I hadn't played one game.
I also hadn't looked at other people's thoughts, and assumed Uro was already banned. I hadn't thought about Escape to the Wilds or Genesis Ultimatum, because I intended to stick to drafting until Uro was officially banned.
Also, they printed the best dual lands since Alpha. That has to count for something, right?
That's why I had the Pathways at #1 and Omnath at #2.
That's why I effectively said "I have no idea how Omnath decks don't completely dominate," referring to the world after Uro, rather than giving it less than a week.
Again. Without playing a game or even looking over the available cards and officially building a real deck.
Reminder, I summarized my view with this:
I don't consider this an acceptable review evaluation. This was unacceptably calm. I had enough information to do what I did with the companions, to call out a completely insane situation for what it was. Instead, I pointed out that it certainly looked like it was completely insane, and I didn't see any way for it to not be insane, but I was reserving final judgment.
Then in the middle of last week, I got frustrated enough with Zendikar draft (which I don't care for personally, but others like it and it's presumably at least fine) that I opened all my packs, crafted Lotus Cobra and Omnath, substituted whichever Pathways I happened to have since the mana is so stupidly easy it doesn't even matter.
I played one game with the Omnath deck.
What. The. Hell. Did. You. Do.
We need a new theory of what has gone horribly wrong with Magic.
Before we get to the general case, let's tackle the specific case. Ramp is completely out of control in Zendikar Standard. The Uro ban has almost zero chance of changing that on its own.
The Omnath Deck
This is for those who don't know - if you already know, by all means skip this section.
This is the list I played a few games with. There was no attempt made by me to get the land base right - all I did was take a reasonable build and change the pathways to ones I'd happened to open, and I took three Confounding Conundrums out of the board because I didn't want to craft those either. Then I made sure the list had a Kenrith, and trimmed out the fourth Uro after it was quickly clear it wasn't needed.
Four-Color Omnath | ZNR Standard | Zvi Mowshowitz
- Creatures (17)
- 1 Ancient Greenwarden
- 1 Kenrith, the Returned King
- 2 Bonecrusher Giant
- 2 Dryad of the Ilysian Grove
- 3 Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath
- 4 Lotus Cobra
- 4 Omnath, Locus of Creation
- Instants (4)
- 4 Spikefield Hazard
- Sorceries (8)
- 4 Escape to the Wilds
- 4 Genesis Ultimatum
- Enchantments (3)
- 3 Felidar Retreat
- Lands (28)
- 1 Mountain
- 1 Plains
- 4 Island
- 5 Forest
- 1 Riverglide Pathway
- 2 Branchloft Pathway
- 2 Cragcrown Pathway
- 2 Evolving Wilds
- 2 Ketria Triome
- 4 Fabled Passage
- 4 Raugrin Triome
I've seen a number of possible additions since then. It's still early and things are moving rapidly. Terror of the Peaks is interesting, Ugin is interesting, Cultivate was already interesting and presumably what comes in for Uro. I'd also consider a third Dryad of the Ilysian Grove, and the deck should either have less basics or more fetch lands, especially if we're adding more Dryads.
Felidar Retreat is often described as 'easy mode.' That suited me fine. I like easy mode, and don't care at all about playing proper high level mirror tech. Last thing I'm interested in is a serious ladder run. For non-serious (also known as "non-Omnath") opponents, more easy mode and more early defense are what matters.
But seriously, nothing matters. The deck is bonkers.
Can you win games against it by attacking? Sure, of course you can. But those aggro decks are playing Standard while you get to play at least Pioneer. Would I rather have Uro in this deck than Cultivate? Yeah, sure, of course, sounds better in general and especially better against people who mill you. But it's not like it matters.
If we say that we can't touch anything in Zendikar yet, what would it take in addition to Uro to bring this deck back into a potentially reasonable place?
Saying we can't touch Zendikar yet means we rule out the two cards that might individually get us close, which are Lotus Cobra and Omnath, Locus of Creation. The deck definitely survives either of those, but either of them would hurt.
