trading card game and not some garbage kids card game like Pokemon n yugioh . Tier 1 decks drop to tier 2 isn’t always the case . Decks like RG land and RUG delver has basically remained unchanged and playable even if you just took the deck variants from 2018 you could still take down events . Decks like BR reanimator , TES etc as well , DnT and many more. If you want to play competitive then you obviously will want to be constantly improving and upgrading your decks to get EVERY competitve edge as possible then it’s only fair that you pay for upgrades like technology is always improving and upgrading , the clock is always moving forward , stay still and be forgotten by time and invalidated by progression .

  10. Would be useful to you the correct set names. I got lost in the first sentence of the Pioneer portion because you mentioned it changed for the worse at the release of Theros. At first I thought “but Theros came out in 2014?” So my next thought was “oh, he must have meant the Thoughtseize reprint…” but that couldn’t be because it was in the format from the beginning. Then the very next sentence lists out 4 archetypes that were created by cards printed in Theros *Beyond Death* and… Well then the inconsistency just kind of lost me…

    1. That was a good suggestion and I edited the article to include that. I’m sorry you got lost in it

    2. Totally agree there. Recently come back to MTG after a few years off and to my surprise, standard is no longer the standard it used to be. 75% of people are playing the same deck with URO and Narset, it’s becoming another “Pay to win” game.

  11. We do not know that fetchlands will be in a non-premium product this year, all we know about the other fetch reprint is it will be available in LGSs and have “stylized versions” of them, note they have even said whether that other reprinting will be of the enemy fetches.

    Here’s a quote from Blake’s announcement article for Secret Lair Ultimate: “there will be another way to pick up some stylized versions of fetch lands later this year that will also be in your local game store”

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