Quick break from the Magic all-time Design series, but you can see where it's at by clicking here! We'll return there soon enough.
Magic Design and Magic Development are undergoing a lot of criticism right now, justifiably, (along with, like, twenty other Magic-related people and/or things but let's try to keep a decent pace here); however, I'm just too tired to continue the trend. I hope people enjoy new cards from new sets. Surely, there's someone out there to which the growing "maybe it's not for you" mantra does not apply. I hope those people, wherever they are, have a great time and are spending, just, tons of money on Magic.
Meanwhile, I thought back to a few pieces of advice I continue to give when other players are dissatisfied with mainstream Magic experiences and directions. The first one is to think independently and consider designing your own experience and a system for it to exist in (examples: Commander groups, Cube leagues, Arena stuff... whatever makes sense for your social life). Standard and Modern and all that are much less of a drag when it's not all you're playing.
The other bit of advice is from an ancient 2014 article I wrote that encouraged a "what is the perfect Magic game?" thought experiment. Putting this to action, some friends and I were think-ing the other day: What if there were no new expansions? What if Magic didn't require the market pressure of a big churning industry machine to make sure more and more cards were coming out? Instead, what if the entirety of released Magic cards to this point in time were all a giant development operation just for you and the people you like playing Magic with to find the best possible combination of cards to create the most fun among the most players the most reliably?
Of course you can't do this perfectly or anything, but whatever the ideal is, I don't think it's the kind of neigh-borhood Uro likes to hang around in.
So beyond just building another Magic power level hall of fame Cube to draft with, and beyond putting another few Commander decks together, we thought, what else can we do to make a Magic experience that's ideal? What group of cards and what kinds of Magic games make for the best gameplay?
From there the conversation moved into the obvious paradigm shift from traditional Magic formats: Instead of starting with all available cards as candidates (Vintage, Legacy) or all available cards within a given release window (Modern, Standard) and then banning the ones that do not belong, we simply re-versed this: This won't be a format of small exclusion and mass inclusion; it will be a format of mass exclusion and small inclusion!
Imagine a big corporate office and you're the Human Resources dork tasked with filling up all the cubicles and conference rooms. It's your job to get this big skyscraper machine humming with human labor fluid and you need to do it in the most efficient and synergistic way possible.
Now, imagine that corporate building is a Magic set and all the resumes in your inbox are every card ever printed. How many should you hire? Who should you hire? How does each hire affect every other hire and how do you account for that? Would you just hire everyone and then fire only the ones that are so degenerate and disruptive that you just can't keep them on? Hell no, but that's how tournament Magic has always worked. And if you look at the trends in bannings, it's going to be that way for a while. The traditions and the markets have spoken. This is how it is for now. So be it. But that doesn't have to shackle us and the way we play for fun.
In creating the first version of our closed and happy Magic set, we had a few other thought experiments with some varying and fun answers. For instance: What is the ideal resolution length for a spell for you? What is the ideal resolution of an ability for you? What about when you're waiting for your opponent to resolve something? How long are you willing to sit patiently before the game feels too slow?
Huge amounts of cards start cutting themselves from hiring consideration already. Like, seriously, Sensei's Divining Top, a customer has been on hold for an hour. Get the hell on with it.
More important questions were considered. Check this one out:
What Magic Experiences Have and Will Always Feel Crappy?
Discard, especially random discard, is a big one.
Sol Ring type acceleration is something a lot of players are wary of right now, especially since Green's pie has been huge over the last several years in conjunction with varied acceleration options (Paradise Druid, Growth Spiral, and so on).
Hexproof is as ridiculous now as ever. Discouraging interaction in a game that typically most thrives when it's being interactive is silly. Why have it just to have it? It's not like Green's color pie is wanting. The only answer I can think of is that it's kind of an obvious ability to understand on first inspection, but I mean, that seems like a really lousy reason to make a counterproductive part of the game, well, part of the game.
Here's something else: Twenty life is less and less every year. Because of that, lopsided games that have little to no window for suspense or agency are becoming more prominent. The creature numbers have been going up for sixteen or seventeen years now, but we're still starting the game from twenty. (Side note: This is an-other spot where Commander's founders slew a very smart sacred cow.) We'll call this phenomenon of barely getting started before the game is functionally over "The Pack Rat Effect." Shout out to column staple Dennis for coining that.
Arena does a decent job of mitigating those kinds of pseudo-games to some degree with how it messes with opening hand land math, but I would also argue, for now and at least the next however many years, paper is more of an idealist way to play Magic. The point of this project is to make for the most catered, positive Magic game experience, and that's just necessarily paper for most people. We can cast Kroxa and run away with a game online any time we want. We're hiring for different kinds of roles here. Plus, the card pool on Arena is much smaller. Let's do this endeavor proper and keep it all in meatspace for now.
Enough about what isn't fun; what is fun?
What Magic Experiences Have and Will Always Feel Awesome?
Everyone in the discussion agreed that choices, especially those that allow for clever lines and unusual play patterns, were fun. They increase the sense of agency players have, and agency feels nice.
At the same time, players also like surprises; however, unlike "real" Magic where surprises frequently aren't very surprising because of redundant patterns and variance minimizing mechanisms (tutors and such), this project will maximize "healthier" surprises by maximizing unknown information. Cards like Thoughtseize and Gitaxian Probe can take a walk.
Fine Design Ages Like Wine
What cards and experiences would you protect if you could only save a few for a desert island Cube of some sort? What are the tenets of current Magic design you wish you could alter or delete? What would and wouldn't be allowed in a Magic set made only for you?
As this project continues, I'll continue to document and implement the most frequent suggestions.
After all, no matter what cards are released from here on out, this is going to be a box of cards that will never say "not for you" on it.
The Indestructible Danny West