Patrick Chapin's suggestion was Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath, plus Cultivate, plus Escape to the Wilds. That cuts off our best substitute ramp card at three, and also our bridge ramp at five that gets us to seven and ensures we never run out of gas. He asked whether people thought that would be enough, because he rightfully wasn't sure. I think that's the right position. It might be enough to make things only bad rather than utterly falling apart, or it might not do that. At a minimum, things would be interesting again for a week or two, probably more.
The One Game Principle
This is the second time in a row that the game breaking problem with a non-core set was impossible to miss.
Companions took zero games. Giving decks an eighth card, in many cases quite a good eighth card, that they always have access to for free, is not a mechanic that might be out of control.
Nor did companion fail to live up to the hype. If anything, I underestimated the companions somewhat. These days, with the new 3-mana rule in place, I still find them obnoxious in theory, but I don't care much about them in practice. What scares me is that at some point, Wizards will likely revisit this disastrous mechanic, and design the new ones with the 3-mana cost in mind. I shudder thinking about it.
Omnath is slightly less obnoxious and obvious than the costless Companions were. It's not unreasonable to think that Omnath might not completely break open the format.
If you've played zero games with it.
If you're played one game, and saw and felt what it was like to play Omnath into a Fabled Passage, or what it would have felt like if you'd had that opportunity? If you'd had that moment of, oh, and it also draws me a card for my troubles? And all the other things it does?
I have no idea how that card survives intact to the next meeting.
There will be some theories as to exactly how it survived that next meeting in later sections. I even largely believe some combination of them, because I know this happened. I still, on an emotional or gut level have zero idea how this was allowed to happen.
Play Omnath. Get your card back. Play a fetch. Gain 4 life. Fetch. Get your mana back. Do something that costs five. Seems reasonable. So, on turn four, you pick up four life and a free 4/4 that's going to keep producing value. If you don't need the mana, you can take eight life instead of four.
It turns out there was instantly a great shell to put this into. There didn't need to be one. All you have to do is splash this into a normal deck because there is no reason not to do so. The pathways, plus the fetch lands you want to play anyway, make it all stupidly cheap.
The fact that the shell is so good that it's a good deck even without Omnath is neither necessary nor a coincidence.
This is a consistent pattern.
Oko, Thief of Crowns. Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath. The Companions. Omnath, Locus of Creation. That's four of the last five sets. None of those cards hide their true colors. Omnath is slightly less subtle than Uro or Oko, more subtle than companions. That's all. With lots of other messed up Magic cards, some obvious and some not as obvious, waiting behind them.
With Companion, the explanation was something like "oh, we didn't realize how valuable an eighth card was, to the extent that we weren't sure you would play lousy companions in decks that fit their requirements, if it meant you lost a sideboard slot doing it." Which I still can't process. Aren't these people good at Magic? Didn't they play games of Magic with these cards? How did this happen?
With Oko, the explanation was they didn't realize they could turn the opponents' creatures into Elks. And sure, on some level I get that mistake. Not that the version of the card that can't do that is an acceptable card to print either! But I guess I get it a little.
With Uro, the explanation was that everything was fine until they made a ramp set, I guess? Which it wasn't, but hey.
With Omnath, they have not yet offered an explanation. Their announcement on Monday said the word Omnath because that's what the decks are called, but they didn't treat Omnath itself as an issue at all. Now can we get back to how cool these Walking Dead cards are that are in black border and legal in Eternal formats and exclusively for sale in Secret Lair with no slippery slopes or obvious future problems contained therein whatsoever? Guys? Guys?
The Zero Game Principle
Omnath is only one card. The entire set of Zendikar is about ramp.
Party? There's no party. Lee Shi Tian pointed out that the party mechanic is so insultingly neglected that not only does Base Camp come into play tapped, the deck didn't even get access to its natural dual lands. If I was going to play a party deck, I'd start the deck with Lotus Cobra and Omnath anyway. What's the downside?
Rogues? Clerics? I mean, technically? I guess? What was supposed to be the other thing going on?
I realize this hindsight isn't fully real, but these results speak for themselves...
