When Jumpstart: Historic Horizons was announced, it didn't feel like it was going to be any sort of bombshell. Jumpstart was a well-received and popular new idea from Wizards of the Coast, combining the "grab and play" convenience of premade starter decks with the fun of drafting and sealed deck. It also included a smattering of new cards to keep the Constructed players happy, with heavy hitters like Muxus, Goblin Grandee and Allosaurous Shepherd making moves in paper formats like Legacy as well as online in Historic.
However, Jumpstart: Historic Horizons is quite a bit different than the original Jumpstart. Unlike the original Jumpstart, Jumpstart: Historic Horizons is only going to be produced on MTG Arena. This isn't that shocking in and of itself, but a bit perplexing until the reason why is revealed:
Yes, you read that right.
31 new-to-Magic cards specifically made for digital-only play, with three new mechanics that take advantage of playing Magic on a digital platform and would be extremely difficult (if not impossible) to replicate in paper Magic.
"Of course, digital mechanics in Magic aren't completely without precedent."
The response to this has been mixed, looking much like the usual pearl-clutching that happens every time Wizards of the Coast tries something new.
Most of the time, things work out fine or for the better (planeswalkers, the new card frame, legend rule changes, double faced cards, mulligan changes, and so on). Sometimes, they don't and need to be walked back on (cards that need to be banned, most recently the change to the companion rule). But all and all, this willingness to push the envelope and try new things is part of what has made Magic such a long-lived game and has a pretty good track record.
It's important to note that these digital-only cards will only be legal in Historic. Since its inception, Historic has been MTG Arena's playground for trying new things, as it's the one format that will never see parallel in paper. Trying digital-only cards is the logical extension of that philosophy. These cards will not be a thing in Standard, Draft, Commander, or any of Magic's other major formats - the only format they effect is Historic on MTG Arena.
There are of course pros and cons for this major change to Historic, but before we go there it would be best to get a good look at what we're dealing with.
The first mechanic "seek" is a variation on how a player can draw a card.
Rather than just drawing a card from their deck, seek allows the player to draw a random card from a smaller subset of cards in their library, something that would be prohibitively time consuming to do in paper. It requires a check of private information (either in your hand or the contents of your library), something that would require you to reveal in paper to fairly execute. Once you get past the actual logistics of how it works, it ends up playing very straightforwardly.
The new card Bounty of the Deep is essentially Divination, except that if you need a land it will draw you a land and a spell, and if you already have land in hand it will draw you two spells.
This is simple and awesome. Drawing a card is one of the most natural things in all of Magic, which makes being able to fine tune that draw a very interesting design space. I'm pumped for this one.
Next up is a mechanic that feels like it was beta tested with the ability counters present in Ikoria.
Perpetual abilities effect a specific card permanently for the duration of the entire game. We see things like this in Magic already with things like +1/+1 and -1/-1 counters as well as the previously mentioned ability counters, but the whole reason these have to be counters is because of memory issues and needing a visual cue to represent the change.
MTG Arena doesn't have that limitation, meaning that perpetual effects can directly edit the card. Furthermore, this edit doesn't go away until the game ends, even if the charge changes zones. Think of it as taking out a sharpie and literally editing that exact, specific card - if it changes zones, goes into your deck, or ends up back in your hand, the effect will persist until the game ends.
Davriel's Withering may look like another Disfigure variant, but it really is so much more.
Sure, it can still kill a Llanowar Elves with the best of them, but think about how it effects cards like Arclight Phoenix or Scrapheap Scrounger. With the permanent debuff on Arclight Phoenix, your opponent can cast spells and return it until they are Blue in the face, but it will still be a 2/0 creature every time and not do anything without additional help.
Because MTG Arena can track all this info easily during a game, this ends up being a very interesting evolution of the design space of counters on creatures. I'm pumped for this one too.
One of the limitations of tokens in Magic is that they need to have specific rules that mean they essentially only exist while on the battlefield. Things would get really confusing if they were able to be returned to your hand or even shuffled into your library, so they must cease to exist.
MTG Arena doesn't have this limitation, which means conjure can literally just create cards and put them wherever it wants to.
Boneyard Aberration puts this mechanic on full display, as it allows you to create not one but three new cards into your graveyard when it dies. The cards are the card Reassembling Skeleton, which allows you to access a new resource in a very new way that's frankly awesome. Once again, I'm impressed with this mechanic.
All three of these mechanics seem awesome. They feel flavorful and grounded in what Magic is as a game, just enjoying a bit of the freedom that the digital platform allows them. They're all similar to things that Magic already does, just cleaner. However, it feels like most of the ire directed at Jumpstart: Historic Horizons is mostly directed at the cards that feature excessive RNG.
