Magic Evolves in a Struggle to Remain Relevant, Part 1: Change

As they say, these changes are more evolutionary than revolutionary, yet Magic is indeed changing.

I’ll take a look at the new shape of Magic: the Gathering to come with Shards of Alara and beyond, and what it means to the game we know as Magic.

First off there’s the Wizards announcement, which is decidedly not new by now but had escaped my attention until I stumbled onto it today.

I’ll comment on these momentarily, but as the above announcement is little more than a list of changes it’s also worth reading Mark Rosewater’s explanation for some insight into the reason these changes are being made.

Some items on the list sound great, others dubious, so without further ado let’s go through them.

Fewer Magic Cards

I’m essentially ignoring core sets like Tenth Edition. Generally speaking they hold no interest for me, as I don’t play in tournaments beyond pre-releases and the more vanilla [2/2] complexity and flavor don’t offer the kind of gameplay (and combos!) I crave.

I imagine they’re great for players newer to the game, only those players probably don’t find that out right away (or at all), more on this later.

They’re printing fewer Magic cards per year? Phew, thanks Wizards! (read: zero irony, that’s a genuine thanks)

The high volume of cards and push of expansions released is the main reason my group is taking a break from new sets, as soon as we exhaust our league’s box of Eventide boosters. Too hard to keep up.

So, this means fewer cards per expansion set? Yep, of course to release fewer cards per year they either had to make smaller sets or slow the release of expansions. The four sets of Lorwyn, Morningtide, Shadowmoor, Eventide were just too much (for me at least) but moving back to a “regular” schedule of three expansion sets while reducing the size of those sets slightly might do the trick.

Proken (aka Pro Tour player trading card, which may readily be employed as a token creature): As if Magic packs needed to emulate packs of baseball cards or something. Yet Wizards has their reasons, and seeding new players with the idea that there exist professional Magic players, and that these players can earn some real cash, does sort of lend the game a certain legitimacy to those who take stock by such things.

But wait, aren’t they also putting fewer cards in each booster pack? Well, that depends on how you look at it; there will still be fifteen cards per pack (or sixteen if you count a rules tip insert card… make that seventeen if you count a proken). Yet one of those cards will now be a basic land.

In my league we used to buy starter boxes, just because they’re similar in price to booster boxes for the same number of non-basic-land cards, and having fresh land cards (with spiffy new art) seemed like a good idea, especially since old decks could stay together with their land instead of pulling them apart to have enough for new decks. With basic land in boosters this seems a bit less important. Boosters also become more attractive when you play Magic without basic land.

While the announcement didn’t touch on the composition of starters (“tournament packs”), I expect those may change as well. Otherwise we’ll have a minor irony of 45 non-basic-land cards in starters vs. 42 in three booster packs, where quick math at box rates shows non-basic-land cards in starters would be a penny cheaper per card than in boosters.

The fact that Wizards started doing this with core sets several years ago didn’t phase me, when I learned that change was not going to touch expansion boosters. Core sets for newer players, sure, and newer players need land, fine. Seeing this change move to expansion boosters, well I guess it makes sense when newer players buy expansions but established players probably can’t help but feel like Wizards just removed a potentially useful card from each booster pack to toss in something of no use. Feels a bit irritating.

Ultra-Rares… I mean, Uh, Mythic Rares

Other trading card games jumped to one-up Magic’s original rarity scheme. Of course a little of this is on the surface, ignoring (super-common?) basic lands, but that’s fair since up to now expansion set boosters didn’t include basic lands. Even baseball cards had their ├╝ber-rares before Magic existed. It’s not a huge surprise that Magic would eventually follow suit.

Will mythic rares allow those of us Magic players who’ve reached adulthood (arguably, in some cases), having greater purchasing power, recapture some of the excitement of opening packs? These days it’s harder for me to get a rush when opening anything past the first couple of packs of a new set, and sometimes even those first packs don’t excite.

I think when I was new to Magic, buying cards with allowance money saved up, it was easier because fewer packs came my way so each one was something special. Now we purchase in bulk (it’s cheaper and easier) and the main restriction to opening packs is an artificial timeline agreed upon within our league. Rifling through cards in a freshly-opened booster is often a quick affair of sorting them into two piles: those which will increase the potency of my current decks, and those which probably won’t (usually a larger pile). Rares sometimes tip the excitement scale, as do certain uncommons and even commons on occasion, but I’m generally focused on the larger context of fitting new cards into existing decks and combo potential. Or I might simply be jaded.

Of course Wizards did try to enhance the new-pack experience before when they introduced foils. Some of them look neat but on the whole I couldn’t care less about foil cards as a collector’s item, I really just care about play. Although foils did shift, ever so slightly, the probabilities, making possible two rares in a single pack and so on.

Long ago my gaming group decided the only reasonable way for us to compete in Magic was to level the playing field, each building decks from an equal, and slowly but steadily increasing, number of packs. At some point I expect I’ll probably devote a post to leagues in Magic.