You knew ramp was completely broken in standard...— Zvi Mowshowitz (@TheZvi) September 23, 2020
A majority of players knew, before Zendikar was spoiled at all, that ramp was going to be broken. Ramp was already busted in the old world, already had the most busted remaining card, and now we were going to Zendikar, the land of ramp. What exactly did we think was going to happen here?
I want to be surprised. At least a little. If we miss high on cards on occasion, and sometimes ban them, sure, no problem. It's a problem when it's obvious from reading the cards.
Seriously, Lotus Cobra, what the hell. I've seen the arguments - it wasn't broken last time! Last time we had real fetchlands and it still was fine! And yeah, in context it was sort of all right.
That context included Birds of Paradise and Noble Hierarch. So sure, Lotus Cobra was only about as good as those two cards. It was also a world in which I was super excited to ramp into Baneslayer Angel that way, with my alternative high end cards being noticeably worse. My landfall creature was a 6/6 that made 4/4s. Exactly how lucky are you feeling?
This isn't happening on occasion. This is happening over and over. This is happening every damn set.
Since the change in "design philosophy" that came with Throne of Eldraine, it's happened in every non-core set.
Almost all of every set's power points are put into its loud mechanical themes and their rares and mythics (adventure, escape, ramp, companion), or the marquee on-the-marketing planeswalker cards (Oko, Teferi, Jace, Nissa), plus a few obviously scary ways to cheat mana costs (Fires of Invention, Winota, Lukka, Once Upon a Time, Embercleave).
There are other good cards, sure. Sometimes very good. But they're not the same, and none of them are surprising. Did anyone wonder whether Questing Beast was good? No, because to compete with the list above, they have to be blatantly obviously good cards that take over games on the spot.
The decks build themselves, because the choices are made for us. We only get to refine around the edges. This is not new - when I had my return after getting into the Hall of Fame, I showed Aaron Forsythe my deck, he asked who built it and I told him that he did. Which turned out not to be true in that case - I had the Faerie deck a set early, before Bitterblossom, which wasn't really 'supposed' to happen - but it's frequently true enough.
There are a variety of old explanations (and excuses) for what is happening. Many of them make sense as contributing factors. Many are sympathetic. But they no longer explain the situation.
The Old Explanations
Magic is a complicated game. There are a lot of things going on. Here are some that have been suggested over the years.
Magic Is Hard and Complex, and Wizards Doesn't Have Enough Staff
True! Given how profitable Magic is, and how complex it is, and how much its long term success (and short term success) depend on getting its balance issues and other design and development concerns right, it's crazy that R&D isn't several times its current size. With so many different formats and products to worry about every year, the whole thing doubtless takes its toll. Covid-19 can't be helping matters.
This has clearly been a cause of many of Magic's historical errors that have been admitted to be errors.
Pure 'we didn't notice' has often been the story: Skullclamp was changed and never tested. Umezawa's Jitte was a last minute change and not tested. Feldiar Guardian's interactions weren't noticed at all.
Other times, decks weren't built, or were built poorly, or other aspects of the situation were radically different than expected.
This is all totally, totally fair as far as it goes.
It doesn't work in situations like this. The cards we're discussing have not been cards that can be ignored. They are not cards that depend on their supporting cast being assembled carefully and correctly. They are rather obvious all-stars, that have obviously been pushed to be good as central selling points of their respective sets.
Yes, you still miss high sometimes, and you miss low other times - Elspeth presumably missed low, if not quite as low as I anticipated her missing. She's the exception that proves the rule.
Magic is a hard game. It most certainly is not this hard. Set after set naked eye obvious brokenness is at the center of the marketing materials. These are not cards that got neglected. Nor are they difficult to use.
It is also clear that Magic's best are taking substantial amounts of time away from Standard and away from competitive Magic to build supplementary sets, and to optimize for Commander and other casual play. They are doing this while they are in charge of Standard Magic sets. This is probably more harmful than it would first appear, because it creates a divided mindset, and I'd recommend a mostly clean break where key people tasked with making Standard work don't think at all about things outside of competitive formats.
On top of all those reasons, the biggest reason to reject this explanation is that this problem if anything used to be worse. When I worked at Wizards R&D there was lots of talent and dedication, but a severe shortage of manpower in general and of play-testing time in particular, more severe than exists today. We had problems, but nothing like today's problems.