The Hearthstone Effect
One of the defining characteristics of Hearthstone, one of MTG Arena's primary competitors, is the use of the digital platform to do things you could never do in paper. We've seen something like this with the Momir Vig avatar from Magic Online, which ended up being a special format that would allow you to pull random creatures from the entire game onto the battlefield. That was a random and silly format, but Hearthstone contains many of these types of mechanics as normal gameplay pieces.
Well now Magic: The Gathering does too!
[Pool of Vigorous Growth] [Tome of the Infinite]
Pool of Vigorous Growth is literally just the Momir Vig avatar in Magic card form, allowing you to pay mana and discard a card to get a random creature in the entire game. This feels like it would be preposterous in an actual game of Magic, but the reality is that these sorts of random effects are very unlikely to be playable in any sort of serious format. I'm sure Pool of Vigorous Growth will be an amusing card to build meme decks around and provide for some laughs, but I doubt it will be tearing up the ladder at any point.
Tome of the Infinite is even more wild, as it doesn't even reference exactly what it does on the card. The "Tome of the Infinite's Spellbook" is a list of ten famous spells in Magic's history like Lightning Bolt, Ponder, Dark Ritual, Fog, and more. This sort of randomness is unprecedented in Magic and represents a fairly big shift in the design of the game. It's also excessively wordy.
However, people forget that random is almost always bad.
These cards are amusing, but I doubt any of the ones currently revealed will see any serious Constructed play. If Historic became the format of me spinning my Pool of Vigorous Growth against you trying to hit the right spells off Tome of the Infinite, you can be damn sure I'd be clutching my pearls and screaming into the void as well - that's not Magic: The Gathering to me, but these cards seem to have more in common with wild casual cards like Confusion in the Ranks or Warp World than anything that serious.
Not Being Able To Opt Out
It's not all upside however, as the biggest complaint against Jumpstart: Historic Horizons is how it effects Historic players who aren't interested in this sort of random effects.
I have a feeling that these cards are going to play much better than they read, while the truly random cards are going to be much more suited for casual play, making this somewhat of a moot point. Historic isn't going to be majorly impacted by these cards in any way that's much different than any other new Magic release - Magic isn't just going to turn into Hearthstone overnight.
However, by treating Historic as this sort of playground to try all out outlandish and wild experiments, you end up with players who may not like them now no longer having a place to play all of their cards on MTG Arena that have rotated out of Standard. In paper you can just go play Modern, or Commander, or Legacy, or Cube, or whatever if you don't like a particular format. With Historic going down this path while being the only way to play rotated cards on MTG Arena, players can end up feeling stuck with cards they don't want to play with.
Of course, this may just lead to...
The Return of Pioneer?
I've been a pretty vocal naysayer of Pioneer as a format. While I enjoyed the format a lot early on, once Historic was released the need for Pioneer seemed to diminish. There are already so many formats in Magic to keep up with, and Historic and Pioneer both existed in the same space between Standard and older formats like Modern; it didn't make sense to support them both, and Historic felt more relevant.
Well, now there is a very good reason for Pioneer to exist: for MTG Arena to have an eternal format that mimics paper and allows players a way to use their rotated cards if they aren't interested in the experimental digital things that Wizards of the Coast is trying.
If you told me that Historic would end up being the thing that saved Pioneer six months ago, I'd have laughed at you, but now I think that this is actually the way to go and make everyone happy.
The Awful Economy
Our last point for the day is one that just needs to be said:
The economy on MTG Arena, especially when it comes to Historic and special releases like Jumpstart, is about as predatory and greedy as can be.
Without any sort of dusting system or way to directly purchase wildcards, acquiring cards for Historic is a monumental task, especially if you are new to the format. Furthermore, with these constant new additions to the format and big releases like Jumpstart and the various Historic Anthologies, the format changes fairly often. This makes it even more expensive to keep up and frankly I wonder how players even do it.
If Wizards of the Coast is serious about Historic (and maybe Pioneer) being a thing on MTG Arena, as well as the long-term overall health and sustainability of the game as a whole, the economy has to be addressed sooner or later. MTG Arena is certainly making Wizards of the Coast a lot of money, but I can only imagine how many players have lapsed and just given up because they couldn't keep up.
Don't Be Afraid!
I am cautiously optimistic about this new experiment for Historic and MTG Arena as a whole.
These designs feel very much like things that Magic already does, just a little cleaner thanks to the digital client. I'm excited to see the rest of them and play with them, which makes perhaps the biggest downside of them being that I can never put them in my paper Cube or play with them in real life.
However, if that's the biggest issue they create, it would be hard to call them anything less than a success.