Before I start I just want to say that I am in no way trying to trash the people working in Play Design or Wizards of the Coast. I have friends both past and current who work at Wizards and I can't image how difficult it is trying to make such a complicated game fun, balanced, and exciting after 25 years. Mistakes are bound to happen, and my criticisms contained herein are mostly based on communication and process rather than trying to point fingers. Mistakes will always be made, but how they are communicated and handled is extremely important.
2019 has been one of the worst years of Magic design in the history of the game. Sure, we're not experiencing a multitude of turn one kills fueled by Tolarian Academy like it was back in the late 90s, but what we are experiencing is what feels like a systemic issue with design that keeps repeating itself. Just look at the cards banned in Standard this week:
A busted three-mana planeswalker with far too much loyalty that virtually invalidates two major card types, a free cantrip/card selection spell, and a clean one mana two-for-one sideboard hoser that invalidates basically every way Blue and Black interact (to the point of the optimal play being simply avoiding interaction).
Haven't we see these things before? Haven't we learned any of these lessons yet? Apparently, according to Wizards of the Coast, they have. In Monday's article "Play Design Lessons Learned" posted on the main Magic website, the leader of the Play Design team Bryan Hawley speaks about the bannings, how they came to be, and their current design philosophies. There's just a few big problems:
The article neither inspires confidence, nor does it help to provide explanation for how we got here and what the plan is to fix it.
Despite how it has been treated (and the frequency it has been needed) in the last few years, banning cards is awful for the game. For more entrenched players it sucks to have to play poor formats and then watch your valuable cards get banned, but it's much worse for the more middle of the road players who aren't quite addicted yet. The MTG Arena player who's tired of watching their The Great Henge get turned into an elk for the twentieth time is just going to go play some other game, and they may not come back. The player who goes to a FNM a few times a month and shows up to find out his deck is banned is probably going to go see a movie instead. This lack of confidence in the game as a whole is extremely damaging to the long term health of Magic.
And when you're talking about "lack of confidence" and "long term health" of the game, 2019 has plenty to talk about.
So here we are, reading the article which is to address what's been happening with Play Design and the lessons they've learned. Now it's time to hear what's up right? How the mistakes were made, what their concerns are, and how they plan on addressing things going forward... right?
Uh, not exactly.
The resulting article (and please read it if you'd haven't as I will be offering rebuttal on many parts of it) is vapid and vague at best and downright concerning at worst. At no point in the article are any of these cards printed in 2019 mentioned by name: Once Upon a Time, Narset, Parter of Veils, Wrenn and Six, Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis, Arcum's Astrolabe, Urza, Lord High Artificer, with Veil of Summer is only indirectly mentioned in parentheses. Seriously?
Power Down / Power Up
A large portion of the article talks about a universal choice to power down the Standard format starting with Battle for Zendikar, and then the choice to reverse that decision and power it up starting with Guilds of Ravnica. Outliers like Smuggler's Copter and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar were products of "missing high" in a lower powered format, while cards like Oko, Thief of Crowns and Field of the Dead were a product of trying to push things harder in the other direction. A lot of this discussion is muddled and doesn't make a ton of sense.
The Emrakul, the Promised End/Aetherworks Marvel/Reflector Mage/Attune With Aether time period was powered down? We had a bunch of bans over this period. And does the overall relative power level of a format even matter when all the good cards are printed in Green? It's not just that Oko was too good, it's that there were more copies of Breeding Pool registered at the last Mythic Championship than basic Plains, Mountain, and Swamp combined.
Ah yes, we can save Magic design with an acronym:
I'm sorry, this is just corporate fluff. Can we please place Teferi, Time Raveler on the F.I.R.E. scale? How about Oko? Narset? Hogaak? I'm not sure what is fun or inviting about not being able to play your cards, or what's exciting about effectively dying on turn three. Most of this section just ended up being more vague talk about generally powering down and up the Standard format as a whole.
The Buck Stops Here
Ah yes, here we go. I want to hear directly and clearly how Oko, Thief of Crowns got past play design in its current form, as barely a week of play in the real world made it very clear how obnoxious and difficult to deal with the card was. Nope, sorry, just more vagueries about powering things up and down and this startling admission:
This statement is somewhat damning. I'm not an expert and I don't know how to design a game or run a design team, but the results of this year don't speak well. I would think that design and play-testing would likely be two separate departments that work closely together and by mixing the two you're more likely to miss things because there aren't enough fresh eyes looking at things from an outside perspective. This is all personal conjecture, I don't claim to have all the answers here, but whatever system is currently in place needs to be addressed because the results speak for themselves. Play Design was supposed to save us from these sorts of mistakes, not make even more of them.
And that's basically it for the article.
There's some good productive talk about the need to interact with planeswalkers outside of combat and how they've put a little too much into Green's slice of the color pie, but then the article ends. There's very little accountability, with an almost "business as usual" feel with a sprinkle of "we overshot the mark a bit" on the side. No talk of all the other bans and cards everyone has been complaining about all year, no talk about how we actually ended up we are, no talk about how things are going to change in the future.
This is extremely disheartening.
Wizards of the Coast has gotten it right before. If you want to see what a ban explanation article should look like, check out "Skullclamp We Hardly Knew Ye" by Aaron Forsythe. The article clearly articulates exactly how Skullclamp came to be, right down to the design file, while maintaining a constant air of remorse that they let one slip through the cracks. The article feels like a genuine "we're sorry we screwed up, we will work to be better next time" instead of the vague "we're great, we have acronyms now, we overshot the mark a little with Oko but everything is fine otherwise" feel of Monday's article.
Please Just Level With Us
Communication and transparency are so important. There are always going to be mistakes as well as ups and downs, but honest and open levels of communication are what get you through those smoothly.
If the new normal is just to push the limit every set and ban whatever doesn't work... just tell us! If you made a mistake because of process or whatever other reason... just tell us! If you have goals for Standard and/or Constructed as a whole that are different than it used to be in the past... just tell us! And this applies to MTG Arena as well as organized play; the public can be understanding as long as you set clear expectations and give clear reasoning for things.
But please, don't give us a bunch of fluff after a really rough year and call it an explanation. We are your faithful customers and we deserve better than that. 2019 has been rough for Magic in a lot of ways, but there have been good things too. Here's to 2020 taking a step in the right direction.
(And for the love of god please chill with the three-mana planeswalkers!)