So sure, I buy that more resources would help, I buy that current resourcing is probably woefully inadequate, and I would fully support providing those resources. But that doesn't begin to explain what's happening.
Designing for Best of One (Bo1) Ruins Magic
Best of one is an abomination unto the game.
I have talked about this before, and it is not the topic today, so I won't get too deep into details. Suffice it to say, I hate it. It destroys all incentives to pay attention and care about the details, blurring the games together, and destroys many of the most interesting dynamics in the game. It also drives the design of cards that have lots of different modes or effects so everyone will always feel good about them, which is terrible. And the decks people play in such formats tend to make things even less interesting, as the game we love has transformed into an endless grind.
Thus, it is always tempting to blame problems on the existence of Bo1. Sometimes you'll be right, but mostly I believe you'll be wrong. Even without formal Bo1, everyone has always wanted ways to play cards without worrying too much that they'll be worthless in the wrong spot. Even with Bo1, I don't sense that card designs changed all that much. Yeah, I suppose we are seeing cycling more often and a few more cards with multiple modes on them, but nothing that feels like it's at all central to our problems.
I do see the argument. It's hard to miss with Omnath. Omnath provides a 4/4 body for four mana, it provides a card, and it provides life, and it provides mana, and it even deals with planeswalkers somewhat. It's easy to say that this comes from a panic that oh no, Omnath might only be good rather than amazing in some matchup somewhere, and we have to fix that.
I still see this as missing the mark, for several reasons. The timing of Bo1's prominence, while a little suspicious, doesn't work. The cards in question aren't especially hacked into Bo1-style mode, so much as they're piled with goodie upon goodie that they don't need in the first place, in any mode. Nor are their basic effects specialized enough that there was any need to put additional effects on to cover potentially missing bases.
I do think that there was a previous wave of problems with Standard that looked like they were caused by problems like this, with the dominance of Red decks that incidentally covered their bases and thus ended up with no bad matchups. And in general, it makes it much easier for things to break in such ways - if there is a best deck, it's harder to maneuver and build around that, and often you can find builds that are not substantially under 50% anywhere in a reasonable field.
Those problems seemed to stem from a wave where we had Bo1-style answer design, more than anything else. It was a problem, but nowhere near this bad.
For this wave, and in particular for how bad this wave has become, this doesn't work as a main suspect. If there is a new mechanic that is suspiciously Bo1-friendly in this sense, it might be the modal lands, but the modal lands aren't the problem.
Cards Are Too Good In General
A giant wave of power creep is sweeping the game. The protests to the contrary are rather silly. We all see the wave of a year or two's worth of cards taking over older formats. We all see utterly ridiculous rates everywhere we turn.
That certainly makes life harder. The better the cards get, the better new cards have to be to compete. There's a model that says that this forces premium and other cards to get pushed closer to some barrier that makes cards broken and necessitates a response. The baseline power level goes up and things get more fragile.
I strongly agree we need a power reset. M21 looked like it could be the start of a reset. Then Zendikar came out. The thing is, Zendikar minus the handful of ramp cards (and Jace) is a set that mostly does reset its power level. The good cards are often good not because they are super powerful, but because they are modal, and can be played as lands. This seems like a great way to make the cards competitive while reducing the lethality and speed of what is going on in the format.
It is in stark contrast to the most common mode of ridiculous, messed up Magic card, which is...
Cards Take Over Games Too Easily With Too Little Downside
Again, well, yes. This especially is a huge problem.
Once you start printing cards that take over games, you have to keep printing them. Here's what Brad Nelson had to say on this:
If you fall behind in a game, you're not just setting yourself up for a couple bad exchanges in the following turns, you're losing the game. Any slight advantage in the early turns allows the opposition to find a clear opening for game-winning cards like Teferi, Time Raveler, Nissa, Who Shakes the World, Nightpack Ambusher, Embercleave, Fires of Invention, Wilderness Reclamation, Bolas's Citadel, Genesis Ultimatum, Aetherworks Marvel, or Muxus, the Goblin.. Goblin. You know, the cards that kind of just single handedly win the games when they resolve. '
He had to edit later because he forgot to include Oko.
