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
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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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