The introduction of mythic rares goes further to upset the probabilities, of particular note to people in “balanced” card pool environments such as the league my group plays. Try as they might it feels to me that Wizards still has a pretty hard time making rares which merely feel more… unique, without also feeling quite a bit more powerful than their less rare cousins. Thus, rare-envy is sometimes rampant. With mythic rares popping up one in eight times I can only see that problem getting worse.

Although there is a flip side to that coin and Wizards is banking on it: they are counting on mythic rares to reintroduce a level of uniqueness that will allow players who open them potential to own a card that none of their friends have. Either that, or in some groups players might spend even more money to chase these elusive mythic rares, which is certainly not a problem for Wizards in the cash-flow department.

From Theme Decks to Intro Packs

Firmly shifting theme decks into the gap they best fill, as intro packs, is very sensible. It also feels like they are making a good decision, from the standpoint of drawing new players into the game, by including a booster inside each intro pack. Magic is all about customizing your deck, both in tuning it to be the best you can build from what you’ve got and in simply making it your own. Giving new players an immediate taste of this aspect is a great move, and now it should be more obvious how those new players can get a start on the game with a product clearly made for them.

Continued in Part 2: A Brief look at the Business of Magic.

  1.  
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    Joe Says:

    Good article, Scott.

    I will ALWAYS love opening new decks! It’s like Christmas, or my birthday!

  2.  

    Wow, being all but out of the Magic game lately I totally missed this announcement. I can’t even pretend it sounds like a good thing to me but I don’t want to become one of those ex magic playing haters so I will just leave it alone for the most part.

    I do have to say the idea of ultra rares is mind bogglingly lame. On the one had you have the “I’m the only one in my play group with one!” concept that only works with the idea of Magic being a game where people have small card pools and then you have the fact that they are pushing the pro magic players. This comes across as contradictory to me.

    Of course it’s 3:30 AM… so it might just be me…

  3.  

    I’m split on the mythic rares issue. On the one hand I think my group’s league sees some benefit from card pools which overlap but are not identical, ie. some players have rares which no one else will have. It leads to more varied decks I think. Mythic rares are certainly likely to push that uniqueness factor, unless we unadvisedly pursue a big increase in the number of packs we buy.

    On the other hand, I don’t think Wizards has shown an ability to make rare cards which are more unique/interesting/challenging/harder to use without also being just plain more powerful. Rarity equates to power in many cases. As such, mythic rares seem likely to continue the trend for the worse.

    Still, Magic is FAR from the first TCG to employ this feature.

  4.  

    Joe- Your enthusiasm is cool, maybe if we eventually try out a new set again we will see how the changes affect your (and my own) feelings in that regard. Clearly there is something to it, or Wizards wouldn’t have bothered with the “crinkly foil” sound effect of opening electronic boosters in MtGO. These days it barely registers for me anymore… although I felt a touch of it when opening those old Jyhad boosters for our draft yesterday.

  5.  

    Josh- Oh yeah, and the whole aspect of pushing pro players, marketing their existence really, is kind of funny. I don’t have time to research and write a full post about it right now, so I’ll encapsulate a few thoughts here.

    The way I see it is sort of this weird attempt at legitimacy, basically the sort of legitimacy that is garnered by pro sports teams and sought by G4 and professional videogaming circuits.

    The reason why it’s weird is that, in many respects, I don’t care – I think gamers (of our generation anyway) probably don’t care. Do I want Gary Wise to sign his rookie pro tour card? Nah.

    However, non-gamer segments of our society might care, in the sense that establishing gaming as a legitimate activity next to professional sports might go a long way to changing attitudes toward gamers, and our pastime.

    That kind of change is something to care about. How does it happen, and does the existence of pro Magic players make a difference? I don’t know. I do think that it is happening though, slowly, as more and more members of our society are found to play games – even if it’s just my mom playing something “lame” (by my standards) like Peggle. People are now carrying around game-capable cellphones everywhere and playing games in their web browsers. Plus the fact that generations of kids with home videogame consoles and personal computers are growing up to take part in adult society, where products are consumed and votes are cast (and I mean wallet and ballot). In a way, it’s only a matter of time.

  6.  
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    Joe Says:

    Hey, you’re just jealous of my signed Gary Wise card!

    I almost have the whole Pro Tour set!

    >giggle<

  7.  

    I followed your link to Peggle… um… kind of scary don’t you think?

  8.  
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    Mike Says:

    Paying the same amount for a booster while receiving one less opportunity for a cool card does seem like a jip. Not sure they needed to do this while implementing slower and/or smaller releases, but oh well, c’est la vie.

    As far as mythic rares…well, I’m a little intrigued. But given how out of balance some normal rares are like Oona, Queen of the Fae, well, as Scott says, mythic balance will most likely be painful at best.