In one sense this is saying 'cards are too good' but it's more specific than that. Cards end the game if not answered, often for as little as three mana. While also providing value on the spot, so using removal on them is a losing strategy.
Cards can be good or even great without doing any of that. Except that once the list of cards like this is twenty cards long, then no, they can't be good anymore without doing that, unless they are particular kinds of answers. They'll be outcompeted every time if they try.
Thus, this is a problem and a tricky problem to reverse. You need a sustained reset that it doesn't seem like Wizards has the will to sustain, even more than you need it for general power level.
The thing is, the rest of Zendikar kind of does point towards the right direction! Once you look beyond Lotus Cobra, Omnath, and Jace, there aren't many other culprits. So, if we can get rid of the biggest problems, we are now two sets toward riding this out. Maybe.
Too Much Data and Too Much Internet Make Metagame Move Too Fast
This is true and it's unfortunate, but it's not what caused the changes.
As a new cause, Ari Lax takes this one down convincingly. He's also good on his other points. Brad Nelson (link above) also takes it down convincingly. There are many ways to do it, because it's not a strong argument.
Things move quicker than ever. That's true. But they still don't move that fast, and they didn't used to move that slow. They're not accelerating all that fast now compared to a year ago, when all the related technology for tech development was essentially the same.
It certainly does make things come to a crisis faster. Years ago, we would have been at the 'ban Uro' stage of panic a few weeks in rather than the moment play begins. That would not have made it OK, nor does it make the faster things happening now OK either. It does mean that reaching the end of the road faster is understandable, and there will be periods where things are mostly solved if we don't keep shaking them up, even if no real errors got made. We need to be more creative about what to do during those periods. But first we have to reach those periods in the first place! There's a huge difference between 'it's balanced but static and solved' and 'it's unbalanced and everyone plays Sultai.'
Power Is Increasingly Concentrated In Thematic Rares and Mythics
Talked about this a bit above regarding lack of staff.
Sales must be driven by marquee cards. Those same marquee cards must push the exciting new mechanics. The cards can never miss low or sales suffer.
If you read Mark Rosewater's latest State of Design, you can see how obsessed they are with the 'identity' of sets and that things feel a certain way, and that they convey the 'storyline.' The more power is concentrated on a few cards that are designed to play well together, while other elements are held back and groomed only for limited, the more problems will naturally arise.
This is terrible and it has gotten much worse and it needs to stop, but it doesn't feel central or especially causal. It's more a sign.
The Ladder Ruins Everything
It does kind of do that, but it's not ruining this particular thing that much.
Ari's point that the crafting system in Arena and similar free-to-play games strongly discourages innovation and experimentation, and the ladder system discourages it even more, and they combine to force most people to become copycats or confined to a narrow lane, is one I've been making for years and is central to my new game project and company.
The thing is, this is way worse than that effect. Cycle after cycle, I've played on the ladder and been frustrated not that everyone is playing the one good deck, but that everyone is refusing to play the one good deck. There is an Oko-only tournament coming up, which will be 2/3rds Oko, and 75% of my opponents won't play Oko. There's a Lukka tournament, and no one will play Lukka. And so on. Good for your win percentage. Bad for your experience, and bad for understanding what is really going on. The ladder certainly makes those players more focused and narrow than they would otherwise be. For some of them, hugely more narrow. So do card access issues. But if you want to see the real dominance, you have to wait until there's something at stake. That's when the real deck comes out in force, not before.
The ladder also makes us play more games than we should be playing, makes them blur together, and generally makes us have an experience that feels worse than things actually are.
The problem is that if you want to play competitively, either in the sense of facing good competition or in terms of qualifying for Invitationals, the ladder is forced upon you. When I don't care about those factors, I avoid the ladder entirely.
Like the other causes noted here, the ladder makes everything worse, but it isn't the new factor, and it isn't big enough to explain matters.
The London Mulligan
I warned everyone this was gonna probably be bad and be impossible to reverse. It's bad and it's impossible to reverse. It makes everything in Constructed Magic worse. But compared to the other things going on at this point, it feels like another drop in the bucket. Or another symptom.
Symptom. That's a good word for a lot of this list. It's a lot of symptoms of problems, but in and of themselves they don't function as plausible causes of the problems. There's something higher level going on here, that's causing much or all of this.
Which makes it a good time to round up the old explanations with the classic one.
Hasbro and Obsession With Short Term Bottom Line
Doubtless Hasbro puts additional pressure on Wizards to make profits this year at the expense of longer term investment. They have an obsession with profit margins, and they report to Wall Street at earnings time. Explaining why they should care about where Magic ends up five, ten, or twenty years down the line in terms of card designs is always going to be a hard sell. The pressure will always be slowly ramping up on Wizards to ramp up sales as soon as possible.
An easy way to ramp up sales is to print stronger and flashier cards, and make the marquee cards stronger and flashier. There is no substitute.
Another easy way is to use their printing press to print actual money with things like Secret Lair. In this context, it's worth noting mostly as evidence of Wizards' increasing willingness to use their printing press, rather than any arguments about whether it is good or bad.
Could there have been a shift into overdrive on this? Throne of Eldraine corresponds to the phase shift in design and in brokenness, and also corresponds to the official release of Magic Arena. It's not hard to envision how that all might come together into a philosophy of making a splash now and driving sales now, and worrying about next year next year.
That doesn't mean Wizards wouldn't do their best to mitigate the damage, to still make as great long term plans as they could. They really do care about the game and its long term path. It does mean that we'd see increasing amounts of problems, although again it totally doesn't excuse this level of fail.
Nor does it explain it.
If Omnath decks take over everything week one, and don't let it go until it's time to release the next set or you ban it, yeah, sure, that's good for sales that first week as everyone looks for Omnath. Then everyone stops playing, as definitely happened before the pandemic in less severe situations. As is happening now, as many of us realize we stopped enjoying the game.
A more reasonable but still crazy good version of Omnath is obviously better for sales, vastly better, than what happened. There is no need to go this high, on any level. Players can think ahead, and also they can get very quickly sick of mirror matches.
Or at least, competitive players can do those things.
So again, this shouldn't motivate things to work this way. Then again...
Moral Maze Theory of Failure
Is this a moral maze situation?
(That link is a huge rabbit hole of my non-Magic stuff, I recommend it for those who are interested and have the time)
That is, have things sufficiently degenerated in terms of how people are rewarded and blamed, and how they are rewarded and blamed for rewarding and blaming, and how they anticipate future such actions, that things have become twisted in ways that don't actually serve any real purpose?
At some point in every corporation's life, and every department's life, it shifts from rewarding you for looking out for the group, to rewarding looking like you are looking out for the group, to rewarding looking like you are looking out for yourself and your allies and protecting your turf. Actions that make no sense when treating Wizards as a single entity start to make more sense if these processes have gotten far enough along.
If Hasbro is a Moral Maze, even if Wizards is not or Wizards R&D is not, they could be forcing nonsensical behavior on all involved. That's distinct from forcing short term thinking on those involved. When planning horizons for sets are months to years, and things get so out of whack that they break down within months, thinking about this as rationally choosing 'short term thinking' doesn't feel like a proper explanation anymore. It's more like the need to signal the presence of short term thinking, even if it actually hurts even in the short term. To visibly be on "team increased sales each quarter" rather than doing things that will cause the quarter to have increased sales.
When deeply broken things are happening, the actions and motivations behind them are likely deeply broken. It only makes sense to consider such hypotheses. Wizards has existed for over 25 years and has been run by a major corporation for lots of that, so it would be a damn good run if such things are only getting really bad now.
Commander and Focus on Casual Play Like It's Competitive Magic
This is the other part of the explanation that seems like it would make sense.
It can't explain the whole picture, because it can't explain the stubborn refusal to address the problems once they are already in print and they already exist. It also can't explain why they can't figure out that certain pieces are going to be a real problem for Standard, and find another way to print them or adjust what they do to avoid that happening. I hear you can put them in a Secret Lair, perhaps.
Still, it can explain a lot. I've been seeing this fleshed out on Twitter over the past few days and it makes sense. Similar thoughts have been going around for a while.
Commander players came to the format as a 'found' format. It was created without Wizards, based on cards that happened to exist, with a principle of doing what is fun. This format wasn't my cup of tea at all, but I appreciated what they were doing.
As Wizards took over Commander, they started printing cards directly aimed at Commander players. That meant giving them, above all, more and better new commanders designed to be commanders, and more and better mana to put into their commander decks. This is a different entity than a found format. Now it's being engineered, and engineered to sell cards.
In particular, it was pointed out, and therefore I realized, that they're treating Commander players like Standard players. Give them the New Hotness and they'll be forced to chase it through packs, as the power level available ramps up. Offer the new and flashy that's a cut above. All but force them to buy it. Don't let people who own old cards capture the profits.
I heard you like linear development and playing lots of stuff. So, we're going to offer you that stuff designed explicitly for you to go nuts more efficiently and better.
I think that's bad for the Commander format, as the format is better when it is slower, less optimized, and about finding surprising and different things to do rather than going down prescribed paths. But I could be wrong, because different people like different things and I Am Not The Target by any means.
Transforming Competitive Magic Into Casual Magic
What I do know is that what we are seeing looks a lot like what you would see if you took Things Commander Players Like (slash Things Casual Players Like) and tried to make Standard about those things. Wizards keeps saying, over and over, that casual players like certain things.
They like reliable mana and being able to play their cards, and hate land destruction and other mana denial.
They like being able to cast their spells and hate counters.
They like being able to do big splashy things, summon big legends, and so on. Create huge boards and convoluted contraptions, then create two huge boards and two convoluted contraptions instead with a substitution effect.
I wish them the best of luck with that. But they need to keep it under control in Standard.
Because the key thing about casual Magic?
Under pressure, it breaks.
Casual Magic is fundamentally about doing things for the hell of it, having them often not actually accomplish much in the way of winning, but having a blast doing cool things that you enjoy doing, and eventually someone wins.
When you make that stuff for Standard, it has to actually win rather than not accomplish much. That's a whole different animal, and why almost everything has super high levels of scaling now.
Then the players optimize the thing.
The beautiful thing about casual players is that they don't optimize for winning. They optimize for other things and only somewhat for winning. This keeps things in check. The banned list for Commander is useful, but the more important banned list is 'do this and we don't want to play with you anymore.' On the ladder, all that does is make people quit. So, quit they do.
The whole approach doesn't work, and it's creating a disaster the more this seeps into the thinking. The casual realm needs to be separate from the competitive realm in this sense. Its themes and cards can't be pushed the same way, or things break, and the casual play stops doing what it was meant to do for the casuals while also breaking things for us spikes.
But what does all this add up to?
They Just Don't Care and the Era of Serious Magic May Be Ending
It hurts to write that. A lot. I know a lot of these people. I know they care. But effectively they no longer seem to care about many things they used to care about. There are plenty of issues that I'm not even bringing up, or I'm bringing up in passing, because they're orthogonal to the particular problem embodied by Omnath.
When I say they don't care, I don't mean they don't care at all. I mean they let other considerations matter more. They no longer care to devote resources to competitive play, including the resource of printing reasonable cards. And they don't think that it matters much when they fail to do that. Friday Night Magic players can draft or play Commander, and Standard can largely die aside from Arena, and Arena players will live with it. Or something.
Except, again, the maze issue. This thinks of Wizards as an entity with reasons and motivations, and that's probably doing a lot of misleading. Am I mad, or just disappointed, or even just tired? I'm not sure, and this is a lot of why.
There was always the argument that the emphasis on keeping Magic competitive and balanced and offering aspirational play was a giant waste of money. I continue to strongly believe that this view is and always will be deeply, deeply wrong. It costs so little to provide this good, compared to the benefits, even if most people buying cards don't care. But when you have a corporate identity clash, and a shift in emphasis and philosophy, suddenly spending on something that isn't your focus, or seeming to care about it, becomes bad for your future, no matter the return on investment.
The worst sign of all, that I mentioned near the beginning but was just emphasized to me by Seth Burn, and that I didn't give enough emphasis to before, is...
What We Have Here Is a Failure To Communicate
The explanation of the Uro ban, and of the lack of ban on anything else, was basically no explanation beyond 'who knows, maybe this will work.' There was no looking inward to how it happened, no contemplation of how we got here, no outlook on how we might fix it or whether/when we might revisit the decision not to do anything more.
We used to get detailed explanations from individual humans that honestly grappled with what was going on behind the curtain. It made us sympathize and understand, it taught us how games work, and it was great for their process. I know, because it's great for my process when I have to hold myself to account and to explain myself.
That's gone away. There are still explanations, but they're not the same. They're not the kind of proper introspection that admits to mistakes and helps make things better. I almost wrote a rant about Mark Rosewater's State of Design this year, because it so flagrantly ignores the big mistakes and issues. It was another huge data point that They Just Don't Care, or don't notice, and certainly don't respect us enough to level with us anymore. They don't even view the problems as real problems. They're more concerned with engagement with the storylines, or something.
So that's where we are. Left behind, ignored, disregarded. Maybe things will turn around, but maybe they won't.
Omnath Is a Card Too Good
In all this talk about systemic issues, it's easy to lose track, so I want to remind us one more time that Omnath Is a Card Too Good.
Omnath is a card, too good. That is true. But that's not quite what I meant. I meant literally that it is a card too good, in the sense that it cantrips and it didn't need to.
Suppose Omnath's 'when this comes into play, draw a card' line was removed entirely. Otherwise the card is untouched. Where does it rank in our top 10? What happens to the metagame?
It's definitely still in the top 10 for the set, even blind. I can see ranking it as low as #4 behind Felidar Retreat and Jace. It's clearly still a super premium offering.
What are the cards in the history of Magic that are still great, even when you take away a card draw? If you added "the next time you would draw a card, don't" to them?
They don't have to be the power nine. There's also Necropotence and Yawgmoth's Bargain.
After that, it gets tough.
What Is To Be Done?
What can Wizards do?
They need to solve the problem on several levels.
In terms of Standard right now, there are four paths open.
The first path is to do nothing, and let the next event happen with mostly Omnath decks. It will be deeply embarrassing. But it might not be so bad, right? And even if it is, people might not care. But seriously, don't do this.
The second path is to ban Escape to the Wilds and pray that it's enough, because they decided they can't ban anything from Zendikar. For an extra chance of working, also ban Cultivate. I don't think this path will work, but it might keep things slightly less embarrassing for a time.
The third path is to ban Lotus Cobra. That doesn't make Omnath not ridiculous, but now people have to at least work for it a little, and other strategies can probably compete enough to make it interesting for a bit.
The fourth path, and the correct one, is of course to ban Omnath, Locus of Creation, because the card is really, really, profoundly dumb, and the card is still legal in Commander, Pioneer and Modern at least for now, so people should still want to chase it. This would make me feel a lot better. I'd probably still play the deck, by the way! It's good enough that it should survive without Omnath and still be very good. It just won't be the same kind of broken.
Then there's the personal level. For me, and for you.
Are we still having fun playing Magic?
I realized last week that the answer was no.
I was playing Magic because if I stopped playing Magic, I'd lose my ability to play in the future when it hopefully got fun again, and I'd lose my links to the community, and I'd be less able to make a game that can hopefully somewhat take up the Magic mantle, and because it's a pandemic and I'm here and playing Arena is a free default option of thing to do.
But I'm not enjoying it anymore.
And then I remember my own words. If you can't have fun playing Magic, then don't play.
I need to take my own advice. At least for a while.
This has happened before and passed. It may easily pass again. They say no one ever really quits. I'd be surprised if I wasn't here to review Forgotten Realms.
But it's definitely time for a break. So that's what I'm going to do. My non-Magic writing, largely on rationality plus a weekly update on Covid-19 in America, is available at my personal blog. I also have a sports gambling substack called Aikido Sports, focused on baseball.
If you're also no longer having fun, maybe it's time you took a break too.